Beware the Ides of May

Beware the Ides of May

A perfect storm appears to be gathering over the Middle East, with Jerusalem in the eye of that tempest. The days of mid-May, specifically May 12-15, are looming large on several fronts.

The build-up is coming from within Syria, escalated by Iran; from the Palestinian population, furious over the Trump administration’s decision to move its embassy formally on May 14 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, now acknowledged by the U.S. as Israel’s capital; from Washington, where the indications are that President Donald Trump likely will withdraw by May 12 from the Iran nuclear deal he has called “the worst ever”; and from Gaza, where a series of “peaceful” protests, which are in fact sometimes armed attacks, will culminate with the commemoration of the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, on May 15, marking the anniversary of the founding of Israel as a state in 1948.

Any one of these situations could set off the tinderbox of violence among an Arab population feeling marginalized by Washington and substantively ignored by much of the Arab world. All three scenarios converging at once conjures up a far more dangerous outcome.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel on Sunday for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but there was little talk, if any, of the Palestinians. The main topic was Iran, and various scenarios regarding the upcoming deadline for a “yes” or “no” on America’s participation in the nuclear agreement. Unlike Rex Tillerson, his predecessor, Pompeo is perceived to be a strong critic of the Iran deal and an outspoken supporter of Israel. Palestinian leaders are miffed that he made no effort to meet with them, though they have made it abundantly clear that there is nothing to discuss.

As for the Iran deal, the administration seems committed to Netanyahu’s catchy proposal to “fix it or nix it.” The prime minister offered a dramatic presentation on Monday to show that Iran consistently lied in saying it never had a nuclear program, though he did not offer proof that it is violating the current deal. The best scenario at this point would be for the U.S. and its European partners to agree to keep the current deal in place and add a separate contract that would ban Iran’s missile testing and terror activities and curb its nuclear ambitions permanently. But the Europeans may not go that far, and if the U.S. bails, Iran could declare the agreement void and speed up its efforts to produce nuclear arms.

And there is the culmination of the Gaza effort to break through the Israeli border fence on May 15. The goal is not, as Hamas says, for Gazans to pray in Jerusalem or to return to live there, but to set off a violent confrontation within Israel to further the Hamas stated goal of destroying the Jewish state.

Mainstream media has treated the violent protests with far more sympathy for the desperate population of Gaza than it has for Israel’s right to protect itself from a variety of efforts to wreak havoc within its borders. That sympathy is misguided. We, too, feel great empathy for the citizens of Gaza, who live in deep poverty and with little hope. But the target of their frustration should be the leaders of Hamas, who have channeled all of their energy and resources on hatred of Israel rather than caring for their own people. Little mention is made in the media that Israel pulled its citizens and military out of Gaza completely, and painfully, in 2005. The response was rockets, not gratitude. 

These next two weeks will be challenging. It’s not too late for the U.S. to act to tamp down the prospects of escalating Arab violence. But it’s not too likely, either. The president has expressed his eagerness to get out of Syria, leaving Israel to deal with the increasingly dangerous mess. That’s an indication to Russia’s Vladimir Putin that he can continue to pull the strings in the region. And canceling the Iran deal may be satisfying emotionally for Trump and other critics of the deal, but let’s hope there’s a thoughtful plan in place to prevent Iran from going back to bomb-building.

King Solomon wore a ring that reminded him, “this too shall pass” — a caution against hubris and a balm for difficult times. Assuredly, the month of May will come and go. But we could use a dose of Solomon’s wisdom to ward off concerns that June will bring even more trying days.

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