A sex scandal in Washington could lead to a war in the Middle East

Robert Fisk on fatal consequences

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President Clinton's sexual behaviour, it now seems, may tilt the balance from peace to war in the Middle East. Every front- page headline in the Arab world has grasped this point. True, President Clinton might try to distract Americans by launching yet another strike against Baghdad for its non-compliance with UN weapons inspectors; even if he found military reason to do so, however, no one in the Middle East would believe that the timing was coincidental.

Yet far more serious is the fact that the US president - who never did more than complain privately to Israel about its wish to destroy the Oslo agreement - no longer has the slightest leverage over the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And a war between Israelis and Palestinians, ever more likely given the threats that they are making against each other, will cost many more lives than Mr Clinton's pin-prick missiles against Iraq.

Within hours of President Clinton's meeting with Mr Netanyahu last week, the signs were all too clear. The White House spokesman, James Rubin, was waffling about Yassir Arafat's need to be "realistic" about what he could get - as opposed to what he was entitled to - under the Oslo Middle East peace accord; and Jerusalem's mayor Ehud Olmert announced that Mr Netanyahu had just given his unequivocal commitment to further Jewish settlement building on occupied Arab land in east Jerusalem, in total violation of the Oslo accords. No wonder Mr Arafat left Washington muttering about the "peanuts" the Palestinians were being offered.

Arab leaders understood all too well what had happened: President Clinton's political impotence meant that he could not afford to anger Congress or the Senate - whose pro-Israeli lobbyists decide US policy on the Middle East - and the Israelis, courtesy of Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky et al could therefore do what they want. And so they did. While the Palestinian Authority negotiator Hassan Asfour reproached Mr Clinton for failing, as peace guarantor, to condemn Israel's stated intention of keeping at least 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank, Israel's cabinet secretary Danny Naveh announced that "no one will dictate to Israel what are its vital national interests".

No indeed. While Mr Netanyahu was assuring his American Jewish lobbyists that Jewish settlements would continue to be built, his army chief of staff, Major General Amnon Shahak, was claiming that without security guarantees from Lebanon, Israel's occupation troops might stay there for "another 1,000 years". Quite apart from the implications of such an extraordinary statement - at a rate of 39 soldiers killed a year, General Shahak was dooming another 39,000 Israelis to die in Lebanon - it was an open invitation to the pro-Iranian Hizbollah to respond. And they did.

The guerrilla organisation's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, told a "Jerusalem Day" rally in Beirut that Hizbollah would fight against Israel for "thousands of years", asking why the Israelis thought their state would exist in the year 2998. Hizbollah would fight until Jerusalem was "free of Jews". Never before had Nasrallah spoken like this. But the drums of war always echo louder on the other side of front lines and we can expect more fearful rhetoric from Israelis and Arabs alike. Just two days ago, Israel radio was reporting that the US and Israelis would begin talks - not on peace but on the possibility of war with Syria.

In the meantime, the Israeli army has produced its own code name for a future campaign against Palestinians in the event of a second "intifada" uprising, about which Arafat has been warning. Mr Netanyahu is threatening a "tough response". And just as the 1996 Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon was named "Grapes of Wrath", the future anti-Palestinian strike - according to Israeli journalists - is to be called "Operation Burning Steel". The Israeli daily Maariv even claims that the Palestinians possess Stinger anti-aircraft missiles in the West Bank - a weird assertion when Israel controls all land frontiers to the area. Israeli commanders and their soldiers are going to be "mentally prepared" for operations against the Palestinians, the paper ominously warned last week.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, where the Babel newspaper - edited by Saddam Hussein's son Oudai - has been heaping scorn on Mr Clinton's sex life, Saddam himself must be opening magnums of champagne to celebrate the US president's potential catastrophe. Saddam knows full well that if the sex scandal destroys Mr Clinton, he will have outlasted two American presidential adversaries; and that if Mr Clinton chooses to attack Iraq because of Baghdad's refusal to cooperate with the weapons inspectors, Arab states - regarding such an attack as a cynical distraction from Clinton's domestic plight - will be under strong pressure to abandon US "protection" and speak out on Iraq's behalf.

Not, of course, that Arab leaders are any more personally moral than Mr Clinton. One plucky monarch whom we in the West all know and love was recently involved with a student even younger than Monica Lewinski. A Gulf ruler regularly marries virgins from his emirate's tribes. A very well-known Arab Gulf king bought an entire seafront hotel to prevent guests viewing his latest conquests in their bikinis in a neighbouring palace. Nor are the Israelis exempt. Moshe Dayan was a notorious womaniser. Mr Netanyahu has even performed a Clinton sexual mea culpa on television. But in the Middle East, sex does not decide the future of nations.

One irony of the situation has not eluded the Arabs. Talal Salman, the wily editor of Beirut's daily As Safir newspaper sharply spotted Arafat's own weakness. "The melodrama of the whole thing is that Arafat is making concessions (on security and the PLO charter) to an American president who is himself on the verge of being ousted," he wrote. "The time for counting on the United States or others is over." The Saudi-owned Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat ran a cartoon in which a two-faced Mr Clinton stared traumatised at Monica Lewinsky on television while at the same time trying to concentrate on Mr Arafat, as the PLO leader waved the Oslo agreement in front of him. There was, typically, no explanation as to why so many Arab leaders slavishly put their trust in the US as an honest broker in the first place.

Already (and predictably), Arab leaders have decided that the Israeli lobby organised Mr Clinton's affair. The Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri has publicly claimed this to be true. No one has asked - despite Mr Clinton's feeble attempt last week to persuade Israel to keep its side of the peace bargain - why the lobby would want to destroy a man whose own Middle East policies have been so cravenly pro-Israeli. Mr Clinton's sexual behaviour has meanwhile affected other parts of the Middle East. In Iran, the domestic enemies of President Mohamed Khatami - a genuinely moral man who has sought to heal the terrible rift between his country and the US - have been regaling their supporters with tales of Mr Clinton's Rabelaisian behaviour.

This is not the moment, clearly, for more Iranian talk of "the great American people" - not when it seems that the lives and deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Middle East people, Arabs and Israelis alike, may depend on the shape of the presidential organ and the use to which it has been put. Which is, to say the least, obscene.

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