By Marcia Freedman,
The Middle East is a gloomy
place as we move into 2007, and threatening, too. The possible
flash points for military conflict are numerous, even leaving
aside Iraq, and Israel is the focal point of several.
Israeli military warns of war on the northern front, not only
with Hezbollah, but possibly with Syria as well. Ehud Olmert has
made threatening speeches about the danger of a nuclear Iran,
all but endorsing military action in the future. The increasing
violence inside the occupied territories is already weakening
the Hamas/Fatah ceasefire with Israel, and both the U.S. and
Israel have approved a large shipment of arms to Fatah from
Egypt. None of this bodes well for peace on Israel's seam lines
with the occupied territories.
The threat of a possible
conflagration between Israel and Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah is
serious, and real. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is regrouping and
rearming, as well as flexing its political muscle in an attempt
to overthrow the pro-Western Siniora government. In Syria,
President Assad is promising a stick along with his recently
proffered carrot: he has said repeatedly that he prefers to
negotiate the future of the Golan Heights -- but that if
necessary, he will resort to the military option. Iran, or at
least its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's, has declared Israel
to be Iran's enemy. Though it remains unclear just how much
President Ahmadinejad's sentiments reflect those of the rest of
his country's leadership, or how long he is likely to remain in
power, Israel must of course treat any such comments coming out
of Iran with great seriousness.
prevailing Israeli reaction to each of these threats has been
entirely in line with current neoconservative U.S. foreign
policy in the region. Syria and Iran are still the Axis of Evil;
Hezbollah is a threat to Western interests, not just Israel's
security, and must be dealt with militarily; likewise, Hamas is
a threat, if of a lesser order, and should be destroyed.
From all indications, both the Israeli Prime Minister's
office and the military high command are of one mind with the
Cheney-Bush-Rice policies in the Middle East. Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert embarrassed both himself and the nation recently
when he justified his unwillingness to so much as ascertain the
sincerity of Assad's peace overtures with the astonishing
assertion that to do so would be counter to the foreign policy
of our good ally, the United States. It was an odd example of
speaking truth to power.
The December meeting between
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was no exception
to the Prime Minister's policy of acquiescence to the White
House in formulating Israeli foreign policy. The Bush
Administration's stated policy ever since Hamas' electoral
victory in Palestinian elections a year ago has been to try to
bring down the democratically elected Palestinian government by
starving and isolating it, and by encouraging Mahmoud Abbas and
the Fatah leadership to call for new elections. The Israeli
government has played a key role in executing this policy,
keeping the Gaza Strip all but hermetically sealed off from the
outside world, and failing to remit to the Palestinian Authority
the tax monies Israel owes it, thus cutting the Palestinian
government off from its most important source of revenue.
As severe economic privation and civic chaos overtake
the West Bank as well as Gaza, Abbas appears to have given in to
the U.S. strategy -- he has declared that he will dissolve the
current Hamas government and call for new elections, though he
did not say when. His "reward" was the recent high-profile
meeting with Olmert. The meeting was cordial, and Israeli
concessions were promised. But no concrete action has been taken
to ease the Palestinians' dire plight, and if past experience is
a guide, it is unlikely that all or even any of these promises
will be implemented in full.
The futility of war in
resolving conflict in the 21st century, indeed the changes in
the nature of warfare, do not seem to have sunk in yet for
either the Bush Administration or Olmert's government. Indeed,
one can't help but compare the President's new 'surge' policy in
Iraq to Olmert's last ditch effort to send in tens of thousands
of reserves during the last days of the Lebanon war, in order to
try to achieve what was at best an ill-defined "victory" over
Hezbollah at the last minute. The sorry result was that half the
total casualties of that war occurred during these last few
days. The belligerent strategies adopted by both countries
vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, and the apparent effort to
encourage an all-out Palestinian civil war all seem doomed to
failure, if by nothing else than the weight of historical
The one bright light in all this doom and
gloom is, improbably, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Livni and Olmert share a background as first-generation
Israeli-born offspring of right wing leaders in Israel's
founding generation. Both are products of a staunchly
ideological background focused on establishing a state in the
Greater Land of Israel, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan
River -- but in recent months, Livni has indicated quite clearly
that she has moved on from that narrow vision.
unexpectedly and without fanfare or much press broke from Olmert
for the first time during the early days of the Lebanon War. She
argued (unsuccessfully) that the government needed to have a
political strategy along with a military one; her defiance and
the Prime Minister's displeasure surfaced in leaks from the
cabinet. Soon after, he forced her to cancel plans to attend the
cease-fire negotiating sessions at the U.N. by publicly
forbidding her to go.
More recently, she has openly
disagreed with the Prime Minister's policy of rejecting
out-of-hand any possibility of talks with Syria. Indeed, Livni
has been a leading voice advocating for careful consideration of
Assad's overtures in order to assess their viability before
responding, and she has ordered her staff to study the Syrian
offer closely, in spite of Olmert's reticence.
recently, at the same time that Olmert was meeting with Abbas,
Livni held a parallel meeting, unbeknownst to Olmert, with other
high-ranking Fatah officials, including Yassir Abed Rabbo, with
whom Yossi Beilin successfully negotiated the Geneva Accord. The
tension between Olmert and Livni is not new, but this meeting,
in which she presented her vision of a two-state solution and
listened to the Palestinian response, may be the first time she
has taken such an independent path.
In several recent
interviews Livni has made clear that her mission in politics is
to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a
two-state solution. She is committed to getting as much of the
Greater Land of Israel as possible, but she is clear that a
mutually agreed upon peace with the Palestinians needs to be
Israel's #1 priority.
We can hope that Tzipi Livni will
inspire the Israeli government to reasonable behavior while
there is still time. And we can hope further that, in the U.S.,
Nancy Pelosi as the newly elected Speaker of the House can do
the same. Whether or not there is war or peace in the Middle
East in 2007 may depend on the leadership of these two
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance
for Justice and Peace
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