A meeting of minds

The Middle East conflict turned a corner when US tanks rolled into Iraq to score a fast and easy victory for the so- called coalition forces. The war on Iraq, one must not forget, was neither necessary nor inevitable. It was a voluntary act of aggression, for it took place outside the framework of international legitimacy, contravening international law and defying the will of an overwhelming majority of countries. The real motives behind the war will be debated for years. Some argue it was waged for oil, pointing out that control of oil fields is a key requisite for global domination. Some would claim that the war was an attempt to contain Iran and Islamist movements, noting that Iran’s isolation is a cornerstone of the anti- terror strategy the US adopted following 11 September. Others would maintain that the war was a new Crusade targeting Arabs and Muslims in general.

I find it hard to support any of the aforementioned views as the main reason for the war. The war was primarily for Israel’s sake. The US ultra-right, in cahoots with Israel’s extreme right, conceived and waged it. And it would be no exaggeration to call it a proxy war, one fought by the United States on behalf of Israel.

Proxy wars were particularly common during the bipolar era, when the two major superpowers engaged lesser countries in their rivalry to avoid a nuclear confrontation. What makes the US war on Iraq so unique is that, for the first time in history, a major power fought a proxy war on behalf of a minor state — quite an achievement for Israel and the global Zionist movement. The war, then, requires a reassessment of our views of Israel’s role in the world and its relations with contemporary powers. The proxy war we have just witnessed proves that the Zionist movement, given the opportunity, is capable of controlling the mind and soul of the US administration. How did this come to pass?

To answer this question, one has to examine the role of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Arab-US relations. Following World War II, with the US poised to become a superpower, Washington tried to find a formula to reconcile its oil interests with its strategic interests, requiring it to forge a workable relationship with the Arabs, assume the role formerly held by Britain in the region and maintain close ties with the Zionist movement.

When President Roosevelt met King Abdel-Aziz Al- Saud aboard the US frigate Quincy in the Suez Canal in February 1945, this was perhaps the first time the Americans and the Arabs tackled this problem. King Abdel-Aziz was ready and willing to cooperate with the United States in oil matters — favouring the US over other countries in this respect. However, he was not prepared to make any concessions regarding the unfettered immigration of Jews to Palestine, as the Americans requested. The US resolved the problem by backing Israel and the Zionist movement in every manner that would not compromise its oil interests in the region. This formula of US action was adjusted later as Soviet influence grew and Nasser’s Pan-Arab ideology gained momentum in the region.

All in all, the US did not encounter any insurmountable difficulties in the region, and Arab divisions allowed the US to manoeuvre. Washington depicted radical Arab regimes — those cooperating with the Soviets — as a menace to the region, and the conservative regimes took the bait. This enabled the United States to boost its overt and covert backing of Israel without endangering its oil interests in the Middle East. This policy was more than successful; it was crowned by Israel’s victory over radical regimes and the Pan-Arab movement in 1967. The victory convinced Washington that US interests were in complete harmony with Israel’s.

The first sign of trouble came in 1973, when an Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi alliance led to a successful military campaign, and oil was used to pressure countries backing Israel, foremost among them the US. This convinced Washington to change tack. Henry Kissinger, with the help of President El-Sadat, developed a new strategy that would allow the US to deal with oil and the Arab-Israeli conflict as two separate issues.

The new strategy made Washington responsible for mediating a peaceful and lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This vision ran into trouble because Israeli society was not mature enough to reach a settlement acceptable to the Arabs — one in which Israel would withdraw from all territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a fully- sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries, and a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees.

The US was unable to force Israel to accept a settlement. Washington chose, instead, to try to buy time and began to back Israeli conditions for a settlement. As a result, US policy became hostage to Israel’s vision of a settlement, and Arab-US relations became increasingly strained.

The United States threw its weight behind El-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, but could not turn that gesture into the basis for a comprehensive settlement. A settlement could have been reached at the time had the US put sufficient pressure on Israel and Gulf states. Coansciously or unconsciously, the United States aborted an opportunity to achieve a full- fledged settlement. The momentum created by El-Sadat’s visit was lost, just as Israel had wanted, and the only outcome of the visit was a separate peace that isolated Egypt from the rest of the Arab world. Worse yet, Washington — following El-Sadat’s assassination — gave Israel a green light to invade Lebanon in 1982 in order to destroy the PLO and set up an Israeli-backed puppet regime.

