The War that Changed the Middle East

Fifty years have passed since Israel’s stunning military victory over the countries surrounding it in 1967. War transforms countries, regions, the entire planet as no other event can. And perhaps no war ever transformed a country and the entire region surrounding it as suddenly and as dramatically as the 1967 war did to Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the entire Middle East.

Consider where the region was on June 4, 1967. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in the region, with the US enjoying an advantage, but still concerned with Soviet influence. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a leader in both the global Non-Aligned Movement—which purported to resist the influence of either of the superpowers—and the rapidly declining Pan-Arab movement. Syria was already fighting with Israel. Its government in a state of flux that would not resolve itself until several years later, Syria was already the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the region. Disunity among Arab governments in general was rampant, with uneasy relationships thwarting several attempts at alliances among different sets of countries. Read more at LobeLog

Tipping the First Domino: An Israeli-Syrian Agreement

The Israeli daily, Yediot Ahoronot reported recently that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, had reassessed its view on Syria’s sincerity in seeking talks with Israel. Mossad now agrees with all the other branches of Israeli intelligence that the Syrian overtures are sincere and that Israel should put Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s willingness to the test.

The potential benefits of an agreement between Syria and Israel are enormous for many parties. The United States is one of those parties, although one of the few players who stand to lose from such an agreement are the neoconservatives and hawks in the Bush administration. There are also real obstacles to an agreement, especially in the arenas of domestic politics in Israel and the US. But the chief factor blocking Israel-Syria talks at this time is the Bush Administration’s refusal to allow them. This is not something often talked about, which is not surprising–one can only picture the response of the overwhelming majority of Jews to the news that the US is blocking Israel-Arab peace talks that Israel desires.

Yet for all the difficulties, a deal with Syria is a lot easier to attain for Israel than one with the Palestinians, and it might have just as many, maybe even a few more, benefits for Israel as well as the region as a whole.

The Ground On Which To Build An Israel-Syria Agreement

To understand the potential benefits, we must first understand where we are now. The Middle East as a whole is engulfed in burning conflicts, simmering conflicts and growing potential for conflict. The ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and Sudan, the deepening tensions in Lebanon and growing concerns over increasingly tense situations in Bahrain, other Gulf states, Egypt and even to some extent, Saudi Arabia make this always explosive region all the more so. The fuse that is sitting too close to the flame is Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Though not always reported, there are multiple, daily incidents of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank as well as ongoing clashes between Fatah and Hamas as well as other Palestinian factions from time to time. Israel’s deepening of the infrastructure of the occupation makes matters worse. The wall continues to be built, Palestinian land continues to be appropriated and Israel continues to discuss its plans to hold onto various chunks of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. Promised relief from checkpoints and settlement “outposts” has not materialized, echoing for Palestinians the Oslo years when Israeli promises of peace were accompanied by a massive acceleration in settlement expansion. Continue reading

Hope To Fix the Peace Conference, Not Bury It

The Middle East peace conference, announced with much ballyhoo over the summer and convened by the Bush Administration, is struggling, with good reason.

The easiest obstacle to overcome is the one that’s gotten the most publicity: the talks between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert attempting to devise a joint Israeli-Palestinian agreement on some framework before the conference. There are many problems here, but both parties have a vested interest in making this agreement happen. Olmert needs to do something concrete to support Abbas, both in the eyes of Palestinians and of Israelis. Abbas needs to show he can get something accomplished with Israel, or his ability to hold control of the West Bank will be seriously diminished.

Yet both sides are facing increasing pressure, both internal and external, against any real progress being made. Saudi Arabia, for instance, remains noncommittal about its attendance at the conference. This is no small point. The Saudis’ absence form the conference will significantly diminish the credibility of any agreement reached in the eyes of the Arab world. But they are not going to give their imprimatur to a conference that doesn’t seem serious about addressing the Palestinians’ rights. The Saudis are also committed to try to bring Fatah and Hamas back into one unified government. This is now a long-range plan, as the Saudis surely recognize that Fatah has little inclination or incentive to pursue this goal right now. That means the Saudis have to be concerned about building relationships with both sides. Fatah is, at best, ambiguous (one might say divided) over the conference, and Hamas is strongly opposed to it. While Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon has opened the discussion about sharing Jerusalem in Israel, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas has made the explosive claim that the Palestinians must retain control over the holiest Jewish site, the Western Wall, an obvious non-starter. This illustrates the splits within Fatah more than anything else, as the aide, Adnan Husseini, surely knows that such a claim will never be supported even by the Arab League. Thus it should be seen as an attempt to scuttle the conference more than anything else. The Saudis need to tread carefully here.

While Hamas and Hezbollah have been vocal in calling on Arab leaders not to attend the conference, the reality that a failure of this conference will have severe repercussions, including repercussions beyond Israel and Palestine, is a much more significant force in casting a shadow over the proposed meeting. One of the purposes, from the Arab point of view, of this meeting is to put together some sort of united front to counter increasing Iranian influence in the region. For the Arab states, it is imperative that this be accomplished without military action, either by Israel or the United States. But both of those countries are not so kindly disposed to a diplomatic initiative, especially the US. Continue reading

Time For the Truth About the USS Liberty

This is the first time I’ve ever written publicly about the issue of the USS Liberty, the American espionage vessel that was attacked by Israeli forces during the Six-Day War.

I’ve never written about it before because there was scant substance to write about. The facts we have don’t extend much beyond this: Israeli planes attacked the Liberty, followed by a sea attack by an Israeli ship. The incident left 34 American sailors dead and 170 more injured, some severely. Two US squadrons were mobilized after the attack on the Liberty started and were then called back. Israel claimed the attack was a case of mistaken identity and apologized, and a US investigation was pursued, but only a quick one, which ended with American acceptance of Israel’s excuse and the matter was closed.USS Liberty in 1966

Today, we really don’t know much more than that. But the Chicago Tribune brought the incident back up this week, and so, despite the fact that the article really doesn’t shed any new light on the episode, I feel the urge to say something about this.

The attack on the Liberty has provided great fodder for conspiracy theorists for the past four decades. The surviving sailors who have spoken publicly have all been unanimous in rejecting the Israeli claim that they did not see the American flag flying on the ship. The one major point the Tribune article provides is much more conclusive evidence that indeed, the Israeli pilots were fully aware that they were attacking an American ship. This isn’t a big surprise, frankly; Israel’s explanation on this score was never all that credible. The Liberty was not off-course or in an unexpected place and there was no reason ever offered as to why the ship would not have been flying its colors.

But the conspiracy theorists have repeatedly used this incident to prove how much fealty the US gives to Israel, and frankly, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The US commitment to Israel in 1967 was a lot more tenuous and more slender than it is today. There is no credible evidence that Israel would be able to get away with an intentional attack on an American ship in those days, even if one wants to argue that their influence is so great today that they could (a claim I would not agree with, as is obvious from my recent post on the Israel Lobby). Continue reading