Thursday's suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem has pretty much ended whatever hopes still remained for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. In a sense, the 1993 Oslo accord was always a doomed enterprise, based, as it was, on an absurd, not to say dishonest, premise, namely, that the United States was ready to act as an honest broker between Israel and anyone else.
The United States extends a latitude to Israel it extends to no one else, though Israel is led by Ariel Sharon, a man with a record of atrocities; though it routinely carries out what it likes to call 'targeted liquidations'; though it uses helicopter gunships to strafe civilians; though it bulldozes people's homes. Israel has never made a secret of its ultimate objective in the Middle East: Palestinians, denied statehood other than of the most meaningless kind, are to be put to use as a permanent source of cheap labour for the Israeli economy. This is what motivates Israel's continued building of the settlements. The presence of Jewish settlements in a nominal Palestinian state will render the state a hollow shell.
Moreover, the settlements will require the permanent stationing of the Israeli army as a protective force. Any potential Palestinian state would have no territorial contiguity, no borders (since it would be completely encircled by Israel), no control of border crossings and no control of air space. Jerusalem, needless to say, is not up for discussion.
We now know that former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, the recipient of so much ludicrously lavish praise for his supposed courage, never had the slightest intention of delivering a Palestinian state at Camp David last year.
According to an article in the New York Review of Books by Robert Malley, a member of the US negotiating team at Camp David, Barak and Clinton used the negotiations to set a trap for the Palestinians. The talks were '"designed to increase the pressure on the Palestinians to reach a quick agreement while heightening the political and symbolic costs if they did not". That the US issued the invitations despite Israel's refusal to carry out its earlier commitments and despite Arafat's plea for additional time to prepare only reinforced in his mind the sense of a US-Israeli conspiracy'.
In the end, Arafat went to Camp David, for not to do so would have been to incur America's anger. Arafat did ask one thing of Clinton: that if the negotiations failed, he would not be blamed for the failure. 'Clinton assured Arafat on the eve of the summit,' writes Malley, 'that he would not be blamed if the summit did not succeed. "There will be," he pledged, "no finger-pointing."' Entirely in character, the first thing Clinton did as soon as the Camp David talks broke down was to blame Arafat.
The US has been well aware of Israel's programme and has tacitly endorsed it. That it violated UN Security Council Resolution 446 - the 'policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East' - never troubled Washington. Yet to Israel's fervent champions in the United States, such tacit endorsement has never been enough. As they see it, the US government is biased against the Israelis by not allowing them to get the job done.
The Washington media exulted at Sharon's victory. Here was a strong man who would pursue a policy towards the Palestinians so brutal that the inhabitants of the occupied lands would have little choice but to sue for peace or collapse into demoralised torpor.
Yet the Bush administration is going through a routine made familiar by previous administrations. It pretends to be upset at some fresh Israeli violation of international law and issues a mild rebuke. This, however, is immediately supplemented by far harsher criticism of the Palestinians. When Sharon visited Washington in June Bush praised him for showing 'a lot of patience in the midst of casualties'. 'I understand the pressure he's under,' he added.
Such 'understanding' is rarely, if ever, extended to Yasser Arafat. Indeed, Bush and Sharon 'agreed' that Arafat was not making enough of an effort to stop the attacks against Israelis. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was seeking a 100 per cent effort from Arafat to stop the violence. Yet while the US demands this or that from Arafat, no comparable demands are ever made of Israel. When Sharon told Bush that 'Israel will not negotiate under fire and under terror', it did not occur to the President to demand that Israel stop the assassinations.
It now appears that official US policy is to support the assassinations. Following Israel's missile attack on 31 July on Nablus that killed six members of Hamas, as well as two young boys, Martin Indyk, US Ambassador to Israel, spoke out against Israel's action. That Indyk is ambassador at all, incidentally, is further evidence of the bizarre nature of the US-Israel relationship. Indyk had worked for a number of years at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel's chief lobbying organisation in the United States. None the less, Indyk announced that the 'United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings and we do not support that'.
State department spokesman Richard Boucher echoed him: 'We're against this practice of targeted killings and we're against this particular attack.' Fairly mild stuff, one would have thought. However, within a couple of days, Vice-President Dick Cheney distanced the US government from this rebuke. In a TV interview he explained: 'In Israel, what they've done over the years, occasionally, in an effort to pre-empt terrorist activities, is to go after the terrorists. And in some cases, I suppose, it is justified. If you've got an organisation that is plotting some kind of suicide bomber attack, for example, and they have evidence of who it is, I think there's some justification in their trying to protect themselves by pre-empting.' So it's US policy, apparently, that killing people without putting them on trial first is an act of legitimate self-defence.
Cheney's quiet support was as nothing compared to the fervent enthusiasm for assassinations on the part of the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden. 'I don't call this an assassination policy,' he announced. 'This is, in effect, a declared war by an organisation that decided that it is going to do all it can to damage civilians and others within Israel. That is a simple proposition. The analogy would be if there were a Colombian drug organisation in the United States that decided that, in order to get America to change its policy on international aid to Colombia to deal with drug cartels, it would blow up women and children visiting the Capitol. We would track them down and if we could not capture them we would kill them.' Biden ignores the fact that it is the US that perpetrates violence on Colombians, not vice versa. He also ignores the fact that the Israelis have been occupying land that does not belong to them.
The Palestinian violence that Washington abhors actually has a stronger basis in international law than the violence of a colonial power like Israel. But then the US only has abuse and worse for anyone other than its favoured clients.