Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Giant and the Imp

How gullible is the United States?

Britain was called ‘perfidious Albion’, for its propensity to use countries for its own purposes, and betray them when necessary – for example, leaving the Dutch to fight it out against the French at the end of the Spanish Succession War in 1712. Since then it has thus been difficult, for both its enemies and itself, to conceive Britain as innocent or naïve. That doesn’t stop it being one of the good guys; only its self image is that of the clever and sophisticated, a state full of diplomatic nous (which fed into the idea, prominent in the first decades after World War II, that Britain would be Greece to America’s Rome – which itself contains a number of interesting assumptions).

But the United States is different; in every way! Thus we have American writers, and sympathetic overseas intellectuals, treating it as a metaphysical entity, that doesn’t have the same values or operating practices as other nations, and that, unlike them, acts in accordance with its ideals, enshrined in its constitution and destined for universal benevolence. American Exceptionalism, of course. And because it acts with the best of intentions it can be misled, led astray by bad leaders or perfidious friends.

This benevolent view even seeps into critical accounts of the country, or its favoured allies. One example is Jonathan Cook’s recent article on Israel,

where he writes about the possible embarrassment caused by Netanyahu publicly admitting he deceived Bill Clinton over the latter’s peace attempts in the 1990s (in a private interview shown on Israeli tv).

The references in the article are contradictory – Netanyahu also talks about his forthright disagreements with Washington. But let us assume the thrust of his remarks are correct; that he believes he deceived Clinton. Is it really plausible that the United States government didn’t know what was going on? Here is Avi Shlaim on this same topic:

As part of the bargain to get the accord [Wye River Memorandum] passed by his…government, Netanyahu agreed to announce public tenders to work to begin at Har Homa, the controversial new Jewish neighbourhood in annexed East Jerusalem…. 

The first stage of the Israeli withdrawal was matched by renewed land confiscations for the purpose of building Jewish settlements and a network of roads between them. These measures… soured relations with the Clinton administration...

On 20 December the Israeli government took a highly significant decision – to suspend the implementation of the second pull back stipulated in the River Wye Memorandum until the Palestinian Authority met a list of five conditions. Most of these were calculated to torpedo the peace process and to put the blame on the Palestinians.

Shlomo Ben-Ami has a similar view of Netanyahu; and both believe his tactics led to greater involvement in the peace process by Clinton. In Ben-Ami’s phrase, ‘almost a strategic intimacy’ was generated between America and the Palestinian Authority, because of Netanyahu’s actions. Yet this closeness is not reflected in the perspectives of the following years, where it is the Palestinian Authority, and particularly Arafat, that is blamed for the demise of Oslo and its successor agreements (just as Netanyahu intended, according to Shlaim). Ben-Ami agrees. For although his book is critical of the then Israeli prime minister it is Arafat that is ultimately blamed for the failure of the peace talks.

(Here the description is after Sharon’s attack on Ramallah) The real issue, as far as Arafat was concerned, was resisting, displaying determination and resilience, sticking against all odds to his positions, those that formed the hard core of the Palestinian ethos he so fully believed he embodied, and waiting for the moment when the conditions would again work in his favour.

....his… unwillingness to change his ways, settle for compromise…

As if Oslo had never occurred. Oslo, where Arafat sacrificed his people for power. Tanya Reinhart:

The process through which a leader of a national liberation movement is coerced into collaboration is a long and complex one… Yasser Arafat’s grip on the territories was deteriorating… Rabin could not resist the opportunity provided by Arafat’s weakness of turning this unique historical moment into a heightened form of Israeli domination and control.

Though even at this stage, of the Wye River Memorandum, Ben-Ami’s choice of words is telling: the Palestinian ‘miscalculations’, and Israel’s ‘blunders and misconceptions’. The former rationally pursued their ends, but got it wrong; while Israel makes mistakes and has misunderstandings, which imply a certain innocence to their actions. Being a friend of America they share its exceptionalism.

Both writers are towards the liberal end of the political spectrum. Avi Shlaim, a very good historian, tends to be quite conservative, for he relies on the available mainstream information and opinion for his interpretations, in his assessments of recent history (see the coverage of Oslo in his The Iron Wall, which covers the pre-state period to 1999. Though since the failure of the Road Map, and Israel’s attack on Gaza, he has become much more critical). It is only when he enters Israel’s archives that the radical analyses come out; and gives the The Iron Wall a slightly disjointed feel. Something similar happens with Ben-Ami, who is not as critical of Israel post-Oslo as Shlaim, and whose interpretations also become more radical the farther back in history they go.

Was Clinton really conned; and does it matter? Ben-Ami writes that the religious-nationalist make-up of his coalition made it impossible for Netanyahu to adhere to the River Wye Memorandum. Was it any different for Clinton? He may have disliked the Israeli prime minister, and wanted to implement a peace treaty, and felt aggrieved that he was thwarted, but how much room for manoeuvre did he have? The military establishment, the defence and high-tec industries, and the Israel lobby would all push him in the same direction.

