Will oil help or hinder the Middle East peace process?

Will oil help or hinder the Middle East peace process?

By Claude Salhani- Trend:

The 1973 Arab-Israeli War also called the Yom Kippur War in Israel or the October War in the Arab world, revealed three fundamental realities in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

First, it made the Israelis, who were over confident and somewhat inebriated with their victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War somewhat arrogant. After the climate of doom and gloom that permeated the country in the early years of independence, the June '67 war made many Israelis believe they were invincible. Obviously, they were not.

The October War caught them unprepared and with their guard down. Their legendary intelligence service failed to read the signs or issue warnings that Egypt and Syria were preparing to launch surprise attacks on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, the eve of the most holy day in Israel, Yom Kippur.

At 2pm, with the sun positioned favorably for the Egyptian Army, the offensive began and the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and overran the "impregnable" Bar Lev Lines. On the Syrian front, an assault was launched to recapture the Golan Heights that Israel had occupied during the Six-Day War, along with the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip which it took from Egypt; and the West Bank and the crown jewel of the campaign, Arab East Jerusalem, which it grabbed from Jordan.

Second, the October War with its initial Arab victories (later reversed by Israel) gave the Arabs confidence and more importantly, these victories helped raise the Arab morale and to partially erase the terrible feeling of collective shame that was felt throughout the Arab world. The October War allowed the Arab leaders to sit at the same negotiating table with the Israelis and to look then in the eyes without feeling defeated.

The October War was important in that it made the Israelis realize that they could be defeated and therefore encouraged them to start thinking of a peace process, and at the same time it made the Arabs think that Israel, though not as untouchable as it was believed to have been in the past, was still unbeatable, and that therefore, perhaps more could be accomplished through a peace process.

Without 1973, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat would have never gone to Jerusalem as he did, thus paving the way for the start of peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Today, while that peace is somewhat fragile, nevertheless Israel still maintains diplomatic relations with three Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania, and maintains commercial links with several of the Arab Gulf countries.

Third, the October War made the Arabs realize that although the Israeli military was better armed, better trained and better equipped with its-mostly U.S. and Western European-made weapons and weapon systems, the Arabs, who relied on inferior Soviet weaponry, nevertheless held an important card up their sleeves: oil.

Indeed, it was during the October War that oil was first deployed as a weapon by the Arab oil producing countries in support of Egypt and Syria.

Since the 1970s and 80s the threat of oil embargoes against the West has diminished greatly and for a number of reasons. First, the Middle East is not the only source of oil today with Russia and the United States as well as the former Soviet states of Central Asia becoming as prominent on the world market as the Arabs were in the 1970s.

Second, the whole geopolitical map of the world has vastly changed since the 70s, when the Arab sheikhdoms were primarily worried about their Persian neighbor across the Gulf and could still depend on the United States for protection, and with the Cold War still going, the U.S. was not about to let the Soviets replace them in the Middle East.

Today, as Israel celebrates the 66th anniversary of its founding, it too sits atop an important supply of oil just off its northern coast. In another part of the world this might call for rejoicing, but with a line dividing ownership of the offshore oil between Israel and its northern neighbor Lebanon not entirely established, the Lebanese Shiite militia, allied with Iran and Syria could use this as justification to prevent Israel from exploiting what could be an important source of revenue for the Jewish state. Of course in so doing Hezbollah would at the same time prevent Lebanon from exploiting that same source or revenue for Lebanon, revenue the country badly needs. But since when has logic prevailed in the Middle East. Just ask the turtle who offered a ride to the scorpion.

Claude Salhani senior editor at Trend Agency and a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism said at the seventh Caspian Oil and Gas Trading and Transportation Conference in Baku.

You can follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani

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