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March 28, 2008

The Next President and the Middle East

Some policy pointers: Get out of Iraq. Work with (some) Islamists. Create the Palestinian state. Thereby, undercut al-Qaeda.

This is a piece from the March edition of The American Prospect Magazine.

Listen carefully when a new president is inaugurated next January for the sigh of relief coming from most of those Middle Easterners whom President Bush embraced as allies. Conversely, Bush’s rivals in the region are likely to tune in to the occasion in a disgruntled mood. For them the Bush years have been good for business. The menu of grievances on which they’ve fed has become a veritable feast. Opposition to American designs in the region -- deployed with different emphases and with different goals by al-Qaeda, Iran, Hamas, Syria, and Hezbollah, to name but a few -- has been an easy sell and has won countless new adherents.

To be a friend of “Bush the Younger” in Arabia has not been such a comfortable disposition. Even the Israelis have begun to recognize the limited utility of a president, despite all his words of support, who is so vilified abroad and divisive at home that coalition-building and agenda-advancement are beyond him.

A new president can expect to be greeted by an initial spike in America’s standing in public opinion polls both globally and in the Middle East. This phenomenon will likely be magnified if a Democrat is in the White House and further embellished if that Democrat is Barack Obama. There will be a honeymoon period of openness, of a willingness to suspend judgment and to look again at America and what it stands for.

But the next administration will inherit a regional mess that will require more than some presidential goodwill and an image makeover. The president’s Middle East inbox will include Iraq, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and much more. Set alongside this, even health-care reform may take on the appearance of low-hanging fruit.

The temptation will be to focus on improving the mechanics of making and implementing decisions and treating each problem separately, with various regional issues being compartmentalized. Some cosmetic changes might also be thrown in. One could envisage, for instance, the appointment of a special envoy to oversee an Iraq international support group and another for the Middle East peace process. That first appointment would be new; the latter has not existed for the past eight years, and its reintroduction would signal serious intent. A new American ambassador could be appointed to Damascus, symbolizing reengagement in dialogue with adversaries. The last ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was recalled from Syria on Feb. 15, 2005, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon.

Such moves should be welcomed and might even be helpful, but capacity and cosmetics are just the beginning. As Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, concludes in a recent article, “better a policy without an envoy than an envoy without a policy.”

Policies will have to change. But so too will the framework of understanding from which those policies are derived. Take, as an example, the Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis peace process, launched in November 2007. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to lead a change in policy within the administration and to renew efforts toward a permanent-status peace deal after a seven-year hiatus. She probably deserves credit for even getting this far, but the Annapolis process was straitjacketed from the start by its framing. Even when a breakthrough document on Israeli-Palestinian peace has become a priority, the kinds of policy initiatives that could lead to this goal were rejected at the outset for ideological reasons. Just before the Annapolis gathering, 66 former U.S. senior officials and experts, spearheaded by Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Lee Hamilton, sent a letter to the president and secretary of state welcoming the new effort and counseling that an “inclusive” process that would involve (even indirectly) and incentivize actors such as Syria and Hamas would be much more likely to succeed than one that excluded them. (In the interest of full disclosure, the New America Foundation -- my employer -- and I were involved in organizing and promoting this letter.) That counsel was not heeded. Syria was indeed invited but not engaged. The policy -- no peace effort -- was changed, but the framing -- Israel/Palestine is part of the war on terror, so one must isolate Islamists, Iran, and their ilk -- remained the same. The Annapolis exercise was thereby handicapped from the start.

Similarly on Iraq, Rice moved to engage with all the neighboring nations in February 2007, but within a mandate so narrow that it severely limited the regional push for a settlement in Iraq. At the micro-level, the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq (and Afghanistan) successfully demanded that they be authorized to work with a broad cross section of local actors, including those with problematic histories and Islamist credentials. Likewise, the increasing reliance of U.S. forces on local Sunni Awakening Councils was a new direction. However, none of this led to a reframing of the narrative at the meta-level. The U.S. view on whom to bring into the Iraqi political dialogue -- from both inside and outside the country -- remained prohibitively blinkered. As a result, political progress remains painfully elusive.

Iraq’s more troublesome neighbors, some U.S. allies, some not (Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the former camp, Iran and Syria in the latter), cannot wave a wand and magically end the Mesopotamia mess. They can be instrumental, though, in helping to stabilize the situation. That requires incentives, constant prodding, and a comprehensive rethink from the U.S.
Accordingly, a new administration Middle Eastern “to do” list that amounts just to isolating the issues, managing the processes efficiently, keeping ambitions modest, and throwing everything at Iraq, would be wholly inadequate to the task ahead. The first priority should be to connect the dots of regional issues to reflect the realities and interdependencies on the ground. One cannot solve anything in the Middle East (including Iraq) without looking afresh and trying to solve just about everything.

Change must begin at the Department of Deep Narrative Framing (DDNF). Absent a new narrative for the Middle East, a Democratic administration will inexorably, even unintentionally, slide into the grip of the liberal hawks. The equation will look something like this: unreconstructed narrative + good liberal interventionist inclinations = a more competent (perhaps) but equally misguided (and perhaps therefore even more dangerous) version of neoconservatism, albeit wrapped in a more palatable sales pitch. If the Democrats seize the reins of government next January, they should not forget to grab control of the DDNF. Barack Obama’s claim that he would not only “end the war in Iraq” but also “end the mind-set that got us into that war” indicates that one candidate at least is eyeing up the DDNF for change. What might a reshuffle at the department produce?

Start by redrawing that map of issue interconnectivity, retiring the current war on terror paradigm, and rethinking the appeal to hearts and minds. Cranking up the use of soft power and aid programs and reducing the military footprint is not enough. At least three epiphanies are required of the next president to go forward: First, recognize that certain widely held grievances in the Middle East -- the Palestinians’ most particularly -- are both legitimate and solvable. Second, understand that political Islamists are not all the same, are not all al-Qaeda, and that building a policy based on these differences is crucial to resolving the region’s problems. And third, comprehend that regional stability demands inclusivity and a commitment to multilateralism.

The global war on terror and the democratization narratives that the Bush administration has propagated are irredeemably discredited in the Middle East. They are most commonly seen as a war on Islam and a hypocritical and inconsistent application of a “freedom” agenda that protects autocratic friends and punishes democratic opponents.

A recent sporting episode demonstrates the global resonance of a grievance largely ignored in the U.S. The Africa Nations Cup, a continent-wide biannual soccer tournament (a mini World Cup) was hosted in Ghana this January and February. Egypt emerged victorious, guaranteeing massive interest not only throughout Africa but also across the Middle East on the Arabic satellite channels. The matches coincided with the Gaza siege and Rafah border breakout, and on scoring the tournament’s winning goal, Egypt’s star striker, Mohamed Aboutrika, lifted his national team jersey to reveal a T-shirt bearing the inscription, in English and Arabic, “Sympathize with Gaza.” America’s media was totally oblivious to these goings-on, but for vast areas of our world this simple gesture of solidarity echoed louder than a dozen presidential speeches about why the Palestinians must first recognize their Israeli occupiers and reject the Hamas party that they voted for in free elections.

