There is the world. And then there is the Middle East

9/11 six months on: Israel
Click to follow

Osama Bin Laden's undoubted aim in orchestrating the attack on Manhattan was to produce a political earthquake that would topple what he sees as traitorous Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, destroy the "Zionist entity", and induce the United States to withdraw from the Middle East with its tail between its legs as it did after the bombing of the US marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983.

No such earthquake has occurred, and virtually the only achievement since last September about which he can crow has been the murder in Pakistan of the journalist Daniel Pearl. The videotape of him being forced to say: "My name is Daniel Pearl. I'm a Jewish-American. My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am a Jew" symbolised how inextricably linked America and the Jewish nation of Israel are to Bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida cohorts.

Yet if there has been no earthquake, nevertheless six months on from 11 September fundamental changes in the political geology of the Middle East are plain to see. Firstly, the prime source of radical Islamic ideology and propaganda worldwide – the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia – is being reined in by the Saudi regime. Quiet assistance has been given to the American anti-terrorist campaign. Muslim charitable foundations that had been fronts for terrorist groups have been terminated. The royal kleptocrats have begun to sense that their very survival is at stake. Prince Abdullah's recent obliging noises about a possible accommodation with Israel are another symptom of this new outlook. The Saudis have fallen into line under pressure from a hard-nosed US administration that is in no mood to accept no for an answer from a country that is by far the largest recipient of American military assistance in the region.

Secondly, the vice is at last closing round Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader recently celebrated his 30th year in power. The Bush administration is determined to remove him from power. Nor does the Pentagon tremble at the threat of resignation uttered on her behalf by "friends" of Clare Short. It will go ahead with its rearrangement of affairs in Baghdad with or without the imprimatur of the British Secretary of State for International Development. Whether it will do so by means of an all-out assault or by the more subtle strategy, utilising local surrogates, that proved successful in Afghanistan, remains to be seen.

Thirdly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated to unprecedented proportions and perhaps reached a climactic point. The announcement by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, that he is prepared to enter talks with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions represents a humiliating climb-down. It has come about for several reasons. The Israeli army has suffered demoralising setbacks in the past fortnight: one of its Merkava tanks, hitherto considered virtually invulnerable to attack by irregulars, was destroyed; and a lone gunman at a West Bank checkpoint shot dead a group of Israeli reservist soldiers and then escaped with impunity. Mr Sharon's personal standing among the Israeli population has plummeted. The Israel Labor Party, hitherto Sharon's poodle, has begun to consider bolting his coalition. Finally, the Bush administration has withdrawn its sanction for Mr Sharon's campaign against the Palestinians – which he tried hard to sell to the Americans as a contribution to the global war against terrorism. Last week's criticism of Mr Sharon by Secretary of State Colin Powell was a signal that Israel can no longer count on a green light from Washington for a policy of pulverising the Palestinians into submission.

American power is the main force which is propelling each of these dynamic changes. It is deeply engaged in the region and clearly intends to carry a big stick and not bother too much about speaking softly.

Of course, there are limitations even to the sole superpower's capacity to reorganise the Middle East according to its own notions. Saudi Arabia is not about to be transformed into a secular society in which women can drive to the local speakeasy and sip vodka martinis. In Iraq the problem of how to create a civil society and a workable government after Saddam is at least as great a headache as the military difficulty of getting rid of him. Mr Sharon's readiness to talk does not mean that he suddenly has been converted to the necessity for withdrawing the Israeli army and settlers from the West Bank and Gaza. And contrary to the wishful thinking of many sympathisers with the Palestinians, the US administration is neither able nor willing to compel Israel to lie down doggo. In Israel, as in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, there are practical limits to the application even of American power.

If there has been no earthquake there has been a significant shift in the tectonic plates. The tremors have already been registered on the political Richter scale, and they are likely to continue to reverberate.

Professor Bernard Wasserstein is the author of 'Divided Jerusalem' (Profile Books, £9.99).