Why Ousting Saddam Won't Bring Middle East Peace

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A Palestinian boy runs through a burning barricade of tires in Gaza. Israeli tanks moved into two refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, killing eight people

The most extraordinary promise President Bush has made about the positive effects of an Iraq war is that it will ease the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president believes that the key obstacle to peace right now is Palestinian terrorism — again on display in Haifa Wednesday, where a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis — and that removing Saddam will somehow stop that terrorism. "The passing of Saddam Hussein's regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron that pays for terrorist training, and offers rewards to families of suicide bombers," the president said in a speech last week. "Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders."

The president's view, however, finds little support among analysts of the region, diplomats engaged in peace efforts or even Israeli and Palestinian leaders. A number of contending explanations have been offered for the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but Saddam Hussein is not one of them. The Iraqi leader may be beloved on the Palestinian street for his defiance of the U.S., but he has never been a significant factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His only direct presence in Palestinian politics comes in the form of the Arab Liberation Front, a miniscule Ba'athist organization based in the northern West Bank. And while the president is correct in charging that Saddam provides lavish compensation to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, he is hardly alone among Arab leaders in doing so.

The notion that eliminating terrorism will bring forth moderate Palestinian leaders willing to conclude a peace deal with Israel is questionable — or at least conditional upon what Israel offers by way of a political solution. There is certainly a strong reform movement in Palestinian society that seeks to be rid of the corrupt and inept administration of Yasser Arafat. But its strongest element has been the West Bank and Gaza militants who waged the first intifada from 1987 to 1991; were sidelined as Arafat and his coterie of Tunis-based exiles took over following the Oslo agreements; and then launched the second intifada when Oslo hit a wall at Camp David.

Some of those activists today advocate a farewell to arms, arguing that terrorism has done little to advance the Palestinian goal of ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Others see armed struggle as the best way to pursue that goal — and they find themselves fighting alongside the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who seek not only a return to the 1967 borders but the elimination of the State of Israel. Still, there is no Palestinian leader of any inclination willing to accept anything less than a settlement based on the 1967 borders (or a modified version of those). And Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has made clear he has no intention of offering anything close to such a settlement — indeed, Israeli analysts believe Sharon's idea of Palestinian statehood doesn't extend much beyond a modified version of the almost 50 percent of the West Bank and Gaza currently designated as under Palestinian Authority rule, although in practical terms much of that territory in the West Bank is controlled by the Israeli military.

Even if terror attacks were halted, Sharon and the Palestinians remain fundamentally divided over where the borders might be drawn between two states. That's an issue on which they may need a little forceful help from the international community, and yet the parameters of a settlement is an issue on which President Bush remained curiously silent. The administration has adopted its stance from Sharon himself — Israel is not required to make any movement towards ending its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and curbing settlement activity before the intifada ends. It's a significant break with U.S. policy that until now has held that Israeli settlements in territories captured in 1967 are unacceptable, regardless of the state of the peace process.

More important was the president's silence on UN Resolution 242. Long a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, that resolution calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories seized in 1967 in exchange for recognition, peace and security. It remains the basis of an international consensus on resolving the conflict, and has been the starting point for negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders throughout the peace process. The president emphasized 242 in his Mideast policy speech last summer. But the Bush administration is spit on whether to continue to support it. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, a number of key Defense Department appointees and White House Mideast policy supremo Elliot Abrams are noted critics of the Oslo peace process and the idea of Israel giving up the West Bank and Gaza. Rumsfeld even challenges their designation as "occupied territories." Another camp in the administration, led by secretary of State Colin Powell, has consistently pushed for a political solution based on Resolution 242.

Despite President Bush's insistence, there's little reason to believe ousting Saddam will bring Middle East peace any closer. That's because the reason Israelis and Palestinians haven't achieved peace until now has precious little to do with the Iraqi despot, and everything to do with the battle for control over land. Until the U.S. is able to take a forceful lead in pushing for a clearly defined territorial compromise along the lines of Resolution 242 as the required destination for the two sides once they have ended their violent confrontation, Israeli-Palestinian peace will remain elusive. That's why Israeli doves — an embattled lot, to be sure — are increasingly inclined to quip that the prospects for reviving a peace agreement with the Palestinians may be helped less by regime-change in Baghdad than by regime-change in Washington.