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Can Isarael plot the shifting sands of the middle east?

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By Allister Sparks

(source: Businessday, Cape times + Mercury Online)

The tectonic plates of Middle Eastern politics are shifting. Having just returned from my eighth visit in the past six years to the world’s most explosive region, I believe a completely new political landscape will emerge there over the next two years.
Old dominant players are fading and new ones emerging, while the centrepiece of its volcanic core, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is itself undergoing a change of dynamics.

The most significant change is that the US is going to withdraw from the dominant role it has played in the region for decades. The US has exhausted itself in the two wars it has had to wage since George W Bush launched his "shock and awe" attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq seven years ago.

The shock has been the US’s. The unquenchable civil wars those invasions ignited have drained the US of blood and treasure to the point where that weakened superpower no longer has the political will to tolerate the costs. President Barack Obama is committed to withdrawing from both countries by the end of next year, even though they are likely still to be strife-torn and insecure.

The US will no doubt keep some military bases in the Middle East, particularly its biggest one in the neutral Gulf state of Qatar, but its occupying armies will be gone and its political influence diminished.

In addition, a public backlash in the US against the recession – and the government's rescuing of the big banks – has produced a wave of populist nihilism against all forms of government that has thrown the Obama administration off balance. Gone is the high expectation that Obama would intervene decisively to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and begin a new American relationship with the Muslim world. Instead there is confusion and political indecisiveness in Washington.Meanwhile, the Arab states are in a state of political stagnation. The three main ones, Egypt, Saudia Arabia and Jordan, are old, ossified dictatorships out of touch with their disaffected populations.

The ruling Arab elites all feel under siege to the restless "Arab Street" – their own people, who are infused with a new spirit of pan-Islamism that has replaced the old Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdul Nasser. So they keep their people repressed. The Arab League, once a key player in the region, is now an ineffective shell. The decline of US and Arab influence is opening a power vacuum in the region, into which two new players, Iran and Turkey, are thrusting themselves.Turkey is an emerging economic power closely connected to the EU, which it hopes to join. It is an important link between the Middle East and the West.

It was the first predominantly Muslim country to recognise Israel and has been a useful ally. But the aggressive new Israeli government seems bent on changing that. The global pan-Islamic movement has already produced a political shift in Turkish politics, making that linkage more sensitive, but the Netanyahu crowd seem oblivious to that. Their politically insane assault on the Turkish ship bearing humanitarian aid to blockaded Gaza has outraged Turkey, prompting Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to warn that Israel is "losing its best friend in the Middle East". How these two new players respond to each other, and to Israel, is still unclear. But it could be a game-changer.

As for the principal figures, the Palestinians and the Israelis, their political dynamics are changing, too. The Palestinians remain hopelessly divided and, for the moment, militarily inert. Fatah president Mahmoud Abbas, favoured by the Americans and Israelis, is obviously a loser on his way out. His likely replacement is the appointed West Bank Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, an economist who is trying to revive the West Bank economically and talks of declaring a Palestinian state unilaterally.

The more radical Hamas, shunned by Israel and the West, continues to dominate Gaza, but is bogged down trying to help its imprisoned population of 1.5 million.

All this has made the Israelis feel more secure behind their monstrous apartheid wall. One would have thought it was an ideal time to make a generous offer for a two-state settlement, but the Netanyahu crowd seem to have decided otherwise. A huge influx of Russian immigrants has swung Israeli politics heavily to the right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to ride that trend.

With Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at his shoulder he seems bent on enforcing a one-state solution that has long been a right-wing dream – a single Eretz Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, achieved by relentlessly expanding the settlements to squeeze the West Bank Palestinians into Jordan, while crushing and blockading Gaza until its desperate people have to seek salvation from Egypt and so cease to be an Israeli responsibility.

But Israel may be making one big miscalculation. The loss of world support. That is what scuppered apartheid South Africa. One can sense a shift taking place in the wake of the demolition of Gaza, the insouciant rejection of Judge Richard Goldstone's report on that war crime, the expansion of settlements and now the commando attack in international waters on a flotilla bearing aid to a blockaded people.

Forget the stock cry of anti-Semitism levelled at all Israel's critics. Thousands of Jewish leaders in countries across Europe and in the US have signed petitions urging Israel to stop expanding those settlements. The Rambo spirit is what got Bush and the US into trouble; the same could happen to Israel. And with the whole region entering such a phase of political uncertainty, with the prospect of a face-off between two nuclear powers within rocket range of each other, the world has cause to be concerned.

  • Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.