Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
April 30, 2008 - 6:31pm

One of the important developments in Middle Eastern diplomacy that becomes more obvious with every passing month is the continued marginalization of the United States. As the Bush administration and the American presidential candidates find themselves focusing most of their Middle East-related attention on the complex challenges the US invasion of Iraq has created, other important regional issues seem to be moving into the hands of local players and mediators.

The more the US is marginalized diplomatically as a would-be mediator because of its shortsighted tendency to nearly blindly support Israel's positions, buttress Arab autocrats, and oppose the large, populist Islamo-nationalist movements, the more the other mediators from the Middle East make progress in resolving or reducing the intensity of conflicts.

Two cases in particular are noteworthy: the indirect Hamas-Israel negotiations for a cease-fire in Gaza (mediated by Egypt), and the indirect Israeli-Syrian contacts to achieve a full peace treaty (mediated by Turkey). Both are enormously important developments. If consummated, they would represent solid, even historic, steps toward a resolution of the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict. The chances of success are slim, but they are not zero, and that in itself is noteworthy.

I find it striking that the four most significant or dynamic mediators on major regional problems in the past year have been four regional players: Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. President George W. Bush's effort to prod Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, on the other hand, seems hapless and lacking in credibility, because it is aimed more at pleasing Israel than at meeting the minimal demands and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Egypt is trying to arrange a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel; Turkey is the channel for serious diplomatic feelers between Syria and Israel; Saudi Arabia brokered the Fatah-Hamas unity government agreement last year that later collapsed; and the Arab League continues to seek a resolution of intra-Lebanese and Lebanese-Syrian tensions. This is good news, because it signals both a willingness and a capacity of regional actors to act as diplomatic mediators, rather than to constantly look toward foreign powers to nudge the warring parties toward negotiated accords.

The US, on the other hand, seems often to want to stoke the fires of ideological tension and military conflict by supporting, arming, financing and training one side in domestic political contests such as those in Lebanon and Palestine. The US (and Europe in some cases) is also severely hampered by its decision to boycott or heavily downgrade contacts with key players like Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. The combination of boycotting legitimate actors while actively promoting local confrontations with them is a recipe for what we are witnessing in the Middle East these days: a growing number of political conflicts within countries, and strong linkages between warring actors across the region.

Episodic local tensions have now been transformed into a major and chronic cycle of region-wide political battles, pitting US- and Israeli-backed "moderates" against a wide array of Islamists, "extremists" and "militants" in the Arab world and Iran.

The most important diplomatic process these days is the Syrian-Israeli one. Israelis and Syrians alike have made it clear that something serious is taking place behind the scenes. A negotiated, comprehensive Israeli-Syrian peace agreement is not very difficult at the practical level, for it would follow the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian pattern of full peace and normalization for full Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967. Israel will have to remove its settlements, but such is the price of abiding by international law and UN Security Council resolutions.

A Syrian-Israeli peace agreement would impact heavily on every major issue in the vicinity, because Syria has strategic and tactical relations with every nearby major player and country: Iran, Lebanon, Hizbullah, Iraq, Palestine and Hamas. Syria would have to decide if the gains of a peace treaty - regime stability, cash aid, and international economic integration - were worth the inevitable price that will be demanded from it: breaking or significantly reducing strategic ties with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.

Syria for its part will also want direct or indirect influence over Lebanon, and a downgrading of the international tribunal that will prosecute those to be indicted for the Hariri and other murders in Lebanon since February 2005. Lebanon and the international community are reluctant to offer these to Syria, but probably do not totally rule out a reasonable, face-saving compromise. Many Lebanese will be rightly worried that they are about to be sold out.

Syrian-Israeli peace would totally change the political equation in the region, and probably lead to historic changes in Lebanon, Hizbullah's standing, Iran's regional role, the Iraqi situation, and political conditions in Palestine. It is telling of the damage that the US has done to its own role and impact in the Middle East that the potentially most important diplomatic development in the past generation seems to be taking place without any significant American role.


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