Blair bereft

by John Quiggin on April 15, 2004

The day before Tony Blair turns up in Washington to give yet another demonstration of support for the mess Bush is making of Iraq, we have the spectacle of Bush and Sharon tearing up the “roadmap for peace”, one of the key elements on which Blair sold the Iraq war to the British Labour Party, and Bush endorsing Sharon’s plans to annex most of the West Bank. It’s hard to imagine that Blair could stand for such a gratuitous insult, but equally hard to imagine him doing anything about it.

Instead, I imagine Blair’s spin doctors will produce some rationalisation along the lines that, since everyone knew that the Palestinian “right of return” was no more than a bargaining chip that would have to be dealt away in a final settlement, and everyone also knew that the Israelis would get to retain some West Bank settlements, nothing fundamental has changed. Better still, we’re finally getting an actual withdrawal from (most of) Gaza.

Like all good spin, this isn’t so implausible that it can be dismissed out of hand. After all, the withdrawal from Gaza is a bird in the hand, while the fact that Sharon’s plans have the endorsement of a US President with a year of his term left to run doesn’t make those plans a final settlement. No-one outside the US will recognise it. Even Bush may be forced, in the end, to exploit the ambiguities noted above and to say that he only meant the handful of settlements envisaged in the Clinton or Geneva plans. It’s perfectly possible that having withdrawn from Gaza, Sharon will find, in six months or so, that he hasn’t really gained anything of lasting value.

But, right now, six months is an awfully long time. This deal, following on the assassination of Yassin, could scarcely have been better calculated to promote the interests of the Coalition’s enemies in Iraq or Blair’s critics at home.

And after the verbal tricks both Bush and Blair have played for the past few years, there’s no reason for anyone, anywhere, to give them the benefit of the doubt on something like this. If it looks like annexation, and quacks like annexation, it probably is annexation. Certainly, it’s annexation and not the Clinton plan that Sharon is selling to Likud.

I could be wrong. Perhaps Blair will denounce the whole deal, and make his denunciation stick, for example, by threatening to pull British troops out of Iraq. If so, I’ll be the first to cheer for him. But if, as I expect, we get nothing more than mealy-mouthed expressions of regret (if that!), it will be time for the Labour Party to elect a new leader.

Update: When I wrote this, I hadn’t seen Blair’s statement, which is even more mealy-mouthed than I expected.

{ 19 comments }

1

Hugh 04.15.04 at 1:35 pm

+1.

2

wbb 04.15.04 at 1:49 pm

The USA is determined to bring it on. On every front, they wish to play it out with their enemies in the Middle East. And why wouldn’t they? Iraq is neutralised as a threat. Palestine is a mere fly, to be swatted. There have been no bombings chez elle and so they’re reasonably sanguine about the prospects all round. The heat currently is in some far-flung shithole called Fallujah. Things are just peachy for Uncle Sam at the moment. So they press the advantage home.

And so John Q is right – aim the quetions at Blair – the neocons are beyond the pale.

3

james 04.15.04 at 2:17 pm

I wonder did Bush even bother to tell Blair about this? Or if Blair was ever really all that concerned about it anyway? (On the surface, at least, his policy has been reasonably creditable).

Prior to this I didn’t think Kerry would be any better than Bush re Israel/Palestine, but surely he couldn’t have his head quite so far up Sharon’s whatsit.

So can we now say that if Bush gets four more years that is the end of whatever slim hope there was of a semi-just settlement for the Palestinians?

Mind you Kerry, with his usual courage, seems to have more or less backed this deal, though no doubt he’ll throw in some “balancing” criticism in good time. On which note, one should be wary of portraying this as the end of a previously even-handed US policy – as far as I can see no such policy existed; this is just even more onesided than before.

4

nofundy 04.15.04 at 2:55 pm

What’s a poodle to do?

5

John Isbell 04.15.04 at 3:04 pm

I’d be interested to see a link to the Kerry statement “more or less backing” this deal with his usual courage. That might be the courage that put 4 or 5 medals on his chest, uncommon, I’d think, among our fiery commenters.
Sharon might also be slowed down here by his indictment. Oddly, the media didn’t play that angle during the visit.

6

Andrew Boucher 04.15.04 at 3:21 pm

Maybe I’m looking at this through my rose-tinted glasses, but is it really as bad as all that?

Sharon’s plan will get Israel out of Gaza and dismantle settlements, surely a plus, and something which we have not seen for many many years. As near as I can tell Bush has committed the U.S. to nothing, but has only given Sharon verbal backing to win the Likud vote scheduled for early May, so that the settlements can be removed and Israel can leave Gaza.

Sharon says (now) that some settlements will remain in the West Bank. If the Palestinians decide to negotiate, they know what the starting Israeli position is, and so (unless completely inept) should expect to do better if not much better in any final deal. That is, any final settlement, if agreed upon, will see Israel with fewer settlements in the West Bank than what Sharon is talking about now.

One can even conceive that if the Gaza pull-back works and the Israelis see that it improves rather than diminishes their security, then the Israelis themselves might see that a complete pull-back from the West Bank would be in their interest. Obviously, this wouldn’t extend to certain disputed parts of East Jerusalem, but would extend to those settlements deep within the West Bank, whose inclusion in Israel would hinder the creation of a true Palestinian state.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth ??

7

Scott Martens 04.15.04 at 3:32 pm

I’m not so optimistic. I suspect that when Sharon says “withdrawl from most of Gaza” what he means is converting it into the world’s largest open-air prison. I doubt that this is in any sense a step towards soveregnty or towards new negociations or that Israel will feel the need to refrain from blowing things up in Gaza. I suspect in six months we will find Likud blaming the Palestinians for undermining the peace plan, while Israel will have simply relieved itself of any responsibility for feeding or maintaining Gaza without having abandoned effective suzeranity over it. And anyone on the West Bank Sharon dislikes enough to get rid of, but not enough to take the flack for killing outright, can just be deported to Gaza without additional political problems.

Sharon is trying to keep Hebron, a settlement that the government never approved of in the first place and that sits in the area Israel can least justify annexing. I’ve seen no mention of water and subsurface rights in the territories they’re withdrawing from, nor anything about turning roads over to the Palestinians. Israeli infrastructure isn’t moving, and I doubt the forces that protect the infrastructre are going to move either. This stinks to me.

I could be wrong. I’d certainly like to be. But Sharon is someone where when he says something that sounds good, you should always check for your wallet.

8

John Isbell 04.15.04 at 3:42 pm

OK, I’ve found the Kerry quote, from the WaPo:
“”I think that could be a positive step,” the Massachusetts senator said, approving of the Bush-Sharon action regarding both refugees and Israel’s borders.”
It’s unclear to me that Kerry’s words in fact support the WaPo’s inferred link to the West Bank as well as to the Gaza pullout (Bush alo rejected the right of return). If they do, I think it’s appalling. But that has nothing to do with courage. Losing an election isn’t courage. Why not just say unethical, it’s precise.

9

Andrew Boucher 04.15.04 at 3:51 pm

Perhaps I am misinformed, but as I understand it, Israel is removing all of its settlements from Gaza. Is this a good or not?

10

L Fitz 04.15.04 at 3:54 pm

Despite observing the Israeli-Palestinian standoff through leftwing glasses, I’ve come to a conclusion similar to Andrew Boucher’s. This is definitely a plus. The Israeli settlements in Gaza were a major irritant given how crowded the strip is (I visited the place in 1996). When they are dismantled, some 20-25% of Gaza’s arable land will be freed up, and given Arafat’s tenuous influence, is unlikely to be reserved for his cronies. On the other hand, Hamas may profit. As for the West Bank, consolidation will remove some irritants there as well. Despite Likud’s current policies (assuming Sharon wins his party’s referendum; if he loses all bets are off), a period of relative calm will gradually influence public opinion on both sides and allow for discussion of positions that haven’t been heard from since before the current Intifada. The left has always placed the onus of making the “first move” on Israel (reasoning that the Palestinians were too fragmented to be capable of one). If we consider this one a “first step”, it can certainly be greeted with a small bit of optimism.

