It is widely assumed that, with its U.N. Security Council veto and its stranglehold on the so-called Middle East "peace process," the United States can continue indefinitely to prevent not just the achievement of peace, but any serious progress toward peace and that the rest of the world is powerless. Understandably, this produces a sense of hopelessness and despair. All that is lacking is political will and the courage to pay more than lip service to international law.
During the first half of this century, before it became the world's sole superpower, the United States played a major and constructive role in building the structures of international law and in opposing the venerable principle that "Might makes right" which it now seems to embrace. In 1956, when Britain, France and Israel, three of America's closest friends, invaded Egypt, President Eisenhower demanded their immediate withdrawal, threatening sanctions. At least then, it was not a question of who was doing it to whom, as it has more recently been when Iraq invaded Iran or Israel invades Lebanon or Turkey invades Iraq. At least then, there were fundamental principles of international law and conduct which had to be respected.
In 1967, Israel conquered and occupied portions of the territory of all of its neighbors except Lebanon (an omission which it has since rectified), America cheered and the long, downhill slide in America's respect for international law began. Repeatedly over the past three decades, the United States has found itself on the short end of 14-1 votes in the Security Council and 160-2 votes in the General Assembly, standing alone in support of behavior which the rest of the world recognizes as constituting gross and unequivocal violations of the Geneva Conventions and international law generally.
While most Americans may not notice or care, those who make American government policy can, at the psychological and intellectual level, have only two possible reactions to America's choice to consistently oppose the rest of mankind on fundamental issues of international law and human rights. First, they can accept that America has become an "outlaw" state - or, perhaps, a "rogue" state, to use the splendidly subjective epithet which America now pins on those countries it doesn't like. Second, they can tell themselves that international law is simply not to be taken seriously in the real world, at least by those sufficiently powerful to ignore it. The second alternative must be the psychologically more acceptable one. In any event, it is the one which seems to have been adopted.
By the 1980s, America was mining Nicaragua's harbors (and ignoring the International Court of Justice's condemnation of it for doing so), bombing Libyan cities and invading Grenada and Panama for reasons so flimsy that it is difficult today to remember what they were. When the U.s. Congress passed a law requiring the closing of the Palestinian Mission to the U.N. in New York, in flagrant violation of the U.N. Headquarters Agreement, the Legal Adviser to the State Department even produced a legal opinion to the effect that subsequent U.S. domestic legislation takes precedence over prior ratified treaties - which is a very subtle nuance away from telling the rest of the world that the United States does not consider itself bound by the treaties to which it is a party.
The ongoing refusal of the United States to pay the massive arrears in its U.N. dues and assessments, which constitute a legally binding treaty obligation toward 184 other countries, is consistent with the letter and spirit of this legal opinion and reflects a contempt for international law so broadly absorbed into the American world view that it barely elicits comment in the United States. In the same spirit, the Clinton Administration has been trying (without success) to obtain the cancellation of 50 years of U.N. resolutions on Palestinian rights and Middle East peace on the grounds that, with Israelis and Palestinians now talking to each other, international law is no longer relevant or helpful. Put simply, might makes right.
Europeans, on the other hand, still tend to view international law as having an important role to play in making the world a better place. When they join the rest of the world in opposing Israel and the United States at the United Nations, it is not because they dislike Israelis and Americans (quite the contrary), but because they believe it is important to affirm and support basic principles of international law and human rights, and to take a clear position for right against wrong and for justice against injustice.
Yet, at least until now, they have seen their role as ending there. When, in effect, Israel and America spit in their faces and do as they please, the Europeans turn the other cheek, returning on the next occasion to steadfastly affirm what international law requires and to be rebuffed yet again. It is a process which ultimately diminishes respect for the very principles of international law which the Europeans seek to affirm.
Europe's problem is not powerlessness. It carries on substantially more trade with Israel than does the United States, and Israel's participation in European events as diverse as the European soccer championships and the annual Eurovision song contest provides significant psychological comfort to Israelis who still feel isolated in their geographical region. Europe's problem is political will, but, in the new post-Cold War world, European subservience to American dictates should no longer be viewed as a perpetual infirmity.
American Middle East policy, like American foreign policy generally, is a function of American domestic politics and bears no relationship to American "national interests," to the extent that, aside from avoiding nuclear annihilation, American "national interests" (as opposed to the specific interests of particular American special interest groups) can even be said to exist. American politicians, like most human beings, are motivated principally by the desire to remain employed, which requires (or is at least perceived as requiring) not offending any rich and powerful special interest group. While not actively hostile toward Middle East peace, American politicians from President Clinton on down rank it in priority well below their personal job security and will always do so.
After much hesitation, the U.S. government opposed apartheid in South Africa and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia because significant domestic constituencies opposed them and few Americans dared to speak out in favor or them. The U.S. government continues to give unstinting support to apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Israel and Palestine because the most powerful of all domestic constituencies supports them and virtually no Americans dare co speak out against them. There is no reason to hope for a Second American Declaration of Independence or for any constructive American role in the Middle East.
For Europe, on the other hand, the Middle East is its "own backyard," and peace and stability in the Middle East are fundamental national interests. The "European Union Call for Peace in the Middle East" issued by the Heads of State or Government of the European Union at their June 1997 Amsterdam summit proclaimed that "the peoples of Europe and the Middle East are linked by a common destiny" and that "peace is possible, necessary and a matter of urgency in the Middle East" and listed "respect for the legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people to decide their own future," "the exchange of land for peace" and "the non-acceptability of the annexation of territory by force" among the "foundations of peace." In addition, domestic political pressures which would oppose taking positions consistent with international law, basic principles of human rights and national self-interest are much weaker in Europe than in the United States. The time may soon be ripe for a principled and self-interested European Declaration of Independence.
Imagine that the 15 nations of the European Union were to belatedly adopt the Eisenhower Principle and to issue a joint declaration to the effect that, if Israel has not complied with international law and U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 425 and withdrawn to its internationally recognized borders by a specified date (say, six months hence), the European Union would have to consider the imposition of economic sanctions against Israel, including the banning of all aviation links between Israel and the European Union countries.
America's 1997 vetoes supporting Israel's huge, new, illegal settlement construction at Jabal Abu Ghneim/Har Homa and opposing Israeli payment of compensation for the Qana massacre have sent the Netanyahu government the clear message that it can do whatever it wishes, including destroying the world's hopes for Middle East peace, without fear of any adverse consequences. Such a European declaration would send the opposite message with thunderous resonance. It is unlikely that sanctions would ever have to be imposed, since, as in 1956, Israel's politicians could honestly recognize and convincingly explain to their electorate that such a small country cannot refuse to comply with such an ultimatum.
While such a declaration would not make Middle East peace inevitable, it would, overnight, make it likely. By forcing Israel to "do the right thing" and thereby liberating Israelis from the role (so tragic in light of Jewish history) of oppressors and enforcers of injustice, European governments would be showing more genuine concern for the long-term welfare of Israelis than the unthinkingly and abjectly subservient American government. They would also revive respect for international law generally and for Europe as an independent force in world affairs.
Is this merely a dream? Is this unimaginable in the real world? Or might Europe finally summon up the political will and the courage of its convictions to utter the words which could produce peace in the Middle East?