Philip Stephens: A precarious path to peace

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: November 12 2004

Before the war it was often said by supporters of regime change in Iraq that the road to Jerusalem lay through Baghdad. Freed of the threat from Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon's Israeli government would acknowledge a window of opportunity to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. That was in the days when Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, was frightening us with mushroom clouds and gaily predicting that American troops would be garlanded on the streets of the Iraqi capital. Back then, most people had never heard of Falluja.

The path-to-peace idea was always a dubious proposition anyway. The war in Iraq was Washington's choice, a calculated demonstration of American power rather than a ploy to soften up Mr Sharon.

Israel had long since seen Iran as by far the greater threat to its security. It still does. Talks between the Europeans and Iran may have forestalled for a time the looming crisis over its nuclear ambitions. But any hope of durable stability in the Middle East will rest ultimately on whether Washington is willing or able to strike a strategic bargain with Tehran.

For the moment, though, Iraq and Palestine still demand the world's attention. Our television screens are filled alternately with pictures beamed from Ramallah and Falluja. The images of Palestinians mourning the loss of Yassir Arafat compete with those of American marines advancing through the rubble of a city once known only for its thousand minarets. We know these are hugely significant events. The question that presses on us is whether the death of a leader and the destruction of a city represent a moment of hope or despair.

For me, it seems these times demand a certain humility from western commentators. If nothing else, Arafat's life should remind us how many in the region have perished to past certainties. George W. Bush described the passing of the Palestinian leader he had banished from the White House as an opening for peace. Britain's Tony Blair recalled more positively that Arafat had led his people to a "historic acceptance of the need for a two-state solution". For France's Jacques Chirac, he had been a man of "courage and conviction". Inevitably, each statement breathed careful political calculation.

I preferred Bill Clinton's observation that "however others viewed him, the Palestinians saw him as the father of their nation". It seems to me that those beguiled by the idea that history can be expunged by fresh starts now Arafat is dead would do well to remember what he meant to his people.

In the rubble of Falluja, meanwhile, we see the Catch-22 of the American military occupation of Iraq. It seems self-evident that a proper peace can be restored in that country only when the GIs go home. You could go further and say it depends on Iraq's having a leader secure enough to tell the Americans they must leave.

As Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, has discovered, anyone relying on US protection is tainted in the eyes of fellow Iraqis. Yet it is hard to imagine that a speedy US withdrawal would do more than invite civil war between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. The insurgents and the jihadists have an armed agenda extending well beyond Iraqi self-determination.

So yes, it is hard to disagree that the destruction of the city will fuel the resentment of the Sunnis and, perhaps, persuade more of them to boycott January's elections. But could the elections have been held while Falluja and other strongholds remained in insurgent hands? You do not have to think very hard to catalogue the gross errors and incompetences of the American occupation. It is rather harder to go beyond the obvious statement that we should not be starting from here. In any event, everything now rests on whether crudely credible elections actually take place in January. If the answer is yes, the path to a stable Iraq will be visible, even if it remains strewn with the high explosive of disgruntled Baathists and foreign jihadists. If no, I suspect that even a re-elected Mr Bush will weigh carefully the price in lives and treasure of his fabled personal resolve.

The optimist in all this is Britain's Mr Blair. You could say that, after the political battering he has taken during the past year for his support for Mr Bush, the prime minister has little choice but to hope for the best. What strikes me, though, is a startling resilience; and whatever one thinks about his decision to send British troops to fight in Iraq, no one could say that he is a newcomer to the idea of restarting a peace process in Palestine.

His comment this week that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the most pressing political issue before the west is one he has made to Mr Bush time and again since their first meeting nearly four years ago. His admonitions have met a polite reception and, occasionally, some encouraging public words, but thus far precious little in the way of sustained US engagement. Here at least, the death of Arafat removes an excuse for US inaction.

Mr Blair detects other signs that Mr Bush is ready to spend political capital. The president will never recant from the use of American might on the side of right. But he seems more alert to the political context in which the US exercises its power. In this respect, the coincidence of a new Palestinian leadership and Mr Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza does present a new opportunity. But when the White House speaks of the need for a credible Palestinian interlocutor, it must accept that credible is not a synonym for pliant. Nor can it ignore the fact that Marwan Barghouti, a strong candidate, remains locked in an Israeli prison.

A serious attempt at reviving negotiations would challenge other assumptions in Washington - among them the idea that Mr Sharon's annexation of swaths of the West Bank can somehow be equated with the fight against international terrorism. If Arafat was an obstacle to the two-state solution Mr Bush has publicly espoused, Mr Sharon barely pays lip service to the basic premise.

My impression is that Mr Blair believes that such obstacles can for the moment be circumvented. The message he took to Washington last night was that the vital task is to restore momentum. That means ensuring a peaceful transition in Gaza and a willingness to demonstrate that politics carries a tangible reward for the Palestinians. I can think of a dozen ways in which such an initiative might fail. Mr Cheney is one of them. I cannot think of any reason why the attempt should not be made.