Opportunities, as the 'old order' changes in the Middle East

In this new kaleidoscope, Israel finds itself fair and square in the moderate camp.

sharm summit 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
sharm summit 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
There was a time when global politics were easy to understand. There were two competing world blocs plus a third, nonaligned group, and two rival ideologies - Capitalism and Communism - and the policies of every country were fashioned according to its adherence to one or the other of these groupings. Then came the end of the Cold War. Global problems gradually replaced the old national and ideological concerns. Problems that are not defined within the traditional boundaries of politics or within national boundaries became the order of the day - environment, human rights, poverty and hunger, fundamentalism and international terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the danger of nonconventional weapons. The list is long. Their global nature has necessitated international, multilateral treatment. The prophets of the global village believed that narrow nationalism was becoming obsolete, and that a new, universal order, with one world superpower, was replacing it. Yet, as we look at the world of 2007, the realities on the ground increasingly belie that belief. Nationalism is again on the march. Russia, strengthened by its burgeoning economy, is aggressively challenging the one superpower order. China's shadow looms ever larger. Strong regional powers are emerging - India, Brazil and, alarmingly for us, Iran. The world is changing before our eyes. New leaders are taking over - Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Gordon Brown in Great Britain - and before long we shall witness a sea change in the US, and in Russia, too, there will soon be a new tenant in the Kremlin. "The old order changeth, leading place to new," in the words of Lord Tennyson's famous poem, and nowhere has change been more evident than in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise of Shi'ite power backed by Iran has seen to that. We naturally look at these changes in our region through Israeli eyes and, quite rightly, worry how they can affect us. Yet they obviously have global connotations, too. The Iraqi debacle has weakened the "global policeman" image of the US tremendously and encouraged the rise of competing centers of power. Iran has gained enormously from the events in Iraq. Moreover, by a quirk of geography, it so happens that the vast reserves of oil in the Middle East are almost all concentrated in Shi'ite populated regions; the eastern seaboard of Saudi Arabia, where most Saudi oil is situated, is largely Shi'ite. Two other major oil-producing regions - southern Iraq and Iran - are, of course, also Shi'ite. For us, the danger of a nuclear Iran is existential and must be prevented at all cost. For the region, a nuclear Iran would pose a terrible threat to the stability of the Sunni regimes, and that threat is compounded by the specter of a fundamentalist, nuclear Iran dominating the Shi'ite oil producing areas. Because of the Iranian threat the battle lines are being increasingly drawn in the Middle East between two opposing forces: the extremists allied to Iran, not necessarily Shi'ite (neither the Syrians nor Hamas are Shi'ite); and, for want of a better word, the moderates, led by Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The inherent tension between these two opposing forces was brought to new levels last week with the brutal takeover of Gaza by Hamas. The moderates see Hamas in Gaza as the frontline troops of Iranian-led extremist fundamentalism. An Egyptian friend whom I greatly respect sent me the following e-mail: "Hamas leaders and men must not be allowed to leave Gaza, certainly not via Egypt. Unless this is done Hamas might infect the Islamist movements in the region, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular, boost their morale and motivate to replicate the Gaza example." IN THIS new Middle Eastern kaleidoscope, Israel finds itself fair and square in the moderate camp, with common interests and similar concerns with the moderates. Ehud Olmert was treated as a respected partner at their get-together in Sharm e-Sheikh this week. We are not alone in worrying about Hamastan, or about Hizbullah for that matter. In Lebanon the government is headed for a dramatic showdown as the deadline approaches for the election of a new president, which the Hizbullah-led opposition will probably block. There, as in the Palestinian territories, we might soon see two rival governments being formed with heightened tension as moderates and extremists square off. This new lineup opens up opportunities for us that had not existed before. At a lecture given this week at the launching of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, the new publication of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni surprised the large audience with her upbeat analysis of those new opportunities. She gave her own clear and concise road map of how our relations with the Palestinians should evolve and how the changes in the region and in the world can affect them. The stronger the stand of the US and Europe against the Iranian-led extremists, she said, the greater the resolve of the moderate states in our region to stand up to them. These states have a duty to strengthen the hands of those Palestinians who want to make peace with us, and we, on our part, must offer them tangible hope for a two-state solution, and not just a fist full of dollars. The time is ripe for new, creative policy moves in our region. However, a great deal depends on the Palestinians' ability to put their own house in order, and not only on the resolve of Israel to take advantage of the ousting of Hamas from the Palestinian government. The Palestinian Authority has to prove that it is not a broken reed. It has to show that it can, indeed, regain the confidence of its own people. The appointment of Tony Blair as the new emissary of the Quartet will, hopefully, give the impetus to serious capacity building in Ramallah, for, as things stand today, Hamas would once again walk all over Fatah if there were new elections, because of the inability of the PA and Fatah to get their act together and initiate serious reforms. Blair's appointment gives us new hope. He may, perhaps, succeed in pushing the Palestinians - and us - in the right direction. And perhaps the new leaders in Europe will show greater resolve in dealing with Iran than we have seen up to now. It is all connected. The fanatics, the extremists, the terrorists of this world have to be defeated. The front line is here, in the Middle East. George W. Bush, Sarkozy, Brown, Angela Merkel - and Blair - all have their part to play. So do the Palestinians. So do we. Will it all move in the right direction? Sorrowfully, I have my doubts.