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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Middle East politics: Damascus cuisine


A lengthy meeting in Damascus on October 29th between the Iranian foreign minister, Manoushehr Mottaki, and the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad may herald the conclusion of a deal involving the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the freeing of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli corporal kidnapped near the border of the Gaza Strip four months ago. According to Palestinian accounts of the meeting, Iran is concerned to put a stop to the internecine fighting in Gaza and the West Bank, and has thus decided to give its blessing to the prisoner swap and to efforts to form a Palestinian government of national unity. The involvement of both Syria and Iran in the process is designed to reinforce the message that these two states hold the political initiative in Middle East affairs.

Iranian menu

The arrival of Mr Mottaki in Damascus came after Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, had put off plans to travel to Cairo to discuss the Shalit issue with General Omar Suleiman, the chief of Egyptian military intelligence, who has been mediating between the Palestinians and Israel in this matter. Hamas cited security issues as the reason for the delay, but a more likely explanation is that Iran wished to be seen to be consulted on the next steps to be taken by the Palestinian movement.

Hamas denies responsibility for the Shalit abduction, but it is clear that Mr Meshaal's approval is essential for the Israeli corporal's release to go ahead. Egyptian officials have indicated that they expect Mr Meshaal (or one of his senior associates) to come to Cairo in due course to discuss the final arrangements for a prisoner exchange. The deal is thought to entail 500 Palestinian prisoners being set free when Corporal Shalit is handed over to Egyptian security forces and a further 500 to be released once he is safely back in Israel.

The abduction of the Israeli soldier had the effect of disrupting efforts by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to reach an agreement with the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, on a political programme that, so the Palestinians hoped, would persuade the EU to lift its financial blockade on the Hamas government. Since the abduction, Mr Abbas and Mr Haniyeh have made several attempts to revive this agreement, but with little success. In the meantime, Israel has kept up the military pressure on Hamas with regular bombardments of the territory and, more recently, tensions between Hamas and the Fatah movement of Mr Abbas have erupted in pitched battles between the two sides.

In a dispatch from Damascus, Al Hayat, an Arabic newspaper, quoted Palestinian officials as saying that the Iranian foreign minister had urged Hamas to do its utmost to avoid being drawn into a confrontation with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Mr Mottaki was also said to have encouraged Islamic Jihad to continue in its efforts to mediate between the two largest Palestinian factions, while cautioning it against abandoning its principles, notably its opposition to the Palestinian national reconciliation document and its refusal to take part in any political programme within the framework of the Oslo accords.

It was clear from the comments attributed to Mr Mottaki that Iran is confident that the US is on the retreat in the Middle East on several fronts--its Iraq adventure has turned into a costly failure, Israel's attempt to destroy Hizbullah in Lebanon backfired, and the NATO forces in Afghanistan are having their work cut out in keeping a resurgent Taliban at bay. Iran also seems to be convinced that the US does not have the means to stop it proceeding with its nuclear programme.

Weak links

The weakest links among the allies of the US in the region are the Lebanese government and the PA. However, Mr Mottaki's reported remarks suggest that Iran is reluctant to sanction a coup de grace against Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, just yet. Al Hayat quoted him as saying that Iran considers that civil strife in Lebanon or in the Palestinian Territories would merely serve the purposes of the US. However, Hizbullah, Iran's principal ally in Lebanon, remains intent on bolstering its political position, with or without the co-operation of Mr Siniora. Likewise, Hamas and Iran clearly aim to derive maximum political capital from any exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Shalit.

This does not appear to be a recipe for peaceful outcomes in these two inter-related conflicts, as many other parties--Israel, Fatah, Hizbullah's Lebanese opponents--can be expected to stand their ground against any such Iranian-inspired power play.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
Source: ViewsWire

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