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Jewish World Review April 29, 2002 / 17 Iyar, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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U.S. Mideast Peace Policy Designed To Aid War on Iraq | President Bush's Mideast policy may look confused, but it has a logic: It's designed to calm the Israeli-Palestinian fires while the United States prepares to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

If U.S. forces are successful in toppling Saddam later this year, the logic goes, the entire politics of the region will shift in America's favor and peace will be easier to achieve in Israel.

The "get Saddam" strategy has been endangered, however, by the recent upsurge in Palestinian terrorism and Israel's massive retaliation, which threatened to cause civil disorder in Jordan and Egypt, turn Saudi Arabia against the United States, and perhaps spark a war between Syria and Israel.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to the region to calm things down -ideally, to secure a swift Israeli withdrawal from West Bank towns, persuade Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on terrorism and get a new negotiating process started.

By most accounts he failed because Israel took three weeks to withdraw and Arafat did nothing to stop terrorism except issue a written statement.

And while Powell was in the region, he and Bush repeatedly sent conflicting signals about how to apportion blame for the continuing violence between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

And some statements by both Powell and Bush seemed to conflict with the "Bush doctrine" that anyone who harbors terrorists, as Arafat plainly has, is a terrorist.

Despite widespread criticism, though, Powell actually succeeded in defusing the Syrian threat - mainly, says Israeli journalist Ehud Ya'ari, because Egypt publicly refused to back Syria in a war against Israel.

Moreover, despite the recent mayhem in Palestinian towns, the public demonstrations seem under control in Jordan and Egypt. And Bush will tried to enlist Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah as a major player in both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the larger strategy against Iraq.

"We're extremely supportive of a stronger Saudi role" in the Mideast peace process, said a senior administration official I met this week in the company of other columnists.

"We are confident that the crown prince is going to be a constructive force."

The official went to great lengths to play up the extent of Saudi cooperation so far in the war against terrorism and the virtues of Abdullah's peace plan, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 in return for normal relations with the Arab world.

The official indicated that sometime after today's meeting in Crawford, Texas, the administration may enunciate a new U.S. peace plan with moderate Arab countries as key participants.

Asked if Abdullah also would play a constructive role in the campaign against Hussein, the official said, "Since we haven't made any decisions about Iraq, it's not at all clear what 'constructive role' means."

But the official noted that Saudi Arabia did play such a role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, acting as a base for the U.S. aircraft and ground forces that liberated Kuwait.

As Iraq's threatened neighbor, "They certainly understand that there is a problem with Saddam Hussein. They maybe understand it better than anyone."

On another key point of controversy - whether Arafat should be regarded as a participant in the peace process or sent to the sidelines - the official said that while Arafat's performance has been "very disappointing," he is still "the person who the Palestinian people regard as their leader."

The official said Israel had only helped Arafat's standing by isolating him in his compound in Ramallah, adding, "We don't think anything would be accomplished by sending him into exile," as some Israelis propose.

So the administration's strategy seems to be to restart a peace process in the Mideast - with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arabs deeply involved and with Arafat included - in order to convince the Arab world that the United States is "engaged."

Meantime, planning is proceeding on the decisive action against Iraq, on which Bush will try to get Saudi Arabia to at least acquiesce.

According to Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "It's impossible to believe that Abdullah would go to Bush's living room in Texas and spit in his eye."

Ya'ari, Israeli television's expert on Arab affairs, thinks that the United States is likely to get to use the big Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia to control air operations against Iraq, while U.S. planes would fly out of Turkey, Qatar and Bahrain, and troops would mass in Kuwait.

"Right now," he said, "these countries are making noises that they don't want you to invade Iraq. But they are saying, 'When you get ready, we'll talk.'"

Ya'ari thinks it's also significant that, despite the violence committed against Palestinians, most Arab countries have remained calm. Iraq has tried to launch an oil embargo against the United States, but no one is joining.

It just may be that all the United States has to do in the Mideast is try to keep a lid on as it plans action against Iraq. But it's almost certain that America's enemies will try again to blow the lid off.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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