The Middle East

The White House's reckless, one-sided policies could lead to a global catastrophe.

Published January 22, 2003 8:02PM (EST)

Predicting anything about the Middle East is a fool's game. The Bush administration has bungled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fairly comprehensively so far, and it seems unlikely to suddenly abandon its egregious pro-Sharon tilt. But things in the Middle East have a way of confounding expectations. Arab rage at America after an Iraq invasion may force Bush's hand. He may decide he has the domestic political capital to finally get tough with Sharon. Or something completely unforeseen may arise.

But at least in the short term, the status quo -- more Israeli settlements, more violence, more one-sided U.S. condemnation of Arafat -- is likely to prevail. That would be disastrous for Israel, for the Palestinians -- and above all for America. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and America's decades-long failure to act as an honest broker in it, is the root cause of worldwide Muslim rage against the United States. Until that conflict is resolved in a way that provides justice for Palestinians and security for Israelis -- and only the United States has the power to make this happen -- the vast anger felt by Muslims around the world at America will continue to fester. And that anger will continue to be a breeding ground for terrorism.

With war in Iraq looming, it would seem obvious that Bush urgently needs to move on the Palestinian issue to avoid blowback. Yet he continues to support Sharon -- whom, in a description so ludicrous it must have made even hardcore Likudniks laugh, Bush called a "man of peace" -- and to embrace the prime minister's failed policies. In this Bush is actually to the right not just of dovish Peace Now Israelis, but also of many moderates in the Jewish state who are beginning to realize that Sharon has led their nation to disaster. Sharon and his Likud Party are going to easily win reelection in the Israeli elections next week, but only because the Israeli public is too shell-shocked and fractured to change course. In the daily newspaper Ha'aretz on Jan. 17, Israel's most respected commentator on military affairs, Ze'ev Schiff, no leftist, wrote, "Never, with the exception of the War of Independence, which went on until January 1949, has Israel's ongoing security situation been so bad. In the past two-and-a-half years, more Israelis have been killed than in any other period, and not necessarily on the front, but on the country's streets. No other nation is experiencing anything like this ... Even when the IDF and the Shin Bet security service achieve a tactical military success, Sharon is incapable of exploiting it for the next step, in the political realm. It is in this context where Sharon's lack of being a statesman-leader is most pronounced. The struggle with the Palestinians has become a war of revenge and prestige, in which the victories on the battlefield slowly dissolve into nothing. On the ground, the settlers are deepening their grip and adding new outposts with a variety of stratagems. Is there anyone who believes that this situation can be dragged out indefinitely?"

Well, apparently George W. Bush does. Urged on by his cabal of neo-conservative hawks -- many with deep ties to the Israeli right and its iron-wall, iron-fist ideology -- and by old Cold Warriors eager to throw down the gauntlet to nations that refuse to play by America's rules, he seems to be gambling that invading Iraq will break the Palestinians, forcing them to sue for peace on Israeli terms. Sharon, of course, shares these views, and his intransigence has probably only been heightened by the imminent prospect of a U.S. invasion that would deal his lifelong enemies a fatal strategic setback. Indeed, all indications are that Sharon sees the Iraq war as a deus ex machina that will reveal his bloody stonewalling to have been -- voilà! -- a master plan all along.

Sharon is extremely eager for the invasion to take place and, as loudly as diplomatic discretion allows, is urging the Americans to do it quickly. As the prospect of a political delay to the war loomed, his foreign affairs advisor, Zalman Shoval, told Agence France-Presse on Jan. 16 that a delay in the Iraq invasion would threaten Israel, both because Iraq would use the time to develop weapons that could harm Israel and because "as long as Saddam Hussein is not sidelined, it will be difficult to convince the Palestinian leadership that violence doesn't pay and that it should be replaced by a new administration."

The Bush administration shares this assessment. Invading Iraq, the White House believes, will weaken the Palestinians' strategic and tactical position, making it easier to force them to accept a peace deal acceptable to a right-wing Israeli government.

Here's the rosy U.S. projection: With a U.S.-installed regime replacing Israel's most dangerous enemy, the balance of power in the region will shift decisively away from the hardline states -- even more so if an Iraq invasion also results in regime change in Iran. With Iraq defeated and Iran defanged, Syria would be isolated as the last of the front-line rejectionist states; suddenly cut off from the lifeline of cash provided by its illegal oil trade with Iraq, it would have to fall in line with a new, benevolent Pax Americana in the region. It would lose control of its de facto puppet, Lebanon, fatally weakening the Hezbollah, which threatens Israel from the north. The flow of arms into the occupied territories would slow to a trickle.