Israel was hoping its military achievements in Lebanon would effect a shift in power in the region and help it impose its own terms of settlement on other Arab countries, Egypt having been neutralised. Its policies in Lebanon eventually backfired. On the smoking ruins of Israel’s debacle in Lebanon, a Lebanese-Syrian front of resistance developed, with Soviet and Iranian backing, and succeeded in blocking Israel’s terms for a settlement. Syria wagered that this front would eventually achieve strategic parity with Israel, perhaps compensating for Egypt’s absence from the military equation. But Syrian hopes were dashed with Gorbachev’s accession to power in the mid-1980s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union increased Israel’s intransigence and, perhaps, led to closer US-Israeli ties. The three major Arab countries — Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — played a major role in enabling the United States to achieve its full strategic objectives in the Gulf War, while Israel stood on the sidelines. But the United States remained unable to exert effective pressure on Israel, a fact that became abundantly clear in the course of the Madrid conference. Although Israel was reluctant to attend the gathering, and only showed up after considerable US prodding, it soon succeeded in ridding the meeting of substantive content. Following a series of empty statements, the conference initiated a process of bilateral talks, the pace, rhythm, and direction of which were dictated by Israel.

The United States, thus, let another chance for peace slip away. Israel was not ready for peace. And the United States was not willing, or able, to pressure it. The peace process remained stalled until Israel wanted to see it move. When Rabin took office, he sanctioned secret and direct talks with the PLO. These resulted in the signing of the Oslo accords. The White House had no role in the accords beyond that of hosting the signing ceremony.

Clinton’s administration exerted considerable effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, but it focussed on serving Israel’s point of view while putting maximum pressure on Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Yasser Arafat went to Camp David because of US pressure on him to do so, knowing full well that the conference had no chance of success. Clinton did not hesitate to blame the PA, and Arafat in particular, for the failure of the conference. This was Clinton’s biggest gift to Israel’s extreme right. Sharon took the opportunity and visited Al-Aqsa Mosque, knowing that the visit would cause upheaval. The Intifada erupted, and Sharon busied himself with stamping it out, although what he actually wanted to stamp out was the peace process itself.

The US ultra-right, led by George W Bush, was barely two months in power when a government with extremist credentials took power in Israel. The US extreme right had its own vision of world domination, and followed methods completely different from those of the Clinton administration. Likewise, Israel’s right-wing had its own vision for regional domination, and employed means totally different from those of the Labour Party. The US right believes that global hegemony would only be secure when the last “rogue” regime was ousted. The Israeli right, meanwhile, maintains that the achievement of a regional settlement on Israeli terms requires the wiping out of resistance forces (Hamas, Jihad, Hizbullah), and the governments that support them (Syria, Iran), even through military force. September 2001 gave Israel a historic opportunity, not only to obtain a green light to liquidate “pockets of resistance” to its scheme, but also to push Washington to act, jointly or by proxy, to liquidate the resistance through military action. But, if the ultimate aim is to wipe out all resistance to Israeli occupation, why was Iraq the first target of military action?

The US administration that took shape in January 2001 was not of the strain of Republicans who rotated power with the more liberal Democrats until the 1980s. This was a different administration, made up primarily of fundamentalist Protestants and activists from the so-called religious right. The religious right emerged in the 1970s and became more powerful when Reagan was elected in 1980s. Since then, it has been an influential and ominous force in US society.

Numerous studies suggest that George W Bush, Vice- President Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Rumsfeld all belong, one way or another, to this Protestant fundamentalist trend. What is alarming is that many senior officials in charge of foreign affairs and defence are either Jews with connections to the extremist strands of the Zionist movement and even to Ariel Sharon, or Christian fundamentalists who believe that Greater Israel should be established to pave the way for the return of the Messiah. Among these are: Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. This clique sees itself as a natural continuation of the Reagan era. Its members seek to promote the defence policies that were designed under Reagan and that led to the fall of the Soviet Union under George Bush senior. At the heart of their vision of foreign policy are two matters. One is the resumption of the hegemony schemes started by Bush senior and abandoned under the Clinton administration during the 1990s. The other is the rejection of all pressure on Israel. The US administration, in its current form, does not want Israel pressured into making any concessions, regardless of the consequences.

