May 02/08

Below Six Political Analysis/Worth Reading
Why Israel’s Withdrawals Are A Mistake.By Dave 02/05/08

An eye on the North. Jerusalem Post 02/05/08
What’s Behind Olmert’s Flirtation With Syria?by Joshua Mitnick. 02/05/08
Damascus ascendant-By: Mustafa El-Labbad 02/05/08
The struggle for Syria-By: Hassan Nafaa. 02/05/08
Stalemate and external pressure/Lebanon - the never ending story of internal stalemate and external pressure. By: Manuela Paraipan 02/05/08

Why Israel’s Withdrawals Are A Mistake
By Dave Gordon | Thursday, May 01, 2008
Pundits and scholars may argue about what Israel and the Palestinians should do in order to continue the elusive peace process, but there is one person who has been to the negotiating table with all sides, time and again, who has the insight from the inside -- Dennis Ross.
Ross, a former American ambassador, served under President George H.W. Bush and was special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton. For twelve years Ross helped shape various Middle East peace accords between Israel and her neighbors.
In his 2004 memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, he concedes that after several hundred meetings with Yasir Arafat, over the course of many years, it was only until after the Camp David Accords that Ross was finally convinced the dictator had never been negotiating in good faith.
Ross spoke last week at Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim synagogue, on the topic of: “Israel at 60: the players, the promise and the process.”
It was a well-timed speech to discuss peace. Ten years earlier to the day, The Northern Ireland peace talks had ended with an historic agreement called the Good Friday Agreement. Five years ago to the day, the famous Saddam Hussein statue toppled in Baghdad.
In this interview, Ross talks about where the Israeli/Arab peace process has failed, and what Israel needs to do to secure its future.
Dave Gordon: You had mentioned in your talk that Arab states point to UN Resolutions and, at least on paper, say they recognize Israel, and its existence. Do you think the Arab world recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, or only recognizes Israel as a state?
Dennis Ross: I don’t think that anybody in the Arab world explicitly recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. And what I was saying was that this is what they would say. The only ones who officially recognize Israel are Egypt and Jordan, because they have peace treaties with Israel. But even they, if you ask them, ‘do you recognize Israel as a Jewish state,’ would say that they recognize Israel. But the rest of the Arab world, they would simply point and say, that by accepting these resolutions, … that doesn’t mean that they have in fact accepted Israel as a Jewish state. In the Arab world that’s simply not been done.
DG: What do you think Israel and the U.S. should have done to stop the growth in support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and could they have foreseen this?
DR: In terms of the growth of Hezbollah and Hamas – I think one thing, the unilateral withdrawals have been a mistake. Because the unilateral withdrawals strengthened Hezbollah and Hamas; strengthened them within Gaza. One thing you’ve got to learn from the past is that unilateral withdrawals end up strengthening terrorists. Hezbollah was able to say, ‘look we succeeded through violence not through negotiation,’ and Hamas was able to say the same thing. Rather than Israel taking a step that was seen as a goodwill gesture that others should then reciprocate, it was seen as a sign of weakness, and those who emphasize violence were able to say they succeeded where those who talked failed.
So I think one thing would have been to frame the issue in a way where Israel says, ‘look we’re ready to get out, and the only thing we require is that someone assumes responsibility for security, and that can’t be done rhetorically.’ That has to be done practically. In other words, the issue is not about our occupation; the issue is solely about security, and if Israel’s going to withdraw, someone has to accept that responsibility. We’ve now seen what happened in Lebanon; we’ve seen what happened in Gaza. We also see how Egypt has not fulfilled what it needed to do, when it came to its side of the responsibilities as it related to the broken border corridor, and to the smuggling there. So I think one way to have made it more difficult for these groups to emerge in a stronger position was also to realize that they shouldn’t be the beneficiaries of Israeli withdrawal. And they have been, and they use that to build their appeal.
DG: How do you rate all the Israeli-Palestinian accords and meetings of the past, both the official and unofficial meetings?
DR: I think the key, if one wants to look at the whole exercise, is to see if there’s a success there. Because look where we are today. On the other hand, I would say it’s not easy for Israelis to want to live without hope, and I think you want to have political processes. The key is, can we learn the lessons from the past political processes that did not succeed, and see if we can draw from their failures?
What are the sources of failures … so in the future if you’re going to pursue a political process you have a better chance of success? I think one of the things we should learn from the past is there has to be mutual obligations, and the obligations of each side have to be fulfilled. And that the process goes forward so long as each side is fulfilling their obligations, and it does not go forward if they’re not. And I think that has to be part of the DNA of the process from here on out. There has to be a sense of mutuality and responsibility; it can’t always be one side. I would say that we’ve got to focus, certainly on the Palestinian side, with what is it that Palestinians can do, so we can also demonstrate that those who do believe in coexistence are able to show that their pathway works.
DG: Why do you think the U.S. has yet to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, despite the fact that several American administrations and Congress have agreed to the move?
DR: I think that almost every presidential candidate promises that they will move the embassy, and then when they’re in office they suddenly worry about what the backlash may be, and will it complicate the negotiations. And so there’s been legislation that’s been adopted, but always with the presidential waver. If there was a security concern, that it will simply roil the atmosphere in a way that just makes things far harder than it needs to be. So I think the presumption is someday the embassy will be moved. But not until such time as, either you have resolved questions related to Jerusalem, or it becomes clear that you’re in such a period where nothing has been changed for a long time, so you decide to go ahead and act accordingly. But at this point, no administration has ever felt that we’re at that point, either in terms of resolving the issue, or deciding that it’s not going to be resolved any time soon.
DG: The Western world has been very worried about Iran developing nuclear weapons – is there reason to be worried about other groups and countries also developing or buying these weapons?
DR: I think there needs to be a concern worldwide about any illicit trade in nuclear materials that you could have non-state actors get a hold of. That’s the nightmare scenario, the worst weapons in the worst hands.

An eye on the North
Jerusalem Post 1/05/08
Something odd may be going on in southern Lebanon, and the Israeli security apparatus needs to be watching.
As London's Observer newspaper reported on April 27, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Hizbullah military recruits from the area are actively drilling for war. There is an "unprecedented build-up of men, equipment and bunker-building." Most men of fighting age are training in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Syria or Iran.
With generous Iranian funding, Hizbullah's secretive military wing is intensifying its transformation from a guerrilla and terrorist outfit into a full-fledged army with a well-trained militia.
Of course, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 mandates no military activity anywhere in southern Lebanon save for the 10,000 soldiers of the Lebanese Army deployed there, supported by 13,000 UNIFIL troops and 1,500 personnel of the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force stationed along the coast. These forces are tasked with implementing that cease-fire resolution, which "authorizes UNIFIL to take all necessary action... to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind." It also forbids any country to bring weapons into Lebanon.
In practice, Hizbullah shamelessly violates the cease-fire. And when UNIFIL forces do stumble upon a Hizbullah violation, they tend to file vague and partial reports given only fleeting attention back at UN headquarters.
Last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did say he was "deeply worried" about arms trafficking across the Lebanese-Syrian border. His concerns, well-founded, are unlikely to prompt steps by the Security Council.
The reluctance of UNIFIL forces to "take all necessary action" in confronting Hizbullah is understandable. Twelve "blue helmets" have been killed during the past year. And UNIFIL troops are anyway authorized to open fire only in self-defense. They can't even enter local villages without a Lebanese army escort.
WHAT IS happening in the south must be seen in the context of the overall fragmentation of Lebanon's body politic. "Byzantine" doesn't begin to describe the complexity of Beirut's unraveling political system.
Christian Arabs lost their demographic and political control of Lebanon years ago. The presidency, by custom held by a Maronite Christian, has been vacant since November 2007. The previously disenfranchised Shi'ite Arab majority has overwhelmed the Sunni Arabs, even as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni, hangs onto power.
