If we examine the past year's events in Iraq as one important
dimension of the United States' post-9/11 strategy in the Middle
East, it seems clear that, on balance, Israel has benefited. But
this might not continue for long to be the case.
True, the US occupation of Iraq did not bring about the much
ballyhooed positive domino effect of peace and democratization in
the region. Yet on balance, and to date, America's actions in the
region over the past two and a half years have been good for Israel.
They have eliminated any vestige of a coordinated Arab military
threat ("eastern front") against Israel, begun to roll back the
weapons of mass destruction threat (Libya, hopefully Iran,
Pakistan's proliferation mania), and provided Israel with a powerful
ally in its struggle against the Islamic radical movements that
After 9/11 Israel joined the "good guys", while Yasser Arafat
maneuvered himself into the ranks of the "evil ones", along with
Saddam Hussein. Even the uglier aspects of the American war on
terror-regrettable civilian casualties and damage in Iraq, the
daunting specter of the Guantanamo detention facility, and the
recent revelations regarding American and British torture of
prisoners-reflect favorably on Israel, by demonstrating to its
critics in the West that its treatment of Palestinians in wartime,
however problematic, is probably more humane than the "dirty war"
norms of what other civilized countries end up doing as they fight
back against terrorism.
At the grand strategic level, the American offensives in
Afghanistan and Iraq and against al Qaeda are predicated on a notion
that is very welcome in Israel: that the real Middle East dynamic
around which US policy should be organized is not the Israel-Arab or
Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but rather the need to counter Islamic
terror, WMD, and radical rogue states, all of which directly
threaten American security.
Those who now argue that "Iraq = Palestine", that in both
countries Arab freedom fighters are struggling against imperialists
and colonialists, hold that, in effect, there are no Middle East
solutions-no peace, no democracy and human rights, no prosperity, no
stability-without a Palestinian solution. That is what moderate Arab
countries like Egypt and Jordan told the Bush administration before
the invasion of Iraq.
In is now clear that US President Bush barely paid lip service to
this notion. He adopted the roadmap prior to the war to help out
British Prime Minister Tony Blair politically, and made a mild
effort to "launch" it shortly after the occupation of Iraq was
completed. But the administration's heart was never really in this
enterprise. It assessed, with some degree of accuracy, that the
moderate Arab states with their concern over Palestine were nothing
but "paper tigers" in the Iraqi context. What became important for
Washington was installing a stable and friendly regime in Baghdad
and, as a consequence, winning the November 2004 election.
In this regard, the noble goal of democratization in the Middle
East has emerged during the past year as nothing but old-fashioned
regime change. Ask Yasser Arafat, whose removal Washington and
Jerusalem adamantly demand because he condones terrorism, even
though he was elected more democratically than any other Middle East
leader. Further, Bush signaled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
just under a year ago that American electoral and Iraqi concerns
require that there be no messy Israeli-Palestinian peace process at
all. Bush went out on a limb to embrace Sharon's problematic
disengagement plan only on condition that it not take place in 2004
and that the preparations provide Washington with "peace" dividends
in return for minimal investment; now even that deal has been
jeopardized by the negative Likud referendum vote.
Despite Israel's improved strategic status, not all of the
post-9/11 related developments are good for its long term interests.
A vigorous US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process would
certainly be better than the administration's indifference.
Meanwhile, even though Iraq really is not Palestine, the veneer is
wearing thin on the American grand strategy in the region, and that
is definitely bad for Israel. Indeed, the more the American armed
forces sink into a violent morass in Iraq and possibly in
Afghanistan, lose their deterrent effect and fail to stabilize a
single Arab country into which Washington has invested nearly
150,000 troops and hundreds of billions of dollars, the worse it is
not only for the United States, but for its ally, Israel, as well.
If the US now opts to extricate itself from Iraq by adopting more
traditional Middle East expedients-Israel may pay a price. In
retrospect, the red line may have been crossed with the enthusiastic
introduction and endorsement by Washington of a UN special envoy for
Iraq, Algeria's Lakhdar Brahimi, for whom Israel is "the big poison"
in the Middle East (talk about linkage!), followed by a plan to
promote a compromise caretaker commander for Fallujah drawn from the
ranks of Saddam's most trusted generals. -Published
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and
bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee
Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former
senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Whether the people of Palestine, Iraq or elsewhere like it or
not, the perception in the region is that Iraq and Palestine are
linked. Palestinians in general would prefer to say that their cause
is different because they are rejecting an illegal occupation
through a resistance that stands in harmony with international
standards. But the fact that these two areas are at war and both are
causes that enjoy great sympathy and popularity links the issues in
the eyes of the region's publics.
Ironically, it is supporters of Israel that are most avid in
trying to create connections between these two tragic situations.
Israel, as part and parcel of its attempts to identify with the
United States, always attempts to give the impression that its fight
with Palestinians is part of any disagreement that the United States
has with just about anybody. For example, when the United States
launched its war against terrorism, especially the front in
Afghanistan immediately after the events of September 11, Israel
exerted great efforts in telling the world that Palestine was also
part of the same fight. Similarly, Israel does its best to identify
with the United States and the war in Iraq.
But apart from aggressive attempts to shape the perception of
events, the realities themselves and the images flowing from here
and there are inviting public opinion in the region to find
similarities. The images of heavily armed soldiers raiding homes,
frightening civilians, conducting operations that end in heavy
civilian casualties, the shelling of populated areas, declaration of
curfew and so on all link the two conflicts.
On a deeper level of analysis, one observes other connections
between the two arenas. The American vision of the future of the
Middle East provides Israel with a major regional role and
ultimately, hegemony. Such a vision can only materialize when the
United States is able to meet certain goals in the region, including
accomplishing what it set out to do in Iraq. The failure of the
United States to achieve what it wants in Iraq will prevent the
American administration from achieving its vision of the "new Middle
East." One component of this regional overhaul is a major role for
Israel, despite its continuing occupation, which seems certain to
come at the expense of the basic rights and political positions of
the Palestinian people.
On the other hand, there are significant differences in what is
going on in the two fronts. The Palestinian problem is not a new
issue and is not related to the immediate needs of the United
States. It is a long-standing conflict with deep roots and religious
and national dimensions. While the Iraqi conflict is fierce and
carries heavy losses, it does not have the same complicated burdens
of religion and history.
Having said that, perhaps the most significant similarity is that
neither conflict will see significant progress as long as the
parties follow the approach of resorting to force and physical
power, rather than international legality. If international bodies
such as the United Nations are given a chance to play a role in the
solution, then we may see a decline in the suffering, and a return
to the hope of constructive peace negotiations, and finally a return
to security and peace. -Published 3/5/2004(c)bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and
bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the
Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the
press as a political analyst.
Since the outbreak of the war in Iraq, a constant feature of the
political debate in the Middle East and beyond has been the argument
that the conflicts in Iraq and in Palestine are essentially similar,
that they are closely linked together, influence one another and are
but one struggle fought on two fronts.
The claim that Iraq and Palestine are interlinked was invoked in
the past by Iraqis seeking to capitalize on the Arab commitment to
Palestine in advancing Iraqi interests. One recalls Saddam Hussein's
attempt in 1990 to mobilize Arab popular support for his plans for
Kuwait, claiming that Iraq's struggle for Kuwait was part of the
Arab struggle to liberate Palestine, and receiving an enthusiastic
ovation from Yasser Arafat. Later on Saddam bought Iraq's shares in
the Palestinian struggle by subsidizing families of suicide bombers.
Nowadays Muqtada al-Sadr is the most outspoken Iraqi figure
endorsing Hamas (as well as Hizbullah).
Stories about American-Israeli cooperation in counterinsurgency,
including guided tours presumably conducted by Israeli officers for
their American opposite numbers in the Jenin refugee camp, are
quoted by proponents of the linkage argument. Analysts offer a
variety of ways by which the two conflicts influence each other or
are expected to do so.
Thus it is suggested that as the insurgency in Iraq gains
momentum, it will uplift the morale of its Palestinian counterpart
and instill in it increased drive and initiative, and the revived
Palestine armed struggle will in turn bolster the resolve of the
Iraqi insurgency. Moreover, the linkage between the two conflicts is
said to have already enhanced the centrality of the Palestine
problem: America's difficulties in Iraq, as well as the growing
hostility it faces from Arabs and Muslims, are bound to force it to
change its attitude and start exerting pressures on Israel.
A parallelism has even been found between the people of the
besieged Fallujah in Iraq and the Egyptian soldiers trapped in
Fallujah and in Iraq al-Manshiyyah in Palestine during the 1948 War,
an experience which provided one of them, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, with
inspiration for his pan-Arab vision. The view that the two conflicts
are linked, and that one cannot be solved without the other, is
voiced by realistic and pragmatic political figures and
Yet the two conflicts are not really interlinked. Their
respective sources and trajectories are profoundly different. In
Iraq the violence is obviously a manifestation of an inter- and
intra-communal struggle for power in preparation for the departure
of the coalition forces, and fighting against those forces is one of
the cards used by competing parties. The conflict in Iraq did not
break out as a result of developments in Palestine, and its
resolution does not depend on resolving the Palestinian problem.
Similarly, were the main parties in Iraq to agree on a formula
opening the way for internal peace and departure of coalition
forces, would this change the basic positions of Israelis and
Palestinians in their conflict, or the balance of power, or the
situation on the ground?
