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As the Middle East peace talks get under way again in Rome, Eve Anderson and Mark Al-Safar reveal how even radical critics of Western policy are looking to the West for a solution

Whose peace in the Middle East?

Books discussed in this article include:

  • Peace in the Middle East? The Oxford International Review, Vol III, No2, Spring 1992, £2.50
  • The Palestinian Uprising: A War by Other Means, F Robert Hunter, I.B. Tauris, £24.50 hbk
  • Living the Intifada, Andrew Rigby, Zed Books, £32.95 hbk, £10.95 pbk
  • No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Sari Nusseibeh and Mark A Heller, IB Tauris, £14.95 hbk
  • Beyond the Gulf War: The Middle East and the New World Order, John Gittings (ed), Catholic Institute for International Relations in association with the Gulf Conference Committee, £5.99 pbk
  • The Gulf War and the New World Order, Haim Bresheeth and Nira Yuval-Davis (eds), Zed Books, £32.95 hbk, £11.95 pbk
  • Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Assad Regime, James A Paul, Middle East Watch, Yale University Press, £14.95 hbk
After months of deadlock, the Middle East peace process seems to have been given a new lease of life. The election of Yitzhak Rabin's Labour Party to government office in Israel has changed the political landscape and led to renewed optimism about the prospects for peace. Before the election, Rabin promised an immediate end to the building of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as autonomy for the Palestinians within nine months.

In response, the frosty relations between the USA and Israel have thawed. After the election, US secretary of state James Baker immediately flew to Israel for talks with both sides, hinting that the $10 billion aid package formerly withheld as punishment for Israeli truculence over the peace talks might soon be released.

Neither the election of a Labour government, whose anti-Palestinian credentials are at least the equal of Likud's, nor the resumption of American diplomacy, which has started more wars in the region than ceasefires, can advance the cause of the Palestinians or bring peace to the Middle East. Yet in the post-Cold War world, even radicals who are critical of Israeli and Western policy in the Middle East are now looking to the Israelis or the Americans to solve the problems of the region.

The contributions to the Oxford International Review typify this new faith in a benign imperialism bringing peace to the Middle East. The keynote introduction by Sir Anthony Parsons expresses the fear that the momentum of the peace talks might be lost, adding that 'much, if not all, depends on Washington'. This confidence in the role of the USA is echoed in all the articles except that by the Israeli peace negotiating team, who express irritation at the way they have been treated by the Americans.

Israel's shock at being rebuffed by the Americans is understandable. After years of doting patronage from Washington, it is hard for the Israelis to accept that the Americans no longer require their services as policemen for imperialism in the region. In his essay 'When Bush comes to shove', Avi Shlaim observes that with 'the twin threats of communism and pan-Arab nationalism' over, 'what could Israel offer that could not be provided by their Arab friends....the USS Fahd offered a bigger flight deck than the USS Shamir' (p2).

Yet the Israelis have no choice but to accept that times have changed and renegotiate their relations with the Americans. The election of a Labour government signals a greater willingness to play ball with the USA. America too is keen to keep its options open and has softened its stance. But there is no going back to the old days. As we anticipated in Living Marxism at the time of the Gulf War, the special relationship is over. The end of the Cold War has put an end to Soviet influence in the region, removed the threat of Arab nationalism, and given the USA a free hand in the Middle East. Israel is no longer indispensable.

However, the end of the special relationship between the USA and Israel does not mean that the Palestinians now stand to gain what they want. It simply means that the Americans are exploring new ways to enforce their domination of the region. That domination depends upon the continued subordination of the Palestinian people to the dictates of Western imperialism. The Western powers would never contemplate any settlement for the Palestinians which destabilised the region or threatened their interests there.

Unfortunately this is not the way things are seen by Palestinian leaders, most of whom go along with the view that America can play a progressive role in resolving the conflict with Israel. The idea that there is now a force within Israel that is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause has also taken hold since the election of Rabin's Labour Party. Most Palestinians see Labour as preferable to Likud, and privately rooted for it in the general election.

The fact that these illusions can have such a wide purchase is a grotesque testament to the defeats the Palestinians have suffered and to their political isolation within the Middle East. With no independent allies to back their cause, they are desperately seeking salvation from forces which have no interest in making any meaningful concessions to them.

Not all the Palestinians' leaders are so sanguine about the diplomatic games being played. The peace process has led to divisions in the Palestinian camp, divisions which are now being compounded by Rabin's overtures. There has been heavy fighting between Fatah, the moderate majority in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalists, in Khan Yunis and Rafah refugee camps. The roots of these divisions are examined in F Robert Hunter's The Palestinian Uprising, which is also an excellent introduction to the intifada.

