A buzz of secret talks in the Middle East

Some progress in the Israel-PA-Syria standoff may be in the works, as reported by sources ranging from the Jerusalem Post to WorldNetDaily and others. A lot of the leaks may be misleading, to prevent the secret talks from being blocked by premature publicity.

Nevertheless, some of the elements seem to be:

1. A big US-Israeli effort to separate Syria from the "Shiite crescent" --- the alliance from Shiites in Iraq, to Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The weak link is Syria, which has a Shiite-like minority regime. Israel is willing to demilitarize the Golan Heights and cede it back to Syria, on the same lines as the peace agreement with Egypt, which demilitarized the Sinai desert. The United States is key, in part because it provides the security force in the Sinai to monitor the agreement with Egypt. The US and/or NATO would have a similar role on the Golan Heights.

Strategically, such a move would cut the Shiite crescent, and isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iranian expansion would be hindered in the Levant.

2. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms are openly concerned about Iranian aggression. Saddam Hussein is no longer there to be the balancing scorpion against Ahmadinejad. The Saudis are not afraid of Israel, because there is no threat from there. An incentive for the Saudis might be joint control over the El Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which is now run by the Jordanian-influenced Muslim Waqf.

3. Parts of the Jerusalem may be accorded extraterritorial status by Israel, as an incentive to the Palestinian Authority and to the Saudis to have a Vatican-like enclave there. The PA could claim that its capital is Jerusalem, just as Israel does. A dual capital is not unprecedented: Berlin had such a status during the Cold War.  There would be few security implications for Israel, any more than the Vatican poses a security threat to the Italian government in Rome.

4. Syria would have to expel its various terrorist headquarters in Damascus, including Hamas. The US is training Fatah-PA forces to maintain dominance over the fundamentalist radicals in Hamas. Whether that will work over the longer run is anybody's guess. But the US, Israel and Europe would try to provide a Marshal Plan for the PA territories, as an incentive.

5. The Palestinians would proclaim a state of their own. Israel would have a heated debate over any territorial concessions, which must not undermine its strategic positions on the West Bank. Israeli political opinion has always been that it's better to deal with an organized PA state that controls its territory, and which provides a "return address" for any aggressive moves against Jerusalem. That has worked with Jordan, for example.

6. A perceived "Camp David" success for the US Administration would strengthen America's hand and credibility in Iraq. Victory in clearing and holding Baghdad is still an essential goal for resetting the bowling pins of the Middle East. American military and political commitment to Iraq would have to be long-term. But given the strategic importance of the region, that has always been in the cards.

7. There are some hints that Israel might be invited to join NATO, perhaps along with the PA. Inviting traditional small-scale enemies to join NATO would be along the lines of Turkey and Greece, which have long been at each other's throats. NATO membership would help to stabilize the nuclear deterrent now maintained exclusively by Israel. Iran is not ready for peace talks any time soon, but it may be deterred by a united front by nuclear-armed nations in NATO, including Israel and the United States. The European Union might create an associate status for Turkey and Israel, which would not allow free migration to the rest of Europe, but which would grant favorable trade concessions to both countries.

8. Opposition against Ahmadinejad has surfaced in Iran, both from pragmatic reactionaries like Rafsanjani, and from anti-regime voices like Montazeri. If Ahmadinejad is defeated domestically, the top Ayatollahs might settle for a peaceful nuclear industry, by allowing uranium enrichment to occur in Russia, for example. This was the "best offer" from the Europeans and Russia some time ago, and Ahmadinejad turned it down. Tehran has performed very poorly economically, which has strengthened Ahmadinejad's enemies. Iran is very vulnerable to serious economic sanctions (which are not yet in place).

All the Mullahs are dangerous characters, as long as they hold on to an aggressive Khomeinist imperialism. But the pragmatist may be willing to slow the march to nukes to avoid confrontation when Iran is still relatively weak.

9. Iraq is still in doubt, with radical forces continuing to stoke a civil war, using massive terror attacks on civilians and religious shrines. The United States must win in Iraq, which means standing up a government able to mobilize wide support across ethnic lines. The Battle of Baghdad will determine both the fate of Iraq, and the ability to contain Iran for the foreseeable future.

After World War Two, when similar instability reigned across the world, the US backed by its allies was able to create stability in countries like Greece, which was then in a state of civil war. The radicals at that time were the Communists, backed by the Soviet Union. Yet Greece was stabilized, in part by its membership in NATO.

Islamist radicals will continue to pose the major predictable threat for the next several decades, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and South-East Asia. Iran will continue being a thorn in our side. But the Sunni Arab nations have now signaled a greater fear of Iran than their desire to control the world for Allah.

Nuclear proliferation will continue to pose a threat, but missile defenses are set for major advances in the next decade. The United States and other sensible nations should be allied in fighting these threats to their own safety and well-being.

This is a sketch of a "best reasonable outcome." It's not paradise, but neither is it a disaster. It resembles the containment phase of the Cold War, which would be progress from our current degenerating conditions in the Middle East.

 James Lewis is a nom de plume of a regular contributor. He blogs at http://www.dangeroustimes.wordpress.com/.
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