Sunday, June 6, 2010

Will US again honour Israel’s victim card?

S. Nihal Singh

Israel’s botched action in forcibly preventing the lead ship in the peace flotilla seeking to break the three-year Gaza blockade has had two consequences. It focused attention on the inhumane blockade of 1.5 million people inhabiting the world’s most crowded stretch of land enduring untold suffering caused by the destruction in the earlier bombing of the Gaza Strip, leaving 1,400 Palestinians dead. Second, it has punched a hole in the Israeli theory that it is above international laws that apply to the rest of the world.

Apart from the embarrassment its action (which led to at least nine deaths) caused Israel — Tel Aviv traditionally scoffs at foreign criticism — it presents a dilemma for its patron saint, the United States. Was President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech wooing the Muslim world one year ago a mere flash in the pan? In domestic terms, can the present occupant of the White House break the traditional pattern of the American political system being in thrall to the American Jewish lobby?

The routed peace flotilla thus has achieved its essential objective in calling the world’s attention to a continuing brutality while presenting Mr Obama with a greater dilemma than Israel’s. Must Washington always side with Israel, however outrageous its conduct is to the subjugated Palestinians and its Arab neighbours? And can Washington continue to serve Israel’s interests by sponsoring interminable peace talks that go nowhere while Tel Aviv strengthens its hold on the occupied territories on the West Bank and in occupied East Jerusalem? And the new tensions building up between an energised Turkey, Tel Aviv’s only Muslim friend, and Israel are an ominous development for Washington in geopolitical terms.

On the Arab side, it must be recorded that the Arab League, to no one’s surprise, has proven to be a broken reed, and Saudi Arabia, the big brother in the Gulf, has remained largely silent after its proposal, reiterated by the League, on the full restoration of the Arab world’s relations with Israel based on the latter’s full withdrawal from all occupied land was buried with faint praise. The new crisis is a warning to the US that as the main protector and aid giver of Israel, it must do more than sponsor talks that play into Tel Aviv’s goal of making a Palestinian state impossible.

It has become a cliche to declaim that the contours of the ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are well known: a two-state solution, with Israel compensating the Palestinians with alternate land for the large illegal Israeli settlements around Jerusalem, a just settlement of the progeny of the refugees who were thrown out of, or fled, their homes on the creation of Israel in 1948, and Jerusalem to be the capital of the two states. The problem is that Israel has no intention of following this script. It has annexed Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights and is aggressively colonising occupied East Jerusalem and larger and larger parts of the West Bank.

So where does the US and the world go from here? Essentially, Washington has locked the United Nations out of mediating in the conflict, claiming the sole right to that role. Arab states in the region are beholden to the US for the protection it offers them and the traditional leader, Egypt, one of two Arab states locked in peace treaties with Tel Aviv, is the major recipient of American aid and has acted in sync with Tel Aviv in keeping its border with Gaza — the only non-Israeli border with the Strip — closed. Only after the outrage in the Arab world caused by Israelis storming the peace flotilla has Cairo temporarily opened the border.

The US has always relied on its belief that the rulers of the Arab states are capable of controlling their people, whatever the methods they adopt. In this view, the Arab street makes its noises and expresses its support for Palestinians, but the rulers can always manage the crowds, paying lip-service to the issues of Palestinian servitude that excite them. The question that Israel’s propensity to use disproportionate force to silence those who challenge its rule has raised yet again in stark terms is: Can Israel continue to defy the world with US protection in future, as it has in the past?

It is a familiar scenario, but the level of disquiet that has spread from the Arab and Muslim world to the rest of the world raises the question: Have traditional Israeli methods of dealing with critics reached the tipping point? Can the world collectively raise its voice and say: there must be a limit to using the past — what happened to Jews in Europe in the 20th century — to subjugate a whole people in a different part of the world and visit atrocities on them?
The answer lies in the first place with the US — in the present instance, with Mr Obama’s ability to surmount the vice-like grip of the American Jewish lobby and its reach into the entrails of the US political system. The President’s cup of problems is full, in dealing with the consequences of Wall Street’s follies and crookedness, the two wars bequeathed to him and the crisis over Iran and North Korea. Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now exacerbated by continuing Israeli arrogance and assertion of its unique take on elevating victimhood to statecraft, cannot wait for kinder times.

Mr Obama’s mettle, as well as America’s, will be tested by this crisis. Thus far, Washington’s reaction has been cautious. While calling the continuing blockade of Gaza unacceptable, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is willing to trust Israel to conduct an impartial inquiry into the botched seizure of the peace flotilla. These are early days yet, but if Washington does not realise that promoting interminable talks, in the proximity format or otherwise, between Israelis and Palestinians while Tel Aviv races to build a Greater Israel will be read by the world as a recipe for disaster. Essentially, it would be encouraging a new war in an already troubled region.