Last week’s presidential debate was devoted to foreign policy. But it ignored most of the world. Not a single word about U.S. policy toward NATO, the European Union, China, Central Asia, South Asia, or Africa. Although the Middle East took up nearly all 90 minutes, the candidates were not asked to talk about the most important piece in the Middle East puzzle: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The International Herald Tribune rightly called it “a stunning omission.”
Perhaps it was just a question of what makes good television. Moderator Jim Lehrer didn’t want to bore the audience. He knew that Bush and Kerry would disagree on only one point -- which of them will more blindly support the policies of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Was it just coincidence that the very next day Sharon gave the order for a massive Israeli attack on Gaza? Estimates of civilian deaths range up to 40 or more, nearly all of them Palestinian, including a number of women and children. As the leading Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, pointed out, Israel’s tactics “necessarily increase the number of casualties among civilians.”
It’s a tragic slaughter, on the scale of Israel’s invasion into Jenin and other West Bank cities in 2002. That invasion triggered worldwide protests and a wave of Jewish peace activism in the U.S. Yet the past week’s violence in Gaza has largely escaped public discussion here. If you are going to mount this kind of assault, it makes sense to do it in the middle of a tense U.S. presidential campaign, when neither candidate will utter a critical word, and Americans have other things on their mind. No doubt, Sharon and his advisors understood this.
Unlike our U.S. political leaders, Palestinian leaders have not been silent. Before the Israeli assault began, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia had called for new policy directions on both sides. As the blood ran in Gaza, Yassir Arafat publicly urged Hamas to “avoid giving the occupation any pretext” for more Israeli raids. These statements were widely interpreted as veiled calls for Hamas as well as the Israelis to scale back their violence. True, the Palestinian leaders spoke indirectly. Given their tenuous political positions, they have to tread carefully. But the message was clear all the same.
If the Israeli government really wanted to stop the bloodshed, it would seize this opportunity to call a cease fire and give Hamas a chance to do the same. According to former Palestinian security minister Muhammad Dahlan, a moderate who criticizes Palestinian as well as Israeli leaders, there are no negotiations for a ceasefire because Israel is not interested. The historical record tends to support Dahlan’s claim. Throughout Sharon’s reign, whenever Arafat or Hamas have publicly spoken of steps toward cease fire, Israel has shut the door by launching new attacks.
Sharon has no interest in a cease fire now because it would thwart his real aims. Ha’aretz suggests that he invaded Gaza to ward off pressure from right wingers in his Likud party. Sharon wants to withdraw all Israeli presence from Gaza. Right-wingers oppose his plan, in part because they fear it will look like the Jews are running away from their enemies, a cowardice that they have sworn to show “never again.” As one of Sharon’s top advisors said, Israeli troops have invaded Gaza so that "When we leave Gaza, it won't be under the threat of fire."
This is part of Sharon’s larger plan to show Palestinians and the world that Israel alone calls the shots. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot noted that Sharon is “marketing the Gaza Disengagement as something which ‘the Palestinians will pay for heavily.’ He insists that Disengagement is bad for the Palestinians and is being imposed on it by Israeli might.” Sharon says these things to prove to his right-wing critics that he is as tough on the Arabs as they are. On the Israeli right, psychology plays an enormous role.
Although Sharon shares the right’s desire to see Jews look tough, he is also a canny politician with long-range political and economic motives. He knows that his disengagement policy really is bad for the Palestinians. The idea is that, by leaving Gaza, Israel will guarantee its permanent hold on the main settlement blocs in the West Bank, which he aims to keep, no matter what.
Dov Weisglass made that clear this week. He is Sharon’s liaison with the U.S. government. In an interview with Ha’aretz, Weisglass said: "The significance of the disengagement plan [in Gaza] is the freezing of the peace process. It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians. When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Effectively, the whole package called the Palestinian state with all that entails has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission -- all this with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress. What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all."
Sharon and his advisors expect the invasion of Gaza to be a win for them, no matter how it turns out. If it ends up weakening Hamas, Israel will find it easier to impose its unilateral solution for all the occupied territories.
Of course, the assault might very well drive more Palestinians to embrace the Hamas approach of violence, out of sheer frustration. Hamas would get more votes in the upcoming elections (when they will run candidates for all officesfor the first time ). That would further fracture the already weakened Palestinian leadership.
Then the Israelis would have more reason to complain, “We have no one to negotiate with on the other side, no partner for peace" -- which is just what the Sharon government wants. Either way, their plan to control Palestine’s fate will win. But peace and justice will lose.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.