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April 29, 2008

Netanyahu’s Syria Credibility Problem

Alongside the revelations about the Israel strike on a Syrian facility last September and its link to a possible nuclear program and North Korean involvement, the Middle East press has been abuzz the last few days with talk of secret Turkish-sponsored Israeli-Syrian talks.  Not so secret now.

Perhaps predictably, this became a domestic political issue inside Israel. 

Likud and opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu wasted no time in attacking Prime Minister Olmert:

The Golan must remain in Israel’s hands…I am quite amazed that the Prime Minister promises to hand over all of the Golan Heights even before negotiations begin, and with such flippancy…this is no way to build peace...[Olmert is] a serial concession giver.

All to be expected, except this:  as Prime Minister in the late 90s, Netanyahu himself ran a secret back-channel with Syria in which he, too, well, how to put this—agreed to withdraw from all of the Golan.

The Netanyahu-Assad talks used Ronald S. Lauder—now World Jewish Congress President—as an intermediary. 

Prospects For Peace has obtained an exclusive copy of the actual negotiating documents—the content was made public before, but this is the first time the documents, with hand-written dates and all, are being posted.  Here are a couple of key extracts from that document entitled ‘Treaty of Peace Between Israel and Syria’: 


2.   Israel will withdraw from the Syrian lands taken in 1967, in accordance with Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which establish the right of all states to secure and recognized borders and the ‘land for peace’ formula, to a commonly agreed border based on the international line of 1923.  The withdrawal will be effected in 3 stages, over a period of […] months, with full normalization being completed by the end of withdrawal (exchange of ambassadors at the outset)……


6.   Security arrangements will be carried out through the establishment of 3 zones on both sides of the border, in phases that parallel the stages of Israeli withdrawal (as marked in the enclosed map): a) a demilitarized zone; b) a zone of limited forces  and armaments; c) a zone where only non-offensive capability should be positioned.

In truth, it’s not the most sophisticated or well put-together draft peace treaty ever written—but there you have it. 

Prime Minister Olmert’s bureau reminded MK Netanyahu of these flirtations with papa Assad, releasing the following quote: 

Netanyahu was the one who sent an American businessman to Assad the father to give up the Golan Heights, on behalf of the people of Israel, even before any negotiations had begun (as reported in the April 28th edition of Maariv by Maya Bengal and Amit Cohen).

President Clinton confirmed the story in his own memoirs—My Life.  Here is Clinton discussing Israeli-Syrian talks:

Peres [Shimon—when PM in ’96—DL] wanted me to sign a security treaty with Israel if it gave up the Golan, an idea that was suggested to me later by Netanyahu and would be advanced again by [Ehud] Barak.

In the 1999 Israeli election campaign when Netanyahu suggested that he would be tougher on Assad and any Golan concessions than his opponent Ehud Barak, he was confronted from a surprising direction.  Netanyahu’s previous Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, had bolted the government to lead up a new Center Party and in an election debate, when Netanyahu made his “tougher on the Golan” claim, Mordechai dropped a bomb: “Look me in the eye Bibi and say that.  Look me in the eye.” Mordechai knew of the Lauder channel and Netanyahu’s bluff had been called. 

The whole story suggests that not only does Bibi have a truth-telling problem when it comes to Syria-Golan issues (or at least a selective memory) but worse than that, he even hid information from both President Clinton and Ehud Barak that undermined later negotiations.

Here is how Dennis Ross—former Special Middle East Coordinator—describes in his book The Missing Peace what Clinton was told about the Lauder episode. Ross tells us how, at Clinton’s request, Lauder shared the 10-point paper.  Here is how Ross recalls his own response:

Once I had looked this over, the President asked me what I thought.  I told him it was ‘too good to be true.’ But now I understood why Barak and his colleagues believed they did not need to commit to the June 4 lines…So Clinton sent the paper Lauder had given him to Assad (faxed to the personal attention of the Ambassador, who was instructed to hand deliver it without comment to Assad)…Two days later, Assad responded, calling the President to say that Syria had not accepted this paper, and would not now.

Only later did Lauder apparently come clean and tell the full story—the parts he had kept from both the American and Israeli leaders (and that Netanyahu had also hidden): 

In mid-September 1999 Ronald Lauder sent a letter to President Clinton enclosing an eight-point paper which he claimed included the final points that had been agreed upon by both sides in 1998.  Gone was the reference to the 1923 borderline, replaced by withdrawal to a commonly agreed border based on the June 4, 1967 lines.  Syrian concerns were clearly addressed, but this was a very different paper from the ten points we had been shown…Lauder’s ‘clarifying letter’ to President Clinton indicate that Bibi Netanyahu had committed to withdrawal to the June 4 lines.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good thing that Netanyahu understands the need to negotiate with Syria and that for those negotiations to succeed, Israel will need to commit to a full Golan withdrawal.  What is worrying is that Netanyahu continues to hoodwink both the Israeli public and his cheerleader crew in the US—and that both Lauder and Netanyahu only partially and misleadingly disclosed their negotiation effort to the Americans and Israeli leaders when they resumed the Syria contacts—an act of dangerous diplomatic irresponsibility. 

One other thing about the handwritten date on the original Netanyahu-Lauder Israel-Syria Peace Treaty revealed here—it is Saturday August 29, 1998.  Whoops—the religious parties won’t like that one Bibi—desecrating the Sabbath and giving up the Golan—what a shanda!

April 25, 2008

5 Comments on the Syria-Israel-North Korea Revelations

Yesterday the House and Senate intelligence committees were briefed by US intelligence officials on the details of a September ‘07 Israeli strike on a Syrian facility that allegedly had nuclear capabilities.  The press then received its own briefing .

Lots of questions though remain unanswered, including why release the information now, what does this mean for an escalation in Israeli-Syrian tensions, or conversely a breakthrough in back-channel peace negotiations, what does it mean for the US-North Korea talks, and why would Syria have been pursuing a nuclear program?

Here is a quick attempt to look those issues. 

1. What were the Syrians up to and why? 

Here is the AFP on the bottom line of yesterday’s briefing: 

They said US intelligence had "high confidence" that the structure bombed by the Israelis was a nuclear reactor, "medium confidence" that the North Koreans were involved in building it, and "low confidence" that plutonium from it was for nuclear weapons…Because other elements of a weapons program, such as a plutonium reprocessing plant, had not been detected, US intelligence was less certain that the plutonium was for nuclear weapons, they said.

But the evidence and photos, if they are to be taken at face value, were certainly impressive and convincing according to those who attended the briefing.  Writing in the Washington Post, Robin Wright did add this note of caution:  The sole photograph shared with reporters depicting Syrian and North Korean officials together did not appear to be the Al Kibar reactor site.”

And David Albright president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and a former US weapons inspector urged skepticism regarding there being an active Syrian weapons program.

Syrian officials both before and after today’s briefing have been adamant that no such program exists.  According to Haaretz, Israeli intelligence officials are suggesting that “Most senior members of his [Assad’s] regime in Damascus apparently were not aware that the country had a nuclear program.” 

If indeed, as seems to be the case, Syria was up to something, here is a possible explanation as to why:  Syria is unlikely to feel that it needs a nuclear weapons capacity, or is capable of sustaining a serious program, but the beginnings of a program and a facility might be a useful bargaining chip in any future negotiation with the US (and as part of a triangular US-Israel-Syria negotiation).