Travel almost anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world and you will hear the same refrain, including from America’s most ardent friends in the business community and civil society: “Why do you allow or even encourage such things to happen to the Palestinian people? How can we stand with you on this?”

Most Middle Easterners who have no sympathy with al-Qaeda and extremism do nonetheless identify with the Palestinians’ grievances. The sense of U.S. indifference to such grievances and unwillingness to address them is a source of great sustenance to al-Qaeda and their ilk. Recognizing and removing those grievances, where possible, has to be part of an effective al-Qaeda push-back strategy. It has not been thus far.

That does not require abandoning Israel. It does mean delivering on a decent and viable two-state solution that is already, for what it’s worth, official U.S. and Israeli policy. Implementing this perspective does not guarantee that al-Qaeda will disappear overnight. Much of the swamp of anger from which it draws support and recruits will be drained, however, and al-Qaeda-type groups will have to then appeal to a set of grievances that have far less resonance.

The DDNF must also stop viewing political Islamists as one undifferentiated sea of green hostility. This view is utterly self-defeating, artificially increasing the size of the enemy while unnecessarily limiting the pool of potential allies. It also displays a woeful ignorance of the internal debates and harsh fissures among Islamist groups. What has happened locally and of necessity in developing a more discerning approach to Islamists in Iraq and Afghanistan must percolate to the level of big-picture framing.

Finally, the DDNF’s directives must begin to build a new and inclusive regional security architecture. As a prerequisite the U.S. should both repair its image as an international leader that plays by the rules (no Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or extraordinary renditions) and that embraces multilateralism. Ultimately, the region in general (and post-Iraq stability in particular) requires a security framework that makes stakeholders of all the major actors. That will take time, but as policies shift from “no talking to bad guys” to “tough problemsolving diplomacy,” so the language of “axes of evil” and “pariah states” should be buried.

Even adversaries have legitimate interests. Accept these, reject what is illegitimate, and build buy-in from the broadest array of regional actors.

In reality, of course, there is no government department known as the DDNF (at least not since Doug Feith retired). There is, though, an echo chamber, which can amplify the new president’s perspectives and facilitate a new approach to the Middle East.

How would this translate into specific areas of policy content and presentation? Here are a few ideas.

The new president should dust off one Bush-era relic and reconvene the members of the Iraq Study Group for a widely publicized final meeting. The theater of the occasion would broadcast that the new policies are solidly rooted in the findings of a grand, bipartisan group, whose recommendations were ignored by an excessively partisan predecessor. The ISG report recognized that “all key issues [in the Middle East] are inextricably linked.” It argued for unconditional engagement with Syria and Iran and pushed for a diplomatic surge. Despite a costly two-year delay, the time would arrive for the “New Diplomatic Offensive” envisaged by Baker, Hamilton, and Co. Even the name, New Diplomatic Offensive, might be worth recycling.

Some might see America’s Israeli relationship as the Achilles’ heel of the new strategy. It need not be. The new president would be well advised to explain early and often how the policy shift would protect and carry forward the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Indeed, it’s the policy of “more of the same” that threatens that relationship. For almost a decade the Israeli consensus has been to accept the creation of a Palestinian state. That now needs to happen, urgently, on reasonable terms and with attention to Israel’s real security concerns. Israel also has an interest in strengthening America’s regional standing and coalition-building capacity, something the U.S. cannot do until it addresses the Palestinian predicament. The challenges that America, Israel, and others face, from al-Qaeda’s successful attacks in Jordan and the Egyptian Sinai to its putative presence in Lebanon and Gaza to the threat of growing instability and weapons proliferation -- all this and more should no longer be overshadowed by an argument over a few kilometers of land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. America should work closely with Israel in designing a new regional security architecture. Even if Benjamin Netanyahu is again Israel’s prime minister in January 2009, it is worth remembering that he, too, often with American encouragement, handed over land, shook the hand of Chairman Arafat, and secretly negotiated with Syria. Israel would be a beneficiary of the new U.S. policy even if some might be reluctant to accept it.

Turning to Iraq, the U.S should not isolate that nation’s challenges from others in the region. It should not be blaming Iraqis for their inadequacies, nor arming various sides for a potentially bloodier phase of the civil war. The new president needs to state clearly America’s commitment to end the military deployment that began in March 2003, and pledge not to maintain military bases there. This policy would focus the thinking of Iraqi factions on the political compromises necessary in a post-occupation Iraq. Second, the U.S. should make an “outside in” effort with all of Iraq’s neighbors to create the optimal conditions for externally assisted stabilization.

This regional rethink would come at a delicate time in the Iranian election calendar. Iran’s presidential ballot is scheduled for June 2009, and nothing should be done in the preceding months that might strengthen Ahmadinejad -- neither saber-rattling nor White House invitations. Better to sit this one out. The most elegant proposal would be to announce a six- to 12-month policy review on Iran -- avoiding heavyhanded (and probably counterproductive) election interference while gently hinting at future possibilities. After elections, and almost regardless of the results, the new administration should test the option of an unconditional and multi-issue political dialogue. The kind of grand bargain that was apparently offered by Iran and summarily rejected by the U.S. in 2003 (well documented by Flynt Leverett among others), should be re-examined. Israel’s former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, an advocate of hard negotiations with Iran, has argued that religious regimes can be the most flexible of creatures, as God is always with them whatever they decide. If a grand bargain or even ad-hoc understandings are unattainable, then Iran’s regional reach can be challenged more effectively by trying to bring actors like Syria and Hamas inside the tent. The peace process and Gulf policy should not be Irano-centric, thereby magnifying Iranian pretensions to hegemony. Containment and mutual deterrence, not pre-emptive military action, must be the fallback policy should all else fail.

Iranian cooperation would have immediate repercussions in the Lebanon-Syria arena. Bush’s policy exacerbated Lebanese internal divisions, eschewed any incentives for Syrian good behavior and discouraged the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks. In the Israel-Lebanon-Syria triangle the U.S. was part of the problem, not part of the solution. Loyalty to the Cedar Revolution assumed a higher priority than prevention of a renewed Lebanese civil war. The new president should be guided by the principle of no return to Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Beyond that, America needs the good sense to allow flexibility on the Hariri Tribunal if there are important quid pro quo’s to be gained. Its strategic objectives should be to promote internal accommodation, not conflict within Lebanon, to renew Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and to resume its own high-level bilateral dialogue with Syria.

The hobby of regime change should also be abandoned on the Palestinian front. The Bush administration made a dizzying three attempts at shaping the Palestinian Authority leadership. The end result is a Palestinian house so divided that it complicates peace efforts, perhaps fatally, and weakens the political as opposed to militant tendency within Hamas. The opportunity presented by a Palestinian government of national unity, with Hamas endorsing both a ceasefire and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, needs to be resurrected in some fashion.

