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THE ANNAPOLIS CONFERENCE: DEAD MAN WALKING

John Chuckman

The Annapolis Conference was, like so many political and diplomatic events of our time, highly choreographed, finely stage-managed, and heavily marketed. Yet, as soon as it was over, it was apparent little had happened, much as when a child opens a much-advertised, expensive plastic toy on Christmas, a brief, glitzy, big-eyed moment followed quickly by tedium. You might compare it to a George Bush press conference or any American presidential debate. Indeed, such choreographed non-events make up a fair portion of what Americans see on their evening news, a phenomenon we might call virtual or synthetic news.

I am reminded of a Bush summit with the oleaginous Tony Blair, both of them standing at parallel podiums, pontificating and smiling as though they regarded themselves as re-incarnations of Roosevelt and Churchill, which undoubtedly they do. When they finished saying nothing glibly (glibly, at least in Blair’s case) they turned towards each other and walked like two cuckoo-clock figures to meet and turn again, marching out in lock step along a red carpet, for all the world the just-crowned king and queen of the high-school prom leaving the dance floor. Or I recall Richard Nixon’s inspiration to have guards at the White House dressed in powder-blue uniforms complete with feathered marching-band hats and horns blaring “Hail to the Chief” each time the great man appeared. It was the court of Louis XIV as furnished by Wal-Mart.

It is actually hard to understand what precisely motivated the conference. It is clear that Condoleezza Rice, an utterly forgettable Secretary of State without an achievement worth citing, someone who likes to talk and hear herself talk, to shop for expensive shoes on Fifth Avenue, and to play the role of child prodigy up from America’s backwoods at White House soirees, hoped to do something substantial with this conference. It is a practice that’s called “leaving a legacy” by the American press. It’s a grand old tradition. All Presidents and Secretaries of State are supposed to leave some kind of legacy, just as the first female Secretary of State, Ms. Albright, left tens of thousands of children dead with sanctions on Iraq or Colin Powell left us with the lasting memory of lying through his teeth at the United Nations General Assembly in order to promote the invasion of Iraq.

It’s equally clear that something desperately needs to be done in the Middle East. It’s sinking into perpetual, bloody insanity. Israel’s near-paranoid ideas about its own security are sucking much of the planet’s resources into the political equivalent of a black hole from which nothing emerges. Israel never has enough security. Occupation, reprisals, and wars haven’t supplied enough. Arrest and torture haven’t supplied enough. Spies and assassinations haven’t supplied enough. Atomic weapons haven’t supplied enough. Walls do not supply enough.

The poor Palestinians pay a terrible price for crimes against the Jews with which they had absolutely nothing to do. The self-righteous United States is only too happy to see them paying it. After all, the greatest opportunity there was to avoid the Holocaust was for the United States to open its doors, which it adamantly refused to do for even a single boatload of Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

Well, where someone else is paying the freight, America loves assuming idealistic poses, making gestures and speeches about peace and rights and all good things human. Indeed, over decades of American posturing and blubbering, conditions in the occupied territories have become worse in many ways: more than a quarter million Israeli “settlers” now live on what can only be honestly described as stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank, and a giant wall, far more massive and foreboding than the infamous wall that once separated East and West Berlin, sits on still more Palestinian land, separating families and destroying their commerce and livelihoods.

Almost certainly over time, Israel’s wall will generate a considerable dead zone even further into the West Bank, ready at some point in the future to be “re-claimed” by more settlers. It’s worth noting that the Palestinians today control just over twenty percent of Palestine, a territory that once was entirely theirs and that according to maps drawn in the international diplomacy that pre-dated modern Israel was to be divided equitably between Jews and Arabs.

Many Jews, perhaps most, subscribe to the notion that they have an ancient claim to Israel because of the Bible stories, an argument pretty much comparable to Greece making claims on the coast of Turkey because ancient Greece won the Trojan War as recorded in the Iliad and the Odyssey. This of course totally ignores history, and the many conquests of ancient Israel, a land Jews occupied only a small fraction of the time they did not over the last twenty-five hundred years or so. Moreover, if you take such an argument literally, then the land of Israel actually belongs to descendents of the ancient people, Canaanites and Philistines, of the Bible stories, whoever they may be. I suppose the Egyptians have a claim, too, since Egypt controlled some the area as part of its empire a very long time ago. Then, too, there’s the potential claim of the ancient Phoenicians whose alphabet we still use. Clearly, this kind of claim reduces to silly stuff, but it has emotional power for Jews and for Christians raised on Old Testament stories.

