"My dear Colette, don't worry," said Tom Lantos, the California congressman, as he tried to calm MK Colette Avital of the Labor Party, who was visiting Capitol Hill last week as part of a delegation of the Peace Coalition. "You won't have any problem with Saddam," the Jewish congressman continued. "We'll be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we'll install a pro-Western dictator, who will be good for us and for you."
Lantos explained to his guest from Israel that there's no lack of Iraqi opposition figures in exile, but until they learn how to run a state, "we'll be there." According to Lantos that interim period, with an American-sponsored dictator in power, should last between five to six years.
Avital says she asked how one can talk about a dictator in Iraq and at the same time demand "democratic reforms" in the territories as a precondition for renewing the peace process. Lantos said that democratization in the territories is just a general "road map." He reminded her that "the U.S. didn't turn into a democracy overnight." In any case, he promised her that after America gets rid of all the regimes of evil, it will go straight to Syria, "and tell young Assad that's what will happen to him if he doesn't stop supporting terrorism."
It's important to emphasize that Lantos is not a Bush administration spokesman, and not even part of the Republican leadership. The 11-term congressman is the leader of the Democratic Party caucus in the House of Representatives' International Affairs Committee. His approach, which says an agreement with the Palestinians can wait, like his party's support for semi-lunatic anti-Palestinian legislation, eases the work of the Middle East experts in the State Department.
The expectation that as soon as Bush gets rid of Saddam Hussein he'll show the same determination to advance a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians - as his people are constantly whispering to Bush's Arab friends - has as much chance of fulfillment as the hope that Sharon will withdraw from the territories after getting rid of Arafat. As Lantos says, in the best case, which means the war ends with a "new order" in Iraq, there's a long line of terrorists after Saddam. In the worst case, meaning the war destabilizes Iraq, and perhaps the entire region, the U.S. will be bogged down for the coming years in a Vietnam-like morass.
Unfortunately, Palestinian suicide bombers will presumably continue to keep Israelis atop the list of terror victims around the world, thereby keeping the issue of the occupation and the settlements, let alone tens of thousands of hungry Palestinian children, off the international agenda. All those issues will have to wait at least until Bush finishes his "war on terror."
Then, sometime in the first part of the second half of his first term in office, like all presidents, he'll begin thinking about the coming elections and Jewish donors. Bush has memories from his father's experience, about how a conflict between the president and a right-wing government in Israel can affect an American president's career.
Apparently, the administration doesn't have a clue what will happen the morning after Saddam is gone. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked over the weekend if he can guarantee the next government in Iraq will be preferable to Saddam's said frankly, "there aren't many guarantees in life." In other words, the deluge is ahead of us and we're jumping in head first. That's precisely how Sharon behaves, as well. First we'll get rid of Arafat and break up the Palestinian Authority and then, well, God is great.
There's nothing new with Sharon, other than the fact that while as housing minster he greeted every American peace envoy visiting the region with new settlements, and now he greets every Palestinian initiative for a cease-fire with an attack on the heart of Gaza, and puts a siege on the Muqata just as the closest thing to a coup d'etat starts against Arafat. As far as he's concerned, and for that matter, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon is concerned, "the democratic reforms" are just a euphemism for erasing any trace of Oslo and getting rid of all those who represent it.
It is very difficult to understand how Oslo architect Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who formally adopted the Saudi peace plan, lend their support to this policy. Now the leaders of Colette Avital's party, she of the the Peace Coalition, will pat themselves on the back and explain that because they stayed in the government, a crisis in relations with the U.S. was avoided. It's hard to believe they aren't aware of the fear that keeps some of the highest ranking security officers awake at night: that on the morning after the last remnants of the central authority in the territories has been erased - and they are active participants in its erasure - we can expect a flood of terrorism. And we won't even have anyone left to besiege.
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