Elements of Analysis of the Lebanese Political Crisis

By Camille Germanos

This Middle East Insight (no. 3) is also available for download: Insight 3

Lebanon is experiencing severe political upheaval fuelled by a changing geopolitical landscape. The latest tumult began when Hizballah, the armed but participatory opposition party led by Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, took preemptive action against forthcoming STL indictments (Special Tribunal for Lebanon), widely believed to place blame for the 2005 assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on members of its own party. Hizballah’s cabinet coalition prompted the sudden collapse of Mr. Saad Hariri’s government. Days later, the now former opposition garnered a parliamentary majority with a sympathetic Lebanese tycoon, namely Mr. Najib Miqati, securing the post of Prime Minister.

The pace of events and the extent of the shift in Lebanon have alarmed the United States, Israel and the United Nations, all of whom favor Mr. Hariri and his Future Party who now constitute the opposition. This dramatic re-distribution along the political spectrum has strengthened the Syrian and Iranian axis in Beirut, while leaks in the press depicting Mr. Hariri calling Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef assafah, meaning “killer”  jeopardized Hariri’s relationship with his main backer, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Mr. Hariri has been weakened by the unprecedented mass protests in several parts of the Arab world shaking his traditional allies.

Despite the foregone nature of the parliamentary transition, this confluence of events puts forward several uncertainties. Perhaps most pressing, will PM Miqati rescind Lebanese backing for the STL as forcefully requested by Hizballah, and how will opposing forces react in the case that he does or does not?

What future can one foresee for the Lebanese Republic, microcosm of the region’s politics, with masses clamoring for regime changes in the Middle East? Already readying for international sanctions and looming hostilities with Israel, is Hizballah looking south to Egypt, preparing the ground for political entente with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Internally, Hizballah catalyzed the fall of PM Hariri, the leading political figure of Lebanon’s Sunnite community, by garnering enough support to concoct the resignation of ten cabinet ministers and thereby the collapse of the government on 12 January. Four days earlier, the General Secretary of Hizballah, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, anticipated the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative aiming to neutralize the STL within Lebanon. He presumed that it was obstructed by American pressure over the Saudis. Rejecting the STL as a political tool against his organization, Sayed Nasrallah asked the government to halt financial support and withdraw the Lebanese judges from the Tribunal. Further, he advocated revoking the act of agreement signed with the United Nations, delegitimized by a false witness file at the STL and the disappearance from the state’s coffers of $11 billion.

In the following week, Lebanon lived tensely under political uncertainty until MP Walid Junblat dissolved his “Democratic Gathering”, and backed the premiership of the Hizballah coalition through his new bloc renamed “National Struggle Front.” Such a dramatic political shift raised questions about the legitimacy of the new majority, as it suggested that Junblat made this decision under threat. But the Druze leader declared that his switch to the side of Syria and the Resistance served to preserve Lebanon’s stability. Further, he accused his old ally Mr. Hariri of misunderstanding the complex political landscape in Lebanon.

Binding consultations with neutral and mutually agreeable President Michel Suleiman on 25 January secured 68 votes for Hizballah-backed Najib Miqati against 60 votes for the outgoing caretaker PM Saad Hariri. Mr. Miqati’s nomination triggered spontaneous clashes in Sunnite regions, especially in Tripoli, where some of the secular and religious movements are closer to Hizballah. Meanwhile Mr. Hariri accused Hizballah of seizing power illegitimately and called for a ‘day of rage.’ The civil demonstrations of discontent that followed remained relatively contained and civil peace was preserved. In the meantime, both sides agreed to condemn the growing hatred expressed in some political speeches.

Having avoided the worst, namely total civil unrest, new challenges emerged and turned political again. Mr. Miqati, who presented himself as a candidate of unity and dialogue, has not yet managed to convince the Hariri coalition to join his government. It is obvious that he does not wish to claim full power and therefore is striving to reach consensus among all parties. His Christian interlocutors from the increasingly fragmented ‘March 14’ (anti-Syrian, pro-Hariri) coalition, however, seem more prepared to make concessions than the Hariri camp. If they can secure enough cabinet seats to veto major government decisions and if the STL is maintained, then they may abdicate from two hotly contested but lately dormant files: the disarmament of Hizballah and its merger with the army, and the possession of weapons inside Palestinian refugee camps.

