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May 30, 2008

Bush's Dwarf Diplomacy and the Seven Gazans

Today's New York Times story on the seven Gazan students unable to take up their Fulbright Scholarships due to the Israeli government's denial of exit permits, and the American government's inability to reverse the decision, is a terribly sad reflection on today's realities.  Sad of course for the seven Gazan students.  Sad for an Israel that should know better and that should have an interest in young Gazans being educated in the U.S. and to bringing that experience home to the Palestinian territories (Israeli Labor Party Knesset Member Rabbi Melchior called the policy "not in keeping with international standards or with the moral standards of Jews"). And sad--no actually devastating as a comment on how dwarfed American diplomatic capacity has become under the Bush Administration.  Hopefully there will be a silver lining for the seven students, and perhaps the exposure of the story in itself will cause a re-think, but American diplomacy is unlikely to re-emerge from it's "mini-me" status until at least next year.  

Think about it--since the Annapolis peace conference last November, the Administration has been talking about peace in our time--by the end of '08.  Official declarations have focused on freezing settlements, freezing checkpoints, negotiating final borders, and proving to the Palestinian public that Hamas is not the answer.  All sounds nice.  And then there were the seven students from Gaza.  Seven students--they can't get seven students out of Gaza in order to study in the U.S. and benefit from the scholarships they probably worked so hard for.  Do they assume that ending the historic conflict is a cake-walk in comparison?

Is it that they don't care?  Is it that they're not competent? Does it really matter?  Britain's Foreign Secretary in the early 1990s, Douglas Hurd, used to describe a Britain punching above its weight in international diplomacy.  The Bush Administration has reversed the equation to an almost unimaginable degree.  American diplomacy in the Middle East right now is struggling to make bantam-weight.  

Just look at the last couple of weeks and what has transpired in the Middle East.  Lebanon was on the brink of chaos and renewed civil war.  A deal was brokered to elect a new President and for a new power-sharing cabinet.  That deal was brokered by....Qatar.  The talks were hosted in Doha.  America was absent.  It's a fragile deal; it needs nurturing.  Will the Bush Administration play that role?  There is nothing to suggest a positive answer.  

Israel and Syria conduct proximity talks, resuming negotiations after an 8 year hiatus in peace talks.  Those talks are designed to bring predictability and security to Israel's Northern border, to establish a peace treaty and to coax Syria into a network of relationships less focused on Iran.  The negotiations are being brokered by...Turkey.  The talks were hosted in Istanbul.  America was absent.  The peace talks will be difficult, creating a new reality needs nurturing.  The Bush administration has not facilitated, encouraged or expressed any enthusiasm for these Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.  

There are reasonable claims also being made that the Sadr City ceasefire was brokered by Iran.

And that brings us back to our Fulbright Scholars story, where the Bushite diplomatic dwarf meets the seven Gazans.  These 7 bright youngsters make up just 0.000005% of the population of Gaza.  What about the other 1.4 million Gazans living with collective punishment and under a closure that continues to have a devastating impact on every social, health and economic measure that one can imagine?  And what about the 20,000 residents of the Israeli town of Sderot, and the neighboring communities, who are coming under frequent rocket barrage, including occasionally the town of Ashkelon, with its 117,000 residents?  Where is American diplomacy?

There is an alternative--a ceasefire.  And what do you know, Israel is in fact indirectly negotiating with Hamas and with the other Palestinian factions in Gaza to reach a ceasefire arrangement.  This would allow the civilians on both sides to resume some normalcy in their lives, remove them from the line of fire, improve security and give people some hope.  And these ceasefire negotiations are being mediated by...well it's the Egyptians.  The talks are being hosted in Cairo.  And you've already guessed the American contribution--nada, oh, there was a Presidential speech about appeasement.  

