Kerry Tries to Out-Sharon Bush

Friday, Israel said it was ending a two-week offensive in the Palestinian Gaza strip, in which Israeli soldiers killed over 100 Palestinians, many of them noncombatants. Palestinians killed at least five Israelis during the same time period, two of whom were civilians, in a rocket attack that preceded and was used as the rationale behind Israel’s incursion into northern Gaza.

The recent violence once again underscored the ineffectiveness of the Bush administration’s policy toward Israel and the occupied territories. Yet, the bloody events halfway across the globe have not made their way into the pre-election political discussion in any significant way.

Some analysts say that is because there is little to talk about between the two major candidates, as President George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry both hold very similar positions on the conflict.

"As Ralph Nader said, it’s been Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee" on the issue, said Yiraf Susskind, Associate Director of MADRE, a New York City-based international women’s rights organization. "What Kerry has done at every stage [of the presidential campaign] is essentially back each of Bush’s most hawkish right-wing positions on the issue. Whatever Bush has said, Kerry has been there saying, ‘Me too! Me too!’" MADRE helps support a trauma counseling program for children and families who have survived military violence and a mobile health team to provide care under Israeli-imposed curfew in the D’heisha refugee camp in the West Bank.

The strong likelihood that a Democratic White House would continue the Bush administration’s unquestioning support of Israeli policy under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon disappoints and angers experts on the Middle East who want to see a more evenhanded U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It’s true that Kerry has tried to out-Sharon Bush," explained Stephen R. Shalom, a political science professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., who has written extensively about U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. "That’s ironic because, historically, Democrats have felt more comfortable supporting the Israeli Labor Party than the Likud Party, as the Republicans have. But Kerry has followed Bush’s lead during the campaign."

Under President Bush, the U.S. has taken a position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue that many analysts say is biased toward Israel. They say Bush says and does very little as Sharon’s military indiscriminately bulldozes Palestinian homes and regularly shoots civilians in what the prime minister refers to as responses to terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Last May, Bush threw into doubt his previously proposed 2005 target date for the establishment of a Palestinian state. He has also rejected the long-standing Palestinian claim that refugees have the right to return to their native lands, guaranteed by the Fourth Geneva convention, because much of that land lies inside the currently recognized borders of Israel.

"Since 2000, Sharon has pursued a policy of driving Palestinians off their land and pushing them into enclaves that are like prisons," said Tanya Reinhart, a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University in Israel and the University of Utrecht in Holland. "By doing nothing about that policy, the Bush administration is showing its support for it." Reinhart is the author of Israel and Palestine: How to End the War of 1948.

During the massive spring 2002 incursion into the West Bank, during which Israeli troops committed the infamous "Jenin massacre," Bush praised Sharon as a "man of peace."

Bush later backed Sharon’s disengagement plan for the Gaza Strip. When the Israeli prime minister returned home from a recent White House visit requesting that and other support, the Israeli Yediot Aharonot newspaper proclaimed, "Sharon got everything!" Meanwhile, Bush received a solid political endorsement from Abraham Foxman, a prominent American Jewish leader, who praised Bush’s "strong statement of support" for Sharon’s withdrawal plan.

Stephen Zunes, the San Francisco based author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, agrees that the Bush administration has been biased toward Israel, but he added that it would be a mistake to conclude Bush’s bias is pro-Israel. "Bush has given Sharon the excuse to commit outrages against the Palestinians, but that hasn’t made Israel safer or improved its position in the world community," Zunes explained.

Last April, 50 former U.S. diplomats wrote an open letter to President Bush that supports Zunes’ analysis. "You have proved that the U.S. is not an evenhanded peace partner," the letter read. "Your unqualified support of Sharon’s extra-judicial assassinations, Israel’s Berlin-like barrier, the harsh military measures in occupied territory, and now your endorsement of Sharon’s unilateral plan are costing our country its credibility, prestige and friends. This endorsement is not even in the best interests of Israel."

Bush’s main challenger has come out in support of Israel’s policies as well, but at least one of his most extreme stances seems relatively new. During the Democratic primaries, Kerry criticized the barrier Israel is building inside Palestinian territory to separate much of the West Bank from the rest of Israeli and Palestinian territory. The Israeli government insists that it is building a "fence" to keep out terrorists, but Palestinians say the "wall" is actually a land grab on the part of Israel. The barrier, which is a wall in some places and a fence in others, cuts through land long recognized by the United Nations and the international community as belonging to Palestinians, and its path has driven families from their land and locked farmers away from their fields.

In October 2003, a month after he announced his candidacy, Kerry told members of the Arab-American Institute that "we do not need another barrier for peace." He also described the wall as "a provocative and counterproductive measure."

Kerry then backpedaled in the face of criticism from the powerful Jewish American lobby organization, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He released a position paper titled "John Kerry: Strengthening Israel’s Security and the U.S.-Israel Special Relationship." The paper, which is posted at Kerry’s campaign Web site, calls for "A Bold Plan: Supporting Israel, Restoring American Leadership." In it, Kerry not only now supports the "security fence," but describes Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as "a failed leader unfit to be a partner for peace."

The statement also says the United States should "stand solidly behind Israel at the UN and other international organizations," as it always has, and continue providing aid to Israel. No mention is made of supporting the Palestinian people except for vague backing for a "democratic Palestinian state," which is to live side by side with Israel, the status of which as a Jewish state the document also reaffirms. The proposed Palestinian homeland would not include all the territory considered Palestinian land by the international community. The statement also refers to Jerusalem as the "undisputed capital of Israel," though in fact the U.S. is the only country with plans to make such a recognition.

In July, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the Israeli barrier was illegal, Kerry said he was "deeply disappointed."

"Kerry doesn’t offer much to those who want to see the U.S. take a new direction in the Middle East," said Bilal El-Amin, a former editor of Left Turn magazine and an activist on behalf of the Palestinian cause.

In contrast to Bush and Kerry, two other presidential candidates, the independent Ralph Nader and Green Party candidate David Cobb, have been highly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East and want to see it change dramatically.

The Association of State Green Parties has passed a statement that reaffirms the Palestinian refugees’ "inalienable right of return" to their homes and right to receive material compensation for their losses.

As for Ralph Nader, Kevin Zeese, a spokesperson for the Nader for President campaign, explained: "Ralph has a big problem with both Democrats and Republicans and the way they support Israel no matter what it does. Israel is our biggest foreign aid recipient and whatever Israel wants from us, it gets. It’s gotten to the point where Ralph now describes the U.S.-Israeli relationship as that of a puppet and puppeteer, with Sharon playing the role of puppeteer."

Many activists working for peace in Israel and Palestine suggest that the U.S. government should discontinue its policy of providing large sums of military and economic aid to the Israeli government. During Bush’s term, Israel has received a total of $9.2 billion in military aid and $2.6 billion in economic aid. During Clinton’s last four years as president, the U.S. gave Israel almost $8.6 billion in military and $4.4 billion in economic aid.

Professor Shalom agrees. "It’s sometimes warranted to give aid to bad governments when the people are in desperate need," he said. But, he said, Israel is not one of those cases. Given that Israel is in plain violation of international law and is supporting an "unjust" occupation, Shalom would favor cutting off U.S. aid to Israel.

Nader spokesperson Zeese also criticized both the Democratic and Republican candidates for putting pressure on the Palestinians to get rid of Arafat. "Ralph believes in democracy." Zeese said. "It’s not for other countries to decide who is to lead the Palestinian people. They must decide that for themselves."

"I have problems with Arafat," said Professor Shalom. "His democratic credentials are suspect, given the PLO’s [Palestine Liberation Organization’s] totalitarian structures. But he deserves to be as much a part of the peace process as Sharon, who has a criminal war record." Shalom noted that an Israeli Commission found Sharon responsible for the atrocities committed at the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in the early 1980s and is on record as opposing the Oslo Accords.

Many analysts who want to see U.S. policy change in the Middle East also say that the U.S. should take the Israeli peace movement more seriously. Anti-occupation activism in Israel has been marginalized the past four years, but last May, about 120,000 Israelis met in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and warmly applauded repeated calls for the Sharon government to withdraw from Gaza and return to the negotiating table. It was the biggest display of antiwar sentiment since the beginning of the second Intifada more than three years earlier.

"If the U.S. really believed in democracy in the Middle East, it would throw its support behind the peace movement," Susskind said. "Its leaders have not been able to get a meeting with either Bush or Kerry."