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September 29, 2007

Israel-Gaza: Ceasefire Now!

At least 12 Palestinians have been killed in IDF military attacks on Gaza in the past two days. At least 10 Qasam rockets have been fired into bordering Israeli towns with no fatalities so far. The IDF is now operating inside northern Gaza with dozens of tanks on the outskirts of Beit Hanun. For more details, see this piece.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that “we are moving closer to a major operation in Gaza.” The military correspondents on Israeli TV suggest that a full scale ground incursion is a matter of when, not if. One senior Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, is quoted as responding “50,000 fighters and 400 would-be suicide bombers await the invasion.”

Israeli-Palestinian relations were on everybody’s lips in the corridors of the UN General Assembly meetings this week, where I had the opportunity to visit with senior officials from various parties. But the Gaza-Hamas reality was the elephant in the room, nobody wanted to talk about it. The chatter in New York was of preparations for the November Peace Summit. This disconnect is not only astonishing and irresponsible; it is also dangerous.

Of course, there is an element of psychological warfare and testing of limits in part of the IDF and Hamas maneuvering and threats right now. However, the danger of escalation intended or unintended is very real and even the situation as it is produces a terrible scale of human suffering.

The Israeli military and settlements were withdrawn from Gaza in the summer of 2005, but the external envelope remained under Israeli control. Under international law Israel is still considered to have the responsibilities of an occupying power. Following June 10th and the Hamas seizure of power in Gaza, an already dire reality lurched further toward crisis. Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and IDF actions in the opposite direction have become a constant feature of the landscape. On September 19, the Israeli cabinet declared Gaza a hostile entity. The government took the decision in principle to respond to rocket fire by restricting electricity and other vital utilities to the entire Gazan population. This would further exacerbate an already desperate predicament in which access to and from Gaza for basic supplies and people is at a bare minimum. Eighty-five percent of manufacturing businesses are not operating and 70,000 Gazans have been laid off since the Hamas takeover.

The Israeli government decision may have been an attempt to placate political and media pressure and avoid a full invasion, nonetheless it remains a myopic approach. The UN Secretary General, EU, and Arab leaders have protested the siege being imposed on Gaza (and most have also called for an end to rocket attacks). The US administration has declared its commitment to helping the civilian population in Gaza, but there is precious little evidence that it is backing up these words with action. PA President Abbas, who has not been in Gaza in 3 months, is no fan of the new regime there (yes, that is a huge understatement). But he cannot sit idly by and be blamed for complicity in the suffering of the Palestinian population, he called for an end to the “massacre” being carried out.

The internal Palestinian confrontation, Hamas vs. Fatah, Gaza vs. West Bank, is an ugly spectacle to behold. A disaster for the Palestinians and far from being the glorious opportunity that many Americans and Israelis smuggly depict it as being.

Is there a winner in the siege policy being enacted against Gaza? Some claim that the punishment being meted out on the Gaza Strip residents will lead them to turn against and throw off the Hamas regime. Others contend that under the circumstances prevalent in Gaza, the population will likely further turn to religious escapism and blame its obvious adversaries in Israel and the West. Calibrating the effects of collective punishment is not an exact science. It is though, an utterly vile way to treat human beings.

Three things we can be sure of: (1) innocent people suffer on both sides and violence continues, (2) what takes weeks to destroy can take years to rebuild, especially as social and economic systems breakdown in the Gaza Strip, and (3) these circumstances produce the most fertile ground for Al Qaeda to take root.
A bifurcated failed pre-state of Palestine is the likely product.

Key Hamas figures held out the prospect of an immediate ceasefire, or tahadiya, last week, including in an interview by Ismail Haniyeh's adviser Ahmed Yousef on Israel TV. In a shift from its earlier position, Hamas appears to be willing to accept a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel that does not include the West Bank. It would not be unreasonable to interpret this offer as being in part a response to Israeli pressure on Hamas. It is also indicative that within Hamas, the wing that advocated political participation has been weakened and is trying to regain the initiative. A knee-jerk Israeli response might argue: if the pressure is working, why call a hault? Push on. But to what end? There is no military solution. At best, military leverage can create a political opening, and that seems to be the case right now.

In fact, the IDF has been conducting a dialogue of sorts with Gaza. While most of that interaction deploys tools of violence, part of it has been about allowing controlled minimal entry of supplies to the Strip. It would be reasonable to conjecture that the IDF has a certain degree of respect for its adversary in Gaza that does not exist in its dealings with Ramallah. In a timely intervention a list of Israel's most respected cultural figures issued a declaration just last week calling for ceasefire negotiations with Hamas alongside peace negotiations with Abbas.  Signatories included David Grossman, Amos Oz, Yehudit Katzir and A.B. Yehoshua.

What might a ceasefire arrangement include? All hostile actions by any armed faction directed at Israel from Gaza would not only be halted but also actively prevented by the Hamas affiliated security forces. Israel would put an end to all IDF military operations targeting Gaza, and would begin a gradual and progressive easing of the closure imposed on the Gaza Strip allowing for a more extensive opening of crossings and the entry and exit of goods. Egypt would step up activity on its side of the border to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza. Once a degree of calm is established the EU monitors should be in a position to return to the Rafah Crossing. Ideally, any deal also includes a prisoner exchange allowing for the return of Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit. Such an arrangement need not entail direct Israel-Hamas negotiations and can be brokered by a third-party intermediary. Also, even if a Gaza-Israel ceasefire is de-linked from the West Bank it is advisable not to push this envelope too far. A significant provocation by either side emanating from the West Bank can be expected to destabilize whatever is achieved in the South.

