Nadia Hijab
Institute For Palestine Studies
October 8, 2007 - 4:13pm

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said bluntly during his recent meetings with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the credibility of the peace process could only be restored by, among other things, an immediate halt to Israeli settlement, an end to the closures that had ruined the Palestinian economy, and a timeframe to implement final status issues. [1] Abbas thus emphasized not only the need to address final status issues, but also to push for implementation.

By contrast, Rice has been emphasizing the bilateral nature of the Israeli-Palestinian track, an approach that leaves the Israelis and the Palestinians to their own devices notwithstanding the immense power imbalance between them – an imbalance that has left previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements unimplemented. [2] No agreement will be implemented without external intervention to right the balance of power. The question is: who will do so? Neither Arab nor European countries have been willing or able to challenge Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land, while US administrations have only reined Israel when they saw a threat to what they defined as vital interests, particularly in two areas: the US status as world leader and its intelligence and military secrets.

Guarding the Status as World Leader

An early example of forceful US action to prevent an Israeli threat to its global leadership was its response to the Israeli, British and French invasion of the Sinai Peninsula on 29 October 1956 in the wake of Egypt’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. The tripartite attack was a direct challenge to US post-war leadership and to its ability to deal with the growing power of the Soviet Union. President Dwight D. Eisenhower immediately demanded withdrawal, a demand that was resisted by pro-Israel groups in the US. Eisenhower went on television on 20 February 1957 to explain his position to the American people: “Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal?” He warned that the “clock of international order” would be turned back if such armed attacks were allowed to stand. That same day Eisenhower sent a message to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion warning of sanctions if Israel did not withdraw. Israel withdrew by 16 March. [3]

Another example comes from the October 1973 war when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had strongly supported Israel during that war, issued a secret ultimatum to Israel to abide by the cease-fire resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council because Israel’s violation of the cease-fire had provoked grave US-Soviet tensions including a nuclear alert. Later that decade, in 1978, Israel invaded South Lebanon to attack Palestine Liberation Organization forces there. Israeli forces withdrew later that year under considerable pressure from President Jimmy Carter, who was determined to see through the Camp David peace agreements between Egypt and Israel that were being negotiated that year. By contrast, the Reagan Administration took no action during the far greater Israeli invasion of Lebanon on 6 June1982. The last Israeli soldiers had withdrawn from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on 25 April 1982, and US strategic considerations had changed.

The 1991 US-led war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait provides another example of US toughness with Israel when necessary for global leadership. In the wake of the war, George H. W. Bush threatened to veto Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees. [4] This was partly because Israel had used US funds to establish some of its illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. More significantly, the US was seeking to convene the Madrid peace conference to keep its wartime European and Arab allies (including Syria) on board, but was facing stiff resistance from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The pro-Israel lobby opposed the veto, whereupon Bush took a leaf from Eisenhower’s book and addressed the American people, saying he was “one lonely guy” battling “a thousand lobbyists.” The pro-Israel lobby backed off, and Bush declared victory. Yet, in 1992, once Madrid had convened and peace talks were underway, Bush agreed to the loan guarantees even though Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not plan to stop construction in Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and “security” settlements in the West Bank.

Maintaining Control of Intelligence and Military Secrets

As in cases where its hegemony has been challenged, the US has taken firm action to deal with violations of its intelligence and military secrets. For example, successive US administrations, including the present administration, have withstood heavy Israeli pressure to release Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel and was sentenced to life in prison in 1986. President Bill Clinton wavered when Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu insisted on Pollard’s release to sign the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, but Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet threatened to resign and Pollard remained in prison. [5]

Israel’s sale of sensitive military technology to China is another case in point. [6] In 2000, the US forced Israel to suspend the sale of radar equipment to China. The US was said to have threatened to cut military aid to Israel. The breach of contract with China cost Israel millions of dollars. In 2004, the Pentagon reportedly denied Israel access to technology for the development of the Joint Strike Fighter because of concerns about leaks to third parties.

In 2005, after Israel violated restrictions on sharing US technology in the case of Harpy Killer drones sold to China, the US suspended cooperation on several arms development projects, froze delivery of night-vision equipment, and insisted not only on cancellation of the agreement but also on stringent conditions before it would resume cooperation on arms technology. Former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rice herself were said to have approved the sanctions. The US maintained its sanctions for months while Israel made public apologies, removed senior defense officials, provided information on 60 arms deals with China, and negotiated a classified US-Israel memorandum of understanding on technology transfers. Even though this was signed in August 2005, the Pentagon refused to resume full cooperation until Israel implemented the agreement.

To sum up, the US takes decisive action in the Middle East primarily when it believes its strategic interests are at stake. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no shortage of agreements: over a dozen have been reached since 1993. It is implementation – including the actual withdrawal of Israel’s soldiers and settlers from the occupied territories – that has been lacking. In the absence of intervention to shift the balance of power and secure implementation, there will be no let-up of suffering and instability. Until and unless a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is seen by the US to be as strategic an interest as keeping military secrets safe, peace will remain an elusive goal. 


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