On its face, President
George W Bush's recent endorsement of Israeli Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon's land grab in the occupied
territories makes little sense. The plan, under which
Israel would abandon Gaza while permanently annexing
most of the West Bank, has met with almost universal
It has stirred rage in the Arab
world, where, according to US ally Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak, "there exists a hatred of Americans never
equaled in the region". European Union foreign-policy
spokesperson Brian Cowen said that the "EU will not
recognize any change to the pre-1967 borders other than
those arrived at by agreement of the parties".
letter by 52 former senior British diplomats called
Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for Washington on
this issue "one-sided and illegal", and predicted it
"will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood". A
Financial Times editorial called the letter "the most
stinging rebuke ever to a British government by its
foreign-policy establishment". At a time when the United
States is desperate for an international bailout in
Iraq, why would the White House go out of its way to
The most popular explanations
The influence of pro-Israeli lobbies, and a
Republican strategy to woo Jewish voters and money away
from the Democrats.
A bow to the Bush administration's Christian
evangelical wing, which is rabidly pro-Israel because it
is convinced the second coming is on us. There is no
question that pleasing evangelicals is an administration
priority, and certainly Republicans would like to cut
into traditional Jewish support for the Democrats. But
this explanation assumes that foreign policy is all
about partisan politics and God.
has the inside track with evangelicals. However, there
is virtually no difference between Republicans and
Democrats on Israel. If anything, the latter are
slightly more hawkish.
There is a simpler
explanation for the White House's posture, one the
administration laid out four months after taking office.
In May 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney's National
Energy Policy Development Group recommended that the
president "make energy security a priority of our trade
and foreign policy".
US policy and oil
The recommendation was hardly a bolt from the
blue, and the Republicans didn't invent the idea. The
recent move of oil companies and the US military into
Central Asia is a case in point. It was president Bill
Clinton, not George W Bush, who crafted that strategy.
It was not the Republicans who brought Halliburton and
Cheney into the Caspian region, but Clinton adviser
Richard Morningstar, now a point man for Democratic
presidential candidate John Kerry.
A flood of
future Bush administration heavies followed in Cheney's
wake. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice helped
ChevronTexaco nail down drilling rights for Kazakhstan's
Tenez oilfields. James Baker, who pulled off Bush's
Florida election steal, helped British Petroleum get
into the area.
When it comes to oil, partisan
politics stop at the US coastline. And if it is about
oil, it's about the Middle East.
in the US, Mexico and the North Sea is declining, and a
recent study by the University of Uppsala in Sweden
suggests reserves may be far smaller than the 18
trillion barrels the industry currently projects. If the
new figure of 3.5 trillion barrels is correct, some time
between 2010 and 2020, worldwide production will begin
Given that most oil geologists think
there are few, if any, undiscovered resources left, that
decline is likely to be permanent.
So the price
of oil - now around US$41 a barrel, a jump of $32 since
1997 - may not be a temporary spike (oil prices jumped
almost 2 percent on Tuesday after the attack in Saudi
Arabia on Saturday by Islamic militants left 22 people
dead, but did not interrupt oil flows from the world's
World pumping capacity is
going full-throttle, but a combination of economic
growth, coupled with cash shortages for investment, have
kept supplies tight. Only during the Iranian revolution
and the Iran-Iraq War did oil cost more.
consumption projected to increase a third over the next
20 years - two-thirds of which will be imported by 2020
- the name of the game is reserves. The bulk of those
reserves lie in the Middle East. Among Saudi Arabia,
Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the Persian
Gulf states control 65 percent of the world's reserves,
or close to 600 billion barrels. In comparison, the US
reserves are a little under 23 billion.
controls these reserves in essence controls the world's
economy. Consider for a moment if the US were to use its
power in the Middle East and its growing influence in
Central Asia to tighten oil supplies to the exploding
China currently uses only 8
percent of the world's oil, and accounts for 37 percent
of consumption growth.
