By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON, DC – Palestinian health officials said at least 20 people were killed July 30 by what witnesses and United Nations officials said was the latest in a series of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) strikes on United Nations facilities that are supposed to be safe zones in the 23-day-old battle between Israel and Hamas and other militants. While at the same time Secretary of State John Kerry is shuttling between Egypt and Israel in a desperate attempt to salvage President Barack Obama’s fledging and rapidly deteriorating Middle East peace agenda.
The need for a prompt ceasefire resolution appears to be urgent by the hour; but can the U.S. serve as a credible and honest broker between the Palestinians and the Israeli government. The answer to this vital question could well determine whether President Obama can broker peace in the Middle East before his term expires in January 2017.
San Diego County News posed this question to a number of Middle East scholars, foreign policy analysts, and military strategists. Additional questions Americans are going to have to ask: So why Americans should care whether anything comes of the efforts to broker a ceasefire and hopefully will lead to a peace process? Are the stakes high enough to justify the considerable investment of President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s time and prestige? Do the risks of failure outweigh the potential gains? Is “peace in the Middle East” something Americans really need–or one of those diehard shibboleths that keep successive U.S. Administrations chasing around the track?
As this article was being prepared for print, at least over 1200 Palestinian men, women and children [this number includes Hamas fighters as well] and 40 Israeli soldiers and one civilian have been killed – thousands of Palestinians are trapped in a no-man’s-land where there are no safe houses or respite from the constant bombardment of their homes from IDF air-raids and missiles.
According to a New York Times report, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, sent a text message that the announcement of a unilateral 24-hour truce was “incorrect and has nothing to do with the positions of the resistance.”
He added: “When we have an Israeli commitment with an international obligation of a humanitarian cease-fire, we will study it. But declaring a unilateral truce while the occupation kills our children, this will never happen.”
The Times went on to say that later on Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing who lives in hiding, said there would be no cease-fire until Israel stopped its attacks and the blockade on Gaza was lifted.
“We will not accept any middle-ground solutions at the expense of the resistance and our people’s freedom,” he said in a two-minute audio recording on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa television station, which resumed broadcasting a few hours after Israeli airstrikes on its headquarters in Gaza City early Tuesday.
While at the same time Israeli citizens are overwhelmingly supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offensive against Hamas to use his words “to stop at nothing and use every means disposable to destroy Hamas’ aggression.”
“For Hamas, Egypt’s involvement must go further than reinstating a simple cease-fire based on ‘quiet-for-quiet’ between the two sides, while leaving political developments for future discussions. The recent proposal is strikingly similar to the 2012 agreement, which began to fall apart soon after it became clear that the promised normalization of Gaza would not be forthcoming. Stability between Hamas and Israel will require a long-term political approach for Gaza,” write Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold in Foreign Affairs.
So, what’s the end game for Prime Minister Netanyahu – the answer may not be as clear as simply defending Israel’s right to exist and survive – according to these Middle East scholars: “Mr. Netanyahu’s problem is not victory per se – but, rather, victory to what end? His difficulty in closing out this latest round originates from his lack of an end game, in either Gaza or the West Bank – at least not one he will acknowledge publicly. He does not want to reoccupy Gaza and to formally reassume responsibility for its 1.7 million inhabitants. He knows responsibility cannot be forced on Egypt and he has no interest in handing Gaza to Mr. Abbas in order to strengthen the moderate Palestinian camp,” writes Daniel Levy in the Financial Times.
