March 8, 2009
In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict
By Zvi Bar’el
A sense that something big has been missed is filling the air, the sort of feeling that had the outgoing government’s term been stretched a little longer, things would have looked entirely different. For example, had Ehud Olmert not been suspected of corruption and stayed in office, dialogue with Syria could have moved forward faster. Had Tzipi Livni found her composure a moment sooner, we would be dancing together in Ramallah’s discotheques.
Because now, at this very moment, there is an American president who is willing, and is even taking action, to thaw relations between his country and Syria. And he has a secretary of state who sounds so determined when she says “two states for two peoples” that it seems it’s possible things can be different. But we, it seems, like the Palestinians, know just when the time is right to miss an opportunity. When America has finally matured, we are using Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman as a defensive shield against any initiative.
As Israel continues to dig in, the region is carrying on with its regular agenda. A new strategic alliance is emerging right in front of us. It comprises Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. In this alliance, Russia holds the cards and the United States, which stood by watching under George W. Bush, is trying to find room at the table. The convenient division between “moderate” and “extremist” Arab states is no longer useful. Friendly Qatar has become an ally of Syria; Saudi Arabia, which claimed the patent for the Arab initiative, is sending Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to Damascus to rebuild the Arab alliance. Syria, along with Iran, Iraq and Turkey, plans to set up a joint electricity grid, while Iran is being described as an enemy of the Arabs. The Arabs? Except for Syria, Qatar, Iraq and Sudan. The old arrangement that Israel thought it could navigate is falling apart. The bad guys and good guys are changing roles, and they are dragging the Western countries along.
Who is an ally and who is an enemy? Who is the blind one here? Washington, which does not see where terrorism comes from, or Israel, which remains preoccupied with the locks on the gates to Gaza and the amounts of sugar, salt, concrete and iron to be allowed in? The United States, which is trying to adopt new methods against the Iranian threat and offer an alliance to Russia, or Israel, which is fumbling about trying to decide whether to procure an American anti-missile system or develop an anti-Qassam missile at a cost of $1 million each?
And what an achievement for Israel. The United States conditioned the transferring of its contribution to Gaza’s reconstruction to the release of Gilad Shalit. And what if the U.S. does not transfer the funds? How much will there be for reconstruction? How much is $5.5 billion minus $900 million? Still double what the Gaza Strip needs.
And what will happen if the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas takes place and these two enemies set up a unity government, dispatch ambassadors to European countries and hold a dialogue? What if the Europeans sign agreements with the Palestinians and invite their representatives to set up offices in their capitals? What will happen to all this achievement? Britain is already ready to talk to Hezbollah; true, “only” with its political wing, as if it’s possible to separate the organization’s military and political wings. Which half of Hassan Nasrallah is Britain planning to talk to? And what about Hamas? After all, it, too, will soon find a European interlocutor.
Does anyone understand what is happening here? Perhaps the Western countries, who are fed up with the unintelligible conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel, which is keeping score on anyone who boycotts its academics and angry with those who undermine its definitions of who the enemy is.
But here comes a chance to put forth a new vision, to raise a new flag. In three weeks, the Arab League is meeting in Qatar. This is normally a ceremony void of substance, but twice in the past it set the tone. Once in Khartum, in 1967, when it declared the “three Nos” against Israel, and once in Beirut, in 2002, when the Arab initiative proposing recognition of Israel was approved. In 35 years the Arabs’ strategic concept has changed. It can change again in a month if Israel presents a new concept, clearly and loudly.
But we better not hold our breath. We have learned well how to miss opportunities; that is what happens when you spend so much time with the Palestinians.