Well, every people is entitled to national myths, and the rest of us do not have to regard seriously the claim that George Washington never told a lie or that Rome was founded by babes raised by a she-wolf. The trouble with this particular Israeli myth is the dangerous modern extension to which it leads. Conservative Israelis and virtually every leader since the state’s foundation in fact believe they are entitled to what they regard as all of ancient Israel, something that includes the West Bank and Gaza and indeed the Southern part of modern Lebanon and a bit of Syria. Of course, there are no maps of ancient Israel on papyrus preserved in clay containers, only modern creations based either closely or loosely on Biblical scholarship, but in any event as dependable as all efforts based on scraps of ancient text which itself is full of myths and exaggerations.

I believe that dedication to the dream of ancient Israel, what is often called Greater Israel, has been the major barrier to peace since the modern founding. That is not a widely accepted proposition, but there are many reasons to regard it as a true one. Disinformation and black operations of many kinds have left the general public, at least in America, with the idea that Israel was content with its borders and that it was only the fury of “irrational” Arabs that preventing Israel’s living in peace. The truth is that virtually all Arab leaders accept the existence of Israel, have no intention of trying to destroy Israel, and, anyway, do not have the means for doing so. They would however like very much to see some justice, as would millions of others.

The example of the Six Day War is perhaps the most revealing of many instances of disinformation and black operations. We have the views of many astute contemporary observers four decades ago, including one of the world statesmen of the time, President de Gaulle of France, that Israel manipulated conditions for that war, using Arab anger over a long series of provocations to get the war it wanted, knowing well that it could win and that ultimately, in any event, its security was guaranteed by the United States. This operation was a complete success, leaving Israel with real estate it desired and leaving the world’s general public with the psychologically important (false) impression of little David standing up to the Philistines. Who doesn’t admire the gritty little guy standing up for his rights?

Forty years later, Israel still holds most of these conquests, treating the inhabitants shamefully, as badly as ever apartheid South Africa treated the people it did not want, and Israel continues to launch attacks or provocations over other areas of Greater Israel, southern Lebanon and Syria, while gradually bricking over the West Bank. It gave Egypt back the Sinai because world pressure was overwhelming after Sadat’s stunning act of statesmanship in coming to Israel. The pressure was reflected in sharing the Nobel Peace Prize earned by Sadat with an Israeli Prime Minister who was an unapologetic old terrorist associated with the Irgun (a group responsible for, among other terrors, the King David Hotel bombing, 1946, and the Deir Yassin massacre, 1948) and an ardent supporter of Greater Israel to his death, something he repeatedly reminded President Carter of at Camp David. The Sinai is not one of the world’s hottest pieces of real estate and in return for giving it up, Israel gained peace with the only Arab country capable of being a serious threat. Moreover, the United States opened its check book to cement the peace with economic assistance to Egypt now second only to the huge amount given to Israel, and Israel received several billion dollars to relocate defences in the Sinai. An equivalent set of conditions does not apply to any of the other occupied territories.

When Israel announces a “freeze” in West Bank settlements, as it routinely feels obliged to declare for a conference such as Annapolis, it does not mean a halt to road and other construction projects already underway in the last batch of property seized from others, and it does not even mean enforcement against liebensraum-crazed settlers who always charge out with their submachine guns to grab someone else’s olive grove and start some new informal settlements with beat-up trailers, flags, and razor wire.

It is ironic that the United States seems so little concerned about the settlers, matters around ownership and property in other lands always assuming overwhelming importance in American foreign policy. Wars have been fought over it. The long dirty terror war against Castro started over just such issues. The only explanation for the vast slaughter in Vietnam was that people’s choosing the wrong economic system, the leaders in America’s rump-state ally being dictators as surely as those in the North. This behavior by Israelis is as lawless as any fleecing of foreign investors in Moscow by the Russian mafia or the uncompensated nationalization of American corporate assets in what were once commonly called banana republics, this last being the cause of a whole series of secret, violent interventions by America.

