Scholar-journalists discuss Mideast challenges

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

WASHINGTON — Whoever takes the oath of office as President in January 2009 will face a Middle East in which the chances for conflict — even a major war — seem more likely than a breakthrough towards peace, according to two prominet scholar-journalists who spoke at an editorial session at the Annual Conference of the American Jewish Press Association last week in Washington, D.C. David Makovsky, a native of St. Louis and Yossi Klein Halevi, a widely published Israeli journalist and scholar, who spoke last year to the Israel Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council, offered different perspectives on the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, or with Syria, and ominously about the real possibility of an Israeli attack on suspected nuclear facilities in Iran.

Aaron Cohen, editor of the JUF News of Chicago and a past president of the AJPA, moderated the discussion, which covered a wide range of Middle East issues.

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The AJPA, founded in 1944, is the professional association for Jewish publications and journalists in the United States and Canada with links to Jewish journalists worldwide through affiliated associations. Yossi Klein Halevi, who is the Middle East correspondent for The New Republic magazine, began his remarks with the comment, “This is, to my mind, the worst time in Israel’s history. Israel is not only faced by an unprecedented existential threat (from Iran), it is suffering from an utter collapse of leadership. Leaving aside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert whose approval ratings are in single digits, there is no one beyond Olmert who Israelis can look to as having the moral authority and leadership skills needed at this time.”

Halevi said that any real possibility of a meaningful peace between Israel and the Palestinians “collapsed in September 2000, when it ceased to be a political conflict and became a religious conflict. Arafat began to use the rhetoric of the jihadists even before Hamas took over, and the conflict became transformed into a more dangerous religious conflict, and the targets increasingly became civilians. Not since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, has the home front been so attacked.”

Halevi added that the second phase of the conflict was the “missile war on two fronts, with Hezbollah firing missiles from Lebanon and Hamas and other groups firing rockets from the Gaza Strip. The current cease-fire negotiated by Egypt and accepted by Olmert will probably last only until Olmert can be replaced.

“The third phase of the current Middle East conflict is the most dangerous because it involved the effort by Israel to prevent the jihadists frim getting nuclear weapons. First, in September 2007, Israel attacked a suspected nuclear weapons facility in Syria. In the coming 12 to 18 months, it is almost certain that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike against such sites in Iran.”

Halevi said that the international community, which has been taking a “carrot and stick” approach to negotiating with Iran to stop its nuclear program “does not have the sense of intensity or urgency that Israel feels.”

In his remarks, Makovsky recalled that his first story for the Jewish press was an interview in 1974, for the St. Louis Jewish Light with Richie Scheinblum, a Jewish player for the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, Makovsky was an 11-year-old student at the H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis. Makovsky has gone on to contribute articles and to have editorial positions with U.S. News & World Report and The Jerusalem Post, and to appear frequently on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and other TV programs, sharing his expertise on the Middle East. Currently, he is senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, where he works closely with his colleague Dennis Ross, former chief Middle East envoy for the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is the son of Donald and the late Nancy Makovsky of St. Louis, and his brother, Michael Makovsky, recently pubished Churchill’s Promised Land (Yale University Press).

“I go back to Israel at least six times a year,” Makovsky told the AJPA writers. Starting with President Bill Clinton, there has been a push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and I hope that there is still at least some possibility that can be achieved.” While Makovsky shared Halevi’s belief that an Israeli attack on Iran was a real possibiilty, he said, “I think that whoever wins the presidential election, the new President will engage in some kind of dialogue with Iran to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If Israel does decide to attack Iran, some Arab leaders would tacitly hope that Iran would be weakend. The view by Arab leaders about Iran is not much different from the way Israel views Iran.”

Makovsky said that the majority of the Arab states have a Sunni Arab majority, and do not want to see a nuclear-powered Iran with a Shia majority become dominant in the region.

Makovsky added that he saw some basis for hope that the negotiations between Israel and Syria could possibly work to “peel Syria away from its alliance with Iran and its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In order for Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is weaker than his late father, Hafez Assad, to jump into a new pool with Israel, he needs to know that he will land in some water. Just as Henry Kissinger was able to peel Egypt away from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, perhaps Syria could be peeled away from Iran, but don’t expect any real movement on this front until 2009.”

Makovsky agreed with Halevi that the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran before the presidential election was real, but Makovsky remained more hopeful that a two-state solution could yet be reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If that fails, there will be new pressure for a so-called one-state solution, in which Israel would instantly cease to be a Jewish State.