2. Why now, and is it all about Matzah? 

The Israeli military strike occurred over 7 months ago, so why did the administration choose to go public only now?  If you want an American-centric take on the timing, then this one sounds most plausible:  those both inside and outside the administration who are keen to torpedo the North Korea talks finally notched up a success having worked their friends and allies in Congress in order to force this outcome.   John Bolton was doing a particularly good impression of a Cheshire cat yesterday.  Juan Cole speculates on his blog that the timing was a useful distraction from the latest revelations on the arrest of an alleged Israeli spy in the US.  The DPKR-Syria story was unquestionably a reminder for the US of the effectiveness and usefulness of Israeli intelligence (MJ Rosenberg has a wonderful op-ed in today’s Haaretz on some of the other implications of the latest spy story). 

If one is looking for a more Israelo-centric view of the timing, then this is about Matzah.  How so?  Well Israel’s Knesset goes into a long recess over the Passover holiday, which means that the government doesn’t have to face votes of no confidence or embarrassing questions.  What seems to have happened is that Israel and Syria have coordinated the public release of new information regarding secret peace negotiations partly in order to reduce tensions generated by the North Korea disclosure (see point 4).  These new leaks about back-channel talks have mobilized the anti-Golan withdrawal right wing within Israel but at a time when they cannot take their action to the Knesset.  In short, Passover is a good time to bury problematic stories—anyway Jewish-Israeli stomachs are far too concentrated on their Matzah-induced stomach problems to care about political shenanigans.

3. And If Now, Was It Wise?

Here was the claim made at yesterday’s briefing:

The administration said it withheld the pictures for seven months out of fear that Syria could retaliate against Israel and start a broader war in the Middle East.

Yet this claim on timing flies in the face of logic—the material has been released when things are even more tense and significantly so after the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh and the passing of the mourning period of 40 days since his death. The Israelis are extremely antsy about this, and I think this together with intel exposure reasons explains why the Israeli security establishment was so unenthusiastic about this material being made public now.  It is surely more dangerous now than then.

The Israeli security establishment perspective is reported in today’s Haaretz:

Senior Israeli defense sources said last night that it was still early to gauge how Damascus would react to the news, but warned that the Syrians may now reconsider and decide to retaliate against Israel in some way...In recent internal discussions, senior Israeli defense establishment officials expressed concern that the official American release of details about the strike would embarrass Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and lead him to take a more aggressive stance toward Israel.

And there’s more:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed the release of any new details on the attack or the nuclear ties between Damascus and Pyongyang, arguing that this would only push the Syrians into a corner and would escalate tensions.

This is one more demonstration that the neocons who pushed for this have their own agenda—and to the extent to which it dovetails an Israeli agenda—it is the agenda of the opposition on Israel’s far-right and has nothing to do with actual Israeli security interests (or any logical reading of American interests for that matter).

There is still of course the question of why none of this was taken to the IAEA over the past seven months or before.

4. Israel-Syria:  Peace or War

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of new leaks and speculation regarding an Israeli-Syrian back-channel to resume peace negotiations. 

In his Passover holiday media interview one week ago, Prime Minister Olmert hinted that something was cooking.  Ma’ariv columnist Ben Caspit had this to say:

Is there or is there not a channel of negotiations with Syria?  Olmert merely hints at who, at this stage, is preventing such a dialogue.  His name is George W. Bush.  When will it be possible for Israel to talk to Syria?  When Bush leaves the White House.

Then earlier this week reports started coming from the Syrian side.  “Three unofficial media outlets in Syria—the daily Al-Watan, the Dunia television station and the Champress website”—revealed messages from Olmert to Assad via the Turkish PM Erdogan.  That message, according to Syrian Expatriate Affairs Minister and Bashar confidante, Dr. Buthaina Shaaban:

Olmert notified Turkey that he was willing for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace agreement that is based on UN resolutions and on international criteria.

President Assad then himself confirmed the stories in an interview to the Qatari daily al-Watan newspaper.  The full text of the interview will be published Sunday, but the teaser included the following:

The Syrian president confirmed that Erdogan had ‘relayed to me Israel’s readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria’…Assad also noted that ‘direct negotiations need a sponsor and, unfortunately, this sponsor can only be the U.S. This is the reality of the situation. But the current administration has no vision and no will to support a peace process…perhaps with a future administration in the U.S., we would be able to speak of direct negotiations.’

So here is a delicious and rare moment of Israeli-Syrian agreement: : we both want to talk, the nature of the Syria-Israel issue is that we both need US facilitation, the Bush Administration is not interested and so, we will have to wait.  Commenting in Israel’s leading daily, Yediot Aharonot, analyst Shimon Shiffer, who is very close to Olmert, speculated:

Let’s start from the end. Notwithstanding the messages between Olmert and Assad, it is almost certain that the negotiations will not be renewed in the near future—at least not until the next tenant takes up residence in the White House in January 2009 and sponsors an initiative to revitalize the negotiations with American patronage and financial support.

Shiffer’s piece unsurprisingly was entitled “Waiting for the Next President” and even if both sides are exaggerating a little, the symmetry of message and US role (negative) is breath-taking. 

Martin Indyk—director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and former US Ambassador to Israel—summed it up in testimony yesterday to the House FRC, Sub-Committee on Middle East:

As I understand it, the Bush Administration is unwilling to encourage Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations…this puts the U.S. in the unprecedented and invidious position of opposing an opportunity for Arab-Israeli peacemaking even when our ally Israel is keen to pursue it.

 5.   A Last Gasp Test for Condoleezza Rice

Secretary Rice did not have a stunning record at the NSC for pushing back against extreme neocon influence, there has been the sense of a slight improvement during her term at State, and most notably in moving the Korea Six-party talks and breakthrough direct negotiations.  This is now threatened by the new revelations.  It would not be unfair to argue that this really becomes a test for Secretary Rice as to whether she can keep the North Korea process on track in the face of what seems to be a well coordinated effort instigated by neo-cons both inside and outside the administration to derail that process. 

It’s likely to be her final test in this respect (unless…Iran…)

Bush’s Washington Moves to Off-Off Broadway on Middle East Peace

Yesterday could not have presented a more stunning portrayal of the self-marginalization of America as an actor in Israeli-Arab conflict resolution under the Bush Administration.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front the President was hosting PLO Chair Mahmoud Abbas at the White House while the real action was taking place in Cairo where the Egyptians and Hamas leadership were announcing a new ceasefire proposal for Gaza.  There is little doubt as to which event was more relevant to future stability and creating a security environment conducive to it. In the international, and certainly Israeli press, the Cairo development took center-stage while the Abbas-Bush hug-in was very much a side-show. 

The more head-lining grabbing event in Washington yesterday was the testimony to the Senate and House intelligence committees and media briefs by US intelligence officials regarding the Israeli strike on a Syrian facility in September ‘07 and North Korean involvement in that facility.  

The US decided to give that briefing despite Israeli objections, in particular from the Israeli security establishment as reported in today’s Haaretz:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed the release of any new details on the attack or the nuclear ties between Damascus and Pyongyang, arguing that this would only push the Syrians into a corner and would escalate tensions.

