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Syria: Cold War Cornerstone?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Trying to understand what Syria wants is not the world’s easiest task.  Quite to the contrary, in fact, Damascus’s intentions are downright puzzling.  The last few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the US and Syria with the restoration of a US Embassy in Damascus and the very recent appointment of Robert Ford as the US Ambassador.  These large overtures to the Assad regime are most certainly intended to try to lure Damascus away from the “Tehran orbital” of the Middle Eastern “cold war” and place them firmly in the pro-western camp.  The US also clearly wants to attempt to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan in the hopes of cementing that transition into “our” camp.  Great.  But are diplomatic overtures enough? And more importantly, does Bashar al Assad want to be on our side?

I asked these very questions two weeks ago after picking up Gershom Gorenberg at the airport and driving him back to Middlebury.  His answer was that yes, Syria wants to find a way into the Western-backed bloc along with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, etc.  I hope this is the case, but evidence lately certainly seems to point to the contrary.  Last week, Damascus played host to a star-studded summit of the West’s favorite personalities: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah (the Secretary General of Hezbollah), and Khaled Meshaal (the chairman of Hamas’ Damascus-based politburo).  This doesn’t seem to be the message one would send to the US, Europe, Israel, etc. if one was serious about peace and switching sides.  Moreover, recent tensions along the border with Israel have increased lately with sharp rhetoric from both Damascus and Jerusalem(read: Lieberman).  See my tete-a-tete with Ali for more on that.  The escalation of bellicose words coupled with Damascus’ apparent contentment with supplying arms to Hezbollah and Hamas sends the signal of intransigence or plain and simple disinterest in pursuing peace with Israel and defecting to the West.  Even this past week, when senior US diplomat Robert Burns visited Damascus, Assad “denied all American claims that that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.” C’mon Bashar.

Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the only side to the story.  Tonight, Haaretz is reporting a genuine desire on Damascus’ part to re-invigorate a peace process with the Israelis.  So, the answer is most simply that there is no certain answer.

What is unambiguous, however, is the rising importance of Syria in the region.  Tehran sees Syria as a valuable strategic ally and asset for gaining a foothold in the Arab World, which is largely apprehensive about Tehran’s rhetoric and regional ambitions.  Moreover, Syria’s longstanding ties in Lebanon are a perfect conduit for transferring arms and resources to Shi’a groups like Hezbollah.  The US and its bloc equally recognize the huge gains in courting Damascus.  A peace agreement between Syria and Israel would undoubtedly result in a crippled if not severely weakened Hezbollah and Hamas, and a total cessation of arms flowing to Iraq (assuming continued bolstered ties with the US).  A weakened Hamas in turn would aid hopes for Palestinian reconciliation and possibly provide a true Palestinian partner for peace with the Israelis.  Indeed, it is imperative that any comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East involve Syria as a central player.  As for now, the thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus is an essential step; however, a deep breath and fresh thinking on both sides of the Israel-Syria border would be instrumental in helping the Syrians find a way to move a little closer to the US-backed sphere without compromising their perceived security.

Identity Prospecting

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

In the latest step in the on-going conflict over memory-rights and the Holy Land, Benjamin Netanyahu decided today to include two shrines located in the West Bank – among them the Cave of the Patriarchs – in the list of Israeli national heritage sites. For those of you unfamiliar, the Cave of the Patriarchs is considered holy by the whole Abrahamic tradition and is thought to be the resting place of Abraham and a few others of Biblical note.  The stories can be read here, here and here. As is its wont, the New York Times ran a story that you had to know existed to read.

hebron_cave

It is easy to appreciate the significance of this move given the rhetoric and the people cheering for it, namely, that ‘…Our existence depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience – it is anchored in…the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land,” to take that wholesale from Ha-Aretz. This is not new, but it is reflective of past policies of landscape and memory claiming that have taken place in Israel and the West Bank more specifically.

We know that historical memory is a touchy subject, but it’s especially touchy in this case because it maintains the tradition of mingling national identity with religion. While it is unclear what real effects will be felt now that they are on a register of Israeli historical sites, it is obvious that the Palestinian reaction has not been welcoming, again pointing to discrimination and an effort to wipe them off the historical map. That the government would budget 500,000 shekels for the ‘renovation’ of these sites struck me as particularly ominous.

If we want peace – two-state solution, one-state solution, whatever – it cannot be achieved by claiming sites of historical memory. It just can’t. If there is to be some modicum of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, it has to be on the basis of shared heritage, not cultural domination. Mark Regev commented that ‘the list was not meant to set borders,’ but it has already violated some of the most important borders, all of this even if we discount settlement activity and the fact that Hebron is smack in the middle of the West Bank. Israeli conservatives (and the Israeli government) should consider that strengthening the Israeli national narrative comes, sometimes, at the cost of prospects for peace with those troublesome Palestinians, who have their own legitimate historical connection to the land.

Look, I do not know what will actually come of this aside from the emotional responses (which are powerful enough on their own), but I cannot help but think of how beautiful this sight could be in the future: Muslims, Christians and Jews worshiping their shared forefathers. Instead, it has been a battleground for the soul of the Holy Land, and looks like it will continue to be so, at least in the near future.

Cool It

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

That’s right, saber-rattling has recommenced in the Damascus-Tel-Aviv neighborhood. The headlines on Aljazeera, Al Sharq Al Awsat and Haaretz are splashed with stressful tidings from the two capitals, and I can’t shake the feeling that we’re dealing with Otto von Bismarck from time to time on both sides of the Golan.  It is nothing new when I say that this new round of tension is frustrating, but the issue assumes more alarming proportions to me when I crawl outside of the pseudo-academic bubble and remember that my father has been living with family in the Ouza’i neighbhorhood of Beirut since August, a sitting duck for Israeli bombers “should the situation arise.”

