Saturday, August 01, 2009

CAN Barack Obama really bring peace to the Middle East?

From The Australian, August 01, 2009, by Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor:

...I still don't think Obama will bring peace to the Middle East, but a few interesting things are going to happen in the next few months.

... the Americans are coming to realise they have oversold the settlements issue. It's not the roadblock to Israeli-Palestinian peace or the key to the Middle East. At most, it's a symbol. Obama is moving beyond symbols.

Here are three big dynamic-changers we'll get in the Middle East in the next few months.

* Decision time looms regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions. Obama has set a new tough deadline of September for a serious response to dialogue offer. The Iranian regime is weakened by the election it stole, but also enraged, savage, fearful and full of spite. ...there will be tough sanctions against it or a military strike. Either way, it will mark a tough decision and the end of Obama's attempted universal love-in with all of America's enemies. Or, if the US response is meaningless, it will mark the beginning of a steep decline in Obama's international credibility.

* The international public face of the Israeli government will become friendlier. Controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will be indicted on corruption charges. He will then leave the government. Whether unfairly or not, he is a visual roadblock to a better look for Israel. With the Iran issue up for decision, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, or some big faction of her party, may join Benjamin Netanyahu's government. This will make it easier for Obama to love the Israelis.

* The emphasis will switch from the Israel-Palestinian track to the Israel-Syria track for possible peace talks. In some ways now is a good time to pursue Palestinian peace negotiations because all the Arab nations, except Syria, are scared of Iran and therefore would help the US. But in reality talk of a Palestinian peace is meaningless right now. Nearly half the Palestinian population is controlled by the ultra-rejectionist, terrorist death cult Hamas.

More important, perhaps, all of Israel's neighbours, including the Palestinians, are fed a diet of anti-Semitic propaganda and hate material. A permanent peace with Israel means an end to all territorial claims against Israel and the acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. For the moment, that's impossible.

But the US has real business to transact with Syria. Above all it wants Syria not to interfere with Iraq. Syria-Israel negotiations could provide cover for the US's business with Damascus. Syria's motivation is that its economy is a basket case. It wants an end to US sanctions. But a comprehensive Israel-Syria peace deal is unlikely. The minority Alawite tribe that rules Syria bases its entire legitimacy and justifies its emergency rule (in place these many decades) by its conflict with Israel. One incentive for Syria to do a peace deal is to take back the Golan Heights, but these are of little significance in themselves to Syria and their possession by Israel gives Damascus all the benefits of a permanent complaint. But look at the negatives. Israel will not give back the Golan Heights just for a peace agreement with Syria.

There would need to be a strategic realignment. Damascus would have to stop supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and would need to break with Iran. But Syria exerts regional influence only through its terror proxies and alliance with Tehran. Giving these levers of influence away is unlikely to look like a bargain to Damascus.

But engaging in a lengthy flirtation, a courtship destined never to be consummated, which allows all manner of minor functional co-operation, with reciprocal benefits, to take place -- that is a game Damascus understands.

...Obama's obsession with settlements in the West Bank and even in East Jerusalem, as if the entire Middle East, no, the entire Muslim world, hinged on this minor matter, is in the deepest sense irrational.

All of this presumably served Obama's purpose of establishing a therapeutic bond between himself and the Muslim and Arab world. But it is time to move back to rationality. Entering a patient's fantasy life can be a helpful therapeutic tool, but it confuses other people who overhear you.

As he moves to a compromise with Israel on settlements, gets down to business with Syria and ultimately confronts Iran, Obama will sound less and less like a therapist and more and more like a President. Good thing, too.
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