- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

President Bush has been receiving a lot of bad advice, but none worse than the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved before the war on terror can proceed to its next target, Iraq. That advice has led him into the situation he faced on Tuesday in which his growing alienation from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was again overshadowed by murderous Palestinian suicide bombings. The Pentagon learned how to avoid a Vietnam-like quagmire in war, but the president has allowed himself to be talked into a diplomatic quagmire that will exist just as long as he permits it to. Our adversaries would like it to be for months or years to come.
America's faux allies in the region have talked Mr. Bush into the belief that they will cooperate or at least acquiesce in our war on Iraq if we first pressure Israel into withdrawing to its pre-1967 borders and create a Palestinian state. Real allies reportedly including British Prime Minister Tony Blair also urge us to provide some sort of peace between Israel and the Palestinians before we take on Iraq in the interest of "regional stability." From that, the president has decided on a strategy that puts the goals of our war on terror precisely backwards.
What Mr. Bush and his advisers ignore is the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an artificial one, manufactured by nations such as Iran, Syria, Iraq and others who are our enemies in the war on terror. The bloodshed is real, but the conflict goes on because the Arab nations are using the Palestinians as cannon fodder to fight Israel, and to keep America from gaining greater influence over them. The terrorists' contempt for Mr. Bush has been revealed again and again. When peace envoy Anthony Zinni arrived in Israel last November, he was greeted by a daily string of horrible suicide bombings. When Colin Powell arrived for his meetings with Messrs. Sharon and Arafat last month, more bombings occurred. The perfection in timing of the Tuesday attack at Rishon Lezion coordinated to happen precisely when Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon were meeting proves how this weapon of terror is being used, successfully, to manipulate American policy.
The terrorist organization Hamas has claimed "responsibility" for the Rishon Lezion attack. Hamas' August 1988 covenant says, "The land of Palestine is an Islamic trust … It is forbidden to anyone to yield or concede any part of it … ." Hamas receives strong financial backing from Iran, Saudi charities, and other nations in the region. Like many other terror networks, Hamas is based throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and has formal offices in Tehran, Damascus and Amman. Those terror organizations are able to operate because nations such as Iran, Syria and Jordan support and maintain them. Cut off the support and maintenance, and they will no longer be a threat.
The breach between Messrs. Bush and Sharon grew serious as the Israeli incursion in the West Bank went on. The suggestion that Mr. Bush's demands for Israeli withdrawal were made for show, and to buy Israel more time, can't be reconciled with this president's character. He said what he wanted, and when Mr. Sharon rejected these demands in terms that were barely polite Mr. Bush was genuinely angry.
The anger was not based on disagreement with Israel's right to self-defense, but on the perception that Mr. Sharon was willfully thwarting Mr. Bush's strategy in preparation for the attack on Iraq. When Israeli forces withdrew from the West Bank, the relationship seemed on the mend. With Mr. Arafat able to move about and communicate with his forces and allies, Mr. Bush seemed relieved. In conferences with Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders, Mr. Bush was trying to get back to preparation to remove Saddam.
Now, Mr. Sharon has had to cut short his visit here and return to plan some retaliation for the Tuesday attacks. It is highly likely that he will send Israeli forces into the Gaza Strip, where Hamas operates, and do there what was done in the West Bank.
The West Bank incursion destroyed much of Mr. Arafat's terror network. Hundreds of suspects were rounded up, much of their equipment was destroyed, and many were killed. An incursion into the Gaza Strip may seem to Mr. Bush a slap in his face, which it is not. The president should reflect on the words of Hassan Abdel Rahman, Mr. Arafat's Washington spokesman, on learning of the Rishon Lezion suicide bombing that left 16 dead and scores wounded. Mr. Rahman said that we must understand that Palestinians "react to Israeli atrocities against them by becoming suicide bombers." Israel's attack on the terrorist infrastructure denies the legitimacy of the suicide bomber. Failing to respond to the Rishon Lezion attack would be affirming that weapon as a legitimate tool of war and diplomacy.
Israel's action will be a response to terror, but not an end to it. That end to stop the carnage of the suicide bombers can only come when Mr. Bush extracts himself from this imaginary impasse and gets back to the clear goals he stated last September. Mr. Bush should let Mr. Sharon take the measures he undoubtedly will against the terror infrastructure in Gaza. At the same time, he should push ahead with planning for the attack on Iraq.
When our campaign against Iraq begins, the appeasers and naysayers in the Middle East and Europe will suddenly grow quiet or finally give us the support we have failed to get through diplomacy. It's time to get back to business, Mr. President. Put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner where it belongs. It's only an obstacle to progress against terror if you believe it is.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration.


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