Phyllis Bennis: Bush

By Phyllis Bennis 

Pretty much no one is taking it seriously.  Even mainstream analysts usually willing to take Bush administration Middle East initiatives at face value are rolling their collective eyes. The New York Times’ senior correspondent Steven Erlanger immediately acknowledged that Bush’s latest "vision," a U.S.-Israeli-Fatah alliance creating a model Palestine in the West Bank designed to snub the isolated "Hamastan" in Gaza, is not a "vision shared by other American allies or other members of the so-called quartet – Russia, the European Union and the United Nations." (Yes even the Times said "so-called" quartet.)  It is also "doubtful that the Saudis share Mr. Bush’s analysis, since they have been urging Hamas and Fatah to get back together again?"  A different Times article included a succinct headline identifying the real reason for the latest initiative: "Mired in Iraq, U.S. Seeks to Begin Building a Palestinian State."

The "plan," such as it is, is painfully familiar, only narrower and more constrained than ever before. The centerpiece is a call for a new regional peace conference in the fall, to be led not by Bush himself but by his secretary of state.  Bush says it will include  Israel, the Palestinians, and "their neighbors in the region."   But the only Palestinians allowed to participate will be the Abbas-led Fatah-controlled sector of the Palestinian Authority operating in the West Bank; the democratically elected Hamas-led Palestinian parliament and its government in Gaza will be excluded.  It may include some neighboring governments, but only those who recognize Israel’s "right to exist."  Regional powers like Syria and Iran would of course be excluded, but it is not clear that even Jordan and Egypt, which maintain official diplomatic ties with Israel, let alone Saudi Arabia which doesn’t, would publicly accept Israel’s "right" to have expelled Palestinians to create an exclusive Jewish state.  Overall, it’s not likely to be much of a conference.

Another part of Bush’s plan involves renewed U.S. aid to the Palestinians. Following eighteen months of a crippling U.S.-orchestrated international economic boycott of the Palestinian territories, Bush announced that "immediately after President Abbas expelled Hamas from the Palestinian government, the United States lifted financial restrictions on the Palestinian Authority."  Bush referred to the emergency government appointed by Abbas, led by his replacement Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. A key component of this aid is an $80 million grant in military aid to Abbas’s Fatah-controlled security agencies now operating with the support of U.S. General Keith Dayton.

And Bush said he will push Israel to release Palestinian tax revenues – which Israel had illegally withheld since February 2006 – as if that was a major concession. Regarding settlements, he called only for ending settlement "expansion" and removing the 2,000 or so settlers of the "unauthorized" outposts ("unauthorized" by the Israeli government that is; all settlements are illegal under international law).  Any future territorial agreement, Bush said, would have to take into account "current realities" – meaning the existing huge Israeli settlement-cities and most of the 480,000 West Bank and East Jerusalem settlers will remain. The latest U.S. embrace of Abbas and calls for a Palestinian state are emerging just as realistic hopes of a viable two-state solution are fading.

Islamism, Islamic Nationalism and George Bush

However inevitable the failure of Bush’s latest plan, it is important to recognize how it fits into broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East.  The most recent iteration of the ideological framework for Bush’s "new" Middle East describes an existential conflict between "moderates" and "extremists" being fought out in the so-called "Global War on Terror."  But of course those Manichean categories simply don’t exist beyond the limited vision of Washington and Tel Aviv.  The Palestinian struggle against U.S.-backed Israeli military occupation didn’t start with Bush’s GWOT – although the false claim of "global terrorism" in Palestine has become a key pretext in U.S. efforts to justify its uncritical support for Israeli occupation and apartheid.  The black-and-white notion of "good Fatah, good Abbas" vs. "bad Hamas, bad Haniyeh" has no resonance among Palestinians themselves (nor anywhere else in the region). 

Bush tried to equate the Islamic nationalism of Hamas with the anti-state obscurantist extremism of al-Qaeda, claiming (as Abbas did as well) that Hamas had welcomed al Qaeda to Gaza. The claim sparked particular outrage among Palestinians.  But it is consistent with the White House’s regional strategic approach of equating, isolating, and attempting to eliminate all Islamic-identified forces that resist U.S. hegemony in the region.  Part of the U.S. strategy includes efforts to establish or prop up governments in the region whose main job is to stand against various kinds of Islamist resistance – think Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, to some degree even Lebanon.

Hamas has no known ties to al Qaeda, which actually condemned Hamas when the Palestinian organization decided to participate in elections. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas uses an Islamic framework rather than secular nationalism to fight a traditional struggle against occupation and for national political power (what would be state power if Palestine were a state). They provide social and economic support as well as popular resistance to gain influence and electoral support (in elections deemed free and fair by former President Jimmy Carter and a host of U.S. and European monitors). 

Fatah’s dwindling credibility also reflects global and regional shifts. This is a moment when Islamic nationalism is on the ascendancy throughout the region, when anti-imperialism in the Middle East is defined more and more by Islamist forces while secular Palestinian nationalism, Arab nationalism, Arab socialism have all lost ground. So it is crucial to understand the distinctions between the various strands of Islamist strategy. Groups such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, some in Pakistan, want U.S. troops out of the region and existing governments destroyed in order to impose a rigid theocracy enforcing the most extreme and reactionary interpretations of Islamic law in a broad region in which national borders and national identities are wiped out. Islamic nationalist forces, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, some Iraqi parties define their goal as the end of foreign military occupation and an Islamic-identified but largely inclusive (thought not secular) government within nation-states. 

A key difference, of course, is the state-based focus of these organizations. Unlike al Qaeda and others trying to destroy state governments and create a new "caliphate" across the Muslim world, the Islamic nationalists operate and struggle for power within existing (and anticipated) nation-state structures.  Since their election in January 2006, Hamas leaders have stated clearly that their operative goal is a long-term truce with Israel, the right of return, and creation of a Palestinian state in the 1967-occupied territories, which they would govern in coalition with the secular Fatah and other factions. 

Fatah and Hamas

Many Palestinians still view Fatah, long the centerpiece of Palestinian national politics, as their political home.  But the near-collapse of the PLO, and the rise of the Oslo-created and U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) led to more criticism of Fatah’s strategic failures and corruption, and more recently new censure has arisen regarding the Fatah leadership’s close ties to the U.S.  As a result, many Palestinians have distanced themselves from the organization.  Human rights, social welfare and other civil society organizations have been particularly concerned about Abbas’s recent decree replacing the existing law mandating registration of NGOs and other associations, with a new order requiring organizations to apply for a license from the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior – and giving the ministry the right to deny any group a license to operate. 

At the same time, many Palestinians in Gaza as well as the West Bank view with unease the Islamic tilt of Hamas politics.  So far the social agenda they have implemented, particularly regarding women has been, in the Palestinian context, conservative but not extremist.  Whether Hamas is telling the truth or not about their longer-term intentions, political conditions on the ground, particularly the still powerful secular forces within Palestinian society, will make imposition of the most coercive forms of Islamic law unlikely.  Many also strongly oppose Hamas’ brutal military attacks against Fatah in Gaza. But its legitimacy remains; Hamas did win Palestinian elections with an clear majority.  A recent July 4th poll by the Fatah-oriented al-Quds newspaper reported 41% support for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, with Fatah’s 25% divided between 13% for Abbas and 12% for Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned leader of Fatah’s younger and less compromised generation.  (In that same poll Abbas’s U.S.-backed Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, received only 5% of the vote.)

The U.S. Role

The violence of the internal Palestinian struggle in recent months reflects a deep and longstanding crisis within the Palestinian national movement. Neither the U.S.-allied secular nationalism of Fatah’s leadership, nor the still untested Islamist nationalism of Hamas, have so far been able to provide the Palestinians with the kind of new strategic vision required to strengthen the weakened PLO and rebuild the now fragile movement it once so powerfully represented.

But even beyond the human catastrophe of the fighting, the tragedy is that in this horrific struggle among the Palestinians, both sides are really fighting over the leftover crumbs of power. The full loaf of power – and the main responsibility for the violence? belongs to the Israeli occupation and its U.S. backers.  In the 16 months from the Palestinian elections in January 2006 through April 2007, Israeli troops killed 712 Palestinians, almost half of them children. During that same period, much of which included Hamas’ unilateral ceasefire, Palestinians killed 29 Israelis, including soldiers and civilians.

