The Israeli Palestinian Conflict and the spread of Empire and Desolation
A talk presented at the Friends Peace Center
San Jose, Costa Rica,
January 27, 2005
by Ronald Bleier
Good evening. My name is Ronald Bleier. I’d like to begin with a few words about my background. I was born during the Second World War, in November 1942, on a tiny island called Lopud off the Croatian coastline near Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, while my parents were escaping from the Nazis. Fifteen months later, my brother was born in February 1944 on yet another of these islands called Vis, as my parents continued their escape. In due course, we made it safely to a refugee camp in Italy from where were fortunate to find passage along with about 1,000 mostly Jewish refugees who were granted temporary asylum in the United States by President Roosevelt during the war. About a year after the war, our entire group was granted permanent residency leading to citizenship by an act of Congress during the Truman presidency. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York where I attended yeshiva elementary and high school and where I was indoctrinated in Zionism, an ideology that I didn’t question for many years. After graduating from Brooklyn College, I spent two years with the Peace Corps in Iran.
It was only in the aftermath of the 1967 war when it became clear to me that the Israelis did not intend to withdraw from the territories they captured, and were bent on an indefinite military occupation, that my views slowly changed. In the fullness of time I was to meet with a series of disillusionments that culminated in my present anti-Zionist views. The horrific Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 made me understand some of the depths of the savagery and the ruthlessness of Israeli policy. The first Palestinian uprising in December 1987 sparked tremendous interest and activism on the Palestinian issue and roughly coincided with the publication of several revisionist histories by such writers as Simcha Flapan, Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Avi Schlaim and others which opened my eyes to the myths surrounding the birth of Israel. It was then that I learned that Israel was born out of the expulsion of the Palestinian people, and that cruelty and oppression was required in order to retain control of a second class population. Around that time, I realized that I needed to determine for myself the meaning of Zionism. I deduced that it meant the ideology that a Jewish state should replace the former Palestine. From this I concluded that Zionism is manifestly racist in theory and in practice since it treats only Jews as first class citizens.
In my yeshivas we were taught ethical, universal Judaism. We learned about the Torah, the Law of Moses and the Talmudic tradition. I was imbued by my rabbis with the notion of Judaism as a religion embodying justice and human rights. Only much later did I begin to recognize the reality of Israel as a state like other states, engaging in the very worst atrocities of which it was capable in order to further its political goals. And later still I began to recognize the special, terrible way Israel was different from other states since it acted with the full diplomatic, economic and military support of the United States.
My next great disillusionment was to find that I was alone among my family and friends in taking an objective and critical view of Israeli policy. I can still recall the moment in the early 80s when I broached my new views of Israel with my father, a dedicated Zionist. We were in a restaurant and his first reaction was to laugh at my ignorance and naiveté. He couldn’t believe that his son would take the side of the Arabs – that’s how he saw it. His second reaction was to ask me to lower my voice lest others overhear my outlandish views. My father and I very quickly had to agree to disagree on the issue.
I underwent another disillusionment with regard to the role of the media. I had already been something of a critic of the press, not to mention TV news, but it was a completely new world to learn of the power of the “friends of Israel” lobby to obscure the reality of the crimes of Israel. As it happened, my first publications appeared in the now unfortunately defunct magazine, Lies of Our Times. The rumor going around when the magazine died was that its forthright stand on the Israeli Arab issue doomed its funding in the post Oslo period. On the power of the Israeli lobby to ruin careers, to stifle dissent and to procure political support and scores of billions of dollars in military and economic aid for Israel, I read Paul Findley, Moshe Menuhin, Donald Neff, Jeffrey Blankfort, Alfred Lilienthal and others who pointed to the dramatic and rigid control by Zionists and their supporters over the media and over Congress and the administration on Middle East Policy.
The Widening Gyre
Until the advent of the current Bush administration and the terrible events of 9/11, it may have been possible even for those sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle, to view events in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, as confined to that area of the world, with relatively minimal effects on daily life elsewhere. Needless to say there was more than an element of denial in such a view as we had to put to one side the corruption of our national discourse and the censorship of information coming out of the Middle East, not to mention the raiding of the U.S. Treasury of $3-6 billion a year or more to satisfy Israeli demands.
But today, in the wake of 9/11 and the reinstallation of George W. Bush for a second term as president, once again, many believe through fraudulent means, we are confronted with an energized and radical neo conservative movement with nowhere to go but onward and down. I think my father said it best a few months before he died a year and a half ago, “they don’t do anything good.” He was absolutely right. They are bent on an ideological destruction of the mission of government which is supposed to be by, for, and of the people.
