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November 7, 2007

The Tunnel at the
End of the Light

by Leon Hadar

The recently published memoir of the late Arthur Schlesinger, the renowned American historian and former aide to U.S. presidents, recalls that whenever officials in Washington had pointed to signs of progress toward peace in the Middle East, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban would caution them that when it comes to that part of the world, one should be reminded that "There is a tunnel at the end of the light."

At a time when U.S. President George W. Bush and his top foreign policy aides are celebrating recent developments in the Middle East, from Israel/Palestine to Mesopotamia – the U.S.-sponsored summit in Annapolis, Md., scheduled for November; the drop in the number of casualties in Iraq; the continuing diplomatic pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program – as signs that the American diplomatic train is pressing toward the light at the end of the Middle East tunnel, Eban's advice can be helpful in deconstructing the spin of the administration.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been shuttling between Middle Eastern capitals in recent weeks, trying to set up another peace conference aimed at reaching a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, has stressed that she will tire "until I have given my last ounce of energy and my last moment in office" to working for the so-called "two-state solution" – the creation of an independent Palestinian state that would live in peace with Israel.

Like so much of the foreign policy rhetoric coming out of the Bush administration, Rice's comments sound admirable but ring hollow. Many Arabs and Israelis are skeptical that the summit will help achieve any concrete results and suspect that it will end up as yet another meaningless photo opportunity.

While U.S. officials insist that they are preparing the groundwork for getting the two sides to sign an agreement, the reality is that neither Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has the backing of the majority of their people or the political will to embrace compromises on the core existential issues that separate Israelis and Palestinians – the fate of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Olmert rules over a fragile coalition; Abbas does not even govern the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Hamas movement. At the same time, it is not clear whether Saudi Arabia, which has promoted its own Arab peace plan, and Syria, which wants to hold talks with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights, will attend the conference.

Hence it is not surprising that the concern is that the Annapolis Summit, by raising expectations that cannot be fulfilled – ending with nothing more than long-winded communiqués – will only produce frustration among the Palestinians, re-igniting the Intifada against Israel and more anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

That is exactly what happened after the 2000 Camp David summit failed to deliver a peace agreement. The Israel-Palestine deadlock and the continuing stalemate on the Israel-Syria front, coupled with American efforts to isolate the regime in Damascus, could create the conditions for new military tensions in the Levant, especially if the Lebanese-Shi'ite Hezbollah guerillas, wo are backed by Iran and maintain ties to Syria, decide to join the fighting.

That could certainly happen if and when the United States and Iran head toward a military confrontation, following a possible decision by the United States and/or Israel to strike suspected Iranian nuclear military installations.

Most experts calculate that there is a probability of about 60 percent that such a scenario will take place before President Bush and Vice Pesident Dick Cheney leave office in 2008. While Rice continues to express optimism that the recent economic sanctions against Iran will force Tehran to renounce its nuclear military program, that sounds – very much like the hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement – like more wishful thinking.

Rising oil prices, together with Iran's financial and trade ties with China, Russia, and other countries, allow the Iranians to overcome the effects of the U.S.-led economic sanctions.

If anything, U.S. policies in the Middle East, including the occupation of Iraq, which helped bring to power a Shi'ite government in Baghdad while increasing anti-American sentiment in the region, have played into the hands of the more radical elements in Iran's leadership. They, no doubt, will use an American attack on Iran as an opportunity to mobilize support for their cause in Iran and in other Muslim countries.

The conventional wisdom is that the Bush administration is aware of the potentially high economic and military costs of a confrontation with Iran, including massive increase in energy prices, and of the opposition in the U.S. military and Congress to direct, unilateral action against the Iranians.

Hence even a limited "surgical" strike by the Americans and/or the Israelis could bring about Iranian retaliation that could take the form of unleashing Hezbollah forces in Lebanon against Israel and encouraging Iran's allies in Iraq – which include the majority of the Shi'ite religious and political leaders and their militias – to attack U.S. forces in that country.

Indeed, the fact that the Bush administration's "allies" in Iraq are actually longtime partners of the Iranians – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent more than 20 years in exile in revolutionary Iran – demonstrates the fragility of America's political and military control of Iraq.

U.S. diplomatic and military leaders have attributed the decline in the number of American casualties in Iraq to cooperation with Sunni militias and tribes that are willing to work with the Americans on an ad-hoc basis against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups backed by foreign players.

But this American partnership with some Sunni groups has helped create anti-American sentiment among members of the Shi'ite militias, who fear resurgent Sunni power.

At the same time, the Americans are also being drawn into the competition and fighting among the growing number of Shi'ite militias, with their different political agendas and outside allegiances – all of which highlights the kaleidoscopic nature of Iraqi politics, where never-ending shifts in the alliances and commitments of this sect or that group make it difficult for any outside power to maintain control of the country.

Indeed, the current crisis in the U.S.-Turkey relationship over Ankara's threat to deploy its military forces into the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, as part of its pursuit of anti-Turkish terrorists belonging to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), exposes in a very dramatic way the dilemma facing the United States as it tries to establish its hegemony in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

In a region exploding with historical national, ethnic, and religious rivalries (Israelis versus Palestinians, Persian versus Arabs, Sunnis versus Shi'ites, Kurds versus Turks/Iranians/Arabs), where authoritarian regimes face powerful domestic opposition (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria) while others exhibit the symptoms of failed states (Iraq, Lebanon), America does not have either the power or the will to impose its preferred solution.

Instead, the United States can buy time with some temporary arrangements – say, limited Turkish military incursions into the Kurdish area – until the next crisis – say, Turkish opposition to Kurdish control of Mosul. Which explains why as the Americans get closer to what seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel, they discover that they are entering a new and darker tunnel.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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