The Olmert-Abbas Meeting: New Moves in the Middle East?

Submitted by cathy n on 29 November, 2006 - 3:43

Editorial in current "Solidarity"
In 2003 George Bush talked of a worldwide drive by the USA to erect bourgeois democracy and American-style capitalism across the globe, wherever "dictatorial" and heavily state-regulated economies existed. He saw no limits to US power, no insuperable obstacles to an American-engineered transformation of the globe into more or less developed replicas of itself.

When the US invaded Iraq Bush abandoned all the considerations which a dozen years before had held the US back from occupying Iraq and dismantling the Iraqi state machine: the fear that Iraq, which consists of a union of three
disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire, united into a unit of colonial administration by the British after World War One, would break up; the fear that smashing the Ba'athist state would release the furies of inter-Islamic Sunni-Shia sectarian conflicts inside Iraq.

They occupied, they smashed the Iraqi state, disbanded the army, wrecked much of the economic superstructure, and began to loot the economy. Those in charge of the American forces believed that their military-technical superiority would give them control of any situation, that it was sufficient to overcome all difficulties.

Whatever they believed, the single most astonishing thing in Iraq in the three and half years since the start of the occupation is the sheer ineptitude of the occupiers.

There was a great deal of goodwill for people who plausibly said in 2003 that they came, however bloodily and brutally, as liberators. They dissipated that goodwill. Iraqis now live in a chaos-wrecked economy with more than half the population unemployed. They live inside a murderous albeit banked down sectarian civil war. More Iraqis perished in sectarian killings last week than did Catholic and Protestant victims of sectarian assassins through the whole period of the Provisional IRA's 23-year-long war!

There have been vast population movements by Sunnis and Shias, both to relocate within their respective areas, and out of the country. Baghdad is divided into a patchwork of sectarian enclaves. It is what Beirut was from the mid-1970s.

Elections were held and a government set up, but the Iraqi government's writ does not run anywhere in Iraq. Instead, deals are made with local sectarian military factions, both by the Iraqi government and by the occupation forces.

Already the survival of the government in Baghdad depends on alliances with such forces. The Baghdad government functions very much as a Shia-sectarian force and not as a government for all Iraqis.

The US and their allies have made Iraq into a seething chaos of intra-Islamic sectarian conflict, and they call it "democracy".

It is hard now to believe that the Iraqi state will not break up completely.

Self-determination for Iraq is posed as self-determination for which Iraq? Neighbouring states are already heavily involved in the chaos. Some of the military-sectarian forces are as much "proxies" for Iran or Syria as independent Iraqi forces.

If Iraq breaks up, it is probable that Turkey will invade the Kurdish territories to the north, driven by its need to keep control of its own - badly oppressed - Kurdish population and their areas.

Slowly and painfully, the American government is being forced to face up to the outcome of its actions and failures in Iraq since 2003.

George Bush still spouts some of his old rhetoric, but the neo-con advocates of the invasion admit that enormous "mistakes" and ineptitudes by the USA have subverted their "enterprise" in Iraq.

George Bush's nominee as the new Secretary of State for Defence, Robert Gates, openly contradicts the President in the Senate hearings on his appointment. Bush says America, despite setbacks, is on course to prevail.

The US is not winning the war, Gates tells the Senate committee.

The US establishment and the EU now fear an imminent breakdown in the stability of the whole region.

Last month's US Congressional elections registered public disquiet with the situation in Iraq, and with the lying ineptitude of the Bush administration. New policies are being forged. Their best hope and the one they look like going for is to accelerate "Iraqisation" - more and more of a role for the Baghdad government, which also means for sectarian militarists etc. with whom they can do deals - and the US retreating into enclaves.

The startling nature of the shift by the Americans in the last few weeks is most dramatically summed up in the fact that not long ago the US was talking about bringing down the regimes in Syria and Iran, openly threatening invasion - and now the US talks of working with the Iranian and Syrian regimes in an attempt to harness their influence in Iraq.

The US invaders did not create the sectarian divisions in Iraq, but they have unbridled them, stoked them up.

