The flurry of reports, denials and rumors making the rounds over this weekend - did Ehud Olmert meet the Saudi king, or was it just a prince, or perhaps the prime minister was only expressing his appreciation for the recent policies of the desert kingdom? - might have seemed vaguely comical in a different situation. The way things are looking now, this is just one more in a series of diplomatic headaches bothering Israel's leadership, altogether mounting to a raging migraine. How should we be positioning ourselves vis- -vis the other Middle East players who are signaling sharp turns? These challenges could of course also be opportunities. The only problem is that everyone's moving at the same time.
How to react? To the Palestinians who might be setting up a unity government, and might or might not agree to recognize Israel? They might gain recognition of the Quartet and maybe even of the US.
And what does Bashar Assad mean by his odd interview with Der Spiegel? If he really wants peace, why is he warning of imminent war, and how does his latest praise of Hizbullah tie in with this? And what's happening with Hizbullah? Was the "divine victory" march in Beirut on Friday a sign that it is still calling the shots in Lebanon, or was Nasrallah's speech just empty words and the reality on the ground is that the Lebanese Army is finally taking control? And in the aftermath of the Lebanon War, are "moderate" Arab states like Saudi Arabia finally taking Hizbullah and other forms of Islamic extremism seriously or are the overtures just diplomatic maneuvering for momentary gain?
And if all this is not enough, it's not only the Arabs who seem to be all over the place right now. What exactly is the US administration thinking when State Department adviser Philip Zelikow predicts that Israel will have to go forward with the Palestinians to help build a coalition against Iran but it's the US which leads the refusal to recognize the new Palestinian unity government? The muddle begins at the top when President George W. Bush gives a generally belligerent speech at the UN General Assembly without really spelling out what he means, while in one interview to The Washington Post he all but rules out sanctions on Iran and in another one to CNN counsels us all to take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats at face value.
Gary Kasparov goes around the world playing exhibition chess games against 20 opponents simultaneously. Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also now have to figure out a way of dealing with all these different situations at the same time; but for them, and for us, it's not a game.
The first question, before deciding upon Israeli policy, is to try and understand what each of the opposing sides really means. Who is just testing the waters, who has undergone a real conversion and where is it just plain disinformation? But intelligence as we've seen lately is far from perfect and doesn't even usually reach those who need it. In the last six years, since Ehud Barak was rebuffed by Hafez Assad in 2000, Israel's policy has been to concentrate on the seemingly most pressing conflict, the Palestinians, with the understanding that no progress could be made over other avenues without first going at least some way to fixing things with the Palestinians. This belief was shattered again and again over recent months, with the election of a Hamas government, with the realization that Israel's biggest problem is actually faraway Iran and when Hassan Nasrallah forced us to look elsewhere.
Israel's other long-term policy, whenever it is faced with diplomatic conundrums, is to align itself with the US. How far can you go wrong then? That's why Israel is rebuffing Syria, welcoming Saudi Arabia, encouraging the Lebanese government and holding meetings with PA President Mahmoud Abbas while boycotting the Palestinian government. Also Israel's response to the Hizbullah attack two and a half months ago was agreed upon with the Bush administration, which saw Israel's battle as another front against Iran. But that didn't work so well. The Iranians are showing no signs of slowing down on the road to nuclear capability and the US is showing signs of rethinking its policies.
Olmert in his interview with The Jerusalem Post is confident that Bush will solve the Iranian threat, one way or another, before the end of his term. Until recently, few in Jerusalem or Washington would have disagreed with him, but now many are much more doubtful.
Israel not only has to reposition itself in relation to its neighbors and other main regional players; it also has to at the least prepare itself for a foreseeable future in which Israeli and American interests are not always mutual. Just as in the various Middle East regimes, also in Washington there are power struggles and shifting loyalties, and Bush himself might not have made his mind up. Nothing may change in US policy eventually, but the only thing we know for sure is that whatever changes, Israel will be on the receiving end.
The government's habitual critics will of course say now of the diplomatic arena, as they've said over the last month about the military scene, that at such a time we can't afford a "cabinet of amateurs." They might have a point there. Olmert and Livni are far from being diplomatic veterans, but on the other hand, there are no Israeli leaders, present or past, with experience of this kind of multiple maneuver.
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