Analysis: Mideast: Permanent Kefuffle

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   March 20, 2007 at 8:21 AM

WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- At first, the idea was to make sure president Bush could not launch air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities without prior Congressional authorization. But friends of Israel in and out of Congress swung into action, arguing that Iran, under present management, was a second "holocaust" in the making.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in Washington for the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee delivered the clincher: "All of you who are concerned for Israel's security and the future of the State of Israel understand the importance of strong American leadership addressing the Iranian threat, and I am sure you will not hamper or restrain that strong American leadership unnecessarily."

The message was clear. Handcuffing Bush could have the direst of consequences for the Jewish state. Thus Congress, in its infinite wisdom, voted to tie the president's hands on Iraq while in the same week untied them on Iran. But Bush can still wield the veto. And he is still commander in chief. Unless Iran comes clean on its nuclear secrets, the president's military option now looks more credible.

Limited sanctions against Iran, if properly targeted, could be the first step on a brand new escalator -- and cause a deep split between public opinion and the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran has the world's second biggest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and the second biggest gas reserves after Russia. But the theocracy neglected its refining capacity, which is down to 10 million gallons of gas a day against a demand of 17 million gallons. Forty percent has to be imported. It is heavily subsidized at 40 cents a gallon. Naval interdiction of imported gas, say "solidarity" shipments from Venezuela, could be the first step in a regime of tougher sanctions. Iranian retaliation would then trigger the military option Bush says is on the table. "Saving Israel from a second holocaust" would be a heady political brew in the quest for legacy.

Geopolitical equivocation was not a Washington monopoly. In the Middle East, the Palestinians finally agreed on a Hamas-dominated coalition government, which the U.S. and its Middle Eastern friends and European allies found encouraging, and Israel did not. The Palestinian Hamas-Fatah mismatch still did not recognize Israel's right to exist, but accepted previous peace accords reached between Israel and the former Fatah-led Palestinian governments. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, hovering in single-digit approval ratings, was too weak to show the kind of interest his political opponents would denounce as spineless.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took off for her fourth visit in four months (and eigth in two years) to the Middle East, the 2002 Saudi peace plan -- all Arab states recognize Israel diplomatically, economically and militarily in return for the pre-1967 war frontiers -- was once again the flavor du jour. But it had as much chance of being accepted by Israel as a camel in a dog sled team in Alaska. Rice, anxious to stay in close alignment with Saudi Arabia to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, had one ear cocked to the next Arab summit in Riyadh March 28 and the other to Israel's friends in Congress. The Saudis even upped the ante by putting the entire Muslim world behind their gussied up 2002 initiative.

If Israel went back to its 1967 borders, the country would shrink to a width of nine miles at its narrowest waist. Ben Gurion airport, which handles almost 10 million passengers per year, would be three miles from Palestinian rocket launchers. For Israel, clearly, a no brainer.

Designed to protect Israeli settlements, the new $2.2 billion, 420-mile physical barrier annexes about 15 percent of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. If Hamas were ever to abandon its Muslim "canon" dedicated to the destruction of Israel, this is the line where the Jewish state would agree to negotiate minor rectifications. From here to there is still years away and all a U.S. secretary of state can do is keep the diplomatic ball in play.

Meanwhile, Israeli settlements keep growing illegally just below the international radar screen, house by house, in some 140 settlements. Many are strategically located to command access to the main aquifer under the West Bank. A secure road network under Israeli control interlinks the colonies.

There are about 270,000 Jews (up 6 percent in the past year) in the West Bank, including several thousand evacuated from Gaza in 2005. Three quarters of them are now on the Israeli side of the barrier -- some 300 feet wide and in some sections 25-foot-high concrete walls. Another 180,000 Israelis live in Arab East Jerusalem, a significant barrier against any future claim for establishing a Palestinian capital there.

Friendly Arab governments never tire of repeating a Palestinian settlement would greatly facilitate a common front against Iran's nuclear ambitions. But this is not to be under Israel's Olmert, still reeling under the stigma of a Mexican standoff against Iran-funded and equipped Hezbollah last summer. A hardlining rightwing Israeli alternative would be even less inclined to concede anything to a Hamas-Fatah Palestinian coalition that remains, at the very least, ambiguous about Israel's legitimacy.

In fact, the new Palestinian government, under Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas firebrand, insisted on the Palestinians' "legitimate right" to resist Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands "by all means." Jordan's King Abdullah, addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress March 7, said, the root cause of regional division and "the source of resentment and frustration far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine." Hamas was not mentioned. But then Hamas is popular in Jordan where 65 percent of the population is Palestinian. In the nation's capital, the Washington Post didn't cover or even mention Abdullah's speech. Congress is in Democratic hands. And the Democrats got over 80 percent of the Jewish vote in last November's elections.

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