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Jewish World Review July 8, 2002 / 28 Tamuz, 5762

Neill Lochery

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Getting real about a Middle East regional war --- Bush proposal, or not | (UPI) It has been a strange couple of weeks for diplomacy in the Middle East. The bottom line, however, remains that recent events make a major war in the region more likely, not less.

Traditionally, there are three sets of dynamics at work in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: domestic Israeli politics, internal Palestinian politics and the international environment.

In Israel, the right is dancing on the grave of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords. Cries to put the framers of Oslo on trial and bring them to justice for treason are being voiced by the far-right. Even the more moderate right can barely refrain from a chorus of "We told you so, Arafat never wanted peace, and now as President George W. Bush has accepted this, we can all rejoice."

In private, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon must be a relieved man. President Bush's statement on the Middle East, and recent attacks against Israelis in Israel and the United States have bought the right more time before they have to show their opening positions in any peace negotiations. For Sharon the hope is that the current status quo continues until after the next Israel elections, scheduled for 2003.

Peace negotiations always increase the pressure on Israeli leaders to make concessions, which in the current climate equal lost votes. In this respect, Bush may have served up the next Israeli election on a plate for Sharon, and Sharon knows it.

The major threat to Sharon is now Israel's economic crisis, which, to a large extent, has been caused by the war with the Palestinians. Poor economic management, however, by Sharon -- who is far form an economic expert -- has exacerbated the difficulties.

The Israeli Labor Party, which has just finished its latest Congress, held every four years, senses that this is Sharon's Achilles heel and will attempt to focus the upcoming Israeli election campaign on socio-economic issues rather than the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The fear in the Labor Party is that Sharon may try to shift attention back to the conflict during the campaign by launching military operations against the Palestinians.

Palestinian internal politics are murky and often hard to predict. Someone once accurately described it as a cross between Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" and George Orwell's "1984." Much of the real debate is kept away from the public gaze, and conducted in "smoke-filled rooms."

One fact, however, is clear. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is in deep trouble, but like any political leader in such a position he is moving to tighten, not loosen, his control over the reins of power. Here he has the perfect cover with the process of democratization demanded by the West.

For democratization Arafat-style -- read purge. Bush's democratization demand has given the Palestinian Authority president the excuse to fire people who disagree with him, and all in the name of democracy. How ironic!

Arafat now has nothing to lose. He knows that he has been exposed as a selfish leader whose political judgement is very poor. Only last week, one Palestinian commentator went as far as referring to Arafat's cronies as being worse than the Jews.

Clearly, Arafat's only long-term, get-out-of-jail card is a regional war with Israel that re-ignites popular Arab support behind him as a wartime leader.

Internationally, Bush's recent statement on the Middle East has changed little, except straining British-U.S. relations, and deepening the rift between the United States and Europe and Canada.

Bush, however, is no fool and knew that this would be the likely consequence. He did something that few political leaders in recent times have attempted to do: make a moral case over a political one. He argued that one party is right -- Israel -- and the other party -- Arafat, his Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian terrorist groups -- are wrong.

Bush's case was compelling and was aimed at making it all the more embarrassing for countries such as Britain and Canada to continue to have contacts with Arafat.

If a major war is to be avoided then these counties must fall in line with the United States and cut all ties with Arafat. Otherwise, the Palestinian leader will once more see an opportunity for political gain by resorting to violence.

Finally, in 2003, we are going to see two crucial elections in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority that will largely determine the scope and nature of the conflict in the coming years.

Israel needs to debate the issue of war and peace openly with alternatives proposals for peace put forward by both the left and right. Israel's wartime unity needs to be put aside so a new consensus can be given a chance to emerge on what price Israel is willing to pay for peace if reciprocal gestures are made by the Palestinians and Syrians.

On the Palestinian side new leaders must step forward and challenge Arafat at the ballot box. Only a new democratically elected Palestinian who is not tainted by terrorism or corruption offers any hope.

The next window of opportunity for progress will not come until after these elections. Until then much work is needed to prevent the low intensity war from degenerating into a full-scale regional war.

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Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, UPI