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January 31, 2008

Five Comments on the Winograd Report and its Aftermath

First a confession, I have not yet read all 629 pages of the final Winograd Committee Report that looks at the summer 2006 Lebanon War – I have read the summary, the commentary and watched the news conference. Based on that, five initial comments:
1) Rumors of Ehud Olmert’s political demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Report was nowhere near as politically devastating as had been anticipated. The PM is breathing a sigh of relief, and the wind has gone out of the sails of the protest campaign of his political opponents. Haaretz’s lead political analyst, Yossi Verter, today confidently asserts that Olmert “has survived.” There is actually less direct criticism of Olmert in the Final Report than in the Interim Report.
Sure, the opposition will scour the 629 pages and find plenty to feed the anti-Olmert campaign – but that campaign was always primarily politically driven, not popular, and that sense of public outcry will now be very difficult to portray in the media. Olmert’s people are even gaining some traction with their call for Netanyahu and others to apologize for the character assassination that has been waged against the PM (this is based on accusations that Olmert conducted the ground campaign in the last weekend of the war for purely political, personal, and spin reasons – that idea was rejected by the Committee).
The Report has increased Ehud Barak’s wiggle room in slithering out of his pre-Labor primaries commitment to quit the Government or force elections once the Report was published. (A poll on Ch 2 last night had the public split 45-41 on whether Barak should quit the Government, not bad by recent standards.)
2) The IDF takes the brunt of criticism in the Final Report, especially in relation to the final 60 hours of the war – the ground invasion. The IDF, and notably the ground forces, were not prepared, not trained, not up to the task – and their commanders were at fault for suggesting otherwise to the political leadership.
OK, that is not nice for Israeli’s to hear – but what was happening here was that Israel’s worst kept secret just had a few more flashing lights and bells attached to it. Namely, IDF ground forces, the reserve divisions, have not been training for major combat missions for several years, or for complicated operations that require sophisticated coordination between the land, sea, and air front. Why you ask. Aha, well that’s simple – been a little bit busy I’m afraid, would love to have trained, really, but sorry – had these policing duties to carry out in the occupied territories, so many illegal outposts to protect, “training – shmaining.” How many moreEliyahu Winograd examples do we need of the debilitating effect of the occupation on the occupier?
Ariel Sharon was PM for almost 5 years, the IDF was never sent on a complicated extensive mission combining all three of its elements during those 5 years – and not because Arik wasn’t tempted or didn’t feel provoked. No, Arik simply knew the army he had, what it was spending its time doing, the kind of tests that it was smart to avoid, and to not expose to the region and the world.
As Tom Segev asks in an excellent piece in today’s Haaretz, “To what extent have 40 years of occupation affected the ability of the Israel Defense Forces to protect the country? Or, in other words, does the IDF train its soldiers to fight - or does it mainly teach them to oppress the Palestinian population?”
3) A boost to the Annapolis process, especially if the lessons are learned:
OK, so the Annapolis skepticism is still very much in place, especially after the less-than-stunning progress made in the two months since the Maryland moment and after the Gazan escalation. But on the assumption that it can still be salvaged – and that’s both possible and worthwhile, then Olmert is less wounded than anticipated, and that is a good thing. My colleague, Steve Clemons, mentions this at his "The Washington Note" blog. There is likely to be a post-Winograd Olmert Government, and that Government could pursue the Annapolis process. For some time now everything has been on stand-by, waiting for Grado. Well, now it’s time to move on, and judging by the initial reactions, the post-Report political storm is likely to end sooner rather than later.
Olmert can now take that one meaningful shot at rehabilitating his premiership – a bold diplomatic process. This requires that a lesson or two be learned from Lebanon. Key in this context would be the following: that the limits of military power, especially in asymmetrical warfare, are understood and that a ceasefire and diplomatic solution are pursued not after all else has failed and left a huge mess, but ASAP. OK, so it’s too late for that in Gaza, but it’s not too late to at least avoid a further deterioration. Read this piece for more on Gaza.
4)    People in Glass Think-Tanks…
One of Ehud Olmert’s harshest critics and a leading voice in the calls for his resignation has been former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe ‘Boogy’ Ya’alon. How inconvenient then that the Report points a very accusing finger at Ya’alon as having been the Chief of Staff from whom Halutz (who filled that role during the war and has since resigned) inherited an army that was so poorly trained, badly equipped, logistically incompetent and all-in-all unfit for battle. Ya’alon was Chief of Staff from 2002-05. Hmm, guess the state of the army in 2006 has nothing to do with him…
Since leaving the army Ya’alon has become quite the intellectual. First he spent time as a Military Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and now he is firmly ensconced as a Fellow at Sheldon Adelson’s “Shalem Center” in Jerusalem – the Israeli version of the AEI.
How surprising then that Ya’alon should be the great new military hope of Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party – he has joined the Party, plans to run for the Knesset, and is Bibi’s right-hand man and attack-dog on all public campaigns of a military nature. And how sad that following the Report’s findings and criticism of his period as IDF Chief, Ya’alon will, one assumes, practice what he preaches, do the decent thing, and remove himself from consideration for being the future Defense Minister. No chance. The prospect of Ya’alon being Defense Minister some day is a real one, in that respect a least Israel would seem to be pursuing green policies – we recycle failed leaders. Be worried, very worried.
5) The missing Chapter – America’s absent diplomacy:
By definition the Israeli committee of investigation did not focus on the American role and decision-making process during the war. It is a critical missing ingredient. I have discussed Chapter 10 of Glenn Kessler’s excellent book on Condoleezza Rice, “The Confidante,” about the Lebanon War, before in this piece. This Chapter can be read as almost an appendix to what was published in Jerusalem yesterday.
The American mismanagement of the international diplomatic component of ending the war is all there. Kessler describes Rice’s Lebanon involvement prior to that summer, despite the dramatic events taking place there, as “drive-by diplomacy”. Once hostilities started, Rice insisted on opposing an early ceasefire in favor of a radical re-alignment of the Lebanese reality – this has happened, just not in the way she had in mind. The US failed to use the G8 gathering that was held just days into the conflict to advance a de-escalation and refused to engage with Damascus. Rice waited a week before traveling to the region and then delayed action towards a ceasefire in the UN. Reading the so-far published Reports of the testimony to the Winograd Committee, it is clear that many senior Israeli Ministers had assumed that the Israeli response to the Hezbollah raid would not become a full-blown war, as diplomacy would quickly intervene.
But American diplomacy was absent, something that then UN Ambassador John Bolton seems rather proud of. Rice describes the Lebanon war episode in Elizabeth Bumiller’s  book, “Condoleezza Rice – An American Life”, as “my most frustrating time.” American mismanagement helped make Israel a prisoner to accomplishing a mission that wasn't realistic. As my friend Tony Karon points out in this post on his Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, “the Bush Administration’s own decisions had a decisive impact on how Israel waged its campaign.”
There are lessons to be learned from that “frustrating time,” and I pointed out three recently in this IHT op-ed.
(1) That fragile Arab polities are best stabilized by reconciliation, not confrontation.
(2) That US diplomatic leadership should be timely and persistent, not sluggish and sporadic.
(3) That the special relationship between Jerusalem and Washington should be used to help Israel climb down from precarious ladders, not scramble further up them.

