Mideast Politics: One step forward, two steps backward

Mideast Politics: One step forward, two steps backward June 18, 2009
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Developments in the Mideast are not very promising for President Obama’s hopes and plan to broker comprehensive peace in the Middle East and enhance United States national security. Recent events indicate that the region has taken one step forward and two steps backward.

The Step Forward: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under severe pressure from the United States finally expressed reluctant support for a Palestinian State with limited sovereignty. His idea of a Palestinian state is an entity without the right to a defense or foreign policy. A state that will never have the means to defend itself from anyone, and will never have the right to make friends and allies that Israel does not like. Meaning it will never be independent of Israeli political domination. Direct occupation will give way to indirect domination.

Even though Netanyahu’s offer is Machiavellian – it adds new conditions that will derail the peace process for sure – it is a positive step forward because it introduces Americans and the American President to a new concept – Israel can be pressured to change its course without the sky falling on Washington DC.

Now the left (Labor), center (Kadima) and the right (Likud) in Israel are committed for the first time to a two state solution and to abide by international law and agreements. President Obama can use this as a deliverable to push the Arabs to return Israel’s symbolic gesture. But above all, now he can hold any Israeli government responsible if it does not hold its end of the bargain especially on the contentious issue of settlements.

First Step Backward: Bibi Netanyahu’s speech while making a big concession to American demands did however undermine the peace process in many ways. Netanyahu signaled that he will not abide by American insistence to stop illegal expansion of existing settlements, even though he declared that no new land grabs will be initiated to start more settlements. He will only use current settlements to grab more Palestinian land. The codeword for it is – natural growth.

He also introduced a new demand, that everyone recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for peace. Which is at once logical – Israelis should have the right to define themselves as they please — and dangerous. If Israel is for Jews only then what will happen to the million plus Arabs, Christian and Muslim, who live there now and have lived there for centuries. Will there be a repeat of 1948? Will Arabs be expelled once again from their homeland so that Israelis may enjoy peace and security?

Netanyahu’s speech gave little to the Arabs but provided enough fodder for vehement rejection. Netanyahu and his supporters in the US can now claim that he offered peace, but Palestinians refused it. After all Netanyahu appears to be more interested in winning back American public opinion and not peace with Palestinians.

The Second Step Backward: The nasty outcome of the Iranian elections is a major setback to the region including Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad has finally come out as a full-blown thug who stole democracy from his people. The rush to ratify the election by the supreme leader Ali Khameini exposes Iran’s democratic pretenses. This election is going to be a major headache to the international relations of the region.

Iran’s constitution allows the President very limited influence over foreign and national security policies yet Ahmedinajad has become a major global player. He used his foreign policy rhetoric to shore up his popularity even as his governance failed. Unstable economy, very high inflation, unemployment and international isolation were the dividends of his first term. He has basically duped the world and his own people.

Fortunately for him, the growing effectiveness of Iranian allies Hezbollah and Hamas, US’ debacle in Iraq and continued impotence of Arab regimes has made Iran an important regional player. Israeli use of Iran’s nuclear agenda to delay the creation of the Palestinian state has given Iran disproportionate attention in world affairs and Ahmedinajad a global platform. Now in his second term, with domestic unrest and illegitimacy, Ahmedinajad will exploit this international attention even more to remain relevant both at home and abroad.

Which basically means expect more ridiculous and shocking rhetoric and nuclear jingoism from Tehran. I am less sanguine about the US-Iran dialogue. How can one expect a regime that cannot negotiate peacefully with its own people to be a successful partner in negotiations with a long-standing adversary?

I fear that the Ahmedinajad-Netanyahu duo might audaciously mug us of the hopes for a peaceful and just solution to the Arab-Israeli problem inspired by President Obama.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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