Don't look now, but the Bush administration is busy creating another foreign policy mess in the Middle East to go with its long-running Iraq disaster. By a combination of official neglect, callous indifference and neoconservative ideology, the world's only superpower, led by its blunderer-in-chief, has allowed the latest Arab-Israeli confrontation to spin nearly out of control. As this is written, the Jewish military incursions into Lebanon and Gaza are threatening not only regional political and economic stability, but the very existence of two nascent nation-states and the survival of their peoples.
The administration's laissez-faire Levantine policy of non-diplomacy, which alternates between blissful unconcern and a cynical wink and nod in the direction of Jerusalem, has little worldwide support. The support it does have, however, emanates from the only sources that matter to the White House: the State of Israel itself, the conservative American Israeli lobby and the Republican base in the United States. All three have no qualms about a regional third world war in the Middle East that would involve the US.
The government of Israel, more or less dominated by conservatives of the Likud variety since the 1970s, has as its enduring objective the tying of US policy to Israeli fortunes. Its dominant hardliners have decided that a ruthlessly aggressive militancy is the only way to deal with their regional neighbors, and if the Americans can be persuaded to endorse this approach, so much the better. In the post-9/11 environment, the best way to guarantee such an outcome is to merge all Mid-East conflicts into one "war on terror" in which all Arab insurgents and nationalists, regardless of motive, are simply regarded as terrorists, the common enemy of Israel and America alike.
It has been left to the American Israeli lobby to project that line of spin on this side of the Atlantic, and it's been remarkably effective. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, with their black-and-white view of the world, have required little convincing; they've essentially turned US-Palestinian policy over to the Olmert government. But others, notably in the Democratic party, have needed assiduous stroking. Enter AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and kindred American Israeli apologists like Charles Krauthammer and Alan Dershowitz, who equate lack of 100% support for all of Israel's actions with anti-Semitism. The constant drumbeat of pro-Israeli propaganda from these and other sources has had the desired effect of silencing or muting contrary opinions in the American political arena.
Authors John Mearscheimer and Stephen Walt ran headlong into this intimidation machine last spring, with the publication of their critique in The London Review of Books -- no mainstream American journal would air it -- entitled "The Israel Lobby." The Mearscheimer-Walt paper, the product of two prominent university professors from Chicago and Harvard, respectively, articulated the novel argument that having Israel and the US diplomatically joined at the hip, as well as permitting the Israel lobby veto power over US Mideast policy, is not necessarily in America's interest. The result: The two academics have been widely excoriated and subjected to vicious character assassination.
Politicians in the Democratic party have taken note of the Israel lobby's potency to the extent that whatever the Jerusalem government does in the Middle East is greeted on the American left with a vast silence. There is some irony here, since many Jewish Americans, probably a majority, are consistently critical of rightist Israeli policies. Nevertheless, Democratic officeholders, running scared as is their wont, are mostly concerned with the shrill conservative minority. Partly, campaign funding is driving this reaction -- the Republicans exist largely on WASP money, the Democrats on Jewish money -- and partly, it's the ethnic makeup of the Democratic Party. Most Jewish Americans are Democrats, and so are most elected Jewish politicians. Criticizing Israel is consequently a hard sell on the Democratic side of the aisle, especially with AIPAC at work.
Among Republicans, on the other hand, there is little need for the Israel lobby's ministrations. The fundamentalist religious fanatics who now hold the balance of power in the GOP are already in the Israeli camp. Many of them (the so-called Christian Zionists) view a potential Armageddon in the Middle East as part of God's plan, the first step toward "the rapture" that will lift the chosen into Heaven. The Republican neocons, meanwhile, levelheaded by comparison, merely want to implement their planned involuntary conversion of the Arab world to democracy and free enterprise. Israel's lashing out at Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon is a desired part of that strategy, with invasions of Syria and Iran presumably to follow.
George W. Bush, part neocon and part conservative fundamentalist, is the logical impresario for this grand US-Israel alliance to "solve" the Middle East problem by military force. Negotiations be damned; full speed ahead! But before we descend into madness, it might be worthwhile to examine the roots of the conflict.
Numerous writers of Arab heritage, such as the late Edward Said, have chronicled the injustices inflicted upon the Palestinian people, in particular, during and after the creation of the State of Israel. But surprisingly, so have a new generation of Israeli historians, including Tom Segev, a columnist for Jerusalem's Ha'aretz, one of his country's most influential newspapers. In One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate [Metropolitan, 1999], Segev makes clear that dispossession of the native Arab population was always part of British and Zionist plans, from the Balfour Declaration onward.
The point is that organizations like Hamas were not produced in a vacuum; they exist for a reason. They employ violence, yes, but they also have popular support and legitimate grievances. Dismissing them as nothing more than anarchic terrorists who kill for the hell of it, as the Bush administration and a succession of Israeli governments have done, is simplistic and self-defeating.
Similarly, Washington's acquiescence in the willful destruction of Lebanon's fledgling democratic state (thus putting the lie to Bush claims to be seeking Mideast democracy) because the Lebanese government can't control Hezbollah -- could 20th century Irish governments control the IRA? -- is green-lighting a mindless, disproportionate response to comparatively minor provocations. A far more thoughtful, subtle and persistent diplomatic effort is in order. But that's apparently beyond the imagination or capacity of the incompetents now running our government's foreign policy.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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