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Saddam's Fall Has Arabs Reeling
04/11/03
Staff Writer
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The fall of Baghdad is similar to the Six-Day War, Israel's lightning military defeat of its Arab neighbors in 1967, because both left the Arab world humiliated and in shock, according to a foreign policy and defense specialist at the Ben-Gurion Research Center. "The Arab world can't figure out how to handle this traumatic situation," said the specialist, Zaki Shalom. "And nobody can tell how long this traumatic situation will last." Iraq, called "Israel's implacable foe" by the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is particularly important in the Arab world because of Baghdad. "Baghdad is more important than any other city in the Arab world," explained Shalom, who was born in Basra, Iraq. "It is a symbol of Arab nationalism and Arab pride. No doubt that from a religious point of view Mecca is more important ... but [Baghdad] is a city with historical and symbolic significance for the whole Muslim world." He said the stress and frustration of the Arab world was compounded by watching the defeat of the Iraqi army live on television and that their reaction to these developments 'is very much unpredictable." One possible scenario, Shalom suggested, is that there might be "soul searching," followed by a pro-Western shift. "The Iraqi people are quite nice people and the most intelligent in the Arab world," he observed. "They want good living and to pursue their own ambitions. If they have a choice, they will choose to identify with Western living rather than the Al-Quaeda and bin Laden lifestyle." On the other hand, noted Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, the overwhelming American military force on display the last three weeks could trigger a backlash in the Arab world. Or, he said, the Arab world might say it "can't fight the Americans (and therefore the Israelis)" and must accept them both. But Steinberg said he does not buy either scenario, believing that things will remain fundamentally unchanged for Israel. "The Palestinians will remain Palestinians and will not all of a sudden turn around and accept Israelís right to exist," he said. But the defeat of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein is also a major blow to the Palestinian people, according to Matzia Baram, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. "They are looking at the TV screens and seeing that their hero has fallen, that their idol has clay feet," he said. "[Hussein] is more popular in the [Palestinian] territories than Yasir Arafat." Hussein gave $25,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and lesser amounts to other terrorists in a bid to support their uprising against Israel. That money stopped when the Iraq War started. Baram said that the U.S. and Britain, once they have destroyed the Hussein regime, will have to "do something for the Arab world" to demonstrate that this was not an attack on the Arab world. To do that, they will "press Israel and Arafat and Abu Mazen to come to an agreement" regarding the peace process. Mazen, whose real name is Mahmoud Abbas, is the newly selected Palestinian prime minister who this week encountered obstacles in putting together a cabinet. As a result, he asked for another two weeks to assemble his government. Although he has declined to discuss the problem, Abbas apparently wants to name as his interior minister Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in Gaza, and is opposed by Arafat, who remains the Palestinian president. Arafat is said to favor keeping the current minister, Hani al-Hassan. The interior ministry is seen as a key post because it is expected to overhaul the Palestinian security apparatus that must end Palestinian terrorism in order for the peace process to begin. Arafat, who reluctantly agreed to Abbas' appointment even though it meant ceding some of his authority to him, is also reportedly insisting that Abbas replace no more than 21 ministers now in place; Abbas is said to want more extensive changes. Abbas' ability to resolve the dispute and assemble his cabinet is key to resuming the peace process because both President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that the "road map" would not be released until that happens. The "road map," written by the U.S., the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, is a three-phase plan designed to see the creation of a Palestinian state with permanent borders by the end of 2005. Baram said he believes international pressure and pressure from the Palestinian people will result in Abbas creating a new cabinet. "Even Arafat is not immune to those pressures and Abu Mazen would like to do it," he said of the crackdown on Palestinian terrorists. Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday that Abbas, Dahlan and Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad are more committed than Arafat to ending terrorism. Visiting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher reportedly told the same committee that he has "no illusions" about Arafat and that "there is a need for new, reliable leadership in the territories." On Wednesday, Fisher visited Arafat at his Ramallah office and also met separately with Abbas. Israeli officials had asked him not to visit Arafat because it might be seen as undermining Abbas and it would end the year-long diplomatic isolation of Arafat. Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University said Israel did not try to bar Fisher from visiting Arafat because "he is considered the most sympathetic official in Europe toward Israel. The fear now is that once Fisher says it's okay to visit, others will start making the pilgrimage to Arafat and the whole thing will start all over again." There are reportedly 30 European diplomats who have been waiting to visit Arafat and the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected to do so soon. Bush promised this week to devote as much time to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis as Blair did in the apparent successful resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland, where the two coalition leaders met for their second summit since the start of the war. Although the Bush administration has said the "road map" would be released without revisions from either side, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reiterated to his cabinet this week that his government would not make any concessions on matters of security. The Israeli press said the U.S. was willing to consider Israeli objections to parts of the "road map" and formalize them in a separate statement of understanding with Israel. Dov Weisglass, a Sharon aide, told Israel Radio that Israel had 15 reservations and "if we find that a refusal of our proposed changes could jeopardize Israelís security, we will not accept it. ... We will leave the negotiating table and come home." Israeli media reports said the "road map" calls for a freezing of all settlement activity, including construction for natural growth, following a comprehensive cease-fire. But Sharon reportedly only wishes to discuss the settlement issue during final status negotiations. Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, suggested that a compromise might be a statement by Israel "and our own Jewish leadership" that they could accept the idea of a settlement freeze. "Israel must simply tell its own people that a settlement freeze is coming after the Palestinians do their thing ... ending violence," he said. "If we could say we accept a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, we would be entering into a different phase aimed at resolving and not intensifying the problem." In another development, observers were closely watching Syria this week following strong American criticism for its continued supply of military equipment to Iraq: reportedly including 500 Russian laser-guided anti-tank missiles. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. has no intention of attacking Syria or Iran, but criticized both countries for supporting terrorists and attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. In apparent response to American pressure, Syria closed its border with Iraq.

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