January/February 2001
Western Wall

The Balkanization of the Middle East

A new word entered the lexicon of Palestinian nationalism this past week - "uranium." PLO chief Yasser Arafat, on two occasions, charged Israel with using "uranium" weapons against the Palestinians in the course of the recent conflict in the Middle East. It was an absurd allegation he had handily borrowed from the widely reported rumors in mid-January of a rash of cancer cases linked to NATO's use of weapons tipped with depleted uranium in its 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia. The intent was clear - plant in the minds of the world the Serbia/Israel connection.

Throughout the four months of the current Palestinian uprising, the PLO leadership has ratcheted up their propaganda efforts to "internationalize" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by equating it to the "ethnic cleansing" and "war crimes" committed in Kosovo. For if such a linkage can be established, it both justifies and necessitates similar military action against Israel. NATO air strikes on Tel Aviv? It may seem folly, but it bears watching.

When NATO forces launched their air campaign against Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999, the Western world stood united behind NATO, even though the military operation was carried out without a mandate of the United Nations. The goal was the crippling of the Serbian war machine in Kosovo and enforcing compliance with the international peace plan drawn up at Rambouillet, France.

One Western nation stood out for initially failing to voice support for what was called the "Allied Operation against Serb atrocities on the Balkan" - Israel. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ariel Sharon explained why Israel hesitated to support the military action. "If we support force to resolve a regional conflict, we could be the next victim," Sharon was quoted as saying at the onset of the Balkan campaign. Soon afterwards, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu distanced himself somewhat from Sharon's remarks and sent a field hospital to the Balkans to help Albanian refugees.

At the same time, however, Sharon's reservations were validated when Arafat and other Palestinian officials began calling for a similar international response to end "Israel's atrocities against the Palestinian people." Not only the Arab media, but even the respected Economist branded the plight of the Palestinian people "an unpunished ethnic cleansing." Meanwhile, Israel's former prime minister and most prominent dove, Shimon Peres, could not resist the analogy and declared at the time that the Jewish settlements in Judea/Samaria and Gaza were bound to create a "Kosovo-like" situation in Israel.

Chilled by such thoughts, some right-wing Knesset members called for an end to the air strikes. If the West intervenes on behalf of an independence-seeking ethnic minority in Kosovo, one asked, "couldn't it happen here too, in a different variation today or tomorrow?"

That was 1999 - a mere two years ago. Today, after the failure of the Oslo peace talks to produce a final-status agreement and in the midst the surging intifada, it is again not just Palestinian voices speaking of the "balkanization of the Middle East." No less a body than the Council on Foreign Relations - the American establishment's influential forum for steering US foreign policy - has begun to prescribe similar treatments for these two arenas of conflict and tension.

The CFR's widely respected flagship journal Foreign Affairs, reflecting its regional reconfiguration of the world map, features in the January/February 2001 issue a new section entitled "The Middle East & the Balkans." The section contains three articles on Israel and the former Yugoslavia. In the first article, the author makes a direct comparison between Gaza and Kosovo's war-torn capital, Pristina. More noteworthy are the article's proposed solutions for both the Israeli-Palestinian and Balkan conflicts.

Addressing Israel and the Palestinians, Arthur Hertzberg urges that "both sides should abandon their messianic dreams" and make "pragmatic arrangements that bring some calm to the world." Both peoples must tone down their national and religious aspirations, meaning a mutual lowering of the religious significance of Jerusalem and Israeli thinking that "everything between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River was inalienably Jewish."

Foreign Affairs delivers the same message in a more direct tone to Serbia. The magazine calls upon Belgrade to "join the club," meaning Serbia should abandon their "preoccupation with the nineteenth-century concept of a nation-state with borders" and "embrace the concept of a transnational integration" into Europe. The region's fundamental choice is presented as "becoming less Balkans" and moving on to "becoming more European." And this choice, the author threatens, "over time might well mean a choice between peace and war."

The CFR journal continues with this theme in a following section, a collection of articles on the theme "Bridging the Gap of Globalization." One article entitled "Are human right universal" claims to be "a defense of truly global human rights." The following essay, "Toward a global parliament," sees the need for a global council which would "enforce the collective efforts to protect the environment, control or eliminate weapons, safeguard human rights and protect the global community."

In Israel, the main concern of many leftist politicians is to comply with the expectations of the world community. Prominent political leaders and intellectuals are joining hands behind the thrust of ideas now commonly referred to as "post-Zionism." Their goal is to "free" the State of Israel from its unique Jewish character and to make it a "nation like all other nations." A most prominent spokesman of this trend is Shimon Peres, who, in his book "The New Middle East," elaborates on how Israel can qualify as a proper global citizen. "The entire idea of the small national state - the Jewish state included - has collapsed," Peres explains in his book. "The area of the former country of Yugoslavia are a prime example of this. The supranational trend predominates everywhere."

In fact, according to Peres, Arab and Jewish nationalism were to blame for triggering interminable war in the region. Israel's Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami concurred only a few days ago when he spoke of a "Bosnia-like" situation in Israel.

There are clear indications that the Government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been stepping to the CFR beat, perhaps voluntarily, and it has brought Israel to a dangerous precipice. So dangerous that the nation appears primed to place noted hawk Ariel Sharon at the helm in hopes he will manage the Palestinian uprising in a new, firmer way.

Unnerved by the steady political demise of Barak in public opinion polls, the CFR invited the caretaker Israeli premier to defend his peace-making record in a conference call with Council members in early January. In a speech that resembled a report to a board of directors, Barak explained at length his past policies and current plans for resolving the diplomatic impasse and quelling the renewed Palestinian violence. But the appeal for understanding apparently failed. Henry Siegman, a leading Middle East analyst and senior fellow in the CFR's "Middle East & the Balkans" section, penned an opinion column published the very next day in THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE which called for Barak to step down in deference to Peres as the Labor party's candidate for prime minister.

Israel's ultimate choice, so it seems, is to fit into the global framework or else... If she decides not to comply, the choice over time may well mean a choice between "peace and war." Arafat keeps hounding the halls of power for an international force to "protect the Palestinians." He appeared well on course to getting it. But now, Sharon may be standing in his way.

Jurgen Buhler and David Parsons
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