One way to get some perspective on what is happening to the Palestinians and their prospects is to examine in some detail Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement plan which was published in the Israeli papers April 16, 2004. The disengagement plan appeared at the height of the corruption scandal that engulfed Sharon and his sons and served to deflect domestic criticism as well as growing international opposition to Israel’s construction of the Wall on Palestinian territory. Sharon’s plan provided President George W. Bush with sufficient cover to reverse long-standing U.S. policy relating to the Palestinians. In particular, Bush brushed aside the critical principle, often reiterated at the U.N., of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory conquered by force. In his dramatic joint press conference in Washington with Sharon on April 14, 2004, President Bush, bowing, as he put it, to “new realities on the ground,” declared that Israel could permanently keep major settlements in the West Bank. Bush also rejected the Palestinian right of return to Israeli territory and froze the Palestinian leadership out of negotiations. At the same time, Bush effectively gave carte blanche to the continued Israeli construction of the Wall albeit with the meaningless reservation that it was to be regarded as a temporary structure. In June 2004, both houses of Congress, by lop sided majorities, followed up with resolutions unreservedly endorsing President Bush’s giveaway to Sharon.
The disengagement plan provided Sharon with cover on the military front. A succession of ruthlessly brutal intensive major Israeli Defense Forces operations followed the March 2004 assassination of wheelchair bound Hamas political leader Sheik Yassin in Gaza and continued the next month with the murder of his successor, Dr. Abd al- Rantisi. This was only the beginning for Gaza residents as operations followed from May 2004 through October. Typical of the brutality, in a two-week period during Operation Rainbow in southern Gaza in May, at least 60 Palestinians were killed, almost 300 Palestinian homes demolished, and close to 4,000 people made homeless. Throughout these operations, large amounts of Palestinian farmland and property including olive groves were confiscated and bulldozed.
One reason that Sharon has continued to get a free ride on the strength of his disengagement plan, despite his long history as a tireless and powerful opponent of Palestinian national rights, is that many cannot believe that he would be so reckless as to propose the unilateral removal of Jewish settlements in Gaza without the intention of following through. But such a view of Sharon fails to take into consideration his willingness to take unprecedented risks, as well as his shrewd calculation of both the domestic and international political landscape. In Israel, there is no opposition to speak of. In the United States, Bush and his radical, pro Israeli neocon team is firmly in place for a second term and wholly supportive of Sharon’s goals and vicious tactics. Moreover, as a veteran of more than 50 years on the Middle East scene, Sharon understands that pretexts can always be found to break, postpone and put off indefinitely agreements and treaties with the Arabs.
Thus far only a few lonely voices in Israel have pointed to the counterintuitive nature of the disengagement plan and have openly questioned Sharon’s intention to remove the Gaza settlements. Israeli author and academic Tanya Reinhart has gone further than anyone else, providing invaluable documentation demonstrating the lack of any practical steps Israel is taking that would indicate a serious intent to remove the settlers. Despite the absence of such evidence, the media and the international community largely continue to take Sharon’s disengagement plan seriously. Meanwhile Israel continues to pour resources into the settlements, suggesting that so far from evicting Jewish settlers from Gaza, the plan is to maintain them over the long term. In that case, it’s not the Israeli settlers who will be leaving, but rather a million Palestinians who will be forced from Gaza.
As part of her expose, Tanya Reinhart also reveals that compensation to settlers willing to leave Gaza is to be postponed indefinitely. She explains that if the Israeli government were seriously interested in removing settlements, they would begin to compensate those willing to leave in order to isolate the remaining hardcore. Many believed that the compensation plan was approved by the Knesset in November. However, upon closer examination we find that the required 2nd and 3rd readings of the bill “will take place only after the government decides on actual evacuation, in March 2005 or later. Till then no one will be compensated.” Meanwhile, the Israeli press reported that in December, 11 more families moved into a Gaza settlement.
Kathleen Christison, a former CIA analyst who has been following Middle East issues for three decades, in a recent article, summarized some of the bitter reality Palestinians confront under the current regime. The picture she paints is important because it is evidence that Sharon is in the midst of a campaign to make civil life impossible for the Palestinian community. The current dimension of the situation, she writes, goes back to the April 2002 siege of the West Bank when
Israeli forces rampaged through the territory, destroying the entire infrastructure of Palestinian civil society: Israeli soldiers laid waste Palestinian civil ministries for education and health and agriculture; smeared feces throughout the Ministry of Culture; destroyed computers and hard disks and, with them, the entire written record of Palestinian society; ransacked Palestinian businesses and banks; bulldozed whole housing blocks; destroyed land registry maps and census records, as if to erase all trace of Palestinian existence. …
Gaza is largely in ruins, a Middle Eastern Dresden, thanks to repeated Israeli air and bulldozer assaults. Nearly two thousand homes have been demolished in Gaza since the [September 2000] intifada began, leaving many more thousands of innocent civilians homeless, and Israeli helicopter gunship attacks and assassination operations have wrought still more destruction.
