Bush and the Mideast minefield

The 'Gulf War crew' returning next week will likely alter the US stance on Israel, and rebuild the Gulf coalition.

New administration or not, it's still the Middle East.

While President-elect George W. Bush may not dive into the intricacies of the region as deeply as his predecessor, experts say, he will not be able to avoid the pull of the Middle East's problems.

In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the embargo against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and relations with America's oil suppliers in the Persian Gulf, Mr. Bush may find that his policies will be driven not by what he wants to do, but by what he can do.

In the region itself, he will have to confront a set of expectations born in large part because of his father's policies. Partly because of the return of what is sometimes known as the "Gulf War crew," and partly because the Republican Party is seen as less beholden than the Democratic Party to American Jewish voters, some observers and governments are expecting the incoming Bush administration to alter the US stance toward Israel. "Many Palestinians think [Bush] would be more fair, let's put it that way," says one Palestinian political scientist who declined to be named.

In the Persian Gulf - where the US stations troops and where it has gone to war to protect America's oil supply - "supporters of the new Republican administration hope that Bush would make a new effort to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on terms better [for the Arabs] than those on offer now," writes Lebanese journalist Suleiman Ferzli in the Paris-based monthly al-Hadath ad-Dawli.

US pressure

Mr. Ferzli acknowledges that US politics might not allow such pressure, and Israeli commentators are not sounding alarmed about the possibility, but the new administration will still have to address the expectation that it will be more "pro-Arab."

Given the legitimacy and attention that his administration has bestowed on the Palestinian cause, it is ironic that President Clinton is leaving office with many Arabs angered at the way he has supported Israel. Despite years of effort, he has little to show for his attempts to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although there have been tentative moves toward resuming talks on security in the past few days, violence festers, and a final settlement still seems like an impossible dream.

As a result, Bush and his foreign policy advisers may be tempted to back off and let the two sides try to work something out on their own, says Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, but that approach probably will not last long. "I think they will quickly conclude it's a luxury they cannot afford," says Mr. Siegman.

Public opinion surveys indicate that right-wing politician Ariel Sharon will be elected prime minister here in February. His campaign selling point - that he is a tough-minded former general who can keep Israel secure - is what worries US policy experts.

Although Mr. Sharon may speak in terms of negotiating a peace, says William Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the University of Virginia, if he is elected prime minister he will be faced with crisis sooner or later. "There's going to come a time when he hits back very, very hard," says Professor Quandt. "And at that point... the Arabs are going to get very nervous."

Mr. Sharon is already unpopular among Arabs for his role in orchestrating Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and in allowing a Christian militia allied with Israel to massacre hundreds of Palestinian refugees.

Quandt says he is not as worried as some other analysts about the likelihood of the current Israeli-Palestinian confrontation engendering a wider war, but one never knows. Should that come to pass, he adds, "We're going to be right in the middle of it."

Powell's likely line

Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell has indicated that the new administration will take a tough line on Iraq; during the presidential election campaign Bush faulted the current administration for allowing the cordon of UN sanctions against Iraq to sag. The sanctions are intended to force President Hussein to admit international inspectors charged with ensuring that Iraq is no longer developing biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

Many of Bush's advisers are associated with the 1991 Gulf War, in which Bush's father led a coalition of nations in evicting Iraqi troops following their invasion of Kuwait. Vice President-elect Dick Cheney was former President Bush's secretary of Defense and Mr. Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In their new incarnations, these officials may be inclined to tighten the sanctions, but such a policy will not be easy. For one thing, international concern about the impact of the sanctions on ordinary Iraqis is dampening the resolve of many governments, especially in the Middle East and Europe.

In recent months, several countries have flown in aid. And tomorrow, a flight carrying a coalition of American religious and humanitarian organizations is scheduled to fly in $150,000 in medical and school supplies.

"I don't expect a significant change in policy, despite all that has been said," says Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland. "When you look at Bush and Powell, they understand the need to respond to public opinion and Arab public opinion on humanitarian issues."

Iraq has resumed oil production since the end of the Gulf War, and its output constitutes a significant form of leverage. Any shift in US policy might prompt Hussein to halt production, which would drive up the price of oil at a time when the US economic boom may be faltering.

An effort to strengthen sanctions may also depend on Arab support, especially from America's friends in the Persian Gulf, and right now many governments in the Middle East are upset with the US for appearing to side too closely with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

"Assuming they want to do something against [Hussein]," says Quandt, referring to Bush and his advisers, "they are going to discover fairly quickly that there's a link to the peace process."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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