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    Middle East
     May 16, 2012

Middle East calm in the eye of a storm
By Victor Kotsev

Earlier this year, amid near-constant war games and extraordinary, even by Middle Eastern standards, saber-rattling, the world seemingly stared at a large-scale war in the Persian Gulf. Hostilities seemed so close, I speculated that if an operation against Iran did not materialize by the beginning of March or so, this could convince people that it had been called off. [1]

More recently, as more and more sources report that nuclear talks with Iran are on track to yield at least an "interim" agreement, and since a spectacular upset in Israeli politics days ago opened up possibilities that had not existed for years, we have had a chance to enjoy a pleasant and rare daydream of peace. It's not an entirely baseless dream, though it is an extraordinarily optimistic one: moments of crisis, experienced


negotiators say, are also moments of opportunity.

Either scenario may wait awhile, however, though it is worth noting that this polarization of options favors war more than peace, in part because it is a certain indicator of volatility, which often leads to violence if left unchecked. A peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is a daunting undertaking; a successful one even more so. Initial steps may be made now, but the bulk of it will likely have to wait at least until the United States presidential election in November.

On the other hand, ongoing negotiations with Iran (a critical meeting is expected to take place in Baghdad in a week), if successful, will buy time, but are unlikely to resolve the core issues. As leaks published by world media have it, the bone of contention currently is the level to which Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium under a deal; however, experts contend that even stopping the enrichment program altogether may not prevent Iran from advancing its alleged military nuclear program. (Still other experts point out that even the entire nuclear program is only a part of Iran's pursuit for regional dominance, and other parts such as the Islamic Republic's conventional forces matter just as much.)

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who published last week a comprehensive analysis of the vast collection of unclassified International Atomic Energy Association documents on the Iranian nuclear program, writes:
[T]hese reports make it clear that simply controlling Iran's fuel cycle will not stop Iran from improving every other aspect of its nuclear breakout capabilities anymore than attacking its major current enrichment activities will. Neither arms control and inspections that focus on actual enrichment, nor bombing key enrichment facilities, can now stop Iran from moving forward in many important areas.

Iran has gotten too far, and its technology base is too large ... Iran can cloak each effort as an exercise in pure research or with some civil rationale, or it can disperse the others - often into very small facilities or ones with a convincing academic or industrial cover. It also can make many mobile, and put them in to trailers, truck beds, or palletized and easily separable assemblies - allowing quick cover and dispersal. [2]
If this analysis - based on the best publicly available information - is correct, a strike that is too limited or premature would accomplish little more than relying on a deal (assuming one is reached) would. Neither would solve the main problems permanently, but given that the economic stability of much of the world may be threatened by a war in the Persian Gulf, waiting a little longer would be the logical thing to do.

There is a major caveat: the Israeli leaders will likely rely on surprise if they decide to launch a strike, and the most propitious moment may well present itself at a time when attacking is not the most logical thing to do. Also, some analysts speculate that, given the rocky relationship between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter might launch a strike at a sensitive moment for the American president. Such action would be based on the expectation that a sharp rise in the price of oil would topple Obama, and could only happen, however hypothetically should Netanyahu calculate that Obama's opponent has a good winning chance. (Both the US and Israel have a long history of interfering subtly in each other's elections, as Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev points out.) [3]

These calculations were shaken up - but not overturned - by the dizzying political pirouette that Netanyahu performed in Jerusalem over the past couple of weeks. First he called an early election, a year ahead of schedule, over several difficult but relatively tangential domestic issues (such as drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army). Then, in the middle of the night, just as the Israeli Knesset (parliament) was debating a bill to dissolve itself, Netanyahu interrupted the session to announce that he had just struck a unity deal with the main opposition party, Kadima.

Arguably, the opinion polls which showed that Kadima would lose more than half of its current seats in parliament in an early election helped persuade its recently elected leader, Shaul Mofaz, to go back on recent promises and to join Netanyahu's government.