Of course those briefings are the prerogative of the administration, and Congress had the right to demand such disclosures.  But the subtext to this story is another, perhaps more remarkable, example of the Bush Administration being an obstacle to, rather than promoter of, Arab-Israeli peace.  

Yesterday’s intelligence briefing happened due to unrelenting neocon pressure from Congress led by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter Hoekstra, from elements within the administration and in particular from recently retired officials, with John Bolton riding herd. 

Their apparent aim was a two-fer:  undermine the North Korea six party talks and undermine any prospect of renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks—mirroring the agenda of the Israeli right wing opposition (old buddies of the neocons).  On this score there was little to worry about—the Bush administration is now seen in both Jerusalem and Damascus as the main obstacle to a resumption of peace negotiations.  To get Israel and Syria to agree on this is quite an achievement.

Here is what President Assad said in an interview to Qatari daily al-Watan, published Thursday:

“[Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan had] ‘relayed to me Israel’s readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria [. . .]direct negotiations need a sponsor and, unfortunately, this sponsor can only be the U.S. This is the reality of the situation. But the current administration has no vision and no will to support a peace process [. . .] perhaps with a future administration in the U.S., we would be able to speak of direct negotiations. 

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert would of course not directly criticize President Bush—but here is what Israel’s top political commentators, well-briefed by the PM’s office, are saying:

[. . .] it is almost certain that the negotiations will not be renewed in the near future—at least not until the next tenant takes up residence in the White House in January 2009 and sponsors an initiative to revitalize the negotiations with American patronage and financial support. (Shimon Shiffer, Yedioth Ahronoth,4/24/08)

Is there or is there not a channel of negotiations with Syria?  Olmert merely hints at who, at this stage, is preventing such a dialogue.  His name is George W. Bush.  When will it be possible for Israel to talk to Syria?  When Bush leaves the White House [. . .] when Washington gives the green light (Ben Caspit, Ma’ariv, 4/18/08)

Almost all the Israeli security establishment supports rapprochement with Syria—the Defense Minister, Chief of Staff, Head of Intelligence, etc. 

In fact, yesterday was a rather telling day from several angles. Representative Gary Ackerman chaired a House FRC Middle East hearing: “U.S. Policy and the Road to Damascus: Who's Converting Whom?”

Martin Indyk—director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings and former US Ambassador to Israel—was one of those providing testimony.  Said Indyk:

As I understand it, the Bush Administration is unwilling to encourage Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations [. . .] this puts the U.S. in the unprecedented and invidious position of opposing an opportunity for Arab-Israeli peacemaking even when our ally Israel is keen to pursue it.

Of course, now in year seven, the Bush administration has launched one peace effort – the Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis process.  But that has all the appearances of a sham – no delivery on the ground to speak of, exclusion of key actors (such as Hamas), and nothing serious being done to create the conditions to implement anything even if a paper is agreed on.

Will Bush’s successor be a promoter of or an obstacle to Arab-Israeli conflict resolution and peace-making, and, just as important, will that successor act in year one or wait for year seven?

April 17, 2008

And That's the Beat on J Street...

J Street has been launched as a new effort to

promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israel conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. We support a new direction for American policy in the Middle East and a broad public and policy debate about the U.S. role in the region…J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own - two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.…[and we support] diplomatic solutions over military ones, including in Iran; multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution; and dialogue over confrontation with a wide range of countries and actors when conflicts do arise.

In my personal capacity, I am of course supportive of J Street, and there have been many positive pieces written about it.  Here’s a very small selection:  Jeremy Ben-Ami has this op-ed in the Forward, Ezra Klein writes ‘No Time For Neutrality’ at the American Prospect, and Spencer Ackerman discusses ‘Reframing the Israel Debate’ in the Washington Independent. 

Additionally, there has been a pile of news coverage on the J Street launch in the Washington Post, Haaretz, the JTA, and elsewhere. 

Of course, the praise has not been unanimous, with a push-back coming from some expected places.  The counter-positions have included pieces by Noah Pollak at Commentary and Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard.

And finally—a piece I wrote in my personal capacity can be read at the Huffington Post.

A Friend for All Seasons

Yesterday my friend MJ Rosenberg noted what, according to former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was the upside of 9/11 (you read that correctly).  Here's what Netanyahu had to say at a speech at Bar Ilan University:

We are benefiting from one thing, and that is the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and the American struggle in Iraq…[events that] swung American public opinion in our favor.

He uttered these words at Bar Ilan University as reported by the Ma'ariv newspaper—it seems the speech was in Hebrew (read: something we weren't supposed to know about).  But MJ reminds us that is nothing new for Netanyahu. Here is what he said in September 2001:

It's very good. Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy…[and] strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we've experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive hemorrhaging of terror.

So sayeth the best friend that American neocons have in Israel—a thought that should give all pause.  ‘Nuff said.

April 14, 2008

Close Your Eyes and Count to Fifty

During her last visit to the region on March 30th, Secretary Rice was able to announce a joint agreement of ‘concrete steps’ after her trilateral with Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Here is what it said on Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank:

Israel has pledged to reduce the impediments to access and movement in the West Bank. This will begin with the removal of about 50 roadblocks and immediate steps to upgrade checkpoints to reduce waiting time without sacrificing security.

The most credible and quoted source for keeping a tab on this is the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the UN.  Their latest closure tally of all obstacles to Palestinian movement in the West Bank was 580—a quite stunning number for an area that is smaller than the state of Delaware (the 2nd smallest state in the US).  That 580 number came before the latest commitment to improve things.

So, how’s it going? 

Rather well actually—until that is, one checks the small print.

The IDF stated that it has removed 61 obstacles.  It provided a list of those 61 to OCHA with the relevant GPS coordinates (the IDF knows that without the OCHA kosher certificate this will not be taken seriously, and yes, the IDF works with the UN).  OCHA took the list and GPS coordinates and did what it does best—checked the reality on the ground.

OCHA gave an update briefing to some diplomats and others last week (partially reported in Haaretz)—it was off the record, but here are the findings:  Of the 61 obstacles on the list, 44 had indeed been removed.  Six were still in place and OCHA found no proof of the prior existence of the final 11 obstacles supposedly done away with.  44—not bad…except this—only 5 of those 44 were part of OCHA’s previous 580 count.  How so?  Well the other 39 were not considered to have been real obstacles of any relevance or significance to Palestinian movement in the first place—in fields or areas inaccessible to Palestinians or of no real affect. 

There is a phrase in English for this, for what has happened so far in implementing the latest commitments on obstacle removal—it is called being done up like a kipper…

April 11, 2008

A more private occupation

This is an op-ed in today's Haaretz. 

Imagine Philippe Starck and Daniel Libeskind are commissioned to design an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank - imposing exterior, breezy interior, daring splashes of light and color. Sometimes it seems this is the image being promoted by the newly privatized and civilianized checkpoints and crossings popping up in the territories. When it comes to dress codes, the drab olive of military fatigues is decidedly passe, having been replaced by the crisp uniforms of private security contractors.

A half-dozen such terminals are operated by private companies - from Al-Jalama near Jenin, to Sha'ar Ephraim near Tul Karm, from Reihan to Tarqumiya. According to a recent Channel 10 news report, the Israel Defense Forces is planning to privatize all the checkpoints in the seam area. No more wasting soldiers' time. The IDF is selling the idea in win-win terms: better security for Israelis,better service for the Palestinians.

