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February 2008 Archives

February 22, 2008

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

This is in Haaretz today.   

Here's something else to add to an Israeli's menu of worries: The United States presidential elections may produce change in 2009. Or so fear people like Malcolm Hoenlein, the professional head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who said on a recent visit to Israel that all the talk of "change" is an "opening for mischief," and not good for Israel.

Apparently the status quo is so idyllic for Israel that one should wish for nothing more than that it be perpetuated eternally.

Of course not all change is good, but the Israeli-American relationship could benefit greatly from a dose of new thinking - in terms of both the nature and the exclusivity of that alliance.

There are already two storm clouds looming over the blissful American-Israeli landscape, but they are the product of current, not possible future, policies. The first is that reality is forcing more Americans to take a closer look at the Middle East. They see the scorched earth left behind by their government's recent policies, and the investment of U.S. lives and lucre. As they begin to ask questions, the role of the bilateral partnership is inevitably placed under increasing scrutiny. Sometimes the scrutiny is unfair: Israel, for example, did not get the U.S. into Iraq. And sometimes it's more justified: Complicity in Israeli settlements and occupation carry a heavy toll for America's standing in the region and beyond.

The candidacy of Ron Paul, on the Republican side, has been a lightning rod for that sentiment. His campaign broke party records, raising $4.2 million in contributions in one day, mainly in online donations. Paul will not be the Republican candidate for president, but the tendency for people to ask, "What is going on with the U.S. in the Middle East, and why does our ally Israel make things more difficult?" should give cause to reflect. The business-as-usual approach of many of Israel's supporters is not sustainable over time.

Four or eight more years of aggressive, divisive, costly and failed American policies in the region - especially if supported by the so-called pro-Israel camp - will exacerbate this tension, perhaps exponentially.

The second cloud is that Israel is today hitched to an America that is weakened economically, stretched militarily, deeply divided at home and decidedly unpopular abroad. To the extent that the next president continues the policies that have contributed to those trends, Israel too will pay a price. When Israel is so dependent on the U.S., and the U.S. is wounded, we feel it.

The warm rhetoric continues to emanate from Washington, and that feels comforting. The problem is that its utility is diminished, and nice words are no substitute for the smart plans that would actually make the U.S. and Israel more, not less, secure. Israel should hope for and encourage a change that lifts America out of its current morass, while at the same time diversifying its ally portfolio.

Haaretz's "Israel Factor" notwithstanding (and most members of that panel look like the Israeli equivalent of the aging WASPs one tends to find on a platform alongside John McCain), it is Barack Obama who has best positioned himself to reverse these trends and thereby guarantee the U.S.-Israel relationship. An Obama presidency is more likely to be the antidote to further tensions than their source.

The response so far in Israel to the Obama candidacy has split between gevald and hatikva. The former has more to do with email slur campaigns and our own prejudices than with hard policy positions espoused by the Illinois senator. The latter is easily understood when set against the prospect in 2009 of a 1999 election redux, of Bibi (Netanyahu) vs. Barak (Ehud), yawn. Perhaps Obama's ability to mobilize young people and to transcend political indifference, and his audacity to hope, will be infectious here in the 51st state of the U.S.A.

But Israel should be looking beyond the election. Yes, an Obama presidency is more likely to reverse America's decline - internally and externally - and to correct the hubris, incompetence and adventurism of the Bush years. The same might also be true of Clinton and McCain, though it seems less likely. It is what Obama could do to reenergize America that is first and foremost the good news for Israel. And when he talks of "changing the mindset" that got America into the Iraq war, Obama implies a policy of realism and engagement that stands to stabilize the region and even advance genuine peace. Israel could well be a main beneficiary of such a change.

But what if the next president is all about more of the same or something very similar? Israel must plan for the possibility of an America that continues in its decline, that can deliver less, and remains militarily bogged down in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere in the region. Under this scenario, the special relationship with Israel will become an ever-more contentious issue. America itself might increasingly turn its gaze toward Asia.

So while following American developments closely, and hoping for change, Israel should also be more active out there on the dating circuit. Though efforts have been made to strengthen other alliances, results have been mixed so far, and our options will remain limited so long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved.

The preference for a prolonged strategic relationship with the U.S. should not extend to an exclusive reliance on that relationship or preclude placing some eggs in other baskets - in Europe, in Asia, and yes, also in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

by Daniel Levy 

February 20, 2008

Laura Rozen interviews Efraim Halevy and hints of a Hamas ceasefire

I have quoted ex-Mossad Chief and Israeli National Security adviser, Efraim Halevy, in the past as an advocate of engaging with Hamas in line with arguments I have used many times.  I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Halevy although we do not agree on many things and I particularly remember having my ear chewed by him when we met to discuss the details of the Geneva Initiative.

Laura Rozen, a highly impressive young journalist here in DC, has just done a great service to the cause of advancing more level headed thinking on Israel-Palestine issues by producing this interview with Halevy in Mother Jones.  The interview is well worth reading in full but here are a few choice highlights.  

Hamas is not al Qaeda and, indeed, al Qaeda has condemned them time and time again. Hamas may from time to time have tactical, temporary contact with al Qaeda, but in essence they are deadly adversaries. The same goes for Iran. Hamas receives funds, support, equipment, and training from Iran, but is not subservient to Tehran. A serious effort to dialogue indirectly with them could ultimately drive a wedge between them.

Halevy then describes the Hamas breakout from the “virtual siege” imposed on Gaza as only the latest in a string of strategic surprises to which “no effective counter strategy mounted by the US and Israel proved effective.”  Halevy goes on to suggest “It makes sense to approach a possible initial understanding including Hamas—but not exclusively Hamas—at a time when they are still asking for one. No side will gain from a flare up leading to Israel re-entering the Gaza strip in strength to undo the ill-fated unilateral disengagement of 2005.” 

He then goes on to question the wisdom of the demand on Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a precondition for talks.  “Such a demand has never been made before either to an Arab state or to the Palestinian Liberation Organization/Fatah. There is logic in the Hamas' position that ideological "conversion" is the endgame and not the first move in a negotiation.”  Halevy’s preference is for what he calls “indirect proximity engagement.”

At the same time, as Laura Rozen is helping to make us privy to the thinking of a former Mossad chief there seems to be some interesting developments on the ground.  There are strong indications that Hamas is signaling a unilateral cessation of the rocket attacks on Israel with the intention that this would then lead to a reciprocal halt in Israel operations and ultimately to the locking-in of a ceasefire understanding.   A unilateral ceasefire will not last long absent Israeli reciprocity but it could just begin to break the current escalatory cycle.  My sources tell me that a third party is communicating on this between Hamas and the Israeli leadership and security establishment.  More to follow on this story. 

February 13, 2008

A couple of days ago while the American media was obsessing over the firing of Patti Solis Doyle from the Clinton campaign and the courting of super delegates, an entire continent and much of the rest of the world was absorbed by something quite different.  On Sunday night Egypt clinched victory in the African Cup of Nations final held in Ghana with a 1-0 win over Cameroon.  The hero and scorer of the winning goal was an Egyptian striker from the Al-Ahli club Mohamed Aboutrika.  Here is the picture of Aboutrika celebrating a goal he scored earlier in the tournament.  He repeated that shirt lifting exercise in the final to reveal a t-shirt with a slight twist on that slogan, this time “Sympathize with the Palestinians.”  Aboutrika became not just a sporting symbol but a national and political symbol also, and the celebrations spilled over from Egypt into Gaza (plenty of other things have been spilling in both directions of late).  

Here’s why this matters and it merits attention and even a two minute break from the relentless primaries speculation: the unresolved Palestinian issue resonates, it is not just a creation used by Arab regimes and al-Jazeera, it is something that echoes with and talks to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.  There are grievances out there and they have an impact, sometimes a decisive impact on how America is viewed in the world especially given its association with the issue.  Americans can ignore that, pretend it doesn’t exist or tell themselves that this is just about terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.  But doing so would be a mistake and would continue to ignore the crucial breeding ground that provides such fertile terrain for al-Qaeda and other extremist recruitment. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an American interest (of course an Israeli and Palestinian interest as well).  It’s worth taking a moment to tune into these highlights of the African Cup of Nations' final--even if you don’t agree with the politics you can enjoy a very jolly footballing feast. 

February 3, 2008

Obama and Israel: Missing The Point

The debate around the Barack Obama candidacy has not surprisingly heated up of late in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.  Most of the arguments are well rehearsed and predictable, (some are spurious and deplorable) but they often miss the point and fail to connect between the broader Obama appeal and its relevance to the US-Israel equation.  That connection is as follows: the Israel-America relationship is best served by a president who can bring external strength to the US through greater internal unity, can restore America’s standing and credibility in the Middle East, be an effective global coalition-builder and deal-broker and end, how can I put it, fairy-tale based foreign policy.  And Barack Obama looks like the person to do those things.  