Why is this so important right now? First, there is a humanitarian dimension which should apply anywhere in the world. In this instance it applies to the civilians of both Gaza and Southern Israel. Gideon Levy in Haaretz pointed out that if it was legitimate for Israel to maintain channels with Hamas for the release of Shalit, then it is surely acceptable to exercise those contacts in order to relieve the situation for Sderot residents.

Second, the basic alternative is to wait for a disaster to happen in the full knowledge that it will set in motion a sequence of events in which both Israelis and Palestinians lose. A reason the IDF hesitates in launching a full-scale invasion is their assessment that the costs would be high (in Palestinian suffering, for which Israel would be criticized, and in IDF losses), and the results in the long term are very limited. Nevertheless, if the Israeli casualty threshold for "restraint" (a fluid measure) is breached, then the ground operation scenario kicks in. Every day without a ceasefire brings that undesirable outcome closer.

Third, one of the core ingredients for launching a sense of peace process momentum and making November a success is to improve the situation on the ground. This applies not only to Gaza, but also to the West Bank, and here is the link. If there is a ceasefire with Gaza, and the political option again resonates for the Hamas leadership, the incentive to torpedo the November process is reduced. The IDF is pointing to the heightened tension with Hamas as part of its explanation for non-removal of checkpoints and non-easing of closures in the West Bank. If escalation on the Gaza border is driving the atmosphere pre-November, then the effect is felt in the West Bank and the summit may well be overshadowed. If there is relative quiet on the Gaza border, then this removes an excuse for not easing conditions in the West Bank, and creates a setting in which a positive message in November may be absorbed.

Fourth, and finally, Secretary Rice's famous reference to the birth pangs of a new Middle East must not be allowed to produce twins: the supposedly neglected infant Palestine in Gaza and pampered infant Palestine in the West Bank. Ultimately Gaza and the West Bank must be reintegrated under one governing entity. Condi's predecessor at the State Department, Colin Powell recognized this recently in referring to the need to engage Hamas. The further the situation deteriorates, the more difficult it will be to remedy. The conveners and key protagonists of the November meeting are displaying little interest in a ceasefire, but this is precisely the agenda item that others – in Europe, the Arab world, and concerned global citizens – should be tirelessly pushing and pursuing.

September 21, 2007

Big Mouths Strike Again - 1, 2, 3

This is not a very eve of Yom Kippur posting, but one needs to have some things to atone for, so here we go. 

Big Mouth One: Benjamin Netanyahu. 

This week, on Israel Channel 1 Television, Benjamin Netanyahu broke the wholly uncharacteristic disciplined silence that has characterized all Israeli spokespeople regarding the reported air strike on Syria two weeks ago.  Of course, Netanyahu is not a Government representative, but rather a leader of the opposition, but he was expected to toe the line.  Why?  Because he was in on the secret as he cheerfully boasted to the viewers of Channel 1.  This is what Bibi said:

When the prime minister take action in important and necessary matters, and generally when the government is doing things for the security of Israel, I give it my endorsement.  I was party to this matter, I must say, from the first minute and I gave it my backing, but it is still too early to discuss this subject.

Well, that was very revealing, wasn't it?  All of Netanyahu's critics rushed to put the boot in.  On Israeli TV news yesterday, we were treated to vintage footage of classic Bibi foot-in-mouth moments (my favorite was when he was caught whispering to the aging Shas Rabbi Kadouri that "the left has forgotten what it is to be Jews"). 

Verdict: Netanyahu does have a big mouth, and it has a tendency to get him in trouble, but this was not one of those occasions.  Netanyahu essentially confirmed nothing, and certainly gave us no new information.  In fact, the rather exaggerated claim by the head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week that "Israel's deterrent capacity has been rehabilitated" was far more revealing.  Netanyahu gets plenty of things wrong, this was not one of them.

Big Mouth Two: John Bolton. 

John Bolton has become the darling of the Israeli media this week, and the mouth just underneath that mustache has been reminiscent of the Duracel Rabbit.  As Bolton fell over himself with enthusiasm to spill whatever beans he could on the Syrian/North Korean/Iranian weapons proliferation cooperation.  Bolton gave interviews to Israel Channel 10 News, to the Jerusalem Post, to Yediot Aharahnot, and Haaretz

Israel's ambassador to the UN was quoted last summer as saying, "We really are not just five diplomats (at Israel's UN mission).  We are at least six including John Bolton."  Yikes!  The standards at Israeli diplomatic school must be dropping fast. 

Bolton was visibly cooing with his newfound freedom to publicly bloviate about this evil and that evil, and the need to attack everyone now that he is shorn of his official responsibilities (come to think of it, he was the same when he did have official responsibilities).  For John Bolton, this was a trifecta: undermine the North Korea deal negotiated by Chris Hill and hated by the neocons, ensure the firm neocon grip on an anti-engagement policy towards Syria, and beat the war drums over Iran. 

Verdict: Big Mouth Bolton can be a dangerous and destabilizing influence both in and out of government, and it's high time Israel removed Bolton from its Facebook Friend list.

Big Mouth Three: Ehud Barak. 

