Mideast Conflict Muted in U.S. Elections
By David Dumke
October 19, 2004
Over the last six months, the crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories has gone from bad to worse. International backlash to the Israeli assault — which has again resulted in heavy Palestinian casualties and the destruction of Arab homes — culminated in a Security Council resolution rebuking Israel. As in the past, however, Israel was saved from scorn by a last-minute veto by the United States.
As US Ambassador to the UN John Danforth struggled to explain his unpopular move to the assembled world press, Dov Weisglass — a close confidante and former chief of staff to Ariel Sharon — was gloating to Haaretz newspaper how the incumbent Israeli government had pulled the wool over America’s eyes by giving lip service to the road map peace plan, while in actuality forging a unilateral course aimed at denying Palestinians statehood. Despite occasional muted American protests — on issues such as target assassinations, military tactics, the Separation Wall, or failure to commit in word or deed (roadblocks, isolated “illegal” settlements) to the road map — Weisglass noted that Israel not only acted without fear of punishment, but with the full consent of the Bush administration and both Houses of US Congress.
The Sharon government quickly distanced itself from the outrageous comments; the US accepted the Israeli explanation, and the matter was closed as far as American officials were concerned. The American press only gave passing attention to the story.
The deafening silence on the brazen Wiesglass interview is indicative of where the US political establishment stands on the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Ignore the issue long enough, and perhaps it will go away. No greater evidence of the collective American inattention to the peace process is needed than the recent presidential and vice presidential debates. John Kerry, perceived as far more internationalist than Bush, has not raised the Israeli-Palestinian conflic. Bush mentioned the issue only once.
To her credit, moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS asked a question about Israel and Palestine during the vice presidential debate. Sen. John Edwards did note the administration’s detachment from the issue, but then launched into an anecdote about the 2001 bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria, concluding by asking, “What are the Israeli people supposed to do? How can they continue to watch Israeli children killed by suicide bombers, killed by terrorists?” Not a mention was made of Palestinian children and their plight. Vice President Cheney declared that the administration supported a theoretical Palestinian state, but that there was no Palestinian partner in peace. He also added that by attacking Saddam Hussein — who supposedly gave $25,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers — the administration had furthered the peace process. While the rhetoric — or lack there of — heard on the presidential campaign trail has been extremely disappointing, action and debate within the hollowed halls of Congress has been worse. In June, the House passed a resolution supporting Sharon’s Gaza plan and endorsing Bush’s letter to the Israeli leader, dated April 14, which reversed a decades-old US policy pertaining to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A month later, the House condemned the International Court of Justice for its ruling on the Separation Wall, a decision characterized by Congressman Tom Lantos as, “a perversion of justice.”
Congress has long been a stalwart supporter of Israel, regardless of the incumbent government. But since the intifada broke out in 2000, it has outdone itself time and time again as the parties and individual members seemingly vie over who can be more “pro-Israel.” By this formula, “pro-Israel” means granting a carte blanche to the Sharon government. With rare exception, and exceptions do exist, there has been little thought to the fact that being pro-Israel could justify advocating a far more dovish line.
Meanwhile, in its third week, the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip has resulted in at least 115 Palestinian deaths. Many of them, like 13-year old Iman Al-Hams, who was shot at least 15 times by IDF troops on Oct. 15, innocent civilians. The pretext given for the latest Israeli military action is to silence the crude and occasionally deadly Qassam rockets, which Palestinian militants have continued, usually unsuccessfully, to fire on Israeli towns and settlements.
Israel certainly has an undeniable interest in deterring rocket attacks, but the costs — both over the short-term and long-term, as measured in human life and political symbolism — should have been weighed before the decision was made to once again pummel the hapless Palestinians of Gaza. Gaza is supposed to be evacuated by Israel and its small, but land-rich settlers sometime in the next year. Thus, the IDF maneuver does not further the peace process, neither under a Bush-endorsed road map or Sharon-Gaza Plan rubric. Nor does it, after four years and thousands of casualties, make Palestinian resistance less likely.
What is the motive for this recent Sharon-ordered reinvasion lie? One theory, embraced by the ever-hopeful who believe Sharon — once ostracized for his reckless invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent atrocities committed by Israeli-allied militias — has been reborn as “a man of peace, believe Sharon’s Gaza move is an attempt to flex his muscles in the face of withering right-wing criticism. The Oct. 11 Knesset vote disapproving Sharon’s withdrawal plan seemingly justifies this premise. Another theory is that for all the lip service Sharon has given about Gaza being the first step toward peace, in reality he is looking for an excuse to abandon the plan altogether. Or, if he really intends to leave Gaza, it is only to provide — in the words of Weisglass — “formaldehyde” to undercut the road map and deny Palestinians a viable state. It is fair to say that Sharon’s course is unhampered by the United States, which remains silent.
In an election uncharacteristically centered on national security and foreign policy, it is glaring that so little attention has been given to an issue that many believe is, even more than Iraq, central to the war on terrorism. For it is widely accepted across the ideological spectrum that, at minimum, the Palestinian issue gives emotional ammunition to the “Islamic” extremist groups operating in the Middle East and throughout the world.
One-sided US support of Israel, coupled with daily images of Palestinian suffering, is a potent combination that is, whether addressed by American political leaders or not, an enormous problem for the US. Failure to engage on the peace process, broker a deal acceptable to both parties, or offer hope to the weary Israeli and Palestinian populations is a recipe for continued US problems in the region. Plans for rebuilding Iraq, fostering democracy in the Arab world, and eliminating the allure of extremism are all fatally undermined by inaction or missteps on this lingering problem which simply cannot be ignored.
David Dumke is the CEO of the American Middle East Information Network and Principal of the MidAmr Group.