The bad news for Sharon

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“From the perspective of the Jews, it is the most important public relations act ever committed in our favour,” said Israeli counter-terrorism expert Ehud Sprintzak the day after Islamic terrorists took at least 5,000 lives in the United States on Sept. 11. “The pictures are terrible, but better than 1,000 ambassadors trying to explain how dangerous Islamic terror is.”

That was the initial thought of almost every Israeli as the Pentagon burned and the World Trade Centre towers fell. The mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot declared on Sept. 12 that “from now on the world will be divided between those who support terror… and those who stand against it. The freedom of action for those who fight terror will be, in the eyes of the Americans, almost absolute.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon clearly believes that, and has spent the past days hammering the Palestinians while issuing frequent statements that equate Palestinian National Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat with Afghan-based terrorist mastermind Osama Ben Laden. “Everyone has his own Ben Laden. Arafat is our Ben Laden,” he told US Secretary of State Colin Powell last Thursday, and his spokesman Raanan Gissin repeats the allegation daily.

But the analogy between Ben Laden and Arafat is obviously false; the blank cheque Sharon imagines he has lacks a signature, and he may expect to feel a sharp jerk on the reins any moment now.

The analogy is false because while Ben Laden is a stateless terrorist dedicated to driving all non-believers from Muslim lands (including Israel) by force, Arafat is a head of state in all but name. He recognises Israel’s right to exist, and has spent the past eight years trying to negotiate a peace agreement with various Israeli governments.

The Israelis have managed to persuade both themselves and most of the North American media that Arafat rejected an astonishingly generous peace offer a year ago and deliberately turned to violence instead. But the truth is that then-prime minister Ehud Barak’s government never made an offer which reasonable Palestinians could accept at a time when his rapidly crumbling coalition could plausibly deliver it in terms of Israeli politics.

The US government is well aware of that, whatever the state of American public opinion. It also knows that the outbreak of the second Intifada was a largely spontaneous event, and that Arafat has little or no control over the Palestinian organisations – primarily Hamas and Islamic Jihad – that are making the suicide attacks in Israel. Nor is there any suggestion that these outfits would be foolish enough to strike directly at anybody but their immediate Israeli enemy.

Indeed, there is a clear understanding at senior levels of the US government that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its dreary daily toll of shootings and beatings, suicide bombs and gunship attacks, is an encysted quarrel which can and should be treated as a separate case from global Islamic terrorism. There is an equally clear understanding that the heat must be turned down on this quarrel if Washington is to succeed in building the global coalition that President George W. Bush has promised to the American people.

Whether Washington’s final target in this new war is Afghanistan or a longer list of terrorist-friendly regimes that might include Iraq, Syria or Sudan, and whether the chosen strategy involves the use of ground troops or less extreme measures, the United States urgently needs the active cooperation of other Arab regimes, of Pakistan, and even, perhaps, of Iran. None of them are necessarily opposed to such a collaboration in principle – even Iran’s regime loathes both Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taleban regime in Afghanistan – but they all have a problem with what Arabs call “the street.”

At street level throughout the Middle East and as far away as Pakistan, the key issue influencing public opinion is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So long as Palestinians are being killed by Israelis every day – the current death toll in nearly a year of violence is 629 Palestinians and 173 Israelis – it will be very dangerous for the governments of Muslim-majority countries to take an active role in Washington’s anti-terrorist coalition. So Israel is going to be told to lay off.

This is what happened ten years ago, when George W. Bush’s father was building another coalition of Western and Middle Eastern countries to deal with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. To ease the domestic problems of friendly Arab leaders, Israel was ordered not to retaliate directly against Iraq, even if Saddam Hussein attacked it with missiles. The US also promised a major effort at a comprehensive peace settlement after the immediate problem was dealt with.

It is always a problem for Jerusalem when the US has to weigh its sympathy for Israel against calculations of its own national interest. This is such a time, and Israel is already starting to feel the heat. “The United States is trying to establish a coalition against terrorism and wants Muslim elements to be in that coalition, also Arab elements,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Friday. “If it is possible to push the Palestinian issue aside or to solve it in a positive way, that is important to them because (the Palestinian issue) can hinder the establishment of that coalition.”

Peres, a relative dove in the present Israeli government, may secretly welcome this American pressure for a truce and a deal with the Palestinians, but Sharon is going to hate it.

Mr. Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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