Friday, Israel said it was ending a two-week offensive
in the Palestinian Gaza strip, in which Israeli soldiers killed over 100 Palestinians,
many of them noncombatants. Palestinians killed at least five Israelis during
the same time period, two of whom were civilians, in a rocket attack that preceded
and was used as the rationale behind Israel's incursion into northern Gaza.
The recent violence once again underscored the ineffectiveness of the Bush
administration's policy toward Israel and the occupied territories. Yet, the
bloody events halfway across the globe have not made their way into the pre-election
political discussion in any significant way.
Some analysts say that is because there is little to talk about between the
two major candidates, as President George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry
both hold very similar positions on the conflict.
"As Ralph Nader said, it's been Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee" on the
issue, said Yiraf Susskind, Associate Director of MADRE, a New York City-based
international women's rights organization. "What Kerry has done at every
stage [of the presidential campaign] is essentially back each of Bush's most
hawkish right-wing positions on the issue. Whatever Bush has said, Kerry has
been there saying, 'Me too! Me too!'" MADRE helps support a trauma counseling
program for children and families who have survived military violence and a
mobile health team to provide care under Israeli-imposed curfew in the D'heisha
refugee camp in the West Bank.
The strong likelihood that a Democratic White House would continue the Bush
administration's unquestioning support of Israeli policy under Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon disappoints and angers experts on the Middle East who want to see
a more evenhanded U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"It's true that Kerry has tried to out-Sharon Bush," explained Stephen
R. Shalom, a political science professor at William Paterson University in Wayne,
N.J., who has written extensively about U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East.
"That's ironic because, historically, Democrats have felt more comfortable
supporting the Israeli Labor Party than the Likud Party, as the Republicans
have. But Kerry has followed Bush's lead during the campaign."
Under President Bush, the U.S. has taken a position on the Israeli-Palestinian
issue that many analysts say is biased toward Israel. They say Bush says and
does very little as Sharon's military indiscriminately bulldozes Palestinian
homes and regularly shoots civilians in what the prime minister refers to as
responses to terrorist attacks against Israelis.
Last May, Bush threw into doubt his previously proposed 2005 target date for
the establishment of a Palestinian state. He has also rejected the long-standing
Palestinian claim that refugees have the right to return to their native lands,
guaranteed by the Fourth Geneva convention, because much of that land lies inside
the currently recognized borders of Israel.
"Since 2000, Sharon has pursued a policy of driving Palestinians off their
land and pushing them into enclaves that are like prisons," said Tanya
Reinhart, a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University in Israel and
the University of Utrecht in Holland. "By doing nothing about that policy,
the Bush administration is showing its support for it." Reinhart is the
author of Israel
and Palestine: How to End the War of 1948.
During the massive spring 2002 incursion into the West Bank, during which Israeli
troops committed the infamous "Jenin massacre," Bush praised Sharon
as a "man of peace."
Bush later backed Sharon's disengagement plan for the Gaza Strip. When the
Israeli prime minister returned home from a recent White House visit requesting
that and other support, the Israeli Yediot Aharonot newspaper proclaimed,
"Sharon got everything!" Meanwhile, Bush received a solid political
endorsement from Abraham Foxman, a prominent American Jewish leader, who praised
Bush's "strong statement of support" for Sharon's withdrawal plan.
Stephen Zunes, the San Francisco based author of Tinderbox:
U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, agrees that the
Bush administration has been biased toward Israel, but he added that it would
be a mistake to conclude Bush's bias is pro-Israel. "Bush has given Sharon
the excuse to commit outrages against the Palestinians, but that hasn't made
Israel safer or improved its position in the world community," Zunes explained.
Last April, 50 former U.S. diplomats wrote an open letter to President Bush
that supports Zunes' analysis. "You have proved that the U.S. is not an
evenhanded peace partner," the letter read. "Your unqualified support
of Sharon's extra-judicial assassinations, Israel's Berlin-like barrier, the
harsh military measures in occupied territory, and now your endorsement of Sharon's
unilateral plan are costing our country its credibility, prestige and friends.
This endorsement is not even in the best interests of Israel."
