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Archive for January, 2006

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

Americans sometimes seem oblivious to the extent to which developments in the Middle East affect their own lives.

According to statements from al-Qaida, the three main issues that sustain the struggle against the West and America are: America’s tacit and active support of repressive Muslim regimes; the stationing of infidel (American) troops on holy Muslim soil in Saudi Arabia; and the Arab-Israeli conflict. These elements also fuel broader Arab and Muslim distrust of the United States. Absent a fair and even-handed resolution of these issues, the threat of Muslim extremist terrorism against the United States will persist, and it is highly unlikely that there will be peace either there or here.

The two most important players in the Israel-Palestine drama in the recent past have been Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. Arafat, who died a little more than a year ago, presided over decades of Palestine violence that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke last week, was an architect of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and bore some responsibility for the massacres of civilians in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. They both had blood on their hands. The other thing that they had in common was the ability to lead their own people.

Arafat never shut down the violence against Israelis perpetrated by Islamic Jihad and Hamas, two extremist Palestinians groups. His apologists said he couldn’t do so. Detractors said he chose not to. Nevertheless, he was indisputably Palestine’s leader. Even though Arafat presided over the corruption of the Palestinian movement, he was the only Palestinian leader capable of exercising some control over the diverse elements in the movement. Today, with Arafat gone, the Palestinian movement is fragmenting. Even Fatah, the leading party in the movement, is coming unstuck. Mahmoud Abbas, the current Fatah leader, has not even been able to exert control over his own party, let alone over others in the Palestinian Authority such as Hamas, who oppose his stated goal of a two-state solution: Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace.

Sharon split from the Likud Party over the issue of withdrawing from all Israeli settlements in Gaza and a few in the West Bank. His supporters said it was a precursor to a peace settlement. His detractors said it was a cynical move to obviate the need to terminate additional West Bank settlements. In any case, current polls indicate that Israelis still favor him over other leaders, such as Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud. If, as is likely, Sharon is unable to return to power after his latest stroke, who will lead Israel?

Recent history indicates that as long as there are incessant attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, the majority of Israelis understandably will favor a hard line approach to the Palestinians. Sharon would seem to be the only leader capable of containing his country’s extremist elements.

It looks very much as if future leadership in both Israel and Palestine will be unwilling or unable to seek a peaceful solution to their current impasse. If that proves to be true, then those on both sides who do not want a political solution will gain the upper hand. In Palestine, those who would like to “drive Israel into the sea” will probably arrogate more power to themselves and if that happens, the same views will become far more acceptable in other Arab countries. In Israel, those who promote further Israeli settlement of the “biblical lands” (the West Bank) are likely to gain power.

Neither of these possible outcomes favors American national interests in the Middle East. As long as this situation between Palestine and Israel continues to be marked primarily by provocation and hostility from both sides, any real solution is unlikely to be possible.

It is in the American national interest to find a peaceful and just solution to the Middle East impasse. Any such solution would displease extremists on both sides, but without it, the struggle is likely to persist. As long as it does and the real issues in the conflict are not addressed, instability will reign in the Middle East, and that will foster worldwide Muslim extremist hostility toward the West in general and the United States in particular. The way things are going today, it seems pure fantasy to think that, without leaders such as Arafat and Sharon, the Arabs and the Israelis are going to work out this problem on their own.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we can afford to continue our hands-off policy. It has been the rare U.S. administration that has gone on record with concrete plans to find a solution. This reluctance results from the assumed political danger of openly pushing a policy that would more than likely end the Israeli settler movement as the quid pro quo for the end of Arab violence. The settler movement has strong support in the American-Jewish community and has recently gained additional support from many fundamentalist American Christians. So we are faced with a true Hobson’s choice: sit back and deal with radical Muslim terror without addressing some of its most critical origins, or intercede in a matter where there is much uncertainty.

It is an unfortunate fact that the United States is the only country in the world that still has the resources and the credibility to intercede on this issue with any hope of ending the decades-old violence. The constructive use of power and influence is never easy. Perhaps it’s time for President Bush to create his own legacy and win a Nobel Peace Prize in the bargain.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Lebanon and Iran. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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