A new role for America in Mideast

March 24, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- We need to talk.

Are you sitting down? OK, I'm not going to beat around the bush. I'm just going to say it straight: There is no way that America will be able to sustain a successful Middle East policy, whether it wants to invade Iraq or do anything else in the region, unless the United States is prepared to station U.S. troops on the ground, indefinitely, around both Afghanistan and Israel.

No, I haven't lost my mind.

The logic here is very simple. There is no way that the United States will be able to garner any sustained support for taking out Saddam Hussein in Iraq unless it can stabilize both Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan.

We don't need to make Afghanistan into Switzerland. We just need to make the new Afghanistan into something slightly more stable, slightly more decent and slightly more prosperous than it was under the Taliban. If we cannot do that minimum, we will have no legitimacy, no credibility and no support for taking apart Iraq.

If we shrink from this task, Afghanistan will revert right back to what it was before Sept. 11, only worse. And this open sore of Afghanistan will dog us, and the U.S. anti-terror campaign, forever.

The only way to make the new Afghanistan a slightly better place than the old one is with a U.S. troop presence that will bolster the government and serve as the anchor for a wider peacekeeping force manned by our allies. Enough said.

The same is true for the Israeli-Palestinian theater. This is our dilemma there: Israel cannot stay in the occupied territories and remain a Jewish democracy. But the Palestinians cannot yet be trusted to control these areas on their own if Israel withdraws. Would you trust Yasser Arafat to police your neighborhood?

So the only solution is that Israel gradually withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to be replaced by a joint American-Palestinian security force. Palestinians would be responsible for internal security, and the U.S.-Palestinian security force would control all borders and entryways to ensure that no heavy weapons can be imported and that any Palestinian state could never become a base of operations against Israel. The most sensitive area of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, would be protected by U.S. troops, with Palestinians having sovereignty and operational control over the mosques and the Jews over their holy sites.

Israelis and Palestinians do not have the resources, or mutual trust, ever to find their way out of this problem alone -- not after the collapse of Oslo. And the United States can no longer afford to just let them go on killing each other. It will undermine America's whole position in the Middle East, as more and more Muslims will blame us for what Israel does to protect itself. It will spin off more and more suicide craziness that will land at our door. And it will make it impossible for the United States to take on Mr. Hussein.

Those who think Israel should just wear the Palestinians down with more military action and everything will be fine should pay attention to something that has happened in the past month. Palestinians have destroyed two Israeli-made Merkava tanks during the fighting, using homemade but sophisticated land mines detonated in the most vulnerable spot on the tanks' underbelly. Israeli generals were shocked.

What the hawks don't understand is that the escalating friction between the Israeli and Palestinian forces is enabling Palestinians to steadily improve their military skills. This is a natural phenomenon seen in many prolonged wars.

It was the long friction between Hezbollah, a ragtag Lebanese militia, and Israel that eventually improved Hezbollah's skills to the point where it was able to force Israel to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon, without any agreement, by lowering the casualty ratio between Hezbollah and Israel from 10- 1 down to 1- 1.

Israel can kill Palestinians till the cows come home and it will not alter its central dilemma -- it can't stay in the territories and remain a Jewish democracy and it can't just leave and stay alive as a Jewish democracy. The only way it can safely leave is if U.S. troops are protecting its borders and those of the Palestinian state. It's also the only way the Palestinians are going to get a state.

If American Jews really care about Israel, if Arab leaders really care about the Palestinians, if Iraqi hawks really want to get rid of Mr. Hussein, this is what they will lobby President Bush to offer. I told you you needed to be sitting down.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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