The leader of Israel's Labor Party - you know, the party that's supposed to be left of center, for peace, more liberal, and all those sorts of things - attacked the Prime Minister this week (the guy who left Likud, and who is supposed to be to the right of Labor) for going too far in his talks with Palestinian President Abbas.  Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak came out against a declaration with the Palestinians that would include reference to the '67 lines, implied opposition to including Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods in a future Palestinian state (though he agreed to this in the past) and cautioned against Israel "withdrawing from principles that have stood for 40 years (the principles of occupation, settlement, and no peace, I guess). 

In fact, this was nothing new.  Barak has been running to the right of Olmert ever since he reassumed the Labor leadership.  He has come out against further withdrawals from the West Bank in the next five years, and against easing the closure on the Palestinians.  He has gone back to his old habits of negotiating with the settler leadership (the YESHA Council) over "koshering" certain wildcat outposts, and stuck stubbornly to his now seven-year  old narrative of there being no Palestinian partner.  It would be hard for anyone who witnessed first-hand Barak's management of the peace negotiations when he was Prime Minister not to stifle a giggle when he is offering negotiating tips to others.

Verdict: Ehud Barack does not have a big mouth.  His words tend to be carefully calibrated, which makes his positioning all the more worrying.  Sure, this might all be politics and pre-election posturing, but political leaders, with their words, also set a tone, and act as public educators. Ehud, if you want to be the future Prime Minister that delivers permanent secure and agreed borders for Israel in the North and with the Palestinians (which you apparently wanted to do, but failed at the first time of asking), then prepare that ground, don't scorch it.  But if you want to be Likud 2.0, then who cares whether it's you, or Big Mouth One, in the Prime Minister's office, better just to stick with Olmert.

September 17, 2007

Statement on Secretary Rice’s Forthcoming Middle East Visit

As Secretary Rice sets off for Israel and the Palestinian territories to prepare a November peace meeting, the signs do not look good: the daily situation on the ground has not improved, Palestinians remain deeply divided, and tension has just rocketed up on Israel’s northern border with Syria. Predictably, all sides are upping the ante in advance of the Secretary’s visit. PM Olmert is talking down his negotiating wiggle room for a November declaration, President Abbas is asserting that a vague outcome would make the November exercise counter-productive and key Arab parties, crucially the Saudis, are suggesting they will not attend under these circumstances. Time is running out for Secretary Rice to seize the initiative and up the US diplomatic game.

The Iraq Study Group advocated a regional diplomatic surge. November is an opportunity to implement that recommendation – but so far it is an effort on tranquilizers, when it needs to be on steroids.

To be successful and to begin to have regional impact, the outcome of November’s summit must be inclusive, substantive and visible. Inclusive, in also providing a political horizon, directly or indirectly, to key actors thus far excluded and who have spoiler potential – Syria and also Hamas. Substantive, in laying out clear parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian endgame. And visible, in delivering the beginnings of real change on the ground, such as security and a mutual cease-fire, including Gaza, removal of checkpoints, release of prisoners and more.

But a two-day visit in September and another one perhaps around the Iraq neighbors conference in Turkey in October will not be enough to deliver this. It is time for shuttling to make a rare appearance in this administration’s Middle East lexicon.

Attempted peacemaking, if ill-conceived, can be as risky and destabilizing as war-making. A harsh, but not totally unrealistic scenario would see a failed November effort weaken America’s allies, mobilize adversaries, embolden Iran and further destabilize the region with a possible spill-over effect in Iraq. Avoiding this will require a more dynamic and less dogmatic diplomacy. (And finally remember Camp David in 2000 and have your fall-back option prepared.)

September 13, 2007

Clinton vs. Clinton on Israel

To coincide with the Jewish New Year, fresh statements are coming out of some presidential campaigns reaffirming the candidates' 'pro-Israel' credentials. It's the kind of thing that stretches the thread between domestic political posturing and smart policy prescriptions to a snapping point. It is almost redundant to note that the content of these declarations have precious little to do with advancing what is good for Israel, or, for that matter, US interests.

But one sentence from the Hillary Clinton press release of September 10 stands out. (Curiously, the the statement is not up on Clinton's campaign website.)  In staking out her position on "Standing with Israel against terrorism," Hillary Clinton defends Israel's right to exist with "... an undivided Jerusalem as its capital." Oddly enough, this places her in direct contradiction with the plan put forward by a certain President Bill Clinton in December 2000.

He proposed dividing Jerusalem:

The general principle is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli. This would apply to the Old City as well. I urge the two sides to work on maps to create maximum contiguity for both sides.

The plan became known as the Clinton Parameters, and it is widely accepted as the outline for any future deal. These issues are on the agenda again as Israeli Prime Minister Olmert meets with Palestinian President Abbas to outline areas of agreement in advance of a proposed November peace summit.

Israel's highest-circulation Daily, Yediot Ahronoth, ran a piece last weekend about the progress in these talks. According to two highly respected journalists, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, Israel's Deputy PM, Haim Ramon, who is leading exploratory talks on behalf of Olmert, has proposed, well, .... dividing Jerusalem.

From Shiffer and Barnea in Yediot (Sept 14th, my translation from the Hebrew):

On Jerusalem Ramon, in the talks (with Palestinians - DL), adopts the principles outlined by Clinton in 2001: ... Jerusalem should be divided between the two states. The area populated by Jews would remain under Jewish sovereignty; the area populated by Arabs would come under Palestine's sovereignty. In the holy basin, i.e., the Old City and its environs, each religion would be responsible for its holy places.

So, candidate Hillary Clinton is running to the right, not only of former President Bill Clinton, but also of the centrist Israeli Government. In fact, Hillary Clinton's press release says nothing at all about a two-state solution, about a Palestinian state, or even a peace process. (Palestinians do, though, exist as terrorists and/or as promoters of incitement).