That we should still be exploring modalities for reinventing and improving the occupation, rather than ending it, after more than 40 years, is troubling enough in itself. But the decision by the state to outsource so basic a national security function with barely an eyebrow raised or question asked, will likely prove, in time, another example of how what we sow in the territories we later reap back home.

This phenomenon of a more private occupation complements a broader Israeli trend of outsourcing functions, including those of a sensitive nature, that were previously the state's purview. And the privatization of the military is a ubiquitous global affair. Private military firms (PMFs) now provide logistical, maintenance and consulting services, as well as actual combat duties, to contractors in more than 50 countries.

The world has accumulated a fair amount of experience in outsourcing military services and Israel would do well to take notice. The American presence in Iraq has become something of a laboratory for PMF-watchers. There, in addition to the traditional grunt jobs, private contractors have taken on core military functions, such as protecting important installations, escorting convoys, and even operating missile-defense systems. It was also PMF employees who were at the center of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.

And then there is the case of Blackwater, dubbed by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, himself ex-military, "rent-an-army." Last September, Blackwater company guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad intersection. That episode finally cast a spotlight on the shadowy existence of one of the Iraq war's greatest beneficiaries. Blackwater barely existed 10 years ago, but, according to The Guardian, the politically well-connected company has been awarded over $750 million in government contracts since mid-2004, often in the form of non-competitive tenders.

There is no scandal of the Blackwater scale waiting to erupt in Israel, but the issues now being investigated in the U.S. regarding the uses and abuses of PMFs merit our attention. The obvious dilemmas begin with the question of how PMF contracting can coexist with the principle of the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In addition to crossings and checkpoints, private companies in the West Bank are patrolling the separation barrier and other security-sensitive spots (such as the tunnel on Route 60). They are deployed at Gaza's Erez crossing and apparently at the fuel depot in Nahal Oz. Their workers are outside the military chain of command and justice system, they are removed from governmental and legislative oversight, functioning in a legal twilight zone.

By definition, a private company does not operate on the basis of the public good - unlike its client, the state, it has different incentives, mainly profit. This can influence decisions on recruitment criteria, quality of equipment procured, investment in training, rotation of personnel, and more. PMFs also add another layer of bureaucracy and possible confusion to an already convoluted mix of Israeli state actors. The use of contractors has a distorting effect on the real costs of a particular security posture and policy. And, finally, civilians - unlike soldiers - can always walk off the job.

Machsom Watch (an NGO that actively monitors the goings-on at checkpoints) has reported an increase in tensions, reduced channels of communication, and a more explosive situation at the privately run terminals. Lose-lose: less security, worse service. The privatization of the occupation needs to be reconsidered.

All this is not an appeal for bringing back the boys (and girls) in green. The occupation and its checkpoints and terminals will not be benevolent, whether they are staffed by soldiers, private contractors or bagel-makers. That much should be clear by now. But we should be careful in our rush to privatize state security functions - whether in the context of occupation or when, finally, we have agreed-upon permanent borders and passages.

When the reality about PMFs in Iraq was just emerging, the Brookings Institution published a report on "Outsourcing War." This is its conclusion, which should be read in Jerusalem (and reread in Washington): "The U.S. military must take a step back and reconsider, from a national security perspective, just what roles and functions should be kept in government hands."

April 8, 2008

Israel and Hamas Test the Waters?

Interesting noises have been coming recently from the leader of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashal, and the Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak.  Looking at what they both said in relatively quick succession, one might even be tempted to draw the inference that perhaps this was coordinated and that something is cooking here.  Khaled Mashal gave an interview to the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam that appeared on April 2nd (I know, I know, we have to listen to what Palestinian leaders tell their own public in their own language, and not…wait a minute, this was in their own language.  This was an interview in Arabic in a Palestinian paper.  I guess people will now say you have to start listening to what they say in Yiddish).  Being serious again, Mashal in this interview explicitly endorses a Palestinian state within the ’67 borders, he in effect accepts the Arab initiative and reiterates Hamas support for the previous agreements reached with Fatah and the Palestinian national platform (the ‘Prisoners’ Documents’ and Mecca Agreement).  Here is an excerpt from that interview with al-Ayyam:
al-Ayyam:  What would you say to those Israelis who are calling on their government to talk to Hamas?
KM:  I would advise them to pressure their government to stop its aggression against our people, end the occupation, and recognize Palestinian rights, especially since the Arabs and         Palestinians have adopted a joint position regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967.
al-Ayyam:  When you say ‘the borders of 1967,’ is that a strategic position or just tactics?
KM:  Most Palestinian factions agreed in the [Fatah-Hamas] Accord Document signed in 2006 that a future Palestinian state should be established within the borders of 1967, including Jerusalem, as well as the right of return and full sovereignty. This is the Palestinian position. It is also the official Arab position, with a few differences in detail. Israel has to declare its commitment to such a solution.
al-Ayyam:  But the Europeans and Americans say that Hamas calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, and consequently would have nothing to do with it. What would you say to them?
KM:  We as a movement are committed to a political program that we agreed upon with other Palestinian factions, a program that is supported by the Arab world. Consequently, the Americans, Europeans, and other international parties must reconcile themselves with this political reality and must judge us accordingly. You do not judge people by what you believe is in their heads, but by what they have committed themselves to on paper. The major challenge facing the Americans and others in the international community is how to force Israel into accepting what we have offered. This is the solution. After that, whether one wishes to recognize Israel or not is his affair.
In this interview Mashal also addressed the need for Palestinian unity and a renewed internal Palestinian dialogue.  This has been a consistent Hamas theme, although both sides, Fatah and Hamas, blame the other for lack of progress.  Interestingly, Mashal seems to blame the Americans even more than the Israelis for interfering to prevent Palestinian internal reconciliation.  Here is Mashal again:

Palestinian national unity is essential, and dealing with the current state of disunity is critical...However, there are many other factors that have been acting against the possibility of dialogue, and these unfortunately have had the upper hand. The most important of these negative factors has been U.S. and Israeli interference. Sadly, inter-Palestinian dialogue is now more of an American decision than it is a Palestinian or an Arab one…Only when the Americans realize that coercion does not work will they begin working for reconciliation as the only means for pushing Palestinian-Israeli peace talks forwards.
That last sentence seems very much like Khaled Mashal expressing encouragement for peace talks and a desire for their success—again, I think this interview, if not a substantive breakthrough, is at least very significant and the extent to which it is ignored suggests negligence and irresponsibility by media and policy-makers alike.  

Or maybe Ehud Barak was this time doing the responsible thing and not ignoring Mashal’s remarks.  Ehud Barak gave an interview to Der Spiegel that was due to coincide with a planned visit to Germany (a visit Barak then postponed).  The interview appears in English in Der Spiegel online, and it appears that the interview happened after the Mashal comments.  Here is what Barak told the German newspaper regarding Israel and Hamas: “…if the terror from Gaza Strip stops and the smuggling of weapons stops, the door will be open for a different kind of relationship.” Barak went on to say the following:

SPIEGEL: Is there a risk of Hamas taking over the West Bank?
Barak: There is a clear risk that this will happen. Not necessarily by bullets, though—it could possibly be by the ballot.
SPIEGEL: Would you cease negotiating with Abbas, if he and Hamas were to reconciliate?
Barak: I do not pretend to control their events. We are against Hamas. But I am in no position to say whether it is better for them to have a unity government or whether Abbas should try to re-conquer the Gaza Strip. To those of my Israeli cabinet colleagues who think we can easily destroy Hamas, I am saying: You cannot dictate this to another person. It didn’t work in Afghanistan and not in Iraq. It doesn’t work in the Middle East.

