Gerald Kaufman attacks Bush for supporting Ariel Sharon’s ‘disengagement’ plan, which, he says, will inevitably result in more Israeli deaths
One morning this week I got into conversation with a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman at the 274 bus stop in St John’s Wood. She told me that she was having an apartment built in Israel and that her daughter, on aliyah (the Hebrew word for immigration to the Holy Land), was a doctor in Jerusalem.
This nice lady told me, ‘I would defend Israel with my last breath.’ So, it might be thought: here was exactly the kind of person who would have been delighted by last week’s accord between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel at the White House in Washington and who, though a peaceable soul, would not have been displeased by the death in Gaza of the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Ratissi, whose murder was authorised as soon as Sharon got back from the US.
Dream on. My bus-stop conversationalist was appalled that a situation had been so exacerbated as to impel Palestinian terrorists to murder even more Israelis (some of which earlier victims her daughter had known personally), which would emphasise still further the contrast between relative Israeli affluence and Palestinian impoverishment, and which would delay into the indiscernible future any chance of peace for the long-suffering Israeli people.
She said that her daughter’s original idealism at going to live in the land of her forefathers had vanished, to be replaced by continual apprehension at living in the middle of a powder keg. This decent, thoughtful Jewish woman, far from being beguiled by the facile clichés uttered by George W. Bush, saw only tragedy ahead for the Middle East.
Almost exactly two years ago in the House of Commons I described Ariel Sharon as a ‘war criminal’. I added that, even worse, he was a fool. That verdict has been emphasised by the Dead Sea fruit that he bore away from Washington with such triumphalism. For this victory for his home-made ‘disengagement’ policy will mean many more deaths of Israelis at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, preying on the despair of Palestinians who now see no future for themselves other than as serfs under the occupying Israelis’ desert boots.
In the Seder service for the Passover, which was recited in religious Jewish homes in Israel and the diaspora earlier this month, there is a telling reminiscence: ‘Avadim hayinu b’Mitzrayim’ — ‘We were slaves in Egypt.’ What the Egyptian Pharaoh did to the Jews, the Jews have now done to the Palestinians — except that the Palestinians have no Moses to bring them salvation, and no Red Sea will part for them.
If Sharon’s policy of disengagement is a calculated political ploy that deliberately will delay indefinitely the peace settlement to which he pays lip service while undermining it in every way possible, Bush’s endorsement of that policy is even more dangerous. For a hardline Israeli policy endorsed by the President of the United States transforms the political landscape in the Middle East. What Sharon left implicit by talking about withdrawing all 7,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and a handful of settlers from the West Bank, Bush made explicit in his statement of endorsement, in which he spoke of the growth of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as ‘new realities on the ground’ and of realism requiring any final agreement for separate Israeli and Palestinian states to reflect ‘these realities’.
And, at a stroke, he dismissed any aspirations for a right of return by Palestinian refugees as something that could not be included in the final status agreement, even though, whatever the outcome, it had previously been accepted as one of the major negotiating points to be resolved. So, as the consequence of one presidential paragraph, the 200 Israeli West Bank settlements, with 350,000 inhabitants, all of which are illegal under United Nations Security Council resolutions, were suddenly not negotiable any more.
Bush had the nerve to talk about the ‘chance’ for the Palestinians ‘to create a reformed, just and free government’ in ‘a Palestinian state based upon a solid foundation’ with international aid to ‘help a Palestinian economy grow’. What chance, when the only government the Palestinians have, under their internationally recognised Prime Minister, was not even consulted by the Bush-Sharon deal, let alone invited to the White House to discuss it?
What ‘solid foundation’, when there is no continuous or contiguous Palestinian entity, but only tiny fragments of land under the heel of the Israelis? What economy capable of growth, when industry scarcely exists, tourism is moribund, a brand-new Gaza airport is prevented by the Israelis from operating, agriculture cannot sell its products even when it is able to farm them, and unemployment is at levels unthinkable in any genuine market economy?
With existing Palestinian territory already split into more than 300 fragments by 482 Israeli army checkpoints (and large chunks of that territory eaten away by the illegal Israeli wall being built to protect those very settlements), the Palestinian state cheerfully forecast by Bush would be even more derisory than the Bantustans under South African apartheid.
But at least apartheid was eventually ended and a democratic South Africa created, which has just re-elected its government in what was universally recognised as a free ballot. That wondrous change came about as a consequence of international economic sanctions which turned South Africa into a pariah. Israel is busy turning itself into an international pariah state, but not only are there no economic sanctions whatever imposed upon it, but its sagging economy is buttressed both by American support (and arms supplies) and even by economic preferences by the European Union, which is theoretically one of the architects of the road map and whose leaders are so pious in condemning acts such as the murder of Ratissi, but do precisely nothing about them.
While Sharon’s approach can be understood, if not forgiven, as an expression of brutal realpolitik, Bush has no such excuse. It is a long time since any realist expected anything approaching principle or morality from Bush. His calculations on this issue are as crude as one might expect from the man who, in the 2000 presidential election, got fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, was never actually elected as President of the United States, but was appointed eventually by the Supreme Court after allegations of vote-rigging in Florida.
Even before this summer’s nominating conventions, John Kerry as Democratic candidate-presumptive is edging ahead of Bush in the opinion polls. There are concentrations of Jewish votes that could swing key states (including Florida); a more-pro-Israeli-than-thou policy might garner some of those crucial votes. And if such a policy entails more Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorists, more Palestinians shot down by Israeli troops and an indefinite postponement of peace in the Middle East — well, you can’t have everything.
Pity poor Tony Blair (‘Tony, as I like to call you’, as Bush addressed him, giving the signal for the production of sick bags), who arrived in Washington immediately after the Bush-Sharon handshake-from-hell. He was assigned the unenviable task of re-asserting the principles of the Middle East peace road map, to which Bush and Sharon are both in theory parties, while not overtly repudiating his host. He managed this with the finesse of someone gingerly tiptoeing around a turd on the living-room carpet, welcoming Sharon’s proposal of disengagement in Gaza while not saying a dicky-bird about Bush’s endorsement of continuing Jewish mass-settlement of the West Bank.
Safely back home in Britain, Blair (‘Tony’, as I have liked to call him for the past 21 years) was able to say what he really thought. Replying to a Commons question by me on Monday, he reaffirmed Britain’s adherence to the Security Council resolutions declaring illegal the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and stressed that the Israeli wall ‘must not become part of a political settlement’, nor be ‘used to annex territory’.
There is only one President of the United States; the British Prime Minister cannot choose the devil with whom he is obliged to sup. But, if the road map is anyone’s, it is Blair’s, without whose pressure it would never have become even a paper concept. Bush owes Blair an enormous debt for his support in the war against terror in Afghanistan and as a partner in the invasion of Iraq. On the White House lawn last weekend, Bush promised to ‘work to end longstanding sources of bitterness and conflict in the Middle East’. His deal with Sharon gives the lie to those brave words. If Blair has any real influence with the President of the United States, as distinct from being the recipient of honeyed, meaningless praise, he must press Bush to live up to the sentiments he has voiced —- or, like so many of us, pray for a Kerry victory on 2 November.