Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Headlong to More of the Same

While the US continues to ignore its citizens, next month's peace conference seems fated to mimic the same old empty rhetoric, writes Azmi Bishara

In The Washington Post of 10 October, Harold Meyerson observes that if the erosion of individual rights in the US as a result of Bush's war on terror wasn't enough, there is a development that is "even more corrosive to American democracy: the erosion of majority rule". Apparently he's right. A Pew Research Centre poll in September indicated that 54 per cent of Americans supported bringing US forces home immediately, 13 per cent supported a timetable for withdrawal and only 25 per cent favoured keeping troops there and not setting a timetable.

Decision-makers side with the 25 per cent. They want US forces to stay in Iraq for an indefinite period, as they have in South Korea (50 years until now), in the opinion of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others. Presidential candidates, on the other hand, tend to be vague on withdrawal even though if the Democrats are elected it will be on the strength of American voters' opposition to the war in Iraq now that it has proven such a disaster.

Not that this is all that surprising. While the peaceful rotation of power is a fundamental component of a democracy, in the opinion of the high priests and savants of political theory, it is not an especially pivotal component. For the most part, power is rotated among people of the same party, or of the two major parties, without bringing a significant change in policy, especially those policies related to the essential nature of the national economy, the Central Bank, the US's central foreign alliances, national security, and the basic principles of the constitution. It is thus difficult to identify the contours of change on the basis of the success of a Republican or Democratic candidate in the US. To a considerable extent, politico-economic circumstances and the expectations of voters at the end of an incumbent's term determine the actions of his successor, leaving only a narrow margin for difference, regardless of the successor's political party affiliation.

In "established democratic systems" parties and presidents follow one another to the helm within the framework of the system's basic principles. In the US, the rivalry between the two major parties takes place within the ruling establishment and, moreover, since statistical considerations compel them to compete over the centre of the spectrum of public opinion, the rhetoric and platforms of rival candidates are often very similar. Little wonder therefore that, to the surprise and dismay of her liberal supporters, Hillary Clinton suddenly espoused conservative views. Not only does she not regret voting in favour of the war on Iraq when the issue came before Congress, she now refuses to rule out prolonging the military option in Iraq just as she refuses to rule out the option of war against Iran.

There are countries in which elections mean a choice between two different worlds, which is to say that the polls can actually result in radical foreign and domestic policy changes. The Ukraine and Lebanon spring to mind. But these are countries that have not yet matured into "established democratic systems".

This is not to say the peaceful rotation of power excludes the possibility of major political turning points in established democracies. The rise of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Thatcher and Reagan, for example, can only be understood as radical shifts in the US's or the UK's domestic or foreign policies arising from the results of national elections. On the other hand, those who subscribe to the theory above can claim that even in these instances the shifts were an inevitable reflection of larger forces, such as changes in the economy, the times, the nature of the forces of production and the like, as opposed to changes in persons and individual temperaments. Moreover, such instances are relatively rare, no more frequent than the sweeping changes similar exigencies compel upon dictatorships, whether these changes occur in the form of peaceful reforms or of coups and non-peaceful means of the rotation of power.

The difference between citizens of a democracy and citizens of a non-democratic government does not reside in their ability or lack of ability to alter policy, but rather in their respective rights and the nature of their citizenship.

Meanwhile, all indications are that the US is irrevocably bent on confrontation in the Arab region, a policy shared to varying degrees by its Arab and European allies and, of course, Israel. Their aim is to expunge such givens as Arab solidarity, the Palestinian cause and even the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to isolate and seal off everything that represents that "past" without resolving any issue unless by settlement with Israeli national consensus.

With the end of the neo-conservatives, the banner of "the spread of democracy" beneath which this clique paraded fell, leaving its less deceptive partner, "the fight against terrorism", in place. The banner that has effectively and flagrantly taken the place of "democracy" is "American hegemony", by which is meant the imposition of a single all- encompassing form of control over the material and mental region located between the preservation of Israel and oil, and the areas adjacent. The fall of "democracy", in turn, removed any vestiges of embarrassment and discomfort among Arab neo-cons and neo-liberals whose regimes, which they served in the days of Washington's neo-conservatives, now feel threatened or at least open to blackmail by America's number one ally. Indeed, gone now is even the slightest compunction at siding with Israel (militarily or non-militarily) in its confrontation against other Arabs.

Putting aside, just for the moment, the various details governing the daily moods and concerns of the people, which are echoing through the Lebanese press, between the lines of various meetings and in official statements, it is possible to capture a general idea. It is actually a pretty obvious one: when caught in a policy of regional confrontation such as that which is currently being engineered it is difficult for those in the crosshairs of that policy to come to an agreement. The rest is detail. This is an analysis, of course, not a value judgement. With regards to the latter, the policy of confrontation is no less than a crime and madness.

If the Lebanese were left to themselves, they would have no alternative but to come to an agreement. But the first to refute such an assessment are the Lebanese "factions" and their pundits. They will tell you that agreement on their presidency is a regional and international affair. "It's always been that way," they say and for proof they show how they've always welcomed international and Arab efforts. Still, one can not help but to believe that if the Lebanese had their say, they would reach a reconciliation, in spite of UN resolution 1559, from which all active players in Lebanon had distanced themselves when it was issued with expressions ranging from opposition to outright condemnation. But such was not to be the case, and now the acceptance of that resolution has become a prerequisite for engagement in any talks over the presidency, thanks to the imposition of the policy of regional confrontation, or to the players' seizing at this policy as an ally in their domestic power plays.

