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May 31, 2007

Losing Palestine to al-Qaeda

An above the fold front page piece in today’s New York Times makes a hard-hitting contribution to pulling people's heads out of the sand on Palestinian issues and to realizing that the alternative to Hamas may not be a return to the warm familiarity of Fatah, but rather a lurch in the direction of al-Qaedism. The article “Jihadist Groups Fill a Palestinian Power Vacuum,” looks at the situation both in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and in Gaza. Steven Erlanger and Hassan Fattah describe a series of recent attacks in Gaza against internet cafés, music stores, and international schools, in addition to the ongoing standoff at Nahr al-Bared in Tripoli, Lebanon. They explain that in the context of the weakening of both Fatah and Hamas and the increasingly violent rivalry between them “Jihadi freelancers with murky links are filling a vacuum.”

The piece gets really interesting when they introduce Mr. Taha from the Ain al Hilwe refugee camp near Sidon. Mr. Taha confides to us that “there is a central problem and that is al-Qaeda and they are spreading…The Islamic awakening…is going to become a huge problem for us.” And here’s the punchline from the NYT: “Mr. Taha’s fears are remarkable because of who he is: not a secular campaigner or a Fatah apparatchik, but a senior member of Hamas.” This is what prospectsforpeace.com has been arguing - that al-Qaeda and Hamas are not the same thing and to lump them together makes not only for bad analysis, but also for bad policy - plus, the kind of political Islamic movements represented by Hamas may be the last line of defense before we see the proliferation of an even more powerful al-Qaedist threat. And for the umpteenth time, no, this does not turn Hamas into a bunch of lovable teddy bears. The world is more complex than good guys vs. bad guys. More often than not, sensible political alliance-building has to be with imperfect inhabitants of a broad grey area.

To re-cap: the focus of Hamas is on opposing the occupation and reforming Palestinian society, the focus of Al-Qaeda is on opposing the West per se and spear-heading a violent revolution in the Arab and Muslim worlds - the one is reformist the other revolutionary; one nationalist, the other post-nationalist; one grievance-based, the other fundamental.

There is a battle, both ideological and physical, taking place within the world of political Islam. Hamas have been targetted and criticized by Al-Qaeda. Most notably AQ number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, went after Hamas after it agreed to participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections and again after the Unity Government deal with Fatah. On both occassions Hamas were rejected as apostates and their actions as kufr - an abomination to Islam, they had sold out to the 'Zionists and the Great Satan'. All this does not automatically make Hamas a partner, but it certainly begs the question and demands a serious exploration of the alternatives. AQ is a franchise and any Gazan mutation if it gains a foothold, will threaten Palestinian and Israeli society alike.

In Israel there appears to be more of an appreciation of this than in the US. Senior former Israeli security officials and Government Ministers have called for opening channels of communication to Hamas and for working with the PA Unity Government - they include ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy and ex-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami to name but two. Hopelessness, hunger, arms and anger are an attractive hunting ground for radical escapist ideologies. Even more worrying is that Palestinians have lost faith in the capacity of their political system to deliver anything - whether it be Fatah, Hamas or a hybrid of the two.

The advantage of disciplined political movements is that they can command loyalty, make new political moves or ceasefires and impose them. By arresting and assassinating an entire middle level cadre of Fatah and Hamas leadership, Israel weakened both movements as an adversary, but also as potential partners, and contributed to an environment in which what the NYT calls "Al-Qaeda wannabes" could flourish. Setting out to destroy the Palestinian national movement may turn out to be the most pyrrhic victory of all for Israel's national security interests.

As a friend and someone who I respect greatly, Ahmad Khalidi, wrote in today's Guardian blog;

Armed clans now hold sway in Gaza, as the PA's writ fades and becomes increasingly irrelevant. Meanwhile, the infestation of Al-Qaeda-type salafism has already reached Gaza and the US- and EU-sponsored embargo, support for continued occupation and promotion of internal Palestinian conflict can only feed such trends in the future. 


Global Peace Index Finds Israel Lagging Behind the Pack

Global Peace IndexA new Global Peace Index has just been launched, developed by the uber-credible Economist Intelligence Unit and an international panel of peace institute and think tank experts, with a star-studded list of endorsing individuals and organizations.  They rank 121 countries with Norway claiming pole position, and Israel coming in at... 119th.  Chapeau to my homeland for finishing ahead of Sudan and Iraq!

Top place Middle Eastern spot goes to Oman at number 22, while the USA comes in at 96, squeezing Iran into the 97th slot, and Russia ranks one above Israel at 118.  The indicators for compiling this Global peace index are actually quite fascinating, and you can read them here.  24 indicators were used, and their site gives the source and methodology applied.  They include: wars, deaths from internal and external conflict, human rights, political instability, size of security forces and jailed population, military expenditure and sales, and involvement in peacekeeping operations.  This strikes me as something not to be poo-pooed, but rather to be taken seriously.

Of course many in the so-called "pro-Israel community" will do their best to ignore the index, dismiss it as biased, villify those behind it, or perhaps even a combination of the above.  Then there will be the predictable, and so overworn appeal that "what Israel needs is better PR" (we have a special word for it -- hasbarah).  Some effective fundraising might even be done off the back of this.  That would be the business-as-usual response that has failed and is wrong.  It would once again address the symptom rather than the cause, and do absolutely nothing positive or helpful for Israel.  Israel's security (not to mention that of the Palestinians or the region) has not been advanced by business as usual.  Israel last year had the lowest immigration (aliyah) numbers in almost 20 years, and an increasing number of Israelis of European background are taking out a second passport, just in case.  This is also hardly an Israel that can be attractive, enthusing, andTanks inspiring to world Jewry, or that can be an anchor in fostering Jewish identity and values.

I hope this doesn't sound too trite, but the one thing that Israel and the people who care about Israel should do to radically improve the country's ranking in advance of next year's index would be to promote an end to the occupation, agreed permanent borders with all the neighbors, and a positive response to the Arab League Initiative.

Watch out, Russia, Israel might overtake you.

Product Debut - The I-Rack

Take 4 minutes and 16 seconds out of your day and enjoy this.  This really is rather jolly, a bit of light-hearted political humor on I-Raq. 

May 30, 2007

Latest Quartet Statement - Words vs. Action

The Quartet Principles - Secretary Rice, UNSG Ban Ki-Moon, the EU's Solana, Steinmeier, and Ferrero-Waldner, and Russian FMThe Quartet Lavrov - met today in Berlin.  I've been accused of overindulging in Quartet textual analysis in the past, so I'll resist the temptation this time, and just point to a few noteworthy snippets.

Quartet connoisseurs can read the full statement here.  The Quartet's latest position is one of its most comprehensive to date, which, on the one hand, means that it has a bit of everything; but on the other, it means that there's actually some useful stuff in there.  The predictable (and necessary) condemnations of violence and calls for a ceasefire, and endorsements of President Abbas are all there.  Less expected may be the call to release the arrested Palestinian government and Parliament members, and for Israel to resume the transfer of Palestinian tax and customs revenues.  There is also a major focus on the Arab peace initiative, recently relaunched at the Riyadh Summit, as a vehicle for moving forward a regional peace process.  The statement ends with a tantalizing hint that the Quartet might actually do something.

Looking ahead, the Quartet discussed a calendar for the coming months to support and encourage progress on the bilateral and regional tracks. The Quartet principals agreed to meet in the region in June with the Israelis and Palestinians to review progress and discuss the way forward. The Quartet also agreed to meet in the region with members of the Arab League to follow up on the Arab Peace Initiative and efforts to advance the regional track.

The problem, as ever, will be in the follow-up.  The Quartet has still failed to actually develop a mechanism for moving an agenda with the parties.  Three of the Quartet members have an envoy.  The US does not.  But this structural gap can always be plugged, the more important missing ingredient is the lack of political will and of a political plan.

The Problem with the Boycott

Britain’s University and College Union (UCU) have just voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The motion passed by a majority of 158 to 99.

In so doing they have joined a smattering of other unions and some church groups from Western and Northern Europe that have also supported boycotts in recent years. The only really noteworthy equivalent in the US has been the divestment campaigns conducted by some of the Episcopalian churches, although these it must be noted were pinpointed against companies directly involved in facilitating the occupation, and have anyway been partially dropped. The boycott approach is normally attacked (quite viciously) as singling out Israel for unfavorable treatment, while ignoring wrong-doing elsewhere in the globe and particularly in the Arab world. It is even equated with support for terror groups. The most devastating criticism is to charge the boycott promoters with tactics against the Jewish state that are reminiscent of the methods used against the Jews during the darkest days of 20th century Europe. I think these approaches are wide of the mark and sometimes outright offensive. Undoubtedly, some boycott fellow-travelers and perhaps even instigators have ulterior and unpleasant motives. Still I think most of its supporters are making a genuine, humanitarian-based statement of opposition to the occupation. But I, too, oppose the boycott and here’s why:

Leave aside for the moment the essential ineffectiveness of the boycott policy, which has zero economic impact. Boycotting Israel to me represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what it will take to achieve peace in the region, to end the occupation, and to deliver security for Palestinians and Israelis alike.  Of course for some, this is not the goal and a boycott is part of a broader strategy of de-legitimizing Israel and its very existence in the Middle East. They should at least be told that Israel is not going anywhere, that a new Middle East dispensation without an Israel is a recipe for generations of bloodshed with plenty of injustice all around, and that they are taking up a position that is hostile to the aspirations of the vast majority of Jews around the world. This is probably why most Palestinian leaders support a two-state solution and place boycott-promotion pretty low on their list of priorities (even Hamas is fumbling towards a two-state formula). For that not insignificant body of international opinion that staunchly opposes the occupation without being Israel-haters, who believe in human rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and who, in wanting to be helpful, flirt with the boycott idea, the following might be helpful:

Support for the boycott amongst Jewish Israelis, both at home and in the diaspora, really is virtually non-existent and there is no nascent movement around which such support is likely to be built. Ending the occupation and realizing a viable and an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel will require an Israeli partner. Israelis will need to either be active partners or at least acquiescent in achieving a realistic two-state solution based on the ’67 lines. The international community will probably need to intervene or at least be engaged to achieve such a solution. If Israelis view the outside world as implacably hostile – and a boycott encourages that thinking – then the prospective international role fades further into the distance. Of course, the flip-side to this is that the international community begins to actively push a resolution to the conflict, including setting out its own parameters for peace.

It is much more effective to be understanding of legitimate Israeli concerns and aspirations, while not ceding an inch regarding the illegitimacy and counter-productive nature of the occupation. That is the kind of tough-love that takes into account Israeli psychology and that could actually be of help. The alternative only encourages the most unhelpful, hunker-down, garrison state mentality amongst an Israeli public whose self-perception is already one of persecution. The most dovish Minister in the current Israeli government, Yuli Tamir, who happens to have the education portfolio, was the first one to come out against the new UK boycott. The coalition for two-states and against occupation and war should be broad-based enough to embrace a large Israeli peace-camp, the majority of Palestinian and Arab pragmatists, and the global peace movement. And quite simply, a boycott-based agenda cannot do that.

Rounding Up the Brothers

Who says that the Muslim Brothers (MB) in the various Middle Eastern countries do not have a role in elections?

They clearly do have a role, and that role is to sit behind bars.  That is the story in the run-up to elections for the upper chamber in Egypt's parliament and to municipal elections in Jordan.

The Egyptian security forces have continued their arrest campaign against local MB leaders, rounding up over 30 in the past days in Al-Buheirah, Al-Dakhaliyyah and Kafar Al-Sheikh.  In Jordan, Prime Minister Maarouf Al-Bakhit's government is in a stand-off with the Islamists and in an escalatory move, two members of the Jordanian MB - the Islamic Action Front, were arrested in Al-Zarqa City.

Now, I am not a card-carrying member of the MB, not a supporter and not a sympathizer, but this kind of action can hardly embellish the already wobbly popular legitimacy and credibility of the existing non-Islamist regimes.

In Jordan, these latest moves even threaten to upset historical arrangements between the Islamists and the state in which the former intentionally run too few candidates to challenge for a governing majority.

According to the Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper

...there is currently no trust at all between the two sides that are casting accusations against one another...there are ongoing and major debates in the ranks of the MB...

...within the Islamic ranks... there are now those advocating strong participation in the municipal elections to win the majority [of the seats] and respond to the governmental provocation.

The continuous provocations of Al-Bakhit's government are starting to raise an opposition in the ranks of the old guards among the decision-making elite in the state and the senate, whereby they believe that dealing with the Islamists the way that Al-Bakhit is doing is very dangerous, because whether the government likes it or not, the Islamists adopt the rhetoric that is the closest to the mood of the street and because the consecutive governmental strikes against the Islamic Action Front and its leaders and against the MB institutions are increasing the popularity of the movement.

Meanwhile, Israel has been doing the job for Fatah on the Palestinian front.  Israel arrested a number of members of Hamas' political wing in the West Bank, including mayors, members of Parliament, and the Palestinian Authority Education Minister Nasser al-Shaer.  Israel used a similar tactic last June, with little effect.  This is in addition to the military strikes against Hamas in Gaza and the targeting of a building identified with PM Haniyyeh (although the IDF denied that he personally had been targeted).

There is precious little indication that all this is actually serving to strengthen Fatah against Hamas, and the opposite seems to be the case.

What we appear to be witnessing are yet more examples of the manifestly short-sighted and self-defeating policy of undemocratically going after non-Al Qaedist Islamists.

I have been advocating a policy of stepped-up efforts towards political inclusion rather than aggressive exclusion and isolation of the MB movements - including opening appropriately calibrated Western channels of dialogue to them.

In order to more effectively counter Al Qaeda, it will require a change of mindset and an appreciation of the more nuanced and varied toolbox that needs to be used and alliances that need to be built.

Paul Krugman hinted at this in his latest New York Times op-ed, "Trust and Betrayal."

When Mitt Romney says that a coalition of “Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda” wants to “bring down the West,” he should be ridiculed for his ignorance.

Krugman is right - and it is high time that the policy alternatives to this ignorance start getting articulated.

May 29, 2007

Israel’s Labour Party (almost) Chooses a New Leader

Yesterday’s first round of voting in the Israeli Labour Party’s primaries failed to produce a new leader. No candidate received the necessary 40% of the votes cast and a second ballot will now take place on June 11th between the top two candidates Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon. The results in the first round in which 65% of the party’s 103,568 members participated were as follows:

Ehud Barak – 35.6%
Ami Ayalon – 30.6%
Amir Peretz – 22.4%
Ophir Pines-Paz – 8%
Danny Yatom – 2.7%

Ehud Barak & Ami AyalonThe head to head between Barak and Ayalon hardly offers two dramatic and radical competing visions for the Israeli future. Both come from a military background and both have been cautious in their messaging not to over-rock the boat, but there are real differences. Barak has been running on a ticket of experience, having already served as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001. He claims to be a safe pair of hands to lead the country in a time of war, which is an unfortunate indication of where he intends to take the region. Ayalon has marketed himself as Mr. Clean, suggesting that he represents a new style of politics that stands in contrast to the scandal-ridden current leadership. Ayalon has never held Ministerial office and this is being used against him. Ayalon’s counter-argument is that Barak may have reached the pinnacle of the political pyramid, but that he was a failed Prime Minister.

Barak is in many ways the father of unilateralism, having promoted the “no-partner” narrative following his electoral defeat to Ariel Sharon in February 2001. Ayalon largely rejected the unilateral mantra and notably launched a political initiative together with Palestinian professor, author, and activist Sari Nusseibeh, in which they produced a 6-point set of principles for Israeli-Palestinian peace, around which they then gathered the signatures of members of the Israeli and Palestinian publics. The Ayalon-Nusseibeh principles are quite decent and realistic and you can read them here. In general, Ami is being seen as the candidate who could most breathe new hope and life into the prospects for peace. Akiva Eldar, in this article, explains in more details the reason why.

There are also differences in their respective approaches to the current government and to serving in a coalition under Ehud Olmert. Barak has stated that he is willing to join the government, but would seek agreement on a date for new general elections. This would allow a new Olmert-Barak formation to avoid an immediate coalition crisis, even though the promised election date would create somewhat of a sort of Damocles situation. Ayalon, following the harsh report of the Winograd Commission into last summer’s Lebanon war, went on record that he would not enter a government led by Olmert. Ayalon has said that he is not opposed to being in a coalition with Kadima, but they would have to choose a new party leader other than Olmert. This currently appears unrealistic and it is a weak point in the Ayalon candidacy as most Labour members have little enthusiasm for collapsing the coalition and thus, precipitating early general elections. Of course both Barak and Ayalon could find a face saving formula if it comes to the political crunch and their positions on this political question are likely to be further prodded and tested for the duration of the primaries campaign.

Ironically, Amir Peretz having been ousted as King, now finds himself in the position of King-maker. The support of the Peretz party machine would probably be enough to push either Barak or Ayalon over the top in their run-off. Peretz has a deep seated hostility to Barak and the elitism he represents and he is leaning towards Ayalon. But the final word has not yet been spoken on this and Israeli politics makes for especially strange bedfellows.

In the bigger electoral picture, according to the polls, Ayalon poses a great threat to Likud leader Netanyahu. This was largely born out by yesterday’s primary first round results. Barak’s main support came from vote contractors and the support he received amongst the old guard of the party machine, as well as amongst the Arab and Druze communities – all of which are largely irrelevant to the Labour Party when it comes to general elections. Ayalon, by contrast, polled well where the election was genuine and genuinely competitive and where Labour needs to grow its strength in the general elections, notably in the large cities (Ayalon won Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa).

The Israeli Labour Party has a pronounced cannibalistic streak and tends to devour its own, especially promising new leaders. Barak would likely survive, but it is unlikely he will achieve much beyond that should he win the second round. If Ayalon is to succeed not only in two weeks, but also in repositioning Labour to be a driving force in Israeli politics, then he will need to build on the courage and daring which we have seen fleeting glimpses of to date.

May 28, 2007

A Fitting Farewell to Falwell

It may be a tad out of date, but Haaretz has just run this no-punches-pulled op-ed by EvanFalwell and Netanyahu Goldstein of the "Moment" magazine about the late Jerry Falwell and his relations to Israel and the Jews.  The title, "A Toxic Legacy," tells you where this is going.  Here are some choice nuggets:

Jerry Falwell... would no doubt be pleased by Abraham Foxman's declaration that he was a "dear friend of Israel"... Was it true?

Falwell comes out of a pre-millennial tradition rooted in... the conversion or death of all nonbelievers, and the dawning of the messianic age.


There can be no apocalypse, no battle of Armageddon, and ultimately no salvation for Christians without the "ingathering of the exiles" to the Land of Israel.


He... preached an uncompromising commitment to the cause of Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank... [and he] forged a series of cynical and opportunistic partnerships with leaders on the Israeli right...

...Falwell typified how philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism tend to coexist comfortably in the same depraved minds.


Theological philo-Semites, like Falwell, seem to relate to Jews more as mythical figures from the Bible than as real living, breathing people. Similarly, Falwell was not concerned about Israel the country - the messy, inspiring, infuriating experiment in Jewish democracy on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. To him, Israel was a symbol, the link between the beginning and the end of things. 

There will not "be any real peace in the Middle East until the Lord Jesus sits down upon the throne of David in Jerusalem," Falwell said a few years ago... Falwell had no use for a prosperous, democratic and Jewish Israel with clearly defined borders living at peace with its neighbors.


The jowly pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia, was many things over the course of his long life - a bigot and a demagogue are two that come quickly to mind - but he was definitely not a "dear friend" of the Jewish State or the Jewish people.

May 27, 2007

A Generous Farewell to Amir Peretz

Tomorrow Amir Peretz will almost certainly be voted out as the leader of Israel’s Labour Party and by extension as the country’s Defense Minister, as party members go to the polls in primary elections. Peretz has had a torrid time in the Defense Ministry. Even if he was dealt a harsh hand when the situation on Israel’s northern border spiraled into a crisis so soon after he entered office, Peretz has justifiably been criticized has having failed to show leadership, provide strategic direction, and stamp his authority on the military top brass. In his first senior government role, Peretz came up short.

The media in Israel and the region will be full of harsh eulogies on his term in office, so I thought I would provide a few positives from the Peretz era that should not be lost in the wave of negativity. For any of my Israel Labour Party card carrying member friends out there, this is not an endorsement of Peretz and certainly, perish the thought, not me suggesting that he be re-elected in Monday’s primary. Here then are my top three positives on Amir Peretz (what did you expect, ten?!):

1. Peretz’s potentially most significant, if larger unrealized, contribution was to bring to together a progressive socio-economic platform with a pro-peace message. The key disconnect in Israeli politics has for too long been that those who suffer most socio-economically from the absence of peace are also those who are most easily rallied to the uber-nationalist, anti-peace flag. Peretz tried to bring Israel’s Sephardi working class and the residents of the peripheral development towns into the Labour and peace camps. It is this community that Peretz came from and his rise to the leadership represented a real hope. It is true that Peretz failed to deliver or even advance a peace platform, but any new leader will need to strengthen that peace-economic self-interest linkage.

2. It could have been worse. This is of course the get-out-of-free-jail card of any unsuccessful politician, but Amir might have more justification than most in playing this card. Peretz apparently had a crucial role in preventing Israel from extending last summer’s attacks over to the Syria arena – despite the prompting of some in the US administration. Peretz worked to dampen some of the excesses of Yair Naveh, the outgoing head of the IDF’s Central Command. Naveh is a West Bank settler and acted like one in office. He constantly thwarted any political efforts to ease Palestinian conditions in the West Bank. Peretz at least made an effort to push back. Peretz was sometimes given to unexpected bouts of frankness. Just last week when Israel arrested Hamas political leaders in the West Bank, Peretz responded “What would you prefer? Military strikes and assassinations?” In this, Peretz is probably telling it exactly as it is. There were pressures to revenge Hamas for the Qassam rocket strikes and Peretz tried to guide things in the direction of reversible, rather than irreversible measures.

3. The summer 2006 Lebanon debacle. This is obviously the failure that Peretz will be most remembered for and associated with and to a degree deservedly so. But the military lack of preparedness and lack of strategy and the non pursuit of peace options were all things he inherited, rather than created. A detailed reading of the Winograd report into the war presents a very interesting picture regarding Peretz’s role. Peretz constantly seems to suggest that Israel’s military options would face severe time limitations and would have to be over in a matter of days. For him the exit strategy was obvious – the intervention of international, US-led diplomacy to put an end to the hostilities. Peretz’s fatal mistake in his analysis was a failure to appreciate just how ideologically blinkered and indeed counter-productive to Israel’s security were the neocons driving US policy. Elliot Abrams and Ambassador John Bolton aggressively opposed an early diplomatic resolution to the war. In so doing they acted contrary to the expectations of Peretz and it seems other Israeli decision makers. On day thirty-four a UN resolution did indeed end the war and the only difference in outcome to the kind of resolution that would have been passed on day four were the Israeli and Lebanese lives lost in the meantime.

May 24, 2007

Betting It All on the Maliki Government

The fatal flaw in the "benchmarks" approach to Iraq, and what an effective alternative might look like.


The congressional leadership and the White House have just reached a deal over war spending that drops a timetable for withdrawal and focuses instead on benchmarks that the Iraqi government should meet. At the same time, the president has further rubbed the Democrats' collective noses in mud with a speech given at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, wherein he delivered a new version of the spurious accusation that opposition to the war in Iraq is tantamount to support for al-Qaeda.

Ignore for a moment that Iraq-based al-Qaedists only exist and have become a threat because of this administration's misconceived and mismanaged war. Ignore, too, that the achievements the president hailed in confronting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan are being rolled back, not least because attention and resources were diverted to Iraq. Ignore even the president's defense of Guantanamo (rising, as it did, nearly to the level of the last GOP presidential primary debate) or the fact that the detention center provides grist for the mill of jihadist anti-American recruitment and thereby weakens U.S. security.

Ignore all that, and return to the funding deal. Maybe a war funding compromise was inevitable. But, beyond the basic recoil inspired by any bill that funds an open-ended continuation of the war, this specific compromise is based on a fundamental flaw -- namely, the benchmarks approach.

Here's why: Setting benchmarks for the current Iraqi government assumes that it can rise above the sectarian fray andMaliki and Bush deliver a degree of effective central governance. But the Maliki government is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution. It is insufficiently politically inclusive, and it lacks credibility and delivery capacity. To place all one's eggs in this basket smacks of the kind of irresponsibility that has characterized the entire Iraqi misadventure from the get-go.

Rather, the current Iraqi Government should be dealt with as one of a number of actors that need to be brought into a new political, security, and regional accommodation, around which Iraq can begin to be restabilized.

As a recent International Crisis Group report on Iraq put it, "the Iraqi government and security forces cannot be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered; they are simply one among many parties to the conflict." Or, in the words of a Chatham House Briefing Paper released last week called "Accepting the Realities in Iraq":

Iraq has fractured into regional power bases. Political, Security, and Economic power has devolved to local sectarian, ethnic or tribal political groups. The Iraqi government is only one of several "state-like" actors... there is not 'a' civil war in Iraq, but many civil wars and insurgencies... The surge is not curbing the high level of violence.
Delivering on the benchmarks -- passing a new oil law, provincial elections legislation, a revised constitution, and security improvements -- in a way that is sustainable, meaningful, and builds Iraqi stability, cannot be achieved by exclusively relying on the Maliki government. What is required is to exhaustively engage a broader set of actors within Iraq and with its neighbors. As the ICG says:
... it will take more than talking to Iraq’s neighbours to obtain their cooperation. It will take persuading them that their interests and those of the U.S. no longer are fundamentally at odds ... That cannot be done ... as long as the Bush administration's paradigm remains fixated around regime change, forcibly remodeling the Middle East.
So the diplomatic alternative requires a lot of tough talking both within and beyond Iraq. Much but not all of what is required politically was already suggested in last December's Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report. As The Washington Post reported a couple of days ago, people have been dusting off the report for ideas.

Secretary Rice attended two gatherings of an International Iraq Support Group, most recently in Egypt. In a policy reversal, she has met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, and talks are scheduled with Iran at the working level.

Yet the strong impression given is that the administration is going through the motions rather than giving robust, concerted, creative diplomacy a real try. The Iraq Study Group devoted a significant chunk of its recommendations to how the United States might create a more conducive regional atmosphere for the heavy political and diplomatic lifting required in Iraq. Not surprisingly, that ten-person bipartisan commission identified active American reengagement with Israeli-Arab peacemaking as being decisive to restabilizing U.S. credibility, reviving U.S. alliance-building capacity, and reversing the growth of radicalism in the region.

This key recommendation has yet to be taken up, and U.S. national security interests (not to mention Israeli ones -- but that's another story!) are suffering every day it is ignored. In conditioning any extension of war funding, the starter should be a diplomatic surge. That could include at least 5 elements:

    (1.) Rather than convening the Iraq International Support Group merely every 2 months with great fanfare, create a permanent group on Iraq that meets all the time, with all the neighbors. Americans discussing Iraq with Syrians, Iranians, and others should not constitute an eyebrow-raising image but rather an everyday occurrence.

    (2.) Work with the neighbors on an inclusive, broadly defined set of stakeholders inside Iraq that extends well beyond those in government, and only excludes al-Qaeda. This should be done in conjunction with Iraq's neighbors as part of a regional approach suggested below. (By the way, introducing U.S. troop draw-down timetables would help, rather than hinder, such an effort.)

    (3.) Make the Iraq effort part of a broader rethinking of regional diplomatic engagement. The issues are linked. One cannot ask for Syrian and/or Iranian cooperation on Iraq in one press conference while threatening them in another. If the decision is for diplomatic engagement, then the conversation cannot be artificially narrowed to the Iraq issue only. Everything should be on the table with Iran and Syria. That does not translate into a neglect of nuclear concerns regarding Iran, nor of the Lebanon file with Syria. With those issues, too, diplomatic solutions should be tried.

    The entire region has been destabilized -- look at Lebanon and Gaza. There is a tendency to parcel or even block out the rest of the region and focus narrowly on Iraq, the argument being that zooming out would only make it more difficult. But actually, the best approach at this stage may in fact be a comprehensive, regional one.

    (4.) Drop the allergy towards non-al-Qaedist political Islamists: An approach to the Middle East that combines democratization with political isolation of all political Islamists was stunningly unrealistic from the start, and the tendency to view political Islam as a monolith has crippled regional policy. The Muslim Brothers, including Hamas, do not see the world through the same lens as al-Qaeda, and they may be more effective as allies than secular nationalists in preventing the spread of violent Salafist jihadism. Establishing agreed-upon guidelines for an engagement with the Brothers will not be easy -- there is plenty to argue about -- but it is an absolute priority. The United States should probably not take the lead in this effort -- but it should encourage and take an interest in other third-party-led dialogues, rather than denounce and shut its ears to such initiatives. Certain European countries, and others such as South Africa, should be supported and listened to as they plough this difficult terrain. (By the way, in effect, this is what the United States is already doing in Iraq in its dialogue with non-al-Qaeda Sunni groups.)

    (5.) Do not pursue an exclusively al-Qaeda-centric policy in Iraq. The president's Coast Guard Academy speech focused on that for domestic political reasons, and featured yet more misleading rewriting of reality. Success against al-Qaeda is one (vital) thing; success in Iraq is another, and to define the latter exclusively in terms of the former is to add insult to injury.

May 23, 2007

Right Wing Media Skew Poll on American Muslim Attitudes


A new poll [.pdf] from the Pew Research Center found that American Muslims are largely assimilated to American society. The study, based on more than 1000 interviews, found that while many American Muslims disagree with aspects of American foreign policy, they are still "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes." For those disinclined to read the report, check out this piece from Jim Lobe.

Right-wing media have pursued a boring and obvious line, arguing that mainstream media has ignored the study's finding that there are Americans who would support violence against civilians in certain circumstances. The New York Post ran the headline “Time Bombs in our Midst – 26% of Young U.S. Muslims Back Killings. Fox News: “Poll: 1 in 4 U.S. Young Muslims OK with Homicide Bombings against Civilians."

