Everybody’s war

The 'Roadmap to Peace' has transformed the Middle East into a platform for international posturing. Update, 13 June: The peace process and violence go hand-in-hand.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

UPDATE, 13 June: Since this article was published, the Middle East has been rocked by violence. Israeli helicopter gunships have targeted Hamas leaders and killed Palestinian civilians. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew up 16 people on a bus in Jerusalem. Jewish settlers have threatened to bring down the peace talks if Israel continues to dismantle settlement outposts. Newspaper headlines warn that the bloodshed is killing the peace process.

In truth, the violence is a consequence of the peace process – a process that is less about finding a permanent solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict, than about changing the Middle East’s existing arrangements to international order. Since the peace process was kickstarted in the early 1990s, peace talks and violence have gone hand-in-hand. As outside forces talked up the importance of handshakes at the White House and the need for ‘confidence-building measures’ (that is, concessions) from both sides, on the ground even such symbolic gestures have provoked a backlash among those with a stake in the old status quo.

By removing the political destiny of the Middle East from the people who live there, and by depoliticising the Arab/Israeli conflict, the peace process has exacerbated terrorism on the fringes of Middle Eastern society. In the absence of the old political framework, and with no new solution to take its place, some in the Middle East are reduced to lashing out against the drift of events – whether it’s Palestinians blowing themselves up in Israel or Jewish settlers clashing with the IDF. For the people of the Middle East, processed ‘peace’ continues to look a lot like war.

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During the attack on Iraq, some argued that America was acting in Israeli interests – that US forces were seeking and destroying Saddam’s anti-Israel regime in order to boost Israel’s standing in the Middle East.

‘The war on Iraq – conceived in Israel’, said one headline. In the run-up to the war, US historian Paul Schroeder wrote: ‘It is common for great powers to [get] smaller powers to fight for their interests. The [war in Iraq] would be the first instance where a great power would do the fighting as the proxy of a small client state.’ (1)

Yet six weeks after the war in Iraq ended, Israel has not been granted anything like a free hand to assert its dominance in the Middle East. Rather, with the renewal of the peace process in Jordan on 4 June, the Bush administration has renewed its demands for the creation of a Palestinian state; Israel has been instructed to end its occupation of Palestinian territory and to dismantle Jewish settlement outposts; and President Bush has issued his ‘most serious warning yet’ to Israel over its assassination attempt on the leader of Hamas.

Far from consolidating Israeli domination, the latest stage of the peace process has further internationalised the Middle Eastern conflict. It is the US-led peace process that rules in the Middle East now – at the expense of both Israeli and Palestinian interests.

Those who argued that attacking Iraq was really about boosting Israel are trying to fit current events into the patterns of the past. In so doing, they ignore the fundamental ways in which the relationship between America and Israel has changed in recent years. In the post-Cold War period, US ties with Israel have loosened, as successive administrations – both Democrat and Republican – have sought new ways to consolidate their influence on a changing Middle East.

During the Cold War, the USA viewed Israel as its policeman in the Middle East, a pro-Western state that acted as a bulwark against Soviet-backed Arab nationalism. There were often tensions between the two states, but US political, military and financial backing allowed Israel to contain the threat from its Arab neighbours, and to win decisively the Arab/Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. US administrations of the past would never have entertained the idea of setting up a separate Palestinian state.

That all changed in the 1990s. As we have argued before on spiked, there were two events at the start of the 1990s that brought underlying tensions between America and Israel to the fore: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War of 1991. The aftershocks of these events in the Middle East signalled the demise of Arab nationalism as a powerful political force, making Israel’s role in the Middle East less urgent for the West. Washington became less interested in backing its old Israeli allies, and more concerned with consolidating its broader influence on the post-Cold War Middle Eastern map.

In the US-led peace process of the 1990s, Israel was pressurised into recognising the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, led by its arch enemies in Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation; and was charged with reining in its own zealots who continued to build settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Many expected a right-wing Republican president like Bush junior to reverse this trend – yet in April 2002, Bush made an ‘historic’ speech calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and expressed American support for ‘the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a Palestinian state’ (2).

American pressure on Israel was stepped up a gear with the unveiling of the ‘Roadmap to Peace’ in early May. Written in Washington and backed by a ‘Quartet’ of powers (America, Russia, the EU and the UN), the roadmap demands some serious changes in Israel’s (and Palestine’s) ‘political, security, economic, humanitarian and institution-building fields’, repeats the demand for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and calls for the creation of a viable Palestinian state by no later than 2005 (3).

Of course America is still closely tied to Israel. It is with American arms and aid that Israeli forces have conducted their offensive against Palestinians since the start of the second Intifada in 2000. But there have been some profound shifts in the old US/Israeli relationship. Israel is increasingly seen by America as another problematic player in the Middle East – not as a special friend or ally, but as another violent element in need of some Western-style peace processing.