Hizbullah has become the major player inside Lebanon. Its roots date back to the 1970s, when a dynamic Iranian-born (Arab) imam, Musa al-Sadr, began mobilizing Lebanon's Shi'ites for social, political and economic equality. The 1979 revolution in (Persian) Iran greatly empowered Lebanon's Shi'ite Arabs.
Initially, the Shi'ites did not oppose the IDF's operations against Palestinian terrorists in south Lebanon, and the PLO was indeed defeated there. But whether because of Israeli blunders or Iranian successes, Hizbullah has long since morphed into a menacing foe of the Jewish state.
THIS BRINGS us back to Hizbullah's military build-up. One would have thought that Hassan Nasrallah would be deterred from launching another unprovoked attack given the millions of dollars in damage Lebanon suffered when Israel struck back after its soldiers were kidnapped in what became the Second Lebanon War. But Iran has deep pockets, and building a global caliphate doesn't come cheap.
Moreover, notwithstanding Israeli assertions that hundreds of Hizbullah fighters were killed in that war, a US military study reportedly places the death toll at "only" 184. That's a "martyr" toll the Hizbullah-supporting Shi'ites appear well able to absorb. Anyway, Nasrallah answers to a higher authority. If Iran is becoming jittery over the possibility that Syria might truly move out of its orbit, there's nothing like a war with Israel to reshuffle the deck.
Hizbullah watcher Guy Bechor, writing at, does not foresee a Hizbullah assault in the near term. But he doesn't discount the prospect of a large-scale surprise attack down the line. He warns that hundreds of guerrillas could burst through the entire length of the border, seize territory and take hundreds of hostages. Nasrallah could then claim to be the first Arab leader to have successfully invaded "Palestine" since 1948, thus solidifying Hizbullah's hold on the Arab imagination.
With so much attention focused on the Hamas threat and Independence Day security concerns, and given the degree to which Israel was taken by surprise in summer 2006, all we're urging is: Keep an eye on southern Lebanon

What’s Behind Olmert’s Flirtation With Syria?
by Joshua Mitnick- Israel Correspondent
New York Jewish Week- 30/04/08
With Palestinian talks going nowhere, analysts say prime minister looking to new Golan track for peace momentum.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s new interest in Syria is seen as rewarding intransigent regime.
Tel Aviv — Is Ehud Olmert serious about returning the Golan Heights to Syria?
When President Bashar Assad said Turkish intermediaries forwarded him a message from the Israeli prime minister about giving back the strategic plateau, government officials in Jerusalem quickly clammed up. But the Israeli press and observers are convinced that Israel is mulling reactivating the Syrian negotiations track eight years after the collapse of talks in Sheperdstown, W.Va.
And while most expect that a deal will have to wait at least for the new U.S. administration to take office next year, many observers believe that Olmert wants to keep negotiations with Syria a viable option if talks with the Palestinians bear no fruit.
That’s because, while it is highly doubtful whether
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could implement a peace deal, few question whether the Syrian regime would have the power to uphold a peace treaty.
“In Israel there is a real crisis with the Palestinians, and I don’t think there is any possibility of reaching an agreement or implementing it in the near future,” said Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director general. “On the other hand, there is an interest on Israel’s part in keeping the peace momentum. If you cannot move on the West Bank, everybody is looking up to the Golan Heights and looking to see what can be up done up there.”
Liel, who conducted second-track, unofficial talks for two years, said that a peace agreement with Syria now would give Israel more strategic dividends than a deal with the Palestinians.
A deal with Syria has regional repercussions by weakening Iran’s stable of allies and potentially cutting the supply line to Hezbollah. It would also make it nearly impossible for Hamas’ leadership in exile to operate from Damascus, and indirectly boost Palestinian moderates led by Abbas.
In Syria, there are a group of leaders who are uncomfortable with the country’s growing dependence on Iran and are looking to join the orbit of Western-allied countries in the Middle East, Liel said.
“It’s no longer an issue of the Golan,” he added. “It’s changing the balance of power between the moderates and the extremists and pulling Syria into the moderate camp. In the Palestinian arena it’s a chance to change the balance of power inside the Palestinian people to the Fatah.”
Of course, many Israelis are deeply skeptical about giving the commanding Golan plateau back to Syria, especially at time when Damascus has been isolated politically from the West for its cooperation with Hezbollah in Lebanon and for alleged efforts to build a nuclear reactor.
“In our eyes, it seems so bizarre, and so incorrect, that we, the State of Israel, would rescue Syria after it was uncovered that he was building a nuclear reactor,” said Eli Malka, a 30-year resident of the Golan who heads its regional council.
“Assad is supplying the Hezbollah. Why should we go against the Europeans, and the Americans,” he continued. “There is no chance for this move. It is destined to failure. The people of Israel don’t think it’s appropriate to give a prize to Assad. Israel, under no circumstances, should concede its security assets, or its settlements, or water.”
Pointing to the rise of Islamic militants in Gaza and Lebanon, right-leaning politicians like opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu argued this week that if the Golan is returned to Syria, it will bring Iran to the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Olmert countered that it was Netanyahu who offered to give back most of the Golan to the Syrians. The comeback hasn’t convinced right-wingers and probably much of the Israeli center.
“Ehud Olmert, without any mandate from the Israeli people, is ready to declare giving up all of the Golan Heights. That’s a real scandal,” said Aryeh Eldad, a lawmaker from the far-right National Union party.
“He knows what the public opinion about it is. He knows that nobody trusts him, not in war time, and not in peace time. He’ll cause such damage to Israel, even though everyone knows he’ll never be able to retreat from the Golan Heights. Any prime minister in the future will find it difficult to set a lower bar.”
Eldad agreed with other observers that Olmert’s flirtation with the Syrians stems from the growing sense that the Palestinian talks may be running aground and the need to show Israelis some signs of progress in the peace process.
Indeed, Olmert won election on a platform pledging a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. But that idea became discredited when missiles started flying from areas of southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip where Israel withdrew its forces a year and a half ago. Now that the idea of reaching a framework agreement with the Palestinians on final-status issues like refugees, borders and Jerusalem seems difficult to imagine, Olmert must turn elsewhere, observers said.
“He has one more political bullet in the barrel, before the likely collapse of his government,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a leading Israeli think tank. “What we're seeing is an exploration by the prime minister and his team, where should this bullet be used.”
Grinstein said that the coalition government required to support a deal with Syria isn’t necessarily the same coalition needed to back an agreement with the Palestinians.
Grinstein said that the risks of giving back the Golan are much higher compared to giving back the West Bank to the Palestinians. Accordingly, Israel is expected to insist that Syria end cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah in return for retreating from the Golan.
In any case, any agreement will have to wait until at least 2009 because of the Bush administration’s opposition to Israeli discussions with the Syrians, Israeli officials said.
For the time being, however, Turkey is filling the diplomatic vacuum in the Israeli-Syrian go-between. After a year of secretly passing messages between the sides, the Turkish mediation efforts came out into the open last week when Assad spoke of the message relayed through the Turks and the public visit of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.
The Turkish foreign minister said this week that the goal of the shuttle mission is to restart direct negotiations between Israel and Syria, which were broken off eight years ago in Shepherdstown.
“Both sides trust us as an honest broker,” said Turkish Ambassador to Israel Namik Tan through an embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv. “We have good relations with both sides. But it is not our initiative. We were requested by both sides.”
But why would Turkey insert itself in a mediation effort with such long odds? Analysts say that regardless of the outcome, Ankara is poised to reap political dividends on the international stage — something which could help Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
“It’s the sense that we are a regional power and we want to prove it,” said Sami Kohen, a Turkish columnist and foreign policy expert. “The Turks have the feeling that as the descendants of the Ottoman Empire, which used to rule the region, we are brothers of this region, so we have a responsibility to help a member of the family.”

Damascus ascendant

By: Mustafa El-Labbad*
Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly
Turkish approaches to Damascus confirm that diplomatically Syria is the lynchpin of the region, writes Mustafa El-Labbad*
Syria once more took centre stage in regional events. A few days ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought to Damascus an Israeli offer to pull out of the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty. His mission, following months of mediation, marked Turkey's most remarkable foray into the Arab-Israeli conflict to date. Its outcome could be wide-ranging.
