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Feature Story

Myth of the 'Pax Americana'

As the prospects for Middle East peace fade away, cynicism and suspicion take over.

By Robert Fisk


From Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, it is now possible to travel through the Middle East and not pass through more than one country that still boasts a U.S. Embassy. In Amman, Jordan, the embassy is a fortress. In Damascus the compound is one of the smallest in the region. In Beirut, in Algiers and in Cairo, U.S. diplomats live in virtual bunkers, traveling only with large armed escorts. (Israel, of course, is another story.) However unpleasant the rest of the region's regimes may be -- and the hangman's dictatorship in Baghdad is by far the worst -- the startling fact remains that today more than half the Middle Eastern land mass is without U.S. diplomatic representation. Yet, incredibly, we are asked to admire the United States' political "success" in the Middle East -- and to have faith that the grotesque imbalance built into the Arab-Israeli negotiations represents a just peace.

The unspoken truth is that U.S. policies, and the Arab leaders who have endorsed them, are becoming ever more unpopular throughout the region. But Western journalists rarely convey the depth or seriousness of this failure. Instead, they paint a false but glowing picture of "moderate" leaders moving together with the United States and Israel toward a new regional stability. This Pax Americana, which is founded on the Arab-Israeli "peace process," at its center, and the Iran/Iraq "containment program," at its fringe, necessitates much deception.

True, the initial peace conference at Madrid in the fall of 1991 suggested that a just peace could be obtained for Arabs and Israelis alike. Secretary of State James Baker repeatedly said that a future peace would be constructed around U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the first of which demands Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land and "acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." President Hafez Assad of Syria asked for -- and received -- a confidential letter from Baker repeating the nature of the proposed deal: land for peace. On that basis, the Arabs turned up at Madrid.

Yasir Arafat's secret negotiations with the Israelis, however, effectively destroyed the trust that was built into these official talks. For the 1993 Oslo agreement, while it claimed to be based on Resolutions 242 and 338, undermined them. It allowed for an Israeli redeployment in -- rather than withdrawal from -- the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It contained no international guarantees. And it fatally postponed discussion of the very issues that would have insured real peace: the future status of Jerusalem, of Jewish settlements, Palestinian statehood and the fate of the exiled Palestinian refugees of 1948, who -- along with their descendants -- now number more than 3 million.

Oslo allowed an all-powerful Israel, backed by the most pro-Israeli U.S. administration in a generation, to delay the timetable of withdrawals and begin to build huge new settler roads across the West Bank, slicing up the still-occupied territory like a salami. Arafat was repeatedly ordered to crush Islamic opposition inside the portions of land he ostensibly controlled. And, since the most crucial elements of this "peace" -- Jerusalem, settlements and statehood -- were to be left to the end of the "process," they could no longer be a cause of contention. Indeed, the very "process" itself was used to legitimize what had been illegitimate. The West Bank, U.S. diplomats were told, was no longer to be called "occupied"; it was to be referred to as "disputed" -- as if the Israelis had some claim in international law to the tens of thousands of acres of Arab land that they had seized and built upon after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Oslo agreement, it turned out, was not based upon U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. It provided an opportunity for the Israelis to renegotiate those resolutions.

Most journalists went along with this fiction. When Jews tried to extend a settlement in January 1995, for example, Jerrold Kessel felt able to tell CNN viewers that the settlers "feel themselves fully part of the landscape" and to refer in his report of January 16 to "heritage claims [sic] going back hundreds of years." No attempt was made to explain that the Jewish "claim" had no standing in international law and that the Palestinian "claim" was not a claim at all but legal ownership of the land. By the same token, anyone objecting to the "peace process" -- either the Arafat variety or the Madrid version -- was treated as "supporting terrorism."

By continuing this tendentious form of journalism into the period of the "peace process," reporters helped to establish a particularly dangerous trend: that of portraying Arabs as intrinsically less trustworthy than Israelis at a time when the Arabs themselves were being forced to accept what many of them regarded as an unjust peace. The vicious Palestinian suicide bombings of this spring were regarded as a direct assault on the "peace process." In fact, they were retaliation for the Israeli murder of a Hamas bomber called Yahya Ayyash. Those who live by the sword -- or the bomb -- can expect to die by it, but Hamas was maintaining a cease-fire at the time and the Israelis must have known that the killing of Ayyash would provoke bloody revenge.

