Good analysis from The Economist:
Mar 6th 2008 CAIRO From The Economist print edition
America's Arab and Israeli friends in the Middle East are finding diplomatic solutions hard to find or sell
NO STRANGER to crises, the Middle East is having to cope with several at once, ranging from bloodshed in Gaza and the stalling of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks to the struggle over Lebanon, Iraq's war and Iran's nuclear ambitions. But the puzzle's pieces are interlocked. Troubles in one place affect those in others, as local tussles increasingly reflect a wider regional contest that pits a fading American administration and its anxious allies against a robust “resistance” front aligned with Iran.
Last week's bloody flare-up in Gaza, which left more than 110 Palestinians and two Israelis dead, was a case in point. The high Palestinian death toll and a widely aired threat by an Israeli minister to unleash a shoah—a Hebrew biblical term meaning holocaust—on the Palestinians in Gaza, had repercussions far beyond the Qassam rockets' range. America's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, had been expected to come to the region to nudge forward the talks between Israel and the rump Palestinian government in the West Bank. Instead, she arrived to find them suspended, though they will now resume.
Gaza's agony cast a dark shadow in neighbouring Arab capitals too. In the lead-up to an annual summit of Arab leaders, scheduled for the end of this month in the Syrian capital, Damascus, America's allies had been manoeuvring to squeeze Syria, which they blame for meddling in Lebanon, for undermining Mr Abbas's peace efforts and for supporting non-Arab Iran. Egypt and Saudi Arabia had been corralling support from like-minded governments to boycott the meeting, unless Syria prompted its protégés in Lebanon to accept an Arab League plan to resolve the long-festering constitutional crisis over the choice of a Lebanese president.
But the gory images from Gaza may have trumped such plans. With an internet poll on the popular al-Jazeera channel's website showing that 87% of Arabs back more rocket attacks on Israel, pro-Western Arab leaders sought to fend off charges that their hostility to Hamas made them partners in Israeli crimes, as an Egyptian MP claimed in a passionate speech. America's friends were further embarrassed by an investigative report in Vanity Fair magazine suggesting that America had plotted, following Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections in January 2006, to use security forces under Mr Abbas's control to oust the Islamists from power by force. Jordan and Egypt, both at America's behest, apparently armed and trained them.
Instead of focusing on Lebanon, the summit may now provide a grandstand for Syria, which backs Hamas, to berate fellow Arabs for failing to aid their stranded brethren in Gaza. There had been talk that the summit would see an Arab peace offer to Israel, broader than the one first made at a previous summit in Beirut, in 2002, which was scotched by Hamas's suicide-bombing of an Israeli restaurant soon after, provoking massive Israeli incursions into Palestinian towns. The Arab talk now is of conditioning any such move on Israel making unequivocal concessions, such as a freeze on building Jewish settlements—or new houses in them—on the West Bank, or a release of Palestinian prisoners.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, the beleaguered pro-Western parliamentary majority, which has faced a long insurrection by the Syrian-backed opposition led by the political-cum-military Islamist Shia group, Hizbullah, was further undermined by the arrival off the Lebanese coast of American warships. Intended to signal support for the majority, the show of force instead revived unhappy memories of previous American interventions in Lebanon, seeming to strengthen Hizbullah's contention that its critics are American puppets. Fearing similar shame by association, Egypt's government-controlled press played down Ms Rice's decision, announced during a stopover in Cairo, to release $100m in aid suspended by Congress due to Egypt's poor human-rights record.
The alliance of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas also scored with the arrival of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Baghdad for what was billed as the first peaceful visit by an Iranian head of state in four centuries. Yet the tally in the proxy struggle between America and Iran has not all been in the latter's favour. The UN Security Council, including Russia and China, on which Iran often relies to block American proposals, has just passed a third, more punishing, range of sanctions against Iran for failing to stop enriching uranium.
Arab nervousness about Iran's rise as a regional power has been increasing. But whenever American unpopularity in the region goes up due to its support for Israeli actions such as those against the Palestinians in Gaza, the task of pro-Western Arabs in facing down assorted rejectionists becomes harder. Hence their gloom.