Ed: 37: December/2012
As much as we would like to wish it so, it is a mistake to think the United States can pivot away from the Middle East and toward Asia, as though we have a fixed amount of bandwidth and the luxury of reapportioning it based on our preference. For the foreseeable future, the United States cannot avoid dealing with threats and challenges emanating from this region.
Middle East politics revolve around two threats: the ambitions of a hegemonic Iran and the spread of violent Sunni extremism. In this framework, other issues are secondary to US interests. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, is profoundly important to Israelis and Palestinians, but its continuation or resolution will have little impact on the larger dynamics defined by these two threats.
After almost 20 months, Syria's internal war appears to be approaching a decisive stage. Since early October, rebel forces have been on the offensive in key theatres, while regime forces are stretched thin, increasingly on the defensive, and giving ground. The conflict is evolving from a war of attrition (with the two sides primarily exchanging casualties) to a war of positions, with rebel forces seizing checkpoints, reducing the regime presence in the provinces, interdicting roads, and pressuring key regime strongholds and facilities. Barring a major change in Bashar al-Assad's approach or massive intervention by Hezbollah and Iran, the regime's military situation will likely continue to deteriorate.
The twentieth century experienced some of the worst instances of population displacement in history: the 15 million ethnic Germans forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe after World War II; the millions of Muslims and Hindus fleeing the newly established states of India and Pakistan during the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947; the millions of Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Finns, Bulgarians, Jews, and Kurds, among others, driven from their lands and resettled elsewhere.
By contrast, the 600,000 Arabs who fled their homes in mandatory Palestine and the nascent state of Israel during the 1947-48 war have been kept in squalid camps for decades by their Arab hosts as a means of derogating Israel in the eyes of the West and arousing pan-Arab sentiments. And as if to add insult to injury, the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), established in December 1949 as a temporary means for relieving the plight of the newly-displaced refugees, has transformed into a permanent organisation that has substantially exacerbated the problem whose resolution it was supposed to facilitate.
Unlike the result of the latest round of intense Hamas-Israel engagement, the winners and losers in Australian media coverage of the conflict were obvious.
After spending a week somewhere in the Gaza Strip, Fairfax Middle East reporter Ruth Pollard appears to have ended her coverage of the war the way she started it - framing reports decidedly tilted with sympathy toward the Palestinian perspective, while openly sceptical of Israeli claims.
The setting was the "Fourth World Peace Forum", an initiative of a major Indonesian Islamic group and a Malaysian NGO whose leader promoted the philosophy of Confucius, in the Indonesian city of Bogor.
The discussion began when I was asked about my recent visit to Poland, and within a few sentences, the topic was how an area which was once the home to tens of thousands of Jewish people now counted precisely one Jewish person in its population.
The group who were listening were all from Asia, were Muslim and Hindu, and had only a cursory knowledge of Nazism and the Shoah.
Israel's eight-day "Operation Pillar of Defence", which ended with a ceasefire agreement on November 21, was a limited operation with a primary objective - to staunch the flow of rockets launched from Gaza and landing on southern Israel's cities and villages.
Some 764 rockets had struck Israel from the beginning of this year until the onset of the operation, 150 in the four days before the operation commenced. A further 1,506 rockets struck Israel during the operation itself, bringing the year's total to more than 2,200.
In the recent Gaza conflict, as in 2008-2009, the media was obsessed with "disproportionate" body counts - the fact that more Palestinians were dying than Israelis. Such counts of course, have nothing to do with the actual international law principle of "proportionality", which says that the damage from military attacks must not exceed "the direct military advantage anticipated." That is, anticipated non-military damage and casualties must be proportionate to a legitimate military goal. Nothing to do with relative casualty counts.
Tel Aviv tends to revel in its image as a bastion of hedonism and frivolity that defies Middle Eastern tensions, but as autumn's seagulls overflew its fishermen's piers the city received a stark reminder of where it is situated.
As sirens ululated across the cosmopolitan metropolis, sending thousands running for cover, Tel Aviv's elegant boardwalk absorbed what it had last heard in 1991, when Saddam Hussein lobbed Soviet-made Scud missiles in its direction. Saddam and his supplier are now long gone, but the urge to target Israel is alive and well, and it now produced a week-long military conflict whose military, political, and diplomatic repercussions will become apparent in upcoming months.
In mid-November, Israel embarked on "Operation Pillar of Defence", the second time it's gone to war against Hamas in the past four years. The proximate cause of this campaign, according to Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, was "the incessant rounds of artillery rockets and mortars into the heart of our southern communities." But that rationale was surely coupled with a build-up in Hamas' weapons arsenal - including the Iranian-made Fajr-5 missile, capable of striking Tel Aviv, and Kornet anti-tank missiles, one of which was fired on an IDF jeep and injured four soldiers on Nov. 10.