Vice-President Dick Cheney's mid-March trip through the Middle East was supposed to rally regional states to America's war on terror--notably its potential next phase in Iraq. But the whirling dervish tour of 11 countries mainly underlined the differences between the U.S. and its Arab allies. One Arab leader after another told Cheney that America's priority should be ending the increasingly dangerous conflict between Israelis and Palestinians rather than ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
While Arab leaders distrust Saddam and would like to see him replaced with a more responsible regime, they don't share Washington's obsession with the Iraqi. For them, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a more immediate threat because it highlights the conflict between their ties to the U.S. and their constituents' anger at American support for Israel. "Why attack a regime that is only a potential danger when Israel is sending tanks and missiles into populated areas?" says a Saudi official. "It will look like the U.S. has double standards and is targeting Arabs and Muslims."
The interplay between these two issues--Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--will dominate Middle East diplomacy for the next few months. If the U.S. moves skillfully, it could acquire crucial Arab support for both dealing with Saddam and for easing the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. But the more likely scenario is continued chaos and heightened U.S.-Arab tensions.
Washington's saber-rattling has jolted Arab leaders out of their usual inaction. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah floated his plan for ending the Arab conflict because he's worried that a U.S. effort to depose Saddam could shake the House of Saud, if it happens against a background of intense Israeli-Palestinian fighting. "It would be catastrophic for the Saudi regime," says Roger Diwan, a Middle East analyst at Washington energy consultants Petroleum Finance Co.
Barring surprises, Abdullah's proposals are likely to be approved at a key summit of Arab leaders on Mar. 27 in Beirut. The plan offers Israel normalization of relations with its Arab neighbors in return for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war. Even Iraq may mute its objections if the summit opposes a U.S. attack on Saddam.
The plan faces obstacles, however. Although Syria and Lebanon have signed on, they may insist on tough language on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homeland. That could give Israel an opening to dismiss the whole effort. In addition, it's far from clear how Abdullah plans to sell his ideas to the Israelis and Americans once he wins support for them from the Arab states.
No matter how Abdullah decides to play his cards, it makes sense for Washington to give the Saudi proposal a thorough test. Saudi Arabia's Islamic credentials give the kingdom formidable clout on matters such as the future of Jerusalem. And if Washington can enlist Arab support for tamping down the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, that might later translate into help on dealing with Saddam. "With hope for an independent Palestinian state on the horizon, Arab leaders would be more inclined to tolerate an intervention in Iraq," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian analyst at Washington's Middle East Institute.
Washington is listening. Many observers think the Americans' failure to sell the Arabs on ousting Saddam means that Washington will delay an offensive at least until the fall. Moreover, the Bush Administration has dispatched an envoy, General Anthony C. Zinni, to try to broker a cease-fire. But only a big idea can douse the fire permanently. Whatever its flaws, Abdullah's plan is the only one out there now.
By Stanley Reed in London, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem and Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady