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July 25, 2007

Brotherly Love?

There's a fascinating piece in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription only) by Jay Solomon on US contact with Syrian opposition groups.  The article discusses the US-Syria relationship, regime change options, and, perhaps most startling, that the Bush administration is working with the Muslim Brothers in Syria:

How Bush hard-liners and the Brotherhood's Syrian branch came together is a tale of desperation to keep up the pressure on Mr. Assad, whose regime has weathered all attempts by the U.S. to cripple it in recent years.  The unusual relationship is also a measure of the evolving strategies on both sides as they seek ways to counter the Syrian government.

And the US has not been limiting its Brotherly outreach to Syrians alone:

U.S. diplomats and politicians have also met with legislators from parties connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq in recent months to hear their views on democratic reforms in the Middle East, U.S. officials say.  

This obviously stands in stark contrast to the US policy regarding the PA and Hamas.  It appears that only when the Muslim Brothers run in elections, and have the audacity to win and form a government, are they boycotted. 

I understand the concern that, unlike the others, Hamas continues with armed resistance and has a record of terror.  Another important difference is that, unlike in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, Hamas in the Palestinian Territory operates under military occupation, and it is increasingly clear that armed resistance is against the occupation, not an end in itself.  Yes, I would like Hamas to be more explicit in accepting a two-state solution, but a more urgent first step would be to get a solid sustainable ceasefire with Hamas in order to stabilize the security situation.

Enough of the Palestinian comparative detour.  The Syrian detail is fascinating, and here is more from Jay Solomon:

The White House views Syria -- along with its allies, Iran and militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas -- as a main threat to stability in the Middle East. So it is exploring the potential benefits of engaging with the Brotherhood...

The U.S. has traditionally avoided contact with the Brotherhood across the Middle East. But now the State Department and National Security Council have begun to hold regular strategy sessions on Syria policy with the NSF [an exiled Syrian opposition group which "unites liberal democrats, Kurds, Marxists and former Syrian officials" with the Muslim Brothers] and is funding an organization linked to it. Senior officials from the State Department and the National Security Council confirm the meetings. The U.S. has also discussed with the NSF and linked groups ways to monitor elections and promote civil society in Syria.

But some of the Bush administration's old Syrian friends are queasy about this relationship:

At a January 2006 conference of Syrian-American activists in Washington, participants debated whether to align with the NSF. The Syrian Reform Party, a group of pro-democracy activists close to the Bush national security team, declined to attend. "We can't trust our future to Islamists," says its president, Farid Ghadry, a regular visitor at the White House. "The Brotherhood will never moderate itself."

Meanwhile, the WSJ quotes Ali Sadreddin Al Bayanouni, the president of the Syrian arm of the Muslim Brothers, and member of the NSF: 

Mr. Bayanouni says the cooperation through the NSF is merely a good start. "In the absence of direct dialogue" between the U.S. and the Syrian Brothers, he says, "we believe the American image of the Brotherhood will always remain vague."

Indications are that Israel is far from enamored with the regime change policy.  In fact, there has been a flurry of backchannel diplomatic activity between Israel and Syria over the past weeks.  Israeli and Syrian sources have both confirmed Turkish mediation, and the Turks are not alone in playing this role.  There has also been a conscious effort on both sides to ratchet down the confrontational rhetoric, and to take steps to avoid any accidental military escalation this summer.  In fact, only yesterday, Israeli military intelligence confirmed that its assessment is that Syria is not planning any military strike or action against Israel. 

As the backchannel messaging continues between Jerusalem and Damascus, the lack of an American willingness to engage is becoming a decisive negative factor.  The Olmert government now seems serious in wanting to explore a Syrian option.  The Syrian leadership is explaining to anyone willing to listen that it cannot be asked to move towards peace with Israel and the concomitant strategic realignment that this would require vis-a-vis Iran and Hizbollah, for instance, without receiving commitments from the US, that it will no longer be subject a regime change and sanctions policy.  Syrian sources actually consider that the dialogue with Israel is beginning to move forward seriously, while that with the Bush administration remains blocked.  Jay Solomon's WSJ piece is very helpful in understanding that dynamic.

Another One Bites the Dust

My friend and colleague at the New America Foundation, Steve Clemons, has posted on his Washington Note blog that Neocon stalwartwurmsers.jpg David Wurmser is about to leave the office of the Vice President.

David Wurmser has been VP Dick Cheney's Mideast adviser since 2003.  Prior to that he worked with John Bolton at the State Department, and with the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies.  In 1996, Wurmser co-authored "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Security in the Realm," with Richard Perle and Douglas Feith among others.  The report, intended for then incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outlined a strategy for ending the peace process and regime change in Iraq and Syria.

I prefer to avoid attacking people by familial association, but David Wurmser and his wife, Meyrav, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, are one of those couples who are professionally very much singing from the same hymn sheet (so to speak). 

Last December, Meyrav bragged to Ynet that she and her neoconservatives had encouraged Israel to attack Syria during last summer's war, and that they were the ones who prevented early diplomacy to stop the war.  In response to the question "Did the administration expect Israel to attack Syria?" she said:

They hoped Israel would do it. You cannot come to another country and order it to launch a war, but there was hope, and more than hope, that Israel would do the right thing. It would have served both the American and Israeli interests.

The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space… They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its strategic and important ally should be hit.

Earlier this year Meyrav and I were scheduled for to debate at the Washington Institute for International Studies at Brown University, but she ducked (or chickened) out at the last minute.  Seeing as David might have some free time in the future, I should say that I would happily challenge any Wurmser to a debate on Middle East policy.

July 23, 2007

What Would a Diplomat Do?

Ask Colin Powell and Jim Wolfensohn -- Not Just Chris Hill.

The New York Times had an editorial today that really gets to the core of this administration's diplomatic under-reach.  It is entitled "What Would a Diplomat Do?"   The NYT echoes many of the points I made in the Guardian Online, last Thursday, in terms of how to move the President's conference idea forward: talk to Hamas, bring in Syria, and, centrally, do the diplomatic preparation with Jim Baker's '91 Madrid conference as your model.

 there is still a perplexing refusal to do the tedious but absolutely essential diplomatic prep work...

They are still refusing to talk to people they loathe. The militant Palestinian movement Hamas is definitely not invited to their meeting, even though it controls a large swath of Palestinian territory and psyche. And Syria probably won’t make the list. Both deserve loathing but also have the ability to shatter any peace effort, and further isolating them will only give them further incentive to try.

... it took former Secretary of State James Baker (no slouch as a negotiator) eight grueling shuttle trips to set the stage for the 1991 Madrid peace conference.

The NYT editorial ends by asking "What would Chris Hill do?" and talks about the lessons from the heavy diplomatic lifting on the North Korea file not being applied elsewhere.  That's a fair focus given that North Korea and Chris Hill are such rare examples of the US punching at its diplomatic weight in recent years.

On the Palestinian file, though, it is worth noting what two no less qualified diplomats had to say in the last days.  Two of the world's most respected former senior office holders have just spoken out, one on NPR, the other in Ha'aretz.  So what would Colin Powell and Jim Wolfensohn do?

In an NPR interview on July 19, former Secretary of State Powell was asked the following question:

... in the Middle East peace process, would you talk to Hamas right now in Gaza?

Here is his reply:

I think you'd have to find some way to talk to Hamas. I don't want to insert myself into what Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice is doing or what the president is doing. But they are not going to go away. And we have to remember that they enjoy considerable support among the Palestinian people. They won an election that we insisted upon having. And so, as unpleasant a group as they may be, and as distasteful as I find some of their positions, I think that through the [Middle East Quartet, which consists of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations] or through some means, Hamas has to be engaged. I don't think you can just cast them into outer darkness and try to find a solution to the problems of the region without taking into account the standing that Hamas has in the Palestinian community.

Then, in a fascinating interview in the weekend's Ha'aretz, former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn casts his eye at the Gazan and Palestinian reality.  Here is the excerpt: 

 However, in Wolfensohn's view, none of the sides can allow itself to observe from afar the new reality that has emerged in the region and to wait for it to change. "The reality is that you have 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza and you can't wish them away, you can't leave Gaza as a place where the rich and the intellectuals and the powerful can get out, and leave just the people who can't make a living - or can make a living if they could, but have no leadership. And military use or subjugation doesn't solve the problem, it seems to me."

It is Wolfensohn's view that "in the interest of Israel, in the interest of the Palestinians, there is a need to get things back to a situation where there is representation of all the Palestinian people in an entity that can deal with Israel to bring about, if Israel wishes, a two-state solution, which appears to be a thing Secretary [of State] Rice is now committed to." The situation, he says, cannot simply "be allowed to lie there, because just pretending that 1.4 million people can live in a sort of prison is not a solution at all. So I think it's going to require, on the part of Tony Blair or someone, some real negotiations to try and get this started."

Asked about another possible way out of the deadlock - with Israel taking the initiative and exerting pressure on the Palestinian population to rid itself of the Hamas leadership, or assassinating the organization's leaders in order to pave the way for Fatah to take control again - Wolfensohn shrugs his shoulders. "I'm not at all sure that Israel can determine what happens in Palestine, the Palestinian territories. There's been no evidence up to now that a decision taken by the Israelis will determine what the Palestinians do. I don't think personally that a military solution is a solution," he says dryly.

The Wolfensohn interview is very wide-ranging and worth reading in its entirety.  Wolfensohn's warmth and commitment to peace and security for Israelis, Palestinians, and the region is palpable throughout the interview.   He even discusses the role of Elliot Abrams and how Wolfensohn's own mission was thwarted by Abrams.

Wolfensohn has a challenging take on Israel-Palestine in the global context -- as an off-off-off-off Broadway show that needs to be resolved in particular for the Israeli interest.  He cares passionately about Israel in that genuine way that is not often heard.  Here is Wolfensohn on the future of Israeli youth:

"The expenses on military and intelligence in Israel are probably greater than in any democracy I know of, and I can understand that, given the situation, but as a continuing characteristic of the country, I don't think it's hopeful. To me it is so bloody sad that all the creativity you have in Israeli youth has to go through this experience in the army, risking their lives," Wolfensohn says, casting his gaze far beyond Central Park. "Israeli youth finish high school and spend two-three years in the army, and then go to Thailand and other places and smoke pot to get over it, then come back and start their lives when they're 24. I don't think that's an ideal way for the next generation of Israel to live their lives." 

Day One of the New Blair Mission

Tony BlairNew Quartet envoy Tony Blair began his first mission to the region today with a series of meetings on the Israeli side to be followed by a visit Ramallah.  I am not lending my voice to those who are dismissive of his mission and claim that he is a discredited actor in the region who can do no good. 

Having made his mark in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, Blair is an astute politician who still carries weight on the world stage and has the ear of Washington.  That does not mean that success is guaranteed -- far from it --, but it does suggest that Blair should be given a chance. 

First, let me clarify something: contrary to a series of press reports I will not be serving as an adviser on Blair's team.  Even when I clarified to the Sunday Telegraph that there had been no conversations about any formal role, they continued with the rumor.  That Telegraph interview is also inaccurate in quoting me as saying that Blair would fail if he did not talk to Hamas.  My argument is that the policy of isolating and excluding Hamas cannot work.  The important thing is to open meaningful channels of dialogue to Hamas.  Whether that is initiated by Blair or others is secondary.  In fact, it would be unlikely (and understandably so) for Blair to take the lead role in this respect. 

I also do not buy the line that the new envoy Blair will immediately look for ways to break out of his narrow and restrictive mandate.  The Washington Times ran a story claiming that Secretary Rice and Envoy Blair are already at loggerheads regarding the exact definition of his role.  Blair and Rice have been known to cooperate well and if the new envoy is to segway into a new, more political role (as I presume he will) this would most likely be a gradual process.  So expect mandate expansion by stealth, not frontal confrontation.

The Northern Ireland analogy provides some guidance, although it can be taken too far.  In leading the Northern Ireland process as Prime Minister, Blair displayed patience, an appreciation of timing, political understanding, the deployment of external actors, and an ability to build an inclusive process that ultimately had the buy-in of the hardline actors on both the Unionist and Republican sides. 

The Middle East, though, is not Northern Ireland.  The parties do not speak the same language and the political cultures are different.  In these respects, the initial Blair effort will likely have to include a lot of listening.  Ultimately, the determinant of success will be whether the envoy can chart a meaningful way forward, and then convince the US to work with him in advancing it.  That would take time, so early predictions are best avoided.

July 19, 2007

Israel and Palestine: an invitation to negotiate

Here is my attempt to be constructive on the President Bush speech from this week - an effort to grab some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat.

It is on the Guardian Online.


Can anything good possibly come out of President Bush's Middle East speech earlier this week and the flurry of diplomatic activity that will come in its wake beginning today with the Quartet meeting in Lisbon, Portugal?

First of all, let's be clear. The speech represented more of the same failed policies with even less chance of success. Anyone who thinks that the new speech was a constructive contribution should read an op-ed by Michael Oren in yesterday's Wall Street Journal that was distributed by the official White House Jewish Public Liaison, presumably signifying that Oren's interpretation has formal blessing.

Oren, of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based, neocon-sympathetic creation of Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote the following: "Mr. Bush has not backtracked an inch from his revolutionary Middle East policy. Never before has any American President placed the onus of demonstrating a commitment to peace so emphatically on Palestinian shoulders...the bulk of his demands were directed at the Palestinians...Mr. Bush set unprecedented conditions for Arab participation in peace efforts."

I have detailed my own thoughts on the speech elsewhere, and the search for a silver lining is not an easy one. What I propose is a jujitsu move that leverages the expectations created by the speech toward achieving a constructive, if unlikely, outcome. To call this jujitsu move a long shot is an understatement, but it is worth a try. Here is how it could be done.

Despite White House efforts to lower expectations, Bush's speech did call for an international meeting in the fall that is being touted everywhere as a peace conference. In the speech, Bush committed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to chairing that meeting.

