JERUSALEM (Feb. 24)
It appeared for a while this week that Israel and its neighbors were the only countries unable to get used to the idea that there might not be a Gulf War after all.
Frustrated Palestinians and Jordanians proceeded this week with violent demonstrations to show solidarity with Iraq-as if no agreement had been signed in Baghdad, as if President Clinton had not given his tentative support to the pact.
As Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was proclaiming in Gaza City that the agreement U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reached Sunday with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was “a very important start to achieving real peace,” hundreds of university students there were burning Israeli and American flags, chanting: “We love you, Saddam, we will fight for you!”
And similarly in Jordan, security forces clamped a curfew on the southern city of Ma’an to put an end to weekend pro-Iraqi demonstrations.
Paradoxically, it is taking the Palestinians, the Jordanians-and the Israelis- more time to recuperate from the war-that-never-was than the Iraqis.
Even in Israel, the distribution of gas masks to the population continued as if war were still just around the corner. The turnout at the distribution centers declined somewhat, but Israelis were still worried as they recalled sitting in sealed rooms as Iraq rained 39 Scud missiles on the country in 1991.
At the same time, government officials continued to debate whether to distribute antibiotics to the entire population to counter a biological weapons attack-despite the low likelihood of an Iraqi attack employing either conventional or biological weapons.
Israeli leaders continued to talk of the need to preserve some measure of preparedness because Saddam was so “unpredictable.”
This was the note struck by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was quoted as telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that while the Iraqi threat may have been eliminated in the short run, Israel must get used to the concept of a Middle East with missiles as long as Saddam remains in power.
At the same time, the premier also voiced optimism that Clinton would ensure that the conditions set by the United States regarding Iraqi weapons inspections are fulfilled.
Netanyahu made the latter comment Tuesday after Clinton telephoned him to discuss the agreement reached this week.
Even if the crisis is indeed over, it exposed certain unavoidable truths about the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
The 1991 Persian Gulf War opened a window of opportunity that ultimately set the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in motion.
But this time around, with Clinton unable to assemble the broad Arab coalition that backed the earlier conflict, the confrontation with Saddam sent shock waves throughout the region that are likely to be felt long after the present crisis is forgotten.
The demonstrations held day after day by the Palestinians and Jordanians were more an expression of frustration with their leadership and with the stalemated peace process than a show of real solidarity with Saddam.
Throughout the Arab world, Saddam was hailed as the proud Arab leader who had the guts to face up to the Americans and tell them no.
Even in Cairo, where President Hosni Mubarak adopted a critical attitude toward Saddam, hundreds of Islamic students took to the streets, undeterred by Egyptian police.
Frustration was strongest among the Palestinians because of the 11-month-long impasse in the negotiations with Israel and the growing feeling that Arafat is not delivering the goods.
For Arafat, the demonstrations created discomfort because they came at time when he is desperate to seek American support to break the negotiating deadlock with Israel.
Before the latest crisis with Iraq, the Clinton administration had been pushing both sides back to the table.
Arafat instructed his security forces not to let the demonstrations get out of hand. At least one pirate radio station and one pirate television station were closed after they carried pro-Iraqi and anti-American programs.
The Palestinian people repeatedly ignored the anti-demonstration directive, and Palestinian Police Chief Ghazi Al-Jabali was widely criticized for ordering his troops to disperse demonstrations.
In Jordan, the frustration is more of an economic nature. Many Jordanians feel that they have yet to see the economic fruits of the peace signed with Israel in 1994.
Ma’an, with a population of 100,000, had been the scene of anti-government demonstrations in the past, particularly after the so-called bread riots of two years ago, which came after the authorities cut bread subsidies.
In this latest round of violence, one person was killed and 24 injured.
The Jordanian authorities also found themselves in a delicate position.
Because of the peace agreement with Israel, and the growing political and economic dependency on the United States, King Hussein could not repeat the 1991 Gulf War scenario and support Saddam.
But at the same time, he could not ignore certain economic facts of life.
Although Hussein and Saddam have not exchanged words since the Gulf War, the two countries share a long border and engage in lively trade.
Dozens of trucks cross the border daily from Jordan into Iraq loaded with agricultural and food products.
Annual Jordanian exports to Iraq stand at $450 million, compared to the $30 million in total trade volume between Israel and Jordan.
In addition, Jordan still receives most of its oil supplies from Iraq, at half price.
The main reason for Jordanian concern during the latest crisis was the fear that once hostilities broke out, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees might cross the border into Jordan and create instability within the monarchy.
Even so, Jordanian officials could not tolerate the demonstrations because they were well aware that the demonstrations could soon turn against the regime itself.
For all the shock waves still reverberating through the region, Palestinian and Israeli officials are beginning to realize that the peace process may soon return to center stage.
Arafat this week welcomed the possibility of an agreement that could defuse the Iraqi crisis, saying he hoped it would allow for renewed attention on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Netanyahu, also seeing this possibility, rushed to propose in a television interview Monday that the two sides engage in Camp David-style discussions to reach a final settlement.
And at the beginning of the week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed talks with the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Ziad Abu Ziad, a member of the Palestinian legislative council, reacted on behalf of Arafat that the Palestinian Authority would be willing to join in such negotiations-on the condition that Israel honor its previous commitments to the Palestinians.
All of which sounds like old times-before Saddam stole all the headlines.