International Affairs Forum: According to its American hosts, the Middle East meeting aims to build international support for a Palestinian state. What can realistically be accomplished at the peace conference?
Mr. Meir Javedanfar: The most realistic expectation we could have is that this peace conference leads to other meetings between Israel and the PLO. Furthermore, the participation of wide range of Arab states, including Syria, shows that more countries from the region want to become stakeholders in the diplomatic process. This provides more legitimacy to the peace process in the Arab world. It could also lead to more support for PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert's standing at home; something which at a later stage could assist them to make the necessary concessions, if and when possible.
This is the most realistic scenario for now. Unfortunately, a Palestinian state can not be founded and supported without the inclusion of Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas. The radical organization's anti peace policies have led to its isolation in the international community. Nevertheless, as long as they are the democratically elected representatives of Palestinians, and they purposely decide to stay away from the peace process, then any peace deal reached with Mahmoud Abbas, means it is a deal reached with the PLO only, and not with all Palestinians. This produces a sever handicap for the efforts needed to conclude a comprehensive peace deal.
IA-Forum: The last time the United States convened a full blown Middle East summit, at Camp David in 2000, it collapsed. The vacuum left behind was filled a few months later by violence. What must be accomplished to avoid an escalation of current violence?
Mr. Javedanfar: To ensure that violence is not escalated in the West Bank, the West and Israel, must support the PLO and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. This includes economic support, as well as easing of travel restrictions for Palestinians living in the West Bank. On their part, the PLO security apparatus must also take more responsibility and action to ensure that attacks against Israel do not take place. The ideal situation would be where Israel feels confident enough to withdraw from more Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Currently this does not seem possible. One major reason is that many Israelis expected that the withdrawal from Gaza, would enhance chances for peace and security. However what they saw instead was increased attacks and insecurity from Gaza. Currently, this has led to reduced domestic support for further withdrawals. However, the situation could change if the current talks lead to improved relations between Israel and the PLO, and Israel and other Arab countries.
However Gaza is a different story. Hamas has been told on many occasions, by the EU especially that if it drops its calls for the elimination of Israel and joins the peace process then it could receive financial aid and diplomatic recognition. However, its leadership seems uninterested. The return of all of pre-1948 Palestine to Palestinians, and establishment of a strict Islamic state there, is an important part of the organization's ideological DNA. It will be a long time before Hamas feels secure enough to make such a drastic change. Another important reason is Iran. Although Hamas is independent in the formulation and implementation of some of its policies, nevertheless, it is also reliant on financial aid from Iran. For now, the Iranian government does not want to see the peace process move forward, as a comprehensive peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians would cause a severe identity crisis for the Iranian revolution. With Hamas being isolated and short of cash, it is not expected that it would turn against Tehran, one of its very few allies.
Under the current circumstances the best option available to Israel and the West is that to do what is possible to ensure that a humanitarian disaster in Gaza is avoided. Furthermore both sides must make sure that Hamas realizes that the door to peace talks is open. Trying to ensure, where possible, that attacks from Gaza do not escalate into a major confrontation would be a powerful way to ensure that Gazans understand this message, as well as Hamas.
IA-Forum: What are the prospects for the United States brokering a Palestinian state before the end of the current administration?
Mr. Javedanfar: The prospects are very slim indeed. I dare say almost nil. Currently, Prime Minister Olmert's position at home is weak. His coalition, which includes a number of right wing parties would fall apart if he makes further concessions in the near future.
Furthermore, Palestinian politics is badly divided. After Hamas' legitimate and democratic victory at the Palestinian elections, the PLO did everything possible to avoid the transfer of power to Hamas. This enraged Hamas officials. However they made the chronic mistake of starting a civil war in Gaza. Pictures of Hamas shooting Palestinians in the street, and gaging and bounding young men and throwing them from 14th floor windows lost them much credibility in the Middle East, and even more with the West. It also led them to being completely cut off from the West Bank.
Furthermore, many issues have still not been agreed, even with the PLO. This includes the right of return for Palestinians abroad, and the question of Jerusalem. It is almost impossible that an agreement over such issues can be reached until November 2008.
IA-Forum: How does the Iranian government view the conference?
Mr. Javedanfar: Iran is very worried that the US, thorough the Annapolis conference, is trying to cause a rift in its relations with Syria. This concern increased after Syria agreed to attend the talks. Despite the fact that a lower level delegation was sent from Damascus, nevertheless, this was done against Iran's strong condemnation of the talks. Furthermore, Iran is concerned that the US is trying to build a stronger anti-Iran alliance between the region's Arab countries, which it can use to pressure Iran politically, or worst, to use their territory during an attack against Iran's nuclear program. Tehran's concern regarding this issue was noted after it suddenly and unexpectedly issued an ultimatum on Sunday against Arab countries of the region. According to this ultimatum, any Arab country who would allow the use of its land or airspace for an attack against Iran would be viewed as a legitimate target for Iran. Other important indicators regarding Iran's concerns about these talks are Iran's declaration that it has developed a 2000 Kilometer missile, which can easily reach Israel, and some parts of Europe, on the day the talks are due to start.