Like the Palestinians, Jordanians have shown little affection for their own "peace." On the night of October 26, 1994, I left my hotel in Amman to walk the eerily silent streets of the Jordanian capital. A few hours earlier, King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had signed a peace treaty in the desert at Arava, watched over by President Clinton. For the first time in almost half a century, Jordan was at peace. Its sons would never again have to go to war. In any other state, you would have expected the capital to explode with joy. And yet on that night in Amman, not a soul left his or her home. The streets were patrolled only by nervous and heavily armed security men, several of whom demanded to know my identity when I strolled into the empty city center. It was, in every sense of the word, an important news story: "Peace Breaks Out: No One Cheers."

But no one reported it. On CNN, on the U.S. networks, on the front pages of newspapers across the United States, there were identical images of Hussein and Rabin shaking hands, of President Clinton beaming with delight behind them. This wondrous extension of the Pax Americana that already covered Egypt and the West Bank and Gaza was a miracle that must not be disturbed by harsh realities, especially those that might throw into question the very nature of the peace itself.

The Jordanians' silence is understandable. More than half the population is of Palestinian origin, and they saw all too painfully how little the Oslo agreement was going to achieve for their brethren on the other side of the Jordan River. The Israeli-Jordanian peace also claimed to be based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. But the references to Palestinian refugees in Jordan related only to U.N. humanitarian organizations, and the frontier between Jordan and Israel was recognized as an international border between both states -- even though part of Jordan's border runs alongside the West Bank, which is definitely not part of the State of Israel.

For both the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, the promises of an economic boom have not been fulfilled. King Hussein could scarcely have been surprised at the rioting that followed the ending of bread subsidies this summer. Jordanians saw the monarch's desire to placate the I.M.F. as another sign of their country's humiliation at the hands of the West. Was not the Arab-Israeli peace supposed to improve conditions for ordinary Jordanians?

It is extraordinary that the only two men to sign a peace with Israel after the 1991 Gulf War, Yasir Arafat and King Hussein, should be the only two men to have embraced Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait. Even more incredible is the way we journalists, in our euphoria at the supposed peace breaking out in the Middle East, simply erased these recollections from our copy. It is, of course, an essential act of memory cleansing. For keeping the historical record intact would have raised the one fact that has tormented and humiliated the Arabs since the "peace process" began in Madrid in the aftermath of the 1991 U.S. victory in the Gulf: that to make peace with Israel, and be embraced by the United States, you must be weak, even discredited. The act of signing thus represented, for both Arafat and King Hussein, survival and resurrection. Their support for the Beast of Baghdad was rubbed off the tape. Expletive deleted.

If forgiveness is bestowed upon those who sign up for peace on Israel's terms, the other side of the Pax Americana is reserved for Israel's enemies. Iran is to be economically isolated, Iraq to be cowed into further submission by U.N. sanctions and airstrikes. Syria, still on the State Department's list of countries that support "terrorism," is threatened with military attack by Israel. Sudan is isolated for its alleged support for "terrorism," while Qaddafi's tinpot dictatorship in Libya remains under U.N. blockade for its alleged involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

As the prospects of a real peace steadily fade away, cynicism and suspicion take over. There is a real need, too, to find a scapegoat for the increasingly probable collapse of the whole process, especially after the electoral victory of Israel's right-wing Likud Party -- and there is little doubt that the scapegoat will prove to be Syria. Even before the Likud victory, Shimon Peres had been setting up President Assad as a potential fall guy, arguing that he did not want peace because he had refused to accept the return of the Golan Heights in return for a full peace treaty. In fact, Assad never turned down such a proposal; the Golan was offered back by the Israelis with so many conditional clauses -- an Oslo-style withdrawal by stages, of which Assad was understandably suspicious, and a demilitarization on the Syrian side that would, in Syrian eyes, have denuded Damascus itself of any defenses -- that Assad could never have signed such a deal. This did not stop Israeli commentators, and their friends in the U.S. media, from rediscovering the Demon of Damascus.