January 29, 2008

Parag Khanna's Antidote to the State of the Union

My New America Foundation colleague, Parag Khanna, had the perfect contrast to last night’s State of the Union in his Sunday New York Times magazine cover story.

The President’s speech was full of a rhetoric that as it has grown more familiar, it has grown more and more divorced from global reality. He continues to talk of the war on terror and freedom agenda advancing in “Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories.”

In Bush’s words, “And that is why, for the security of America and the peace of the world, we are spreading the hope of freedom [. . .] Since 9/11, we have taken the fight to these terrorists and extremists. We will stay on the offense [. . .] and we will deliver justice to our enemies.”    

So much for the President. So what has Parag Khanna discovered in the two years he spent traveling in “40 countries in the five most strategic regions of the planet,” what he calls the second world. “Not in the first-world core of the global economy, nor in its third-world periphery [. . .] second-world countries are the swing states”.

Khanna’s piece is entitled “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” or as it’s presented on the magazine cover, “Who shrank the superpower,” and the story it tells is of the decline of the uni-polar American-led world, the emergence of the competing European and Chinese powers and the crucial role that what he calls the second-world, will play between the three.

The piece is a powerful wake-up call. Here’s how it begins:

“Turn on the TV today, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s 1999. Democrats and Republicans are bickering about where and how to intervene, whether to do it alone or with allies and what kind of world America should lead. Democrats believe they can hit a reset button, and Republicans believe muscular moralism is the way to go. It’s as if the first decade of the 21st century didn’t happen — and almost as if history itself doesn’t happen. But the distribution of power in the world has fundamentally altered over the two presidential terms of George W. Bush [. . .]

Many saw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the symbols of a global American imperialism; in fact, they were signs of imperial overstretch. Every expenditure has weakened America’s armed forces, and each assertion of power has awakened resistance in the form of terrorist networks, insurgent groups and ‘asymmetric’ weapons like suicide bombers. America’s unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order. That new global order has arrived [. . .]”

Parag goes on to describe his travels, his theory of the second-world, and how today’s post-hegemonic reality consists of the Big Three – Europe, China, and the US. When discussing China, for instance, Khanna explains that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the East Asian Community are examples of “how China is also too busy restoring its place as the world’s ‘Middle Kingdom’ to be distracted by the Middle Eastern disturbances that so preoccupy the United States.”

But Parag does return to the Middle East in his essay, and this is what he has to say:

“The Middle East — spanning from Morocco to Iran — lies between the hubs of influence of the Big Three and has the largest number of second-world swing states [. . .] Interestingly, it is precisely Muslim oil-producing states — Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, (mostly Muslim) Kazakhstan, Malaysia — that seem the best at spreading their alignments across some combination of the Big Three simultaneously: getting what they want while fending off encroachment from others.”

Khanna’s globe is an altered one;

“The rise of China in the East and of the European Union within the West has fundamentally altered a globe that recently appeared to have only an American gravity — pro or anti. As Europe’s and China’s spirits rise with every move into new domains of influence, America’s spirit is weakened [. . .] Even as America stumbles back toward multilateralism, others are walking away from the American game and playing by their own rules.”

If Khanna is right, and I think he is on to something, then this has huge implications for Israel and the Middle East. It reminds me of former World Bank President and then Quartet Envoy to the Gaza disengagement describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in terms of current global trends, as being “off-off-off-off Broadway” in an interview with Haaretz last year.  Those implications I will discuss in a future post. But for now, what does it tell us of America?

According to Khanna, America’s

“very presence in Eurasia is tenuous; it has been shunned by the E.U. and Turkey, is unwelcome in much of the Middle East and has lost much of East Asia’s confidence. ‘Accidental empire’ or not, America must quickly accept and adjust to this reality…. Would the world not be more stable if America could be reaccepted as its organizing principle and leader? It’s very much too late to be asking, because the answer is unfolding before our eyes.”

He argues that the current global landscape

“is completely unmanageable by a single authority, whether the United States or the United Nations. Instead, what we see gradually happening [. . .] and need to see more of [. . .] is a far greater sense of a division of labor among the Big Three, a concrete burden-sharing among them [. . .] The big issues are for the Big Three to sort out among themselves.”

Parag Khanna ends his piece by inviting us to play “strategy Czar”, and though his answer in the NYT is a little short and flimsy, I am expecting a lot more from his book – “The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order” on which the essay is based. But the invitation to think through this new reality is a fascinating and challenging one, and one that was totally lost on the gentleman standing in front of Messrs. Cheney and Pelosi delivering a largely irrelevant address between the hours of 9 and 10 pm EST last night.

January 25, 2008

John Bolton Compares Israel to North Korea

The annual right-wing Israeli shindig known as the Herzliya Conference has just drawn to a close.  The conference is organized by Uzi Arad, former adviser to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and has in the last years become an Israeli-American neo-con love-fest.  Of course like on any good Fox News show, there is a generous sprinkling of non-neo-con folk who lend legitimacy to the gathering.  

This year at least the conference was a little more open in wearing its politics on its sleeve—the program was officially held “in cooperation with the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, Shalem Center.”  That Institute’s chair is Natan Sharansky (President Bush’s favorite author) and it’s sponsor—Adelson—is Sheldon Adelson of Freedom Watch infamy.  Norman Podhoretz, Martin Kramer, and David Wurmser are just a sampling of the Herzliya speaker’s menu (presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani must have been short on advice this week).

But it was Ambassador John Bolton who really stole the show.  He was firing off in all directions—Israeli and American—taking aim at the Israeli Prime Minister, media and military, and the US State Department and intelligence community to name just a few. But this line is undoubtedly the highlight, or rather low-point, of the Bolton rant.  “Due to its government censorship the people of Israel can know what it feels like to be a citizen of North Korea” (he was referring to the censorship surrounding the Israeli strike on a Syrian facility last September).  

You can read it here on the official Herzliya Conference website.  Bolton went on to heap scorn on Israel’s media, military and government.  Now I am not averse to taking a few pops at this bunch myself, but Israel as North Korea—I don’t think so!  

Bolton inhabits that neo-con netherworld where philo-Israelism comes exceedingly close to being anti-Israel.  Their ideal image of Israel bears little resemblance to the actual Israel that exists or the predicament that it finds itself in.  They literally love Israel to death—being almost totally indifferent to the living, breathing Israelis who bear the consequences of the warrior policies that the neo-cons advocate.  Their version of Israel is destined to live by the sword in perpetuity, should cede no inch of territory and is thrust into the front line of their clash of civilizations.

Most Israelis and most of their recent leaders have preferred a more somber approach—peace negotiations, territorial withdrawals, ceasefires, etc…what a terrible disappointment they have been to the Boltons of this world.  It reminds me of the Zionist Christian Evangelical right whose supposed philo-Semitism bears more than a passing resemblance to anti-Semitism.  The largest “pro-Israel” Christian lobby, CUFI, is led by Pastor John Hagee—a promoter of end-times theology (Jewish fate = conversion or death).  Hagee has also written about the necessary historical role of the Nazis in encouraging the ingathering of the Jews to the Holy Land. With friends like these…

Back to Bolton, and as I mentioned, quite a few targets were getting served by the ex-Ambassador during his Israel visit.  Though his panel at the Conference was about “The Iranian Nuclear Threat,” Bolton spent most of his talk discussing North Korea.  Bolton’s point of departure was that “you look at a country (Iran) through its friends, its best buddies” [DPRK]—but his real target in doing so was to attack current US policy and to continue his campaign against the Chris Hill brokered deal with the North Koreans in the context of the Six Party talks.  Bolton’s swipe at his former State Department colleagues was characteristically blistering.  

