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Jewish World Review March 27, 2003 / 23 Adar II, 5763

Martin Peretz

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Failed experiments | Once before, a NATO power chose sides between its own allies and an Arab tyrant. And it wasn't France (or, for that matter, Great Britain).

It was the United States, then governed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who took his big ideas and moral compass from John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state. The issue at hand was the British and French response to Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, which they had built, which they (more or less) owned, and which they saw as both evidence and insurer of their power in the Mediterranean.

But what was at stake in their desire to forcibly overthrow (with the armed action of Israel in the Sinai) the regime of the colonels was not just the Suez or the sea from Malta to Turkey but their own viability as actors in grand politics. Dulles did not really like Nasser and had offended him by forcing the World Bank to cancel financing of the Aswan Dam. But Dulles saw using the Egyptian president as a way to put the United States on the right side of history: against the residual imperialism of its NATO partners, in sympathy with the very much aligned "nonaligned" bloc, and with the principle that not might but the United Nations should decide what was right.

Of course, Dulles and the Foggy Bottom professionals also had other interests in mind, among them a desire to so weaken Great Britain and France in the region that they would cede their oil interests to the United States. Or, as one clear-eyed observer of U.S. actions would later comment, "I had the impression that, under a cloak of a benefactor and supporter of national aspirations in the Middle East, there was the desire to cut the throat of British influence in the Persian Gulf."

Whatever its motive, America's decision to force Britain and France to back down during the Suez crisis--when the nuke-rattling Soviets were butchering Hungary, no less--did not turn out well. Ten years later, Nasser launched his May 1967 offensive against Israel and provoked the Six Day War. In his efforts to make himself leader of the Arab world, and with his now-forgotten use of chemical weapons in Yemen, Nasser anticipated Saddam Hussein. But it was in the Suez crisis that Nasser managed to divide the Western powers. As Elie Kedourie has argued, the humiliation of the Fourth Republic helped bring Charles de Gaulle out of sullen retirement, premiering the long-running drama of a disintegrating NATO.

The alliance between the United States and Britain did not disintegrate, however. And it endures today. Tony Blair is an exemplary friend. Unfortunately, his Labor Party has for years been paving the way for a pathetic Britain or, as its proponents used to disguise it, a "United Nations Britain." In some Labor constituencies, an affinity for Third World peoples translates easily into sympathy for Baathist Iraq. (Which is hardly surprising: Labor also hosted Stalinists and Maoists in its day.) Despite all this, Blair has been steadfast; and we owe him. The currency in which he has chosen to be paid, however, is counterfeit. And its duplicity may come back to haunt us all.

The medium of exchange is the road map to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, first announced on June 24, 2002, and left dormant because the holy terrorists and illegally armed militias wouldn't stop murdering Israeli civilians, one of George W. Bush's preconditions for the scheme. Bush's recent, high-profile endorsement of the map gave Blair something to throw the British left to show that he'd gotten something for his support of the war. What he threw them was the principle of evenhandedness: We're settling the problem of Iraq, and, therefore, we're also settling the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But these issues have literally nothing to do with each other.

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won't solve America's (and Britain's) problems in the Middle East because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of the domestic problems of only one Arab state, Lebanon. And, even there, a Palestinian state won't help very much.

In fact, a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza won't conciliate even the Palestinians. Most of them will still want Israel. Which is why the obsession of the "peace processors" with stopping new Israeli settlements in the contentious territories is largely irrelevant. In the context of a realistic agreement, I'd favor such a cessation (and the withdrawal from some settlements, too). But such an agreement won't emerge until Muslim would-be martyrs stop targeting random Jews. And, besides, what does any of this have to do with Iraq? Israel, after all, does not use biological or chemical weapons, and its wars are wars of defense. If anyone in the conflict has affinities with Saddam, it is the Palestinians. The main difference between the Palestinian leadership and the Iraqi leadership is that the Palestinians don't have a state through which to pursue their frightening ambitions.

The road map is a product of something called the Quartet, a fictional musical group comprising the European Union, the U.N. secretariat, Russia, and the United States. Its sounds are discordant. Everybody save the United States puts the burden on Israel to start the process. But that is not President Bush's view, and it certainly isn't Ariel Sharon's. One of the prerequisites of the futuristic plan is that the Palestinian leadership become more accountable and even democratic. And, under duress, Yasir Arafat has now designated a prime minister, Abu Mazen, with whom Israel is ready to try doing diplomatic business. But only if he has real power, which, as of now, we cannot be sure.

In an article in the March 17 Weekly Standard, Robert Satloff notes that no Arab country, with the exception of Lebanon, has a prime minister who means anything. Not one is the leader of a parliamentary majority, not one supervises the army or intelligence service, and not one directs his nation's foreign policy. Maybe Abu Mazen will be the first; I wouldn't bet on it. Unfortunately, Blair already has. After his Azores reunion with Bush, both Blair and the Spanish premier saluted Abu Mazen as if he already held substantial powers. That enthusiasm may turn out to be an embarrassment.

And there is one more problem: The Quartet has no standing with Israel. Neither the Russians nor the Europeans nor Kofi Annan has ever produced a meaningful concession from the Palestinians or from an abutting Arab state. Especially in light of their behavior over Iraq during the last half-year, they should have no standing with us either. What would President Vladimir Putin or Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin actually bring to the Mideast negotiating table? OK, give Tony Blair a seat at the table. He deserves this medal for bravery. But he should be careful about what he says: He is too eager to please, when pleasing also misleads.

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JWR contributor Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and chairman of The New Republic. Comment by clicking here.


01/17/03: What the Palestinians still haven't figured out
11/08/02: How the Dems handed Bush the election
10/22/02: The Pride
09/09/02: With war against Saddam, Bush sends message to Arafat
05/30/02: Good fight
04/26/02: Of Poets and Murderers
04/12/02: Before there were 'Palestinians,' there was Arafat: The making of a 'statesman'
02/08/02: Foresight
10/23/01: When America-haters become Americans

© 2003, Martin Peretz