Three Months in the Wilderness

The next three months are unlikely to see much movement on any of the crucial issues that have been simmering just below the boiling point in the Middle East.  On October 13 Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak signed a draft agreement to form a new Israeli government under her leadership.  Barak will become Senior Deputy Prime Minister, a new position that will give him close to a veto over defense and foreign policy issues.  Barak has not won the extravagant demands he made at the start of the negotiations.  He knows as well as anyone that if a government under Livni’s leadership were not to be formed and elections held, his Labor Party would likely suffer a defeat which could result in his (second) political demise.

Livni has not completed negotiations with the other parties she hopes will join the coalition: the liberal Zionist Meretz, the Pensioners Party, and the Sephardi-Haredi Shas.  She has asked President Shimon Peres for a two-week extension to complete them.  Shas is demanding one billion shekels over three years for allowances to families “blessed with many children” as its price to join the government.  Livni is willing to authorize only 700 million shekels.  This difference is not one of great principle or unsusceptible to compromise.  But if an agreement is not reached, Livni will likely form a minority government supported by 59 Knesset members.  In that case the Ashkenazi-Haredi United Torah Judaism might be persuaded (i.e., bought) to support the government from outside in exchange for the chairmanship of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee.

Barak will be involved in the negotiations with Damascus.  But they will go nowhere in the next three months.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad publicly announced last summer that there will be no direct Syrian-Israeli talks until after the inauguration of a new American president.  He is just as aware as everyone else in the world that the Bush administration has neither the political capital nor the diplomatic skills to handle delicate issues like shepherding an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement and engineering a U.S. rapprochement with Syria.

Barak will also have the power to prevent issues from being raised in the security cabinet.  This most likely means that there will be no discussions about Jerusalem, evacuation of settlements, and other substantive issues that would be required to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.  This would suit both Tzipi Livni and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, neither of whom is enthusiastic about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s aspiration to salvage her reputation by brokering a Palestinian-Israeli “declaration of principles” for a two-state solution.  They have seen that movie before.

Abbas’s term as president expires in January 2009.  At that point the only legitimate Palestinian institution will be the Legislative Council, which has a Hamas majority.  Barring a dramatic reversal of Israeli and U.S. positions, there will be no negotiations with Hamas.  What comes next isn’t likely to be pretty.

The U.S. standoff with Iran has been the issue with the greatest capacity to blow up the entire Middle East.  It now looks unlikely that either the United States or Israel will attack Iran in the near future (with no disrespect to Seymour Hersh, whose writings may have contributed to this outcome).  Such an adventure before the elections would be seen as a barefaced conspiracy by the Bush administration to improve John McCain’s dwindling chances to win the presidency.  After the elections it would be widely regarded as illegitimate.  Should he become president, Barack Obama may be too preoccupied with sending more troops to Afghanistan to attack Iran.

In September the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sustained two major defeats on Iran.  AIPAC’s top legislative priority this year was H.CON.RES 362, a House of Representatives resolution calling for the president to impose a blockade on Iran.  However, the leadership removed the measure from the agenda.  A blockade unauthorized by the United Nations is an act of war.  Therefore, passage of the resolution by Congress would have constituted a stealth declaration of war against Iran.  Several of the resolution’s initial sponsors publicly declared their opposition to the measure once they understood its implications.  This defeat for AIPAC is remarkable in an election year during which the Bush administration has terrorized the American people with Iran.  But they’ll be back.  Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and the 270 unrepentant sponsors plan to reintroduce the resolution in the next congressional session.

Among the elements of the coalition that mobilized against H.CON.RES 362 was J Street, the “alternative Jewish lobby,” which collected 20,000 signatures on a petition opposing it.  This was a bold move for a relatively new organization.  J Street also collaborated with Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and the National Jewish Democratic Council to block Sarah Palin from speaking at an “Iran Unity rally” at the United Nations on September 22.  The event, timed to coincide with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance at the UN, was organized by Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, one of the most regressive elements in the American-Jewish establishment.  But J Street remained a sponsor of the event, widely billed as an “anti-Iran” rally.

AIPAC was also defeated in the Senate in September.  The upper house was preparing to pass legislation forbidding foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business with Iran, banning any company from conducting substantial business with Iran’s energy sector, and cutting off Iran’s banking system from U.S.-controlled markets.  Another measure, written and sponsored by Barack Obama, would have allowed pension plans to disinvest from Iran by protecting them from investor lawsuits.  Both proposals were framed amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill, which must be passed by the end of this congressional session.  They were strongly supported by AIPAC and the usual suspects.

However, the White House threatened to veto the bill.  On September 9 it released a Statement of Administration Policy which said that the Iran amendment would, “divide the multilateral coalition that has come together to oppose Iran’s nuclear programs, by requiring the Administration to submit ‘blacklists’ of foreign companies investing in Iran’s energy sector. . . .”  After a disagreement over other amendments, the Republicans ended up blocking all amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill, including those on Iran.  As the Iran legislation went down in flames, both John McCain and Barack Obama accused each other of gambling with Israel’s security.  “John McCain had a real opportunity today to stand up for Israel’s security, but he refused to stand up to his own party.  Instead of supporting Barack Obama’s legislation to pressure Iran by accelerating state and local divestment initiatives, John McCain ignored the very real threat to Israel and took a pass,” the Obama campaign proclaimed.

That is to say, the Obama campaign scored points against the Republicans at the expense of failing to challenge the Bush administration’s fundamentally wrong-headed aggressive approach to Iran.  Obama has not acknowledged that Iran has a legal right to enrich uranium according to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed.  He has not mentioned that Israel has not signed the NPT and that its possession of an estimated 100-200 nuclear weapons destabilizes the Middle East and is a factor motivating Iran’s nuclear program.  He has not noticed that the course of U.S. relations with North Korea, India, and Pakistan as opposed to Iraq demonstrates that a country the United States has labeled “evil” is much safer if it has nuclear weapons.

And you were hoping for “change” in the Middle East emanating from Washington?  But do not despair.  Israel has hired the British public image consulting firm, Acanchi, whose website advertises that it aims “to discover and define the optimum brand strategy for a country, city or region” to remake its brand in this, its 60th birthday, year.

Joel Beinin is Professor of Middle East History, Stanford University.  This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of the Jewish Voice for Peace newsletter.

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