Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

How Will George Bush Use the Political Capital of Victory?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

How Will George Bush Use the Political Capital of Victory?

Article excerpt

It has become one of the enduring cliches of the Gulf war that the biggest losers after the Iraqis will be the Palestinians. Certainly, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud government insistently tell us that, hoping it will become true.

This thesis holds that because the Palestinians and their inept PLO leadership climbed aboard the sinking ship of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain, they will go down with him in discredit and defeat, never to see the light of Palestinian statehood.

Whatever one may think about the PLO's judgment in supporting Saddam, thereby rejecting the principles of international law and UN authority which have sustained the Palestinian cause for all these years, the end of this war will present the best opportunity since 1967, perhaps the only one we will see for another quarter century, to address the most persistent and pervasive source of violence and instability in the Middle East.

One Man's Decision

That decision will rest with one man, the man who will coordinate the economic and political reconstruction of the region, the development of an arms control and regional security program, the man who will determine the future of the Palestinian people: US President George Bush. With his overwhelming victory over Iraq and his skillful domination of the international arena, he will stand unchallenged as the globe's most powerful leader.

And who will try to discourage him from accepting this mantle of leadership? The Israelis, probably, since they trust neither George Bush nor his secretary of state, James Baker. Yet with the Scud honeymoon over, they need US help for survival more than ever. Moreover, now that America has won a war Israel wanted so badly, and especially if it is followed by the departure of Saddam, continued Israeli efforts to block the only route to peace with their neighbors will be difficult to justify.

Nor do the Arabs of the Middle East stand eager to welcome George Bush and his American legions as their new masters. Sympathy for the beleaguered Iraqi people runs deep throughout the region. But there is one way, and perhaps only one way, to avoid a harsh anti-American backlash which may jeopardize not only our own fortunes in the region but also the stability of our Arab coalition partners. That is to resolve -- or to set in motion a process to resolve -- the Palestinian problem. To do otherwise will be the clearest prescription for winning the war and losing the peace.

What about the US Congress, so consistently dominated by Israel? Will Congress insist on business as usual in the Middle East (and domestic politics as usual), which means acceding to Israeli demands with no reciprocity? The thought that George Bush might actually do something beyond winning the war is shocking. Even now, one hears phrases like "only if acceptable to Israel" and "we must not impose a settlement" tumbling from the lips of politicians like a mantra, echoed by bureaucrats who aspire to congressional favor.

This might be called the myth of voluntarism. It is the assumption that, if in some way you manage to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together, after overcoming Israeli insistence that the Arab world must first make peace with Israel and that Israel should handpick the negotiators for the other side, the result would somehow be constructive. That is like asking the Iraqis and Kuwaitis to sit down with each other and voluntarily resolve their differences.

There are some bold congressional leaders who have decided it is time for a change. "Every Arab nation must in the end be willing explicitly to recognize Israel and her legitimate security interests," said David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which controls the purse strings for Israel. He added, however, "We also have a right to demand of Israel one very big thing -- a recognition of the right and necessity of the Palestinian people to have their own homeland. …

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