Barak’s comments on Iraq and Afghanistan are interesting as a stand alone, but on the Israel/Hamas issue, as Ma’ariv lead commentator Ben Caspit noted

“contrary to the official position of the government of Israel, Barak refrained from declaring that in such a case (the case of Abbas forming a unity government with Hamas—DL)…Israel would break off contact with Abu Mazen…From Barak’s statements it emerges that the ‘disk has been changed recently’, at least in the security establishment, and the illusions that it will be possible ‘to bring down Hamas rule’, or ‘to shatter the organization,’ have become obsolete, and that Israel is now prepared to consider another policy" (Ben Caspit, Ma’ariv).

Ehud Barak, as minister of Defense, probably has more influence over Israel’s day-to-day policy vis a vis Hamas than anyone else.  Is Barak possibly leading a realist line within the Israeli cabinet—skepticism regarding Annapolis and a focus on looking afresh at the internal Palestinian situation and the Gaza reality—perhaps even suggesting that a new security dynamic based on these would allow for a more meaningful Annapolis process?  

That is probably me speculating too far.  I do think that there is a debate within the Israeli establishment and an element of a rethink regarding Hamas, the approach to Gaza and the approach to Palestinian national unity.  I do not think that a strong case is being made, at least not yet, in favor of pursuing a cease-fire and a green-light for Palestinian national unity as a building block for more robust peace negotiations.  Even if the Mashal and Barak interview content was not coordinated (and I doubt it was), it is still part of an ongoing interaction of testing and prodding between Israel and Hamas that sometimes expresses itself in violence, sometimes in interview and words, and sometimes via mediators.  

That interaction is not static but it is still insufficiently dynamic and decisive.  Here is the option that I among others have been advocating:

1)  A cease-fire package is reached that includes:  no attacks from Gaza into Israel or vice-versa, more effective and verifiable efforts to prevent weapons entering Gaza, the opening of Gaza crossings in an agreed, appropriate and monitored way, for goods and persons, between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt.  To be sustainable the cease-fire would almost certainly have to be extended to the West-Bank.  Ideally the package is expanded to include a prisoner exchange seeing the release of Gilad Shalit.  

2)  Ideally this package is agreed between Israel and President Abbas who also acts on behalf of Hamas.  He has brokered deals that include Hamas in the past.  If such an option continues to prove impossible then Israel reaches a set of back-to-back arrangements regarding Gaza (as above and probably mediated by Egypt) and with the PA regarding the role it would play (including at the Gaza border crossings).

3)  The Palestinians resume a national dialogue which does not entail the threat of an Israeli or American veto or the cessation, as a consequence, of the peace process.  The details would probably be different but the basic outline would be similar to the Mecca agreement (of February 2007)—including acceptance of the authority of Abbas to negotiate with Israel.  Obviously to succeed better than last time, a new Palestinian internal arrangement would require broader acceptance, effective implementation and external support.  

4) Political negotiations continue between Israel and Abbas under conditions of improved security and with a Palestinian interlocutor who has greater authority and legitimacy to both pursue talks and to implement anything agreed.  Ideally, Syria is also re-engaged in a substantive diplomatic way, a move which could positively impact both the regional and intra-Palestinian dynamic (but more of that another time).  

So why is it not happening?  

  • For starters, Israel has yet to make the switch in relation to the internal Palestinian scene and is apparently unsure whether it prefers a non-implementable shelf agreement or an implementable end-of-occupation agreement.
  • The Fatah leadership has yet to make up its own mind on whether it is ready for the power-sharing and PLO reform that internal reconciliation entails. The group around Abbas remains unenthusiastic, but according to reports a new force is emerging in Fatah (informally known as the group of 25—all members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council) who back extensive reform within Fatah, renewed dialogue with Hamas and an anti-corruption drive amongst other things.  The group’s leaders are thought to include Marwan Barghouti, Nasser al-Kidwa (former PLO UN Ambassador and Yasser Arafat’s nephew), Ahmed Hils (an anti-Dahlan Fatah leader in Gaza), and Jibril Rajoub (an ex-security chief).  
  • Hamas may not at the moment be ready for the above kind of deals on terms that could be accepted by Israel and Fatah respectively.  Much of the Middle East and certainly America’s adversaries are adopting a Keith Olberman posture—they are counting down the days of the Bush administration and are in no mood to facilitate any Bush achievements.  
  • And U.S. Policy.  The Bush administration still seems to think that an agreement on paper will overcome a complex reality rather than what is staring most people in the face, that a complex reality will undermine an agreement on paper.  
Sure we can and likely will re-visit all of this in 9 months, but things could further unravel by then, especially if the last-ditch Bush peace effort proves to be ill-conceived and counter-productive...and no prizes for guessing the odds that the bookies are offering on that one...

April 3, 2008

‘Responding to New Settlement Expansion’

A series of new data and new decisions have been dribbling out of Israel recently on settlement expansion.  The tarmac had barely cooled off from Secretary Rice’s departure earlier in the week and the Israeli government was already announcing plans to build 600 new apartments in the Givat Ze’ev settlement and the approval of 800 new units in Betar Illit.  This news came in the wake of new construction plans for Har Homa in East Jerusalem and rumors that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in negotiations with the settler leadership to simply relocate (rather than dismantle) the Migron outpost to a more convenient area in the West Bank.  The Israeli NGO Peace Now has a settlement watch project which just released a new report looking at 4 months of settlement expansion since the Annapolis conference, the headline finding of which was that at least 1,900 new settlement homes would be built in 2008—a record number for the last 10 years.

At this stage the temptation is to yawn and move on.  After 15 years of a peace process which has been paralleled by the ongoing creation of settlement facts on the ground, that undermine the apparent goal of a two state solution, the questions raised are old ones.  But it might be worth trying to eek out some new answers.  In the light of this old/new development of Annapolis and settlement growth going hand in hand, here is an attempt to look afresh at 5 of those questions. 

What drives settlement expansion?  Obviously there is a core of ideologically driven Israelis for whom life in the hills of Judea and Samaria is the fulfillment of a biblical injunction.  Them and groups they established, led by Gush Emunim (the bloc of the faithful) led the move to establish permanent civilian communities in the territories occupied in 1967.  But their task could not have been achieved without a combination of acquiescence and active facilitation by the various organs of the Israeli governmental bureaucracy and defense establishments.  They cooperated for reasons that ranged from sharing the ideology to security-based arguments, for some it was establishing bargaining chips for future negotiations and for others just a question of the political inconvenience of confronting the settlers.  And the settlers have been strategic.  When settlements started being built in the vicinity of Jerusalem for the ultra-Orthodox communities (until then settlements were mainly modern or national Orthodox, or economically-driven as opposed to ultra-Orthodox) the settler movement won a new ally in the political representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community—the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.  In the current governing coalition the Shas party makes the growth of the settlements serving their community one of their key political demands. Today the network of enablers that the settlers have throughout the system translates into a reality whereby the gravity or inertia of Israeli state bureaucracy in itself drives settlement expansion.  Recognizing that what drives settlement growth goes deeper than the supposed nefarious schemes of any given Israeli Prime Minister is important for devising a strategy to counter this phenomenon.