Of course, the Jewish community is not immune to the kind of smear campaigns, innuendos and direct appeals to racism and Islamophobia that have been a feature of the more general anti-Obama sewer politics. In response, the alpha list of Jewish leadership, Orthodox, Reform, ADL, AJC and more, did the right thing and published this open letter speaking out against the “hateful emails,” and “abhorrent rhetoric,” that “mischaracterized Senator Barack Obama’s religious beliefs and who he is as a person.”   
Unfortunately, there are attempts to kosher those kinds of smear campaigns for the specific consumption of American Jews—by making it about Israel.  Look at his color, did you hear about his religion? He must be anti-Israel.  When I was back home in Israel recently I was shocked to discover that an ugly hate campaign being distributed virally by email in the US has made its way into Hebrew and is doing the rounds in Israel.  The Obama campaign has done an impressive job at pushing back in clarifying the senator’s record and positions in the Jewish-American and Israeli press.  I know this election campaign is all about change but the pro-Israel community is often more interested in continuity and, in terms of the historic relationship between America and Israel, Obama offers that.  Dare I say it, Obama seems more in step with Bill Clinton’s Israel policy as president than Hillary does (her policy, for instance, contradicts her husband’s peace plan of December 2000).  Obama represents the classic appeal to a relationship based on security for Israel, stability in the region, active American diplomatic engagement and pursuit of peace - talk to the bad guys if that is what can deliver results and certainly don’t prevent Israel from talking to it’s neighbors (the Bush administration has, for instance, discouraged Israel’s leaders from resuming negotiations with Syria).  
It is actually the Republican neocons under Bush 43 who have been the transformational policy change and new idea people when it comes to the Middle East. And to paraphrase Obama himself from a different conversation, to recognize that they had transformational ideas is not to support those ideas, agree with them, or think they were good ideas.  Bush’s policies in the region have not been good for America or Israel.  The Middle East is more radically and dangerously destabilized and Israel faces a more uncertain security environment.   
So what is the point on Obama that gives him the edge on Israel? It sounds a little unusual, but a strong case can be made that the most important issue for an American politician to have gotten right in the last years from a pro-Israel perspective was the Iraq war.  And I mean opposition to that war. And Obama got it right.  His instincts and judgment trumped the supposed ‘experience’ of others. I know it’s fashionable in some quarters to view the Iraq war as carrying a Made in Israel label, but at the highest levels of the political and military leadership (and according to reports this includes then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) the Israelis were skeptics, understanding the possible implications for regional equilibrium, the spread of al-Qaeda, and the oxygen this would suck up from attention to other issues.  
Not all of the consequences of that war were so unpredictable.  With the removal of its major regional competitor, Iran now has more influence and is emboldened.  Al-Qaeda was able to establish a new base of operations in Iraq to which it has recruited fighters from across the Arab world and from which it has been able to spread out and conduct attacks in Jordan, in the Egyptian Sinai, in Lebanese refugee camps, and there are reports of al-Qaeda copycat cells in Palestinian areas.  That is getting very close to home for Israelis and it is a dramatically unwelcome development.  America is overstretched and bogged down militarily and its reputation is battered on so many levels.  None of this of course is good for America but it is also very bad news indeed for Israel.  So, the Iraq decision matters.  And after the CNN debate there is no need for a refresher course on which candidate was ready, on day one, to oppose the war.   
The combination of an American president deeply committed to Israel but vilified internationally and regionally, who pursues dangerously misguided Middle East policies and does so with woeful incompetence to boot, turns out not to be so ideal.  A far greater asset to the pro-Israel community would be an American president equally committed to Israel and her security, and who is also able to build regional and global alliances, is capable of restoring America’s image, of deploying concerted, effective, and when necessary, tough diplomacy, and who, by uniting America from within, can strengthen the America that is then projected outwards.  Barack Obama seems to have best positioned himself to be that president.  As Senator Kennedy noted in endorsing Obama, “when he raises his hand on Inauguration Day, at that very moment, we will lift the spirits of our nation and begin to restore America's standing in the world.”  
Here’s what Barack Obama had to say in the most recent CNN presidential debate when discussing Iraq: “I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”  Changing that mindset is very much a shared American and Israeli interest.  Israel remains strong, but the hawkish Bush years have not been good for stability in Israel’s neighborhood, for Israeli security or for Israel’s long-term interests.  Obama’s possibly unique ability to reverse America’s decline, to overcome the politics of fear and demonstrate a leadership that is compelling also outside of America matters to a certain country that is strategically aligned with and even reliant on the US, namely Israel.  This point has been missed amidst all the mudslinging. It should matter deeply across the spectrum of the pro-Israel community in America.  
Look, I’m an Israeli and this is probably none of my business. But having been a negotiator for the Israeli government and seen first hand the vital role that America can play, it matters to me.  To be frank my personal belief is that it is in Israel’s interest for there to be a more robust, assertive and tireless American effort to help secure peace between Israel and her neighbors, that American leadership is perhaps a prerequisite in achieving this, and that American should pursue such an outcome as part of its own national security priorities.  The Winograd report just published in Jerusalem that investigates the Lebanon war of summer 2006 is not particularly subtle in pointing out that Israel ’s military capabilities were seriously undermined by a lack of investment in training over the last years.  That is a consequence of the Israeli Defense Forces being saddled with what are basically policing duties at checkpoints and in deployments throughout the West Bank. Israel needs to put the occupation behind it.  As prime minister Olmert has pointed out, a two state peace deal is an urgent priority for Israel.  
But I digress, that’s not what this is about.  This is about what might unite most of the pro-Israel community and that centers around strengthening the America-Israel relationship in ways that are mutually beneficial, that bring out the best in both countries, and that can deliver a more stable, secure and peaceful Middle East.  Israel’s supporters in America should not feel excluded or alienated from the excitement that surrounds the hope that is Obama, they have every reason, in fact, to embrace and be a part of it. 

