Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2008
Issue No. 902
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In Focus:

Galal Nassar

So what's new?

Whether war on Iran happens or not, tensions in the region are rising to breaking point, writes Galal Nassar

Suddenly it would seem the region is edging towards a combination of stability and security that has been conspicuously absent since this US administration came to power eight years ago. In Lebanon, Michel Suleiman has been elected as president and Fouad Al-Siniora is forming a new government. In Yemen, the government says it is on target to subdue the Huthis rebellion in Saada. In Gaza, a truce in the making, between the Zionist entity and the Palestinian resistance, may bring an end to the economic suffering caused by the Israeli blockade. In Iraq, the government of Nuri Al-Maliki is about to offer a general amnesty for Iraqi insurgents who lay down their arms. The US, for a change, has stopped threatening to bomb Iran so long as the latter cooperates with Mohamed El-Baradei, the man the UN asked to check on Tehran's nuclear programme. In Sudan, the government has signed an agreement with the opposition that may end the Abyei dispute. And Syria is about to hold indirect talks with Israel in Ankara.

A new political dispensation appears over the horizon in which tensions and foes will talk instead of shooting at each other. That, at least, is what we are led to believe. But is any of it true? And if it is true, how does it relate to the US project for the 21st century and the way it fits into this region? What will happen to the new regional order that the current US administration, and Israel, has been promising? Is the creation of a greater Middle East still the aim? Are the US and Israeli governments still seeking to replace the Arab regional order with a Middle East one, but through negotiations? Are the Americans and Israelis turning away from confrontation and opting for containment?

What happened to the much-vaunted "birth pangs"? Is constructive chaos a thing of the past? Or are we heading towards a new type of constructive chaos, one that will lull us into a sense of false security? What has become of Ehud Olmert's plan to announce the final map of the Zionist entity? Are the July 2006 war in Lebanon, the apartheid wall, the building of more settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem -- perhaps even the eruption of conflict between Fatah and Hamas -- no more than the prelude to an Olmert-conducted symphony?

To answer these questions one must decipher rather than explain, for much of what is going on looks like a jigsaw puzzle. Take, for example, political conflicts. Most of the time conflicts arise not from a misunderstanding among adversaries or because of psychological barriers that need to be removed; rather, they reflect an old-fashioned clash of interests. Negotiations may take place, shuttle diplomacy be used, and sometimes the adversaries will have no option but to order their armies to take action. Then negotiations may restart, perhaps after one side has given up all hope. At some point adversaries might just conclude that fighting is futile and negotiations are the only way to go.

It doesn't seem to me that the Zionist entity has come to the conclusion that it is time to grant the Palestinians their rights and return their land. Israel is continuing to Judaise Palestinian areas and build settlements everywhere. It has torn down thousands of Palestinian homes in what the Oslo Accords call Zone C. It approved military order 378, turning Nablus and 15 nearby towns and villages into a security zone, a step meant to cut off the entire province from other Palestinian areas. The Israeli Housing Ministry marked the 41st anniversary of the occupation of East Jerusalem by building new homes there for settlers.

On the Syrian front no further fighting is about to take place though until recently some predicted action there, assuming military pressure would be used against Syria to force it to distance itself from Hizbullah and Iran, close down the offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Damascus, end the state of war with Israel and participate in the so-called "war on terror". In return, Damascus would get the Golan back and Washington recognise the legitimacy of the Syrian regime and remove Syria from its list of rogue states.

The first sign of a new US approach to Syria began with a statement by Jimmy Carter. In a recent visit to Syria, the former US president said that the road to peace goes through Damascus. His statement was in line with the conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton report on the situation in Iraq, a report that suggested Syria could help the US extract itself from the Iraqi quagmire and thus bring stability back to the region. When Washington started threatening to strike at Syrian positions and bring down its regime it became clear that the aim was to blackmail Damascus into initiating direct talks with the Israelis.

Why, one wonders, are the negotiations starting now? To answer this question it is necessary to differentiate between goals, strategy and tactics. Goals are the final outcome that certain actions aspire to bring about. A strategy is the path leading to this goal, and tactics the mix of carrots and sticks used along the road. In international politics major strategies do not focus on short-term situations, and therefore do not achieve their objectives in one go.

Generally speaking, you cannot expect strategy to change overnight. In military strategy, during times of war, armies may take time to regroup and assess the situation before waging the next offensive. The same thing happens in politics. There are periods when politicians need to take time out to think things over. Major powers change their policies only when a dramatic change happens, such as the emergence of a new global power or a substantial shift in the balance of power. Changes of this kind are few and far between -- the two world wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, perhaps, 9/11 -- are cases in point.

Changes in the region suggest that a new political landscape is in the making, one in which adversaries will talk more and fight less. In this new scenario, as mentioned above, it is not yet clear what will happen to the new Middle East plan, to Olmert's schemes and the US occupation of Iraq. The most important question one has to ask is why the Bush administration has selected this particular time to opt for appeasement and negotiations. Why is the US administration doing so at a time when it is about to leave office? Also, why has Israel opted for talks with the Syrians at a time when Olmert seems to have no option but to step down?

An objective assessment of the events of the past few weeks suggests that neither the US nor Israel plan to change their policy in the region. Any changes they may have introduced are tactical rather than strategic in nature -- what one might call a warrior's rest. As for inter-Palestinian strife, efforts to defuse the tensions have produced little worth noting, and Mahmoud Abbas is coming under pressure to stay away from Hamas.

In Iraq, the proposed security agreement between the US administration and the Al-Maliki government sparked off angry reactions among various Iraqi patriotic groups. The agreement, designed to keep Iraq hostage to its occupiers for decades to come, shows how false Washington's claims are. What is happening now is just an attempt by the Americans to change the rules of the game instead of admitting defeat.

Sudden developments in the region may seem promising to some but underneath the façade little has changed. The goal is still one of domination, the strategy to replace the Arab regional order with a greater Middle East though the tactics vary from time to time. The recent proposal by French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a case in point. His proposal to form a Mediterranean Union is an attempt to weaken existing regional systems and link Arab countries with the Zionist entity and the EU.

What we see today is not a change in US and Israeli goals. Such a change, hinged as it is on major international changes, is unlikely in the foreseeable future. As for the change in tactics, it is designed to give the US and Israeli governments time to rally. The Republicans are off balance and Kadima is in free fall.

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