Israel's separation wall has destroyed prime Palestinian agricultural land, bulldozed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees, destroyed or more often appropriated for Israeli use most Palestinian water wells, destroyed Palestinian markets [and] homes. Israeli closure policies have prevented most Palestinians from working inside Israel since the beginning of the peace process a dozen years ago. Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank impede movement and halt commerce. …Yet the West wonders why the Palestinian economy is not thriving.
Israel has reduced every Palestinian security headquarters throughout the West Bank and in Gaza to rubble. These structures, which served…as security headquarters [and also] as the center of municipal governance, with mayor's offices, jails, and health clinics [are] now mere heaps of concrete.
Arafat’s sudden illness and death in November  briefly put a halt to some of Israel’s most high profile deadly and destructive military operations. Yet, only a month later in mid December, using the pretext of rockets fired by the military wing of Hamas, Israel resumed its pitiless assaults in a two-day operation that killed 11 Palestinians in Khan Yunus in Gaza. Confiscations of Palestinian land also resumed. In early January, Dr. James Zogby appeared on BBC TV news, pointing out that in the previous two weeks, Israel had appropriated 3,000-4,000 acres of Palestinian land.
Arafat’s death and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as new president of the Palestinian Authority spurred hopes that we might be entering a new period of reconciliation and movement toward a meaningful peace process. However, even the mildly positive atmospherics did not last beyond a week or two after the election as Sharon used a predictable “terror” incident as a pretext to “temporarily” end such discussions as had been envisioned. Nor is this a surprise since Sharon is dead set against giving up anything to the Palestinians in negotiations since he holds all the political and military cards. Sharon’s immediate plan is to destroy any and all remnants of Palestinian resistance. He is embarked on a campaign to make civil life more and more impossible for the Palestinian community as he pursues the logic of Zionism, which foresees a land of Israel for Jews only. Such a plan would involve ethnic cleansing on a massive scale – the mass expulsion of the Palestinian people similar in scope to the events of 1948 when upwards of 750,000 Palestinians were expelled.
Turning now to US foreign policy and the origins of the Iraq war we see evidence of Israeli influence on US actions –what one writer called “The Fatal Embrace.” First I’d like to tackle the question of whether the Iraq war was fought for oil. I have always believed that the issue of US control over Iraqi oil was subsidiary to ideological goals. Now that we see oil prices near $50 with no apparent prospect of returning below $30, some are beginning to realize that if regime change in Iraq was about oil, it hasn’t succeeded. Had the Administration’s purpose been about providing US drivers with a steady and cheap supply of Middle East oil, the last thing they would have done was go to war against Iraq. Rather, I argue, war against Iraq was driven by a coterie of neoconservatives who have a long record of supporting a Likudnik agenda of destabilizing and fragmenting all of Israel’s potential enemies. Those like Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Eliot Abrams and others in senior government positions are interested in extending U.S. military power abroad not in the interests of democracy as they claim, but in order to sow chaos, confusion, and violent conflict.
They aim to maintain and grow the military budget and starve domestic social spending. In order to maintain an aggressive posture and ensure maximum freedom of action they are determined to subvert the international order that has been the foundation of the stability that has allowed the US and many other nations to grow and prosper over the last century. They eschew conflict resolution and diplomacy because that would threaten to bring peace, which is their anathema. Their modus operandi is to create desolation and call it democracy.
We are confronted in the age of George W. Bush with the enormous success of the neocon program. Many of the neocons were former Democrats in the 70s who were opposed to the liberal agenda of demilitarization, social spending and criticism of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. From relatively modest beginnings we find today that they have achieved their goal of regime change in Iraq against the best advice of major elements of the Republican Party including George H.W. Bush, the father of the president. They have pursued the Iraq war against the greatest outpouring of protest in the US and the rest of the world since the Vietnam War, and against common sense and the best interests of the security of the United States. So the question becomes how did they pull it off? One part of the answer that concerns us tonight is the assistance provided by the powerful Israeli lobby in the United States. The ability of the Israeli lobby to smooth the way for war was highlighted by the furor over Virginia Congressman Jim Moran's response in early March 2003 to a constituent question during a town hall meeting. He said: that "if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going and I think they should."
