The Rise of the Hard-liners?

January 06, 2006
Pierre Heumann
Pierre Heumann


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lies on his deathbed, and alongside him perhaps the hope of peace in the Middle East. Iran's rabble-rousing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens the fragile situation -- potentially leading to a coflict that would engulf more than just the region.

Tel Aviv - Ariel Sharon leaves the political stage in Israel as a hard-liner who turned into a statesman. However, to praise him as a prince of peace just because he pulled Israel out of the Gaza Strip would be an exaggeration. He never tried to negotiate with the Palestinians, nor did he expect fine promises in return. He saw them not as partners but as untrustworthy enemies.

Sharon turned his back on Gaza because he could hear the ticking of a demographic time bomb: 8,000 settlers verus 1.3 million Palestinians just seemed like bad odds. As a general -- which he's remained to this day -- he crowed about "unilateral withdrawal" once it was clear that his troops couldn't hold the front.

Sharon just strove for conflict management: He wanted to reduce Israeli-Palestinian friction points. This led to a mini-solution that doesn't promise harmony -- but it's still a step in the right direction, since it allows for the founding of a Palestinian state.

Sharon has never said in public whether he'd pull out of the West Bank, or at least from areas of it. But anyone who listens carefully to his advisers and ministers can guess how he imagined the future. Justice Minister Tsipi Livni said two months ago that it wouldn't take much imagination to see where Sharon pictured the borders of Israel -- and Livni, at the time, was making a tour of the new wall that separates Israel from West Jordan.

In other words: little settlements would be dismantled and two or three big settlement blocks erected. The Palestinian state would be smaller than most Palestinians imagine it today; but expecting more from an Israeli government would simply be unrealistic. Without Sharon, though, even this mini-solution could slip into obscurity.

Danger of a third Intifada

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' power is visibly crumbling. He makes no effort to push through his declared goal: the disarmament of the militants. Abbas has surrenders to opponents within his government and has left the door open to the spread of terrorist activities, making the situation uncomfortable for Israel even after their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In the last three months extremists have launched more than 200 rockets on Israel's border region from Gaza, which should in theory be under Abbas' control.

Projectiles with a range of 25 kilometers are being developed so they can attack targets in the center of Israel. Escalation is pre-programmed. In light of this toleration of violence the hopes of the Palestinian Authorities of being accepted for peace negotiations by Sharon's possible successors are fading.

At the same time the radical Islamist group Hamas can expect to beat Fatah in the upcoming elections on 25 January. If Hamas make into the Palestinian government there will be a major political shake-up. Abbas could try to postpone the election so as to avoid defeat of his Fatah party but this scenario offers little hope: Hamas would presumably respond with a third Intifada.

The threat from Iran

Developments in Iran are even more worrying. While the European Union and United States attempt to use diplomatic methods to dissuade the ayatollahs from developing nuclear capabilities, Israel and Iran are engaged in a heated arms race. Both countries are clearly preparing for an era where generals, rather than diplomats, call the shots.

Indicative of this are the threats thundering back and forward between Jerusalem and Tehran. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for Israel to be wiped of the map, which is logical considering the ayatollahs have never considered the Jewish state to be legitimate. Ahmadinejad's hateful tirades are making even the most peace-inclined leaders ask themselves if maybe his comments should be taken more seriously.

Israel's chief of intelligence warns that the international community only has four more months to bring an end to Iran's nuclear program. After that diplomatic efforts will be useless. The point of no return will have been reached and no one will be able to prevent Ahmadinejad from building himself the ultimate weapon.

The world could then teeter on the edge of apocalypse. Especially if Ahmadinejad suddenly feels called by a higher power to prepare the way for the return of the Mahdi, Islam's prophesized redeemer who supposedly will appear on earth just before judgement day. The hate-spouting president seriously considers himself a mystical visionary filled with "holy light." In order to prepare for the Mahdi, Ahmadinejad wants to use Iran's nuclear program to challenge both the United States and Israel.

Without such nuclear ambitions, his combination of anti-Semitism and messianism would be an internal matter for the Iranian theocracy. But as it stands now, an already dangerous mixture of Iranian hate takes on a highly toxic military dimension. A politician who dreams of the return of the Mahdi simply has no place in his worldview for non-believers.

Iran makes no secret of its nuclear ambitions. However, the country hides its true intentions. Tehran brazenly claims an atomic program would ensure its independence from oil. Only small minority in the west still believe the claim that such technology would only be used for civilian purposes. Why would one of the world's oil-richest nations ever need nuclear reactors?

While the EU and America still try to convince Iran not to develop a nuclear bomb via diplomatic means, the well-focused ayatollahs diligently continue with their plans. By repeatedly pushing new diplomatic initiatives with the aim of curbing their craze for nukes, Germany, Britain and France are letting Iran play them for fools. Iranian diplomats speak of peace in English and call for war in Farsi.

Preparing for war

Since the Iranian bomb is a global menace, the nuclear dispute with the Islamic Republic must be pushed to the top of the international community's agenda this year. But the problem will probably not be solved by diplomacy alone. Russia and China would veto any call for sanction in the UN Security Council. But peaceful means are more likely to fail due to the fact that Ahmadinejad wants nuclear weapons not only for political reasons, but also for ideological ones. The type of diplomacy necessary to hold a rational dialogue with an ideological regime has yet to be invented. And that is why Washington, Jerusalem and Ankara are already considering scenarios for war.

As part of the militaristic pre-game, Tehran has the ability to whip up its allies in Gaza and Beirut including the militias of Hamas and Hezbollah. Both are supplied with money and weapons by Iran. If the ayatollahs can be kept from getting a nuclear bomb, they'll still have the potent weapon of terror on the backburner.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent for the weekly Swiss newsmagazine "Weltwoche"

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