With 25 years of experience under my belt analysing the Middle East conflict, and as a close observer of US foreign policy with a pragmatic attitude toward its realist exigencies, I have never seen anything as destructive, humiliating and ruinously conceived as the “incentive” package now being offered by the US to Israel for a 3-month settlement freeze. It is our country’s foreign policy nadir: a deal is so damaging to US interests that it is hard to find words for it. What can be said plainly is that US citizens – yes, even those jaded, tired, embittered, disillusioned folks who have watched this stuff for too long – have to rise up and move fast to stop this, in the name of our country’s future.
Let us briefly consider just what’s being proposed here. Israel has been asked (asked!) to freeze illegal settlement construction in the West Bank for a lousy three months in the interests of the so-called peace process.
This brief hiatus is purely cosmetic. Jewish settlements in this occupied territory have been steadily and deliberately eradicating taking over East Jerusalem and the West Bank for over 40 years. The whole full-bore settlement construction programme makes open nonsense of partition now, as well as the putative “peace process”, by “eating the pizza”. But Israel has refused even a short-term freeze. And the US, egg all over its face, is being reduced to bribing the Israelis with a mind-boggling package of incentives – $3 BILLION in military hardware, equivalent to Israel’s annual automatic US package – just for three months of a partial freeze on construction, after which construction will continue unabated.
Israel’s refusal to freeze settlements even temporarily should surprise no one: the enigma is rather that anyone still finds that refusal confusing. Israel’s strategy for annexing the West Bank is recorded in Israeli government maps and settlement Master Plans dating back decades. For reasons too complicated to summarise here, deep divisions in Israeli society and politics make changing that policy effectively impossible at this late hour, as it is entrenched in Israeli doctrine, politics, policy and practice at levels so deep that the State’s very survival is implicated in it. The entire Israeli government, from the Agriculture Ministry to the World Zionist Organisation, is fully involved in and committed to building the West Bank settlements. But no one in the White House seems to have told President Obama this. He has already been deeply humiliated in world eyes when he insisted that Israel freeze settlement construction and Israel (predictably) gave him the diplomatic finger. Ever since that debacle, he has looked like a tin man in Middle East politics. Many wondered – first when, then whether – the US might find some spine with Israel over a situation so obviously damaging to the country’s image and interests. But Obama’s language about the settlements lately has been mealy stuff about “unhelpful” and “both sides”. As billions of tax dollars sink into the Afghan morass and US soldiers are shot down in ditches, the US superpower can’t get Israel to do diddly to help out and isn’t willing even to try. On the contrary, the US is committed to helping Israel do the opposite of what it urgently needs and what its own rhetoric asks for.
Normally, of course, the US would just strong-arm the Palestinians. But the Palestinian Authority is down to its last thong of dignity and even this is ready to snap. It can’t participate in a peace process that’s so openly idiotic. Politically, and despite the partial economic benefits that appointed Prime Minister Fayyad has brought to a narrow sector of Palestinian society in the West Bank, the PA is on the brink of implosion. Looking too much like a stringed puppet dancing in an empty diplomatic theatre, “negotiating” for a territory vanishing day by day, Mr. Abbas confronts a level of shame that even hard-core PA cronies have to consider soberly. For years, he has cultivated the image of a much-abused Palestinian patriot on the brink of resignation, enduring endless insults from Israel and the US only to do his best by the Palestinian people. But that always dubious story is crumbling to reveal a sordid truth: whatever its individual members’ intentions, the PA is effectively a cluster of native clients sucking up funds and graces from enemy patrons who are happy to pay a self-serving indigenous elite to keep the native masses quiet. This classic colonial deal can be sustained only as long as the Palestinian people as a whole are not smacked in the face with it.