The conditions in Gaza are intolerable with the imposition of a rigid closure (see this recently released report by leading NGOs, including Oxfam International, Amnesty International, and Save the Children)--social, economic and health conditions are desperate, and 80% of Gazan families subsist on humanitarian aid.  Daily life for the residents of Israel's south is no picnic either.  Life in the shadow of the unpredictable Qassam rockets that indiscriminately target civilians is unacceptable.

A ceasefire will not be easy.  The ingredients are known--end hostilities in both directions, remove the economic blockade, take action to prevent arms entering Gaza via Egypt, and pursue a prisoner exchange deal to secure the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier being held in Gaza).  But there are multiple actors, competing interests, deep mutual hostility and even deeper mutual suspicions.  A ceasefire will require heavy diplomatic lifting and even heavier maintenance and ongoing support.  Egypt cannot do it alone (and serious questions should be asked of members of the international community who are also absent here).  America, taking a pass on this--or worse, working to discourage and undermine the ceasefire--will not serve the interests of re-stabilizing the Middle East, building a meaningful peace process or improving America's much-damaged standing in the region.

The Bush administration may yet get the seven Fulbright scholars out, and that would be great, but don't hold out hopes for the 1.4 million left behind, their Israeli neighbors, or a Middle East that is still being fed a policy of poisoned apples by the neoconservative dwarfs.  

Rethinking the Palestinian National Movement

This is a piece that I have in this weekend's Haaretz that is largely a response to an article earlier in the month by Professor Avineri.

Earlier this month Prof. Shlomo Avineri argued on these pages that the real Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) did not occur at the hands of Israel in 1948, or even after 1967, but rather was a result of "the inability of the Palestinian national movement to create the political and social institutional framework that is the necessary foundation for nation-building."

Avineri's piece ("The real Nakba," May 9) is important: It recognizes the reality of Palestinian national consciousness and the legitimacy of their claim to statehood. He should be praised for correcting the tendency to depict the Palestinians as history's victims, thereby ignoring their own role as actors in their fate.

The powerful conclusion Avineri draws from his argument is that a failed Palestinian national movement is bad news, both for the Palestinians and Israel. Yet his line of thinking falls short, in ways that could make for very flawed policy prescriptions.

The Palestinian national movement has undoubtedly suffered from self-inflicted wounds, a common phenomenon in the history of liberation movements, both successful and unsuccessful. The internal dynamics of liberation movements are a useful, albeit limited, tool in explaining the trajectory of their achievements or shortcomings. Such an emphasis can, in part, be a byproduct of looking at national movements from an overly Zionist perspective.

Why? Because the success and achievements of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) and the Zionist state-building enterprise suggest that those movements that fail to conform to this norm are somehow defective, that therein lies the source of their failure. This line of thought however ignores what may be called Zionist exceptionalism both in the movement's inner workings and in the external conditions under which it operated, sometimes devastatingly hostile and at other times uniquely accommodating.

Overall, Avineri--and he is not alone in this--tends to downplay external factors, which in essence constitute the environment in which the Palestinian-Zionist national struggle has played out. A recent essay by Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, posits the existence of a "post-colonial sequestration" syndrome, which he uses to describe how certain peoples miss their moment of national independence, even as empires are on the decline and new states are created.

There are many reasons why this happens, often both arbitrary and contingent on factors such as power politics, wars, colonial favoritism, accidents and, yes, leadership. Halliday tells the story of the Palestinians and the Tibetans to illustrate his point, and there are many other peoples who might fall into this category - such as the Kurds, the Tigreans and the Saharawi of Western Sahara.

While it would also be wrong to blame the Palestinian predicament exclusively on the harshness of the post-1967 Israeli occupation, that factor should at least be given its due weight. The entrenched infrastructure of occupation, built over the past 40 years and tacitly agreed to by the international community, is quite remarkable. It includes the obvious settlements and checkpoints, but also encompasses planning, zoning and land-use arrangements, all aspects of population registration, and the huge number of Palestinians that have passed through Israeli prisons perhaps as high as 20 percent of the population.

