- BEIRUT -- Few disputed at
the time that Israel was a factor that pushed U.S. President George W.
Bush to go to war on Iraq. Just how much weight it had among all the other
factors was the only controversial question. But what is clear, six months
on, is that Israel is now a very important one indeed in the stumbling
neoimperial venture that Iraq has become.
- This "Israelization" of U.S. policy crossed
a new threshold with the two blows dealt Syria in the past fortnight --
Bush's endorsement of Israel's Oct. 5 air raid on its territory and the
Syrian Accountability Act passed by the House of Representatives last week.
A community of U.S.-Israeli purpose pushed to unprecedented lengths is
now operational as well as ideological.
- For the U.S., the main battlefield is Iraq, and any state
that sponsors or encourages resistance to its occupation; for Israel it
is occupied Palestine, its "terrorists" and their external backers.
These common objectives converge on Syria.
- Of course, with his raid, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon had his own specifically Israeli agenda, growing out of frustration
at his failure to crush the intifada. Breaking the "rules" that
have "contained" Israeli-Syrian conflict these past 30 years,
he signaled his readiness to visit on Israel's Arab neighbors the same
punitive techniques he uses on the Palestinians.
- But whereas such an escalation might have had some deterrent
logic when these neighbors truly did sponsor or harbor Palestinian resistance,
it doesn't now. An essential feature of the intifada is that, spontaneous
and popular, it derives almost all its impetus from within; nothing illustrated
that like Hanadi Jaradat, the young woman from Jenin whose very personal
grief and vengeance prompted, on Oct. 4, the atrocious, self-sacrificial
deed that in turn prompted the raid. So, other than brief emotional gratification
to the Israeli public, Sharon's action achieved nothing.
- However, that will not deter Sharon. Having embarked
on this course, he has little choice but to continue it; more importantly,
violence has always been the indispensable means by which, in the guise
of fighting terror, he pursues his long-term aims, the building of "Greater
Israel" and the crushing of any opposition to it.
- But Sharon is also, he believes, serving an American
agenda. At least no one in Washington says he is not. There was a time,
even under the current U.S. administration, the most pro-Israeli administration
ever, when America would have strenuously distanced itself from such an
act by its protege; a time when, mindful of the linkage between the two
great Middle East zones of crisis, it would have recognized that too close
an identification with the aims and actions of Israel in Palestine and
its environs would complicate its task in Iraq. No more, apparently. Now
these aims and actions either matter little to America, or even, in Syria's
case, complement its own.
- True, constraints persist even now. Bush still balks
at Israel's projected "removal" of Palestinian Authority President
Yasser Arafat. On the other hand, he has effectively "disengaged"
once more from the peacemaking, endorsed the Israeli view that Arafat alone
is responsible for its breakdown and left Sharon a freer hand than ever
to conduct the Israeli share of their common "war on terror."
- It was partly because he couldn't go after Arafat that
Sharon turned on Syria instead. Again, Bush urged caution -- but then called
it legitimate "self defense" of a kind America itself would have
resorted to. It was Palestinian "terrorists" Israel struck, but
in American eyes, these are a piece of those other "terrorists"
-- Arabs or Muslims -- whose passage into Iraq Syria supposedly permits
or does little to impede.
- Bush's endorsement of the raid -- together with his signaled
readiness to sign into law the Syrian Accountability against which he has
long held out -- means that, where Syria is concerned, he has now veered
strongly in favor of the neoconservative wing of his administration. Its
members are so closely linked, personally, ideologically and even institutionally,
to the Israeli rightwing that it is impossible to disentangle what is American
in their thinking from what is Sharon and the Likud's -- and nowhere, Western
diplomats in Damascus say, is this more obvious than it is with regard
- The Accountability Act -- which calls for sanctions against
Syria till it stops supporting terrorism, withdraws its forces from Lebanon,
ceases development of weapons of mass destruction and enters "serious,
unconditional" peace negotiations with Israel -- is something the
U.S. neocons have been working for since the mid-1990s. That was when they
first proposed their joint Israeli-American strategy for "regime change"
in Syria as well as Iraq, to be accomplished by such means as attacks on
Syria by "Israeli proxy forces" based in Lebanon, Israeli attacks
on Syrian targets in Lebanon and "select" targets in Syria itself.
- The deepening U.S.-Israeli alliance is all too liable
to backfire. What the U.S. is permitting Israel to do in Palestine and
Syria will further inflame Arab and Muslim hostility to what it is doing
in Iraq. The effects of that will be felt at the popular level; as despised
Arab regimes look ever more incapable of fulfilling the fundamental duty
of any government: defense against foreign attack and domination. The militants
among their people -- like Hanadi Jaradat in Palestine -- assume that duty
themselves; they become terrorists and suicide bombers wherever motive
and opportunity for it most potently coincide. Iraq and Palestine are one
and the same. "Those," said Beirut's Daily Star, "who cannot
take revenge on Israeli occupation will happily visit it on U.S. troops
- As for the regimes, Syria has so far opted for restraint.
Aware that its only hope of securing its future in a general Middle East
settlement is via the United States, it may become even more conciliatory
than it already is. But if Sharon keeps up his attacks, there will surely
be a limit to such restraint, set by tactical necessity, domestic public
opinion and its own perception of itself as a last bastion of Arab steadfastness.
- Damascus has intimated that, at some point, it will hit
back -- perhaps by really adopting the spoiler's role in Iraq that the
U.S. unconvincingly attributes to it already, or, more likely, by activating
Hezbollah against Israel. Of course that would be very risky, given Israel's
vast superiority over it in conventional military terms. But -- as Damascus
will no doubt calculate -- can the U.S., floundering in Iraq, really afford
another Middle East conflagration of its ally's making?
- The "Israelization" of America, as a key ingredient
in the ever more noxious Middle East brew, is not an extravagant term for
a relationship in which, typically, Sharon leads and Bush lamely follows.
The pattern constantly repeats itself. Bush may have misgivings about what
Sharon does -- at his military excesses, his relentless settlement drive,
his "wall" and now his attack on Syria -- and he may stammer
out mild admonitions, but he always accommodates him in the end.
- With Iraq itself eating away at his prospects of election
for a second term, Bush will be more accommodating than ever, more deferential
to all the "friends of Israel" in America from whom Sharon draws
most of his power to lead -- or mislead -- him.
- With the next suicide bomber will Sharon reply against
the offices of "terrorist" organizations in Damascus itself --
as he has clearly intimated he might? One thing is sure: If, somewhere
down such a road, lies an American disaster in Iraq and a monumental scuttle,
the Israeli partner in this most extraordinary and counterproductive of
alliances will pay higher price than America itself.
- David Hirst is the Mideast correspondent for The Guardian
in London. Based in Beirut, he has been covering the region for 30 years.