An Essay By Erich Follath
I already mentioned Netanyahu. Notwithstanding our everlasting friendship and solidarity with Israel, I have to say, unfortunately, that the man is part of the problem in the Middle East, not part of the solution. Barack, he has literally made you look like a fool during your first term, and he didn't even seriously consider the moratorium on settlement policy that we had demanded. He is a cold, power-hungry politician, and he sensed that you were not going to stick your neck out too far for the Middle East, so as to not to jeopardize your re-election, and he was banking on the oh-so-accommodating Republican winning the election. But now it's time for straight talk, not out of revenge but in the knowledge that we lose our credibility when we allow our Israeli partner to get away with everything. Only by putting pressure on Netanyahu can we become an honest broker in the region once again.
Israel's greatest worry, understandably enough, is the prospect of a nuclear Iran. This would be extremely objectionable for us, as well, as it would presumably plunge the entire Middle East into an arms race. But even if we didn't manage to stop Iran on the road to nuclear weapons, the threat to the United States and Europe would be limited. We criticized Israel mildly at best for its policy of expansion into Palestinian territory, in violation of international law. Now we must finally demand something in return, and convince Netanyahu to impose a moratorium on new settlements and quickly enter into negotiations with the Palestinians. And if that doesn't happen, we should threaten him with consequences, at least behind the scenes, even going so far as to include a freeze on certain arms shipments.
Admittedly, this step would be unusual, but not without precedent. President George H.W. Bush also resorted to similar coercive measures. Netanyahu will be indignant, but he'll capitulate. "When push comes to shove, Israel has always complied with Washington's wishes," said Avi Primor, the former Israeli ambassador in Berlin.
We have to wrest assurances from the Palestinians that they will not use their new UN status for prestigious but false successes in the indictment of Israeli "crimes" before the International Criminal Court. And we should do everything possible to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is probably the most moderate leader we have seen on the Arab side in a long time. However, he will have to finally back away from extreme demands, like the right of return for all Palestinians, and descend into the difficult work of practical negotiation, addressing such questions as: What sort of territorial exchange with the Israelis is possible so that some of the settlements in the West Bank can remain in place, and what exactly do we expect in return?
The White House also can no longer rule out a direct dialogue with Hamas, provided it continues to guarantee that rockets will no longer be fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, practically encouraged Washington to enter into such talks. Although our assessment of the radical Islamists hasn't changed, they are an important player in the power structure. We also talk to the Taliban, without having the slightest liking for them. There is a benchmark here: It is possible to negotiate with radicals with national objectives, even if they include such an absurd demand as the territorial claim to practically the entire territory of Israel. Such dialogue is not an option with al-Qaida terrorists, who are fighting in Mali, Pakistan or Syria, and who are calling for a terrorist global revolution. They must be eliminated militarily.
Establishing a Balance
This brings me back to Syria and the al-Qaida groups fighting on the side of the rebels, such as the Al-Nusra Front, which we have classified as a terrorist organization. To be honest, I'm more worried about the very real threat of chemical weapons in Syria today than the potential threat of nuclear weapons in Iran. I'm opposed to drawing red lines in politics, because they deprive you of room for maneuver. But it was right to draw a red line with regard to the use of chemical weapons. I fear that the beleaguered Assad regime would be capable of such an act of madness, and I'm almost more afraid that radical rebel groups will resort to provocation to force us to intervene.
The horrific images of the suffering civilian population that we see on TV every night are also heartbreaking, but we have good reason for not having intervened militarily so far. We cannot take the risk that, in doing so, we will strengthen the radicals and will then have to worry about what happens to highly sophisticated weapons. It goes against my sense of justice, but I'm sufficiently pragmatic to say: Let's forego putting Assad on trial before an international court. Instead, let us quietly offer him safe passage to Russia or Venezuela, as long as he clears the way for a new future. Despite his claims to the contrary, there are indications that he prefers comfortable asylum to a martyr's death.
The United States must be interested in establishing a balance among the various religious forces in the Middle East. The Arab revolutions create both opportunities and risks. When I mentioned a newly strengthened "Sunni gang of four" in the region earlier, I wasn't suggesting that I view countries like Turkey (relatively democratic), Egypt and Qatar (somewhat democratic) and Saudi Arabia (fundamentalist) as being the same.
Of course, we would all prefer to see a largely secular Islamic model like Turkey's take hold everywhere. But that doesn't seem likely. The Muslim Brotherhood is pushing beyond Egypt's borders to amplify the role of religion in people's lives. It has made sharia law a cornerstone of the constitution. President Mohammed Morsi is becoming a great disappointment. As remarks he made in 2010 demonstrate, he is a perfect anti-Semite, describing Zionists as "the descendants of apes and pigs," even if he did intercede on our behalf in the Gaza conflict.
Before the Winter
The euphoria of the Arab spring has passed. We are now in the Arab fall, but by no means in the Arab winter. Some of the disappointment stems from the fact that the West views elections as a cure-all, the most important element on the road to progress. But functioning institutions are much more important, and we should assist in their development and in the expansion of civil society (which, by the way, our European friends are more adept at than we are).
It's a bitter pill to swallow for liberals, but a majority of people between Cairo and Alexandria now seem to put their faith in the Islamists. Perhaps the country needs a painful transitional period with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of the government, even if the only purpose of this period is to highlight their inability to improve the quality of life for ordinary people -- leading to their being voted out of office. The Arabs themselves must bring the Arab revolutions to an end.
But when it comes to Israel and Iran, Barack, be bold by sending a competent Middle East envoy into the minefield of the Middle East! I'm going to observe the international playing field from the sidelines for a while. Besides, I'm publishing my memoirs in 2013, under the working title "Creating History." And by the way, I really appreciate the fact that you, unlike so many others, aren't asking me whether I plan to run for president in four years and succeed you in the White House. Let me put it this way: If all goes well with your Middle East initiatives, it will also benefit the first female president in the history of the United States one day.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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