Socialist Worker

America's problem in Middle East

Issue No. 1719

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America's problem in Middle East

By Alex Callinicos

THE ESCALATING crisis in the Middle East sent shock waves throughout the world system at the end of last week. As the financial markets plummeted, many drew comparisons with October 1973.

Then Egypt and other Arab states launched a surprise attack on Israel on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Meanwhile the Arab oil producers used the crisis to push up the price of oil and cut off the supply altogether to the most pro-Israel Western states. There followed a major Middle East war-during which the United States put its nuclear forces on alert-and the first great post-war economic slump. One shouldn't overstate the parallels. What's on the cards is not, as in 1973, a war between conventional armed forces, but something more like the Intifada of the late 1980s, or the South African struggle in the same period.

Brave Palestinian youngsters will continue to take on the armed might of the Israeli state, while more organised guerrilla operations may be mounted by Fatah's military wing, Tanzim, or by Hizbollah in Lebanon. Still the reference to October 1973 is appropriate. The Yom Kippur war was a turning point.

President Sadat of Egypt and the other Arab leaders who started the war didn't want to destroy Israel or liberate the Palestinians.

Rather they wanted to demonstrate to Israel's backer, the United States, that they couldn't be ignored. The message got through. Since then there have been three overriding objectives of US policy in the Middle East-to keep the oil flowing, to maintain Israel as Washington's main "strategic asset" in the region, and to ensure the stability of key Arab allies, above all in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The problem has been how to reconcile these objectives-how to support Israel without undermining the Arab regimes. A decade ago Washington had a historical opportunity to impose a settlement that would square this circle.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the more nationalist Arab regimes-Egypt under Nasser, Syria under Assad, Iraq under Saddam Hussein-could no longer play the two superpowers off against each other. American predominance was underlined by the display of the Pentagon's military power during the Gulf War of 1991.

Washington sought to use its strength to resolve the region's crises. Thus Syria's support in the Gulf War was bought and Lebanon's long-running civil war ended by, in effect, allowing Assad his historic aim of controlling the country.

Meanwhile the Palestinians were offered the peace process initiated by the 1993 Oslo agreement. Their demands for national self determination would be met by establishing a Palestinian statelet on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The problem was that it soon became clear that what the Palestinians were actually going to get was little short of an insult.

Meanwhile Jewish settlements expanded, the Palestinian refugees were left to rot in their camps, and both the subjects of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab minority in Israel itself saw their economic plight steadily deteriorate. The only really surprising thing about the explosion of Palestinian anger these past few weeks is that it was so long coming. The entire imperialist settlement of the region that the US tried to impose in the early 1990s is now becoming unstuck.

The Palestinian rising has destabilised the Middle East. The Arab regimes are mostly brutal but ineffectual dictatorships. They have been unable to give their people either democratic rights or economic prosperity. Israel has always been a standing reproach to the Arab regimes.

The scenes these past few weeks are a reminder to key US allies such as President Mubarak of Egypt and the Saudi royal family of their failure to defend the Arab national cause.

These regimes are caught between the demands of their peoples on the streets for action in support of the Palestinians and the web of material interests that binds them to the US and therefore to Israel. They are most unlikely to go to war against Israel.

But their failure will encourage new radical movements throughout the Middle East pledged to fighting both Western imperialism and its Arab clients. October 2000 marks another turning point.


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Sat 21 Oct 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1719
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