BigMo’s Blog

Politics and Economics in Israel

Taking the Diplomatic Offensive

In military affairs, Israel has always succeeded when it takes the offensive.  It is time for Israel to take the offensive diplomatically. According to reports in the media, Israel is about to pull-out of the northern part of Ghajar and UNIFIL will police the town. Handing the town over to the UN is a poor choice when there is a much better option available. Israel should make an offer – very publicly – to cede southern Ghajar in exchange for Lebanon dropping its claims to Shebaa Farms.

The citizens of Ghajar will be given a choice: become Lebanese citizens or remain Israeli citizens. Those choosing to become Lebanese, would exchange their Israeli identity cards for Lebanese-issued ones. Those choosing to remain Israeli citizens would be offered a relocation package similar to those received by settlers in Gaza. A “national service” component could be added for the hard work of building a new community.

There are several arguments against taking this diplomatic initiative. Detractors will point out that Iran and Syria are likely to do everything in their power to prevent such a deal from ever occurring, let alone being given a serious hearing. Resolving the Ghajar / Shebaa Farms issue would eliminate all of Hezbollah’s claims as “protector of Lebanon.” Weaken Hezbollah weakens Iran and Syria. And weakening Iran and Syria further weakens Hezbollah.

However, both the current regime in Teheran and its Hizbullah proxies are in a certain degree of disarray due to elections in both countries. Have the internal protests and power-struggles weakened the regime? Absolutely not. Have the caused it to focus its attention inward? Absolutely, yes. Furthermore, with the Obama administration pressing Teheran to enter into negotiations over its nuclear program, now would be the wrong time for Ahmadinejad to stir-up trouble in Lebanon.

Syria is engaged in a slow, step-by-step process of re-engagement with the West. There has been a constant stream of European and American diplomats in and out of Damascus. The message to Assad has been clear: Iran or us. His country is impoverished and isolated from other Arab states. Allowing Lebanon to negotiate with Israel would, on the one hand, further isolate his regime. On the other hand, Assad would likely claim – and Washington would like deliver – substantial diplomatic, economic and political benefits if Syria were to take a benign role.

Detractors will also say that no Arab government will be willing to cede any land to Israel, period. They might be right. If they are, wouldn’t it be to Israel’s advantage to point this out now, over a square miles of valueless real estate, rather than get embroiled with the Palestinians? A Lebanese refusal would put those exerting pressure on Israel to make compromises elsewhere into an embarrassing position.

A third argument against doing this is the potential of the residents of Ghajar voting en masse to become Lebanese citizens. Polling in Israel over the last five years has shown an increasing number of Arab citizens do not want to live with Jews (and vice versa). This would certainly be a black eye for Israel, at a time when it is least needed. On the other hand, what if they decided to stay? Wouldn’t this be an equal or greater black eye for Arab nationalists and Islamists?

It is a long shot. However, it has enormous potential and very little downside risk. Obtaining a Lebanese concession on the Shebaa Farms area, aka, Har Dov, gives Israel a key route into the Golan and will bolster Israel’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Syria. Finally, the process of could conceivably serve as a template for the re-alignment of borders in the West Bank / Judea & Samaria. It’s time for Israel to take the diplomatic offensive!

August 7, 2009 Posted by | Israel, Middle East | , , , | Leave a comment

Lebanon’s Electoral “Shocker”

Much to my surprise
Much to my surprise, the BBC reports that the 14 March coalition of Saad Hariri won 71 seats out of 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on Monday.  Coalition parties – Future (Sunni); Progressive Socialists (Druze); Lebanese Forces (Maronite); Phalange (Maronite) – took one more than they held four years ago.  Hariri’s coalition is opposed by the bloc led by the Islamic Hezbollah movement, which consists of Hezbollah (Shia); Amal (Shia); Free Patriotic Movement (Maronite). Turnout was 54%, the highest since Lebanon’s devastating 1975 – 1990 civil war.

