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There are ominous signs that, far from dying down, the conflicts in the Middle East are set to widen in the coming months, sucking in new actors and posing new threats to the United States and its allies.
In the eyes of Arab and Islamic militants, the war against American forces in Iraq and Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation are increasingly seen as one and the same battle. In the absence of any prospect for peace on either battlefield, alliances are being formed and command structures established which suggest that the struggle is entering a new and more lethal phase.
Western intelligence sources report that a new high command is emerging made up of Hizbullah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood (represented in the occupied Palestinian territories by Islamic Jihad); and, last but not least, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The striking features of this alliance are that it bridges the Sunni-Shiite divide and unites Arab nationalists and Islamists in a common cause. As a member of one of these groups put it to me: "There is today no difference between resistance and jihad."
Several factors lie behind the new, more organized and determined militancy. First, American backing for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - for his expansion of Jewish settlements, his separation wall in the West Bank, and his all-out war against the Palestinians - has ruled out any prospect of a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international consensus of a two-state solution seems increasingly unrealistic.
As a result, Palestinian moderates have been silenced while the Palestinian Authority has virtually collapsed under Israeli blows and the bitter frustration of a population under siege. The initiative has passed to militants who argue that there is no alternative but armed struggle. The huge sacrifices the Palestinians have endured in their four-year intifada are, paradoxically, seen as arguments for continuing the battle, however long it takes.
Second, in Iraq, American attempts to crush the insurgency by force (there are reports the U.S. is planning an all-out campaign before the end of the year to "clean out" Fallujah and other centers of resistance in preparation for elections in January) are rallying anti-American forces in many parts of the world. For Arab and Islamic militants, Iraq has become a fighting issue and a mobilizing cause as intense as the Palestinian cause itself.
Third, repeated American and Israeli threats to strike at Iran in order to destroy its alleged nuclear weapons program have also contributed to the hardening mood in that country and in the region. They have encouraged hardliners in the Iranian regime to act forcefully and preemptively in both Iraq and the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas so as to hold American and Israeli ambitions in check.
The victory of the militants was not inevitable. Movements like Hizbullah and Hamas had long been reluctant to act outside their own respective battlefields of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. They wanted their local grievances to be recognized and addressed. They sought to "engage" the United States and are still hoping for a change in American policy. But American and Israeli insistence to label, denounce and outlaw them as terrorist movements has, in fact, increased their popularity and legitimacy and driven them to seek a wider arena for their actions.
A debate about the wisdom of suicide bombings has been raging for months in Palestinian circles. Moderates have argued that the bombings play into Sharon's hands, keep him in power and provide him with a pretext to destroy not just the Palestinian Authority but Palestinian society itself. The bombings have allowed Sharon to equate the Palestinian struggle with international terrorism and have legitimized his infamous "apartheid wall." They have also traumatized the Israeli population, destroying the peace camp and silencing any serious opposition to Sharon's brutal repression.
The moderates argued that, if the Palestinians were to abandon suicide bombings and adopt a strategy of nonviolent resistance, they could win over world opinion to their just cause and arouse the conscience of the world - including the conscience of many Israelis. In this way, they could help the international community lure Israel back into the world of law and political negotiation, and away from messianic fanaticism and the blind use of force.
In today's climate, these arguments cut little ice. On the contrary, the militants argue that the intifada and the suicide bombings have hit Israel hard. Occupation and repression have brutalized Israeli society, domestic investment has dwindled, unemployment and crime have soared, tourism has plummeted, young people are leaving and world opinion has turned hostile. Israel, they argue, is more isolated than ever and would not survive were it not for American backing. The strategy must therefore be to hit American as well as Israeli targets even harder, so as to bring home the price the U.S. has to pay for its one-sided policies and persuade Israelis to return to sanity. This is the dominant trend in the region today.
The debate in the Arab and Islamic world is being echoed by a still relatively muted debate in the U.S. Open opposition is beginning to surface on the internet, in speeches by prominent figures, and even in the mainstream press against the neoconservatives and the "civilian leadership of the Pentagon" who are held responsible for the Iraqi debacle and for the hatred against America in the Arab and Muslim world. Mounting casualties and the soaring cost of the Iraq war, together with fear of terrorist attack, has empowered American critics to speak out against what they see as the consequence of the capture of America's foreign and security policy by right-wing friends of Israel.
Such views are to be heard among members of America's more traditional foreign policy establishment and among senior officers. The failure to recognize the threat from the neocons is being much lamented, as is the failure to block their rise to prominence over the past decade. A full-page advertisement in The New York Times two Sundays ago by an anonymous group calling itself americanrespect.com denounced America's "profound misunderstanding" of the causes of terrorism and the mistaken war against Iraq. "Terrorists are not inherently malevolent," the group declared; "they are filled with passion and a sense of being aggrieved - as true of Al-Qaeda as the Palestinians under Israel ..." Muslims "view U.S. foreign policy and aid to be heavily biased in favor of Israel and a significant threat to Islam ..."
Such public advertisements are the tip of a large iceberg. Dissent against the policies of the Bush administration is widespread, but it may not be strong or organized enough to put the Democratic challenger John Kerry in the White House.
Needless to say, the neocons are far from surrendering. They retain the upper hand in many parts of the Bush administration. If President George W. Bush is reelected, they will fight to retain their posts and their influence, not only inside the government but also in the many Washington think tanks. The battle in the coming months between the U.S. and Israel on one hand and a worldwide Islamic and nationalist insurgency on the other is likely to be exceedingly hot.
Patrick Seale is a veteran Middle East analyst.
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