It is interesting to note that the minority group of American Muslims who support violence against civilians in some rare circumstances are not alone in America.  Take, for instance, a January World Public Opinion survey that found 51 percent of all Americans believe “bombing and other types of attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are justifiable.  According to the poll, 21 percent of Americans believe that attacks by Israelis on Palestinian civilians are sometimes justified, while 13 percent believe that Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians are justified.  Sadly, it would seem that support for attacks on civilians pervades all strata of American society.

Certainly it is alarming that young American Muslims are becoming more sympathetic to the use of violence than their parents. But to take this statistic to breed hysteria and to justify Islamophobia is to misread a sophisticated and informative poll.

A closer reading of the survey suggests that it is precisely the same hysteria which right-wing media seek to tease out of this poll which is alienating this small minority of young Muslims. The study found 58 percent of young (between 18 and 29-years old) American Muslims feel that it has become “more difficult to be a Muslim since September 11th,” and 42 percent report having been singled out for violence or suspicion because they are Muslim. While this report finds that the vast majority of American Muslims are well-assimilated to American society, there is a strong indication that the United States will squander an opportunity to nurture a positive trend if it continues to alienate its Muslim communities by a combination of Islamophobic security measures, bad policy in the Middle East, and by allowing anti-Muslim hysteria to run rampant in American society. That truly startling finding is the real “Time Bomb in our midst.”

Ironically, the survey found negative media portrayal to be the 5th most important problem facing Muslims, after “Discrimination/racism/prejudice,” “Being viewed as a terrorist,” “Ignorance about Islam,” and “Stereotyping.”

May 22, 2007

Jon Stewart Gets Serious About the Middle East

Last night's Daily Show on Comedy Central was dominated by the Middle East, and much of it was serious stuff - in stark contrast to what passes as "real news coverage."  In the show's central  interview Jon Stewart asked Zaki Chehab (whose new book "Inside Hamas" we posted about last month) what America should do, clarifying that, by 'we,' he meant the President, as most of the public was too busy watching American Idol. Chehab seemed nervous, but got his main point across - that the American failure to back moderates in the region with efforts at serious political problem solving gave a constant boost to radical al Qaedist groups.  

Chehab detailed that strengthening moderates needed to mean more than just visits to the region, warm embraces, and involvement to get, for instance, "tomato trucks out of gaza on time," but had to extend to "imposing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."  While I'm skeptical that an American-imposed solution is either realistic or desirable, there would be real value if America made resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a national priority, and, acting accordingly, presented its own detailed parameters for what a permanent status agreement should look like. 

Perhaps more interesting than the interviewee were the rather leading "questions" being posed to him by Jon Stewart that seemed to more than hint at the hosts own understanding of the issue -  Stewart really seems to get it

If we used the resources and strength we have used in Iraq in the Palestinian territories [the implication is to make peace -DL] would we have been successful?


Would it take the steam out of the conflict with Islam if that [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] gets solved?

The other segment of the show was about Lebanon.  It was far more amusing, albeit inaccurate at times.  For a good laugh click here.  For a better idea about what is going on in Northern Lebanon, see the post below.


Five Comments on the Lebanon Situation

A battle is raging in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between the Lebanese Armed Forces andNahr Al-bared militants from the little and little known Fatah Al-Islam movement; meanwhile two bombs have exploded in civilian areas of Beirut in the last 48 hours.  The death toll in and around the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli, the center of the fighting, is unknown, but it already numbers in the tens. 

Read on for some analysis on: (1) competing claims as to the identity of Fatah Al-Islam, (2) what next for the political process in Lebanon, (3) more spillover from the unresolved Palestinian conflict, (4) lessons for the broader front against Al Qaeda , and (5) the Iraqi connection.  

(1)  So who are the Fatah Al-Islam?  There are basically two competing claims as to who is behind this group that apparently emerged in late 2006.  One has them linked to Al Qaedists, and, in particular, ex-al Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Zarqawi.  The other pins them as a front for Syrian mischief in Lebanon. 

The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  The group, led by Shakir Al-Abssi, who was apparently released from a Syrian jail last year, and has well-documented links to al Qaeda.  He set down roots in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, and the group first came to people’s attention when it claimed responsibility for a March attack in Ain Alaq in the Mt. Lebanon area.  The New York Times  had a piece featuring the group following this attack (subscription required). 

The group claims that it draws inspiration from Salafist Jihadism, but that it has no direct affiliation to Al Qaeda.  Fatah Al-Islam is not part of the Palestinian Fatah movement.  While it is clearly part of the “al Qaeda family,” there are questions as to its Syrian links.  Not surprisingly, the anti-Syrian Lebanese Government forces are adamant that Fatah Al-Islam is part of the ongoing Syrian subterfuge in their country, while the pro-Syrian opposition forces reject this assertion.  This is a murky area.   

The UN Security Council is currently considering the establishment of a tribunal to investigate the Hariri killing in which Syria is implicated.  So this might be an obvious time for Syrian mischief making.  On the other hand, the Syrian government faces its own threat of Salafist Jihadists, and encouraging such groups on their doorstep would be playing with fire.   

(2)  Getting a Lebanese political accommodation back on track: this latest crisis is happening against the backdrop of ongoing political instability in Lebanon.  The Shi’a groups Hezbollah and Amal, and their Christian allies (led by Michel Aoun) withdrew from the government and have staged ongoing street protests, Parliament has stopped convening and the country is at a dangerous political impasse.  External actors, including the US, France, Syrian and Iran, are pulling in competing directions, and occasional Arab League and other neighborly efforts towards reconciliation have so far failed to produce any results. 

The Shi’a community in Lebanon cannot be vanquished or politically marginalized without risking further, and probably more devastating, instability.  Lebanon’s leaders, despite their deep personal animosity, will need to find a way to reengage in a broad-based national dialogue whose remit will include power-sharing arrangements, security related issues, and the Hariri tribunal.  Third parties, the US and Syria included, should encourage, rather than exclude, such a process. 

(3)  It’s the Palestinians, stupid.  It is not a coincidence that the Fatah Al-Islam set up base in a Palestinian refugee camp.  The unresolved Palestinian conflict is a source of region-wide instability.  That can lead in one of two directions: either to damn those petulant Palestinians, or to take robust action to resolve the conflict.  I think somehow that the latter course is more constructive and advisable.

There are twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and many others in Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank.  Neither the refugee problem, nor the overall grievance that is the occupation and lack of Palestinian statehood will be addressed until there is a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace.   

The solution is hardly a mystery.  Just read the Clinton Parameters or the Geneva Initiative.  The absent ingredient is political will – in the region and beyond, and notably in America.  Convincing American leaders to summon up that political will would be a fine challenge for the blogosphere.  

(4)  Lessons for the broader front against Al Qaeda: one of the interesting things that has happened in Lebanon in the past two days is that the Palestinian factions – Fatah and Hamas – that are busy killing each other in Gaza are actually cooperating in Lebanon, with each other and with the local authorities, to isolate the al Qaedist threat.  The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Usamah Hamdan, has condemned the Fatah Al-Islam group and pledged to work to dissolve their activities.  This might just point the way to a broader strategy for confronting al Qaedist groups across the region.  

In fact, it is the strategy already in place in the Sunni areas of Iraq, but not really discussed elsewhere.  In Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, America is making common cause with Sunni political Islamists (the latest alliance has been called the Reform and Jihad Front) to push back against al Qaeda.  Such groups are basically the equivalent of the Muslim Brothers or Hamas in Iraq.  These, essentially nationalist reformist political Islamists, for all their shortcomings (and there are many) probably offer the best bulwark against further al Qaedist gains. 

Efforts at establishing dialogue, political accommodation, and rules of the game should be made between the West and the non-al Qaedist Sunni forces.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but the place to start is the Palestinian Authority where Hamas is in government and won a democratic election.

(5)  The Iraqi connection.  According to Arab press reports, the Fatah Al-Islam leadership trained with the now expired Abu Musab Zarqawi, and his al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  In fact, it seems that many of the fighters now active in Tripoli had gained experience in the insurgency in Iraq.  Last years’s US National Intelligence Estimate already drew the conclusion that Iraq had become a magnet and training ground for Jihadists, and was a significant factor in strengthening al Qaedist tendencies in the region.  In that respect Tripoli, Lebanon just becomes another victim of the havoc spread by America’s Iraqi misadventure.  Al Qaeda-inspired groups, since the Iraq invasion have sprung up in Jordan, in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, and now in Northern Lebanon.

May 21, 2007

Tom Friedman Belatedly Gets It

New York Times op-ed guru Tom Friedman can be frustratingly out of touch in his Middle East writing, but he does also have a refreshing ability to change tack - he has just done that, belatedly, on the question of how to 'deal' with Hamas.  In his Sunday column, Friedman pens an imaginary note (subscription required) from newly appointed US war czar, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute to the President.

The note begins:

Mr. President, if you look around the region, all those we’ve tried to isolate — Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban — are stronger today than they were two years ago. We have to reassess our strategy, beginning by facing up to the fact that we’ve fundamentally altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

Most of the piece is then devoted to the need for, and terms of engagement with Iran - but right at the end of his op-ed, Friedman picks up on the Hamas theme.

At the same time, we have to open a dialogue with Hamas — not to embrace it, but to lay out a gradual pathway that will bring it into relations with Israel.

If I thought that isolating Iran and Hamas was working, I’d continue it. But it manifestly is not — any more than isolating Castro has worked. So either we find a way to draw them in or we’ll be fighting them — and the hard boys — in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan for a long, long time.

We have been arguing this for some time - and it's nice to read Friedman echo what is little more than the obvious.

More and more voices in Europe and Israel are coming to the same realization - though painfully few here in the US.

