U.S. must help in Arab-Israeli conflict

April 06, 2001|By Neil Hicks

WASHINGTON -- We are just beginning to see what a post-peace process Middle East might look like, and it is not a reassuring picture.

President Bush heard directly for the first time about Arab concerns regarding the dangerous situation in the Middle East when he met earlier this week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Since taking office, the Bush administration has spoken of a need for a more balanced Middle East policy in which focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict will not be allowed to overwhelm other regional concerns, notably Iraq -- a Bush priority.

But the administration may have its priorities backward.

In March, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's Arab hosts were bemused during his trip to the Middle East to hear him emphasize the threat presented by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

On their borders, meanwhile, the Oslo peace process was in its death throes, the Palestinian intifada was raging and Israeli politics was heading into uncharted territory under the erratic stewardship of Ariel Sharon, mainly notable in the region for his propensity for killing Arabs and invading neighboring countries.

Not for the first time, the U.S. government and its Arab allies seem to have differing perceptions of regional priorities.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, both sides seem content to let the conflict continue. The Israelis put their faith in their superior military strength to ensure that their losses will be kept within reasonable limits. Moreover, continuing conflict provides a convenient Israeli pretext for seizing more land and expanding settlements in the name of security.

The Palestinians, enduring the harshest conditions since 1967, feel they have nothing to lose from confrontation and seek solace in the hope that through suffering they may find redemption in the form of international intervention. Both of these views depend more on wishful thinking than rational thought, or at best take an alarmingly short-term view. They demand a terrible cost in loss of human lives.

Throughout the region, the new intifada has rekindled popular Arab support for the Palestinian cause to levels not seen since the late 1960s. Arab governments have not been slow to seek to use this mobilization to their own advantage. Once again the Arab national struggle takes priority over people's aspirations for political or economic reform.

Mr. Hussein is nourished by the bloodletting. To his growing numbers of supporters, the Palestinians are suffering because of unjust Western and, especially, U.S. policies.

A worsening crisis in Palestinian areas fuels authoritarian, anti-Western tendencies throughout the region. While Palestine burns, hopes for more pluralistic political systems and more accountable, less corrupt governments --which represent hopes for a better future -- go up in smoke.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can make a whole range of regional problems, like Iraq, worse, but resolving other problems will have no impact on it. In fact, other regional problems will resist all attempts to resolve them so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues.

In today's Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too volatile and too pervasive to be left to take its own course. The Bush administration cannot escape its responsibility to first find a way of containing the damage and then of restarting a peace process.

Neil Hicks, who has worked for more than 15 years on human rights issues in the Middle East, is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. The opinions reflected in this article are his own.

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