Friday, August 1, 2008

A Wrench in Middle East Peace?

Earlier, I had been lauding as near-inevitable a realignment in the Middle East that might lead to a lasting peace, particularly with Israel.

Sadly, one of the unspoken keys to this peace process was Prime Minister Olmert, whose moderate stances on Middle East relations have probably been a big part of the willingness of Syria to negotiate peace (and Syria's involvement, I have argued, is critical to reining in Hamas and Hezbollah).

But Mr. Olmert is going to resign, amid charges of corruption that have had the police question him four times already. Whatever happens to him afterwards, he will be leaving without a strong mandate for his current policies to be continued.

And it looks like Netanyahu, a serious tough-guy and (some have said) ultra-nationalist has got poll numbers behind him to take over in snap elections in the fall... which may or may not happen. The ruling Kadima party is weak, and Likud stands to gain a great deal.

Netanyahu is even more prickly than the typical Israeli politician, and has hard-line stances on most countries that consider Israel an enemy, including Iran. He supports keeping settlements in the West Bank, and opposes the Annapolis talks--this would completely dreail any motion towards a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu was Prime Minister already in the 1990's, and is not considered a friendly guy. Quoth Bill Clinton, after a meeting: "Who the fuck does he think he is, who's the fucking superpower here?"

On the good side, Netanyahu's understanding of geopolitics is realist and realistic. He sees Iran as a serious revisionist threat, and Hezbollah and Hamas as proxy terror groups, largely acting at Iran's whim. But does that mean he's thinking about actually using the military to deal with Iran? Israel under a moderate Olmert has certainly been making it look like it's a question on the table--and Netanyahu would support an airstrike more than anyone. This has some pretty scary consequences.

So what happens, if the US has a friendly and weak Obama presidency, and Israel has a tough-nosed Netanyahu? Besides disagreements, the US would have a hard time keeping Israel in line. If rows erupt, or if Netanyahu loses respect or patience for the American president, Israel may begin to act unilaterally against Iran--and let the US deal with the consequences in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But there is another, bizarre posibility. Netanyahu might actually become a looming stick in negotiations with Iran and Syria. While Syria declared that it would wait for US elections to continue peace negotiations, it may now change its mind and hurry up, hoping to slip in the Peace door before it closes on them. US negotiations with Iran may now include a note of saying "look, you want us on your side when Netanyahu takes office." Similar feelings will be felt by Abbas of Palestine, but his ability to control his nation is so limited that it may not matter.

So we should keep our eyes on the Middle East, and see whether Israel's pseudo-enemies are dealing with Olmert's resignation with a hastened need to act, or a resigned move back towards the hard-line geopolitics that Netanyahu wants to play. Bush, if he's smart, is going to seize this opportunity in negotiations with Iran and say "hurry up, kids, we're out of time." Assad, if he's smart, will do the same to Israel (Olmert is largely at a point where he is now incapable of initiative). But now we have to see how smart everyone is willing to be.
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