For reasons that pundits are trying mightily to fathom, Mr. Bush authorized (it's unimaginable that this operation could have gone forward otherwise) a US Special Forces operation 5 miles inside the Syrian border with Iraq, attacking a village, killing as many as nine and wounding several others (including a mother who lost several members of her family in the attack). The US military claims that they were going after al-Qaeda operatives. That, of course, has been the cover for any operation of this type in Iraq or elsewhere (like Pakistan). The Syrians, predictably, are furious, but there may not be a whole lot they reasonably can do about it.
We have to wonder, why now? Mr. Sarkozy of France has been making nice of late with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; Condi Rice was making nice with the Syrian foreign minister at the UN only a few days ago. Is this some kind of parting shot from Bush, perhaps throwing a bone to the long-disgraced neocons? Is Bush perhaps hoping to stir up a little sense of crisis in order to rally some votes for that old foreign-policy hand John McCain, and maybe distract voters from the economy just a bit? Or, as at least one report has queried, did Mr. Assad secretly ask the US to do this in order to dampen down hard-line Islamists who have long opposed the Assad family's Alawi-backed regime? (Note that Syria has recently sent thousands of troops to its border with Lebanon, quite possibly to deter possible incursions from increasingly stronger salafi groups there who are creating problems in Tripoli and threatening the Alawis there.)
Meanwhile, we now hear that Israeli prime-minister-in-waiting Tzipi Livni has given up on assembling a political coalition that would allow her to step in as replacement for the disgraced Ehud Olmert. Evidently she couldn't bring herself to make the concessions that Shas (an Ultra-Orthodox, pro-settler movement religious party) was demanding as the price of its participation. Livni has asked Israeli president Shimon Peres to call for new elections as soon as possible, which means that she will run as the Kadima party's candidate vs. the hard-line Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu (himself a former prime minister who, like Olmert, was drummed out in disgrace for corruption - a problem that has afflicted quite a few Israeli pols in recent years). Most opinion polls put Netanyahu ahead of Livni. A Likud victory would likely ring down the curtain on the "peace process" - not that there's really been much of a peace process since Mr. Bush became president. That, in turn, might provoke Hamas elements in Gaza (and the West Bank) to terminate what's been a fairly lengthy cease-fire.
If a new intifada were to erupt in the Gaza and the West Bank, the repercussions could easily spread well beyond Israel-Palestine . . .
Livni Abandons Effort to Form Israeli Coalition
Foreign Minister Urges 2009 Elections
By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 27, 2008; A09
JERUSALEM, Oct. 26 -- Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday gave up trying to form a coalition government, paving the way for new elections in early 2009. Palestinian officials worried that her decision could also mean the end of the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which resumed just under a year ago and had been a priority of the Bush administration.
Livni met with President Shimon Peres on Sunday and told him that despite five weeks of consultations, she was unable to put together a government. Peres can either ask another parliament member to try to cobble together a majority coalition, or he can announce that Israel will hold general elections. Analysts agreed that the latter is the more likely scenario, and Livni urged Peres to call elections as quickly as possible.
Peres had tasked Livni with forming a new government last month, after she won a primary to lead the centrist Kadima party. The former leader of Kadima, Ehud Olmert, resigned as prime minister amid a corruption probe but remains head of a caretaker government until a new coalition can be formed.
If Israel holds elections, most polls forecast a highly competitive race between Livni and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party and a sharp critic of peace talks with the Palestinians. Livni has been a proponent of those talks.
In a statement to the media after her meeting with Peres, Livni, wearing a somber black pantsuit and looking grim, said she was not willing to sell out her principles to form a government.
"I was willing to pay a price to form a government, but I was never willing to risk the political and economic future of Israel," she said, her comments carried live on Israeli TV and radio. "But in the past few days it has become clear to me that the current system has led future coalition partners to make unreasonable economic and political demands. . . . If someone is willing to sell out his principles for the job, he is not worthy of it."
The statement was a sharp attack on the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which in exchange for joining the coalition had been demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in government assistance for its constituents, as well as a promise that Livni would not make any concessions on the future of Jerusalem. Palestinians say East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed, must be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Shas, with its 12 parliament members, had been part of the government led by Olmert, and had been expected to join a new Livni-led coalition. But on Friday, Shas's 88-year-old spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, decided that the party would not join the coalition unless its demands were met.
"We were not willing to divide Jerusalem," Shas political leader Eli Yishai told Israel TV. "Jerusalem is not for sale."
Israeli analysts said Livni's inability to form a government could make her election campaign more difficult.
"Going to elections was her last choice. But she realized she couldn't put together a government," said Joseph Alpher, the former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "This is going to hurt her image. It would have been much better for her if she could have gone into the elections with even a few months as prime minister."
Palestinians said they worried that the Israeli election campaign would put the peace process on hold. Following a seven-year hiatus, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed last fall with the Annapolis peace conference.
Livni headed Israel's negotiating team, and in the past few months, both sides had reported progress. Security cooperation has increased, and 550 U.S.-trained Palestinian police deployed in Hebron this weekend, following deployments in Nablus and Jenin.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have also discussed the "core issues" in the conflict, such as final borders, Jewish settlements, the return of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem.
President Bush had called for at least an outline of an agreement by the end of the year, but both sides had said that was not likely. Olmert had been scheduled to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, but that meeting has now been postponed.
"We don't want to interfere in Israel's domestic concerns, but early elections means the peace process will be put on hold," said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Previous experience has taught us that before elections in Israel, everyone is focused on the elections and not on the peace process."
Some dovish activists fear that if Netanyahu wins the election, the peace process could be suspended indefinitely.
"This is a disaster for the peace process," said Gershon Baskin, the co-chief executive of a joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank. "If Netanyahu wins, I think we should begin preparing for another round of violence. Livni should have given Shas whatever it asked for and gone ahead with the peace process."
There is little enthusiasm among Israelis for a new round of expensive elections. Estimates are that elections will cost about $150 million. Even before Sunday's events, Israelis had been growing disgusted with their fractious political system, which encourages small parties to make large demands in exchange for support.
If elections are called as expected, Livni will face a challenge from both Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, also a former prime minister. Recent polls have shown Netanyahu and Livni leading, well ahead of Barak.
Alpher said the results of the U.S. election could play a role in the Israeli election.
"The Israeli public wants a prime minister who gets along with the U.S. president," he said. "If Obama wins, and goes ahead with his plan to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria, that could help Livni. If McCain wins, that might help Netanyahu."
Livni had hoped to be the first female Israeli prime minister in more than three decades, and only the second in the country's history. In contrast to Olmert, she projected herself as being above corruption. A lawyer, she began her career in the Israeli foreign intelligence service, and entered politics a decade ago.