THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT

ROADMAP TO WHERE?

By Douglas Little

May 18, 2003

Fifty years ago this week, a Republican secretary of state shuttled from Cairo and Tel Aviv to Amman, Riyadh and Baghdad in search of peace in the Mideast. The diplomatic landscape that John Foster Dulles confronted on his tour in May 1953 was very different from the contested terrain through which Colin Powell is traveling for the first time in a year, road map in hand, half a century later.

During the 1950s, British bases stretched from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the banks of the Nile. Texaco and other multinational petroleum giants controlled production, prices and profits from Mideast oil. And the Cold War cast the shadow of Soviet subversion from the Khyber Pass to the isthmus of Suez.

Yet one thing has remained the same from the Eisenhower through the Bush eras. The hardscrabble refugee camps that already dotted the West Bank when Dulles made his house call as President Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of state were home even then to Palestinian Arabs whose hatred of Israel and mistrust of America would have been instantly recognizable to Powell.

The principal question facing U.S. policy makers today is whether regime change in Iraq can help put Israelis and Palestinians back on the road to peace. After all, America's expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the first Gulf War 12 years ago paved the way for the 1991 Madrid peace conference and the Oslo accords of 1993, which culminated with Yitzhak Rabin's famous handshake in the Rose Garden with Yasser Arafat and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Although the Oslo process took a detour during the final months of the old century, some observers believe that America's victory over Saddam Hussein in the second Gulf War early in the new millennium has created the best opportunity for peace in 50 years.

At first glance, the logic seems compelling. America appears eager to play Rome to Britain's Greece, with 200,000 GIs standing guard from Uzbekistan to Qatar, ready at a moment's notice to retaliate against Syria and Iran should those rogue states step up their support for Hamas and Hezbollah's campaign of terror against Israel. A state-controlled monopoly in Baghdad sits atop the world's second largest oil reserves, which Washington hopes will finance the reconstruction of Iraq and also underwrite a regional free-trade zone that could produce good jobs and better living standards for the young and restless population of Gaza, the West Bank and the shanty towns that ring most Arab capitals.

Most important, the bipolar rivalry that led both the United States and the Soviet Union to assume during the Cold War that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" has been replaced by a bilateral Russian-American partnership whose cornerstone is a shared commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Before President George W. Bush and his advisers break out the port and cigars, however, they would do well to ponder some lessons from the past.

The British army occupied Jerusalem and liberated Baghdad from Ottoman rule at the end of World War I, but neither a League of Nations mandate in Palestine nor a set of U.K. air bases in Iraq could bring peace or prosperity to the peoples of the Mideast during the following three decades. U.S. policy makers fared little better when they gradually assumed Britain's burdens after World War II.

Nation-building through modernization failed miserably in Iran, where an American-backed "White Revolution" helped ignite an Islamic backlash that toppled the shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Nor have U.S. peacekeepers fared well in places like Lebanon, where Hezbollah truck bombers killed 241 Marines at a barracks in Beirut 20 years ago.

With snipers stalking the 82nd Airborne in the streets of Baghdad, with radical clerics calling for Shia to expel the American infidels from Najaf and Nasiriyah and with Osama bin Laden's henchmen blowing up U.S. compounds in Saudi Arabia, waging peace in 2003 is proving to be far more complicated than winning a war.

Even if the United States succeeds in stabilizing the situation in Iraq and signaling Syria and Iran that they must cease their support for anti-Israel terrorists, there is no guarantee that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - who is scheduled to meet with Bush this week in Washington - and his new Palestinian counterpart, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas - who met with Powell last week for the first time since his appointment - can put the peace process back on track.

Ever since Dulles was secretary of state, American policy makers have pressed a simple formula designed to get both sides to stop shooting and start talking: "peace for land." Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, the Arabs were the biggest obstacle to peace, refusing even to consider direct negotiations with the Israelis. Once the Jewish state conquered the West Bank and Gaza, however, Israeli leaders proved less and less willing to trade land for peace as required by 1967's United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.

Two decades later, what excited Americans most about the Oslo accords was that, for the first time, both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization seemed to embrace the peace-for-land formula in all its complex simplicity. But Rabin's assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli extremist and Arafat's inability or unwillingness to rein in Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups soon derailed the Oslo process.

A new round of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and a new wave of drive-by shootings and car bombs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem convinced former President Bill Clinton to invite then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to Camp David in July 2000 in a last-ditch effort to work out a peace-for-land agreement. Arafat's rejection of what was likely to be the best offer he would ever get seemed only to confirm Israeli statesman Abba Eban's famous adage: "The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Since September 2000, the Palestinians and the Israelis have been locked in an ever-escalating spiral of violence that has cost more than 2,000 lives. The intifada has everything to do with three generations of bad blood between Arabs and Jews, but almost nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Although the U.S. triumph in Baghdad may produce greater caution among Baathists in Damascus or Islamists in Tehran, it is unlikely by itself to produce peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

For that to happen, both sides will need to take a long hard look at the road map that Powell carries in his pocket - a road map that is predicated on the peace-for-land formula. The Israelis will need to stop building settlements and the Palestinians will need to stop training suicide bombers.

In the long run, American dollars and Yankee ingenuity will matter less than Israeli brains and Palestinian muscle. This was something that Dulles learned a halfcentury ago when he visited the West Bank. "It should be clear that any amount of money, no matter how large," Palestinian leaders informed Dulles in 1953, "would not lead to the solution of the problem, nor would it stem the tide of communism which is about to sweep the Near East." If one substitutes "terrorism" for "communism" in the context of al-Qaida's recent attack on Americans in Saudi Arabia, that message seems as accurate today as it was a lifetime ago.

Douglas Little, dean and history professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is the author of "American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945."

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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