Recalibrating policy toward Hamas has become central to progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to popular misperception, Hamas and al-Qaeda are adversaries, not allies. Hamas is about ending the occupation and reforming Palestinian society; al-Qaeda, about opposing the West per se and spreading chaos in the Muslim world and beyond. One is reformist, the other revolutionary; one nationalist, the other post-nationalist; one grievance-based, the other fundamentalist. Hamas has signaled that it will accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It can be worked with, albeit indirectly for political reasons. Under a new administration, U.S. policy toward Hamas should enter a period of deniable ambiguity, as third parties (principally Arab and European) explore a series of propositions with the Hamas leadership.

The Hamas question, though, is about more than the West Bank and Gaza. It touches on whether political Islamists, the Muslim Brothers among them, can be allies and even play a pivotal role in the struggle against al-Qaeda. These non-takfiri Islamists (takfiris, al-Qaeda among them, support an extreme interpretation of Islam, and offensive, not defensive, Jihad) are embroiled in their own bitter fight with the radicals. Democratic Islamists tend to be the big winners when free elections are held in the Arab world, and their very participation in such elections is considered kufran abomination to Islam -- by the takfiri jihadists. They are religiously conservative, sometimes oppressively so, but they are not at war with the West, and America’s unwillingness to enter into a dialogue with them over rules of the game for co-existing and rooting out al-Qaeda has been perhaps the most glaring and stubbornly shortsighted omission in U.S. post-September 11 policy.

These divisions within political Islam are an unexploited opportunity. Lumping all Islamists together is politically and intellectually lazy and dishonest, helping al-Qaeda to portray America as anti-Muslim. It also exacerbates American reliance on repressive regimes fearful of democratic elections that might displace them. The reality is that most Islamists are mainstream, non-takfiri. At the very least, the alternative of a dialogue with non-takfiri political Islam should be explored. Can, for instance, the Turkish model of an Islamic but pro-Western polity be reproduced in the Arab world, and if so, under what circumstances? Which is why a blue-ribbon commission on “Reducing al-Qaeda and Takfiri Influence in Islamic Societies” should be constituted to report to the new president by autumn 2009.

A triangle can be drawn on the map of the world that runs from the Hindu Kush to the Atlantic Coast of Morocco to the Horn of Africa. I haven’t touched on all the problems in that triangle -- Pakistan and Afghanistan or energy policy, for instance. Nor does that triangle encompass all of the Muslim world. This triangle contains only about 6 percent of the planet’s population. The next president will have to focus on relations with China, protecting our environment, and tackling global human security, and rightly so. But this triangle, if irresponsibly managed, has a proven ability to suck America in and leave little oxygen for anything else. But that’s a fate the next president can avoid.

by Daniel Levy

March 26, 2008

Israel, Sri Lanka, and the War on Terror

With guests like VP Cheney and Senator McCain in the last week it was easy to miss this one, but Sri Lanka's Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, has just been on a working visit to Israel. There he signed an agreement establishing cooperative relations between Israel and Sri Lanka in the areas of culture, science and education.

In a meeting between Wickremanayake and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the two discussed, what else, terrorism and the common threats they both face. Olmert had this unsurprising advice for his Sri Lankan guest: "Do not give in to terrorism because it will only bring destruction to your country. Terrorism must be fought; one must not capitulate to it." OK, no big deal – except that in these days of the dumbed-down war on terror, when the Republican Presidential nominee (intentionally or mistakenly) confuses Iran, their Iraqi Shia allies and Al-Qaeda, the Israeli and Sri Lankan examples can actually be rather informative and worth taking another look at.

The Israeli-Sri Lankan leaders’ tête-à-tête was probably not too illuminating, with lots of platitudes, mutual expressions of support and some kwetching and gewalts and whatever the Sri Lankan equivalents of those are. But the respective challenges posed to Israel and Sri Lanka, especially in the realm of suicide bombings can teach us a great deal— especially when it comes to the tendency here in the US to view terror through the prism of Islamo-fascism and peculiar and perverse shortcomings of Islam.

Since their formation in 1972, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, have waged a relentless insurgency against the Sri Lankan state in order to fulfill their ambitions of an independent state for the ethnic Tamils (the Eelam in the group’s name means homeland).  Suicide attacks—which they have carried out over 200 of in the last 3 decades—have been a prominent tactic in their participation in a civil war which has claimed some 60,000 lives in the last two decades.  In recent weeks, the situation in Sri Lanka has continued to deteriorate, seeing the assassination of two members of parliament by the Tigers and a concurrent abrogation—by the Sri Lankan government—of the official cease-fire that had lasted between the parties (however tenuously) since 2006.

So are the Tamil Tigers an aberration to the otherwise Muslim monopoly on suicide attacks – or do they perhaps hint at the underlying issues that need to be addressed in successfully confronting the phenomenon?  That question really gets to the heart of the critique of the current Global War on Terror that is still insufficiently heard in the US and elsewhere too – that it can after all be about what we do, the policies we pursue (we America, we Israel, we Sri Lanka) rather than about who we are – freedom loving nations merrily going about our freedom-loving business.  The GWOT policy cannot be effectively countered without challenging its basic assumptions and narrative, and US foreign policy cannot turn the corner without over-turning GWOT.

So, that Sri Lankan PM visit to Israel had me reaching for my copy of Robert Pape’s book of a couple of years back - ''Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.'' It is a study that needs to be read and re-read and injected into the national debate – not least as bombings are on the rise again in Iraq and as Presidential candidates on Middle East visits are determined to mis-lead the public again.

To re-cap, Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and Director of Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, gathered the facts on 462 suicide terrorists worldwide between 1980 and 2003. He studied their lives. He read documents put out by the groups they joined. He compiled lists. He plotted numbers on graphs. The project collected data on conflicts in Lebanon, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Israel, among others. Pape calls it "the most reliable and comprehensive survey on suicide terrorists that I'm aware of."  His bottom line when it came to attacks involving American targets - "No matter how you slice it," he says, "it's American policy that's underneath this, not Islamic fundamentalism."

When Pape looked at the beliefs of 384 of the 462 suicide attackers, he found that 43 percent were religious and 57 percent secular. If those whose ideology he could not determine are all assumed to be religiously motivated, it brings the religious group to 52 percent.

In a New York Times op-ed in 2005 entitled "Blowing Up an Assumption” Pape writes that “one has to understand the strategic logic of suicide terrorism.”  Here is a rather lengthy quote from that op-ed, but one well worth reading:

“…Since Muslim terrorists professing religious motives have perpetrated many of the attacks, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause, and thus the wholesale transformation of Muslim societies into secular democracies, even at the barrel of a gun, is the obvious solution…

Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003—315 in all…The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.

The leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27). Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades (Fatah affiliated, DL) account for more than a third of suicide attacks.

What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

Three general patterns in the data support these conclusions. First, nearly all suicide terrorist attacks -- 301 of the 315 in the period I studied -- took place as part of organized political or military campaigns. Second, democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists; America, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide attack of the past two decades. Third, suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective: from Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya, the sponsors of every campaign -- 18 organizations in all -- are seeking to establish or maintain political self-determination.

…Before the Sri Lankan military began moving into the Tamil homelands of the island in 1987, the Tamil Tigers did not use suicide attacks. Before the huge increase in Jewish settlers on the West Bank in the 1980's, Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorism.

And, true to form, there had never been a documented suicide attack in Iraq until after the American invasion in 2003. 

Understanding that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism has important implications for how the United States and its allies should conduct the war on terrorism.”

Bottom line then – it’s the occupation stupid.

Many of Pape’s findings are backed up by another useful resource on suicide bombers, Mia Bloom’s “Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror”.  Bloom, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, also pays special attention to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and further debunks the myth of this being an Islamic or Middle Eastern phenomenon. Bloom actually presents a history of suicide attackers that includes the early Jewish zealots and Sicarii of the First century and the Ismaili Assassins of the Twelfth Century. That reminds me of a slightly cheeky aside from former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami during one of the talks he gave in New York last week as a guest of the TCF and NAF, when Ben-Ami suggested that biblical Sampson may have been the first perpetrator of a suicide attack. He made that comment by the way in the context of outlining his own plan to bring Hamas into the political process, to achieve a ceasefire and support a new Palestinian National Dialogue aimed at re-constituting a Unity Government. Hamas itself began deploying suicide missions after the killing of Muslim worshipers at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs by a settler Baruch Goldstein, in Hebron in 1994…And it goes on.

The most shocking thing perhaps is the extent to which suicide bombings have increased exponentially in the years since Pape’s book.  Robert Fisk has a piece on the sheer scale of suicide bombings in Iraq in the UK Independent newspaper:

“…a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq.  This is a very conservative figure and—given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people—the true estimate may be double this number.  On several days, six—even nine—suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability.  If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper…Never before has the Arab world witnessed a phenomenon of suicide-death on this scale.  During Israel’s remarkable occupation of Lebanon after 1982, one Hizbollah suicide-bombing a month was considered remarkable.  During the Palestinian intifada of the 1980s and 1990s, four per month was regarded as unprecedented.  But suicide bombers in Iraq have been attacking at the average rate of two every three days since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion.”

Ending the US occupation in Iraq may not be sufficient at this stage to end that suicide bombing phenomenon immediately but it would likely have a very significant impact and in its absence the trend shows no sign of really changing.  As for our Israeli and Sri Lankan friends – ever thought that maybe the military solutions ain’t really workin’ and that root causes might be worth addressing…anyone for serious, concerted political dialogue?


March 25, 2008

How Many Israeli Defense Ministers Does it Take to Remove an Outpost?

Latest developments in the Migron Migraine…

Migron is one of the most notorious of the so-called “unauthorized outposts” that have sprung up in the West Bank over the last decade or more.  The current outpost count stands at 105 according to the Israeli NGO Peace Now.

As former head of the State Prosecution Criminal Department Talia Sasson explained in the Sasson Report commissioned by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that outposts have substituted new settlements since the Oslo process began.  While establishing a new settlement sounds very anti-peace, outposts somehow seems less of a poke in the eye, plus they have the advantage of governmental deniability since they are unauthorized.  Sure the government provides water and electricity links, security, IDF, and often even road access—but no formal approval—outposts are not official policy, heaven forbid. 

Migron itself is an unauthorized outpost that was established in early 2002 very near the Kochav Ya’akov settlement.  It is occupied by 42 families, or about 150 people in total, and is comprised of 56 caravans and 2 permanent structures.  Like with other outposts, Migron received help from the government:  according to the Sasson report, the Ministry of Housing and Construction shelled out over 4,000,000 NIS for construction related to the outpost’s infrastructure.

Official Israeli policy is to remove the outposts, Migron included.  According to Israel’s own laws the outposts are illegal—from a domestic rule of law perspective they should not remain.  Israel has also made a series of international and bilateral commitments to the US to dismantle the outposts.  

According to the 2003 Roadmap, it was stipulated that Israel “immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001”, and “consistent with the Mitchell Report, GOI [Government of Israel] freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”  In an exchange of letters with President Bush in April 2004, Dov Weissglass wrote on behalf of PM Ariel Sharon that

We view the achievement of a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians as our central focus and are committed to realizing this objective. Progress toward this goal must be anchored exclusively in the Roadmap and we will oppose any other plan.  In this regard, we are fully aware of the responsibilities facing the State of Israel. These include limitations on the growth of settlements; removal of unauthorized outposts…

These commitments were re-affirmed at the November 2007 Annapolis Conference and many times since.  The U.S. has a new envoy, General William Fraser, to oversee the implementation of these commitments.

Direct operational responsibility for outpost dismantling falls under the mandate of the Israeli Defense Minister.  There have been 3 Israeli Defense Ministers—Shaul Mofaz, Amir Peretz, and Ehud Barak—since the Roadmap commitment.  Migron has outlasted all of them.  Here is the current Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s plan as announced last night on Israel TV news:  Barak has apparently reached a deal with the leadership of the settlers to move Migron, lock stock and yeshivas, 5 kilometers to the West where it will be nicely nestled still inside the West Bank, close to the existing settlement of Neve Ya’akov.  Net effect on the settler population:  zero.  Plus, new Palestinian land would be taken up by the relocation of Migron. 

And the American response?  Well it’s likely to be a repeat of VP Dick Cheney’s reaction when asked by ABC news reporter Martha Raddatz what he thought of the fact that 2/3 of the American public opposed continuing the war in Iraq: To quote the veep, “So?”

March 24, 2008

The Grateful Mr. Fayyad

Palestinian Authority (West Bank sector) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad walks an unenviable political tight rope.  Akiva Eldar interviewed Fayyad in this weekend’s Ha’aretz, and that balancing act was very much on display. 

Fayyad works hard to maintain the confidence of the U.S. and the donor nations who keep his PA afloat.  This he achieves with flying colors and he is feted (sometimes too much for his own good) by Washington, a meeting yesterday with VP Cheney for instance (though not with Senator McCain last week—the Senator for Arizona did not meet with any Palestinians).

He works with the Israelis on the day-to-day issues of co-ordination without which his PA could not function in the still IDF-controlled West Bank.  When the new US Envoy for Roadmap implementation, General William M. Fraser, convenes a trilateral meeting, Fayyad dutifully attends.  Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak was a no-show at that meeting and Fayyad was scolded in the Palestinian press, by Fatah and Hamas, for appearing to demean his office.  Fayyad, the pragmatist, soldiers on.  He also faces ongoing criticism from Fatah—his government contains few Fatah appointees and the Fatah-controlled West Bank Trade Unions have organized strikes against his pensions and tax-collection policies. 

