In the heart of the new desert storm: The “Mother of the Problems”

In his Friday, March 14’s declaration about resuming negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground of the “road map”, once a credible Palestinian Prime Minister took power, Mr. Bush wanted to make sure that in the heart of this new “desert storm”- so far rampaging in the great Western cities-, he has not forgotten the first problem of the Middle East (or should we say: the mother of problems?): the Palestinian. By the way, he reiterated his attachment to the two states living side by side’s view, already declared last June, and his message probably reached its destination, although we may hardly say that it reached its goal. For whether among the Palestinians or among the Israelis, the reactions that appeared cast a little shade of doubt about the American pretensions to link a problem to another, and to connect -in some mysterious way- the issue in Iraq with the issue in Palestine.

Curiously enough, this is the very way Saddam Hussein used to tackle his own crisis in 1991. Then, everyone can remember how he claimed that the problem was not about his invasion of Kuwait, but rather about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. By a curious – yet, well calculated- “conjuration”, the war almost expanded to Israel. The purpose was obvious: Saddam intended to show that in fact, neither Kuwait nor even Saudi Arabia – the main fund-backers of the PLO- are defending the Palestinians, but he. And that was also why he invaded Kuwait!

But since then, a lot of water flowed under the bridges. If Saddam did not change his game, or learn from his mistakes, which is today the reason of the deadlock, the Americans ostensibly learned a lot, and particularly how to cut short the road that would lead the Iraqi President to the deliberate confusion between his problems and the Palestinian’s. That’s why Mr. Bush did not miss an occasion, in the last few days, to remind us that he is willing to deal with the new Palestinian government; and Mr. Colin Powell even promised that the Palestinian Prime Minister – Abu Mazen- would be received in Washington, very soon. This is incontestably a score for the Bush administration, but we are not yet done.

To begin with, the less problematic of the afore-mentioned reactions seems to emanate, not from the US’s first ally, as one should expect, but rather from the other party: the nearly crushed, that is, the Palestinian. In effect, no more than twenty-four hours after Mr. Bush’s declaration, Palestinian legislators said that the US administration’s promise to adhere to last year’s “road map” for Palestinian statehood was a positive sign. That was clearly an acceptance of the American proposal, as was – according to some observers- not only the appointment of a Prime Minister, but also prior to that event, even the appointment of a new Interior Ministry (Abdelrazek Yahia, then Hani al Hassan), as well as a finance minister (Salem Fayyad) to bring some order to the disastrous mess of the Palestinian public finances. The fact that this reshuffle was responding to an American-Israeli demand, and that the new ministers seemed thus acceptable as potential partners for negotiation, has been sometimes excessively interpreted. For instance, omitting the internal need for change and reform, the Hamas headed toward rather a hard-line stance on this issue. For the speakers of the Islamic resistance, the PA was too meekly obedient to the US-Zionist plans, which aim at smothering the Intifada and ending the resistance. In the Hamas analyze, Abu Mazen’s era would only lead to the complete surrender of the Palestinians and the termination of their fight for freedom, since he is perceived not as one of the founders of the Fatah movement, and therefore one of the first leaders of the resistance, but only as the architect of the Oslo accords, which had been rejected by Hamas and the hardliners.

It is worth noticing in this context, that the newly appointed Prime Minister Abu Mazen would never be able to fulfill his mission successfully without some entente with the hardliners, not only in his own movement (Fatah), but also in the Islamic resistance. The situation on the field needs some kind of appeasement. And to expect that Sharon would withdraw his troops thus showing his goodwill, without a clear action from the Palestinian side is just a hopeless dream. There was too much blood spilled since the beginning of the Intifada, too much violence causing human losses and tragedies in both sides. And if the Israelis have been also suffering from these clashes, – suicide bombings included-, it is obvious that the Palestinian casualties are much more important.

Today, there are still two options before the Palestinians. On the one hand, the option advised by Hamas and the Hardliners, mainly supported by Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. The Palestinians, they say, are quite capable of sustaining a war of attrition and conducting it to its logical end, which is the fulfillment of their demands. But: 1) what would be the human price of such an endeavor? 2) Who would support such a hard-line tomorrow, when the Iraqi regime is toppled, and the other “hawks” would feel the threat too close to them?