Barack Obama's new press release also gives an emphatic nod to the standard fair of the strong and enduring US-Israel partnership. He does so at least in the more constructive and inoffensive context of referring to the peace process and a two-state solution, which is far more in keeping with the sentiments of most American Jews.

None of this, admittedly, comes close to the unreconstructed neocon venom coming from Rudy Giuliani and his camp of advisers that include (among others) Norman Podhoretz, Martin Kramer, and, as of last month, Daniel Pipes .

But the interesting point emerging among the leading Dem contenders is that Barack Obama, so far, represents continuity with the Bill Clinton legacy of active engagement in Arab-Israeli peace making, while Hillary, so far, does not. It would be fascinating to know whether candidate Hillary Clinton supports the parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace that carry her family name.

September 12, 2007

Packing Peace

I wanted to share this Peace-Man/Pac-Man game that Americans for Peace Now have put out for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Happy new year to those of you celebrating it, and Ramadan Kareem for those of you observing Ramadan.

September 11, 2007

The November Peace Conference Rumor Mill

Right in time for the Jewish New Year the first leaked draft of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement of Dinnerprinciples has been making the rounds today, first appearing in a Palestinian news agency. I would not suggest anyone gets too excited. Although it’s not a bad document – it’s just one that is most unlikely to have been drafted by official Israelis and Palestinians and it is likely to be the first of many informal documents that make the rounds between now and November.

Anyone interested can read the 8 point document here, which is similar in many ways to the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan of 2002. Haaretz has also been reporting that the Israeli Prime Minister’s office is taking a keen interest in the informal framework final status agreement developed between representatives of Abu Mazen and Yossi Beilin in 1995. That is a far lengthier and more detailed document spanning 10 long Articles and 8 solid pages of text. That paper, known as the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, contained some interesting clauses, particularly in it facilitating the continued residence of Israelis in the sovereign territory of a new Palestinian state, but no longer as exclusive Israeli settlements, municipal arrangements for an open and shared Jerusalem, and an interesting agreed historical narrative on the Palestinian refugee issue. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was involved in some of the background work for that document.) But that informal understanding was reached 12 years ago and many of the ideas seem anachronistic and somewhat overtaken by events. Indeed, if Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has taken an interest in the documents, it is probably as much to get a sense of the thinking of his interlocutor (the same Abu Mazen) as it is to search for practical ideas. Expect plenty more rumors for as long as a November summit is being planned.

The two leaders met again this week as part of the preparations for that summit. Abbas and Olmert announced the formation of working groups to begin drafting agreed principles across a range of issues, including professional teams to deal with what are considered to be the non-core issues, such as water, infrastructure, economic relations, and the environment. There is, it seems, no consensus at this stage as to whether the parties are attempting to formulate a rather general set of principles or a more detailed set of understandings, With the Israelis considered to prefer the former and the Palestinians the latter.

The weekend Israeli press had apparently been well-briefed by Deputy Prime Minister and Olmert-confidant Haim Ramon. The lead opinion writers, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, in Israel’s highest circulation daily Yediot Ahoronot began to spell out the details of what at least one influential Israeli has in mind for a November document. In describing Ramon’s plan, they suggest that 3-8% of the West Bank would be annexed to Israel in the context of land swaps, Jerusalem being divided along demographic lines and a special regime in the Old City, refugees could return to the Palestinian state, but not to Israel other than in humanitarian cases, with a fund, to which Israel would contribute, paying for refugee rehabilitation.

Such talk predictably sparked opposition both from outside and from within the coalition. Ramon and Defense Minister Barak have a longstanding adversarial personal relationship, Foreign Minister Livni sees Ramon as encroaching on her territory, while a group of half a dozen Knesset members inside the ruling Kadima party oppose this effort for a variety of personal and political reasons. This group includes at least one Minister – Shaul Mofaz and perhaps a second – Avi Dichter, as well as two Kadima MKs who are settlers – Elkin and Schneller. For more on internal Kadima opposition, read here.

Allied coalition parties, the Orthodox Shas and largely Russian immigrant Yisraeli Beitenu have also both voiced disapproval at the leaks they are hearing and that’s before one considers the right wing opposition of Netanyahu and the religious-settler camp. First of all one should not get too excited, either by these early leaks, or by the opposition they have generated. It may also be convenient for Prime Minister Olmert to be able to point to just how difficult this exercise will be to sell domestically and politically. With Secretary Rice due in the region next week, it would hardly be unprecedented for an Israeli Prime Minister to point to domestic political opposition when claiming inflexibility on certain issues.

Secondly, the situation is hardly any simpler on the Palestinian side and Hamas leader Khalid Meshal was quoted this week as describing the November conference as being “a tool to be used by America to impose the US agenda and to embarrass Arabs in to taking the side of American policy.” But more on Palestinian developments in a future post.

Third, the situation on the ground seems very divorced from all this talk of peace and that gap between the promise of change and the dire reality on the ground has torpedoed many a previous peace effort. Israel is threatening and apparently seriously considering further punitive sanctions against the residents of Gaza, including cutting off essential supplies such as electricity in response to the rocket fire on southern Israel. Amnesty International has said that such collective punishment would be a violation of international humanitarian law. Read Gideon Levy on this.

With both the extended Jewish holidays beginning with the New Year just around the corner and the month of Ramadan also imminent, very little time remains to pull off a successful, rather than counter-productive, effort at advancing peace by year’s end.