The problems involved now with returning to the Green Line, as U.N. resolutions and the needs of genuine peace require, seem almost insurmountable. How do you move more than a quarter of a million people in any reasonable time? And if the people refuse to be moved, as is very much likely to be the case with many on the West Bank? The Israeli Army recently had a difficult time with a relatively small number of settlers who lived in a hopeless colony behind razor wire in Gaza. One can only imagine what a comparable change in the West Bank would involve.

I should observe here that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is best understood as a tactic, the West Bank being a place of far greater immediate interest. Gaza has been called a giant open prison, and that description is not far from the truth. Its 139 square miles are jammed with about 1.4 million people, more than ten times the population density of Israel, and it enjoys no access by land, sea, or air without Israeli permission. No one can regard it as having any potential as an independent, viable state. The ultimate fate of Gaza in Israeli government thinking may be either to remain as an isolated, undefined entity, providing a pool of cheap labor as required, or a place to be made so uncomfortable over time that most of its people flee.

The idea of causing people to flee from a hopeless situation is an old one in Israel. We have statements going back to the late Moshe Dayan in his prime to that effect concerning the territories. As to cheap labor, the simple demographic fact is that Palestinians have birth rates comparable to certain other poor areas of the world such as West Africa. This maintains a young and growing population. Israel’s birth rates, except for the ultra-orthodox minority, compare to those in other advanced states whose populations have passed through demographic transition. No advanced Western society can replace its own population through natural increase, and that is why migration is beginning to be important in lands where once it played a small role. Gaza’s gates over the decades have been opened or closed many times to the many workers in Gaza employed in Israel according to changes in the political and security environment.

Many Israelis, not just settlers, do not want to return land recently taken from Palestinians. There is actually a wide spectrum of opinion in Israel on this matter, running from those who never want to give anything back to Arabs to those willing to return to the Green Line. Polls show this last group is not dominant and that most Israelis believe in holding onto at least some of the territories. A vision of some form of Greater Israel still holds sway over much of public opinion.

And the difficulties associated with a return to the Green Line are only heaped up with other insurmountable problems such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees early Israel terrorized into running away. United Nations’ principles supposedly assure the right of return of any people cast out in this fashion, but Israel is never going to agree with this principle because its democracy is based on an assured overwhelming Jewish majority in perpetuity.

During the same decades of adverse change in the Middle East, conditions also have changed within the United States. They have changed in several ways. First, America has become, unabashedly, an imperialist power. For many decades there was a kind of Jeffersonian fig leaf over the rise of America’s empire, which ironically began with Jefferson himself. It was always advertised as a bastion of liberty, a place of refuge, a society that embraced human rights – all arising from the revolt of a young, scrappy people against the world’s last great imperial power. But since World War II, and increasingly since the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans have started saying there’s nothing wrong with being an empire and using military muscle where they see fit. Some of the boldest words around this changing attitude, attempting to palatably market what was once considered unpalatable, come from the neo-cons who have enjoyed such great influence under the weak and ineffectual Bush. They call openly for America to assume the imperial purple of Rome on a planetary scale. You have the military power, America, use it. To hell with what the other ninety-five percent of humanity thinks or fears.

Central to the neo-con effort is a drive to make Israel what they consider more secure, the most noted neo-cons being rather intense defenders of Israel’s excesses. This security need, of course, was the major impetus behind the invasion of Iraq. It was also the impetus behind America’s support for Israel’s bloody attack on Lebanon. And it is the impetus behind all the noisy threats against Iran.

Israel is discussed by the neo-cons in terms of democracy and enlightenment in the Middle East, ignoring the fact that Israel limits its population by religious identity, which really is not quite what most of us mean by democracy. And with regard to human rights and enlightenment, holding millions in seemingly perpetual bondage is a very odd interpretation. Few Americans know that there is no such thing as a Bill or Charter of Rights in Israel. Such a document would require a great feat of imagination when your population is defined by religious identity and you hold others in bondage. While about 19% of Israel’s population is Arab, that fact alone is a source of constant unease in Israel. These people are descendents of those who refused to flee under the violence of Israel’s creation, and today in many respects they are not treated as equal citizens.

