Tony Blair says he and George W. Bush are "completely seized of the need to push forward" the Middle East peace process. The Arab-Israeli conflict, he says, helps "terrorists who seek to utilize prevailing feelings of frustration and despair in the Arab and Islamic world to justify terrorist activities."
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is already pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to accept a viable Palestinian state, including a "shared Jerusalem." Officials describe the U.S. President as "really steamed" over Mr. Sharon's recent outburst likening Israel to Czechoslovakia in 1938, and his warning not to "appease the Arabs" in another Munich. This comes close to a Bush-Blair recognition of the centrality of the Palestinian question in this world crisis, and the need to address it with greater urgency and impartiality than ever before. And it foreshadows a likely showdown with Mr. Sharon and the most extreme government in Israel's history.
Nothing has dramatized the urgency like yesterday's assassination of ultra-nationalist Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister. An advocate of "transferring" Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza altogether, he had resigned on Monday from Israel's coalition government because he thought that Mr. Sharon was deferring to the Americans and becoming too soft in handling the intifada.
His death, an act of retaliation for the Israelis' so-called "targeted killings" of Palestinian leaders, represents a new, audacious and highly effective form of Palestinian violence. Mr. Sharon will find it hard, without great loss of face, to heed any U.S. plea to forgo large-scale reprisal.
Meanwhile, recognition of the centrality of the Palestinian question is already an achievement for Osama bin Laden. It is being widely said that as a messianic fanatic, he is exclusively preoccupied with his holy war against the "infidel" West and establishing Taliban-style rule throughout the Muslim world, and only seized on Palestine out of opportunism.
That is not true. Driving the Jews out of the Dar al-Islam, the "House of Islam" holy land, was inherent in his worldview; in the 1980s, when he was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, he used to say that Palestine should be next.
Mr. bin Laden is only doing what Saddam Hussein did in 1990. Mr. Hussein pioneered the concept of "linkage" between Palestine and any separate crisis of another's making. Having perpetrated his act of international banditry, the rape of Kuwait, he said he would withdraw when Israel withdrew from the occupied territories.
To Arabs and Muslims, this "linkage" is obvious and fundamental. And, for them, its obviousness explains why the "other side" seems so resolutely blind to it. Consider Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., who recently insisted that the motives for fundamentalist terror have to do not with "Israeli occupation" but with extremist Islam's hatred of anything that smells of democracy, freedom and human rights. Then there was an editorial last week in The Washington Post arguing that "the largest single 'cause' of Islamic extremism and terrorism is not Israel, nor U.S. policy on Iraq." Rather, it is supposedly pro-Western Arab governments that "encourage state-controlled clerics and media to promote the anti-Western, antimodern and anti-Jewish propaganda of the Islamic extremists."
Now the new Bush-Blair recognition of the obvious will create the unfortunate impression that terrorism does pay. As the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi sarcastically put it: "It is nice of Blair to declare that the Palestinians have a right to live on their land, to achieve justice and an opportunity to prosper as equal partners to Israel, but did we have to wait for the loss of 6,000 innocent American lives and $100-billion to hear such words . . .?"
Naturally, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Blair can allow that impression any credence. Neither can admit that "linkage" is again asserting itself. But it is. "Linkage" came to nothing last time because, once the crisis was over, the U.S. could no longer summon up the will required to fulfill the pledge that George Bush the elder had made to Arabs at the time: "to push the Israelis into a solution."
This is a far graver crisis, of no known duration, scope or definable outcome. If, as Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair seem to be acknowledging, the Palestine problem helped create the conditions that created Mr. bin Laden, they must deal with those conditions now. They can't just wait until their war is over, as they waited until Mr. Hussein had been driven from Kuwait.
Any such political assault on the causes of terror cannot but profoundly influence the course of their military assault on the terror itself. It means, for a start, that there can be no widening of the war to embrace Iraq. Arab and Muslim attitudes to the Iraqi question have become almost entirely derivative of the Palestine one. The relentless punishment inflicted on a miscreant Arab state is bad enough; it is worse when set against the indulgence that the U.S. heaps on what, to Arabs and Muslims, is its own, no less miscreant, Israeli protégé.
There is no more evil despot than Mr. Hussein. The tragedy is, however, that because of the cumulative errors of the past, to attack him (possibly without proof of guilt) would be a truly devastating example of Western double standards. At the least, the United States and Britain could only deal with Mr. Hussein after they have given convincing evidence that they are serious about a Palestinian state.
Will they be? Two things might compel them. One is the sheer gravity of the crisis. The other is Mr. Sharon himself -- so extreme, so seemingly indifferent to the larger interests of Israel's U.S. benefactor, so recklessly apt to prove that his country, far from being the Western strategic asset it always deemed itself, is a liability. If the United States and Britain are really serious, there will be the kind of battle royal that U.S. administrations, fearing the Israel lobby's strong influence, have shied away from in the past.
Then the emotional blackmail of Mr. Sharon's Czechoslovakia jibe would rebound against him and the whole Israeli rightist camp. It wouldn't be hard for an exasperated American president to portray an Israeli leader with a violent past as something akin to a terrorist on par with the very Palestinians whom Mr. Sharon calls "our own bin Ladens." In the patriotic fervor of the times, the president could carry the American public with him.
David Hirst, a former correspondent for The Guardian, is based in Beirut.
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