When George Bush meets with Ariel Sharon in the White House on Wednesday, each leader will be doing his best to confer legitimacy on the other’s failed policies of occupation.
Sharon will give Bush’s declining popularity a boost when he helps the US President reframe our current war against the people of Iraq as a struggle against terrorism. For thirty-seven years Israeli governments have used that approach to justify their own occupation of the West Bank and Gaza–and it has worked politically to convince many Israelis to ignore the evidence that it is the occupation that causes the terror and not vice versa.
President Bush may hope that Americans can be convinced that the United States should follow Israel’s example and respond to both terror and legitimate resistance with heightened repression. Israel has just assassinated the leading sheik associated with Hamas terrorism, and the Sharon government has refined a technique of collective punishment so that over the years it has punished millions of Palestinians for the acts of a handful of terrorists. While Sharon’s policies have actually generated an increase in the number of Israelis hurt by terror, the impression of “standing tough” has worked to retain his popularity among many Israelis who have become convinced that Israel has every right to hold on to the West Bank. If the strategy works for Sharon, it might work for Bush’s adventure in Iraq as well–if Bush can find a way to convince Americans that the Israeli strategy America seems to be following in Iraq is precisely the way to stand strong against terror.
In exchange, President Bush is reportedly planning to give Sharon a written commitment that the United States will no longer push for a return of Israel to its pre-1967 borders. This concession would be the most significant accomplishment yet achieved by the Israeli right. For decades US policy has aimed at convincing Israel that it must live by the same principle that has governed international law since the end of World War II: that countries must not be allowed to increase their territory through armed conquest. It was that very principle that was used to justify US support for the autocratic government of Kuwait when it was attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, and it is the cornerstone of the hopes of the international community to prevent endless wars in the twenty-first century. If he abrogates that principle, Bush not only opens the way for Israel to permanently annex major sections of the West Bank and permanently end the hopes of the Palestinian people for an economically and politically viable state of their own; he also sets a precedent for national expansion through war as dangerous as his pre-emptive war strategy for Iraq.
Perhaps the most extraordinary public relations gimmick in this entire charade between two militarists is the notion that Israel is “giving up” control over Gaza and thereby merits a concession by the United States. Unlike the West Bank, where Israel can cite biblical ties and divine promises as additional motivators to its security concerns for continuing occupation, Gaza has been nearly universally recognized as a drain on Israel that provides exactly nothing for Israeli security or well-being. Having kept more than a million Gazans in a state of penury and malnutrition that could only be rectified by UN aid, Israelis have long flirted with the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the seething caldron of hatred that its occupation has managed to create. Yet Sharon’s withdrawal will involve continued military presence in the south of Gaza and along all of its borders-effectively turning it into one large Palestinian ghetto with no means of economic or political support.
Instead of withdrawing from Gaza as part of a process aimed at open-hearted and generous reconciliation and lasting peace, Sharon has concocted a withdrawal for the sake of occupation in the West Bank. Indeed, before he left for Washington, Sharon promised settlers in the West Bank that six major settlement areas there would permanently remain under Israeli sovereignty, and that his Gaza withdrawal was intended to “keep us from being dragged into dangerous initiatives like the Geneva and Saudi initiatives.” Sharon may hope that the forces of Hamas, dominant in Gaza because Israel failed to provide social services and instead allowed them to be delivered to the Palestinian refugees by the Islamic fundamentalists, will use the withdrawal to establish their own regime separate from the Palestinian Authority, thereby further decreasing the chance for a viable Palestinian state. Certainly a Hamas takeover in Gaza would increase Israelis’ fear of the vulnerability they might face should they withdraw from the West Bank–and that fear will play well for Sharon’s electoral future.
No wonder, then, that Palestinians see these “concessions” by Sharon as political ploys that are aimed at increasing support for Israeli annexation of the West Bank. The Bush/Sharon axis of occupation has little chance of bringing lasting peace, but it may bring temporary electoral advantages, even as it erodes the moral authority of two countries that could have been beacons of hope and instead have become symbols of insensitivity and arrogance.
For those of us in the United States who know that the best interests of both the United States and Israel will be served not by perpetuation of the occupations but by peace and reconciliation, there is a greater urgency than ever to counter the Bush/Sharon Axis of Occupation. That’s why many of us are organizing a Teach-In to Congress April 25-27 in Washington, DC, at which we will present the Geneva Accord and other specific proposals for how to achieve a lasting peace for Israel-Palestine, as well as our ideas about how a spirit of generosity and respect toward the people of Iraq would be far more effective in calming the situation there than sending more troops and increasing repression.
For more info on the Teach-In, go to www.tikkun.org or 510-644-1200.