According to analysts and diplomats concerned with the Middle East, anti-American hostility—at all levels of society, but especially among the educated—is at an unparalleled high across the Arab world. The main cause of Arab anger, apparently, is the Bush administration’s obvious eagerness to act against an Arab country, Iraq, but not against Israel, although both have refused to abide by U.N. resolutions.
Iraq has rejected U.N. resolutions requiring inspection of Iraqi facilities to ensure that Saddam Hussein has no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. But Israel itself has disregarded U.N. resolutions demanding its withdrawal from Arab territories occupied since the 1967 war. Yet instead of calling for immediate compliance with these resolutions by both Israel and Iraq, President Bush is pressuring Iraq alone to comply.
Until this year, the Bush administration maintained that only the warring parties could produce a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In so doing, it ignored—and still continues to downplay—the fact that the United States is the sole power capable of compelling the two sides to make the kinds of concessions that a peace treaty requires.
The president has added fuel to the fire by implying that Yasir Arafat was primarily responsible both for the intensification of the violence this past spring and the diplomatic stalemate that has resulted. He downplayed the fact that Israel also has employed violence against Palestinians and continues to do so. To be sure, the Israelis argue that their use of military force is in reaction to acts of violence against its citizens by Palestinian terrorists. Yet Israel is also using military force to continue its occupation of Palestinian lands, a factor that prompted many Palestinians to resort to violence against Israel in the first place.
Only after realizing that his hands-off stance was undermining America’s position in the Arab world did the president make what turned out to be a halfhearted attempt to rein in the Israelis and get the peace talks going again. But he placed the main burden for doing so on the Palestinians, saying that they first had to get rid of Arafat, a step they may not be willing to take in next January’s elections.
Now, in the most recent Bush initiative—presented to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on Oct. 23 by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, and rejected by both sides almost immediately—the United States is asking the Palestinians to drop the presidential election altogether (because it fears that Arafat will be re-elected) and conduct only a parliamentary election. The Palestinians consider this another example of unwarranted American interference in their domestic politics.
Yet even if Arafat is removed from power, the Israelis are unlikely to withdraw from the West Bank—the one condition the Palestinians insist must be met before peace is possible—as long as Ariel Sharon is Israel’s prime minister.
Needless to say, President Bush’s refusal to push Mr. Sharon to withdraw from the West Bank, while at the same time he threatens unilateral U.S. action against Iraq for failing to comply with U.N. resolutions, appears the height of hypocrisy to Arab elites and their people as well. It explains why even moderate Arab leaders who are friendly with the United States have come out strongly against unilateral U.S. military action against Iraq. They fear mass uprisings that could lead to the overthrow of their governments. In short, U.S. military action against Iraq could turn all of the Middle East into an anti-American conflagration whose effects are hard to imagine and probably would be even more difficult to repair.
At the very least, U.S. military action against Iraq—even if sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council—if it is accompanied by continued U.S. indifference to Israel’s noncompliance with the U.N. resolutions, will encourage more young Arabs to join terrorist organizations eager to strike at what they believe is a U.S.-Israeli alliance aligned against Islam. Acting against Iraq, while failing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would also discourage moderate Arab governments from cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism. Thus, while the United States is likely to win the battle against Iraq, it could lose the war against Arab terrorism.
Clearly, a more evenhanded U.S. policy toward the Middle East is called for. It would make the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the root cause of the instability in the Middle East and the primary fuel that fires Arab terrorism—as important as dealing with Iraq. Such a policy would do much to ensure continued Arab support for the war on terrorism which, after all, is or should be America’s primary national security policy.
The president has made greater U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks contingent on the Palestinian elections in two months. Considering the stakes involved, he should allow at least that much time before taking military action against Iraq. Unfortunately, a more evenhanded U.S. policy is unlikely to be developed by this administration, given its fixation with Saddam Hussein and its myopia toward the rest of the Arab world.