But why does the US care about sustaining this farce? To understand the outlandish military deal now being offered, we have to recognise the whole Middle East “peace process” as a survival pact. The US needs the PA to help keep alive the whole fake story about the PA – Oslo’s “Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority”, supposedly “interim” to full Palestinian independence but actually “interim” to Israel’s final victory – to achieve what it needs to do in Afghanistan. Israel still needs the PA, too, because otherwise Israel will be identified for what it is: an Apartheid state. The Ramallah-PA elite relies on the coloniser’s needs -- indirect rule of the natives – for its very existence. So everyone needs the game a little longer and, if all goes right, it will work out for all of them. The US and Israel assume that when Israel’s eastern border (marked by the Wall plus the Jordan Valley) is finally consolidated, the PA will serve as the “self-government authority” – language straight out of the South African Bantustans, not incidentally – that will keep the natives quiet in assigned “reserves” which may or may not be called a state. The Ramallah PA hopes to land on its feet: a native elite that can enrich itself on sweetheart deals with Israel that it will cultivate by ensuring “security”. Counting on this pact, Israel need contemplate no true change to settlement policy because, token protests aside, the PA will take whatever it can get. No one in the US government really cares where Israel decides to put its borders, so the US government will not insist on any change either. The only concern is keeping up appearances. The short-sightedness of this plan is obvious and sad: it can’t but culminate in Palestinian revolt, Israeli violence, security dilemmas throughout the region and periodic regional upheavals. But then, colonists always assume that colonialism will win out somehow.
Even sadder is that the US actually has immense power in this situation and need do very little to deploy it. All it has to do to alter the entire power balance in the Middle East – in the interest of its own desperate situation in Afghanistan and its credibility as a world power – is sit back and abstain in the UN, leaving Israel to face the monumental international opprobrium that is brewing around its multitudinous human rights violations and sins against international security. Instead, the US is now doing the opposite: promising openly to protect Israel from any such blame, however legitimate, and handing over twenty – TWENTY – F35 stealth attack jets, the latest in US military stealth equipment, as well as unnamed satellite intelligence capacity and other cutting-edge technology. And for what? A 3-month token freeze that will end with Israel bouncing back to exactly the same strategy as before, putting the US back in the same impossible situation by February 2011.
Of course, it’s unlikely that the US is really doing this. Probably the deal was in the works anyway – maybe to capacitate Israel to strike Iran, in reality or as a threat – and some pro-Israel fanatic in the White House thought it might make slightly better sense to the world if cast as a sweetener to Israel regarding the always-fictive “peace process”. The opposite is true: attaching this colossal military transfer to a 3-month diplomatic nod from Israel makes the US look like a giant on its knees to a local mafia thug, handing over the family jewels (in both senses?) to cover the next short-term protection-racket instalment. It announces to the world that the US has no foreign policy leverage whatever and is reduced to giving away its best goods for the slightest temporary cooperation by a rude ally that claims openly to control its foreign policy. It also announces to the world that we are ready to destabilise the entire planet to plead for the most immaterial of Israel’s diplomatic graces. It indicates an infatuation with Israel so craven as to betray the foundations of our country’s essential interests – to remain a credible power in world affairs. (And let’s not even go into how deeply it abuses and insults the millions of desperate jobless Americans for whom $3 billion in mortgage assistance, education and job training could make all the difference – and whose children are being killed or maimed in Afghanistan as this disgusting deal goes forward to make their lot worse.)
I don’t usually speak like this, but this is a matter for US patriots. I don’t mean tea-party dolts, I mean liberal principled citizens people who – even grown cynical after decades of disappointments and disillusionments – still in their hearts really care about the US and what we always believed it was founded to become. And I include people who don’t much care one way or the other about the Middle East. For, although it will indeed be ruinous for the Middle East, and catastrophic for US relations with the Middle East, this crisis isn’t only about the Middle East. We cannot possibly hand over vast first-strike armaments at the tune of $3 billion on the utterly shaming rationale of coaxing an arrogant local power into a minor diplomatic gesture with a dinky 90-day limit. Doing so would mark the end of the US as any kind of sensible player in the world.
Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science and international relations and author of The One-State Solution. She lives in Cape Town and can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks to John Haines for circulating her piece first.