Congressman Moran was correct and extraordinarily courageous in pointing to the leadership of the major Jewish organizations, suggesting that they could have blocked the war. As a 13-year veteran member of the House, Jim Moran has been around long enough to understand how political power on Middle East issues operates in Congress. War against Iraq has so isolated the United States and made so little sense that were it not perceived as good for Israel, in all likelihood it would not have gained sufficient traction in the media or in Congress.
It’s probably not possible to reconcile opposing sides on the question of whether Tel Aviv or Washington drives US Mideast policy, but one element of this issue may be worth emphasizing. I would stress the difference between Prime Minister Sharon’s brutal and ruthless pragmatism as he drives forward toward his goal of a Greater Israel at the expense of the Palestinians and the Arab nation. From a Zionist perspective, it is a zero sum game with winners and losers. On the other hand, the Washington neocons, are bent on war for the sake of war, with tragedy, and death the only winners. Fallujah today is an excellent example of the desolation that the public relations people call democracy. Other examples of the new dark age are the ruins of the Baghdad Museum, the destroyed Baghdad Library, the ravaged Iraqi universities and archeological sites, the murder of scores of the cream of the Iraqi academic, professional and diplomatic classes, not to mention the deaths of more than 100,000 ordinary Iraqis.
The Dimensions of the present problem
There is no point in attempting to soften our description of the nature of the current crisis that we face with the reinstallation of George W. Bush for another four years. With the results of the election in place, the most radical of the neocons are entrenched and empowered to forward their extremist agenda. No doubt there are many like me in tonight’s audience who first read George Orwell’s 1984, awakened but at the same time confident that we would never live to see a US administration that could embody such evil. Lo and behold, we are now confronted with an administration bent on the continual creation of enemies and fighting endless war.
The current devastation and horror that Bush has made of Iraq while not exactly a PR bonanza, is not necessarily perceived by them as a total defeat. For example, if Iraq should wind up fragmented into its three main groups, that would play into neocon and Israeli hands since a potential area counterforce will have been eliminated. Moreover the anarchic climate in Iraq, a perfect breeding ground for terrorism suits their purpose by fomenting real, imagined and created enemies against whom the US leadership can rally and unify the populace, stifle dissent, and push through the most extreme of their radical domestic and international agenda.
The next target on the Bush-Cheney neocon agenda is Iran, now Israel’s strongest enemy. On January 20th, the same day that George W. Bush was sworn in for a second term, Vice President Cheney with astonishing chutzpah, gave Israel the green light to attack Iran. In a radio interview, he said that Iran is “right at the top of the list” of the world’s trouble spots and given that “Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.” The naked irresponsibility and recklessness of such a statement is staggering. For added measure we learn from articles in current issues of the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh that plans have already been made for attacking Iran and reconnaissance for such an attack has already begun including on the ground infiltration of commando forces. (As an aside it may be interesting to speculate that US government leaks to Hersh were intended as a trial balloon in order to measure domestic US reaction as well as to spread confusion in Iran.)
One measure of the contretemps we are in is that there is no one in sight with the stature or courage to challenge Cheney’s characterization of Iran’s posture, which is essentially defensive. If there was one thing that the Bush-Cheney wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have taught Iran and North Korea and the rest of the world it is that weak countries including those without a nuclear deterrent are vulnerable to threats from the US and/or Israel. Iran would be “crazy,” as one analyst elegantly put it, if it did not seek a nuclear deterrent against threatening superpowers. Meanwhile, in Western circles, Israel’s nuclear monopoly is ignored while Iran’s nuclear potential is characterized as a threat to peace. Israel and the US neocon Likudniks are determined to maintain the nuclear status quo in the Middle East because an Iranian nuclear capability might serve as a brake to Israeli and US aggression.
One question raised by US-Israeli threats is whether an attack against Iran would lead to a wider Middle East war. But it is difficult to see who would be or could be waging war against the two superpowers. The military balance in the Middle East is not comparable to that of Europe for example of the 20th and earlier centuries where the various states worked to achieve balance through alliances and détentes. Especially now with Iraq effectively out of the picture, there is no foreseeable combination of Middle Eastern powers that could stand up to an Israel backed by the US. Moreover the latest version of Iran’s Shebab 3 medium range missile, rumored to be able to reach Israel, carries no nuclear warhead and so its deterrent capability is strategically limited. Moreover, Iranian missile strikes against Israel, while doing relatively little damage would serve as pretexts for Israel’s disproportionate retaliations, exactly as we see today in the Occupied Territories. Some analysts have pointed out that Israel’s potential air attacks against Iran may originate in US controlled airbases in Iraq. Thus Israel’s continued nuclear monopoly means that Iran is virtually defenseless against Israeli aggression.
