- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009


The gang of usual suspects, the pundits who traditionally cover the Middle East, have never been on such opposite ends in trying to predict what may come from the region in the next few months.

Remember the German film “Run Lola Run?” Depending on how fast Lola ran from her apartment to wherever she was going, a few seconds’ difference would alter the entire ending of the film. The Middle East today finds itself in much the same situation: in short, nearly total confusion.

While political punditry is about as exact a science as voodoo or black magic, the truth is that the events are moving so fast that even the best of analysts are facing unprecedented challenges.

There is so much flux that any one of the issues can swing either way and take down the house of cards, which is what the region resembles today.

What are those issues?

1. Israel: Depending on who gets to form and lead the new government - be it current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, representing the centrist Kadima Party, or former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, running on the Likud ticket - it will affect the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Israeli-Syrian relations, Israeli-Arab relations, Israeli-Iranian relations and Israeli-U.S. relations very differently.

Of the various tracks mentioned above, the most important for Israel is the relationship between the Jewish state and the U.S. If Mr. Netanyahu gets to form the next Cabinet, that relationship could become strained if President Obama comes down hard on him to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Israel cannot sustain its current policy without U.S. backing.

Nothing indicates that Mr. Obama would pull the rug from under Mr. Netanyahu, but he could certainly make life difficult for him. So, reluctantly, Israel under Mr. Netanyahu could enter into negotiations pouting and grumbling, and nothing would emerge from those meetings. Which is why Washington is rooting for Mrs. Livni (unofficially, of course).

2. The Palestinians: If Hamas and Fatah could put aside their differences and work together for the benefit of the Palestinian people, they would all be far better off in the long run. Again, a very different ending.

But for that to happen, it is imperative that the Palestinians start working together and not against each other, as has been the case more often than not.

The Palestinians need to start thinking nationally, as one people, albeit with different political tendencies, rather than as two different paramilitary groups, which, much to the advantage of their detractors, spend more energy quarreling and fighting with each other than they do in trying to settle the main problem.

The real victims are the Palestinian people, who for the good part of the past 62 years have been largely used as pawns by various Arab countries - from Egypt to Syria, to Algeria and Iraq. And yet, the Palestinians continue to allow themselves to fall into these traps time after time after time. The latest, of course, is Hamas’ love affair with Iran.

3. Syria: Damascus still holds the key to the door, which in turn leads into the negotiations room. Perhaps the wisest line of politics that Israel could follow would be a jump-start of the now comatose peace negotiations with Syria.

Compared with the Palestinian track, a peace deal with Damascus is far less complicated. As opposed to the Palestinian track, which involves several complex issues, such as the final borders, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem (regarded by both sides as the only city suitable for their capital), the Syrian track is simple and clear-cut: Damascus wants the return of the Golan Heights, captured in 1967.

When I interviewed Mr. Netanyahu about two years ago, he told me that would not return land in exchange for peace. “Peace for peace,” he said very dryly. “No land for peace.” When I asked, “What about the Golan?” He replied, “What about the Golan?” I said the Syrians wanted it back. “You go to war, you lose. That’s too bad.”

Of course, with that attitude, peace is unlikely to flourish. But some analysts who have followed Israeli politics up close think Mr. Netanyahu will give in to pressure from Mr. Obama. That remains to be seen. Mr. Netanyahu can drag his feet for another two years, by which time Mr. Obama will be in the heat of his re-election campaign, and the Middle East is likely to slip under the radar once again.

Then there can be an entirely different scenario, as in the German film mentioned earlier. If Mrs. Livni gets to form the next government, a very different ending will emerge. The next few days will shed some light on which version will make the final cut.

• Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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