Søren Schmidt: It is 3 Crises, Not One (Middle East)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Søren Schmidt, Ph.D, Reasearcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen.]

Analysis. The fighting in Gaza is closely linked to two other conflicts: Israel’s relationship with Syria and Iran’s role in the region. All three conflicts need to be solved in order to achieve peace.

Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza has led to Syria breaking off the semi-official peace negotiations with Israel, the strengthening of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s popularity, the weakening of the pro-western governments of Egypt and Jordan, and an upswing in recruits ready to join the many extremist groups in the Middle East.

Everything indicates that a peaceful and constructive development of the situation has been pushed even further into the future.

This outcome is in sharp contrast to the positive developments of the 90s, when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process contributed to the Israeli-Syrian rapprochement and the election of the moderate Khatami as president of Iran.

If the region is to exit the current death spiral, it will be necessary to exploit the synergies that a coordinated approach to the situation would open up.

The First Conflict: Palestine-Israel

The Palestine-Israel conflict is now 50 years old. The diplomatic track that the Oslo Process represented has collapsed, and the parties are instead attempting to improve their relative positions by military means.

Hamas is no longer interested in continuing the cease fire with Israel, as long as the blockade of Gaza is still in effect. Meanwhile, Israel seeks to weaken Hamas as much as possible with the invasion of Gaza, and concurrently achieve results with the moderate, but increasingly irrelevant, Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas has no faith in reaching a diplomatic solution with Israel and wishes to repeat the success of Hezbollah in Lebanon in achieving a balance of power with Israel, leading to Israel accepting and recognizing Hamas as a negotiating partner and accepting Hamas’ demands as Hamas improves its position of strength.

These increasingly violent developments lead the Israeli population to fear, however, that a Palestinian state will not protect them against terrorism, which is why the majority of them backs the attacks on Gaza.

But the support for the hard Israeli line is also caused by the increased prominence of the ultra-orthodox and strongly nationalist element of the population relative to the secular and more moderate element.

The reason for this is partly demographic in that the ultra-orthodox are increasing their numbers far more rapidly than are the secular, and partly that many moderate Israelis are leaving the country for more peaceful parts of the world.

The Second Conflict: Syria-Israel

The Syria-Israel conflict has not moved either since Israel conquered the Syrian Golan in the ’67 War. Although the border between the two countries has been calm, Syria has been pressing Israel by supplying Iranian weapons to Hezbollah through the Damascus airport.

The desire of Israel to establish peace with Syria and hand back the Golan thus is directly related to Israel’s desire to stop this traffic and end Syria’s longstanding alliance with Iran.

There is just the problem that if Syria enters into a peace agreement with Israel in a situation where neither the Israeli-Palestinian question nor the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is resolved, the Alawite minority government in Syria will soon be challenged by an unsavory alliance between Iran and its own Islamist dissidents–and will face a very uncertain future.

Since the Syrian regime is not in the habit of committing suicide, an isolated agreement between Syria and Israel is not likely.

The Third Conflict: Iran

The third point of conflict is Iran: Iran's nuclear research program involves the use of centrifuges for enrichment. Should the regime close the fuel cycle, and should it decide to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, the 2005 National Intelligence Estimate of the US government suggested that Tehran could have a warhead in as little as a decade. If this happens, the balance of power in the region will be significantly altered. Israel’s current regional monopoly on nuclear weapons will be broken, and Israel will be inclined to delay such a development with military attacks on the Iranian nuclear installations.

This in turn may lead to Iran convincing Hezbollah to attack Israel on the one hand, and on the other to attack US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq with help from Iran’s allies in those countries. Finally Iran will most likely seek to disrupt the oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.

Increased western sanctions against Iran will be perceived by many as yet more proof of the unholy alliance between the West and the Zionists against Islam–and this will strengthen the hawks in Ahmadinejad’s environment and weaken the moderate forces.

In such a situation Iran and the Islamic terrorists will do everything in their power to prevent an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.

Therefore the three conflicts are closely linked. Without progress in one, it will also be very limited what progress can be achieved in the other conflicts.

A Coordinated International Approach

Conversely, a coordinated international approach, including both Iran and the Arab states, could lead to progress on one track, then on the next and result in a de-escalation of the conflict level in the entire region.

Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track will, for example, increase the probability of Syria and Iran showing themselves more willing to negotiate. Progress in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program will make it less important for Iran to derail the negotiations between Israel and Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians and will also dampen Israel’s fear of Iran.

Finally, progress in relations between Syria and Israel will weaken Hezbollah and thereby also Iran, thus making Iran more cooperative on the nuclear question.

The international community has many opportunities to influence developments in the region and ought to use these to promote a coordinated solution. Economic incentives, security guarantees, and deployment of peace-keeping forces to Palestine are just some of the means that can be employed.

Multilateral Resolve

Diplomatically, the multilateral approach used by Bush Senior in the 90s would be the correct one–with the addition of resolve in checking the expansion of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the will to declare how the solution to the Palestinian problem ought to look.

Two things are clear: The region itself cannot solve its problems, and the separate approach to each of the three conflicts that has been used so far is inadequate.
Read entire article at Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole)

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 1/10/2009

are two sides of one coin that bribes
both sides in favor of violence.

art eckstein - 1/9/2009

Mr. Schmidt, what is your evidence that Hamas is interested in any sort of settlement with israel at all?

Their position is that the existence against Israel is an offense to Allah, an offense against the honor of Allah that can only be wiped out by Israel's destruction. That's in the Hamas Charter, and it is emphasized by every major Hamas figure. Do you not take them at their word?