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Removed obstacles free Bush to give attention to peace

JERUSALEM—The downfall of Saddam Hussein may eliminate another obstacle to Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking.

President Bush and some of his advisers argue that Saddam's removal will trigger a domino effect of spreading democratic ideals across the Muslim world, eliminate the largest remaining Arab military threat to Israel and increase the pressure on the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and embrace negotiations.

Even as U.S. troops struggle to get democracy to take root in Iraq, the president has put his administration's prestige on the line with a high-profile bid to negotiate peace between Israel and a newly created Palestinian state within two years.

Hopes for peace, however, may have less to do with Saddam's downfall than with the fact that Bush may now be free to focus more intently on the issue, partly in response to pressure from his close ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to win support among Arab nations that distrust U.S. intentions in the region.

Despite the American characterization of the fallen Iraqi leader as a threat to the entire region, if not the world, Saddam was only a bit player in the Israeli-Palestinian drama despite repeated efforts to exert his influence on the conflict.

In the first U.S. war against Iraq, Saddam tried to rally Arab support by firing Scud missiles at Israel and igniting a wider regional conflict. He failed, even though Palestinians and other Arabs complained that the United States was willing to go to war to liberate Kuwait but reluctant to pressure Israel to withdraw from territory it seized in its 1967 war with neighboring Arab countries.

After the latest Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000, Saddam sent stipends to the West Bank and Gaza, $25,000 to so-called martyrs on suicide operations and $10,000 to survivors of clashes with the Israelis. Israeli intelligence estimated Saddam's overall funding at $15 million.

By comparison, the United States in June contributed $20 million to the Palestinian Authority to help rebuild Arab roads and farms that were damaged by Israeli counterattacks and incursions; Israel in July pledged to release $18 million in Palestinian funds frozen at the airports authority.

Palestinians responded to the collapse of Saddam's Iraq and to the Bush initiative on two fronts. They're reforming their government, crowned by the appointment for the first time of a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who so far has won U.S. confidence. And militants declared a unilateral three-month cease-fire on suicide bombings and other attacks, giving Israelis a respite from the daily choreography of bloodshed and warfare.

Israel welcomed Washington's renewed effort but dismissed the cease-fire, calling it an opportunity for Islamic radicals to rearm and rest and insisting that little progress can be made until Abbas disarms the militants.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to U.S. pressure to support Abbas by improving the Palestinians' living conditions and pledging to release some Palestinian prisoners.

Bush had called for Palestinian democratic reforms even before the second U.S.-led war on Iraq, and he joined Israel's political embargo of Yasser Arafat in June 2002 in a path-breaking speech that went beyond previous U.S. administrations in outright support for side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states.

"Permanent occupation (of Palestinian lands by Israel) threatens Israel's identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state," Bush said, while committing his administration to intense involvement in the process.

At the same time, Bush demanded that Palestinian leaders crack down on terrorism.

Key administration officials have put their personal prestige on the line since then, notably with President Bush's summit with Sharon and Abbas in Aqaba, Jordan, and through shuttle diplomacy and the recent White House visits, which have tried to steer both sides toward coexistence.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Bush's commitment and Saddam's demise will be enough to end one of the world's oldest conflicts.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.