Israel has become an important component in what neo-cons see as the American Empire. It sometimes serves as a proxy actor for American interests in the region, an imperial pied-à-terre, it has been armed and equipped to resemble a miniature geo-political replica of the United States, and, perhaps most importantly, Israel has a set of ruthless policies the neo-cons would very much like the United States to adopt almost in their entirety. Under Bush, this last has come near to becoming reality.

No national American politician today speaks in anything but exquisite political correctness about the Middle East – unless he or she is talking about Iraq or Iran or Syria, in which case threats of bombs and hellfire are always deemed appropriate – never forgetting to lavishly praise Israel for its long search for peace, even when the search involves mass slaughter in Lebanon with cluster bombs or the cold-blooded murder of UN observers. Indeed, politicians of either political party today literally run a gauntlet of American Jewish organizations, attending rubber-chicken dinners wearing de rigueur yarmulkes, making pledges for Israel more solemn-sounding than anything they make about any other part of the planet.

You’d think it was a service club environment during the Cold War, and the pledges concerned the unspeakable horrors of communism, but it’s not the Cold War, and the Palestinians are not enemies, just victims fighting back with largely ineffectual means. What’s more, Israel – as it has proved so many times with its extensive and damaging spying, dirty tricks and black operations, secret projects such as those for developing nuclear weapons or assisting South Africa to do so, high-handed turns in policy, and misuse of American-supplied armaments in violation of signed agreements – is often not even a particularly good friend to the United States.

Now, American politicians do not make pledges of undying devotion out of sheer emotionalism. Emotions for American politicians generally are things only to be manipulated for effect. So why the pledges? The most important reason concerns the structure of American national politics. Lobbying is a central part of how Americans are governed, almost resembling a fourth branch of government. In addition, American politics are totally driven by money, much the way national consumer products are pushed into existence by expensive marketing and advertising campaigns. Effective advertising has been proved a profitable technique in selling products and in selling politicians. Money is literally the oxygen of American political life. Special interests supply most of this political oxygen. The better lobbyists have learned how to market their support and to lever their resources for the greatest possible effect. They use their resources to help their supporters and to hurt those who oppose them.

Every thinking American knows Israel’s lobby is today a very powerful force in American politics, no matter the endless name-calling against such a non-inflammatory and thoughtful book as Mearsheimer and Walt which only documents what people already know anecdotally. Indeed, the very size and noise of the opposition raised against that calm, scholarly, rather dull book are measures of its accuracy.

The Israeli lobby has a conventional formal face in AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), but it consists of much more than just that organization which follows along the similar lines and is subject to the same rules as hundreds of lobbies in Washington. The whole Israeli lobby involves many organizations working towards the same general goals and includes a large number of columnists and broadcasters who periodically focus on certain issues almost resembling a flock of birds landing on the same roof.

The cooperation between these group and individuals is largely informal, greatly resembling the loose structure that exists between the White House and the mainline media in the United States around foreign policy. Yes, America has freedom of the press, but that does not mean that those who actually own a press will pursue the broader public interest. It is demonstrable that they often do not. The New York Times or ABC do not call to ask the White House what they should or should not print or broadcast about Iraq or many other matters: they generally know from long association and common interests. These business organizations – and that is just what newspapers and broadcasters are, business organizations, not idealistic organizations dedicated to truth – want to keep their government sources, and they want to keep their advertisers, and they want generally to keep their credibility with establishment interests.

Israel’s total aggregate lobby has a shared informal understanding of, and intense emotional involvement with, the “King’s great matter” as Cardinal Wolsey described Henry VIII’s need for a divorce. The great matter in this case is a shared perception of Israel’s constant need for winning and appearing positive in all things from public relations to war.

One of Israel’s great supporters today in America is the Religious Right, people who are the very ones you might reasonably suspect of anti-Semitism – the authentic, virulent stuff, not the stuff of phoney accusations now routinely hurled at any critic of Israel. After all, haters are haters, and these people have leaders who rant and scream in public against anything or anyone a little different than themselves. They have a long record of being on the wrong side of nearly every important movement from civil rights to women’s rights. An earlier generation of them was among the extremely vocal against accepting Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and they were among those who flirted with Hitler and Nazism in now near-forgotten movements like the American Bund.

