What to Do First: Israel or Iraq?

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Caught in a trap: Bush faces conflicting advice from his brain trust

At its heart, the Republican fight about Iraq is also a battle about Israel. GOP critics of a rush to military action say that if the Bush administration is serious about going after Saddam, it had better push Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table first. Advocates of a quick and decisive war counter that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can't be resolved right now, and therefore shouldn't be an obstacle to action, and, they say, the Middle East will actually be safer without Saddam around.

The argument from the GOP foreign policy old guard is based on the premise that if the U.S. invades Iraq with no Arab allies in support, the consequence could be a long-term violent backlash against American interests throughout the Middle East, including the overthrow of pro-U.S. governments by extremist elements. Also, they argue, Arab support may be even more critical in the task of stabilizing a post-Saddam Iraq, which could require a long-term occupation of the country by U.S. forces. But the Arab allies that supported the U.S. in the Gulf War have rejected a new attack on Iraq, and a recurring theme in their complaints is the danger of a violent backlash sparked by a U.S. attack on an Arab country while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains hot. U.S. mediation between Israel and the Palestinians has become a litmus test among Arabs of U.S. bona fides in the Middle East. That was the reason the first Bush administration leaned heavily on the Israelis before and after the Gulf War, threatening to cut funding if Israel persisted in expanding its West Bank settlements and cajoling the Shamir government into diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians. Key architects of that policy, such as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State James Baker, have urged the current Bush administration to follow suit.

Administration hawks, however, don't agree — and not simply because they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dangerous distraction from what they consider the priority of getting rid of Saddam Hussein (the Old Guard tend to see Iraq as secondary to the war on al-Qaeda, and in some cases, to securing peace between Israel and its neighbors). Underlying the dispute are different views of how to conduct U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in general, and in the Israeli-Palestinian context in particular. It's not coincidental that Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other strong advocates of invading Iraq are also among the administration's most vocal critics of the notion of applying any pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to resume dialogue with the Palestinians. Neither is there any surprise that the voices of caution, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, have also been those that have advocated accelerating negotiations towards Palestinian statehood.

The "Old Guard" view associated with Powell, Baker and Scowcroft sees the U.S. interest in the Middle East as necessarily balanced between Israel and Arab allies, and that the conflict between those competing interests would be best resolved through a territorial compromise that separates Israel and the Palestinians along a modified version of Israel's 1967 borders, creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The view associated with Cheney, Rumsfeld and others is skeptical about the wisdom of Israel ceding the West Bank, suggesting that the territory remains indispensable to the country's ability to defend itself. They tend to see the continuation of a low-intensity war between Israel and the Palestinians as representing little threat to U.S. interests or regional stability, and like Sharon and Bibi Netanyahu, the Bush administration hawks tend to reject the very premise of the Oslo Accords. They have persuaded President Bush to adopt a policy that requires the remaking of Palestinian politics on terms more acceptable to the U.S. and Israel as a precondition for political dialogue. Replacing Saddam with a pro-Western leadership, some hawks suggest, could profoundly alter the current power equation throughout the Middle East, affecting everything from America's access to oil supplies to its ability to press the Palestinians to accept Israel's terms for peace.

The prospect of a new Pax Americana in the Middle East generates little enthusiasm among Arab leaders across the political spectrum, however, and concern over their ability to manage the domestic political backlash against a U.S. attack on Iraq has prompted them to declare their opposition. Both Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudis have emphasized the need for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front before any action on Iraq could even be considered. If Powell and the Old Guard prevail over the hawks in the battle for President Bush's ear, he is unlikely to go to war in Iraq before assembling a broad coalition. And the building of such a coalition, as it did in 1991, is likely require pressure on Israel to both halt settlement activity and to resume dialogue with the Palestinians. But Sharon is showing little inclination to respond to new peace initiatives that involve confronting settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. And he knows that the domestic politics of an election year all but preclude Washington from nudging him back towards talking to the Palestinians. Triangulating the positions of the Israelis, the Arabs and Capitol Hill suggest coalition-building could be a long and arduous process, one hardly conducive to quick action against Saddam.

Then again, the counsel from the hawkish camp is that the U.S. should begin moving ahead, alone if necessary, and the allies will have no choice but to fall into step, making the decision by "leadership rather than consensus," as Rumsfeld puts it. That's a far simpler and more decisive course to chart right now. But the Old Guard warns that it carries far more dangers. And so the debate continues.