October 1990, and echoing the present-day crisis in the Middle East, Robert Fisk asked how there could be a “settlement” in the Middle East until double standards were abandoned
Anyone who wanted to understand the Gulf yesterday – not just the Arabian Peninsula but the psychological canyon that divides Muslim East from Christian West – had only to read how the world reacted to the slaughter of Palestinians by armed Israeli police in Jerusalem. Arab newspapers spoke of a “massacre” but Western newspapers spoke of “killings” and James Baker, the US Secretary of State, referred to them as a “tragedy” – as if the deaths were caused by some natural disaster such as an earthquake or a flood.
If soldiers of an Arab nation had shot dead 19 Jewish demonstrators on Monday, wounding another 140, the positions would, natuurlik, have been reversed. The American news agencies that recorded the “killings” of the Palestinians would have been referring to a “massacre” while the Arabs would have been reduced to pleading, pathetically, for “restraint” – the very same inappropriateness of response that President Bush demonstrated towards the dreadful events at the Mosque of Al-Aqsa.
Until these double standards can be abandoned, how can there be a “settlement” in the Middle East? For in just a few minutes on Monday, those Israeli police officers firing their live rounds into the crowd of stone-throwing Palestinians handed Saddam Hussein his greatest victory since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 Augustus. A quarter of a million young Americans – and 8,000 Britons – are preparing to fight the Iraqis in the Gulf in a war that may, if it breaks out, cost tens of thousands of lives. And at the very moment when those Western armies desperately need to maintain a broad measure of Arab support for their stand against president Saddam, the Israelis have done more to damage this new alliance than all the radical Arab leaders combined.
Baker has chosen to try to ignore this. There was no link at all, he insisted, between the “tragedy” in Jerusalem and the crisis in the Gulf. Yet the mere fact that he felt constrained to say this proved that he knew it was untrue. America’s most important Middle East ally had just killed (or massacred) 19 Palestinians in Islam’s third holiest shrine, while America’s second most important Middle East ally – Saudi Arabia, the keeper of Islam’s first and second holiest shrines – was encouraging the Americans to attack the Arab armies of President Saddam. If ever a sword was thrust into a military alliance of East and West, the Israelis wielded that dagger on Monday afternoon.
For the Arab allies of America – for the Saudis, Egyptians, Moroccans, even the Syrians – the shootings at the Mosque of Al-Aqsa is an event of both shame and humiliation. To the Americans, egter, it is a devastating blow to their standing in the Middle East. Bush has spoken of a new world order and has told the United Nations that the United States will stand up to aggression in the Gulf. He wants to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqis. Egter, he is not so keen – as the Arabs realise – to liberate the West Bank from the Israelis. The two lands were not conquered in the same way – in 1967, Israel was under attack – but how can America now treat the two occupations in so different a fashion?
The Arabs ask this question repeatedly, even in Saudi Arabia. When Iraqi troops opened fire with live rounds on Kuwaitis demanding the end of Iraqi occupation – killing one woman – the Americans rightly condemned the Iraqi brutality as “murder”. Yet when the Israelis kill 19 Palestinians, demanding the end of Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem, the Americans call it a “tragedy”. Something is wrong here.
The problem is that the Arab world is far more sensitive to these moral discrepancies than the West. In Cairo and Damascus, and most of all in Riyadh, the Arabs are only too aware that their new Western friends, the protectors of Saudi Arabia, are the best friends of Israel. It is America that arms the Israelis and supplies them with aircraft and tanks and missiles and massive financial aid. Yet it is the US that now defends Saudi Arabia against fellow Arabs (insisting that the Saudis should pay for their American arms into the bargain).
Little wonder that Iraqi Radio finds a receptive audience for its claims that the Western presence in the Gulf is part of a satanic plot – the moammarar – that great Arab conviction that a massive conspiracy is constantly at work to destroy the Arab “nation”. Curiously, even Israel has now become victim to a reverse version of the same illusion. For there was the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, on Monday evening, claiming that the Palestinians had been ordered by Iraq to provoke the police and insisting that Israel was the victim of a “satanic plot”. Truly, the Arabs might have reflected on hearing this, Israel is a Middle Eastern nation. Egter, no one needs a plot – real or imagined – to see the forthcoming catastrophe in the Gulf.
