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MIDDLE EAST

The Context of Terror Can't Be Ignored

Bush's policy helps perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

January 13, 2002|MILTON VIORST

WASHINGTON — President Bush, let us concede, has brilliantly managed the war in Afghanistan, just as his father George Bush senior, a decade ago, managed the war in the Persian Gulf. The difference between them is that the father was well schooled in global politics. The son is not. The father understood the importance of building a post-war structure out of the debris. The son, unfortunately, seems not to grasp post-war problems at all.

Bush has made clear that his primary foreign policy concern is terrorism, suggesting that he sees it outside any political context. We Americans, as victims of the World Trade Center attacks, can identify with this fixation. But as his father understood, the Middle East is a complex place, and single-mindedness is not enough.

George Bush senior, though he miscalculated on Saddam Hussein, understood that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not only crucial to regional stability but a fundamental American concern. We are more certain of that now that we have paid a heavy price for Muslim rage. In the wake of the Gulf War, the father convened a peace conference in Madrid, initiating a process that promised--still promises--to remove the conflict from the agenda of both the East and the West. The son seems to dismiss the Middle East as irrelevant to our nation's interests.

It is true that in the weeks after Sept. 11, when he sought to mobilize the Muslim world behind his war in Afghanistan, Bush sent a message, not unlike his father's, that America would try to bring an equitable resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He sent Gen. Anthony C. Zinni to Israel to jump-start a process, but the Afghan victory came so swiftly that Muslim buy-in to the war seemed less essential. Zinni retains the assignment, but its paramaters are now limited to security issues, which keeps Zinni at arm's length from the real issues that feed the conflict.

Bush's notion that terror is only terror has become conventional wisdom, obediently echoed by the media. It keeps Bush from having to take sides in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It permits him to ignore Saudi Arabia's heavy promotion throughout the Islamic world of the fundamentalist Wahabi ideology from which Bin Laden emerged. It allows him to sidestep the tough choices that good policy demands.

No government can do much to change the nihilistic world outlook of an Osama bin Laden; we can only stamp out its murderous agents. Palestinians, in contrast, seek to end nearly 35 years of control of their lives by a foreign army. Their grievance is not frivolous. In the same situation, our own feelings would be similar. Far from demanding a doomsday response, the grievance is within our country's power to address. But not if we see the situation solely in terms of fighting terrorism.

To be sure, the apocalyptic vision of Hamas, the organization most involved in anti-Israeli terror, shares some of Bin Laden's nihilism. Hamas is not interested in a sensible peace. But it is important to remember that in the years after the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which offered the prospect of a reasonable settlement, support for Hamas was at single digits in Palestinian polls, and terrorism dropped dramatically. Only within today's context has Hamas gained support in the polls.

Bush should review that context. First, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995 by a Jewish zealot committed to stopping Oslo. His successor, the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, began dismantling the pact. Ehud Barak, who followed Netanyahu in 1999, was committed to peace, but on victor's terms. Had he offered a viable Palestinian state, he might have overcome the obstacles of Jerusalem and the refugees. Instead, he proposed a series of Bantustans, largely under Israeli control, that the Palestinians could never accept.

As the talks fell apart, Ariel Sharon, head of the hard-line opposition, mocked the Palestinians for their weakness by marching across the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with hundreds of Israelis. His supporters insist his show of power had no bearing on the later violence. But just as it served to ignite an unprecedented wave of terror, it also got Sharon elected prime minister, which is surely what it was intended to do. Since then, there have been no peace talks, and certainly no peace.

Wars are always ugly, and wars of terrorism are more so. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat no doubt encouraged this one by lowering the barriers against Hamas without controlling its operations. But he may have seen terror as the only tactic available to him. It would be hard to find a war leader who has not knowingly taken innocent lives to achieve a strategic goal. Rightly or wrongly, Arafat deduced that, without shaking up Israel, there was no way to break the deadlock.

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