The cold war is over, so U.S. fears of a regional tussle escalating into a superpower conflagration have subsided. Immediate threats to Israel’s security by a dominant and militarily powerful Arab country are not much in evidence. Syria, despite a potent army, is no longer able to tap Moscow for funds and is presently embark in a brutal and fatalistic civil war. Egypt has a de jure peace with Israel and problems with its people, Jordan a de facto one. Lebanon is struggling after decades of civil war and trying to hold on as best can. Iran is prostrate but still able to create havoc as she will. Iraq is steeped in a civil war with hardline Muslim Fundamentalist extremists rapidly marching towards Baghdad. And the Palestinians are virtually without patrons. The threat of an oil embargo that could paralyze the U.S. seems distant and remote, given Washington’s strong post-Desert Storm, 9-11 ties with Saudi Arabia and other coalition members who opposed Osama Ben Laden and record energy productions here at home.
But the short answer is yes, Middle East peace is important to our own well-being. It is not just a moral obligation–though, for a democracy and superpower, it is very much that. The U.S. has a tangle of specific strategic, political and economic interests in the region that ought to make Americans care about achieving peace–and its corollary, stability.
While 9-11 forced Israel and its Arab neighbors to the same side of the barricades, the alliance was temporary. The Arab-Israeli conflict remains a festering wound that prevents all the nations of the region from concentrating on economic and political improvement. The enmity bars Arab states from fully embracing Washington. It continues to spawn terrorist attacks throughout the region, including strikes on American targets like 9-11 and other terrorist plots over the past 15 years. And it compels Washington to remain fixated on Israel’s security, a posture that fuels anti-American sentiment–and costs U.S. taxpayers a bundle in billions of dollars every year.
Rabbi Henry Siegman — former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s “big three” Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, was born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany and has become a vocal critic of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories and has urged Israel to engage with Hamas. He has called the Palestinian struggle for a state, quote, “the mirror image of the Zionist movement” that led to the founding of Israel in 1948. He recently wrote a piece for Politico headlined “Israel Provoked This War.”
On July 30, 2014, this is what Rabbi Siegman had to say about his “beloved Israel: “It’s disastrous, both in political terms, which is to say the situation cannot conceivably, certainly in the short run, lead to any positive results, to an improvement in the lives of either Israelis or Palestinians, and of course it’s disastrous in humanitarian terms, the kind of slaughter that’s taking place there. When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the slaughter of—repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis—and should be a profound crisis—in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success. It leads one virtually to a whole rethinking of this historical phenomenon.”
San Diego County News asked Rabbi Siegman for his reaction to Israel’s spokesperson Mark Regev’s answer to an MSNBC news anchor question about Israel occupying Gaza: “Listen, if you’ll allow me to, I want to take issue with one important word you said. You said Israel is the occupying authority. You’re forgetting Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. We took down all the settlements, and the settlers who didn’t want to leave, we forced them to leave. We pulled back to the 1967 international frontier. There is no Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. We haven’t been there for some eight years,” stated Regev.
Rabbi Siegman responded: “That is of course utter nonsense, and for several reasons. First of all, Gaza is controlled completely, like the West Bank, because it is totally surrounded by Israel. Israel could not be imposing the kind of chokehold it has on Gaza if it were not surrounding, if its military were not surrounding Gaza, and not just on the territory, but also on the air, on the sea. No one there can make a move without coming into contact with the Israeli IDF, you know, outside this imprisoned area where Gazans live. So, there’s no one I have encountered, who is involved with international law, who’s ever suggested to me that in international law Gaza is not considered occupied. So that’s sheer nonsense.”
Rabbi Siegman went on to say that the statements are “nothing more than propaganda used by the Israeli government to further confuse the unsuspecting public.”
“Hamas is no more a ‘terror organization’ … than the Zionist movement was during its struggle for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, parties within the Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategic reasons,” stated Rabbi Siegman.
The absence of a secure and stable peace gives all hostile parties a ready excuse to continue building their military arsenals. “In any future war lurks the danger of weapons of mass destruction,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, former United States National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.
Israel is assumed to have a nuclear capability, and Iran is in hot pursuit of the same. Iran has already demonstrated its willingness to take on the American diplomatic juggernaut. As long as there is an Arab vein to tap that longs for the destruction of Israel–and by association, the U.S.–the post 9-11 terrorists, the Saddam Husseins, the Osama Bin Ladens, and the Timothy McVeighs of the world pose a genuine threat to American interests domestically and internationally.
