Posted on March 09, 1998 in Washington Watch
Twenty-one months ago, fresh on the heels of an electoral victory, the Netanyahu government embarked on an ambitious program to undo the Middle East peace process and reshape Middle East politics.
This Netanyahu effort (which I first described in my September 1996 column) had five major elements:
1. To develop a “new approach to peace.”
This involved replacing the formula of “land for peace” with “peace for peace,” by emphasizing Israeli security and military strength. According to Netanyahu advisors, Israel would henceforth see negotiations as a “means, not as an end” toward pursuing Israeli goals “especially in their territorial dimensions.”
2. To “secure the northern border.”
The Netanyahu plan called for “abandoning the slogan ‘comprehensive peace’” while moving toward “challenging, isolating, and destabilizing Syria.” Specifically, the Netanyahu government outright “rejected ‘land for peace’ deals on the Golan Heights.”
3. To move toward a “traditional balance of power.”
Netanyahu and his advisors rejected the Peres vision of a “new Middle East” and sought a regional Cold War where they could “redraw the political map of the Middle East.” By focusing on the military relationship with Turkey, they hoped to isolate and destabilize Syria and more directly confront Iraq and Iran.
4. To “change the nature of relations with the Palestinians.”
The Palestinians were no longer to be seen as partners in peace, but as a hostile and captive presence that had to be contained and controlled. To implement their goals, the Netanyahu government focused on discrediting and delegitimizing the Palestinian leadership by emphasizing its “failure to comply” in the peace agreements and presenting it as a “repressive, corrupt, and untrustworthy interlocutor” for the Palestinian people.
5. To “forge a new U.S.-Israeli relationship.”
Understanding that the Clinton Administration would not be supportive of their plans, the Netanyahu groups sought to “manage and contain their reactions” by mobilizing their supporters in Congress and the U.S. Jewish organizations. Toward that end, the new Likud government crafted their message to the United States utilizing a combination of Reagan-era Cold War rhetoric and traditional anti-Arab demagoguery. They resurrected themes like: “peace through strength,” “no peace with dictatorship,” “the Arab and Muslim terrorist and threat,” and “only the United States and Israel share common values.”
The clear design of this entire campaign was to undercut the Labor-led peace effort, minimize any further Israeli territorial concessions, destabilize and delegitimize those Arab leaders that supported peace, sabotage efforts to create a new regional order, and recreate a Middle East Cold War with a strong Israeli military presence at its core.
Despite some set-backs to their plans, most notably when the Clinton Administration forced an agreement on Hebron, the Netanyahu government has been able to minimize their losses and turn even that agreement to the disadvantage of the Palestinian side.
The results have been quite to their satisfaction. A short 21 months after having taken control of the government by a mere one percent electoral victory, the Netanyahu government can claim success. As the recent Gulf crisis demonstrated, Israel is once again almost completely isolated in the Middle East. With new massive shipments of the most sophisticated long-range U.S. fighter planes and defensive missiles, Israel is the unquestioned military power in the region. At the same time it is more isolated and insecure (as the recent gas mask panic demonstrated).
Palestinians are strangled economically and politically. They are embittered and despairing of ever realizing their rights. Meanwhile the Arab leadership that made peace is feeling exposed and vulnerable facing criticism and domestic unrest.
To a great extent both Saddam Hussein and Benjamin Netanyahu played off of one another. One can reasonably argue, that had the peace process been moving forward toward real justice for Palestinians and a comprehensive peace in compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, it would have been much less complicated to make the regime in Baghdad comply with UN inspections. And the issue of the “double standard,” so frequently and correctly raised by an angry and frustrated Arab public opinion, would not have resonated so clearly.
As it was, with Palestinians in particular, so alienated and despairing, some even demonstrated their support for new missile attacks on Tel Aviv.
This was crudely and cynically exploited by the Netanyahu government. Chami Shalev, the thoughtful Israeli analyst, wrote in February that the crisis with Iraq served Netanyahu perfectly. It allowed him to remind Israelis of how dangerous the Middle East could be and how Arab hatred of Israel was a constant.
Shalev continued, “the Gulf crisis revealed Israel’s ‘renewed isolation in the region and its conversion into an element negatively unifying the entire Arab world.”
“Netanyahu will say,” Shalev concluded, “that the Gulf crisis showed reality as it is. His rivals will reply, however, that without Netanyahu, this reality would not have existed.”
The Middle East and the peace process of today are a far cry from what was envisioned a mere four and one half years ago. It is neither a reflection of reality nor is it the result of bungling. It is a planned creation, implemented by an ideologically-based government that has systematically sought to dismantle peace and resuscitate the Cold War of the past. So far, it has been a success.
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