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

Iranian Elections, etc.

The BBC reported this morning Saturday, 13 June 2009, that Iranian TV has begun putting out calls for calm in the wake of an apparent landslide re-election victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One opposition newspaper had been closed down and BBC websites appear to have been blocked by the Iranian authorities.  There were also reports that an opposition rally had been broken up for candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Let’s see, that is 1) closing down an opposition newspaper – 1st Amendment; 2) blocking access to a news web site – 1st Amendment; and 3) breaking up a peaceful assembly organized for political purposes – 1st Amendment.  The candidates themselves were screened by Iran’s Council of Guardians, so one would think that such actions would be unnecessary.  Apparently, that is not the case.

How does this factor into Obama’s new thinking and fresh approach to the Middle East?   So far, it is long on rhetoric, but short on accomplishments.  His speech in Cairo was perhaps a beginning towards some sort of American reconciliation with the Arab/Muslim world.   However, if the American public starts actually paying attention to what is going on there, it is not going to like what it sees. Arab/Muslim reaction – at least that which isn’t subject to state censorship – has been mixed on Pres. O’s Cairo address.   I’ll score it as a draw, but an impressive one.

Lebanon certainly goes into the win column. Only by field goal, though. Saudi money and lots of diplomatic and political support from Egypt and Jordan tilted the playing field.  Iran was somewhat distracted by its own elections to interfere to heavily in the Lebanese contest.  Syria, playing a diplomatic game of cat-and-mouse with the Americans, was also low-key in its support for the Hizbullah-led opposition.

Iran is definitely a loss for the “Yes We Can” crowd in Washington.  There is scant evidence that Iran’s nuclear policies would have been altered by any of the opposition candidates.  After all, it is the result of a 20-year effort, not just the last four years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.  However, it would have made it easier for President Obama to appease a new Iranian dictator than the old one.

Thus, the Obama Administration is 1-1-1, with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s highly anticipated response to the Cairo address tomorrow . . .

June 13, 2009 Posted by | 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