Bolton focused on the Israeli military strike against Syria last September and the North Korea link, launching into a tirade against the censorship surrounding that strike.  This is a continuation of his campaign to mobilize Congress to force a disclosure of what is known of that action—something the Israelis have been very keen to avoid.  This line of argument, of course, also serves to reinforce the no engagement with Syria position—about which the Israeli leadership and senior military are most unenthusiastic but on which Bolton’s Washington crew continue to insist.  

Predictably on Iran, Bolton claims that the new NIE gave the Iranians “free reign” to “proceed unmolested towards a nuclear weapons capability” and he prodded his Israeli hosts to “use military force to stop Iran.”  

That was not all.  Bolton then ran to the Israeli press a week before the final report of the Winograd Committee (investigating the Lebanon war of summer 2006) to weigh-in on the domestic Israeli debate and join the campaign against Israel’s Prime Minister.  This was the opening to a headline story in the Haaretz paper during the week.

“John Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Second Lebanon War, rejects Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s version of why he launched a failed ground offensive during the war’s final days.”  

Shalem Institute guiding patron Bibi Netanyahu, Conference organizer Uzi Arad, and Conference co-sponsor (and fanatical Bibi supporter) Sheldon Adelson all want Olmert out of office.  John Bolton was doing their bidding.  

Things went so far as to generate a rebuttal to the Bolton interview the following day in Israel’s longest circulation daily, Yediot Aharonot, written by none other than Israel’s foremost columnist, Nahum Barnea. Barnea produces minutes of reports from Israel’s UN mission back to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem contradicting Bolton’s claim and in fact showing that Bolton had briefed the Israelis that the UN Resolution did not address Israeli concerns—understood by the Israeli side as encouragement to launch the misguided ground invasion of the last weekend of the war in order to give the US some leverage to improve the terms of the resolution.  In a display of Bolton’s professionalism as UN Ambassador and loyalty to his Secretary of State (not that we ever questioned those), Barnea recounts the following episode:  

Gillerman [Israeli Ambassador to the UN] passed on verbally to the Israeli Foreign Ministry Director—General Aharon Abramovitch those parts of the message that he preferred not to put down in writing in the telegram: Bolton had told him that “Rice was selling Israel to the Europeans.” (Translated from Yediot Aharonot, Jan 24th, DL)

John Bolton did indeed damage Israel’s Prime Minister and Israel’s security—not to mention American interests—but not in his kiss and tell interviews with the Israeli press or his bitter speech in Herzliya—the damage was done when Bolton had power as Ambassador, and used it to help prolong a disastrous war.  

January 23, 2008

Furlough Day for Gazans

The last day has been a period of grace, of partial freedom for the 1.4 million residents of the large open-air prison also known as Gaza.  Gazans, used to being blockaded into 360 sq km, turned the Egyptian border towns of Rafah and El Arish into an impromptu and unlikely shopping mall/holiday resort.  An initial wave of protesters met with partial resistance from the Egyptian border guards—then overnight Hamas activists apparently blew up the border barriers and by morning it was a free for all.  Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed into the Egyptian Sinai to stock up on basic goods and supplies, to visit family and to enjoy a respite from the claustrophobia of Gaza. More than just the border barrier has been blown apart—the Israeli, Egyptian, even international and PA policy now has a very visible and big hole in it.  

Events leading up to Gazan furlough day have been infuriating, first and foremost from a humanitarian perspective, but beyond that in the short-sighted and self-defeating policies of the main protagonists. The escalation of the siege in Gaza was of course inhuman but it also did nothing to improve the security of the neighboring Israeli population, undermined the peace process that was supposed to have been re-launched and weakened the ability of the Arab states to support that process.  

The dire economic situation in Gaza in the last days, where there has been a lack of basic supplies and power, exacerbates an already precarious socio-economic reality in which unemployment is rife, most industries have closed down and the population is being forced to rely on international handouts.  For an excellent description of the situation, read this piece by UNRWA Commissioner General, Karen Koning AbuZayd. Proponents of the siege policy claim that these conditions will turn the population against Hamas and induce a collective appreciation of a need for moderation, thereby facilitating progress towards a peace deal between Jerusalem and Ramallah and long term Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. And pigs will fly.    

The Hamas control of Gaza is entrenched, and the popular support that it enjoys has not been significantly eroded.  The border breakthrough made Hamas look creative and effective at playing a weak hand—correctly calculating that Egypt had no alternative but to respond with resignation.  The public undoubtedly is angry but that anger (and if you can’t understand this than you are a Vulcan or a Washington Post editorial writer) is directed primarily against Israel.  And after that Israel’s American backers, Israel’s interlocutors in Ramallah, and Israel’s friends in the Arab world.  Abbas and his capacity to conduct peace negotiations with Israel has been weakened as a consequence of this policy.  The Arab states who participated in the Annapolis gathering are embarrassed and cowering in the face of criticism across the Arab media, which is being led by the various offshoots of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brothers.  

Palestinian division rather than being a building block for a successful peace process actually looks like one of its greatest obstacles.  While we’re at it, let’s debunk a couple of other myths.  Some have argued that the supplies into Gaza are not Israel’s responsibility since Israel evacuated the area.  By maintaining control of the external envelope of borders (land, sea and air around Gaza) either directly or indirectly by dictating terms to Egypt, Israel in effect places itself in the position of continuing to have the obligations and responsibilities of an occupying power.  More to the point, it was Israel’s actions that so integrated the Gazan economy and Gazan infrastructure with that of Israel over the last forty years.  Gaza was a pool of cheap commuter labor and an independent Gaza infrastructure of power generation, of ports and airports, was either prevented, kept to a minimum or destroyed.  Today, some in the Israeli media and defense establishment have been suggesting that Israel should turn this development to its advantage, make supplies to Gaza Egypt’s problem, thereby completing the disengagement from Gaza that began in the summer of 2005.  That approach might have some merit over the long term but the integration of Gazan and Israeli infrastructure (a product of Israeli policy) practically cannot be switched-off overnight and there is also the need, eventually, to reconnect Gaza with the West Bank—a signed Israeli commitment.   

What about the argument that any easing of the closure on Gaza and any ceasefire deal with Hamas would serve to legitimize their rule and undermine the Ramallah government.  The premise here is all wrong.  It is not for Israel or the international community to confer legitimacy on Hamas, the Palestinian public did that when they elected a majority of Hamas members to the Palestinian Legislative Council.  One can disagree with Hamas’s positions and their tactics, and this writer certainly does, but the policy that has been pursued since the PLC elections of January 2006 wasted an opportunity to begin to reframe relations with a Hamas leadership who had won the internal argument and pursued electoral politics and government responsibilities as a preferred strategy. The more militant wing of Hamas that opposed political participation is now arguing that it has been vindicated.  That is not an outcome that Israeli, American or European policymakers should be proud of.  Even more worrying, and predictable, and a consequence of the policy pursued, is that a space is increasingly emerging in the Palestinian territories for an al-Qaeda ideology and presence to develop.  

Hamas can be the bulwark that prevents the spread of al-Qaedaism but its ability to do so is compromised under the current circumstances.  The Iraq war and mismanagement of Middle East policy by the US in the last years has already contributed to the spread of al-Qaeda type cells and attacks from Iraq into Jordan, the refugee camps of Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai.  And it almost seems as if everything is being done to reproduce that “success” in the Palestinian territories.  For a very useful piece contrasting Hamas with al-Qaeda read this essay that has been written by Khalid Amayreh for the Conflicts Forum NGO.

Finally what about the claim that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup and rearm?  From a very narrow military perspective it may well be reasonable to assert that absent constant IDF pressure Hamas will be able to go some way towards increasing its arsenal.  The key point here though is that the Israeli military confrontation with Hamas is asymmetrical and will remain asymmetrical even if there is a slightly larger Hamas stockpile of rockets.  Hamas is not about to start smuggling F16s, submarines and tanks through the Rafah tunnel network.  Using that asymmetry is what has allowed Hamas to create a degree of balance of deterrence and that is not going to change.  Israel’s most senior political and military leadership know that they have no military solution, that is why they are constantly deferring the pressure to launch a large scale ground invasion and why Israel has maintained what is essentially an agreed rules of the game posture vis-à-vis Hamas, in between escalatory cycles. Hamas has not attacked Israeli civilian targets but has not prevented others from doing so and has only fleeting used its longer range rockets, while Israel has not gone after Hamas leaders or government structures.  This was all broken in the last days but at a minimum, those previous rules of the game point the way to a more far-reaching set of understandings that could be reached between Israel and Hamas.

Israel has to look beyond the securito-crat consideration of a limited increase in rocket stockpiles and has to start thinking more strategically.  A ceasefire could provide a respite for Sderot and the communities in southern Israel.  It could also pave the way for a prisoner exchange deal to secure the release of Gilad Shalit.  A ceasefire combined with conditional lifting of the closure, could incentivize Hamas to prevent others from launching attacks from Gaza while strengthening the more pragmatic leadership within Hamas who advocate a political path and would squeeze the space within which al-Qaeda wannabes are beginning to organize.  This kind of a broad ceasefire would then create far more conducive conditions for pursuing peace negotiations with President Abbas, especially if an internal Palestinian dialogue is re-launched in parallel.  

The new situation on the Gaza-Egypt border in any case necessitates a re-think: who will control that border in the future, can it be hermetically re-sealed.  This presents an opportunity for the 4 concerned parties—Egypt, Hamas, Israel and the PA—to indirectly agree on border crossing arrangements—this could expand to a broader Fatah-Hamas dialogue and facilitate understandings with Israel.  Zvi Bar’el suggests in Ha’aretz that Egypt “will have to get the Palestinian Authority and Hamas talking again.”

The three conditions that Israel had the international community impose on Hamas after their election victory were a brilliant diplomatic victory and simultaneously a debilitating strategic own-goal.  The focal issue should have been security and that can still be addressed via pursuit of a ceasefire.  Some or all of this logic has guided several Israeli ministers and former senior officials to recently advocate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.  The alternative is not only more human suffering and the continued pursuit of an ethically very un-Jewish collective punishment of the Gazan population but also the risk that an escalatory cycle keeps escalating, dragging everyone into a wider clash.  As today’s Egyptian border crossing events prove, what happens in Gaza will not stay in Gaza.

January 18, 2008

Not on the itinerary

More on Bush's trip in the Middle East

This is in the Guardian Online. 

Take a president who rarely travels overseas and certainly not for extended periods of time. Add the region of the world most associated with this administration and most in turmoil. Throw in the president's first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories after seven years in office. What do you get? Remarkably little, as it turns out.
President Bush's eight-day tour of the Middle East registered barely an above-the-fold headline in the major American and international newspapers. Perhaps the subject of greatest speculation was how a president, famous for maintaining a schoolboy's bedtime curfew, would cope with the late Arabian nights. But Bush's Middle East trip was of some importance - as much for what didn't happen, as for what did. Paradoxically, an administration guided by a transformational vision of the application of American power was now displaying the limitations of its role - limitations partially created by its own failures.

The presidential visit had precious little new to offer on the three most explosive and troubling crises currently afflicting the region: the Lebanese presidential stalemate, the escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza and the political impasse in Iraq. The president of course did not visit Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq (although secretary of state Condoleezza Rice did make a short side trip to the latter). On Lebanon, the US is acting as just another external power placing obstacles in the way of an internal political compromise that would allow for the election of Michel Suleiman to the presidency and the appointment of a new government of national reconciliation. The Arab League looks like a more effective broker and fixer than the US, and that in itself is quite an achievement of self-marginalisation by the Bush administration.

Accurately or not, the president's visit to Israel was interpreted as signalling a green light to an Israeli military escalation in the Gaza Strip. That is certainly what has happened in the last days with a Palestinian death toll of at least 25 and a barrage of rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot and neighbouring communities in response. The brakes that exist on a further deterioration in Gaza, and perhaps an extensive Israeli ground operation, are being generated locally out of a concern on both sides that escalation will achieve little. There is no visible Washington foot on that brake, and if anything it hovers closer to the accelerator. While certain Israeli ministers and former senior officials call for a ceasefire with Hamas (an option apparently also favoured by the Hamas leadership), President Bush still inhabits a Game Boy version of the Middle East, divided simply into black and white where you kill the bad guy to advance to the next level. In fact, Bush's insistence on confronting an undifferentiated green enemy of Islamists continues to miss the nuances that exist in reality, to miss opportunities for new alliances with Islamists against al-Qaida and to undermine the goal of restabilising the region.

Iraq was on the president's agenda, but missing was a concerted effort at working with the neighbours and key regional actors to advance a political platform of power-sharing and reconciliation. Remember, the surge and partial, temporary security improvement that it has produced was not a goal in itself, but rather was designed to create an atmosphere more conducive to progress on a new political dispensation. That has not happened. It is unlikely to happen while America continues to play Iraq's neighbours off against each other and refuses to build a serious contact group that would include Iran, Syria and the other neighbours as recommended over a year ago by the Iraq Study Group.

So, what of the items that were supposed to feature prominently on the president's agenda: democracy, Iran and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? The democracy agenda was discounted in the region long before the president's visit and will not be taken anymore seriously as a consequence of meetings in UAE with young Arab leaders, in Saudi Arabia with entrepreneurs and in Kuwait with women activists.
The Bush administration's push for freedom has suffered from at least four basic flaws from the get-go. First, it has been obsessively election-centric and ill-attuned to local conditions. Second, it had no sensible, inclusive plan for dealing with the inevitable electoral successes of political Islamists. Third, touting freedom for everyone but denying it to the Palestinians under occupation was (somehow) perceived as hypocritical. And fourth, the Bush team had a special talent for delivering the message in the most patronizing, demeaning and unsympathetic way possible. Add to this list the real life experiences of post-election Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, and one understands why the neoconservative designers of the policy should be laughed out of town, rather than feted on the op-ed pages of the New York Times (see William Kristol). Oh, and saying nothing about the Israeli imprisonment of 43 members of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform party elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council does not make the message sound any more credible.

