Small World: The Middle East — a handy guide

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Rarely have the arabesques of the Middle East been as twisting and tortured. One follows a line that bends, reverses and introduces new and seemingly unrelated elements. So bear with me as I try — perhaps too cynically — to trace the intersections and hidden objectives of the diverse players.

We’ll start with the terrible war that is being waged by the mighty U.S.-equipped forces of Israel against the amateur terrorists (call them what you will) of Hamas. For the third time in six years, Israel is at work killing hundreds, wounding thousands and demolishing structures in Gaza.  Both sides claim the other started it and both are right, depending on when and where you start keeping track.

Hamas says it will not cease firing its guidance-less rockets until Israel agrees to end the blockade that cuts it off from the world. In reality, Hamas wants, through its heroic, self-sacrificial stance, to capture the leadership of the Palestinian movement from the moderate faction. Israel says it is shooting in self-defense but, in reality, Prime Minister Netanyahu has two goals: First, acting tough to protect himself from the even more brutal members of his coalition and, second, to assure that the Palestinian movement will remain divided and, thus, unable to negotiate a two-state solution to the conflict. That is his ultimate goal, masked most of the time during the “peace process:” to retain the occupied land.

The self-designated negotiators of a ceasefire are Secretary of State Kerry and the military rulers of Egypt. Neither is neutral. Egypt loathes and fears Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood, which it overthrew to take power last year. In this attitude, Egypt has the backing of Saudi Arabia, which execrates the relatively moderate MB as a danger to the monarchial Saudi fanatical brand of Islam.

The other middleman — the U.S.A. — is also one-sided. It condemns Hamas as a terrorist organization (despite the obvious fact that Israel has killed far, far more Palestinians) and will not sit and talk with them. It will not direct at Israel the harsh criticism its actions merit. Why the delicacy? Two reasons: First, Washington is under the thumb of the Israeli lobby, which weighs heavily on the political futures of Congress and the Executive Branch. Second, President Obama is on the verge of achieving an agreement with Iran, which would remove any danger of nuclear threat. He can’t antagonize Israel or its subservient fans in Washington for fear that that they will succeed in sinking it. That would mean the end of the Nobel Prize winner’s only hope for a foreign policy success is eight years.

If a ceasefire is reached, it will be because outraged world public opinion demands it and the combatants are exhausted.

Now to Iran, a country whose behavior has changed remarkably through the political skills of its new president and his team. Iran has suffered isolation and growth-killing sanctions over decades. It badly wants to be considered a normal nation and to end threatening conflicts in its region. One of those is Syria-Iraq where a fanatic Sunni Islamic bunch (with financing from oil-rich, Shia-hating Sunnis in the Persian Gulf) has effectively seized control of a broad swath of the two countries. The regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, neither of them anybody’s idea of a well-mannered state, are threatened. Their fall (either of them) would be a calamity for Tehran and also Washington, which aids Baghdad and fights Damascus. Plainly we can’t bring ourselves to be associated with the Iranians (anathema to Israel) or to admit past error in lining up with U.S.-hating opposition forces in Syria.

That would mean having to admit the Russians were right in their analysis. Rare is the regime that will admit error. Instead, we load more sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine instead of sitting and talking quietly with them about how to end that crisis. And, while we’re having tea, we could talk about working together to deal with Iran, Syria and Iraq. Both moves would please our European allies, who desperately hope for humanitarian, as well as economic reasons, to be rid of the Gaza War and Iran sanctions.

There, puzzle all that out. You may reach quite different conclusions from mine — blaming a weak-willed and weak-minded Washington.

You’ll excuse me if I decline — if only for reasons of space — to take on Libya.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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