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Bush in the Middle East

Iran Over Palestine, Israel Over All

Thursday 10 January 2008, by Phyllis Bennis

Bush’s current visit to the Middle East, despite the official central message of supporting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, has far more to do with Iran.

That is not a secret; the lead article in Israel’s leading daily, Ha’aretz,
describing the Bush meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, begins "Iran’s nuclear program was at the center of the closed door meeting between Bush and Olmert." Israel rejects the findings of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released last month that found that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and does not necessarily even want one. In spite of that, Olmert told Bush, "our unequivocal conclusion is that they [the Iranians] are busy developing nuclear weapons." According to Ha’aretz, Bush agreed, saying the Iranians could resume their weapons program as easily as they froze it in 2003. It was understood before Bush even arrived in the region that a major part of his goal was to reassure Israel that the NIE would have no consequence - that it did not actually signal any change in U.S. posture towards Iran. His trip intended to "clear up any confusion in the region regarding Iran," Bush said. "The NIE report may have sent a signal to some that the U.S. doesn’t think that Iran is a threat," he continued as he went on to disabuse that notion. "Iran continues to be a threat to world peace." And that means the U.S. would continue to provide support for Israel vis-à-vis Iran even if Tel Aviv’s overtly aggressive threats towards Iran contradict the findings of Bush’s own intelligence agencies.

Bush told Israel "you better take the Iranian threat seriously," and Israeli President Shimon Peres responded that Israel had taken Bush’s advice "not to underestimate the Iranian threat." He used the opportunity to warn Tehran that "Iran should not underestimate Israel’s resolve for self-defense."

** Bush visits to Arab countries will also be about mobilizing against Iran.

Iran will also be on top of the agenda of Bush stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt. Arab regimes have their own fears about Iran, but they don’t match Washington’s. The fear is not based on a Sunni-Shi’a divide, as Washington discourse would have us believe, but because, with the U.S. destruction and occupation of Iraq, Iran is today the only country in the Middle East with all three indigenous requisites to be the regional power - oil wealth, sufficient water, and large size population and territory. U.S. troops are based in all the countries Bush will visit. If the U.S. (with or without Israel) attacks Iran, any retaliation aimed at U.S. troop concentrations or U.S. warships (Bahrain is headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet) could well bring any of those mostly small countries directly into the line of fire.

The Bush administration persuaded numerous Arab governments to attend the Annapolis negotiations in November, largely to shore up their backing of Washington’s anti-Iran crusade. But release of the NIE just after Annapolis diminished that effect, so this week’s Middle East junket is partly about repeating the Annapolis mantra: despite the NIE, the Bush administration is still telling Arab regimes, stick with us, mobilize against Iran and we’ll continue to prop you up with new military support. And you can keep your angry populations in line by telling them that we’re supporting a Palestinian state.

** The new rhetorical approach of the Bush administration in their last year in office is to focus on the need to "define" a Palestinian state. Bush arrived in Israel with two messages on the Israeli-Palestinian front: the creation of a Palestinian state is important for the U.S., and "America cannot dictate the terms of what a state will look like."

Peres and Olmert, like Bush, spoke of their commitment to the "vision" of a Palestinian state; Bush also spoke of his commitment to achieve the "identity" of a Palestinian state while in office. But despite his claim, Bush has in fact already "dictated the terms of what a state will [and will not] look like." Back in 2004, in an exchange of letters with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush guaranteed his administration’s support for two key Israeli demands. Looking at the current media and political discourse in Israel, it appears that those letters have emerged as the foundation of the current discussions, despite their complete lack of any legal foundation. The letters serve the same purpose as Bush’s often-used "signing statements," which spell out his intention to ignore and/or violate U.S. domestic laws even as he signs them. (It remains unclear whether the letters’ positions will be reaffirmed by the next administration.)

Bush promised that Palestinian refugees expelled during the 1947-48 war would not be allowed to return to their homes, despite the requirements of the international law and UN Resolution 194. And he already dictated the borders of a Palestinian state, promising General Sharon in 2004 that Israel would be allowed to annex permanently the huge settlement blocs in the West Bank (and those in occupied East Jerusalem that were not even included in the discussion of settlments) that house more than 400,000 Jewish settlers. Despite the fact that all Israeli settlements in the occupied territory are illegal, Bush repeated his guarantee that only the small "outpost" settlements would "have to go," those that the Israeli government itself acknowledges are illegal. Those small settlements house less than 20% of the settlers.

Speaking in the Palestinian city of Ramallah the following day, Bush did refer to the problem facing a Palestinian "state" composed of non-contiguous cantons with the Israeli military controlling roads, checkpoints and Walls dividing them. "Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the outline of a state," he said. But there was no pull-back from his 2004 guarantee of support for precisely that kind of "swiss cheese" arrangement, with huge city-sized settlement blocs and the Apartheid Wall snaking through and dividing the West Bank into non-contiguous Bantustan-like islands.

