The Wars Through Arab Eyes

The images were searing, and strikingly similar. Last Wednesday afternoon, as a thousand unarmed Palestinian protesters marched toward Israeli troops bulldozing houses at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, two Israeli tank shells and a helicopter missile exploded around them, killing eight people, half of them children. No sooner had the world absorbed pictures of the tragedy--ambulances shrieking through the streets of Rafah, shrapnel-ridden bodies--than news broke of new carnage a few hundred miles away. U.S. Apache helicopters fired on what locals said was a wedding party in an Iraqi village near the Syrian border, killing as many as 45 people. The American military said the target was a nest of insurgents, yet women, a well-known wedding singer and several members of his band were among the victims.

For the Arab world, the twin scenes of occupying armies wreaking havoc were a painful indication of American foreign policy in disarray. "Every day we see these terrible parallels--American tanks facing Iraqis, Israeli tanks facing Palestinians," says Jihad Al Khazen, a columnist and the former editor in chief of Al Hayat, the Arabic-language daily in London. "For peace, for the future of the region, there is a sense among Arabs that everything has been brought to a dead end [by the White House]."

Last year's invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein were supposed to bring prosperity and stability to the Middle East. "The road to Jerusalem," the mantra went, led through Baghdad. Neoconservatives and other hawks within the Bush administration expected that the United States would win respect in the Arab world through a massive show of force, and that Israel would be more comfortable making peace with the Palestinians once Saddam was gone. Instead, the region now seems to be growing more violent--and America's image in the Arab world has been badly tarnished. "Not only have we validated and emboldened our enemies, but we have shamed our friends," says an embittered U.S. State Department official. "Arab moderates who trusted our ideals feel betrayed and abandoned."

Now, as the White House begins to tweak its Iraq policy--and take a less starry-eyed view of the situation there--demands are growing for a reconsideration of the Arab-Israel conflict as well. Many American diplomats, particularly Arabists, have long been frustrated over the United States' Mideast policy, worried that it has been hijacked by ideologues. Some have begun to speak up. In April, 53 former U.S. officials accused the White House of sacrificing America's credibility in the Arab world and endangering its diplomats and troops because of the Bush administration's unstinting support for Sharon. "By closing the door to negotiations with Palestinians and the possibility of a Palestinian state, you have proved that the U.S. is not an evenhanded peace partner," the letter says. "A return to the time-honored American tradition of fairness will turn the present tide of ill will in Europe and the Middle East--even in Iraq."

The administration counters that it's just been trying to shake up the ever-sputtering peace process, and remains committed to a Palestinian state. But few in the region find that argument persuasive. Israel's bloody incursion into Gaza last week--and the White House's indifference to it--particularly angered critics, including some within the U.S. government. Even as Israeli tanks and troops were storming into Rafah, Bush told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobby group, that "Israel is a democracy and a friend and has every right to defend itself from terror."

How did the Bush administration--which came to office with a reputation as a group of Arab-friendly oil guys--come to take this tack? A good part of Bush's stance is shaped by conviction, and personal history. Bush has long been an admirer of Sharon--at least since the Israeli took the then Texas governor on a helicopter tour over the West Bank in 1998. At their first meeting in the Oval Office in early 2001, Bush recalled that helicopter trip. "He's got a marvelous sense of history," Bush told reporters. "Our nation will not try to force peace... We will work with those responsible for peace." Within three months, the White House national-security team included Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative who had promoted the idea of strengthening ties between American Jews and conservative Christians. Abrams first joined the National Security Council as senior director for democracy and human rights, but took over the Middle East portfolio in December 2002.

By the time of Abrams's ascent, the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States had drawn Bush into a closer embrace with Sharon. Bush saw stark parallels between Palestinian suicide bombings and Qaeda terror and adopted Sharon's position that there could be no serious negotiations and no Palestinian state without new Palestinian leadership. Sharon's expansion of settlements and his rejection of Palestinian demands for a viable state became secondary concerns.