Would an Israeli/US attack on Iran lead to a wider war? One radical faction, led by veteran neoconservative Michael Ledeen who heads the Coalition for Democracy in Iran seems bent on regime change in Saudi Arabia, but it is hard to see how such a change would benefit the US. A destabilized Saudi Arabia would put much of the world oil supply at risk and have nightmare ramifications for the international economy. The Bush-Cheney administration which has longstanding business and personal relations with the Saudi leadership seems to be resisting the concept of regime change there since such plans seem to pass the line of recklessness into pure stupidity. But since the administration seems determined to attack Iran (and Syria for some of the same reasons) we may be in a situation where events are in the saddle and pressures may build to the point where a shaky Saudi monarchy is toppled.
But here we are approaching the horizon of foreseeable events. Suffice it to say for now that the world faces a challenge similar to 1939 with the US and Israel bent on regime change, destabilization, tension, chaos, and endless war.
On the other hand, it may be useful to pull back and remind ourselves that the US is mired in a quagmire in Iraq and that neither the US or Israel have the forces to invade or occupy Iran. Perhaps just as important, on the economic front the US has become a debtor nation big time, no better than a banana republic. Even worse, the Bush Cheney regime shows every evident intention to apply foot to the pedal and drive the US further into bankruptcy by spending endlessly on the Iraq war, and on their military toys, spy satellites and Star Wars programs. Similarly on the domestic front they appear to be determined to continue destroying the economy, with more tax cuts for the wealthy and the huge costs involved in “strengthening” social security. Is it possible that such policies can be sustained another four years? Who knows?
One interesting historical footnote takes us back to the 1956 Suez war when France, England and Israel combined to attack Egypt and Gaza. At the time President Eisenhower – the only US president until Jimmy Carter to stand up to Israel -- was enraged and was able to reverse the tripartite attack by applying pressure on England which at the time was deeply in the US debt for World War Two costs. Is it possible that economically based constraints can save us from the most extreme military daydreams of the current gang in Washington? But even in that least worst case scenario, there will be much desolation, despair and suffering for hundreds of millions of people everywhere.
How do we speak of solutions confronted as we are with the magnitude of the current challenges to peace and democracy? My own instincts are to begin by looking the devil – that is to say, reality – in the eye. Our job is first to describe and understand the situation we face as best and as clearly as we are able. That is exactly our purpose this evening. Our next step is to find ways to struggle for our visions and our dreams and our futures. One way to do this is to build community and that is the essential second element of our purpose tonight. From small local beginnings we can try to work to forge the unity and the leadership that we require to survive and prevail. There are certainly no easy answers and no single answer. There is only a difficult and puzzling and impossible process and we need to find ways to plug into that process and to make it happen. And for that task we are armed only with the hope that day will follow night and that we can toil our way toward a better future than the one we seem headed towards now.
1. Ronald Bleier is a freelance writer based in NYC. He edits DESIP, an environmental and security website.
2. Uri Avnery, December 18, 2004. “The Mountain and the Mouse. Tanya Reinhart, “Sharon’s disengagement” from Gaza,” March 30, 2004 and “What kind of state deserves to exist, Yediot Aharonot, April 20, 2004.
3. Tanya Reinhart, “Sharon’s Gaza Pullout: Not Gonna Happen!” November 2004. http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article3331.shtml
4. Ha’aretz, December 17, 2004. Nadav Shraga, “11 new families settle in Gaza’s Nissanit.”
5. Kathleen Christison, January 3, 2005, “Patronizing the Palestinians: The Trouble with Optimism” http://www.counterpunch.org/christison01032005.html
6. Al Jazeera, December 19, 2004, “Israeli helicopters strike Gaza towns.”
7. BBC TV news, January 10, 2005.
8. Here and in some of the analysis below I am indebted to Stephen J. Sniegoski, “The Future of the Global War on Terrorism,” Current Concerns , September 3-5, 2004.
9. Others like Philip Zelikow, the Executive director of the 9/11 Commission, outgoing Senator Ernest “Fritz’ Hollings, Patrick Buchanan, Justin Raimondo and others have expressed similar views but Moran’s case seemed to attract more media attention in part because, as a result of his remarks he was seen as vulnerable.
10. Israeli military historian, Martin Van Creveld, International Herald Tribune, August 21, 2004. Cited in Khalid Amayreh, “Israel to U.S.: Now for Iran,” August 29, 2004.
12. Based on 2004 analysis by Andrew Cordesman.