Perhaps nothing better represents some of the bizarre confusion associated with American policy towards Israel than the support of these people. I think we all know they are not the kind of people who would welcome a large Jewish migration to the United States even today. Their support of Israel is part of a religious mysticism in thrall to lurid nightmares from The Book of Revelations concerning the Second Coming of Christ, Anti-Christ, the “mark of the beast,” and great wars and upheavals signifying the end of time. I suspect enjoyment of this violent stew has at least something to do in part with secret cravings of anti-Semitic appetites, hardly the kind of friends for which anyone could hope. Their approach today seems to be to expedite the coming of Armageddon.

We have a great and enduring irony in that only when America pushes does Israel respond. It is an irony because the difficulty of pushing increases with the influence of the Israeli lobby, which today is almost certainly larger and better established than ever. Judging by the last half century of history, one has to say that Israel on its own has never shown much statesmanship or generosity towards its neighbors in the Middle East. Visions of Greater Israel are a large part of the explanation. The great gestures have come from others. Israel’s policy from the beginning has been best characterized by the phrase “the iron wall,” an expression coined by an early Zionist to prescribe Israel’s appropriate future posture towards Arabs.

Reports told us weeks before Annapolis that Bush had been told – by, among others, Senator Lieberman, someone who talks about Israel as though he were speaking of a neighbourhood in his Senate district – that Olmert must not be pushed at this time. His political situation is too precarious. That alone doomed any hope of genuine progress. As it proved, the conference was nothing more than a kick-off ceremony for talks that are supposed to take place over the next year between Olmert and Abbas. One hesitates to point out that were there any genuine interest in such talks, they could have occurred, without Condoleezza and without Annapolis, at any time since Arafat’s death in 2004, but Abbas has been pretty consistently ignored over that time by Israel, treated as a doorman or janitor. He has received some token gestures – a limited amount of the Palestinians own funds released and a few hundred prisoners here and there out of the nine thousand Israel illegally held – only after his convulsions with Hamas in Gaza.

Speaking of Hamas, the absence of one of the major parties to the conflict absolutely dooms the prospects of talks. Israel justifies this by saying it won’t treat with terrorists, but this is ridiculous considering the role terror played in Israel’s own founding. Judging by the number of innocent civilians killed just in recent years, I think it fair to say that the IDF qualifies as at least as great a terrorist organization as any Palestinian group or party. Something like 1,500 civilians killed with little excuse in southern Lebanon? Buildings full of civilians in Gaza blown up in efforts to assassinate one man? Punishment-slaughter expeditions like Jenin or Rafah?

Regardless, to make peace you do not have to like your neighbor. Hamas has made it clear it was ready to reach an understanding with Israel, but all such suggestions are arrogantly ignored. Such an understanding over time would have allowed Israeli and Palestinian officials to work together to solve problems. A great irony here is that Israeli secret services once subsidized Hamas to create competition for Fatah, and that is exactly what has happened now, a wasteful civil conflict has been generated between Hamas and Fatah. One feels sure Israeli leaders are more than a little amused in private at a situation they always regard with stern faces in public. Hamas is not and has never been a genuine threat to Israel’s security. The truth is that Hamas might have made a better partner in peace arrangements than Fatah with its long history of internal corruption. Of course, too, Hamas was elected in an election cleaner than that which put George Bush into office.

But you have to start by actually wanting peace. Peace is not having a neighbor who follows your every wish and whim and fulfills exactly the conditions you lay down before even talking. That isn’t peace, that’s tyranny.

Peace, following long conflict, never comes without sacrifice, but many Israeli leaders and American apologists for Israel speak as though that were not the case here. The offer Ehud Barak made to Arafat at Camp David – the offer of a perpetual Bantustan with all kinds of segregationist rules about who could travel on what road – entailed little sacrifice for Israel, unless you want to call simply accepting the idea that any Palestinians should continue to live in the West Bank and Gaza a sacrifice. And perhaps that is not an exaggeration. New settlements have been created year after year since, Israel calling the settlements “facts on the ground,” a deliberately vague phrase that could mean anything from bargaining chips to the new permanent reality. To the outside observer, it is difficult to see this growth of settlements as anything but a slow-motion version of ethnic cleansing on the relatively small part of Palestine Israel does not now call its own.

From the distance of a satellite in orbit, the settlements’ growth must somewhat resemble cancer metastasizing into a body as new clumps of buildings appear and roads and barriers form like connective webs of tissue. It is a dismal reality, and it has nothing to do with peace.

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