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UNREST IN THE MIDDLE EAST

The Power Of Rage

Will to Compromise May Be a Casualty

October 15, 2000|Howard Teicher | Howard Teicher was the director of Near East and South Asia policy on the National Security Council from 1982-87

WASHINGTON — Not only is the Arab-Israeli conflict escalating, but U.S. interests and alliances are under attack from a virtual coalition of Iranian-led Islamic militants and Iraqi-led Arab nationalists. If left unchecked, the situation seems likely to deteriorate further, posing new challenges to the United States.

Emboldened by victories on several fronts in recent months, Middle East radicals are threatening vital U.S. interests. Riots, gun battles and airstrikes have replaced Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The influence of Islamic radicals, backed by Tehran, has grown in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Saddam Hussein has overcome United Nation sanctions and inspections. International terrorists are on the attack. U.S. influence appears to be waning.

Having rejected compromise over the final status of Jerusalem at Camp David, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is unabashedly inciting mob violence to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the Israeli people, into agreeing to transfer sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Nonetheless, most of the world lined up behind the Palestinians when the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel for using excessive force in putting down Palestinian riots.

Despite his promise, in September 1993, to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to forsake violence in favor of negotiations, Arafat has repeatedly used violence as a political weapon. It is Arafat's response to Israel's offer to withdraw from most of the West Bank and, unimaginably, to forfeit sovereign claims to the holiest sites of Judaism.

The expansion of the riots on the West Bank and Gaza to include the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Iranian-backed Hezbollah widens the conflict to include Tehran, Beirut and Damascus. Since Israel's complete withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the Iranian leadership has encouraged Hezbollah to confront Israel and foment Palestinian unrest. Tehran is succeeding.

Israeli security policy traditionally holds governments accountable for operations launched from territories they control. If diplomacy fails to free the captive Israelis, Israel will likely use force against Lebanon and Syria to get its men back. By launching airstrikes against the Palestinian Authority in Gaza City, Barak is raising the stakes for Arafat, trying to convince him to restore order or pay an ever-higher price.

But Lebanon and Syria may choose to confront Israel rather than cooperate. Syria's new ruler, Bashar Assad, is untested and his political logic unclear. He may conclude that his and Syria's regional stature will be enhanced if he stands up to Israel.

The Iranian government can be counted upon to encourage Hezbollah and the Syrians to keep the pressure on Israel. An escalating conflict provides Iran with more opportunities to exert its influence and create problems for the United States and its friends throughout the Islamic world.

To the east, U.S. policy to contain Iraq has fallen apart. Although U.S. and British forces continue to bomb Iraq to enforce no-fly zones, there is virtually nothing left of the U.N.-authorized sanctions regime. Aircraft from France, Russia, Turkey and other countries are flagrantly delivering goods to Iraq. Hussein is free to develop his weapons of mass destruction since he unilaterally ended U.N. inspections nearly two years ago.

U.S. Arab friends that confronted Iraq during the Gulf War, most notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, are also responsible for most Middle East oil production. Iraq will press them to hold the line on supply to keep oil prices as high as possible. Hussein has tried to destabilize these regimes in the past. He'll probe them for weakness and test their resolve.

Hussein still covets revenge for the Gulf War. To get it, he may employ blackmail, terrorism and insurgency; he may threaten the use of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Iraqi hegemony at the expense of U.S. regional influence and the destruction of Israel remain Hussein's most important goals.

The reemergence of terrorism is another manifestation of the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. Whomever the sponsor of the attack on the USS Cole is, their goal is to undermine U.S. regional influence and incite anti-American hostility throughout the Arab world.

More terrorist attacks are likely in the coming days. These could include attacks against U.S. military units, facilities abroad or even components of the nation's domestic infrastructure, like the Internet. Effective counter-terrorism requires intensive intelligence-gathering and cooperation among allies, not just military action against the perpetrators. But the sympathy some allies may have for the Palestinian cause may mitigate their willingness to cooperate, as was demonstrated by the Egyptians and Italians during the hijacking of the Achille Lauro.

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