It is problematic to impose on the Palestinian national movement and its aspirations a straitjacket shaped by Zionist history. Building a state and its institutions have not historically been a central aspect of the Palestinian narrative, and with good reason.

In a remarkable speech delivered last month at the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. (which can be found in the resources section of the blog), former Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Khalidi described how "the main Palestinian impetus after 1948 was that of return; reversing the loss of Arab land and patrimony, rather than the fulfillment of classical, post-colonial self-determination via statehood."

The Arafat moment

In the Palestinian national Zeitgeist, the scramble for statehood is understood as a relatively recent and perhaps even a passing phenomenon. To argue, as Avineri does, that there is a historical constant, dating from 1937 to 2007, to the Palestinians' failure to successfully engage in state-building may be missing the point. It might be more useful to view the Palestinian national movement as having passed through three relatively distinct phases since 1948, each lasting approximately 20 years.

Between 1948 and 1968, there was precious little by way of a national movement. During these years, the aftershock of the Nakba was most keenly felt, much of the Palestinian population was forced to relocate, and Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian rule was imposed over what used to be mandatory Palestine. The second period, from 1968 to 1988, might be described as the years during which the Palestinian national movement emerged, led by Fatah. This movement was framed in terms of a liberation struggle predicated on return, armed resistance and the achievement of maximalist goals. Only after 1988 did the Palestinian national movement make the attainment of statehood a central goal, following the Algiers Declaration and the inauguration of diplomatic ties with the United States.

In 2008, the phase in which statehood assumed center stage may well be drawing to a close. With regard to Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the post-1988 shift can perhaps best be described as a Faustian bargain: They agreed to accept and recognize Israel on the 1967 lines and to work with their former enemies, the U.S. and later Israel, in order to negotiate a Palestinian state on 22 percent of their historic homeland an agreement that would also entail an inevitable compromise on the refugee issue.

There were plenty of mistakes, lots of ill will, and enough blame to go around for all sides - Israeli, Palestinian and American. The bottom line after 20 years is that the Faustian bargain did not deliver. For all the criticisms leveled against him, both real and imagined, it may turn out that the Arafat moment was also the two-state moment, and that his leadership was necessary to hold that construct together.

Contemporary Palestinian politics is still in the early throes of the post-Arafat period. It is still adjusting to the transition away from historic and deeply centralized leadership, and from the monopolistic, single-party rule of Fatah. That transition is coinciding with the definitive crumbling and collapse of the edifice of both the Oslo Agreements and the Palestinian Authority.

The Oslo structure is like a makeshift shelter, designed to weather storms for five years. After some 15 years, it is thus not surprising that it cannot hold up anymore. The PA's mandate holds sway neither in Gaza, nor in most of the West Bank. It is a cruel reality that anyone who owns a model train set is better able to implement a transportation vision than the PA's transportation minister. Demands that the PA enforce a monopoly of force in the West Bank are at best farcical, and at worst intentionally humiliating. A real monopoly on the use of force does exist in the West Bank and that force is the Israel Defense Forces.

Saving Statehood

Yossi Alpher, who served as an advisor to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and is the co-editor of bitterlemons.org, has warned of turning the PA security forces into a modern incarnation of Antoine Lahad's South Lebanon Army. In the words of Ahmad Khalidi: "The PA's security forces may be the only military force in the world that is being specifically armed and trained to protect its enemies."

The PLO itself is now largely moribund. It does not represent contemporary Palestinian political realities, has not undergone serious reform, and serves mainly as a fig leaf for negotiations with Israel. Fatah's fortunes are no more encouraging. The available alternatives do not bode well, neither for the Palestinians, nor for an Israel that has in effect turned Palestinian statehood into a Zionist project for the salvation of a Jewish-democratic state.

Hamas may succeed in implementing a cease-fire and achieving an easing on the closure imposed on Gazans. It may even manage to restore some Palestinian pride and a sense of deterrence. But in the absence of greater flexibility, Hamas' platform is unlikely to prompt a far-reaching de-occupation.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's version of summud, or steadfastness, is an attractive one. It is predicated on self-reliance and designed to demonstrate a Palestinian capacity for maximum self-governance and self-improvement, even under impossible circumstances. This month's Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem was its latest manifestation. Yet the punishing realities on the ground have consistently proven stronger than even the most stoic efforts of the Texan-educated prime minister and are likely to continue to do so. The patronage of either Jordan or Egypt over West Bankers and Gazans, respectively, contains limited appeal to prospective patronized and patrons alike.

A more dramatic shift should also not be discarded. During the course of the last generation, the job of nurturing the Palestinian national narrative and political program increasingly shifted from the external leadership (outside of the territories) to the internal leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. That geographic shift may extend into Israel itself, and the next Palestinian leadership and narrative could well emerge from within Israel's Palestinian community, the so-called 1948 Arabs.

The kernel for such a development lies with the very politically conscious and engaged Palestinian-Israeli NGO community, many of whom advocate a binational or consociational democracy solution, a view that is becoming increasingly popular in the territories. Against this backdrop the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations relaunched at Annapolis seem almost inconsequential.

In the absence of the Palestinians' reclaiming ownership of the statehood project, the two-state solution is meaningless: It seems hardly realizable, let alone sustainable. A two-state solution requires a Palestinian national platform and Palestinian national structures that enjoy sufficiently broad popular representation and legitimacy. What such a solution does not require is for state institutions to be constructed under conditions of occupation. That was the Oslo model - to engage in limited self-governance and state-institution building without liberation and without de-occupation.

Removing the external veto on Palestinian national reconciliation is a sine qua non of successfully rebuilding a Palestinian political program that embraces statehood alongside Israel. It will be difficult for Israel to swallow this and a "de-occupation first" approach at the same time, but it may be the only way for Palestinians to assume ownership of the two-state project.

Fred Halliday ends his essay on post-colonial sequestration by noting that even if the historic moment is missed, independence can still sometimes be secured, as was true, for example, for Eritrea or East Timor. According to Halliday, that occurs "only if there is a major political shift in the hegemonic state that has committed the sequestration." We can blame the Palestinians all we like, and frequently with good cause, but if the two-state solution is indeed an Israeli interest and the least bad alternative for all concerned, then that major political shift has to occur in Israel for we are quite clearly the "hegemonic state" in this equation.

May 27, 2008

Is Israel’s Prime Minister Going Out on a High Note?

Investigations into Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s predilection for cash-filled envelopes reached a new milestone today with the testimony of Morris Talansky.  New York-based Talansky confirmed that he had “transferred Olmert some $150,000 over 15 years, and that Olmert had tried to aid a Talansky business venture”, but that “he [Talansky] never had any personal benefits from this relationship whatsoever.”  As more information is made public in this case the pundit-class is increasingly adamant that Olmert will not be able to politically survive this storm. 

Fairly or not, Ehud Olmert is likely to be tagged as Israel’s most dishonest Prime Minister—yet in many ways he has been more honest to his public about Israel’s regional predicament and the steps it needs to take than almost any of his predecessors.  In his latest outpouring of home truths, Olmert yesterday told one of his detractors that anyone who believes that it’s possible to hold onto the greater land of Israel, the territories captured in ’67, is “delusional”.  With the resumption of talks with Syria last week, despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the Bush administration, it seems that Olmert maybe going out on a high and is leaving an interesting diplomatic legacy.

First a note of caution—it is not over yet for Olmert.  Talansky will be cross-examined by Olmert’s lawyers in July and the Prime Minister will try to struggle on and may even succeed.  But that is increasingly unlikely.  My friends high up in Kadima are telling me that this is over, Olmert’s possible successors are revving up for a leadership campaign. The ultra-religious Shas party, sensing early elections, is threatening to quit the coalition, and the Labor party is as usual in disarray.

