Beirut — The Israelis have just elected a prime minister who, brought before the bar of international justice, would surely be judged a war criminal in the class of, say, Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander who is as firmly associated with the Srebrenica massacre as Gen. Ariel Sharon was with that of Sabra and Shatila during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Sharon calls Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat “a murderer and a liar,” but in the runup to the elections, the liberal Israeli press gave full play to the deceit and brutality that have been the twin pillars of his own career. One of his likely coalition partners, Avigdor Liebermann, has spoken of burning Beirut, bombing Tehran and destroying the Aswan Dam. His ideas on the furtherance of the peace process make a total mockery of it. If any Israeli leader ever had the makings of a Western villain, the destroyer of U.S. interests in the region, it is surely Sharon.

Yet, within a week of the emergence of this would-be villain as Israel’s premier-elect, whom do the Americans and British go and bomb? That old, familiar, Arab villain, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Of course, his crimes and atrocities are of an order that words can barely describe. Keeping him from committing more of them is one thing, however; the motives and methods of those who, once again, have assigned themselves that task — and the whole regional context in which they do it — is something else.

According to the Americans and British, Friday’s raid, the first on such a scale for over two years, was necessitated by the upgrading of Hussein’s defenses and the increased threat that posed to their aircraft’s routine forays over the “no-fly zones.” Even if that is true, it has few takers in the Arab world. For the Arabs, the raid is a clear escalation of the Anglo-American campaign against Hussein, with more political import than military. With the rise of Sharon, there could hardly have been a more blatant or more richly symbolic display of the double standards that, in their view, typify Western (especially American) treatment of those two great zones of perennial Middle East crisis, the Arab-Israeli conflict on the one hand and Iraq and the Persian Gulf on the other. It bodes ill for both.

Each crisis has its own origins and dynamics. Yet they are, and always have been, intrinsically connected. Hussein himself pioneered what came to be known as “linkage,” when, immediately after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he offered to withdraw in return for an immediate, unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. The offer was greeted with cries of outrage in the West. The United States would not dream of subjecting Israel to such blackmail for the sake of a solution in the Gulf. But in due course, linkage surreptitiously asserted itself. Then President George Bush promulgated a “new world order” whose cornerstone in the Middle East was to be a just and lasting Arab-Israeli settlement. America’s Arab allies understood that to achieve it, the U.S. would back way form its historic pro-Israeli bias. “Bush,” said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the time, “agrees with me that the Israelis must be pushed into a Palestine solution.” Fairness and firmness in one crisis zone were to work wonders in the other, and vice versa.

But it was not to be. Both crises have festered and worsened. Hussein grows stronger and more assertive; as for his weapons of mass destruction, whose destruction is the central aim of U.S. policy, it has become clear that nothing short of his own removal from power can prevent him from developing them. On the Arab-Israeli front, the peace process has all but collapsed; violence and mutual hatred deepens. Pernicious though these two crises are on their own, they are even more malignant together. And, with the ascent of Sharon, both have as their key players two individuals who incarnate all that is most extreme, dangerous and destructive in the region.

This, then, is the moment that the U.S., under a new administration, has chosen to embark on a more activist policy in one zone of crisis. That, presumably, is what the raid portends. Leading members of the Bush team, notably Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are known to favor a more forceful interpretation of the Iraqi Liberation Act — under which the U.S. is supposed to help the Iraqi opposition bring about “representative” government in Iraq — to which Clinton merely paid lip service.

The raid may please the Iraqi opposition, or some of it, as well as Persian Gulf countries, or some of their ruling elites, which are most directly threatened by Hussein, but it is deeply unpopular in the wider Arab arena. The Arabs — people especially but governments, too — have been growing steadily more hostile to American-led “containment” of Iraq; key Arab countries are making ever greater breaches in the U.N. sanctions. Indeed, supporting Iraq has become a necessary yardstick of patriotism, even for a devoutly pro-Western ruler such as King Abdullah of Jordan, second only to supporting the intifada.

This is not for love of Hussein or out of any hostility toward Iraqis who seek to overthrow him. It is because of natural solidarity with a fellow-Arab country — and, more than ever now, because of linkage, and outrage at the way the world’s only superpower penalizes Arabs for their misdemeanors but never its Israeli ally. “It is clear what the U.S. is now about,” said an Iraqi exile in Beirut. “It wants erring Arab regimes to correct their priorities, to re-establish Saddam, not Sharon, as the real enemy; it may have some success in the Gulf, but in general, and unfortunately for us Iraqis who have most reason to hate him, it is turning him into an Arab champion again.”

In truth, no one revels in linkage like Hussein. He outbids Arab leaders in his militancy, castigating those who “don’t know how to fight.” While others quarrel over the disposal of an official billion-dollar “intifada fund,” he gives money directly to the families of Palestinian martyrs. In the wake of the latest raid, he ordered the formation of 21 divisions of the Jerusalem Liberation Army, an ostensibly volunteer force with the mission of reconquering Palestine “from the river (Jordan) to the sea.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell begins an inaugural tour of the Middle East next week. The raid will have made his task more difficult than ever. There is no way he can persuade pro-Western Arab regimes, increasingly nervous of the anti-American feelings of their publics, to assist American efforts to manage either zone of crisis, if that means they must line up behind a more aggressive policy against Hussein in the one, while simultaneously adjusting themselves to the outrageous requirements of Sharon in the other.

There could always be a miracle, namely, that in resorting to a new activism against Hussein, Bush will do the same against the Hussein-equivalent in Israel. But judging by the lack of any perceptible official alarm at Sharon’s election, he will have to wreak a great deal of havoc before such a miracle occurs and America begins to think of fairness, and true objectivity, as a sensible way of saving the Middle East from the twin calamities that surely await it.

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