No Finger Lifted to Slow the Middle East Countdown to War Escalation
Israeli and Hamas leaders have been hurling shrill threats right and left since three Palestinian terrorist groups slapped down a deadline to meet their demands over the Israeli hostage, Corp. Gilead Shalit. But the loudest effect is generated by the Bush administration’s silence.
Monday morning, July 3, “Military Community 3” was issued by Hamas’ armed wing, the Popular Resistance Committees and Islamic Army, with a deadline for 6 a.m. Tuesday, July 4: “If the enemy does not agree to our humanitarian demands [i.e. the release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners including women and minors and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza], we will regard the case as closed. They added: “… the enemy will bear full responsibility for future consequences.”
Monday afternoon, the Israeli prime minister’s office shot back a rejection of the Palestinian ultimatum.
“The Israeli government will not bow to blackmail by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas which are ruled by murderous terrorist groups and will not negotiate the release of prisoners,” the Israeli statement said. Moreover, “the PA is fully responsible for Gilead Shalit’s safety and his return in good health to his family.”
From that moment on, Jerusalem sank into bellicose rhetoric.
Israeli defense minister Amir Peretz said: “I advise Bashar Assad to open his eyes because the responsibility is laid at his door.” This threat against an incumbent ruler, blunt even by Middle East standards, referred to Hamas operations chief Khaled Meshaal working out of Damascus under the protection of Syrian military intelligence.
The trouble about this threat, apart from betraying the minister’s lack of experience in national crisis management, is that he joins a row of great world powers, who threatened the Syrian ruler with extinction and ended up backing off and leaving Bashar Asad sitting more firmly than ever on his presidential seat in Damascus.
In Moscow, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni talked to Russian president Vladimir Putin, then warned that the Gilead Shalit hostage affair could lead to a regional war escalation. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, after his mediation bid collapsed, hurried over to Saudi Arabia for an appeal to King Abdullah to use his influence with Assad – not Hamas – to defuse the situation before it hurtles out of control.
But debkafile‘s Middle East and military sources calculate that none of the recipients of these appeals is much scared about the prospect of a general Middle East flare-up. Russia, indeed, has a vested interest in a regional war. Putin is making good use of the US president George W. Bush’s preoccupations in Iraq, Korea and other parts of the world, to build Syria up as a jumping-off base for Russian penetration of the Middle East. Our sources report that hundreds of Russian military engineers are busy establishing two big naval bases in Syria’s Mediterranean ports of Tartus and Latakia. While listening to Tzipi LIvni’s appeal, the thoughts running through the Russian president’s head were most likely about the ways in which an Israel-Syrian military conflagration could be exploited to promote his plans.
Saudi King Abdullah is Hamas’s longstanding sponsor, ideologically and financially, in the same way as Riyadh backed the Taliban regime of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The impression he must have gained from Mubarak’s peroration was that Hamas, the Saudi kingdom’s Sunni fundamentalist protegee, is going from strength to strength and that most Palestinians applaud its use of the Israeli hostage to buy the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The Saudi monarch will therefore hold back from trying to drum moderation into Hamas heads. He may go through the motions of talking to Asad about injecting and element of calm in the situation – but only as a token favor to the Egyptian president rather than a practical step. He is perfectly aware that Iran is the dominant influence in Damascus at the moment.
The missing factor in this churning crisis is Washington, where no decision has been taken how to handle the Gilead Shalit kidnap and its harmful ripple effect through the region. As long as the United States stands on the sidelines, there is nothing to arrest the Middle East plunge into perilous waters.