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What’s happening now in the Middle East?

February 6, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–What’s happening in the Middle East?


It doesn’t look that way, with the White House trying one proposal after the other, and virtually every national leader of consequence suggesting how to produce the two state solution.

A bit below the surface, one can find good reasons why none of those directly concerned want anything serious to occur.

Israel does not want to move hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands of Jews (the numbers depend on which settlements) who have lived where they are for up to 40 years, when no previous movements have brought parallel concessions or a halt in the violence. Israel is also wary of creating a Palestinian state that would be vulnerable to take over by Hamas or groups even more extreme, that would have access to simple rockets fashioned in their workshops and more powerful stuff supplied by Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea, or whatever government comes to the fore against western democracies.

For similar reasons, neither Jordan nor Egypt want a Palestinian state with access to serious armaments that could provoke radical ideas among their own Palestinians (a majority in Jordan) or Islamic extremists (problematic in both Jordan and Egypt). Likewise, Lebanese Christians and Sunni Muslims are nervous about what their Shiite neighbors might provoke, and concerned about the Palestinian residents of Lebanon (non-citizens since 1948) demanding rights or instigating action against Israel.

Syria speaks with an angry voice against Israel, but has a record of vicious actions against its own Muslim extremists that rivals what any government in the region has done.

None of the non-Shiite elites in the region have expressed warm endorsement of what might come from a refurbished Persian Empire.

What all the leaders of these countries want, more than anything else, is quiet at home.

One might also put the ostensible Palestinian leaders of the West Bank in the same camp. They are hanging on to office and perks with the help of Israeli, Jordanian, and American security personnel, and know the popular resentment that is seething under their feet. Any concessions necessary to entice Israel to an agreement could provoke enough resentment to topple them.

Hamas of Gaza also wants to keep hold of what they have. One notes their claim that they always aimed their rockets at military targets and apologize for Israel’s civilian casualties. Nonsense, to be sure, but it may gain them a point in international forums stacked to support whatever they say.

The major outlier in this description of nothing-supporters is the Obama White House. It departed from the modest efforts of its predecessors to bring about change, and their more  typical acceptance of the status quo between Israel and Palestinians. The loud efforts of Obama and crew might actually have nudged the participants to possible negotiations further apart from one another.

Europeans are inclined to follow the American lead, especially on issues that do not commit them to much. Recently they have joined the parade of visitors to Israel and Palestine saying in public what the Americans are saying in public.

Obama is naive but not stupid. He is admitting that he made some errors in his initial overtures with respect to Israel, Palestine, and their neighbors. One should not expect him to endorse the platform of nothing, but he may retreat quietly and focus on other issues. That will bring him close to what most of his predecessors did, most of the time.

The appeal of nothing may not last. There is no permanence in politics. But politics gravitates to what is easy, and usually avoids the risky and heroic. For the time being (which will last who knows how long), let’s hear a cheer, or at least see a quiet nod, in favor of nothing. It works for us all.


Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

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