Lest anyone think this
scenario is paranoid, try rereading Bush's June 2002
West Point speech, which clearly states that the US will
not allow the development of any "peer competitors" in
the world. That is what Cheney's energy-policy group
meant by making "energy security a cornerstone of US
trade and foreign policy".
Israel So what does this have to do with Israel
and the occupied territories? Israel may not have any
oil, but it is the most powerful player in the Middle
East. In the great chess game that constitutes oil
politics, there are only two pieces left on the board
that might check US plans to control the Middle East's
oil reserves: Syria and Iran.
And that is where
Sharon comes in. Sharon's ruling coalition has been
spoiling for a fight with Syria and Iran. The Israelis
bombed Syria late last year and leading members of the
Sharon government have routinely taken to threatening
Cabinet minister Gideon Ezra threatened to
assassinate Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal
and Sharon did the same to Hezbollah leader Hassan
Nasrallah. On May 11, the Bush administration levied
economic sanctions on Syria.
government is just as belligerent about Iran. Israeli
Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon says he
hopes international pressure on Iran will halt its
development of nuclear weapons, but adds ominously: "If
that is not the case we would consider our options."
Neo-conservatives in the Bush administration
have long targeted Iran. Richard Perle, former Defense
Policy Board chairman, and David Frum, of the neo-con
Weekly Standard, co-authored An End to Evil,
which calls for the overthrow of the "terrorist mullahs
of Iran". Michael Ledeen of the influential American
Enterprise Institute argues that "Tehran is a city just
waiting for us".
According to Irish journalist
Gordon Thomas, the US has already targeted missiles on
Iranian power plants at Natanz and Arak, and one Israeli
intelligence officer told the Financial Times: "It could
be a race who pushes the button first - us or the
If Syria and/or Iran are removed
from the board, the game is checkmate. The Americans can
ill afford another war in the Middle East, but the
Israelis might be persuaded to take the field. Is giving
Sharon a free hand in the West Bank a quid pro quo for
an eventual US-supported Israeli attack on the last two
countries in the region with any semblance of
independence? The world, of course, is not a chess game,
and the pieces don't always do what they are told.
Sharon might indeed start a war with Syria or
Iran, but not because the Israelis are spear-carriers
for the Bush administration. The "Greater Israel" bloc
has its own strategic interests, which for the time
being happen to coincide with US interests.
Sharon, however, is hardly a trusty ally. During
the first Gulf War in 1991, he did his best to sabotage
the coalition against Iraq because he felt such a
victory would eventually be used to pressure Israel for
concessions in the occupied territories.
all Israelis on board. The recent round of
assassinations has helped revitalize the peace movement,
which put 120,000 people into the streets of Tel Aviv on
Some Israelis are unhappy about what
they see the West Bank becoming. "Sharon has pushed
Washington into embracing an accelerated process of
forming the state of Israel as a bilateral state based
on apartheid," Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of
Jerusalem, told Britain's Guardian.
uncomfortable with the support of Christian
evangelicals. According to Rabbi David Rosen,
international director of inter-religious affairs of the
American Jewish Committee's Jerusalem office, the
evangelicals support "some of the most extreme political
positions in Israeli society".
One of those
"extreme positions" is a plan to raze the Dome of the
Rock in Jerusalem and rebuild the Jewish temple
destroyed by the Romans - a precondition, evangelicals
believe, to the second coming.
For the time
being, the US drive to control the bulk of the world's
oil reserves and the Sharon government's push for a
greater Israel and the elimination of regional rivals
find common ground. On the other hand, if Israel crosses
US interests, watch how fast the lobbies and the
born-again find themselves out in the cold.
crisis in the Middle East is not a clash of
civilizations, less so a hijacking of US foreign policy
by the so-called "Jewish lobby" and Christian
fundamentalists: It's business as usual.
Conn Hallinan is an analyst for
Foreign Policy in Focus and a provost at the University
of California at Santa Cruz. Posted with permission
fromForeign Policy in Focus.