I took a couple of UK Defense Academy senior research associates - William Sieghart and Oliver McTernan - around Washington last week.  They have formed a not-for-profit - Forward Thinking - that is engaged in dialogue with the Hamas leadership, as well as right wingers in Israel and the Muslim community in the UK.  Forward Thinking draws on the Northern Irish experience and the need to bring so-called hardliners into a peace process.  Their message - that Gaza is full of hungry, angry and armed young men - fertile recruitment ground for Al-Qaeda, and that Hamas is a political, conservative, grievance-based organization with whom one can reason, and that may be the best bullwark against Al-Qaeda - was taken very seriously in DC.

This is how Middle East Affairs Editor Zvi Barel put it in his weekend Ha'aretz column:

Hamas is not a pleasant movement.  It includes elements of terror and draws its sources from a fanatical religious ideology.  But Hamas and the Palestinian unity government, as long as the latter still holds up, are the best address Israel has at the moment.  This government is not just the only one that has the potential to control the "State of Gaza," it is the only one that is still interested in the fate of its public and, therefore, is influenced by the pressure of that public.  It is the only one that is also threatened by the firing of Qassams on Sderot.  But without the means to provide benefits for its citizens, it is also paralyzed.

"The essential thing," according to Barel, is "... letting the Palestinian government work."  Barel points to Iraq for "the proper analogy":

... the government in Iraq, as well as the American administration, is ready to talk with everyone... in order to achieve quiet.  No reasonable person in the American administration would reject a year-long ceasefire - not to speak of a 20-year ceasefire...

Reform Jewish Leader Blasts Hateful Hagee

Last week, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism Eric Yoffie wrote an op-ed in The Forward criticizing Aipac and other Jewish organizations for their endorsement of Pastor John Hagee, the founder of the Christian Zionist lobbying group Christians United for Israel.

Last March Hagee was invited to speak at Aipac's national convention in WashingtonHaggee where he declared that "the sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened."  Finding that such right-wing figures alienate the moderate views of most American Jews (especially youth), Rabbi Yoffie would prefer it if this giant would simply sleep in:

We know a great deal about Jewish young adults. We have learned from extensive research that these young people are often more socially liberal than their baby-boomer parents. They are pluralistic in their thinking, and they are tolerant of difference, especially differences in gender and sexual orientation.

They respond negatively to those who disparage other religious traditions and who make exclusivist religious claims. They are insistently centrist in their political views on the Middle East. And they are suspicious of a Jewish establishment that they see as too focused on money and insufficiently focused on values.

And so whom do we offer to these young people as a spokesman for Israel? John Hagee, who is contemptuous of Muslims, dismissive of gays, possesses a triumphalist theology and opposes a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. If our intention was to distance our young adults from the Jewish state, we could not have made a better choice.

To watch the offensive, blood-curdlin', thunder-clappin', table-thumpin' Hagee speech at AIPAC follow this link, but be advised, this should carry a health-warning.  The faint of heart might try the transcript.


May 18, 2007

If Gaza Gets a Second Chance, Europe Must Act

Guardian UnlimitedAs Israel and competing factions between and within Hamas and Fatah fight it out in the streets of Gaza and the skies above there is plenty of blame to go around.

Gaza is on the precipice.  Palestinian security force officer loyal to the Fatah Movement

There are implications, not only for the security of Palestinians and Israelis, but also for further radicalizing the region beyond.  As Mogadishu enters its second decade of chaos and ungovernability there is a cautionary tale for neighbors seeking to fuel civil wars.

With Gaza collapsing, the key culprits are considered to be the Palestinians, Israel, the US, and even the Arab states.  The Palestinians have been unable to hold together a functioning unity government and have too easily resorted to violence in addressing their internal and external problems.

The gun battles are now often between factions within the factions of Hamas and Fatah, overlaid by simple criminality and clan-based feuds.  The Palestinian public has understandably lost faith in the political process. 

Israel left Gaza but maintains - and even strengthens - its occupation of the West Bank, and the attempt to de-link the two is always bound to fail.  The unilateral disengagement from Gaza was described by its Israeli architect as an act of punishment, rather than peace and stability-building.  Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement continue to be the proximate cause of the dire economic situation as reported again recently in a World Bank study.  The U.S. led the drive for democratization in the region only to become prime enforcer of an international embargo against a democratically elected Palestinian government after the 2006 Parliamentary elections.

For six years, America has provided no political hope and no political horizon to resolve the conflict, with policy, instead, meandering between ineffective conflict management and irresponsible conflict promotion.  Most of the surrounding Arab states, acting in fear of their own Islamist oppositions, have unhelpfully intervened in Palestinian internal politics.  But the withering complicity of Europe in this sad state of affairs often goes unmentioned.

Gaza is on Europe’s doorstep, what goes on there has a ripple effect among Europe’s minority Muslim communities.  This is a European interest, and, most of all, Europe should know better than America’s neocon Neanderthals. 

After the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, Europe timidly signed up to the preconditions for engaging the new PA government.  The EU became part of the diplomatic and financial boycott of the Palestinians’ elected leadership.

Europe seemed so thrilled to be invited to the Middle East peace process big boys’ table of the international Quartet that being there became an end in itself.

Even with all the difficulties of managing common foreign and security policy in an EU of 27, the absence of a European position is a damning indictment.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams is reported to have recently boasted to a meeting of Jewish Republicans that current American engagement on Israel-Palestine was “process for the sake of process” intended to silence nascent European and Arab criticism.

And indeed the European response has been muted.  European aid to the Palestinians has continued while its effectiveness has continued to dwindle.  To circumvent the economic embargo, Europe led in the establishment of a Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) to channel international aid.

The humanitarian imperative behind TIM is laudable, and it provided a smart technical-bureaucratic solution; but, as so much in the Middle East, the temporary has become permanent, and the abnormal and unsustainable has been prolonged.  Rather than reconfiguring its approach when a unity government was established between Fatah and Hamas, the EU simply continued with TIM.

As the World Bank has pointed out, and Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment has detailed in his study “Requiem for Palestinian Reform: Clear Lessons from a Troubled Record,” this approach is undermining over a decade of efforts at Palestinian institution-building.  In fact, the EU failed to live up to its own at least implicit commitment to the Palestinians that, were a Fatah-Hamas unity government to be agreed, the embargo would be ended and normal aid channels resumed. 

It is indeed informative and deeply distressing that the two European governments who have pursued engagement are the non-EU member states of Switzerland and Norway.  If and when the situation in Gaza pulls back from the brink, then the international community should pause to consider its failed policies, and Europe should take a lead, at least in some areas.  The Quartet should take advantage of, rather than eschew, the use of variable geometry in its engagement with the Palestinian Authority.  If it is serious and committed, then Europe can do things that the Israelis and Americans, and even some Arab states, are unwilling or unable to do.

Israel’s lack of appetite for a dialogue with Hamas at this stage may be shortsighted, but it is certainly understandable, and anyway the feeling is probably mutual.  At the last meeting of European Foreign Ministers, there was an apparent willingness to consider resumption of direct assistance to the PA.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner is apparently eager to push in this direction, but the reorientation should not stop there.  Ideally the new leaderships in France and Britain will be open to new thinking.

Reaching an accommodation with reformist political Islamists is a crucial part of any realistic pushback strategy against al-Qaeda.  The Palestinian Hamas reality may not be the ideal laboratory conditions for initiating such an approach, but it is the one we have.  Making a Palestinian unity government work is the best option for Palestinians, but also for Israel and an international community interested in stabilizing security and creating the building blocks for a renewed peace process.  It is also the choice of President Abbas and the Marwan Barghouti-affiliated Young Leadership faction of Fatah.

Europe should be pushing a three-point agenda – part it can do alone, and part requires convincing others.  First, EU diplomatic engagement with all parties, including Hamas, to promote a stable PA unity government.  Second, resume direct financial assistance to the PA and encourage Israel to release Palestinian tax money it is holding.  And finally, work with the Quartet and the parties to extend any future Gaza ceasefire to the West Bank.

May 16, 2007

Gaza on the Brink

It is all so bloody and so bloody predictable.  The Mecca deal for a Palestinian unity government is breaking down as Hamas and Fatah's militant factions clash on the streets of Gaza, and simultaneously turn their fire on Israel.

Over 40 Palestinian have already been killed in the internal clashes, and the southern Israeli town of Sderot faces a barrage of Qassam rocket fire with injuries so far, but no casualties.  Israel has responded with air-strikes against Hamas militants and is threatening to further ratchet-up that reaction.  

Those bored already by another tale of Middle East tribalism have lost sight of the implications this clash could have in an already dangerously destabilized region.

American credibility will be further tarnished, the Arab states will feel even more threatened and unwilling to do heavy lifting in Iraq, and the overall regional atmosphere will lurch again in the direction of violent radicalism.

Obviously, this is a moment of truth for the Palestinians, but Israel and the U.S. are hardly disinterested bystanders.

Hamas and Fatah have real political differences, and the Mecca unity deal is a fragile one.  Gaza is awash with poor, young, unemployed males, and guns.  Add to that already combustible mix an international economic embargo and an Israeli, American, and Arab involvement that sides with one faction and provides them with weapons, and you have the recipe for the disaster we are witnessing today.

Rather than easing the economic situation, providing a political horizon, and encouraging the fragile post-Mecca ceasefire, the external actors have been promoting a civil war, with the encouragement of certain elements within Fatah.

For some in Hamas such a scenario provides a convenient excuse for not continuing the difficult path away from violence and into politics, and avoids having to maintain the delicate balancing act of keeping the militants onboard.

Palestinians will have to find their own formula for stepping back from the brink, but Israelis and Americans should be asking themselves some tough questions, too; and a good place to start might be a glance to the Horn of Africa, and to the disaster that is Somalia.

Will Israeli security be improved by having a Mogadishu on its doorstep?  And does such an outcome serve American interests?

A Gazan collapse into chaos and total ungovernability will create a security nightmare for Israel and other surrounding states, and, of course, a humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians themselves.

Fatah cannot win this civil war, forget it.  The alternatives on offer are a serious effort to make the Unity Government work, or Mogadishu.  The Somali capital is now in its second decade of irretrievable chaos and collapse.  The toothpaste is not fully out of the tube in Gaza, but it is preciously close.  Does Israel want to play the role of Ethiopia in Gaza, re-crowning Fatah leaders atop IDF tanks?

Already America is arming certain Fatah factions, and Israeli Vice-Premier Shimon Peres is suggesting that Israel would positively respond to a Fatah call for assistance.  Nothing could be more shortsighted.  If Hamas is kicked out of the government, the alternative is unlikely to be effective Fatah rule and tame Hamas quiescence, but rather the emergence of an al Qaeda foothold inside the Palestinian territories.

Israel and her international allies have to swallow hard and recognize that the route to possible enhanced security and a renewed peace process runs via a Palestinian unity government and the ongoing incorporation of the political Islamists into the governing equation.

That does not mean that the U.S. and Israel need to directly engage with Hamas immediately, or finance them - the Hamas leadership is probably not ready for that either.

But Europeans and others should be encouraged to engage; and their money, together with promised Arab donations, and Palestinian tax money being withheld by Israel should all flow back to the PA.

If and when the fighting cools down, a serious effort must be made to get a unity government to work.  The policy of regime change in Palestine, as elsewhere, has failed.

This is urgent.  As Gaza sneezes, Israel and the region are in danger of catching a very nasty cold.


Credit to Congressional Quarterly


The Story We're Not Getting Here

Jonathan Broder of Congressional Quarterly wrote this very insightful piece on where the debate is at in Israel.  I'll give you a few tasters here, but the entire piece is worth a look:

The left's hopes for a negotiated settlement dissipated with the breakdown of the Camp David effort.  And now, the bold move toward unilateralism seems spent.


But for the Israeli left, something has changed: namely, offers for peace talks over the past few months from Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Palestinian Authority.  Most significant is the Saudi plan, endorsed by the 22-nation Arab League, which offers Israel full peace, recognition and normalization with the entire Arab world.  The price:  Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, estbalishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, and an "agreed" solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

This approach, even if entirely sincere, poses enormous challenges because it forces both sides to confront their separate - and sacred- historical narratives of the events that led to both Israel's creation and the Palestinian exodus.  For Israelis, it raises the question of what responsibility they bear in the creation of the refugee problem in Israel's first year of existence.

Syria, on the other hand:

Israel's debate over the Syrian offer for peace talks has nothing to do with the weighty issues of history or recognition.  In this case, the question is whether Israel is obligated to follow the Bush administration's policy of resisting talks with Damascus in order to isolate the regime there.  Increasingly, serious scholars are questioning the conventional wisdom that it makes strategic sense for Israel, a tiny country surrounded by Muslim hostility, to hew closely to the policies of the United States, its most important ally.

Broder hears the "three nos" coming from Jerusalem now: 

Israelis often refer to their offer soon after the 1967 war to negotiate a withdrawal from territories taken in that conflict in return for peace and recognition from the Arabs.  In the same breath, they remind the world that the Arab League, meeting later that year in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, responded to Israel's offer with its famous "three nos" - no negotations, no recognition, no peace.

Now, Israelis on the left openly question whether their government is actually afraid to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Arabs because of the price it will have to pay.  And that skepticism is spreading to some in the political center as well.

Iraqi Refugee Crisis

UNHCR New America Foundation Fellow Nir Rosen has been out and about speaking on this issue. Rosen recently published an article entitled “The Flight From Iraq,” the cover story for the May 13th issue of The New York Times Magazine. It is estimated that 4 million Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. 2 million of these are refugees outside the country, the majority of whom are living in Syria and Jordan, but not without profound effects on the states themselves and the region at large. You can check out a web-cast of the event here.

Highlights from the story and the talk include the possible destabilization on the state economies of those absorbing the refugees. Aside from the damage to Iraq internally, Rosen is concerned that the spillover beyond its borders has already “transformed the Iraq War into a regional conflict.”

An interesting side issue Rosen brings up is how the refugee crisis has affected Iraqis of Palestinian origin, who now suffer from statelessness on a second level. Rosen has called them “doubly cursed”:

Under Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians, who are mostly Sunni, received subsidized housing and, according to Shiite opinion, preferential treatment. Immediately following the American invasion and occupation, the Palestinians were among the first victims of reprisals by the inchoate Shiite militias. They were expelled from their homes and often ended up in tent communities. Palestinians are now obliged to register in Baghdad once a month, but merely to approach the (Shiite-dominated) Ministry of the Interior to register is to risk kidnapping, torture and murder. So most Iraqi Palestinians are essentially illegal now in Iraq. Yet without any papers it is also extremely difficult to leave. One Iraqi diplomat I spoke to in Cairo denied that Palestinians were being singled out, insisting that they lived better than most Iraqis. He accused them of supporting Al Qaeda and building car bombs in their neighborhoods. The Syrians and Jordanians also refuse to take them in. “They want to make a point that the solution for Palestinians is not settlement in the region,” a United Nations official explained to me.

Rosen is careful to analyze some of the more subtle and oft-forgotten historical elements of the conflict in Iraq, noting that the consequences from what was a poorly managed and perhaps initially political issue has caused the articulation and intensification of radical sectarian identities on a regional level as well. But these identities may not always have been so politicized. WhileIt's bad in Iraq many of the Iraqis he interviewed now speak on sectarian terms, Rosen has noted that this classification of Sunni or Shi‘a was a rare -- if non-existent -- element in Baghdad before the invasion.
Ultimately the refugee crisis poses an issue for the United States as well as the Middle East. The United States helped resettle Iraqis since the mid-1970s. We have resettled more than 37,000 refugees total, most of whom were persecuted under Saddam Hussein. According to Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, since April 2003 the United States has resettled only 692 Iraqis due to security reasons following 9/11.

May 15, 2007

Two Great Pieces to Challenge Conventional Thinking

Who to engage with in the Middle East and on what terms?  At prospectsforpeace.com we have been trying to promote the view that engagement is not endorsement and communication is not capitulation - and that without broadening the scope of dialogue we are unlikely to understand the region or how to re-stabilize.

Here are two powerful pieces that appeared in recent days - in the LA Times and Ha'aretz - to drive home the point, make the historical analogy, and get us thinking:

In the first piece from Ha'aretz, Zvi Bar'el asks, "What if they spoke to each other?":

... how will Hezbollah respond if Israel enters into negotiations with Syria? How will Syria react if the U.S. conducts direct talks with Iran and reaches a tactical compromise? How will Iran react if Syria is no longer included in the axis of evil? And what will the gangs in Gaza say if a miracle occurs and Israel invites Ismail Haniyeh to talks and lifts the boycott on the Palestinian Authority?

The possible answers are that Hezbollah might not stop making threats, but it would lose its logistical support and no longer constitute a strategic threat. Syria would not cut its ties with Iran, but Iran would no longer be able to dictate events in Lebanon. Iran would not stop collecting nuclear technology, but direct talks with Washington, and perhaps an accord the talks might ultimately produce, would also affect the motivation to use this technology for attack.

The street gangs in Gaza would also continue to smuggle weapons, and the firing of Qassams would not cease, but the PA's realm of control would expand and the economic welfare of the Palestinian people would become a real political bargaining chip. Most importantly, the Arab initiative could be realized, turning these gangs into fringe forces that should be opposed for threatening the chance to establish a Palestinian state. This should be the new discourse of Israeli and American politics in the region if someone really plans to turn the military failures into opportunities and prevent the next war.


In the second piece, from the Los Angeles Times, William Dalrymple tracks the origins of "the largest and bloodiest anti-colonial revolt to face any European empire anywhere in the world during the 19th century."  The British campaign to break down Indian resistance to Western domination, as Darlymple sees it, was a "steady crescendo of insensitivity" to Muslim feeling, and ultimately led to the Great Munity of 1857 and the terrible war that followed.  Darlymple describes how he sees "Westerners" falling into the same habits as their predescessors from 150 years ago:

So does history repeat itself. Not only are Westerners again playing their old game of installing puppet regimes, propped up by Western garrisons, for their own political ends, but more alarmingly, the intellectual attitudes that have sustained such adventures remain intact.

Old-style Orientalism is alive and kicking, its prejudices intact, with Mark Steyn, Daniel Pipes, Samuel Huntington and Charles Krauthammer in the role of the new James Mills and Thomas Macaulays. Through their pens — blissfully unencumbered by any experience of the Muslim world — the old colonial idea of the Muslim ruler as the decadent Oriental despot lives on, and, as before, it is effortlessly projected on a credulous public to justify imperial projects.

... As before, Western evangelical politicians are apt to cast their enemies in the role of "incarnate fiends" and simplistically conflate resistance to invasion and occupation with "pure evil." And Western countries, blind to the effects of their foreign policies, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked by — as they see it — mindless fanatics.

Yet as we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalizes a people against us as aggressive Western intrusion in the East. The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. There are clear lessons here. For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.

But Darlymple does not stop at merely making an analogy between then and now.  He sees the origins of our current predicament in the history of this revolt.

In addition to the obvious historical parallels, there is a direct link between the jihadis of 1857 and those we face today. The reaction of some of the Islamic scholars after 1857 was to reject the West in favor of a return to pure Islamic roots. A Wahhabi-like madrasa was founded at Deoband in India that went back to Koranic basics. One hundred and forty years later, the movement has spread, and it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible out of which emerged Al Qaeda.

May 14, 2007

Conflicts Forum Reports on Sunni Opposition to Al Qaeda in Iraq

Last week in Abu Dhabi, Vice President Dick Cheney sat down with Bret Baier of Fox News to reminisce about his recent surprise visit to Iraq.  Cheney wasted no time finding reasons to be optimistCheney and Petraeusic:

... one item that stood out that everybody mentioned to me is the changes they see in Anbar province, where apparently the locals, the tribal sheikhs, the Sunni population, appears to be turning against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has been a dominant force in that part of Iraq. It's been heavily engaged out there for several years. But apparently, it's reached the point where their conduct in the local community has been such that the Sunni leaders in the region have, in effect, turned against them.

And earlier in the week, in a press conference in Baghdad with the Vice President, General Petraeus thought Cheney remiss in not mentioning "the really dramatic shift in the Sunni population in Anbar province against al Qaeda Iraq in recent months."

Change, it appears, is afoot in Anbar Province.  And while Cheney and Petraeus stop short of declaring victory over the hearts and minds of the Sunni resistance, they are both eager to call these changes 'progress.' 

For an alternative view, check out this report from Conflicts Forum.  The report confirms that the Reform and Jihad Front (RJF) recently united three major non-Al-Qaeda Sunni resistance movements.  "The growth of the RJF, its ability to appeal to a broad political front, and its organizing skills have been felt throughout Anbar Province and far into the north."

But, contrary to Cheney's claims of success, the significance of the alliance against Al Qaeda is very different.

The RJF’s goals are to “fight all kind of occupations” (that is, American and Iranian) and to “make Iraq an Islamic State and guarantee its unity under an Islamic flag.” The RJF has also vowed to “target occupation forces and their agents and not civilians” to “promote moderate Islam and denounce all parties which do not differentiate between good and evil” to “abolish all decisions adopted by the American government including de-Baathification” and “to work to release all prisoners.” The RJF announced that they will never recognize the al-Maliki government and that upon taking power they will abolish the current constitution.


May 11, 2007

Fuad Siniora in the New York Times

Fuad SinioraIt's worth checking out Lebanese Prime Minster Fuad Siniora's op-ed in the New York Times.  Despite the weaknesses of leadership in the region, the revised Arab Initiative does offer a real opportunity which should not be missed, and that is again articulated by Siniora in his op-ed.

The July war proved that militarism and revenge are not the answer to instability; compromise and diplomacy are.

This should be the impetus for Israel to seek a comprehensive solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The Winograd Commission’s failure to discuss the war’s implications for peace prospects leads one to wonder whether Israel would rather allow this conflict to fester as long as it is under relatively controlled conditions. Its goal should be regional peace and security, which can be realized only through a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The inevitable alternative is increased extremism, intolerance and destruction.


Because of its unique role in the world, the United States has a responsibility to display leadership and courage in helping the two sides achieve a just and lasting peace. The people of the Middle East aspire simply to live in freedom and dignity, without constant threats of violence, occupation and war.

However, a relaunched peace process should not be an excuse for the US to further play internal politics inside certain Arab polities whether it be Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority.  Even if it might be intended as such, Prime Minister Siniora's message should not be pursued as an invitation for such intervention. 

The other thing to note about the Lebanese leader's op-ed is that he actually is not as forthcoming as Palestinian leadership has been in outlining a peace proposal that takes into account Israeli sensitivities, especially on the refugee issue.

I'll be posting more on this later.

Getting to yes and recognising it

 Here is a piece I wrote with Rafi Dajani, the executive director of the American Task force on Palestine, in the Jordan Times:  

Israel just marked its 59th birthday and like a typical baby boomer, tends to vent its frustration at dreams not realised.

Yet a core Israeli dream — to not only establish a state, but to have that state accepted in the Middle East and live at peace with its neighbours — is within reach. If only Israel, having finally got to yes with the Arab world, would recognise it.

Amidst all the Middle East doom and gloom, there are at least three reasons for real hope, Israeli, Palestinian, and regional.

On the Israeli side, there is a belated realisation that the absence of an agreed border, the ongoing occupation, and unfettered settlement activity have all been extremely costly in security, financial and moral terms. Israelis are increasingly cognisant that military force delivers, at best, partial solutions and are keen to find a negotiated way forward. They are distrustful of the Palestinians’ intentions and capacity to deliver, but view the Arab world as a more reliable and robust partner.

On the Palestinian side, and contrary to conventional wisdom in the US, the Mecca unity government deal between Fateh and Hamas in many ways represents a broadening Palestinian consensus around the inevitability of a two-state solution and acceptance of Israel as an irreversible reality. According to the unity government platform, President Mahmoud Abbas is authorised to negotiate with Israel, with any agreement reached having to be approved by a referendum or PLO vote, the legitimacy of which all parties would accept. External Arab states’ involvement helped to lock in this deal and would presumably be again required to back up a Palestinian sign-off on a permanent status peace deal with Israel.

That is why the third element, the regional role, is so important and why renewed peace efforts could take the Saudi Arabia initiative as a key point of departure.

While the clauses of the relaunched Arab Peace Initiative are essentially the same as those of the original 2002 initiative, the context in which the current initiative is launched is very different.

The person who launched the 2002 initiative, then Crown Prince Abdullah is now king of Saudi Arabia that has assumed the leadership mantle of the Arabs, brokering the new Palestinian coalition government, mediating between the factions in Lebanon and formulating regional strategy over Iran.

In addition, the Arab world is witnessing a rarely seen unity over the initiative, signalling a fundamental shift towards accepting Israel as a neighbour and partner.

Israel has oscillated between enthusiasm and concern in its response to the initiative. Israeli criticism of a take it or leave it proposal or of the refugee or border clauses largely miss the point.

The Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers have stressed that Israel should accept the initiative “in principle” and as “a framework”, after which all issues were open for negotiations. The border clause says that borders should “be based” on the 1967 lines, implying that the exact borderlines would be negotiated. On the refugees, the key terminology in the clause is the phrase “agreed upon”. By definition, “agreed upon” means Israel signing off on a solution to the refugee issue that it, too, accepts.

An additional bonus is that influential non-Arab Muslim states have also signed up to the logic behind the initiative — peace for normalisation. Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia all fall into this category.

It is no longer an act of wide-eyed naiveté to envisage an Israel at peace with its neighbours and accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel did it; it got to yes. Now it is time to recognise it and act on it.

May 9, 2007

Israeli Restrictions Hinder West Bank Economic Development

Section of the wall in the West BankA report released today by the World Bank found that severe restrictions on movement and access continue to devastate the West Bank economy.  "Without efficient and predictable movement of people and goods, there is very little prospect for a sustainable Palestinian economic recovery," according to the report.

Read the report here.

May 8, 2007

More on the Post-Lebanon Report Crisis in Israel

Open Thread

So, with the weekend passed and Israeli PM Olmert's situation still somewhat critical - but clearlyOlmert stabilized - the betting, as I predicted in my first commentary in the Guardian, is still on Olmert politically surviving - for now at least.  Olmert's government has just survived no confidence motions in the Knesset by an easy margin.

Tzipi Livni apparently made a bad political miscalculation last week in calling for the PM to resign while continuing to serve as his Foreign Minister.  She has been thoroughly savaged in the LivniIsraeli media - "embarassment," "cowardice," "timidity," and "typical Livni compromise" being just a few of the epithets thrown at her.  In the hebrew blogosphere she has been labelled "Tzipi-pitputi" - which broadly translates as "Tzipi-blah-blah-blah!"

But perhaps she is being written off prematurely - the experience may be a learning one.  There has been an air of machismo in the criticism, and if Kadima eventually does oust Olmert, then Livni remains a potential successor.

The demonstrations have predictably petered out.  Here is the caustic observation from the Israeli Ma'ariv newspaper's lead commentator, Ben Kaspit:

Ehud Olmert watched last night's demonstration against him from the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem – the same residence from which tens of thousands of protestors want to have him evicted forthwith. He watched on television with concern until, at about 9 P.M., his various advisers let out a collective sigh of relief that could be heard all the way to Rabin Square. 

The police reported that less than 100,000 people had turned up for the rally; Olmert's people rejoiced. This was perhaps the first time that the police had some good news for the prime minister.

And Israel's most respected jouranlist, Nahum Barnea, had this to say in Yediot Ahronoth:

The citizens who attended the rally are dedicated to democracy; they are pure of intention and pose no threat whatsoever... It was not the sort of crowd that takes to the barricades. It is not the sort of crowd that will come back to the square week after week until the government falls.

... for better or for worse, the people who showed up at the demonstration last night were naïve... For worse, because most of them joined the protest without considering political ramifications of their actions. It is easy to call for the ouster of the prime minister. The real challenge, however, is to change the rules of the game, the political culture of Israel and the quality of government. If they knew that, in place of Olmert they would get Netanyahu, I doubt most of the 100,000 would have turned up last night.

The next test will be whether the Labor Party - either before or after its leadership primary on May 28th - agrees to stay in a Government led by Olmert.

In the meantime, here is a selection of just some of the excellent commentary that continues to appear in the Israeli press on this (at least a selection of what's available in English).

Amos Harel on the decision to launch a broad military campaign (AKA war):

... the policy of restraint along the northern border: Does the committee justify its application during the six years that preceded the war, and does it essentially believe that the Olmert government should also have adopted this policy?

Even though this is not said openly, it seems that the answer is affirmative. Not only does the committee consider Ariel Sharon's policy of restraint logical, its harsh criticism of Olmert's decisions suggests that the panel questions whether there were any grounds for a severe military response to the abduction, given the circumstances extant on July 12, 2006.

Avi Issacharoff draws the same conclusion:

Anyone who reads the report carefully cannot escape the impression that in the view of the committee, this was an unnecessary war. It is possibly that because of this, Olmert's successor, whoever he may be, will think twice before going to war.

And Aluf Benn:

Thus, the Winograd text may be interpreted as follows: Israel believed that the Syrians are weak and intimidated, and therefore did not prepare for war and neglected the ground forces, and at the same time did not genuinely try to achieve peace.

Ehud Asheri on the demands around which Israelis should have been mobilizing and demonstrating:

How many people would have participated yesterday in a demonstration that would have called for a bold diplomatic initiative, including negotiations with Syria? Myself and two thousand others, tops. Nevertheless, this is the only reasonable demonstration that should have been held against Ehud Olmert. Instead, about 100,000 (maybe) showed up to express a general gut feeling: remove the man who failed to bring them victory. Just like frustrated soccer fans demanding the sacking of the coach, in the false belief that only a new coach can win the championship for them.

... but even if Olmert may have to go in the end, it will be for all the wrong reasons.


Of all people certainly Olmert know more than anyone else today that there is a need to impose civilian limits to the dangerous monopoly of the army over security doctrine and diplomacy, which in fact brought about the results of the war.

And finally, this comment from the most unexpected of sources...

In an unprecedented move, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah yesterday praised the Winograd Committee's report on the Second Lebanon War.

Nasrallah said he respected Israel's "verdict of failure." During an appearence in Beirut, Nasrallah said: "I will not gloat. It is worthy of respect that an investigative commission appointed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemns him," Nasrallah said. "When the enemy acts honestly and sincerely, you cannot but respect it."