The recent resolutions passed by the House and Senate pledging full and unconditional support for Israel in its confrontation with Hamas is well documented and troubling says France’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ambassador François Delattre.
“The U.S. must admonish the Israeli government to reframe from targeting innocent civilians in the mad quest to kill Hamas fighters. At some point Hamas must weigh the human and humanitarian toll its people are suffering at the hands of the IDF,” commented Ambassador Delattre.
“The American institutions of power must bear some level of responsibility for the lack of progress towards Middle East peace. As long as the Americans adhere to the demands of the Israeli lobbyists at the expense of the Palestinians, there will be more bloodshed,” Ambassador Delattre emphasized.
Which begs the question as rose by Ambassador Delattre: Can the U.S. continue its self-appointed role as an “honest broker?”
Ilan Pappé, professor of history and the director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, and is the author of several books, including, most recently, The Idea of Israel:A History of Power and Knowledge, believes the U.S. Government has lost its moral compass since it invaded Iraq in 2003 and has lost considerable credibility in the eyes of the Arab world.
“I think Israel is at a crossroad, but it has already made its decision which way it is going from this junction. It was in a junction where it had to decide finally whether it wants to be a democracy or to be a racist and apartheid state, given the realities on the ground. I think Israel, in 2014, made a decision that it prefers to be a racist apartheid state and not a democracy, and it still hopes that the United States would license this decision and provide it with the immunity to continue with the necessary implication of such a policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, wherever they are,” stated Professor Pappé.
Professor Pappé went on to say that “the U.S. should apply the basic definitions of democracy to Israel and recognize that it is giving, it’s providing an unconditional support for a regime that systematically abuses the human rights and the civil rights of anyone who is not a Jew between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. If America wants clearly to support such regimes—it had done it in the past—that’s OK. But if it feels that it wants to send a different message to the Middle East, then it really has a different agenda of human rights.”
On the downside, taking the lead in trying to make peace also risks a surge of radicalism and extremism if the talks break down. Arab states that came to expect a peace dividend as the implicit payoff for their cooperation in the U.S.-directed coalition against Iraq and the War On Terrorism could grow hostile–especially if Israel is the main spoiler. The Intifada could reignite against Israel and Americans. Hard-line factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization might grab control. A new round of hostage taking could commence, and the safety of the remaining captives would be jeopardized. If the talks prove nasty enough, war might even erupt between Israel and Syria. All of this would chip away at U.S. prestige and influence—or even endanger Americans directly.
President Obama’s vision for the Middle East must be clarified and executed with the boldness of the 1979 Camp David Accords and the Camp David 2000 Summit. In order for there to be any progress or hope for the Palestinians – President Obama would have to go up against the powerful American Israeli Political Action Committee, a great majority of the members of Congress who support Israel unconditionally, and a skeptical and divided electorate.
If the U.S. hopes to be the guiding force in the new world order, then Noble Peace Prize Laureate President Obama must prove his commitment to the pursuit of such principles as democracy, cooperation and conciliation even if that means rebuking the Israeli government when it commits flagrant violations of human rights. After pulling out the stops to put a significant dent in the war on terror — the U.S. must demonstrate that it will go just as far to win the peace whether it is Palestine or Ukraine.
“A lot of people at the U.N., including our European allies as well as the Third World, look at the way we handle the Arab-Israeli conflict as a litmus test for our role in the post-Osama Bin Laden world,” says Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, who was born a Palestinian Christian in Israel and served as an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. during the Gulf War.
The choice for President Obama is not between sitting back cost free or taking a risk for peace. Rather, the choice is to intervene now, when the chances for success are highest, or to be sucked back into the Middle East maelstrom when there is no chance at all.
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Washington, DC Correspondent