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Jul 18 2006

The balance of power in the Middle East

The recent attacks by the Israeli armed forces in Gaza and Lebanon is evidence, if anyone needed it, that Israel is the overwhelming military power in that region. The reason it could bomb Beirut and other parts of Lebanon and impose an air and sea blockade on that country is because it can do so without fear of meeting any major resistance. What we are currently witnessing is a demonstration of unmatched power.

Thanks to sustained economic and military support from the US (Israel is the single largest beneficiary of US aid, with about $3 billion annually in aid), Israel not only has developed overwhelming conventional military power over its immediate neighbors in the region, it is even a nuclear power. Estimates give Israel about 100-200 strategic nuclear weapons, well ahead of India and Pakistan, and comparable to England. When this military dominance is coupled with the diplomatic backing of the US, which provides it with cover to prevent any international diplomatic moves against its use of this power, this enables the Israeli government to take military actions against its neighbors that would be unthinkable for almost any other state.

The passive response of the world to the current actions by Israel in Gaza and Lebanon is symptomatic of this situation. The US has vetoed UN resolutions calling for a halt to the attacks on Gaza and blocked international attempts to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon, as requested by the beleaguered government of Lebanon, thus enabling Israel to proceed unchecked.
Other governments that responded to provocations the way Israel has would face immediate condemnation. India and Pakistan have long shared a tense border with Kashmir, where along the ‘line of demarcation’ it is almost routine to have border incursions and skirmishes of the kind that just occurred in the Middle East. In addition, just this past week we also saw the bombing in India of commuter trains that killed about 200 people. There are strong suspicions being voiced that the perpetrators of this atrocity are Islamic groups based in Pakistan. But India did not unleash an invasion of Pakistan, say by bombing civilian centers like Karachi and Islamabad, because Pakistan is a nation of comparable strength, able to defend itself and even retaliate, and for India to do so would have been to invite worldwide condemnation for over-reacting. This necessitates that the two countries try and talk their way through the tensions.

As another example, the Prime Minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi) was murdered by members of Tamil separatist groups from Sri Lanka. India did not invade and bomb Sri Lanka in response, which it could have easily done if it wanted to because of its overwhelming military superiority, because that would have been a hugely disproportionate response that would have invited immediate worldwide condemnation.

The fact that the US has enabled Israel to do what it likes militarily is perhaps why Israel is so isolated politically. When you have unmatched military power and also no diplomatic constraints, leaders tend to succumb to the fatal temptation of thinking that they can use force to solve political problems, and spurn diplomatic avenues. There is no incentive to try and negotiate long-term political solutions, even though those are the only ones that can promise any kind of peace and justice for all. Because it can so easily unleash military power in response to any provocation, Israel can avoid the necessity of seeking diplomatic and political solutions to the problems in that region.

But despite this clear demonstration of power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, the myth continues of Israel as the underdog in the region, constantly fearful for its existence. Does anyone (other than the irrationally insecure) seriously think that the actual existence of the state of Israel, the fifth largest nuclear power in the world, is in any danger? To do so is like seriously thinking that al Qaeda can overthrow the US government. Yes, you get the occasional threats and boasts of few people, and some militant groups opposed to the existence of Israel are capable of striking the occasional blow here and there, but they are nowhere close to being a serious threat to the actual existence of the state. No state in the region, however belligerent its rhetoric, is going to actually attack Israel with a view to destroying its existence, because almost the entire world would condemn and oppose and rebuff this attempt, let alone the fact that Israel is quite capable of defending itself without any outside help. The worldwide response when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a far less influential state than Israel, should persuade people that the territorial integrity of Israel is secure.

But the idea of a beleaguered state that is facing an existential threat has always been useful because it enables countries to unleash disproportionate responses to attacks. This has been the practice of many governments in response to even minor threats to its authority. The US has done it with terrorism, creating the feeling that the whole country is in danger in order to dismantle long standing civil rights protections at home and wage war abroad. And now Israel has used it to respond with disproportionate force in Gaza and Lebanon.

