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Rio Olympics and New Middle East Politics

Or Sasson Rio 2016


So what if an Egyptian judoka refused to shake hands after an Israeli defeated him? It was not the first time. In Rio, even Lebanese Olympians refused to travel in the same bus with Israelis. However it came in stark contrast to the under-current of relations that are slowly gaining momentum between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Egypt's President Al-Sisi has forged a military understanding with Prime Minister Netanyahu on coping with the mounting mutual threat from Islamic State fighters in Sinai. (The Egyptian Sinai was demilitarized in the peace treaty with Israel). But much of the 'Arab street' in Egypt still views the Jewish state as an enemy. Most certainly, members of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. It was not clear whether the Egyptian Judoka was a fanatical Muslim, probably not. Otherwise he would have refused to compete with a Jew. More likely the Egyptian was worried about the hot reception he would get back home, if he were filmed shaking the hand of an Israeli.

Egypt Israel border near Eilat

Saudi Arabia has also been forging relations with Israel in light of the growing danger from Iran and America's disengagement from the region. But an unofficial Saudi delegation visited Israel last month with a message from Riyadh; if there is no progress with the Palestinians, Israel will not be able to advance its ties with the Arab states. And there's the rub. At this stage, the Sunni Arab bloc does not feel threatened by Iran to the extent that they will be willing to risk arousing the Arab Street by allowing their subterranean ties with Israel to see the light of day. The Iranian threat of blocking the critical Straits of Hormuz is a Saudi nightmare for the flow of their oil around the globe. Unless Saudi Arabia feels even more endangered than it does today, Riyadh will be wary of upgrading its relations with Israel. But note this - Egypt which faces a real threat in Sinai from the Islamic State, as well as a smoldering rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood that is in cahoots with Hamas in Gaza, has referred to the need for, even military ties with Israel. This could be a harbinger of things to come for Riyadh.

So what are the options for Israel when it comes to advancing the peace process with the Palestinians? Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia drafted a peace initiative that was adopted by the Arab League. It was rejected by Netanyahu as a non-starter because it called for a total Israeli withdrawal to the old 1949 cease-fire lines as well as supporting the Palestinians 'right of return' for the millions of descendants of the 650,000 Palestinian refugees.

At present, Netanyahu shows no sign he is willing to budge on making the wide-sweeping concessions that Riyadh would like to see. Moreover the Palestinians are split into two camps: Hamas, as does Iran, calls for wiping Israel off the map - pure and simple. On the other hand, Fatah headed by President Mahmoud Abbas has also abandoned peace negotiations with Israel but with a new twist. This Palestinian 'moderate' realized that terrorism against Israel was counter-productive in the international arena. So they have launched a campaign to rally international pressure, mainly at the UN and abetted by the BDS movement, to impose a Palestinian diktat on Israel. The ultimate goal is to weaken Israel and drive it back to the 1949 cease-fire lines without adequate security arrangements and without recognizing Israel as an independent Jewish state. Why else would Abbas have ignored Netanyahu's call for direct negotiations back in 2010 when he agreed to halt Israeli settlement building for ten months in return for recognizing Israel as the Jewish state. Until this day, Abbas refuses to negotiate directly with Israel. He realizes that this would lead back to what President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat at Camp David 2000.

What's in a name?...

Incidentally the very name Palestine actually has a Jewish connection. It dates back to the Second Century CD(AD) when the Roman conquerors brutally suppressed the Jewish revolt led by Shimon Bar Kockba. In order to weaken the Jews' identification with their homeland in Judea, the Romans renamed the region 'Palaestina'. In fact, Jews born in the area before the re-establishment of the new born state of Israel in 1948, were called Palestinians. In other words the Arabs living in the area co-opted the name given by the Romans to replace that of Judea. This is not unusual in the history of the region. The Arabs also co-opted the site in Jerusalem of the First & Second Jewish Temples for building the Al Aqsa Mosque. They apparently realized the Jews believed this piece of real estate as being supremely holy with a direct link to the Creator. This prepared the ground-work for Mohammed's ascent to heaven from Temple Mount.

To make a long story short, the shifting sands of the Middle East have eroded the Sykes-Picot boundaries of 1917 and a new map will eventually evolve. How long it will take is unknown. Syria most definitely and possibly Iraq are in a meltdown. Will a new Middle East mosaic include a new state of Kurdistan? The Kurds who are now knocking at the door, are an ancient people who number an amazing thirty million people spread over an area that includes parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey all of which are categorically opposed to seceding parts of their territory to an emerging Kurdistan. As for Lebanon, it has already given up control of its southern borders closest to, Israel which are now controlled by Hezbollah.

This dramatic episode of time in Middle East history is not very conducive for Israel, the size of New Jersey, to be giving up 'territory for peace' as the old slogan goes. No one can really count on what tomorrow will bring. For example on the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas is planning on holding elections that will include Hamas candidates. The last time that happened in Gaza, Hamas won big-time and ended up throwing Abbas candidates off high-rise buildings.

Bibi should call Abbas's bluff...

Nonetheless, Abbas has been successful in the public relations war with Netanyahu for one simple reason - settlement building. Bibi's case about supporting a two-state solution doesn't hold water if he builds, even if a small number of housing units, in eastern Jerusalem and just over the old line. That is why; Netanyahu should again consider offering a total settlement freeze in return for Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state on secure borders. It would pull the rug out from under Abbas who does not have a mandate to negotiate a final peace accord with Israel, no more than Yasser Arafat did. It would help Israel regain some of the moral high-ground which Netanyahu has lost in recent years. It would also help in building bridges with the Sunni Arab countries that view Israel as a military asset in the match-up with Iran. As for the Islamic State, it is finally being clobbered by coalition air strikes and steadily losing ground in Syria. Has the time not come for UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to call for a massive international military and humanitarian effort to free the Yazidi people who are being ravaged by Da'esh. For that matter, Bibi who has spoken so often about the Jewish Holocaust, should now speak out for the Yazidis.

Yazidi Refugees

NB: It took Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman three days to wise up to the fact that he had blundered by comparing President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran to Munich. In his apology, Lieberman blamed the media, who else? The media has misinterpreted his Defense Ministry statement. But better late than never, because Lieberman's gaffe came in the midst of Israel's crucial negotiations with the US on a new military aid package. This time Lieberman's bluster has tarnished his reputation of being a tough but shrewd politician among Israeli hard-liners. It's a safe bet that IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and the other generals, who have obviously been sizing up their new boss, will have lost a lot of confidence in Lieberman's judgement - and rightly so. Maybe even Bibi must be wondering if he was smart to appoint Lieberman as his Defense Minister in place of Moshe Ya'alon in order to boost his coalition majority. Hopefully Bibi has also quietly told Eizenkot to check with him, if he has any question about directives from Lieberman in the future.


David Essing

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