Hands off are no less bloody

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The Bush administration can be held directly responsible for mounting violence in the region over the past few weeks. Washington’s reluctance to involve itself in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is clearly acting to stoke pressure, though not in a way that might make the involved parties more amenable to US peace proposals. By parroting every Tel Aviv spin on the situation, Washington has managed to encourage Israeli intransigence and augment Palestinian frustration, the result being that Israel has ratcheted up its savagery, driving the Palestinians to further acts of retaliation.

When, after assuming office, Bush appointed a team of latter-day cold warriors, it became clear that his administration intended to assert the priorities of the US far right on issues ranging from relations with Europe and Russia to taxes and abortion. Much to the dismay of its allies, the US under Bush has shown a predilection for unilateral action regardless of opinion abroad. Perhaps the most blatant manifestation of this administration’s single-mindedness was its controversial decision to press ahead with the anti-ballistic missiles programme, a revamped version of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars,” that threatens to usher in a new international arms race. The Bush administration’s obsession with space age military technology coincides with a reorientation of US strategic priorities towards the Americas and the Pacific rim. Meanwhile, the potentially explosive Middle East has been left to seethe.

Bush’s hands-off approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict also stems from an attitude, espoused by the more reactionary elements in the current administration, that any attempts to mediate a settlement will automatically lead to the US getting its hands burned. Simultaneously Bush, like his predecessor, has fallen prey to Israeli propaganda blaming Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks. The opinion in Washington, therefore, is that the situation in the Middle East is not yet “ripe” for peace talks because that the Palestinians in particular are not yet ready to make the necessary concessions, for which read kneel to Sharon’s dictates. Tragically, this US policy of “benign neglect,” as it has been called, has left the Palestinians increasingly vulnerable to the unrestrained brutality unleashed by Israel’s war cabinet.

While violence flares in Palestine and the death toll daily climbs, the US remains determined to play up the supposed Iraqi threat to the Gulf in order to shore up the greatly eroded blockade against Iraq. Of course, with its enormous petroleum, navigation, commercial and defence interests in that region, Washington’s motives are far from altruistic. Moreover, the many reservations expressed by Arab countries, including those the US is claiming to defend, have failed to deter Washington from its skewed reading of realities in this region.

The priorities of the Bush administration thus combine to give the Israeli government a free hand to steer the region towards disaster. US officials have accepted the Sharon position that there can be no talks while the violence continues and that Sharon, alone, will determine the cooling-off period needed before resuming negotiations. They have also adopted Israel’s line that resistance to foreign occupation — the Intifada — equals terrorism, while abetting every Israeli ploy to prevent the stationing of international monitors in Palestinian territories. Furthermore, the Bush administration has resisted the attempts of other parties, such as the EU and Russia, to step in to help.

US policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict is harming the Middle East, US regional interests and Washington’s international standing. By giving Israel free rein it is perpetuating a cycle of violence that can easily spiral out of control. If the US refuses to intervene, now, at a phase of low level conflict, it may find itself forced to intervene at a stage when violence embroils other countries of the region.

The Bush administration’s failure to compel Israel to exercise restraint has also placed great strains on US relations with Arab governments, strains that can only increase the more Israel is allowed to persist in its current policies.

A nation’s reputation for leadership is built on its record of effective conflict resolution. The failure to engage in such a constructive role can only undermine its credibility. Although the US is, at present, the world’s most powerful political entity, the Bush administration’s refusal to assume its global responsibilities in a reasonable manner may expose it to increasing international isolation when it comes to handling crucial global issues.

That the US’s hands off policy has contributed to the precipitous escalation in the scale of violence is underlined by events over the past week. With the Palestinian attack against an Israeli army camp in south Gaza, followed by the assault by Israeli F16 and F15 fighters against Palestinian targets and the assassination of Abul Ali Mustafa, secretary-general of the PFLP and the most senior Palestinian official to have been targeted by Israeli assassination squads, the level of engagement has entered a qualitatively new and extremely perilous phase.

For the Arabs, the only way to confront this threat is to work towards higher levels of coordination in rallying all the resources at our disposal to support the Palestinian people. A strong and united stance is needed now more than ever before if Israeli brutality is to be curbed and the Palestinian people helped to win their legitimate national rights. The Arabs still hold many cards that can be played to pressure not only Israel but the US.

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