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A few days before the war against Bin Laden broke out, President Bush announced that “the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of the US vision in the Middle East, as long as the right of Israel to exist is respected.” According to the New York Times and the Washington Post, this statement, the first time ever a Republican American president has acknowledged the need for Palestinian statehood, was part of an initiative the Bush administration was on the verge of announcing before the terrorist attacks of 11 September on New York and Washington. Although there was no mention of Clinton, knowledgeable sources say many of Bush’s ideas are similar to those proposed by the former president at Camp David, while avoiding the pitfalls that provoked the breakdown of the talks at that time.
Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis reacted with enthusiasm to Bush’s statement. Most Palestinian factions questioned his motives. According to Moussa Abul-Marzouq, a Hamas leader, Bush’s statement is just a “manoeuvre aimed at deceiving the Palestinian National Authority and driving it to end the Intifada. It is an American attempt to persuade Arabs and Muslims to join the international alliance against Bin Laden.” A statement issued by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed that Bush’s proposal was “a step in the right direction, but it will not be useful unless it is reinforced by effective, practical measures.” The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also described the statement as a “manoeuvre.” These are assessments that Arafat cannot disregard, especially since it was Bin Laden, not Arafat, who was hailed in the streets of Gaza when the war broke out.
On the Israeli side, an enraged Sharon reacted swiftly. In a violent diatribe accusing the Bush administration of opportunism, he called on Western states, in particular on the US as the leader of the “free world,” not to repeat the mistake that triggered World War II, when the European democracies tried to stave off the military confrontation that broke out the following year by sacrificing Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s ambitions at the Munich conference in 1938. Sharon pledged that “Israel will never be a second Czechoslovakia,” and that, accordingly, it would now have to rely only on itself. He concluded by announcing that Israel would resume its assassination campaign against Palestinian activists who keep the Intifada alive, and abandon the policy of “restraint” to which it had “committed itself” under the terms of the cease-fire agreed upon in the wake of the unprecedented wave of violence that killed dozens of Palestinians and injured more than 200 others.
With the attention of the entire world now focused on the military operation aimed at routing Bin Laden, Sharon will be tempted to exploit the situation by stepping up his campaign of assassination against Palestinian activists to target Arafat himself, the man he has recently taken to calling the “Bin Laden of the Middle East.”
The logic behind Sharon’s increasingly belligerent statements is the traditional racist logic that attributes terrorism to specific races, not specific situations, a variation on Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory. Nor is he the sole proponent of this theory, which assumes the existence of superior civilisations that act in a refined manner in opposition to inferior civilisations that are genetically inclined towards barbaric acts of violence and terrorism. One such inferior civilisation, according to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is Islam! Although following the outcry that met his overtly racist statement, Berlusconi offered a weak apology for “offending the sensibility of my Arab and Muslim friends,” others have stepped in to fan the flames of racial hatred. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accused British Muslims of not reacting with sufficient outrage to the New York and Washington bombings, implying that their religion somehow rendered them lacking in such fundamental human qualities as compassion.
Thatcher’s statement was condemned as racist not only by Britain’s Muslim community but by the entire political establishment in the United Kingdom. Michael Heseltine, the former Tory deputy prime minister who played a major role in dislodging his former mentor from the party leadership and replacing her with John Major, said he could not find words to express the horror he felt when he heard the statement. A savvy politician, Heseltine was no doubt aware how counterproductive Thatcher’s incendiary words could be at a time the British government was engaged in difficult negotiations to build an international alliance against terrorism.
Bush was no doubt thinking along the same lines when he dismissed Sharon’s angry reaction to his statement on Palestinian statehood as “unacceptable.” Categorically rejecting Sharon’s allegation that the US was appeasing the Arabs at Israel’s expense, he angrily denounced the Israeli prime minister’s attempt to compare him to Chamberlain and Daladier, the European leaders who sought to appease Hitler at the Munich summit by ceding Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Germany. Twenty-four hours after his tirade against American policy, and just before the military attack on Afghanistan, Sharon was forced to change his tune, downplaying his differences with the American administration, extolling the strong relations between the US and Israel and reiterating his support for Washington’s campaign against terrorism. Sharon’s wildly inconsistent statements are indicative of the confusion in which his government is now plunged.
Still smarting from the criticism that met his “this is a Crusade” faux pas, Bush is now careful to make a clear distinction between the phenomenon of terrorism on the one hand and Arabs and Muslims on the other, paving the way for Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to the Middle East just before the military strike against Afghanistan to mobilise Arab and Muslim support for the American war effort. As far as Egypt is concerned, President Mubarak made it clear that while Egypt is committed to fighting terrorism, a scourge from which it has suffered greatly, it will not take part in a military operation against Afghanistan. In an address to the Egyptian armed forces marking the 28th anniversary of the October War, Mubarak said that the army’s function was to defend Egypt, and that he will not send Egyptian troops abroad to fight a war under American command, thus involving Egypt in a possible confrontation with Arab and Muslim peoples at a time no irrefutable evidence of an Islamic connection to the terrorist attacks in America has been presented.
President Mubarak is not the only Arab leader to require that terrorism be portrayed as a global aberration that is by no means exclusive to Islam. In fact, such a distinction is a necessary condition for the participation of most Arab and Islamic states in America’s war against terrorism. According to US sources, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Uzbekistan are reluctant to allow the United States to launch military raids on Afghanistan from their territory. Other Arab and Muslim states are disinclined to lend their unqualified support to an open-ended military enterprise that many fear will eventually spill over into other countries suspected of sponsoring terrorists, notably Iraq. Nor do they want to be involved in a war of retribution that is bound to claim a substantial number of civilian casualties. There is also a great deal of unease at the massive US military buildup in the region, the largest deployment of weaponry since the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, Rumsfeld was despatched to the Middle East and Central Asia not only to drum up support for the American-led war on terror but to allay growing fears of a hidden US agenda.
In offering the Palestinians a carrot in the form of their own state, Bush was acknowledging the role of the Palestinian problem in fuelling the phenomenon of terrorism. As President Mubarak said recently, 50 per cent of the phenomenon stems from the Palestinian problem. But Sharon’s intransigence on the issue, his pledge to step up his campaign of assassinations against Palestinian leaders, could destabilise Washington’s efforts to overcome Arab and Islamic reservations about joining the American-led war against terrorism. It remains to be seen whether Bush is serious about translating his “vision” of a Palestinian state into reality or whether the offer was no more than a tactical manoeuvre aimed at overcoming Arab reluctance to become more closely involved in the international alliance. Can he convince Sharon of the truth of Mubarak’s assertion that a Palestinian state is the best guarantee for Israel’s stability? Or will he find it easier to persuade the Arab and Islamic states to set aside their misgivings and rally to his cause? The whole future of the region hinges on which of the two approaches Bush will choose. The wrong choice will destabilise not only the war theatre in south Asia, but the entire Middle East, making it as much a victim of the 11 September attacks as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mohammed Sid-Ahmed writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based Al-Ahram.