Furthermore, the two conflicts clearly evolve independently of
each other. Jenin has indeed declared itself a twin city with
Fallujah (the one in Iraq), yet the siege of Fallujah, and the
intensification of the insurgency in Iraq in general, have not been
accompanied by a similar intensification of Palestinian operations,
at least thus far. Similarly, America's difficulties in Iraq have
not forced it to change its policies vis-a-vis Israel, again at
least thus far-witness the recent Bush-Sharon understandings.
Events in Iraq since March 2003 have only underlined what had
been obvious for some time, namely that in real political terms,
pan-Arabism exists no longer, and inter-Arab commitment is symbolic
rather than real. The struggle of the Palestinians is their own, and
its fate will be determined by whatever happens on the ground, and
not far afield.
Still, Iraq does have implications for the Arab-Israel equation
in a wider sense. One is the removal of the potential eastern front
threat, following the demise of the Saddam regime. It is difficult
to imagine the reemergence of an Iraqi military threat to Israel in
the next few years. In hindsight it can be argued that the Iraqi
military did not constitute a formidable threat in the first place.
Nevertheless it had such an image, and its removal allows the
introduction of changes in Israel's strategic and political
Secondly, the continued military presence of the United States in
Iraq, and its inability thus far to lead the local forces to form a
legitimate, effective and stable government, seem to erode its image
as the one power capable of setting the Middle Eastern agenda. The
longer it stays in Iraq, the harder it will be for the US to revive
and lead the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This serves the
interests of neither Palestinians nor Israelis. -Published
Israel Elad Altman is director of studies, Institute for
Policy and Strategy, The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.
bitterlemons: What did you see in your recent trip to Iraq
that evoked for you similarities or differences with Palestine?
Atallah: We were traveling between Baghdad and al Halla
and we had to find a bypass road to avoid an area that had been
closed by the Americans. We were stuck for more than one hour, and I
thought--I even wrote it down--that I didn't see any difference
between what was happening here and in Palestine.
This put me in the psychological situation of being at home. At
times I was frightened, not because the Americans were there, but
because I was thinking that they were Israeli soldiers--that
impression was living inside of me.
There were checkpoints and bypass roads and requests for IDs. But
here in Palestine, [the Israelis] are more hi-tech. When you get to
a checkpoint, they easily record your ID number and check the
computer to see if you are wanted. In Baghdad, the Americans don't
have such things. They are a new occupation.
Another issue that reminded me of home was the cement walls.
bitterlemons: The army is building walls?
Atallah: The walls are closing roads, cutting off
entrances to military camps and hotels and ministries, or the way to
the airport from Baghdad. Of course, these are not dividing the
country, but it does make life difficult.
bitterlemons: From a political standpoint, what are the
comparisons that can be made?
Atallah: I heard from Iraqi intellectuals about how the
Iraqi and Palestinian authorities are similar, in that they are
called "authorities", but are not responsible for more than
education and health. This was a joke they told.
But in truth, the political situations are entirely different.
There, we are speaking about "occupation"--even those in the Iraqi
council call it an occupation. But there are still some Iraqis who
believe that the American occupation is necessary in order to manage
the internal divisions.
Al Iraqiya television, one of the TV stations founded by the
Americans and an official Iraqi channel, speaks of Palestine as an
"occupation", but when it talks about Iraq, it talks about the
"coalition forces." These people also do not find the two cases
similar. They see the Palestinians as having the right to rebel
against the Israeli occupation, and the Iraqi resistance as
bitterlemons: When you spoke with Iraqis about how they
see their future, what did they say? Do they sound like
Atallah: We were there supporting the Iraqi implementation
of a large survey about living conditions. We traveled all over
Kirkuk, Halqut and Yacouba. The Iraqis say they are unsure about
their future. At the beginning of the war, they had a lot of hope,
but now they are not sure how things will be.
My Iraqi friends said that those of us living in Palestine and
Iraq are going to compete with each other for quite a long time over
whose situation is worse. But even as they make this comparison,
most of them believe that the Iraqi problem will be solved more
easily than the Palestinian problem.
bitterlemons: In your experience, how do Palestinians view
Atallah: A lot of Palestinians make the comparison in the
sense that when they watch television, it is hard for them to
distinguish [visually] between Iraq and Palestine. But the context
is very different. Here in Palestine, we are speaking about daily
conflict, not only with Israeli soldiers, but with the Israeli
people in the form of settlers, the bypass roads, the fence.
I believe that the Iraqi problem is easily solved, when compared
with Palestine. Here, on the other hand, we are speaking about
another people that want to replace us, not only occupy us. They
want our land. There, it is more economic and another kind of
political agenda, for which there might be an agreement that you can
be happy with. But for Palestinians, any new agreement is
difficult--even [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's proposal was
rejected by the Likud. Our issue is much more complicated.
Akram Atallah, a refugee from Zakariya who lives in Dheisheh
Refugee Camp, visited Iraq for two months as a researcher.
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