Mideast conflict muddles diplomacy


WASHINGTON - The Israeli- Palestinian conflict casts an ominous shadow over the U.S. confrontation with Iraq, influencing military calculations, raising fears of a regional backlash against the United States and provoking debate over how a war would affect efforts to forge an Arab-Israeli peace.

The bitter two-year conflict, in which Israel has used weapons supplied by the United States to suppress Palestinian militants, has generated intense anti-American feeling in the Arab world and contributed to unease among even its most pro-American leaders about supporting a U.S.-led war in Iraq.

There are fears that a regional conflict could erupt if Iraq were to launch an attack on Israel and prompt a military retaliation by the Jewish state. But even if that nightmare scenario is avoided, the rise in tensions has heightened suspicions among Israelis and Arabs about the other side's intentions.

Israeli officials fear that Saddam Hussein would try to use his "infrastructure" of support for Palestinian militants in the West Bank to strike out against Israel. They also express concerns that Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, strong supporters of Palestinian militants, would launch a major attack across Israel's northern border in response to U.S. military action against Iraq.

Palestinians and Jordanians, for their part, fear that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would launch a new crackdown that could trigger an exodus of Palestinians to Jordan, increasing the danger of instability in the kingdom.

The Bush administration insists that it is treating Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as separate issues. But for people and governments in the region, the two problems have long been linked.

"Obviously, to the extent that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going badly, it will be a lot harder for us to do what we need to do in the Persian Gulf," said Rachel Bronson, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Among Arabs, the plight of the Iraqi people under more than a decade of United Nations economic sanctions is a major source of enmity toward the West, perhaps second only to their anger over Israeli actions against the Palestinians. At a time when most Arab leaders have offered only rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause, Iraq has given up to $25,000 to families of Palestinian "martyrs," including suicide bombers.

Israeli officials say Iraq has smuggled arms to the Palestinians, has a "financial infrastructure" in the territories and is linked to a Palestinian militant group called the Arab Liberation Front.

"We caught [terrorist] cells trained in Iraq," said an official at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, who asked not to be identified.

The reported ties to the Palestinians have raised fears of Iraq-inspired terrorism in the event of a U.S.-led war to topple Hussein. A greater fear is that Iraq would launch Scud missiles against Israeli population centers as it did in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war. This time, however, a Hussein desperate to save his regime might load them with chemical or biological warheads capable of killing thousands.

Under strong American pressure in 1991, Israel refrained from retaliation, going against its own longtime policy of responding forcefully to any attack. The Bush administration wants Israel to show similar restraint in the event of a new war with Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that there was "no doubt in my mind but that it would be in Israel's overwhelming best interests not to get involved."

Israeli officials clearly have heard the U.S. message, but have refused to make any blanket commitment not to retaliate.

"I hope we shall fulfill our duty responsibly," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said here recently. "We shall not pass the buck, but neither shall we create two wars if there will be a war."

"If we're attacked unprovoked, I would not presume automatically that Israel would sit this one out like we did in 1991," the embassy official said.

Whether there would be an Israeli response, and what form it would take, would depend on the type of attack, the official said. "It's not on automatic pilot," he said.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence panel, said Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation that Israeli involvement could lead to "a widespread war in the Middle East."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said: "You would find probably every [U.S.] embassy in the Middle East burned to the ground before it went too far."

Even if that can be avoided, a number of regional leaders have expressed fears that a new war in the region, coming on top of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would enrage Arabs and possibly destabilize governments friendly to the United States.

"The region cannot afford another war," Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muwasher said this week.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has acknowledged that an assault on Iraq could cause new instability in the region, though he argues that this would be more likely during a buildup period than during a war.

A decisive American victory over Hussein is viewed by some in the Bush administration as well as in the Israeli government as a potentially catalytic regional event that would intimidate radicals and encourage the growth of democracy, leading to better ties with the West in the long run and improved prospects for peace.

But others reject the "domino" idea - that if Hussein fell, other rogue leaders in the region would follow.

"I don't believe any of these theories," said Colette Avital, an Israeli member of parliament, peace activist and former diplomat. "We don't know who will take control of Iraq."

Ziad Abu Zayyad, a Palestinian official in Jerusalem, said an Iraq war could undermine leaders who have advocated nonviolence and derail a negotiated agreement with the Israelis.

"A war in this climate would increase disappointment and encourage anti-American feeling," he said during a visit to Washington. "We [moderates] are identified with collaboration with the United States. ... If war happens, it will make us much weaker with our own people [and] strengthen the fanatics."

In the face of such risks, Muwasher argues that it would be "disastrous" for the United States to begin a war against Iraq and not pursue the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

This will require, he said, a strong American commitment to follow a "road map" being drawn up by the United States, the U.N. secretary-general, the European Union and Russia that will identify key steps to be carried out by Israelis and Palestinians to pave the way for a Palestinian state in 2005, a goal announced by President Bush.

"The link between Iraq and the peace process has been clear to all," Muwasher said.

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