It is crucial to understanding the outcomes of a possible war in Iraq to first examine the sentiments of the Palestinian people and their leadership. All indications are that Palestinians in general oppose a United States war on Iraq–not because we are sympathetic to the Iraqi regime, but because we think war is unfair for the Iraqi people. Since evidence has not shown that Iraq maintains weapons of mass destruction, and since the United Nations has come out quite neutral on Iraqi weapons possession, Palestinians have more ammunition for their belief that the Iraqi people have the right to be left in peace. In this context, we believe that such an attack epitomizes United States’ hegemony in the Middle East, polarizing opposing sentiment not only among Palestinians and the Arab masses, but also among Europeans.
In this way, as in others, the situation today is different than it was in 1991. For the last 11 years, there has been an embargo imposed on Iraq. The Americans and British have been continuously raiding the Iraqi no-fly zone. Why then is it strategically important to have an all-out war right now? Is the reason to get rid of the personage of Saddam Hussein, or is it to gain total control of Gulf oil and curb any European, Japanese, Russian and Chinese influence in the Gulf region, as well as control the Caspian Sea?
There is only one honest inference: that America today is playing the hegemonic role of a superpower. The result is that many US allies are finding themselves in an opposing camp and the Palestinian position is not an exception; theirs is a position derived from broader public sentiment.
As to how Palestinians will fare in this war, there are several possibilities. All depend on the unfolding of events and how this war takes shape. If the Americans and their allies can get the job done in a blitzkrieg with minimal cost in American life, deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and imposing a “viceroy” on Iraq, then perhaps the consequences for Palestinians will be light.
The American people have mixed feelings about this war and favor a quick resolution. Therefore, if the duration of US occupation of Iraq is prolonged, or if there are heavy American casualties, or if hostilities rise against the American presence and against American politics in the Middle East, then I think the US government will face difficulties.
In parallel, the situation in Palestine will deteriorate. Ariel Sharon’s elected government will have a free hand in intensifying the conflict. He could resort to the expulsion of some symbols of the Palestinian leadership, be they from Fateh, the secular political factions or Hamas and Islamic Jihad. We might see a total siege on the occupied territories, with long hours of curfew imposed by the Israeli army and a crackdown on the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. This is the extreme scenario.
But if the war in Iraq is limited, and there is the creation of a new government, possibly even with Hussein himself, then I think that the Americans will want to deal expediently with the other destabilizing factors in the Middle East. There will be an intensive diplomatic onslaught after they finish the job in Iraq to implement the roadmap initiative. Already, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has acquiesced to the idea of nominating a prime minister, as per American, European and Israeli requests. In one way or another, he now must concede some of his political power to be reinvested in the prime minister’s office. Second, we could have early elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, eventually moving to the interim and final phases of the roadmap, which include acknowledgement by US President George W. Bush of an independent Palestinian state.
The contours and shape of that state will be decided after the Palestinian elections and the appointment of a prime minister, when Sharon will be forced by the American administration to re-engage in a political process. Still, the contours of the state will be open to negotiations. At that point we will be in a situation where the cycle of violence stops, the Israelis start withdrawing, and there is an easing of economic tensions. If Arafat is engaging in a context of real political reward, he will likely take a tougher stand against all kinds of violence against Israelis. Here we will see a breakthrough.
That is not to say that the negotiations, even in this optimistic scenario, will be easy. I predict a tortuous task, where we will not be offered the 1967 borders, and we will not have all settlements dismantled, and the question of the right of return will be compromised. This will put the Palestinian leadership in an awkward and critical position: how to sell this to the Palestinian people.
And, indeed, there are also two scenarios here. The Palestinians could be sick and tired and feel they have paid enough, with 65 percent unemployment and almost 60 percent of the population below the poverty line. Or they may not accept any of this and desire to continue the Intifada until freedom and independence. Those who carry this notion of freedom and independence, given the conditions of war in the Middle East, given the US role in the Middle East and total support for the Israeli government, will be acting un–pragmatically in a new international context. The Americans will do all that they can to tip the balance of their actions in Iraq and to try to find a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that fits this “new Middle East” and their own strategic goals.
Manuel Hassassian is professor of political science and executive vice president at Bethlehem University.