No matter how the political balance might bend, political customs remain unchanged in Lebanon and internal deadlines tend to correspond with international timelines. As such, Mr. Miqati will wait for two lingering questions to be answered before composing his cabinet: the destiny of President Mubarak in Egypt, and the long-awaited public hearing of the indictments on 7 February. Also, he will not want to reveal his strategy yet to avoid clashes on 14 February, the sensitive anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and, for many, the commemoration of his martyrdom. But Miqati’s cabinet composition will reflect his overall political agenda. Can his ministerial composition strike a balance between adherence to international law and a revocation of the protocol of agreement with the UN? One option for Miqati is to compose a cabinet of technocrats and delineate a technical policy approach in which all points of contention can be handled at a negotiating table in the future.

Adding fuel to the Lebanese fire, authoritarian Western-backed regimes in the region are themselves feeling the heat. Last month, the flight of the Tunisian president in the face of a popular uprising triggered a series of demonstrations in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere. The Egyptian people’s uprising has reached a standoff, as the people tenaciously demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation while he tries to hold his grip and loses allies and credibility in the international community. In Jordan, protesters gathered across the country until Parliament was dissolved and the Prime Minister Samir Rifaii stepped down. Syria has shut down the Facebook website and reversed some recent austerity measures. Even in Saudi Arabia, some bold demonstrators are demanding economic concessions from their government. As Lebanon’s usual Sunnite allies and peace-brokers (Syria and Saudi Arabia) face their own major political challenges, Mr. Hariri will only be isolated further.

Meanwhile, the weakening of Hariri’s regional support contrasts with a strengthened axis on Hizballah’s side that is benefiting from rising opposition in the Arab countries. For instance, Hizballah and Iran are readying for a strengthened Muslim Brotherhood; after a three-way meeting on 1 February with Jamaa Islamiya, they declared their unity in fighting the same Zionist enemy. This bond was corroborated by the expanded Iranian naval presence in the region.

On the international level, these dramatic developments have sent tremors through Israeli and American diplomatic circles. Earlier this week, Israel warned that a Lebanese government closer to the Hizballah might face international sanctions, while the Israeli press is clearly concerned about the political shifts in their neighborhood. Although PM Miqati hasn’t yet made any statements relating to the STL, Washington has emphasized the right of the Lebanese people to choose both justice and political stability.

From Davos, the General Secretary of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon emphasized the duty of the Lebanese Republic not to question the agreement with the UN. International restrictions or armed intervention are not impossible to envisage. As the STL is classified under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council can make recommendations or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter to maintain or restore peace and security.

After the Appeals Chamber public hearing on 7 February, Judge Daniel Fransen is expected to study the file and issue extradition warrants in the following few weeks. While it is possible that the pre-trial judges will ask for an extension for further interpretation of the Lebanese penal code, an official accusation will soon be made. What happens if the Lebanese government refuses to comply with any request for assistance by the STL or to arrest and transfer the indicted to the Tribunal? Some sources believe that Washington intends to have the trial proceed in-absentia, thereby establishing a precedent for trying other fugitive leaders of Islamic organizations. In addition to this potentiality, Lebanon remains exposed to international isolation and potential UN sanctions.

As always, the Lebanese political scene is perhaps best compared with some of these trades that are best understood in hindsight. Yet everyone playing a role in this drama has taken a stance at this point, except one conspicuously absent player: President Obama. He is being described as the President who lost Egypt; will he also be the President who lost Lebanon?

Camille Germanos is a research associate at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

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Egypt after Mubarak

By Lee Smith

As the Obama administration crosses its fingers in the hope that an Iraq currently without a government will somehow stabilize and justify the American blood and money spent over the last seven years, Washington has started to turn its attention to what has historically been one of Baghdad’s rival centers of Arab power—Cairo.

A Democratic Hereditary Succession?