Ehud Olmert is obviously far from being a model Prime Minister.  His mistakes are numerous and his arrogance legendary.  The 33-day Lebanon II war in the summer of ’06 tops the list of bad judgment calls.  The imposition of a siege and collective punishment on the 1.4 million inhabitants of Gaza is unforgivable.  The man Olmert personally appointed to be Justice Minister, Daniel Friedmann, is waging a dangerous and disturbing campaign against the Supreme Court, and there has been precious little positive on the socio-economic front. 

In many ways, the alleged Olmert misdemeanors are a less damning chapter of his premiership—at least from a comparative perspective.  In terms of what Olmert is being accused of, the material is similar to the investigations conducted against his predecessors Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon.  Netanyahu’s successful campaign in 1996 was helped over the line by a sudden, huge in-flux of funding for a “Bibi’s good for the Jews” campaign that clearly contravened campaign finance regulations.  Bibi was also investigated for receiving various gifts and favors, most recently for a lavish trip to London during that same Lebanon conflagration in ’06 (see my piece about that here).  Barak and his associates were also investigated for the use of NPOs and tax-deductible donations to those NPOs for direct campaign expenses.  Insufficient evidence was found—Barak got away with it.  A series of investigatory clouds hovered over the Sharon premiership.  Most notably the setting up of fictitious straw companies through which monies were funneled to finance election campaigns.  Ariel Sharon denied knowledge and his son Omri Sharon was the fall guy, and Omri is now serving a 7-month prison sentence for fraud. 

The difference with the Olmert investigation, it seems, is that one or more of Olmert’s confidantes are singing—and that is a huge difference.  By the way, Talansky is literally singing—in his police-questioning he started humming the tune of the old Likud revisionist song “The Two Banks of the Jordan”, which aspires to a state of Israel in all of what is today Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and beyond.  There are in fact suspicions that Talanksy’s right-wing political affiliation is what has motivated him to bring down Olmert, although his actions more resemble those of a spurned suitor, complaining in one interview that his great beneficiary Mr. Olmert had only deigned to meet him twice since becoming Prime Minister two years ago.  

Look—with all these bruises, Ehud Olmert is hardly the guy you want out there selling a peace deal to the Israeli public.  For many commentators his continued pursuit of peace negotiations is no more than an attempt to distract attention away from the investigations.  His credibility is shot and he looks jealously at Bush’s approval ratings—so to be clear, Olmert cannot deliver on peace, not with Assad and not with Abbas.  

Yet Olmert has done something unusual for which he deserves credit:  he has occasionally, and unusually for an Israeli leader, shared some hard truths and realities with a public that has grown used to being told that they can have their cake and eat it too.  Israelis may have known better and their previous leaders almost certainly knew better, but maintaining the illusion that Israel could continue confidently into the future while retaining the occupation seemed convenient for all concerned. 

Olmert’s push back yesterday was only the latest in a number of frank, myth-shattering pronouncements that he has made.  Yesterday’s contribution included the following:  “Today we are faced with a cruel choice between the undivided Land of Israel and a Jewish state.  These two cannot coexist, except in the delusions of the hallucinatory.”

Responding on behalf of the hallucinatory, National Union-NRP MK Aryeh Eldad called for Prime Minister Olmert to be sentenced to death for committing the act of treason of ceding sovereign state territory.  One can look forward to Mr. Eldad perhaps being part of a future Netanyahu government. 

Olmert has reminded Israelis that it is ok and even necessary to talk to one’s enemies with his re-launching of negotiations with Syria.  Israeli and Syrian officials have conducted proximity talks, mediated by representatives of the Turkish Prime Minister last week in Istanbul.  Of course in Bush-McCain land, that would make Israel’s Prime Minister a Chamberlain-esque appeaser who had forgotten the lessons of the holocaust.  Indeed, the Bush administration is displaying a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the Israeli-Syrian talks, and shows no sign of encouraging or facilitating their success.  So it took a degree of courage for an Israeli Prime Minister to pursue the negotiations regardless, and he has also reminded the public that the price for a deal is known—namely withdrawal from the Golan (to read why Netanyahu’s criticism of the Syrian negotiations and of any withdrawal from the Golan is so lacking in credibility, read this post and this text of a draft agreement between Netanyahu’s envoy and President Assad from1998). 

