Palestine or Iraq?

Shortly after the Afghan war began, President George W Bush declared that he recognized the need for the creation of a Palestinian state. His statement came at a time when the American administration desperately needed to convince Arabs and Muslims that the war was not part of a crusade against them but was being fought to root out terrorism. However, with the rapid victory over the Taliban regime and the Al-Qa'eda organization under Osama Bin Laden's leadership, the need to assuage Arab and Muslim fears was no longer seen as pressing, and talk of a Palestinian state subsided.

But Bush's decision that it was time to attack another Islamic country, Iraq, which he classified as part of an "axis of evil," raised the need to distinguish between Iraq as a "rogue" state whose leadership should be overthrown, and between the rest of the Arab states in the Middle East. Hence US Vice- President Dick Cheney's visit to the region to inform Arab leaders of his country's plans for Iraq and to seek their cooperation. Hence, too, the re-emergence of the need to raise the issue of a Palestinian state, to be created alongside Israel, with both states enjoying secure and recognized borders.

Cheney believes it is not "appropriate" to link the Iraqi problem to that of Palestine. But some form of linkage does exist, whether the US vice-president likes it or not. His visit to 11 Middle East countries came at a particularly critical time for the region. Coincidentally, or not, Cheney's visit fell during the two weeks preceding a crucial Arab summit, a period marked not only by furious political activity, but also by unprecedented Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory. His visit also came in the wake of the announcement of the Saudi initiative calling for the withdrawal of Israel to the pre-4 June 1967 borders in exchange for complete normalization of relations between Israel and the 22 Arab League member states.

There is no doubt that UN Security Council Resolution 1397 calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which was drafted by the US delegation, is a positive development which can, in the words of the Palestinian UN representative, "help the situation on the ground." The resolution was passed by a 14-0 vote, with Syria abstaining on the grounds that the resolution was "weak" because it failed to deal with the "root cause of the problem, namely, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories." Nevertheless, Syria decided to abstain rather than vote against the text because, according to its UN envoy, it "did not want to break the unity of the council."

A main weakness of the resolution is that it does not link the recognition of a Palestinian state with measures that would guarantee its effective, not merely formal, existence. Another is that it does not guarantee an end to the biggest military offensive launched by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza since it captured the territories in 1967. Yet another is that it sets no time frame for its implementation. It is thus more symbolic than real. Steps towards implementation were left to previously agreed mechanisms, particularly the Mitchell plan and the Tenet security arrangements, which were already accepted in principle irrespective of the resolution on the Palestinian state passed by the Security Council. We are therefore entitled to ask whether resolution 1397 was passed in preparation for a decisive move towards a final settlement of the Palestinian problem or in order to pave the way for a more decisive move against Iraq by removing the Palestinian issue as a distraction. That is probably the key question at this juncture.

Two high-ranking US emissaries are currently in the Middle East: Vice-President Dick Cheney, who is here about the Iraqi matter, and retired General Anthony Zinni, who is here to ensure the implementation of the Tenet arrangements and the Mitchell report recommendations. It is unlikely that the vice-president of the United States will adapt his mission to the requirements of an assignment undertaken by a lower- ranking official. Zinni has twice been dispatched to the region and is back for the third time on the instructions of the US president. Will this man have the last word, rather than the US vice-president, in the event of a conflict of interests between the two missions?

Cheney's mission is to neutralize the effect of the Palestinian problem in foiling the American project to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Consequently, Zinni's task is to tackle the Palestinian problem in a way that would help realize that objective and not expose it to still greater difficulties and complications. It is therefore in America's interest at this point to exert some form of pressure on Sharon to prevent him from taking his offensive still further and jeopardizing its plans. Under American pressure, Sharon dropped his insistence on a full week of uninterrupted quiet before cease-fire talks could resume and partially lifted the siege on Arafat, who is now allowed to move freely within the territory under the control of the Palestinian Authority but not to travel abroad -- yet!

However, it is unlikely that Bush can force Sharon to take measures that would convince resistance fighters to stop their suicide attacks. With the limited -- and ambivalent -- concessions Sharon is ready to make, is it possible to overcome the mutual hatred between the protagonists? Is it possible to break the vicious circle and stop the escalation of violence, whatever the instructions issued by the leaders on either side? Moreover, how reasonable is it to expect an alliance grouping the United States and the Arab regimes in general, with both sides backed by Israel, in a common strategy to topple Saddam Hussein? Even if the Arab regimes harbor no sympathy for the Iraqi leader, they are not ready to expose the Iraqi people to still further suffering.

Arab leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place. They must either join an alliance with America and Israel against Saddam Hussein, or try and come to an understanding with America against Sharon. In other words, they must convince Washington to abandon its plans to overthrow Saddam in exchange for the latter's commitment to allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq. Also, if possible, Arab leaders are to obtain a commitment from Saddam to accept the Saudi initiative, or at least, his promise not to wreck a common Arab effort to reach a consensus over how to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict at this crucial moment.

Another dimension of the present situation that cannot be overlooked is the reintroduction of the UN Security Council in issues of vital concern to the Middle East peace process. After the Six Day War, Security Council Resolution 242 became the key tool in securing a settlement. After the October 1973 War came Security Council Resolution 338. Today, Security Council Resolution 1397 consecrates the co-existence of two states, not one, in historic Palestine, one Jewish, one Arab, within secure and recognized borders.

Resolution 242 carried within it an ambiguity; or, to be more precise, Israel interpreted it in a way that was not what the Arabs understood the resolution to be. Withdrawal "from territories occupied in 1967" was interpreted as not meaning "all," but only "some," of those territories. This ambiguity has been removed by the Saudi initiative, which expressly calls for withdrawal from "all" the Arab territories occupied in 1967. But not all ambiguities have been removed by the Saudi initiative. For example, it did not address the issue of the right of Palestinian refugees to return. Syria, which, like Lebanon, has a substantial refugee population, demanded that the Saudi peace plan be modified in line with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which provides that "The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the very earliest practicable date" (the resolution dates back to 11 December 1948!).

Finally, it should be noted that while Resolution 1397 enjoys the support of all Western nations, the US decision to topple Saddam is openly opposed by some prominent Western powers such as France. The United Kingdom's government strongly backs the American line, but its Iraqi policy has recently come in for a great deal of criticism by a large number of Labor MPs. For Bush, the top priority is overthrowing Saddam. For the international community, it is putting an end to the violence in Palestine. Whatever the achievements of the Arab summit in Beirut, it is difficult to see how either of these two goals can be reached at a time when the United States and the European Union are deeply divided over which should take precedence over the other.

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