May 7, 2007

Amos Oz on Palestinian Refugees

Leading author and fellow Geneva Initiative signatory Amos Oz has written an excellent piece on Israel's responsibility for a Palestinian refugee problem now nearly 60-years old:
Amos Oz, May 2005Each time we Israelis hear the words "the 1948 refugee problem," our stomachs flinch out of anxiety and objection. In our parts, the refugee issue has turned into a synonym for the right of return, and the right of return spells Israel's demise.


However, the problem of the 1948 refugees must be resolved. Moreover, resolving the refugee problem is a vital interest for the State of Israel because as long as this problem remains unresolved – as long as hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees are rotting in inhumane refugee camps – we shall have no rest.

... The War of Independence was a total war, a village against a village, a neighborhood against a neighborhood, a house against a house. Populations are uprooted in such wars. Some 12 Jewish communities, including the Old City of Jerusalem, were taken over by the Arabs during the War of Independence. The Jewish populations in these settlements were wiped out or forcefully deported by the Arabs.

On the other hand, hundreds of Arab communities with hundreds of thousands of citizens were uprooted in 1948, some fled, and others were expelled by the Israeli army.

The time has come to openly admit that we are partly responsible for the plight of the Palestinian refugees; not exclusive responsibility or exclusive guilt, but our hands are not entirely clean. The State of Israel is mature and strong enough to admit its partial guilt and to also accept the inevitable conclusions: We would do well to take upon ourselves part of the effort to settle these refugees outside of Israel's future peace borders, in the framework of future peace agreements.

Israel's actual admission to part of the responsibility for the Palestinian refugees' plight, the actual preparedness to bear part of the solution's burden – is likely to send an emotional shockwave through the Palestinian side. It will serve as an emotional breakthrough of sorts that will significantly facilitate the continuation of talks - because the tragedy of the 1948 refugees is an open and bleeding wound in the flesh of the Palestinian people.

On the Israeli side there is a fixed tendency to increasingly reject the "core issues" of the conflict: Refugees. Jerusalem. Borders. Settlements. This rejection was perhaps what led to the failure of the Oslo Accords, and it obviously doesn't contribute to current negotiations: Israel's tendency to avoid talking about core issues sparks founded suspicion on the Arab side, which argues that Israel is indeed seeking calm but is not ready for a comprehensive solution.

Perhaps Israel's leadership should initiate a discussion on the Palestinian issue and suggest Israeli participation in resolving the problem such as removing all the refugees from the camps in which they are rotting and providing housing, work and citizenship to any refugee that so desires within future Palestinian borders.

Obviously, comprehensive treatment of the root problem will oblige Israel to admit its partial guilt in the Palestinian Nakba and the responsibility stemming from this guilt. Treating the root problem would also have to touch on the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were uprooted from their homes in Arab countries.

Both from moral and security standpoints Israel should seek a solution to the 1948 refugee issue. It would involve a financial burden that would have to be met by Western states, Israel and the wealthy Arab states.

In such an eventuality, the level of violence would drop, and the desperation that breeds extremism will begin to wane once the occupants of the refugee camps begin hearing that their lives in the gutters are about to end.

From Israel's point of view, even if we sign agreements with all our enemies – as long as the refugee plight is not addressed, we shall have no calm.

Read the entire piece on Ynet.

May 4, 2007

The Report into Israel's Lebanon War

The New America Foundation held an event today to discuss the the Israeli Winograd Committee's investigation of the summer's Lebanon War.  The Winograd Committee has just published its interim report, and it is nothing short of a political earthquake in Israel that could have implications for the region and US foreign policy.  In a conversation with Steve Clemons, Daniel Levy analyzed the report and the political fall-out.

The event was broadcast live on C-SPAN.

You can watch it here.

May 3, 2007

The Olmert Report

 Olmert takes his cue from Bush on The Daily Show w/ Jon Stewart.


Click here

May 2, 2007

Political Crisis in Israel

Open Thread 

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has survived the first 48 hours since the publication of the interim report on the Lebanon war and his determination not to resign remains intact. Olmert has though, lost one Labor cabinet minister, the chair of his own Knesset party faction, and the Foreign Minister amongst others has publicly called on him to resign. Thursday night a mass rally in Tel Aviv will take up that call. The coming days, and perhaps weeks, will be full of political intrigue and excitement – the key things to look out for will be how serious are the moves inside Olmert's own party to replace him, will his Labor party coalition partners demand his resignation, and whether the public protest will maintain momentum? The pendulum initially swung against Olmert and his predicament remains critical, but perhaps a little more stable.

At the same time, Secretary Rice is returning to the region and in addition to the Iraq conference, she will be meeting with her Mideast Quartet partners and with relevant Arab parties as part of her continued efforts to re-launch the peace process. If Olmert does remain in office for now, he may just see his political survival in linking forces with Secretary Rice in getting serious negotiations with the Palestinians on track. This might help him survive the final report of the Lebanon committee, which is due in August. But it is a high risk strategy for all concerned and the Secretary of State may have to place her recent Mideast peace shuttling on hold until Israel's political situation is clarified.

And what about Iraq? With the 4th anniversary of "mission accomplished" behind us and the neighbors conference in Egypt coming up, it is difficult not to draw the comparison, as today's NY Times editorial did, between Israel's leadership having appointed a committee whose findings regarding a failed war have been brutal and the absolute absence of any such process in the US. Right now Hezbollah television is celebrating the findings of the Israeli commission of inquiry. It is hardly pleasant viewings for Israelis and you could even describe it as a gift to one's enemies, but the report is the price of democracy and also the way to learn the lessons and correct the mistakes.


Are We Going Backwards to Benchmarks on Israel-Palestine?

Reuters is carrying a report suggesting that Secretary Rice is drawing up an 8-month timetable – what is, essentially, on the ground confidence building measures for the Israelis and Palestinians. 


According to the report:

The U.S. timeline, the first of its kind presented to both sides, includes specific dates for when Washington envisages Israel letting Palestinian bus and truck convoys travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, a demand that has raised some Israeli objections.

Washington, at the same time, has set dates for when Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would step up deployment of his forces and take specific measures to begin curbing rocket fire by militants, officials who have read the document told Reuters.

While the US engagement is welcome, it is this kind of approach that has consistently failed and that secretary rice seemed to be moving away from in the last month.  Once the secretary of State started talking about the need for a political horizon and for discussions on the end destination of the peace process it appeared that the administration had belatedly understood that efforts at improving the daily situation on the ground, absent addressing the core political issues, would be doomed to failure.  

 This indeed has been Rice’s own experience with the access and movement agreement that she negotiated with the Israelis and Palestinians on November 15, 2005.  That agreement was never implemented and in several subsequent visits, the secretary of state found herself renegotiating the micro-details of which elements of the old agreement might actually be implemented.  All this goes to show that issues such as closure, checkpoints, security, and settlements are all part of a political context and a political conflict that requires comprehensive resolution and that does not lend itself to being managed and ameliorated by way of piecemeal tinkering. 

 If reports of the 8-month timeline of Israeli and Palestinian deliverables are part of a confidence-building track that will accompany serious political negotiations, then such an approach is worthwhile; but if they are a substitute for negotiations, then conceptually Secretary Rice has just taken a giant step backwards.

"Iraq is for the Iraqis only"

iraqforiraqis.jpg As the news breaks about President Bush’s veto of the Congressional Bill which attempted to link war funding with a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, BBC News posted a story about the President’s comments, including his feeling that the US “surge” of troops needs more time to work. Posted in the article was the following picture with the caption “President Bush has poured extra troops into Baghdad” below it.  The English translation of the Arabic writing on the wall behind the armed troop in the picture reads “Iraq is for the Iraqis only.” The irony speaks for itself. 

May 1, 2007

More on and from Hussein Agha

I recently posted on the latest New York Review of Books piece by Rob Malley and Hussein Agha.  Now many people will be very familiar with Rob Malley and his consistently piercing analysis, so I thought it would be worthwhile to better familiarize Prospects for Peace readers with Hussein Agha and, in particular, with another blistering piece he has just written on US troops in Iraq.

Hussein Agha's formal affiliation is an academic one, at St. Antony's College, Oxford.  But he is better known as an informal adviser to, and confidante of, the Palestinian leadership, a track-II activist, and Arab world expert with a sharp mind and a wickedly playful way of expressing himself.

Here's an example of his keen intellect at work in a piece from last week's Guardian Online

In "The last thing the Middle East's main players want is US troops to leave Iraq," Agha argues that while the street mood is against the US presence in Iraq, across the region states and political actors have learned to use the US presence to promote their own objectives and are keen to continue doing so.  He goes on to list why each of the regional actors has an interest - clear if unstated - in keeping the US firmly stationed in Iraq.  Iran and Syria, for instance, in addition to enjoying the spectacle of the quagmire, benefit from the perceived inability of the US to open another front and from having such available targets on their doorstep.

Saudi Arabian, Jordan, and Egypt are nervous about the radicalizing impact of the "moment of defeat" and hope the US will prevent an overly Iranian orientation of Shia Iraq, and/or the country's break-up.

As for the myriad of political and armed groups within Iraq:

It is not the moment for all-out confrontation. No group has the confidence or capacity decisively to confront rivals within its own community or across communal lines. Equally, no party is genuinely interested in a serious process of national reconciliation when they feel they can improve their position later on. A continued American presence is consistent with both concerns - it can keep clashes manageable and be used to postpone the need for serious political engagement.

And this on Al Qaida:

Al-Qaida and its affiliates arguably benefit most from the occupation. They established themselves, brought in recruits, sustained operations against the Americans and expanded. The last thing they want is for the Americans to leave and deny them targets and motivation for new members.

America comes out of this grim picture something of a sucker.  Not pleasant reading, but food for thought.

... the Americans appear the least sure and most confused. With unattainable objectives, wobbly plans, changing tactics, shifting alliances and ever-increasing casualties, it is not clear any longer what they want or how they are going to achieve it. By setting themselves up to be manipulated, they give credence to an old Arab saying: the magic has taken over the magician.