On Iran, while the president's Gulf hosts share America's concerns over Iran's regional ambitions and nuclear policy, they clearly do not share his predilection for bellicose rhetoric and threatening postures, mainly because they understand that this only serves to strengthen the hardliners in Tehran and undermine the more pragmatic forces. There is a density of interaction (economic, trade and other) between Iran and the Gulf states. There are significant Shia and even Iranian communities in the Gulf states. And the Gulf Cooperation Council members have actually intensified their diplomatic interaction with Tehran in the last year. Especially after the National Intelligence Estimate report, most of the Middle East seems to have adopted the position of waiting out the Bush administration when it comes to Iran, and the president's visit seems to have done very little to have changed that.

And finally, Israel-Palestine. This is the one area where the president's visit hinted at a genuine intention to get something done in the coming year. During his trip the president seemed to convince some sceptics of his personal commitment to achieving a two-state solution, and he belatedly accepted some of the logic that links an end of the occupation to progress on other issues in the region, including efforts to marginalise radicalism and build regional alliances.
But even those impressed by the demonstration of political will were left scratching their heads as to whether this US administration has the political skill to constructively engage. The appointment of three different US generals to oversee various aspects of the process suggests that Washington is still competence-challenged, and there are real question marks regarding the depth of American understanding of what the content of a mutually acceptable two-state deal would look like.
Finally, there is the continued self-defeating approach to Hamas. Hussein Agha and Robert Malley outline a way forward in this Middle East triangle of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas in today's Guardian. They describe the need for Fatah and Hamas to reach a new agreement that Israel would not oppose, for Hamas and Israel to achieve a ceasefire and for Abbas and Olmert to negotiate a political deal (and have a mandate to do so from Hamas). "Synchronicity is key ... . The current mindset, in which each side considers deal-making by the other two to be a mortal threat, could be replaced by one in which all three couplings are viewed as mutually reinforcing ... a choreography that minimizes violence and promotes a serious diplomatic process." Wise advise and advise that the Bush administration would do well to adopt if it is to salvage anything from a Middle East nightmare that it has been so seminal in shaping - or maybe it was all just about oil and arms sales.

by Daniel Levy 

January 17, 2008

Agha and Malley—A Must Read

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley have a challenging and insightful must-read op-ed in today’s Washington Post.  Entitled “Middle East Triangle,” it looks at why and how to bring Israel, the Abbas-led PA and Hamas into a political process that could actually make sense and deliver on the vital interests of all three.  
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone from a violent, intractable, clear-cut duel to a violent, intractable, three-way chess match. Today, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas each fears that the other two will reach a deal at its expense. And each is determined to prevent that outcome.”
Agha and Malley then explain why a deal between any two components of the triangle would be perceived as so threatening by the third:
“Nervous about being left out, all three parties are laboring mightily to avert an understanding between the other two. Hamas threatens the nascent Israeli-Palestinian political process, challenging its legitimacy and intimating that it could resort to more violence. Israel warns that renewed Palestinian unity will bring that process to an abrupt halt. Abbas actively discourages any third-party contact with Hamas. The end result is collective checkmate, a political standstill that hurts all and serves none.
The truth is, none of these two-way deals is likely to succeed. In tandem, no two parties are capable enough to deliver; any one party is potent enough to be a spoiler. There can be neither Israeli-Palestinian stability nor a peace accord without Hamas's acquiescence. Intra-Palestinian reconciliation will not last without Israel's unspoken assent and willingness to lift its siege. Any agreement between Hamas and Israel over Abbas's strong objection is hard to imagine.”
And they then describe the way out and the option that could actually deliver meaningful progress and even a deal in 2008.  
“For any of these dances to go forward, all will have to go forward. Synchronicity is key. Fatah and Hamas will need to reach a new political arrangement, this time not one vigorously opposed by Israel. Hamas and Israel will need to achieve a cease-fire and prisoner exchange, albeit mediated by Abbas. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will need to negotiate a political deal with Abbas, who will have to receive a mandate to do so from Hamas. The current mind-set, in which each side considers dealmaking by the other two to be a mortal threat, could be replaced by one in which all three couplings are viewed as mutually reinforcing. For that, the parties' allies ought to cast aside their dysfunctional, destructive, ideologically driven policies. Instead, they should encourage a choreography that minimizes violence and promotes a serious diplomatic process.”
Arguably, the only serious follow-up item to the President’s just-completed Middle East visit was his desire to push forward on an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.  Adopting the Agha-Malley triangle model would not only suggest that the administration is removing its debilitating ideological blinkers but would also offer the best and perhaps only chance of achieving a success on the Israel-Palestine front.  

January 11, 2008

Four Comments on Bush’s Visit to Israel

1. Yes, he is serious

This was Bush's first visit as president after 7 years in office. So, while it was a little late for a meet and greet, the president did come across as being absolutely serious in his intention to deliver an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement by the end of his term in office. Precious little progress since Annapolis had been made between the parties either on their day-to-day commitments or in negotiating core issues. 

The president's visit served to press the reset button once again and get the process back on track. In describing his own prospective role going forward, Bush used the words "pressure," "nudge," and said that he was willing to be a "pain." That much is new. Translating this from words into actions will be interesting to watch. The president also finally (and almost five years after launching the Roadmap) appointed a U.S. monitor, namely Lt. Gen. William Fraser, to oversee implementation of Roadmap commitments. The president no doubt heard vows of commitments to the peace process from Olmert and Abbas and was probably impressed by how serious both of them are about reaching a deal. My guess is that this is more than lip service, that Bush believes he can get a deal and is going to take a real crack at it. My other guess is that he will be a prisoner of the narrow thinking  that characterizes him and the team around him and that success is not only unlikely, but the very attempt, if mismanaged, could do more harm than good.    

2. Still playing catch up on content

This administration has so far stubbornly refused to set out its own proposed parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Many consider there to be a need for American guidelines to help close the gap between the parties and to provide clarity on the thorniest of issues. The Clinton folks produced an important and relatively detailed set of parameters but they did so far too late in the day. On Thursday, President Bush did give his most far reaching speech to date on the substance of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Some of the press have treated this as a dramatic moment and suggested that the president broke new ground. On closer inspection and comparing the language in this speech to previous pronouncements shows that there was actually only one new word in the president's speech. This was the first time the president referred to "compensation" as being part of the refugee solution.

Yet more than anything else, the speech displays just how far this administration has to go in order to even catch up with where Bill Clinton was at in understanding the substance of permanent status. The president offered nothing whatsoever on Jerusalem, repeated his old mantra of ending the occupation that began in 1967 (which means very little) talked about land swaps and changes to the '49 line (which is the same as 67), but gave no details. The details matter.  Any permanent status deal to end this conflict will be fragile and will require nurturing. My colleagues and I understood this in our effort to present a detailed model agreement known as the Geneva Initiative. Exact language, practical solutions, and detailed maps will all become essential if a deal is to be reached. Getting the balance wrong, for instance, by not accepting a one-to-one land swap or overindulging the settlements land grab will produce an unworkable, illegitimate, and unsustainable outcome.  This may be a case of be careful what one wishes for. If the Bush administration gets the content wrong (and such a possibility should not be dismissed) it would again do more harm than good.

3. A prisoner of his own ideology

What most argues against a presidential success on Middle East peace is the particularly blinkered "war on terror" narrative to which the president has so rigidly adhered since 9/11. In the Israeli-Palestinian context this dramatically handicaps the president's ability to understand and interpret the conflict in a sophisticated, meaningful and realistic way. Yes, there is terror used in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but this conflict cannot be reduced to a struggle against terror and is far more constructively engaged as a story that has a lot to do with grievances, occupation and the hostility that they breed. But the president's war on terror narrative rejects the idea of root causes and legitimate grievances so the president has no intellectual compass to sensibly guide his Israel-Palestine intervention.

