There is a sad symbolism to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's attempt to reach a last-minute agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas while U.S. President George W. Bush is still in the White House. Just as he is about to leave, Olmert is trying to grab hold of the old world, in which America was the only superpower, and is acting as if Bush were still the supreme judge and arbiter and as if Abbas spoke in anyone's name. But it's an illusion. In the months since the Annapolis summit, a new and different world order has come into being.
Olmert's heirs will have to find their way in a reality in which America is still the strongest power, but is not alone. This is a result of the recession in the United States and of the rise of "autocratic capitalism" in Russia, China and the Gulf states, in which it is permissible and possible to make money, but there is no political freedom. Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid of Dubai are the face of a model rivaling the liberal capitalism of the West. They are not preaching to others, but want only to rule and accumulate assets and political power.
How did this happen? The simplest explanation is economic. There is a clear correlation between the vicissitudes of the energy market and the balance of power among the world powers. When the price of oil went down at the end of the 1980s, the reduction was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose economy was based on exporting oil and gas. The rise in oil prices over the last few years weakened the United States, whose economy relies on importing oil, and Russia became stronger again, as did Venezuela and Iran.
Another explanation for the change is the arrogance and stupidity of America, which exhausted its power in the unnecessary war in Iraq and in failed attempts to democratize the Middle East, while China became the world's No. 2 economic superpower, lifted millions of its residents out of poverty and established modern infrastructure (which was on display at the Beijing Olympics).
There is also a "physical" explanation: Every action generates opposite reactions that curb the initial action. That's what happened to Bush after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq, and to Putin after his victory in Georgia.
Make no mistake about it: America will not lose its greatness in a hurry. There are no rivals on the horizon who can match its military might or research universities, that attract talented scientists from around the world or who come close to exerting the same control over popular culture and the Internet. So while there's no reason to run and learn Chinese, America cannot continue to dictate to others its positions and values.
In such uncertain situations, the powers are looking for allies and spheres of influence. In the Middle East, the change can be felt in the disappearance of the paradigm of "moderates vs. extremists," which Bush touted in recent years; it has been replaced by power games. The world is coming close to accepting a nuclear Iran in exchange for quiet in the Persian Gulf and stable oil prices. Syria is offering itself for sale in exchange for being removed from isolation. Israel has accepted Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Jordan has gone back to speaking with Hamas. The new diplomacy is represented by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is maneuvering among the regional players in a bid for status in the Levant.
From Israel's perspective, the change in the world is troublesome. Due to its dependence on the United States, Israel cannot play the powers against each other, as Syria and Iran do. Israel must therefore hope that America recovers from its crisis, and fast.
But the new world also holds opportunities for Israel. The chances of reaching a deal with Syria will increase. Syrian President Bashar Assad is offering a deal to U.S. presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain: If whoever wins the election mediates Israel's return of the Golan Heights to Syria, the United States will get a new American base in the Middle East on the eve of its withdrawal from Iraq and ahead of the worrying leadership changes in Egypt.
A world that depends on pursuing power rather than justice will be less interested in the Palestinian problem. Israel will be able to control the territories as long as it manages to prevent an outbreak of violence there and throws a bone to the international community every once in a while, here some kind of progress in negotiations, there the removal of a roadblock or establishment of a financial project. That's what Olmert did when he realized the danger that continued occupation and the settlements pose to Israel but was too weak to actually change the situation.
The best chance for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement now lies with the Gulf states, where an international economic and financial center is being developed. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are giving Israel an economic opportunity it would be a shame to miss, and only a two-hour flight from Ben-Gurion International Airport. But they are demanding a price: the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is the message of Gulf leaders in talks with leading Israeli figures. They are not making do with empty gestures of "renewing negotiations"; they want to see results. The financial compensation for the peace process is indirect. Israel reaped the financial fruit of the Madrid and Oslo agreements not from the Muslim and Arab world, but from India, China, Turkey, Japan and South Korea. Israel's new leadership will have to decide if the financial temptation is worth the emotional difficulty and internal conflict involved in a withdrawal from the West Bank, or whether it is more pleasant and convenient to hold on to the problematic status quo.
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