The Palestinians after September 11

Immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Palestinians had every reason to fear they would be the events’ great losers.

On the day of the attacks, American news channels repeatedly aired footage of a tiny group of Palestinians celebrating. Israel’s supporters tried to spin these images as proof that the Palestinians were a barbaric people and as much enemies of the US as of Israel. For Palestinians — who naturally shared the horror of the rest of the world — it was a particularly anxious moment, and many feared that after the thousands killed in the attacks, they would be the “second victims” of September 11. In a worst-case scenario, many feared Israel would use the events to completely destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA), or even depopulate parts of the Occupied Territories.

Two years on, we can say that September 11 did have something of an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but not one as negative as Palestinians feared. Indeed, in some ways the Palestinian cause is in an even better position today.

Though the Palestinians’ worst fears were not realized, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also wasted no time in trying to exploit the atrocities in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania by intensifying its attacks on Palestinian cities, and destroying facilities belonging to the PA. Israel attempted to sell the line that its war with the Palestinians was essentially another front in the “war on terrorism.”

When US President George W. Bush declared that in the post-September 11 world countries were either “with us, or with the terrorists,” Sharon was among the first to identify himself with the US, and his enemies with Al-Qaeda. At its most hysterical, Sharon’s campaign equated Palestinian President Yasser Arafat with Osama bin Laden.

Yet Sharon’s pronouncements that Israel’s war against the Palestinians was the same as America’s war against Al-Qaeda weren’t immediately welcomed in the US. The reason was that Secretary of State Colin Powell was working to build a new anti-terrorism coalition, particularly with Arab and Muslim countries. Within a month, Sharon grew frustrated at Washington’s gentle rebuffs. Relations with Bush reached a low point when Sharon accused him of abandoning Israel to the Arabs, as Britain had abandoned Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Sharon also refused a direct request to withdraw Israeli tanks from Palestinian towns.

It is understandable that Sharon thought his ploy would work. The September 11 attacks heightened the genuine revulsion felt in the US with suicide bombings used by Palestinian factions against Israel. Many Americans not versed in the intricacies of Middle East politics easily associated groups like Hamas — which never deliberately targeted Americans — with Al-Qaeda. This made it more difficult for Palestinian advocates to make their case to the American public.

However, ultimately, Israel’s attempt to alter the fundamental understanding of the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict failed. In November 2001, Powell laid out the Bush administration’s approach to the conflict. For the first time a U.S. official spoke “of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders.” For Palestinians, the U.S. had at last formally recognized their national rights in their homeland.

Yet Israel also made gains. American neoconservatives (led by such figures as Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz) who exploited the September 11 attacks to push their long-standing agenda to assure U.S. global hegemony through aggressive “regime change,” starting with Iraq, had long been admirers of Israel’s Likud. Through them, many elements of Israeli policy became operating procedure for the U.S.. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, for example, American troops went to Israel to learn how the Israeli Army had “successfully” fought in urban areas and refugee camps, like Jenin.

Indeed, much of the official language in which the U.S. war on terrorism is cast has been adopted wholesale from language pioneered by the Israeli military and Foreign Ministry, above all by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was ambassador to the UN. As Bush’s rhetoric moved closer to Sharon’s, feelings of identification between them increased. Once Bush proclaimed the neocons’ regime change agenda as his own, this opened new paths for Sharon.

If Sharon was unsuccessful in making the Palestinians a target of the war on terrorism, he was able to convince Bush that regime change in the PA was a precondition for peace. Sharon’s triumph came when Bush declared on June 24, 2002 that “peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born,” and demanded that the Palestinian people elect new leaders “not compromised by terror.”

Sharon’s victory was fleeting, however. The Bush administration, seeking to rally the world both to the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq, could not afford to be seen as sitting idly by as Israelis and Palestinians butchered one another. To some extent Bush’s post-September 11 agenda impelled him to take an activist role in peacemaking that he had previously sought to avoid. Any plan he put forward had to reflect the international consensus on the sources of the conflict and how to resolve it.

When the “road map” was published last spring, the news was not that it represented a fundamental change in America’s pre-September 11 approach to the Palestinians, but that it didn’t. It merely took the traditional approach further. Many observers were surprised at how relatively balanced and logical phase-one of the plan was, consisting principally of bringing an end to Palestinian violence in exchange for an end to Israeli settlement building. Had it been implemented, the plan could have led to a workable final agreement by demonstrating that the Palestinians could more easily achieve freedom and the Israelis security through negotiations rather than conflict.

The road map’s sadly unsurprising failure underscores that the basic dynamics of U.S. domestic politics with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remained unchanged after September 11. The Bush administration can articulate a plausible approach, but still cannot muster the political will to pressure Israel to allow the plan to be implemented.

This article was first published in The Daily Star on 11 September 2003.