Olmert resumed final-status negotiations with the PLO after an almost 7 year hiatus and his opening negotiating positions have certainly been more reasonable than his Labor party processor Ehud Barak.  Olmert has even been blunt about the necessity of a two-state solution, telling reporters after the Annapolis-November ’07 conference that “if the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

While Olmert’s handling of Gaza and the siege he has imposed is hardly praiseworthy, he has at least avoided the urgings of some of his more hawkish ministers and the Shin Bet heads to launch a re-occupation of Gaza, and he has authorized Egyptian-mediated efforts at a cease-fire with Hamas (again, rating high on the appeasement-ometer). 

It is unlikely that anyone would want to claim the mantle of this Olmert legacy—that is a shame.  It is even more unlikely that Olmert will speak these home truths when he addresses the AIPAC annual conference (if he still comes) next week in Washington, D.C.  That is an even greater shame.  Expect that speech to be a pander-fest and to forgo the opportunity of speaking truth to power, and expect this writer to feel rather embarrassed the following morning for having written these complimentary words. 

May 20, 2008

Mr. Adelson Goes to Israel

Things are returning to normal again in Israel after the 60th anniversary celebrations, the Bush visit, and the Peres presidential conference last week.  The main agenda items now are the Olmert investigation and the cease-fire or escalation vis a vis Gaza.  But the Presidential conference hosted by Shimon Peres has left behind something of a controversy and bitter taste.  Shimon Peres is obviously a remarkable and unique character, still batting for Israel, managing to pull off a huge event graced by dignitaries from a variety of fields of activity and from around the world.  Yet the gap between the uplifting and visionary words of Shimon Peres and the actions he has supported and continues to support remains as gaping a chasm as ever.  Peres is in many ways the real father of the settlements, as Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal recount in painful detail in their book Lords of the Land.  And true to form, Shimon Peres “will be the guest of honor at next month's 30th anniversary ceremony for the West Bank settlement of Ariel.”

So it should hardly come as a surprise that the presidential conference hosted by Peres was in many ways hosted by Sheldon Adelson, the notorious casino developer, financer of Freedom’s Watch, and a host of other hard-right causes.  Sheldon bought his seat at the top table at the conference, he bought himself the role of presenting the keynote address, and if it is up to him he will be buying the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence for a certain Mr. Netanyahu in the near future.  

Now that’s how I look at it, and I think that’s how it is, but it was surprising to me and really rather refreshing to find that the most respected journalist in the Israeli media—Nahum Barnea of Yediot Ahronot—not only saw things in similar terms but also had the courage to dedicate part of his weekly column to lambasting the Adelson-Peres shindig, and what a sad commentary it was on contemporary Israel.  Here is a translation of the bulk of that column by Nahum Barnea from last Friday—it is remarkably honest and gutsy:

(DL translation)

When Sheldon Adelson gave his speech on the podium of the International Convention Center two days ago, I looked at Shimon Peres. I was happy for him. The impressive, sparkling conference that he convened will warm his heart…Many important, highly-respected people. An excellent organization. Well done.

As a citizen of the country, I was less happy. I saw a gambling tycoon from Las Vegas who bought my country’s birthday with three million dollars. I thought with sorrow: Is the country worth so very little? Were the champagne, wine and sushi that were given out for free in the lobby—breaking convention for such events—worth the humiliation?