The intifada revolt which began in 1987 is examined in the context of the oppression of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis and their Western backers. It becomes possible to understand the intifada, not as one big riot, as it has often been presented in the Western media, but as a response to the Israeli strategy of restructuring and containing Palestinian society in the occupied territories. Hunter takes the reader through the different stages of the intifada, as it gathered momentum and drew in more layers of the population, until it became a mass movement.

The Palestinian Uprising also deals with the political problems facing the intifada: the divisions between the secular and religious wings, the moderates and the radicals, the old and the young, the insiders and the 'diaspora' Palestinians. It is in the context of cumulative setbacks that the dynamic towards compromise in Fatah, the main block of the PLO controlled by Yasser Arafat, has come to the fore. In turn, Fatah's failure to win substantial concessions after decades of sacrifice, and its inability to push the intifada forward, has encouraged a cynical response among a new generation of militants. This has allowed Hamas, a Muslim grouping, to come into its own.

Fatah's enthusiasm for the US-led diplomatic process has added fresh grist to the fundamentalist mill. Hamas has condemned the talks as a trap to contain Palestinian anger, and insists that nothing positive can be gained by sitting round a table with the oppressors. The organisation points out that Rabin is already backtracking on his promise to stop the construction of new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Yet the fundamentalists are in a minority. For most Palestinians, as for most of the authors writing on the subject here, George Bush and Yitzhak Rabin offer the only hope of a way out of their desperate plight. Thus while F Robert Hunter salutes the Palestinians for their tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds, he suggests that a resolution of the Palestinian problem depends on the intervention of the USA, the very same power that helped to create and sustain the state of Israel by denying the Palestinians their rights.

Andrew Rigby, author of Living the Intifada, which covers much the same ground as Hunter's book but from a far less sympathetic standpoint, takes the same position as Hunter on the question of a US-imposed solution. The starting point for such a solution is of course an acceptance of the right of Israel to exist. Once this crucial point is conceded, some sort of two state solution is usually proposed: one for the Palestinians, one for the Israelis.

Unfortunately, life is not as simple as it appears to the advocates of a two state solution. Since Israel is an artificial state, built on Palestinian land through the denial of Palestine's national rights, there can be no question of self-determination for the Palestinians as long as Israel exists. Israel cannot give up any territory without calling into question the legitimacy of the state as a whole. Indeed, as history has shown, the dynamic is in the opposite direction, towards an expansion rather than a contraction of the boundaries of the Israeli state.

The reality of what the two state idea would mean in practice is revealed in No Trumpets, No Drums, a blueprint for a two state solution co-authored by an Israeli and a Palestinian. The book is aptly titled, since there is nothing to celebrate about its proposals. While there is a lot of talk about encouraging respect between the two communities, what is outlined is Israeli military, economic and political domination of a cowed, subordinate Palestinian statelet.

The chapter on security arrangements, casually notes that there would of course be 'a prohibition on any weapons enabling a Palestinian army to participate in combined offensive operations - ie, tanks, artillery, and surface-to-surface missiles. But it would also imply a ban on equipment often classified as "defensive"--such as anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and fortifications of any kind' (p67).

It is clear from this that the celebrated two state solution is not what its name suggests. A two state solution does not mean the coexistence of two states: the state of Israel and the state of Palestine. Indeed the coexistence of two such states is an impossibility given that the very existence of the Israeli state depends on the denial of the right to statehood of the Palestinians.

Instead of a state for the Palestinians, what is being offered here is a limited degree of autonomy on a shabby strip of land. Those who support the idea of a two state solution are asking the Palestinians to abandon their aspiration for self-determination and reconcile themselves to their oppression in return for a slightly bigger say over what happens in the occupied territories.

You might have thought that the image of a benign imperialism bringing peace to the Middle East would have been slightly tarnished by the Gulf War last year. Yet the response to the recent US sabre-rattling against Iraq suggests that the West's good name has not been sullied in the eyes of the liberal intelligentsia.

Just over a year after the Gulf War, it looked for a while like George Bush was about to launch another military strike against Saddam Hussein. Incredibly, given the demolition job they did last time round, US officials began to speculate that Iraq's military strength was again approaching its pre-war level. They put about the rumour that Saddam was hiding evidence pertaining to weapons of mass destruction in the Iraqi agriculture ministry building of all places, the crafty devil. A stand-off ensued in the ministry car park between UN inspectors and Iraqi officials, with the world press camped close by.

