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Spring Blossoms in the Middle East

What recent geopolitical developments could have a profound affect on the Middle East conflict?

March 13, 2002

What recent geopolitical developments could have a profound affect on the Middle East conflict?

The most effective opposition in Israel to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has turned out to be the country’s President — Iranian-born Moshe Katsav.

What makes this 57-year-old career politician so special? Two factors: First, whereas most Israeli presidents were from the Labor Party, Katsav has come from the ranks of Sharon’s own Likud party (to which he has belonged since age 24). Furthermore, he never rose above the military rank of corporal, even though some leading Israeli politicians in recent years have had significant military careers.

In December 2001, Mr. Katsav offered to make a historic trip to Ramallah to call for peace before the Palestinian parliament. His proposal was vetoed by Mr. Sharon at the time.

But now President Katsav has thrown his full backing behind the new Saudi peace plan proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah. Offering to go himself to Riyadh, and inviting the Saudi crown prince to Israel, Katsav has gone far beyond the traditional constraints on his non-political office.

“I am speaking strictly on matters that of central principle, not fringe issues, which express a national consensus,” Mr. Katsav insists. In July 2001, Israeli doves were dismayed when he beat Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres for the presidency in a shock 63-57 vote. Now, they are glad that he won.

Further north, the Turkish government has just announced that it would begin clearing mines on its once hostile frontier with Syria. But that mere announcement seriously understates the scale of the thaw in their relations.

Turkish General Malih Tunia, director of the army’s training division, was in Damascus at the end of February 2002 for talks with Syrian generals on joint Syrian-Turkish exercises and training programs. Further plans for military co-operation — including exchanges between officer training schools — are also being discussed.

This is a serious breakthrough. After all, Turkey is a NATO member with a close military alliance with Israel — and Turkish and Israeli military forces now train regularly together. When Syria starts flirting in such circles, something important is under way.

Syrian diplomats are confirming the military talks in warm tones, telling the London-based Arab daily Al Hayat: “The talks focused on our friendly relations and cooperation in linking the militaries and reinforcing such ties in the service of the two peoples.”

Persian Gulf allies of the United States are reading the latest fiery speech from Brigadier Mohammed Baqer Zul Qadr, deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, with concern.

Speaking over Iranian state radio, Zul Qadr warned that rather than wait for any U.S. attack on the ‘axis of evil,’ Teheran would launch a preemptive strike against U.S. military installations in the Middle East. He stressed that this included any country or base used to prepare an American strike against Iran.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in Europe that President George Bush’s “axis of evil” slogan would rally Iranian opinion against him, Iran’s elected reformers in Parliament are seizing it as an opportunity to challenge the unelected Ayatollahs who keep tight control over the country’s security services.

A total of 172 reformist deputies — more than half the parliament — have demanded a full parliamentary investigation into the allegations that Iran tried to smuggle arms to Palestine and is harboring al-Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan on its soil.

“All the forces and structures of the regime, and all political factions, should take clear public positions on the issue. There should not be a moment’s hesitation in confronting any individuals, bands or illegal, uncontrolled groups which might be involved,” the resolution says. If the charges are true, it adds, those responsible should be punished.

The reformist deputies also directly challenged the powerful deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Bagher Zulghadr, for “irresponsible and provocative remarks, such as threatening to block the flow of oil from the whole region in the event of an American attack on Iran”.

There is great nervousness in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF)’s Manpower Division about the March 2002 military draft. In the November 2001 draft, the IDF barely filled the combat units — and recorded an alarming increase in “psychological” excuses.

Major-General Gil Regev, head of the Manpower Division, has been showing round a graph which demonstrates that if things go in such a manner, the number of deferments will equal the number of those drafted — with alarming implications for Israeli security. The problem, Regev says, is “the unbearable lightness of the psychiatrist.”

To lure Argentina’s 200,000 Jews away from their country’s economic collapse, Israel is budgeting $140 million — including a one-time-only special offer of an extra $20,000 in cash on top of the usual grants. The offer is good for this calendar year alone.

In 2001, 1,500 Argentine Jews settled in Israel, but Argentina’s recent financial crisis has already sparked 6,000 new applications. The money comes from a special world-wide appeal by the Jewish Agency, but it has the fervent backing of Ariel Sharon’s government.

Mr. Sharon has set a target of 1 million new Jewish immigrants over the coming decade — mainly from the United States, France and Argentina — to counter a demographic trend that threatens to make Jews a minority in Israel and the occupied territories.