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Message-Id: <199701121831.NAA61002@listserv.vt.edu>
Sender: o-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Sat, 11 Jan 97 11:24:09 CST
From: MID-EAST REALITIES <MER@middleeast.org>
Subject: 1997 - Much Mid-East Violence Ahead
Article: 3712

Why a flack jacket may be the thing to wear

By Robert Fisk, The Independent,
29 December 1996

After 20 years of living and working in Beirut, I did something just before Christmas that I have never done before: I called London and told the foreign editor that we needed a flak jacket for Beirut in 1997. I guess that says it all.

I haven't met anyone in the Middle East who doesn't believe that next year is going to see the collapse of every recent hope of peace. How can it be otherwise, they ask, when the Likud government in Israel is tearing up the Oslo accords? Even President Bill Clinton, in his familiar, cringing, gentle criticism of Israel, is beginning to realize that war rather than peace may be the next fate of the region next year.

Is it possible to avoid this terrible outcome? Yet another promise of a Hebron withdrawal in a few days—there have been eight such promises in the past six months—holds out a slim hope. But with his new settlement programmes, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, seems intent on provoking the Palestinians to violence. If this is true, it's not difficult to see why. He doesn't like the Oslo accord, and has refused the land-for-peace deal agreed by his Labour predecessors; but still he says he only wants peace. So if, or when, the Palestinians, deprived of all hope, resume an intifada against Israel, Mr. Netanyahu will blame them for the collapse of the peace process, claim that he only wanted peace, and declare Oslo dead.

In a fair world, the United States would tell Israel to honor the commitments to which Washington was a guarantor or lose its massive financial subventions, its huge military assistance programme and its constant, unquestioning political support from America. But, of course, that is not going to happen. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful lobby group in the United States, supports the Netanyahu government; Likud's friends in the US Congress were defending his expansion of Jewish settlements on confiscated Arab land within two days of Mr. Netanyahu's announcement.

James Baker, in the warning letter he wrote to the Israeli Prime Minister this month, along with other former US Secretaries of State, understood all too well what was going on: Israeli actions were going to damage American interests in the region. But in a United States where the President, Congress, press and television are so fearful of criticizing Israel  and where the country's small Jewish community openly boasts of its immense political power  Israel's interests are likely to win over America's.

So what can we expect of 1997? Violence, on a potentially terrifying scale, in the West Bank or Gaza or both, according to many Palestinians. This is going to be an awful year, the worst of my life, a Palestinian acquaintance from Gaza told me. He should know; back in 1982, he spent months under Israeli fire on the west Beirut perimeter, watching his comrades and the family with which he was living die around him. But yet, he said, 1997 would be worse.

The Lebanese feel the same way. If the middle classes who are resurrecting the shattered city of Beirut still cling to their dream of prosperity, the villagers of southern Lebanon have no such illusions. The ceasefire, which has been crumbling away almost daily as the pro-Iranian Hizbollah eat away at the morale and lives of Israel's occupation troops, is unlikely to last many more months. Israel is wounding Lebanese civilians in its retaliatory artillery fire -- something it was strictly forbidden from doing under the terms of last April's truce. And, already, Israel has been preparing the ground for an offensive by encouraging journalists to write about new terrorist camps in the Bekaa valley containing Saudis, IRA men, Iranians, Basque ETA guerrillas, just as they did before their disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And if Israel believes that Syria can be driven to the negotiating table without the return of the Golan Heights  an impossibility  then Syrian targets in Lebanon can be included in a future offensive.

And if this comes to pass, what will be the results? Many Arabs will die. And Israelis who believed Mr. Netanyahu when he told them he would bring them security will die too. Those brave Israelis who consistently demanded a just settlement with the Arabs  land for peace  will be in despair. American credibility in the Middle East will also die a little death. Its soldiers in Saudi Arabia will be in ever greater danger of attack; so will its embassies. Identified, correctly, as Israel's principal armourer, the United States' interests will become a more frequent target. Israel and its friends in America will no doubt blame this on Islamic terror, on Syria, Iran, Sudan or Libya. But the real reasons behind such violence will be clear enough.

Europe stands to benefit from such a scenario. Increasingly aware that America is in thrall to Israel and that the nations of the Middle East are permanent neighbours, European governments are likely to become more deeply involved in the region, whether America and Israel like it or not  and they will not. But the real losers, apart from the Palestinians, will be those Arab regimes which, like Yasser Arafat, decided to trust America's sponsorship of the peace process: the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco,Qatar and other Gulf states will find themselves facing ever greater internal dissent and opposition. This is the worst nightmare of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, which is why he has been talking publicly of the dangers of political collapse in the Middle East.

The traditional bad guys  Sudan, Libya and Iran (which will acquire a more radical president next year in the Iranian parliament speaker, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri)  will gloat over the West's embarrassment while scarcely raising a finger to help in the denouement. If things turn out to be as bad as many fear, they will be the winners. And, mesmerised by the crisis in the Middle East, we are likely to forget Algeria, whose civil war is certain to grow yet more bloody.

Is it possible, then, to feel any optimism? If an Israeli government of national unity was formed to include Shimon Peres? If Mr. Arafat somehow persuaded Mr. Netanyahu to halt settlement-building or if Likud's promise were merely rhetoric? But alas, they are not, and Mr. Arafat has no leverage over Mr. Netanyahu. Only the United States can bring order back into the region, and it is just conceivable that the antics of the Likud government will begin a slow process of change in the United States, in which Israel will no longer be exempt from criticism or even condemnation, in which America's uncritical support can no longer be taken for granted.

But don't count on it. There is one phrase invariably used by US administration spokesmen when they choose to duck their responsibilities and let the Arabs and Israelis fight it out. They always call upon all sides to exercise restraint. When I hear that, I'll reach for my flak jacket.