Assuming everything goes as planned to this point -- as we shall see, an assumption akin to signing a mortgage using anticipated lottery winnings as collateral -- the U.S. will then face a crucial choice. It could tilt toward Israel, or toward the Palestinians. In the first option, the Palestinians -- running out of weapons, without allies, exhausted and demoralized by the relentless Israeli siege -- give up and sign a peace deal that gives them even less than what they were offered at Camp David. Sharon doesn't have to uproot his life's work by demolishing many settlements, the Palestinians don't get a capital in Jerusalem or any right to return, and Bush doesn't have to confront Israel. The Palestinians accept their fragmented, cantonized, security-road-filled, demilitarized, water-poor, fenced-in prison "state"; the rest of the Arab world blusters but gets over it; and everyone lives happily ever after.

In the second scenario, Bush finally heeds his long-suffering State Department and decides that he needs to head off a possible anti-American backlash spurred by the Iraq invasion by turning up the heat on Israel. In this "Saddam, then Sharon" scenario, the U.S. forces Israel to pull out of all of the occupied territories except for a few big settlements, giving up an equivalent amount of Israeli territory for the land occupied by the settlements. Jerusalem becomes a shared capital, and some face-saving plan is worked out on right of return for refugees. Israel's security is guaranteed by U.S. or U.N. forces. The Israeli right blusters but gets over it, the Palestinian left blusters but gets over it, the United States reaps the rewards of brokering the deal, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Even if Bush chooses that moderate course, Arab rage created by an Iraq invasion could come back to haunt America. And if he continues to back Sharon, the odds of a serious or even catastrophic backlash are far greater. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that Bush will continue his hard pro-Sharon line. (And if there is no Iraq war, it's likelier still: The desire to avert an Arab backlash against the invasion is by far the strongest reason Bush might reverse course.) Part of the reason is simple politics. Since Bush took office, he has paid no political price at all for -- and has received significant benefits from -- his egregious pro-Israel tilt. In fact, there's every reason to think that any initiative that favored Arabs -- in Joe Public's mind the evildoers who attacked America -- would be a big political loser for him. The Democrats, who in a remarkable display of bipartisanship are arguably even more pro-Sharon than the Republicans, are not about to put any pressure on him on this issue. Bush presumably remembers that his father challenged Yitzhak Shamir over the loan guarantees and lost his bid for reelection. Besides, his pro-Israel policies are paying big dividends: Almost half the Jews who voted for Gore instead of Bush now say they aren't sure they'd make the same choice.

Beyond domestic politics, Bush really believes he's doing what's right. In the new moral clarity that dropped on him like a rock after 9/11, the Israelis wear white hats and the Palestinians black. In the words of Israeli writer Gideon Samet, "Uncle Sam is writing a script for a horrifying Western of the good guys against the bad guys, to death."

So here is one dire way that script could end -- not a prediction, but a scenario as plausible as it is terrifying. To make things interesting, we'll assume a fast, relatively U.S. casualty-free invasion of Iraq and a fairly trouble-free aftermath. But this version of the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could come true whether the Iraq invasion takes place or not.

The Middle East: The Worst-Case Scenario

March 2003. Despite the Sharon scandals, the Israeli public has returned the Likud to power in Israel, although this time without its Labor partner in a fig-leaf unity coalition. It pursues the same grind-them-down policies toward the Palestinians while continuing to expand the illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Arafat, an increasingly pathetic figurehead, still clings to nominal power, giving Sharon an excuse to defer implementing the "road map" to peace proposed by the Quartet (the U.N., the E.U., the U.S., and Russia). Sharon, Netanyahu and their fellow right-wingers become even more open in denouncing the road map and all other serious peace plans that stipulate Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Bush says nothing.

April 2003. The U.S. and Britain invade Iraq, over the bitter objections of the other members of the Security Council. Tony Blair's domestic political ratings sink to the lowest in postwar British history. Iraq is defeated in a six-week war in which 10,000 Iraqi and 1,600 American troops die, most of the Americans during fierce fighting in the streets of Baghdad. At least 1,000 Iraqi civilians are killed in Baghdad: Some of the horrific carnage is captured on Al-Jazeera TV and broadcast around the Arab world. Iraq attempts to use chemical weapons, but they are mostly ineffective. It also launches a few ineffective Scuds at Israel, which does not retaliate. Arabs in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the occupied territories take to the streets in protest, but no regimes are threatened. No Iraqi leader emerges.