At the same time Fayyad strives to maintain credibility with his own public—no easy task and one in which his success is far more modest.  For example, the latest poll conducted by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that Palestinian support for Fayyad’s government was waning.  Whereas 29% of respondents said that Fayyad’s government is the legitimate Palestinian government, 34% now believed that the government of Hamas-leader Ismail Haniyeh was the legitimate one.  Further, in both the West Bank and Gaza, the perception of public legitimacy was higher for the Haniyeh government than for Fayyad’s—an edge of 32% to 26% in the West Bank, and 37% to 34% in Gaza.

Such examples are part of a broader and predictable trend of the discrediting of Annapolis, the Fatah leadership and their approach.  Fayyad is of course identified with that trend and his own numbers suffer accordingly.  But I would argue that Fayyad is trying to chart a slightly different course and the Eldar interview is revealing in that respect. 

In my own conversations with Fayyad he has struck me as someone who does have a vision and a Palestinian strategy.  The center-piece of that strategy is that a Palestinian government must do what it can to advance Palestinian state-building—almost irrespective of anything the Israeli side might be doing to undermine that.  It’s a kind of Palestinian version of “ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for ourselves”.  The Palestinian excuses for inaction will always be there—and will often be justified—but the alternatives are armed resistance (not Fayyad’s cup of tea) or paralysis.  Fayyad prefers his own version of ‘summud’—steadfastness—to, despite everything, run a government, schools, hospitals, make plans, have a transparent budget…etc.

I doubt it can work or get things very far—the occupation is too obtrusive, to all-consuming, and Israeli policy seems determined to continually vindicate those Palestinians who pursue the armed struggle. 

Nevertheless, Fayyad makes some points worth noting in his Ha’aretz interview.  Fayyad begins by expressing his gratefulness and delight at the American transfer of $150 million to the PA coffers.  He had just received the money from the U.S. Consul-General and described it as a “wonderful day”.  The appreciation is understandable but it seems almost rhetorically over-played, out of all proportion.  The Palestinian reality is anything but wonderful and $150 million is, well, kind of chopped liver.  It is 5% of what Israel receives on an annual basis (and Israel’s GDP is almost 50 times that of the PA’s), or to put it another way, the amount spent every 8 hours on the war in Iraq. 

Fayyad does though go on to make three points that seem to challenge current Washington and Jerusalem policy:

 1)      Quoting Eldar:  “Fayyad is in favor of a dialogue with Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, without the prior condition that he recognize Israel or promise to honor the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization.”  Fayyad is not in charge of the current Yemeni-led dialogue, but if this is his position then he should weigh-in to promote it. 

2)      Fayyad challenges the donor nations not to throw good money after bad.  If the closure policy does not change, he seems to be saying, then the donor assistance is pointless: “If you do not allow us to lead an acceptable life, you are wasting your money…without an active and efficient private sector, there is no possibility of creating jobs, and without free movement, the private sector cannot function…the situation in the territories has not changed for the better in recent months, and in some spheres things are even worse.  Instead of dismantling checkpoints, Israel has added new ones.”

3)      Finally, Fayyad questions the very foundation of the failed peace process logic:  “The approach that Israel must stay in the territories if it is to protect its security will lead to our never arriving at security capability.  How can I be responsible for security when every other day an Israeli army jeep blocks a street in the heart of Ramallah.”

It has never made much sense to me to predicate diplomatic progress on an occupied people providing security to their occupiers while still under conditions of occupation.  Of course Israelis deserve security—but that will be achieved with peace and an end of occupation.  I do not think that Fayyad or the Palestinian negotiators are actually challenging this basic, misguided premise of the peace process—the current framing is so assumed, so entrenched.  But it is also so unrealistic, illogical, and even dishonest.  It should be challenged.

March 17, 2008

Nehentanyahu and his horrible 2008--so far

This was supposed to be the year in which Benjamin Netanyahu was re-crowned King of Israel—he looked untouchable in the polls and sitting PM Ehud Olmert’s days looked numbered.  That might still happen, but an inauspicious start to 2008 turned downright ugly this past weekend for Netanyahu when a new political scandal broke—with him at its epicenter.  Israel TV Channel 10’s Raviv Druker broke the story—not only of profligacy and embarrassing personal indulgence—but also a violation of the parliamentary ethical code and perhaps the illegal receipt of gifts.

 In August 2006, at the height of the Lebanon War, Netanyahu was in London as part of Israel’s international PR effort.  Druker revealed that the opposition leader’s hotel bill for his 6-day stay at the Connaught Hotel came to an impressive 131,000 shekels, or $38,000—including a NIS 21,200 restaurant and bar tab, NIS 11,000 on theatre tickets, and NIS 2,500 at the hair salon (Jon Edwards take note—this was Mrs. not Mr. Netanyahu’s expenditure).  Ok—so it looks bad—country at war, Bibi living it up.  But it gets worse and legally sticky—the visit was not approved by the relevant Parliamentary Committee.  And the bulk of the bill was paid for on the credit card of a private individual—one Joshua Rowe of Manchester, England.  An investigation is now under consideration to check whether this contravenes the regulations guiding a Knesset Member’s receipt of gifts, especially given that Mr. Rowe has business interests in Israel (to be fair, the accusation of influence peddling seems very far-fetched judging by the facts and based on Mr. Rowe’s own response).

The problem for Israel’s once and would-be leader is that this all follows a familiar pattern.  Evidence has begun to emerge of other dubiously paid-for trips, including during Netanyahu’s term as Finance Minister,, and the Israel public is reminded of the avaricious side of the Netanyahu’s and in particular, of First Lady-in-waiting (and a figure scorned, with some justification, by the media) Sara Netanyahu.  

The story has presented the Israeli media with a welcome distraction from the rockets falling on the South and the dollar’s falling in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.  A new word has entered the Hebrew dictionary—“Nehentanyahu” —playing on the opposition leader’s name and the Hebrew word for a decadent lifestyle.  Israel’s leading news commentator Nahum Barnea writing in the highest-circulation daily, Yediot Aharanot, described Netanyahu’s behavior as hedonistic (thought notably not corrupt), going one better, his colleague Sima Kadmon, described Bibi’s “piggishness”, while the competition Ma’ariv newspaper’s lead writer Ben Caspit spoke of a “tragic character”.  

Netanyahu punched back by filing a suit for slander against Channel 10 TV.  This is a smart move—it makes Bibi sound confident, it gives him and his surrogates a snappy sound-bite response, and it will take many, many months to be resolved.  On the negative side, what it also means is that Netanyahu has failed, thus far at least, to provide any actual documentation to refute the accusation.  The law suit is a poor second best to actually and speedily rebutting the story.

