In the Arena

How Diplomacy Works

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The New York Times is reporting that  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak may be coming to Washington bearing gifts: a 3-to-6 month freeze on new settlements. It’s not what the international community has been demanding–the East Jerusalem settlements are not included–but it’s close enough for diplomacy. It’s a step in the right direction and it demands some reciprocation from the Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia. In fact, it is time for the Saudis to pony up something more significant than Ethan Bronner suggests in the Times story–at the very least, the establishment of a Saudi interest section at an amenable embassy in Tel Aviv. (Although it would be nice to retire my second passport, the one I use for travel to countries that refuse to accept Israeli stamps.)

The Saudis have been talking peace for years–since King Abdullah was Prince Abdullah–but refusing to make the slightest of opening gestures to get the process going. Now would be a good time to start: the Saudis, and the other Sunni states, are very concerned about Iran’s government, which now can only be described as a military dictatorship with religious pretensions. A settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute would reduce Iran’s trouble-making capacity in the region, and enable a strong, if tacit, alliance that would include Israel, backed by the United States, to oppose Iranian provocation (which includes, even now, the provision of rockets and shaped IEDs to rogue elements of Mahdi Army in Iraq).

Indeed, a great many of the pieces necessary to start the middle east peace process are falling into place. Hamas seems interested in being “part of the solution, not part of the problem,” as a prominent Palestinian told me. The Syrians also are willing to talk, since their Hizballah allies in Lebanon lost the election and their best friends, the Iranians, seem intent on withdrawing from the world for a time. 

The missing pieces are Palestinian unity–although there does seem to be some progress in talks between Fatah and Hamas, shepherded by the Egyptians–and Israeli willingness. A temporary settlement freeze, if that is what Barak will propose, may signal that the Netanyahu government is finally beginning to understand the new dynamic, gently forced by the Obama Administration. If the Israelis are really concerned about Iran, a rigorous peace process would seem the best way to unite the region against its enemy. 

Meanwhile, events in Iran continue their depressing course. It seems quite possible that the Ahmadinejad faction, backed by the Revolutionary Guards Corps, have staged an internal coup. As Thomas Erdbrink reports, Grand Ayatollahs in Qom have now begun to issue fatwas in support of the protesters:

“Events that happened have weakened the system,” Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili said during a meeting with members of the Guardian Council, the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency reported Saturday. “You must hear the objections that the protesters have to the elections. We must let the people speak.”

Another grand ayatollah issued two fatwas, or religious edicts, on Saturday, saying Islam forbids security forces from hitting unarmed people. Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani said the protests were Islamic. “These gatherings are the lawful right of the people and their only method for informing the rulers of their requests,” he said.

This requires a change in Swamp policy: no longer will I refer to the leaders of Iran as “the Mullahs.” A fair number, perhaps a majority, of mullahs seem on the side of the angels now. The leaders of Iran seem to be intransigent military thugs, supported by a theocratic sliver, led by the Supreme Leader. In any case, the Middle East negotiations seem a more promising route, for the moment, than attempts to engage Iran. That is a surprise, to say the least.