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American Choreography in the Holy Land?
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. - Martin Luther King, Jr

7 February   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Last week, I returned to London from a six-week speaking tour of the United States. This was my first foray back into America after the tragic and murderous events of 11 September2001 . And I must admit that the time I spent there helped me understand more clearly the way that the American collective psyche has changed in the last five months, and how much this change has also had an impact on the Holy Land - in other words, on Israel and Palestine.

I have now had well over a week to process my impressions, and I do believe that a sea change has indeed overcome this vast country. If ever the individual states of the Union have been ‘bonded’ together, this is that time! One cannot ignore the feeling of collective solidarity that has overtaken most Americans. In fact, such senses of patriotism and pride in being American had never been so tangible or manifest during my previous visits. It is interesting to note how Americans have reacted to this latest terrorist affront to their very heartland by wrapping themselves up in their flag! Indeed, my readers might recall that I have commented in previous articles about the singular Texan propensity of hoisting the Lone Star flag everywhere in Texas as an affirmation of their larger-than life identity. Today, almost all Americans across the whole country are exhibiting this same outward sense of patriotism. For an Armenian Christian like me, with both Middle Eastern and European frames of reference, I find this attitude rather daunting - and perhaps even overwhelming! True, it is healthy to have loyalty toward one’s own country and to react forcefully to any external menace were it not also a tad too jingoistic or overweening by non-American standards.

Mind you, I appreciate this tendency as one that Europe - by virtue of its history and age - has almost forgotten these days. However, I am also somewhat wary of any nation that aspires to have all the answers, provide all the solutions and hold all the morality of our world in its lap - and then impose them upon us with its awesome military might. But America is a giant that has stirred again, and its omniscient pronouncements about ‘evil’ or about enforcing a new order for the world perhaps reflect its own need of putting down some roots or even re-discovering old ones.

Over and above such generalities, though, I was interested in sussing out the attitude of the Bush administration toward Israel and Palestine. Where did America stand on this issue now following the utter defeat of the Taleban in Afghanistan? How had the winds of change affected America? But first, how had it affected American citizens?

It is easier to answer the latter part of my question! Americans by and large have scant knowledge of the variables of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! They are not truly interested in what is occurring in that ‘troublesome’ part of the world, and what they do know is gleaned almost exclusively from the box and the broadsheets that usually tend to depict this conflict monochromatically as one pitting David against Goliath! In the minds of the large majority of uninformed or disinterested Americans, Israel is being challenged by a stereotypical bunch of ill-intentioned and vile terrorists who are hell-bent on blowing themselves up and taking with them as many Israeli Jews as possible. And those few informed or interested - ranging from churches to organisations to missionaries to individuals - remain far too chary and timorous to speak out against the tide. They might nod in private, but they remain pretty much implacable in public! Yet, in view of the sense of outrage and self-righteousness that envelops America these days, can anyone blame Americans? After all, Israel is to be congratulated for its successful public relations exercises, and the Arabs should collectively be bemoaned for their abject failure in soldering their cause!

But of more immediate relevance to me was the current ‘official’ position of the Bush administration. It seems that this Republican administration has decided - without actually saying so - that the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with a tendency by some officials to substitute ‘conflict’ for ‘dispute’ as if this were a mere lovers’ tiff!) is best interpreted by General Ariel Sharon. Otherwise said, this congenital conflict homes in straightforwardly on the issue of law and order! In the past couple of weeks or so, all of Washington’s admonitions about violence - which had at least preserved a semblance of even-handedness in the past - have been aimed at Chairman Arafat. It had even been hinted that the United States would break off all contact with the Palestinian Authority - although President Bush refused to do so during his meeting with PM Ariel Sharon at the White House yesterday. It has further been suggested that the test of any renewed ‘respectability’ for Arafat is that he should quell the current uprising. But in my opinion, the bar for this test is set exceedingly - if not unrealistically - high! Yet, there is meagre ‘dovish’ dissent from this view in the US corridors of power, except for a few inaudible voices in the State Department! Some politicians - notably Vice President Dick Cheney - would even like to be more ‘hawkish’ toward the Palestinians and simply let Prime Minister Sharon become once again General Sharon with the gloves off!

