That is not a secret; the lead article in Israel’s leading daily, Ha’aretz, describing the Bush meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, began with the statement, “Iran’s nuclear program was at the center of the closed door meeting between Bush and Olmert.” Israel rejects the findings of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, released last month, that stated that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and does not necessarily even want one. Olmert told Bush, “our unequivocal conclusion is that they [the Iranians] are busy developing nuclear weapons.” According to Ha’aretz, Bush agreed, saying the Iranians could resume their weapons program as easily as they froze it in 2003. It was understood before Bush even arrived in the region that a major part of his goal was to reassure Israel that the NIE did not actually signal any change in U.S. posture towards Iran – “the NIE report may have sent a signal to some that the U.S. doesn’t think that Iran is a threat,” Bush said as he went on to disabuse that notion. “Iran continues to be a threat to world peace.” And he made clear that meant the U.S. would continue to provide support for Israel’s positions, even if Tel Aviv’s overtly aggressive threats towards Iran contradict the NIE findings of Bush’s own intelligence agencies.
Bush told Israel “you better take the Iranian threat seriously,” and Israeli President Shimon Peres responded that Israel had taken Bush’s advice “not to underestimate the Iranian threat,” and used the opportunity to warn Tehran that “Iran should not underestimate Israel’s resolve for self-defense.”
Bush visits to Arab countries will also be about mobilizing against Iran.
Iran will also be on top of the agenda of Bush stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt. Arab regimes have their own fears about Iran, but they don’t match Washington’s claims. The fear is not based on a Sunni-Shi’a divide, as Washington discourse would have us believe, but because, with the U.S. destruction and occupation of Iraq, Iran is the only country in the Middle East with all three indigenous requisites to be the regional power – oil wealth, sufficient water, and size of population and territory. And U.S. troops are based in all those countries. If the U.S. (with or without Israel) attacks Iran, retaliation aimed at U.S. troop concentrations or ships (Bahrain is headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet) could well bring any of those mostly small countries directly into the line of fire.
The Bush administration persuaded numerous Arab governments to attend the Annapolis negotiations, largely to shore up their backing of Washington’s anti-Iran crusade. But release of the NIE just after Annapolis diminished that effect, so this week’s Middle East junket is partly about repeating the Annapolis mantra: despite the NIE, the Bush administration is still telling Arab regimes – stick with us, mobilize against Iran and we’ll continue to prop you up with new military support – and keep your angry populations in line by telling them that we’re in favor of a Palestinian state.
The new rhetorical approach of the Bush administration in their last year in office is to focus on the need to “define” a Palestinian state. Bush arrived in Israel with two messages on the Israeli-Palestinian front: a creation of a Palestinian state is important for the U.S., and “America cannot dictate the terms of what a state will look like.”
Peres and Olmert, like Bush, spoke of their commitment to the “vision” of a Palestinian state; Bush also spoke of his commitment to achieve the “identity” of a Palestinian state while in office. But Bush has already dictated the terms of what a Palestinian state will (and will not) look like. Back in 2004, in an exchange of letters with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush guaranteed his administration’s acceptance of two key Israeli demands. From Israeli media and political discourse, it appears that the substance of those letters has emerged as the foundation of the current discussions, despite their complete lack of any legal foundation. The letters serve the same purpose as Bush’s often-used “signing letters,” which spell out his intention to ignore and/or violate U.S. domestic laws even as he signs them. (It remains unclear whether the letters’ positions will be reaffirmed by the next administration.)
Bush promised that Palestinian refugees expelled during the 1947-48 war would not be allowed to return to their homes, despite the requirements of the Geneva Conventions and UN Resolution 194. And he already “dictated the terms of what a state will look like,” stating in 2004 that Israel would be allowed to annex permanently the huge settlement blocs in the West Bank (those in occupied East Jerusalem were not even included in the discussion of settlments) that house more than 400,000 Jewish settlers. Despite the fact that all Israeli settlements in the occupied territory are illegal, Bush gave Sharon a U.S. guarantee that only the small “outpost” settlements would “have to go,” those that the Israeli government itself acknowledges are illegal. Those small settlements house less than 20% of the settlers.
Speaking in the Palestinian city of Ramallah the following day, Bush did refer to the problem of a Palestinian “state” composed of non-contiguous cantons with Israeli military control of roads, checkpoints and Walls dividing them. “Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the outline of a state,” he said. But there was no indication of any intention to pull back from his administration’s 2004 commitments to Israel that guaranteed U.S. support for precisely that kind of “swiss cheese” arrangement, with huge city-sized settlement blocs and the Apartheid Wall snaking through the West Bank.
