Thu, 09 Nov 2000

Dousing the flames

Five years ago, the then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin paid with his life for his historic handshake with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The tragedy today is that despite his death, as well as that of countless others, the Middle East's longest running conflict is far from being resolved.

The images of violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have become such a feature of television news bulletins that it is easy to forget how important it is not only for those caught up in the turmoil but for the rest of the world that peace be established in the region.

Unless U.S. efforts to restore calm succeed, there is a real danger of the violence spreading across the Arab world with consequences which will be felt globally. The current uprising has found echoes across the region. The initial clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers triggered demonstrations even in places like the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, which are normally not known for street protests.

Though the demonstrations have died down, there is no mistaking the wave of popular Arab anger that still simmers in the region. This anger could well turn against entrenched regimes which have failed to meet the needs of their people. A generalized wave of unrest in the Middle East will in turn have consequences for oil supplies that will be felt across the world.

One beneficiary of a continuing conflict would be Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who is still respected in many parts of the Arab world for the tough line he took against Israel during the Gulf War. Some Arab governments have already begun to talk of lifting sanctions against Iraq unless Palestinian demands are met. It is significant that the Kuwaiti Government has resumed contact with the Palestinians for the first time since the Gulf War.

The immediate risk is that the conflict will spread to Lebanon, where Israel has been threatening to take action against Hezbollah, which holds a number of Israeli soldiers hostage. This could pull Syria into the conflict. Once that happens, other Arab governments are likely to throw their weight behind Syria leading to the possibility of a generalized conflict.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong