- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

Barack Obama will not have the luxury of time when he moves into the White House after being sworn in as president on Jan. 20. With tensions in the Middle East steadily rising, the situation is reaching critical mass once more.

As the six-month cease-fire decreed by Hamas elapsed, the militant Islamist Palestinian Resistance Movement began lobbing rockets on southern Israel on Christmas Eve, and Israel has retaliated with air strikes and a ground incursion.

No sooner than Mr. Obama settles into the Oval Office, he will be saddling up for what promises to be the political equivalent of a four-year (possibly an eight-year) ride on a mechanical bull stuck in high gear — at least so far as the Middle East is concerned.

These are the burning issues at hand: Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria, Israel-Hezbollah, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the global war on terrorism.

How to handle them and in which order to address these issues is going to be of vital importance as a quick breakthrough will offer the region a tremendous morale booster and will have a positive domino effect on the rest of the region. More delays and stagnation also will have a domino effect, but in a negative manner.

As the Middle East will require much attention and energy — something no president can afford given that time is one of his most precious assets — Mr. Obama will need to appoint a special envoy who can devote the attention due to the issues at hand, but at the same time someone with good standing in the region and enough clout with the parties concerned.

To give the position the extra edge it needs, it would be advisable for the president to appoint someone with the rank of a full secretary and not, as has been the case in the past, an assistant deputy undersecretary et cetera, et cetera.

Titles and positions count for much in the Arab world. Given that Mr. Obama will be occupied by the financial crisis in the United States, the special Middle East envoy will need to have the power needed to push, prod and cajole and when needed to bully and reward.

A quick breakthrough is possible in the Israel-Syrian dossier. Unlike the Palestinian conflict, where the issues are many and contested (final borders, right of return of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, recognition of Israel by Hamas and guarantees of Israel’s security), the Syrian-Israeli dispute is relatively simple and centers on the Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan in 1967, and Syria wants it back.

There is no border contention: Israel recognizes the Heights as belonging to Syria, and Israel knows it has to return them. Syria knows that in return it will have to accept peace with Israel.

But here is the wild card in the Syrian-Israeli endgame: Lebanon. Until a few years ago, Lebanon played a relatively minor role in the conflict, but now with the presence of Hezbollah that has changed, returning to a status quo ante - similar to when the Palestine Liberation Organization was in control of south Lebanon.

A peace treaty between Israel and Syria without Lebanon will not carry the weight of the paper it would be written on. And as the Lebanese remain far too divided to reach an agreement among themselves, let alone with Israel, it would only make sense if Lebanon were included in the Syrian-Israeli track. That would put an end to Israel’s dispute with the Lebanese (once the Shebaa Farms were returned) and would remove Hezbollah’s reason to maintain its armed wing.

The current rearming of the Lebanese Army by the United States, Germany and Russia, who, respectively are supplying the Lebanese with M-60 Main Battle Tanks, combat helicopters, Leopard tanks and MiG-29 (NATO designation: Fulcrum) fighter jets should be in a better position to face any internal threats, no matter where it comes from.

With Syria and Lebanon out of the fight, attention could be given to the Palestinian issue. A pacified Syria also would mean Hamas’ military wing currently based in Damascus would be forced to relocate or, better yet, pressured into accepting to sit at the negotiating table.

A return to pre-June 5, 1967, borders would put Israel and Syria on the road to a peace agreement, allowing a focus on the Israelis’ border situation with the Palestinians.

The Palestine Liberation Organization has gone on record stating that it would accept to trade a small percentage of West Bank land where Israel has heavy population centers in exchange for equally arable land “elsewhere.”

A look at the map of Israel/Palestine reveals there is very limited real estate, and the only “other land of equal quality” would be in the Galilee, a zone populated by Arab-Israelis.

Offering to incorporate parts of Arab villages into Palestine would solve another one of Israel’s major preoccupations: the demographic time bomb. (Arab-Israelis might not be very amenable to this idea.)

The right of return for Palestinian refugees is never going to materialize and everyone knows it, perhaps except the refugees who still hope one day to return to their promised land - promised to them by Arab leaders over the years.

According to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), as of June 30, 2008, there were 1,930,703 registered refugees in Jordan; 416,608 in Lebanon; 456,983 in Syria; 754,263 in the West Bank; and 1,059,141 in Gaza.

The vast majority of those are destined to remain in their host countries; the problematic ones are those in Lebanon. They are for the greater part Sunni Muslim, and, in a country of just over 3 million people, the sudden influx of close to half a million Sunnis will upset the very precarious confessional balance of power, something neither the Christians nor the Shi’ites are likely to accept.

A solution will be needed to relocate some 300,000 of those refugees to countries of high immigration such as Australia, Canada, Western Europe and the United States, as well as parts of the Arab world. Financial compensation will be the order of the day and this is where Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries (Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) will be able to contribute thanks to their well-funded bank accounts.

Finally, the departure of the bulk of the Palestinians from the 12 camps in Lebanon would remove the protective envelope enjoyed by Takfiri Islamist groups close to al Qaeda in Lebanon, accomplishing a major step forward in the global war on terrorism.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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