Hope and fear in the Middle East

by our Asian Affairs correspondent

WHILE the great and the good of the imperialist world churned out the usual platitudes reserved for the passing of any willing tool who has proved useful to them in the past, Palestinians in the refugee camps rejoiced when they heard the news that General Ariel Sharon had at last died.

Israeli politicians across the Zionist spectrum praised their former premier for his supposed military acumen and said nothing about the financial scandals that dogged his later political career. Palestinians remembered him as the Butcher of Beirut, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinian refugees murdered by Israel’s Lebanese Falangist allies during Israel’s brief occupation of Beirut in 1982.

The Israeli commander and former premier of Israel had, of course, been virtually dead for the past eight years following a massive stroke that left him in a permanent vegetative state in January 2006. Lying comatose in an Israeli hospital no one expected Sharon to ever regain consciousness while some said that he was only being kept alive to enable the Israeli establishment to use his state funeral to rally the country in some future time of political crisis.

Nothing much has changed for the Palestinians living under direct Israeli occupation, the “autonomous” zones of the West Bank or the free but blockaded Palestinian ghetto called the Gaza Strip. And nothing much can be expected from Israel’s current reactionary leaders, despite all the talk of a “final settlement” coming from Washington these days.

The American proposals brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry are essentially nothing more than what was rejected by Yasser Arafat during the Camp David talks 14 years ago. On the map Israel keeps key settlements in the West Bank including what they call “Greater Jerusalem” and retains military control of the Jordan Valley for at least a further 10 years. The proposed independent Palestinian state gets what’s left of the West Bank and a road or rail link across Israel to Gaza and territory proportionate to what it has lost on the West Bank from Israel — though some of this underdeveloped or even waste land and the rest would include the Arab villages in northern Israel which would help reduce Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority.

As for the six million or so Palestinian refugees across the Arab world and beyond there’s nothing apart from the promise to allow some 100,000 to return — an offer made by Israel back in the 1950s — and maybe the same again at a later date coupled with an offer to rehouse the rest in Canada or the United States.

So why did Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon allegedly privately say that the only thing that can “save” Israel “is for Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us alone”. The comments, leaked by a leading Israeli newspaper, forced Ya’alon to issue a grovelling statement praising Israel’s chief mentor as “our greatest friend and most important ally” though he significantly added that “when divisions emerge we work them out behind closed doors”.

And that’s the key. US imperialism has suffered a number of reverses in the region over the years. Imperialist attempts to permanently occupy Iraq and divide the Middle East into sectarian statelets have failed. Hopes of an alliance with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and their fellow-travellers in Turkey were shattered by the mass uprising that propelled the army back to power in Cairo and the mounting anger on the streets that is threatening to bring down the Islamist government in Turkey.

Russia’s renewed determination to restore its presence in the region has forced the Americans to directly negotiate with the Kremlin and abandon plans for a Nato intervention in Syria and open direct talks with the Iranians to resolve the nuclear issue. In all these open and secret diplomatic manoeuvres Israel has been side-lined as Washington strategists now appear to realise that they cannot rely exclusively on Israel or the Arab oil princes to protect their economic and strategic interests.

Whether that cynical prophesy about Sharon’s funeral has now come to pass we will probably never know. What is certain is that Israel and the whole Middle East has changed dramatically over the past eight years and not entirely in Israel’s favour.