Before 11 September, George W Bush had a very clear policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict – keep out of it. When Bush came to power, Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was already busy obliterating the last feeble achievements of the Oslo peace process. He was using US-manufactured F-16 aircraft to attack civilian Palestinian targets, and was spending his US dollars on expanding settlements. Meanwhile, Palestinian despair was fuelling support for the second intifada. The use of suicide bombers against Israel became an accepted element of the Palestinian weaponry, and showed that the militants in the West Bank and Gaza were winning sympathisers to their cause.
But none of this was a matter for the new Republican president in the United States. As one American foreign policy adviser put it to me in August, just days after a Palestinian suicide bomber had killed 18 Israelis in a Jerusalem pizza restaurant: “The calculation has been made that there is no need to get involved.”
Now, we are told, nothing will ever be the same again. And that includes America’s relationship with Israel.
In the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, Washington suddenly recognised that the Israel-Palestine conflict is central to its interests. Binding Arab states into the new US-led anti- terrorist coalition became a top priority. The Arab leaders said they would support America – but only if pressure was put on Israel to reconsider its position in the peace talks. Bush immediately had words – strong words – with Sharon, telling him to call a truce with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and to despatch Shimon Peres to meet Arafat for talks.
In response, Sharon drove his tanks deeper into the West Bank. By Tuesday, while Sharon had still not agreed to a truce, Arafat was earning praise in the US for his “100 per cent support” in the wake of the attacks (remember his blood-giving photo-op?) and for his “100 per cent effort” to reduce Palestinian violence.
American anger at the Israeli prime minister’s intransigence has been palpable. The Washington Post even went so far as to point out that Sharon was “endangering” the fight against terrorism. Does this fracas suggest any long-term change in relations between the US and Israel?
America’s relationship with Israel is special in a way that makes its relationship with Britain look like a one-night stand. The common figure given for US aid to Israel is $3bn a year, of which $1.2bn is in the form of economic aid and $1.8bn in the form of military aid. The figure represents a staggering one-sixth of total US foreign aid. Year after year, America’s ever-powerful pro-Israel lobby gears up to ensure that the sums are voted through Congress. The money, it has always been argued, is well worth spending to support a valiant Israel, a beacon of democracy and freedom, and a vital ally to the US in a troubled Middle East.
But the relationship is not only about money. In the corridors and voting chambers of the United Nations, the US and Israel are inseparable. Since 1972, half of all UN resolutions on Palestine have been vetoed by the US, including resolutions ordering Israel to stop building illegal Jewish settlements on occupied land and to stop changing the status of the illegally occupied Arab East Jerusalem.
In peace negotiations, the US has stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel whenever the chips were down. Any pretence of honest brokerage during the Camp David peace summit last year was exposed as being just that – a pretence – when a former White House aide, Robert Malley, admitted in an article published in the New York Review of Books (9 August) that the failure of the talks had been due as much to broken promises by Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak, the former US and Israeli leaders, as to Arafat’s refusal to deal.
And now the attacks on the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington offer an opportunity for the US to rethink its relationship with Israel.
Bush himself has been at pains to stress that the US must not only hit back militarily at the culprits and those regimes that back them, but must also begin to “deal with the pool” in which the terrorists swim. His defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, speaks of “draining the swamp”.
Whatever language its leaders choose to use, if they are now serious about transforming the attitudes that lend support to Muslim extremism, they must look long and hard at the stark realities of Israel’s illegal occupation, and begin to acknowledge the humiliation and desperation that its daily injustices create.
Osama Bin Laden did not send his suicide bombers into the World Trade Center because of Palestine. It would be laughable to suggest that he might have called off his attacks had the Oslo peace process still been in place. And yet it is irrefutable that the Palestinian cause, more than any other cause that the Muslim world might seize on, including Iraq, is the one that most swiftly fuels militancy in the Arab world. Anyone who has travelled around the Middle East knows that the role the US plays in underpinning Israel is the prime focus of anti-American sentiment.
The US needs to be able to seize the moral high ground as it builds its coalition against terrorism. Yet how can it preach the values of the free world to a Middle East where more than two million Palestinians are caged within enclaves by an Israeli military machine that is bankrolled by American taxpayers?
How can the US preach about democracy and human rights when more than three million Palestinian refugees are scattered around the world, many in camps, without even the right to return to their homes? And how can the US expect the Muslim world to listen to its condemnation of religious fanaticism without at least paying heed to the policies of Israel that encourage extreme and fanatic Jewish settlers to seize Arab land?
The old strategic reasons for shoring up Israel were obliterated once and for all when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. Any case for building a militarised “fortress Israel” was exposed as futile by Palestinian suicide bombers long before the vulnerability of the US was so savagely exposed. It remains to be seen, however, whether even these seismic events can shift America’s most dogged domestic political consensus into rethinking the country’s relationship with Israel.
The Republican Party today is packed with right-wing hawks and religious conservatives who are unlikely to see a new tilt towards the Palestinians as anything other than a reward for terrorism. Bush’s two right-hand men – the secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the vice-president, Dick Cheney – are both veterans of coalition-building during the Gulf war, when they served under a more internationalist president, George Bush Sr. They may well be urging George Bush Jr to take a tougher stance with Israel. Powell, in particular, has shown signs that he does not wish to be in thrall to the pro-Israel lobby.
Yet even if the president himself can be convinced of the need for a shift away from Israel, it is hard to believe that he could summon the strength to convince his party – still less his people. America is a country that is often less critical of Israel than is Israel itself. Nevertheless, a battle to change American minds must begin: if this opportunity for change is missed, there is little doubt that suicide bombers will continue to spring from the refugee camps of Gaza and the West Bank. There is also little doubt that the wider pool in which the Islamic militancy swims will continue to fill.
Sarah Helm is former Jerusalem correspondent for the Independent