It is Mahmud Abbes (Abu Mazen) himself who, as soon as October 2002, criticized the violent turn taken by the Intifada, which seemed to him as hijacking the Palestinian people and trapping him in a hopeless suicide-policy based on the suicide bombings. In a speech then widely commented and attacked by the Hardliners, Abu Mazen invited the Palestinians to stop that process of intentional violence, which led only to give Sharon the excuse to crush militarily the Palestinian people.

On the other hand, there is the option represented by the same Abu Mazen, who claimed that if the Palestinians cannot defeat Sharon on his field (the military, that is), they could bring him to a ground where all his weakness would show up. Thus, once the negotiations got started, Sharon would fall in three to six months, for he can merely give nothing for peace, and everybody would then state that he is not the man of the situation. For Abu Mazen, there is still a chance that has to be seized in the light of what he felt as a forthcoming war in Iraq that could change many things. The Palestinians have to get their true place in this situation. Ostensibly, they have no interest in taking part to any external struggle. In 1991, the stance taken by Arafat siding with Saddam was an unforgivable blunder that cost the PLO a disgrace in the Gulf, formerly its main fund-backer. Now, if the Palestinians could reach their goal, without more losses, and without more risky adventures, why not give negotiations a chance?

In the present situation, there is some ground to this kind of talk. One of the most distressing scenarios widely commented in the Israeli, the Palestinian, and the international press, concerns a plan of transfer of thousands of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli army, once the belligerences start in Iraq. It is said that Sharon and some of his ministers are contemplating such a perspective, which would push civilians to leave the territories and to “invade” Jordan and Lebanon. This is the disastrous picture.

The second is no less upsetting. It does not concern the population but rather the leadership. Still, exploiting the focus on the war in Iraq, Sharon would rush in Ram Allah, either to expel or merely to kill Arafat, thus getting rid of him once and for all. Naturally, a bullet or a missile may be “lost”, and “bad luck” may direct it toward the room where Arafat would be working. It happened in the past. It may still happen in a situation of confusion.

Then when some powerful rulers of the region do not even know whether they are going to see another day in their palaces, who among them would care for Arafat’s fate?

Today, we can already see the premises of such logic. Not a single day passes by without we hear about Israel rampaging and Palestinians killed. These events have become such a routine that they happen sometimes to sound of secondary importance even in the Arab press, compared to the Iraqi crisis, which would relegate them to the interior pages of some major newspapers. What is more significant in this context, that during the last summit of Sharm al Sheikh, the Palestinian problem was not even discussed, whereas the Israeli tanks were still encircling the Palestinian zones and terrorizing the population. Such dullness may be explained by the focus on Iraq. But the focus on Iraq did not breed an efficient political mechanism able to cope with the crisis. Once more, it was the Americans themselves that took the bull by the horns, claiming that they would link between the “liberation of Iraq” and “the liberation of Palestine”, so to say -an independent state, that is.

Of course, Mr. Bush’s initiative is neither gratuitous nor a coincidence. He wants to gain more Arabs to his side. His promises are certainly taken seriously by the PA, although some factions and hardliners have already announced that this is only a manipulation aiming at getting the support of the recalcitrant Arabs for a war, which is not theirs in Iraq.

Anyway, the future in – and of – the Middle East sounds like a real enigma. Some questions stay unanswerable: Who knows what would Sharon do tomorrow once the Americans got involved in the war in Iraq? Is the Bush administration sure that the Israeli ally would follow without making a fuss of all the American present and future plans? And if Sharon is so trustful to Washington, then why wait until the end of war in Iraq to give the Palestinians an independent state? Why did they not begin by allowing the Palestinians to declare an independent state instead of promising and delaying it? And who can grant that such a deal is possible in the visible future? Can the new Palestinian Prime Minister do that? What has he got as assets?

To be sure, it is not the Israelis either who showed more trust and confidence. Quite the other way round. Their first reaction after hearing the Friday’s speech of Mr. Bush, in which he declared that the US would present the two sides with the road map immediately after the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister with “genuine responsibilities”, consisted in banning any mention of an “independent” Palestinian state from their response to the “road map”. There are other conditions added by the Israelis, published on their papers, which complicates the issue a little more not only to the quartet, not only to the forthcoming government of Abu Mazen, but also – and mainly – to the American administration, rendering its initiative almost impossible to achieving.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.