Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Great Middle East Limbo

The US Election is zooming in quickly, but even after Senator Obama wins (let's face it), he won't have the authority to do his own peace-brokering quiet yet. Arabs abroad love him, and would probably give him an opportunity to try his hand at mediation.

But right now, there's a more limiting factor that will keep him sidelined for even the first month or two of his presidency. Tzipi Livni, the head of the Kadima party and their candidate for Prime Minister, has failed to create a coalition government in Israel's Knesset (parliament). She's citing "political blackmail" by potential coalition partners; unable to reign in their allegedly unreasonable demands (especially because some of them stand to gain in an early election), she moved to an election.

Her decision to have an election likely means there just wasn't another option. Kadima does not want to delay the peace process with Palestine, nor does it want to open the door for Netanyahu's Likud party to gain power again. Likud is polling well, and if they won, would probably expand (not contract) Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and probably even in the Golan heights. Peace talks with Syria and the Palestinian Authority would break down. This is not an illegitimate or summarily bad position for Israel to have, but it will unquestionably frustrate the EU and US, who have been beating their heads against brick walls to make this happen--and who saw, just before the fall of Olmert, a glimmer of hope in the open-mindedness of Palestine's Abbas and Syria's Assad to shift West. Before Olmert's fall, a fair number of international political analysts were predicting a surprisingly happy Middle East by 2011. That optimism has all but vanished.

If Kadima manages to win the election, it will have been after serious delays--delays in which a coup may take down Assad, or an assassination might take down Abbas. The Israeli election will probably occur in February, putting at least 4 more months of delay on talks. It's something that has lots of people nervous.

That said, Likud brings up some serious points to the discussion table. Israel is in a position where, after 60 short years, it has learned many times over that land-for-peace often does not work in the Arab world. If the Palestinian Authority cannot control its own people (hint: it can't), then summarily pulling out from PA territory would greatly increase the operations capabilities of the more Hamas-leaning Palestinians. Would extremism go away quickly in the PA? Certainly not. And concessions in the light of terror attacks in Israel might send the message that continued terror attacks will eventually lead to more concessions--or more thoroughly disrupt the Israeli government. Until all but a few Palestinians can either be A) convinced that Israel is there to stay, or B) suppressed by a strong Palestinian government, Israel puts its citizens at serious risk by giving up the PA territories.

The Golan Heights are less critically disastrous, but similar. In theory, if Israel gave the Golan Heights back to Syria, Syria would stop funding Hamas and Hezbollah operations in Israel, greatly increasing Israel's security. Some have mentioned that the Golan Heights are militarily advantageous, and they are--but not by much. The Israeli army is far superior to Syria's, and Syria will never again get the help of Iraq, Jordan, or Egypt if it tried to pick a fight with the Israelis. Syria would be crushed in any head-to-head battle with the Israelis. Besides--Blue Helmets would probably line the heights for a fair while after the handover, to keep it demilitarized.

But those Blue Helmets might be Israel's bane in such a handover deal. If the Syrians don't hold to their promises--and keep funding anti-Israeli terrorist organizations--then the Israelis can't do much about it. Referring to a recent post of mine, Israel has a lot of power with de facto control over the Heights, and if it agreed to a new status quo, it would face a heavy burden to overturn it--especially if UN troops would be hurt in the process. Syria might be able to do whatever it wants when Israel's bargaining chips are gone--especially if Israel couldn't afford the political cost of taking them back.

The situation's sticky. But it's about to get even stickier--hopelessly so--if Israeli elections get messy. Lame-duck and incoming presidents alike are going to be frustrated and disheartened. But it's just another day in the life of the Middle East peace process.
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