Things are changing in Egypt as well, for barring any last-minute surprises, the ailing 82-year-old president, Husni Mubarak, is reportedly on the verge of enjoying the highest privilege afforded Arab rulers—to die in bed of natural causes. It seems almost certain that he will be succeeded by his second son, Gamal, the 46-year-old, one-time London financier.[1] The speculation inside the Beltway is that either Gamal will replace his father on the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) ticket for next September’s presidential elections, or that Husni Mubarak will not last that long and the constitutional process will kick in, paving the way for Gamal’s nomination and election.

Another Mubarak would spell continuity of a sort even if it meant an end to nearly six decades of military rule by the “Free Officers” regime. While it is true that Gamal has relationships with the military establishment not only through his father but also by way of intersecting business interests—some Egyptian industries are essentially military-run concessions—the fact remains that he is not a military man. “To be part of the military establishment is not just about your connections or family,” says Muhammad Elmenshawy, Washington bureau chief for the independently owned Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Shorouk. “It means that you’ve worn a uniform, or you’ve fought in a war. Gamal is a complete outsider.”

This perhaps raises a historical analogy: The Mamluk sultans (1260-1517) tried to get their non-slave sons to succeed them and sometimes managed it, but they were not from the military slave caste and eventually petered out, to be replaced by a proper Mamluk. The bulk of Gamal’s task, at least early on, may be to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Most Washington officials are comfortable with Gamal and see no fundamental change in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship on the horizon or adverse effects on the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord that is the foundation of the U.S. position in the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, the fact that Gamal accompanied his father to the pre-Labor Day peace summit in Washington[2] that also included Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas along with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, was read as a signal that the succession issue had been resolved.

Until now, Mubarak has not only declined to appoint a successor, or even name a vice president who would assume the presidency in the event of an emergency, but has also avoided discussing the political prospects of his second son. According to officials from the Bush administration, whenever the president asked after Gamal, the Egyptian ruler would quickly change the subject. It is widely believed that the Egyptian president is less eager to have his son inherit the post than is his mother, the first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Does Gamal Even Want the Job?

Other U.S. policymakers are not sure that Gamal himself is entirely interested in the job. His background is in finance and economics, subjects that seem to elicit his passion. And indeed, thanks largely to Gamal and his cadre of technocrats in the NDP, the Egyptian economy has enjoyed a period of growth for half a decade or more. Even as little of the wealth has trickled down to improve the lot of the poor—20 percent of Egyptians live in abject poverty, and 60 percent live on $2 a day—the thriving economy has changed middle-class perceptions. Egyptian parents, Elmenshawy explains, are less impressed these days when their daughters are courted by members of the military and security establishment and more apt to be swayed by young men who have made careers in banking, telecommunications, or the big real estate deals taking place in New Cairo.

If Gamal cares about the economy, this seems to come at the expense of his interest in politics, a topic that leaves him cold or, in the words of someone who has been in the room with him, brain dead. This is a dangerous liability for a man required to keep in check competing centers of domestic power—including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, and the intelligence services (mukhabarat)—and regional actors while also accommodating his U.S. benefactors without aggravating an Egyptian population that has always been, at best, wary of U.S. influence in the Middle East. On the other hand, it is possible he has just learned well from his father, the stone-faced former Air Force commander who has steered the Free Officers’ regime on a steady course for almost thirty years between the radicalism that devastated Nasser’s Egypt and the then-startling accommodations with the United States and Israel that got Sadat killed. And so the question in Washington is, what will this transitional Egypt look like?

“The physical decline of Husni Mubarak coincides with the decline of Egypt as a regional actor,” says David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Never mind the fact that Iran sets the region’s political tempo while Qatar and Dubai’s satellite TV networks have eclipsed Cairo’s as the region’s media capital. “Egypt can’t even get a veto on upstream Nile development projects anymore from upstream African riparian states, like Ethiopia.”

Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agrees that the Cairo regime is not what it once was. “Domestic affairs take up so much time that Egypt is far less able to play an effective role in regional affairs. Even the succession issue itself preoccupies them and absorbs energy. Egyptian influence is much less than it was even twenty years ago though part of that is because other Arab states have caught up in terms of education and communication and moved past Egypt in terms of development. But Egypt just can’t present a compelling model, a compelling argument, or philosophy that other Arabs want to imitate.”