So, what is the political fall-out likely to be?  2008 started badly for the Likud leader.  The final Winograd Report into that Lebanon War was published at the end of January and not only did the political earthquake it caused measure very low on the scale, but Netanyahu himself was cast as partially responsible for mis-managing the opposition campaign.  Olmert and his coalition survived, the PM’s support numbers even climbed a little, and elections receded from the horizon.  In February Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff, Naftali Bennettt —a successful recruit from the high-tech world—quit his job, amidst accusations of interference by, you guessed it, Madame Netanyahu.  It was the latest in a series of high profile resignations and put Sara firmly back in the spotlight.  Now, in March, this latest scandal.  

Only a handful of Likud parliamentarians have jumped to their leader’s defense (notably Yuval Steinitz and Gilad Erdan).  Most of the Likud leadership and Knesset bloc are on the sidelines, assessing how this plays out politically and probably waiting for some new polling data.  Netanyahu clearly has rivals who would love to unseat him—but they are well aware that a pugnacious Bibi, lambasting the biased liberal media, plays well with core Likud constituencies.  This is what Netanyahu will be relying on—a combination of casting himself as the underdog vs. the establishment that feeds historic Likud emotions of persecution (see McCain vs. the NYT after the Vicki Iseman allegations and how this played with conservative talk-show radio by way of comparison) plus a screw them, ‘that-a-boy’ attitude, ‘he’s a rogue, but he’s our rogue’ from the LIkud rank and file.  

Netanyahu will though take a hit from the centrist voters who are so crucial to his electoral prospects.  This is not to claim that the Israeli public is enthusiastic about the alternatives—or that either Kadima leader Ehud Olmert of Labor leader Ehud Barak can exactly run on the clean government, anti-corruption and frugality ticket.  Olmert and Barak both have a rich record of police investigators against them and a no-less rich penchant for hedonism in their own life-styles.  

But this episode reminds Israelis that they are not enthusiastic about Netanyahu either.  He is a default option and the mood of—‘a plague on all your houses’ is the prevalent one—even more so after the Netanyahu revelations.  This latest episode is unlikely to be politically decisive in any way—it is though a useful cautionary tale—that Israeli politics and public opinion remain fluid and that Ehud Olmert’s leadership has a resilience that should not be underestimated.  And given the pretenders to the throne—Netanyahu and Barak—both failed former Prime Ministers in their own right, and both more hostile to the peace process than the incumbent, that is no bad thing.  

March 10, 2008

Reconstituting Rice

This piece is a book review in the March 10th, 2008 edition of Haaretz.

"Condoleezza Rice: An American Life" by Elisabeth Bumiller, Random House, 432 pages, $27.95

"The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy"
by Glenn Kessler, St. Martin?s Press; 304 pages; $25.95

Why have two of Washington's more noted journalists, The New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller, and Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post, both come out with books about Condoleezza Rice in recent months? Certainly her story is a unique and appealing one: Rice may be both the second woman and second African-American to fill the position of secretary of state, but she is very much the first person to be both. Unusually for a Bushie, she maintains high approval ratings, and she may have a political future. And she certainly cuts a more human figure than her colleagues. But the real interest and question being asked in both these works is this: Can Rice still rewrite the image and legacy of the Bush presidency?

Rehabilitating herself from a failed national security adviser to a successful and even transformational secretary of state (which could be the subtitle of both books) is a microcosm of the challenge that faces the entire administration in its twilight year. Rice oversees the policy arena most in need of re-branding and salvation. Which is why Condoleezza Rice and the foreign policy she pursues is of particular interest to Israelis and Middle Easterners in general. Until further notice, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is the centerpiece of Rice's agenda for her final year in office.

Bumiller's and Kessler's books are very different, but they do share a few common anecdotes and conclusions. One of them is that getting the green light to move on Israeli-Palestinian peace was central to Rice's agreeing to take up the appointment at State during the Bush second term, and pursuing that goal has now become, to quote Bumiller, "a race with time." If one adds to the mix Rice's personal closeness to the president (hence Kessler's title, "The Confidante"), the reshuffles within the administration that have strengthened Rice's position and that she partially engineered (such as the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates at the Defense Department), and some initial successes in reframing policy (including on North Korea and Iran), then knowing a little more about Condoleezza Rice sounds like a worthwhile exercise.

Bumiller and Kessler's books tell us a whole lot more about her. While this may be an excessively Israel-centric way of looking at things, these two works could almost be used as a background primer on how Condoleezza Rice might manage the peace process over the next 11 months.

Both authors are sympathetic to Rice, though neither are shy about exposing her failures. Elisabeth Bumiller is heavy on biographical detail and tells us an awful lot about the young Rice. Only on page 131 does Rice, then in her early 30s, arrive to work for the administration of George H.W. Bush, and only the last 60 pages are devoted to her time heading the State Department, under W. By contrast, Kessler flies from Rice?s childhood to her appointment at Stanford University in 1981 in three pages, and to her becoming national security adviser in another three. His book is all about Rice as the top diplomat, and the substantive policy challenges she faces. Bumiller writes chronologically, taking us from childhood in Alabama (Rice was born in Birmingham in 1954) to university and her subject's quixotic embrace of Sovietology and then onto her government career. Kessler writes thematically, dividing his study into policy areas - including India, North Korea, Sudan, Iran and the peace process. Bumiller, for instance, dispenses with Rice's involvement in negotiating the Israeli-Palestinian Access and Movement Agreement of November 2005 in only two paragraphs.

In truth, in terms of impact and implementation, the AMA - which was supposed to organize the entry and exit of goods and people to and from Gaza and access between the Strip and the West Bank - barely merits a footnote, yet Kessler describes the last minute high-pressure negotiations in rich detail. In our post-Annapolis reality, this episode becomes a revealing insight into the prospective policy and management style of Madame Secretary.

The two writers had different avenues of access to their subject matter. Rice cooperated with Bumiller, providing her eight one-hour interviews, although as the author tells us, "this is not an authorized biography, but an independent work of journalism." Kessler did not work with Rice specifically on his book, though as the senior Washington Post State Department correspondent, he would spend days traveling with the secretary and be exposed to her in a variety of work situations. He draws heavily on these experiences.

Bumiller's work does suffer from the very occasional factual error; Germany, for instance, is described as wielding a United Nations Security Council veto, the Lebanon War is inaccurately portrayed as opening with a Hezbollah rocket attack rather than a cross-border raid. But what the author does give us is a rich insight into Condoleezza Rice, how her history is woven into a part of contemporary American history and how that in turn affects her worldview and becomes part of the policy mix. There is also a generous helping of great stories and who-woulda-thunk-it moments, such as when we discover that Rice attended modeling school in Denver. Late in the book Bumiller recounts an embarrassing episode when Rice was spotted shoe shopping at Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue in New York just as the country was dealing with the devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and on its African American community in particular. According to Bumiller, Rice had "to face the full nature of her public identity," and it is that identity that Bumiller's book explores in fascinating detail. Alongside that are the more familiar tales of administration infighting, the lead-up to the Iraq war and its mismanagement, and how 9/11 affected the Bush team. Details of her closeness to the president make frequent appearances.

