Georgie Anne Geyer

Middle East Drama Needs Someone to Take Leading Role

WASHINGTON -- First, there was that moment of hope in the Middle East. Even as Israeli troops massed on poor but ever-obstreperous Gaza's borders late last month, the world took a deep breath. A ceasefire was signed between Israel and the radical Hamas!

Even better, the new Egyptian Islamic president, Mohamed Morsi, arrived confidently on the scene. It seemed that he would honor Egypt's peace treaty with Israel after all.

Oh, some harpies had to ask sarcastically where was Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority that has been ruling the West Bank with notable moderation and good sense. His elder statesman's face was never seen during the moment, although any peace really rested with him.

The Israelis withdrew, Hamas of Gaza stood still for the moment, and President Morsi went home to Egypt. Take a deep breath and get a waterpipe and some Arabic coffee to calm our nerves.

As it happened, we will need it. For no sooner than Morsi was back in Cairo than he announced he was taking on all powers of the nation. No one or body could challenge him. The so-called "secular democrats," who thought this was their revolution, poured into Tahrir Square yet again, while Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood physically attacked the judiciary buildings.

Meanwhile, back in the Fertile Crescent, it was President Abbas' moment. He traveled to the United Nations to speak and to put up his Palestinian entity before the General Assembly for an upgrade in status to a "nonmember observer state of the U.N.," like only the Vatican. The vote was massively for the upgrade, by 138 votes, with only the United States, Canada, Israel and a few South Pacific mini-states voting against it.

And once again, the moment, with its silly hopes for this part of the world, was now nearly forgotten. Just as quickly as President Morsi turned in Cairo, the Israeli government turned on the West Bank Palestinians under Abbas, whom they had been praising for moderation and for working with effectively on police matters.

The first Israeli punishment was to announce the building of 3,000 more settlement homes on the West Bank, and particularly on a super-sensitive plot of land called "E1," which would cut off from the Palestinians that part of East Jerusalem that was to be the future Palestinian capital.

As if that were not enough -- Israeli liberals immediately pointed out that yet more building like this would destroy any hope for the two-state solution -- the Israeli government then refused to transfer $118 million in funds that it regularly collects for the Palestinian authority. Without this, there is no way the authority can pay salaries, collect taxes, even exist.

The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the far right bloc, had promised President Barack Obama that he would not build more settlements, especially in the E1 bloc, seemed to ring no bells in Israeli government offices.

This is not to say that all Israelis approve these provocative gestures by Netanyahu and his ultraconservative religious/Sephardic/Russian bloc. Indeed, most of the liberals, who are linked with the original Ashkenazi Jews who escaped the Holocaust and saw Israel in idealistic terms, are horrified by Netanyahu's acts, which they see as isolating Israel ever further within its fears and aggressions.

The country's most prestigious newspaper, Haaretz, which has kept its reputation for honesty and integrity, editorialized on Dec. 2: "This is a particularly grave and dangerous decision. Instead of internalizing the fact that a sweeping majority of nations are sick of the Israeli occupation and want a Palestinian state, Israel is entrenching itself even further in its own rejectionism, and deepening its isolation and the disconnect between itself and the international reality. ...

"What is particularly astounding, however, is the violation of Israel's commitment to the United States not to build in E1, given that construction there would preclude the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank. After America was left as virtually the last supporter of Israel's position at the United Nations, Israel is repaying it with a resounding slap in the face."

Other highly respected Israelis, such as former Israeli ambassador to Berlin Shimon Stein, point to the long-term erosion in Israeli-European relations. Quoted in the Financial Times, Stein said that the Israeli policies were no longer attuned to the broader European "zeitgeist" -- and that the two worlds differ on philosophical issues such as international law and the uses of force.

With every turn in the drama that is the Middle East, one sees that there is no way the primary players will solve this themselves. The U.S. alone would have to be a true negotiator, open to both sides. The last time this was tried was in the early 1990s, when Secretary of State James Baker threatened Israel with no loan guarantees -- and it worked.

But we are once again letting the two sides continue to kill themselves, while we think of China. Can Obama do better by being tougher in his next four years? It is the only way.

More like Georgie Anne Geyer