Meanwhile, Elsewhere …As Olmert and Abbas Prepare for the Summit, Regional Realities are Again in Flux

Meanwhile, Elsewhere …As Olmert and Abbas Prepare for the Summit, Regional Realities are Again in Flux
Weekly Briefing on Israeli and Middle Eastern Affairs
November 20, 2007

Dr. Eran Lerman, Director, Israel/Middle East Office
American Jewish Committee
Controversy has been swirling in recent days around the preparations for the Annapolis “meeting”; yet it is safe to bet, in this context, that neither the apocalyptic warnings of the Israeli religious right about a cowardly sellout nor the ashen wails of the Israeli liberal left that we are about to waste a vital opportunity to make peace will seem very appropriate after the event itself, which will launch long and difficult negotiations, without offering a firm promise, either way, as to their outcome.
Meanwhile, important developments are taking place elsewhere in the region that are part and parcel of the general effort (of which Annapolis itself is an important, but by no means dominant element) to isolate, set back, enfeeble and ultimately defeat the forces of radicalism. At the core stands Iran, with its leadership still defiant about its nuclear program; but in a number of related battles, the results—in recent weeks and days—have been better than what might have been expected not too long ago. The list includes:

  • In the internal Palestinian realm, President Mahmoud Abbas took a very firm stand (albeit rhetorical) against the Hamas regime in Gaza, following the mass slaughter of Fatah activists there—in effect, calling for the people of Gaza to overthrow their present regime;
  • The struggle for the presidency of Lebanon is coming to the point of decision and neither Syria nor its internal allies, for all of Hezbollah’s current bluster, seem to be able to get “their” Maronite elected. (Under the balancing act called the Lebanese constitution, only a Maronite Christian can be president, only a Sunni can be prime minister, and only a Shi’i can be speaker.) General Michel Aoun, once a deadly enemy of Syria and hunted all over the world by its agents, has turned his coat and become a renegade to his own cause, but by now it seems almost certain that he will have to be ditched in favor of a consensus candidate. Whatever happens then—and all options are open—it is already clear that the days, even nine years ago, when Emile Lahoud was chosen “by a phone call from [old Hafez] Assad,” are long gone.
  • All this takes place against the background of the salutary effect of better (but not yet “good”) news from Iraq. Statistics can lie, when misinterpreted, but they tell a story. In this case, the sense of invincibility once exuded by the insurgents and the hope (among their supporters) or fear (among moderates) of an early American collapse have all but dissipated.

Even more dramatically (perhaps: we know far too little), this week saw an upturn in the internal struggle within Iran itself. The sanctions, and the slow strangulation of Iran’s banking system, are having an effect: Voices are being raised from well within the revolutionary elite—clearly associated with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—to warn that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is ruining the country. The president, in turn, spewed invective against “fat cats” courting the West. Both are right … but the point is that this fierce division proves that the pressure is not trivial. It apparently led the key negotiator on the nuclear issue, Ali Larijani, to try to obtain (at the highest level, i.e., from the supreme leader, Ali Khamemei) some room for maneuver in his negotiations with the EU’s key diplomat, Javier Solana. His request was denied; the fear of open debate paralyzes the Iranian elite. Larijani stepped down in anger, and it was now no longer possible to hide that Iran is undergoing an internal upheaval. If sustained, for the next few months at least, the siege may force Iran to change course, or else, Ahmadinejad’s obstinate stand will provide Israel and the U.S. with a cause for action.

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