Of course Gaza was not on the president's itinerary. The idiots guide to conflict resolution will tell the president that Gaza is run by Hamas. They are terrorists. They must and will be defeated.  Back in the real world, Hamas won a democratic election, even Israelis have no plan to militarily vanquish them. It is now broadly recognized that Hamas will need to be brought into a stability-building arrangement that can deliver ongoing security and broad legitimacy. The president's blinkered approach to political Islamists comes at the expense of the prospects for a sustainable peace. An early change to policy would look at pursuing a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas-led Gaza strip.  

In general terms, the president has displayed remarkable indifference bordering on callousness toward the Palestinian predicament. Being attuned to Israeli security concerns, as he should be, should not preclude the president from achieving a human understanding of the PalestinianBush and Abbas reality. The president seemed to avoid any exposure to the harshness of Palestinian daily realities during his visit.  Standing alongside President Abbas in Ramallah, Bush managed to produce the following woefully insensitive chestnut: "You'll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped, but I'm not so exactly sure that's what happens to the average person." President Bush went on to dismiss UN resolutions related to the conflict and he is apparently accepting a very limited definition of settlement freeze that does not include either the settlement blocs or East Jerusalem. These positions mark yet another negative contribution to dealing with the conflict from this administration.

4. Discounted in the Gulf

President Bush moved on from Israel to the Gulf.  On the Israeli and Palestinian side, the leaderships are domestically politically weak and are hanging on to Bush's coattails.  In the Gulf the situation looks somewhat different. Much of the Gulf seems to be discounting a full year of what is already being viewed as a lame-duck presidency. Some of the Gulf leaders are looking to sign a new arms sales deal and all will pay a certain lip service on the Iran issue. But in the Gulf they are clearly hedging their bets. The Gulf states are maintaining relations with Hamas. The Hamas leadership was in Saudi recently and the Saudis facilitated the attendance of Gazan pilgrims while Qatar has just reopened its representative office in Gaza. The Gulf Cooperation Council notably hosted for the first time ever an Iranian president at its meeting last month.

Additionally, the Saudis facilitated the attendance of Ahmadinejad himself at the Hajj last month.  Marc Lynch on his Abuaardvark blog has an excellent piece on this. And the Gulf is far from alone in looking ahead to the post-Bush era.

January 4, 2008

When Ehud meets George

This is in Haaretz today.

Bush and Olmert

The finishing touches are being applied to preparations for next week's presidential visit. After more than 2,500 days in the White House, George W. Bush will grace the Holy Land with his presence, and Ehud Olmert can notch up an achievement denied to his predecessor, Ariel Sharon - of hosting an American president. The script for such an occasion almost writes itself. The president will visit all the usual Israeli and Jewish sites of history, heartbreak and heroism, identifying with our suffering and marveling at our achievements. In pledging allegiance to the peace process, Olmert and Bush will leave no vow of sincerity unspoken. Each country's media will speculate on motivations - Olmert may be hoping for a protective, pre-Winograd-report presidential blanket; Bush may want to leave behind a peace legacy. Everybody goes home happy, but that's it. Except, presidents don't visit every day, and today the dilemmas facing both nations as they look around the region seem more basic, weighty and troubling.

The story of Olmert's political journey and his frequent statements about Israel's future suggest that he is not in office to tread water; he has a purpose. The one part of the visit that is probably not finalized - what Olmert intends to tell Bush in private - provides Israel's leader with an opportunity to develop the kind of substantive agenda with which he has previously flirted.

It would require a little hubris, but next week Olmert could help shape Middle East policy for Bush's last year. And let's face it, for an Israeli leader to display some chutzpah would hardly be breaking new ground.
Here's how Olmert's talking points for such a conversation might read:

1. Israel is ready to help restabilize the Middle East over the next 12 months.

2. On Iran, Israel's concern is not with the findings of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, but with the prospect of a resulting policy drift, whereby both coercion and diplomacy are mutually neutralizing rather than strengthening. U.S. policy seems to be moving inexorably toward dialogue with Iran - from the 2006 conditional offer of negotiations to the ongoing limited exchange regarding Iraq, including reports by the U.S. military of a drop in Iranian arming of the insurgency there. The recent U.S.-North Korea talks have not escaped Israel's attention. If the core outstanding issues with Iran can be resolved diplomatically, Israel would not be opposed; behavior change, not regime change, is the shared goal. Better not to waste time. The limited existing dialogue could be broadened and upgraded. Israel has confidence in the most qualified candidate to lead these talks, Under- Secretary Nicholas Burns.

3. Early on in this broadened dialogue, the U.S. might prod Iran to influence Palestinian groups (Islamic Jihad and Hamas) to adhere to a new cease-fire. Several senior ministers, especially the ex-generals among them, are advocating a cease-fire with Hamas and a prisoner exchange to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit. The alternatives - militarily unattractive - may produce more chaos in Gaza, a more radicalized Hamas, and new openings for Al-Qaida-style outfits. The Annapolis process would benefit from an effective cease-fire and improved security environment.

4. If this leads to Fatah and Hamas exploring new understandings for Palestinian power-sharing, especially if brokered by the Egyptians or Saudis, then the best U.S.-Israeli response might be to test the results on the ground. In retrospect, actively undermining the previous Palestinian unity government was not smart.

5. Israel's talks with the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian team will be turbulent, certainly when it comes to the daily issues and roadmap commitments, on which 100 percent delivery by either side is unrealistic. As discussed at Annapolis, an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement on permanent status issues is possible during the term of this U.S. administration. Privately, American involvement toward this end would be welcome.

6. A regional stabilization effort cannot ignore Syria. While the Israeli political math probably precludes a parallel agreement with Syria, serious negotiations are possible and desirable. This option is supported by almost all of Israel's top military brass. Current American policy reflects Syria's mixed scorecard - attendance at Annapolis and stepped-up efforts to secure the Iraqi-Syrian border (acknowledged by the Pentagon), while simultaneously contributing to the political impasse in Lebanon. But launching a sustainable Israeli-Syrian process requires U.S. engagement and could even pave the way to fresh thinking about a comprehensive regional security architecture. This could be developed by new security envoy General James Jones and build on the Arab Peace Initiative and the regional participation at Annapolis.

The Bush administration seems to be thinking hard about what to do in the Middle East in its last year. Israel's prime minister can always switch to autopilot and a safe, predictable and forgettable script. Alternately, Olmert can adopt bold talking points that will echo in Washington long after wheels-up on Air Force One, that offer Israel the best prospect for securing its future in the region, and that could just keep him in office well beyond the date when a certain visitor retires to his Texan ranch.

by Daniel Levy

January 3, 2008

Lords of the Land book review

Here is a book review of Edith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land about the settlements that I have published in the latest edition of the Washington Montly.