When Erdogan went to Damascus he had more than mediation on his mind. For sometime now, Turkey and Iran have been seeking a major role in the region, one matching at least that of Israel. At a time when the Arabs have failed to offer anything new on the regional scene, other regional powers have decided to try their hand at regional power brokering.
Since the 1950s, three Arab countries courted Syria: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Egypt took Syria into a merger union. Saudi Arabia broke that merger. And Iraq's Baathists briefly courted the Syrians before going off on their own pursuits.
When Hafez Al-Assad took power in Syria in the early 1970s, he made a point of keeping aides who were close to the Saudis. The tradition was discontinued by his son, Bashar, whose regime stands accused of involvement in the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, a friend of the Saudis. As Iran's influence grew across the region, Cairo and Saudi Arabia frowned on Syria's ties with Tehran, going as far as boycotting -- at least at the level of heads of state -- the recent Arab summit in Damascus.
The Iranian-Syrian alliance is central to Tehran's regional ambitions. The Iranians are hoping to build a train of loyalties extending through Iraq, Syria, South Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. If successful, Tehran would be calling the shots on the borders with Israel, an immense form of leverage at a time when the peace process is stalled.
Iran has historic and sectarian links with Jabal Amel in Lebanon, and therefore sees Syria as its corridor to Lebanon. The Syrian-Iranian alliance has now endured for nearly three decades, a remarkable feat in a volatile region. Ironically, as Tehran boosted its regional influence, Damascus saw its relations with its Arab neighbours ebb. Syria has no real influence in Iraq and Lebanon is slipping out of its hands.
Now Turkey wants in. But unlike Tehran it has failed so far to promote itself as a credible player in the region. One reason for that is that Turkey has other things on its mind -- the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the EU. And Turkey is unlikely to get anywhere in the region without edging Iran out first.
The Turkish model, as promoted by the Justice and Development Party, is one of peaceful rotation of power combined with economic development. The Arabs could use such a model, everyone says. And the US has tried to promote Turkey as a lynchpin in a "Greater Middle East" scheme, one in which modernity (US- style) is reconciled with cultural and religious traditions.
A few months ago, Turkey established a buffer zone on its borders with Iraq. Now it is entering regional dynamics from another door, wearing the hat of peace mediator. As a power broker, Turkey would have a chance of attaining regional credibility. Once the Syrians start negotiating seriously with the Israelis, Iran would have to step aside -- exactly Ankara's plan.
In an ethnic and geopolitical sense, Syria is a microcosm of the Middle East. You may recall that the Sykes- Picot Treaty of 1916 -- the treaty that created the regional divisions we now have -- was born in Syria. Ironically, the current borders of today's Syria are so detached from its past that one must think less of Syria as a nation- state than a regional catalyst.
Syria's geopolitical potential may explain why regional powers are knocking on its doors. With Iraq under occupation, the Arabs divided, and Iran pushing its luck, Turkey saw its chance. Damascus must be pleased with the rivalries all around it. While forging closer links with Tehran, the Syrians are talking with the Turks and biding their time. Anything they say or do may affect not only their country's future, but also that of the entire region.
The Syrian regime is not rich or popular. But it holds the strings to a game that non-Arab powers want to play. More than any other Arab country, Syria is calling the shots today. As has been the case in the past, the quest for Syria is a quest for the region.
* The writer is a political analyst specialised in Iranian affairs. © Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

The struggle for Syria
By: Hassan Nafaa*
Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly
Israel's offer to return the Golan is a ruse betraying ulterior agendas, writes Hassan Nafaa*
The Struggle for Syria is the title of Patrick Seale's 1965 book in which he reviews internal and external Syrian developments from 1946 up to its merger union with Egypt that gave birth to the United Arab Republic on 22 February 1958. In retrospect, the book's accounting of Syria's regional situation and the modalities of its interaction with the surrounding international environment turned out to be nothing short of prophetic.