Her undoubted desire to avoid a huge flop is the point of departure. The Americans will be very keen to have key regional and international players at the table in the fall, which in turn gives the Arab states and the Quartet partners an invitation to negotiate the terms of reference for the conference should they choose to use it.

This would be the moment for the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and the majority of European states who are uncomfortable with current American policy to articulate and bargain over a new approach. It is even conceivable that Rice herself would welcome a strong stand on the part of her interlocutors in order to use such a negotiation to carry the president toward a more realistic policy.
President H. W. Bush
The model for diplomatic efforts should be the Madrid conference of 1991. There is of course an important similarity, but an even more important and complicating difference - the president's name then and now was Bush. But Bush the father showed commitment and courage in advancing peace efforts, while Bush the son is not on board. Rice would have to cast herself in the role of James Baker, this time with the additional challenge of having to convince her boss, the president.

At the closing of that Madrid Conference, Baker said, "The United States is willing to be a catalytic force, and an energizing force, and a driving force in the negotiating process." Rice would have to adopt that mantle and be all of those things and more.

Baker shuttled for eight months around the region putting together the conference and negotiating the terms of reference for Madrid, which appeared in the letter of invitation and to which all sides agreed. He succeeded in creating a peace process that brought together Israel, the Palestinians, all the neighbouring states and an additional 10 Arab countries, none of whom had formal relations with Israel.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara at the Madrid ConferenceThe substance of the Madrid terms of reference contained four elements, crucial to its success.
First, the effort was comprehensive, involving not only the Palestinians and Jordanians (not yet at peace with Israel), but also the Lebanese and the Syrians. Second, the terms for engagement represented at the time a breakthrough, namely the land-for-peace formula with a comprehensive settlement to be based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
Third, the letter of invitation provided a timetable for an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement. Finally, Madrid managed to bring Israel and the broader Arab world together, holding out the prospect of regional peace and acceptance that is so vital for Israelis.

Interestingly, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was in attendance at Madrid. The conference set in motion five multilateral regional working groups to build confidence between Israel and the Arab world. Politicians and experts would meet to discuss the environment, economic developments, water, arms-control and regional security, and refugees in such places as Muscat, Rabat, Doha and Tunis.

A similarly ambitious approach calibrated to today's realty is what Rice should pursue. Of course it is far from clear whether she has the appetite for such a mission or whether Bush would agree. Perhaps new envoy Tony Blair can be helpful in this regard.

Pursuing such a course would also be the implementation of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and fulfill their call for a regional diplomatic peace effort to restore American credibility and alliance-building capacity, and to deal a blow to Salafist radicalism.

The president's speech may inadvertently have issued an invitation to Europe and the Arab states to start negotiating a contemporary version of the Madrid letter of invitation. These might include detailed terms of reference for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, provisions for a comprehensive, inclusive process with Syria on board, a reasonable timetable and modalities for implementing the Arab peace initiative. Forcing the frontloading of Arab deliverables outside of a broader comprehensive peace framework is likely to be a non-starter and recipe for diplomatic gridlock.

The alternative would be for this fall's meeting to resemble the January 2003 conference on Palestinian reform that was convened in London - an eminently forgettable experience.

The Madrid model offers one further clue on the way forward with regards to an even more thorny issue. At the time of Madrid, Israel and the PLO still did not recognize each other and Israel refused to talk to the PLO or to have its representatives officially in attendance. A formula was concocted whereby there would be a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, the Palestinian members of which could be claimed by Israel to not formally represent the PLO, but who themselves insisted that they were doing everything in coordination with the exiled PLO leadership.

Hamas today is the group whose name dare not be spoken in polite company. Yet a process, today, that excludes Hamas (just like excluding the PLO then) is unlikely to deliver sustainability, legitimacy or security. A peace process cannot be built on Palestinian division, and Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah leadership will have to be quietly and patiently climbed back down from the tree that they are so rapidly ascending.

Most of the European Union member states and the Arab states understand this. A discreet but crucial backchannel in the lead-up to any conference would have to be devoted to internal Palestinian reconciliation. This approach would ultimately have to be accepted by both the US and Israel. At least Blair, with his Northern Ireland experience, will have an informative frame of reference with regard to bringing militants into a peace process.

Like I said, it is a very long shot, but this is what I would argue that realists and genuine believers in peace should be advocating for. Today's Quartet meeting in Portugal will likely be all smiles and rhetorical platitudes, but the real work needs to begin and soon.

More Expert Voices on Political Islamists and the Dangers of Current Policy

There is a lot of sensible analysis out there by experts and practitioners on the dangers of continuing the current failed policies in the Middle East -- if you look hard enough.  Below are snippets from Gary Kamiya and Alistair Crooke.

Gary Kamiya is consistently producing the most thoughtful analysis on the region at Salon.com.  In a piece entitled "Leave the Muslim world alone," Kamiya had this to say:

It is long past time for America to grasp that Bush's decision to pound the Muslim world into submission -- not just in Iraq, but in Lebanon and in Palestine -- is not the solution, it is the problem. We have turned an entire region, and the adherents of one of the three largest religions in the world, against America and everything that it represents, including democracy. As if in a nightmare, our actions have multiplied the demons of apocalyptic religious terrorism they were intended to destroy.


Jihadists need their American boogeyman as much as Bush needs his Islamist boogeyman...

It is not possible to surgically separate the jihadists, who are our real enemy, from the nationalists and anti-Americans, who make up the bulk of the region's population. Most Arabs and Muslims despise the jihadists. But by attacking the Muslim world, we have turned them into anti-American heroes.

What holds true for jihadists is doubly true for complex militant organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. Most of the world's Muslims see these groups, which Bush and his neocon brain trust lumps in with al-Qaida, as legitimate national liberation or resistance movements, and are enraged that the U.S. has tried to starve or bomb them into submission. American support for Israel's war on Lebanon last summer greatly weakened our already abysmal standing in the region, and strengthened al-Qaida and its ilk.

By conflating jihadists with militant, religiously oriented national liberation movements like Hamas, Bush has not only undercut the support we might otherwise have received from Arab populations for police operations against genuine jihadists, he has helped to create toxic new forms of anti-Western extremism. Indeed, the most damaging result of Bush's crudely undifferentiated "war on terror" may be that he has succeeded in creating the dangerous, mixed-up jihadist-nationalist boogeyman that he set out to destroy. If al-Qaida-like groups manage to get a foothold in Lebanon or Gaza -- and there are ominous signs that they are -- the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the world's most dangerous and intractable problem, may become completely unsolvable.


After we leave Iraq, as we inevitably will, we need to do three things to fight the "war on terror" effectively. First, we need to ratchet down our apocalyptic and moralistic rhetoric and recognize the jihadist enemy's true, relatively modest dimensions. This ain't no Soviet Union we're fighting here -- it's a bunch of guys in caves. Second, we need to use military force as a last resort. As Iraq has shown, occupation and war create more jihadis than they capture or kill. Instead, we need to use intelligence and police forces to break up jihadist terror networks. Finally, we need to address both the Arab/Muslim world's self-created pathologies and its legitimate grievances, both of which contribute to jihadism. War supporters make much of the pathologies, but have almost nothing to say about the grievances -- chief among them the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the greatest source of Arab/Muslim rage against America.

In the London Review of Books, Crooke suggests that current US-led international policy is "attempting to ensure Fatah’s continued hold on power, they risk schism, renewed violence, and a fracturing of the Palestinian body politic for years to come."

Alistair Crooke is a former special Mid-East adviser to European Union High Representative, Javier Solana and former staff member on President Clinton's Fact Finding Committee, led by Senator Mitchell into the causes of the intifada.  Having direct experience of conflict over a period of 30 years including in Ireland, South Africa, and Afghanistan, hehas facilitated various Israeli-Palestinian ceasefires during 2001-2003, including mediating in the negotiations that led to the ceasefire declared by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in June 2003. 

Further on in his article, he takes a fascinating look at the internal dynamics inside Islamist groups:

The problem for Hamas is that its constituency – the rank and file – and the wider Islamist movement have now embarked on a period of introspection. What is apparent – and this can be ascertained on any number of Islamist websites – is that the mainstream Islamist strategy of pursuing an electoral path to reform is now being questioned. This will have an impact well beyond Palestine – most obviously in Egypt and Jordan. Three events have triggered this reassessment: the sanctions imposed on the Hamas government; last summer’s US-backed war to destroy Hizbullah in Lebanon; and the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt...

At issue in these discussions is whether moderate Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah will manage to retain their influence over this process of radicalisation; and whether they will survive as a cohesive, disciplined political bloc. Sunni Islamist movements are increasingly concerned at the spread of small Salafist groups that verge on the nihilistic in their disdain for political ideology and in their belief that to set fire to the remnants of colonial power is in itself enough to raise the revolutionary consciousness they hope for. Salafist groups are beginning to make inroads in Gaza, as they have already done in Iraq, Lebanon and North Africa.

Both pieces are worth reading in their entirety. 

July 18, 2007

Expert Analysis on the Legality of New Palestinian Elections, on the New Government & PLO Role

According to press reports out of Ramallah PA Chairman Abbas told the Palestine Central Council today that he was moving towards new Palestinian elections.  The Palestine Central Council is an organ of the PLO and its convening is part of a larger effort to deploy the institutions of the unreformed PLO in the service of the new Ramallah government.  I don't want to talk about the politics or wisdom of this move in this post but rather to share with you some expert legal analysis on the subject from the wisest counsel I know of on these issues.

Nathan Brown is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace  as well as a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.  He is an expert on Palestinian reform and Arab constitutionalism, and his most recent book, Resuming Arab Palestine, presents research on Palestinian society and governance after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

Nathan was kind enough to allow me to share his analysis of the legality of new elections, of recent parliamentary, governmental and PLO maneuvers on ProspectsForPeace.com.  Here is Nathan Brown's understanding of the legal situation:

1. The PLC is not meeting since Fatah and Hamas deputies take turns boycotting sessions. Hamas has a majority of members, but with so many of them in jail, they cannot outvote Fatah or even muster a quorum on their own. They have tried to call sessions in order to:

· Vote down the state of emergency (which has now expired anyway) and the decree-laws issued by Abu Mazin; and

· Hold a vote of confidence in Fayyad’s new government—the one that was proposed last week, not the earlier emergency government which Hamas viewed (rightly in my opinion) to be unconstitutional. Fayyad’s government would not get a majority. That would leave Haniyya in power (in Hamas’s view and the Basic Law is absolutely explicit backing them here) or Fayyad’s earlier emergency government (in Fatah’s view) as a caretaker.


Hamas has explored the idea of allowing deputies in jail to vote by proxy, but for some reason they have not pushed the issue. Proxy voting is contrary to past PLC practice and I suspect would be of dubious legality, but it would give them the majority they want.

Fatah, meanwhile, is pursuing a different angle. Abu Mazin issued a decree calling for the annual PLC session to begin (it was due to be held last March). Hamas said this was illegal and that only the presidium of the PLC could issue such a call. On this one, I think Abu Mazin is right.

Fatah did this because it would mean that the PLC would have to elect a new speaker, presidium, and committee chairs. With so many Hamas deputies in jail, Fatah could take over the body and set its agenda. Thus Hamas would have two choices: to boycott such a session (robbing it of a quorum) or to attend it and then lose control of the body. They have chosen the former path, while continuing with attempts to call their own sessions.

There are some compromise efforts reportedly underway (for instance, to reelect Dweik as speaker but allow the deputies to elect an acting speaker while Dweik is in jail). I don’t see these compromises as working. Hamas and Fatah are struggling for control of the body and the various compromises mentioned would result in a victory for one or the other. I see no middle ground at present. Instead I think that both sides are going to keep claiming to control the agenda and boycott each others’ sessions.


2. Abu Mazin’s people are threatening to issue a decree law calling for new elections. I have not seen Abu Mazin himself claim such a power recently.


Abu Mazin does have the authority to issue decrees with the force of law in matters that do not allow for delay at times when the PLC is not in session. This authority does NOT fall under the state of emergency but comes in a completely separate article. So it holds even with the expiration of the state of emergency. It would take more than a bit of chutzpah to use it in this case, since it is his party that has boycotted sessions and thus prevented a quorum. Thus, to argue that the PLC cannot meet while actively taking steps to ensure that it does not meet is a little cheeky. But I would not regard it as clearly unconstitutional.


However, what would be absolutely and positively unconstitutional would be a call for new elections. The Basic Law was amended in 2005 (in a text not included in most translations of the document which were made in 2003) to fix the term of the PLC at four years. Abu Mazin can issue a decree with the force of law, but he cannot amend the constitution. Only 2/3 of the PLC can do that. Wire service stories have sometimes said the Basic Law is ambiguous here. There is not the slightest degree of ambiguity. And Abu Mazin’s legal advisors know this. Immediately after the PLC elections in January 2006, they tried to ram through a constitutional amendment through the outgoing PLC allowing the president the authority to call for new elections. The attempt failed because not enough loyal deputies showed up. So they knew in January 2006 that early elections required constitutional amendment. To claim otherwise now seems a little strange.


3. It is possible that Abu Mazin will turn to the PLO to give some cover to his move. This is a sticky point, since for Palestinians the PLO is the authorizing body for the PA and in some sense stands above it. I would view this more as a political than a legal move; Yasser Arafat used to use this technique (though he never went so far as to contemplate a move this drastic) and nobody found it convincing then.


4. It is clear that new elections could not be held without Hamas’s consent in Gaza. It is not even clear that they could be held in the West Bank in a secure atmosphere. Significantly, Fatah seems to be preparing for the likelihood of ugly elections by switching to a system of complete proportional representation. That will have two benefits for them. First, if there is no voting in Gaza districts, they will still be able to seat a complete PLC. Second, the smaller parties might be enticed into participating (they would do better under a proportional representation system), lending legitimacy to the process.

Tony Snow Monday vs. Tony Snow Tuesday

The Middle East Bulletin, put out by Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress, hasTony Snow done a nice job of exposing how White House spokesman Tony Snow's message of a new International conference to advance the two-state solution changed from one day to the next.  Here is the 'Setting the Record Straight' section from today's MEB

“He’ll propose a larger diplomatic efforts [sic] and international conference.”
– Tony Snow, White House spokesman, press briefing, July 16, 2007, previewing the speech on the Middle East that President Bush delivered later the same day


“I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It’s not.”
– Tony Snow, White House spokesman, press briefing, July 17, 2007, discussing the conference announced in the President’s speech.

(You can subscribe to the MEB here.)

In fact, in his press conference yesterday, Mr. Snow went on to say:

... even though I know I used the term "conference" this morning, this is a meeting... I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not. This is a meeting to sit down and try to find ways of building fundamental and critical institutions for the Palestinians that are going to enable them to have self-government and democracy.

Well that does sound encouraging, serious diplomacy, here we come!  It's not only the presentation that's ridiculous.  The substance is also deeply flawed as I have argued elsewhere.

Later in the same press conference, Tony Snow describes how the US has turned a corner in certain parts of Iraq -- he names Anbar and Diyala -- as a "significant reversal for al Qaeda."

To the extent to which that's true, it has happened as a result of US commanders on the ground taking a more nuanced and inclusive approach in determining which Iraqis they will work with and build alliances with in pushing back al Qaeda.  This is exactly the opposite to the approach the Administration is taking in the Palestinian territories where division is being encouraged and exacerbated in ways that are very likely to work to the advantage of al Qaeda copycats.

Of course, we all now know that there was no al Qaeda in Iraq before the US invasion and that the chaos that followed in its wake, created conditions in Iraq in which al Qaeda could flourish and establish a major base for operations.

In comparing Iraq to Palestine in his latest speech, President Bush may be advancing a self-fulfilling prophecy -- there is no noteable al Qaeda-type presence yet in the Palestinian territories, but US policy may help create one.  Heckuva job, Georgie.

July 16, 2007

President Bush throws more matches at the Middle East

President Bush in his Palestinian announcement today pushed down softly on the accelerator of a failed Middle East policy. The President continued to base his policy on deepening the division among Palestinians, on pre-conditions to a two-state solution, and on an unwillingness to outline his own parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian endgame deal. Even the $190 million dollars of money pledged to the new PA government is mostly a repackaging of old commitments.

In most respects today was a rehash of his speech five years ago, albeit under less propitious circumstances. That speech encouraged a regime change that eventually (and one imagines inadvertently) brought Hamas to power – the new speech may well drive Palestinian politics towards a period of even greater chaos that could create a space for al-Qaeda look-a-likes to gain a foothold.

The President continued to mistakenly conflate Hamas with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and, in so doing, almost guarantees the failure of his approach. In Iraq American policy is belatedly focusing on internal political reconciliation, but in Palestine it is still, sadly, all about deepening divisions.

The two-state solution that the President claims to support will need to deliver basic security and have legitimacy on both sides in order to have a chance of being sustainable. That cannot be based on an irreconcilable Palestinian political division. Clearly, there is a discomfort level within the administration regarding this approach as witnessed by the leak from intelligence sources in today’s Washington Post, claiming that relying on Abbas-Fayyad cannot work. The leak came from people, who presumably cautioned against giving this speech.

The President managed to list a full seven Hamas “must do” pre-conditions, rather than the traditional three. Dividing the region into extremists and moderates may sound nice, neat, and tidy in a speech, but on the ground there is a huge grey area that the President apparently refuses to acknowledge. As with elsewhere in the region, this detachment from Palestinian reality makes for bad choices and destabilizing actions.

The one possibly new announcement of a meeting in the Fall to be convened by Secretary Rice actually sounds like little more than a repeat of the London conference on Palestinian reform of January 2003. US officials have admitted that so far none of the neighboring countries have signed up for the conference. Indeed, in his speech, the President outlined four pre-conditions for attendance. One of those – that participants recognize “Israel’s right to exist” will very likely be dropped, or at least massaged, given that not even Egypt and Jordan with their peace treaties with Israel ever accepted this formulation, let alone the Saudis or other Arab States. The President’s ask from the Israeli side is minimal, consisting of realizing previous commitments, including those made on outposts and settlements from a 2004 letter that the US failed to follow up on.

Noteworthy was that even the Fatah-controlled Palestinian TV stations did not carry the speech live, suggesting that they hardly saw this as a great boost to their cause.

President Bush, contrary to the expectations of some optimists, chose not to use this speech to outline his own, more detailed, parameters for a peace deal. He dropped hints regarding the territorial issue, such as “mutually agreed adjustments,” but refused to explicitly refer to the 1967 lines or to offer any guidance on Jerusalem or refugees.

The administration’s commitment to reform and democracy ring even more hollow, given the recent measures taken by the new Ramallah government that they so favor. Military courts have been established in the West Bank to replace civilian courts, a progressive NGO law has been overturned, Hamas-affiliated persons have been imprisoned without due process, and the entire legality of the Ramallah government itself, is questionable.

The Arab states are called upon to make confidence building gestures towards Israel and this is likely to become a fruitless and unrealistic focus of upcoming diplomatic activity.

The President also appears to be flying solo again and eschewing multilateralism. For although he refers to working with the Quartet partners, his approach on dividing the Palestinians is not shared by most EU-states (see last week’s letter of all ten Mediterranean Foreign Ministers), the Russians, and it seems even the UN Secretary-General. Finally, in a hint that bodes ill for Iraq and Lebanon, too, the President makes no attempt to bring Syria into the peace process.

So, it’s more of the same with even less chance of success.

Abbas, Olmert Meet: Hamas, Fatah Trade Barbs

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met today in Jerusalem and continued the bearhug that has characterized policy since the Hamas takeover in Gaza.  So far, reports on the meeting on the Israeli side have focused on the confidence building measures presented by both sides.  Channel Two News in Israel has just taken a healthy, cynical attitude to the meeting, announcing a "culinary breakthrough," with Olmert's advisers having briefed reporters that he was looking forward to experiencing sweet desserts that would be prepared by Saeb Erakat's wife at the two leaders' next scheduled meeting in Jericho. 

These were not the only sweeties discussed in their meeting with Israel championing the series of gestures it was taking to bolster the Abbas/Fayyad government.  The release of 250 prisoners likely this week will give Abbas something to point to, especially as both sides have now been smart enough to include a smattering of non-Fatah prisoners in the deal (but, of course, none from Hamas).  Abbas has also secured a deal to remove 178 Fatah affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade militants from Israel's wanted list, and some of the Palestinian tax monies being held by Israel have now been released.

These are being sold by the Israelis as major steps, and, to be fair, they are better than nothing, and Olmert has paid a domestic political price in advancing them, with members of his own cabinet coming out against him.  But they still fall far short of what would be needed to really change the atmosphere on the Palestinian side.  Regarding at least two crucial points on the Olmert/Abbas agenda there is still no apparent progress, namely the easing of IDF restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and agreement to restart negotiations on the big permanent status political issues. 

The problem is that neither side appears to have a serious strategy.  Israel is as yet unwilling to put the occupation lock, stock, and barrel on the table, and to recognize that negotiations have to be based on the 1967 lines.  The new and narrowly supported Abbas/Fayyad government has presented no credible plan as to how it will muster the carrying capacity to deliver broad Palestinian acceptance of any deal reached, to end violence, and to reintegrate Gaza. 

The elephant in the room (ending the occupation notwithstanding) is Hamas.  In today's meeting Olmert apparently reiterated that any Israeli positive steps were conditional on no return by Abbas to dialogue with Hamas.  Right now, Abbas needs little encouragement on that score as he continues to attack Hamas from every platform (although others in Fatah are already singing a different tune). 

The steps being taken in the internal Palestinian struggle continue to make for not very pretty viewing.  Hamas had described their takeover of Gaza as a second liberation -- 'first the Israelis were removed, and now their Fatah collaborators.'  This is criticized by many Palestinians as not only akin to the divisive moves by Fatah, but also as playing into Israeli PR claims that Gaza is liberated when it is under siege from all sides and still subject to daily incursions. 

The actions taken by the Ramallah government are equally, if not more, disturbing.  The PA in the West Bank has established military courts to replace civilian courts, and has scrapped the progressive legislation that existed regarding NGO activity.  The very constitutionality of the Ramallah government is legally questionable, and the reintroduction of the old unreformed institutions of the PLO to again play a central role in Palestinian political life is hardly something to be welcomed.  Watching Abbas court the PLO Central Council and the likes of DFLP leader Hawatmeh and Farouk Qadoumi as a way of embellishing his government's legitimacy is a clear sign of desperation and it makes those of us who have great respect for Abbas wince. 

The Ramallah and Gaza governments are also fighting two mini-skirmishes over salaries and the Palestinian Legislative Council.  Some of the salaries being paid by Ramallah to Gazan PA workers come with the ask that those workers not show up to their jobs, while Hamas continues to pay its own appointees (mainly in the security sector) through its own sources of funding.  

The Parliament met twice last week.  The Fatah members, then the Hamas members in turn boycotted, so on neither occasion was their a quorum.  Anyway, forty-five of the 132 PLC members are currently in Israeli prisons.  Suffice it to say that the process of democracy building is hardly the winner here.  

Driving home Palestinian division is simply not a policy that can deliver.  First of all, it stacks the odds against the security and stability that are crucial to any peace process.  Secondly, even if negotiations begin, and even if a deal is reached, between Israel and the Abbas/Fayyad government, that deal will be tough and difficult for both sides to market.  And doing so, in the context of deep Palestinian division, almost guaruntees that such a deal will lack the legitimacy to make it sustainable.  Interestingly some Arab states, EU foreign ministers, and the UN Secretary General have all seemed to recognize as much in their own statements.  UN SG Ban Ki Moon was quoted by the BBC last week in a TV interview as supporting a return to Palestinian unity talks.  The Egyptians and Saudis, and the Arab League, have been putting out feelers towards eventually reconvening an internal Palestinian dialogue.  All ten EU foreign ministers of the Mediterranean area, meeting last week in Slovenia, sent a letter to new Envoy Tony Blair that included the following call:

Don't push Hamas to up the stakes. This means reopening the border between Gaza and Egypt, facilitating movement between Gaza and Israel, and encouraging Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as President Mubarak has proposed, to help get the resumption of the dialogue between Hamas and Fatah. 

But unfortunately none of this is likely to be reflected in today's presidential address on the subject by George W. Bush.

July 13, 2007

A Note on Tzipi Livni

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine piece on Israel's Foreign Minister appears to have generated real interest.  In virtually every meeting and event I have had this week, Tzipi Livni's name has come up.  It is the kind of interest she would love to still be generating back home.  In Israel, Livni went from being the great hope to replace Olmert to just another jaded politician when she decided not to resign from the government and to challenge Prime Minister following the publication of the Winograd Committee's Interim Report into last summer's Lebanon war.  Akiva Eldar devoted a recent op-ed to describing Livni as the "Paper Tigress.

I view these judgments to be both premature and a little harsh.  Livni continues to be a potential future leader and an intriguing political phenomenon.  Her story and thinking -- coming from deep within the Likud to the political center and sensing the urgency of realizing a two-state solution -- is indicative of the direction Israel is belatedly moving in.  That's why it's worth taking a closer look at that NYT magazine story on Livni.

The author of the piece, Roger Cohoen, manages to convey the "can do" positive personality of Livni ("you feel her presence in a room") and recounts the fascinating story of her background.  We are reminded of her closeness to Secretary Rice and of her promotion of a political horizon between Israel and the Palestinians: "'Stagnation works against those who believe in a two-state solution,' Livni said in our first conversation."

As Cohen moves on to describing the regional reality and the policy options, he quickly gets to the heart of the distance that Livni still has to tread in her own political journey before she can become a real vehicle for advancing a stable, realistic peace.  Cohen describes the scene in the occupied territories: "Palestine is remote and riven and receding... If you are looking for a primer on colonialism, this is not a bad place to start."

Livni's insistence on the preconditions regarding Hamas, her framing of the conflict within Bush's "war on terror" paradigm, and her seeming push-back against basing the future border on the '67 lines all lead Cohen to suggest that "at times I wondered to what degree Livni had really moved from her hard line, Likudnik beginnings."  And worse, "What I was not sure about after our first meeting was her grasp on reality."

He quotes Palestinian PLC member and former Unity Government Minister Mustafa Barghouti as saying: "What Livni wants us to do is give up before we start negotiations... I feel sorry for her.  She wants to remove all risk, all fears, before engaging in discussion."

Livni comes across in the article, and from my own experience in meeting her and following her career, as someone who is still grappling with the policy consequences and implications of what she now understands to be an Israeli imperative: divide the land, leave most of the West Bank, deliver the two-state solution and quick.  And the elements of the remaining visceral Livni rejectionism may actually give some clues as to the way forward.

  • Livni is uncompromising on any Palestinian refugee right of return -- she now needs to match this understandable position with a willingness to accept that the '67 line is the point of departure on territory and that any modifications to that line will be mutual and equitable.
  • Livni seems stuck on imposing a Zionist narrative on Israel's neighbors -- Livni has to ask herself, "is Israel's goal a viable, stable, secure two-state solution whereby Israel is accepted and recognized in the region, or is this an argument over narratives and principles and Israel's 'right to exist'?"  The latter is unwinnable and unnecessary (Israel never demanded it from Egypt or Jordan), the former is imperative.

At the very end of the interview Livni seems to almost answer this question for herself:

Each of us can live with our narrative, so long as we are pragmatic when it comes to the land.  I still believe in our right to the whole land, but felt it was more important to make a compromise. We cannot solve who was right or wrong in 1948 or decide who is more just. The Palestinians can feel justice is on their side, and I can feel it is on my side. What we have to decide about is not history but the future.

In saying this, Livni, I imagine, inadvertently is actually suggesting a framing and a platform which begins to approximate that of the Hamas.  Hamas has not (yet) explicitly advocated two states, but has implicitly done so in recognizing the reality of Israel.  Hamas and Fatah, too, believe in "the right to the whole land," as does Livni.  Fatah is clear on its willingness to compromise in practice, while Hamas equivocates.  The way to test this further is not via preconditions and demands for recognizing the other side's rights -- it is via engagement, direct or indirect.

Can Livni continue her personal journey and help complete Israel's journey to agreed secure borders?  Listening to her own words would be a useful starting point.

July 11, 2007

New Survey of Israeli Public Opinion

The Geneva Initiative HQ in Israel has just released a new poll of Israeli public attitudes regarding Palestinian issues, the peace process, and latest developments.  The poll was conducted by a well-respected Israeli research group -- Gal Hachadash ("New Wave Research").  The survey was conducted among a representative sample of 600 Israelis with a +/-4% margin of error.  The results show an Israeli public that is willing to be supportive of a peace process towards a realistic two-state solution, but that has lost belief in that process and that takes a more pragmatic attitude towards Hamas than its government.  Here are the key findings:

1. Do you support or oppose Israel talking to Hamas at the present time regarding a ceasefire, preventing a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip, resolving the issue of crossings, creating basic economic conditions, and securing the release of Gilad Shalit?

Support               Oppose

57%                     36% 

2.  What should the government of Israel do?

Negotiate with President Abbas        Negotiate with Syria.      

15%                                                7%                                           

Negotiate with both President Abbas and Syria.


None of the above.


3.  Do you support or oppose Israel negotiating permanent status issues with President Abbas at the present time?

Support            Oppose

66%                     26.5%

4.  Belief that a permanent status agreement can be reached with Abbas:

Believe            Don't Believe

40%                     53% 

5.  Support for a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on the substance of the Geneva Initiative and Clinton Parameters (respondents were read the content and not the name 'Geneva/Clinton'):

Support            Oppose

55%                     26.5%



6.  Support for the Geneva Initiative by name:

Support            Oppose

34%                     37%



(My guess is that the high number of undecideds results from the public, over time, not remembering the Geneva Initiative.)

July 9, 2007

Efraim Halevy and Ahmed Yousef

This week I have been in Europe attending conferences on the Middle East situation and also a Efraim Halevyfascinating closed dialogue on Iran, and I recently popped into the region to check the pulse -- not encouraging.  On the ground, the trajectory of developments has been predictable.  The Olmert government's gestures to the Abbas/Fayyad leadership will be limited and of limited use.  Hamas is asserting more effective control in Gaza (witness the Alan Johnston release) than Fatah is capable of doing in the West Bank, and that's even before one factors in the very pronounced continued IDF activity inside "Fatahland."  Two important articles have appeared that I want to talk about in this post; but, first, some brief reflections on the latest developments. 

On the Palestinian side, Fatah is putting its residual credibility with the Palestinian public at risk.  Recent Fatah moves are interpreted by many on the ground, in the Arab media, and in the region as being a gift to future Hamas PR campaigns.

Here are two examples:

  • The release of 250 exclusively Fatah prisoners to the Abbas/Fayyad government by Israel is being portrayed as making a sectarian issue of the highly symbolic question of prisoners.  Hamas will be able to claim that they have never accepted a prisoner deal on a factional basis, and they will be sure to demand Fatah, Hamas and other prisoners in any exchange deal for Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.
  • Abbas is being attacked in the Arab and Palestinian press for his willingness to meet with representatives of the "Israeli occupation government" at the same time as he refuses to meet with the "Palestinian Brothers" of Hamas.

In general, the charge of Fatah throwing its lot in with Israel and America is a potent one.  Hamas has reiterated its willingness to go back to unity talks which continue to be rejected by the Fatah leadership.  However, critical voices within Fatah are emerging who are not only criticizing the Dahlan wing of the movement, but also calling for renewed dialogue with Hamas

Most prominent in this respect have been PLO Executive Committee member Hani al Hassan and Fatah leader in Gaza, Ahmad Hils.  In the Arab world, the calls for a return to Palestinian unity talks are slowly gathering pace and the initial declarative support for Abbas is already showing cracks.  Saudi King Abdullah cancelled a planned meeting with Abbas in Jordan while the Egyptians have committed to renewing their presence in Gaza and Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman is due to meet with both the Palestinian governments.  Apparently, an Arab League delegation will also be dispatched to mediate.  There are even reports that Jordanian King Abdullah II has voiced support for Arab intervention to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. 

On the Israeli side, new Defense Minister Ehud Barak oversaw a significant military operation deep into Gazan territory at the end of last week which led to the first sustained Qassam rocket launches against Southern Israel since the Hamas takeover.  It is too early to predict whether this was a demonstrative cautionary act or the beginning of an ongoing campaign. 

The Olmert cabinet has approved the release of 250 Fatah prisoners to Abbas and the gradual return of Palestinian tax monies being withheld by Israel.  The response has been predictable: cabinet ministers voted against the prisoner release and Olmert has expended political capital on a move which is of limited big picture significance.  Should he choose to, Prime Minister Olmert will also now be able to turn to the international community, as his predecessor Sharon did frequently, with the refrain "if i do much more I will be risking my political survival. 

The two articles that I would highly recommend taking a look at are from Efraim Halevy and Ahmed Yousef.

Efraim Halevy, writing in The New Republic online calls for a Plan B for Gaza and echoes much of what I argued in my own earlier version of a Plan B.  Unlike myself, Halevy is a former head of both the Mossad and the Israeli National Security Council and has no association with the Israeli peace camp.  (We do actually have one thing in common -- we were both born subjects of the British crown.)  Halevy delivers a withering critique of the recent Abbas and Fatah record and in particular their call for an international force to take over Gaza.  The US is also not spared Halevy's vituperative gaze:

... the United States is similarly in dire straits. Eighteen months ago the democratic path enforced by the United States and implemented by the Palestinian Authority produced a Hamas majority which was contrary to American principles and interests. Subsequently, an American plan to create a viable Fatah force in the Gaza Strip to crush Hamas backfired, and now the United States has decided to repeat the exercise in the West Bank, where the chances for success seemingly appear brighter. Does the United States believe that it can overturn both the election results that gave Hamas a parliamentary majority and the Hamas military takeover of the Strip?

He continues:

In the best of scenarios as envisaged in Jerusalem, Washington, and Ramallah, further deterioration of political conditions in the Strip may lead to the disappearance of the last vestiges of any Hamas central authority. But this would not bring Fatah back to Gaza; rather lawlessness could deteriorate into chaos and this would be worse than a centralized Hamas administration.

Halevy calls for contacts to be established with Hamas "to see if a long-term armistice with it can be attained," with similar arrangements being negotiated with Fatah.  Halevy ends by noting that

... it would be wise to initiate a non-binding dialogue between Israel and the Arab states on fundamental permanent-status issues. These could serve as a beacon for hope for the Palestinians and as an incentive to try and put their house in order. U.S. support for this approach is essential and would serve its interest in the broader context of its current Middle East necessities.

In an article in today's Haaretz, Ahmed Yousef, chief adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, actually breaks new ground.  Much of the Ahmed Yousef text is familiar territory -- it confirms the Islamic movement's attempts to avoid conflict with Fatah, places the blame for developments on the American neoconversatives, Israeli (and even some Arab) officials, and milks the credit for the release of Alan Johnston.  But Yousef uses a very interesting comparison in reaching out to the Israeli and international audience and in explaining that Hamas will not be imposing a revolutionary, militant, fundamentalist state in Gaza.  The analogy he uses is Turkey:

We have learned from the experiences of Turkey, and will conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects the national interest without compromising our principles...

He cautions Abbas and the international community not to repeat the mistake of Algeria in 1991 of the negation of a "moderate Islamist victory."  His use of the word 'moderate' is very telling here in terms of how Hamas is trying to portray itself.  Yousef places blame for the machination against the Hamas government squarely at the door of US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, and he argues that the emergency government is doomed to fail.  There is an element of warning, even threat in Ahmed Yousef's assertion that Hamas will continue to be "justified in defending itself."

But there is a potentially very significant meeting point in the piece by Hamas adviser Yousef, and former Mossad Chief Halevy.  It begins with the possibility of building a new approach that begins with a ceasefire between Israel and the Islamic Resistance Movement.  Yousef is clearly making a statement on Hamas' capacity to deliver when he writes the following:

Hamas was limited in its ability to exercise security controls until recently; however, now that the security apparatus is genuinely geared toward the safety and well-being of the general population, Hamas will pursue all avenues to ensure that thugs and hoodlums, regardless of purported ideology, are neutralized.

Olmert has an influential new-old confidant at his side -- Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon -- whose responsibility will include being a diplomatic aide to the Prime Minister.  Ramon is known for his ability to think in an unorthodox way and for his creativity which has not always been helpful (he developed the separation barrier and unilateral disengagement policies).  But if Ramon is listening, then he could be the vehicle for moving Halevy's ideas forward, and he certainly has a track record for making things happen.

July 3, 2007

A rethink on the Middle East

Below is an oped I have in today's Boston Globe.

Middle East peace policy has tanked, despite a flurry of diplomatic activity to block out that reality. The approach of backing Fatah against the democratically elected Hamas majority went horribly wrong in Gaza, so President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel met in Washington, and there was a summit of the Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders in Sharm.

The message: It's working, one more push and Fatah wins. Except it isn't working. Sure, the desire to keep trying is preferable to a paralyzing sense of despair, or worse, a mis placed satisfaction in the Palestinian predicament. But this is a moment better suited to reflection and re thinking than to pressing down on the accelerator. Big-picture strategic reflection has not characterized the American or Israeli response to recent developments, yet it is in order and should fall into three categories: what stays the same, what becomes more urgent, and what needs to change.

Some of the previous working assumptions do still hold. Despite all the sloganizing about a three-state solution, or two governments with no state, the driving paradigm of a Palestinian state that includes the West Bank, Gaza, and a Palestinian East Jerusalem being established alongside Israel still offers the best future for both peoples. Egypt will not absorb Gaza, nor Jordan the West Bank. A bi national, one-state solution would mean that the Jewish people would no longer have self-determination and the Palestinians would continue to be denied it. In spite of the geographical, and even cultural, distance that separates the West Bank from Gaza, they are still both inextricably linked in the Palestinian national narrative. The neoconservatives may gloat, but they offer no credible alternative.

The new urgency is in finally ending the occupation and achieving a Palestine living in peace alongside Israel. Delay has been the enemy, not the friend of achieving a permanent status compromise. The Oslo process has been blamed, but its five-year timetable expired even before we entered the new millennium. It is approaching seven years since the last Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations and the last US effort to frame the parameters of a solution. In the context of today's regional instability, there is an added urgency to moving beyond the occupation toward an agreed and secure border between Israelis and Palestinians. It is more difficult today. It will require deft political management, inclusiveness, and an ability to work several channels at once.

The strategic change that is required is not simple, unpalatable to many, and made all the more so by recent events. Our friends in Fatah, Abbas, Fayad, et al., cannot do it alone. Hamas will need to be on the inside of the proverbial tent. Palestinian politics is going through a phase of post-Arafat transition. Single-party Fatah rule cannot be re imposed, nor should it be. Hamas is a permanent feature of the political landscape that needs to be digested. Admittedly, Hamas does not come in a bottle of milk of magnesia -- its actions and language are often coarse. It is also part of the Palestinian and regional reality -- a mainstream political Islamist movement that rejects Al Qaeda, that is isolated and accepts help from Iran, while trying to reach out to the West. Hamas leaders have given increasingly strong hints of their acceptance of the 1967 lines and the reality of Israel and have both offered and adhered to a cessation of hostilities in the past.

If America and Israel are now pursuing confidence-building measures with extra vim in order to defeat Hamas, then they are likely to get neither. That is the lesson of at least the last 18 months since the Palestinian Parliamentary elections. A peace process with Hamas on the outside is likely to be effectively torpedoed. Having Hamas on the inside will add resilience and stability and perhaps be decisive. There will be efforts, sooner or later, to bring Fatah and Hamas together again in a national Palestinian political accommodation. These efforts might be initiated by Arab states, by elements within both factions, or as happened in the past, by prisoners affiliated to both movements. When this happens, the United States and Israel should accept such initiatives. The policy of encouraging civil conflict and driving to irreconcilability the existing Hamas-Fatah division has been counter productive. A bear hug Israeli-American embrace of Fatah will not be that movement's ticket back to Palestinian popularity and credibility.

There is still a route back to a sustainable two-state solution, and it is more urgent now. Of course, a serious strategic re think would benefit from a US decision to make this issue a priority, as the Iraq Study Group suggested and as the regional environment demands. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described her foreign policy ethos as American realism -- it is time for that realism to be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

July 2, 2007

A Global Policy for the Jewish People

I wanted to draw people's attention to what I believe to be an important op-ed in Haaretz, on developing a global policy for the Jewish People. The author of the op-ed is Yehezkel Dror, the founding President of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI), professor of political science at Hebrew University, and formerly at RAND. JPPPI, which was established by the Jewish Agency for Israel, has a mission that includes a "deep commitment to the future of the Jewish people with Israel as its core state." The board of Directors includes such distinguished members as Ambassador Dennis Ross and Major-Gen Uzi Dayan, former head of the Israeli National Security Council.
And here is why I think this article deserves to be noticed: In it, Dror makes a small number of recommendations for a Jewish people policy and for Israel-Diaspora relations, and here is the one that caught my eye.

    "Explicit and declared recognition of the right of Jews in the Diaspora to criticize Israeli policies."
So here is the head of the most important Jewish Institute in the world to deal with these issues explicitly saying that blind Jewish support for any Israeli action or policy is an unhealthy thing and needs to be rethought. Ok ok, it sounds obvious, but for many organizations and leaders it has been a red line and Yehezkel Dror is both honest and courageous enough to blow the whistle on this nonsense. Much of the rest of the article has some interesting ideas on education, dialogue between the Diaspora and Israel, and rethinking the concept of aliyah (immigration to Israel). I hope this JPPPI recommendation will be listened to, especially in the US.