The $30 billion in new military and economic aid to Israel Bush announced a few weeks ago, provided by U.S. taxpayers, was not conditioned on any Israeli action regarding settlements. The unusual large-scale military involvement in the triumphalist Israeli welcome for Bush reflected the significance of this new aid, which will almost double the annual U.S. taxpayer gift to Israel (which the IMF identifies as the 22nd wealthiest country in the world).

** Bush arrived in the region at a moment of rapidly escalating crisis in Gaza, which faces increasing isolation, impoverishment, and continuing Israeli military attacks that have killed 94 Palestinians since the Annapolis conference. The humanitarian crisis there is approaching disaster level.

With U.S. backing, Israel essentially sealed the Gaza borders in June of last year when Hamas took control of the Strip, trapping people inside what quickly became an open-air prison; virtually no people or goods beyond UN-provided subsistence levels of food and a tiny amount of a few drugs were allowed in or out. After declaring the entire Gaza Strip - and its 1.5 million people - a "hostile entity," Israel began systematically reducing fuel supplies, including crucial diesel for running hospital generators. Israeli officials said the policy was designed to "make Gaza scream." The Israeli and U.S. refusal to allow any negotiations with the elected leadership of Gaza have made the situation worse.

Just days before Bush’s arrival, Israel rejected the most recent overture by Hamas for a mutual ceasefire in Gaza that would have required Israel to open the crossings into and out of Gaza for goods and people. The refusal appears to indicate Israel believes that continuing their reign of terror and collective punishment against the entire Gaza population is more important than ending the daily rocket fire against the Israeli town of Sderot, near the Gaza border.

** While talking peace in Annapolis and during Bush’s visit, Israel is
consolidating its occupation and continuing its apartheid policies.

More than 500 permanent checkpoints and another 600 or so "flying checkpoints" continue to control and suppress Palestinian life across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, a territory the size of Delaware. Almost all the checkpoints divide Palestinians from each other, not from Israel. While Bush paid lip service to the problems caused by checkpoints during his visit to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, he did not indicate any intention to actually hold Israel accountable for that violation of the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against collective punishment. Similarly, construction continued throughout Bush’s visit on the Apartheid Wall (the Hafrada Wall in Hebrew, or Separation Wall in English - they all mean the same thing) that expropriates Palestinian land, divides farmers from their olive trees, children from their schools, villages from nearby cities, patients from doctors, and has been found to be illegal by the International Court of Justice. Bush traveled by helicopter from Jerusalem to Ramallah, he had to have seen the Wall (which is visible from space, let alone a helicopter), but did not mention it.

On his arrival, Bush endorsed Israel’s demand for recognition of its discriminatory policies. "The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state," Bush said. That was widely interpreted as acceptance of Israel’s demand that the Palestinians not only recognize Israel’s existence, but that it accept it as "state of the Jewish people," rather than a state of all its citizens. Such a position would legitimize Israel’s discriminatory laws regarding nationality rights, land ownership, school and municipal funding inequities, denial of the right of return for Palestinians while recognizing the "law of return" for all Jews around the word, and the second-class status of the 20% of Israel’s population who are Palestinians.

The Annapolis conference has already failed; within 12 hours of its ending Olmert announced that Israel would not be bound by its deadlines nor would it end settlement activity as required in the "road map." Instead, the Israeli government announced the building of hundreds of new homes in the Har Homa settlement on Jbil Abu Ghneim in Jerusalem, and in the huge city-sized Ma’ale Adumim settlement outside Jerusalem, bolstering its existing population of 35,000 settlers. Both settlements, of course, are illegal, built in violation of the Geneva Convention on land Israel occupied in 1967. Bush said nothing about either settlement during his visit.

** U.S. economic, military and diplomatic support does not really improve Israeli security.

In fact, the existing Israeli policies towards the Palestinians serve to perpetuate armed insecurity and conflict that makes Israeli lives more difficult, but simultaneously offers the rhetoric of peace to mask ongoing Israeli expansion and colonization of Palestinian land and water.

** So what’s the alternative?

In the occupied Palestinian territory, in the village of Bil’in and elsewhere,
regular nonviolent actions bring together Palestinians, Israelis and internationals in nonviolent direct action to challenge the Israeli military’s systemic violations of international law. Mobilization against the Apartheid/Hafrada /Separation Wall continues. Some Israelis in Sderot, the town nearest the sealed Gaza border where Palestinian rockets, while not doing much harm, continually frighten the population, are acknowledging that their hardships are integrally related to the hardships imposed on the people of Gaza. Internationally, the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement offers global civil society nonviolent, moral economic measures to change corporate and government actions that support Israeli occupation and apartheid, deny equal rights and violate international law.

Ultimately security for Israelis as well as for Palestinians will have to be based on an end to occupation, and access to human rights, equality and international law for all. A new U.S. initiative to push for a real and comprehensive peace in Israel-Palestine would be a huge advance - but only if that initiative was based on international law and human rights, rather than the consolidation of one-sided power. This trip to the region, like the Annapolis conference it follows, does not do any such thing.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her most recent books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

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