American President Barack Obama congratulated Hariri and the Lebanese people, “Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion.”  Thus repeating a theme from his recent speech in Cairo.

The US was backing the 14 March coalition, hoping to keep Lebanon in a loose Western-oriented orbit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden arrived for a short visit just a few days before the polls opened.  The US has increased military and other aid recently since the political statement that nearly erupted into civil war in May 2008.

Saudis take this round
Hariri’s coalition also received substantial financial, logistical and political aid from Egypt and Jordan, but mostly from the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia.  It is an irony that cannot be lost on many: the most fervently Sunni Muslim country supporting an alliance led by Maronite Christians. “They were broken… Lebanon wins,” thundered a headline in the Saudi-funded Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.  The Cairo-based Middle East Times remarked, “Indeed, this election seems to be the first time in Lebanon in which a Western media campaign appears to have obtained the desired results: first in getting people out to vote, and second to get the voters to elect the candidates that would best serve the national interest of the Lebanese.”

Hezbollah, meanwhile, received significant aid from Iran and Syria, the latter of which was forced to end it decades-long occupation of eastern Lebanon only in 2005.  To this day, Hezbollah maintains close ties with Syria; supplies for the militant Islamic organization’s militia – estimated at 30,000 or more, flow through Syria into Lebanon’s Hezbollah-controlled Beka’a Valley.
Both blocs hurled accusations at one another the last few weeks, primarily involving claims that thousands of Lebanese expatriates were flown in for the sole purpose of voting.

Where will they go from here?
Still, the 71 seats only gives Hariri a four-seat majority in parliament, and alliances in Lebanese politics are often fickle and short-lived. The country is still bitterly divided among ethnic and religious lines, as can be seen from the confessional basis of the parties participating in this election. Despite the victory, Hariri will most likely attempt to engineer some form of national-unity government. The previous NUG gave Hezbollah’s bloc 11 of 27 cabinet seats and virtual veto over certain areas of foreign and military policy.

“We accept these results,” Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address.  However, one Hezbollah member or parliament, Mohamed Raad, told the French news agency AFP insisted that it would keep its weapons. “The majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state.” The pro-Western 14 March bloc accuses Hezbollah of using this force to disrupt Lebanese stability.  Hezbollah counters this by saying that it alone is capable of defending Lebanon from Israel.

If approached again, Hezbollah will most likely demand that it retain the eleven cabinet seats that it secured in last year’s unity talks.   The May 2008 compromise took place under the shadow of Hezbollah’s gunmen taking over the streets of Beirut, the country’s capital.  Both demands are likely to be met, although perhaps with less window-dressing this time.

June 8, 2009 Posted by | Hizbullah, Middle East | , , | Leave a comment

As I’ve been saying

In an editorial published today, Yisrael Hayom has already performed the post mortem on US President Barack Obama’s much anticipated 4.6.09 speech in Cairo.  The daily notes that, “Three days after the speech, an earthquake is expected to occur in the Middle East that will push it into a dark corner: In the Lebanese parliamentary elections, Hezbollah is liable to turn its veritable control over the Land of the Cedars, thanks to Iranian weapons and money, into legal, legitimate control, if it succeeds in filling parliament with a majority of its supporters.”

Of course, this was noted several days ago on this blog.  Nasallah’s victory will provide additional, albeit unneeded momentum, to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bid for another term as president of Iran.

Yisrael Hayom  “Then the world, including Obama, will awaken to find that a country with a democratic past has become Ayatollah Nasrallah’s country under Iranian patronage.”

What the editorial fails to point out is that the “world” is not democracy-friendly.  Only about 20% of the world’s people live under demcratic systems of government.  And in about half of those the commitment to democracy is less than full-fledged.

Yisrael Hayom  goes on to state that “Ten days after the speech, Hamas’s leaders will celebrate two years since the founding of their state in the Gaza Strip and the Iranians, as he [Obama] well knows, are preparing a bomb in any case. Obama’s speech, as positive as it may be, will be – very quickly – forgotten and buried under the bitter reality of the old Middle East.

