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WORLD FOCUS: The changing Middle East

November 15, 2011
Anthony Zinni a retired Marine four-star general, once told me that he was the first in his family to go to college.

“Then, why did you join the Marines?” I asked. “Because at the Marines only ability counts,” he replied. “You can rise in the Corps as high as your ability will take you.”

Zinni’s ability elevated him to become not just a four-star general, but to commanding officer of Central Command in charge of all American troops in the Middle East. He was credited with containing Saddam Hussein in a “box” for years by imposing no-fly and no-drive zones in Iraq.

After his retirement from the military, he served as President George W. Bush’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Subsequently, he became one of the first retired, high-ranking military officers who warned the Bush administration about the pitfalls of the war in Iraq.

Although Zinni is not involved anymore in formulating or executing U.S. government policy, he keeps a sharp eye on international developments and often shares his views with audiences at public forums.

“I think, we are in for a rough patch coming up in the Middle East,” Zinni said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette. “Israel’s relations, with its neighbors is deteriorating. The UN vote on Palestinian statehood could create a crisis.”

Relaying on his accumulated experiences in the Middle East, Zinni anticipates that Syria, Iran and others in the region could use this to provoke incidents to draw attention from their internal problems.

“The Arab Spring is chaotic and may be more destabilizing in places. The United States is absent, due to our need to focus on internal problems, which doesn’t help,” he said.

But Zinni is not all gloom and doom. He is familiar not just with Arab, but also Israeli politics. One of his student’s at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va. was Gen. Shaul Mofaz, former Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. He is now the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

What is his advice to his former student? “My advice is that Israeli leadership needs to do some serious diplomatic work to fix relations with Turkey, Egypt and others,” Zinni said. “It would help to restart negotiations with the .Palestinians, but the U. S. still doesn’t have a credible Middle East policy.”

According to Middle East expert, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland, who conducts public opinion surveys in the region, the majority of Israelis believe that without a Palestinian state, there will be intense conflict for years to come. On the other hand, they are vary, in their support of the two-state solution because of the fear of an unstable Palestinian state.

“The establishment of a Palestinian state presents many dangers for Israel,” writes Telhami. “The gravest of these was described by Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security organization, as ‘two states for three peoples,” as a reference to the bottomless rift between the moderate Fatah and the fundamentalist Hamas…. Would Hamas and the other Jihadist movements give up their demand for the ‘dismantling of the Zionist entity?’”

He concludes that a Palestinian state will not mean that the bloodshed will come to an end and neither will hatred of Israel in the Arab world. But he deplores the frozen posture that the current Israeli government has adopted. “Israel would benefit if the next rounds are fought from a position of international legitimacy.”

When asked what is the message he likes to convey to his audiences at the public forums, Zinni said: “It is understandable that we are focused on our domestic problems, but we should not lose focus on the overseas situations that could seriously affect our security and interest. They require senior level leadership attention as well.”

Zinni, seems again to be determined to ring the warning bell.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was

reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.



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