Thursday, August 14, 2008

"..Some compare Bush's vocal, but less than substantive backing to Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" to its tepid support for embattled Saashkavili.."

From MEPGS, August 14, 2008
"The events in Georgia are not being lost on Middle East leaders. Some compare America's vocal, but less than substantive backing to Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" to its, so far, tepid support for the embattled Georgian government. Others, notably the Israelis, see a warning in too much reliance on the US for long standing pledges of support. "There is no doubt that Georgia has an impact," said one senior Israeli official this week. And for this official as well as most of his colleagues, the issue they see as being impacted is Iran.
Even before the events of this week in Georgia, Israeli officials were growing uncomfortable with US policy. They were particularly miffed at the presence of Under Secretary of State William Burns at the recent talks in Geneva with the Europeans, Russians, Chinese and Iranians. "They gave us practically no warning of this clear change in US policy," said one veteran israeli official.
Even European diplomats admit that time is running out on the dialogue with Iran. Tehran's "non-response" to the package offered at Geneva has led some to say that the process is reaching what one European diplomat calls a "crossroads." He says that shortly it will be a question of military action to prevent Iran from attaining the capability to produce a nuclear weapon and acceptance of one.
Despite expert opinion that Israel lacks the capability to retard, let alone "take out" Iran's nuclear infrastructure, privately and publicly Jerusalem has continued to reiterate its determination to prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb. And top US officials take this threat increasingly seriously. "The Israelis have used the words `existential threat' and `holocaust' too many times in connection with Iran for us not to be worried," says one high ranking US official. And for every argument that Israel will be restrained by circumstances or lack of ability, there seems to be a counter argument put forth by outside observers, US officials and, of course, the Israelis themselves.
For example, a recent, widely circulated paper by the respected researcher, David Albright and two other colleagues, makes a compelling argument that Iran's nuclear development program is so diffuse and easily reconstituted that an attack could well be counter productive. And it certainly cannot be compared to the relatively easy operation against Iraq's centralized program that was destroyed by the Israeli airforce in 1981. But one key US official points out that the Israeli success in 1981 far exceeded expectations. More important, Iraq's program was not --to use that phrase again -- an existential threat to Israel. Another argument put forward by skeptics of preemptive strike is the need for permission by the US for the Israeli airforce to overfly Iraqi airspace -- the most likely route to Iranian nuclear installations. "The last thing the shia-led Iraqi regime would want to see is their airspace being used as a route to punish their friends and co-religionists next door," says one US analyst. The answer: According to one key US official: "The Israelis aren't going to ask until the last moment and I can't believe the Administration saying no."
An Obama Administration may not be so amenable. Top Obama advisors say that as President, one of the first things he would do is to tell Israel that the military option is off the table. These advisors see other significant changes in Middle East policy coming, should the junior Senator from Illinois become the forty-fourth President. It will all start with Iraq, says one key Obama advisor. While Obama's pledge to withdraw a brigade a
month from combat in Iraq is likely to be scuttled ["Like most campaign promises, this one won't be kept," says one Obama foreign policy advisor]. Still, like the candidate, his top advisors see Iraq, in the words of one, " an albatross" around the neck of the US. "We are going to get out, not hang on like the Israelis did all those years in Lebanon."
A number of analysts note that the Maliki government will ease the way towards an American departure. Says one European diplomat, "Iraqi nationalism is back." And American officials, who are having a difficult time negotiating a status of forces agreement ("SOFA") with Baghdad can attest to that. This `sofa' is turning into a `futon', quipped one veteran observer, noting the Iraqi reluctance to grant the US sweeping powers when the UN mandate for the American presence in Iraq expires at the end of the year.
One area where US officials appear to be making significant progress is in clearing away the obstacles to full diplomatic relations with Libya. It is what one US official calls the "poster child" for Administration success in Middle East non- proliferation and anti-terrorism. But Libya is still entangled in the last issues connected with the downing of Pan Am 103 and the bombing of La Bell Disco as Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) has put an effective hold until compensation issues are fully resolved. David Welch has spent many hours trying to resolve this dispute and, according to informed sources is on the verge of a breakthrough. With Libyan agreement to provide up to $1 billion more in compensation, the way seems to be clear for Secretary Rice to visit Libya in September. Also in September, it is hoped there will be enough time for the Senate to confirm a full fledged ambassador to Tripoli, the first in decades.
With Secretary Rice on her way to Paris and Tblisi, in an effort to deal with the Georgian crisis, her latest trip to the Middle East to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has been, at least temporarily, delayed. But participants in the latest round, held here in Washington earlier this month, say she shows no signs in her desire to see the issue through in the remaining months of the Administration.
Israeli negotiators, notably Foreign Minister Livni reportedly were less than enthusiastic about engaging in this
latest round. She, like former Defense Minister Mofaz is engaged in a competition to succeed Olmert as head of the leading Israeli political party and therefore the country's putative new Prime Minister. It has been speculated that Secretary Rice, absent an agreement by year's end, would like to make public the progress that has been made so far. But Livni, in particular, is reportedly opposed to such a move, since it could undercut her credentials in her race against Mofaz [Prompting one US official to comment "Israelis produce more politics than they can consume"]. However, according to informed sources, the Israelis were supported in this stance by their Palestinian interlocutors, who fear the flip side of highlighting progress -- the intractable issues still on the table. 

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