US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas are deep in top-secret conversations on how to restart peace negotiations after a three-year stalemate. The trouble is that they are acting as though they are all alone on some remote Middle East island, oblivious to the eyes in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, and Hizballah in Beirut on the lookout for the first chance to throw a spanner in the works.
Nothing appears able to cool the enthusiasm raised by Kerry’s tentative plan for renewed peace talks, say DEBKA Weekly’s sources, citing officials close to the preparations apace in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah for the negotiations to begin.
In the first place, say those optimists, President Barack Obama has given the Secretary of State unprecedented carte blanche to go for an accord. (See the opening item in this issue).
Then, Binyamin Netanyahu believes his historic legacy as three-term Israel prime minister is within his reach. Like Obama, who is counting down the 1,200 days left of his presidency, Netanyahu has high hopes that after he bows out, a few months after Obama, he will be remembered as the Likud leader who led Israel to peace with the Palestinian people, capping Likud Prime Minister Menahem Begin’s epic feat of achieving the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the first with an Arab country.
A rosy picture with a key missing element
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is in the game because, at 78, he is shrewd enough to see that his administration’s only chance of survival in the current Middle East and world economic climate – least of all build an independent Palestinian state – is to procure massive and steady economic sustenance from the US and Israel. It will be on tap provided he sits down with Israeli negotiators.
Abbas feels he has arrived at a carpe diem moment for Palestinian statehood: He finds Israel in an unusually flexible mode and a US Secretary of State smart enough to win the cooperation of Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states in his peace effort.
The Palestinian leader reckons that the Gulf rulers, after showering billions of dollars on Egypt to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood and restore the bond between the army and secular parties, might spare a few billions to bolster the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah against its rival, the Hamas government in Gaza.
All these factors seriously contribute to the air of optimism hanging over the prospect of returning to the Middle East peace track.
Yet a key element is missing from this rosy picture, DEBKA Weekly's Mideast experts comment:
The US is short of credible military assets on hand in the Mideast for fighting off forces determined to derail the process.
Obama reverts to his Sunni bloc via Mid-East peacemaking
By now, it is common knowledge that President Obama is averse to investing credible military assets for backing up this or any other diplomatic process. He is trusting Secretary of State Kerry to vindicate his philosophy for keeping the US military clear of any Middle East involvement after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, because better results are gained by diplomacy and economic measures than by force of arms.
Obama has never given up on his original plan to establish a pro-American moderate Sunni Muslim bloc. Kerry has been tasked with reaching this objective via Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy, which is configured to bring Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf emirates aboard a pro-US grouping with Israeli military and intelligence backing.
This grouping will be designed to challenge the Russian-backed radical Shiite bloc of Iran, Syria and Hizballah.
That plan started off on the wrong foot, as far President Obama was concerned.
The new Sunni alliance he envisioned went into action on July 3 for a goal he would never have approved, backing for a military coup to topple the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo. Israel was in on the action with cooperation and intelligence input.
This placed Kerry in a quandary – or two.
Moscow and Tehran will not let the pro-US bloc call the shots
Although Washington disapproves of the Egyptian coup, the US diplomat needs the blessing of Egyptian, Saudi and Persian Gulf rulers to carry forward his plan for bringing Israelis and Palestinians around the negotiating table.
His other difficulty is that the moderate Sunni bloc sponsored by America is on the losing side of the Syrian war. The winners, Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and Hizballah, will on no account let John Kerry – and certainly not Binyamin Netanyahu – call the shots in the region.
To pull them up short and show them how far the Middle East has changed, the Russian-Shiite bloc is holding in its quiver three sharp arrows on the ready.
1. The P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The long dialogue between six world powers and Iran has acquired a diplomatic life of its own, over and above the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program which it was designed to address.
Wednesday July 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin was reported by the Russian daily Kommersant to be planning his first visit to Tehran in eight years, arriving on August 12, six days after incoming Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes office. The theme of his visit will be the revival of the P5+1 dialogue with Iran. Although the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “I cannot confirm this,” it was obvious to the US and Europeans that the Russian leader had acted to pre-empt their preparations for a fresh round of talks with Tehran under the new president.
A Russian-Iranian nuclear deal would make the P5+1 redundant
2. A Russian-Iranian nuclear deal?
If Putin and Rouhani come to a bilateral deal on Iran’s nuclear program during that visit, DEBKA Weekly's sources say, the international group’s diplomatic track with Tehran will be made redundant.
This joint Russian-Iranian nuclear arrangement would cement their partnership behind Syria’s Bashar Assad and strengthen their alliance.
A Moscow-Tehran nuclear transaction would cause great concern in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. By exploiting Obama’s reluctance to employ military force in any Middle East issue, this rival bloc will make itself the ultimate pacesetter in the Mideast and Persian Gulf regions.
3. Restoring Hamas as anti-Israel center of Palestinian resistance
The radical Palestinian Hamas has lost its center of gravity twice – once when it deserted Assad and lost Iranian and Hizballah’s financial support, and again last May with the abdication of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, supporter of its parent, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The last nail in its coffin was driven in by the military coup which unseated the Brotherhood in Cairo on July 3.
Hamas and its regime in the Gaza Strip are on their uppers, with no financial backers, no prospects, and at the mercy of the Egyptian military who suspect them of conniving with escaped Brotherhood leaders to stage a counter-coup in Cairo.
Hamas and Hizballah wait in the wings for a chance to strike Israel
But in this volatile region, no one would be surprised if Hamas tried to save itself from a desperate plight by ingratiating itself with its old allies, Iran, Syria and Hizballah, with an offer to restore the Gaza Strip as the center of Palestinian military resistance to Israel as well as Egypt.
The Palestinian radicals have not let the grass grow under their feet. They have molded 7,000 armed Bedouins with ties to Al Qaeda into the core of an uprising against the new regime in Cairo. With Russian and Iranian military and financial aid, Hamas could soon be back on its feet.
If this happens, Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah would take a beating. He would be hard pressed to stick with the Kerry initiative and the peace track with Israel.
3. A Hizballah offensive against Israel.
Hizballah backed by Syria might initiate a military clash with Israel. The Syrian ruler has already opened the door for Hizballah, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian terrorist groups to deploy on the Golan border with Israel, among them the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command. A major military outbreak of aggression against Israel could torpedo John Kerry's plan.