Janice Gross Stein is the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs.
This has been the week from hell in the Middle East. The trend seems to be one of escalating violence. But is it?
On Israel’s southern border, frustrated and angry Gazans have been demonstrating for the past five weeks and trying to breach the fence. On the day commemorating al-Nabka, the day they have named to recall the “catastrophe” of the creation of Israel, the death toll among Palestinians trying to breach the fence climbed to levels not seen since Israel’s war in Gaza in 2014. More than a hundred Palestinians have been killed by gunfire from Israel‘s armed forces and thousands have been injured in the violence. Israel’s government reacted with fury to a wave of international criticism, claiming the right of any sovereign state to defend its borders.
The violence is made immeasurably worse by the absence of any peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The Trump administration has been accused of torpedoing the peace process by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, but that criticism rather misses the point: There has been no peace process since John Kerry, secretary of state in the Obama administration, gave up in despair. Talk of damage to a peace process is a kind of fantasy speak, since no peace process exists. President Donald Trump’s claim that he is committed to advancing the peace process is even more phantasmagorical. Talking about a peace process is something that people far removed from the conflict like to do. The chance of any meaningful progress toward peace is remote as long as the current leaders in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza remain in office.
The week was no better in the north. In the latest phase of the long, brutal civil war in Syria, Iran changed its strategy. It no longer only ships military equipment to Hezbollah – its ally in Lebanon – but began in February to embed missiles in Syrian military bases. Then last week, for the first time, Iran lobbed missiles at Israel’s military positions on the Golan Heights. Israel responded with a series of missile attacks that destroyed a substantial amount of Iran’s stockpiled military equipment. This was the first direct fighting between Israel and Iran – and that is alarming.
In the north and in the south, this was the week from hell.
But look further to the east and there is some good news. Last Saturday, Iraq held its first election with almost no violence since the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein. True, the turnout was very low – around 44 per cent – but the absence of violence and intimidation is encouraging. Second, and even more promising, some of the largest Shia militias are building alliances with Sunni partners. There are early signs of some political conversations around what unites rather than divides Iraq. General Ammar al-Kubaisi, a Sunni who heads the Border Guards along the Syrian border, told a U.S. journalist that “sectarianism is going away …” If he’s right, this is good news for the Middle East.
The results of the election are still preliminary but the outcome is a surprise. It seems that Moqtada al-Sadr, once a firebrand militia leader who battled American forces, is the front-runner. He has rebranded himself as a populist fighting corruption in Iraq and has drawn support from Sunni business leaders and from community activists. He presents himself as a proud Iraqi and even though he is Shia, he has distanced himself from Iran.
If his early lead holds, the story may be even better. Iraq held an election with very little violence and chose a leader that crossed sectarian divides. Even more important, he was not an American candidate. A story like this is good news all over the Middle East. Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians can only read the story with envy.
Finally, the fighting between Israel and Iran, a deeply worrying trend, stopped after one round. No one, not Iran, not Israel, not Syria and not Hezbollah, had any interest in escalating the fighting. So it stopped after a single exchange of missiles, at least for the moment. That’s good news.
Take a deep breath.