Iraq… or Palestine?

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The agreement reached in Bonn to form an Afghan power-sharing council at the very time Bin Laden’s last stronghold was collapsing in Kandahar is a significant victory for the American-led alliance in its war against terrorism. True, reservations have been expressed concerning the agreement. It was opposed by Uzbek warlord Abdul-Rashid Dostum and only conditionally accepted by Pashtun leader Sayed-Ahmed Jilani. The objections of neither can be dismissed lightly, and if differences between the tribes making up Afghanistan’s intricate ethnic composition escalate, a civil war between the various Afghan factions cannot be excluded. However, so far, this does not seem to be the most likely scenario. That is why we can talk of a remarkable achievement.

Congratulations are due in particular to the engineer of the agreement, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. This is his second outstanding achievement in overcoming apparently intractable conflicts, the first one being the Taef agreement which brought an end to the civil war in Lebanon. In a way, Brahimi epitomises the very opposite of what Bin Laden stands for. His approach to historical impasses is constructive not destructive, conciliatory not inflammatory; it aims at overcoming the crisis, not taking revenge on the enemy. This cannot be said to apply to all the protagonists in the Afghan conflict.

The Bonn agreement is remarkable insofar as it draws attention to a fact ordinarily neglected by politicians: namely, that the eradication of terrorism entails not only eliminating terrorists but also the root causes of terrorism. This, in turn, is not conceivable without introducing fundamental changes in the present world order. Establishing an alternative model that would symbolise the will to undertake positive, constructive measures is no less important than combating terrorism as symbolic of a negative, nihilist, destructive approach. The global dimension acquired by terrorism in recent years cannot be blamed entirely on the perpetrators of terrorist acts. Some of the responsibility for this modern scourge must be assumed by the statesmen responsible for the present world order, whose inability to cope with deep-seated problems has created increasingly desperate — and daring — groups willing to turn themselves into human bombs to destroy what they see as symbols of their oppression.

After winning the war in Afghanistan, and in a much shorter time than expected, the United States is unlikely to rest on its laurels. Washington did not forge an international alliance to combat terrorism worldwide only to stop with a partial victory. It still has a long list of so- called rogue states which it accuses of harbouring terrorists and which, if not dealt with now, will have to be dealt with, probably in more difficult conditions, in future. Two problems in particular, both in the Middle East, are regarded by Washington as worthy of special attention: Iraq and Palestine. With Afghanistan no longer the epicentre of the anti-terrorist campaign, it is expected to shift its focus to one or the other. The question is which will be given priority.

Thanks to a compromise worked out between Washington and Moscow, the UN Security Council agreed last week to extend the oil-for-food agreement for an extra six months. For a long time, the two capitals were unable to agree on a common approach towards the Iraqi problem, and it took the emergence of a common enemy, terrorism, which America is fighting in Afghanistan and Russia in Chechnya, to reconcile their divergent viewpoints. They hope to iron out whatever differences still remain between them in the six-month extension of the oil-for-food agreement. This suggests that the Iraqi problem will be kept on hold for at least the next six months, despite calls from the far right in America for an immediate showdown with Saddam Hussein. Although no connection has been found between Iraq and the 11 September attacks nor the subsequent bioterrorism attacks, influential hawks are urging Bush to take the war to Iraq as soon as possible. One of their spokesmen is Richard Perle, a consultant to Donald Rumsfeld, who believes that “if we end this with Afghanistan, and leave all the other terror- sponsoring regimes intact, then I don’t see how we can call this a victory.”

But Bush is probably not ready to jeopardise the compromise agreement reached with Russia by taking on Saddam at this juncture. This means shifting the focus to the Palestinian problem in the coming period. According to Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Sharon openly admitted to him during a telephone conversation that he wanted to “be rid of Arafat.” This damning statement, which Sharon denied, comes at a time the crisis inside the Israeli government over how to deal with Arafat is threatening to bring down his coalition government.

Although most of the suicide bombings were carried out by Palestinian organisations other than Arafat’s Fatah, Sharon insists on holding Arafat fully responsible for the attacks. By requiring Arafat to round up, arrest and put Hamas militants on trial, Sharon is seeking to drive a wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. He is also forcing the Palestinian leader to compromise his credibility and alienate his constituency. Bowing to Israeli pressure, Arafat provoked widespread Palestinian anger when he placed the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, under house arrest last week.

Sharon is deliberately undermining the prestige of the Palestinian Authority to the advantage of the Palestinian opposition forces. He is radicalising the Palestinian masses not towards Israel alone, but also towards the Palestinian leadership. Hamas has become a parallel structure to the Palestinian Authority, with charity organisations offering substantial services to the Palestinian people — organisations that enjoy financial support, mainly from Saudi Arabia, reaching millions of dollars. Despite the campaign of assassinations Israel has unleashed against its activists, a defiant Hamas continues to carry out suicide operations against the Israelis. This has forced Arafat to encourage a new generation of Fatah activists to do the same, albeit only to retain his popularly and credibility among the Palestinian masses and not leave the Palestinian resistance movement to Hamas alone.

Sharon is now in a position where he can silence Bush whenever the latter asks him to exercise self restraint. How can Bush object, since he himself exercises no restraint when dealing with Bin Laden and Al-Qa’eda? Today it is Sharon who is imposing his line of conduct on Bush, especially now that, with Bin Laden and his organisation routed, the US president no longer needs to placate Arab and Islamic states by making a clear distinction between terrorism and Islam, nor, accordingly, to object to Sharon’s claim that Arafat is the “Bin Laden of the Middle East.”

In any case, Bush has not asked Sharon to exercise restraint, leaving the Israeli prime minister free to deal with Arafat as he sees fit. Although last week the Palestinian Authority arrested some 200 militants, including 17 of 32 on a list submitted by Israel, Sharon maintains that most of the arrests have been for show and that hard-core militants remain at large. In a message relayed to Arafat by Peres, he warned that what matters is not the number of activists from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or other organisations arrested, but their quality, and that, moreover, Arafat must act quickly because time is running out. Whatever the number of arrests, they will never be enough for the Israelis, and always too many for the Palestinians and Arabs. There seems to be no way out of this dilemma, which is already generating inter-Palestinian clashes.

Although Sharon claims he is not targeting Arafat personally, his instructions to the Israeli military to direct their missiles at places Arafat is known to frequent attest otherwise. Arafat is to be liquidated, either by Israelis or by Palestinians.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher visited Israel to try and find a way out of the present impasse. Sharon proved totally unyielding. The American administration has sent retired General Anthony Zinni to the Middle East to pave the way for the implementation of the Mitchell plan and the Tenet proposals. A question worth asking here is whether the US president is ready to restore the initiative by persuading Sharon to accept Zinni’s assessment that Arafat has satisfactorily implemented what he is called upon to do to bring Palestinian violence to an end — provided, of course, that Arafat enables Zinni to verify the situation on the ground for himself.

A further question worth asking is whether Zinni is ready to consider, and not refuse beforehand as Sharon did, the proposal of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop suicide attacks against Israel for one week, in exchange for Israel stopping its military assaults against Gaza and the West Bank.

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