A leading question
The main thrust of the war President Bush has declared on terrorism is
directed against Bin Laden and his Qa'ida organisation. But what about
Sharon's daily acts of terrorism against the Palestinians? asks Mohamed
For over 50 years, the pivotal issue which informed American strategic
thinking towards the Middle East has been the Arab-Israeli conflict. Only
twice was it overshadowed in importance by other issues. The first was
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which represented an unacceptable
threat to US oil interests in the Arabian peninsula; the second was the
terrorist attacks of 11 September, said to have been carried out by
terrorists from the Middle East, which represented an unacceptable threat
to US security.
In response to the first event, the first President Bush launched the Gulf
War; in response to the second, his son has launched the war against
terrorism. In a way, both men reacted in similar fashion to what they saw
as challenges to America's fundamental interests. It remains to be seen
whether the same can be said of their reaction to the clear discrepancy
that emerged in both cases between the American and Israeli agendas.
It is said that Bush senior advised his son to make a distinction between
terrorism on the one hand and Arabs and Islam on the other, and to stop
describing the war against terrorism as a "Crusade," which implies that it
will target Muslims in general and not only individuals accused of
The first President Bush took advantage of Saddam Hussein's invasion of
Kuwait to convince the Arab oil states that an Arab ruler could be a worse
enemy than Israel, and sought to neutralise Arab enmity of Israel through
the peace process launched by the Madrid conference. This process made it
possible to concentrate all attention on defeating Saddam and forcing him
to pull out of Kuwait. Will the war against terrorism launched by the
current President Bush lead to an arrangement similar to the Madrid
conference, that is, to a resumption of negotiations between the Israeli
government and the Palestinian Authority, on the grounds that terrorism is
a common enemy to both? However, this logic is unlikely to prevail as long
as there is no agreement between the parties on a definition of terrorism.
There is no mention of terrorism in the UN Charter because the Charter
aimed at consecrating the victory of the Allies over the Axis powers and
the end of their occupation of wide chunks of Europe and other parts of
the world. It sought to sanction the right of the peoples of the world to
resist occupation of their land by all available means, including armed
struggle. This often meant that the victims of this struggle were not only
military personnel, but could also be innocent civilians.
The anti-colonial struggle of the Cold War period brought about a shift in
perceptions. The colonised peoples considered their resistance to
occupation a legitimate undertaking, even if it gave rise to civilian
casualties, while the colonial powers described their struggle as
"terrorism." That was how the Algerian resistance movement was seen by
wide circles in France. Thus definitions contradicted each other:
legitimate resistance in the eyes of the colonised peoples, as well as
from the viewpoint of the socialist countries, was regarded as terrorism
by the Western capitals.
Then came the downfall of the bipolar world order and its replacement by a
unipolar world order which put forward the assumption that all conflicts
could be resolved by peaceful means. This assumption carried within it
another implicit assumption, which is that resorting to armed struggle ran
counter to the rules of the new world order, especially when it claimed
civilian victims. In this rationale, the very legitimacy of armed
struggle, sanctioned as a basic human right under the UN Charter, is being
called into question. The de-legitimisation of armed struggle is gaining
ground thanks in no small measure to the recently introduced principle of
"humanitarian intervention," which contemplates foreign military
intervention to liquidate groups resorting to violence against innocent
civilians -- that is, groups that could be described as terrorists.
At this stage of the war against terrorism, President Bush wants to focus
exclusively on Bin Laden and his accomplices, the "prime suspects" in the
attacks which destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. No
distractions can be allowed to jeopardise his plan. Hence his insistence
that the repeatedly deferred meeting between Arafat and Peres take place
without further delay, even as each side continues to accuse the other of
terrorism and even as the Palestinian body count hits new heights.
Sharon cannot be allowed to compromise the US war plan by using the
campaign against Bin Laden as an opportunity to carry his accusation of
terrorism against Arafat through to what many fear will be its inevitable
conclusion: the physical liquidation of the Palestinian leader, whom he
has been quick to dub "the Bin Laden of the Middle East." Nor can the
Palestinians be allowed to continue accusing Sharon of terrorism, invoking
the admission by a Belgian court of a lawsuit filed against him by
survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres to support their claim. What
is important is that Peres sit at the same table with Arafat to nullify
the effect of Sharon's accusation of Arafat and of the Palestinians'
accusation of Sharon, thus limiting the accusation of terrorism to Bin
But the Arafat-Peres talks, limited on Sharon's instructions to security
issues, are unpalatable to most Palestinian factions, who have declared
that they do not consider themselves bound by any agreement the two men
may reach. Not only is ending the Intifada without getting anything in
return, another Sharon condition, unacceptable, but there is no guarantee
that any deal struck during the talks will be endorsed by Sharon. Their
fears are justified: as matters now stand, the Israeli government is
speaking with two voices, one belonging to Peres, who is not authorised to
exceed the limits fixed by Sharon; the other to Sharon, who has frequently
reneged on promises made by his foreign minister. Why should the
Palestinians have to accept this duality, why should they be able to speak
only with an interlocutor who has no independent power of his own, with no
assurance that the real decision-maker will honour his commitments?
And, indeed, on the morrow of the Arafat-Peres meeting, which fell on the
eve of the first anniversary of Sharon's provocative visit to Al-Haram
Al-Sharif, the triggering factor of the Intifada, the Israelis stepped up
their violent repression, killing five Palestinians and launching a tank
attack on Rafah. It is not surprising that most Palestinian factions
remained sceptical of the so-called cease-fire, declaring that they did
not consider it binding.
Can George W Bush devise a scenario to combat terrorism inspired by his
father's scenario in combating Saddam Hussein? Can his proposal of an
alliance against terrorism be compared to the international coalition
built up by his father during the Gulf War, which led to the Madrid Middle
East peace conference? Does the terrorism Bush has to confront annul the
forms of terrorism that Sharon and Arafat accuse each other of
perpetrating? These are difficult questions, on which depend not only the
future of Arab-Israeli relations, but also the future of America's
confrontation with the terrorism attributed to Bin Laden.
This is the dilemma that faces the American president today. What is
required is not only that the terrorism attributed to the Arab-Israeli
conflict be resolved, but also that it be tackled totally independently
from the terrorist attacks carried out inside American territory.
Moreover, the American administration is required to oppose Sharon's
attempt to identify Arafat with Bin Laden as a prelude to having him
The Intifada was the expression of Palestinian loss of faith in the peace
process, in the hope that Israel would withdraw, that their occupied
territories would be restituted and that an independent Palestinian state,
with Jerusalem as its capital, would come into being. If terrorism has now
acquired a global dimension, it is because frustration and despair are not
limited to the Palestinians alone. The hostile demonstrations that have
accompanied all international conferences touching on issues of
globalisation testify to the deep sense of alienation felt by wide sectors
of the global community. This phenomenon took its most extreme form in the
events of 11 September. The time has come for Washington to realise that a
just solution of the Palestinian problem is not only necessary to correct
the injustices done to the Arabs and the Muslims, but that it is an issue
directly related to the security of the US and even to Israel's security
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