Monday, December 03, 2007

West Asia politics

A time for peace in West Asia
Kanchan Gupta

West Asia peace conferences in the past have been big media events with every actor in this strange, never-ending passion play seeking to hog the limelight. From Camp David to Oslo to Tabah, via various other places including the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, the journey to a lasting peace and a final settlement has been extremely rough for both Israelis and Palestinians, with the Americans cheering from the sidelines and the Arabs slyly digging up the road for the vicarious pleasure of watching peace-makers stumble and fall. With media making a big show of earlier peace conferences and television reporters insisting, "History is being made inside those rooms you see behind me," when in reality everybody was just being cussed and cross, great expectations would be generated among the people in a region that has known nothing but conflict for the past six decades. Those expectations would soon be swamped by bitterness and loathing of the other.
Thankfully, the organisers of the Annapolis Conference were careful not to turn it into a media circus; US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has demonstrated that she is far smarter than her predecessors and is mindful of realities instead of possibilities. When she had embarked upon her mission to kickstart the stalled West Asia peace talks and thus gift the Bush Administration with a foreign policy success, perhaps she had hoped for something concrete to emerge from the Annapolis confabulations. She worked overtime to ratchet up the working relationship between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, camping in Jerusalem and visiting Ramallah in the hope of getting the two leaders to agree on a joint statement listing the key areas of broad agreement.
In the event, President George W Bush read out a statement of intent on behalf of Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas who have now agreed to fast forward the peace process for a final settlement by the end of next year. Mr Bush could yet go down in history as the American President who brokered real peace in West Asia and solved a riddle that had tested the intelligence of his predecessors and left them stumped for a solution. Of course, there is no guarantee that Israel and Palestine will have worked out a two-state solution by this time next year. Apart from the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip, there are other imponderables that cannot be wished away.
In the rapidly shifting sands of Arab politics, what is true today can lie buried deep under a sand dune tomorrow. Hence, there is no reason to believe that the Arab endorsement of the Annapolis initiative -- Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister was seen clapping more than once inside the conference hall and even Syria has grudgingly applauded the outcome -- will be as strong after a few months as it is now. King Abdullah has fashioned, or shall we say forced, a sort of Arab consensus on a durable peace based on the two-state formula by getting the Arab League to accept his pragmatic position at the Riyadh summit. But that does not necessarily mean ever Arab leader has stopped wishing Israel's demise, nor does it suggest that the Arab street is one with the Arab palace on carrying the Annapolis initiative to its logical conclusion.
For the moment, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are mightily worried about Iran's expansionist dreams and a belligerent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive agenda of imposing Shia dominance in Sunni Arabia. If Iran is able to achieve a breakthrough in its basement nuclear programme and enrich sufficient plutonium to make a bomb, for which it has already secured the know-how from Pakistan's nuclear black-marketeer AQ Khan, then Mr Ahmadinejad would have the Arabs on the run. Already, with Tehran calling the shots through Iraq's shia clergy, Lebanon's Hizbullah and Gaza's Hamas, there is sufficient cause for worry in Riyadh, Cairo and Amman. The Iran-Syria nexus only adds to these concerns. On its part, Syria is worried that it is getting increasingly isolated among the Arabs states, a situation it is desperate to get out of, especially in view of the Israeli air strike on a strategic target (believed to be either a nascent nuclear installation or a storage facility for Iran's enriched uranium). Despite Syria protesting loudly and appealing to Arab sentiments, not a single Arab state has as yet condemned the Israeli strike. On the contrary, there is reason to believe key Arab leaders have conveyed their appreciation to Israel. This is bad news for the regime in Damascus.
Predictably, Iran and Hamas have rubbished the Annapolis Conference and declared their intention to undermine any efforts to forge a durable peace. There is matching cynicism, we can be sure, in the Arab street and opinion cannot but be divided in the Arab palace. Within Israel, there are many who are opposed to making the smallest of concessions, leave alone considering the restoration of the Green Line or returning to the 1967 border. Any talk of dividing Jerusalem, with the Palestinians getting East Jerusalem with its Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque as their capital, can inflame passions in Israel and bring down Governments, irrespective of their parliamentary strength. There is also the issue of right of return that Palestinians consider non-negotiable and Israelis, whether on the Left or Right, will not even countenance, leave alone concede. These are issues that one gets to hear and read about; there are others that are of strategic importance but not in the public domain. For instance, Mr Abbas is believed to be driving a hard bargain on sharing of waters, sending shivers down many Israeli spines.
Yet, both Israel and Palestine realise that this is perhaps the best time for putting the bitter past behind them and working on a future co-existence that will be mutually beneficial. The Arab leaders -- Kings, Princes, Sheikhs and Presidents -- realise that unless the Israel-Palestine dispute is resolved, Iran will prey on imagined victimhood both within their territories and in Palestine to further its agenda of Shia supremacy. Ironically, the nuclear arsenal Shia Iran desires and Sunni Arabia fears is seen by many Sunnis on the Arab street as Islam's ultimate empowerment which will spell Jewish Israel's nemesis.
Speaking at Annapolis, Mr Olmert, striking a note of caution, said, "We do not need to lose proportion... This was not meant to change history." He is both right and wrong. History was made 60 years ago last week when the UN adopted Resolution 181, virtually creating the states of Israel and Palestine. That reality can never be changed. But if the Israelis are able to convince Mr Abbas and his colleagues in Fateh that an honourable deal is in everybody's interest, and the Arabs underwrite such an agreement, then the course of history will change. For starters, Iran will be halted in its tracks.

December 2, 2007.

© CMYK Printech Ltd. Unauthorised publication prohibited.

No comments: