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Hopes For Mideast Peace Fading - 2001-09-18

Long-time observers of the Middle East are saying that hopes for peace are fading even more following the terrorist strikes against New York and Washington. Ross Dunn in Jerusalem talks with Arab and Israeli analysts about the prospects for peace - or war - in one of the world's most troubled areas.

The Israeli-Palestinian clashes are now almost one year old, and observers in the region have begun asking whether Arab nations will always remain on the sidelines of the fighting.

Political science professor Saleh Abdul Jawad of the Beir Zeit University in the West Bank says there is no doubt most Palestinians want Arab nations to join in a war against Israel. But he believes Arab participation in another war would only benefit Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

He says Mr. Sharon would seize the war to make sure that more Palestinians are driven out of the Palestinian territories and into neighboring countries, as happened in past conflicts.

"Without a regional war he can't achieve his complete plan, " he saai, "only with a regional war he can do it. So contrary to 99 percent of the Palestinians, I am completely against the [involvement] of Arab states in this conflict."

Another Palestinian analyst, Madhi Abdul Hadi, says the only way Arab countries will strike at Israel is if they are provoked by Israel.

"I can see the Israeli troops deploying on the Arab fronts, in provoking and confronting the military forces of Arab regimes. How long will these regimes constrain themselves?" he asked.

Some experts believe the spark for a war might come from southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah guerrilla fighters have made several strikes across the border into Israel and have also kidnapped three Israeli soldiers.

Hezbollah has constantly declared its support for the Palestinians, but it is ultimately controlled by Syria, the real power broker in Lebanon.

Consequently, some analysts say that Israel may strike back at Syria, rather than Hezbollah. If this happens, the analysts say, the Israel attack might have a domino effect, bringing in other Arab nations.

Boaz Ganor of Israel's International Institute for Counter-Terrorism says that, of all the Muslim countries in the region, Iraq is the one most eager to join in a new Middle East war. For one thing, he says, it would increase Iraq's standing among Arab countries.

"I believe that Iraq is waiting for such a scenario to happen because this can change the whole situation and its whole place in the international, especially the Arab, arena," said Mr. Ganor.

Israeli analyst Yossi Klein-Halevi, a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report, says Arabs have been encouraged to believe that Israel is running scared following its withdrawal from southern Lebanon last year in the face of pressure from the Hezbollah.

Mr. Klein-Halevi is concerned that militant Arab states are, at least psychologically, preparing for another war with Israel, even though they know they could not win against Israel's superior military machine.

"The thinking in places like Syria, Iraq, Iran - what we call in Israel the northern front - I think the thinking there is that we cannot defeat Israel in one blow," he explained. "But as Israel [showed] with its flight from Lebanon last year, the Jews are losing their stomach for this conflict and we need to simply push them over the edge. And one more battle, and one more war and we will demoralize Israeli society to such an extent that many people will simply flee from the Middle East and those who are left won't be able to sustain the state."

Mr. Klein-Halevi says he believes Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat drew on the Hezbollah for inspiration when he launched the intifada against Israel, following the failed Camp David peace summit last year.

It was at Camp David that Mr. Arafat turned down an agreement with Israel that would have established an independent Palestinian state, saying it fell far short of his people's aspirations for self-determination.

Mr. Klein-Halevi says if, in an effort to get peace talks started again, Israel withdrew its troops from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the withdrawal would have much wider and even more dangerous implications.

He says this would send a signal to Arab countries that Jews had lost their resolve to stay in the Middle East. Such thinking, the Israeli analyst added, could lead to a dangerous miscalculation on the part of the Arab world and a new war in which Israel is forced to prove its military superiority over its Arab neighbors.