MER Comment
The excuse after Saddam
By Zvi Bar'el

[Ha'aretz - 29 Dec 2002]
Nearly a year has passed since Emir Abdullah handed over to The New
York Times the principles of the Saudi Arabian initiative. Ten months
have passed since the Arab League summit convened in Beirut, adopted
the principles of the Saudi proposal and turned it into the Arab
initiative. During the entire period, to this day, two scenarios
have intersected: First, the U.S. won't attack Iraq as long as the
Israeli-Palestinian front burns; and second, on the day after the war
in Iraq, George Bush will throw his full weight into dealing with the
local national conflict.

Two conclusions derived from those scenarios: the first is that the
Palestinians have an interest in heating up the front, to prevent a
war against Iraq. The second is that Israel has an interest in
softening its retaliatory operations and assassinations in the
territories and in easing the occupation, so as not to obstruct the
U.S. administration's plans against Iraq.

But the two scenarios and two conclusions did not stand on stable
foundations. The Palestinians did step up the pace of the attacks and
particularly the suicide bombings. But just when it appeared the war
was only 15 minutes away, there was relative quiet, and Israel, for
its part, reoccupied the entire West Bank, going against what was
defined in the past as American interests.

But nothing happened. The U.S. continued its war plans, no serious
American envoy showed up to reprimand Israel, the red telephone that
took Israel out of Gaza a year ago didn't ring when Gaza was divided
into three 10 days ago, and meanwhile, only the Egyptians are talking
with the Palestinians, while the Quartet discussions about the "road
map" look more like an amateur bridge tournament than a serious
diplomatic initiative.

Why did two scenarios, which seemed logical in their day, fail? The
reason apparently is in the misconception that the Middle East is a
single unit, in which everything is connected: pressure on Iraq will
lead to pressure on the Palestinians, calming Israel will lower the
barometer in the Arab state, and thus, if the Arabs give up Iraq,
they'll get Palestine.

The illogic of that argument could have been tested only if there had
been an American counter-offer, which said to the Arabs, "make peace
with Israel and we'll give up the war against Iraq." An Arab interest
in exchange for an American interest. Such an absurd approach should
immediately expose the illogic in the preconception that everything in
the Middle East - Palestinians, Iraq, Arab states, Israel - is
connected.

Thus, there's another possibility. Arab countries have their own
interests, which are not shackled to the Palestinian problem. Perhaps
it's possible that their interests in Iraq are not connected to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not dependent on its resolution. Just
as the Israeli government isn't promising to solve the Palestinian
problem in exchange for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, thus the Arab
countries aren't in any hurry to create a parallel equation.
Amazingly, Bush hasn't made any such conditions, either. Maybe he
believes in the road map, but he apparently knows that there's nobody
on the Israeli side ready to navigate according to it.

The breathless expectation for the day after Saddam Hussein's collapse
does not take into account that someone will have to run Iraq for a
long time until things calm down there; that the American government
will have to pat a lot of Arab heads to calm the area, and that on the
Palestinian side - unless a miracle takes place - the same leader,
whom nobody wants to talk to, will remain at the steering wheel. The
same miracle will be needed to make Sharon pay his "heavy price," even
if the Palestinian leadership changes tomorrow.

Getting rid of Saddam - if it happens - will remove the unproven
threat of weapons of mass destruction. It will not solve the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, put an end to the Syrian-Lebanese
threat, nor mitigate the Iranian threat. It certainly won't turn
Al-Qaida into a branch of Hadassah. It will prove that local national
conflicts are more important than global conflicts, and that they are
not all part of some great, integrated plot. Saddam, for those hoping
that after him the peace process will be revived, is nothing more than
an excuse for diplomatic laziness.


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