The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, sure knows how to create headlines. During a speech before hundreds of Egyptian university students in late June, she acknowledged America’s role in preventing democratic autonomy in the Middle East.
‘For 60 years, my country pursued stability at the expense of democracy here in the Middle East and we achieved neither,’ she said.
‘Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.’
Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian
The Australian newspaper lapped it up. ‘The leaders of the social-democratic parties in Australia, Britain and the US made the principled decision following 9/11 to support democracy and civilised values against religious fascism’, said their editorial on 27 June. Anyone questioning the Bush doctrine was ‘appeasing the fascists’.
It was all nonsense, of course, and yet another sign of aggressive posturing positioned as political strength. This was no time to show weakness or wandering resolve, pro-Bush supporters claimed, as any whiff of indecision and our enemies would strike. On the same day, the Sydney Morning Herald expressed great scepticism towards Dr Rice’s speech. It will take ‘more than rhetorical flourishes’ to revolutionise the Middle East, they offered.
It is time to separate rhetoric and reality and in doing so acknowledge that US policies in the Middle East, especially on the Israel-Palestine conflict, have always been based on rejectionism and outright collusion with the most extreme of Israeli positions. There is no sign that this is changing.
America has offered virtually unqualified support for the proposed Gaza withdrawal in August, publicly stating that it is the first step towards a permanent settlement between the two sides. During her trip to the Middle East, Dr Rice praised Israel’s commitment to ‘disengagement’, saying the ‘historic’ move could lead to a Palestinian state.
But facts on the ground prove otherwise. Sharon told his right-wing supporters some time after announcing his Gaza plans: ‘My plan is difficult for the Palestinians, a fatal blow. There’s no Palestinian state in a unilateral move.’ His true ambitions lie in surrendering Gaza and annexing large parts of the West Bank. This is already occurring and yet still America backs the plan.
After Dr Rice’s ‘democracy’ speech in Cairo, a number of prominent Arab thinkers questioned her motivation. Dina Ezzat wrote in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly that the Secretary of State had ‘conspicuously failed to offer meaningful support to the opposition and their demands that democratisation be speeded up Should the Middle East’s regimes be able to guarantee the stable flow of oil [to the US], contain Islamist resistance movements and accept Israel’s military dominance and economic integration in the Middle East, few expect [the United States’]long-standing policy [of supporting dictators]to change anytime soon.’
Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh, senior lecturer in global politics at Monash University, wrote in the The Age that Dr Rice’s stated goals were noble, but the potential rise of Islamist parties in numerous regional nations would put America’s mantra to the test.
Avi Shlaim, a British Academy research professor at St Antony’s College in Oxford, wrote in the Guardian soon after Dr Rice’s visit that ‘Condi’s conundrum’ was this: ‘If she is serious about spreading democracy in the Arab world, she must accept the outcome of free elections; in most of the Arab world they would produce Islamist, anti-US governments.’ Israel has contributed greatly to this tragic state of affairs and remains America’s grand liability in the region.
Gershon Baskin is the co-CEO of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information. After recently spending time in Washington with numerous policy makers directly involved in shaping US direction towards the Middle East, his message was clear: ‘The policy of containment and control is the main thread of US policy. The main focus for the Bush administration is Iraq and not Israel-Palestine, which is perceived as being too sensitive and too explosive domestically to be confronted with great involvement.’
When Israel recently announced the resumption of its assassination policy towards Palestinian militants, Washington refused to criticise the move, preferring to echo the Tel Aviv perspective. White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that, ‘there is more the Palestinian leadership can do to go after those who engage in violence and terrorist activity.’
America’s attention to democracy is selective, to say the least. Perhaps Dr Rice would like to comment on a proposed bill recently before the Israeli Knesset that would prohibit citizens of the occupied territories from seeking compensation for injury or death at the hands of Israeli soldiers, even if the soldiers are found to have acted unlawfully. Implementing such a measure would be illegal under international law, as a state is obliged to provide efficient remedies to victims of human rights violations. Israel disputes that it has any obligation to pay compensation to victims during a time of conflict, though as Human Rights Watch rightly argues, the Jewish state does carry certain responsibilities as an occupying power.
Perhaps Dr Rice would like to examine the current state of Palestinian workers in Israel, numbering around 20 000 officially and a further 20 000 unofficially. In 1999, there were roughly 170 000 workers. The reason so many Palestinians are desperate for work is due to ever-increasing Israeli restrictions on granting permits. This is due to a government preference for hiring and supporting labourers from Third World countries and phasing out the use of Palestinian workers.
A recent US State Department report revealed that Israel was a notorious destination for human trafficking, in the same category as Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, Congo and Japan. Many of these people are working to support the Israeli economy. Atef Saad, a media consultant for the General Secretary of Palestinian Trade Unions, says that America and Israel ‘continue to evaluate matters from a security point of view rather than a political or social view Preventing Palestinians from working in Israel will only increase poverty, which will lead to despair, extremism and more violence.’
The Gaza withdrawal is likely to inflame tensions. Many are now saying that a third Intifada looks inevitable. Official Palestinian spokesmen have been suggesting for some time, virtually ignored in the West, that the withdrawal is not a proper withdrawal unless Israel hands over land, sea and air border crossing points. Israel has no intention of doing so and America is not pressuring them, either. Danny Rubinstein wrote recently in Haaretz of what form a third uprising might take. The first, he said, was called the Intifada of stones and focused on strike action and blocking roads. The second Intifada was more brutal and saw suicide bombers detonating themselves in Israel’s heartland. The third will be an uprising of rockets, missiles and mortar shells.
When the walls and fences are completed in the West Bank and if settlement expansion continues uninterrupted around Jerusalem, Israel can expect brutal consequences. Sharon has learnt that the conflict cannot be ended by force alone and many Palestinians agree. Nothing can replace honest negotiations between two parties. It is only then that peace may be achieved. Until then, and with US, British and Australian support, unilateral Israeli manoeuvres are likely to continue a path towards anarchy. Palestinians shouldn’t need to constantly prove their worth or desire for an independent state. Israel has as much right to exist as Palestine, and yet Palestinians are constantly told to convince the world of their sincerity. America’s claims of ‘spreading democracy and freedom’ do nothing to appease this hypocrisy.