While Israel may remain the most dominant force in the region, it is now widely viewed as being responsible for violence in the Middle East. Even the USA makes less and less of a moral distinction between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In Washington’s ‘Roadmap to Peace’, Israel and Palestine are discussed as ‘two parties’, both of which will have to accept ‘the goal of a negotiated settlement as described below’, because ‘non-compliance…will impede progress’ (4).

It is not that American leaders have suddenly developed some sympathy for the Palestinians and their aspirations for an independent homeland. Rather, global shifts since the end of the Cold War have altered the West’s relationship with Israel, creating the space for new, and highly problematic, forms of meddling in the Middle East – as demonstrated by recent events.

American interference in the Arab/Israeli conflict is driven less by a coherent mission to remake the Middle East in its own image, as many claim, than by a broader defensiveness within the US administration. It is America’s creeping sense of global isolation that leads it to the Middle East. No doubt there are hawks in the Bush administration who would prefer an all-out pro-Israeli approach (like Wolfowitz and co), but in America’s search for a global point of contact with people, the trend is towards a more defensive form of intervention.

The ‘peace talks’ in Jordan – where Bush and co kickstarted the Middle Eastern peace process in the wake of the Iraq war – have confirmed the trend towards further outside intervention in the Arab/Israeli conflict. Far from the Iraq attack serving as a primer to old-style Israeli rule, the renewed peace process shows the increasing internationalisation of Middle Eastern affairs. The future of the Middle East has well and truly been taken out of the hands of Israelis and Palestinians.

The peace process has always been profoundly anti-democratic. It is premised on the idea that a solution to the Middle Eastern conflict can only come from outside the Middle East. The ‘two parties’ are clearly too blinkered and untrustworthy to resolve the issues among themselves, and need the helping hand of disinterested and rational outside powers, who can show them what their best interests are.

The perceived wisdom is that the further you are from the Middle East, the better placed you are to determine a sensible and fair outcome to the whole debacle. This was the thinking behind the Madrid conference of 1991 that kickstarted the peace process, and behind the ‘historic handshake’ between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 and the Oslo Accords of the same year – that it is only from without the Middle East, away from all those nasty Israelis and Palestinians with their violent tendencies, that you can see the matter clearly.

This move away from an old-style US/Israeli solution towards more and more intervention has gone a stage further with the ‘Roadmap to Peace’. The roadmap will be enforced and monitored by a self-styled Quartet of powers – America, Russia, the EU and the UN. Between them, these powers effectively represent every nation on Earth, and all will now have a say in how Israel should conduct itself and what kind of state the new Palestine should be. It’s official: the resolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict has become the property of the world, far removed from the people who live in Tel Aviv or Ramallah.

The peace process has transformed a clash over sovereignty into a platform for international posturing; it has turned a geopolitical conflict over territory and rights into a moral issue, and everyone wants a piece of the action. From the Bush administration to the European Union, from Russian politicians to Western radicals, the Arab/Israeli conflict has become fair game for everyone and anyone looking for a point of connection with people, for a cause, for something with a bit of political meaning. It has become Everybody’s War.

This international free-for-all has given rise to some cheap moral posturing. The anti-Israel sentiment that is rife among many in the West today often looks less like a critique of imperialism than an expression of modern political prejudices. Israel is seen as being unacceptable because it remains attached to notions of sovereignty, to fighting unapologetically for its own interests, to throwing around its political weight – all things that are outdated in our ‘humanitarian’ age, when war is supposed to care as well as kill (see Why the West is turning on Israel, by Mick Hume). As one European politician put it, expressing his support for the roadmap, Israel has got to ‘move into twenty-first century’.

Likewise, those who express pro-Palestinian sentiments today often seem more interested in boosting their own credibility than in demanding freedom and justice in the Middle East. For many in the EU (which is a party to the roadmap), and for those Western radicals who descend on the West Bank and Gaza to ‘offer solidarity’, the Palestinian experience appears to offer something real, an actual struggle that they can feed off rather than feed into (see Are we all Palestinians now?, by Josie Appleton).

As America, Russia, the EU, the UN and others seek to influence events in the Middle East, both Israelis and Palestinians are reduced to little more than pawns in an increasingly squalid international affair. The people of the Middle East are transformed into a stage army to the moral posturing of outside forces. The more there is for the Quartet of powers, the less there is for the people of Israel and Palestine – except the promise of future instability.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Iraq: The Case Against Pre-emptive War, Paul W. Schroeder, American Conservative, October 2002

(2) ‘Bush’s statement on the Middle East’, New York Times, 4 April 2002

(3) See Roadmap to nowhere, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) See Roadmap to nowhere, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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