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imperialism & war

Decision time over MidEast future looms

In the words of a Washington-based diplomat, the "neo-crazies" - as the increasingly nervous neo-conservatives are being called - have "painted the president into a corner." They have put him in the impossible position of having to choose between waging a high-risk war in the teeth of international opinion and suffering the political humiliation of allowing Saddam to survive.
Decision time over Mideast future looms
Paris | By Patrick Seale | 17/01/2003

Diplomatic observers monitoring the Iraqi crisis in London, Washington and Paris agree on one thing: the next three or four weeks will be crucial. As one of them put it to me: "We are entering the danger zone. The issue of war and peace in the Middle East will be decided within the next 30 days."

It is clear that Western leaders are coming under great stress. They are having to arbitrate fierce debates - for and against the war - inside their own cabinets, they are having to take note of the evolution of public opinion in their respective countries, and make lonely choices which could affect not only the region but the whole world.

Three events towards the end of this month will provide pointers to the difficult decisions that will soon have to be made.

* On 27 January, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, is due to make his first detailed report to the UN Security Council on what his team has found - or failed to find - in Iraq;

* On 28 January, President George W. Bush will deliver his State of the Union address, which will be closely studied for clues to the President's intentions.

* Also on 28 January, Israelis will vote in a general election which will affect their relations with the Palestinians and with their Arab neighbours for years to come - but which will also determine the future of Ariel Sharon, Israel's hard-line leader.

These three events are closely connected - at least in the minds of the 'war party' - that is to say the small group of men in Washington and Tel Aviv who are pressing for war.

The 'hawks' know that, for their vast geopolitical ambitions to be realized, and for their own personal and political careers to flourish, the crisis must be resolved 'their' way. The make-or-break point is approaching.

If no decision to fight is taken in Washington within the next 30 days, the momentum will slacken, and the opportunity to go to war will be missed or at best deferred until late in the year, when it may be derailed altogether by the start of the US presidential election campaign.

If Sharon and the Right emerge triumphant from the Israeli elections and are able to form a government on their own, their friends in Washington will be greatly heartened and will beat the war drums with even greater vigour.

But if the Likud's margin of victory is slim, then Sharon will be at the mercy of Eli Yishay's ultra-orthodox Shass or of Yosef Lapid's resolutely anti-clerical Shinuy party.

He might even have to rely on the support of the extreme right-wing factions, such as Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beytenu, Ephraim Eytam's National Religious Party, or Natan Sharansky's Yisrael Ba'aliyah. An Israeli government built on such unstable foundations would be of no help to the Washington hawks.

If, however, by some miracle, the Labour leader Amran Mitzna were to win the elections, form a government of the centre-left, and embark as he has promised on unconditional negotiations with the Palestinians, the hawks would be routed and the focus of international attention would switch from Iraq to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The hawks have reason to be deeply worried because the current of international opinion is running against them, especially in Europe. In Spain, 66 per cent of the numbers polled are against the war, in France, 76 per cent, in Turkey, close to 90 per cent.

At the same time, George Bush's personal ap-proval rating has slipped below 60 per cent for the first time since September 11, reflecting doubts about the war among ordinary Americans.

Even in Britain, America's closest ally, only 13 per cent approve of military action in the absence of a 'green light' from the United Nations. This has put Prime Minister Tony Blair in a difficult situation. He wants to protect Britain's 'special relationship' with the United States, but he also has to recognize that British opinion is largely hostile to American policies.

According to The Guardian newspaper, Blair faces opposition from more than half of his own cabinet if he tries to involve British troops in a U.S.-led war on Iraq that lacks the backing of the United Nations.

Even more worrying for the 'war party' is the explicit criticism of them which is now beginning to appear in the American press. On January12, for example, a long article in the Washington Post by staff writer Glenn Kessler described how "a small group of conservatives", many of whom are also strong supporters of Israel, "pushed Iraq to the top of the agenda" by connecting their anti-Iraq cause to the war on terrorism.

According to the article, this "murky process" bypassed traditional policy-making channels. In other words, this was something of a conspiracy which circumvented the usual airing and shaping of policy decisions within the administration.

The writer pointed a finger at Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy defense secretary who, "in public and private conversations, was an especially forceful advocate of tackling Iraq at the same time as Osama bin Laden."

Also named is the Defense Policy Board (chaired by another prominent hawk, Richard Perle) which shortly after September 11 'animatedly discussed the importance of ousting Hussain". This public exposure of the manoeuvres of the war-mongers is undoubtedly turning Amer-ican opinion against the war - and against the war-mongers.

Unnerved by these developments, the 'war party' is now putting unprecedented pressure on Hans Blix to uncover traces of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the scramble to find incriminating evidence, U.S. agencies are beginning to feed intelligence to Blix's team.

He is being urged to conduct aggressive interviews with Iraqi scientists outside Iraq, in such locations as Britain's sovereign bases on Cyprus. Above all, a frantic search is on for potential Iraqi defectors who will spill the beans about Iraq's unconventional weapons projects.

In the words of a Washington-based diplomat, the "neo-crazies" - as the increasingly nervous neo-conservatives are being called - have "painted the president into a corner." They have put him in the impossible position of having to choose between waging a high-risk war in the teeth of international opinion and suffering the political humiliation of allowing Saddam to survive.

Arab, Turkish and Iranian leaders have all spoken out against the war, and warned of the destabilisation that could follow. There is little sign, however, that Bush is listening. The view in Washington seems to be that, in spite of their public protests, Arab leaders will fall in behind America once Saddam is overthrown, and that the anger of the 'Arab street' can be contained.

Of greater concern to the U.S. is the anti-war sentiment of Turkey's new government, seeing that American military planners had hoped to launch one prong of their invasion of Iraq from Turkish soil.

Characteristically, the Palest-inians are failing to seize the chance to influence the outcome of the Israeli elections, even though it is a matter of life and death for them. It is widely recognised that suicide bombings play into Sharon's hands because they drive frightened Israelis to the Right.

It follows, therefore, that it is a supreme Palestinian interest to halt the bombings in the run-up to the elections, and to reassure the Israeli electorate that the bombings will end altogether once political negotiations, such as Mitzna has called for, get under way.

Representatives of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have been meeting in Cairo where Egypt's chief of intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, has been pressing them to make a deal before the Israeli elections.

The radical parties recognise that there is no way the Palestinian people can be protected without a state. But instead of addressing the Israeli public and convincing it of their serious interest in negotiations, the Palestinian groups have been arguing among themselves about who will take the top place in the temporary leadership they are trying to create.

It is also astonishing that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority has not issued a clear statement of its peace terms ahead of the Israeli elections, including clarifying its position on the controversial but essential question of the Palestinians' "right of return".

In their turn, the Arab states are missing the opportunity to remind the Israeli public - as they should be doing in clear and forceful terms - that Crown Prince Abdallah's peace plan, offering Israel peace and normal relations in return for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, is still on the table. It was endorsed by the entire Arab world at the Beirut Summit of March 2002 - but most Israelis seem to believe it has been shelved or is no longer relevant.

Out of passivity or fatalism, much of the Arab world is behaving as if the outcome of the Israeli elections, and crucial decisions about war and peace in the region, were no concern of theirs.

The writer is an eminent commentator and the author of several books on Middle East affairs.


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