For over 50 years, the pivotal issue which informed American strategic thinking towards the Middle East has been the Arab-Israeli conflict. Only twice was it overshadowed in importance by other issues. The first was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which represented an unacceptable threat to US oil interests in the Arabian peninsula; the second was the terrorist attacks of 11 September, said to have been carried out by terrorists from the Middle East, which represented an unacceptable threat to US security.
In response to the first event, the first President Bush launched the Gulf War; in response to the second, his son has launched the war against terrorism. In a way, both men reacted in similar fashion to what they saw as challenges to America’s fundamental interests. It remains to be seen whether the same can be said of their reaction to the clear discrepancy that emerged in both cases between the American and Israeli agendas.
It is said that Bush senior advised his son to make a distinction between terrorism on the one hand and Arabs and Islam on the other, and to stop describing the war against terrorism as a “Crusade,” which implies that it will target Muslims in general and not only individuals accused of terrorism.
The first President Bush took advantage of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to convince the Arab oil states that an Arab ruler could be a worse enemy than Israel, and sought to neutralise Arab enmity of Israel through the peace process launched by the Madrid conference. This process made it possible to concentrate all attention on defeating Saddam and forcing him to pull out of Kuwait. Will the war against terrorism launched by the current President Bush lead to an arrangement similar to the Madrid conference, that is, to a resumption of negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, on the grounds that terrorism is a common enemy to both? However, this logic is unlikely to prevail as long as there is no agreement between the parties on a definition of terrorism.
There is no mention of terrorism in the UN Charter because the Charter aimed at consecrating the victory of the Allies over the Axis powers and the end of their occupation of wide chunks of Europe and other parts of the world. It sought to sanction the right of the peoples of the world to resist occupation of their land by all available means, including armed struggle. This often meant that the victims of this struggle were not only military personnel, but could also be innocent civilians.
The anti-colonial struggle of the Cold War period brought about a shift in perceptions. The colonised peoples considered their resistance to occupation a legitimate undertaking, even if it gave rise to civilian casualties, while the colonial powers described their struggle as “terrorism.” That was how the Algerian resistance movement was seen by wide circles in France. Thus definitions contradicted each other: legitimate resistance in the eyes of the colonised peoples, as well as from the viewpoint of the socialist countries, was regarded as terrorism by the Western capitals.
Then came the downfall of the bipolar world order and its replacement by a unipolar world order which put forward the assumption that all conflicts could be resolved by peaceful means. This assumption carried within it another implicit assumption, which is that resorting to armed struggle ran counter to the rules of the new world order, especially when it claimed civilian victims. In this rationale, the very legitimacy of armed struggle, sanctioned as a basic human right under the UN Charter, is being called into question. The de-legitimisation of armed struggle is gaining ground thanks in no small measure to the recently introduced principle of “humanitarian intervention,” which contemplates foreign military intervention to liquidate groups resorting to violence against innocent civilians — that is, groups that could be described as terrorists.
At this stage of the war against terrorism, President Bush wants to focus exclusively on Bin Laden and his accomplices, the “prime suspects” in the attacks which destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. No distractions can be allowed to jeopardise his plan. Hence his insistence that the repeatedly deferred meeting between Arafat and Peres take place without further delay, even as each side continues to accuse the other of terrorism and even as the Palestinian body count hits new heights.
Sharon cannot be allowed to compromise the US war plan by using the campaign against Bin Laden as an opportunity to carry his accusation of terrorism against Arafat through to what many fear will be its inevitable conclusion: the physical liquidation of the Palestinian leader, whom he has been quick to dub “the Bin Laden of the Middle East.” Nor can the Palestinians be allowed to continue accusing Sharon of terrorism, invoking the admission by a Belgian court of a lawsuit filed against him by survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres to support their claim. What is important is that Peres sit at the same table with Arafat to nullify the effect of Sharon’s accusation of Arafat and of the Palestinians’ accusation of Sharon, thus limiting the accusation of terrorism to Bin Laden alone.
But the Arafat-Peres talks, limited on Sharon’s instructions to security issues, are unpalatable to most Palestinian factions, who have declared that they do not consider themselves bound by any agreement the two men may reach. Not only is ending the Intifada without getting anything in return, another Sharon condition, unacceptable, but there is no guarantee that any deal struck during the talks will be endorsed by Sharon. Their fears are justified: as matters now stand, the Israeli government is speaking with two voices, one belonging to Peres, who is not authorised to exceed the limits fixed by Sharon; the other to Sharon, who has frequently reneged on promises made by his foreign minister. Why should the Palestinians have to accept this duality, why should they be able to speak only with an interlocutor who has no independent power of his own, with no assurance that the real decision-maker will honour his commitments?
And, indeed, on the morrow of the Arafat-Peres meeting, which fell on the eve of the first anniversary of Sharon’s provocative visit to Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the triggering factor of the Intifada, the Israelis stepped up their violent repression, killing five Palestinians and launching a tank attack on Rafah. It is not surprising that most Palestinian factions remained sceptical of the so-called cease-fire, declaring that they did not consider it binding.
Can George W Bush devise a scenario to combat terrorism inspired by his father’s scenario in combating Saddam Hussein? Can his proposal of an alliance against terrorism be compared to the international coalition built up by his father during the Gulf War, which led to the Madrid Middle East peace conference? Does the terrorism Bush has to confront annul the forms of terrorism that Sharon and Arafat accuse each other of perpetrating? These are difficult questions, on which depend not only the future of Arab-Israeli relations, but also the future of America’s confrontation with the terrorism attributed to Bin Laden.
This is the dilemma that faces the American president today. What is required is not only that the terrorism attributed to the Arab-Israeli conflict be resolved, but also that it be tackled totally independently from the terrorist attacks carried out inside American territory. Moreover, the American administration is required to oppose Sharon’s attempt to identify Arafat with Bin Laden as a prelude to having him liquidated.
The Intifada was the expression of Palestinian loss of faith in the peace process, in the hope that Israel would withdraw, that their occupied territories would be restituted and that an independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, would come into being. If terrorism has now acquired a global dimension, it is because frustration and despair are not limited to the Palestinians alone. The hostile demonstrations that have accompanied all international conferences touching on issues of globalisation testify to the deep sense of alienation felt by wide sectors of the global community. This phenomenon took its most extreme form in the events of 11 September. The time has come for Washington to realise that a just solution of the Palestinian problem is not only necessary to correct the injustices done to the Arabs and the Muslims, but that it is an issue directly related to the security of the US and even to Israel’s security in future.