Easter in the Middle East

Today’s collapse of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians came as no surprise to anyone who has been watching.

EASTER IN THE MIDDLE EAST

By William Urban

There hasn’t been a “normal” Easter in Jerusalem in time out of mind. Perhaps there were good years during the British Mandate, 1922-1948, but even then the Jewish-Arab dispute was flaring into violence. The basic problem is that Jews want a homeland and Arabs want the Jews to go away. There isn’t much room for a compromise there.
Nevertheless, John Kerry keeps trying to persuade them to agree to something, anything. He is like the Energizer Bunny, wobbling forward and banging his drum, but not getting anywhere. Meanwhile, everyone in the neighborhood is worried about larger issues than the ones he believes the Palestinians and Israelis can compromise on. Worse, not even all Palestinians and all Israelis can agree on what they want.
The Arab Spring came to Egypt and went. For a year Hamas, the hard line party running Gaza, had significant help from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but no longer. Now the Egyptian military is in charge. It sees Hamas as an enemy. Moreover, because President Obama had committed America to support the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is now closer to Russia than to the United States. The Muslim Brotherhood had their chance to govern effectively and blew it, so now their leaders and hundreds of members have been given a mass trial and condemned to death; and in the countryside guerilla bands and protestors keep the army too busy to stop attacks on Israel from Gaza and the Sinai peninsula. Also, Egypt is now closer to Russia than to the United States.
Saudi Arabia seems to be in panic mode. Earlier the king had encouraged Saudis to join the fight in Syria, but when the Syrian resistance became dominated by al Qaida, he ordered all the volunteers to come home. Many stayed. Also, the situation in Iraq is spinning out of control, with the Sunnis ever more dominated by al Qaida and the Shiites getting cozy with Iran. That is a lose-lose situation for the Saudis.
The king is also worried about the Iranian nuclear program. Once he could count on the United States, but now he has seen that Obama’s red lines are literally written in sand, and the winds of change are blowing them away.
The Saudis want atomic bombs to balance the ones the Iranians will have. Since they have no nuclear program, they may try to buy one from Pakistan or North Korea or get a new ally (perhaps even Israel). They are supporting the new government in Egypt, which is similarly worried about Iranian bombs.
Syria is a mess, but one that looks ever more promising for the Assad regime. The opposition is splitting up, with al Qaida Central denouncing al Qaida in Iraq (now called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) for attacking the approved al-Qaeda faction. Moreover, the intervention of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian instructors has improved Assad’s fighting ability at the same time that people formerly hostile to the dictator have concluded that his enemies are even worse than he is. Meanwhile, poison gas has been used again, and nobody can agree on who used it. Obama, who not so long ago almost took America to war there, now has too many problems to revisit this one. Assad must still go, but not right away.
The Turkish government, which was once eager to see Assad toppled, now has troubles of its own and there is little popular support for intervention. Dominating Syria for four hundred years was quite enough.
Lebanon is almost as much a mess as Syria, but without fighting between regular armies. Christians and Sunnis do not want to see an Assad victory, but they have no military forces that could take on Hezbollah. Jordan is swamped by Syrian refugees who have added to the unhappy Palestinians that have been there for decades. That isn’t good.
Whenever law and order collapses, the criminals rush out. That is the case almost everywhere now. Not too long ago there were many Christian Arabs, but no longer. Not even in Bethlehem. In fact, everywhere in the Middle East Christians are fleeing as quickly as possible. Life in America, even in Sweden, is better than being murdered or kidnapped.
This brings us to Israel, which controls what used to be called the Holy Land. Israel itself is a prosperous democracy; the West Bank is not. Jewish Israelis (about 80% of the population) worry about a deluge of rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, Iranian threats to destroy the country, and their apparent abandonment by the Obama administration. John Kerry having a Jewish Czech grandfather and second cousins who were gassed by the Nazis helps as little as Madeleine Albright discovering that three of her Jewish Czech grandparents also died in the Holocaust.
Israel will not risk its survival on American promises. Mossad (the Israeli intelligence service) has assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists and used cyber warfare to destroy some uranium processors, but now that the sanctions have been lifted, they are resigned to an Iranian announcement that they have both the bomb and the rockets to deliver it. The Obama administration will do everything it can to prevent the Israelis from taking the reactors out as they did once in Iraq and later in Syria
Consequently, Israel is developing a missile defense system, cooperating with the US in ways that benefit both countries, but it is a small country — Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza would fit easily into Lake Michigan. (All would enjoy having some of its water.) The army is small but good. How good? Moshe Dayan, who led the Israeli Defense Forces to victory in 1956, said that he did not know — they had only fought Arabs.
The Arabs today are very different. They are better educated, more nationalistic, more motivated by religion, and more experienced. But they are also more interested in their own nations or in jihad than in the Palestinians. In fact, nobody seems to be paying attention to the Palestinians except university professors and leftist demonstrators. Even the Palestinians can’t get their act together. Elections haven’t been held in years, corruption is rampant, and the economies are stagnant or declining even more.
The future is uncertain, but one can easily imagine the situation getting worse. American leadership is needed, but what the Middle East gets is more leading from behind. Except for John Kerry. If he can make peace anywhere, he will have earned a Nobel Prize.

Review Atlas (April 17, 2014), 4.

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