'Arabs Fear U.S. is Backing Sharon'

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Time.com: How has the Bush administration's reaction to Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon over the past week played in the Arab world, and how might this affect Arab support for the anti-terrorism coalition?

Scott MacLeod: There has been a lot of frustration all year at the way the Bush administration has reacted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there has been a lot of disappointment at how it has handled its recent efforts to reengage with the peace process. There was great relief when the Bush administration recently indicated it would take a more active role in the peace process, but the Arabs believe that while the U.S. often comes up with the right words and proposals, they don't get things done on the ground. The Arab states are particularly concerned that there seems to be an assumption that Arafat has to meet all sorts of requirements before peace talks can be resumed. The Arabs see Sharon as at least equally, if not more or even totally responsible for the continuing conflict. So they don't understand why most of the pressure is on Arafat rather than Sharon.

Arab opinion sees Sharon's military response to last weekend's suicide bombings as a dangerous sign that he plans to take a more aggressive position against the Palestinian Authority. And they're concerned by their perception that the United States may be aligning itself more and more with the Sharon government in the context of the U.S. war on terrorism. It remains to be seen whether this will actually happen, but if it does happen will draw a very strong reaction in the Arab world.

The Arabs don't see this as a terrorism issue, they see it as Palestinians resisting occupation, and that the priority should be to end the occupation. Many of those who denounce bin Laden's terrorism don't regard Hamas as a terrorist organization.

What impact have the televised images of Tuesday's Israeli air strikes on Gaza had in the Arab world?

The Arab world has never before been as agitated by the Palestinian problem as it has been this year, precisely because see the plight of the Palestinians on television every day now. Scenes of Palestinian school kids running down the street in panic to get away from Israeli attacks, and of kids being injured, generate a lot of anger in the Arab world. If the administration throws its weight solidly behind Sharon and mounts a very aggressive campaign against the funding of Hamas, this is going to be a serious point of friction with countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where public opinion does not regard Hamas as a terrorist organization but as a legitimate resistance organization. This is potentially going to complicate the U.S. war on terrorism, which requires the cooperation of Arab states if it is to be effective. Also, it will be more difficult for America to win Arab acquiescence for any action against Saddam Hussein if the attitudes of Arab leaders become very antagonistic to American policy on the Palestinian problem. And the situation is becoming more polarized all the time.