American New Vision in the Middle East

The slogan of the University of Louisville, (Kentucky) where Mr. Powell gave a long expected speech last Monday (Nov.19) is: ” Dare to be great”, as the Secretary of State himself reminded the audience. And since his speech was pre-announced and preceded by many signs emanating from the Bush administration, suggesting that an important peace initiative for the Middle East is under way, the expectations were just as great as the problem itself.

Powell started talking of the problem. The first point he made crystal clear concerns the cornerstone of the whole American policy in the Middle East: It is neither the oil, nor the relations with the Arab and Islamic world. Once again, this is not enough for the USA to build the “broadest conception of American national interests” in this region. But it is well the security of a single state that thrills the American policy makers, no matter what that state does, for ” this will never change”, says the Secretary of State, thus giving Israel an eternal status, although eternity has nothing to do with the policies of this world.

Once this point is made enough obvious, the American ” positive vision for the region” would be as limpid as water flowing out of a source.

Let us emphasize the point one more time to make sure that it is well the message Powell wanted us to understand: the source of the American positive vision is Israel’s security. And all the rest will follow.

How the Arab states committed to the American policy would react is no concern of the Secretary of State! Would it be accurate that they interpret the message as meaning that the security of Israel is determining the policy of the US not any other consideration (like oil, or friendship with the Arabs, or mutual interests, etc)? This is their business, not Powell’s!

If we do not give more importance to the most important concern of the American policy, we will find that there are some positive aspects in this “positive vision”, though. For example, the Secretary made sure that the American plan includes ” two states, Israel and Palestine”, living ” side by side within secure and recognized borders”.

Ah! Then after all, there is going to be two secure states, not a single one!

First contradiction! Some observers would perhaps notice. But this is not the case. For if you recall the aforementioned cornerstone, you will understand that the security of the second state- not yet created – will be determined by the conditions, the necessities, and the interests of the first state, that is Israel! So, where’s the contradiction?

The American logic is coherent, though uneasy to understand for the Arabs. And the Secretary of State is a realistic man. He knows that ” until Israel and all of its neighbors are at peace, our vision of the Middle East at peace will only be a distant dream”.

It will be then the role of policy to make that dream come true. But how?

There are many propositions included in this Secretary’s speech. Of course, he cited the UN resolutions 242 and 338,” rooted in the concept of land for peace”, reminding us of the past possibilities that had been tested, like the Madrid Conference, the Oslo process, and the tools that are still available to an accurate usage. For instance, the plan negotiated by Mr. George Tenet, and the Mitchell Committee report.

About all he mentioned here there is no disagreement among the Arabs. They have already accepted them, as everybody knows. The resolutions 242 and 338, for example, have been at the heart of all the Arab claims since so many years. But what about Israel? Have we to remind anybody that these two resolutions deal with the occupation matter and ask Israel to end it?

Here too, we must do a justice to Powell. He said clearly: ” For the sake of Palestinians and Israelis alike, the occupation must end”. And he called for both parties to resume negotiations, with the help of Mr. Burns and the new appointee as senior adviser General Anthony Zinni. But in the same time he kicked his own shinbone, when he merely espoused the stubborn views of General Sharon. The latter, as everybody knows, has never been a supporter of negotiations with Arafat. This is matter of public records. But his tactics consisted at trying to gain time in provoking the Palestinians and pretending when they react that they do not want to negotiate. Sharon has charged the Palestinian Authority of all the evils, and thus, if Israel is still occupying their territories it is because they wanted it!

This same view has been echoed by the Secretary of State in his last speech. He mentioned for example the ” lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, the assassination of the cabinet minister and the killing of Israeli children ” as casting the ” deepest doubts about whether the Palestinians really want peace”!

Indeed, the Secretary of State tried to balance this view in mentioning also the torments of the Palestinians under occupation: daily humiliations, murders, etc. But anybody who reads the speech and takes care to count how many times the Secretary of State pronounced the term “must” related to the Palestinians or the Israelis, would find an amazing result.

Mr. Powell said, ” Palestinians (or Palestinian leadership) must ” ten times, plus one time when he included them in:” all in the Arab world must”. As concerns the Israelis, he said “must” a single time, which is “Israel must be willing to end its occupation”.

Is that enough to make the “positive vision” really a balanced one? To answer by “yes” is unlikely.

Is that enough to make the “positive vision” cogent in American eyes? Yes, if we recall the aforementioned cornerstone of the US policy in the region.

Yet, because of the pressures put in this speech at least ten times on the Palestinian side, which is rather relieving for the Sharon government, there is still an important distance for the American envoys to cross in order to reach the ” distant dream” of peace mentioned by the Secretary of State. And the distance is certainly not geographical, but political.

To gain confidence of the Arabs, they would have to distance themselves from the extremist views of Gen. Sharon. This is not yet accomplished. And it would be as hard to achieving as the Israelis themselves would ask for more support from the US.

What hampers any progress is not the goodwill of the persons- we cannot judge people on their intentions- but it is rather some determinisms. To be more efficient in working out a peace process, the US diplomacy has to go beyond some of its believed “eternal” principles.

The world we live in is rapidly changing. The nonsense consists exactly in believing that the doctrines and the governments that issue them are eternal. This is not true. The Arabs may be as important to the US interests- if not more – than Israel. To believe that the security of Israel could be granted without the security of the Arabs, and the future Palestinian State included, is the deadly mistake upon which stumbled successive American administrations.

If the American policy in the Middle East needs really a cornerstone, – a kind of doctrine-, it is all right. But unless it is balanced in its consideration for ” the broadest conception of American National interests”, to use the own words of Powell, the cornerstone will remain only a stone. A huge, a monstrous stone, hindering the flow of limpid “policy” from its source, and hampering the clear view for the decision-makers.

