Undermining peace

Print edition : February 16, 2002

The United States' new West Asia policy leaves the moderate Arab regimes stumped and puts Palestine leader Yasser Arafat in a tight corner.

THROUGHOUT their bitter history of over 50 years, Palestinians have often been the victims of developments far beyond their control. The present seems to be another such moment. A United States administration that feels its power waxing to the full is set to reshape the West Asian situation to its requirements, and a hardline Israeli leader has sensed an opportunity to add his own touches to the U.S. design.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In the background is a picture of Theodor Herzl, under whom Zionism was established as a political organisation.-ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

From President George W. Bush's 'axis of evil' speech, the outlines of U.S. policy towards West Asia appear clear enough. Follow-up statements from known hawks in his administration (which for once have not been countered by those officials who are considered doves) make it clear that the U.S. is serious about fulfilling its dream of a change of regime in Iraq. Allies in the 1990-91 coalition, who were also part of the recent anti-Taliban alliance, have expressed their reservations. But, for the moment, the Bush administration seems confident that it will be able to push forward alone. At the moment the U.S. message is that it has started thinking of the modalities of a regime change in Iraq and will think of the marketing of this policy only when, and if, it needs to.

Bush also appears to have given up any hope or desire to work with the reformist tendency in Iran. The U.S. has calculated either that the reformists are too weak to overcome the currently dominant conservatives or that, whether reformist or conservative, the Iranian regime will never bend to its will. Iran and the U.S. are already well-engaged in the race for dominance in Central Asia and Washington seems to have decided that it has to work against the Ayatollahs since they cannot work with it.

This two-pronged approach of the U.S. would have worked against the Palestinians even if all other conditions were close to the theoretical normal. Iran and Iraq not only have been strong proponents of the Palestinian cause, but also represent the opposite pole to the U.S. approach to the Israel-Palestinian dispute. These two states have been consistent in their view that U.S. mediation will work to the disadvantage of Palestinians, that this will further deepen the Palestinian tragedy, and that the U.S.-initiated peace process must be opposed. If Iran and Iraq are removed from the picture, the opposition to the U.S. policy will disappear.

SINCE 1991 the Palestinian leadership has no doubt preferred to work with the US rather than with Iran or Iraq. Nevertheless, the demolition of this opposite pole will have a devastating psychological effect in that Palestinians will be bereft of a source of succour, however nominal or rhetorical, if they ever revert to the politics of resistance. The Palestinians will be at a disadvantage in practical terms as well since the U.S. moves, against Iran in particular, will have important side effects on Syria and Lebanon. Whatever advantages that currently accrue to the Palestinians on account of the pressure these two states are able to exert on Israel will disappear once the two states find themselves under serious U.S. pressure.

It will be a while before the U.S. is able to achieve its objectives vis-a-vis Iraq and Iran; perhaps it never will. But the very fact that it has signalled its intentions has had its repercussions. Moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan, which acted as local guides to the U.S. through much of the last decade, no longer seem confident that the U.S. will listen to their advice on local sensitivities. They have perforce to try and fit themselves into the U.S. scheme rather than try (as they did until recently) to fine-tune U.S. schemes to local requirements.

The embryonic U.S. plans are not per se unattractive to the moderate Arab regimes. They have despaired of ever getting Iraq back into the Arab fold and there is hardly any doubt anymore that they would like President Saddam Hussein to disappear. A major factor that had held them back from fully endorsing Washington's plans had been their fear that Iran would be the major beneficiary if Saddam were to be ousted. But if Iran were to be boxed in by U.S. pressure, even as Saddam was being ousted, it would be a totally different situation. A post-Saddam, and possibly moderate, Iraq that acts as a buffer to Iran would be very much to the liking of these Arab states.

Women in a funeral procession in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on February 5. Five men, four of them members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were killed the previous day when the vehicle in which they were travelling was targeted.-MOHAMMED SABER/AFP

FEW Palestinians would have missed the significance of the charade that was enacted when King Abdullah of Jordan recently visited Washington. After Abdullah's meeting with Bush, a White House spokesman announced that the King had agreed with the U.S. President that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had been put in a box and should be kept there. Jordanians immediately issued a clarification to the effect that Abdullah had actually said that Arafat was already in a box and hence could not do much to control the violence. From the fact that the U.S. let this clarification ride and from the lack of a stronger effort by the Jordanians to explain the actual position, it could be inferred that Abdullah's position vis-a-vis the new U.S. policy on West Asia was of the nature of something betwixt and between.

With the hardcore regional resistance to Israel under serious threat and the regional supporters of the negotiation track distracted by the advantages that could accrue to them, the Palestinian leadership currently faces a severe dearth of options. Whatever residual enthusiasm the moderate Arab governments might retain to urge a resumption of negotiations is consistently frustrated by the U.S.-Israeli refrain that Arafat must do more to curb violence. To underline this message, the Bush administration has effectively suspended all mediation efforts that were launched contemporaneously with the Afghan operation.

From any objective standpoint it is difficult to see how Arafat could really put an end to the violence from the Palestinian side. He is boxed inside his Ramallah office with Israeli tanks pointing their cannons at him from a distance of less than 500 metres. His security and civilian officials are prevented from moving between the Palestinian cantons and are thus unable either to persuade their people to give up violence or to prevent them effectively from doing so. A turbulent population, a few million strong, is under constant economic pressure and perpetual humiliation. On top of all that, Israel provokes Palestinians periodically by liquidating wanted militants (over 80 persons have been killed through targeted assassinations since September 2000).

Arafat survived so long by balancing a plethora of often conflicting forces. At the beginning of February he tried to placate Israel and the U.S. with an article in The New York Times, in which he made two telling concessions. For one, he reiterated his acceptance of the 'Two States' solution by writing that the Palestinians be allowed to establish a state in the 22 per cent of the historic Palestine that was left after Israel set itself up on the remaining 78 per cent. Secondly, he sought to allay Israel's worries over the right of return by stating that the exercise of this right would only be done with due recognition of Israel's demographic concerns. He topped off his message with a condemnation of terrorism, underlining it by stating that violence against Israeli civilians was indeed terrorism.

From the manner in which U.S. officials, including the supposedly dovish Secretary of State General Colin Powell, dismissed Arafat's article as irrelevant until violence stopped, it appeared that Arafat had made little headway with this gesture. The U.S. made it known that it was considering various options to put Arafat under further pressure. To an extent, Arafat was also guilty of tactical blunders. First, he is unable to shed militant rhetoric when he talks to his people and, secondly, he was unable to keep a distance between himself and the Karine A incident. But even if Arafat had been tactically more astute, it is doubtful that he would have made much headway with a U.S. administration that was fast recasting its regional policy.

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the most of the changing situation. His persistence with the assassination policy ensured that the Palestinians would be kept in a constant state of agitation with each phase of relative quiet from its side being abruptly ended by the periodic assassinations of militant leaders. Sharon reinforced his message that Arafat was no longer relevant by saying that he regretted not killing the Palestinian leader during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s, but that he no longer intended to eliminate him. In meeting with Arafat's three main deputies, including Speaker of the Palestinian National Assembly Ahmed Korei, Sharon was on the surface trying to show that he was still interested in peace. But besides showing the conciliatory face, which would have pleased the U.S., Sharon again seemed to reiterate his views on Arafat's irrelevance.

Arafat received a much-needed shot in the arm when the leadership of the Palestinian Opposition, notably Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of the Hamas, and the heads of Arab states, reaffirmed his indispensability. As regards West Asia, however, the U.S. seems to have decided that it alone is the arbiter of who is indispensable and who is not. Unless and until the U.S. moves hit a stumbling block, the immediate future does not look very rosy for the Palestinians.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor