When Bush comes to Shove

Avi Shlaim

Written for the Financial Times but unpublished, 30 October 2001

The most recent and dramatic events in Afghanistan have an extraordinary ring of the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war about them. In both cases the Palestinian question became linked to the broader conflict between the west and its enemies. In 1990 Saddam Hussein pioneered the concept of linkage by making an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait conditional on Israel’s withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories. In this crisis Osama bin Laden has posed as the champion of Palestinian rights.

A decade ago George Bush Sr sought the support of the Arab states in the war against Iraq. Today George W.Bush Jr is seeking the support of the Arab and Islamic world in the war against international terrorism. Bush Sr reassured the Arabs by promising to resolve the Palestinian issue. Bush Jr must deliver on that promise.

Both conflicts imposed severe strains on the special relationship between the US and Israel. Many Israelis hoped that the events of 11 September would engender greater sympathy and support in America for their war against Palestinian militants. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly said to Colin Powell: “everyone has his own Bin Laden and Arafat is ours.” Sharon also hoped to make common cause with the US in the war aginst international terrorism. All these hopes, however, were quickly dashed.

Israel was excluded from any anti-terror military action; some of its enemies, such as Syria and Iran, were considered for membership. Its attempt to demonise Yasser Arafat backfired. Far from gaining respectability, Israel felt that it was being treated almost as a pariah and as an impediment to the US effort to build an anti-terror coalition.

Two weeks after the attack on the twin towers, President Bush issued the strongest statement yet endorsing an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Departing from standard operating procedures, the state department prepared its own plan, rather than forwarding Israeli proposals with minor modifications. The US plan was anathema to Mr Sharon. He reacted to America’s peace plan with an astonishing outburst of anger, warning President Bush not to repeat the mistake of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 of trying to appease Nazi Germany. The American response reflected equally extreme anger. Although Sharon expressed regret for this public dispute, his allegation of appeasement and of American treachery continued to rankle.

Israel’s reaction to the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi, on 17 October, deepened the crisis. Sharon vowed all-out war against Palestinian terrorism. Israeli tanks and troops retook control of six cities on the West Bank in the most drastic assault on Yasser Arafat’s authority since limited self-rule began seven years ago.  America’s strenuous efforts to yank Sharon back from the brink of war have so far met with only limited success. President Bush is furious with Sharon for jeopardizing his coalition.
Pro-American Arab regimes such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been viewing the escalation of violence with mounting anguish and anxiety.  They have been shamed and discredited in the eyes of their own people by their inability to help the Palestinians or to modify America’s blatant partiality towards Israel. Osama bin Laden was quick to seize the plight of the Palestinians as an additional stick with which to beat these regimes following the Anglo-American assault on Afghanistan. Like the Iraqi dictator, bin Laden is exploiting the plight of the Palestinians for his own ends. But his motives do not detract from the centrality of the Palestinian question. His plea struck a sympathetic chord in much of the Arab and Islamic world. And by swearing that America will have no peace until Palestine is free, bin Laden succeeded in setting the agenda for Arab demands on Palestine. America’s reassessment of its relationship with Israel has already begun. The moderate Arab leaders are putting pressure on America to take this process to its logical conclusion by pushing its recalcitrant ally towards a settlement with the Palestinians.

After the Gulf war America failed to fulfil George Bush Sr’s pledge to push the Israelis into a solution. But the situation has changed. In 1991 the Arabs needed American protection against Saddam Hussein. Today America badly needs the support of the Arab world for its campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime. To get this support, it must make a determined effort to force Israel to recognise the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination and to withdraw from most of the land that it occupied in 1967. The Arabs complain that America makes promises on Palestine when it needs their help and lets matters slip after the crisis blows over. This time round, they will judge America not by words but by actions. If the US fails to promote a settlement that satisfies moderate Arab demands on Palestine, popular opinion in the Arab world would shift in favour of the alternative advocated by Osama bin Laden and his followers.