Condoleezza Rice hailed the understanding between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the need to destroy the homes of the 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza as a historic step on the road to peace. This is a fatuous statement by one of the most vacuous US secretaries of state of the postwar era.
American foreign policy has habitually displayed double standards towards the Middle East: one standard towards Israel and one towards the Arabs. To give just one example, the US effected regime change in Baghdad in three weeks but has failed to dismantle a single Jewish settlement in the occupied territories in 38 years.
The two main items on America’s current agenda for the region are democracy for the Arabs and a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. America, however, insists on democracy only for its Arab opponents, not for its friends. As for the peace process, it is essentially a mechanism by which Israel and America try to impose a solution on the Palestinians. American hypocrisy is nothing new. But with Dr Rice it has gone beyond chutzpah.
With Ariel Sharon, by contrast, what you see is what you get. He has always been in the destruction business, not the construction business. As minister of defence in 1982, Sharon preferred to destroy the settlement town of Yamit in Sinai rather than hand it to Egypt as a reward for signing a peace treaty with Israel. George Bush once described his friend Sharon as “a man of peace”. In truth, Sharon is a brutal thug and land-grabber.
Sharon is also the unilateralist par excellence. The road map issued by the quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia) in the aftermath of the Iraq war envisaged three stages leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. Sharon wrecked the road map, notably by continuing to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank and building an illegal wall that cuts deep into Palestinian territory.
He presented his plan for disengagement from Gaza as a contribution to the road map; in fact it is almost the exact opposite. The road map calls for negotiations between the two sides, leading to a two-state solution. Sharon refuses to negotiate and acts to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel. As he told rightwing supporters: “My plan is difficult for the Palestinians, a fatal blow. There’s no Palestinian state in a unilateral move.” The real purpose of the move is to derail the road map and kill the comatose peace process. For Sharon, withdrawal from Gaza is the prelude not to a permanent settlement but to the annexation of substantial sections of the West Bank.
Sharon decided to cut his losses in Gaza when he realised that the cost of occupation is not sustainable. Gaza is home to 8,000 Israeli settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians. The settlers control 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and most of the water. This is a hopeless colonial enterprise, accompanied by one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times. Bush publicly endorsed Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and retain the four main settlement blocks on the West Bank without consulting the quartet - a reversal of the US position since 1967 that viewed the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Last year Sharon proposed handing the remaining Israeli assets in Gaza to an international body. Now he proposes to destroy the homes and farms.
The change of plan is prompted by Israeli fear that Hamas will claim credit for the withdrawal and raise its flag over the buildings vacated by the settlers. This is inevitable both because Hamas, not the PA, is the liberator of Gaza and because Israel is refusing to coordinate its moves with the PA. Another fear is that Hamas, supported by 35-40% of the Palestinian population, will emerge as a serious electoral challenger to Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.
This is Condi’s conundrum. If she is serious about spreading democracy in the Arab world she must accept the outcome of free elections; in most of the Arab world they would produce Islamist, anti-US governments. Israel has contributed more than any other country to this sorry state of affairs. Condi and the American right regard Israel as a strategic asset in the war on terror. In fact Israel is America’s biggest liability. For most Arabs and Muslims the real issue in the Middle East is not Iraq, Iran or democracy but Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and America’s blind support for Israel.
America’s policy towards the Middle East is myopic, muddled and mistaken. Only a negotiated settlement can bring lasting peace and stability to the area. And only America has the power to push Israel into such a settlement. It is high time the US got tough with Israel, the intransigent party and main obstacle to peace. Colluding in Sharon’s selfish, uncivilised plan to destroy the Jewish homes in Gaza is not a historic step on the road to peace.
Avi Shlaim is a British Academy research professor at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.