And so the Israeli pillar of the Pax Americana is ever more based upon raw military and political dominance. When that other arm of the Pax Americana -- the "containment" policy against Baghdad and Teheran -- supposedly necessitated another strike against Saddam Hussein's barefoot army, we got President Clinton's latest Iraqi adventure. American retaliation for Saddam's military support of the Kurdistan Democratic Party was presented, at least in its initial days, as an act of firm leadership. Only after a week did it become clear that, despite the flurry of cruise missiles, the C.I.A.'s $100 million project in northern Iraq -- designed to topple Saddam -- had collapsed, and the 1991 Gulf War coalition had effectively disintegrated.

The Saudis and their neighbors were obviously far more worried about their own domestic reaction to the U.S. airstrikes than fearful of another invasion by Iraq's depleted army. Add to this the growing belief in the Middle East that election success for Israeli and U.S. leaders appears to necessitate bombing Arabs -- even if Shimon Peres's April onslaught in Lebanon went astray after the Qana bloodbath -- and it's not difficult to understand why Defense Secretary William Perry received so little encouragement during his tour of the Middle East in mid-September.

The United States pays ritual obeisance to the idea of Arab "sensitivities" without understanding what those sensitivities really are. Arab distress at U.S. cruise missile strikes does not spring from cowardice, nor from any secret admiration for the ghastly Saddam. It comes from something far deeper, something heartfelt and emotional about the very idea of Iraq. For Iraq contains what no other Arab nation possesses: both water and oil. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt have water but little or no oil; the Gulf Arabs have oil but no water. By comparison, Iraq represents a land of plenty, the ideal Arab nation whose naptha means wealth and whose water means survival. And against this paradise -- however mythical in the world of Realpolitik -- President Clinton has been sending his missiles.

And now, as the "peace process" dies, frightening signs of mutual hatred and distrust between Jews and Muslims have emerged. Earlier this year an article in Le Monde by a leader of France's Jewish community was headlined "Islamist gangrene." On the opposite page, a cartoon showed a Muslim imam with octopus tentacles emerging from his cloak. In The Jerusalem Post an Israeli "security expert" is quoted referring to "hundreds of Iranian-directed Muslim maniacs...slobbering over the promised virgins waiting them in paradise." In the Arab world, a new fit of Holocaust denial has taken hold. Hitler's Mein Kampf has just been reprinted in Beirut and has already sold out in the shops. In Cairo, Roger Garaudy's Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israelienne, which attempts to throw the very nature of the Holocaust into question, has been printed in Arabic for the first time. Garaudy himself has just been officially received in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, feted by Arab intellectuals in all three countries and greeted by no less a figure than Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam in Damascus.

In this poisonous atmosphere, we are still, remarkably, being asked to believe in the Middle East "peace process." The truth -- that it is dead and may even have been stillborn -- eludes us. Arafat's physical survival has long been in doubt. The Hashemite monarchy of Jordan, locked into a flawed peace, is looking increasingly precarious. The Arabs, if not their dictators, have understood this for months, which is why they give such a warm reception to European leaders who warn of the demise of peace and insist on the fulfillment of the U.N. resolutions that were supposed to underpin the whole exercise. Yet the United States, uncritically following Israel as usual, fails to grasp that the most important foreign policy initiative of the Bush and Clinton years is in pieces. Is it too late to go back and start again? Is it possible at this critical moment to re-insert land-for-peace -- the return of all occupied land for total peace -- into the negotiations? If not, many Arabs believe we are destined to suffer years of growing hatred between East and West, and increasing bitterness toward the United States as an uncritical ally of Israel. At the top of the newly elected President's list of foreign policy objectives should be five words: a new Middle East peace.


Robert Fisk, who is based in Beirut, is the Middle East correspondent for the London Independent.

Copyright (c) 1996, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212) 242-8400, ext. 226 or send e-mail to Max Block.



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