Patrick Seale
Dar Al Hayat
June 6, 2008 - 2:41pm

The troubled Middle East seems to be entering a period of relative calm. It could be no more than a temporary lull, but it is nevertheless more than welcome to its much-tried inhabitants, who have been living on jagged nerves for the past several years.
The most important single development is probably the growing improbability of a U.S./Israeli strike against Iran. Fear of such a strike - and of its predictably catastrophic regional and global consequences - has kept the region in a state of nervous alert.
Why has this fear receded? The main reason is that American and Israeli politics are in turmoil. U.S. President George W Bush and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are largely discredited. Bush is a lame-duck president in the last months of a lamentable and much criticized mandate, while Olmert is threatened by a major corruption scandal. He could be out of office within weeks.
They are both failed 'war leaders', without the authority or the domestic backing to lead their countries into another major conflict. Next November's presidential elections in the United States could well coincide with early elections in Israel the same month. In both countries, the public is eager for change at the top.
Two influential new books highlight Bush's troubles. Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, has accused him of using propaganda and deception to lead America into an 'unnecessary war' in Iraq, while Richard A Clark, a former presidential adviser on counterterrorism, has called on America to break Bush's 'cycle of National Security disasters' . In a word - in spite of neo-con attempts to work up war-fever against Iran -- the political climate in the United States is simply not propitious.
Another major reason the threat of war has receded is that strident U.S. and Israeli accusations - often bordering on hysteria -- that Iran is developing nuclear weapons remain unproved. Vladimir Putin, Russia's new Prime Minister, has now added his calming and authoritative voice to the debate.
On a visit to Paris this week, he was asked whether he believed Iran was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.
'I do not believe it,' he replied. 'Nothing indicates it.  The Iranians are a proud people. They wish to enjoy their independence and use their legitimate right to civilian nuclear power. I wish to be clear: Legally, Iran has breached nothing for the moment. It even has the right to enrich [uranium].' (Le Monde, 1-2 June 2008).
Putin added, however, that Russia was opposed, in principle, to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and that it would use all possible means to prevent proliferation. 'Using nuclear weapons in a region as small as the Middle East would be synonymous with suicide,' he said. Whose interests would it serve? Those of Palestine?  Then, the Palestinians would cease to exist…'
One might add that the rhetorical excesses of Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- in particular his repeated predictions of Israel's early demise - might soon be a thing of the past, since he is likely to face a formidable challenge from Ali Larijani, the more pragmatic and less populist Speaker of the Majlis, at presidential elections next Spring.
Another reason war clouds are receding is the growing dependence of the United States and much of the industrial world on the Gulf - not only for the supply of oil, the price of which is breaking all records, but also as a source of finance, at a time when major Western banks and financial institutions are facing an unprecedented credit squeeze.
Hank Paulson, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, has this week been visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi in a bid to reassure these cash-rich Arab states that the U.S. welcomes their investments. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, he declared, provide 18 per cent of global capital exports, more than double their share five years ago.  He added that the number of Gulf acquisitions in the U.S. in the past two years had increased by more than 100 per cent, and their value by more than 400 per cent.
Oil and capital flows from the Gulf, essential for the health of the American economy, would be severely disrupted in the event of even a minor clash between the U.S. and Iran, let alone a full-scale war.
The improved regional climate in the Middle East has had some beneficial repercussions which - and this is their novel aspect - have been largely engineered by local states, rather than by external powers. It is as if the Middle East -- disillusioned with a divided European Union and a United States wholly aligned on Israel -- were at last taking its destinies into its own hands.
Thus, the small but influential Gulf state of Qatar successfully brokered a deal on 21 May between Lebanon's warring factions, leading to the election of Army commander Michel Sleiman as President four days later.
As the Lebanese celebrated the end of their long-running crisis, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy telephoned President Bashar al-Asad, his Syrian counterpart, to congratulate him on Syria's positive behind-the-scenes role, thus putting an end to their recent diplomatic spat. Moreover, Sarkozy was reported as saying that 'France recognises the legitimate rights of Syria on the Golan Heights.'
This statement will remind the Israelis, and especially the settler lobby, that withdrawal from the Golan is the price their country will have to pay if it wants peace with Syria. Indirect talks between Israel and Syria are being brokered by Turkey in Ankara - to America's evident displeasure.
Meanwhile, President Asad has this week enjoyed what seems to have been a successful Gulf tour - yet another signal that Gulf countries are resisting American efforts to mobilize them against the Syrian-Iranian axis.
Other signs of détente are a much-heralded exchange of prisoners between Israel and Hizballah, as well as Egypt's continuing mediation between Israel and Hamas, in the hope of concluding a truce between them. The aim is to free Israel's Negev towns from sporadic Palestinian rocket attacks, and bring relief to Gaza's suffering Palestinian population, bombed, battered and besieged by Israel in what is surely one of the worst violations of human rights on the planet today.
Is all well, therefore, in the troubled Middle East? Is peace breaking out? Can the journalists and diplomats go home? Unfortunately, this is far from being the case.  The Arab-Israeli conflict continues to spread its poison in the region and beyond.
Olmert may be on his way out, but he has this week -- on the very eve of a visit to his U.S. ally -- announced the construction of another 800 houses for Israeli settlers in Arab East Jerusalem, exposing his desultory talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas as a sick farce.
A united Jerusalem will be Israel's forever, Olnert declared, as if unaware that his relentlessly expansionist policy robs the Palestinians of their hoped-for statehood and condemns his own country to live as a pariah in a dangerous and permanently hostile environment.


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