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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1998, Pages 20-22

Five Views

The U.S. Ignores Links Between Iraq And the Collapse of the Peace Process

By Rachelle Marshall

"The approach to peace cannot be compartmentalized. Middle East issues or policies are irrevocably interlinked, and attempting to isolate the Palestinian-Israeli issue from its Middle East or Arab context is short-sighted and unstable."—Palestinian journalist Ghassan Khatib, in Palestine Report, Feb. 6, 1998.

Most of the world was relieved when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced on Feb. 22 that Iraqi President Saddam Hussain had agreed to allow U.N. weapons inspectors unrestricted access to previously closed presidential sites, thus ending at least temporarily the threat of an intensive air attack on Iraq by the United States. The agreement fulfilled the U.N.'s major objectives of securing Iraq's compliance with Security Council resolutions and preserving the role of the U.N. Special Commission in charge of inspections. As a gesture to Iraq's dignity it also allows diplomats chosen by the secretary-general to accompany the inspectors when they enter the presidential palaces.

Official Washington respond ed to news that Saddam Hussain had backed down with skepticism and the issuance of further threats. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and several Republican congressmen denounced the agreement as a "sellout," with Lott berating President Bill Clinton for placing his trust in Annan—"someone devoted to building a 'human relationship' with a mass murderer." Democratic Senator Robert Kerrey urged that the United States declare Hussain a war criminal and oust him from office. In the apparent belief that no victory is complete until the loser is made to bleed, Senator Ben Night horse Campbell complained, "We lost without firing a shot."

Annan weathered the complaints gracefully but may have winced when two days after he had persuaded Hussain to com ply with the U.N.'s demands, U.S. officials revealed that the CIA was drawing up plans for a "major campaign of sabotage" aimed at Hussain's overthrow. Four previous attempts by the CIA to overturn the Iraqi government have failed, causing the death of scores of Kurdish and Iraqi dissidents. No one seemed aware of the irony involved in a plan by the United States to commit acts of terrorism against a country it condemns for instigating terrorism.

On March 2 the Security Council unanimously endorsed the agreement Annan had submitted, and passed a resolution threatening Iraq with "the severest consequences" if it violated the agreement. There was no mention in the resolution of an early lifting of sanctions, which are expected to remain in force until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq is entirely free of weapons of mass destruction and the means to produce them.

Despite strong urging by the United States, the Security Council deliberately refused to include in the resolution a threat of military action, which several members strongly oppose. This fact did not stop U.S. representative to the U.N. Bill Richardson from declaring that the resolution "does not restrict the use of force as a response to an Iraqi violation." President Clinton had already asserted the unilateral right of the United States to respond in any manner it chooses if Hussain reneges on the deal and he left no doubt as to what form that response would take. Clinton ordered the existing U.S. force of two aircraft carriers, 18 additional warships, 350 planes, and about 35,000 troops to remain in the Persian Gulf until the United States was satisfied that Iraq was in full compliance with U.N. resolutions. Since there is no time limit on weapons inspections, the Iraqis may live with the threat of an extended U.S. air attack for a long time to come.

The Pentagon has named the planned assault Operation Desert Thunder, as if traditional combat were involved. It would actually be more of a gigantic turkey shoot. Iraq's defenses are no match for round-the-clock attacks by B-1s carrying hundreds of Tomahawk and other cruise missiles, advanced fighter-bombers carrying 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs and anti-radiation missiles, and a hundred or more carrier-based jets loaded with precision weaponry.

Forty-two consecutive days of bombing during the Gulf war destroyed most of Iraq's electrical grid and water purification systems as well as its oil pumping stations, and seven years of sanctions have prevented the Iraqis from rebuilding many of these facilities. The damage done to Iraq's remaining infrastructure by thousands of pounds of bombs could return the country to preindustrial conditions. The human suffering—what the military calls "collateral damage"—would be almost unimaginable, since surgical equipment is scarce in Iraq, and antibiotics and pain killers almost unobtainable.

