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Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Robert Novak: Sharon's war?

By Robert D. Novak
Creators Syndicate

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WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, having just returned from a week-long fact-finding trip to the Middle East, addressed the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations December 16 and said out loud what is whispered on Capitol Hill: "The road to Arab-Israeli peace will not likely go through Baghdad, as some may claim."

The "some" are led by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In private conversation with Hagel and many other members of Congress, the former general leaves no doubt that the greatest U.S. assistance to Israel would be to overthrow Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime. That view is widely shared inside the Bush administration, and is a major reason why U.S. forces today are assembling for war.

"Military force alone," Hagel told his Chicago audience, "will neither assure a democratic transition in Iraq, bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, nor assure stability in the Middle East." Indeed, the senator returned from the Mideast more concerned than his prepared speech indicates. As the U.S. gets ready for war, its standing in Islam -- even among longtime allies -- stands low.

Yet, the Bush administration has tied itself firmly to Gen. Sharon and his policies. Gen. Amran Mitzna, the new Labor Party leader challenging the heavily favored Sharon in the January 28 election, is denied access to senior U.S. officials.

In private conversation, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has insisted that Hezbollah -- not al Qaeda -- is the world's most dangerous terrorist organization. How could that be, considering al Qaeda's global record of mass carnage?

In truth, Hezbollah is the world's most dangerous terrorist organization from Israel's standpoint. While viciously anti-American in rhetoric, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah is focused on the destruction of Israel. "Outside this fight (against Israel), we have done nothing," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the organization's secretary general, said in a recent New York Times interview. Thus, Rice's comments suggest that the U.S. war against terrorism, accused of being Iraq-centric, actually is Israel-centric.

That ties George W. Bush to Arik Sharon. The prime minister says astonishing things to U.S. visitors. He once rejected hope for negotiations, contending that Arabs and Jews will kill each other for a hundred years. More recently, he promised to put a Jewish settlement on top of any high ground.

What is widely perceived as an indissoluble Bush-Sharon bond creates tension throughout Islam -- including Turkey, long a faithful U.S. ally and even longer a secularized state. A poll of Turks by Pew Global Attitudes released December 4 shows 83 percent opposition to permission for U.S. use of bases in their country. Furthermore, a 53 percent Turkish majority asserted that the U.S. wants to oust Saddam Hussein as part of an anti-Muslim crusade rather than because he is a threat to peace.

Turkish cooperation in the war must be approved by Turkey's newly elected parliament, consisting of about 90 percent new members with an Islamic party in a heavy majority. The parliament's mood did not improve when the European Union on December 12 rebuffed both the Turkish and the U.S. governments by rejecting Turkey's application for membership. Abdullah Gul, the new prime minister, accused European leaders of "discrimination" and "prejudice" -- reflecting Islam's current view of the West.

That is the background for an attack on Iraq by a coalition of English-speaking countries. "We should refrain from a rush to declare a 'material breach' because of the gaps in Iraq's 12,000-page document," Hagel advised in Chicago, calling on the U.S. to "marshal our own evidence." Nevertheless, Hagel's close associate, Secretary of State Colin Powell, declared a material breach three days after the senator's advice.

Powell's uncharacteristic bellicosity may have been necessary for him to stay in the complicated game played within the Bush administration. Without Powell, President Bush may not have gone to Congress and the United Nations or delivered his masterful speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Day to day, only the secretary of state stands up to the forceful Vice President Dick Cheney.

On balance, war with Iraq may not be inevitable but is highly probable. That it looks like Sharon's war disturbs Americans such as Chuck Hagel, who have no use for Saddam Hussein but worry about the background of an attack against him.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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