Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 March 2007
Issue No. 837
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Azmi Bishara

Olmert: as expected

Israel is demanding the absurd, but the illusion is shattered if Arab states understand that the game of axis politics is not in their interest, writes Azmi Bishara

Some Arabs found encouragement in Olmert's statements to the effect that if the Arab peace initiative were slightly modified it could serve as the basis for negotiations. Specifically, he was referring to the initiative's reference to General Assembly Resolution 194, which he regarded as a flaw that had to be rectified and a red line that no Israeli government could possibly traverse. The motive behind Olmert's statements is no secret. Indeed, Olmert himself takes no pains to conceal it. By way of introduction he said that Israel could not ignore the positive developments that have taken place in moderate Arab states, and as a token of this recognition Israel suddenly, though not surprisingly, took a look at the Arab peace initiative, which it had snubbed for a full five years.

What is positive about the moderate Arab states, from the Israeli perspective, is their position on the war against Lebanon and their subsequent contributions to forcing US-Israeli conditions on Hamas. These efforts, which are still in progress, are conducted in various degrees of secrecy, although it would seem that many Arab officials have confided in Israel what lay in their hearts. On the one hand, the influence of the Arabs' neo-conservative friends in the US has begun to vanish into that black whirlpool of nothingness where the brain-dead Sharon now resides, as a result of which moderate Arab governments have begun to recover an element of their regional manoeuvrability. On the other hand, following the abortive Israeli invasion of Lebanon, these states acquired a broader margin of freedom, in the course of which they discovered that their own attitudes have changed towards the growing clout of their local neo-cons, whose love for democracy as a local or imported product is only equal to their abhorrence of money and power.

The moderate Arab states are breathing easier now. The fat years have come. Gone, now, are those long lean years, 2001-2006, in which their only course of action was to steer clear of the raving wrath the US unleashed in the wake of 11 September, and in which their guiding principles were: walk next to the wall, kiss the hand that feeds you (even as you pray it breaks) and, as the Arabic proverb puts it, "keep evil at a distance and sing it a song." And what a wretched sight they made as they wailed out that plaintive refrain, "my eyes are laughing, but my heart is crying," upon every visit of an American official, like heart-broken lovers, bewildered by the inexplicable shifts in mood of the president of the empire and befuddled by the malevolent advice of his advisors who would pour their souls out to his ever so magnanimous vice-president.

It is difficult to say whether the Arabs recovered a margin of freedom because America messed up so drastically in Iraq and because they realised what a folly it was to heed Washington's orders once the Israeli army started to stumble so frantically over its shoelaces in Lebanon, or because, during the war in Lebanon in particular, they proved themselves no less hostile to the "extremists" in the region than the neo-cons, yet, at the same time, more realistic and certainly not as clouded by the dreams of spreading democracy and other facets of the ideological romanticism that governed the American neo-cons' view of Israel and its regional role. In all events, the result is the same: Washington has loosened the leash and Israel under Olmert is taking the so-called moderate Arabs more seriously than it did under Sharon.

Returning, therefore, to Olmert, why did he home in on Resolution 194, in particular, despite the fact that the Arab peace initiative -- regretfully -- does not explicitly mention the Palestinian right of return but rather confines itself to the formula of "a just peace in accordance with" this resolution? Why, too, did he not happen to remind us that he refuses to withdraw to pre- June 1967 borders, inclusive of Jerusalem? Certainly, he had made his position on this clear on earlier occasions, going so far as to accuse Ehud Barak of forsaking Jerusalem during Camp David II, even though Barak did nothing of the sort.

Firstly, Olmert likes to air his objections in instalments, so that he can wring out more concessions from the Arabs in a gradual way. Secondly, he didn't want to bring up the subject of withdrawal so as not to undermine the efforts of the "moderate Arab axis" before the Riyadh summit, especially since he knows that Saudi Arabia will not budge an inch on the question of borders and Jerusalem in particular. So, to spare the "moderates" any embarrassment, he confined his remarks to 194, because he rejects the Palestinian right of return on principle. But, supposing for the sake of argument, that the Arabs play along and openly or tacitly relinquish the right to return, would Israel then accept the Arab peace initiative? Of course not. And we should be wary of deluding ourselves into thinking it would. It would only be prepared to accept it as a basis for negotiations, which is to say that it would accept the principle of withdrawal and then haggle over the depth and phasing of the withdrawal and over final borders. In short, Israel will agree to no point whatsoever in the Arab peace initiative.

By accepting to consider this initiative, Israel hopes to transform it into a drawn out process of extracting compromises from the Arabs, just as it had turned its agreement to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organisation into a protracted process of forcing the Palestinians against the wall. In the past we could identify the major turning points in the downward slope of the Palestinian/Arab position with respect to Israel. Now it is difficult to discern even the nooks and crannies, so fluid and convoluted has this process of extraction become, what with all the play given to the "two sides" and "moderates and extremists on both sides", and with the endless biding of time until the Israeli elections are over, the next American elections, a new spate of envoys shuttling about the region, Palestinian elections triggering a blockade, another period of waiting to see how a people under occupation handled economic strangulation, and then whether or not they could form a national unity government and, if so, whether this might bring the end of the blockade or usher in yet another period of waiting.

