Image and Reality: The Role of the U.S. in the Middle East

By Hanan Ashrawi
December 28, 2001

At no time in history have the short sightedness and narrow self-interest of
American policy makers had such a devastating impact on the realities of the
Arab world and the Middle East, and by necessity on American national
interests and standing.

Without delving into the historical roots of repeated American blunders in
the region, it is time to point out the dangerous implications of the
current American policy and its potential for generating massive instability
and conflict.

The most glaring fault lies first and foremost in the total subjugation of
American decision making to the priorities and policies of the Israeli
government-a government that happens to be the most extremist, ideological,
hard line, militaristic, and irresponsible since the creation of the state
of Israel (see Georgie Anne Geyer's "Faltering U.S. policy in the Middle
East," The Washington Times, Dec. 20, 2001, p. A 19).

Whether as a result of gullibility, inherent (strategic) bias, or a
determined avoidance of any confrontation with major Jewish and pro-Israeli
lobbyists and campaign funders, both American executive and legislative
branches seem to be bent on pursuing a precarious course that threatens not
only to wreak havoc in the region, but also to lay to rest any hope of
salvaging the image, influence, and interests of the US throughout the
region.

Instead of hiring suspect spin-doctors and Hollywood image-makers, it
behooves the US administration to re-examine both its words and deeds (as
well as its silence and inaction) when it comes to the Palestinians, the
Israelis, and the Arab world.

Arab public opinion, hitherto blithely ignored by successive American
administrations, relates to the US in relation to its role in, and impact
on, fundamental regional/national issues-the most compelling, emotive, and
visible expression being the Palestinian question.

Over five decades of dispossession and displacement, over three decades of
military occupation, over a decade of American involvement in the "peace
process," left the Palestinians more visibly victimized with a daily loss of
lives, rights, lands, and even the most basic human consideration.

Throughout, the US was seen as the staunchest ally of Israel, supplying it
with billions of dollars (estimated at $ 92 to date), sophisticated weaponry
(used to shell, bomb, assassinate, and kill Palestinians on a daily basis),
and with blind political cover (24 UN Security Council veto's to date).

Turning a blind eye to the ongoing, extremely provocative, and illegal
Israeli settlement activities, the US also "sponsored" a peace process that
gave Israel a free hand in acquiring more Palestinian land and in carrying
out other "unilateral actions" (particularly in the illegal annexation of
occupied East Jerusalem) with full impunity.

With every agreement renegotiated, modified, or even negated in action, the
American sponsors exonerated all Israeli violations and abuses while putting
intolerable pressure on the weaker Palestinian side to show "flexibility"
and seriousness of intent.

Such a punitive peace process became an abstract political exercise for its
own sake, with no legality, substance, or relationship to behavior on the
ground. Deliberately ignoring the increasing pain of the Palestinian people
and the escalating cruelty of the Israeli occupation, the US exhibited
alarming insensitivity to the victims and total collusion with the
occupiers, leading ultimately to the tragic breakdown of September 28, known
as the second intifada. The fact that all signs were in place, all symptoms
visible, was brushed away by the willfully oblivious "sponsor" who failed to
acknowledge the most basic human component of this "political process."

This has been the most consistent aspect of the oft-repeated
double-standards charge leveled against the US, a negation of the humanity
of the Palestinians and the dubious or suspended or negated applicability of
international law and legality to the Palestinian condition.

The only America expression of regret, sorrow, or outrage over loss of life
came when the victims were Israeli, while thousands of Palestinians were
killed or assassinated by the Israeli occupation with full impunity and
total human disregard.

Overall, the negotiating process ignored the applicability of UN
resolutions, the asymmetry of power that required protection for the
Palestinians and accountability for the Israelis (at least in compliance
with the Fourth Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law), and
an effective system of mediation and arbitration to resolve disputes in a
decisive and objective manner.

With the added (or basic) consideration of Israel's disproportionate power
and influence in the domestic arena, US policy became hostage to the
enormous pressures and influence of a major special interest group-the
pro-Israeli lobby and its institutions in the US.

Maintaining such a biased and one-sided monopoly on the politics of the
region and the course of the peace process, the US excluded all other global
players, including the UN, the EU, major Arab countries (including close
American allies), and anybody else who wanted to invest in peace making or
who could counter the extreme one-sidedness of the Americans-even for their
own good.

Hence, Israel ended up calling the shots, not only as the occupying power
wielding force against the Palestinians, but also as the formulator of US
policy and conduct (sometimes by proxy through its American lobby and
institutions), and finally for the whole world.

The ultimate "triumph" came when the European and UN leaderships adopted
wholesale the political diction and parameters of the Israeli-American
alliance as the defining factors for their role and activities in the
region. Israel became the gatekeeper of the peace process, and all stood in
line waiting for permission to play a role and expressing their willingness
to pay the price.

The natural outcome was a flawed peace process, non-binding agreements with
no applicability on the ground or legitimacy, and the escalation of
Palestinian victimization.

Now that these fatal flaws have run their course, leading to the tragic
breakdown and the intifada of September 2000, it is time to learn from the
mistakes of the past.

The post September 11 world has signaled an end to American isolationism or
to its selective intervention with no consequences. The question of the
"responsibility of power" has become more compelling.

However, the danger inherent in the concept is its exclusive translation
into military power or negative intervention, while claiming sole rights on
redefining friend and foe, ally and enemy, in accordance with temporary and
subjective criteria.

Therein lies the difference between "responsibility" and "arrogance" of
power.

Its moral imperative lies in positive, constructive, and peaceful
intervention that focuses on human, rather than on military, security.

In the Palestinian-Israeli context, this requires a rapid and effective
"interventionist" peace initiative to replace the current lethal dynamic and
to provide the parties with a political alternative.

First and foremost, it should bring about a "separation" of the parties by
lifting the Israeli siege and blockades on Palestinian areas and curbing
Israel's brutal assaults against the Palestinians.

Instead of adopting the "terrorist" label and repeating the "stop the
violence" mantra, the US, more than ever, is called upon to demonstrate its
own distinctiveness and to carry out a parallel "separation" from the
language, policies, brutality, extremism, and violations of the Israeli
occupation.

As a major liability, Israel has done the most to discredit the US and
undermine its standing, not only in the region, but throughout the world.

A courageous distancing (as well as a critical distance) is essential if the
US is seeking to address the causes of conflict and terrorism by adopting a
responsible and long-term strategy.

Pounding the Palestinians into submission, or delegitimizing their
leadership as well as their human reality, will succeed only in fanning the
flames and discrediting the US even further.

Restoring confidence and hope require the full mustering of US prestige and
standing behind a legitimate and politically forceful peace offensive.

Sharon must understand that he does not own the agenda, but that the peoples
of the region are in possession of their own futures through a legitimate
alternative that only the US can bring about to nullify the Israeli war
offensive.

A clear articulation of the objectives has to follow the framework of the
Powell speech of November 19, 2001: ending the occupation, withdrawal of
Israel to the June 4, 1967 lines, removal of settlements, establishing the
independent and viable Palestinian state, and bringing about a just and
equitable solution to the Palestinian refugee question-all based on the
appropriate UN resolutions and the land-for-peace equation.

The road map must include the implementation of all agreements and of the
Mitchell and Tenet plans immediately and without any preconditions or forced
sequencing.

Unconditional negotiations must also proceed immediately with full
third-party participation and guarantees, including the US, Europe, the UN,
Arab countries, Russia, and Norway-among others.

Mechanisms for even-handed intervention and arbitration must be in place,
with the prior consent of the parties to ensure compliance.

On the ground, international monitors must provide the "quiet" and
"ceasefire" conditions required for the conduct of the talks.

Simultaneously, the reconstruction of all that had been destroyed by Israel
must commence, while the Palestinians must commit to the nation-building
process that would ensure a genuinely democratic state with full respect for
the rule of law and human rights, and with accountable and efficient
institutions.

Clearly, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. All the building blocks of
peace have been identified and are accessible. The real need is for the
political will on the part of the US and the international community to
start the process.

By necessity, this requires standing up to Israel and liberating
international policy from the militarism, greed, obstinacy, abuses, and
arrogance of the Sharon government.

That, in itself, is a good thing, with an intrinsic value.

Its impact on peace making, on Palestine and Israel, and on the image and
credibility of the US will be beyond measure.