AS far as the peace process is concerned, the Arab world now rotates around two poles: Egypt and Iraq. Egypt plays a prominent, constructive role by enhancing the process and by introducing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into it. Egypt builds its regional and international stature on this leading peacemaking role.
Iraq, combining an unprecedented military buildup with ruthless ambition to gain the leadership of the Arab world, surpasses Syria in its militant rejection of any compromise with Israel. Iraq tries to use its military strength to unify the Arabs in order to deal a ``final blow'' against Israel. Iraq claims that its unconventional weapons give the Arab states the needed strategic edge vis-`a-vis Israel. That sort of military leadership can thrive only in an atmosphere of imminent war. That is why Saddam Hussein creates such an atmosphere by his war threats; this is also why he sabotages the peace process, for instance, by sponsoring Abul Abbas's terrorist operations.
In the last months, the PLO has shifted from the Egyptian pole to the Iraqi pole. President Hussein financially supports the PLO and gives its leaders red-carpet treatment. The fact that Yasser Arafat did not denounce Abul Abbas's seaborne attack is a symptom of his alliance with Baghdad. To prefer Baghdad to Cairo means to prefer full-fledged war to negotiated solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel is strong enough to contain any attack, to defeat any Arab military coalition. A Palestinian who puts his trust in Iraq's military strength has to consider that his people, as ever, would ultimately bear the brunt of another war. Hussein, who threatens ``to burn half of Israel,'' has to explain to the Palestinians how his weapons of mass destruction can discriminate between the Arabs in Bethlehem and the Jews in Gilo, between Qalquilia and Kfar-Saba, between the Palestinian community and the Israeli community that reside so closely to each other on a tiny piece of land. He must clarify what is the role of the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in his ``grand design.''
In two Arab-Israeli wars, in 1948 and in 1967, the Palestinians were tempted to believe that an Arab military coalition would destroy Israel and restore their rights. The outcome of both wars was catastrophic for the Palestinians. It is about time for them to learn the lessons of their own history. Some analysts explain that Hussein's sword-rattling does not reflect a real intention to wage a new war against Israel. The goal of this rhetoric, they say, is just to encourage the Palestinians in their confrontation with ``almighty Israel,'' to give the Arabs the feeling that they do not speak with Israel from a position of inferiority. Even if this is so, the mere identification of the PLO with Iraq's boasting may be devastating. A growing association of the PLO with the ruler of Baghdad, who rejects any compromise with Israel and threatens to wipe it out, justifies the claim of Israel's right-wing politicians that the organization's recent moderation is just a ``colossal deception.''
These are hard times for the cause of peace in the Middle East. Only a few months ago we were close to opening an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue after 100 years of conflict. Today we are getting further from any beginning of negotiations and, therefore, closer to war. The new government in Israel will do nothing that is incompatible with its ideology of ``Greater Israel.'' Its main political objective is to gain time. Internal and external antagonisms may give this government a life that is much shorter than 28 months, the rest of its official term. The peace camp in Israel finds it more difficult to preach moderation in an atmosphere of escalating violence.
The US administration searches for a new mode of action as an honest broker in the region. However, this activity may be fully resumed only after next November.
The situation is grave, but not totally hopeless. But the responsible actors - the US administration, Egypt, the Israeli peace camp - are able to do very little as long as the Palestinians agree to serve as a tool in Saddam Hussein's hands.