|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 March 2001
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Trying to break the linkAriel Sharon's first trip to Washington as Israeli prime minister has already been hailed a "success" in Israel. But the success may be more superficial than real, writes Graham Usher in Jerusalem
Barely 20 months ago Israel's then Prime Minister Ehud Barak laid before then US President Clinton grandiose schemes for ending "the 100-year conflict" between the Zionist movement and the Arabs in the Middle East. On Sunday Israel's present leader Ariel Sharon flew to Washington hoping to persuade US President George Bush of an equally improbable plan aimed at de-linking Israel's actions in the occupied territories from the US policies for the region as a whole.
Amani Jawad, a Palestinian suspected of collaborating in the killing of an Israeli teenager, smiles as she appears in court at a military base outside Ramallah
As is known, Clinton was won over only to see the prized goal of a Middle East peace run aground first on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and then sink altogether in the maelstrom of the Palestinian Intifada. It is hoped Bush won't be so gullible. But with US foreign policy all things are possible.
For example, Sharon has already got off to a pretty good start with a state that -- for the last 10 years at least -- has more or less loathed him. He has won American backing that ending or "containing" the uprising or "violence" is the sine qua non for any return to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, be they about a "long-term interim arrangement" as he insists or "from the point they left off" with Barak as the Palestinians demand.
The gain had little to do with the "special relationship" between Israel and the US. It had everything to do with interests. Sharon needs to quell the uprising to give flesh to his election vow to bring "personal security to the citizens of Israel." Bush needs quiet in the West Bank and Gaza if his administration is to make headway in rebuilding an Arab coalition for the "new" US policy of "smart sanctions" aimed at preventing Iraq from once again becoming a military power in the region.
But while Israel and the US are united on their separate goals, there may be differences over means. Sharon went to Washington loaded with documentation "proving" that Yasser Arafat's Force 17 and Fatah movements were engaged in terror against Israel. He was also apparently armed with a characterisation of Arafat as "a liar, a violator of agreements, a supporter of terrorism and an ally of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein," in the description given in Israel's Haaretz newspaper on 15 March.
Sharon essentially reaffirmed this portrayal following the killing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank and a mortar attack on a kibbutz inside Israel from Gaza on Monday. "Israel calls on all countries to make clear to Arafat that his acts are very serious and warn there will be a high price paid for whoever harms innocent civilians and destabilises the Middle East," said Sharon in an official statement issued in Washington.
But it is uncertain if Washington will buy this caricature. It would seem to hold Arafat mainly responsible for the uprising, attested by the fact that while Sharon, Egypt's President Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan have all been invited to meet the new US president, the Palestinian leader conspicuously, has not.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell has made it known he views Israeli policies of siege and withholding tax monies to the Palestinian Authority as only making a bad situation worse in the occupied territories. Nor has he been enamoured of Israel's use of US-supplied arms -- such as Apache helicopters -- for assassinating Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.
Nor is there any evidence yet that the new US administration views Arafat as more of a liability than an asset to its perennial quest for stability in the Middle East. Until this redefinition occurs "the US will remain Arafat's great protector," says one aide to the PLO chairman.
The reason is obvious, at least among the wiser heads in this and previous US governments. For Arafat still holds in his hands the links both Sharon and the US are so determined to break. These are Israel's policies toward the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the US policies toward Iraq which "are linked to a large extent in the eyes of the Arab world and which we must take into account," as Powell put it recently.
Arafat never makes the link public of course, at least not since his disastrous attempts to do so during the 1991 Gulf War. But he creates atmospheres, events and indeed summits to ensure that the interconnection between the two besieged Arab nations is felt and seen everywhere.
Thus, while Sharon was honouring Israel's "special ties" to Washington and Powell was vowing to "maintain Israel's qualitative military edge" in the region, Arafat was touring Arab capitals trying to forge a similar united front in readiness for the Arab summit in Amman on 27 March. And while Israel and the US insist the preconditions for Middle East stability are ending the uprising and disarming Iraq, the Palestinians have been peddling an alternative formula.
This essentially says stability will only come once Israel implements UN resolutions, the world provides international protection for the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the Arabs supply the necessary political, diplomatic and economic support to sustain what remains at heart an anti-colonial and national revolt.
It is a struggle between two diplomacies: one based on the US and Israel's overwhelming military might in the region and the other based on international legitimacy. Nor is the contest anywhere near as unequal as it appears. For while the US and Israel know that nothing divides the Arab regimes so much as the question of Iraq, they must surely know that nothing unites and enflames Arab opinion so much as the question of Palestine.
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