Time to promote Palestinian regime change

April 24, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - While the war in Iraq has rightly grabbed all the attention in the Middle East, another effort at regime change has also been going on in the neighborhood, and it's been quite a drama. It's the silent coup that Palestinian moderates, led by Mahmoud Abbas, have been trying to undertake against Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Arafat was forced by the Palestinian legislature to designate Mr. Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) as his first prime minister. The move was openly designed to diminish Mr. Arafat's power and to ease him upstairs, if not out the door.

Mr. Abbas, in trying to assemble a Cabinet, was fought at every turn by Mr. Arafat, who tried to stuff the Cabinet with his cronies and deny Mr. Abbas the key security portfolios. Mr. Arafat "fears he will not be the strongman in the coming phase," a Palestinian legislator, Hassan Khraisheh, told the Associated Press in Jerusalem.

He's right, but Mr. Arafat is no pushover, and if Mr. Abbas and his allies in the Palestinian legislature are to prevail, they will need help. America, Europe, Israel and the Arab states should all pitch in.

The Bush team has a huge strategic stake in the outcome of this Palestinian struggle, because it will affect America's room to maneuver in Iraq.

Let me explain.

What does America want in Iraq? It wants the emergence of an Iraqi political center, both parties and politicians, who are authentically Iraqi, authentically nationalist and respectful of Islam - but with a progressive, modernizing agenda and a willingness to work with the United States in transforming Iraq.

In the near future - once Iraqi politics really resumes - the ability of any Iraqi politician to be openly pro-U.S. will be restricted if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict burns on and the Bush team is seen as siding only with Ariel Sharon and doing nothing to defuse the situation. In that context, pro-U.S. Iraqi politicians will be delegitimized, in both Iraq and the Arab world, as pro-Sharon stooges. As a result, we will either end up with Iraqis who are not legitimate or Iraqis who, like so many other Arab leaders today, can cooperate with us only in secret.

Note to neo-cons: If you care about the outcome in Iraq, you should be for an energized peace process - one that draws red lines for both Israelis and Palestinians and moves them both toward an interim deal.

Yes, something important is happening in the Arab world as a result of Saddam Hussein's collapse, some real introspection and the stirrings of a movement that says: "Maybe everything cannot be postponed until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over. Maybe we need to start some internal changes right now, because the causes of Iraq's defeat were all internal."

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to underestimate the continuing emotive power of the Palestine issue, especially in a post-Hussein Iraq where the United States has, necessarily, destroyed the Iraqi army, but in doing so has destroyed the most legitimate secular institution in the country. This vacuum is being filled by religious authorities for which Palestine and Jerusalem are still hot button issues.

"In a hopelessly divided and largely dysfunctional Arab world, no single issue still resonates everywhere more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Aaron Miller, the former State Department negotiator who now heads Seeds of Peace. "Nothing would do more to enhance American maneuverability in Iraq, and in the region at large, than for us to make a credible effort to defuse this issue. A burning Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates so many opportunities for our enemies and so many problems for our friends, including Israel."

There is a natural deal here among America, Europe and the Arabs: The Europeans and Arabs use their influence to force Mr. Arafat to accept Mr. Abbas on his terms, and the Americans use their influence on Mr. Sharon to produce an immediate settlements freeze, the rollback of all illegal settlements and a resumption of negotiations after a new Palestinian security force, under a new prime minister, is in place.

The Europeans and Arabs missed their chance to be part of Mr. Hussein's removal. But they can contribute now by being part of the easing aside of Mr. Arafat.

At the same time, U.S. conservatives who supported war against Iraq need to understand that if they miss this chance to help nurture an alternative Palestinian leadership - by refusing to make demands on Mr. Sharon - not only will Israel be less safe in the long run, but chances of President Bush succeeding in Iraq will be diminished.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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