An American-led attempt to conquer Iraq, remove the Saddam Hussein regime and destroy its weapons of mass destruction will almost certainly succeed. An American occupying force in Iraq will almost certainly pressure neighboring Syria and Iran to reconsider some of their more hostile and repressive actions. For Israel and other moderate countries in the region, this is good news. And it is good enough.
In contrast, the ramifications of all this for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are far from certain. Not to mention the chaos and hostility the US is liable to face inside Iraq and in the region once the dust of battle has settled.
There is a school of thought in ruling circles in the US and Israel, reflected among some intellectuals and even here and there in the Arab world, that argues that the US conquest of Iraq will set in motion a kind of positive domino effect that will usher in an era of democracy, market economy and stability as far afield as Palestine. The demise of Saddam will somehow empower democratic-minded people in Damascus, Tehran and Ramallah to take over; Arafat will be cast aside by the shock wave from Baghdad.
Through what magical chemical reaction this cause-and-effect dynamic is supposed to work, no one tells us.
Rather, the following set of events seems more likely: The American conquerors of Baghdad will almost certainly be met by throngs of rice-throwing well wishers. When the US forces show the world Saddam’s dungeons, torture chambers and chemical weapons stores, many who opposed the war will grudgingly justify it (though some will inevitably claim that these revelations are CIA forgeries). A US military government will then settle in to the almost impossible task of building an Arab democracy–a massive and unprecedented experiment in social engineering–reconciling tribal and ethnic rivalries, and soothing the inevitable friction with neighbors like Turkey and Iran.
Its actions may inspire democratic-minded citizens of some Arab countries, but they will also inspire Islamists and other extremists to incite against Washington throughout the region, and to mount terrorist operations against America and its interests. The Europeans will have new reasons to oppose American policies. The challenge of North Korean nuclear proliferation will demand urgent American strategic attention. In short, the US will have its hands full. Hence it is simply impossible to predict the regional outcome, and whoever does so with confidence is treading on very thin ice.
Many of the optimists are fully aware of these possible scenarios, but nevertheless predict that, after the conquest of Iraq and despite the local and regional reaction, the Bush administration will invest new energies in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For some this means empowering Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to remove Arafat and implant in his stead a more cooperative regime, which will somehow be capable of acting on behalf of Palestinians even though it has little grass roots support and is suspect of collaboration with the enemy. For the rest of the optimists this means American pressure on Sharon to begin scaling back the reoccupation and removing settlements.
But President Bush himself has given absolutely no indication that he intends to follow either course of action. He continues to be conspicuously uninterested in our conflict; he is the first American president since 1967 who has said nothing whatsoever about the spread of Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
Unlike his father in 1990-91, President Bush has not publicly promised America’s Arab friends a dynamic Arab-Israel peace process after the war. Indeed, he has said absolutely nothing about energizing a real peace process after Saddam is gone. Instead, he has sponsored a weak, convoluted and ambiguous “roadmap” process that seems designed more to see America and its allies through the war on Iraq than to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
For Prime Minister Sharon and his entourage, the rosy predictions about the post-Iraq situation are a good excuse not to build a separation fence and not to stop building settlements. After all, beyond Iraq there lies a friendly, cooperative Palestinian regime that will make peace with Israel on its own terms, as will the other Arab countries in the post-Iraq era.
Would it were so! In the real world, it is much more likely that we shall have to suffice with the destruction of a regime of psychopaths who finance Palestinian terrorism and pontificate about the destruction of Israel. I mean Saddam Hussein, not Yasir Arafat. The latter, bad as he is, represents a more nuanced, more complicated conflict that cannot be solved by mouthing slogans about good and evil.
Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”