In this case, the capture of an Israeli soldier near the West Bank border, and the capture of two soldiers near the Lebanese border, were used as justification for invading Lebanon and Gaza and bombing its cities, resulting in enormous numbers of casualties. The whole of Lebanon is now under siege and blockaded, its airports and highways and residential areas indiscriminately bombed, and its infrastructure in shambles. It is, of course, a given that any nation has the right to defend itself from external aggression but to argue that the capture of one or two soldiers near a tense border is sufficient cause to unleash a massive assault on civilians centers in a neighboring country is to lower the bar for inter-nation warfare to such a low level that almost any country that shares a border with a hostile neighbor will be in a state of permanent warfare.

And even before this, for a long time now, Israel has responded to attacks from missiles or by suicide bombers by massively retaliating against the Palestinians. Attacks on Israeli territory and settlers by individuals have been used to arrest family members and friends of the alleged perpetrators, bulldoze their family’s homes, destroy their farms and communities and villages, and imprison large numbers of people. Such collective punishments violate the norms of justice and proportional response. What is currently taking place in Gaza and Lebanon is another over reaction to an undoubted provocation.

As a result of its power dominance in the region, there is no compulsion for Israel, at least in the short run, to seek a just and permanent solution to the core issue of Palestinian statehood, the very thing that inflames the passions. In fact, the ongoing creation by Israel of settlements in the West Bank is resulting in no viable Palestinian state being possible. What is being offered by Israel to Palestinians is a kind of Bantustan, a Swiss-cheese like entity consisting of enclaves (‘cantons’) of non-contiguous Palestinian areas, that are broken up by Israeli settlements and roadways that will result in Palestinians having to pass through Israeli checkpoints to go from enclave to another. Bantustans were created in South Africa under the former apartheid regime and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who experienced them first hand, said at a Boston conference in April 2002 “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land. It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a peace activist, says that the goal of Israel seems to be to:

establish a tiny Palestinian state of, say, five or six cantons (Sharon’s term) on 40-70% of the Occupied Territories, completely surrounded and controlled by Israel. Such a Palestinian state would cover only 10-15% of the entire country and would have no meaningful sovereignty and viability: no coherent territory, no freedom of movement, no control of borders, no capital in Jerusalem, no economic viability, no control of water, no control of airspace or communications, no military–not even the right as a sovereign state to enter into alliances without Israeli permission.”

Is it any surprise that Palestinians would reject such a future?

I myself had not realized how bad the situation was until a talk given at Case last year by Professor Halper who explained in alarming detail how the settlement building on the West Bank is surely extinguishing any hope for a lasting peace settlement. He presented detailed maps that showed how what is envisaged by Israel and the US for Palestinians is life under permanent Israeli control. He pointed out that even if the entire West Bank and Gaza were handed over to a Palestinian state, that state would still constitute only about 22% of the total land currently occupied by Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but what is offered is far less than that.

While there is a huge amount of coverage of the Middle East, most of it is simply a lot of blather about whether the “peace process” is on track or off, dead or alive, and one rarely gets crucial details about actual plans or sees actual maps detailing what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza and what is being proposed for Palestinians. Hence most Americans have no idea about what is being offered to the Palestinians and cannot understand why it is being rejected. They are simply told that the Palestinians are ungrateful for rejecting a ‘generous’ Israeli offer of land, but are not given the data to evaluate the merits of this offer for themselves.

If we are going to have any kind of resolution to the problems of the Middle East, a viable and independent self-contained Palestinian state has to be created, which will then have a vested interested in building itself in peace. Creation of that state will require the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders and the dismantling of the settlements in the occupied territories. If instead what Palestinians are offered is a non-viable state with non-contiguous pieces of land under Israeli control, we are all doomed to an endless cycle of violence that will repeatedly spill over into the rest of the region, and perhaps engulf us all.

Next: Why some people are pleased at the recent upsurge in violence and want an even wider war.

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