Mideast conflict rapidly eroding US–Arab ties

Perception that US should do more to restrain Israel alienates moderate regimes.

The fires of Israeli-Palestinian violence are threatening to burn through America's delicate relationships with moderate Arab states such as Egypt, Kuwait, and Jordan.

At the very least, the Arab perception that the US should do more to rein in Israeli forces has reversed some of the gains in respect and goodwill won during the Gulf War. More than 10 years ago, US forces went to war to oust Iraqi invaders from Kuwait. Last week, Kuwait signed a friendship pact with Iraq at the Arab League conference.

It could be true, as some experts suggest, that Arab leaders incite domestic anger over the plight of the Palestinians to divert attention from their own shortcomings. But the situation has now reached the point where the steadfast US support of Israel, combined with widespread suspicion in Arab populations about Washington's fight against terrorism, could conceivably combine to produce a low-level clash of civilizations between the US and the Muslim world. "Clearly, the escalation and the particular position the administration is taking is very damaging to US interests – not only with Arab countries, but with Europeans, and Asians," says Judith Kipper, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Whether the US can do much at this point to calm the situation in the Mideast remains an open question. Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem mired in a conflict in which both are acting out the other's worst expectations.

For their part, Israelis make the point that if the US was being battered by waves of suicide bombing attacks on civilians, it would react just as they have – or perhaps even more forcefully. They are merely fighting terrorism, as it is defined by George W. Bush himself, they say.

Palestinians and their Arab allies remain convinced that the US has the leverage to stop Israeli tanks rolling through Palestinians towns, if Washington so wishes. In recent days both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan have called the White House to express their opposition to what they see as a hands-off US policy.

As long-time intermediaries between the Arab world and Israel and the West, both Egypt and Jordan may feel particularly undermined by the rising violence in the region, and vulnerable to unrest in their own nations. On April 1 Egyptian police were forced to use tear gas to turn back protesters intent on reaching the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

The Kuwaiti embrace of Iraq at the Arab League summit in Beirut was a stunning display of how the US position in the region has changed since Desert Storm. But given that a recent poll showed a large majority of Kuwaitis don't believe any Muslims had anything to do with Sept. 11, the public move might not have been so surprising.

In another slap at the US, the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference rejected any attempt to link the Palestinian struggle with terrorism yesterday at a meeting in Malaysia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had called on participants to classify all attacks on civilians as terrorism – including those by Palestinian suicide bombers.

In the short run, Arab anger will uncontestably affect the conduct of the US war on terrorism. The sharing of intelligence, identification of front companies, tracking of money – nonmilitary activities, but all important – could well be affected by Egyptian and Saudi disenchantment.

Whether the US will forge ahead with a campaign against Iraq despite Arab opposition, and without easy access to bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among other places, remains to be seen. Since the return of Vice President Dick Cheney from the region, the administration has been notably quiet about its plans for Saddam Hussein, say some experts.

But discontent in the Arab street has complex causes – and not all of them can be laid on Washington's doorstep. Lack of democracy and economic reform, combined with young, fast-growing populations, has naturally produced an alienated, restless population, says Ms. Kipper. "It's very easy for both populations and leaders to blame the US – because nobody wants to recognize domestic problems," she says.

Further, in some ways the situation is far less explosive than it might have been in decades past. No Arab nation has made any move to mobilize its military, or threaten any kind of intervention on behalf of the Palestinians.

And the US might be able to lessen domestic pressure on Mr. Mubarak and other allies with relatively cosmetic moves. In that sense, the recent dispatch of special envoy Anthony Zinni to the region still could help. The situation "is amenable to actions by the US that make it appear to be deeply engaged," says Tamara Wittes, director of programs at the Middle East Institute.

• Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

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