February 1, 2008

End That Iraq War Mindset

It has to be said. This was rather a good line, was it not?

"I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”

-Barack Obama discussing the Iraq war, Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN, The Los Angles Times and Politico, Thursday, January 31, 2008

Some colleagues and notable bloggers have expanded on this commentary. Here are some choice posts: Matthew Duss on the American Prospect blog, MJ Rosenberg on the TPM Café, Matt Yglesias on the Atlantic.com blog and Spencer Ackerman on Too Hot for TNR Online.

Egypt’s Gazan Predicament

The piece below is from my new colleague at the Century Foundation, Michael Hanna, and well worth a read.  It provides some more insight on the newly emerging Gaza situation and looks at things from the Egyptian angle in particular, including how some of this plays out with the Bedouin community in the Sinai.  I have updated my piece on “What Next for Gaza?” and it can be read here at the American Prospect website.    

When the Rafah border wall separating Egypt and Gaza crumbled last week, so did the rules of the diplomatic game between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Egypt, which now finds itself the unwilling partner of a group it wants to cripple and whose violent actions against Israel it will be expected to prevent.

As thousands of Gazans surged into Egypt following Hamas’s destruction of a portion of the border wall, the Egyptian government was thrust into a difficult position: allow the crossing of tens of thousands of Palestinians into Sinai, thereby abandoning its policy to isolate Hamas, or forcibly suppress their Arab compatriots escaping the much-publicized misery of Gaza. With the Egyptian security forces heavily outnumbered, and the eyes of the Arab world firmly fixed on Rafah, the Egyptians had no choice but to allow the Gazans to cross the border freely. As they did, the strategic balance shifted, reinvigorating Hamas’s power and limiting the prospects for isolating Gaza under its rule.

While the decision to allow unimpeded access into Sinai for Gazans was not preceded by any serious debate, it established a precedent that could come to redefine the fundamental relationship between Egypt, Hamas, and the Palestinians of Gaza. It also further complicates Egypt’s relations with Israel.

At first, the Egyptian authorities attempted to repair the wall and reseal the border. In order to send a clear signal that it had final say over when and if the border would be resealed, Hamas promptly bulldozed another section of the barrier, forcing the Egyptian security forces to decide again whether they would forcibly repress the entrance of unarmed civilians. Order—of a sort—was eventually restored, but only as a result of the decision by Hamas to cooperate in asserting control of the border.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s inaction came in for harsh criticism from some quarters in Israel and the United States. Yet, if the Egyptian government had chosen to push back the hundreds of thousands who made their way to Rafah, the Egyptian security forces would have been forced to confront the human flood entering Sinai from Gaza, likely resulting in the use of deadly force.