In the days preceding the agreement with Iraq, no administration official could come up with a convincing justification for the planned bombing. Although Clinton claimed Iraq was a threat to its neighbors, none of those neighbors except Kuwait supported a military strike. Several military experts said Iraq's army had seriously deteriorated, suggesting that it was far too weak to launch an invasion. Others pointed out that bombing would have little effect on Saddam Hussain's ability to manufacture chemical and biological weapons but might cause him to reject further inspections.

Administration officials ignored these objections. Even more inexcusably, they seemed oblivious to the potentially explosive effect a U.S. military attack on Iraq would have throughout the Middle East, where Arabs were acutely aware that U.N. sanctions had reduced ordinary Iraqis to destitution and were causing the deaths of nearly 5,000 children a month from malnutrition and disease. The administration's insensitivity to Arab concerns was best illustrated during a Senate hearing on Feb. 10. When Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright if Arab countries believed "we've tilted too far toward Israel in the peace process," she responded, "Some people may think that. I'd prefer not to make that linkage...Iraq and the peace process are two separate issues."

America's Arab allies would not agree. Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who have steadfastly supported peace with Israel, were left hanging out to dry as the United States insisted on punishing an Arab nation for violating U.N. mandates while giving unstinting support to an Israeli government that is stone walling the peace process and is not only illegally occupying neighboring territories but possesses a nuclear arsenal that is far more deadly than anything Iraq is capable of acquiring.

New York Times correspondent Youssef Ibrahim reported from Amman that Jordanians are convinced that Americans "do not care about Arab lives, governments, or economies." Jordan received almost no compensation for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees it absorbed as a result of the Gulf war, and the economic benefits that were supposed to result from making peace with Israel never materialized. The sanctions imposed on Iraq have had a ruinous effect on Jordan's economy because they eliminated the major market for Jordan's manufactured goods. The Jordanians now sell mainly food and agricultural products to Iraq and are able to buy oil from Iraq at half the market price. A U.S. bombing attack would put an end to this trade, which has become essential to Jordan's economy. This is why a member of the Jordanian Senate told Ibrahim, "If the Americans go through with this strike...the whole area's political and economic situation will be disastrous."

King Hussein was forced to call out army tanks and helicopters to suppress increasingly angry demonstrations in Amman and other cities. If the crisis had continued and he had been forced to choose sides, his regime could have been seriously threatened. In Egypt, where protesters carried signs saying "Death to America" and chanted, "Arab blood is not cheap," Mubarak warned that extremists were preparing to take advantage of popular anger over a possible bombing attack. If the United States carried out air strikes, he said, "We are going to face a hell of a problem. I cannot stand against the whole weight of public opinion."

Yasser Arafat also found himself caught in the middle as hundreds of Palestinians poured into the streets daily to express sympathy with the Iraqis and vent their anger and frustration at the United States and Israel for bringing the peace process to a dead end. Arafat feared again incurring the ruinous financial and political costs that resulted from the PLO's support of Saddam Hussain during the Gulf war, but he also wanted to avoid risking his leadership by taking a stand too far out of line with Palestinian opinion. At the urging of Israel and the United States—which evidently regard the Palestinians as not deserving of democracy—he banned street demonstrations and shut down private television stations that were airing pro-Iraq statements. Nevertheless, Arafat and several of his ministers pointed out that, like Iraq, Israel also was violating Security Council resolutions and accused the United States of applying a double standard.

Despite Arafat's ban, street demonstrations continued with increasing intensity. Palestinian police looked the other way, but Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets wounded scores of protesters in Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and Gaza. At Kalandia refugee camp the troops used live ammunition during an angry confrontation that occurred after the Israelis sealed off the camp with a cement wall so that no one could get in or out and conducted a house-by-house search for suspected stone throwers.

As the standoff between Iraq and the U.N. began, tensions in the occupied territories were already high because of Israeli actions. Munther Irshaid, the deputy mayor of Bethlehem, de scribed the plight of the Palestinians in stark terms. "Our people are drowning," he said. "For people who can barely put food on the table, death is the solution. Any outcome of the war could not be worse than the situation is now."