11

Ginger Yellow 04.15.04 at 5:48 pm

Withdrawal from Gaza is a good thing, yes. Tying said withdrawal to: a) retaining a military presence in Gaza; b) consolidation of 5 settlement blocks in the West Bank; and c) denial of the right of return; is a terrible thing.

The point of this plan, as with all Israeli government actions in the territories, is to redraw the framework of debate with “realities/facts on the ground”. For a start, only the most ardent of Eretz Israel types believed that any settlements in Gaza should remain. There are 25,000 troops in the territory guarding 7,500 settlers and it’s a massive drain on Israeli resources, let alone lives and security.

Until yesterday international and even US policy was that all settlements beyond the Green Line are illegal and that the Palestinians have a right of return. While the US in particular has never been willing to enforce that policy, and all (non-Palestinian) parties recognised that full enforcement was impossible, that was the starting point of negotiations and also meant that Palestinians were negotiating from a position of moral and legal, if not military or political, strength. This announcement not only moves the goalposts but effectively kicks the Palestinians’ negotiating legs out from under them.

12

james 04.15.04 at 5:48 pm

John,

Naturally I refer to John Kerry’s lack of political courage, not his courage in war. Approving of unethical actions out of fear that denouncing them would be electorly risky can be fairly called (political) cowardice.

In any case I consider Kerry’s opposing the Vietnam war more honourable than his fighting in it, and find it somewhat extraordinary that in terms of electoral assets and liabilities the order seems to be the reverse. (Not that this is the place to argue that point).

On the main point, of course a pull out of Gaza is great, but not if it is a trade off for the killing of any last hope for justice for the Palesinian people.

13

GMT 04.15.04 at 6:20 pm

What mainstream American politician can afford to actually oppose Israel (as opposed to merely advising restraint from time to time)?

He’d (yes, I said “he”) would immediately be a “radical.”

I doubt Kerry’s recently discovered heritage has a thing to do with this. (They’re all produced by the same machine, I just prefer the one with a brain.)

14

Andrew Boucher 04.15.04 at 7:50 pm

Withdrawal from Gaza is a good thing, yes. Tying said withdrawal to: a) retaining a military presence in Gaza; b) consolidation of 5 settlement blocks in the West Bank; and c) denial of the right of return; is a terrible thing.

I’m unaware of a). In fact I’ve read the contrary: “According to the plan, Israel will relocate military installations and all Israeli villages and towns in the Gaza Strip.” Do you have a link?

b) A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. By that I mean, the withdrawal from Gaza (a good thing) will be tangible. The 5 settlement blocks will be the basis of negotiations.

c) Denial of the right of return was acknowledging the obvious.

15

duaneg 04.15.04 at 8:29 pm

I think I tend to lean more towards the more unconcerned side of the debate here.

While I accept ginger yellow‘s points, I’m not sure that in the end it makes that much practical difference. I don’t see how it harms the Palestinian moral case — and to be honest their legal case doesn’t seem to have helped them much, irrespective of its merits. After all, one light you could see this in is one of the players being more open about their position. I’m all in favour of a bit less rhetoric and a bit more plain talking from both sides. Not that I think that was Bush’s motive, you understand.

And having said, I’m not saying this was a good move by Bush. As always, he and his administration are astonishingly inept. Their utter disregard for the opinion of others is as clear and as offensive as ever. Their arrogance not only looks bad, it is making them screw up badly.

And it does sound like a gratuitous slight of Tony Blair. No stories of him counselling Bush at high-powered ranch-retreats this time. Not that it’ll hurt him that much. After all, the opposition are still well-contained, and as for the Tories…

I’m looking forward to the speculation on Newsnight already.

16

Dan 04.15.04 at 8:31 pm

From Sharon’s point of view, this whole deal is essential to his not being indicted. Remember, Henry Kissinger said that Israeli foreign policy was in fact Israeli domestic politics. With Bush’s enodrsement, Sharon will get this deal past his Likud party when it votes in early May. Then, some hard line members of the Likud party and the small right wing parties will leave the cabinet. Sharon will then form a coalition with Labor. Remember, somehting veery like Sharon’s unilateral pullout and separation from the Palestinians was Labor’s official policy when Barak was PM (after the failure of the Camp David/Tabba negotiations.)