The Ba'athists controlled the conflicts in Iraq by way of Sunni domination, repression, and the slaughter of the Shia and Kurds.

The invaders, by smashing that Saddamite regime, smashed the totalitarian hoops that bound the state together.

They have made Iraq a crucible in which Al-Qaeda has forged new soldiers for its mad jihad.

Events in Iraq over the last three and a half years confirm that the only way to build even a bourgeois democracy in place of a regime such as Saddam Hussein's, is to help and encourage the people to overthrow them.

What is new now is the US realisation, even amongst the architects of the war, that there has to be a radical shift in policy. What are the implications of that change are for Israel and Palestine?

In Israel, too, there has aready been a striking shift in declared policy. Before Israel's July war with Hezbollah in Lebanon Israel seemed to be as militarily powerful vis-a-vis the neighbouring states as the US was vis-a-vis the rest of the world in 2003. It was the same sort of supremacy, too: a tremendous concentration of high-tech ordnance. Israel's enormous technological superiority proved as inadequate there as that of the US in Iraq.

Israel lost the July war. It achieved none of its objectives; far from destroying Hezbollah it strengthened it morally and politically. In the destruction of its aura of invincibility, Israel suffered a tremendous strategic defeat.

Certainly that is how many Israelis assess the war's outcome. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared he will now undertake serious negotiations with Palestinian President Abu Mazen, based on the principles of the 3003 "Road Map for Peace" On the surface it seems Israel will not now proceed unilaterally. It has said openly that it does not feel it can follow the policy for the implementation of which Sharon and Olmert founded the party which led Israel into the sobering experience of the July war.

These moves reflect the Israeli's government's weakness and also such short-term political goals as negotiating the release of the prisoners kidnapped by Palestinians in the summer.

Israel will not now proceed unilaterally. It does not feel it can and has said so openly.

The Israeli government says it wants to talk to the Palestinians (those who do not advocate the destruction of Israel). It may of course draw back from these talks. And while it talks it keeps its tanks in Gaza. It continues to make incursions into the West Bank.

Nonetheless talk from the EU at least of "reviving" the Roadmap for Israeli-Palestinian peace seems serious. Whether the Americans will now act to make it real is as yet unclear.

The Roadmap was promulgated in 2003 under the sponsorship of the UN, US, EU and Russia - and then left to wither in the years since.

The Roadmap proclaimed its goal to be the creation of two states - a sovereign Palestinian state of contiguous territory side-by-side with Israel. It outlined proposed stages on the road to that goal. What are the chances that now the Roadmap or a similar "peace process" will be the start in the creation of a viable democratic solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when it failed to be three years ago?

The case for hoping - in view of past experience it can be no more than hope - that now the Roadmap or serious negotiations will or may, take off is as follows.

• As we've seen, the political landscape has been radically changed by the escalating disaster in Iraq and its effect on US objectives and policy, and by Israel's relative military, political and moral disaster in the July war.

• The shake-up in the US now is producing a lurch away from the fantasy-spinning of the neo-con ideologists towards the pragmatists and a rational prosecution of US interests.

• The escalating destabilisation of the whole region, and the imminent threat of a more radical destabilisation. This limits what the US can do and is likely to try to do and what its rulers think it can do: and it increases the relative strength and weight of the regimes adjacent to Iraq because it increases the US's need to placate them.

The rulers of the USA went into the Iraq adventure drunk on success and hubris. They thought they were the New Masters of the Universe. To all appearances, they are disabused of that greatly inflated conception of themselves and what they can do.

• It is a fundamental fact of the situation in the Middle East that it simply cannot be stabilised unless there is a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such a solution would, minimally, have to be one that most Palestinians will, however reluctantly, accept and try to work. Nothing short of a Palestinian state could possibly do that.

Events over half a century have defined a Palestinian state as the "minimum programme" here. That was the great political fact behind the Roadmap. It lies behind the efforts of the European Union, and of Tony Blair over the last three years to keep the 2003 Roadmap as living politics. The relative weakness of the US vis a vis the Arab states and Iran gives new weight and centrality to the necessity for a political solution to the central destabilising conflict in the Middle East, that between Israel and the Palestinians.

