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April 2007 Archives

April 30, 2007

Five for fighting


 Five lessons can be learned from today's report on Israel's war with Lebanon. In the interest of avoiding another conflict, we should take them to heart.

The Israeli Winograd Committee Report on last summer's Lebanon war was published today, and it presents Israel with something of a Blackadder moment. During the first world war series one of the recruits tells Captain Blackadder he had wanted to see how a war was fought badly, to which the Rowan Atkinson character replies: "Well, you are in the right place then. A war hasn't been fought this badly since Oluf, king of the Vikings, ordered 1,000 helmets with the horns facing down."

The 150-page interim report (which rather annoyingly contains no executive summary) describes a litany of mistakes leading up to and during the war, from logistics and planning, to preparedness, strategy and lack of options considered. The report is interim because it ends at day six of the war (in the good old days, they only used to last that long), with the final document, up to and including day 34, due in the summer. There is plenty of blame to go around and it is doled out in generous helpings to virtually every part of Israel's political and military establishment. Prime minister Olmert's management of the war is described as a "severe failure" and the media in Israel will discuss little else in the coming days.

Here are five comments that try to look beyond the immediate speculation.

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Golda’s Ghost: From Agranat to Winograd

golda1.jpgIsraeli’s were glued to their television screens this evening to hear the findings of the Winograd Commission, which will have far reaching implications for the future of not only Prime Minister Olmert, but the government and military establishment in its entirety. The commission was set up to investigate the failings of the Israeli military and political leadership leading up to and during the Lebanon War in the summer 2006. It was of no surprise that their findings blamed the three major architects of the war: Prime Minister Olmert, the report said, "bears supreme and comprehensive responsibility for the decisions of 'his' government and the operations of the army.”; Defense Minister Peretz, the report concluded "did not have knowledge or experience in military, political or governmental matters. He also did not have good knowledge of the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals."; and IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz was criticized for engaging in the war "unprepared.” A stinging indictment, to be sure, but not news to many Israelis who remember a similar commission, the Agranat Commission, set up 33 years ago after the failures of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 
The Agranat Commission was highly critical of then IDF chief of staff David Elazar and other military and intelligence leaders, but gave a “pass” to Prime Minster Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan -- a finding that is debated and criticized to this day. Although the commission exonerated the Prime Minister and her Defense Minister, both resigned shortly after the report recognizing their complicity in the failures. 
The difference today, with the Winograd report, is that their criticism is targeted at the highest levels of political leadership in Israel. If history is any indicator, Peretz and Olmert should begin to sharpen their swords to fall upon. However, for now, they seem safe.  The debate about the findings of this report will continue not only for the next few weeks, but for decades to come. Israeli’s need to prepare themselves for what comes next; the choice should not be who leads the country, but rather what kind of country the people want: a country at war with its neighbors or a country at peace.  -MSA

April 27, 2007

The Road from Mecca

One can imagine a different approach, extracting the best of multilateralism, of bilateralism, and of unilateralism. One can imagine a new international effort, inspired by but not based on the Arab Initiative, that would stipulate a resumption of negotiations on all tracks and promise full Arab recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a comprehensive peace. One can imagine Israeli-Syrian negotiations beginning in earnest. One can imagine unilateral Israel withdrawals from the West Bank —coordinated with President Abbas and with active supervision by a third party acceptable to both sides—developing into full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian negotiations once Palestinians have sorted out their domestic situation and improved their security capacities. One can imagine and hope for such an approach, but one ought not to expect it. For it would demand the kind of political creativity, boldness, and skill that have been disastrously in short supply.

This is the conclusion to a piece by Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books.  In it Rob and Hussein provide a comprehensive tour de force of the current state of play in the peace process, among and between the various parties.

Given how insightful these two authors are, it is hardly surprising that they deliver most of the key observations worth making right now.

If you don't have time to read the entire article, here are some key arguments.

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April 26, 2007

Inside Hamas

hamas.jpgZaki Chehab’s new book, Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the  Militant Islamic Movement is well worth taking a look at. Chehab, a Palestinian refugee raised in a refugee camp in Lebanon, had unprecedented access to the highest levels of Hamas leadership, including Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin (who was assassinated in 2004).  The book also highlights never-before-read files and letters from PLO leaders and bureaucrats. His book takes a controversial and challenging perspective -  from his claims of Israeli encouragement and arms deals to the movement with the expressed intention of weakening Arafat’s rule to the supposed notion that Hamas was “surprised” or did not want to win the elections that brought them to majority rule within the Palestinian Authority in 2006.

