Saturday, May 24, 2008

Piecework

This past week's two beig Middle East developments drew mixed reviews. They also made the Bush administration look like a marginal player in Middle East affairs and its policies toward Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas, Israel and Iran like miserable failures. The agreement that key Lebanese political players signed in Doha, Qatar was a victory primarily for Hezbollah and secondarily for Arab League diplomacy. The agreement resolves for now the political crisis in Lebanon: It commits the parties to a National Unity government in which Hezbollah will have veto power; it agrees to the election of the compromise presidential candidate Gen. Michel Suleiman and calls for certain revisions of the electoral laws that will increase Shiite representation in the Lebanese parliament. These changes correspond to the probable populations of the respective communities and certainly to their respective military strengths, as Hezbollah's recent armed seizure of West Beirut bluntly demonstrated. Through the agreement the government parties averted a coup d'├ętat or civil war, which would have cost them more. The agreement, however, does not address the wider issue of Hezbollah's future character, viz., political party, movement, army; it does not quiet fears in Lebanon of Hezbollah creating a state within a state.

The agreement generally received regional and international applause. Even the United States, which had called upon Lebanon's government to stand up to Hezbollah expressed some satisfaction. Its spin was that Hezbollah's gains, achieved at gunpoint, had cost it its reputation and so political partners among other Lebanese Some skeptics, however, questioned whether the agreement just delayed the collapse of Lebanon into civil or could really defuse the situation. Yet the Arab patrons of the parties -- primarily the Saudis, on one side, Syria, on the other apparently signed off on the agreement. That suggests they have interests in making the agreement work or, put another way, keeping Lebanon from becoming the battleground of a proxy war between the United States and Iran. If so, the politics of the regional system have trumped those of the global system (not that Iran is really a global player). Since the regional politics are traditionally contentious and solidarity weak, the agreement testifies to the extent of the Arab states' disdain for the United States and suspicions of Iran.

Official Israel and Syrian statements that the two countries are indirectly negotiating peace through the Turkish foreign ministry are no surprise since reports of such negotiations have been leaking for the past month. The statements, however, made the countries' respective patrons, the US and Iran, look ineffective, since each had publicly warned its client against such negotiations. Indeed, a New York Times editorial rather imaginatively argued that George Bush's condemnation of appeasers in his May 14 speech to the Knesset was aimed at both Obama and Israelis who want to negotiate with groups to whom the Administration refuses to speak, viz., Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah. Secretary of State Rice said rather coolly that it was okay for Israel to negotiate with Syria. She then claimed that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were making such progress in their US sponsored negotiations that agreements could be signed by the end of the year. Since neither the parties to these negotiations nor any informed observers believe this, Rice is either terribly out of touch or just plain lying. Given her record, it's hard to tell.

Iranian president Ahmadinejad and his circle were reportedly pissed off by the revelation to the point of branding Syria's negotiations a betrayal of its friendship with Iran. Iran's foreign ministry, however, denied the truth of such reports. So Ahmadinejad is likely to soft pedal his opposition while working behind the scenes to block the negotiations.

There is considerable doubt among Israelis that the negotiations can succeed, though arguably both sides can benefit if Israel gives Syria the entire Golan Heights in return for a peace that includes an end of Syria's alliances with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. For one thing, earlier negotiations between Syria and Israel failed because the two sides could not agree on the extent and modality of Syria's control of the Golan. Second, Israel PM Olmet is too weak politically to get the Israel public behind such a deal. Indeed many skeptics believe he chose to disclose the negotiations now to deflect attention from a police investigation of his possibly corrupt practices when he was Minister of Industry and Commerce in a previous government. Third, although Israeli governments have tended to look at negotiations as an alternative to negotiations with the Palestinians, the Israel will need some assurance that some peace can be reached with the Palestinians before it will agree to relinquishing all or most of the Golan.

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