Supporters of Israel have often accused Arab states of cynically exploiting the Israeli problem and the suffering it has caused the Palestinians to distract their own populations from domestic troubles. But if this has occurred, others, far beyond the region have also found the conflict a useful tool for their own selfish purposes. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is the latest leader to brazenly exploit this tragedy.
During recent crises in Middle East, world powers have found themselves in the awkward situation of embarking on military action which risked inflaming Arab opinion, but needing the assistance of Arab states in order to stage the action. This is true presently as it was in 1991 when the United States led a wide, UN-sanctioned coalition to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation.
Although the 1991 action was authorized by the Security Council and seen by much of the world as legitimate, people in the region could not fathom why Iraq was expected to comply instantly and unconditionally with UN Security Council resolutions demanding withdrawal or face devastating military action, while simultaneously, the Israeli occupation of Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian lands since 1967 had never been treated with any urgency despite numerous UN Security Council resolutions demanding Israeli withdrawal and an end to Israel’s ongoing efforts to colonize most of those lands with its own settlers.
The dilemma was addressed at the time by promises from the coalition leadership that once the Iraq-Kuwait crisis had been resolved, Palestine would take center stage. That promise was indeed followed by serious American efforts resulting in the October 1991 Madrid peace conference, attended by all concerned parties. Madrid led to the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, but failed completely on the Palestinian-Israeli track because the sponsors did absolutely nothing to rein in Israel’s decade-long efforts to destroy any possibility of a viable negotiated peace by accelerating settlement construction in the occupied territories and continuing harsh measures of collective punishment, extrajudicial execution and torture against the occupied Palestinians. Under the cover of the peace process, and while the world media looked only for good news (unless Palestinian “extremists” caused the bad news), Israel continued these practices, provoking armed resistance by Hamas and other groups. From that point on the United States sought only to treat the symptoms of the conflict — growing violence — while Israel was given ever increasing freedom to add to the root causes.
The current Iraq war, which has as predicted greatly increased global hostility towards the United States, has put the usual dilemma of Western double standards with respect to Israel in much sharper contrast. This time, though, the United States has shown none of the concern it did in 1991, and in line with post-September 11 thinking has allowed Israel to redefine its colonial war to steal Palestinian land as a “war against terror.”
Blair has, however, been aware of the problem all along. Having caused massive harm to his country’s reputation and credibility by allying it with Bush’s illegal Iraq invasion, Blair has sought to mitigate the political cost by repeatedly playing the Palestinian card.
Before the March 2003 Iraq invasion, Blair made bold promises to the Arab world in an interview with the BBC Arabic Service that as soon as Iraq was dealt with, there would be unprecedented efforts to resolve the Palestine situation which would put to rest all doubt caused by decades of Western inaction and double standards. In order to deliver on these promises, and restore lost credibility at home, in Europe and with the UK’s Arab friends, Blair needed to demonstrate that his allegiance to Bush over Iraq would be rewarded with influence in Washington that could be used to get the Americans to deal with Israel. But time and again it has been demonstrated that Blair has no such influence and his promises are a devalued currency.
Undeterred, Blair decided to give it another try just before Christmas, “inviting himself,” so the Israelis claimed, to occupied Jerusalem to tout an international conference in London in early 2005 to revive the dead peace process. But the Israelis announced they would boycott the conference, and once again, Blair got no backing from his friend in the White House. So in an attempt to avoid further humiliation, Blair cruelly imposed the cost of his failure on the Palestinians by declaring that the conference would only be about Palestinian “reform” which must supposedly precede resumption of the Road Map peace plan and therefore did not require Israeli participation. In order to bolster this sour grapes excuse for failure, Blair declared at his December 22 press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that, “we set out an overall vision, we have the election of the Palestinian president, we have a plan – a proper plan, a viable plan – for the Palestinian side in terms of politics, the economy, security, and then what we can do is have the disengagement, and after that – provided there is a complete and total end to the terrorism that has disfigured so much of what has happened in this area, we can then get back in to the Roadmap that people want to see.”
In other words, Blair set out a Road Map to the Road Map, in which the Palestinians alone bear the full burden of establishing a perfect little social democracy while under Israel’s brutal military rule. One wonders if Blair has even read the Road Map, which declares in Phase One that Israelis and Palestinians must simultaneously halt any and all violence against each other, and Israel must completely cease all settlement construction throughout the occupied territories. Blair uttered not a single word about the thousands of new Jewish-only housing units going up across the occupied West Bank and instead heaped praise on Sharon for his Gaza “disengagement” plan which Sharon and his advisors have repeatedly and patiently explained is designed only to relieve pressure on Israel and consolidate its hold on the West Bank indefinitely.
Unable to prop up his collapsing political currency, Blair devalued it even further by adopting the Bush-Sharon line that Palestinian “reform,” not Israeli compliance with international law and UN resolutions, is the path to peace. Unsurprisingly, Blair’s efforts found favor with the elected-in-advance-of-the-elections Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but provoked even the usually docile Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to declare Blair’s condescending and pro-Israeli approach “unacceptable.” So at this rate, how long will it be before a Road Map to the Road Map to the Road Map is launched?
In fairness, Blair is only the most prominent of a herd of foreign officials who rushed to the region to benefit politically from what they thought was an opportunity for a quick settlement on Israeli terms, following the death of Yasir Arafat. It is hard to imagine how so many governments, employing thousands of well-informed diplomats, researchers and think tanks can fail so miserably to correctly read the political realities of the region. Peace requires much more than soothing words, “initiatives” and photo opportunities. It will not emerge magically from lop-sided negotiations. Peace requires ending Israeli military tyranny over millions of Palestinians. It requires reversal of aggression and ending oppression. It requires taking power from those who hold it unjustly and restoring rights to those whose rights have been taken unjustly. If Israel will not do this willingly, peace requires international pressure and confrontation with Israel until it is forced to do so.
But neither Blair nor any of the other peace process sycophants and charlatans have any such pressure in mind. All they do is regurgitate vague formulas which they know quite well are devoid of any content that could antagonize Israel, let alone lead to peace. As long as they have no political will for more, they should stop their patronizing and cynical parades through the region.
Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations, and was a member of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team in the Washington peace talks 1991-92. Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.