The Palestine question is central

British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he and President Bush are "completely seized of the need to push forward" the Middle East peace process, because the Arab-Israeli conflict helps terrorists justify their activities.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is reportedly preparing to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to accept a viable Palestinian state, including a "shared Jerusalem." Officials describe Mr. Bush as "incensed" over Mr. Sharon's recent outburst likening Israel to Czechoslovakia in 1938, and warning Bush not to "appease the Arabs."

The two leaders of the war on terror are thus close to recognizing the centrality of the Palestinian question in this world crisis. This recognition is already an achievement for Osama bin Laden. It is widely said that this messianic fanatic is exclusively preoccupied with his holy war against the "infidel" West and establishing Taliban-style rule throughout the Muslim world, and that he only seized on Palestine out of opportunism.

That is not true. It stands to reason that destroying Israel is inherent in his worldview. In fact, since the 1980s, when he was fighting the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, he has been saying Palestine should be next.

But even if it were true that Mr. bin Laden was merely being opportunistic, it wouldn't alter the fact that the Palestine problem is central. He is only doing what Saddam Hussein did in 1990. It was the Iraqi leader who pioneered the concept of "linkage" between Palestine and any separate crisis of another's making. Having perpetrated his great act of international banditry, the rape of Kuwait, he announced he would withdraw as soon as Israel left the occupied territories.

To Arabs and Muslims, this "linkage" is an obvious and fundamental reality - even if they concede that sicknesses in their own societies are part of the reality, too. And, for them, the very fact that it is so obvious explains why the "other side" seems so resolutely blind to it.

Thus, Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the US, wrote last week that he saw no connection between fundamentalist terror and "Israeli occupation"; it all stemmed from extremist Islam's hatred of anything that smells of democracy, freedom, human rights. This is essentially the same mindset that caused Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to reject the $10 million donation to New York from Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal, who had made that connection.

It has to be said that any Bush-Blair recognition of the obvious will create the unfortunate impression that terrorism does pay. Naturally, neither Bush nor Mr. Blair can allow that impression any credence, or admit that "linkage" is once again surreptitiously asserting itself. But it is. "Linkage" came to nothing last time because, once the crisis was over, the US could no longer summon up the will required to fulfill the pledge that the first President Bush had made to the Arabs at the time: namely, to push the Israelis into a solution.

But this is a far graver crisis, of no known duration, scope, or definable outcome. If, as Bush and Blair seem to be acknowledging, the Palestine problem helped create the conditions that created bin Laden, they must deal with those conditions here and now. They can't just wait till their war is over, as they waited till Mr. Hussein had been driven from Kuwait. And 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 include Iraq. Arab and Muslim attitudes about the Iraqi question have become almost entirely derivative of the Palestine one. The relentless punishment inflicted on a miscreant Arab state is bad enough on its own; it is infinitely worse when set against the indulgence that the US heaps on what, to Arabs and Muslims, is its miscreant Israeli protégé.

There is no more evil despot than Hussein. But the tragedy is that, because of the errors of the past, to attack Hussein, possibly without any proof of guilt, would be a truly devastating example of Western double standards. At the least, the US and Britain could only deal with Hussein after giving convincing that evidence that they're serious about Palestine.

Will they be? Two things might compel them. One is the sheer gravity of the crisis. The other is Sharon himself. If the US and Britain are really serious, there is almost bound to be the kind of battle royal that successive US administrations have shied away from in the past. The emotional blackmail of Sharon's "Czechoslovakia" jibe would then rebound against him. And it wouldn't be very difficult for an exasperated American president, in the patriotic fervor of the times, to carry the American public with him.

David Hirst is a former Middle East correspondent for The Guardian.

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