A wake-up call?

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Washington By all accounts, the Bush administration has performed wonderfully in defence of American-Arabs and Muslims in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington where some 7,000 people are feared dead.

The pace-setting visit by President George Bush to the Washington mosque and the repeated remarks of senior government officials and editorials in leading publications have been viewed with great satisfaction by leaders of the Arab and Muslim communities in the country.

This does not mean that the community was totally safe – some 200 incidents were reported – or immune from bigoted remarks as voiced by one despicable Louisiana congressman. Naturally, the abominable “celebrations” by some Palestinian youth in West Bank towns did not help the image of dispossessed Palestinians, or Arabs at large. Few did recall, however, the equally tasteless revelry here when American bombs were dropped in 1945 on Tokyo, causing the death of thousands of Japanese civilians, and when, a while later, the atomic bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Similarly, the shooting in cold blood of Muslim worshippers in a Hebron mosque by an Israeli settler was received with jubilation in his illegal settlement on the outskirts of Hebron. In fact, a statue of Baruch Goldstein has been erected in Kiryat Arba in his honour, and it stands until this very day.

President Bush made an unacceptable gaffe when he described his “war on evil” as a crusade, a term the State Department quickly disowned and Secretary of State Colin Powell was quick to describe more appropriately in the next instance as a “campaign” (although one junior official said flippantly he wished Bush or Powell would use “jihad”).

Osama Ben Laden, the exiled Saudi multi-millionaire and alleged mastermind of the blowing up of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, was quick to seize on this inexcusable slip of the tongue and to depict the American plans as a war on Islam.

The Bush administration needs to tread softly in building its coalition, lest it should become like the other unsuccessful American “wars,” on drugs and poverty. In the meantime, it must also put its act together, as on several occasions the signals from the White House and the State Department have not been adequately synchronised, especially on the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“If we want the support of the Arab governments, we have to help them with their people and this has a lot to do with the Palestinian problem,” former assistant secretary of state Ed Walker told the Middle East Policy Council here last week. The Arabs, he continued, have no problem with the United States “if it is part of the solution, but if we turn our back on this and focus on terrorism, then we are going to have problems and the (Arab) governments will distance themselves.”

But the price of Arab support may be, or more precisely, should be much higher and clear cut. The Arab world remembers very well past American commitments on the Palestinian question which were forgotten or disowned with the passage of time.

The Palestinian population in Lebanon, for example, was promised protection as a price for the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from that country after the civil war there and the ensuing Israeli invasion. Hardly had the Palestinian troops left the country for Tunisia than the horrible massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatilla occurred at the hands of the Falangist forces supported by Israeli troops which were commanded then by the current Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Similar was the case with the peace process, launched in Madrid after the Gulf War and later sanctified by the Oslo accords. Despite 10 years of American shepherding of the inconclusive negotiations, the two sides are at a dead end and the Bush administration has not lifted a finger. Even now, it seems to be treating the issue as an irritant to its more grandiose plans in the region.

One wonders how many senior American officials, at the White House or the State Department, now belatedly regret or feel guilty for doing nothing during the last nine months, not launching any serious effort to resume the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

Khader Shkirat, a Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist, was critical of past American practices, all taken in the support of Israel. Expressing his misgivings, he told the Centre for Policy Analysis on Palestine (CPAP) last Monday that as soon as Americans settle their score, this time with Ben Laden, “they will revert to their old policies” of walking away.

The founder and current director general of the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAW) thought that the Arab governments should this time insist on a clearer definition of terrorism and a pledge to work for the end of Israeli occupation before committing themselves to the US-led campaign.

These Arab fears are also shared by a few American observers. A staffer of the Boston Globe, Derrick Z. Jackson, wrote on Sept. 21: “America is chasing only symptoms, not solutions. No one no longer doubts how dangerous Islamist (sic) terrorism is. We might not have had to experience it so horribly here at home if we had long ago condemned Israeli terrorism, conducted with weapons made here at home.”

This is a very high price to pay but the horrible events in New York and Washington may still serve as a wake-up call for American foreign-policy makers.

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