New Realities in a Changing Middle East


New developments in the Middle East in recent times have forced a rethinking of many assumptions hitherto considered unchangeable facts. The reverses suffered by the US in the War on Terror, its inability to influence recent events in Lebanon, its failure to achieve international consensus on Iran’s nuclear programme and its inability to see through meaningful developments in the occupied territories are influencing public perception in the region against the superpower. What is the shape of the future Middle East ? Will a new US president continue the same engagement with the region? or will he opt for a different course of action and work to enhance US image in the world? The discussion to be led by Richard Beeston, the Foreign Editor of The Times will focus some attention on the Middle East today, with possibly some future perspectives.
Chairman: Dr Saeed Shehabi: Since we came to this earth the Middle East has always been a land of events. It has never stopped being in the forefront of news. And when we have someone from the Times agreeing to talk about the new realities in the Middle East is shows how much the perception that the Middle East is undergoing change has been over the past three decades.
             Are these nominal changes or are they just among the evenst that come and go remains to be seen, especially in relation to the Middle East crisis, the Palestinian problem, what seems to be an agreement on a truce between Israel and Hamas, what appears to be an agreement  on troops between Israel and Hamas, the Iranian problem and the nuclear issue. President Bush is leaving office. He has promised that there would be a Palestinian state before the end of the year. These are intermingling realities. They are new things, they are not simple occurances which happen every day.
Richard Beeston: When I was first invited a few weeks ago I thought this would be simple talk to give because I am very much of the mind that throughout the bulk of President Bush’s term in office, particularly with regard to the Middle East peace process there has been no movement of significance and little emphasis from the US of trying to get a deal.
We have had treaties signed like the road map for peace, the London Conference – there is another one in Berlin today – but I have never had the impression that this US administration has really put the heavy lifting required to move the process forward.
I say this as someone who was based in Jerusalem and I covered the first Bush president just after the first Gulf War. And there with James Baker and George Bush senior I did witness America really pushing to achieve something. The Madrid conference, while it did not result in what we hoped it would result in, was  nevertheless a significant event in its time.
Something happened recently which made me think again about my assessment of the region. I missed the first indication when Qatar intervened to mediate between Hizbollah and the Lebanese government. To my astonishment they pulled off the deal which has eluded other intermediaries for months. We now have a president in Lebanon and a semblance of peace. I am sure since it is Lebanon, it won’t last very long but nevertheless an outside party, a party in the Arab world, intervened and pulled off something quite significant.
I think Lebanese across the various religions will welcome it and we seem to have some renaissance in Beirut and we hope that some stability will occur.
We then have the announcement that the Turks intervened between the Syrians and the Israelis in indirect talks held in Turkey. Talks were under way at quite a senior level.  And we have the Egyptians intervening to announce that a truce had been signed between Israel and Hamas. I think this is very significant because Hamas does not recognise the existence of Israel and Israel does not want to talk to Hamas. Yet the two sides managed, through the good offices of the Egyptian government, to reach an accord. I may be speaking to soon because I know that today there was an incident on the border and perhaps the thing is falling apart. Olmert may not be prime minister tomorrow because his coalition is collapsing. But nevertheless something quite significant happened. 
The French have also been involved belatedly. President Sarkozy visited Israel today and he now is now inviting President Assad to the independence day ceremony next month. And President Shimon Peres will be there and President Olmert will be there. There seems to be an attempt to move the Syrian track forward after eight years of stalled negotiations.
This is new territory for me. I am very much of the school, and I am sure that many people in this room are too, that the process only moves forward if America wants it to. America is the big influence in the region. Whatever you think of the Americans, they are the big power. And there is evidence of four or five other countries playing really quite separate roles completely separate from Condolezza Rice, the US  Secretary of State’s six visits to the region and Bush’s two visits which produced very little. This is interesting and I hope it will continue.
We are seeing the demise and the last months of  the US administration and we are looking already towards the advent of a new administration – either that of Barak Obama or John McCain. Obama, when he first started his race promised a lot, particularly his remarks that he would be prepared to shake hands with the Syrian leader or the Iranian leader.  This astonished many people and they thought it would be a new type of American policy. Since then we have seen a stepping back from that rather bold statement.
We have had a speech by Obama to APEC  the Israel lobby in Washington where he seemed to suggest much much toughter talks saying that he would defend Israel at whatever cost. And we have seen other ancedotal evidence such as two Muslim women who attended his rallies and were asked to go to the back of the room because they did not want the shot of Obamal with them in the picture. That may have been one over zealous aid trying to intervene but the evidence suggests it would be extremely difficult for some like Obama to make some grand gesture, some grand leap of faith.
With regards to McCain his policy is far closer to that of Bush. He has already said he is prepared to stay in Iraq for as long as it takes. Up to 100 years was the quote he gave us. I suppose on that front, to the Americans surprise, the situation in Iraq appears to be stabilising. Before the end of this month some big oil investments will be announced by big oil companies. The country now has money. Prime Minister Maliki has achieved what few people thought he could do in Basrah, Amara and Mosul and now he is talking about Diayla  province as well. It may well be that because the assertion of the Iraqi government we will see fewer US forces in Iraq.
I personally don’t think  that any Iraqi government is going to call on all American forces to leave because I do not think that the authorities there could adequately defend themselves without American support but  we are seeing a very different Iraqi government emerging after the invasion.

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