Robert Fisk: The Arabs will ensure they receive a political reward for their support

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The United States Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, heads for the Middle East and President George Bush discovers that, even before 11 September, a Palestinian state had been part of his "vision" of the Middle East.

Could it be that the Americans are quietly acknowledging that their policies in the region might, just might, have something to do with the atrocities in New York and Washington? Of course, it could be just realpolitik. When President Bush's father wanted to maintain a Western-Arab alliance against Iraq in 1991, he decided to resolve the Middle East conflict, calling Arabs and Israeli leaders to a "peace" conference in Madrid. Anxious to create a new consensus with Arab nations in advance of his strike at Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, Mr Bush Jnr now says that "the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right to Israel to exist is respected". Which would have been much more impressive a statement had it been made before 11 September. But it wasn't.

Arab states, of course, have been making it clear for more than a week that their support for Mr Bush's "war on terrorism" was conditional; in return, the US would have to promise a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, meet the Palestinian chairman, Yasser Arafat, preferably at the UN in New York, and discuss an end to the sanctions against Iraq which have killed, according to some UN as well as Arab estimates, hundreds of thousands of children. The fact that these are two of the four demands repeatedly made by Osama bin Laden is, needless to say, not mentioned.

The Arabs are in an odd situation: aware of Washington's desperate need for their support, both political and military – America needs Saudi Arabia's airbases – they can demand a return on their help. But they are also aware that Arab Muslims were responsible for the crimes against humanity on 11 September. The "Muslim" bit may be questionable, but that's what the mass murderers of New York and Washington claimed to be, and it appears, at least, that more than half the killers were Saudis. The Arabs, in other words, feel power and remorse in about equal measure. Power is likely to be the winner: they want a political reward for their support in the "war against terrorism".

So far, only fringe groups in the Middle East have provided some contextual criticism of America's policies. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement in Lebanon, claims the US "needs a vague enemy to justify the internationalisation of this war" because "America is afraid to clearly define 'terrorism' to prevent it from being held accountable for its own actions." Back in 1983, Washington blamed the Hizbollah's satellite groups, Islamic Jihad and others, for the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, the destruction of the US marine base in Beirut with its 241 American dead and numerous kidnappings of US citizens.

The Hizbollah are anxious to steer clear of any residual American demands for justice. Hence Mr Nasrallah's references to a "vague enemy" and the need to "define" terrorism. For if the Hizbollah can be classified as a "resistance" group, as the State Department now categorises it, it is safe. If its somewhat grimy past is taken into account, Hizbollah leaders could find themselves on the list of "Wanted, Dead or Alive" along with Mr bin Laden.

Already, the Israelis are insisting that Imad Mougnieh, a Hizbollah "sympathiser" in the narrowest definition of the word, should be an American target because he allegedly conducted most of the kidnappings of Westerners in the mid-Eighties and may have been behind the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has long called Lebanon "the centre of world terror", a fact that obviously escaped Luciano Pavarotti, Richard Branson, Elton John and other personalities who recently visited Lebanon.

Most Arab newspaper commentators, boring though they usually are, insist the UN should lead a "war on terror". And it was a former Lebanese prime minister, Selim Hoss, as unloved as he is honest, who said yesterday that Arabs should themselves undertake "a wide campaign to fight terrorism under the UN umbrella". Why, Mr Hoss asked, "isn't international terrorism being fought with the weapon of international law?"

The issue is further complicated by continuing Arab demands that Mr Sharon should be tried by an international court for his role as Israeli Defence Minister during the 1982 Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camp massacres which cost the lives of up to 1,800 civilians. Although the fatalities were only a quarter of the dead so far accounted for in New York and Washington, they are a constant reminder that "terrorism" is a charge that can be levelled against America's allies as well as its enemies in the Middle East.