b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    June 8, 2009 Edition 22                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  The Iran factor
  . Less of a preoccupation        by Yossi Alpher
Hamas could be affected by the chaos in Iran.
. Weakening the Islamist        by Ghassan Khatib
The outcome of the turmoil in Iran will influence the balance of power in the region.
  . A fleeting opportunity        by Yossi Melman
The crisis is producing two contradictory results for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
. An earthquake deferred        an interview with Mahdi Abdul Hadi
The wealth and richness of political Islam will stay, but it is moving to the center.

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Less of a preoccupation
by Yossi Alpher

As a wave of ramifications and reverberations from Tehran washes across the Middle East, it is intriguing to consider how it may affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Precisely because we don't know when and how the unrest in Iran will end, these thoughts must be understood at this point as little more than informed speculation. Note that the protests in Iran remain within rather than against the regime itself. Hence no major change in Iran's orientation toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears likely.

At an obvious but indirect level, the Iranian elections and the post-election protest in Iran can be seen to reflect at least in part the new liberal spirit projected by US President Barack Obama's Cairo speech earlier this month. Arabs and other Muslims seemingly recognized in Obama a friendlier, fairer America. In Lebanon, this phenomenon may have moved voters to the pro-western camp. In Iran, the regime's blatant falsification of election results in order to favor hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad could conceivably reflect its fear of engagement with Obama and the more enlightened American policies he represents. Could the Obama spirit now also affect politics in the Palestinian Authority? If so, how? In the PA elections that are talked about for early next year and that probably require the prior formation of a unity government? In Fateh's convoluted and arcane internal politics?

Hamas, on the other hand, could conceivably be affected by the chaos in Iran, both directly and via Hizballah. The two Islamist movements, allies of the regime in Tehran, must be wondering whether their base there could be weakened by the current post-election events. Any development in this direction would enhance both the PLO's and Israel's strategic position in confronting these militant Islamist organizations.

If Iran is weakened by the post-electoral events there, then it becomes less of a preoccupation for Israel, the PLO and the United States, and all can devote more energies to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This may be inconvenient for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has tried to present the Iranian threat to Israel as a more urgent challenge than the Palestinian issue and has only reluctantly and partially embraced US President Barack Obama's agenda by agreeing guardedly to a two-state solution. In this sense, the events in Iran could weaken Netanyahu's bargaining position vis-a-vis Washington.

But they could strengthen his stance if he chooses to renew peace negotiations with Syria. Iran is Damascus' sole strategic partner. In order to contemplate a successful peace process, Jerusalem wants to be reassured that that process would significantly weaken Syria's links with Iran. Conceivably, Damascus may now in any case want to reevaluate its relationship with Tehran. And, as many Palestinians point out, if Damascus can be neutralized as a forward base for Iranian interests, this would weaken Hamas in Gaza, thereby improving the prospects for renewed Israeli negotiations with the Ramallah-based PLO.

Thirty years ago, immediately after the mid-February takeover by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat was the first foreign leader to visit post-revolutionary Tehran. His embrace with Khomeini provided one of the most famous photos of the Islamist victory in Iran. The PLO diplomatic delegation was awarded the building that used to house the Israeli embassy in Tehran. But with the passage of time, the PLO became more moderate and entered peace negotiations with Israel, while the Islamic Republic embraced the PLO's enemy, Hamas, and adopted an extreme attitude negating the very notion of a two-state solution.

Now, the pro-Mousavi demonstrators in the squares of Tehran are claiming (almost certainly without foundation) to have encountered Hamas and Hizballah cadres among those forces violently suppressing the demonstrations. Is it too much to ask that the events in Iran produce a regime that reverts to an earlier revolutionary profile and ends its active and hostile involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?- Published 22/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Weakening the Islamist
by Ghassan Khatib

The recent dramatic developments in Iran have absorbed the world for many different reasons. The US administration is hoping for an Iranian leadership that Washington can engage with because this is necessary for the new American approach to the region. The Arabs, meanwhile, especially neighboring Arab countries, are hoping for a leadership in Iran that will be less aggressive and ambitious in influencing the Arab publics and inciting people against Arab governments.

Israel is interested in seeing an end to the leadership of Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad, who has been a thorn in the side of the country. Europeans are hoping that a change might open the door to reconciliation and agreement over the nuclear issue.

When it comes to the Palestinians, it's a little more complicated. Since the Palestinians are themselves divided on almost everything, the two different Palestinian political camps have different reactions to the developments in Iran.

And while there seems little immediate or direct effect from the events in Tehran on the domestic Palestinian situation or Palestinian-Israeli relations, Tehran has nevertheless been a significant factor in recent internal Palestinian disputes. Hamas, whose leadership is hosted in Damascus, the most prominent ally of Iran, has received both material and political support from the Iranian government. When most countries in the world including some Arab governments boycotted the Hamas-led government in 2006, Iran both supported it and received many of its ministers in Tehran. Upon returning, these officials often carried suitcases filled with cash.