It is perfectly plausible (and I for one would argue) that the current Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is sincere in his professed intention to reach a two state solution and to withdraw from at least the vast majority of the West Bank.  He may even be genuine when arguing that the current settlement growth is anyway in areas that will feature in a future land swap and is a necessary coalition bargain that is cut in order to sustain a government that is negotiating the end of the occupation and therefore of the settlement project.  In a simple cost-benefit calculation, for an Israeli Prime Minister the price of freezing settlements is higher than what is paid for continuing them.  Which brings us to our next question.

Given the continued settlement drive, is a two state solution still realistic?  First there is a question here of the need for a viable Palestinian state.  One could carve out any piece of territory, put a flag on it, and call it the ‘Palestinian Free State’.  But if the borders, the conditions and nature of that state, its credibility and legitimacy have no traction with the Palestinians, then it becomes almost an irrelevance in its ability to change the Israeli-Palestinian reality.  Obviously any additional Israeli presence beyond the ’67 line creates further obstacles to address in the negotiations and to remove as part of any bargain.  Is it possible to remove 90 settlements but not 100?  Probably not.  This is not an exact science.  The continued relevance of the two-state solution may have less to do with the physical fact of an additional 1900 housing units and more to do with the cognitive perceptions and spatial maps created in people’s minds by the physical structures on the ground.  This is a point that is paid to little attention to.  The announcement of more building in a given settlement has a devastating impact on the Palestinian belief that a real two state solution will happen.  It dramatically undermines those advocating such a solution or involved in negotiations to that end, and it also of course sends a signal to the Israeli public.  The two state solution is likely to be labeled RIP in people’s heads long before it becomes technically unfeasible on the ground. That is the challenge.

So what can the U.S. and the international community do about it?  40 years after the 1967 war (and 120 settlements later, 105 outposts, and 267,000 Israelis living beyond the green line), it is abundantly clear at this stage that the U.S. and international response has not been a robust one, and it has not sufficiently affected the ledger of the Israeli cost-benefit calculation in a way that prohibits settlement expansion.  That this is unfortunate is something that even most Israelis would probably now accept given the regret now voiced regarding the investments made in the territories and the intention expressed to withdraw.  Three options remain.  One would be to pursue policies that try to re-balance that basic Israeli calculation. To raise this suggestion is hardly a eureka moment.  It has been considered.  That leverage has not been easy to summon in the past, nor will it be in the future.  A second option is to be more effective at the preventive stage.  If more consistent, persistent and higher level U.S. attention is paid to this issue then new plans can be caught while they’re still in the process of decision making within the Israeli system.  It is much more difficult to affect the process once an announcement has been made.  The final option is to make good on the second half of the equation that is consistently heard from the Israeli side.  Namely, ‘we cannot both freeze settlements and continue negotiations, because of domestic politics, turn a blind eye to the former so we can pursue the latter.’ The response might be, ‘Ok, so let’s finish those negotiations now’.

What about the Palestinians?  Do they have a role?  In part this relates to the previous question.  Third parties cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians.  And if the PLO agrees to continue negotiating with Israel while settlements are being expanded in contravention of agreements reached, then why would others take a harder line.  This has been the reality since the beginning of the Oslo process.  One senior PLO figure, its Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo, has just called for a halt in the talks and for the Palestinians to generate a crisis over the settlement issue.  This tool has been deployed rarely and even then unsuccessfully in the past, and many Palestinians would respond that they are not doing anyone a favor by negotiating but simply trying to advance their own national interest,  and that it would be an own goal to walk away from the talks.  Suspending talks might also encourage Israelis to do the same over any number of issues and perhaps also ignores the power disequilibrium between the two parties. 

An alternative course of action was recently suggested by Israeli Housing Minister Ze’ev Boim.  In explaining why he was re-launching new settlement construction in Givat Ze’ev he noted that the work was suspended due to the outbreak of violence in the second intifida, but now that violence had ebbed, building could resume.  Ipso facto, if there is enough Palestinian violence, work will be abandoned.  The point was not lost on former Palestinian minister Kadura Fares in this powerful recent Ha’aretz op-ed which ended:  “Mr. Boim, we got the message.  Will anyone in Israel yet accuse you of incitement to rebellion and resistance?”

But Kadura Fares did not advocate violence and other Palestinian have suggested that a civil disobedience or non violent resistance campaign targeting the settlements would be the most effective course of action.  That strategy has appeared fleetingly in response to the separation barrier at Bi’lin and elsewhere, but has yet to be deployed more broadly.  Such an approach might have an effect on Israeli actions just as the negotiations walk-out might interestingly impact the actions of the U.S. and Quartet.       

Finally, is there a bottom line?  Settlements may in the end scupper the two state project, but it is too early to know and if anything, the fact that Israel evacuated all settlements in Gaza and 4 in the Northern West Bank suggests otherwise.  More can be done to affect the pace and extent of settlement expansion, obviously by Israel, but also by the U.S. and Palestinians themselves.  But ultimately, absent a permanent agreed border this problem will fester and frustrate.  Ending the occupation will end the issue of settlements.  Trying to limit or freeze settlements under conditions of an ongoing occupation has been and continues to be a thankless task. 


April 2, 2008

Hamas and Incitement in the New York Times


Yesterday, Tuesday, the New York Times ran a long front page article about the Hamas use of incitement against Jews and Israel. The first thing to say about the piece is that it is almost certainly accurate and not something that can be easily dismissed.  There are problems with some of the sources but beyond this article there is the need to recognize the full range of causes of mutual anger, hatred, and suspicion.  There are no excuses for the incitement that Steve Erlanger highlights, there are though more ways to be more serious about combating it. 

The article describes not only the commonplace exhortations from the pulpit during Friday prayers—the Jews are “the brothers of apes and pigs” went one jingle—but also the pervasive influence of anti-Semitic propaganda in many Hamas-led TV channels.  Whether made manifest in newspaper articles, or displayed on children’s TV puppet shows, the penchant for vitriol is not really in question.

These instances and examples are a troubling phenomenon, are part of the Israeli-Palestinian reality and also help shape that reality.  Sure, one could point to the ugly statements made by religious leaders and Rabbis in Israel, including two recent diatribes: Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s proposal of “hanging the children of the terrorist who carried out the attack in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva from a tree”; or Rabbi Dov Lior’s halakhic ruling that Jewish law forbids the employment of, or renting of a home to, any Arab.  Additionally, one can see the effect of such incitement in society at large:  a recent poll by Ma’ariv-NRG said that 75% of the Israeli public would support the transfer of Israel’s Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state.  But those statements (and the wider trend they represent), as egregious as they are, do not excuse what is exposed in Steve Erlanger’s story.

The New York Times piece certainly would have been more credible had Erlanger resisted the temptation to use sources such as MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch.

MEMRI, founded by former IDF colonel Yigal Carmon (who is currently the director), portrays itself as a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to bridging the language gap between the West and Middle East, through “timely translations of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East”. 

