The fate of the Middle East, over which recent events in both Gaza and Lebanon cast a foreboding shadow, is dependent on five weak leaders.
The nominal world leader, American President George Bush, has reached the nadir of his political standing at home and is very much afraid of the loss of his Republican majority in Congress just over two months from now. He is incapable of extricating himself from the Iraqi trap, and his democratization policy is considered a resounding failure.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is a far cry from his mean but capable father. He doesn’t have the status in the Arab world that his father enjoyed, and is boycotted by the United States. Other countries, too, are steering clear of Damascus.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is respected by the West, and is brave in word and deed. However, he has limited control vis-à-vis Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud, who does Syria’s bidding, and vis-à-vis Syria itself, whose effect on Lebanon did not evaporate along with the Syrian soldiers who left the land of the cedars.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also highly respected by the West, and by Bush in particular. Abbas opposes the use of violence, and wants an agreement with Israel. But after Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council, his power is limited and he is dependent on cooperation with the Hamas government, especially as he toils to reach a broad political consensus over a national unity government.
Finally, there is the newest member of the Weak Leaders Club, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Israel’s second Lebanese war turned him not into a Churchill who galvanized his anxious nation for a long and successful fight, but instead into a politician who raised high hopes and failed to live up to them. The one issue that he spearheaded during the election campaign, the convergence plan inside the West Bank, is off the table. Public support for Olmert has now reached a dangerous low.
On the face of it, the weakness of these key players does not bode well for prospects for peace in the Middle East. But under certain circumstances, the exact opposite could also hold true.
All five of these leaders desperately need good news, and a major political event in the form of a peace conference could dramatically change things for their images. Such a conference could be a second Madrid Conference, a multilateral gathering of parties interested in Middle East peace — and it could be convened this October 30, the 15th anniversary of the first Madrid Conference.
A second Madrid Conference could help Bush. Reputedly unwilling to get involved in Middle East peace negotiations lest he suffer the failure of President Clinton, Bush could follow the successful example of his father. After all, the first Madrid Conference of 1991 was convened by the first President Bush, and is historically judged to have been a success.
Convening such a conference could help Bush bolster his image as a promoter of peace. At the very least, it could help his party in advance of the congressional elections in November.
It would also help Assad, who for quite some time has been calling for negotiations with Israel without any preconditions. Assad is interested in putting an end to the boycott imposed on him by the United States and others. He is definitely interested in restoring the Golan Heights to Syria, and he may also be interested in extricating himself from Iran’s oppressive bear hug.
It would help Siniora, who is interested in bringing Lebanon closer to the West and in extricating himself from both Syria’s and Hezbollah’s grasp. Peace with Israel would bring about a radical change in Lebanon’s situation, as well as in Siniora’s own political standing.
It would help Abbas, who is in an impossible position, facing a Hamas-led parliament at home and an Israeli counterpart that would rather do things alone. The world loves him and Israel respects him, but he is said to be incapable of delivering the goods to his own people, and his ability to run the Palestinian Authority is impaired. Without a peace agreement, Abbas will disappear from the political stage at the end of his term in office without any achievements.
And it would help Olmert, who at the moment is facing unprecedented criticism from within. After 100 days in office as prime minister, he is already a lame duck who needs to be rescued. Without a serious political agenda, he hasn’t got a real chance of survival.
Participation in an international conference aimed at reaching peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese, at a cost of the West Bank and Golan Heights, would be a lifesaver for Olmert. A man who was willing to give up 90% of the West Bank and get nothing in return shouldn’t have any problem giving up 100%, with mutual territorial swaps, in return for something significant.
These five weak leaders hold the keys to change in the Middle East. The question that remains is whether they will act in accordance with their own personal interests and those of their nations, or whether they will choose to remain mired in the swamp, in the mistaken and dangerous belief that the status quo provides protection from the unknown.
Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member and chairman of the Meretz Party, is a former justice minister.