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Middle East: U.S. Policy Could Affect War On Terror

The prestige of the United States is at risk as it tries to broker a settlement to 19 months of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians. But some say even Bush's war on international terrorism could be affected, as Arab nations -- crucial to U.S. President George W. Bush's campaign -- perceive the U.S. as helping Israel repress the Palestinians.

Washington, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is coming under increasing pressure to intensify its involvement in the Middle East peace process as the fighting between Palestinians and the Israeli military escalates daily.

But the pressure on Bush goes beyond the possibility of lost prestige for America if a settlement in the region cannot be achieved. There is concern in some quarters that Washington's continued support of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians could jeopardize the president's effort to fight international terrorism.

For the past week, Bush has faced criticism that he has been paying too little attention to the 19-month-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. On Monday, he responded that his critics evidently were unaware that he spent the Easter weekend not relaxing, but on the telephone discussing the crisis with other heads of state and government.

And yesterday [Wednesday], Bush's chief spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters at the White House that Washington is doing all it can to end the violence.

"The history of the Middle East has been a series of calls on the United States at various levels to do what the United States can do, and there's no question the United States can do a lot. We are in a position to do the most to bring peace to the region. To bring peace to the region, it also takes a lot of work from the two parties themselves to try to move the process forward."

But the criticism persists. One critic is Leon Feurth, who served as national security adviser to Al Gore when Gore was vice president under Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor. Gore, a member of the Democratic Party, ran against Bush, a Republican, in the 2000 presidential election.

Feurth -- now a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington -- told RFE/RL that Bush's problems in the Middle East peace process stem from what Feurth calls Bush's lack of involvement early in his administration.

"I do think that the Bush administration was wrong in trying to put some distance between the White House and the Middle East for months during the early part of the administration, and that it should have been in there the day after inauguration trying to pick up the threads, and that this delay means that we have lost every opportunity we might have for having contributed to a different situation than the one we've now been dragged into."

And now, he says, Washington's support of Israel as the violence in the region escalates daily makes it harder for Bush to get the support he needs for continuing -- and perhaps even expanding -- the U.S. war on terrorism.

Last month, Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, visited 11 nations in the Middle East, in large part to sound out Arab leaders about possibly expending the war from Afghanistan to Iraq, which the U.S. calls a threat not only in the region, but worldwide. But one after the other, Arab leaders told him that they could not support military action against Iraq because they were preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to Feurth, Arab leaders -- and their people -- are now even more opposed to a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. In fact, he says even an un-expanded war on terrorism could be jeopardized.

Feurth cited the cooperation of Pakistan in capturing Abu Zubaidah, a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda who is reported to be cooperating with American interrogators. He says America cannot afford to lose such cooperation from Muslim countries, which could lead to further intelligence coups like the capture of Zubaidah.

"In order to do this successfully, you need cooperation from practically every nation on the planet, and in particular you need cooperation from Islamic states and Arab states in particular."

This view, however, is not shared by Ted Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, an independent Washington policy center. Carpenter told RFE/RL that the Arab and other Islamic leaders will decide whether or not to cooperate with the U.S. war on terrorism -- even an expansion of the war to Iraq -- based on self-interest, not Washington's position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Getting the cooperation of Arab or other governments is certainly useful in going after Al- Qaeda, but they're as likely to help us out of fear of what the United States might do if they are uncooperative as they are likely to help us because they like us and appreciate what we're doing in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute."

Carpenter also is scornful of calls for Bush to intensify his administration's involvement in the Middle East peace process. He says that for now, any involvement is probably superfluous anyway.

"There is no Middle East peace process at the moment, nor is there likely to be one for the foreseeable future. We've got a very hard-line government in Israel facing off against a Palestinian population that has become so radicalized that suicide bombings have now become the norm. I mean, that is not a conducive environment for any kind of constructive peace negotiations."

Carpenter says some of the pressure on Bush to become more involved in the Middle East comes from those who are eager to get Arab support for a possible military strike against Iraq. He says these advocates want Bush to force concessions out of Israel to win that support.

But according to Carpenter, both of these goals are what he calls "bad ideas." He says that to mount a military offensive against Iraq would be wrong because there is no credible evidence that Iraq was in any way involved in the September 11 attacks. And he says it would be wrong to force concessions out of Israel because it is a sovereign state and has a right to make up its own mind about how to defend its people.