The speculation and rumor mill surrounding a potential draft document has only just begun. On the narrow question of what could be produced for a November summit, and ignoring the regional dimension, which I have discussed elsewhere, there are perhaps four possible outcomes:
(1) An agreed and relatively detailed Palestinian-Israeli document that outlines parameters for permanent status – it would be a stretch to deliver this in such a short timeframe and under current conditions.
(2) A very general agreed paper on guiding principles for future negotiations. This however could be subject to conflicting interpretations by the parties and may do more harm than good if it is too vague.
(3) A paper that actually avoids the political issues and focuses more on questions of institutional state-building, Palestinian reform, economic relations, and such like. Given the raising of expectations and the inability to get real traction on these day-to-day issues on the ground, such a document is unlikely to either be politically helpful, or practically meaningful.
(4) Use the conference to launch a negotiating process with an agreed agenda, international and regional support and oversight, and ideally a timetable. This may be the most practical option.
Of course, the regional dimension cannot be ignored and if ill-conceived and badly planned, November could do more harm than good. So far there is little to suggest that this is not the case. So now let’s wait to see what Secretary Rice’s visit to the region next week produces.

September 7, 2007

Piecing Together What's Just Happened between Israel and Syria

Something must be going down - the entire Israeli political and military leadership has managed to maintain over 24 hours of disciplined media silence. 

Here's what we think we know so far: there was an Israeli air presence in Syria during the early hours of Thursday morning that was engaged (unsuccessfully) by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.  Approximately twelve hours later, official Syrian sources announced that Syrian airspace had been violated, and that Syria was considering the nature of its response. 

Syrian ministers described the incident as an Israeli provocation that was indicative of Israel's disinterest in pursuing a peace option.  For good measure, they added that Syria would respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing.  Today, the Arab League issued its own condemnation of this "unacceptable maneuver," Egyptian and other Arab sources echoed this sentiment.  Even Turkey  felt compelled to clarify that Israel had not used its airspace in conducting this mission.  The US has not officially commented.  And in Israel - zip, on record at least.  The media is rife with speculation, and the military censor is working overtime and can anticipate a very restless Sabbath.  The Syria story dominates the news in Israel, and there are increasingly heavy hints by journalists and analysts that this was not a routine event. 

On Thursday, the very public Israeli official effort to broadcast business as usual seemed to have an intentional air of the unreal about it: the IDF top brass convened its annual Jewish New Year toast at military headquarters, all smiles and calm, in the full gaze of the TV cameras; while Ehud Olmert spoke to a large gathering of the Kadima Party faithful.  Olmert's appearance was timed to coincide (as these events often are) with the primetime evening news, but the only headline was what the Prime Minister did not say, namely, anything about Syria.  Most of the effort in the intervening period of time has been invested in attempts to de-escalate the sense of uncertainty.  The Jewish holidays, and the tourism they bring, are around the corner.  The situation with Syria was supposed to be calm after troop exercises were moved from the Golan to the South just last week, and attention was due to be focused on convening a peace summit in November.  Overnight, talk again turned to war speculation, intentional or miscalculated.  Ma'ariv's headline today screamed, "On the Verge of an Explosion," with their lead commentator, Ben Caspit, noting that "too many people from within the defense establishment are involved in personal bets about whether there will be a war with Syria.  Almost all of them are betting that there will be."  Never to miss an opportunity, neocon cheerleader, Dore Gold, had his  Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs put out a three-pager on Syria detailing just how evil the evil Syrian evilness is.

The incident itself remains shrouded in mystery, and the media's lips have been sealed.  As Israel Channel 2's military correspondent said this evening, when asked by the anchor what information can he could share with us, the answer was "very little."  While making sure to tell a story that implied there was lots to know.  

So what might actually have happened? 

Here are four scenarios.

(1) This was a pretty regular Israeli reconnaissance mission that entered Syrian airspace, and there's nothing dramatically new in that.  Under this scenario, it is actually the Syrians who decided to make an issue of this by opening fire and then going public with the story.  Most of all, what Syria cannot bear is to be ignored.  Given the recent de-escalation with Israel, and the likely exclusion of Syria from November's peace summit, Damascus was sending a signal - "Factor us in."  The Syrians may also have wanted to show off their newly acquired military hardware.

(2) That Israel wanted to create a minor and manageable provocation, specifically, to test both Syria's new toys and the overall nature of Syria's response.  There has been huge speculation in Israel, throughout the summer, regarding Syrian rearmament and possible military intentions.  This might have been a way of dipping one's toe in the water of Syrian potential bellicosity.  The Israeli website, DEBKA (part sensationalist, part propagandist, part psych-ops plaything) has suggested today that Israel was checking the threat posed by the new Russian-supplied Pantsyr Missile Systems that both Syria and Iran have taken possession of:

Western intelligence circles maintain that it is vital for the US and Israel to establish the location and gauge the effectiveness of Pantsyr-S1E air defenses in Syrian and Iranian hands, as well as discovering how many each received... Western intelligence circles stress that information on Russian missile consignments to Syria or Iran is vital to any US calculation of whether to attack Iran over its nuclear program... Syria took delivery in mid-August of 10 batteries... the Pantsyr-S1E had failed in its mission to bring down trespassing aircraft.

This would neatly dovetail the renewed push in the American media this week for confrontation with Iran - that included a Washington Post editorial discrediting IAEA chief elBaradei, a new ADL stop Iran campaign and general neocon push.  I am not suggesting that the American Enterprise Institute has a hotline to the Israeli Air Force Chief.

