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Israel and the Arabs: peace, not diktats

About the author
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. A new, updated edition of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was republished in September 2012 by Oxford University Press.

In recent months, the George W Bush administration seems to have been quietly drifting towards a de facto acceptance of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert's plan for a unilateral, Israeli-dictated "settlement" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - if a Palestinian authority does not accept an agreement on Israel's terms. The events of the past four weeks – in Gaza, Lebanon, and Israel itself – have made completely clear that this course is disastrous. It will ensure not only the continuation of Palestinian terrorism, but violence and destabilisation in neighbouring states and ultimately throughout the entire middle east.

Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC. His book Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (co-written with John Hulsman) is published by Pantheon in September 2006

Also by Anatol Lieven in openDemocracy:

"Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation" (September 2002)

"America right or wrong?"
(September 2004)

"Israel and the American antithesis"
(October 2004)

"Israel, the United States, and truth" (October 2004)

"Bush's choice: messianism or pragmatism?"
(February 2005)

The origins of the latest flare-up of violence in Lebanon lie in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Without the election of Hamas, Hamas's extremism, and Israel's armed intervention to overthrow the Hamas government, Hizbollah would not have had the excuse to launch its own new attack on Israel. Hizbollah's backers, Iran and Syria, have exploited the eruption in Israeli-Palestinian tension for their own ends. They did not create that tension. For that, Israelis and Palestinians both share considerable blame – but the US is backing only the Israelis.

The contours of this contemplated Israeli diktat to the Palestinians are already clear. The frontier with the West Bank would run along Israel's existing security barrier, almost cutting the Palestinian territory in half. Israel would keep control of the Jordan valley, severing the Palestinian "state" from the rest of the middle east. Israeli-controlled roads leading to the Jordan valley would divide the Palestinian lands still further. No compensation would be offered to Palestinian refugees and their descendants or to the Arab states which have hosted them for decades.

This dictated "peace", far from being the "two-state solution" officially promoted by the US, would give the Palestinians nothing remotely resembling viable statehood. It would be rejected by the Palestinian people and the world community. It would give Palestinian leaders no incentive to control extremism among their own people.

Nonetheless, such a diktat – however unjust and harsh – would have a certain brutal justification if it led to a real and effective separation between Israelis and Palestinians, and an end to major violence between the two sides. But it won't. The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005 was supposed to lead to just such a separation – and all too obviously hasn't.

Instead, only a few months later, Israeli forces are once again deep within the Gaza strip, carrying out an operation designed to punish the Palestinian people for terrorism and overthrow the Palestinian government. And the original reason, or at least pretext, for this massive operation was some almost completely ineffective rocket attacks on Israel, and the kidnap of just one Israeli soldier. This Israeli reprisal in turn has led to a new conflict with Hizbollah, and the radical destabilisation of Lebanon, which was supposed to be a prize example of successful US efforts to democratise the middle east.

Also in openDemocracy on the war involving Lebanon and Israel, Hizbollah and the Palestinians:

Paul Rogers tracks the conflict in a series of daily columns. For an overview see his "Global security" column

Plus, reports and analysis from the region:

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Did Hizbollah miscalculate? The view from Israel" (13 July 2006)

Alex Klaushofer, "Lebanon: unity within diversity"
(17 July 2006)

Roger Scruton, "Hizbollah: the missing perspective"
(20 July 2006)

Eric Silver, "A united, worried Israel"
(21 July 2006)

The terms of an Israeli-dictated settlement would make further terrorism against Israel inevitable. Israel's security fence might limit attacks, but as the Gaza experience has shown, could not possibly end them – especially since Israeli security forces in the Jordan valley and elsewhere would continue to be surrounded by Palestinians. And if Israel continued to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinian people as a whole, then even limited Palestinian statehood would be revealed as a cruel fraud.

If the US acquiesces in such a diktat, then any hope of strengthening progressive forces elsewhere in the middle east will be lost. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue, and will continue to generate support and recruits for al-Qaida and its allies. In his book Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, writes that his organisation should concentrate on exploiting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because whereas most Muslims do not share al-Qaida's ideology, most Muslims and almost all Arabs sympathize with the Palestinians.

The Bush legacy

As many moderate Israeli commentators have pointed out, such an Israeli diktat would also not be in the real long-term interests of Israel. It would wreck détente even with pro-western Muslim states. As the Hizbollah attack and Israel's counter-attack on Lebanon have demonstrated, it would certainly not lead to peace between Israel and her neighbours. It would continue to focus the hatred of Muslims all over the world on Israel. It would make real integration into Europe and the west impossible for Israel. From the security point of view, it would essentially lead to Israel marking time until the day – however long delayed – when Palestinian or Islamist terrorists acquire a capability to deliver a really devastating blow.

Rather than drifting along behind this Israeli strategy, the Bush administration should throw its weight behind a genuine agreed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should declare clearly what that solution should be, and should demand that both sides accept it – rather than demanding that the Palestinian side make all the key concessions in advance.

The Bush administration should do this because it is the right thing to do, and obviously the patriotic thing to do from a United States standpoint. And Bush should also do it for the sake of his historical image, something which is said to concern him very deeply. Given the mixture of unsolved and grossly worsened problems he will leave behind, Bush stands a good chance of being remembered as one of the worst presidents in the entire history of the United States. But he can still save something from the wreck. A settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would allow him to be remembered as on balance a true servant of his country, and even a benefactor of mankind.

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