Januaray 8, 2001
by Corinne Whitlatch, Director of Churches for Middle East Peace

The two fulcrums of the United States policy toward the Middle East have long been Israel and oil. The incoming Bush Administration, with its strong ties to Texas and the petroleum industry, will place a higher priority on the axis of oil in its foreign affairs. During the eight years of the Clinton Administration, the President, his national security staff and the State department gave unprecedented support to Israel and to the quest for Israeli-Arab peacemaking. A shift in focus by the head of state and his appointees will have a far-reaching impact throughout the region.

LATE BREAKING AGREEMENT POSSIBLE: It is possible that President Clinton may, in his final days in office, deliver an agreement between Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat. With Israel in political turmoil and Mr. Barak likely to lose leadership without an agreement with the Palestinians, the motivation is high. Nevertheless it will be up to President Bush to make sure any new agreement is actually implemented.

NEW NEGOTIATORS IN BUSH ADMINISTRATION: It was James Baker, back in 1992 when the elder George Bush lost to Clinton, who recommended to the incoming secretary of state Warren Christopher that he retain his chief Middle East aide Dennis Ross. Ross, and his deputy Aaron Miller, had guided the 1991 Madrid talks that followed the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. Miller and Ross, both Jewish, have long been respected by both Israeli and Arab diplomats as smart, dedicated and fair.

Their strategy of building confidence between Israelis and Palestinians through interim steps leading toward negotiations on final status issues made considerable progress during the Clinton years. But that strategy, and their mild mannered mode of "facilitation", have been viewed by many analysts (after the breakdown at Camp David in the late summer) as insufficient to the task. Miller has announced that he will leave government, and the ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, is rumored to be leaving as well.

President Bush will likely appoint an envoy for Israeli-Arab negotiations who commands both political and diplomatic clout and who, unlike Miller, sees the region with a wider lens.

PALESTINIAN SUFFERING: Even though the Bush Administration will place more emphasis on the Gulf-related issues, ending the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel and relieving the resultant suffering of the Palestinian people and fears of the Israeli people will demand the highest level of attention by the incoming policymakers.

The spiral of violence that began on September 28 sets the stage for new approaches in the year 2001. The use by Israel of attack helicopters, tanks and heavy weapons against the Palestinian protesters changed the dynamics of the Oslo peace process forever. These weapons and ammunition were provided Israel by the United States; this fact will bring increasing demands upon the U.S. government to restrain Israel's military from using them against civilians.

DEMANDS TO EVACUATE SETTLEMENTS: Perhaps the most destructive aspect of the Clinton-led peace process was its unwillingness to insist that Israel stop the expansion of Jewish settlements and the taking of land destined for a Palestinian state. Many of the settlements, and all those in tiny crowded Gaza, should have been evacuated early in the process. It is because of the settlements that the pending state of Palestine has taken the shape of islands separated one from another by hostile settlers and the Israeli military. No wonder the Palestinian people lost confidence in the peace negotiations and ultimately in Israel's commitment to peace itself.

Former President Jimmy Carter, in the Washington Post on November 26, wrote, "An underlying reason that years of U.S. diplomacy have failed and violence in the Middle East persists is that some Israeli leaders continue to ‘create facts' by building settlements in occupied territory."

It was under the elder Bush Administration, in 1992, that former Secretary of State James Baker placed demands on the Israeli government to stop building or expanding settlements in the occupied territory. But the freeze on new building was short-lived. Now that Baker's task of advising President Bush in the Florida election controversy is over, perhaps his advice on the settlement issue will be given and taken. The new Bush Administration, if encouraged by the advocacy of American citizens, just might have the political gumption to challenge Israel's settlement policy.

JERUSALEM'S SETTLEMENTS: The issues of settlements and Jerusalem are intrinsically linked. Beautiful stone homes of Beit Jala stand vacant with huge holes in their walls from the shells fired from Israeli helicopters. Shots were fired from nearby at Gilo, an Israeli settlement built on land occupied in 1967 and annexed to Jerusalem. Israel insists on calling Gilo a "neighborhood" in its effort to claim sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank land it calls Jerusalem. Prime Minister Barak demanded in mid-December that CNN cease referring to Gilo as a "settlement" and it is reported that American Jews are selling stock in the Time-Warner company to protest.

PEACEMAKING REVIVED: A United Nations role regarding Jerusalem is currently being raised. William Quandt, a principal at the 1978 Camp David negotiations, has proposed that the U.N. Security Council assume responsibility for the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary area in Jerusalem. The Bush Administration could take the opportunity of a new administration here, and a newly formed government in Israel, to broaden international participation in fresh peacemaking that can build on the accomplishments of Mr. Clinton.

ANTI-AMERICAN ACTIVISM: The bombing of the USS Cole in the Red Sea as it was headed to supply the 25,000 American troops stationed in the Persian Gulf reflects a tremendous problem for the new Administration. Respect and affection for the United States in Arab countries may be at its lowest point ever, so low as to be dangerous. The popular perspective is widespread that America, and its peace-process negotiators, are so biased toward Israel that Palestinian rights and Muslim sensitivities are threatened.

FRAGILITY OF GULF REGIMES: James Bill, a professor at the College of William and Mary, has called the family-run states of the Gulf as the "whooping cranes of political systems." The Persian Gulf is ringed by eight states - two are populous, revolutionary regimes (Iran and Iraq) that are declared enemies of the United States and six are traditional regimes generally friendly to the United States (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qater, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia). These six governments are authoritarian in their suppression of popular movements in their countries that are clamoring for reform and for political participation. The voice of these movements is Islamist and their cry is often anti-American.

The Bush Administration will have a choice; to continue to bolster with military might the artificial stability of these governments or to press these and other friendly Arab regimes to open up their political systems and find new modes of politics that operate by inducement rather than coercion.

DEMOCRATIC REFORM IN IRAN THREATENED BY ECONOMY: The stumbling democratization of the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran under President Khatami is in trouble. After three-and-a-half years in power, he has been unable to check the conservative religious hold on the judiciary and security services. The much-needed and anticipated improvement in Iran's economy has been crippled by punishing U.S. sanctions. The new Administration will likely end the sanctions that hamper the development of Iran's petrochemical industry and open the way for a pipeline through Iran from the oil-rich Caspian Sea region to Persian Gulf ports.

SANCTIONS AND IRAQ: With the pro-business Republicans in power, the U.S. reliance on sanctions in its foreign relations will be reviewed. The Sanctions Reform Act, proposed by Sen. Richard Luger and now retired Rep. Lee Hamilton, may be resurrected.

President Bush will face the extreme irony of the hugely problematic aftermath of the war won by his father, his vice-president, Dick Cheney, and his secretary of state, Colin Powell. Those sanctions have failed miserably — failed in their arms-control objectives, failed to bring down President Saddam Hussein, and failed most tragically in the resultant suffering of the Iraqi people. While some hawks in Congress and think tanks continue to call for arming the weak and divided opposition to overthrow the regime, that approach is generally discredited. New and creative approaches are needed by the Administration, and by the church-based community seeking to end the Iraqi peoples' plight.