It is remarkable how the administration of Bush junior began immediately, months before 11 September 2001, taking specific steps reflecting this vision. The measures it took angered both the international community and the Arabs. Internationally, the administration refused to join the Rome Treaty setting up an international criminal court, a treaty initialled earlier by the Clinton administration. The new administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on the environment. Regionally, the administration gave Sharon unconditional support, while refusing to meet Arafat and blaming the Palestinian leader for the collapse of the peace process.

Washington hawks — all closely allied with Israel — found their golden opportunity in the September 2001 attacks. They modified US foreign policy, sanctioned the Greater Israel scheme, turning it into a cornerstone of US designs for hegemony. From then on, the US wars for hegemony, otherwise known as the war against terror, became wars serving Israel’s interests.

At the risk of over-simplification, I will summarise the main points of the current US political vision.

First, the United States is in a position of self-defence because it was subjected to an armed attack from abroad. This entitled it to use military force in any manner it deems appropriate. Second, the perpetrator of the September 2001 attacks was not a single state or even a single group, but an intricate international terrorism network. The nature of the perpetrator calls for a long-term response that could last years and involve various stages and methods of confrontation and alliances. Third, the US’s duty to eradicate terror gives it the right to mount “preemptive” political and military attacks without attaining permission from any entity, including the United Nations. Fourth, because the people who assaulted the Pentagon and the Twin Towers were all Arab and Muslims, and because some members of this group carried the nationalities of states friendly to the US (Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others), it has the right to expand the scope of its anti-terror operations to all states, including “friendly” ones. Fifth, many despotic and corrupt regimes in the Arab and Islamic world are trying to allay public outrage at their practices of governance by allowing terror groups to wage attacks against the United States and Israel. Therefore, the United States should revise its policy regarding these regimes.

Increasing sectors of the US elite now believe that the war on terror calls for radical changes in the cultural and political map of the Middle East. It did not take US decision-makers long to reach the conclusion that the changing of the Iraqi regime by force was a necessary prerequisite to reconfiguring the region. Since Iraq seemed in violation of international legitimacy, Arab and non-Arab countries might have been tempted to cooperate with the US to topple that regime. Also, since Iraq is an oil-rich country with many resources, the establishment of a pro- American democratic regime could be a turning point in the process of modernising the Arab world and weakening the radicals who oppose US schemes in the region and engage in resistance against Israeli occupation and policies.

It was not difficult for those in the US administration who were eager to establish US global hegemony to reconcile their goals with those of their colleagues who sought to promote Israel’s interests. US control of the country with the second largest oil reserves in the world would please proponents of hegemony because this would give the US more leverage over OPEC and oil-related investment in the world. And, the dismantling of nationalist and Islamist trends in the region would diminish resistance to Israeli occupation and open the door to the implementation of the roadmap on Sharon’s terms.

In view of the history of US-Israeli relations, and the US’s quick victory in Iraq, Israel and the US are likely to agree on a strategy for eradicating Islamic resistance groups in Palestine and the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

Large-scale military action of the type witnessed in Iraq may not be needed after all. Any measures generating sufficient panic could force the concerned parties to make the concessions required to reach a settlement on Israel’s terms. Nevertheless, one cannot rule out the possibility that the US administration hawks, encouraged by their victory and inspired by Judeo-Christian tenets, may opt for Iraq- style military action. If so, then the war on Iraq will not be the last proxy war fought by America for Israel’s sake.

Having said that, the strategy actually has little chance of success. The US victory in Iraq does not mean that the road is open for Washington to achieve its political objectives. Syria and Iran are different from Iraq. Washington’s military victory may prove politically costly, for the overwhelming majority of Arabs, including the Iraqis, are beginning to equate the United States and Israel. This may have serious consequences for US interests in the region. It’s time the American people, and all peace-loving nations, realise that the clique controlling the US administration poses a real danger for Middle East as well as international stability.

The US administration is facing a test. It can yet refute all the above conclusions; for example, by withdrawing quickly from Iraq and asking the United Nations to send peace-keeping forces to maintain law and order and supervise free elections. The US might also push through the roadmap — without allowing Sharon to fiddle with it — and call on the Quartet to resume its work.

If it does so, Washington would prove that there is no discrepancy between its words and deeds. As things currently look, the United States does not want to create a democratic regime in Iraq, but a puppet one. Likewise, Sharon does not want a roadmap leading to a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, but one leading to a Palestinian statelet subservient to Greater Israel. Sharon will not change. And the US, under the current administration, is unlikely to press for a comprehensive and just settlement. My guess is we should brace ourselves for the worst.

The writer is head of the Political Science Department at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.