The Egyptian opposition, says Dunne, is another matter. “Look at Kifaya, which started in 2004, and then the way Facebook took off and rallied people. These things inspired imitators around the region. Egypt is still an important country that other Arabs look up to, but its energies ensue not from the government but from those that are opposed to government.”

Competition from Mohamed ElBaradei

To be sure, one of the biggest stories surrounding the succession issue is Mohamed ElBaradei’s decision to challenge the regime with his unofficial campaign. Even as the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief is not—not yet anyway—a member of a political party and thus not eligible to run in next fall’s elections, his presence has generated attention both inside and outside Egypt.

“There’s a weird infatuation with Baradei,” says Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to fawning notices in U.S. press outlets including The Washington Post and The New Yorker. “But in a fairly bleak political environment lacking charisma, Baradei shakes things up. He says, ‘I am not going to run unless I can be assured of free and fair elections,’ and this really throws a monkey wrench into the system and shakes up Gamal’s claims to legitimacy.”

“I like the idea of Baradei,” says Schenker. “I like the idea of an ostensible liberal. Baradei came along and said things openly, and no one could touch him. He seems to be in the vanguard of a political culture that is less fearful of the government.” Nonetheless, explains the former Bush administration Pentagon official, ElBaradei wouldn’t be particularly palatable in Washington. “He politicized the IAEA, oversaw the nuclearization of Iran, and maintains that Israel is the most dangerous state in the Middle East,” says Schenker.

Given that ElBaradei was comfortable working with the Islamists who govern Iran, it is hardly surprising that he has joined forces with Egypt’s own Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to focus on political reform.[3] Presumably the Brotherhood is happy to let ElBaradei take the lead since his previous employment and profile afford him international political protection not extended to the Islamists. The Brotherhood, says Joshua Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State, is not going to make a big deal out of the succession.

“I have talked about it with them exhaustively, including senior leadership,” says Stacher, who has done extensive research on the movement. “All oppose an inherited succession in principle, but they will not mobilize in an organized way, and there will be no overt signs of discontent. Presidential succession is extremely important to the elites in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want to challenge them on something they hold this close to their hearts. They all think it’s unjust but, as one told me, ‘at the moment of the transfer of power, the Brothers will be silent.'”

In exchange, says Stacher, the Brotherhood is not exactly expecting a quid pro quo. “The MB is not going to be handed the keys to the parliament, but they’re not going to be shut out completely either,” he explains. “Gamal or whoever becomes president will have to renegotiate with a large array of interests and social forces, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Consolidating Power and Shifting Allies

Indeed, Washington policymakers and analysts concur that the real campaigning will take place after Gamal becomes president rather than before. “Arab leaders are always most vulnerable just when they take office,” says Stacher. “They are busy consolidating power and eliminating enemies.”

The two most obvious, and recent, examples are Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, both of whom also followed their fathers. According to press accounts and contemporary scholarship, both Abdullah and Bashar spent a considerable amount of energy during their early years at the helm building their power bases and eliminating the so-called “old guard” remnants from their fathers’ diwans. However, the fact is that both Bashar’s and Abdullah’s paths to power passed directly through regime strongholds. Abdullah was the commander of the Hashemite Kingdom’s special forces, an elite unit that ensures the regime’s survival; and Bashar was handed the extremely sensitive Lebanon portfolio, which during the years of the Syrian occupation was essentially Damascus’ ATM, feathering the nests of the country’s numerous security chiefs.

Unlike those two soon-to-be peers, Gamal has no such foundations in regime management, which is why so many believe that Omar Suleiman, chief of Egypt’s General Intelligence, is the man to watch. While it had been rumored that Suleiman was another presidential possibility, and still may be, he is ineligible, right now anyway, since he is without membership in a political party. At any rate, the key issue is where Suleiman stands on Gamal, and whether or not he will stick his neck out for a novice with no military or security credentials tasked to run what is still a military regime. Certainly the $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance to Egypt is evidence that Washington, however happy with the country’s recent economic performance, still sees Cairo as such.

Perhaps a more useful question is, how does Cairo see itself? In a sense, Mubarak was only continuing Sadat’s work of extricating Egypt from troublesome regional issues, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it went from frontline combatant to peacemaker and mediator. Gamal is likely to wish for more of the same inward turn and to focus on the economy, but the Middle East has its own energies and forces to which an untested leader, one at the helm of the largest Arab state, may be especially vulnerable.

The main issue right now is Iran, which has effectively patterned itself after Nasser’s Egypt in its struggle to build a regional hegemony and challenge the U.S.-backed order, which presently includes Egypt and the other “moderate” Arab states along with Israel. The Egyptian masses might be infatuated with Iran, says Elmenshawy, “but the elites see it as anti-Western and isolated from the rest of the world. It is not an appealing model for them.” Still, Cairo has decided to restart its own nuclear program but understands that the prospect of an Iranian bomb is only one aspect of Tehran’s regional strategy. Even without a nuclear weapon, Iran is dangerous to Egypt through its allies and assets, from Syria to Hezbollah, and especially Hamas, sitting on Egypt’s border.

“If I were part of the Egyptian elite,” says Stacher, “I’d be most worried about Gaza. If that spills over the border, it can derail everything.”

One way to defend against Hamas is to seek to co-opt them as the Turks have tried. And indeed one possibility considered throughout Washington is what might happen if Cairo follows Ankara’s lead. If U.S. power is perceived to be on the decline, what if Egypt, like Turkey and Iran, questions some of the assumptions of the U.S. order? Egypt could force the issue with the Israeli nuclear program and could even question demilitarizing the Sinai. It is highly unlikely that the Egyptians would take it as far as making war on Israel, but they could make themselves more obstreperous, just as the Turks have done, such as when they dispatched the “humanitarian flotilla” to Gaza. Now that the Turks are bending to the new regional winds, it is hardly clear that Washington has exacted a price for their behavior or even warned them. That it is acceptable to cross Washington is not a message the United States wants to send its regional allies, especially Egypt, one of the foundations of its Middle East strategy.

From Nasser through the pre-October 1973 Sadat, Washington was accustomed to Egypt being the primary regional power that questioned the U.S. order. Sadat’s strategic shift made Egypt one of the pillars of the U.S. camp, which Washington has taken for granted just as it had done with regard to Turkey’s strategic orientation. The passing of Mubarak and the rise of his successor, presumably his son, means that the largest Arab state’s future orientation can no longer be taken for granted.

[1] Daniel Sobelman, “Gamal Mubarak, President of Egypt?Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2001, pp. 31-40; “Gamal Mubarak: ‘We Need Audacious Leaders,'” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2009, pp. 67-73.
[2] Ha’artez (Tel Aviv), Aug. 31, 2010.
[3] Ilan Berman, “The Islamist Flirtation,” Foreign Policy, Apr. 2, 2010.

Lee Smith is a Senior Editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

Middle East Quarterly
Fall 2010, pp. 79-83
(view PDF)

http://www.meforum.org/2792/egypt-after-mubarak

Table Talk with Michael Hudson: Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

Editor’s Choice

September 21, 2010
TABLE TALK WITH MICHAEL HUDSON
Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer
Prof Hudson says there is a disjunction between the Arab world’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it. However, there are currents in civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
STUDYING political modernisation at Yale University in the 1960s, the young Michael Hudson was required to spend time in a country that was deeply divided ethnically. His options were Lebanon, Malaysia or Nigeria. He plumped for Lebanon, and struck academic gold because it proved to be ‘a place where all the political forces of the Middle East competed with one another, and so I got sucked into the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab politics’.
 
Today, Professor Hudson, 72, is a world authority on Lebanese politics as well as on other hot-button issues in the region. In 1975, he co-founded Georgetown University’s Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, and steered it for 35 years. He left all that to become director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
 
A widower with two daughters, he met me earlier this month to tell me why the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine will go nowhere, and more:
 
 How do you plan to contribute to Singaporeans’ understanding of the Middle East?
My Singaporean colleagues made it very clear to me that they felt the Middle East has not figured very prominently in the educational systems here, and even specialised knowledge of that region was rather limited. So one of the points I made in discussions with them was that if you’re looking to develop a research institute that offers advice, that advice is best informed by academic scholarship.
 
