Ticking towards disaster

The West is ignoring all the signs that the Middle East is about to explode, says Robert Fisk
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The "peace process" is long dead. A war is not far away. Almost anyone in the Middle East will tell you this. Almost no one in the United States or Europe believes it. They talk - as the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, did on Friday - of a "low point" in the peace process, as if the whole flawed Oslo agreement was not already buried. All the evidence that a bloody explosion is imminent in the Middle East, of which last week's slaughter in Jerusalem was merely one more sign, is wilfully ignored.

For months now, Benjamin Netanyahu and his bickering cabinet have been discussing a reinvasion of Palestinian-held territory. In June, Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser, was telling the leaders of the powerful American-Israeli lobby group AIPAC that they should do everything possible to resist congressional calls for a cut in US financial assistance to Israel, because Israel was likely to take "decisive and fateful decisions" that would "place Israel in a delicate security situation". No explanation was given as to what these "fateful" decisions would be, nor why they would place Israel in so "delicate" a state of security. This extraordinary statement was ignored by the press - except by the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

At almost the same time - although Mr Arad did not reveal this - the Israeli army was secretly simulating a reinvasion of all the West Bank towns and cities that the Israeli government had given back to the Palestinians. Netanyahu's aides were present at this gloomy exercise which proved that hundreds of lives would be lost in such an operation. They concluded, according to David Horowitz of the Jerusalem Report, that the wholesale retaking of cities like Ramallah and Hebron was not realistic. They were devising "alternative strategies" for the eventuality of a full-scale Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

Yet still, incredibly, we fail to read the signs. Take the case of Yasser Arafat. Before he was weak enough to make peace with Israel - when he was still one of the world's most wanted "terrorists" - Israel regularly compared him to Hitler. He was corrupt. He believed in using violence for political ends. He was a petty tyrant to his own people, eliminating internal enemies and cynically using a score of Palestinian secret police organisations against each other.

Then came Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Arafat's absurd support for Baghdad, his political and financial bankruptcy and - with the hopelessly flawed Oslo agreement - peace with the enemy he had always sworn to destroy. Overnight, princes, kings and presidents, and the ever compliant Western media, discovered that Arafat, far from being a super-terrorist, was a super-statesman. Israel's seal of approval - a very cynical seal, since Israel needed a weak Palestinian leader, put the West into overdrive. Arafat was a man with whom one could do business, the true leader of his people, a future president of a Palestinian state.

There was no end to this nonsense. Those of us who wrote that Oslo was a disaster, that Arafat had mortgaged his house - or "sold it twice over", as the Egyptian historian Mohamed Heikal put it to me on the day it was revealed - were vilified as spoilers of peace, as supporters of "terrorism" or, slanderous though the accusation was, "anti-Semitic". When I pointed out that Oslo provided no international guarantees, that Arafat was a deeply corrupted, untrustworthy man, that Israel had made no written commitments to halt settlement-building or share Jerusalem as a capital with the Palestinians, or leave all of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, I was informed that Israel had every intention of doing so.

When I suggested that Oslo allowed Israel to renegotiate UN Security Council Resolution 242 - calling for a total withdrawal from all occupied land in return for total security, the basis of the original 1991 US-sponsored Madrid peace conference - I was informed that trust rather than written agreements would secure peace.

But in the Middle East over the past few days, a remarkable transformation has taken place. Arafat is now being accused of giving the green light to "terror". We are asked to recall the large number of prisoners who have been tortured or murdered in the jails of the Palestinian authority. And - horror of horrors - we are told he is corrupt. Palestinian legislators have demanded the sacking of his entire cabinet for squandering 40 per cent of the authority's financial income; all but two ministers offered their resignation. What is happening is perfectly clear: Arafat is being rebestialised. He is being returned to pariah status. In preparation for what?

The United States, needless to say, is applying pressure on Arafat to "step up the war on terror" - a pressure that was not applied to the Israelis when they decided to go ahead with their new settlement on occupied land at Jebel Abu Ghoneim (Har Homa), which was not applied to the Israelis after the opening of the Jerusalem tunnel whose funding was provided by Irving Moskovitz (part of whose fortune was made with American bingo parlours). Nor was American pressure applied when Israel began to deprive Palestinians of their Jerusalem residency rights on the grounds that - although their families have lived there for generations - they have spent too many years outside the country. Another 120,000 Jerusalem Palestinians now face losing those same rights because they live on the outskirts of the city.

But after the massacre of Israelis in Jerusalem last week - a frightful act that was as wicked as it was inevitable - Arafat was ordered to resume his role as chief Palestinian policeman. Forget for a moment that every act of Palestinian "terrorism" is supposed to be linked to Arafat while every act of Israeli "terrorism" - the Hebron mosque slaughter or the murder of the Israeli prime minister, for example - is supposed to be the work of lone, insane criminals. The female settler who portrayed the Prophet Mohamed as a pig - which immediately prompted Hamas's promise of revenge - may indeed have acted alone. But if the settlements had been closed down, the incident would never have occurred. What the suicide bombings did last week was to refocus Western attention on the cruelty, rather than the causes, of the violence.

Taher al-Adwan, editor of the Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yom, represented the Arab view bluntly last week. "The Israelis tear up peace agreements," he wrote. "For withdrawal from the occupied territories, they substitute aggressive settlement expansion. They assault the holy places and insult Islam. Then above all this, they demand security, stability and peace."

It is no satisfaction to realise that one's worst predictions are swiftly being fulfilled. Only a madman does not want peace. But the dishonesty built into the Oslo agreement and Washington's gutless and uncritical response to all of Israel's actions have led the region to the abyss. Dennis Ross's return to the Middle East this week is surely more a gesture to disprove America's impotence than a serious attempt to revive a "peace process" that the Middle East already regards as dead.

And if the West Bank burns, do the Israelis believe that the Hizbollah will call a truce north of the Israeli border? Syria, too, is being accused once again by Israel of support for "world terror" - and Israel has again refused to return the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. So is Damascus also to be a target? Last week, President Assad of Syria - after telling President Mubarak of Egypt that he sees no immediate hope of peace - paid his first visit to Tehran for seven years. He wanted to meet the new Iranian president but he took with him a clutch of Syrian generals to discuss what Damascus called "strategic relations" between the two countries. The Hizbollah's weapons are shipped through Syria - from Iran.

As for the Palestinians, an ever-growing number believe that Arafat's role is to be Israel's full-time policeman, to suppress, crush and eliminate all Palestinian opposition groups so that Israel can continue to dispossess Palestinians, so that Israeli settlements can be built on occupied Arab land, and so Israel can withdraw residence papers from Palestinians who have lived in Jerusalem for generations and thus "Judaicise" Islam's third holiest city. By acting as policeman - by ensuring there is no violent Palestinian response to these acts - Arafat would, in effect, become the means by which Israel can now tear up the peace treaty.

But he probably does not have the time. The West may wilfully ignore the warnings but there is no excuse for Israelis or Palestinians to do so. And there have been plenty of Israelis willing - however vainly - to warn of what is to come. As long ago as April the Israeli commentator Hemi Shalev wrote in Maariv that "...more and more people, including those who should know, are starting to believe that an enormous explosion is unavoidable. If the Americans do not succeed in stopping the deterioration at the last moment, and if the leaders do not come to their senses before it is too late, the region will go up in flames and the historic act of conciliation will sink in rivers of blood, both ours and theirs." Mr Shalev's analysis was ignored.