Bush, the newly laureled Conqueror of Baghdad, heeds the advice of former Iran-Contra rogue Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council's new point man for the Middle East, along with that of fellow neocons Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, who urge him to "hang tough" on the Palestinians. An upsurge of patriotism at home during the war, accompanied by denunciations of "ragheads" and "camel jockeys," encourages him. Bush backs away from the Quartet's road map, which asks Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians in the absence of a cease-fire, and returns to the harder-line position of his June 2002 speech, in which -- displaying a sudden and unprecedented concern for democracy in the region -- he demanded that Arafat step down. He continues to castigate Arafat and puts no pressure on Israel to take political steps toward peace. His rhetoric increasingly casts the Palestinians as indistinguishable from al-Qaida. Echoing Donald Rumsfeld, Bush begins to refer to the "so-called" occupied territories and declaims, "In Texas, I was always taught that when you lose a war, you don't whine about it. That's something our Palestinian friends need to understand."

American troops have not left Iraqi soil, but a crisis breaks out in southern Turkey, where Kurd separatists clash with the Turkish army. The U.S. tries to mediate and fails; it ends up not taking sides. The Kurds begin to carve out an autonomous region. Popular anger against the U.S., already smouldering after Ankara agreed to allow in U.S. forces, grows in Turkey.

The defeat of Iraq speeds up the ferment in Iran; hundreds of thousands of students mass to protest the rule of the mullahs. Weeks later the hard-liners are kicked out in a bloodless takeover. But the new secular government rejects offers by the U.S., the World Bank and multinational corporations to improve business ties to Iran in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program and support for Hezbollah. Iran vows to "stand even more firmly beside our suffering brothers and sisters in Palestine," despite threats and cajolery from the United States. Syria, despite increasing economic hardship, also refuses to change its foreign policy stance, insisting that Israel return the Golan Heights before it will make peace. The Arab League, the E.U. and the U.N. demand that the United States move to alleviate Palestinian suffering.

In the occupied territories, arms continue to flow in despite Iraq's defeat. Palestinian terror attacks inside and outside the Green Line (Israel's internationally recognized 1967 border) continue, as do Israeli-targeted assassinations and missile and tank attacks, as well as unpunished vandalism and murder committed by devout Israeli settlers. In July, Palestinian gunmen from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade kill one of the 450 far-right Israelis who live under heavy military protection in the center of Hebron, a biblical Palestinian city of 130,000. In retaliation, a U.S.-built Israeli fighter bombs an apartment complex in Ramallah, killing the top leaders of the Brigade and 36 innocent people. An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman expresses regret, saying the pilot was given incorrect intelligence, and announces that the army will investigate, which it does without apparent result. Bush says he supports Israel's right to defend itself against the scourge of terrorism, but cautions that it must be aware of the consequences of its actions. The next week he signs a bill sent to his desk with a 440-12 vote from Congress approving $14 billion in military and economic aid to Israel.

Five weeks after the Hebron bombing, Palestinian terrorists detonate the largest bomb ever used inside Israel, at a mall in Tel Aviv. Seventy-eight Israelis die, the most ever killed by a Palestinian attack. In response, hundreds of enraged, heavily armed settlers go on a rampage in the West Bank village where the terrorists came from, killing eight people, and then forcibly expel all 300 members of the village to Jordan as the IDF stands by and does nothing. Israel's government says it "regrets" the settlers' actions but makes no attempt to repatriate the refugees. The Bush administration expresses its "deep concern" for Israel's "troubling" actions, but vetoes a U.N. resolution condemning Israel for engaging in "transfer," aka ethnic cleansing.

Violent riots break out across the Arab world and in Indonesia. Protests threaten General Musharraf rule in Pakistan, with hard-line clerics openly threatening to use the "Islamic bomb" against America. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, under extreme pressure from their angry populations, demand that the U.S. immediately cease aid to Israel. An oil embargo is discussed.

American backpackers are brutally murdered in England, Tunisia, Bali and Colombia. Their assailants are unknown.

Two weeks later, an American family of five visiting the Eiffel Tower is gunned down by French Arabs. The U.S. airline industry is on the verge of collapse.

Six weeks later, an Indonesian Muslim living in Chicago, a quiet, industrious father of five enraged by the Palestinian expulsion and by images of Iraqi children killed by U.S. bombs in Baghdad shown again and again on Al-Jazeera TV, drives a rented truck filled with 2,000 pounds of fertilizer into the busiest downtown intersection at lunch hour and detonates it. At least 534 people are killed when a seven-story building collapses on top of an audience attending an outdoor concert.

Bush blames the attack on Iraqi sleeper agents. Declaring "This scourge of terror will not stand," he says the attacks make it clear why the invasion of Iraq was necessary and vows to "track down the evil perpetrators who hate our freedom."

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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