The single most pressing political challenge


The triumphal celebrations, the roaring and shouting of ‘four more years’ to greet George Bush had hardly subsided when his closest political friend and ally Tony Blair injected a note of realism into the American President’s dreamworld. ‘Mr Bush’s re-election comes at a critical time,’ the British Prime Minister told reporters. ‘A world that is fractured, divided and uncertain, must be brought together by demonstrating the strength of our common values. In particular I have long argued that the need to revitalise the Middle East peace process is the single most pressing political challenge in our world today.’

In Paris, Yasser Arafat was dying – or may be clinically dead. In Fallujah in Iraq, American marines were preparing to flatten the city in another bloody attempt to blast democracy into the Iraqi people. And in Washington, George Bush’s people announced their first grand new initiative – they were going to press for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriage.

Bush’s re-election, the passing of Arafat, Iraq at crisis point – and George Bush, who must have heard what his British ally was telling the world, seems most worried about the fact that the two girls with short haircuts at the end of the street might want to walk down the aisle together.

All you can say about Bush’s post-election behaviour is that he’s running true to form. He obviously thinks he has a mandate to continue what he started. As he told reporters after his win, ‘I’ve earned political capital in this campaign, and now I intend to spend it you have a feeling the people have spoken and have embraced your point of view.’ The world should, perhaps, tremble slightly at this certainty.

According to that grave and cautious British medical publication, the Lancet, as many as 100 000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since the American invasion – a death toll of innocents that Saddam Hussein at his maddest could only have dreamed about (he didn’t have the finest tanks and planes that man has made to carry out his murder programs). Assuming that Arafat will very soon be dead and a whole new era will be dawning in the Middle East, it appears the leader of the free world will be the ultimate source (one of his titles is Commander in Chief) of an orgy of death and destruction at a time when he should at least be talking about the possibility of bringing some sort of end to the question that is at the root of all the Middle East’s problems, the question of Palestine and establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

There’s no point now in rehashing Arafat’s role in Palestinian history, his mismanagement of the PLO, his tolerance of corruption, and most disastrously perhaps, his failure to train and name a successor, or at least name a representative group to take over when he died. He may not yet be dead, but given all the reports of his condition, it seems pointless to ask now whether he should have done a deal with the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to get a statelet that would at least have been better than anything being offered by Ariel Sharon today.

What Arafat will be remembered for is that he was the man who let no-one forget the Palestinians. He was instantly recognisable, even in the west where right-wing cartoonists portrayed his semitic features as viciously as the Nazis portrayed Jews in the thirties. He never abandoned his people. He didn’t run away – I often talked to him and ate with him in rathole apartments in Beirut, and then in hideously decorated little Housing Commission style houses in Tunis – and for the last three years of his life lived in what was essentially a small prison in Ramallah on the west bank, walled in by Israeli tanks and troops. He could have chosen comfortable exile at any time. He was never challenged by his own people because they knew he ate, dressed, lived and risked his life daily as they did. He was nothing like the brutal, idle, greedy and corrupt sheikhs, emirs and dictators who run most of the Islamic world. There’s no question that the Israelis made him a martyr to all Arabs – and to many others, in his later years. Like his mirror-image, the Dalai Lama, who also won the Nobel peace prize and personified his people to the world , Arafat represented – was, his people.

George Bush and Ariel Sharon said they would never deal with him – they didn’t trust him – I suspect his very looks, the unshaven jaw, his whispered English, his kaffiyeh and military fatigues, repelled them. The Israelis, using the mass of military equipment heaped on them by the Americans, repeatedly destroyed his communications systems, his bases, his militias, killed his underlings – then said they wouldn’t negotiate with him because he wouldn’t control Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Bush now should be taking his friend (and essential military backer), Tony Blair’s advice, and thinking about how he restarts the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I suspect few things would be further from his mind. If he is thinking of the Middle East right now, he’ll be wondering how his marines are doing in Fallujah, which they’re now bombarding with 155 mm howitzer doses of high explosive democracy. I found it surreal to hear a Marine commander telling his troops on Monday morning that the battle would be like ‘the battle for Hue’. I wasn’t there for that battle, but I stood in the ruins of what was once the most beautiful city in Vietnam a few months later, and I stayed and watched the North Vietnamese and Vietcong over-run Hue on their inexorable march to Saigon, driving the South Vietnamese and their American advisors before them.

Battles like Hue, or the battle for Beirut against the Israelis in 1982 just make the native defenders tougher and more determined to throw back the foreign invaders. The North Vietnamese won, the invasion of Lebanon gave birth to Hezbollah, who drove the Israelis out of south Lebanon, and so became the first Arab force to defeat Israel. Fallujah will be likely levelled, but most of the population – and the militias defending it, have already moved out. The people who move back to the ruins will bear a bitter hatred for the Americans and their Iraqi puppets which will last for generations.

I think that Bush and his rapidly diminishing cadre of allies (virtually all the token backers have now pulled out, leaving just the Americans and Brits to do the fighting, and the Italians and Australians to do some traffic control and light guard duty) have probably missed the chance to make Iraq a shining beacon of democracy. They had their chance- they should have gone in, toppled Saddam, arrested his political and military hitmen, and by now, should have been pulling out, leaving the country to devolve into a moderate Shi’ite theocracy that would have been so pre-occupied with rebuilding it would have had no territorial or religious ambitions beyond its borders. Certainly the influential moderate Shi’a clergy were there, and this sort of thing has happened before. In East Pakistan in 1971, the Indian army smashed the occupying West Pakistan army, then moved out in months, allowing East Pakistan to become an India-friendly independent state of Bangladesh.

The Americans couldn’t leave well enough alone. One day we’ll learn whether they stayed for the oil, or to protect Israel, or turn Iraq into a giant US base – or maybe even in the belief that you can set up a puppet regime then shell its people into being democrats. But for now, we’ll probably have to watch while the fighting goes on, the Islamic militias get better and better with practice, and in the end the Americans and their allies tire of the game and go away, leaving the tough guys to take over. No reason why it shouldn’t happen. The Americans finally couldn’t take it any more in Vietnam and the North established a hardline communist regime. And if you’re looking for an Islamic example, the Russians couldn’t take it any more, and left Afghanistan to the battle hardened Taliban, who are now growing again like some unkillable virus. Their honoured and telegenic guest Mr O. Bin Laden I imagine sits and watches satellite television of Iraq and can’t believe his luck.

The only feasible democratic state that could be established in the Middle East is Palestine. As Tony Blair says, it’s the question that must be faced. I wouldn’t try to suggest what Palestine would be, except that it would have to be a cohesive, independent entity on the west bank, joined with Gaza and not some Batustan dotted with Israeli settlements. The Americans and Israelis now cannot use Yasser Arafat as an excuse for not negotiating. But if Arafat is dead, they’re going to have to deal, probably, with much tougher people, like leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who yes, do send out suicide bombers. And they already have contact with one outstanding Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti. He’s always available for a chat, because he’s serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail.

Barghouti, Islamic Jihad, Hamas. Wonder if George Bush knows the names? Very unlikely any of them voted Republican.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.