At the mouth of the volcano
There is deep concern surrounding Obama's public announcement that his effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has failed.
There is deep concern surrounding U.S. President Barack Obama's public announcement that his effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has failed. One can understand the frustration that Obama must feel over the stubbornness, foot-dragging and political score-settling by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But this is not a contest between Obama and his predecessors over who achieved more peace in the Middle East; this is about preventing war. For America to abandon its efforts would increase the danger of a regional conflagration at a time when the air is already becoming saturated with flammable vapors.
Signs indicative of an impending explosion are coming from every side: from Iran, Lebanon, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and also Israel, which is on its own against them all. Instead of trying to calm the situation, the region's leader are sharpening their swords and trading verbal barbs. The evident weakness of the "world's policeman" is encouraging local leaders to take risks.
On the Iranian front, an arms race is taking place, along with one of escalating threats. Iran is developing nuclear weapons; Israel is threatening to launch a preventive war and bomb Iran's nuclear facilities; and the Iranians are threatening to destroy Tel Aviv in retaliation. The military preparations on both sides bolster the credibility of their threats: Israel has increased its defense budget and the Israel Air Force is training for a long-range attack, while Iran is testing surface-to-surface missiles. Iran is arming Hezbollah and Hamas with missiles that can reach central Israel, and Israel is developing missile defense systems and preparing the home front for war. Israel plans to hold a huge nationwide exercise in May; the cabinet has decided to distribute gas masks to the entire population; and rescue crews were sent to Haiti to gain experience in dealing with a massive disaster. Iran has signed a defensive alliance with Syria and strengthened its ties with Turkey, while Israel has grown closer to Egypt.
In the north, both the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah are completing military preparations for the next round of fighting, while also publicly warning each other not to start. Bilateral deterrence is based on the threat of mutual assured destruction: Lebanese rockets on Tel Aviv versus Israel's threat to demolish Lebanon.
In the West Bank, Palestinians are preparing for a third intifada, which will center on civil disobedience against the settlements and the separation fence, and are seeking to isolate Israel diplomatically and to obtain recognition for a Palestinian state. Senior PA officials, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, hold well-publicized meetings with the "popular committees" that are leading the protests against the separation fence in Bil'in and Na'alin. In their view, this is an appropriate way of realizing their "rights," without suicide bombings.
And in regard to the Gaza Strip, the prisoner exchange negotiations between Hamas and Israel have stalled while the cease-fire is gradually eroding as border incidents multiply.
Israel is in strategic trouble. Netanyahu warned at Yad Vashem on Monday about "calls to destroy the Jewish state" and challenged the world to "deal with this evil before it spreads." But the world is turning its back on Israel, which it views as an occupying pariah state led by an extreme right-wing government. Within Israel, the combination of fear of another Holocaust and international isolation is a recipe for trouble, especially when Netanyahu has allotted the world only "a few weeks" to thwart the evil.
With regard to the Palestinians, Netanyahu veered sharply right after his gestures were received dismissively by both the White House and the PA, and after the "leftist" press once again began harassing him and his wife, Sara. His government is highlighting its efforts to Judaize East Jerusalem, with enthusiastic assistance from Mayor Nir Barkat, sparking a growing outcry from the Palestinians and their supporters.
Netanyahu's political positions, which call for annexing the major West Bank settlement blocs and maintaining military control over the Jordan Valley, are no different from those of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. But the timing of his declaration, at tree-planting ceremonies this week in the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim and in settlements in Gush Etzion, that "we will remain here forever" - meant to bring him closer to his rightist political base - were viewed internationally as a provocation. And in eight months the partial freeze on settlement construction will expire.
In this situation, leaving the regional players to their own devices, imprisoned in their unceasing desire to settle accounts with their rivals, increases the risk of war. Perhaps Obama is blind, and does not understand this, or perhaps he is simply sick and tired of "the Jews and the Arabs." But there is a third possibility - that he is acting like Henry Kissinger before the Yom Kippur War: waiting for it to begin so that afterward he can summon the wounded parties to America, which will rescue them and impose order in the region.