Mideast sparks global protests, US listens

The US public may support Bush, but he has had to weigh complex world interests.

Like Vietnam four decades ago, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has suddenly occupied the global soap box, as supporters of both sides fill streets from Alexandria, Egypt, to Paris and New York.

Perhaps not since Richard Nixon heard Vietnam war protesters outside the White House in the late 1960s, have public demonstrations had such potential for impact on both US action and the course of events in areas of keen interest to the US.

A world that largely supported American action against terrorism in Afghanistan is now torn over Israel's military incursion into Palestinian territories. That, coupled with historic US support for Israel and the US's long held position that it is the only power with any leverage to negotiate peace in the region, make the US a focus of global protests.

In the US, where doubts over the administration's handling of the Middle East had recently begun to grow despite rock-solid support for President Bush, the impact of the protests is already tangible. Mr. Bush's rebalancing act in his Rose Garden speech on the conflict last week was in line with a public that wants an even-handed policy towards the two sides, says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

"Bush was looking increasingly one-sided with a view that Israel was fully justified and the Palestinians were in the wrong, and people were becoming uneasy over it," he says. By calling for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities and sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, "He got more on track with the public on this."

But outside the US, regaining the wide global sympathy the US enjoyed through the war in Afghanistan won't be so easy. As Israel's top financial backer and military supplier, the US is once again the global villain in the eyes of those who see the Palestinian cause as a matter of international justice and human rights.

The implications for the US could be far-reaching. They could affect everything from subsequent steps in the US-declared war on terrorism to US relations with moderate Arab regimes and even the price of a summer day's gallon of gasoline.

The impact for Israel could be even deeper with the Jewish state risking the loss of a "special dispensation" it held as the home of a victimized people. That special sympathy will be lost, some observers say, if Israel looks to the world – despite pleas by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it is acting in self defense – like a common aggressor.

"In 10 days [Mr.] Sharon has wasted the sympathy and understanding Israel has enjoyed for 50 years," says Malek Chebel, an anthropologist specializing in Islamic issues in Paris.

Pro-Israeli demonstrations in such cities as Paris, New York, and Berkeley, Calif., show that support for Israel is far from spent. The rise of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians – especially with memory of the Sept. 11 attacks so fresh – muddies any unqualified rejection of Israeli action for many people.

But, as pro-Palestinian protests at numerous US university campuses demonstrate, the Palestinian issue is being adopted by many of the human rights and international justice groups that in the past have taken up such causes as US military assistance to Central America, divestiture in South Africa, and East Timor.

"More of these groups are getting into the momentum of pro-Palestinian protest action not because they are anti-Israel, and certainly not because they support any terrorist groups, but because they don't like the US supporting any government committing systematic human rights violations," says Stephen Zunes, a Middle East expert at the University of San Francisco.

Up to now, the issue of Israeli rights violations has been more closely followed in Europe than in the US, Mr. Zunes says. But he adds that the recent Israeli offensive has activated strong links between activist communities on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Despite a rising public outcry over the Mideast conflict, Zunes says that he does not see much evidence that the human rights community acting on behalf of the Palestinians has had an impact

on US policy, "at least not yet."

Bush's calls on Sharon to end the military offensive is likely to be as far the President goes, and for now that probably satisfies public opinion, Zunes says.

"What the Bush administration has done so far is for pragmatic reasons," like paving the way for an attack on Iraq, he says.

Beyond the US, however, growing signs of disaccord with the Israeli offensive and US support for Israel are complicating scenarios for US action in the world. European allies and moderate Arab states alike have turned a deaf ear to any talk of action against Iraq as long as the Israeli offensive continues and the peace process remains moribund.

Islamic specialist Chebel says Arab public opinion – the so-called "Arab street" – did not erupt over US military action against Al Qaeda in reprisal for the September attacks. But he says the image of the biased Western dominance is strong again after the Israeli offensive.

For now, an America claiming to target Iraq in the name of international justice sounds hypocritical again to Arabs, he says. "Under current conditions, Iraq in Arab eyes is untouchable."

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