Friday, May 09, 2008

A Gathering Storm?

Yesterday's commemorations of Israel's independence and the Palestinians' nakba (catastrophe) are already overshadowed by crises in Israel and Lebanon. Israel PM Olmert is under another police investigation, his third in recent years, concerning new charges of bribe taking (in incidents uncovered during the course of an earlier investigation). He is liable to be indicted, in which case, he says, he will resign. That possibility raises the question of his succession by Foreign Minister Livni and her ability to keep a governing coalition, on one hand, or early elections, on another. Olmert and his supporters claim the charges are trumped up by opponents to peace talks the Palestinians or Syria, that, he says, are making progress. So far Olmert has not given any evidence for this claim. Moreover, to judge by the government's record and the current state of the talks, the opponents would need no help from the police to derail they. They can just leave that to Olmert, his coalition partners and the Israel army, all of whom appear quite capable and willing to do that themselves.

In Lebanon, Chairman Nasrallah declared war on the Lebanese government after, he says, the Lebanese government declared war on Hezbollah, by trying to shut down the private communications network that Hezbollah had set up throughout Lebanon, with Iranian help. Hezballah gunmen have blocked the road from Beirut's international airport to the city and also wrested control of West Beirut from Sunnis. These moves come after months of a political stalemate over choosing a Lebanese president, that has pitted Sunni, Druse and most Christian communities in Lebanon against Lebanese Shiites, dominated by Hezbollah. The political situation is aggravated by economic deterioration in Lebanon, due to several factors: a) the devastation from the war with Israel two years ago; b) the political stalemate itself scaring off foreign investment; and c) rising costs of food and other necessities which has provoked violent demonstrations.

In addition, Hezbollah military leaders want to show their muscles, because the party has failed to strongarm its candidate into the presidency of Lebanon, while the Sunni, Druse and Christians grouped in the anti-Syria, anti-Shia coalition would rather have a showdown now rather than later when Hezballah is even stronger. So the parties are likely to spiral into a civil war. In that case, Israel leaders, with or without Olmert at their helm, will decide to "help" the Lebanese government either overtly or clandestinely. The Bush administration would undoubtedly green light any such Israeli move, since it regards conflicts involving Iranian clients -- Sadrists in Iraq, Hamas, Hezballah -- as proxy wars with Iran. Iranian leaders have a corresponding view of conflict directed at US clients, viz., Israel, the Lebanese government, the Arab gulf states. Lebanon today is an opportunity for them to demonstrate Lebanon's disruptive power and consequently its being a necessary player in achieving some stabilities in the Middle East, regardless of Western efforts to isolate it over the nuclear program issue.

International relations in the Middle East are like the old joke about in New England. If you don't like what is happening now, just wait a bit.

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