Israel recently announced plans to build a large new settlement, called “Givaot”, with 6,000 housing units, near Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank and to double the “Har Homa” settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim, between occupied east Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Planning for these projects began under former prime minister Ehud Barak who, according to a recent report in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, approved more new housing units in 2000 than in any year since 1992. Palestinians knew this all along, as for eight years they watched sham negotiations continue while Israel devoured their land with bulldozers. Sharon, no less than Barak, can be expected to pursue settlement construction zealously.
For these reasons, among many others, Palestinians rejected Clinton and Barak’s vague plans for a Palestinian “state” which would keep them under permanent subjugation in a South African-style “bantustan” and would require Palestinian refugees to renounce their fundamental human right to return to their homes.
Accelerating the expansion of settlements now is a declaration of total war by Israel against the Palestinian people, who are already suffering grievously under total siege. It is also a sign of self-confidence on the part of Israel which feels it can defy the entire world without paying a significant price. Unfortunately, past experience shows that such self-confidence is not entirely misplaced. While Israel feels it can limit its costs, the Palestinians, and perhaps the entire region, will pay a very high price in blood. Changing this deadly calculus requires rapid action from Arab governments, Europe and the United States.
Despite the fact that Barak built settlements tirelessly, the US media propagated the assertion that he was a “dove”, ready to make “far reaching concessions” for the sake of peace. Unfortunately, some in the Arab world also allowed themselves to be fooled by this image and indulged in fantasies that peace was at hand just because Barak was now building the settlements and giving orders to the occupation army instead of Netanyahu. This widened the gap between popular outrage at what was happening to the Palestinian people and official silence from governments which continued to conduct “business as usual” with Israel.
The European Union shielded Barak from criticism in order to maintain the fiction of a “peace process” and out of misplaced deference to the United States’ self-appointed role as the sole “peacemaker”. While Israel butchers the Palestinians, Israeli exporters continue to enjoy preferential access to European markets. Such paralysis has helped set back the efforts of the European Union to develop a credible international role, commensurate with the bloc’s population and economic importance.
Fewer are making the same mistake with Sharon, although it is amazing to see how quickly the US media with their usual amnesia have turned Sharon into a respectable politician. The European nations which howled in outrage and imposed sanctions on Austria because the right-wing Freedom Party joined its government coalition, sat by meekly as Sharon became prime minister and appointed such ministers as Rehavam Zeevi who advocates the “transfer” of all Palestinians from their homeland.
The United States reacted to the new settlement plans by declaring “we don’t think that continued construction activity like this contributes to peace or stability”. While this statement is slightly stronger than anything the Clinton administration said, it falls far short of recognising that the settlements are a grave violation of international law and of the human rights of the Palestinians.
The new US administration said it wishes to step back from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has made some symbolic gestures in this direction, such as abolishing the position of “Special Middle East Coordinator”, previously held by Dennis Ross, a life-long advocate for Israel. Although press reports have indicated that the US has made stronger protests to Israel in private, it remains to be seen if it will be more publicly critical.
But even if the United States does criticise Israel publicly, the essential structure of the US-Israeli relationship is unchanged, with billions of dollars of military and economic aid allowing Israel to freely pursue its colonisation and aggression policies. And the United States still threatens to veto any UN resolutions establishing an international protection force for the Palestinians. As long as this support persists, any declaration by the United States that its policy has shifted should be treated with deep scepticism.
Thus, it is likely that Colin Powell, said to be keen on improving relations with oil-producing Arab countries, will find his efforts stymied by record levels of outrage and disgust among the Arab public at continued US indulgence of Israel and senseless vindictiveness towards Iraq. While the US may feel it can ignore Arab public opinion in formulating policy, the Arab governments whose cooperation it wants, can no longer afford to do so.
Assuming that Bush and Powell recognise that deteriorating relations with Arab countries cannot be in the interests of the United States, it is by no means certain they would be able to face down the powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the United States. President Bush the elder set a precedent in 1991, when he temporarily refused loan guarantees to Israel, but he paid a high political price.
No US president will pay such a price simply for love of the Arabs or belief in the justness of their cause. Therefore, the message sent by the Arab summit to the United States is far more important than any message it sends to Israel.
Will Arab governments continue to sit by quietly while the United States supports policies which are disastrous to our region? Will they continue to buy expensive and useless American weapons systems? What forms of economic pressure could the Arab countries bring to bear on the United States if it does not change its harmful policies towards both Israel and Iraq?
In all his domestic policy initiatives say, improving the performance of schools President Bush is fond of saying that there must be “accountability” and “consequences” for bad behaviour. This is exactly the principle that the United States and Europe must at long last apply in their relationship with Israel. And it is the principle that Arabs countries that mean what they say about supporting Palestinian rights and defending their own interests ought to apply to the United States and Europe.
Mr. Ali Abunimah contributed this article to the Jordan Times.