Can academics in ivory towers offer better advice than observers on the ground?
To put it bluntly, many in the academic community who have studied the Middle East have long taken a very dismissive view of policy research in the region. They find such research often superficial, poorly informed and unreliable because it depends on the anecdotal ‘I was there’ experience, which can be valuable but might be misleading. Whereas policy researchers say: ‘These academics spend all their time engaging in complicated studies of unimportant things which mean nothing to us.’ I’m exaggerating the gap, but you really need the academics if you want to convey the complexities.
·  
What can they see that others can’t?
Well, take Islam and terrorism: many American policy researchers tend not to understand the nature and depth of religious commitment and identity, and see Middle Eastern societies as monolithically religious and so vulnerable to manipulation by extremists… If you don’t understand how Islam plays out in their lives, it’s hard for you to gauge how extremists use Islamist discourse for particular ends.
 
Is that lack of understanding the result of ignorance or complacency?
If you are in the United States, where Middle East initiatives are highly politicised… there will be those driven by dark and simplistic partisan views to demonise Islam and paint all Muslims with the same brush. But you don’t want to leave that understanding to the terrorism experts or even theologians. You need sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians and political scientists to look at how Islam actually functions in society.
I don’t think it’s the role of the researcher to be an apologist for Islam, but it’s pretty evident what the policy implications are of an imperfect understanding of Islam. For example, there’s a resurgence of Islamophobia in the US that’s opened a Pandora’s Box of prejudice… When this happens, you’re attacking someone’s very identity and culture, and that’s a big problem.
Some argue that Arab/Muslim communities in general tend to be insular, lack initiative and are slow to grow.
I don’t agree with that. The Muslim world in general is a very complicated place and there’s a lot of variety in it… There has been a very big debate among Middle East scholars over the last 25 years about how to study and characterise The Other, as opposed to non-Muslim Westerners. The late Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, changed the way the informed public think about Islam, saying that Westerners were really exporting their own prejudices and identifying The Other in a very superficial, incomplete and pejorative way. So most academic scholarship on Islam is now free of such prejudice. But public perceptions of early stereotypes still exist.
But do they exist for good reasons?
You’re raising a very important point. It’s true that Muslim communities are not doing so well in many ways, but in many other ways, they’re doing quite well indeed – such as in Lebanon and the Gulf states. There’s also a great deal of self-criticism going on now in the Muslim world. But it’s true that it could grow more, as shown in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which were put together by Arab researchers.
Public opinion data also shows that Muslims in Arab countries value democracy, but their political systems have not been particularly good at delivering that. But to say that’s just because they are Muslims misses the larger point that in mainstream Islam one is enjoined to work hard, cooperate and treasure family, which is consistent with humanistic norms.
What’s the cost of its weak leadership?
There’s a disjunction between the region’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it because these governments have got the police and all that. So that’s a real concern. Still, there are currents in Middle Eastern civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
But it’s all static on its No. 1 problem, Israel and Palestine.
It’s certainly the most durable of the many conflicts in the region. It’s also the most important one because it fuels all sorts of extremism elsewhere in the region. So why don’t things move? Because Israel, with the almost unlimited backing of the US, does not feel inclined to make concessions. I’d be surprised if the latest effort to broker peace really brings about a breakthrough.
Has US President Barack Obama lost the plot on that?
Yes. At the beginning of his term, he was on the right track. He said this issue was important and tried to reach out to the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo over a year ago. He said the Israeli-Palestinian problem was part of the problem, and Israel had to stop building and reinforcing its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply stood up to him and said: ‘No, we won’t.’ And Mr Obama blinked and backed off on what had been a proper, balanced approach.
Should the Middle East enlist emerging powers to broker a breakthrough on this?
This is a good question that can be addressed by the realist theory of international politics, which holds that power is the name of the game. And the US can apply more military power than any other country in this situation. Can China or India project such power? The answer is no and they’ve no compelling interest to do so anyway.
So can the Israeli-Palestinian problem ever be solved?
At the moment, I don’t see diplomacy bringing a clear end to this… There’s been a debate that the proper solution is a two-state one, but a good many Palestinians now want a one-state solution because how can you have a proper state when it’s divided into little enclaves and surrounded by Israeli settlers and troops?
 
suk@sph.com.sg
 
(The Straits Times, 21 September 2010)

 
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