The struggle for Syria, which started since World War II, has not ended. A pattern seems to exist in which Syria acts as the region's tipping point. At crucial moments, Syria turns out to be in a position to call the shots and influence the direction and speed of events in the region. Those crucial moments have been recurring frequently of late. Even before the US invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, Syria managed to become a main player amid power relations that evolved in the region following the Camp David Accords, the Iranian Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war.
Certain developments in the region allowed Syria to especially bolster its influence in Lebanon. Within a few years, Syria evolved to become the supreme power in Lebanese political life. Since then, Syria went into Kuwait with other coalition forces. It also participated in the Madrid peace conference.
Damascus, however, didn't keep all its eggs in one basket. It cultivated cordial ties with Washington but otherwise kept its options open. It negotiated with Israel, but refused to be pushed around. Syria's desire to retain room for manoeuvre may explain its firm, though flexible, opposition to the Oslo Accords Yasser Arafat signed in 1993 without consulting Damascus. The Syrians also forged close ties with Iran despite the latter's opposition to peace with Israel. And they continued to provide support to Hizbullah and Palestinian resistance factions.
While hedging their bets, the Syrians managed to: consolidate their position in Lebanon, take charge of the country's political scene, and link the Lebanese track of Arab-Israeli peace talks with their own; cement relations with Hizbullah and provide it, in coordination with Iran, with all the help it needed to stand firm -- as a result, Hizbullah managed to escalate its military resistance and eventually forced Israel to unconditionally withdraw from Lebanon in 2000; host the political and media offices of various Palestinian resistance factions, something that alienated the Americans while Washington knew it needed Syria on its side, particularly after the failure of the 1999 Geneva Conference on the Golan and the 2000 Camp David summit on Palestine.
The US administration kept cordial ties with Damascus up to the moment President Bush and his coterie of right-wing conservatives took power. Things took a turn for the worst following 9/11 and the US decision to invade Iraq. Syria's utter and firm opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the last straw breaking what used to be a workable relation. As the invading US army became Syria's next-door neighbour, all bets were off. Damascus was left with two choices. One was to cooperate with the new US policy, which meant agreeing to a settlement on Israel's terms and endorsing whatever regional map the US and Israel had in mind. The other choice was to reject US policies. Damascus didn't have to think long. Agreeing to US demands would have been suicide for the Syrian regime.
In effect, the Syrians were being asked to give up the regional influence they had long enjoyed. The US wanted Damascus to sever its relations with Iran, Hizbullah and the Palestinian resistance without giving it anything in return, not even a guarantee that Israel would withdraw from the Syrian land it occupied in 1967. What the Americans were really after was Iran and Hizbullah and the Syrians knew that. The US administration, having taken control of Iraq, was hoping to change the map of the Middle East, either peacefully or militarily.
Having assessed the situation carefully, the Syrians dug in their heels. Damascus refused to renew the term of president Emile Lahoud, despite promises it is said to have given to that effect. President Bashar Al-Assad perhaps didn't expect Chirac to make such a big deal out of the Lahoud debacle. But Chirac was eager to use the occasion to placate the US and expiate for his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. Lebanon soon became a testing ground for newfound US-French cooperation, one that resulted in UN action. Security Council Resolution 1559 was the first shot in a new phase of the "struggle for Syria". In the ensuing drama many lives would be lost, including that of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.
Even after the Syrians pulled out of Lebanon, Hizbullah wasn't left alone. The Lebanese resistance movement was asked to lay down its arms and be a strictly political party. When these pressures failed, preparations started for military action against the Lebanese resistance group. The right moment came when Hizbullah waged a military operation during which it captured and killed Israeli soldiers. This sparked the summer 2006 war in Lebanon.
