BEIRUT — Since Yasser Arafat's death, there has been a shift of international attention away from Iraq to the other, older, most imperishable of Middle East crises. Tony Blair has urged the reelected President Bush to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which he called "the single most pressing political challenge in our world today," while British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has called it more important than Iraq itself.
And the view that the two crises are malignantly linked found forceful corroboration in a surprising quarter. In a report flatly contradicting Bush administration orthodoxy, the Pentagon's Defense Science Board said Washington's problems in Iraq and elsewhere arose not from Muslims' hatred of American freedoms but of its policies and "what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights."
To Arabs and Muslims, this discovery is less than Archimedean. For them, it has always been self-evident: The Palestine problem, a legacy of Western colonialism as virulent today as it ever was, has always been the greatest single source of anti-Western sentiment in the region. So if terrorism now ranks as the greatest single contemporary threat to global order, and if Iraq is its most profitable arena, Palestine must have a great deal to do with it.
In a recent video address, Osama bin Laden said the spectacle of Israelis bombing Beirut during its 1982 invasion first inspired the idea of blowing up the World Trade Center towers; an afterthought perhaps, but one born of the shrewd realization that such support as he commands among Arab and Muslim masses comes less from his messianic ideology than his identification with this most emblematic of Arab causes.
For the people of the region, the remarkable thing is the way that, historically, the West has repeatedly ignored or overridden the centrality of Palestine in their psyche, with Iraq only the latest and most blatant example. True, the sickness that was Saddam Hussein's Iraq had its own specific origins and dynamics, and most Iraqis wanted by almost any means to be rid of him. But the more self-serving, badly managed, repressive, arrogant, bloody and chaotic this American-led "liberation" has turned out to be, the more it has come to be seen, first by Arabs at large and then by the Iraqis themselves, as another quasi-colonial aggression in the history of Western interference in the region -- "another Palestine," in fact.
There were plenty of warnings before the invasion that it would only inflame the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Blair himself clearly saw it would have been a very good idea to pave the way for the invasion with a serious attempt to persuade the Palestinians that redress was finally at hand. But the neoconservative hawks who drove U.S. policy reversed these priorities; the road to Jerusalem, and peace in the Holy Land, lay through Baghdad. So what, for Blair, would have been merely prudent risk-avoidance before the war now, in his postwar revival of it, looks more like a desperate bid to salvage what can be salvaged from a grim predicament that seems to get grimmer by the day.
Bush did promise last month to invest political capital in the other Middle East crisis. But he was distinctly noncommittal about how. In any case, the whole history of Israeli-Palestinian peace-seeking suggests that of all American presidents, Bush -- who has been blindly, unquestioningly supportive of Ariel Sharon's right-wing policies -- is just about the least likely to listen, in a productive way, to what Blair or even his own Pentagon advisory board have to say.
It is not that presidents have ever underestimated the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given that, at its core, it involves a very small proportion of mankind, they have in fact lavished extraordinarily disproportionate amounts of time, energy and political resources on trying to resolve it.
The real trouble is that, thanks to the partisanship noted in the Pentagon report, the U.S. has never been able to acknowledge the real nature of the problem, which is essentially one of decolonization. So, far from opening up new opportunities, Arafat's death will only reconfirm that congenital flaw -- though this time in more critical circumstances than ever before because of the ramifications of Iraq and Al Qaeda.
If the Palestinians were to secure the redress that other colonized peoples have, there would be either no Israel (as there is no Algerie francaise) or there would be a binational state (like South Africa).
But the Palestinians are not demanding that. They have formally committed themselves, via Oslo, to the loss of 78% of their original homeland. If there ever is a settlement, this concession, unique in the history of decolonization, will rank as by far the greatest single contribution to it.