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Politics

The Last Straw

14 April 2004

The Last Straw?

By Gwynne Dyer

You never know which straw will finally break the camel’s back, but it may have been Wednesday’s summit between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The public endorsement that Mr Bush gave to Mr Sharon’s abandonment of the ‘peace process’ in favour of ‘unilateral disengagement’ was mostly symbolic, since the Israeli leader was committed to doing it anyway. But in the Middle East, patience is finally running out.

The people of the Arab countries have been remarkably patient as they watched their living standards decline under corrupt and oppressive governments backed by the West. They have been patient as Israel sat on the conquered Palestinian territories for thirty-seven years, pushing Arabs off the land and planting their own settlements on it. They have been patient about a lot of things — but that dry, snapping sound you heard a moment ago may have been the camel’s back breaking.

Look at the past month from an Arab perspective. At the end of March Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and leader of the Palestinian Islamist organisation Hamas. Sheikh Yassin was a staunch supporter of the use of terror against the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory — but he was also an elderly paraplegic who was widely seen as a holy man, and for many years Israel avoided attacking him.

Many Palestinians saw Sheikh Yassin’s murder as a deliberate attempt by the Israeli government to stimulate massive terrorist attacks which would distract international attention from Mr Sharon’s massive land grab in the West Bank. They were probably right, though the attacks have not yet come. What did come was a statement by Dr. Abdelaziz Rantissi, Hamas’s new leader in the Gaza Strip, that “America has declared war on Allah. Allah has declared war on America and Bush.”

Most people in the West have forgotten that international terrorism was once the specialty of secular Palestinian nationalists. They stopped all that dead in 1988, after they got international recognition that the Palestinians were a people with a claim to their land and not just anonymous ‘Arab refugees’ who could be put anywhere. ALL subsequent Palestinian terrorism has been directed exclusively against Israel, whose soldiers occupy that land — until now.

What Dr. Rantissi was saying is that America’s complicity in what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is so great that the United States will also become a target of Palestinian terrorism. Of course, Hamas hasn’t even retaliated against Israel for Sheikh Yassin’s death yet. Still….

Spin forward a week to Iraq, where the ham-fisted mismanagement of the US occupation regime turns the killing of four men in Falluja and the banning of a 10,000-circulation newspaper published by a radical young cleric into two full-scale sieges of major Iraqi cities. It will be a miracle if the US military don’t kill a thousand Iraqis this month (they’re already up to 800), and no matter what the American military spokesman says, people watching Arab television can see that the makeshift hospitals are full of wounded women and children as well as young men. Perhaps the United States is not the Arabs’ enemy, but look at it through Arab eyes.

And finally, Wednesday at the White House. It was obvious why Mr Sharon, in trouble at home on several fronts, needed Mr Bush’s support for his radical plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip (where there are only 7,500 Jewish settlers among 1.3 million Palestinians), but hang onto almost all of the far bigger settlements on the West Bank and confine the Palestinians there behind his ‘security fence’, thus unilaterally settling the new borders of an emasculated Palestinian pseudo-state. It is less clear why Mr Bush had to give it to him.

For thirty-seven years, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have insisted, along with everyone else in the world, that Israel’s legal border is the pre-1967 one, and that it can only be changed by freely negotiated agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet there was Mr Bush, with Mr Sharon beaming by his side, announcing a new US policy: “In the light of new realities, including already existing Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the (pre-1967 borders).”

Not a word about how those ‘already existing Israeli population centres’ were planted there by force after the Israeli military occupation in 1967; not even a nod to the UN resolutions that have been the bedrock on which every previous negotiation was built. There aren’t going to be any more peace negotiations, of course, which suits Sharon fine — but why does it suit the United States? Mr Bush’s unnecessary concessions to Israel were so effective in alienating Arab opinion that his speech might have been ghost-written by Osama bin Laden.

This may not prove to be the final straw, but we are getting very close. For forty years the United States has managed to preserve a dominant position in the Arab world despite its permanent disagreement with the Arabs about Israel, but now it is throwing it away. The Arab regimes that depend on US backing are getting very worried, and five or ten years from now the Middle East may look a lot more like Mr bin Laden’s dream than Mr Bush’s.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“The eople…breaking”; and “Most…now”)