The 2006 Lebanon war was but another chapter in the "struggle for Syria". Its main objective was to disarm Hizbullah and end Syria's alliance with Iran. The next step would have been a military strike against Iran. But this wasn't to be, for Hizbullah managed to teach the Israelis a lesson. Since then, Hizbullah has been coming under mounting pressure from its Lebanese opponents. And Syria was again asked, mostly in secret talks, to abandon its coalition with both Iran and Hizbullah. Were it to do so, Damascus was promised the Golan as reward.
Israel has seemingly just informed the Syrians that it would be willing to give up the land it occupied in 1967 in future talks. The offer, relayed by Erdogan, is but another episode in the "struggle for Syria". You would think that the shift in Israel's position removes a major obstacle to a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. But that would be wishful thinking. Israel's strategic position, in my view, remains unchanged. If news of the recent Israeli offer is confirmed, this can only indicate a tactical shift on the part of Israel -- an attempt to extract certain concessions from the Syrians. And even if the Israelis really mean what they say, their timing is suspicious.
Israel's overture towards the Syrians comes at a time when Palestinian-Israeli and Palestinian-US talks are stalled. It is highly unlikely that any progress will be achieved on the Palestinian track before the end of Bush's term. Even more remarkably, Israel has been building settlements at an accelerating pace since Annapolis, without a word of protest from the US. Meanwhile, various Arab mediators have been actively trying to reconcile the Palestinians in order to lift the blockade and provide a more favourable climate for peace talks.
Israel, in my opinion, is simply trying to distance Damascus from Iran, the Palestinians, and perhaps Hizbullah. The Israelis are feigning readiness to give up the Golan and to sit down and discuss all details. The whole exercise is designed to neutralise Damascus while Israel and US ponder strikes against Iran and Hizbullah.
No one can ask the Syrians to turn down an offer to get back the Golan. But one must question the sincerity of the Israelis. Even if they are sincere, they will inevitably ask Damascus to give up supporting Hizbullah and Hamas. Are the Syrians, with their well-known pan- Arab record, willing to play along?
* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo © Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Stalemate and external pressure
Lebanon - the never ending story of internal stalemate and external pressure Manuela Paraipan
30 Apr 2008
WSN Editor "Broader Middle East", Manuela Paraipan, in Beirut: "If Lebanon is to get through this storm in one piece, the dialog is the only way to do it."
After almost 6 months since my previous visit, I returned to Lebanon and found that it had changed but was also still the same. This may sound confusing, but in reality it is not. On the one hand, Lebanon remained the beautiful, energetic country where day and night, as in New York, become almost one. I was glad to have the chance to observe the ups and downs of life lived in a country where you wake up in the drums of new political schemes, gossip and rumors, and fall asleep with the bitter taste of a yet another day spent without a solution to be found by former warlords, today all great political leaders. More than anything else, it is frustrating.
This time I traveled more within the country, especially in the areas known as Hezbollah's strongholds - from Bint Jbeil to the Blue Line and to the Bekaa Valley. The echoes of political tension were to be found within the society. However, in spite of all of the propaganda - and make no mistake, both blocks deserve to be nominated for the biggest prize here - most of the people I met, talked to and spent time with were eager to get on with life.
It is true that I found a hard core in each and every party - individuals and groups whose ideology, beliefs and loyalty cannot be changed. However, even within these groups I noticed the willingness to sit down and find a solution through dialog. This is crucial. If Lebanon is to get through this storm in one piece, then dialog is the only way to do it.
The terrific momentum Lebanon had back in 2005 is now almost completely lost. All parts share the guilt for this. Back then, the Cedar Revolution was in full swing and important leaders in the international community from both the West and the East expressed considerable support for the March 14 block and its struggle to regain sovereignty, strengthen democracy and bring justice. The mistake of the March 14 block was that it was in a defensive mood for far too long. Their political adversaries understood this as a sign of weakness.
As a result, Tehran and Damascus discuss Lebanese internal political matters and decide which course of action or reaction should be taken next. Let us not be fooled. In today's world, states do not stand alone. The most important international and regional players will always influence the internal matters of other countries. The question is, to what extent? And in this respect the national players can use the joker or be the joker themselves.