Chehab provides a compelling history of this divided movement from inception to election.  Policy-makers could do a lot worse than taking a few hours to read it. Chehab explains that Hamas, like most publicly elected parties, is political in nature and values power and respect above ideology. Understanding all the relevant actors better should help move the peace process forward.  -MSA

Words of Wisdom from Former Israeli Foreign Minister

Shlomo Ben-Ami

A must-read, wise rebuttal from ex-Israeli FM Shlomo Ben-Ami to all those arguing that we should continue to freeze Hamas out of the political process and deal similarly with all political Islamists.

Ben-Ami exposes the key flaw in the argument of those who claim that the Mecca Agreement and Palestinian National Unity Government has set back a nascent peace process.

 Actually, with Hamas now prospectively inside that process - the chances of success could increase if Israel and the United States open their eyes to the formula that is on the table.

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April 25, 2007

Another Brick in the Wall: What can forty years of Israeli occupation teach us about America's four years in Iraq?


Posted on Comment Is Free.

A lead story out of Iraq in recent days has been the construction of a 12-foot high and three-mile long wall in the Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad. It represents the latest tactic used to quell the ever-spiralling sectarian bloodshed. Standing alongside Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa in Cairo, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki announced that building of the wall would be halted, while US generals continue to explain that the matter was under discussion with their Iraqi counterparts. To make the situation even more awkward, coverage of the wall issue began just as US defence secretary Gates arrived in Baghdad as part of a regional swing-through that included a stop in Israel. Comparisons were inevitably drawn locally and internationally between Israel's separation barrier and this latest addition to the Baghdad skyline. Separation walls are a very sensitive issue in the Arab Middle East right now. One Baghdad pharmacists was quoted as asking, "Are we in the West Bank?"

Indeed, there are certain similarities - both the Americans and the Israelis are pursuing military, or even architectural, palliatives where political solutions are required. In both instances the barriers may temporarily decrease violence before new, and perhaps more devastating, means are used (missiles come to mind). American Generals used the seemingly over-laundered phrase "gated communities" (presumably golf courses will be added later), while Israel refers to a security fence. But in both instances this gentler language unsurprisingly fails to mitigate local anger. Secretary Gates' visit came at the halfway point between two rather unwanted Middle East anniversaries, the four-year anniversary of the US occupation in Iraq in March and the forty-year anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories coming up in June.

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Palestinian Voices You Don't Hear

The endless alarms from self-assigned monitoring groups dedicated to exposing the true face of Palestinians, Arabs, and their media makes a veritable cottage industry.  Normally the media is culled for the most hard-line and often minority trends that “prove” all the Islamophobic stereotypes so fashionable today.

One of the claims you may be familiar with is that the Palestinians blame everything on Israel and are incapable of self-criticism or even taking responsibility for anything.

Yes, there is a tendency among occupiers and the occupied to blame everything on the “other side,” but the base generalization of such an assertion barely merits debunking.
Neverthless, just for the record, and for next time someone uses that line with you, send them, as one example among very many, this piece from the Palestinian press.  These kinds of articles are far too rarely translated.

This is by Rajab Abu Sirriyeh from the Palestinian daily, al-Ayyam.

Before discussing the reasons that lie behind the breakdown of law and order in the Palestinian territories, it must be pointed out that fundamentalism, extremism, and a general propensity for violence all provide fertile soil for anarchy to grow. In other words, security measures alone cannot hope to eradicate the phenomenon of lawlessness.

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Shoe on the Other Foot?

Henry Siegman

Henry Siegman is a man who deserves to be listened to.  He has traveled a long path.  He has led several Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.  Formerly an expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, Siegman is now the director of the US/Middle East Project and a research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Siegman has advocated a two-state solution and ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories as measures vital for Israeli security, future, and morality. 

Most recently he has turned his considerable understanding and diplomatic prowess to the question of how to engage with the Islamists of Hamas and whether engagement with them can create a more solid basis for a peaceful future in the region.  He has met with Hamas leaders and clearly thinks the answer is ‘yes.’

Siegman had this piece in last week’s Financial Times.  He gets it right.

Mr Olmert and his associates devote their diplomatic skills to finding ever more tortured pretexts for blocking every opportunity for peacemaking, while posturing as peace-lovers in search of “reasonable” Arabs who qualify as partners for peace. Their goal remains to prevent a peace process that would require them to halt Israel’s expansion of its settlements and its effort to cut off East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland.

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