Unsettling - Dark truths about the Israeli occupation

Edith Zertal and Akiva Eldar end their exhaustive study of Israeli settlement policy with a poignant question: Is it possible, they wonder, that Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will become a "first step in Israel's journey of liberating itself from the enslavement to the territories that it occupied in 1967, and which have occupied [it] since then and have brought it to the verge of destruction"? Negotiations that have been set in motion by the Annapolis peace conference in November will likely provide a partial answer. Zertal, a leading Israeli historian, and Eldar, a chief political columnist and a former Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, have recently published Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. It is a detailed history of Israel's nearly forty-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank with a painful contention at its core. The occupation, say Zertal and Eldar, has wounded Israel's very psyche, damaging both its sense of self and its moral standing in the world. "The prolonged military occupation and the Jewish settlements that are perpetuating it have toppled Israeli governments," write the authors, "and have brought Israel's democracy and its political culture to the brink of an abyss."

The Hebrew version of this book was a best-seller in Israel, and sparked a debate there on the devastating realities and consequences of Israeli settlement policy. It would be useful to replicate that debate here in the United States—in the belly, as it were, of the enabler. The book's unflinchingly provocative title is matched by a narrative that pulls no punches, and the cast of villains (there are precious few heroes) runs the gamut from Jewish militia terrorists and their supporters in the Rabbinate to Labor Party apologists for the settlers and feckless judges who looked the other way as settlers created illegal outposts within Palestinian territory.

There are two sides to the settlement coin. The first is the settlers themselves, who are for the most part religiously inspired, unswervingly motivated, and highly effective. Religious Zionism was very much in the backseat of the Zionist enterprise until 1967, but once Israel assumed control of Judea and Samaria (as the settlers refer to the West Bank), the national religious camp saw its moment to seize the ideological steering wheel of state.

Their method was to create facts on the ground—that is, to quickly build settlements—and then get the political system on board by a number of means. The first step was persuasion ("We are all Jews surrounded by a sea of enemies"), followed by integration (the settlers' tentacles reached into all branches of government), and then coercion (the use of intimidation, threats, and violence). Any dubious action could be "koshered" by a shared appeal to Jewish history and Zionist destiny. If all else failed, there was the threat of Arab terror, which the settlers had a key role in encouraging. For believers, there was a religious justification and meaning—a theology of settlement, if you like. The final ingredient was an approach to the Palestinians that was at best colonial and at worst murderous. The new Lords of the West Bank arrogantly dismissed the region's indigenous population, and when the Palestinians showed opposition, settler militias and terrorist groups were formed (yes, Jewish terrorist groups). In 2001, an Israeli group named the Committee for the Defense of the Roads claimed responsibility for the drive-by killing of a six-month-old Palestinian baby and her family. Similar groups carried out additional attacks, and between 1980 and 1984, before the First Intifada began, twenty-three Palestinian civilians were killed in violent attacks by settlers, mostly involving firearms (often army issue). American readers might be shocked to discover that a religiously sanctified cult of martyrdom and "redemptive death" among elements of the Israeli settler community even exists at all, and then horrified at the extent of its destructiveness.

The other side of the settlement coin is the State of Israel, and the keyword here is complicity. Nothing would have been possible—or permanent—without the cooperation of Israel's army, legal system, and government bureaucracy, and the political leadership of all mainstream parties. The heroes who have fleetingly appeared—former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chiefs of Staff Haim Bar-Lev and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Head of Intelligence Shlomo Gazit, human rights attorney Talia Sasson, and principled opposition politicians Yossi Sarid, Dedi Zucker, and Avrum Burg—have been no match for the huge cast of villains, facilitators, and mute bystanders. The banality and bureaucracy of the settlement enterprise carried—and continues to carry—the day.

There are approximately 460,000 settlers (including those in East Jerusalem) in the settlements; they nearly doubled their numbers during the fifteen-year-long failed peace process. Given all this, the question for American peace conference planners is whether the settlement project can in fact be rolled back. Despite repeated requests and occasional assurances, the expansion of the settlement and control system in the occupied territories has never been stopped. The settlement advocates have always had other rabbits to pull from the hat: distinguish a broadly defined "natural growth" from overt expansion; call a new settlement an "outpost"; build a security barrier deep inside Palestinian territory.

During U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's October visit to the region to plan the peace summit, Rice suddenly faced media headlines (and considerable embarrassment) about new Israeli land confiscations east of Jerusalem. Former Secretaries of State Kissinger, Baker, and Albright (among others) would all have sympathized.

As for the Palestinian leadership, they have never—whether from weakness or naivete—demanded a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, and neither has the United States.

Of the three towering figures on the Israeli political stage for most of the post-1967 era—Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Shimon Peres—only one emerges with any credibility, or even decency. If this entire story has a tragic hero, it is Rabin. He was the settlers' nemesis, popularizing opposition to them in his 1992 election campaign, promising to divert funds from settlements to education, and describing their movement, Gush Emunim ("Block of the Faithful"), as "a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy." Rabin fought (and usually lost to) the settlers' establishment facilitators at every turn. Ironically, Lords of the Land comes out almost exactly a dozen years after Rabin's murder, just as right-wing religious settler groups are mounting their first concerted campaign for the pardoning of Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir.

Predictably, opposite Rabin stood Ariel Sharon. Sharon was the father of the settlement project in the army and the Knesset, but most of all in the various ministries he controlled at different times. As great facilitator, Sharon allocated land and water rights to settlements. As agriculture minister in the Menachem Begin government from 1977 to 1981 during sensitive negotiations with Egypt, he authorized new settlements. As infrastructure minister under Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Sharon defended the Israeli system of control at a time when new settlements had become a huge diplomatic headache. And even as Netanyahu was holding talks with Yasser Arafat at the Wye plantation near Washington, D.C., Sharon commanded his West Bank followers to "seize every hilltop" in the Palestinian territories.

As prime minister in 2004-05, when Sharon finally championed the disengagement from Gaza, Sharon's erstwhile supporters turned on him and vilified him as a Judenrat leader and a Nazi. But in the historical balance sheet, as Zertal and Eldar make clear, the 7,000 settlers he evacuated from Gaza barely register when they're set alongside his "accomplishments" in the West Bank.

Perhaps most unexpectedly to an international audience, Shimon Peres also stood opposite Rabin. If anyone is still taken in by the heavily self-concocted image of Peres as visionary peacemaker, this book will serve as a myth-shattering antidote. Peres, who became Israel's new president on July 15, 2007, undermined Rabin's efforts to reign in settlements. The settlers flattered Peres with appeals to the timeless Zionist pioneering spirit—and, it seems, he could never resist flattery. (He famously celebrated a tree-planting ceremony with the settlers of Ofra in 1976, one year after they illegally established the first settlement in the heart of a Palestinian population center.)

Zertal and Eldar's otherwise marvelous book is sometimes difficult to follow and has a tendency to be somewhat disjointed thematically and chronologically. It also examines the territories from an almost exclusively Israeli perspective: the Palestinian and American angles are largely beyond its scope. The international, and especially American, reader would have benefited if this book had been edited for a special American version rather than published as a straight translation from the Hebrew.

Several themes of interest are teasingly touched on but not elaborated. We are reminded, for instance, that Baruch Goldstein, the man who indiscriminately opened fire on Palestinian worshippers in Hebron (killing twenty-nine and wounding more than a hundred) and around whom a cult of hero worship has developed, was from Brooklyn, New York. But there is no discussion here of the overrepresentation of American Jews among the ideological settler hard core. The financial and political support from certain U.S. groups (both Jewish and evangelical) that is enjoyed by the settlers makes a frustratingly truncated appearance. The book's most glaring problem is the lack of a systematic discussion of U.S. policy toward the settlements over the last forty years. (In the run-up to Annapolis, for instance, a repetitive historical pattern of Israeli behavior was on show again—a pattern that flits between humiliating provocation and polite avoidance but never amounts to the cessation of an activity that contravenes U.S. policy.)