There are several ways to interpret these developments - some commentators crowned Netanyahu "king of Israeli politics", [4] others claim that Israeli voters are far more volatile than the polls show and that he acted out of weakness - but the bottom line is that the new coalition controls over 75% of the parliament's seats. Moreover, Netanyahu is now in a position to balance between partners on his right and partners on his left, and thus can attempt reforms and initiatives that until now seemed almost unthinkable.

There is plenty to reform. The electoral regulations, for example, set a relatively low threshold for a party to enter the Knesset, which has resulted in a long string of weak governments made up of diverse coalitions that could not push through controversial legislation. As George Friedman, the founder of the US-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor, put it, "An Israeli prime minister spends most of his time avoiding dealing with important issues, since his cabinet would fall apart if he did." [5]

Not surprisingly, changing the system of governance is one of the professed four top priorities of the unprecedented new coalition; the other three are tweaking the model of conscription (one of the main issues that set off the crisis), passing a "responsible" (the finance minister seems to read that that as "biannual") budget, and (gasp) the peace process with the Palestinians.

Within days, the Israeli government made several impressive steps toward resuming the peace process, including a deal to end the hunger strike of over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, the symbolic transfer of the bodies of around 100 Palestinian militants to the Palestinian Authority, and a meeting between Netanyahu's special envoy and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Still, it is too early to say whether this is a sign of anything bigger coming, or if it will remain as a token gesture to Mofaz (who is a steadfast proponent of negotiations and proposed his own peace plan back in 2009).

Besides, several challenges loom on the horizon, including Palestinian demonstrations commemorating the wars of 1948 and 1967 (Nakba and Naksa days, the first of which falls on Tuesday, May 15). Last year, demonstrators from Syria and Lebanon attempted to run the Israeli border; dozens died in the clashes that followed, and hundreds were injured. (This year, nevertheless, most analysts expect the demonstrations to be smaller and better contained.)

In general, many see Mofaz as a moderating factor in the Israeli government. As the prominent Canadian-Israeli academic and intellectual Bernard Avishai put it in a telephone conversation, "I do not see Mofaz giving the strident side of Netanyahu a blank check; I see him giving the cautious and globalist side of Netanyahu support that he couldn't get from other parties in his coalition."

This assessment applies to domestic issues, the peace process with the Palestinians and the Iran crisis and alike. Iran, though, not mentioned as one of the top four coalition priorities, is the proverbial elephant in the room.

It bears noting that Mofaz, a former chief of staff in the Israeli army who was born in Tehran, brings a unique perspective and set of skills into the Israeli security cabinet (a key body on security decisions). According to most estimates, Mofaz will not rush into a decision to attack Iran's nuclear program, but his presence (and the presence of his party into the coalition) would add credibility to the Israeli threats.

Should the Israelis choose to attack, the presence of Mofaz (the third former chief of staff in the nine-strong security cabinet) would shield Netanyahu from potential criticism to an extent. It would also give him additional ammunition to counter the so-called "spy revolt". [6]

For the time being, a focus on sweeping domestic reforms could prove to be not only an ideal holding action for the Israelis, but also a way for them to make use of an exceedingly rare opportunity. It could also help Netanyahu to cement his grip on power further, which is hardly a chance a politician would miss.

We may call it a temporary policy of isolationism on the part of Israel, interspersed perhaps with symbolic exchanges of gestures with the Palestinians. This scenario is not assured, but in the context of the American presidential election, the world economic crisis, and the Arab Spring, it would make a lot of sense.

1. The war dance is in full swing, Asia Times Online, January 10 2012.
2. Rethinking Our Approach to Iran's Search for the Bomb, CSIS, May 7, 2012.
3. The perks and perils of Obama and Netanyahu’s parallel election campaigns, Ha’aretz, May 3, 2012.
4. After securing unity cabinet with Kadima, Netanyahu is now king of Israeli politics, Ha’aretz, May 8, 2012. 5. Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks, Again, Stratfor, August 23, 2010.
6. Israel's Spy Revolt, Foreign Policy, May 10, 2012

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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