Deadly Miscalculations

The Middle East is a graveyard of political calculations. The bodies are piling up, literally and figuratively. For the Bush Administration, the primary goal in dealing with the region has been to maintain Arab support for the war on terrorism. But for Administration officials, it became increasingly clear that the United States could not do that unless it demonstrated a commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The order of importance of the two issues can be summarized in a simple fact: The Bush Administration sent Vice President Dick Cheney to marshal Arab support for military action against Iraq, while it dispatched Gen. Anthony C. Zinni to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last fall, Bush became the first U.S. President to support the creation of a Palestinian state. That stance was supposed to give the Palestinians an incentive to agree to a cease-fire. Instead, it seems to have frustrated the Palestinians by raising their expectations without offering any path to a solution. It may also have made their resistance seem more legitimate, since Palestinians see their side's violence as legal defiance of a foreign occupation, not as terrorism.

Meanwhile, the suicide attacks against Israelis have drawn the United States and Israel closer. Bush's language is revealing. He said that Israel had no choice but to respond to "a wave of suicide bombers coming to the heart of their cities and killing innocent people." He added, "Israel is a democratically elected government, and the government is responding to the will of the people for there to be more security."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon interpreted U.S. sympathy as a green light to make war on the Palestinian Authority. That sympathy was actually more of a yellow light. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared on March 29: "While we understand the Israeli government's need to respond to these acts of terror and the right of the Israeli government to decide what actions best serve the interest of the Israeli people, we call on Prime Minister Sharon and his government to carefully consider the consequences of those actions."The United States' already-high unpopularity in the Arab world has now surged. To Arabs, the United States has shown itself to be hypocritical and ineffectual. Hypocritical because this country endorses the idea of a Palestinian state but sides with Israel in its war on the Palestinian Authority. Ineffectual because this country has no apparent influence over Israel. The United States failed to stop Israel's escalation and could not even persuade Israel to allow Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to go to the Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon.

The Arab summit also made miscalculations. Delegates there felt they gave the United States what it wanted by endorsing the Saudi peace plan. For the first time, all Arab nations—including such hard-liners as Iraq, Libya, and Syria—endorsed a plan that would ultimately result in the recognition of Israel.

But that concession came with a price. The Arab regimes are determined to stave off a U.S. attack on Iraq. So, along with the peace initiative, they signed a statement saying an attack on Iraq would be seen as an attack on every Arab state. It's not that Arab governments are supportive of Saddam Hussein. It's that they are worried about their ability to survive popular opposition to a U.S. war against Iraq.

Now the Arab governments have something else to worry about. The Arab League's peace offer has triggered popular outrage throughout the Arab world: How could Arab governments offer peace while Israel is making war on the Palestinians?

The core of the problem is that the Palestinians think that terrorism works, that it is the only way they can force Israel and the rest of the world to pay attention to their demand for statehood. If the Palestinians were to agree to a cease-fire without any political concessions from Israel, they would be giving up their only leverage. But terrorism has come at a price. It has driven the United States closer to Israel.

Ending the violence does not serve Palestinian interests unless the Palestinians can see a clear political future. They insist that a cease-fire agreement has to be part of a political process. But Sharon refuses to make any political concessions until a cease-fire is in place. To make concessions now, he argues, would be to reward terrorism.

Israel and the United States desperately need a cease-fire. But they have insisted that a cease-fire must come first, before political negotiations. Yet the only way to stop the tragic cycle of violence may be to pursue both tracks simultaneously.

In Sharon's view, isolating Arafat and removing him from a leadership role would make it easier to move against Palestinian terrorist cells. But the United States argues that Arafat is central to the peace process and must not be excluded. "He's got a lot of people that listen to him still," Bush said. In Powell's view, Arafat's "leadership is now even more central to trying to find a way out of this tragic situation."

Meanwhile, Israel's efforts to isolate and humiliate Arafat have only boosted his stature in the Arab world. That will last only as long as Arafat remains defiant. So he sees little incentive to make any kind of deal with the Israelis—another tragic miscalculation.