Moments that made the year: Hypocrisy and deceit: the essential ingredients for war

The Middle East

Madeleine Albright, America's increasingly ineffectual Secretary of State, described 1997 as "not a good year for the peace process". It was a disaster, which in the coming months may well bring war to the Middle East.

As usual in the region, 1997 started in hypocrisy and deceit. The Algerian government announced that "terrorism was on its last legs". Then a series of mass atrocities - the systematic throat-cutting by supposed "Islamists" of thousands of women and children in the poor villages of the Mitidja plain - proved that the Algerian civil war was now of Bosnian proportions.

A few weeks later, the Egyptian government announced that "the terrorists were finished". Then came Luxor and the murder and mutilation of 58 foreign tourists. In Lebanon, the year began with more talk of the nation's rebirth and reconstruction - and ended with massive external debts and growing fear of another war with Israel.

But it was the Arab-Israeli "peace" that was finally buried this year, when the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, decided - in total contravention of all the agreements guaranteed by the United States - to build yet another Jewish settlement on occupied Arab land. Har Homa, most of the Western press obediently called it - the Arab name of Abu Ghoneim - was largely forgotten as Israel created facts on the ground --and the Palestinians, pleading vainly to the Americans, the French, even the British, watched their dreamed-for Palestinian state turn to dust.

The Arab nations which had stood by America - whose troops supported the Western armies in the 1991 Gulf War, whose investments have been lodged in New York, whose lands are protected or lived in (or occupied) by American troops - watched appalled, their impotence as obvious as their sense of betrayal. Those Palestinians who had long since abandoned any allegiance to Yassir Arafat expressed their own frustration in a predictably bloody and terrible way: with wicked suicide bombings in Israel. An even more angry Netanyahu then denounced "terrorism" and accused Arafat of giving the "green light" to the bloodbath.

The pattern is now established. Israel blames Arab "terrorism" for lack of progress in the "peace process" and refuses to make "concessions" (i.e. fulfil Israel's commitments) in the agreement. He then announces new settlements on stolen land - and gives further provocation to would-be Palestinian murderers.

By year's end, the corruption of the dictatorial and brutal Arafat was complete when he agreed to allow the CIA to decide which Palestinians should or should not be released from prison.

Mr Netanyahu, meanwhile, went in for a little "terrorism" of his own, sending at least two Israeli murderers to kill an official of Hamas - which claimed at least two of this year's bombings - in the capital of friendly Jordan, whose King Hussein is increasingly despised by his own people for his peace with Israel. The Israeli secret service was blamed for "botching" the attempted murder - not for trying to carry it out against all international law - but it was enough to convince the Arabs that Israel did not want peace.

For when Mrs Albright tried to court them to attend the Qatar Arab-Israeli economic summit, almost all boycotted the meeting, preferring instead to turn up at Tehran - in the capital of America's principle adversary in the Middle East - for an Islamic summit at which Iran's new president, Mohamed Khatami, issued an unprecedented call for a dialogue with the "American people". President Clinton, still fearful of the Israeli lobby which now virtually controls US Middle East policy, said he'd like a dialogue too - on "terrorism" and the Middle East "peace process", the two subjects upon which the Iranians have no interest in talking to the Americans.

But the Europeans - having stormed out of Iran when a German court blamed the supreme leadership for the murder of Kurdish opponents in Berlin - crept back to Tehran in the autumn to continue their own dialogue with one of the Middle East's great oil nations. All over the region, Arabs, too, wanted to ask the Europeans - the very nations which created the morasse in which the Middle East finds itself - for help. They wanted a European initiative, European pressure on Israel and on America. Some hope.

When Saddam Hussein ordered US weapons inspectors out of Iraq, President Clinton thought he could talk tough and launch a few more cruise missiles at the impoverished Iraqis. The Arabs told him to get lost. When Mrs Albright turned up in the region to dig the long-dead peace process out of its grave, the tough-talking secretary of state turned into a mouse, blandly mouthing Israeli government policies, claiming that killing was worse than "building houses" - her mendacious reference to stealing Arab land - and suggesting that settlement-building, which contradicts the very foundation of the peace, was legal. By the time she got round to mentioning Palestinian grievances, the Israelis were treating her with the contempt she deserved.

At all this, the bad guys of the region rejoiced: Saddam finished the year by telling the Americans they could not visit his palaces, even if they did think a warhead or two might be concealed under the four-poster beds. The Arab "partners for peace" turned up en masse to demonstrate their friendship towards the new Iran. And the Americans went on supporting the Algerian government (which is increasingly implicated in the massacres - or at least the failure to prevent them) and the Egyptian government, whose own corruption and brutality has helped provoke its own home-grown and vicious rebellion.

By year's end, the ceasefire in southern Lebanon was a charade, with villagers being killed - by Hizbollah but more frequently by Israelis - every week. Israel talked about fighting "a war against terrorism on two fronts", suggesting that a coming bloodbath would take place in both the West Bank and Lebanon. But whoever Mr Netanyahu thinks he might be fighting, the question must be asked: who would win?

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