In addition to trying to set new foundations for the "peace process", after the roadmap failed to neutralise the Arab peace initiative (incidentally, what ever became of the roadmap? Has anyone kept track of how many years, conferences and money were wasted on that?), Israel is busily buttering up the "moderate camp". With the end of the neo-conservative era, it wants to come across as responding to this camp; at least until another Arab summit is held. After all, it knows that now it has to accept these Arab regimes exactly as they are, just as the US had to revert to a hypothetical cold war approach whereby regimes are categorised on the basis of "those that are with us are moderate, and those that are against us are extremist." Israel has also recognised the overt and "positive" change in the attitudes of these regimes towards it. Simultaneously, however, it fears that the newly found freedom that these regimes are feeling might go to their heads and inspire them to leave the margins and head straight to the core of the matter, in which event they might, for example, decide to coordinate with "extremists" to solve their regional dilemmas. The Mecca Accord is a very, very modest example of the possibilities. While this agreement did not solve a regional problem, it did furnish an injection of fresh blood.

Although the Middle East's dilemmas are probably not the direct product of the strategy of creating axes of opposing regional alignments, this strategy has certainly helped to make these dilemmas more intractable. Take Iraq, for example. America might have ignited the flames in Iraq, but these flames have since been fuelled by the various interventions of opposing regional axes. Iraq has become a locus of regional power plays instead of an arena of regional cooperation in which governments could work together to subdue the inferno instead of fanning it. Of course, US forces would have to withdraw first and then refrain from setting fire to other trouble spots in the manner it had perfected during the Cold War.

Lebanon offers a more glaring example than Iraq. The problem in Lebanon could have been solved with greater ease. What has made it so complex? Here is a country with thousands of people ready to pay with their lives to force a foreign occupying power to withdraw, if indeed the presence of that power constitutes a foreign occupation. So why is this no longer sufficient enough cause? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that certain parties that had allied themselves with the former government now, retroactively, claim that they had been "under occupation" and are demanding the downfall of a government that America tolerates for the same "anti-extremist" reasons that America does not tolerate the parties in question.

Either the previous Lebanese government, which had included some of those that are clamouring against it in foreign capitals, was not a foreign occupying power the withdrawal of which was worth sacrificing one's life for (as was the case from the point of view of actual opponents to the former government, such as Michel Aoun, who now merely demand withdrawal of Syria and have allied themselves with the resistance), or Lebanon has become the playground for rival regional axes. Sincere introspection and logical consistency have nothing to do with the shift of certain parties from an alignment with Syria, Iran and the resistance to commitment to another alignment. This has nothing to do with people recanting extremism and embracing moderation and everything to do with their conviction that their swing to the opposing camp serves their own interests, just as their previous alliance with the regime that they now want to topple happened to have been convenient to them at the time. This pursuit of narrow interests is the essence of the current game of regional axes and it is the only explanation for how the Lebanese problem became bogged down in a morass of complications when it could have been resolved so easily. Consider, for example, that the party that had opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon and that currently, along with the resistance, opposes the US-oriented axis is taking part in the current government if only to ensure that the government does not turn against it. Now, if only the other major party could bring itself to jump onboard, a solution would be within reach. The major condition for success is that they resolve to immunise Lebanon against the ploys of regional axis politics, the least democratic and the most pernicious form of which is the American one, which seeks merely to use Lebanon as a springboard to get at Iran.

Israel's worst nightmare, at present, is that the "moderates" awaken to the fact that the game of axis politics is in no one's interest. When countries begin to seriously contemplate this game and wonder whether they, themselves, are really capable of demanding the overthrow of another Arab regime and whether they actually want that to begin with, or what price they would have to pay if they don't want that and actively resist it, and when they start asking themselves whether their actions in either direction will pay off in the long run, they will inevitably come up with conclusions that differ radically from the architects of this game. The same applies to the question of a war against Iran. Even the average Arab citizen is capable of realising the disastrous consequences of such a war. Clearly, the last thing Israel wants is for Arab moderates to use their margin of freedom to begin thinking for themselves.

America, meanwhile, is caught between a wall and a hard place, between the conflagration it ignited in Iraq and that is now being fanned by others and the consequences of the halt it called to kindling fires in other countries so that they, in turn, would stop fanning flames in Iraq and, instead, help to quell the fire there. Now, the US is playing the type of hand Israel is playing with the Arabs. It is trying to force Iran and Syria to rectify the images that the American media has created of them, and the way they are supposed to do that is to help America out in Iraq. "Help us in exchange for us letting you help us," seems to be the magnanimous American offer, at best, "in exchange for letting you sit down at the same table with us in Baghdad." Perhaps the US imagines that Syria and Iran would leap at the opportunity because they could portray it as a "victory". However, the real victories are Washington's relaxation of its siege on Syria and its willingness to talk with Iran, and these owe themselves not to American ploys but to the failure of and staunch resistance against American designs in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine.

In all events, the American game itself is now very much at odds with itself, fluctuating as it is between tests of its strength, as exemplified by the attempt to "expose" Syria and Iran during meetings with the Iraqi leadership, and grudging submission to the realism embodied in the Baker-Hamilton report.

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