The $30 billion in new military and economic aid to Israel Bush announced a few weeks ago, provided by U.S. taxpayers, was not conditioned on any Israeli action regarding settlements. Olmert acknowledged on the eve of Bush’s visit that Israel is not abiding by the obligations it agreed to in the so-called “road map,” but Bush made no mention of holding Israel accountable to it. The unusually military-style of the triumphalist Israeli welcome for Bush reflected the significance of this new aid, which will almost double the annual U.S. taxpayer gift to Israel (which the IMF identifies as the 22nd wealthiest country in the world).
Bush arrived in the region at a moment of rapidly escalating crisis in Gaza, which faces increasing isolation, impoverishment, and continuing Israeli attacks resulting in 94 Palestinians killed since the Annapolis conference. The humanitarian crisis there is approaching disaster level.
With U.S. backing, Israel essentially sealed the Gaza borders in June of last year, trapping people inside what became an open-air prison; virtually no people or goods beyond subsistence level food and a tiny amount of a few drugs were allowed in or out. After declaring the entire Gaza Strip – and its 1.5 million people – a “hostile entity,” Israel began systematically reducing fuel supplies, including crucial diesel for running hospital generators. It was designed, according to Israeli officials, to “make Gaza scream.” The Israeli and U.S. refusal to allow any negotiations with the elected leadership of Gaza have made the situation worse.
Just days before Bush’s arrival, Israel rejected the most recent overture by Hamas for a mutual ceasefire in Gaza that would have required Israel to open the crossings into and out of Gaza for goods and people. The refusal appears to indicate Israel believes that continuing their reign of terror and collective punishment against the entire Gaza population is more important than ending the rocket fire against the Israeli town of Sderot, near the Gaza border.
While talking peace, in Annapolis and during Bush’s visit, Israel is consolidating its occupation and continuing its apartheid policies.
More than 500 permanent checkpoints and another 600 or so “flying checkpoints” continue to control Palestinian lives across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, a territory the size of Delaware. Almost all the checkpoints divide Palestinians from each other, not from Israel. While Bush paid lip service to the problems caused by checkpoints during his visit to Ramallah, he said nothing that would indicate any intention to actually hold the Israelis accountable for that violation of the Geneva convention’s prohibition against collective punishment. Similarly, construction continued throughout Bush’s visit on the Apartheid Wall (the Hafrada Wall in Hebrew, or Separation Wall in English – they all mean the same thing) that steals Palestinian land, divides farmers from their land, children from their schools, villages from nearby cities, and has been found to be illegal by the International Court of Justice. Bush traveled by helicopter from Jerusalem to Ramallah, he had to have seen the Wall, but apparently did not mention it.
On his arrival, Bush backed Israel’s demand for recognition of its discriminatory policies. “The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state,” Bush said. That was widely interpreted as acceptance of Israel’s demand that the Palestinians not only recognize Israel’s existence, but that it accept it as “state of the Jewish people,” rather than a state of all its citizens. Such a position would legitimize Israel’s discriminatory laws regarding nationality rights, land ownership, school and municipal funding inequities, denial of the right of return for Palestinians while recognizing the “law of return” for all Jews around the word, and the second-class status of the 20% of Israel’s population who are Palestinians.
The October Annapolis conference has already failed; within 12 hours of its ending Olmert announced that Israel would not be bound by its deadlines nor would it end settlement activity as required in the “road map.” Instead, the Israeli government announced the building of hundreds of new homes in the Har Homa settlement on Jbel Abu Ghneim outside of Beit Sahour and in the huge city-sized Ma’ale Adumim settlement outside Jerusalem, bolstering its existing population of 35,000 settlers. Both settlements, of course, are illegal, built in violation of the Geneva Convention on land Israel occupied in 1967. Bush said nothing about either settlement during his visit.
U.S. economic, military and diplomatic support does not really improve Israeli security.
In fact, the actual existing Israeli policies towards the Palestinians serve to perpetuate armed insecurity and conflict that makes Israeli lives more difficult, but simultaneously offers the rhetoric of peace to mask ongoing Israeli expansion and colonization of Palestinian land and water.
So what’s the alternative?
In the Occupied Palestinian territory, in the village of Bil’in and elsewhere, regular nonviolent actions bring together Palestinians, Israelis and internationals in nonviolent direct action to challenge the Israeli military’s systemic violations of international law. Mobilization against the Apartheid/Hafrada /Separation Wall continues. Some Israelis in Sderot, the town nearest the sealed Gaza border where Palestinian rockets, while not doing much harm, continually frighten the population, are acknowledging that their hardships are integrally related to the hardships imposed on the people of Gaza. Internationally, the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement offers global nonviolent, moral economic measures to change corporate and government actions that support Israeli occupation and apartheid and violate international law.
Ultimately security for Israelis as well as for Palestinians will have to be based on an end to occupation, and access to human rights, equality and international law for all. A new U.S. initiative to push for a real and comprehensive peace in Israel-Palestine would be a huge advance – but only if that initiative was based on international law and human rights, rather than the consolidation of one-sided power. This trip to the region, like the Annapolis conference it follows, does not do any such thing.