The press were to be bitterly disappointed. While Bush promised a new military offensive, starting on 2 August, to frighten Saddam into submission, the only thing that happened in the car park was some pushing and shoving. It then turned out that there had been a 'misunderstanding'. The UN had no evidence of any secret military documents in the building. Indeed, it had not even realised the building was the agriculture ministry in the first place!

Yet even this rather embarrassing exposure of US warmongering against Iraq has not led anybody to question the trend towards Western intervention. Indeed, Martin Woollacott, a liberal Guardian journalist, summed up the prevailing consensus:

'The issue of whether or not Baghdad still has, hidden away somewhere, a serious nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, or ballistic capacity, on which it can now begin to build again, important though it is, is less important than the fact that Saddam has successfully defied Washington and New York. The weapons question is a red herring.' (Guardian, 29 July 1992)

So the weapons question was a red herring, but not to worry, there's always a good reason for having a go at Saddam. The assumption that the West has the moral authority to interfere in the affairs of Middle Eastern states is never questioned these days.

Indeed, it informs even the most radical books written about the Gulf War. Beyond the Gulf War, a collection of essays by radical writers and journalists, is a damning account of the barbarism visited upon the Middle East by the West. At times it is very critical of the Western powers and their role in the region. Yet the essayists accept the terms of debate put forward by Western warmongers. All agree that the West stands for democracy and civilisation and has a positive role to play in the Middle East.

The Gulf War and the New World Order suffers from the same surfeit of good faith in the beneficent intentions of the West. The collection contains some very well researched articles which accurately portray the political impact of the Gulf War in the Middle East. Some writers even suggest that the war was less to do with events in the Middle East and more to do with the changing balance of power in the West. Alan Freeman and Noam Chomsky argue that the war was a way for the USA to stave of its economic and political decline, by using its military force to rally the disintegrating Western Alliance behind its leadership.

On the other hand, there is complete confusion about what attitude to take to Saddam Hussein. Many contributors denounce Saddam as a fascist. All agree that he is the person responsible for starting the war. Having accepted that Iraq is the problem, it follows that Western intervention of one sort or another is the solution. Most contributors favoured sanctions rather than military action to force Saddam to submit to Western dictates.

One time radical Fred Halliday accuses opponents of Western intervention of ignoring Iraq's crimes: 'The unique reliance on anti-imperialism as a criterion for political action...allots all the responsibility for oppression and domination...to the US and its allies.' (p275) Apparently this view is itself 'inverted imperialism'. What Halliday conveniently forgets is that Iraq, Kuwait, Saddam, the Emirs and all the other states and dictators of the Middle East are the products of intervention in the region by 'the US and its allies'. To claim that the Western powers which created the Middle East as a cockpit of international conflict could now provide a peaceful solution for the peoples of the region is truly a case of inverting the truth about imperialism.

Dilip Hiro's Desert Shield to Desert Storm clearly recounts every incident in the approach to war, from the 'supergun' affair to the execution of Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft. Yet in his conclusions, Hiro goes against the evidence of his own research and echoes the Western myths about the war.

He talks about the 'unprecedented armed might of Iraq in the late 1980s', an absurdity which he graphically refutes elsewhere in his description of the allied massacres of Iraqi soldiers on the Basra Highway (p428). Similarly, Hiro blames the war on Saddam, despite revealing how the Americans scuppered every peace proposal and every negotiated settlement.

As an antidote to the universal acceptance of the demonic character of Saddam Hussein, Syria Unmasked is a welcome if belated addition to the literature on the subject. The book's publication was delayed in September 1990, as the Western powers got into gear for war against Iraq. It is not hard to see why the book was suppressed, since the material it unmasks would have caused some red faces in Washington.

We should recall that president Hafez Assad of Syria was the key Arab partner in the US-led coalition against Iraq. At the time, Arab allies were needed to legitimise Western interference in the region. It would have been embarrassing if the world had been reminded that the members of the US coalition, far from being champions of freedom and democracy, were just as repressive and brutal as Saddam. Reading Syria Unmasked it is impossible to discern any qualitative difference between Saddam and Assad.

Also striking are the similarities in the evolution of Syria and Iraq under the domination of different Western powers. Syria Unmasked is a classic case study of how imperialism has screwed up a country. But having explained the role of the West in creating a nightmare regime, the book ends with a plea for Washington to use its influence to persuade Assad to clean up his act. Another case of the illusions Western radicals have in the healing powers of imperialism. These illusions have already allowed the West to get away with one war against Iraq, and are now leading the Palestinians to the negotiating table to be shafted.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992



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