A weaker international community

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While the war is still raging and its full international ramifications are as yet far from certain, we can only speculate about the fallout for Israelis and Palestinians. But because the stakes are so high, we can and must engage–cautiously, to be sure–in such speculation.

Both the EU and the UN have clearly been weakened by the countdown to the war. What used to be called the EU’s joint foreign and security policy is now in a shambles, with France, Germany and Belgium by and large pitted against the other member and candidate states over Iraq. While the EU does ostensibly continue to agree on a policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–indeed, consistent European agreement on a two-state solution involving the PLO goes back more than 20 years–its inability to maintain a consensus regarding Iraq could conceivably overflow into the Arab-Israel sphere as well.

In the UN, the authority of the Security Council has been seriously impaired. How it will be structured in future, how it will make decisions regarding Israel and Palestine, and how effective those decisions will be, remain to be seen. But the near term prognosis appears to be reduced effectiveness.

Turning to the key player, the US, a number of complex and diverse scenarios for the post-Iraq period bespeak a wide variety of possibilities. To begin with, Washington enters the war in Iraq relatively isolated on the international scene, having exercised strikingly poor diplomatic judgment in advancing its global agenda–beginning with its rejection of environmental and arms control treaty obligations, through its failures in the Security Council over Iraq and the inspection regime, and down to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s disparaging remarks about America’s traditional friends in Europe. But this same willful alienation by Washington of the global community and the multilateral approach also bespeaks an extraordinary sense of power in the US, cultivated particularly by the neoconservative lobby.

This contradiction is reflected in several possible scenarios. Thus, if the US triumphs handily in Iraq and manages to deal effectively with potential internal Iraqi frictions and external complications, the administration’s disdain for the Europeans, the Arabs and the UN is liable to grow. This points to a hawkish agenda regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that dovetails with that of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.

In contrast, if the conquering American forces find themselves hopelessly embroiled in Iraqi civil wars, tribal insurrections, Shi’ite-Sunni and Turkish-Kurdish fights, and increased terrorism and incitement, the US might seek to placate the surrounding Arab world and the Europeans by adopting an energetic peace process agenda that implies the exercise of pressure on Israel–for example regarding a settlement freeze and an initial withdrawal to the September 28, 2000 lines–as well as on the Palestinians.

We already witnessed a strange interaction between unilateralist and multilateralist tendencies in US policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when, on March 14, President Bush made a special policy pronouncement regarding the roadmap. On the one hand Bush declared that the roadmap would be presented earlier than previously indicated: rather than being postponed until after the war, it would be delivered to the two sides as soon as the Palestinians confirmed the appointment of a new prime minister with genuine authority. This was seen as a way of strengthening the hand of reluctant and troubled allies like Britain, Turkey and Arab regimes that were being criticized for neglecting the conflict in favor of Bush’s Iraq agenda.

But on the other hand, Bush’s announcement downplayed the role of the Quartet and appeared to invite further Israeli attempts to amend the roadmap–a position opposed by Washington’s European, Russian and UN partners. This weakened the very same actors who had been calling for a more forthright US multilateral policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Then too, conceivably none of this will be relevant. The administration may simply be too busy after Iraq with both domestic and international challenges to get involved with our conflict. Bush, after all, has never really evinced any interest in making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And with the EU and the UN clearly weakened by the events of recent months, it behooves Israelis and Palestinians to remind themselves that historically, most real breakthroughs to peace in the Middle East–Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, the Oslo accords, the Israel-Jordan peace–took place bilaterally, and secretly, behind the backs of the international community.

Because both an enhanced international role and a secret, bilateral breakthrough are not likely–neither is an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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