An editorial titled "On the Verge of an Explosion" in the Jerusalem Times of Feb. 6 charged that "The Israelis are leading an insane campaign to provoke Palestinians. They seize their land, demolish their homes, arrest their men and beat their children. They do all this and pretend that all is well."

A few days later Israel forcibly ousted 137 Bedouin from a camp near Jerusalem they had occupied since 1950 in order to make way for expansion of a Jewish settlement. Meanwhile Israeli bulldozers were out in force on the West Bank, uprooting trees and leveling land for new roads and housing for settlers.

On Feb. 18 dozens of soldiers showed up in a village near Bethlehem and announced that four homes were to be demolished because they lacked building permits. According to Salah Al-Ta'amari of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the families were not even given time to remove their belongings. "You could see the remains of their furniture in the ruins," he wrote. The demolitions will make room for a bypass road that will cut through the West Bank from south to north and cut through the center of several villages.

Given the depth of the Palestinians' grievances, it isn't surprising that some protesters shouted slogans urging Saddam Hussain to bomb Israel. Contrary to what Israeli government officials are claiming, however, only a handful of Palestinians favor the Iraqi dictator.

A poll taken in mid-February by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre (JMCC) showed that 94 percent of Palestinians sympathize with Iraq in the current crisis but only 4.8 percent support Saddam Hussain. More than 80 percent agreed that the United States applies a double standard in the region that favors Israel.

No one seemed aware of the irony involved in a U.S. plan to commit acts of terrorism against a country it condemns for instigating terrorism.

The only winner to emerge from the Gulf crisis was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who came to Washington in early February ostensibly to discuss peace. He offered no plan to carry out Israel's long overdue withdrawal from the West Bank, however. Instead he took time to embrace leaders of the Christian right, who hate Clinton and support Israel's hard-line nationalists.

Because public attention was focused on Clinton's alleged dalliance with a White House intern and the U.S. confrontation with Saddam Hussain, Netanyahu's obstructionism went virtually un noticed. The Israeli prime minister emerged from what could have been a difficult meeting with U.S. officials free to pursue his strategy of stalling peace negotiations while taking over Palestinian land for Jewish settlements.

By the time the Gulf crisis ended, the Middle East peace process was scarcely alive. After a meeting in late February with his Israeli counterpart, Dany Naveh, and with U.S. Ambassador Ed Walker, Palestinian negotiator Sa'eb Erekat reported that the two sides were as far apart as ever and Israel was not interested in moving "even a single step forward."

Clinton reportedly favors a plan calling for Israel to withdraw from 13 percent of West Bank territory over a three-month period in exchange for Palestinian action to fight terrorism. Netanyahu, who recently announced that he will not withdraw from more than 9 percent of additional territory, has sent Israeli officials to Washington to wage an intensive campaign designed to head off a public announcement of Clinton's proposal until a compromise can be reached.

The Israelis and their Washington lobbyists have enlisted senior Republican senators, columnists, and Jewish leaders to oppose publicly any attempt to exert "unfair pressure" on Israel. The results of Netanyahu's campaign can already be seen in the proliferation of newspaper ads by Jewish organizations warning that any further turnover of land to the Palestinians would threaten Israel's survival.

Clinton now faces a crucial decision. As the Gulf crisis made clear, American hypocrisy in confronting Iraq while ignoring Israeli violations of U.N. resolutions has inflamed Arab populations throughout the Middle East. The credibility of the United States in the Arab world has never been lower, and moderate Arab leaders who have supported the peace process with Israel are being challenged to show results. There is the ever-present danger that anger and frustration will lead to terrorism.

Clinton could yet salvage the situation by threatening to cut off all military as well as economic aid to Israel if it fails to comply fully with Oslo and with relevant U.N. resolutions. This would mean abandoning a one-sided Middle East policy that isolates us from our allies, undermines the authority of the U.N., and has made us an object of hatred throughout a large part of the world. Kofi Annan successfully delivered an American ultimatum to Saddam Hussain. Perhaps he should be sent to talk to Netanyahu.

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance writer living in Stanford, CA. A member of the International Jewish Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.