February 8, 2009

Changing Power Paradigm in the Middle East

Professor Asher SusserDuring my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to discuss the current political landscape of the Middle East with Professor Asher Susser, Senior Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies. Susser is one of the more controversial political scientists in Israel today, but he has the uncanny ability to see it like it is.

Professor's Susser's assessment of the shifting series of alliances in the region is based on the changing paradigm of power brokers in region. According to Susser, none of the three main players in the region - considered by many as the "Arab world" - are Arabs. The three power brokers today no longer include Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but have shifted to Iran, Turkey and Israel.

Iran has emerged as the power broker in the Persian Gulf, almost wholly due to the defeat of Iraq and the removal of the Saddam Husayn regime. Israel continues to be a power player in the central Middle East, although its previous interlocutors Jordan and Egypt have larger lost influence at the expense of Turkey.

Turkey has a defense treaty with Israel and in the past has been an "ally of convenience," but since Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Turkey has been uncharacteristically critical of Israel. Israel was particularly stung by the repeated verbal criticisms of its actions against Hamas by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turbulence in Israel's relationship with Turkey can cause problems on a variety of levels, not the least of which is the issue of Israel's concerns with Iran and its nuclear "research" (read: weapons) program.

The overarching current issue for Israel is its relations with the Palestinians, specifically the situation in Gaza. Of course, Israel's relations with the Palestinians goes back to at least the United Nations partition plan - UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947 - for the original two-state solution. The war that resulted from Israel's declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948 created a "file" of Palestinian refugees, the 1948 file. The Six Day War of 1967 created yet a second file of refugees.

One of the demands of many of the Palestinian rights and liberation groups is the "right of return" to their original homes, be they of the 1948 or 1967 file. Most Israeli politicians believe that the 1967 file can be addressed - many Israelis believe that reverting to the border as they were on June 4, 1967 border (or very close) is possible in a "land for peace" arrangement. That number has decreased since the Israelis withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and have been exposed to 8000 rocket and mortar attacks since. As for the "1948 file," it will be almost impossible to address their issues.

Exacerbating the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians is the status of the Israeli Arabs. These are Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, who found themselves inside the borders of Israel after the War of Independence in 1948-1949. They are citizens of Israel, with all rights included - they have Israeli passports and serve in the Knesset. They are, however, exempt from Israel's mandatory military service.

Over the years, Israeli Arabs have gained political power via the ballot box - their population growth generally exceeds that of the Jewish Israelis - and have demanded that Israel no longer be called a "Jewish homeland." If current demographic trends continue, Israel could be an Arab country by the middle of this century.

After a few decades of wanting to have an agreement with the Palestinians, many Israelis are subscribing to the "no-solution solution." In other words, they are beginning to believe that there is no foreseeable solution and merely want to manage the conflict. Hopefully that involves a long-term ceasefire.

The main obstacles to a solution to the Palestinian issue? What do we do with the 1948 refugees, the "1948 file," and of course, what to we do with Jerusalem, holy to three religions?

Jerusalem remains an even thornier issue.