Middle East, the next seven months

I was attending a couple of sessions at the Soref Symposium of the Washington Institute. Such events an opportunity for hearing some thoughtful speakers, but also for engaging in informal conversations behind the scenes.


“…upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity…”
Luke 21:25

Perilous Times

“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
2Timothy 3:1-2a

But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.
2Timothy 3:13

People see the next seven months, until the U.S. election, as garbage time, said Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute in his concluding remarks. But players in the region will not just sit and wait. Like two armies before a declaration of a cease-fire, they will be moving forward in search of the higher ground.

So – the next seven months will be interesting, and risky as well. Here are a couple of points I can make based on things I?ve heard today:

1. Election

Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon was pretty clear: he believes elections in Israel will be held in November. Admittedly, he was careful enough to add the word “probably”. However, this is what Ramon believes, and whatever one may think of Ramon’s policies, he is, no doubt, one of the shrewdest politicos Israel has ever known.

This means Ehud Olmert, who will be coming to Washington next week, is swiftly approaching the end of his premiership. Ramon wishes to make good use of this time to achieve some progress with the Palestinians. He believes that the next Prime Minister will benefit from such progress, so much so if it were to be Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Ramon?s analysis, it will be easier for Netanyahu if the agreement is signed before he takes power because he will be able him to tell his constituency that it was not him who signed it, and that he has to accept it.

Essentially, it will be a rerun of the Oslo scenario of the 90s. Netanyahu opposed the agreement but had to say that if he becomes Prime Minister he will respect previously signed agreements.

2. Iran

Will Bush attack or not? Another question I wrote about recently. Here is the interesting analogy to Ramon?s remarks on Netanyahu and the Palestinians. Ramon thinks that Netanyahu will benefit from Olmert?s intention to strike an agreement with the Palestinians ? many here believe that similar logic applies to the question of Bush and Iran. Here is why, according to some analysts:

If McCain is elected Bush might decide to leave Iran for him, but if Obama is elected Bush will be more likely to attack – after the election but a while before he leaves office, because he will not trust Obama to do the right thing (or what he believes to be the right thing). And the argument continues: Obama will castigate Bush for the attack, but it will actually be doing him good service. Bush will take care of the problem and will also take the blame. Obama will be able to claim that it was not him, and start over, this time with a weaker Iran.

And just to make it clear: this is not news. It is a mere armchair analysis I hear from people, some of them quite knowledgeable.

3. Gaza

Ramon said he believes an Israeli operation in Gaza is necessary. He said that this fits Mahmoud Abbas’ wishes, as it is the only way for him to return to power in Gaza and uproot Hamas. Many other participants in the symposium estimated that such military incursion is inevitable. However, most believe that it will not be a pre-emptive operation like the one Ramon envisions, but rather something that will be forced upon the Israeli government after a rocket attack from Gaza inflicts a number of casualties the Israeli public opinion could not stomach.

4. Syria

Ted Kattouf, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, sees eye to eye with Ramon: it is very unlikely that peace negotiations between Israel and Syria will succed in breaking its alliance with Iran.

Ramon is averse the renewed negotiations. He said that Syria is the party that is gaining from it more than Israel, but he also said that Israel doesn’t have a lot to lose. The bottom line, according to Kattouf, is that the U.S. has had “few if any” answers to the challenge posed by Syria.

5. Lebanon

Ramon has no doubt: the Doha agreement is a victory for Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Here, too, his assessment was shared by other participants. As I wrote earlier this week, this agreement “has achieved its short-term goal – after weeks of clashes in which more than a hundred Lebanese citizens died, a full-fledged civil war was averted. And as for the long term? Maybe there’s no such thing in the Middle East – especially when discussing the future of Lebanon”.

Lebanon is the treasure Syria is after, not the Golan Heights.

6. Palestine

How can someone both advocate an Israeli invasion of Gaza and hope to make progress in the peace process at the same time? That was the question ambassador Dennis Ross asked Ramon. I thought the answer was not very convincing. Yes, it will cause trouble, but Abbas wants it too. The problem for Ramon is this: if the Israeli elections are so close, and he wants to get something done while Olmert is still at the helm, the few months that are left is hardly a realistic time frame.

7. Lobby

Next week the annual AIPAC conference will open. Today I?ll be participating in a TV program on “The Lobby”. My guest for a dialogue this week is Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street. So you see ? this week is my lobby week.

Some people approached me for comment on the dialogue with Ben-Ami. One of them said that one thing amazed him: “These people are creating so much noise but have nothing to show for” – neither copious resources nor much influence.

He offered this test: Google Howard Kohr?s name (Kohr is AIPAC?s Executive Director) and you?ll find that as powerful as he might be, he is barely mentioned in the press. Google Ben-Ami?s name and he is “all over the place”.

What does it mean?

“That the press does not understand the way politics works.”

  1. Sandy, 01 June, 2008

    Just a little thing I have notice in the news is that they believe that Iran will be turning their first reactor on line sometime in September 2009 found on Hal Lindsey website. Also, the DEBKAfile website is saying a few things different like…the Washing Post claiming that Washington has asked the “nuclear watchdogs” to find out if Syria does indeed has two more nuclear sites and Iran’s missle warhead breakthough and Syria…tells me that it would be a little alarming to wait until November. So I am giving my humble opinion that a “war” maybe a little sooner than anyone thinks.

    And besides, only God knows when He won’t hold back any longer…His timing not mans or what man thinks. Our ways are NOT His ways…thank the Lord for that one!

    Come quickly Lord Jesus…and I mean quickly 🙂

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