Washington returns to the Middle East 26.09.2010


The guiding principle of the new peace talks is that the US must not make any new demands of Israel, argues Glen Rangwala.

Another US Administration is making what it calls a push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The first round of talks since the Bush era opened as the international envoy for peace in the Middle East – the man appointed by the UN, EU and Russia as well as the US to spearhead diplomatic efforts – was busy promoting his autobiography on chat shows. This is perhaps another cheap dig at the former British Prime Minister – but, more importantly, it underlines the fact that this latest peace process is not an international or multilateral effort, but a US process, set to a US agenda and timetable. It is also dependent almost entirely upon the exertions of US officials, with President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton having devoted much of the past few weeks to interceding with the leader of a small state and the administrator of a portion of a partially self-governing territory. Which leads us to the inevitable question: why do they bother?
There are good reasons of course. Most in the US now accept that the Palestinian experience of untempered suffering has increasingly led to the mass expression of grievance at their state’s policies. The consequences for the US’s foreign occupations and US business in majority Muslim countries are there to see. The instability caused by the Palestine issue in US-aligned states, from Lebanon to Iraq, no doubt propels in some measure the current efforts by the Obama Administration.
There are domestic political reasons too: success in peacemaking would be one of the most tangible achievements to parade in the run up to the 2012 presidential election. Yet these reasons do not explain the scale of the effort being expended, which would only make sense if the process is successful at creating a viable Palestinian state – which no one seriously expects to result. Even if by some miracle that is the outcome, the advantage to the US is too small to justify that effort.
A more plausible answer can be found by looking back to the start of the peace process in 1993, when a secret process of a negotiation between Palestinian and Israeli leaders under Norwegian brokerage came to light. The leaders had made, between themselves, a ground-breaking deal. The Clinton Administration, which knew little of the negotiations at the time, was shocked when its results were announced. Their concern was not whether peace would break out, but over losing their own role in the Middle East. It had considered itself to be the central player in the region, with whom all states had to co-ordinate, but it now found itself marginal to a major international event. As a result, the Administration ordered Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington and imposed its leadership over steering the negotiations from there. Unsurprisingly, there was little success afterwards: the initial momentum was dissipated amid talks that became increasingly irrelevant to developments on the ground.
Seventeen years later, it is not so much peace-making that concerns the Obama Administration as it is its ability to sustain the US’s pre-eminence in the Middle East. The withdrawal from Iraq and the impending defeat in Afghanistan point for many to a rapid process of US decline, and the issue that brings the US back into the centre of events in the region is Israel. The only way the Arab states can exercise restraint on their nuclear neighbour is under the auspices of the US, and so they must keep up strong relations with whomever is in charge in Washington. The distance from the Israel-Palestinian negotiations to the latest Saudi Arabian purchase of $60 billion of US military aircraft and helicopters is not such a great one.
The real danger for the US is that it loses the perceived ability to be able to discipline Israel. If the demands that Obama makes upon Israel are seen to be ineffectual, the US loses its special significance in the region. The stirrings of this were seen in March when Vice-President Biden was rebuffed in his calls for a freeze on settlement building in East Jerusalem. This was not something the Netanyahu Government would accept, and the US was exposed as having no available means to put pressure on Israel to change course. The result has been a learning process for the Obama Administration: it has now realised not to make demands of Israel that Israel’s leaders won’t accept. There has been no more talk of East Jerusalem from US officials, and once again it appears as if the US has an overarching influence over the protagonists.
That is where the consequences for the Palestinians come out most sharply. The agenda at the negotiations will not be one based around the actual requirements of Palestinian self-governance. It will be dominated by how they are to be contained, in order to render them insignificant to Israel’s future. There are two main options: first, for them to be enclosed, with Israel retaining strict control over Palestine’s borders including the Gaza fence, the West Bank wall and the Jordan valley; and, second, for the Palestinian areas to come under de facto Egyptian and Jordanian control – which explains the presence of Egypt’s president and Jordan’s king at the negotiations. Neither option is a sustainable one, and both would require continual outside mediation to avert or pacify another crisis. From the perspective of the interests of the US Government, it is quite possible that this is no bad thing.

Other highlights of our October News and Views section include:

An alternative economic strategy – or the abyss

Kelvin Hopkins MP, Luton North, supports a socialist alternative to the ConDem cuts. “We need an Alternative Economic Strategy now, and Labour and the left have to proclaim it loud and clear,” argues Kelvin – before going on to describe the essential components of that strategy. “Such a programme will be incredibly popular. Its adoption by Labour would sweep the Party back to power at the next election ready to build a just, equal, democratic and socialist future,” he concludes.

Con Dem Coalition’s cuts: organise the Resistance!

Gary Heather, Chair, Islington North CLP, looks at how a community campaign is coming together in Islington.

Marshajane Thompson, Unison London Regional Committee member (personal capacity), reports on the Con Dem Coalition’s cuts in housing benefit which will radically affect the supply of housing and increase poverty and homelessness.

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