Following the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire at the end of the 19th century, the Middle East, the meeting point of two seas and crossroads of three continents, has ever since been the constant object of imperialist rivalries. In particular, the First World War led to the region being divided up between France and Britain, with Palestine becoming a British protectorate in 1916 and Syria and Lebanon falling under French control. Later on, the necessities of the Cold War and America’s grip over the Mediterranean led the US to support the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 (this also had the advantage of weakening Britain’s hold over the region). While backing Israel at all levels, the US also fought against Russia’s attempts to gain influence over the Arab states who were hostile to Israel. During this period there were three major Arab-Israeli wars: 1956, 1967 and 1973, and behind each one of them could be discerned the deadly competition between the eastern and western blocs.
With the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989, the perspective of a third world war contained in this competition gave way to a new imperialist dynamic characterised by a battle of each against all. The efforts of the US to counter-act this dynamic resulted in the huge demonstration of US power in 1991 - Operation Desert Storm - in the Gulf. The real target of this slaughter was not so much Iraq as the USA’s former great power allies, who were forced to line up behind Washington and rein in their independent ambitions. But this action was still not enough to hold back the dissolution of the old bloc discipline. America’s former lieutenants continued to advance their own interests through this or that local state or clique. The wars in ex-Yugoslavia demonstrated this and recent events in the Middle East also confirm it.
America’s difficulty in maintaining control of the situation
The Middle East ‘peace process’ has above all been the work of the US, which has every interest in presenting itself as the only possible mediator in the region. Certainly America has made real gains through this process, in particular in domesticating the PLO. Whereas the PLO was once an agent of the Russian bloc, Arafat’s new ‘Palestinian Authority’ was created essentially to act as an auxiliary force of repression for the Israeli army. But the Pax Americana was never quite completed, not least because both the Israeli and Palestinian bourgeoisies have more and more been following their own local interests at the expense of the USA. In Israel, Sharon’s role in provoking the conflict - and the fact that he was then offered a government post by the ‘peacemaker’ Barak - shows the increasing weight of openly pro-war factions, who are profiting from the growing feelings of isolation and encirclement within the country.
This situation is exacerbated by the scale of the ‘Intifada’, which has now spread to Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up 20% of the Israeli population. Meanwhile Arafat, also pushed by the more ‘radical’ wings of Palestinian nationalism, has been calling for the support of the Arab nations against Israel, as at the Arab summit of 22-23 October. But he has also been appealing to the European Union to make a more active intervention in the conflict. The patent failure of the US to bring about a ceasefire at the Paris conference (where Madeleine Albright had to run after Arafat to stop him walking out of the negotiations), then at the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit, demonstrate all the difficulties of the White House in keeping control of the situation.
The other powers are trying to take advantage of this situation to strengthen their own position. This is particularly the case with France, which is seeking to destabilise the US by using its traditional links with countries like Lebanon and by making numerous declarations aimed at gaining sympathy in the Arab countries. It supported the idea of an international inquiry into the events, which had been categorically rejected by Israel. Barak even accused France of supporting and encouraging the "Palestinian terrorists" at the Paris summit on October 5.
Naturally, all the imperialist powers present themselves as advocates of peace and reconciliation, but, in fact, their main aim is to slip banana skins under their rivals’ feet. Their intervention in the Middle East situation, far from bringing peace to the tortured populations, is a powerful accelerator of the slide towards even wider and more destructive wars.