Rage builds in desert

April 11, 2002|By Trudy Rubin

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - As Colin Powell traverses the Middle East on a last-ditch mission to head off the apocalypse, it's frightening to see how divorced U.S. policy is from reality on the ground.

The Bush administration wants moderate Arab allies to pressure Yasser Arafat to crush militants. It would even like Arab leaders to negotiate in Mr. Arafat's stead. But spend a few days in the Saudi capital, and speak with pro-American Saudi businessmen and professionals, and you'll see how badly the Bush approach is failing.

George W. has become anathema to Saudis - and other Arabs - of all political stripes. The level of rage at American policy outdoes anything I've ever seen - for reasons Mr. Powell had better grasp or quit schlepping through the region.

That rage isn't just, as many claim, the transference to the United States of Arabs' anger at their own corrupt, undemocratic regimes. Arabs are furious at America's failure to halt the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank - which they can watch nonstop on satellite TV.

This media effect is stunning.

"We didn't have this in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973," says one Saudi businessman, "but now everyone watches Al-Jazeera and lots of other satellite channels. The younger generation here were never concerned about politics, but now they are talking about the Palestinians and logging on to chat rooms."

Day after day, people here watch scenes of Israeli tanks firing missiles at refugee camps, and of smashed Palestinian cars, ambulances and civilian apartments. This up-close-and-personal contact with suffering Palestinian civilians blots out any similar concern for Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorists. The Bush demand that Arabs curb Mr. Arafat is seen as rank hypocrisy, since the administration has failed to curb Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tanks.

Those who dismiss the rage of the Arab street as ineffectual do so at their peril. Something terribly dangerous is going on as demonstrators mass across the region, even, amazingly, in Saudi Arabia. Friendly pro-American governments in Jordan and Egypt are at real risk.

No Arab governments will try to "deliver" an Arafat cease-fire unless and until the United States can "deliver" Mr. Sharon - meaning an Israeli military pullout from the West Bank and the deployment of U.S. monitors. Yet Mr. Sharon's determination to retain much of the West Bank, and Mr. Bush's reluctance to challenge him, almost guarantee such a deal won't happen.

Yet the last, best hope to prevent endless guerrilla war in Israel lies not with Mr. Sharon's futile invasion but with the fading chance that the United States and moderate Arabs could work together to force both Israel and the Palestinians back to rationality.

That chance revolves largely around the proposal made by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, ratified by the Arab League, that Arab states establish "normal relations" with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal to 1967 borders. Critics of this idea say that such a withdrawal would only be followed by further terrorism aimed at the destruction of Israel. I asked the former longtime head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al Faisal, the son and grandson of Saudi kings, to respond.

He replied that opponents of a two-state solution have been around since the creation of Israel, but it was up to "leaders like Crown Prince Abdullah to lead people to other positions. This is why he made his proposal and is willing to stick by it."

Were there a Palestinian state along 1967 lines, the prince says, "those who govern such a state will be held liable [by Arab leaders and their own people] because they will be endangering the whole area" if they still allow terrorists to operate.

"Today, you cannot hold Yasser Arafat liable, but if he was truly president of a viable state we could all hold him responsible," says Prince Turki.

Occupation, said the prince, is just as evil as terrorism. Whether you believe this or not, the violence on the West Bank and in Israel won't end unless the administration addresses both.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is on vacation.

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