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Shakes in the Middle East

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Alex Callinicos looks at how US policy is destabilising the Arab regimes
Issue 1796

ONE MOMENT summed up for me the enormous tensions that George W Bush’s administration is creating with its support for Ariel Sharon’s reign of terror in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. US Secretary of State Colin Powell spent a week dawdling around the world before arriving in Israel on his supposed ‘peace mission’.

That gave Sharon’s butchers plenty of time to do their bloody work. Powell’s first stop was Morocco in North Africa. At a public session for the media, King Mohammed of Morocco effectively told Powell to get lost. ‘Don’t you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?’ he asked Powell.

The Moroccan monarchy has been one of the most servile and repressive pro-Western regimes since it gained independence in the 1950s. Yet now this pampered king was giving voice to the anger of the Arab streets. The reason is simple. Bush’s policy of treating Israel’s war against the Palestinians as one of the frontlines in the larger ‘war on terrorism’ is destabilising the Middle East.

It is endangering the political survival of the pro-Western rulers of the Arab world. The Guardian commented last Saturday: ‘There is an imminent danger of a wider war. Washington is currently relying on Moscow’s good offices to persuade Syria and Iran to restrain Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Mr Powell has also been given a direct reminder by America’s most important Arab allies-Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt-that their own stability is in danger.’

The fury in the Arab world is important for two reasons. First of all, it could threaten Bush’s plans to attack Iraq. Quentin Peel, foreign editor of the Financial Times, wrote last Monday: ‘If Saddam Hussein ever says his daily prayers, he must surely be saying a fervent thank you for the behaviour of Ariel Sharon. Anger throughout the Arab world, demonstrated on the streets from the Gulf to Rabat, has made practical planning of any large-scale military operation against Baghdad-an exercise that would anyway require months of preparation-incomparably more difficult.’

But the turmoil in the Arab world has a longer term significance as well. The plight of the Palestinian people has been the same ever since British imperialism first lent its backing to a Zionist state in their country with the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

In Israel the Palestinians face a state that is armed and backed by the greatest imperialist power today-the US. This means that they can, at most, inflict tactical defeats on Israel.

Hizbollah’s success in driving the Israeli army out of south Lebanon shows what guerrilla fighters backed by popular support can achieve. It is conceivable that the Palestinians could force Israel to pull out of the bulk of the Occupied Territories if they succeed in inflicting enough casualties on the Israeli army.

A significant section of the Israeli establishment already supports a withdrawal. Palestinian resistance could gradually wear down Israeli public support for the occupation and thus produce a change in government policy. This would be an undoubted victory.

But it would still leave in place Israel-a racist, expansionist state with a huge military establishment. Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is currently riding high in the Israeli opinion polls on the basis of even more barbarous policies than Sharon’s.

The Palestinians on their own can’t achieve the change that is really needed-the dismantling of the Zionist state and its replacement by a secular democratic Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs can live together on the basis of freedom and equality.

This objective could only be realised if the weight of the Arab world were swung in support of the Palestinians. But this will never happen under the present conservative Arab regimes.

Look at the record. The most serious Arab assault on Israel-the October 1973 war-was waged to give the Egyptian regime of Anwar Sadat the leverage it needed to negotiate a separate peace with Israel. Many of the worst defeats the Palestinians suffered were at the hands of their Arab ‘brothers’.

King Hussein drove the Palestinian resistance out of Jordan in September 1970. Syria intervened to prevent the Palestinians and the left winning the Lebanese civil war in 1975-6.

The Arab regimes looked on in 1982 while Sharon besieged Beirut and drove the Palestinian resistance out of Lebanon. They are scared that if they allow a similar horror to happen in the Occupied Territories their people will never forgive them.

Victory for Palestine will require a social revolution in the Arab world that sweeps away the conservative regimes. George Bush and Ariel Sharon are stoking the fires that could help start such an upheaval.

Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks — phone 020 7637 1848,


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