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Middle East: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Overshadows Iraq Crisis On Cheney Trip

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has pursued two separate objectives during his Middle East tour. One is to build regional support for a tougher U.S. policy toward Iraq. The other is to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But as his trip nears its end, there are signs the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is overshadowing the Iraq question, with many Arab leaders telling Washington to worry more about a Mideast peace than about Baghdad.

Prague, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Almost all of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's visits to nine Arab capitals over the past week have taken place behind closed doors, with the U.S. official himself issuing few statements to the press.

That is in keeping with the reported purpose of Cheney's trip, which is to quietly and privately build Arab support for a tougher U.S. policy toward Iraq. That policy is said to include options ranging from exerting strong Arab pressure on Baghdad to cooperate with unconditional arms inspections to launching military action aimed at toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But if Cheney has sought to use his personal contacts with Arab leaders to meet discretely and persuasively with them, he may have been surprised by some of those leaders' actions.

Several have broken with their usual proclivity for keeping all public affairs private to tell the media that Washington may have its regional priorities confused. Rather than focusing on Iraq, key Arab leaders have suggested, the U.S. should be worrying about curbing what they see as Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

One of the strongest such statements came from Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de-facto ruler, Abdullah. He told the U.S. television network ABC on 15 March that he opposes military action against Iraq and does not believe it would achieve its desired result of toppling Saddam Hussein. In recent weeks, Abdullah has signaled that his primary concern is with trying to revive the Mideast peace process instead. To do so, he has proposed exchanging Israeli withdrawals from Arab land for Arab recognition of the Jewish state.

Saudi Arabia's wariness regarding any military action against Iraq echoes that of two other key regional U.S. allies, Jordan and Egypt.

Jordan's King Abdullah warned Cheney last week against attacking Iraq and urged Washington to focus on stopping the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to push Iraq to accept the return of UN arms inspectors, but said all diplomatic channels should be exhausted before the U.S. considers any possible military action. He also called on Washington to get more involved in ending the Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The statements by the three key U.S. allies come as a flare-up in violence this month has killed 168 Palestinians and 65 Israelis. The past two weeks have seen Israel dispatch troops and tanks into West Bank refugee camps and the city of Ramallah before they were withdrawn from the West Bank today.

The Israeli deployments were harshly criticized by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dated last week -- and leaked to the media yesterday. Annan said Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorism but that the fighting has come to resemble "all-out conventional warfare." Since the Mideast peace process derailed a year and a half ago, at least 1,075 Palestinians and 345 Israelis have died.

Analysts say the Arab leaders' use of Cheney's trip to focus attention on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis reflects mounting concern in the Arab world over the high number of Palestinian casualties.

Neil Partrick, a Middle East specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says this concern has grown as satellite television has brought nightly images of Israeli forces clashing with armed Palestinians.

"The satellite images which are widely received in the Arab world, of ongoing violence, generate their own impact. And it is something of which a very broad spectrum of Arab leaders are very mindful."

But Partrick says that as Arab leaders have called the Israeli-Palestinian problem their regional priority, they have stopped short of linking the Mideast and Iraqi crises together, or suggesting that one must be solved before the other. That is a linkage that Baghdad itself has often made as it has sought to portray both Iraq and the Palestinians as victims of U.S. aggression and has refused to cooperate with UN arms inspections.

Instead, Partrick says key Arab leaders such as Mubarak appear to be asking the U.S. to work simultaneously but independently on diplomatic solutions to both the Israeli-Palestinian and the Iraq crises.

"I think it would be a matter of wishing the Americans to proceed with diplomatic initiatives on both fronts.... In particular, the Egyptian president has been very keen to urge Iraqi cooperation on arms inspections, [and] you see a sense in those comments that really this is the way for Iraq to avoid almost inevitable [U.S.] military action."

That may mean that the principal outcome of Cheney's trip so far has been to reveal a new unity among Arab leaders for pressing Washington to concentrate on regional diplomacy, even as the U.S. hopes to set the stage for possible military action against Baghdad.

If so, that emerging Arab unity is likely to receive its first test at the upcoming Arab summit in Beirut (27-28 March), when both Iraqi weapons and Saudi Arabia's Mideast peace proposal will be on the agenda. The summit comes as the UN and Iraq have resumed discussion on a wide range of issues, including the possible return of arms inspectors. The UN and Iraq are to hold a second meeting next month in talks that recently resumed after a one-year interruption.

In the run-up to the summit, Baghdad has launched new waves of diplomacy of its own to respond to Cheney's regional tour and build support against any military action targeting Iraq. Saddam recently dispatched senior envoys to almost all Arab countries -- except Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which have no diplomatic relations with Baghdad.

At the same time, Iraqi parliamentary speaker Saadoun Hammadi said yesterday that Baghdad will cooperate with the international community, to avoid "all pretexts for a U.S. invasion of Iraq." However, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan qualified that position by saying Baghdad would accept only a conditional return of arms inspectors in which "locations to be searched were identified and a timetable is set up and respected."

As Arab leaders now prepare for the Beirut summit, U.S. officials are trying to restart the Mideast peace process while saying little about the degree of support Cheney has -- or has not -- received in his private meetings on the subject of Iraq.

The U.S. vice president was in Jerusalem today, where he called for an end to violence and reaffirmed Washington's desire for a peace deal under which Israel and a Palestinian state exist side by side. Cheney, who has angered Palestinian leaders by refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat during his trip, conditionally offered today to hold separate talks with Arafat as early as next week.

Regarding his private meetings with Arab leaders earlier this week and last, Cheney told reporters in Bahrain only that his talks with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah were "one of the warmest sessions I've ever Saudi Arabia." He also announced that Abdullah has accepted an open invitation from U.S. President George W. Bush to visit him in Texas.

The Bush administration said this week that it believes the full results of Cheney's regional swing have yet to be tallied, and that the Arab leaders' support for tougher action on Iraq may be greater than they have expressed in public.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told CNN last week that Arab leaders may be showing less cooperation with U.S. officials in statements intended for the Arab public than they may be offering the U.S. in private. Wolfowitz said that "There is a long record in diplomacy [and] particularly in the Middle East -- I think it is fair to say -- where people say one thing in public and another to you in private."