Such Iranian concerns are understandable. Tehran has invested significant effort to improve its relationship with the IAEA. Additionally, the recent visit by President Putin to Tehran was interpreted as a major diplomatic victory by Ahmadinejad's administration, against those inside Iran who are saying that he is making Iran more isolated. Therefore the fact that Iran's condemnation of the talks has been ignored by so many countries shows that it is still very isolated in the region.
Furthermore, Tehran was emboldened by what it viewed as Hezbollah's victory in its war against Israel last year. After that war, Iran saw Israel, and the US as weak, and wanted other countries and people of the Middle East to view them the same way. The fact that so many Arab countries, including Lebanon and Syria have sent a delegate to a conference which is sponsored by the US and is attended by Israel, can be taken as an indication that the position of those whom Tehran views as its adversaries in the region is not as weak, as it would like to believe.
IA-Forum: Some believe that an underlying goal is to gain support of Arab states to put pressure on Iran. Do you think such a coalition would be effective in easing tensions?
Mr. Javedanfar: Iran takes Arab countries seriously. The US and other major powers may come and go in the Middle East, however, Iran has to live and share its borders with its Arab neighbors. Furthermore a significant part of Iran's economy and trade is with Arab countries, especially those of the Persian Gulf. Also, Arab countries, with Saudi Arabia chief amongst them, are very influential in Iran's foreign policy calculations, especially in sensitive areas such as Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
For now, most Arab countries, with the exception of Syria, are actively calling on Iran to reduce its rhetoric, and to work with the West. However, overtly, they are unwilling to go beyond that. Their concern is that increased tension with Iran could lead to more instability in the region, something which they want to avoid. Even covertly, the furthest such countries are likely to go against Iran is to support Iran's Sunni adversaries in Iraq and Lebanon, while leading support to PLO, as means of confronting Hamas. This is as far they are likely to go, as means of pressuring Iran. I don't believe that they would openly support a US war against Iran, as they are aware of Iran's capability to retaliate and cause significant damage to their economies.
This has limited their influence on Iran. Furthermore, the fact that the US so openly backs some Arab countries with massive arms sales and stationing of its troops on their soil has meant that in Tehran's eyes, they have lost their credibility as objective players in the current tensions. Therefore their ability to ease tensions is limited even more.
IA-Forum: What effect would budding Egyptian and Syrian nuclear programs have in working towards positive discussion with Iran on nuclear issues?
Mr. Javedanfar: I think an Egyptian nuclear program would encourage Iran to continue with its nuclear program with even more force and vigor. Iran views Egypt as a strategic rival in the region. Both countries are vying to have the strongest armed forces of the Middle East and to increase their influence in the region. Furthermore, Egypt is an important US ally, which annually receives $2.5 billion aid from Washington. If Cairo is given access to a nuclear program, this would be viewed as a threat by Iran. The most economical and powerful way which Iran will use to counter balance it would be with its own nuclear program. Furthermore, an Egyptian nuclear program would be interpreted by Tehran as part of US leverage to apply pressure against it. This would lead to the deterioration of current efforts to find a negotiated settlement to Iran's nuclear program.
A Syrian nuclear program would also not create a positive impact on the current efforts towards positive discussion with Iran over nuclear issues. Iran views Syria as an ally. A nuclear Syria would be viewed as a shield by Iran. This would enable Tehran to pursue its nuclear program with less concern about pressures being applied against it to stop. Furthermore, a nuclear Syria could lead to more friction and instability in the region, as Israel would find living under the shadow a nuclear Syria very dangerous. This subsequent tension in the region would compel Iran even more to develop its nuclear program, as means of bolstering its position against hostile countries.
IA-Forum: What effect, if any, would there be on the Palestinian peace process if the United States and/or Western states take military action against Iranian nuclear facilities?
Mr. Javedanfar: The effect, at least for the short term be a very negative one. An attack against Iran's nuclear facilities would lead to retaliation by Iran. Hamas has openly stated that it would join in Iran's retaliation against Israel. This would lead to open warfare between Israel and Hamas. Even if Hamas does not take part, it is expected that Hezbollah would almost definitely unleash its missiles and armed forces against Israel. Such an outcome would push the Israeli voter to the right, thus making it more difficult for any Israeli government to make concessions to Palestinians. There is also the question of the opinion in the Arab street. Although more and more people in the Arab world are becoming concerned about the increasing power of Iran and its Shiite allies, nevertheless, they would not want to see Iran attacked by US or Israel, as it is a fellow Muslim country. Such an attack would radicalize them even more. Subsequently an attack against Iran would make it more difficult for moderate Arab countries in the region to support peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.
However should a negotiated solution be found to stop Iran's nuclear program, it would be very beneficial towards finding a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestine. Iran's nuclear program has so far only added to more tension in the region. It has emboldened radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. If and when Iran goes nuclear, it is likely that such radical groups would become even more aggressive in their rhetoric and actions. Such an eventuality would be against the interest of moderate Arab countries, and of course Israel, who will have to live under the nuclear shadow of another country who has openly called for its elimination. This is a fate which most, if not all countries of the world would wish to avoid, if possible.
Meir Javedanfar is a Persian Israeli Middle East Analyst. He recently coauthored “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran” with Yossi Melman. Meir is also the Director of the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (MEEPAS) in Tel Aviv.
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