US President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thought they could solve the Middle East’s core problem — the Palestinian-Israeli dispute — by organizing a peace conference in Annapolis late last year. Having succeeded in bringing together Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Syrians, Saudis and numerous other countries for a meeting that was big in aspect though short in context, the administration bathed in the euphoria of its temporary success. ‘Temporary’ here is the key word because since November of last year, and since Bush’s promise of peace before his mandate expires in January 2009, the Middle East once again finds itself caught in a deadly spiral of increasing violence.
Talk about misreading signals, misjudging reactions and misguided policies.
Since the Annapolis conference Gaza, with its 1.4 million inhabitants besieged by the Israeli military and under Hamas control, sits on the brink of all-out war. As Hamas continues firing Qassam rockets at Israeli population centers and Israel hits back, civilians are caught in the cross-fire on both sides; Jerusalem has been the target of one of the worst terrorist attacks in years when a lone gunman opened fire on yeshiva students, killing eight and wounding another 10; the Lebanese presidential crisis, now in its fourth month, has pitted Syria and its Lebanese allies against the country’s government who enjoys the support of the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. As a result the Saudis have recalled their ambassador to Damascus, while the United States has dispatched three naval gunboats — including the USS Cole — to the eastern Mediterranean in what can only be seen as a revival of gunboat diplomacy. Amidst all this one must not forget Iran, who is believed to be pursuing its nuclear ambitions
So much for peace within the year. Indeed, seen from Washington, the situation in the Middle East looks quite dim, and despite Bush’s misplaced optimism, try as one may, it is hard to see any light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, unless it’s those on Merkava tanks heading for Gaza or for southern Lebanon. Analysts and diplomats have voiced their pessimism regarding the short-term future of the region. As for the long term, no one is really daring enough to venture any thoughts. Suffice to say that events are affecting the region’s economy in a way that, if allowed to continue to deteriorate, may result in drastic — and dangerous — measures.
Many believe that President Bush waited far too long to become actively involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute, and now Washington’s efforts are too little and too late. Additionally, the Bush administration’s policy of refusing to recognize the importance of talking to four major players in the region — Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas — cannot possibly advance the peace process. Syria, much as Iran, holds great influence on the Lebanese Shiite organization, Hizbullah, and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Much as the White House hates to admit it, the road to peace in the Middle East unavoidably passes through Damascus.
Meanwhile, as one of former President Bill Clinton’s campaign slogans so adequately pointed out, “it’s the economy, stupid.” The dangers of a regional flair-up cannot be ignored as Israel begins to feel the economic crunch of its war with Gaza. Cities such as Sderot, well within Hamas’ range of Qassam rockets, have seen their economy take a turn for the worse. In fact, Israel’s policy regarding Hamas has met with about as much success as Washington’s and the siege of Gaza has backfired. The storming of Gazans across the border into Egypt demonstrated that the policy of trying to contain the Strip has failed to yield the desired results and is having a negative effect on Israel’s economy.
As a result of the continued bombardment, a number of businesses have been obliged to lay off personnel as residents of border localities limit their activities to the most basic and urgent needs. Hoping to incite the people of Gaza to move against Hamas by exerting pressure through the embargo maintained by Israel, ironically, this policy is coming back to bite Israel’s own economy. And herein lies what could be the tipping point. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, already suffering from lack of popularity, a position amplified by the fiasco of the Lebanon War and the ongoing undeclared war with Gaza, may feel obliged to address the situation through military action. As in the past, such short-
sighted policy will only serve to strengthen those opposed to the peace process; a process which can only advance under the guidance of the United States’ influence. But for that to succeed a change of policy is first required. This is unlikely to happen before there is a change in the White House’s Middle East policy, or a change in the White House.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.