|East and West: Can the two meet?
April 11, 2002
It is said, “The East is the East and the West is the West. The two shall never meet”. The conflicting perceptions on the Middle East highlight the differences between the two worlds. Seen from the prism of the West, as led by the US, the attention is on the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussain. He is seen as the bad boy of the Middle East.
Following the events of September 11, which saw the worst attacks on the US since Pearl Harbour, US foreign policy is geared towards securing the homeland. Fears that Iraq is building weapons of mass destruction that could hurt US citizens and security is the driving force behind the “Get Saddam” Operation. Vice President Cheney is the latest in a series of US officials visiting the Middle East to secure support for the next US military action after Afghanistan.
The signals from the Bush administration are clear. It’s not a question of “if”. It’s a question of “when” the US begins its Middle-East action against Iraq. The lack of Arab support for such action failed to dampen the desire for “regime change” in Baghdad.
The outlook in the East, led by the Arab world, is in sharp contrast. For the Arabs, and the larger Muslim world, the threat is Prime Minister Sharon. The Israeli Leader is seen fuelling the flames of fire.
If Washington is looking for “regime change” in Baghdad, Tel Aviv is looking for “regime change” in the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon has called President Arafat “the enemy”. His soldiers have stormed Arafat’s headquarters. His tanks have moved into Palestinian territory. The message is clear: if he could get away with it, Sharon would assassinate the President of the Palestinian people. He says he regrets not doing it earlier. Only US pressure is holding him back so far.
In an effort to halt the Middle East violence, President Bush nominated General Zinni as his Special Envoy. The Zinni mission was unable to stem the violent and bloody tide. There is little hope that it can. Maybe the US is waiting for the fighting to reach “exhaustion level” to set the stage for what it considers meaningful talks.
Much debated these days is the Saudi Peace Plan proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah. The Saudi Plan proposes that Israel go back to the 1967 borders in exchange for Arab recognition. The plan was endorsed at the Beirut Arab Summit and is based on the principle of land for peace.
Israel is unlikely to accept the plan although it could be a face saving platform to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. Israel feels insecure with the 1967 borders. It dreads the return of the Palestinian refugees and sees its own death in them. Israel even fears its own Israeli Arab population. It seeks to protect the Jewish nature of the Israeli state.
In fact, shortly after the Beirut Arab Summit on March 28, 2002 backed the Saudi Peace Plan, Israeli troops smashed into Arafat’s Presidential power base. Room to room fighting broke out.
The Israelis are military giants compared to the armed strength of the Palestinian fighters. But the Israeli premise that its superior military force can bring the “regime change” so badly desired by the aging Sharon, floundered on the inability to read the Palestinian mind. It also floundered on the inability to read the Arab mind.
The use of military force hardened Arafat’s resolve. Offers of exile were spurned by him. He would die defying Israeli might.
Arafat has lost his youth. But he has not lost his spirit. Sharon keeps calling the besieged, beleaguered leader “the problem”. But for the Arabs, he is the solution. And they are standing behind Arafat.
The Arab support for Arafat has yet to translate into international support of the kind that can restrain the Israelis. This is because a powerful segment in America shares Sharon’s view that Arafat should go. They hold Arafat responsible for the failure of the Clinton-Barak initiative. They feel that Arafat is too stubborn. They back Sharon in finding a replacement who can be an Anwar Sadat.
Yet if Arafat goes, the future can be more dangerous. Arafat’s departure can drive more men and women into the suicide bombing campaign. This can only endanger more Israelis and deny them the security they seek.
Some wonder what Israel’s goals are. Is it to drive out Arafat and bring regime change? Or is it to trigger a larger war to re-draw boundaries.
Two aging men who fought many a battle in the past hold the fate of their people in their hands. One can win even if he dies. The other cannot, even if he kills his main prey. For the Arab world, Sharon’s hands are stained with the blood of Sabra and Chattila. For the Israeli people, Sharon is the tough leader who promised them security. But the highest Israeli casualties in recent history characterise his tenure. Arafat was once a peace-maker. Sharon can become one if he gives up the gun for the negotiating table.
Sharon’s campaign against Arafat has united the Arab world. The Beirut Summit was a clear closing of Arab ranks on two fronts. First, the Arab nations rallied behind President Arafat and the Saudi Peace Plan. Second the Arab nations opposed “action against an Arab nation”. Translated it means that the Arab countries are vetoing US goals over Iraq. Their aim is to keep the focus on Sharon’s leadership of Israel.
To the West, Saddam is the threat to peace. To the East, Sharon is the threat to peace. The Middle East is boiling.
As temperatures rise in the Middle East, it becomes more important to define terrorism. There is unanimity that the September 11 attack on America was an act of terror. There is little unanimity on terrorism in the Middle East. The answer is different depending on race and religion. That the race and religion determines the response makes the Middle East the real threat to world peace. Every action has a reaction that is equal and opposite.
The West has military might at an unimaginable level. Smart bombs, Oxygen sucking bombs, predator planes, daisy cutters are new words in military terminology.
Israel is depending on machines to protect and shield its interests and keep its casualties down. This has resulted in a reaction where the militarily weak are using the human body. When a person is beyond fearing death, they become the human bomb.
The Palestinian refusal to wither away in the face of a superior military action rests on the willingness to die for the defence of Palestinian rights. They have the backing of a member of critical states.
Its time for the international community to review its policy before the world plummets into a graver crisis. To do that, the international community needs to come up with definitions of terrorism and definitions of wars of national liberation. It also needs to differentiate between conflicts recognised by the United Nations and others, which lack international legitimacy.
Civilian deaths are abhorrent and must be rejected. But moral arguments, unfortunately, cut little ice when combatants are locked in mortal conflict.
Peace in the Middle East will not come from the gun. Peace can only come through negotiations.
Perhaps the Arab League could set-up a Middle East Contact Group to convince the world community. Otherwise the world may well wait for force to exhaust one side. And that would be too tragic.