Night riders
The causal line between Rice's formative years and experiences and her subsequent policy preferences is largely one of speculation. Rice has occasionally dropped hints and Bumiller's book weaves in several homespun inferences. Rice in her youth witnessed the harsh discrimination of then segregationist South, even if, as we are told, her parents went to great lengths to protect her from its more ugly daily manifestations. In her Alabama neighborhood there were "night riders," whites who drove through black areas brandishing guns and hurling racist abuse. After the bombing of the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church, in 1963, in which Denise McNair, a young friend of Rice's, was killed, Rice's father became part of a neighborhood-watch group, manning a makeshift checkpoint with a shotgun.

At a dinner with Israeli civil society leaders late last year hosted by the American ambassador at his Herzliya residence, Rice was quoted as describing how these experiences helped her understand both the Palestinian desire for freedom and the Israeli sense of insecurity. Are the "night riders" reminiscent of settler vandalism in Hebron, or of Palestinian militia drive-by shootings? When Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tells Rice of his plans to improve Palestinian security, build capacity and reform institutions even under occupation, is she perhaps reminded of her own conclusions regarding the role of black self-help in ending segregation? Rice has talked about the historic importance of there having been a white constituency in the U.S. that was sick of segregation and helped deliver civil rights reform as a self-interest. When Rice listens to Israelis who are sick of occupation, and who view the two-state solution as part of Israel's national self-interest, does this perhaps strike a familiar chord?

Such analogies can take one only so far. When on page 29, Bumiller tells us that Rice's father did not march with Martin Luther King, Jr., because he was "afraid he would not be able to hold to King's principle of non-violent resistance," should we assume that the daughter, as a result of this formative experience, looks at Hamas and its actions in ways that she does not make public? That would seem not to be the case, and these analogies in all likelihood become rather a limited guide to Rice's thinking.

A more reliable guide is likely to be the concepts and people that have gone into Rice's policymaking at the National Security Council and the State Department. And that is where Glenn Kessler's book comes in most handy. Kessler has done a remarkable job of charting the evolution of Bush Administration policy across a range of issues, and appears equally comfortable and well-informed whether discussing the India nuclear deal, the North Korea Six-Party talks, or that infamous Access and Movement Agreement. He puts us in the working-level discussions where policies are fleshed out, seats us at the table with world leaders, and gives us an appreciation of who the key actors are, as well as the inter-agency and inter-personal rivalries that are at play.

North Korea makes for particularly fascinating reading. Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill played the key role as chief negotiator, stretching his mandate, especially when he met bilaterally with the North Koreans. Hill displayed the kind of diplomatic creativity and flexibility that will be crucial if there is to be an American-assisted breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Kessler, by the way, suggests that Rice's Middle East point man, Assistant Secretary David Welch, was the person pushing a more involved and pragmatic U.S. policy line during the Lebanon War, arguing that the U.S. should "help the Israelis re-think their calculations." Welch may have an important role to play on the Israeli-Palestinian front in the months ahead.

Unintentionally topical, Kessler's book provided us with the missing chapter of the Winograd Report even before it was released. The Winograd Committee was, of course, not tasked with examining the U.S. role in the Second Lebanon War, but it was crucial, and Kessler's chapter on the events of the summer of 2006 is an indispensable addendum to what was published in Jerusalem. It is almost an American mini-Winograd. The American mismanagement of the international diplomatic component of ending the war is all there in Chapter 10.

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 cease-fire in favor of a radical re-alignment of the Lebanese reality; this has happened, only not in the way she had in mind. In one of her most memorable and painfully inappropriate choices of phrase, Rice spoke of the "birth pangs of a new Middle East," and it has haunted her ever since. The U.S. 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, and Rice waited a week before traveling to the region, and even then delayed action toward a cease-fire in the UN. Reading the testimony to the Winograd Committee that has been made public, it is clear that many senior Israeli cabinet ministers had assumed that the Israeli response to the Hezbollah raid would not have the opportunity to become a full-blown war, as diplomacy would quickly intervene. Rice, though, was the absent diplomat. A naive-sounding Secretary Rice told Bumiller that this Lebanon crisis was "my most frustrating time... every time you thought you had it done it would unravel." Welcome to the Middle East, Ms. Rice.

Rice's handling of Lebanon was actually more reminiscent of her days as national security advisor than the new "the time for diplomacy is now" positions she had been staking out at State. This is the most common and recurring theme for both authors - the massive foreign policy mopping-up and reconstruction effort that Secretary Rice is trying to conduct against the backdrop of the scorched-earth terrain bequeathed by National Security Advisor Rice. Here's how Kessler puts it: "Her options and opportunities as Secretary of State are limited by one deeply ironic fact: She was one of the weakest national security advisors in U.S. history.... despite her obvious skill and intelligence, the problems she helped create in the first term are so overwhelming that she will have great difficulty in succeeding."

Shadow of Iraq
Everything occurs in the shadow of Iraq. Rice failed to heed her predecessor Colin Powell's warning over Iraq - "You'll own it." She then became, in Bumiller's words, "a fearsome saleswoman of the war." Finally, as national security adviser, Rice was instrumental in the decision to hand management of Iraq to the neoconservative team in the Pentagon and their Iraqi-exile (exiled, it eventually became clear, from both Iraq and reality) friends. But Iraq was not her only failing at the NSC. The entire inter-agency process was broken. It became standard procedure for Vice President Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to cut Rice out of the loop. According to Bumiller's account, de-Baathification, the decision to send prisoners to the Guantanamo facility, U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol - all these issues were decided without the knowledge of the national security adviser. Against this background it's easy to understand why at Rice's Senate confirmation vote for the State Department position, she received the highest number of no votes for any nominee to that post since 1825. It's also easy to understand why she is so keen to notch up some real achievements at State and to re-balance the legacy scales.

In trying to re-orient certain aspects of foreign policy, Rice still faces heavyweight, if perhaps no longer formidable, opponents inside the administration. The North Korea deal was sniped at but not prevented. A similar tug-of-war is taking place over Iran policy, though one only has to read Bumiller and be reminded of the intentional cooking of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in order to understand that the background to the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and the reassertion of political independence in this arena. This will not be reversed very easily by Jerusalem. Unfortunately, that leaves Iran policy as neither fish nor fowl - isolation and conditional engagement, threats, sanctions and limited dialogue all pursued simultaneously. And then there?s the policy toward the Annapolis Middle East peace process.
Both Bumiller and Kessler struggle to find a label and big picture by which they can frame the Rice worldview. Kessler discusses the clash between the realist and neoconservative trends within Bush foreign policy and Rice's belated move back in the direction of the former, whence she originally came. Rice began her government career under Bush senior's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Bumiller briefly describes the secretary as "a realist turned idealist turned realist again." Both authors tell the story of how Rice learned of the Hamas PLC election victory - on a treadmill at her home gym, as she followed the news-ticker on the bottom of her TV screen early on the morning of January 26, 2006. It was a moment when policy prescriptions pulled in opposing directions. Democratization, the peace process and the war on terror made a very messy splash across the Rice policy canvas.