Abrams cemented that hard-line position and took control of Middle East policy as the region moved toward war in Iraq. He insisted there could be no peace process until Palestinians proved their bona fides in fighting terrorists. That insistence helped seal the fate of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister who quit in September 2003 in frustration at the lack of progress along the Roadmap to a Palestinian state. By refusing to press Sharon to declare a settlement freeze and remove illegal outposts, critics say, the White House fatally weakened Abbas--and doomed the peace plan to failure.

Abrams was also the key figure in Bush's initiative to reward Sharon for his plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. NEWSWEEK has learned that Abrams was the first U.S. official to hear Sharon's offer to pull out of Gaza, during a meeting between the two men in Rome last November. Sharon's initiative began a period of unprecedented harmony inside the administration's rival factions on Mideast policy: Abrams joined forces with William Burns, the State Department's assistant secretary for the region who was present at peace talks at Camp David in 2000. But as the talks moved on, the Israelis inserted the explosive ideas of ruling out the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and the annexing of parts of the West Bank in perpetuity. Burns objected strenuously, and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv warned Washington that such concessions--effectively snatching away the two main bargaining chips that the Palestinians could use in future negotiations--would be useless in building peace. Sharon would "just pocket it, swallow it and be gone," is the way one senior source characterized the objections.

Abrams and other influential aides pressed Bush to give Sharon what he wanted. "With Iraq going badly, their feeling was that a Gaza withdrawal could be the one tangible achievement Bush could point to in the Middle East during the campaign," says a senior Israeli official who is close to Sharon. Once again the neocons won out. The letter Bush wrote to Sharon said it was no longer realistic to expect Israel to make a "full and complete return" of the West Bank to the Palestinians. But then the Israeli leader failed to sell the Gaza withdrawal plan to his own Likud Party.

By the time the Israelis launched their security operation in Gaza, the rupture was complete between the pro-Sharon hawks at the White House and the State Department's regional experts. The Israeli government claimed that Operation Rainbow--which followed the killings of five Jewish settlers and 13 soldiers by Palestinian militants--was a vital security measure aimed at eradicating weapons smuggling. After Israeli tanks opened fire on the Palestinian protest march, sources say, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv drafted a statement expressing displeasure. The statement made the rounds of the State Department in Washington, then was turned over to Abrams, who toned down the language. Sources say that angry words were exchanged between the offices of Abrams and Burns. Abrams's version--which seemed to endorse the goal of Israel's military incursion--prevailed.

Some Israeli officials fear that the deteriorating situation in Iraq may prod the Bush administration to get tough with Sharon. U.S. officials staged two photo ops with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei last week, and declined to veto an anti-Israeli resolution at the U.N. Security Council. Israelis point to the American bombing in western Iraq as an explanation for the subtle shift in Washington. "It was more difficult for the U.S. because they had their own little incident being reported the same day as ours was," said one senior Israeli official. For all that, the Israelis say they see no substantive shift in American policy, saying the United States pulled out the most critical language in the resolution--including the threat of sanctions. Meanwhile, there's little sign of new flexibility from the Sharon camp. A recent cable from Tel Aviv, says one U.S. official, examined Sharon's record on his promises to curtail settlement activity over the last three-and-a-half months. The conclusion: "zilch."

Many U.S. officials fear that the Iraqi and Israeli conflicts will spiral downward together. "I'm just watching as this administration spins off into some alternative reality where Sharon is a man of peace, where rising insurgency [in Iraq] is a sign we are winning, where we bring back Saddam's generals to quell the anger of people we liberated from Saddam," says one veteran diplomat. "The true casualty of this war of choice is American credibility--not just the credibility of our intelligence... but the credibility of our values, our principles." The road to Jerusalem, as it turns out, has indeed led through Baghdad--but hardly the way the White House imagined.