What we do get from Eldar and Zertal is a highly informative, accurate, and well-sourced account of Israel's own March of Folly. We learn that there are already "two separate states for two hostile peoples" and that they exist in the West Bank itself, "[where] the Palestinians and the settlers have separate systems of roads, services, and laws." The whole story is there, from the first act of settlement just three months after the conclusion of the 1967 war to the most recent construction of outposts, bypass roads, and separation barrier.

The record of the second Bush administration on the subject is incredibly inauspicious, with regard not only to settlement policy but also the entire Mideast peace process. During George W. Bush's tenure, the White House has made several public plays on the issue, has been snubbed each time—and then has retreated. First, the 2001 Mitchell Report called on Israel to "freeze all settlement activity." President Bush's much-referenced June 2002 speech repeated the call. ("Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop," he declared.) The "Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," launched in 2003, defined a settlement freeze as including natural growth and the dismantling of outposts. Then, when Bush and Sharon exchanged letters in 2004, the American commitment was watered down to "restricting settlement growth" to within "defined construction lines" and "removal of unauthorized outposts." Coming out of Annapolis, the Bush administration has shown no signs of getting any tougher on the settlement issue.

There is one final point, and it should give Zertal and Eldar's book an appeal beyond the club of Israel-Palestine specialists: Lords of the Land can be read as a "How-Not-To" guide on counterterrorism. The story of Israel and the territories shreds the playbook on the global war on terror, presenting a world in which real grievances and injustices crucially matter. Far from any glib division of the world into good and evil, terrorism has roots, reasons, and a past—indeed, there is a direct link between settlements, military occupation, and terrorism. Zertal and Eldar explain in great detail why the Al-Aqsa Intifada (the Second Intifada), launched in 2000, might also be called the Settlements War. Massive, disproportionate firepower and military hubris (using the Israel Defense Forces as a club against the enemy, apparently against the wishes of ministerial-level leaders, including the defense minister's appointed ceasefire negotiator) led to an escalation of violence and the Palestinians' use of suicide bombings. Similarly, in 1994, Hamas violated their own prohibition against using suicide bombings that indiscriminately target civilians only after the Goldstein outrage against Muslim worshippers in Hebron. In 1996, Hamas ended an ongoing informal truce only following the Israeli liquidation of a leading militant, Yihye Ayash—a sequence that was to tragically repeat itself during the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

By the beginning of the new millennium, many Israelis began to understand the absurdity of viewing the occupation as simply a war on Palestinian terror. They understood the urgent need to address legitimate Palestinian grievances. Then along came an angry post-9/11 America, with a stunningly simplistic and misguided framing of the war on terror. This framing is a mistake in whose shadow we all continue to live.

January 2, 2008

Rice's history lessons

Here is a recent op-ed I had in the International Herald Tribune.

With the Annapolis conference and the Paris fund-raising effort to aid the Palestinians behind us, the Middle East peace process is now in need of constant vigilance. President George W. Bush will visit the region in January, but it is Condoleezza Rice who will be looked upon to provide a guiding hand.

The new peace effort is very much her baby. A look at the war in Lebanon last summer, and Rice's management of it, provides some clues to the challenges ahead.

In his recently released study of Secretary Rice, "The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy," Glenn Kessler, a Washington Post correspondent, recounts a memorable episode from that war. Two weeks into the fighting, with no end in sight, the world and the region were agitated and the Italians convened a high-level conference. Rice refused to endorse an immediate cease-fire, arguing instead for a more permanent change to the status quo in Lebanon.

Kessler describes a sweltering mid-summer Roman conference hall, the image of a "bedraggled Rice . . . wiping beads of sweat from her forehead," is splashed across the world media.

According to Kessler, "Rice did not look strong or in control; she looked in over her head."

That image was banished at Annapolis. Rice looked the very embodiment of poise, stature and accomplishment.

To be effective in peace however, the secretary of state will need to learn three lessons from herRice delivers a special briefing on Middle East peace in July 2006 handling of the Lebanon War: that fragile Arab polities are best stabilized by reconciliation, not confrontation, that American diplomatic leadership should be timely and persistent, not sluggish and sporadic, and that the special relationship between Jerusalem and Washington should be used to help Israel climb down from precarious ladders, not scramble further up them.

The war in Lebanon was supposed to be about handing Hezbollah a crushing defeat and reshaping that country's politics. Things didn't work out that way. Lebanon is deeply divided, and exacerbating that division was counterproductive. Political progress will necessitate difficult domestic compromises.

The reality for the Palestinians is somewhat similar. A sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be constructed on the edifice of Palestinian division. Hamas should be offered incentives to join the process.

Hamas and the Gaza Strip it controls are important not only because they pose the threat of violence, but also because they are potentially capable of bestowing greater legitimacy on a fragile peace effort, making possible the implementation of any deal that is reached.

Rice must remember Lebanon, pursue a Gaza-Israel cease-fire, and encourage reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas - something that can be done indirectly via third parties.

The most conspicuous aspect of American diplomacy in that summer of war was that it went AWOL for a critical month. Only on day 34 of the fighting did the United States facilitate UN passage of Security Council Resolution 1701, ending the war.

Rice's diplomacy (or lack thereof) prevented the push for an immediate cease-fire.

Post-Annapolis success requires something different - early and frequent American intervention. Bush and Rice have talked about supporting a bilateral process between Israelis and Palestinians. They will have to do more than that. It is already evident that the United States needs to baby-sit the parties. This applies to commitments undertaken to improve daily life - freezing settlements, improving security, and easing closures. Beyond that, the United States should be ready to submit bridging proposals to seal a detailed framework agreement on the core issues - territory, Jerusalem, refugees and security.

U.S. diplomatic leadership does not mean American solo-ism, the United States should better integrate the Quartet and Arab states into the process, including Syria. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel recently told the Haaretz newspaper that if Israel did not achieve a two-state solution, it was "finished."

It is hard not to see this message as being addressed to both an Israeli and American audience. A translation for the nuance-challenged: Help me to do what I know to be necessary for Israel's survival. It is easier for an Israeli prime minister to say yes on a tough issue to an American president than to the Chairman of the PLO.

So, the third lesson is this - the United States does neither itself, nor its friends in Jerusalem any favors when it out-koshers the Israelis. The special relationship is more constructively deployed when it helps Israel get beyond debilitating addictions to occupied territories and settlements, for instance.

By opposing an early diplomatic exit strategy to the Lebanon war, Rice displayed a simplistic reading of the special relationship and ultimately harmed both Israel's security and America's standing.

Senior Israeli ministers are on record testifying to an investigating committee that when they voted in the cabinet to authorize the initial military strike they did not consider this to be the start of a prolonged war. Their working assumption was that diplomatic pressure would end the military conflict after 48 to 96 hours.

That did not happen - America prevented it, thereby making Israel a prisoner to accomplishing a mission that was never realistic. The delay in diplomacy did not change the substance of the deal eventually reached, it did, however, cause more death, destruction and loss of American prestige.

Rice knows both the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and that delay in reaching that deal has similar but far more devastating consequences. The challenge now is for her to learn the lessons of that sticky day in Rome.