In addition, Israel and others have at different times accused Iran of giving equipment and military training to the Hamas resistance wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. That equipment included rockets, according to Israel, which were used in military confrontations between the two sides.

The ongoing domestic unrest in Iran does have one significant effect in both the Palestinian and Arab public domains. It distorts the image of Iran to a certain extent. The way the government has been treating protestors and the divisions in the leadership over how to contain these events weaken the argument of Islamists in the region who have been holding Iran up as a model for future anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist Islamist Arab states. As far as this issue is concerned, the damage is irreversible regardless of the outcome of the ongoing protests in Iran.

In the medium term, and in spite of the many similarities between the different competing groups in Iran, the outcome will certainly have an effect on the Iranian role in the Arab and Palestinian streets. Much of the current popularity of Iran results from the rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad, whose verbal attacks on Israel have wide resonance. The possible absence of both him and his rhetoric, one of the potential outcomes of the current unrest, may also reduce the popularity of Iran in Arab and Palestinian circles. A possible defeat for the hard line represented by Ahmadinezhad is certainly bad news for the Islamist political movements in Palestine and the Arab world.

For all these reasons, Palestinians and Arabs are closely following developments in Iran. And while the different trends are trying to avoid taking sides, the Iranian turmoil is already influencing public debates across the region and the outcome of the turmoil in Iran will influence the balance of power in the region.- Published 22/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.

A fleeting opportunity

by Yossi Melman

Paradoxically, the Iranian crisis is producing two contradictory results for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first clear outcome was the statement made by head of Mossad Meir Dagan last week. In a surprise move, Dagan dismissed the previous assessments of the Israeli intelligence community regarding Iran's nuclear program and stated that Iran's secret military program would mature only in 2014.

For 15 years, IDF Intelligence and the Mossad have regularly altered their assessment regarding the date when Iran's nuclear program becomes operational. The deadline has been constantly pushed forward, from the late 1990s to the beginning and then the middle of this decade and finally to 2009-2010. And now suddenly, out of the blue, 2014. These frequent fluctuations damage the reputation of Israel's intelligence agencies worldwide and confuse the public. Israeli intelligence estimates have been perceived by many in the world as "alarmist" and designed to serve political and diplomatic goals.

In saying that the deadline for an Iranian bomb is 2014, Dagan accepted a CIA assessment that Israel had criticized in the past. The CIA has repeatedly and consistently determined that Iran would have its first bomb not before 2015.

Seemingly, there is no direct connection between the semi-revolution that has been taking place in the streets of Iran and the Mossad analysis. Conceivably, Dagan unintentionally and even innocently introduced his estimate in the midst of the Iranian crisis. But the timing of his declaration evidently proves the opposite. Knowing the cunning and calculated chief of Mossad, one wonders why he chose this occasion to publicize his estimate and did not wait, say, for a few weeks or at least days. Thus, it should not be ruled out that he has a hidden personal or organizational agenda.

One way or another, Dagan effectively undermined the "party line" and the agenda of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who only a few weeks ago tried to convince the US administration that "Iran [must come] first". Netanyahu and his government, which are not ready to freeze the settlements, withdraw from the West Bank and enter into a peace deal with the PLO, hoped to persuade the world that the Iranian nuclear threat is more dangerous and acute not only for Israel but for the stability of the Middle East and that it therefore requires immediate attention while the rest--peace with the Palestinians and Syria--could wait.

No more. Not only has a military option, i.e., an attack by the Israel Air Force on Iranian nuclear installations, become remote, but Israel has also lost its Iranian excuse not to accelerate peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Still, this severe home-made blow to Netanyahu's hopes and plans is balanced by another ramification favorable to Israel. Iran's foreign and defense policy--its nuclear program and support for Hamas and Hizballah--has not been a real issue in motivating the demonstrations and protests. True, during the election campaign opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi publicly expressed his opinion that President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's provocative statements don't serve Iran's national interests and image abroad. Nevertheless, foreign policy issues are a minor factor in these demonstrations, if at all.

Yet, regardless of the final outcome of the crisis and even if Ahmadinezhad is reinstated, the ayatollahs' regime has clearly suffered a major blow, its self-confidence shaken. This will force the regime to devote more time, energy and resources to fixing the economy and trying to accommodate some of the concerns raised by the demonstrators. Foreign policy is bound to be a lesser priority.

The first victims of such a development will be Hamas and Hizballah. They will most probably be marginalized in the Iranian's regime's inner discourse and will get less financial, military, diplomatic and moral support from their Iranian benefactors.

This can be good news for Israel as well as for the PA and the moderate forces in the Arab world. In normal circumstances, such a development might serve as the launching pad for a peace process. Yet that is doubtful. Netanyahu has no serious intention of moving forward and will continue to search for new excuses to replace the vanished Iranian pretext in order to prolong his delaying tactics and politically survive and hang onto power.

On the other hand, the Palestinian leadership is highly divided and lacks the courage, vision and power to compromise on core issues important to the Israeli national consensus (Jerusalem and the refugees) and thus will play once again into the hands of a rigid Israeli government.

All in all, the opportunity that the Iranian crisis is providing will probably evaporate sooner rather than later.- Published 22/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Melman writes for Haaretz on intelligence and strategic affairs, including nuclear and regional issues. He is coauthor of The Nuclear Sphinx: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran (Carroll & Graf, New York).

An earthquake deferred

an interview with Mahdi Abdul Hadi

bitterlemons: What relevance does the turmoil in Iran have for the Palestinian street?

Abdul Hadi: It has both direct and indirect relevance to the Palestinian cause. I believe there are three major regional players who are directly and indirectly affecting the Palestinian street. These effects have been observed very closely in recent elections in Turkey, Israel and Iran and all have different impacts on the Palestinian-Israeli.

In Turkey, the rise of the Islamists and the corresponding position of the army was a signal as to how political Islam can be accommodated in a secular framework. Alongside this, the public relations battle during the Gaza war, when Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan confronted Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, brought Turkey closer to Palestinians, while maintaining the country's position as an umbrella for Israeli-Syrian political normalization.

The Israeli elections, meanwhile, brought a right-wing government with the harsh rhetoric and stubbornness of Avigdor Lieberman and Binyamin Netanyahu. Israel has been confronted not only by traditional antagonists like Iran, but also by a new global leadership represented by Barack Obama.

That new leadership role has now come under renewed scrutiny with the Iranian elections. The election of Obama and the atmosphere he brought opened the door for Iran to move through and come in from the cold. Everyone expected Iranians to rise to the challenge, to allow Mir Hossein Mousavi to move Iran into the international community and onto a closer footing with Obama and Erdogan.

What happened, however, from a Palestinian perspective, is a political earthquake deferred.

bitterlemons: So Palestinians would have preferred Mousavi?

Abdul Hadi: Yes, because it would have brought Iran onto the stage that Obama has set and enabled the country to take advantage of the new international climate. It would have brought Iran closer to the international community, closer to the language of Obama and to the culture of what is missing in the Middle East, namely challenging others in their own language instead of simply sitting in our tents and demanding the same thing in the same language that we have been demanding for the past 61 years since our first nakba.

bitterlemons: In terms of the actual unrest on the streets of Tehran, does this hold any special resonance for Palestinians?

Abdul Hadi: There are three layers to look at. The first is within Hamas. We are now seeing different language coming from the movement. We saw this especially in Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal's speech next to Secretary-General Amr Musa at the Arab League recently. Mishaal watered down the movement's hard line and came closer to reconciliation and accepting to share the future along the lines of the Egyptian formula, rather than remaining in his bunker.

This softer approach is coming mainly from Hamas in Gaza, where officials are saying that the movement cannot afford to maintain the status quo. Even formerly hardline Gazan Hamas leaders like Mahmoud Zahar are saying Hamas is willing to reconcile and implement the three main issues in unity talks: exchanging prisoners, ending the siege and beginning the reconstruction of Gaza. With hardliners in Gaza moving to the political center, they are inviting the Damascus leadership to do the same.

The second layer is Fateh. Fateh members are also moving to the center, meaning they will not oppose PA President Mahmoud Abbas holding the Fateh sixth general convention in Bethlehem and will not stand on the sidelines and sulk. There are three main groups: the military group, who are demanding a 50 percent membership and a share in the central committee; the political/technocrat group, represented by over 160,000 civil servants in the PA; and what used to be called the young guard, headed by Marwan Barghouti. All are beginning to coalesce around the center with Abbas, also in order to take advantage of the new international climate.

The third layer is among Palestinians generally. There, people either see in the Iran events a form of perestroika, Moscow-style, a western conspiracy to bring down the Iranian regime, or the will of the Iranian people, who are demanding change. The latter group is urging Palestinians to follow that example in criticizing the regime, in protesting the military authority of General Keith Dayton in the West Bank and in demanding progress in the unity talks in Cairo.

bitterlemons: Will the outcome of the turmoil in Iran be important in shaping the short-term future here?

Abdul Hadi: The political earthquake of 2006, when Hamas won elections and formed a government, was contained. The result was the division of Palestinians. The same may apply to Iran.

bitterlemons: And how important is what is happening in Iran to the general trend favoring political Islam in the region?

Abdul Hadi: Political Islam will remain and be relatively unaffected. The wealth and richness of political Islam will stay, but it is moving to the center. There is more moderation, there is less the language of take-it-or-leave-it. This was something that was reflected in the speech by Ismail Haniyeh, next to Jimmy Carter, when he said Hamas would accept a state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees. This is the language of the center, the language of moderation.

bitterlemons: So this includes what is happening in Iran?

Abdul Hadi: With or without Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad, Iran's position on Palestine is clear and unchangeable. But what is happening in Iran means greater internationalization of Iran's policies and thus greater moderation.- Published 22/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Mahdi Abdul Hadi is head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, PASSIA.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.