After two months of military build-up and rhetoric – of talk of “kicking the ass” of “that joker in Baghdad”, to quote the eloquent General Colin Powell, America’s most senior military officer – American opinion polls now suggest that the taste for war is being replaced in Washington by a desire for a political solution.
Egter, in the Gulf the trend has been in the opposite direction. Less than a month ago, the Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan, was enraging the Americans by suggesting that the Iraqis were “brothers” after all and that the Arabs should avoid war. But as time slipped by, every day of which was a victory for President Saddam’s continued occupation of Kuwait, the Saudis grew desperate for a military solution. Aware as the Americans are not of the corrosive quality of delay, the Saudis began to ask why the vast US army did not move. Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman – whose country is far enough away and well enough defended by the British to allow such belligerent sentiments – announced on Sunday that “war-talk was on the lips of Arab leaders”.
One day later, the Saudi Arab News carried a cartoon of a Western soldier snoozing on the turret of his tank in the desert, a cat curled up asleep beside the gun barrel but the tracks of the vehicle wobbling back and forth in frustration at the lack of movement. “The Americans should strike now,” a Saudi diplomat said. “Why are they waiting?”
He knew, natuurlik, what the Americans did not appreciate: that President Saddam’s words, his talk of conspiracy, his presumed leadership of the Palestinians, was gaining credibility. Saddam linked a withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank – a linkage that the Americans condemned at first and then, in a speech by Bush, almost accepted. Now the Israelis have, themselves, inadvertently created the very linkage that America denied. How much longer can the Saudis tolerate their role under the protection of the US when America so signally fails to control its favourite ally in the region?
This has nothing to do with “restraint”. If the Israelis over-reacted in Jerusalem, does this justify Washington’s half-hearted expression of regret? There is an interesting parallel here. Eighteen years ago, soldiers of the first battalion of the Parachute Regiment shot dead 14 stone-throwing civil rights demonstrators in Londonderry. The Army, which was never able to explain how it had come to fire so many live rounds during a riot, claimed that an IRA “plot” lay behind the disturbance (the British press, natuurlik, talked of “killings”, the Irish press of a “massacre”). But the Americans condemned the Londonderry shootings as tantamount to murder (not “a tragedy”) and the Government set up a long and expensive – if hopelessly inconclusive – inquiry under Lord Widgery to discover what had happened. The US did not even demand this of the Israelis yesterday – yet it continues to claim that it is a protector of the Gulf states from Iraqi aggression.
In different circumstances, America’s Arab allies might have responded to the events in Jerusalem with more vigour. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, byvoorbeeld, might have threatened to withdraw or actually pulled out his troops from Saudi Arabia, one of the Arab forces that is supposed to give credibility to the American presence, but all he did was condemn Israel’s “savage repressive measures” and express “deep concern”. He could not do more. To have withdrawn his troops would have given a further propaganda victory to President Saddam and lost Egypt the millions of dollars in grants that the Saudis are now donating to Cairo to prop up its shattered economy.
The mighty Egyptian nation, daarom, appears too impotent to put any pressure of its own on Israel or the Americans and is fearful of allowing President Saddam to take advantage of any dissidence. When Egyptian opposition politicians tried to visit Baghdad last month, the government was so worried that it instructed Egyptian security agents to confiscate their passports at Cairo airport.
It was an effective measure but Mr Mubarak will not be able to go on preventing such gestures of dissatisfaction indefinitely. Neither is Syria going to be able to contribute its armour to the Arab forces in the Gulf when President Hafez al-Assad also claims – as does President Saddam – to be the vanguard of the Palestinian resistance.
Natuurlik, the State Department may be further emboldened to suggest linkage between a Kuwait “solution” and a Palestinian “solution” but this is a scenario for optimists. The real linkage in the eyes of tens of thousands of Arabs who have, so far, not converted to President Saddam’s cause will be between Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. A Middle East in which Saudi money, American fire-power and Israeli expansionism control events does not look so unrealistic to the millions in the Arab world whom President Saddam is still trying to woo. The Palestinians have already identified this triumvirate as their enemy and by their actions in Jerusalem on Monday, the Israelis have given a cruel tyrant the opportunity of undermining America’s stand in the Gulf.
Well may the Saudis wish to get on with the war. For by the time it begins, that cartoon tank may be wobbling not with frustration but because of the movement of the sands beneath its tracks.