It is tempting to assign the cause of this change to the new atmosphere of ‘counter-terrorism’ after 11 September2001 . But in fact, those terrorist events seemed for a while to point policy-makers in the opposite direction. PM Sharon lost a huge number of points in Washington by publicly comparing George Bush to Neville Chamberlain (British Prime Minister during the early years of WWII who tried to strike a ‘peace’ deal with Germany and was accused of boastful appeasement). President Bush in turn made his ever-first public endorsement of a Palestinian state. A sharp distinction was also drawn in Washington between the forces of al-Qa’eda - which were deemed ‘terrorist’ - and the freedom-seeking grievances of Palestinians now living under a third generation of military occupation. Furthermore, it has long been implicit that the USA cannot hope to win friends in the Arab and Muslim worlds if it seems callously insensitive to the plight of Palestinians. The rulers of Saudi Arabia underlined this fact recently when they issued a strong statement warning against any formal breach of relations with Arafat.

However, things have shifted a fair bit! The credit that Saudi Arabia enjoys in Washington today is not what it used to be some years or months ago. The kingdom was a feeble friend, if a friend at all, in the struggle against the Taleban. Indeed, the expediency of this relationship, and of the American military bases on Saudi soil, are being debated openly in Washington these days. The mood in America is somewhat impatient and bellicose! All ‘allies’ are being judged by loyalty alone, and there is little susceptibility about issues of American popularity anymore. Better feared than respected or liked - this is what one official told me, and it summarises the American mindset quite shrewdly.

However, the real catalytic event seems to have been the recent capture by Israel of a covert shipload of weaponry aboard Karine A bound for Gaza. Peeling away the various false flags from this operation, the track has led to the Palestinian Authority. The logic suggests that if Arafat knew about the shipment, then he acted in bad faith. And if he did not, and had the wool pulled over his face by his subordinates, then he is practically a spent force as a negotiating partner. This could well be Sharon’s two-pronged fork on which he has long hoped to impale his old nemesis. Sharon’s motives are pretty transparent. Terrorism, or no terrorism, he believes that the West Bank was given to the Zionist movement by God. For him, it is not an issue of ‘security’. After all, nobody who is primarily interested in Jewish security would insist on building settlements in far-flung Gaza at this time! The USA, however, can hardly be expected to use the Old Testament or the Holy Koran as negotiating tools in attempting to arbitrate a territorial clash between two strident nationalist tendencies! The questions that beg answers these days are whether America has a plan for a Palestinian homeland without Arafat? Does it have another partner in mind? Does it actually have a plan?

I did not come across anybody in the USA who would answer those vital questions for me! The truth is that the Bush position is pockmarked with paradoxes. His government is largely made up of oilmen. Traditionally, oilmen have shown some sympathy or understanding toward the Arab cause - perhaps only to keep the Arab world ‘sweet’. But the administration is also increasingly made up of ‘security-minded’ technocrats who see the world through a military optic. After all, is the American envoy to the Israelis and Palestinians not a full-blown General by the name of Anthony Zinni? To such types, it is self-evident that Arafat has only one job of policing his own people. But how they expect him to be a dictator without [the structures of] a state is a detail that is not made plain! How is he supposed to ‘pacify’ Gaza, Ramallah and Bethlehem in one year when Israel failed to ‘pacify’ those places in thirty years (even with a mighty army) is another mere detail that is not made plain either! And how is he meant to implement virtually any order when he is holed up under duress in his residence in Ramallah is once more not plain!

After all, anyone with some political savvy about the Middle East knows that the monies and support for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group come largely from Saudi Arabia. Yet, not once has any American spokesperson called publicly for that financial pipeline to be stopped forthwith! This is in part because it would be tactless to ‘embarrass’ a friend, but more so because America wants to put Arafat - rather than Saudi Arabia - on the spot. After all, that is much easier to achieve and also more beneficial to America in terms both of oil supplies and strategic alliances!

Talking to American officials, pundits, opinion-spinners and journalists, I got the impression of a short-term policy being choreographed as it goes along! This is erroneous and counter-productive - but it is also opportunistic and scary at a time when morality is being shovelled out in copious quantities, and when the world has become divided into the ‘good guys’ versus the ‘bad guys’ camps! The USA has been the direct sponsor of almost every Middle East peace negotiation since the six-day war of 1967. It is also the main paymaster and arms supplier of Israel. There is therefore a latent incompatibility in this attitude, but it need not become dominant so long as Washington uses its enormous clout and leverage to help secure Israeli compliance with an impressive bushel of UN Security Council resolutions.

Will it? Clearly, this cannot happen if the tail is allowed to wag the dog!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   7 February


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