Friday, March 23, 2007

Peace-loving goose chase

Israel is railing that even the mild language of the Arab peace initiative must be replaced by its own demands, writes Ramzy Baroud

The rapid -- even hasty -- developments on the Arab-Israeli front that followed almost immediately the Saudi-sponsored Mecca Accord of 2 February should be examined in their proper context, as part and parcel of broad regional shifts, exacerbated by US failure in Iraq and the dramatic adjustment in Iran's position vis-à-vis the region and its sectarian, religious composition.

Two prevailing analyses have been offered. One is sceptical, arguing that the Arab initiative, which will be rearticulated at a coming Arab League summit in Riyadh 28 March, was brought back to the scene at the behest of the US administration: by engaging Hamas, Arabs will deny Iran opportunity to further galvanise its regional alliances -- Syria and Hizbullah -- against the US and Israel and further cementing the "Shia crescent" at the expense of the Sunni majority.

The other analysis is optimistic, from Palestinian and Arab commentators talking of "historic opportunities" to Western commentators wondering if the Arab League will finally fulfill its regional promise. "Worried by what they see as the Bush administration's failings, and the new regional power of Iran, the Arabs are struggling to take their destiny into their own hands," concluded BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy.

The Arab peace initiative, offering full normalisation with Israel in simultaneous exchange for Israel's withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, was made public in the 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut. It came at the height of the Palestinian uprising. The initiative was immediately rejected by the Israeli government and accepted by Arafat. Its release was a cause of a slight discomfort for Israel, however, principally because the Bush administration viewed it in positive terms -- at the beginning at least -- before disowning it under incessant Israeli pressure.

In the weeks preceding the official announcement of the Arab peace initiative, Israel had assassinated Raed Al-Karmi, Fatah leader in Tulkarm in the West Bank, prompting fresh Palestinian suicide bombings. "Karmi's assassination led to the scuttling of the truce that had lasted since December 16, 2001," Akiva Aldar in Haaretz quoted Mati Steinberg, advisor on Palestinian affairs to the head of the Shin Bet security service, as saying. "It also led to Operation Defensive Shield, which pushed the Arab initiative to the margins and eliminated the opportunity to put the diplomatic track with the Palestinians on a route of direct connection with the Arab peace initiative for the first time."

The Middle East of those days is in many ways different from today's regional reality. Although Israel's colonial project is being pursued with the same level of determination (the apartheid wall, the settlements, the collective punishments, and so forth), Israel's regional reputation as a formidable military power received a significant blow when its army couldn't advance more than a few miles before confronting stiff Lebanese resistance, led by Hizbullah, in the 33-day war of July-August 2007. Neither Israel nor the US were willing to concede that that ferocious fight put up by the Lebanese had much to do with the people's strong belief in a just case. Their fingers pointed to Iran: the head of the snake as far as America's neoconservatives' clique are concerned.

Iran understood that Hizbullah's victory would discourage, slow down, or completely repeal any American military adventure against its own domain. Naturally, a defeat for Hizbullah, relying mostly on Iranian arms, would eliminate the first line of Iran's defences and inspire Washington's hawks, in constant coordination with Israel, to prepare the American public and government for war against Iran.

Not that a war against Iran is no longer on the agenda; on the contrary, something will be done to confront the Iranian "threat". But one has to understand that Israel cannot possibly allow for a regional bully aside from itself to emerge.

It was this logic, as articulated by Richard Pearle in a set of recommendations made to then Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu in the infamous "Clean Break" memo that envisaged the Iraq war as a strategic Israeli imperative. Iraq or Iran, Sunni or Shia, are all irrelevant semantics, in Israel's view. The failure, however, to "contain" Iran, coupled with America's disastrous war strategy in Iraq, which has given rise to powerful Shia groups with direct links, and in some cases allegiance, to Tehran is sending Israel's military and policy planners to the table, once more, to study their future options.

Israel and its supporters in America are obsessed with Iran. In the well-attended American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference -- drawing 6000 participants including half of the Senate and a large portion of the House along with numerous ambassadors and officials -- Israel's many friends underlined the synergy between Israeli strategic interests and US regional concerns, placing the latter largely subservient to the former. When House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio addressed the conference, defending the current war strategy, he received a standing ovation. But when Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- unequalled fan of the Israeli regime -- dared to spell out a strategy for withdrawal from Iraq, she was booed, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

The power of the Israeli lobby and the persisting influence of the neocons have reached new heights when Democratic leaders were obliged to strip from a military spending bill a requirement that the president must gain the approval of Congress before moving against Iran. Pelosi and others agreed to such a removal "after conservative Democrats as well as other lawmakers worried about its possible impact on Israel," reported ABC News.

With Iran in focus, coupled with serious worries amongst some Arab countries regarding its possible destabilising role in the region, Israel has agreed to a conditional arrangement: contain Iran to Israel's benefit; stabilise Iraq to the Bush administration's benefit; and introduce a new horizon of peace with the Palestinians to appease the Arabs.

The new horizon of peace -- a new term invoked by Condoleezza Rice in her recent visit to the region -- is basically the old "peace process": significant enough insofar as it yields a sense of hope, but clever enough in guaranteeing nothing, since Israel, assured of unprecedented clout in the corridors of power in Washington, will neither give up its grand plans of territorial expansion and annexation, halt its construction of the gigantic apartheid wall, nor surrender an inch of the illegally-annexed East Jerusalem -- all, predictably, key Arab and Palestinian demands.

Meanwhile, the Arab initiative always seemed vague on the issue of Palestinians made refugees by Israel in 1948 and 1967 and whose plight is as urgent as ever (especially considering their systematic targeting in Iraq, including 500 murdered to date, and Libya's decision to deport its cache of Palestinian refugees to Gaza, as callous as this seems). In order to remove any remaining ambiguity, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is "demanding that the leaders of the 22 Arab states excise the right of return from [the Palestinians]," reports Haaretz.

By crossing out the "controversial" elements contained in the Arab initiative and then opening it up for negotiations, Palestinians -- now browbeaten with a year of embargo and near starvation -- will be taken on another peace-loving goose chase, during which Israeli army bulldozers will hardly cease their determined colonial project. My fear is that Arabs will play along, willingly or not, and Palestinians will be forced to partake in the charade, for their reliance on international handouts for mere survival will make it impossible to defy US-Israeli regional designs forever.

* The writer is an Arab American journalist

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