Sounds very innocuous, but MEMRI’s output looks more like an anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda machine.  Carmon’s post-IDF career initially sent him as a representative of Likudist groups to lobby Congress against the then Israeli Government of Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990’s.  Carmon has been a consistent foe of the Oslo process since its inception—MEMRI is the sophisticated mechanism through which he channels his far-right ideology.  Here is what Juan Cole—who knows a thing or two about the Arab media—has to say on MEMRI

The organization cleverly cherry-picks the vast Arabic press, which serves 300 million people, for the most extreme and objectionable articles and editorials. It carefully does not translate the moderate articles. I have looked at newspapers that ran both tolerant and extremist opinion pieces on the same day, and checked MEMRI, to find that only the extremist one showed up.

Palestinian Media Watch, founded by Itamar Marcus, is arguably even more partisan than MEMRI.  A brief perusal of the PMW website suggests that the entire Palestinian raison d’etre is to incite hate against Jews.  A little reductionist one might say.  It seems the PMW is at least as tainted with hatred of Palestinians as are the episodes of Palestinian intolerance towards Jews, which it seeks to expose.  PMW’s reliability is very questionable.  Here is just one example of a debunking of a study its director, Itamar Marcus, conducted on textbooks (I will post more about MEMRI and especially PMW in the near future).

Using these sources was problematic, but Erlanger is a serious journalist and the article includes his reporting from Gaza and direct interviews that are not connected to MEMRI or PMW. So his basic thesis is accurate that this kind of incitement does exist, and it cannot be ignored.

There is another unnecessary glitch in the article. The use of Fatah sources is emblematic of a trend in which certain elements within Fatah are now very eager to tell the Western press what they assume it wants to hear regarding their internal political rivals.   Of course, the incitement argument was used for so many years against Fatah itself, and still is in many quarters.  There were constant attempts to derail the Oslo process by highlighting speeches from Fatah and PLO leaders, what was broadcast and what was taught.  Under PM Netanyahu, as part of the Wye River memorandum of 1998, a Tri- Lateral (Israeli-Palestinian-American) Anti-Incitement Committee was established.  The incitement question has been a genuine ongoing problem, but has also been repeatedly used as a stick to beat the Palestinians by people who have no interest in peace, ending prejudice, a two state solution, or ending the occupation. 

This is not about what should or should not have been in the NYT piece, but about a bigger picture that needs to be kept in mind.  The challenge is to take both incitement and peace-making seriously.  That issue, of incitement then and now, reminds us of two points that should not be forgotten amidst all the justified ‘oy veys’ that will be heard in the wake of the NYT article.  

First, anyone who is serious about incitement has to take seriously the impact that the realities on the ground have on young Palestinians and how they view Israel.  Yes, incitement is impactful and deplorable. There is also very strong case to be made that the endless humiliations of the occupation and its manifestations in checkpoints, closures, military raids, and sonic boom over flights, etch a more powerful image into a young Palestinian conscience than words occasionally heard on unpopular TV stations or on a mosque on a Friday.  To create an entire industry dedicated to cataloging every instance of the latter, but that totally ignores, or worse totally condones or supports the former, suggests a political and ideological agenda that actually has very little to do with overcoming and changing a reality of mutual fear, suspicion, and hatred.   Spending a lifetime documenting TV puppet shows but doing nothing about the daily violence of the occupation suggests a real lack of seriousness when it comes to battling hatred in future generations.  What it suggests is ulterior motives. 

Second, Israel, America and the International community all worked (and continue to work) with Fatah, even while claims of incitement were being raised, argued over and condemned.  That same approach should be pursued with Hamas.  It is the approach that Israel has taken correctly with Egypt and Jordan.  It is undoubtedly also true that plenty of American allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the lesser hot-spots in the region, are hardly squeamish when it comes to the accusations and rhetorical insults they hurl at America.  Yet America still works with these allies.

Some have claimed that the lesson to learn is that one should not pursue a peace process without first addressing and putting an end to incitement.  But reconciliation and occupation do not make happy bedfellows.  Can you end hate by closing a TV channel, newspaper or mosque but maintaining a siege on Gaza, 580 obstacles to movement in the West Bank, 121 settlements, and at least 130 Palestinian civilians killed in 2007 (plus the deaths of 53 Palestinian minors)?  Not so much.  To get real about incitement, you also have to get real about the full range of grievances that drive anger on both sides.  Ending the occupation may be a precondition for reconciliation—reversing that equation cannot make any sense whatsoever.

April 1, 2008

What to Make of Rice's Latest Mid-East Visit

Condoleezza Rice has just completed her 11th visit to the Middle East in 15 months and her 3rd trip since the Annapolis Conference.

As Glenn Kessler pointed out in yesterday’s Washington Post, time is running out on this Administration and the Secretary of State’s unfinished tasks list is a dauntingly long one. Given the primacy accorded to Annapolis and the time and travel invested, the Israeli-Palestinian process would appear to assume pride of place.

The Annapolis season is scheduled to last one year, but with four months gone, the scorecard makes for predictably depressing reading. Economic conditions and freedom of movement in the West Bank have, if anything, deteriorated; settlements are expanding and not a single outpost has gone; Israelis and Palestinians are less secure. Both leaders – Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen are still alive politically (and that admittedly was not a given) but both are still in a precariously fragile state.

Belief in the process barely registers with either public. Still the Administration continues to tout its goal of a breakthrough agreement by years-end, the president will visit in May and Rice even notched up some minor progress on this trip. So where do things stand and what are the prospects?

Here are five comments on the latest developments:

1 – One Step Forward, Two Steps…

The one deliverable from the Rice visit came from a trilateral meeting attended by, in addition to the Secretary herself, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyed. This produced an agreement on “concrete steps to implement the Roadmap. This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure [. . .] Prime Minister Fayyad and Defense Minister Barak agreed on points of special, immediate emphasis and work.”

Those steps are detailed in a one page document released by the State Department that includes Israeli commitments to ease certain movement restrictions, to allow additional Palestinian security deployments, building authorizations and economic projects. None of this is new. Similar commitments have been made before by Israel to the US and PA and were reneged on. To even squeeze this list out of MoD Barak was an achievement given the spoiler role he has assumed since returning to Government, and this time Secretary Rice promised “a more systematic approach [. . .] to monitoring and verifying.”

The Catch 22 is that absent either a political deal or real change in the security environment (such as a comprehensive ceasefire with Hamas) – and the two are connected - the Israeli security default position translates into constant back-sliding on all these issues (justified or otherwise that is the reality). 

Take a closer look at that package produced in honor of the Secretary’s visit:

There are now 580 obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement in the tiny area of the West Bank, more than at the time of Annapolis and about 30 more than at this time last year.  Barak committed to removing 50, net change +/- 20 and that is if all is implemented and there is no slippage.

Barak agreed to allow PA security deployment in Jenin, with restrictions, and some new measures on security coordination. Nice, but the last town that received such treatment was Nablus and in that experiment the IDF continued ongoing military operations that undermined the PA security efforts and deeply embarrassed the PA leadership. This latest very public announcement will do nothing to stem the tide of internal Palestinian criticism that increasingly depicts the PA as a puppet of Israel. That impression is further enhanced when Israel announces that it will allow the transfer of certain arms and armored vehicles to the PA.  Sometimes it is better to shut up. 

