Bush’s backing imperils Israel

By Henry Siegman

Financial Times

Published: September 15 2006

Nothing has been more important to Israel’s security than its special relationship with the US, which has provided it with virtually unlimited military, diplomatic and economic support. Under George W. Bush, US president, that generosity and intimacy have reached levels unprecedented in America’s relations with other countries.

However, the advantages of that relationship have ended, a fact that has been slow to register with Israel’s leadership. For in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and that country’s intensifying civil war, which now threatens region-wide destabilisation and upheaval, and after Israel’s war in Lebanon, in which it was believed by most Arabs to be acting as America’s proxy, that relationship threatens Israel’s very survival in the region. Its intimacy with the Bush administration has persuaded much of the Arab and Muslim world that the Jewish state is Washington’s cat’s paw in furthering a neo-conservative agenda for regional transformation.

The main product of the war in Lebanon has been hatred, as noted by Israel’s most prominent gadfly, Uri Avnery. The death and destruction wrought by Israel against civilian targets broadcast for 33 successive days by al-Jazeera and other television networks have reinforced hatred of Israel among Arabs and Muslims, which may take generations to undo. (Hizbollah was no less indiscriminate in its targeting of Israeli civilians, but sadly that does not mitigate Arab hatred.)

While rightwing Israeli political and military leaders have exploited this hatred by invoking it as justification for their hardline policies, their blindness to its destructive consequences is the result of their long-held conviction that there is not a problem that cannot be solved by Israel’s massive military superiority. It was General Moshe Ya’alon, the Israel Defence Forces’ former chief of staff, who said in 2002 that Palestinians would not become peace partners for Israel until the IDF has “deeply seared on their consciousness that they are a defeated people”.

One might have thought Israel would have learned from Hamas’s election victory this year that when it seeks to solve political problems by military force – rather than seeing its military superiority as providing the latitude to pursue political solutions – Israel actually “sears the consciousness” of its victims only with a rage for revenge.

Because there was not a clear winner or loser in Lebanon, an opportunity may now exist to address the fundamental causes of Israel’s regional conflicts rather than the symptoms. The stand-off may open the way to a return to diplomacy between Israel and its adversaries, as happened after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that paved the way for Israel’s peace with Egypt.

What stands in the way of using this opportunity is the rage in the Arab world that could easily be redirected towards “moderate” Arab regimes. Whether Israelis like it or not, the only protection from that rage, and most threats facing them, is a decision to negotiate a fair agreement with the Palestinians in peace talks whose starting point is the pre-1967 armistice line, subject to mutually agreed changes.

Israel has refused to deal with a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas. However it is uniquely Hamas – not Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s president, nor a discredited Fatah party – that can offer redemption to Israel in the Arab and Islamic world. An understanding between Israel and a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (with or without Fatah) that ends violence and allows for the development of informal co-operation that would lead to more formal agreements is the only path to overcoming the wall of hatred that now encircles Israel.

An opportunity to launch the adversaries on such a political path has now been opened by the agreement between Mr Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Authority’s Hamas-appointed prime minister, to form a government of national unity that accepts the Arab Initiative of 2002. That initiative commits Arab countries to the establishment of normal relations with the Jewish state following the conclusion of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. When asked whether this means that Hamas no longer has a problem recognising Israel’s 1967 borders, Hamas’s spokesman replied, “Yes, we have no problem with that.”

But far from taking advantage of this opening, Ehud Olmert’s government announced a diplomatic offensive to ensure that this new Palestinian unity government will not be recognised by the international community and that the brutal sanctions that have been imposed against it remain in place. It has been reported that Washington intends to support Israel’s position.

If Israel indeed rejects this opportunity for dialogue with a Hamas prepared to end violence and accept Israel’s pre-1967 borders, its problem is not finding a Palestinian peace partner, but its rejection of any such partner in favour of reliance on the IDF to impose Israel’s will by force on its Arab neighbours. Such a decision, and Israel’s continued identification with Mr Bush’s misguided crusade against “Islamo-fascism”, will allow the hatred that surrounds Israel to undermine its existence in a part of the world that for the Jewish state would turn – sooner or later – into “the heart of darkness”.

The writer is director of the US/Middle East Project and a visiting professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London