An election that raises Syria’s appetite


Leave it to the Israelis and Palestinians to extinguish the heavenly light that accompanied Barack Obama into the White House. The American president, we were told, would take the sins of the Middle East onto his mortal shoulders and usher in a new morning of regional concord. Apparently not.

The wittiest comment on Israel’s elections Tuesday, which saw a dramatic shift in the country toward the political right, came from a Hamas official, Moushir al-Masri, who declared that Israel had chosen “extremists.” It would be difficult to disagree with Masri, but somehow he seemed to miss the irony that the Palestinians already did that three years ago when they elected a Hamas majority to the Palestinian Parliament.

What happens next in Israel is a matter of utter confusion. If Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader, is asked to form a government, she will have to fish in the waters of the right to reach some sort of majority, one that will be unstable at best. If the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is handed the task, his right-wing government will also be rickety, bringing together secular and religious parties, along with the xenophobic partisans of Avigdor Lieberman – by some estimates giving the right a short majority of 64 seats in the Knesset. And all for what? Livni won’t have any margin to discontinue settlement building and evacuate occupied Arab land, assuming she is serious about it; while Netanyahu is explicitly hostile to it.

On the Hamas side, this is all excellent news. That Israel is obliterating what remains of the Oslo process suits the movement just fine. The one unmistakable victim of the Israeli election is the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who can now look forward to many more years of deadlock with Israel, as well as an escalating effort by Hamas to discredit the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and then eventually either replace it with a more amenable structure or hijack the PLO itself.

Precisely how George Mitchell, the American envoy for the Middle East peace process, will untie this knot of vipers is anyone’s guess. Perhaps now, all those who blamed George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice for not doing enough to promote Palestinian-Israeli peace can understand why they were so lethargic. Bush and Rice, chastened by their hubris of the years before, were modest about what the United States could achieve. The domestic dynamics in Israeli and Palestinian society did not permit a settlement, and Obama’s aura, we must suspect, will not make much difference.

Also delighted with the Israeli election results is Syria. As he surveys the wasteland of Oslo, the president, Bashar Assad, sees his stock rising. We can hear echoes of what will be the conventional wisdom in Washington these coming weeks: “The Palestinian-Israeli track is blocked, so let’s move ahead with negotiations between Syria and Israel.” The Syrians are sending out signals that they would welcome being engaged by the US, but that this can only be effective if the administration lifts the sanctions imposed under the Syria Accountability Act (SAA). Syria would also like to be removed from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, and has indicated that Damascus has no intention of cutting its ties with Iran, Hizbullah or Hamas. These demands are opening gambits, but Assad will try to milk US impatience when it comes to progress in the region for all he’s worth.

That’s why it’s urgent for the Obama administration to make public its new policy toward Syria. The Syrian wish list is not one Assad is likely to soon get. There even appears to be a continuing debate over whether to send an American ambassador back to Damascus. The Syrian regime’s scribes have valiantly tried to generate good news by reporting that US-Syrian relations are normalizing. Some, for example, have written that the State Department is preparing to name Frederic Hof as the new ambassador to Syria. That appears to be untrue. The regime is also spinning that the American decision to allow Syria to buy spare parts for its two Boeing-747s is a sign that the SAA is collapsing. Again, that is untrue, since the legislation allows the US to sell parts if necessary to ensure the safety of flying.

But it’s Lebanon where Syria’s eye wanders most lustily. One writer, Sami Moubayed, who accurately reflects the Assad regime’s thinking, let the cat out of the bag recently when he wrote that the Syrians “want to show the world – mainly the US – that just as they can deliver on Palestine, they can deliver in Iraq and Lebanon.” He went on to quote the former US secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to the effect that Syria “influenced the leaders of Hezbollah to stop the conflicts with Israel in 1993 and 1996.”

It is remarkable how the Syrians will refuse to constrain Hizbullah, while also peddling themselves as potential adversaries of the party. To believe Christopher’s line, one would need to have been relieved of a memory. In 1993 and 1996 Syria didn’t end the conflicts with Israel; it granted Hizbullah great leeway to use its weapons, as it did later on, then bargained over the rising number of Lebanese corpses to earn an advantageous deal – not coincidentally with Warren Christopher himself, living proof that an old fool is someone who will commend you for robbing him blind.

The Syrian messages on containing Hizbullah are not directed solely at the Obama administration; they are being beamed toward the next Israeli prime minister as well. Whether it is Livni or Netanyahu, the Syrians know that regional politics abhor a vacuum, so that blockage on the Palestinian front or in discussions over the Golan Heights might create openings between Syria and Israel over Lebanon. That remains an American worry, and is why there are opponents of Syria in Washington who nevertheless argue that an American presence at the table is desirable, if only to prevent the Lebanese from turning into Syria’s and Israel’s meal.

Since the region invites gastronomic terminology, in light of the Israeli election results the Obama administration has its plate full in finding a way through the inveterate stalemate of the region. Before long, it may conclude that the pickings are so slim that Arabs and Israelis merit only last suppers.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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