Such a precipitous action would have aroused even greater anger in Egypt, where recent street demonstrations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, the main political opposition within Egypt, have bluntly denounced the Egyptian government for its perceived collusion with Israel in enabling a policy of collective punishment.

The Mubarak regime felt such concern over the impact of their border policy on domestic politics that it detained hundreds of opposition figures affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping to suppress planned demonstrations against the closure. Its concerns were further amplified due to the close relations enjoyed by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the Egyptian movement, and the prospect of cooperation between the two groups.

With the specter of future Hamas-orchestrated incursions looming over Egyptian-Gazan relations, Egypt’s preferred approach of isolating Hamas through enforced closure of the border is no longer a viable policy option. Additionally, the opening to Egypt has revived discussion among certain Israeli commentators and strategists of total Israeli separation from Gaza. While the severing of all links by the Israelis is not technically feasible due to the infrastructure and capacity limitations on the Egyptian side of the border, the prospect of Egypt serving as Gaza’s guarantor will unnerve Cairo, which is already severely burdened as a result of its own stagnating economy and high levels of unemployment.

A more open border would also heighten Cairo’s security concerns about the disaffected Bedouin population in Sinai amid fear of operational contacts between Gazan militants and Bedouin extremists who have been implicated in a string of major terrorist operations that have targeted tourist sites on the Red Sea coast, a significant industry for the Egyptian economy.

In light of recent U.S. displeasure with Egyptian efforts to police smuggling into Gaza through underground tunnels, Egyptians are especially troubled that future Palestinian violence against Israel will strain relations with the United States. If such attacks take place, it is likely that Egypt will be held partially accountable for such actions as a result of a greater opening with Gaza.

At the same time, it is not in Hamas’s interest to overplay its hand. The burgeoning resentment of the Egyptian Bedouin population at the escalating prices and dwindling supplies in the Rafah area indicate that an unchecked border could produce a local backlash that undercuts popular sympathy for the people of Gaza. Similarly, if Gazan militants or criminal elements create chaos in the border area, they will jeopardize the powerful current of sympathy in the Arab world that effectively constrains the Egyptian regime from forcibly counteracting future breaches.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, emphasized the Egyptians’ obligation to respect and protect the international border, adding that she believes that “the Egyptians understand the importance of doing that.” Unmentioned in Rice’s statement is the stark reality currently facing the Egyptians, namely, that Egypt cannot stabilize the border without the active and constructive cooperation of Hamas. The events that led to the stabilizing of the border have cast Hamas in the role of an official counterpart to the Egyptian authorities, much to the chagrin of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah supporters. Meanwhile, Egypt’s, Israel’s, and Fatah’s greatest point of leverage—the ability to undermine Hamas’s grip on power through a blockade of Gaza—is now irreparably damaged.

President Mubarak announced last Friday that he had invited the newly empowered leaders of Hamas to come to Cairo to meet their Fatah counterparts. The invitation and the reversal of Egyptian policy emphasize the failure of the attempts to isolate Hamas. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no alternative to serious diplomatic engagement aimed at brokering a political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and pursuing a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, however unpalatable that may be for the Egyptians, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, or the United States.

There are no assurances that such a diplomatic process will lead to agreement among all the parties. In fact, the shifting power dynamics make it less likely that either Hamas or Fatah will be willing to make the compromises necessary to bring about any sort of reconciliation at this time. However, initiating a diplomatic process and opening channels of communication will establish a framework for dealing with future crises and negotiating a sustainable political arrangement.

It should also be clear that establishing contacts with Hamas does not in any sense condone their tactics or absolve them of responsibility for past actions. Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, has described Hamas as a “ghastly crowd,” but nonetheless has advocated talking to Hamas because they cannot be defeated politically and they exercise effective control over Gaza.

With U.S. policymakers ideologically resistant to dealing with Hamas on any level, and with the recent release of the final report of the Winograd Committee essentially limiting the current Israeli government’s flexibility, major policy shifts with respect to Hamas are not likely to occur. However, it should be clear that the dramatic events in Gaza coupled with the lack of any tangible progress on the ground resulting from the peace process have ensured that engagement, when it does occur, will be with a strengthened Hamas whose hold on Gaza is secure for the foreseeable future.