On Middle East, Obama tries a new tactic, but goal remains unchanged
By Stephen Gowans
The Obama administration’s recent get tough policy on Israel over expansion of West Bank settlements may seem to signal a welcome reversal in Washington’s Israel-first foreign policy, but it is anything but. On the contrary, it drives toward the same aims that have structured US Middle Eastern policy for decades: pacifying the Palestinians.
The program of quieting Palestinian resistance was set back when Hamas, an uncompromising opponent of the Zionist project of colonial settlement of historic Palestine, won Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006. Israel, which had warned it would not tolerate a Hamas government, whether democratically elected or not, garnered US and EU support for a blockade to destabilize the newly elected government.
A Palestinian civil war eventually split the population, with Hamas, disinclined to sacrifice fundamental goals to immediate gains, ruling in the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, willing to compromise on just about everything, ruling in the West Bank.
Israel and Egypt imposed a total blockade on Gaza. The blockade prohibits entry of all goods – including the building materials Gaza’s residents need to rebuild hospitals, homes and infrastructure destroyed by Israeli forces earlier this year. The only goods that make their way in are those which can be smuggled through tunnels and the food and medicine that Israel and Egypt allow in.
“The aim is to keep Gaza at subsistence and offer a contrast with the West Bank, which in theory benefits from foreign aid and economic and political development. Hamas supporters will then realize their mistake,” (1) withdraw their support of Hamas, and overthrow the government. In subsequent elections, Gazans will vote for Hamas’s rival, Fatah, fearing a return of the blockade if they repeat the mistake of voting for Hamas. Hosannas will be sung to the birth of democracy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and all — from the narrow perspective of the Western media – will be well.
The problem with this scenario – and the reason why the blockade hasn’t worked — is that it ignores the reasons Palestinians voted for Hamas in the first place. Under Fatah’s watch, poverty and misery got worse, while Fatah’s leaders lived lives of growing extravagance. By contrast, Hamas’s leaders continued to live modestly, side by side with ordinary Palestinians.
Equally vexing were Fatah’s conspicuous political failures. Fatah led Palestinians into the “peace process” but had nothing to show for it. Israel continued to expand its settlements, was adamant that it would never honor the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and insisted Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands – the eternal and permanent capital of a Jewish state. Fatah had presented the peace process as a way of making compromises to secure concrete gains. Compromises were made, but the promised gains never materialized.
Instead, Palestinians were presented with an increasingly collaborationist Fatah leadership, ever more willing to settle for a state comprised of an agglomeration of disconnected areas, making up a tiny fraction of the land Palestinians had been dispossessed of, its borders controlled by the Israeli military, without a capital, and with no adequate redress for refugees.
What’s more, Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, owes his allegiance more to Washington, which funds and trains his security force and keeps him in power in the West Bank, than to the goals of Palestinian national liberation and self-determination. Abbas recently appointed himself president of the Palestinian Authority (with the full support of the self-declared champion of democracy, the United States), and, as leader of the dominant party of the PLO, sole legitimate spokesman for the Palestinians. This, despite his electoral mandate having lapsed and despite his party having lost the last elections.
With Abbas unable to command much popular support, Washington is in the position of having to do something to make their man in Ramallah more appealing to Palestinians. The latest tactic is to demand Israel cease expansion of its settlements in the West Bank. Washington has made this demand countless times before, only everyone knew US officials didn’t mean it, and there were no consequences if Israel chose to ignore it (which it always did.) But this time Washington means it, or says it does. Not because it has leaned a tiny fraction toward the Palestinians and away from the Israelis, but because administration officials believe this stance “will bolster Mr. Abbas.” (2) If Abbas is going to dance to Washington’s tune, he had better get something – even a lagniappe – to show for it; otherwise his credibility with Palestinians will continue to falter.
We shouldn’t, therefore, think that the US administration’s latest moves represent a victory for the Palestinians or a shift in US foreign policy objectives. On the contrary, by coming down firmly on the side of Abbas, Washington is trying to strengthen the position of a leader favored for his willingness to compromise, capitulate and collaborate. The intended victor is Israel, who, if Washington is successful, will have a tractable and more attractive Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas and whatever fellow Quislings follow.
(1) Ethan Bronner, “Misery hands over Gaza despite pledges of help,” The New York Times, May 29, 2009.
(2) Helene Cooper, “Obama calls for swift move toward Mideast peace talks,” The New York times, May 29, 2009.