The problem in Lebanon is that politicians see the interests of the country through their selfish interests. With few exceptions, the present leadership, which in many respects is the same one that led Lebanon since the 1970s has never put the nation before its own private or clan-selfish interests. Religion can and is being used as a cover to preserve or obtain even more power and through that have access to money and influence. Of course, there are some who truly believe in the righteousness of a religious cause, but these are few. When national affiliation is this diluted, it is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to uphold the very concept of a unitary state let alone strengthen it.
Worth being taken into consideration is the rather deep division and mistrust between the Sunni and Shias. However, there is also a tacit agreement not to rush things onto a path that leads to conflict.
In spite of Iran's from time to time excessively confrontational discourse, and Hezbollah's sophistication as a militia, Shias are a minority in the region. On the other hand, the Sunnis are also wary of a conflict in Lebanon that is likely to drag them into a larger one, in the region and worldwide. Not to mention the destruction a conflict would have on the cities where the Sunnis have their businesses. Pragmatically, neither side is keen to go beyond a clash of words. However, when the leaders escalate their rhetoric in the media, there is no way to foresee how things will develop on the ground, as they cannot keep every person who is a part of their respective groups on a tight leash.
For the time being, Lebanon is on hold. The first to blame are the leaders who asked for a bolder intervention from outside the country, hoping that this would give them leverage at the local level. This is the perfect example of one not being able to see the forest for the trees.
Each side is looking for guarantees from the other and for outside guarantors to supervise the partnership. Time is not yet lost to go back to the discussion table and find an acceptable solution for all involved. However, a satisfactory solution and not a winner ticket, will not solve the core problems that stand before the society as a whole and its leadership. Will, in time, a compromise lead anyway to an open conflict? This is a distinct possibility.
I remember what Dr Joseph Hitti said not long ago, that in Lebanon, "you cannot have social or economic or any other type of substantive change to improve the country and the lives of its people, because religion and sectarianism stand in the way. If you demand social reforms on one side, the other side is offended. If you demand secularism, both sides rally together against you. If you ask for administrative reform to end corruption and cronyism, the traditionalists who hold power accuse you of being an Israeli-Western agent. If you ask the Patriarchs or the Muftis to stay outside of politics, the traditionalists accuse you of blasphemy and straying from God's will for the country." He went on to say that some "are tired of Lebanon being burned to the ground only to maintain the illusion that Lebanon has to live up to some standard or model of coexistence and tolerance. The price has been too high for the Lebanese over the past four decades that it no longer makes sense. Many would rather see a decentralized, partitioned, segregated, separated Lebanon than the unlivable, non-viable nightmare that it has become."
This is the point where Lebanon is today. It may take a while for Lebanon, to rise up from the ashes of a state in decline and become the nation that it has always prided itself to be. It will only happen when accountability is the rule in Lebanon, and not the exception. For a broader insight into the political interaction at the local and regional levels, I spoke with, among others:
MP Samir Frangieh, who is one of the leading intellectuals of the March 14 block
Mr. Alain Aoun, Political Officer of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party
Samy Gemayel, a young, talented politician, member of the Kataeb (Phalange) party and son of former President Amine Gemayel
MP Ali Bazzi of the Amal party. He represents the southern village of Bint Jbeil and also in charge of the foreign affairs department of the party
Pierre A. Maroun, Secretary General of the American Lebanese Coordination Council
Pierre A. Maroun, Secretary General of the American Lebanese Coordination Council
The alliance between the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun, the Shiia Amal party of Speaker Nabih Berri and the Shiia Hezbollah of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and their allies is known as the March 8 block.
The group has been labeled as being on Iran and Syria's orbit. While the Free Patriotic Movement claims its independence, both Amal and Hezbollah have publicly admitted their ties and relationship to the abovementioned countries.
The alliance between the Sunni Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, the Christian Lebanese Forces party led by Samir Geagea, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt, the Christian Kataeb (Lebanese Phalanges) party of Amine Gemayel and their allies are known as the March 14 block.
March 14 has been labeled as a pro-West group, close to the United States, Saudi Arabia and the few European countries active in the region.