WASHINGTON — Israeli-Palestinian violence may have reached the point where it is threatening the geopolitical foundation of the US war against terrorism.
The region's turmoil is making it easier for Islamist radicals to portray US goals as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab, not merely antiterrorist.
"New World Order," indeed. Whatever happened to that post-Soviet dream of a world dominated by liberal democracy, and marred only by the need for an occasional humanitarian intervention?
Now, one of the most explosive areas of the globe appears trapped in a worst-case scenario. The next steps in the US antiterror plan, such as action against Iraq, may now be contingent upon a reversal in the current deadly spiral.
"I don't see how the US can undertake an invasion of Iraq while there is still instability in Afghanistan and inflamed Israeli-Palestinian tensions," says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I don't see how the region can take a greater degree of instability."
All this does not mean that an all-out war between Israelis and Palestinians, with all that would entail for the US position in the Islamic world, is foreordained. Wednesday's suicide bombing in an Israeli resort hotel dining room was violence on such a scale that it could provide a shock to both sides to rethink entrenched positions. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat might now have a pretext that allows him to crack down on Hamas and other groups without appearing to bend too much to US and Israeli pressure.
Mr. Takeyh, for one, says he is somewhat optimistic that the peace plan put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might provide a means for positive motion.
"An American peace plan would have difficulty, but a [proposed] regional peace plan would be a nice starting point for American diplomacy," he says.
But the most likely outlook appears to be more violence, at least for the short term. And as the occupied territories seethe, the fighting becomes a convenient means for radical Islamists to portray the US as anti-Islamic, not just antiterror. Perhaps more important, it also gives them an opportunity to criticize the moderate Arab leaders who the US, in turn, would want to support any possible move against Saddam Hussein.
Witness the purported e-mail from Osama bin Laden printed yesterday in a London-based Arabic newspaper. The missive both paid tribute to Palestinian suicide bombers, and harshly criticized the Saudi peace plan as a "Zionist-American one in Saudi clothes."
Recent US escalation of its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff can be at least partly explained by a desire to forestall such criticisms, from whatever source.
"There is no question that the violence complicates America's efforts ... to tackle the broader problem of international terrorism," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
Instead of making progress, US efforts such as the dispatch of special envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni have only resulted in setbacks. First, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not acquiesce to direct US requests that he allow Mr. Arafat to travel to Lebanon for this week's Arab League summit. Then, the summit itself did not support the Saudi plan as strongly as the administration had hoped.
"The Bush administration has not fully appreciated the degree to which the war on terrorism is a diplomatic and political issue, not a purely military one," says Mr. Walt.