This is not just to say that you cannot lead a new policy with old means and older principles. Neither is this to suggest that Israel is of no strategic value anymore to the USA, after the collapse of the communist block. It is perhaps true, but we must underline the relativity of such pretensions. To take another example, Iran is no less important as a strategic asset after the change at its top. Yet, it remains so far an unreachable asset for the US. To pretend that Washington is not interested in resuming relations with Tehran because of the poor record of human rights achieved by the latter, is to prove candid as regards the relations between states. As long as the Shah Mohamed Ridha was ruling, the USA has never been ashamed of being involved as a supporter of his dictatorship.

Indeed a New World emerged from the collapse of the Berlin wall, as the wind of freedom crossed Eastern Europe until the borders of Russia and the Caucasus, wiping out the cranky red dictatorships. But if Israel remained a key-piece in the US strategy of containment, other players began to emerge, changing the map and the priorities as well.

Is it possible, for example, after Desert Storm to consider that Israel is helping America in a renewed fight against the Russian penetration in the Middle East? This is just non-sense. And this is not so because the Russians are not trying to gain influence in the region, – indeed they are. Why should they stop? – but rather because the Russians are no longer the Soviets. What was America and the free world fighting was neither Russia nor the Russian people, but an ideology that made of almost half of Europe – and so many other countries- the slaves of the Kremlin. That is mainly all what the cold war was about. And in that period, Israel gained its credence as the watchdog of the USA. That was also the case of Iran prior to the Islamic revolution, and to some extent Turkey.

But the signature of the peace accords between Egypt and Israel in 1979, helped making of this important Arab country another pillar in the edifice of the American strategy. At the same time, the effects of the second wave of the oil boom began to be felt in the region. The influence of the Saudi Kingdom went increasing. It will be disturbed only by the growing rise of its powerful neighbor: Iraq. The two countries are ideologically and politically at opposite sides. Before being a clash between Iraq and Kuwait over oil production quarrel, the August 1990’s crisis was indirectly a clash between these two visions: the traditionalist (Saudi Arabia) and the baathist (Iraq). And with hindsight, it seems as if the eight years war between Iran and Iraq, was just a parenthesis or an intermediary period paving the way before the greatest clash that ever happened between contemporary Arab states.

Where was the USA in this picture? It was not far away. All that time Washington was watching and trying to exploit the contradictions between the different protagonists. Israel maintained the pressure at variable levels. When it judged that the situation was enough ripe to attempt some operation supposed to enable the Israeli for more supremacy, the Israelis leaders did not hesitate. That was for instance the case of the raid against the Iraqi atomic reactor in 1980, just a few months before General Sharon ordered the invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut.

Needless to say that the picture changed several times since then, but what remained invariable concerns the tight cooperation – not to say the complicity – between Israel and the USA during all those years. On this level, Mr. Powell is quite in the line of the traditional American policy. And when he asserts that ” since Israel’s establishment over 50 years ago, the United States has had an enduring and ironclad commitment to Israel’s security”, he is not inventing a policy but just stating its existence.

Nevertheless, why should the Israeli security be absolutely excluding its neighbors’ right to have secure borders and stable status?

This is not only the problem of the Palestinians, but also that of Lebanon, Syria, and even States that have signed peace accords with Israel and who do not take the Israeli commitment for granted- to say nothing about Iran or Saudi Arabia, etc.

To take an example from recent events, the fact that some Saudis took part at the Sep 11 terrorist operation seemed for some American observers enough to indict the regime of Saudi Arabia as responsible for terrorism! And the Israelis, against logic and commonsense, did everything to corroborate the idea of a complicity between some Saudi royals, and bin Laden, and even Saddam Hussein! Thus, in 24 hours, forgetting that the terrorists had struck in Saudi Arabia itself before striking in America, people started wondering about whether it was right to have such tight relations with the Saudis!

But prior to Sep 11, one must recall that the US-Saudi relations were tense, and the dispute was then concerning mainly two topics: 1) terrorism (the operation of Khobar), and the Americans who accused the Iranians of fomenting or sponsoring it, said that the Saudi authorities did not help the investigators. Worse, they might even have hidden information, because they sought to improve relations with Iran.

2) The Palestinian plight: and here it was the Saudis who were accusing the US of encouraging Sharon with their off-hands position on the conflict.

But though the dispute was serious, it is absolutely absurd and abusive to take it as an excuse to pretend that the Saudis sponsored the terrorist operation in America. The cautious position of Riyadh as regards the war in Afghanistan inflamed the minds a little more. Terrorism has thus become a monster bred and nurtured by Saudi Arabia! Hence, the foe is no longer Saddam, but the ailing king Fahd or his brother, the Crown Prince Abdullah!

But if after Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, the USA seeks also to add Saudi Arabia – and why not Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and the Gulf States – to its list of states sponsoring terrorism, who among the Arabs will remain in the American camp?

An editorial of The Washington Post (Nov. 11) states the following:

” The Bush administration needs to carefully consider how to manage the relationship (with Saudi Arabia) through a broader war against terrorism. That, to succeed, must change much about the Middle East. The starting point for change must be a recognition that Saudi Arabia’s domestic political order is a vital US interest, not a matter that can be subordinated to military or energy-supply priorities”.

It goes without saying, that a “positive vision” for the Middle East, if it does not include such changes in the optic itself, as to balance the positions and to increase the level of credibility, will not be able to deal with the varied problems emerging from a conflictual context.

“Dare to be great”, says the slogan of Louisville University. It is precisely what is lacking in the US policy towards the Middle East.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

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