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Mary McGrory

'Nuancing' the Mideast Dilemma

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, April 14, 2002; Page B07

Ask Binyamin Netanyahu what the problem is in Israel and you get a simple answer: Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu is the once and, he hopes, future prime minister of Israel. Then listen to the Zogby brothers -- James, president of the Arab American Institute, and his younger brother, John, the pollster -- and they, too, have a simple answer: It's the policy, stupid -- the U.S. policy that is one-sidedly pro-Israel. James Zogby exhorts Arabs. Brother John, of Zogby International, counts them. At a Thursday press breakfast they presented a poll of adults in five Arab countries that shows that Arabs love American music, movies, clothes, democracy and freedom -- but hate our attitude toward Palestine.

Netanyahu, talking to Post reporters and editors over coffee, hardly mentioned Palestinians, except Arafat, whom he regards as "absurd" and a "disgrace."

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The articulate and hard-edged hawk came to town to add his voice to the roar about the Middle East, which has increased by several decibels while Secretary of State Colin Powell dawdled and detoured his way to Jerusalem and a confrontation with a defiant Ariel Sharon, who uses every minute to blow up more Palestinian towns.

The Zogby poll found that 83 percent to 94 percent of Arabs gave low marks to U.S. policy on Palestine. An earlier Gallup Poll showed 61 percent of Arabs do not believe Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attack. John Zogby says they know better -- "they were just in denial, the way we were when we heard about My Lai and were saying, 'We would never do anything like that.' "

Washington tries to "nuance" -- to use one of President Bush's favorite new words -- the dilemma. The U.S. majority is clearly, clamorously pro-Israel. It includes almost all of Congress, for reasons of either loyalty to the president (Republican) or respect for his polls (Democratic) or a fear of Jewish voters in an election year (both). Washington doesn't like being asked about degrees of terrorism. Which is worse -- sending tanks into undefended West Bank towns to blow holes in apartment buildings, or shooting old ladies and children, or rousting out all the men, tying them up, blindfolding them and marching them off to God knows where? That is not terrorism of the type that draws the sympathy of the number-one terrorist hunter, George W. Bush -- although it terrifies the recipients.

Against the tanks and the helicopter gunships, Palestine has sent out teenage suicide bombers -- who are encouraged by crazed parents and whose families are compensated by Saddam Hussein. Bush regards this as the real thing, and until 10 days ago held Yasser Arafat responsible for all the carnage.

When asked who has the moral high ground, Jim Zogby replied, "The moral high ground doesn't exist."

A Palestinian named Bashir Abu Walid, whose neighbor was shot in her home by an Israeli soldier, stood in the wreckage of Ramallah and put the question to Washington Post correspondent Daniel Williams: "Every Israeli death is a big event. But we are just statistics. Because a soldier does it, it is not terrorism. Why not?"

Zogby said that Israel's invasion of occupied territories is seared into the Arab psyche the way the Holocaust defines 20th century history for Jews.

Netanyahu has a heavy voice and a head shaped like a bullet. His only criticism of the prime minister he hopes to succeed is that Sharon did not move sooner.

He was tolerant of George Bush, who said finally to Sharon that "enough is enough." Sharon paid no attention. He got out of eight towns but invaded another two. White House image-makers fret at the sight of the president of the country that helped found Israel, defended it, arms it and subsidizes it being bullied by a bully who is wholly beholden to him. Netanyahu said indulgently of Bush, "I believe that in his heart, President Bush understands us."

He and Sharon understand one important thing. No matter what polls show about Arab antipathy, Bush, like Sharon, couldn't care less what the rest of the world thinks. He is prepared, he tells visiting foreign leaders, to go it alone in invading Iraq. Netanyahu says that Arafat stalls to fend off the invasion of Iraq -- and Iran.

Just as many think that after Sharon has sweet-talked Powell for a few days about peace, a Palestinian state and curtailing settlements -- and the minute Powell is homeward bound and airborne -- Sharon will go back to killing Palestinians. The sole consolation for Arab Americans was that Sen. Russell Feingold, speaking as an American Jew, called for a Palestinian state -- at the Arab American Institute banquet.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company