Middle East

The forgotten conflict
By Anouar Boukhars

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For all his talk about the need for liberating the oppressed and promoting democracy, President George W Bush's State of the Union speech seemed indifferent to the impasse in the Arab-Israeli conflict - the very impasse that plays into the strategies of Osama bin Laden and sours the relationship between the US and the Arab and Muslim world. It is hard to reconcile the president's pledge not to "pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents and other generations" with his indifference to the most worrisome danger zone in the world. The president said nothing about how the US intends to help Israelis and Palestinians rid themselves of this long and cruel nightmare.

The president should be given credit for staying focused on Iraq and determined to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. A post-Saddam Iraq might represent a tectonic event in the region. One might hope that Bush remains steady in his commitment to help other Arab regimes in their transition to more responsible governments and engage Israelis and Palestinians in a new constructive way. But the biggest factor remains that some members of the Bush administration seem convinced that the only substantive imperative Middle East policy is one that provides unequivocal moral and military support to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister whom Bush called "the man of peace" in his fight against fundamentalist terrorism.

The belief is that by giving free rein to Sharon to use his favorite militaristic strategies and "inflict greater losses" on the Palestinian side, he will manage to bring an end to terror and help advance the cause of reform that will bring a new Palestinian leadership willing to adhere to his own philosophy of resolving the conflict. The greater reality of the Middle East is that getting the peace process back on track will require more than just laying the blame squarely on Palestinian leaders' limitations and the pronouncements of speeches promoting liberal international idealism. Bush's "Wilsonianism" is good if supported by his determined and sincere engagement to help Israelis and Palestinians get out of this cycle of endless violence and bloodshed. And while it is true that there are limits to what can be attained, massive presidential commitment can still produce results. There is no doubt that the constraints of the American political system cannot be ignored, but presidents do matter, and they can use their powerful position to influence the future of the Middle East.

The administration must accept that the only option it has to stop this tragedy is to adopt a bold approach that makes irrelevant the failures of the current Palestinian and Israeli leadership. Sharon has publicly stated that he will not dismantle one single settlement as long as he is in power. On the contrary, he is engaged in building more to accommodate what he calls the settlements' "natural growth". Sharon thinks that his expansionist policies in the occupied territories will prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Arafat, as Gadi Taub, professor of communications at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, put it, assumes "that, in the long run, these same policies will bring Israel's downfall".

But both are wrong. "Without partition," Gadi tells us, "neither people will have its own state." The fairest peace deal might very well be based on Clinton's peace plan of December 2000. There is no question that such a deal would get broad international backing. To implement such a deal would require the presence of a US-led international military force on the ground.

It is true that the trust between Israelis and Palestinians has been shattered and that the re-election of Sharon makes the prospect for peace look even more remote. But the reality is that there are too many people on both sides who want to live in peace and prosperity. It important to recall that most peace deals extracted from the most dangerous parts of the world have came against a backdrop of extreme violence. The Middle East should be no exception. Let's us hope that a determined and focused Bush will switch course and help save both Israelis and Palestinians from their predicament.

Anouar Boukhars is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Program of International Studies, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
Feb 8, 2003


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