But Neither scenario (1) nor (2) really help explain the pattern of commentary that is coming out of Israel at least.  Ofer Shelah, one of Israel's smartest analysts, writing in Ma'ariv had this to say,

What we have here is something far deeper and something that touches on the fundamental position of both sides... It is clear that both sides see it in this light... neither Barak nor Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would approve an operation that could be intercepted by the Syrians, unless it was for a goal that they deemed to be very important... It is a story that stretches back a long way, over many consultations, decisions that are made and then reexamined all the time.  All of the decision-making and intelligence services have been party to it. 

Yediot Ahranot military and intelligence analyst, Alex Fishman, talked of the unlikelihood of an operation that would be

high risk just for the sake of some tactical step, to improve our situation tomorrow morning.  This kind of action is only justified for an important goal, i.e., one that will be beneficial even in many more years. 

Of course this might all be hype and Israeli media hysteria and military cover-up, but, if this incident is of a different order of magnitude, how about scenario's (3) and (4).

(3) This was an irregular and highly unusual Israeli reconnaissance mission that had a degree of urgency, and was based on new intelligence.  Given Syria's missile air-defense capabilities Israeli planes don't just wonder into Syrian airspace on a whim, this is not Lebanon. There is often speculation that Syria is not only arming itself with advanced Russian weaponry, but that it is also pursuing a non-conventional weapons program.  Today, Josh Landis has a fascinating post on his well-respected Syria Comment blog entitled "Is Israel Looking for Korean Weapons in Syria?".  Landis reminds us that less than a week ago, John Bolton was  writing in the Wall Street Journal against the current diplomatic efforts with North Korea, and raised the claim that Syria may be providing "safe havens for North Korea's nuclear weapons development, or may have already participated with or benefited from it."

Other sources suggest that the US has new intelligence linking Syria with North Korea and that this information is known to Israel.  Such intelligence might also explain the degree of Israeli hysteria throughout the summer regarding the likelihood of a military clash with Syria, precisely because action against Syria was being planned.  Again, I am not suggesting that John Bolton is on Instant Messenger with IAF flight command.

(4) There is an additional scenario, this one more in line with the tone of the Israeli commentary, and even more far-reaching.  It is hinted at by several key Israeli commentators, all remember operating under the watchful eye of the IDF military  censor.  Alex Fishman, again, in Yediot, "Why did they fly there?  It is unlikely that someone suddenly decided that he felt like photographing northern Syria... at night."  Amos Harel in Haaretz is even more explicit: "Damascus is not saying what the IDF plane allegedly attacked."  Other TV commentators have hinted at Israeli satisfaction with the results of the mission.  The suggestion seems to be that  an actual military operation has been conducted in Syrian territory, perhaps against a possible or suspected or claimed non-conventional weapons production facility.

According to scenarios (3) and (4), Syria would be downplaying the story in order to cover for its own embarrassment regarding a suspected weapons program, and perhaps also at having taken a military hit without being able to effectively respond.  This might also explain the Syrian comment that it would respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing.  According to Ehud Ya'ari on Israel Channel 2, Israel also passed messages to the Syrians that there could be no small wars, or grabs Hezbollah-style, and that any, even partial, Syrian attack would be repelled with the IDF's full force.

Maybe none of these scenarios is correct, and many questions certainly remain unanswered.  A key one would be, "Why now?"  Perhaps there was a perception that, given where the political cycle is in Lebanon, Hezbollah's room for maneuver is now at its most limited, that Hamas is already pinned down in Gaza and does not want to encourage an Israeli invasion, and that the intensity of the  international diplomatic spotlight on the region would help prevent an escalation towards war.  Israel has carried out missions over Syria before without events spiraling towards conflict.  In 2003 Israel bombed a PFLP GC base in Syria, and in 2006 IAF warplanes buzzed the holiday residence of President Bashar Assad, sending a unequivocal message that he should reign in Hezbollah.

The Israeli military might simply be spinning in order to cover up for an unplanned incident that many in Israel would believe is reckless and irresponsible in the current climate.  In fact, those who write as if they are in the know suggest that the proof of any intelligence better be damn good.  Fishman, in Yediot Ahranot, says that "we can only hope that we can rely on the people who decided on it (the mission)."  He goes as far as to suspect that the Israeli leadership might try to conceal "uncalculated risks and adventurism."  In Ma'ariv, Ben Caspit pointedly comments that "we have changed roles with the Syrians.  Israel is the side looking for trouble and Syria is holding itself back." 

And Amos Harel's warning in Haaretz:

It is to be hoped that the story will end without war. But it is important to remember that Israeli intelligence does not always understand the behavior of the Syrian leader. Assad is not an Israeli and does not think like one. His reactions could be very different than what Israel expects or sees as reasonable.

And there are two other ways of explaining all this - one rather possible, and the other a bit of mischief on my part: the first is that it was all simply a mistake, and both sides are now, perhaps in a co-ordinated fashion, trying to calm things while saving face. An Israeli pilot took a wrong turn over the Med, and, whoops .... an incident needs to be covered up and explained in terms of the highest national interests. Back-channels, diplomats who used to know each other, third parties, friendly businessman get busy working the phones, you agree to say 'x', we'll say 'y' and this can all be forgotten.

