Many critics of U.S. Mideast policy scold the Bush administration for wanting to go after Saddam Hussein before progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace is achieved. Yet there are compelling reasons why these critics are 180-degrees wrong. Successfully moving against the Iraqi president first, rather than later, would create conditions for a new and more realistic peace process.
There is little doubt that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is the major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. He is simply incapable of making peace with the Israelis under almost any conditions.
But focusing on Arafat distracts attention from the powerful forces that stand behind him and that sustain his intransigence--a powerful post-Oslo Arab and Muslim rejectionist front that has never been more influential.
This front is made up of four camps: the traditional rejectionist governments of Iraq, Syria and Libya; the Muslim government of Iran; the jihadist movement and followers of Osama bin Laden; and the "Arab street," which includes young Palestinian activists who hope that suicidal violence will force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, as it did from Lebanon. Without the political and ideological support of these forces and their unremitting anti-peace propaganda throughout the Muslim world, Arafat could not resist the international pressure to stop the suicide bombings and return to the peace table. The rejectionist front, moreover, is the main reason why relatively pragmatic rulers such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan's King Abdullah II, who mistrust Arafat at least as much as the Israelis, still pay homage to his shaky leadership.
Hussein is the front's central figure. With the collapse of the Taliban and Bin Laden's disappearance, the Iraqi leader remains the great symbol of virulent anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-peace defiance. Unlike the hesitant Syrians and Libyans, he is unequivocal about the need to destroy Israel, tomorrow if the Arabs would only allow his troops to get to Israel's borders. Hussein, furthermore, is the great financier of Palestinian suicide terrorism. Every family of Palestinian shahid (martyr) receives between $10,000 and $25,000 from him, an amount almost 10 times the average annual income of Palestinians. True, Tehran's ayatollahs are as virulently anti-peace and anti-Israel, and they are directly involved in arming Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority. But the Iranian regime faces increasing domestic discontent, is less anti-American and is hardly ready to back its anti-Zionist rhetoric with real action.
Hussein's removal from power and the fall of his regime would thus be a devastating blow to the rejectionist front. It would immediately change the balance of political and propaganda power in the Middle East and the entire Muslim world. It would send an unequivocal message to Syria, its Hezbollah ally in southern Lebanon and the ayatollahs in Iran that the regional rejectionist party is over. It would force jihadists and Bin Laden's remaining followers to recognize that the destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan was not an isolated Western victory and that they are next in line. Finally, it would signal the marginalization of Arafat and his extremist supporters, even if this Palestinian arch-terrorist remains president of the Palestinian Authority.
To grasp the significance of a world without Hussein, it is essential to understand why some Arab leaders opted to make peace with Israel. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan did not suddenly convert to the ideas of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism. Instead, they concluded that Israel was here to stay, that it could not be defeated militarily and that perpetuating the conflict with it was harming their societies. They made peace with Israel because it was manifestly in their countries' interests to do so.
Subsequent Egyptian and Jordanian leaders continue to understand this. Not the rejectionists. Counting on anti-Israeli propaganda, on the electrifying impact of Palestinian suicide bombers on the Arab psyche and on the sympathy of a few European governments, they have convinced themselves that they can either stop the peace process or fundamentally change its parameters.
Removing Hussein from power would eliminate the most important bastion of the rejectionist position, and while individual radical leaders are unlikely to change their rhetoric overnight, their power, as well as their ability to attract a larger following, would be seriously diminished.
Hussein's ouster, the expected isolation of the Iranian regime and the collapse of the entire rejectionist front would also dramatically affect the Israeli government and Israeli public opinion.
Since the 1991 Gulf War and the launching of the Iraqi Scud missiles, Israel's leading strategists have believed that Hussein and Tehran's ayatollahs, not the Palestinians, constitute the greatest strategic danger to the Jewish state. The Israelis have taken this threat so seriously that, in the last decade, they have quietly spent billions of dollars to acquire second-strike capabilities to deter Iraq and Iran from ever using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against their country. Arafat's association with these anti-Israeli powers has prompted many Israelis to question the wisdom of trusting the Palestinian leader and making far-reaching concessions to him.
The collapse of the Iraqi-Iranian threat would be an enormous relief to Israeli leaders. It follows that most of them would feel more secure in making the necessary concessions for a viable peace with the Palestinians. Israeli public opinion would probably support these gestures with higher numbers than ever before.
The decision to launch a massive war against Iraq involves serious military, political and geostrategic questions. While the administration's decision to topple Hussein is not without risk, the risks of failing to act are almost certainly greater. But a concern for the war's negative impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace problem is not one of these reasons.