However, leaving aside these structural considerations, and concentrating more on his personality and views (the level at which a lot of the debate is pitched) what would be his likely reactions to intransigence by both sides? To a large extent it would depend upon his assumptions about the conflict. If he more or less agreed with the Israeli position, of annexing large portions of the West Bank – Jordan Valley and the established Jewish settlements - he would more likely to ‘give’ under pressure from Israel to minor extensions and encroachments on the agreement, than he would to the Palestinians, especially if they wanted much greater territorial changes to make Oslo acceptable to its public. Thus a little ploy here, an outright refusal there, might make Clinton angry (Reinhardt gives one example with Barak, and Netanyahu’s comments about him being pro-Palestinian point to others) but not enough for him to change his overall stance – like a quarrel in the family, people can fall out but they don’t split apart. Moreover, Arafat had become a rather distasteful colonial collaborator, using the security services to suppress the population; hardly someone for which an American president would have much personal sympathy. And the evidence does suggest, with the later exception of Taba, which is a strange anomaly, that Clinton did accept these Israeli positions, indeed was keen to force them onto Arafat.

According to diplomatic and Palestinian sources, Clinton told Arafat: “If you don’t answer affirmatively to this proposal, it will be proof that you aren’t interested in real peace. In such a situation, Ehud Barak will declare war on you – and we will support him.

‘This proposal” is the Clinton parameters, which although never published appeared close to the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan of 1995. For what she regards as an accurate summary of this plan Reinhart quotes Yossi Beilin:

As an outcome of my negotiations, I can say with certainty that we can reach an agreement not under the overt conditions presented by the Palestinians, but under a significant compromise [on their side]… I discovered on their side a substantial gap between their slogans and their actual understanding of reality – a much bigger gap than on our side. They are willing to accept an agreement which gives up much land, without the dismantling of the settlements, with no return to the ’67 border, and with an arrangement in Jerusalem which is less than municipality level. (1)

Did Clinton not know any of this? He could be angry with Arafat, and effectively threaten his annihilation – we will support Barak to attack you. And he could be angry with the Israeli prime ministers; but do nothing… Surely, it wasn’t because he was innocent – if you are being conned you don’t get angry, unless you uncover the deception. Both for personal reasons, of which we can only speculate, and for geo-political reasons, of which we know much more, he was not prepared to force Israel to adhere, even to his own agreements. Why?

Clinton’s opinions and actions fit within a consensus that is now nearly 40 years old (since Israel’s decision to option for expansion after the rejection of Sadat’s 1971 peace offer - Noam Chomsky, in a number of interviews). This consensus, with the lobbies and corporations behind it, would have blocked Clinton from imposing a deal on Netanyahu, all rhetoric aside.

Within this consensus, the Israeli lobby has particular clout on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Norman Finkelstein has given probably the best analysis: the lobby is able to exert this pressure on Washington because the Palestinians are unimportant to US strategic and political concerns. Thus it costs nothing for the House of Representatives and the Senate to accept AIPAC and other organisation’s funding, and vote for the most extreme Israeli rejectionism (of a peace settlement on the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments, and a just resolution of the refugee question). Support for this view appears to come from Netanyahu himself, in an extract quoted by Cook:

America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction … They won’t get in our way … Eighty per cent of the Americans support us. It’s absurd. (the percentage figure needs to be un-packed, but even if we accept it on Netanyahu’s own terms, we would then have to ask why is this the case; and look at the American mainstream media, and the lobby’s influence).

So is America fooled? Does it read the Israeli press?

Of course it is not fooled. There is plenty of rhetoric and propaganda – what America president is going to say they are against peace? But once you look behind the PR it seems evident that Washington knows precisely what is going on, and doesn’t care; or only when the charade is exposed and becomes too embarrassing – not because Israel has acted against its interests, but the comments expose its own complicity. It thus becomes a public relations exercise, until the scandal fades away.

But if you believe they can be so easily conned you must assume an innocent America; a stupid giant, deceived by an imp. This gives too much credit to Israel’s power, and too little attention to the real nature of the United States. It is to focus attention away from the latter, that is, away from what should be the locus of pressure and persuasion; and to concentrate too much on Israel, who can only act with American support.

1. Compare with Shlaim’s treatment in The Iron Wall, where he assumes the plan would give 94% of the land to the Palestinians. He also quotes Beilin, but from a different interview: ‘Abu Mazen was very excited. When we embraced, I saw that his eyes were slightly moist…Apparently we had in our hands a document with a complete, or nearly complete, solution to the 28 year old conflict and perhaps 100 year old conflict.’ Interestingly the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan is not mentioned in Ben-Ami’s account – personal animosity, or a recognition that it represented nothing new?

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