These are the reasons why the Europeans are moving to revive the Roadmap.

The argument for thinking that a revival of the Roadmap will not and cannot, produce results different from those of the last three and half years, are these.

• The bitter experience of the initiative in 2003 with much fanfare, which was allowed to sink out of operational politics because the US was not prepared to force Israel to comply with the procedure to which Israel and US
had paid lip service.

• Israel is seen by the US as a key ally in the "war on terror", thereby has counter-leverage against US pressure.

• The fact that what Israel means by a Palestinian state is probably not that defined in the Roadmap, but a series of split up Palestinian enclaves with some degree of self-rule, into which the Israeli military can intrude at will. That could not be a basis for Israel-Palestinian peace.

• The influence of the "Israeli lobby", consisting of Jewish Zionists in America, and, most importantly, of fundamentalist US Christians, who believe that the rebirth of Israel was predicted in the Bible, and presages the
imminent "second coming of Christ", that is, the end of the world. They do not want any solution that would deprive the Israelis of the Biblical lands of Samaria and Judaea, the West Bank.

• Because, relentlessly, Israel continues to create settlements in the West Bank. The Great Wall of Israel has been built and survives the formal dropping of the policy of a unilateral Israeli drawing of a "final" border. Where the road map talks of the pre-1967 border as the borders of the future two states, the Israelis will not dismantle more than a small proportion of the Jewish settlements build on the West Bank since 1967.

These are weighty arguments. They imply great caution in expecting real progress from the present shifts in the US and Israel. Yet it is in the most fundamental interest of the US, as well as of the European Union to politically and militarily stablise the Middle East. The chaos in Iraq, and now Lebanon, shows once more the urgency of a fundamental political stabilisation.

George W. Bush in 2003 went further than any American President or administration before him in explicitly committing the US to a solution based on two states.

The crux question three and a half years ago was to what extent the US would be willing to put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to get the Israelis to accept that solution. The answer then translated into another question: what alternatives did Washington feel it had.

Recent events, both in Iraq and in American politics, have narrowed its options and thereby increased the value, and the urgency, of a political settlement in Israel-Palestine.

That too points to a new and more serious effort to bring the "Roadmap process" back to life.

Not the least important aspect of the new situation, is the political shifts within Israel. The collapse of the peace talks in 2000, followed by the intifada, which included the Hamas-spearheaded homicidal bomb campaign in Israel, shifted Israeli public opinion behind Sharon and Likud. Experience culminating in the Iraq war and its outcome has in part reversed that.

All this amounts to reason for no more than a hope that the recent setback for the US and Israel will once more open up and give energy to the search for a political solution in the Middle East.

The forces that can radically transform the Middle East for the better are those of the working class - Arab, Jew, Kurdish and others.

The working class in the Arab countries is now in terms of numbers a tremendous force. But in politics that working class is still only a potential force. It has not yet separated itself out from its bourgeoisie, not yet hammered out its own democratic and socialist policies.

The Israeli working class has its own labour movement, but it is shaped politically by the exigences of the Arab-Jewish conflict and by bitter antagonism with the Arab world.

The working-class in the Arab states, with the exception of Lebanon and Iraq is held in the tight vice of vicious military-police dictatorships. The revival of an Iraqi labour movement, crushed for decades by the Ba'athist totalitarian regime, is a tremendous pledge for the future, despite pernicious political influences such as that of the Iraqi Communist Party. Working classes have in the past travelled tremendously long distances in a short period of time. But the working class in the Middle East - Arab, Jew, Kurdish - still has a way to travel before it can become a
force in politics.

That is why the policies of the Americans and the Israelis and the Arab states are still decisive in determining what happens.

It is why socialists should not want the sort of bloody armageddon that precipitate US-British withdrawal would most likely lead to in the form of a full-scale sectarian civil war in which the labour movement would be destroyed.

It is why the politics of the "reactionary anti-imperialists" in countries like Britain, cheerleaders for clerical fascism in the Arab countries, primarily Iraq, are criminally irresponsible.

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