Just reading these articles and thinking of my family in Beirut tempted me to launch a vitriolic attack on the Israeli administration’s handling of the Syrian negotiations (and their massive ramifications), but I have chosen not to include it. Not because I hope to be impartial – far from it. I think it is important to choose sides in an issue and to express that intellectually. But  the kind of anger I wanted to express is not constructive and reminds me too much of our cast of characters, the Israeli and Syrian governments.

Syria is prickly as usual and Lieberman needs to be reined in before he continues to inflame negotiations, which many claim the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to make. How willing? It is difficult to tell at times, but the Bismarck imitations need to stop.

Von Bismarck himself, complete with his friend The Awesome Helmet

Von Bismarck himself, complete with his friend The Awesome Helmet

A Glimmer of Optimism

For those who follow the ins and outs of the Middle East peace process, the past 13 months have been certifiably depressing.  Since Israel’s military operation in Gaza last January, no progress whatsoever has been made in making peace with the Palestinians, Syria, or any one else.  The year has been replete with pre-conditions, freezes, blockades, declarations, and even good will gestures, but there has been a severe drought of actual peace and progress.

In that light, I was pleasantly surprised to read Joel Rubin’s commentary and analysis of the Herzliya Conference last night.  The conference is Israel’s largest annual global policy forum and is a perennial gathering of political heavyweights from the region and diplomats stationed in Israel.

Left and Right, those who spoke in Herzliya such as Opposition leader and Kadima Chair MK Tzipi Livni, Deputy PM Dan Meridor, and Deputy FM Danny Ayalon (of Turkish sofa incident fame) all stressed the essentiality of striking a two-state solution.  As Rubin puts it, “none of [them] declared this for sentimental reasons.” That is the essential point.  In today’s world, a comprehensive peace agreement is a strategic necessity for all parties involved.  The balance of power in the Middle East is rapidly changing, and overwhelming American preponderance is slowly eroding into a thing of the past.  That isn’t to say that the US has become irrelevant in the Middle East.  It still will play a central role in forging a future for the region, but the game has certainly changed.  The rising threat of Iran is an undeniable reality, and a regional peace agreement in the Middle East is invaluable in suppressing that threat as it will undoubtedly quell the flow of arms and money from Iran to other actors in the region like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria.

Consensus on a two-state agreement is not enough to make a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Middle East a reality.  It will require tough decisions and compromises from both sides of the negotiating table, and today we have not even returned to the negotiating table.  Despite the setbacks of 2009, Joel Rubin gets it right here:

There may not yet be peace…but this day may well have granted Obama a subtle victory, as the broad political recognition in Israel of the importance of a two state solution was made urgently clear.

My hope is that broad political recognition can be transformed into sweeping political action that delivers.

The Stuff of Hollywood Spy Thrillers

The Arab and Israeli Press have both been reporting this week on the death of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai, UAE.  Initially, Emirati authorities pronounced him dead after a heart attack, but after subsequent blood tests trace elements of poison were found in his blood.

Hamas, for their part, immediately and publicly accused the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, of committing the deed, but the case remains unresolved.  Here are the latest updates.

Haaretz is reporting that the Dubai police Chief Dhahi Khalfan has narrowed the list of suspects down to 7 individuals carrying “various European passports.”

The Times of London is also claiming that Al-Mabhouh was injected with a poison that induced cardiac arrest in his hotel room, that the assassains photographed all the documents in his briefcase, and left the room with the “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the door.

This murder  harkens back to the 1997 assassination attempt of Hamas Chairman Khaled Meshaal in which Israeli intelligence agents  failed to murder him in Amman, Jordan.  Avi Shlaim, in his book The Iron Wall elaborates on this attempt:

Mossad prepared a plan to kill Khalid Meshaal…by injecting a slow-acting poison into his ear as he entered his his office in Amman…Meshaal was injected bu not killed, and his bodyguard captured the two Mossad agents, who were disguised as Canadian tourists…King Hussein [of Jordan]…said that he felt as if somebody “had spat in his face.”  Great was his surprise…when he learned that Netanyahu himself had ordered the bizarre operation in Jordan’s capital.  (pg.585-586)

That assassination attempt occurred just days after Hussein and Netanyahu had met in Jordan to discuss cooperation on the issue of Islamic terrorism.  Similarly, the UAE had just  hosted an Israeli cabinet minister, an unprecedented gesture, as part of a broader conference on energy in Dubai.  The UAE generally  refuses entry to all Israelis regardless of the purpose of visit.

I do not mean for this post to be a defense of Hamas or Al-Mabhouh. Nor do I intend to scathingly indict Netanyahu.  It does seem, however, that Bibi does have a penchant for timing his intelligence activities in a very careless way or he is clearly sending a message.  What that could be and how it is constructive in building diplomatic relations in the region…I have no idea.

***UPDATE***

It appears that the Mossad or Israel may not have been involved at all, and is likely that Egypt, Jordanian GID, or Palestinian Autority Security Services were involved.

There are also conflicting reports of Al Mabhouh’s cause of death.  In today’s article, Haaretz is reporting that local authorities attribute the cause of his death to asphyxiation, most likely with a pillow, and there was evidence of electrocution behind both of his ears.