Prognosis: not promising

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always been very sensitive to regional developments, in particular because the two parties are strongly dependent on regional and international players and scenarios. The Gulf War, for example, influenced the Palestinian-Israeli conflict directly. The war in Afghanistan is the most recent example of how regional developments can strongly bend the conflict in one direction or another.

Growing international opposition, non-conducive regional conditions and Iraqi attempts to absorb the pressure with diplomacy, thus avoiding confrontation, is making it seem less and less likely that the United States will attack Iraq. But if the US administration does move forward, intervention in Iraq will likely have dramatic consequences on the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli crisis. One reason is the geopolitical proximity of Iraq. Another reason is the ongoing American- supported Israeli military aggression and growing sensitivity in the Arab world to Palestinian suffering alongside hostility towards US Middle East policy.

US intervention in Iraq will have an effect on the Middle East even before it happens. If the United States intervenes in Iraq, it will require a relatively conducive political atmosphere in the Arab world. Otherwise, that engagement will have extremely negative effects, not only on American Middle East policy, but also on the intervention itself. That is why Americans have to prepare the ground beforehand in such a way that includes influencing the course of events in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

These American efforts will create a paradox because the calm the US so badly requires can be achieved, in principle, in one of two ways: either by allowing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to try to achieve calm, which he claims he can accomplish if the Americans just give him a free hand for further use of force, or by restraining Sharon and producing a political initiative with enough weight to deal with the confrontations and spur a ceasefire.

But both of these scenarios have been tried to some extent, with obvious failure. That is why the occupying Israeli army continues to try to achieve quiet by force and the Palestinian violent resistance also continues trying to achieve a political horizon. In other words, American officials must come up with something new in the Middle East if they want to create a political situation conducive for possible Iraq intervention.

On the eve of the visit of US envoy General Anthony Zinni, there is no sign that he is carrying any promising new approach. The most likely scenario, therefore, is that the Americans will approach the period of possible intervention without preparing the theater–at least as far as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is concerned.

The other important consideration in this regard is that the two sides are readying to take advantage of the looming scenario in Iraq. Israel, for example, might have an interest in continuing violent confrontations with the Palestinians until and throughout a possible Iraqi-American confrontation. They are likely planning to try to use that occasion to further associate the Palestinians with “evil”–this time, Iraq–and themselves with “good,” or the Americans.

TInstead of moderating the Palestinian-Israeli crisis with an effective political initiative, the American administration seems likely to simply use its might and bilateral leverage on the parties to force them to reduce the confrontations. Once the US intervention is underway, however, there is nothing to prevent Israel from trying to take advantage of the situation created at the very least by Palestinian public identification with the Iraqi people. Israel will try to give the outside world the impression that it is simply trying to compliment in Palestine what the Americans are accomplishing in Iraq.

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

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