Why Arafat Is Helping America

"We have gone through two wars in the past decade, and in both of them we almost became submerged to American interests," says a Jordanian intellectual.

"We have gone through two wars in the past decade, and in both of them we almost became submerged to American interests," says a Jordanian intellectual. "The Gulf War infused us with coalition fervor because America, not we, rallied to save an Arab state from its neighbor. The war in Afghanistan is trying to set an international definition for terrorism, one to which the Arabs must also be committed, if they don't want to be the lepers of the world. To those two wars we can add one more: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In both wars, the Arabs played a passive role, according to rules that were laid down in a different world, and on each new occasion they first of all blame those who have come to help them, as though they were the ones who started the war."

This sense of frustration is shared by many Arab intellectuals writing about the conflict that is described, in the best case, as "the American war on terrorism," or as "the West's war against Islam" when it is convenient. Their argument is that if the Arabs and the Muslims are so angry at the bombing raids being carried out against "the Muslim people of Afghanistan," and if the United States is so pro-Israeli, then why are the Arabs rushing to join the American-led coalition? Alternatively, if they support the coalition for the values it espouses, they should stop their whining. "After all, this is the opportunity for the Arabs and for Islam to prove that they are the second-greatest power in the world, if not the first. Yet instead of putting forward substantive conditions for joining the American coalition, we are bending our heads as though we were all to blame for the terrorism of bin Laden, and therefore we are bound to place our full strength at the disposal of the United States." The dilemma is compounded by the introduction of the Palestinian problem into the network of Arab considerations. Is it best to support the war in Afghanistan in order to bring about achievements for the Palestinians, they wonder, or should gains for the Palestinians be demanded up front, before support is expressed for the United States?

The United States has an agenda of its own in the war in Afghanistan, the Arabs have a different agenda, and the Palestinians have their own agenda as well. These agendas do not necessarily contradict each other, but at the same time, they are not congruent. And as they sometimes have in the past, the Palestinians are once again unsheathing their agenda and depriving the Arab side of the ability to make decisions. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has already expressed his full support for the United States and condemned bin Laden aloud; the result is that it is impossible for the Arab states to take the course of leaning on the Palestinian problem as a prop for adopting a neutral stance. If the Arabs want to adopt neutrality, say the Palestinians, let them do it on their own responsibility and not in the name of the Palestinians. The Palestinians have taken to heart the lesson they learned in the Gulf War, when they supported Saddam Hussein.

The result is a paradoxical situation in which Arab leaders are hurling complaints at the United States of a kind that go beyond what the Palestinians themselves are saying. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has warned that if the Palestinian problem is not resolved, terrorism will increase. His Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, has likened the Palestinian struggle to the campaign waged by de Gaulle against the Nazi occupiers. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal speaks about the need for a new definition of terrorism, by which he means that Israel should be added to the list of states that sponsor terrorism. But Arafat is ready to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He is suddenly certain that Sharon wants peace, he is preparing himself for a meeting with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and so on and so forth. Arafat's statements not only offer Palestinian validation for the continuation of the war in Afghanistan, they also make him an exceptional case even within the Arab world.

Arafat, in contrast to the Arab states, is conducting his war according to local rather than global definitions. Thus if Israel liquidates Palestinians on its wanted list, that is the explanation for Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel, but not for the attacks perpetrated by bin Laden or by other global terrorist movements. Within this logical framework, Arafat can continue to "understand" the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations, and even his own security forces when they attack Israeli targets, without being compelled to connect them to the world terrorist network. Arafat, after all, is waging a war of liberation and not a war of terrorism, and any other definition put forward by the Arab states can only interfere. Let them argue with the United States, while he continues to support Washington, embrace Tony Blair and play the British national anthem.