Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Which New Middle East?

BERLIN – Regardless of whether democratization in the “new Middle East” succeeds or authoritarian forms of government prevail once again, one fundamental change has already become clear: no one will be able to govern without taking into account domestic public opinion.

This change will shift the foreign-policy parameters of the Middle East conflict (understood as both an Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as a conflict between Israelis and Arabs more generally). Despite wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and the intifadas in the occupied West Bank, these parameters have proven surprisingly stable for decades, anchored by the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo accords with the Palestinians.

All this is about to change. And, while the tectonic shift in the region was triggered by the “Arab Awakening,” its players are not limited to the Arab world or to the confines of the Middle East conflict. The United States, Europe, Turkey, and, in a certain sense, Iran all play a role – some more directly than others.

Let’s begin with the US. President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo two years ago created great expectations, but few or none have been fulfilled. Instead, the US allowed a political vacuum to form in the absence of any movement on the part of Israel’s government. This vacuum has now been filled by the Arab Awakening.

Europe, meanwhile, is preoccupied with its own crisis. But, in the last few years, the Europeans, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have de facto slammed the door to European Union accession in Turkey’s face. As a result, Turkey has embraced a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy, in which the Arab world – even more than the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans – plays the central role.

Of course, Turkey, in accordance with its political, security, and economic interests, has no choice but to pay close attention to its southern neighborhood, and must try to prevent chaotic developments there. Turkey would be facing the same risks even if it were integrated into a European context, but its priorities would then be completely different.

Because of Europe’s short-sightedness, Turkey has in effect abandoned its ambitions for EU membership and opted for the neo-Ottoman project of becoming a Middle Eastern power – a policy shift that reflects both interests and ideology. On the one hand, Turkey views regional dominance as a stepping-stone to a greater global role; on the other hand, it views itself as a role model for successful modernization of the Middle East on an Islamic-democratic basis.

This bid for regional preeminence will sooner or later bring Turkey into serious conflict with neighboring Iran. If Turkey prevails, Iran and the radicals in the region will be caught on the losing side of history – and they know it.

While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is trying to maintain good relations with Iran, its ambition to become the leading Sunni power means that Turkey must sooner or later contest Iran’s influence in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Palestine. And that means conflict.

The drastic deterioration in Turkey’s relations with Israel is related to this emerging Iranian-Turkish rivalry. To be sure, this rivalry also has a positive side from the Israeli point of view – the weakening of Iran and other regional radicals. But, for Turkey as an aspiring regional leader, the interests of the Palestinians are naturally more important than its relations with Israel. This has become all the more true in light of the revolutionary changes in the Arab world, and is at the root of Erdoğan’s foreign-policy reorientation.

As a result, Israel is in an increasingly difficult situation. Without a strategic re-orientation of its own – to remain passive is a risky endeavor in a rapidly changing world order – Israel would further delegitimize and isolate itself internationally. A viable Israeli answer to the dramatic changes in the region – and to their already foreseeable consequences – can only take the form of a serious offer of negotiations to Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian government, with the objective of signing a comprehensive peace treaty.

Security questions must be taken seriously, but they carry less and less weight, because a sufficiently long period can be left between the treaty’s conclusion and its full implementation to resolve them by mutual agreement. But Israel’s current passivity – with all of its negative long-term consequences for the country – is likely to continue as long as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu considers his coalition’s survival more important than a decisive peace initiative.

At the same time, the pressure of the Arab revolutions is transforming the Palestinians into a dynamic political factor. For example, in view of the looming fall of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, the pressure of the Egyptian revolution, and the new role of Islamism in the region, Hamas’s alliance with Iran is becoming increasingly problematic. It remains to be seen whether, in the end, the “Turkish course” will prevail against the radicals in Gaza or not.

In any case, Hamas faces some risky and consequential decisions of its own – all the more so should its main rival, Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, succeed in its current diplomatic campaign at the United Nations. Obama had promised a Palestinian state within one year, and Abbas is now building upon that promise.

But what happens next is crucial. Will Abbas be able to keep the Palestinians on a diplomatic path, or will the situation degenerate again into violence and another disaster? And what will the Palestinian road towards peace look like after the UN decision to recognize some form of statehood for Palestine?

Given the current pace of change in the Middle East, we might not have to wait long for answers – or for more questions.

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