Much like the rest of the world at the moment, all eyes in the Middle East are on the US elections. The change Obama is offering is seen as the turning point in the ongoing regional conflict that many have been waiting for, especially in Israel and Palestine.
Obama represents the opportunity for change and progress in the quagmire that is the Middle East, and many are ready to gamble. Progress in the Middle East, however, needs more than just a favourable outcome in the US election. There are two other horses that need to come in, two other elections in the next eight months that need to go the right way to set up a political environment amenable to real progress.
The first is in early February next year in Israel and then in June in Iran. For a real chance at peace in the Middle East, the full trifecta is needed and as most of you punters already know, although a trifecta is generally a long shot it is a real jackpot when it actually pays, and this one is no different.
The US election is obviously integral to ensuring the world is no longer plagued by the limited, narrow minded White House strategies of the last eight years. An Obama White House is likely to engage the Middle East through dialogue and not necessarily resort to petty sabre rattling, which only further isolates countries such as Iran, in turn fostering extremism and anti-US sentiment.
The recent US re-engagement with Lebanon requires a deft touch and an appreciation for subtlety and balance that is more likely to come from a former senior lecturer of constitutional law than an ageing, self-proclaimed “maverick” who is proud that he can do something wacky, like pick a hockey mum for a running mate.
Ongoing support can stabilise Lebanon and provide enough clout and legitimacy to its Government’s official military establishment to balance the power of Hezbollah’s militia, which, for several years now, have been the most powerful military in the country.
Moving towards this balance will not only settle Lebanon, but also the Israeli-Lebanese border, because if Hezbollah cannot bring Israel to the table on negotiations, a settled government that can will cement its legitimacy among its constituents. But Lebanon is, and always has been a delicate balance of competing interests. Engagement and support needs to be strategic and well thought out, not ham-fisted and idealistic.
Creating the appearance of a reduction in the presence of US troops in Iraq will give its government the breathing room and legitimacy to engage and interact with its neighbours as an independent state. The US can use Iraq as a pretense for engagement in the region; Iraq can serve not only as a powerful bridge to the diplomatic engagement of Iran but also as an even more powerful bridge between Iran and Israel.
To justify engagement with the US, Iran needs a mediator, a façade through which to channel dialogue to distract from the fact that it is engaging with the Great Satan. Given Iraq’s newly formed Shiite government, it is extremely well placed to serve this function.
Further, Iraq can engage more closely with Syria to facilitate negotiations with Israel, and although the US cannot be seen as taking sides, especially when it comes to Israel, stabilising the region in this manner can facilitate a process whereby countries temper each other against extremism through strengthened relations and trade not only between each other, but consequently with the rest of the world as well. The Bush administration’s legacy will not be easy to shirk, but to facilitate progress, what is needed, especially when dealing with Israel, is a change in course and not an ill disciplined meandering around the same one.
The result of the Israeli election in February can either set up the greatest chance for peace in a generation or result in little to no chance of any agreement between Israel and Palestine in the foreseeable future.
The issue with recent Israeli governments has been the factionalised nature of Israeli politics, which has meant that the conservative parties have been able to hinder the government’s ability to negotiate and progress the peace process.
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