'What is Rice-ism?'
Bumiller and Kessler's closing arguments on "What is Rice-ism" point in an interesting direction for cleaning up that canvas. Kessler ultimately concludes that Rice "fundamentally lacks... a coherent foreign policy vision," while Bumiller is convinced that "her real ideology was succeeding." That is not a bad starting point, for her success in the peace process would also be Israel's and the region's success. If Rice can succeed - and it will not depend exclusively on her - she will have to be uncharacteristically skillful, competent and detailed in her diplomacy, and abandon the ideological elements of her policy that most undermine her own efforts, in particular the isolation of Hamas and Syria and the refusal to propose to the parties the guidelines for a deal.

Just before Annapolis, Rice's mentor, Scowcroft, together with other luminaries, addressed a letter to the secretary of state that advocated such an approach (in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I and the New America Foundation were active in promoting this letter). But Rice has not, or not yet, returned to the realist camp on this issue.
Early in her life, Condoleezza was being groomed to be a concert pianist, and Bumiller tells us that Rice's mother made up her name from an Italian musical notation, "Condoleezza," meaning, "with sweetness." Rice will require at least one more ingredient in her Middle East peace-making endeavors, but it is not sweetness; on the contrary, she will have to be tough, very tough. The kind of tough that enabled her, as a young and somewhat clumsy figure skater, to fall on her bottom, pick herself up, smile gracefully and persevere.

March 5, 2008

Rice, Gaza and Annapolis: what next?

Secretary Rice’s latest Middle East trip has drawn to a close and she is now heading back to Washington via Brussels.  On being told by a reporter at a press conference in Ramallah that this was her 13th visit and asked whether she was bringing anything new, Condi responded that thirteen is not a lucky number so maybe she needed to come back again.  Maybe the latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the lack of progress in advancing either peace talks or improvements to daily life is just a case of bad luck and the superstitious spell of the number 13.  Or maybe the application of misguided policies and the framing of a peace process in terms of good versus evil and the exclusion of the very people who are needed to secure a deal might just have something to do with it.  

The question is, coming out of another Rice Mid-East jaunt, whether anything is being done to reframe that policy.  In public, at least, the evidence is scant or even non-existent.  In meetings with her Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors, Secretary Rice stressed the need to return to peace negotiations.  She apparently pushed sufficiently hard on this front that Palestinian President Abbas dropped his one day old conditioning of renewed negotiations on a truce, a gesture likely to further erode his already waning domestic popularity. This can either be notched up as an American diplomatic achievement or seen for what it is, irrelevant.  Here’s why.  

The negotiating teams, led on the Israeli side by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and on the Palestinian side PLO stalwart Abu Ala, have been meeting on a bi-weekly basis.  There have been at least 25 meetings since Annapolis including five between the two leaders, Abbas and Olmert.  But those negotiations, even if they are serious as the participants claim, have not so far and are unlikely in the near future to produce results.  The current reality and framing of the peace process almost guarantees its failure.  A deteriorating security situation in Gaza and the neighboring Israeli towns undermines the public legitimacy of the negotiations on both sides.  As Palestinian civilian casualties mount with every escalation, the capacity for Abbas to continue negotiating with an Israeli partner that is causing such destruction in Gaza, is severely limited.  That is what happened this past week when Abbas suspended talks.  Likewise, as rockets are fired into southern Israel, Olmert comes under increasing pressure domestically to not make concessions in the peace process. And neither leader was exactly riding a wave of political strength and popularity to begin with.  

The lack of movement regarding easing of conditions of Palestinian daily life in the West Bank further erodes the credibility of Abbas, Fayyad and their government.  In this political environment, where any negotiations with Israel will be attacked not only for their content but also because of the political context in which they are being conducted and with the belief that anything agreed would anyway not be implemented, Abbas is in no position to strike a deal.  Not only Hamas, but many if not the majority within Fatah and certainly the populist national camp, would oppose it.  Under these circumstances even if, and it’s a big if, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could cut a decent deal, it would have little legitimacy or prospect of being implemented, and paradoxically could become a set back for the very two-state solution that it would purport to be advancing.  

The negotiations crisis is the wrong crisis for the US to focus on, even if this is understandable given that the negotiations are pretty much all the administration has in its terribly depleted Middle East peace policy toolbox. The best hope would be that what we are hearing in public is not exactly the same as the message that was conveyed by Secretary Rice in private.  If Rice has conveyed to those she met in Egypt, Israel and to the Quartet partners and other Arab allies that the US unequivocally favors a ceasefire and security de-escalation then there might be something to work with in rescuing Annapolis.  

First and foremost that would require a different approach to Hamas.  This change need not be declarative at first, it could evolve over time and be mediated by third parties.  One could envisage a de-escalation followed by a formal ceasefire understanding, prisoner exchanges and the significant easing of conditions in the Gaza Strip.  In a poll cited in last week’s Haaretz 64 percent of Israelis express their preference for ceasefire negotiations with Hamas.  Egypt could broker these arrangements, ideally not alone but with European and other Arab involvement and with a clear American green light.  A better alternative would be for Abbas to secure the truce between Israel and Gaza/Hamas as he offered to do last week.  Although this seems unlikely under the current internal Palestinian political conditions, ultimately a Palestinian national dialogue will have to be re-launched and new domestic understandings reached.  Such steps would then create the conditions that would again make peace negotiations relevant and would be conducive to progress on the negotiations track.     

Of course this scenario may not be achievable.  Too many of the region’s significant actors, including Syria and Iran, may have simply decided to wait and sit out this US administration, and encourage existing conflicts to simmer as bargaining chips with the next US government.  The alternatives though are either distinctly unattractive or decidedly unrealistic; an Israeli re-occupation of the Gaza Strip, Fatah retaking Gaza on the back of IDF tanks, or the deployment of an international force at a time when NATO is desperately scrambling to meet troop targets in Afghanistan.  The most likely trajectory is that all sides will simply await the next escalation, that will inevitably come, and that the new Annapolis peace process will suffer a slow and inglorious death.  If Secretary Rice starts whispering the magic words—ceasefire and openness to a shift on Hamas—then this can be avoided.  It might also be prevented, in the absence of such whispers, by the remaining Quartet members and other international actors, including in the Arab world, stepping up their involvement at least with regards to the ceasefire and the aversion of a further humanitarian disaster.