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Jewish World Review April 8, 2002 / 27 Nisan, 5762

Michael Barone

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Off the Side Track

President Bush must concentrate on taking the war against terrorism to Iraq |
Sidetracked. That is what the war against terrorism has been for most of the past month, as the attention of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the leaders of the Arab states has been focused on the struggle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But no one is going to settle the differences between Israel and the Palestinians anytime soon. And focusing on them risks losing sight of what must be the next big step–taking the war against terrorism to Iraq.

Endless columns in the New York Times and European papers have been devoted to the so-called peace plan of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah. But Abdullah's plan is obviously a nonstarter. It demands that Israel give up every inch of territory it took in the 1967 war. No Israeli government will ever agree to that, because the boundaries are indefensible. The plan, as Abdullah presented it at the sparsely attended Arab League summit in Beirut, also envisages a right of return for Palestinians. No Israeli government will ever agree to that either, because it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The fact is that no Israeli government will offer a plan as generous as that advanced by Ehud Barak and promoted by Bill Clinton in July 2000. That was rejected by Yasser Arafat, who two months later started the terrorist bombings and attacks that are called the second intifada.

Israelis now have no way of avoiding knowing that the Palestinians prefer war to the most generous plan they can offer. The goal of the Palestinians is what the maps in their textbooks, the maps that show no Israel, imply: the extirpation of Israel as an independent state. So Abdullah's promise of normalization of relations if Israel agrees to his plan is a promise with no credibility.

Nor will "the peace process" produce any solution. The Palestinians will reject anything Israel will offer. It may be possible to obtain cease-fires and a reduction of Palestinian violence and terror–though events of the past 20 months make that seem unlikely. But nothing more.

So the people urging George W. Bush to get more involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are asking him to turn his attention permanently away from the war against terrorism and toward a problem that cannot, in present circumstances, be solved.

It is often said that we cannot prosecute a war against Iraq until there is a solution to the Palestinian problem. But actually it is the other way around. We cannot get a solution to the Palestinian problem until we have successfully prosecuted the war against Iraq.

That is because the problem that needs to be solved is the state of mind of the Arabs. As long as Arabs, and Palestinians particularly, believe that they can extirpate the state of Israel, there will be no solution they and Israel can agree on.

Two outstanding works on the Arab mind–Fouad Ajami's The Dream Palace of the Arabs and Bernard Lewis' "What Went Wrong?" –leave little doubt that there is a fundamental disconnect between reality and the ideas in the heads of most Arab intellectuals and a very large part of the Arab masses. A refusal to face facts as they are results in a preoccupation with the existence of the state of Israel and the determination to end its existence. That is not likely to happen, and if it did, it would result in genocide.

That state of mind must be changed before any peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible. It cannot be changed by propitiation: Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak tried that, and it didn't work. Such a state of mind can only be changed by a demonstration that it results in defeat. In current circumstances, that means the defeat of the one Arab nation that is arming itself with weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them–Iraq. The replacement of Saddam Hussein by a democratic regime renouncing aggression against its neighbors, including Israel, would be a firm and unmistakable rebuke of the state of mind that produces suicide bombers and praise and subsidy for them. It would also deprive Saudi Arabia of the leverage it uses to control the price of oil, and it would end the American need to coddle the Saudis because of this leverage. It would place a democratic adversary on the borders of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. It would weaken the argument that the United States backs undemocratic and despotic regimes in the Arab world, and the resentment that this understandably creates in some Arabs.

Success is not assured. A military campaign against Iraq would be difficult and would probably require American ground forces. It would require the cooperation of, at the least, Turkey and Kuwait or other gulf states. It would be met with initial hostility by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and other Arab states. It would end unhappily if it resulted in just the installation of another despotic military ruler in Baghdad. And it is not certain that the existence of a democratic regime in Iraq would instantly change the Arab mind.

But what else can? The disconnect between the Arab mind and reality presents grave threats to the United States. We learned that, if we did not already know it, on September 11. The existence of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein would give him military power over the whole Middle East, at grave cost to the United States. George W. Bush should pay no attention to those who urge him to focus his energies on getting a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. It is not useful for the president of the United States to concentrate on a mission that must fail. Bush must get off the side track and concentrate on the one mission that has the potential to change the Arab mind and make a settlement possible–the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone