Middle East precipice

Suddenly, surprisingly, Israeli and Palestinian leaders reached a truce in the Gaza Strip over the weekend. There’s dramatic, but still tentative, talk of a new peace initiative. “We cannot change the past, and we will not be able to bring back the victims on both sides of the borders,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “All that we can do today is stop additional tragedies.”

The Middle East has heard such hopeful rhetoric over and over again in the past decades. It has amounted, unfortunately, to very little.

Nevertheless, it is welcome.

But let’s be clear: What’s at stake right now isn’t a perpetual peace in the Middle East. This is about edging back from the precipice of what King Abdullah II of Jordan warned could be an impending regional catastrophe. Iraq is descending into civil war. The democratically elected government in Lebanon is shaky after another high-profile assassination. Over the weekend, Abdullah said: “We could possibly imagine going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands”–in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Abdullah called for all powers in the region to “take a strong step forward” to avert the crisis.

Abdullah is no Cassandra. He is one of the region’s leading voices of moderation. And he’s worth listening to.

If it is true that all the region’s conflicts are linked–and in some ways it is–then can the reverse also be true? That resolving one conflict, or at least moderating it, will have a beneficial domino effect on the others?

Yes.

But.

It’s tempting to think that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would solve all the problems of the Middle East.

Tempting, but wrong. A peace deal there would be a momentous leap forward. But it’s not a panacea, as the sectarian conflict in Iraq illustrates. The militias there aren’t killing because of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. They’re killing neighbors, fellow Iraqis and fellow Muslims for hatreds stoked over centuries. And here, as elsewhere, the voices of moderation are drowned out by the voices of violence and revenge.

There’s intense speculation now about a fresh U.S. strategy in Iraq, under debate by a prominent panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. Most likely at the top of the list: a recommendation that the U.S. begin direct talks with Iran and Syria to secure their help in Iraq. That’s a long shot, but worth a serious effort.

The challenge for diplomats is to frame the violence in Iraq and Lebanon as potentially contagious–and thus threatening to the survival of regimes in Tehran and Damascus. Those countries don’t want thousands of refugees spilling across borders. They don’t want their own minorities emboldened by civil wars in neighboring countries.

So, yes, there is some hope that a deal can be reached with them.

But just as there may be no regional resolution without Iran and Syria, there’s little chance that enough pressure can be exerted in any of these conflicts without action from the rest of the Arab world. Terrorists and insurgents can’t flourish if Arab states take strong steps to stanch the flow of money and arms–much of it from Iran and Syria–to sectarian militias and terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah. If the leaders in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia want peace in the region, they’re going to have to do a lot more than talk about it. 

Chicago Tribune, Published November 28, 2006

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~ by anick on November 28, 2006.

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