Five Reasons to Keep Your Eyes on the Middle East
With President Obama talking to Hosni Mubarak, Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev hosting Shimon Peres for a chat about Iran, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Sudan seeking help with Hamas, this is shaping up as a week of high expectations for a Middle East peace plan that region-watchers hope the Quartet (U.S., Russia, the U.N., and the EU) will unveil in the fall. There are other difficult regional players to get on board, including Lebanon (with Hezbollah) and Syria, which wants the Golan Heights back. But most eyes will remain glued to a certain New Jersey-sized piece of real estate where three of the world’s major faiths have been at each other for thousands of years.
Here are five things to watch as the events unfold:
1. Geography. Amidst all the heated rhetoric about which side is ethnically cleansing the other, legal borders long established by the United Nations are easily forgotten. Israel “proper,” with around 7,750 square miles holding about 7 million people, is a modern, Westernized place with a per-capita GDP of just under $27,000. To Americans, much of Israel look like Orange County, CA, and sounds like Brooklyn. By huge contrast, the aspiring nation of Palestine that Israel has occupied for 42 years is a tiny – 2,800 square miles – collection of a rural Arab villages punctuated by a few cities, and vastly poorer, with a GDP of less than $3,000.
2. Jerusalem. Who governs the ancient city is regarded as the thorniest issue in the peace process. Since President Jimmy Carter shepherded the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978, the concept of sharing Jerusalem among Christians, Jews, and Arabs – with an international governing entity – has been the international community’s goal. But it’s not everyone’s goal: Members of the Quartet wring their hands about “facts on the ground” that have driven out the Christians and are today squeezing Muslims. Today 200,000 or so settlers are wedged into a new ring of “suburbs” cutting deep into Palestine, east of the old city. The result is donut-like: In the hole of the old city of Jerusalem are largely Muslim and a few Christian neighborhoods; these are surrounded by fast-growing Jewish settlements. If it were a legal entity, the 100-square-mile “Greater Jerusalem” would have a population of around a million people, about 75% of them Jewish. Yet just slightly more than half of these folks are now legally in Israell; the rest are part of occupied Palestine. (Murky, huh? Watch for this to get messier still.)
3. The two states of Palestine. Gaza and the West Bank are today two different worlds – separate not just geographically. While U.S. General Keith Dayton’s team has trained a West Bank police force of 1,500 that is working in relative cooperation with the IDF, the situation in Gaza remains volatile and violent. While the Palestinian Authority and the Netanyahu administration inch toward peace, Hamas continues to talk and act like a terrorist organization, sending rockets into its neighbor despite the punishing Operation Cast Lead. Hamas seems unlikely to relinquish the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit without Israel releasing Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti (and they’ve asked for hundreds of other prisoners.) The Quartet set three requirements for Hamas to be a partner to the peace process: renounce violence and terror, recognize Israel, and respect previous agreements. Will the United Nations end up, as Javier Solana has suggested, sending in a peacekeeping force?
4. The Israeli right. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu deserves enormous credit for his recent landmark statements in approval of “two states for two peoples” and in praise of the Arab Peace Initiative; the Economist today termed him a “happy juggler.” What keeps him from stepping up to statesmanship for advancing the peace process are his political bedfellows on the right – the ultra-nationalists and the ultra-Orthodox – who want legal control of all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Reading the far-right parties’ political platforms is rather terrifying to Americans accustomed to separation of church and state, civil rights, an independent judiciary, a secular military, and women’s equality. The right’s extremism is especially threatening to Jewish Americans – a group with a proud history in the U.S. of championing democratic freedoms. Recent revelations that the settlement-happy right wing is subsidized by U.S. charitable contributions hasn’t stopped it from trying to influence the U.S. 2012 presidential election, via alliances with the likes of Mike Huckabee and John Hagee. One huge worry: Could they instead end up fueling anti-semitism around the world? Boycotts have already hit the cosmetics company Ahava, the French transportation company Veolia, and Caterpillar – there must be thousands of cats building settlements at any one time. In today’s Los Angeles Times, a poli-sci professor, an Israeli Jew, has an impassioned op-ed in favor of boycotting his own nation.
5. Video. The internet and modern communications have made this center of the three great Abrahamic religions a paradise of another sort: for video junkies. It’s impossible to keep a lid on scenes like the Pope (or Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters) in front of the separation wall surrounding Bethlehem, violent clashes between protestors and settlers, missiles hitting Sderot and Gaza City, evicted Jerusalem families living on the street across from their homes, or certain soldiers firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters toward civilians. Adding to the visual story is the increasing reach in the U.S. of Al Jazeera English, which seems to feature a West Bank or Gaza story every night. In this week’s video-fueled scandal, Netanyahu’s Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon was captured on a tape widely broadcast on Israeli television, speaking at a secret meeting with a notorious leader of the anti-peace movement, convicted (for sedition) felon, Moshe Feiglin. This guy was banned from entering the UK last year. A video on YouTube showed the vice premier making inflammatory statements and calling a liberal NGO “a virus.” The embarassed Prime Minister quickly disavowed the statements.