Behind the words in the Middle East

The victory of a pro-western coalition in Lebanon’s election and the possibility of a win by moderate elements in Iran’s election (we should have the first results by the end of the weekend) will surely give rise to hope that change is coming to the Muslim world. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of an already fragile coalition, will further delve into the Middle East peace process with a major speech that isn’t expected to feature any major concessions by the Israeli government. Within a span of two weeks, then, the political landscape in the Middle East will have been modified, with two major elections, a landmark speech by Barack Obama in Cairo, and another by Netanyahu. Surely, a lot will be measured by the words spoken. But it would be cautious and wise to look behind those words before drawing any conclusions. History and actions will be the two most important factors in assessing whether there is any hope for peace in the short- or medium-term .

Let me state at the outset that, like so many others, I remain skeptical and somewhat pessimistic that any significant change will take place. Let us start with Israel. Earlier in the week, this blog stated that the Obama Administration was ready to supply a good dose of tough love to the Netanyahu government. We now know the Israeli right is very upset and will likely want to show that their security needs and concerns will not be dictated by the American president. The words may be diplomatic, but the message will be understood that Israel feels it has made concessions in the past with very little return on investment. There is compelling evidence to support this view. Yet, public opinion in Israel remains divided and it’s not clear how the Israeli government will be able to stay afloat with such tough rhetoric. Tzipi Livni of the Kadema party remains in opposition and is ready to take office, while Ehud Barak of Labour seems a reluctant partner in a right-wing government that houses the likes of Avigdor Lieberman. And lest we forget the influence of Israel’s moderate president, Shimon Peres, a wise and respected leader. The hawkish Netanyahu government could soon find itself operating out of sync with Israeli public opinion. So we would be wise not to draw any rash conclusions from the words spoken this Sunday in Israel.

As for Iran, it has been very impressive to see the youth in a country with a majority of its citizens under 30 showing up so enthusiastically to rallies. Women are also adding their voices in record numbers. But we must not forget that Iran is a theocracy and democracy is limited. The real leader remains Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei no matter who wins the presidency. The voices of moderation and the openness of recent weeks is encouraging, but Iran still has a structure in which the mullahs wield the ultimate power and we are not about to see the transformation of Iran into a liberal democracy. Whomever wins, Iran will not embrace Israel nor Obama’s two-state solution. And its nuclear program will not go away either.

So where do we go from here? The Middle East is about to change. Some of it is being provoked by the Obama approach and some of it is coming from within. What is becoming obvious that the acerbic discourse coming the Muslim world is no longer monolithic. Middle-Eastern youth are choosing peace and coexistence despite the continuing mistrust. And here is where the American initiative becomes worthwhile to pursue despite the odds: Behind the words, there are some forces at play. The fact America is once again becoming a player—and hopefully a broker—with the full force of its diplomacy, brings hope that change may be inevitable. Sounds like Obama’s campaign message. The question is, will it be change we can believe in?

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