Perhaps a coalition government will be more palatable to the Palestininaas as a negotiatiing partner, perhaps not. But, it will be EXTREMELY popular with the Israeli public, thus putting pressure on the Attorney General not to indict Sahron. (He has said that a decision will be made around the end of May; see how the timing works?)

If all of this sounds convoluted, it is actually straightforward as far as Israeli politic is concerned. And guess who else coalition governments in Israel are popular with? American jews. And Sharon will make sure to give Bush all the credit. Kerry can kiss Florida goodbye.

17

Ginger Yellow 04.15.04 at 10:45 pm

I don’t have time to address all the points right now – I’m at work – but I’ll touch on the right of return issue. The point is that although a physical right of return for every Palestinian refugee is of course practically impossible, the point of insisting on the legal and moral justice of the right is to ensure a just alternative is negotiated. If all parties who can bring pressure to bear agree that the Palestinians have the theoretical right of return, then it makes it easier to argue for a compromise (eg financial compensation, resettlement assistance, infrastructure aid etc). By simply saying that the right of return is “unrealistic”, you greatly undermine the chance of achieving a just settlement, ie one that will help end the conflict. What I don’t think Bush realises (or cares) is that just as the Israelis see a literal right of return as an existential threat, giving up that right is far and away the hardest concession for the Palestinians to agree to. The only way the likes of Hamas (and their civilian supporters) will be persuaded to put down their guns is if the right of return question is settled in a way that is very favourable to the Palestinians. It is hardly conducive to peace therefore if the Us dismisses the right of return out of hand.

18

Phill 04.16.04 at 4:00 am

The end of every war is decided by the loser, never the winner. Sharon can withdraw from whatever he chooses, but that does not change the fact that all the settlements are illegal and the international community will not recognize anexation unless the Palestinians do.

In effect Sharon has unilaterally discarded a number of settlements that might have been used as bargaining chips. He gets no concession in return but he does eliminate a major security problem – protecting a rash of settlements placed in areas that are not defensible.

The real motivation here appears to be that Sharon has started to worry about the time when Palestinians outnumber Jews in his greater Israel and the Palaestinans switch their demand to one man one vote. With the situation in Russia improving markedly and the situation in Israel going to hell in an handbasket it is quite likely that there will be net emigration of Jews in the comming years.

Israel has to decide what it wants to be. If it wants to be a part of the free world it can’t have one law for Jews and another for non-Jews. If the Klu Klux klan had managed to set up a white state in the US deep south there is no way that would be acceptable to the free world.

One thing is certain, an announcement by a Sharon and Bush does not a peace deal make.

19

Andrew Boucher 04.16.04 at 6:36 am

“By simply saying that the right of return is “unrealistic”, you greatly undermine the chance of achieving a just settlement, ie one that will help end the conflict.”

After 40 years where is the settlement that will end the conflict? The Gaza withdrawal gets the ball moving. If they decide to negotiate rather than pout, in a negotiated settlement the Palestinians can hope for most of the West Bank.

I don’t think compensation is due for the refugees. For one thing I don’t like the idea that property takes precedence over lives. If you go back to the original sin, there was a war after the U.N. partition, whose fault I attribute (perhaps naively) to the Arabs. Do you compensate Israelis who lost loved ones in that war?

On a realistic political level, one could argue that there should be compensation, whether or not there is a moral justification, because only that would achieve peace. I think this argument serves to prove that the Palestinians have not lost anything in Bush’s remarks on the right of return. The right of return has never been a useful bargaining chip, because the Israelis were never going to give it. On the other hand, the willingness to grant peace is and remains the only true Palestinian bargaining chip. They still have it and they can still use it. If Israel were assured peace in some satisfactory way, and compensation were necessary to achieve it, then obviously (?) compensation would be paid. Mind you, at some point this chip disappears as even more water goes under the bridge, so they better start negotiating.

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