Or was this an exercise whereby both Israeli's and Syrians were creating a mini-crisis so that the US would find itself engaged on the Israel-Syria track and stop blocking it? Provoke Washington into changing course. Of course, I think this is an unreal scenario, but it highlights a very real problem. The leadership in both Damascus and Jerusalem seems to believe there is a value in engaging on this track, but the US is stubbornly opposed, or at least determined to stay out, and this has become a crucial obstacle. If the US is not at this particular table, there is no table. And that approach only increases the likelihood of a planned or mistaken escalation, it makes movement on the Lebanese and the Iraqi front more difficult, and also will likely undermine the supposed peace effort that the US is now itself promoting.

TCF has just released two reports on US-Israel-Syria relations, by a leading American expert (David Lesch) and Israel's foremost authority on the subject (Moshe Ma'oz) - both advocate serious diplomatic re-engagement, and those in-depth reports can be downloaded here

September 5, 2007

How About a Progress Report on Outposts, Checkpoints and the Separation Barrier

This week America is absorbed with a series of progress reports on political benchmarks that were due to be met by the Iraqi Government.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional investigative body in charge of evaluating the performance of government programs, just released its assessment that the Iraqi Government has only met three of the 18 political and security benchmarks set for it in June of last year.

In the same week, more depressing news has been coming out of Israel regarding the impressive lack of progress on yardsticks to which Israel was supposed to adhere in commitments it made to the US.  In an exchange of letters with President Bush in April 2004, the Israeli government undertook to take action on removing the so-called unauthorized outposts established in the last years, to ease both the closure in the West Bank that strangles Palestinian economic life and the effects of the separation barrier being constructed by rerouting it.

This, in effect, was a reiteration of longstanding commitments that have still not been implemented.  Occasionally, the issue is raised inside Israel in criticizing government inaction or, by the government itself, by way of reminding everyone that it has not forgotten and will momentarily be taking action.  The moment, however, never comes.

The issue is scarcely ever raised in public by US officials - commitment, shmemitment.  Don't expect any "progress reports" on this one, and certainly forget Congress saying anything about it.

There were developments on all three issues this week - outposts, checkpoints, and the separation barrier - and, on all fronts, foot-dragging seems to have become a fine art. 

Special Envoy Blair will have a Herculean task getting any real traction for pushing concrete improvements on the ground.  The case has been further strengthened for arguing that incrementalism cannot work, and that what's needed is a political solution: agreed borders and an end to occupation.

Outposts

An Inter-Ministerial Committee on outposts was convened Sunday after a year's hiatus in meetings. Defense and Justice Ministry officials confirmed that existing outposts have been expanded in the past year.  The Committee itself declared that its remit would be to establish rules for Israeli planning and building in the West Bank - which sounds ominous enough - and not to decide on evacuation of outposts.  Strategic Affairs Minister Lieberman demanded that a parallel committee be established to examine illegal Arab building in the Negev, the Galilee and the West Bank.

But here's the rub - if the political gumption has been mustered to evacuate outposts, then you evacuate outposts.  You don't convene a committee. 

When the author of the definitive official report on this subject, Talia Sasson, was in DC as a guest of the New America Foundation and The Century Foundation in July, she discussed her frustration at the lack of action taken following her recommendations.  She also made a key point that is often forgotten: since the beginning of the Oslo process, the establishment of new settlements was considered to be - how shall we say - in poor taste.  Hey presto!  Build on an outpost, the government turns a blind eye and you have what are in effect more than 100 new settlements!

Checkpoints

Akiva Eldar reported in Haaretz that the Defense Ministry has been sitting for months on a plan - internally, professionally prepared - for dramatically reducing the number of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank.  The authors of the plan were Brigadier General (ret.) Baruch Spiegel, who was in charge of coordinating the issue at the MoD [and my previous commanding officer!] and later Haggai Alon, an adviser to the former Defense Minister.  Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh was also involved and pushed for the plan's implementation - to no avail.  In March, when Haggai Alon visited the US and spoke at several think-tanks (including the Center for American Progress, the Foundation for Middle East Peace, NAF and TCF) he outlined how crucial improvements in daily Palestinian life and easing of movement restrictions would be to both stabilizing security and undermining extremists.  There are currently, according to the UN and World Bank, 546 obstacles to freedom of movement in the West Bank - it is the proximate cause of economic collapse.

Rather than pick up the plan and run with it, the new Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak has rejected a major IDF repositioning and is busy concocting his own plan for flying checkpoints (perhaps with flying pigs attached). 

If it looks like foot-dragging and sounds like foot-dragging...

According to Haggai Alon, the story has caused quite a stir as the IDF and Shin Bet play pass the parcel of responsibility.  Significantly, the story and existence of the plan has not been denied.

The Separation Barrier

Yesterday the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a section of the fence, in the Bil'in area, should be relocated.  For three years, the residents of Bil'in have protested their isolation as a result of the separation barrier.  The location of the barrier was selected in order to protect an uninhabited, newly constructed Israeli settler neighborhood that constituted an illegal expansion of a settlement.  Michael Sfarad, acting as counsel for the residents of Bil'in, told Ma'ariv, "The location of the fence was chosen not out of security considerations, but in order to expand the Modiin Illit settlement."

It is another example of the separation barrier's planners having misled the court, substituting settlement considerations for security considerations.  Even those, or especially those who believe the barrier makes an important security contribution, should be frustrated that constant maximalism and settler influence has not only added to the negative impact of the construction on Palestinian life (and therefore breeding anger, which harms security, etc.), but also has delayed work on the fence itself!

Colonel (ret.) Shaul Arieli and attorney Michael Sfarad - both of whom have worked on this issue tirelessly (from a security and legal perspective) for the last years - will have a book out later this year on the entire story of the separation barrier, its planning, its impact, the Court's role, the settler role, the US role, and how it is almost a prism for the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   The book will be in Hebrew, but we will be talking to Shaul at Prospects for Peace and look out for some interesting revelations.

September 4, 2007

Grim Normalcy in Gaza and Sderot

A new school year began on Sunday throughout Israel, but in one place at least it was anythingCrackdown on Fatah demonstrators in Gaza - (Courtesy of Miftah) but a smooth start - Sderot, which is next to Gaza.  Nine rockets were fired from Gaza to the western Negev yesterday, with one landing close to a kindergarten in the city of Sderot.  So far, thankfully, there have been no casualties.  But parents have decided to keep their kids at home and the schools there are closed until further notice.

Powerful images of local residents running through the streets of Sderot in panic with the wailing of sirens in the background were broadcast repeatedly on all the TV Channels' evening news shows.  The Sderot blitz dominates the newspaper headlines, barely leaving room for mention of Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer's latest victory in the US Open.  The Palestininian Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the firing of the Qassams.

There is significant local anger at the Government for not providing better protection for the schools, and, as is to be expected, even more anger at the Palestinians and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, in particular.

The popular Israeli narrative is that when the settlements and army were withdrawn from Gaza, the occupation ended -  and yet the Palestinian terror and indiscriminate shelling continues.

Gazans will point out that not a day has passed since the evacuation without Israeli military activity in, or above Gaza, and that the sonic booms of Israeli jets strike fear into the hearts of Palestinian kids every day.  Even before the Hamas takeover, movement in and out of Gaza was severely restricted, but since mid-June, an almost total blockade has been imposed.  It has had devastating repurcussions for the entire population.  Gaza has become one big prison with collective punishment the order of the day.   

Gazans are also paying the price for the Hamas-Fatah power struggle. While Hamas control has improved some aspects of internal daily security, and the Gazan beaches were packed during the summer, the Hamas security forces have become increasingly oppressive with crackdowns on the internal dissent that Fatah is attempting to mobilize.

So now, just to add to all that misery, an Israeli invasion, or a cutoff of essential supplies (water, fuel, electricity) is being threatened. Neither is likely to actually improve the equally lamentable predicament of the terrified Sderot-niks, who also deserve quiet and are caught in the crossfire.

Israeli leaders, perhaps understandably, have warned that if Israeli children are threatened, then Gazans will pay the price. That price is, of course, already being paid: just last Tuesday, 3 Palestinian children - aged 10, 10 and 12-years old - were killed by the IDF near Beit Hanoun in a firing incident that an Israeli military investigator has now recognized was nothing more than 3 kids playing tag.

Several Israeli Government Ministers have proposed cutting off utilities to Gaza, and the Defense Minister Ehud Barak is said to be checking the practicallilty and legality of some of these options.  The line of argument repeated by these ministers goes, “if life in Sderot is not normal then life in Gaza will not be normal.”  At face value, this really is an astounding statement of ignorance and/or apathy regarding what “normality” has become in Gaza.  Here is a snapshot of the so-called normality that reigns in Gaza.  Most likely, (one presumes) it is not actually the fate that Israeli leaders have in mind for Sderot.

As three-quarters of all Palestinians languish in poverty, 85% of manufacturing businesses are not operating, and 70,000 Gazans have already been laid off since the Hamas takeover. With no end in sight for private sector losses, tens of thousands more could lose their jobs at any moment.  Severe restrictions on movement have left Gaza without the essential raw materials to support the manufacturing sector. Meanwhile, the Gaza Power plant is not producing enough electricity, and Gazans face up to 12 hours without electricity every day. Back in July, Filippo Grandi, the deputy commissioner general of UNRWA warned, “Gaza risks becoming a virtually 100% aid-dependent, closed down and isolated community within a matter of months, or even weeks.”

The Israel Channel 10 News military correspondent Alon Ben-David, normally well-briefed by intelligence and military sources, described Israel as considering three options in response to the Qassam fire on Sderot. [My summary translation of his report – DL]

1. A broad ground operation (invasion) of Gaza to destroy Hamas – but that would mean hundreds of Israeli and thousands of Palestinian casualties, long-term success would not be guaranteed and Israel might come under harsh international criticism.
2. Israel retakes part of Gaza – mainly the rocket launching areas closest to Sderot and establishes a security strip in northern Gaza up to Jabaliya, and at the area of the border with Egypt (Rafah and the old “Philadelphi Route." The price again would be high, though less than in (1) above, and an end to the rocket fire could not be guaranteed.

3. Israel continues its current response – perhaps with a ratcheting up of the siege on the population and of the assassinations policy.

According to Ben-David’s Report, none of the options are considered ideal, but the third is most likely. Most commentators add that should one rocket inflict serious casualties, then options (1) and (2) come very much into the frame. The Israeli Cabinet is to meet inemergency session Wednesday to consider the various options.

What is just as telling, though, is the option that is not apparenty being considered – option (4): reach a ceasefire deal with the leadership in Gaza that could also include a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit (see previous post). Any deal would have to include an active prevention of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza and a moratorium on IDF operations there.

In fact, option (4) is the only one that might actually provide some respite for the residents of Sderot and Gaza, facilitate the proposed November peace summit, and offer a way forward beyond an ever-escalating cycle of retributions. A shame that multiple choice exams tend to come in three's…