Bush's main challenger has come out in support of Israel's policies as well,
but at least one of his most extreme stances seems relatively new. During the
Democratic primaries, Kerry criticized the barrier Israel is building inside
Palestinian territory to separate much of the West Bank from the rest of Israeli
and Palestinian territory. The Israeli government insists that it is building
a "fence" to keep out terrorists, but Palestinians say the "wall"
is actually a land grab on the part of Israel. The barrier, which is a wall
in some places and a fence in others, cuts through land long recognized by the
United Nations and the international community as belonging to Palestinians,
and its path has driven families from their land and locked farmers away from
In October 2003, a month after he announced his candidacy, Kerry told members
of the Arab-American Institute that "we do not need another barrier for
peace." He also described the wall as "a provocative and counterproductive
Kerry then backpedaled in the face of criticism from the powerful Jewish American
lobby organization, American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC). He released a position paper titled "John
Kerry: Strengthening Israel's Security and the U.S.-Israel Special Relationship."
The paper, which is posted at Kerry's campaign Web site, calls for "A Bold
Plan: Supporting Israel, Restoring American Leadership." In it, Kerry not
only now supports the "security fence," but describes Palestinian
President Yasser Arafat as "a failed leader unfit to be a partner for peace."
The statement also says the United States should "stand solidly behind
Israel at the UN and other international organizations," as it always has,
and continue providing aid to Israel. No mention is made of supporting the Palestinian
people except for vague backing for a "democratic Palestinian state,"
which is to live side by side with Israel, the status of which as a Jewish state
the document also reaffirms. The proposed Palestinian homeland would not include
all the territory considered Palestinian land by the international community.
The statement also refers to Jerusalem as the "undisputed capital of Israel,"
though in fact the U.S. is the only country with plans to make such a recognition.
In July, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the Israeli barrier
was illegal, Kerry said he was "deeply disappointed."
"Kerry doesn't offer much to those who want to see the U.S. take a new
direction in the Middle East," said Bilal El-Amin, a former editor of Left
Turn magazine and an activist on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
In contrast to Bush and Kerry, two other presidential candidates, the independent
Ralph Nader and Green Party candidate David Cobb, have been highly critical
of U.S. policy in the Middle East and want to see it change dramatically.
The Association of State Green Parties has passed a statement that reaffirms
the Palestinian refugees' "inalienable right of return" to their homes
and right to receive material compensation for their losses.
As for Ralph Nader, Kevin Zeese, a spokesperson for the Nader for President
campaign, explained: "Ralph has a big problem with both Democrats and Republicans
and the way they support Israel no matter what it does. Israel is our biggest
foreign aid recipient and whatever Israel wants from us, it gets. It's gotten
to the point where Ralph now describes the U.S.-Israeli relationship as that
of a puppet and puppeteer, with Sharon playing the role of puppeteer."
Many activists working for peace in Israel and Palestine suggest that the U.S.
government should discontinue its policy of providing large sums of military
and economic aid to the Israeli government. During Bush's term, Israel has received
a total of $9.2 billion in military aid and $2.6 billion in economic aid. During
Clinton's last four years as president, the U.S. gave Israel almost $8.6 billion
in military and $4.4 billion in economic aid.
Professor Shalom agrees. "It's sometimes warranted to give aid to bad
governments when the people are in desperate need," he said. But, he said,
Israel is not one of those cases. Given that Israel is in plain violation of
international law and is supporting an "unjust" occupation, Shalom
would favor cutting off U.S. aid to Israel.
Nader spokesperson Zeese also criticized both the Democratic and Republican
candidates for putting pressure on the Palestinians to get rid of Arafat. "Ralph
believes in democracy." Zeese said. "It's not for other countries
to decide who is to lead the Palestinian people. They must decide that for themselves."
"I have problems with Arafat," said Professor Shalom. "His democratic
credentials are suspect, given the PLO's [Palestine Liberation Organization's]
totalitarian structures. But he deserves to be as much a part of the peace process
as Sharon, who has a criminal war record." Shalom noted that an Israeli
Commission found Sharon responsible for the atrocities committed at the Palestinian
refugee camps in Lebanon in the early 1980s and is on record as opposing the
Many analysts who want to see U.S. policy change in the Middle East also say
that the U.S. should take the Israeli peace movement more seriously. Anti-occupation
activism in Israel has been marginalized the past four years, but last May,
about 120,000 Israelis met in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and warmly applauded
repeated calls for the Sharon government to withdraw from Gaza and return to
the negotiating table. It was the biggest display of antiwar sentiment since
the beginning of the second Intifada more than three years earlier.
"If the U.S. really believed in democracy in the Middle East, it would
throw its support behind the peace movement," Susskind said. "Its
leaders have not been able to get a meeting with either Bush or Kerry."