The situation as it stands can be broken down into the following inferential equation: the US is pursuing a confrontationist, anti-conciliatory policy in the region; consensus over the presidency of Lebanon (among other things, we add cautiously) is a regional and international matter; and local reconciliation is an unlikely outcome of international confrontation.

If this is true, then what is all the discussion about in Lebanon? Not, of course, that we want the newspapers there to shut down, depriving their owners of the income they make out of news, official statements and the like. But is it possible that the following holds true: that the US regards developments in Lebanon since the Syrian withdrawal as an accomplishment it seeks to sustain? In this case, it would not want that accomplishment to be jeopardised by an internal conflict with an unpredictable outcome and it would, therefore, want to encourage its allies there to reach a local agreement, so long as the accord remains local, in the sense of a local anaesthetic, which is to say applicable solely to Lebanon so as not to alter its overall policy of regional confrontation.

Of course, the foregoing scenario presumes that all decision-making power rests in Washington's hands alone and that the US is capable of doing what it pleases whenever it pleases. Were this presumption correct then one could accept, in theory, the possibility of that scenario. But even then, we would find that the US regards the implementation of Resolution 1559 an international concern worthy of fighting over. In Lebanon, it is not so much the person of the president that counts, but the makeup of the government he forms after he is elected, and the position of this government on 1559. Indeed, the implementation of the latter was the very issue that Israel had officially declared the aim of its war on Lebanon. It was not in the least interested in internal Lebanese dialogue or concord.

Ultimately, the subject is a political one in the end. National concord, like any political conciliation in the world, is contingent upon domestic parties capable of applying their independent will in realistically assessing their opportunities for achieving their objectives and then upon their willingness to compromise in order to avert hostilities with unforeseeable consequences. Consensus is synonymous with the theory and practice of realism.

On other fronts, Olmert has yet to state in detail his position on the conditions and limitations for a settlement. He uses that old "trial balloon" tactic: he lets others do the talking. Until recently, Olmert had been playing both sides of the fence, with Lieberman's Shas Party on one side and Barak's Labour Party on the other. Then he realised that Barak was not on the other side of the fence, but instead busily trying to outflank him on the right. Barak, for his part, realises that Netanyahu is his most powerful rival and he also believes that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is too week to deliver on Israel's conditions for a settlement.

Olmert has not forgotten that Barak lost his coalition government on the road to Camp David and that Netanyahu's government fell on his way back from Wye River. Olmert, on the other hand, succeeded in regaining some of his ratings and in winning over all the Israeli media in favour of a "peace process" and demographic separation in general. This is what won him over to Sharon, which, in turn, lifted his popularity ratings further.

Undoubtedly, Olmert also bears in mind that what raised his popularity ratings was not peace or his willingness to make concessions, but rather the "process" itself. From his perspective, then, the best option is to keep this process going without making "concessions". This is impossible, of course, which is why he has to offer small tips from time to time so as to strengthen the position of the "Palestinian partner" in Palestinian society.

Therefore, the only thing we can expect from the Annapolis peace meeting is for it to strengthen the peace process. As far as that meeting goes, the Israeli prime minister has only two major concerns. There has to be a prospect of some kind of declaration of understanding so as not to have to face the consequences of a reverberating failure, and there can be no "concessions" which could jeopardise his coalition. What all parties in that coalition share is an ability to realistically appreciate the prospects of the Annapolis meeting. And they can realistically expect that the US president will not pressure Israel.

On the Palestinian side, when some Hamas leaders say that talks are in progress with Fatah in this country or that, they look like unsteady tightrope walkers. More importantly, they are effectively belittling the importance of discussing opposition to the Bush meeting in November and sidelining the need to discuss the behaviour of the PA. The ultimate effect of such statements is to make Hamas appear interested primarily in returning to a power- sharing arrangement with Fatah.

Yet it is not Fatah that is ruling the PA at the moment, but rather a certain political trend, most of whose main figures either came from outside Fatah or had never held key positions in that movement. The only reason this trend freed itself from Hamas was so that it could have the leeway to play out its version of a settlement process to the accompaniment of a lot of international fanfare. It has no interest in going back to Hamas, which is why its response to Hamas statements is that no such talks are in progress and that there will be no dialogue. The proponents of this trend are very persistent and single minded. They have a project and they are determined to subordinate any details, such as dialogue, to the implementation of their project and what they hope to gain out of implementing it.

There are undoubtedly many Fatah members who have no objection to speaking with Hamas. There are also many who oppose the PA presidency's way of handling things. Perhaps these are the people Hamas should be speaking with, without claiming that they are speaking with Fatah in general and in a way that establishes common ground to build on towards the development of a political programme. Surely this is the only way to prevent the imposition on the Palestinians of a political map that features only an unjust settlement on one side and a self-serving PA project on the other, with no politicised opposition with a viable political vision in between.