US has a critical role

With the United States gearing up for war against Iraq and the growing risk that the spiralling Israeli-Palestinian conflict may spill over into the whole region, the Middle East stands at a crossroads.

At issue is what Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, describes as “a choice between justice, peace and development, or confrontation and chaos”. Which route the region takes depends critically on the US, whose Middle East policy has been dogged by incoherence, parochialism and a myopic view of its security interests.

Middle East policy under George W Bush has been marked by months of malign neglect in which Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been put under pressure to rein in terrorism while the Israelis have been left alone to crack down on the occupied territories. Now, with the return of US envoy Anthony Zinni, there are signs of greater even-handedness.

Zinni appears to have negotiated the withdrawal of Israeli forces following the massive invasion of the West Bank and Gaza, and has drawn attention to the “devastating economic hardship being experienced by innocent Palestinian men, women and children”. He has tried, so far unavailingly, to broker a truce. The US appears to back a Saudi Arabian initiative, to be debated at the Arab Summit, which would see Israel’s withdrawal from all the territories it overran in 1967 in favour of full diplomatic recognition by the Arab world. It also appears to have exerted pressure on Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon to allow Arafat to attend the summit without pre-conditions – also unavailingly. Sharon insisted a truce must come first, and reserved the right to block Arafat’s return home.

The US may have finally grasped the obvious truth that Sharon’s attempt to crush the Palestinian uprising by military means has led to an ever-worsening spiral of terror and retaliation. But it appears to have another, more ominous motive – to win Arab support for the planned second phase of its war on terror, by unleashing its forces against Iraq. Zinni’s diplomatic efforts have significantly been coupled with a regional tour by US Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has been talking to friendly Arab states about Iraq.

The two initiatives pull in diametrically opposed directions. There can be no doubt that a strike on Iraq aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein would fuel the forces of extremism, weaken Arab moderates and hugely complicate peace efforts in the Middle East. In its approach to terrorism, the US is prey to the same delusion as Sharon: that political problems can be resolved by brute force.

Sooner or later, Arafat will have to demonstrate he has the clout to rein in the men of violence. But neither the Israelis nor the US can duck the ultimate issue: there will be no peace while Israel holds a separate people in subjection, and refuses to allow the six million diaspora Palestinians – most living in abject conditions in refugee camps – to come home.

It is increasingly evident that no progress will be made on these bedrock questions while Sharon remains at the helm, and removing him is the responsibility of the Israeli people. America’s responsibility is to act as a mediator in the world’s most dangerous conflict, rather than treating Israel purely as an ally and bulwark against terrorism. Until this happens, envoys like Zinni can only come away empty-handed.

Africa’s conditions

Cabinet ministers Jacob Zuma and Alec Erwin – not to mention the Sunday Times – are entirely missing the point when they complain that the African recovery plan Nepad should not made to suffer because of Zimbabwe’s sins. The issue is not how Zimbabwe ran its election, but how Africa responded to it.

The Mail & Guardian strongly supports Nepad as an opportunity for Africa to lift itself by its bootstraps. But it is dishonest for Erwin to complain of “the imposition of extraneous standards on Africa”. The Western powers are not seeking to reimpose colonial control by insisting that African leaders deliver good government in exchange for economic assistance. The conditions are those set by Nepad’s African architects, including President Thabo Mbeki, who are soliciting Western support.

The almost universal endorsement of a manifestly fraudulent election by African leaders, parties and observers has inevitably raised doubts about the depth of the continent’s commitment to democratic and governance norms. It suggests that African states will not or cannot police each other, and that political friendships, leaders’ fears of setting standards they cannot meet, and nationalist solidarity remain paramount. It conveys the message that the African Union will be as toothless as the Organisation for African Unity. It has reduced the political elbow room of Western leaders, like Britain’s Tony Blair, who have been Nepad’s strongest advocates.

The crisp point is that good administration and democratic practice cannot be separated from the war on poverty and under-development. Africa’s economic resurgence hinges critically on government that is clean, law-abiding and responsive to the people.

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