The problem with “after the war”

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While the British and American war against Iraq is so far not having any direct and immediate impact on the Palestinian-Israel conflict, we are already seeing signs on the horizon of the war’s long-term strategic results. One of the first possible casualties of this war could be the Quartet, the high-level Middle East working group composed of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Quartet efforts are perceived by Palestinians–and Arabs, in general–as a move in the right direction because they minimize the US monopoly over the peace process and introduce diplomatic efforts closer to the requirements of international law. Unilateral American diplomatic attempts have–in contrast–not succeeded, due largely to the extravagant United States bias towards Israel and a subsequent lack of neutrality in dealing with the two sides. The deterioration in relations between the US and other major world actors that preceded this war will no doubt leave its damaging fingerprints on Quartet initiatives that were to date the best attempts at building a Middle East peace.

This unsanctioned war has also dealt a severe blow to international law, the role of the United Nations and the resolutions of its Security Council. Indeed, the war might be remembered in history as the turning point away from the growing strength and respect garnered by a concerted international community, towards a situation where the lone superpower is not only neglecting international legality but replacing it with unilateralism. The Middle East peace process is based on international legality and the need to adhere to and implement the relevant Security Council resolutions. Now the very country supervising the peace process has turned away from the international forum and decided to go it alone.

Further, there is no doubt that the shift in international attention, that of both media and diplomats, away from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is going to reduce the international pressures that have maintained a modicum of calm. Even more sobering is the thought that heavy casualties inflicted in Iraq may serve to further justify in the eyes of the international public Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian civilians it occupies.

The recent hints by US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as diplomats like Miguel Moratinos and David Satterfield, have been encouraging in that they dared to mention the Middle East conflict at this very tense moment. But they were not reassuring enough.

For one, the comments from lower American officials attempting to put a positive spin on Bush’s statements were immediately corrected rightward by Israeli sources close to the US administration. The resulting assessment has been that any new diplomatic push will not take place until after the Iraq war, which can reasonably be expected to take longer than optimistic first estimations. This delay will have a direct impact on the new Palestinian prime minister. If our new government leader, despite his best intentions, is unable to deliver any improvements to his people–and he will not be able to deliver anything until the renewal of the peace process–this will negatively reflect on the public’s perception of both him and the peace process itself.

Some analysts are trying to compare current events in the Middle East to the aftermath of the first Gulf War, which was characterized by George Bush Sr.’s immediate jumpstarting of Middle East talks. Unfortunately, these assessments appear incorrect. While a peace process renewal would be positively received in the region and neutralize some of the growing anti-American sentiment, there are several factors that make it seem a mirage. First, this US government is allied in a way never seen before with its right-wing Likud counterparts in Israel. Second, the elder Bush exited the Gulf War with very high approval ratings, while his son is heading into a difficult conflict with moderate support and a teetering economy. That is why Palestinians have admittedly low expectations for US diplomacy after the war.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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