May 20, 2009 Posted by | Hizbullah, Middle East, Obama | , , , , | Leave a comment

Chickens coming home to roost

The chickens come home to roost

The Egyptian government announced last Thursday the arrest of 49 people for plotting terrorist attacks, espionage, forgery, weapons smuggling and conducting terror training.  For several years Israeli officials have been pleading with Egypt to honor its treaty commitments and crackdown on the weapons smuggling that occurs in Sinai.  The Egyptians always state that they are doing everything they can, but as long as the weapons find their way to Gaza and are used against Israel, the Egyptians were content to turn a blind eye to these activities.

To no one’s surprise, those arrested included Palestinians, Lebanese, Sudanese (all proxies of Iran) and their Bedouin interlocutors.  Egypt and Iran have been locked in a battle of wills for leadership of the Arab world.  Egypt was satisfied to have its Palestinian faction (Palestinian Authority) and Iran was happy to have its Palestinian faction (Hamas).  In an accord worthy of  The Godfather, Don Corleone Mubarak allowed the other Dons (Meshaal, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad) to “draw water from the well” and use Sinai for transferring weapons, money and trained fighters.

As long as those resources were not turned against it, Egypt was only too happy to play both sides of the fence.  It mediates between the Palestinian factions, between Israel and Hamas and between the EU and Hamas.  Thus, it has bolstered its supposed reputation as the address for diplomatic initiatives and as a so-called moderate Arab state.  However, now the rules of the game have suddenly changed.  Egypt is on the terrorist hit list.  The chickens have come home to roost.

Why now?

The timing doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. There is no imminent transition of power in Egypt, no new leader that needs to be tested. Neither America nor Israel have made any threatening moves toward Iran, forcing them to call their proxies into action. In fact, just the opposite has occurred: American bureaucrats scurry after Iran’s representatives like star-crossed schoolgirls seeking an autograph. So why now?

On the other hand, America’s allies in the region – Egypt, Israel, Lebanon’s elected government, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – are increasingly on the defensive. Egypt has been unable to negotiate a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel or mediate a Palestinian national unity government. Israel has been battered in the court of public opinion. Lebanon is on the razor’s edge with elections coming up in 56 days, trying to avoid a Hizbullah-Syrian putsch ala the one that Hamas orchestrated in Gaza in 2006. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are watching Washington’s new policies unfold (unsuccessfully) with trepidation.

Indeed, Egyptian authorities reported that the first arrests came in November of last year.  The rest of the network was unraveled over the following months.  Apparently, Iran and its proxies were reading the tealeaves and foresaw Barack Obama’s election; Obama’s election surprised no one really.  Neither is it surprising that plans to test a new American president would be put into action so quickly.  Their brazen nature underscores not only how litle regard radical Islamists have for the new American leader, but also how little regard they have for the international system.

The leopard can’t change his spots

As Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, a columnist for the paper Asharq Alawsat put it this way:

“Most of the victims of extremist Islamist groups . . . are not Europeans but in fact Muslims from Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. It is the same for the extremist ideology of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has launched battles between different Islamic factions more than he has harmed the West.  The belief that Obama’s connections to Islam would reassure the extremists and end the confrontation is naïve and demonstrates lack of knowledge of the situation of the Islamic world.”

Another Asharq Alawsat columnist, Tariq Alhomayed, stated:

“The danger of Bin Nasrallah and those like him is that they strive to overthrow governments and create chaos in regions . . . in the interest of Iran.  The excuse that is given of course is that this is all for the sake of defending Palestine, just as Bin Nasrallah said.  This is the same excuse that Saddam Hussein used when he occupied Kuwait; the same excuse that Bin Laden used after he caused havoc in our countries and throughout the world; and the same excuse used by a battalion of criminals in our region.”

Just in case you’re wondering, President Obama, Asharq Alawsat is also published in English, so there’s no need to waste anytime learning Arabic; you can continue chasing after the Ayatollah for that precious autograph!

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , , , , | Leave a comment