Dec 30 2008

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Obama and the Middle East

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In considering the latest military action in Gaza between Israelis and Palestinians, the Grey Lady herself seems down right exasperated by pointing out that President George W. Bush has left yet another mess for the Obama administration to deal with:

“Now, Mr. Obama’s presidency will begin facing the consequences of… one of Israel’s deadliest [strikes] against Palestiniansin decades, presenting him with yet another foreign crisis to deal with the moment he steps into the White House on Jan. 20, even as he and his advisers have struggled mightily to focus on the country’s economic problems.1”

While the New York Times and the rest of the Mainstreams continue the drumbeat of irritation at the Bush administration – and maintain their orbit of affection for the President-elect in anticipation of secular rapture on the 20th – other, more ominous agendas are playing out across the Middle East.

This time elections are the unlikely culprit. Like the mobilization schedules that governed and then trapped European governments into war in 1914, the Middle East faces a series of election deadlines in 2009 that are forcing calculations and action now; actions with uncertain and potentially unnerving results.

The first is January 9th.  This is when the term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ends. As with all things Palestinian, there is dispute between factions about whether Abbas can serve beyond this date without a fresh election, along with larger questions regarding election terms and methods for the presidency and parliament in general.

Under a previous approved election law cited by Hamas, the Speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Aziz al Dewik, would take office as President upon the expiration of Abbas’ term until new elections could be held. The logistical problem here is that Dewik is a representative of Hamas and currently resides in an Israeli jail.

As noted, though Fatah has made claims that Abbas can stay in office for another year before elections are called, the January 9th date nevertheless creates a corroding legitimacy problem for the Palestinian Authority (PA) among potential Palestinian voters, who might become more sympathetic to Hamas amid semi-obvious election rigging; an unacceptable outcome for the Israelis, particularly in the middle of their election campaign.

The second date is inextricably linked to the first.  This is when Israelis go to the polls to elect a new Prime Minister and parliament on February 10th.

More than in past elections, this election is dominated by immediate security issues. The end of the cease fire with Hamas has again put Israeli towns bordering Gaza – and Israeli voters in them- in danger of attack. That, coupled with the emerging political legitimacy issue for Fatah after January 9th and the prospect of a more restrained Administration in Washington after January 20th, has set the terms and timetable for Israeli action.

If successful, the Israeli attacks will hobble Hamas, leave Fatah and Abbas undisputed in the Palestinian Authority, while burnishing Kadima PM candidate Livni’s national security bone fides for the Prime Minister’s job on February 10. It could even potentially open the way to new negotiations with the Palestinians without the Hamas distraction. And all before President Obama assumes responsibilities in Washington.

But the uncertainties created by the initial plan expand exponentially from the moment of attack.

The large numbers of Palestinian dead are already sparking protests in Beirut, Amman and Cairo. Lebanon, the battlefield of 2006 between Israelis and Hezbollah, is due to hold parliamentary elections in 2009. Short of war between Hezbollah and Israel – which remains a possibility as Palestinian casualties increase – the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas will rearrange the political calculus in Beirut where Hezbollah could use the crisis to increase its political influence as a legitimate political party.

The final date is June 12th.  That is when Iran is scheduled to elect a new president. Domestically, despite all his bluster, President  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have a real fight on his hands with many Iranian factions from faux reformers to radicals like the president himself, vying for influence amid poor economic performance and international isolation.

Having boldly stepped up Iranian Shiite influence in the region during his presidency through direct and substantial material support to terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as terror states, such as Syria, and publicly advanced Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is unlikely to back down in light of Israel’s latest attacks and may see the domestic opportunity to exploit the crisis. Thus, in preparing for the June elections, the close ties between Iran and Hezbollah add another level of strategic uncertainty as Israel seeks to deal locally with Hamas.

Where does it end?  Like the train schedules of 1914, there are benchmarks that cannot be avoided.

For the current Israeli government, this strike must succeed where their attack on Lebanon in 2006 failed. Failure or loss of nerve here will bring down their government and reorder Israeli domestic politics security policy for years.

For Hamas, it is survival through continued control of Gaza as a vehicle of alternate representation for Palestinians. However, if Israel is genuinely serious in its incursion, Hamas cannot survive without outside help. On a practical level, that help can only be met by Hezbollah, which, in turn, can only be authorized by Iran.

Will Ahmadinejad sanction his surrogate in Lebanon to attack Israel in support of Hamas? Will Ahmadinejad gamble that Hezbollah can change the political calculus sufficiently to ensure Hamas’ survival, publicly neuter the Israeli military and trigger the collapse of the Israeli government? Are such results a step forward in the march of Shiite Islam in the region and a political opportunity for Ahmadinejad at home? Can it be accomplished without cost to Iran?

WWI started when a Serbian assassin killed an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo, Bosnia over internal sovereignty issues. The alliance mobilization schedules from that single event led to the first combat of the war not in Sarajevo, but, 815 miles away, when German troops violated Belgium neutrality to invade France.

Will the crude Hamas missiles fired into Israel from Gaza eventually lead to Israeli warplanes bombing Iran, 955 miles away? Will each escalation have its own dynamic or will the Israelis, like Michael Coreleone of American cinematic lore, have already decided to “settle all the family business”?

Elections and their calculations will tell the story.

1New York Times 12-28-08


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