Saturday, January 24, 2009

The End of the Bush Era: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

This is the third in a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.

The Israeli-Palestinian problem is the world's longest-running high profile conflict.

It was in 2000, under the stewardship of Bill Clinton that Yasser Arafat and the then Prime Minister Ehud Barak were on the verge of a political agreement. Clinton, ever the diplomat, hashed out some good solutions on Jerusalem, control of religious sites, and Israeli settlements, that were workable on the ground. As is typical in politics, "painful concessions" were on the table, but the reality is that 2000 was a turning point for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where they simply failed to turn.

Yasser Arafat eventually backed down saying the solution was untenable with the Palestinians, the talks broke down, the Second Intifada began, and George W. Bush stepped into the Whitehouse in 2001.

The Second Intifada started just a few months before he stepped into office in September 2000, so he was, in all fairness, inheriting a very difficult problem.

His 8 subsequent years in office saw the bloodiest attacks by Israel on the Palestinian territories during 9/11, then subsequently upon Lebanon, and then more recently the Gaza Strip.

Granted, Israel was consistently provoked during this time, but these completely disproportional "outbreaks of violence" are representative of the blank cheque handed to Israel by the US government to basically do as it pleased.

As they bombed Lebanon with extreme prejudice, the cries around the world for moderation were nearly unanimous, barring the US. When they bombed the Gaza Strip, the cries again were nearly unanimous, barring the US who eventually relented by abstaining from the UN Security Council vote.

Let's be fair, though: Israel had legitimate enemies and targets in both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Iran has been fuelling both these fires and has a big hand in destabilizing the region and continuously provoking Israel.

That being said, 1,300 civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, of which a third are children, and the 1,200 civilian casualties in Lebanon, is simply unacceptable.

Consider for a moment Israel's casualties: 44 civilians in the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War, and 3 in the 2008-2009 Gaza Strip Attacks.

When asked about the disproportionality of the numbers, we're told not to play the "numbers game." But really, we would see who would play the numbers game if, let's say 1,300 Israelis were killed, a third of which were Jewish children.

And all this happened while Israel's special partner, the United States, stood idly by. And that really was the hallmark of the Bush presidency when it came to Israel and Palestine. A policy of muted disengagement, but stalwart support, while actually doing nothing on the ground to help either the Israelis or the Palestinians.

When you think of the Middle East conflict during the Clinton years, you remember the historic meeting of Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton during the Oslo Accords in 1993. You remember the 2000 Camp David Summit with Ehud Barak. It's a history of engagement.

Bush, however, undertook no such personal diplomatic drives during his term. Instead, he insisted the Palestinians have elections out of no better reason than blind ideology ("spreading freedom"), and voters overwhelmingly voted for Hamas and sidelined the secular, moderate, yet corrupt, America-backed Fatah, sowing the seeds of the recent Gaza Attacks.

Is Israel better off today than it was in 2000 when Clinton handed over the reins to Bush? Arguably, no.

Palestinians are more numerous today than they were in 2000, and the conflict has made no steps forward, and has rather made negative progress. Israel underwent two wars, one of which it lost to the Lebanon, and has lost a lot of face to the international community for its heavy-handed tactics. There were protests in London and New York against the recent Gaza Strip bombings, and people are tired of hearing about the Middle East. Public sentiments are slowly turning against Israel as reports of their bombing schools and hospitals spread. Just a few years ago, criticisms of Israel were silenced with accusations of anti-Semitism.

It's nice to finally see the world acquire a more nuanced worldview.

Arguably, the best thing that happened to Israel in the era of Bush was Ariel Sharon's unilateralism.

The Palestinian response is and always has been impotent, as is evident from Israeli casualty numbers. Oh no, I do play the numbers game, as do most rational people. A lower overall casualty rate means lower risks, which means a lower threat level. The numbers don't lie: if you're a Palestinian, you're far more likely to die than if you were an Israeli.

These wars weren't cheap for Israel, and in the face of massive balance of trade deficits, the Israeli economy is kept alive on the life support of American aid. This is as sustainable as the Gulf-Arab countries' economies are dependent on oil. Today it's there, tomorrow it isn't. Granted, the US will support Israel with its dying breath, but that's not exactly a ringing endorsement of such an arrangement or the confidence the world now has in America's capacity to handle such expensive "special arrangements" with two wars and a recession on its plate.

In all fairness, the failure of the Bush administration isn't a direct failure. Nobody disputes how much of a colossal mess the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, how sticky a problem it is, and how difficult and painful the resolution will be for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Their tack on the Middle East was almost a perverse extension of their laissez-faire, market-driven economics: letting the "market forces" of massive American military and economic subsidy for Israel fight it out with the Irani-backed Palestinian and Lebanese militants, with innocent Israelis, and a lot more innocent Palestinians stuck, and dead, in the middle.

An indirect failure, and a failure he shares with his predecessor, and will in all likelihood share with his successor, but a failure nonetheless.

But hope, as they say, springs eternal.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)