And there is no question that U.S.-Israeli hands lay behind the escalating tensions and eventual violence of the Fatah-Hamas split. In his leaked confidential report written by former UN representative to the so-called Quartet, Peruvian diplomat Alvaro de Soto acknowledged that "the U.S. clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas – so much so that, a week before Mecca [the Saudi-brokered unity agreement between the two factions], the U.S. envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much ‘I like this violence,’ referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because ‘it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas’."

Blair to the Rescue?

To try and achieve some level of international legitimacy for a "diplomacy surge" in the Middle East that might divert attention away his catastrophic war in Iraq, Bush orchestrated the appointment of his once-and-future strongest ally, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as representative of the "Quartet."  But even now, despite Blair having largely sacrificed his own political career and legacy at the altar of the U.S. war in Iraq, the Bush administration continues to insult and disrespect him. In his last appearance before the British Parliament, Blair said proudly that his "absolute priority" in his new role was to "prepare the ground for a negotiated settlement" between Israel and the Palestinians.  Only two days later, State Department spokesman Tom Casey flatly contradicted him. "There’s certainly no envisioning that this individual would be a negotiator between the Israelis and Palestinians," he said. 

That was more consistent with Blair’s earlier recognition of the limitations of his own role.  Talking candidly with Bush last summer on microphones they thought were turned off, Blair offered to do whatever the U.S. wanted, apparently regardless of what that was, while recognizing that what he did had little significance.  Speaking of the secretary of state traveling to the Middle East, Blair told Bush that "obviously, if she goes out she’s got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can go out and just talk."  Given the limitations of Bush’s so-called new diplomatic effort, it appears that talking will be all that Blair -or Rice herself – will be allowed to do.

So What Do We Do?

The divide within the Palestinian movement – especially the violence of recent weeks – has confused and demoralized many supporters of Palestinian human rights and the movement to end Israeli occupation. But neither the splits nor the violence change the overall obligation of international supporters of a just, comprehensive, human rights-based peace.

When the Palestinian elections resulted in an outcome challenging the Bush administration’s expectations, the U.S. responded with a complete economic boycott of the entire Palestinian population of the occupied territories. Somehow the legitimacy of such a collective punishment was never considered an appropriate question in the mainstream U.S. media – while even talking of boycotts against the Israeli occupation engenders immediate accusations of discrimination, support for terrorism, even anti-Semitism.

In fact the global call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions -BDS? represents the most promising non-violent economic pressure campaign to force an end to Israel’s violations of UN resolutions and international law.  The BDS call was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organizations and the UN-based International Coordinating Network on Palestine.  Applying the lessons and adopting some of the techniques of the powerful global movement against South African apartheid in the 1980s, the BDS campaign includes diverse supporters using a broad array of tactics.  It includes the "socially responsible investment" of the Presbyterian and other Christian churches committed to investigating and reversing corporate support for occupation, and the stockholder campaigns against Caterpillar’s sales of bulldozers used illegally as Israeli military weapons in the occupied territories. The U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation will soon decide on a corporate target for national boycott and divestment campaigns throughout the U.S.

Globally there are important successes already. While the humanitarian and political situation inside the occupied territories continues to deteriorate as Israel escalates its divide-and-conquer tactics of occupation and dispossession, BDS pressures are on the rise in direct defiance.  Two of Britain’s largest trade union federations recently passed boycott resolutions.  The powerful Canadian Union of Public Employees voted to support BDS campaigns. And in South Africa, home of the first anti-apartheid campaign, influential government officials and key backers of the ruling ANC – the ANC women’s federation, its youth league, the Communist Party, the COSATU trade union federation – all have come out for sanctions to force Israeli compliance with international law.

The U.S. and global peace mobilizations cannot rebuild the Palestinian national movement from outside, and it is rarely useful for us to take sides in the internal conflict, beyond supporting unity efforts and working to defend Palestinian civil society organizations.  The best answer to U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid, and to U.S. divide-and-conquer tactics against the Palestinians, will be the consolidation of a broad popular movement saying no, joining the rising global movement for BDS as a powerful non-violent tool that challenges that U.S. support and demands an entirely new foreign policy based not on power but on justice and equal rights for all.

-Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her newest book is Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

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