The past couple of weeks in the Middle East have been like the past couple of decades, full of things that sound like they could lead to peace and other things that seem to be on the brink of war.
The biggest noise for peace, by far, was the “historic” agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which established formal diplomatic relations and promised future links of technology and trade.
“A truly historic moment,” President Donald Trump called it. “Now that the ice has been broken,” he told reporters in the Oval Office, “I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates.” A prediction on its way to fulfillment as Sudan moves toward joining what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called, “a new era of peace between Israel and the Arab world.”
But even as the peace talk was continuing, there were fresh sounds of conflict on Israel’s western and northern borders. Israeli tanks and planes strafed and bombed Hamas positions in Gaza, a response to Palestinians’ sending half a dozen rockets and incendiary balloons over southern Israel. No casualties were reported on either side.
No casualties reported in Lebanon either where recent Hezbollah provocations drew fire from Israeli Defense Forces across the border.
But another recent development in Lebanon demonstrates the difficulty of applying peace-aiming diplomacy in a conflict-filled region. The U.S. and Israel combined to muscle the U.N. into some so-called reforms in the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission in Southern Lebanon.
Apparently based on the old joke – “the food’s lousy, but at least the portions are small” – the U.N. agreed to cut the authorized size of the UNIFIL force from 15,000 to 13,000, a move that would save some money in these COVID-stressed economic times. It would, if the actual size of the present UNIFIL force weren’t 10,500. But the “reformers” didn’t stop there. In addition to demanding and getting the cut in troops, the U.S. and Israel won an official investigation and report on how to get the fewer troops to do more.
The aim of the UNIFIL reformers is to toughen up the U.N. mandate, bring Hezbollah forces on the ground under control and get better access to Hezbollah projects like their under-the-border tunnels. The report on how to do this is due within 60 days. It is to explain how a force of 13,000 will impose its will on a much better-equipped Hezbollah force playing on its own court. If it’s ever published you should look for it in the fantasy section of your bookstore.
Josef Federman has been the Associated Press Bureau Chief in Jerusalem since 2014.
Federman had written about and helped direct coverage of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in his previous role as Jerusalem news editor.
Federman joined the AP as an editor on the international desk in New York in 1993, transferred to Charleston, West Virginia, the following year and returned to the international desk in 1995.
A native of Westborough, Massachusetts, Federman worked as an editor at The Wall Street Journal from 2000 to 2003 before returning to AP as a correspondent in the Jerusalem bureau. He was named news editor in 2006.
Federman has been a chairman of the local Foreign Press Association, an organization that promotes press freedom and safety in Israel and the Palestinian areas. He also has covered assignments in Rome, the Hague, the United Nations, Washington and Cairo and has appeared on U.S. and Israeli media.