The third basket of commitments was described as follows:

“The two sides approved in concept the development of new housing in the West Bank for Palestinians [. . .] Master Plans for 25 Palestinian villages in Area C have been approved.”

Nothing like this particular snippet to remind Palestinians just how much Israel still controls their lives and just about everything in the West Bank – and just how limited the mandate of the PA is.

The final treat in this festive Easter egg of goodies – economic projects – “Both sides have agreed to create a major new industrial park in Tarqumiya” and to hold an “investment conference in Bethlehem”. To anyone who has followed the last decade and a half of peace-processing this will sound tragically familiar. Industrial Park plans existed before (for example, a 90 million dollar project called the Gaza Industrial Estate and joint government of Israel-PA plan for industrial parks in Jenin, Sha'ar Ephraim, Erez and Karni crossings, and Jericho) and stranger than strange none of them ever seem to materialize. Would it be too mean-spirited to suggest that occupation, attendant insecurity and unpredictability and undefined borders simply do not provide the best climate for investor confidence or business success?!

And yes, that would be the same Bethlehem where Israel conducted a recent extra-judicial killing of four Palestinians that saw the largest protests that city can remember – ‘welcome to happy, holy Bethlehem’.

It all sounds rather reminiscent of the Access and Movement Agreement negotiated by Secretary Rice in November 2005 and ignored by everyone else ever since.

To give some credit, I think Rice has little faith that this list of action items will produce meaningful change – one of the successes of her recent diplomacy was to de-link day-to-day issues from negotiations and to recognize the limited potential of improvements on the ground absent real political progress. Rice had to produce something, Barak was willing to throw together this pick’n’mix menu, the PA could at least point to something and everyone settled for what they could get.

If these measures at least put a brake on the slide to an even worse West Bank situation then that too is an achievement, though the announcements of new Israeli settlement expansion literally hours after the Secretary’s departure was hardly a good omen.

2 – How Many Generals Does It Take To Move A Checkpoint?

The US now has three generals deployed on the Israeli-Palestinian front as envoys with varying mandates and responsibilities. General Dayton oversees Palestinian security sector reform and cooperation, General Jones looks at regional security issues in the context of a prospective future peace deal, and General Fraser has perhaps the most thankless task – verifying the implementation of all those Roadmap commitments – including the new laundry list from this visit. All three are dedicated and respected professionals but their parallel missions do not enhance their chances of success.  The question for Secretary Rice is whether this latest mission served to strengthen or fatally undermine her new Special Envoy Lt. General William Fraser? About two and a half weeks ago Fraser convened his first trilateral meeting on Roadmap implementation – the Palestinian PM Fayyad showed up, but Israeli MD Barak skipped the meeting and sent the senior Defense Ministry strategist General Amos Gilad. It was impossible to pretend that this was not a slap in the face to the new US mission and Envoy from Mr. Ehud  Barak.

During this trip the Secretary of State convened a trilateral meeting – and lo and behold Barak found time to grace the occasion with his presence.

One of two things is happening here – either Barak has now set his bar for being there at nothing less than the Secretary level (with the corresponding impact on General Fraser’s standing and ability to function), or Ms. Rice introduced Mr. Barak to her new Envoy and expressed the expectation that the two gentlemen would be seeing rather a lot of each other in the near future. Someone should ask Condi which it is. 

3 – Where are those peace negotiations at?

The other trilateral meeting on the Secretary’s schedule during this visit brought her together with the heads of the respective negotiating teams who are working for a framework agreement, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the Israeli side and her PLO counterpart, Abu Ala.

Peace negotiations do not lend themselves to progress reports, half-time updates or latest scores, so in that respect the Secretary having nothing to announce was absolutely understandable and the act of sitting with and hearing from both sides was a good move. My sources tell me that these negotiations are serious, the ground being covered is significant and both sides are adopting a constructive, problem-solving approach.

At the same time, precious few people on the Israeli or Palestinian sides actually expect a deal to be reached. There is no contradiction here – with negotiations it ain’t over til it’s over and if the negotiations collapse over a 1% disagreement or a 90% disagreement the end result is the same.

I would argue that the dis-connect here is not related to the sincerity of the negotiators but rather to the environment or context in which those negotiations are taking place and the lack of anything other than an artificial deadline.

The need to take a fresh look at that surrounding environment – political division on the Palestinian side, Gaza, regional divisions, Syria, etc. is where Administration policy still comes up short in ways that are likely to ultimately defeat the Annapolis effort.

4 – Remember Gaza?

Gaza was barely mentioned by the Secretary, at least in official comments, during this trip. That may be a good thing. The rhetorical platitudes that tend to accompany any reference to the Gaza situation are not helpful. They were fleetingly mentioned, with Rice arguing that the democratically elected Hamas government “holds the people hostage,” but on this visit such statements were the exception not the rule. Perhaps the Administration is allowing or even encouraging the quiet, Egyptian-led work with all the parties – Israel, the PA, and Hamas – aimed at building on the current de-escalation in order to create a sustainable ceasefire.

Probably the best way to improve the prospects for the peace talks would be to improve the security situation for both peoples and re-establish a degree of national dialogue, agreed rules of the game and ultimately unity on the Palestinian side. That will require a locked-in ceasefire at least for Gaza and probably for the West Bank as well, which in turn necessitates not only an end to shooting but also arrangements for border crossings to open and efforts to prevent weapons smuggling. Obviously this requires the engagement, indirectly via third parties, of Hamas. 

In addition efforts need to be re-launched at talks for a Hamas-Fatah understanding and seen through to a successful conclusion. The Yemenis have recently acted as a go-between but internal Fatah disagreements are not only derailing that effort but also further tarnishing Fatah’s credibility. Playing for time is not helping Fatah. Abbas may not be keen on unity talks but the apparent continuation of the US (and Israeli) veto of intra-Palestinian talks is crucial and it is a failed policy that actually undermines the likelihood of achievement in a peace process to which both sides are at least outwardly committed, and not the opposite as claimed.

5 – A Region-In-Waiting

There is a price to pay for getting serious on an Israeli-Palestinian peace effort not on day one of an administration but only after day 2,500Part of that price is that much of the Middle East has already written off this Administration and is in a holding pattern awaiting the successor.  And that will be another strike against the administration’s last gasp peace effort.  Those actors in the region who the Bush Administration discourages anyone from engaging with would probably not be amenable anyway to any new policy opening at this late date.  But even the Administration’s allies are unlikely to go out on a limb and to make a serious effort to be helpful especially given that there would be a domestic political price to pay.   

So, What Next?

If the current intensification of diplomacy continues over the next months and prevents a further deterioration of the situation on the ground and maintains a ceasefire then, maybe there will be no grand peace ceremony, but something positive would still have been achieved.   If, in addition, the negotiations continue and this Administration hands over to its successor an ongoing process then there would certainly be no shame in that.  The idea that an administration takes its Middle East peace process home with it, as the Clinton Administration did, should not be continued. Under the current circumstances a Hail Mary peace process pass in ‘08 could well do more harm than good.

One could of course change those circumstances by shifting policy to actively promote a ceasefire, encourage Palestinian internal reconciliation not division, engage Syria, build real region support and apply real elbow grease to reach closure on a political deal...well it is April Fool’s Day.