Adelson is a Jew who loves Israel. Like some other Jews who live at a safe distance from here, his love is great, passionate, smothering. It is important to him that he influences the policies, decisions and compositions of Israeli governments. He is not alone in this, either: even back in the days of Baron Rothschild, wealthy Jews from the Diaspora felt that this country lay in their pocket, alongside their wallet. Regrettably, in the latest generation, we are being led by politicians who look at these millionaires with calf’s eyes.

Such deference to the wallets of other people—that is the common denominator of Rabin and Peres, Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert…
Adelson is like the others, and yet different. He has the gift of authority and the bluntness of someone who made a lot of money quickly. He does not ask; he commands.

“He talks to me as though I were his property,” the director of an important Jewish-American organization, one of the guests at the conference, told me. I heard similar complaints from others—both Israelis and Americans— about Adelson. Not long ago, the mayor of a large city received word that he had to meet Adelson immediately. He acceded, of course—the man is a big donor. When they met, Adelson ordered him to tell the municipal inspectors to leave the employees of his business (who were violating municipal law) alone.

There is a story about an anti-Arab propaganda film that Adelson had heard of. When he telephoned the director-general of a Jewish organization, asking him to buy and distribute the film, the man told him that the film was distorted, and that no one would believe it. Adelson responded—“so edit it”. When the man countered that film could not be edited, Adelson replied that he would buy the film at his expense, but that the other man would then distribute it.  “He would like all the Arabs to disappear,” another activist for a Jewish organization told me. “It seems that he thinks that the Arabs are chips to be gambled with.”

Several months ago, Adelson contacted another Jewish-American millionaire and asked him to donate a large sum of money for a campaign that he was organizing against the current Israeli government. The man politely refused. “You know what”, Adelson told him, “do not donate, just sign”. When the man refused again, Adelson accused him of funding anti-Israel research. “I do not know what you mean”, the man answered. “When my man in charge of these things is in Las Vegas, he will come to you and he’ll look into the matter.”

The ensuing meeting at Adelson’s office, in the Venetian hotel-casino, was a stormy one. Adelson took out a written list of accusations, many of them childish. “You hosted (PA prime minister) Salam Fayyad,” he said. “He is a terrorist with blood on his hands. He is one of the founders of Fatah.”  “Salam Fayyad was never involved in terrorism,” said the interlocutor. “He is not a member of Fatah. Where did you get these accusations from?”

Adelson responded that he had gotten them from Steve Emerson (an American Jew who often analyzes terrorism). “You work with Olmert’s government,” he added. “This is an illegitimate government. It must be thrown out.”  “I thought”, said the man, “that Olmert is your friend.”

And, indeed, they were friends. Such good friends that Olmert wrote him [Adelson] a letter, asking him to buy mini-bars for his hotels from a company that Talansky represented.

Adelson is convinced that Netanyahu, not Olmert, must be prime minister of Israel. In order to advance this idea, Adelson established an anti-Olmert newspaper devoted to praising Netanyahu. Allegedly, this investment is the largest election gift ever given to Israel. I do not claim this. Firstly, it is a legitimate legal gift. Secondly, when Netanyahu is elected prime minister, he will have to act within the constraints of the State of Israel, not take dictates of a patron from Las Vegas.

Adelson, surrounded by guards, was king of the conference. He sat in the first row, with Shimon Peres between him and Olmert. He put his hand out to Olmert. Olmert shook it with a sour face. They did not exchange a single word.

May 15, 2008

The Road to Nowhere

This piece appears as an op-ed in today's International Herald Tribune

This is one of those times of maximum mismatch between the optimistic rhetoric of peace process declarations and expectations and the gloomy reality of daily experience and prospects on the ground.

The Annapolis architect, President George W. Bush, is back in the Middle East, still declaring the worthy goal of peace in '08. But the fundamentally flawed logic of the process initiated last year is increasingly transparent.

The economic, social and health conditions of Gazans collapse further as the siege continues; rockets fall on southern Israel; settlements keep growing, and, not surprisingly, Palestinians and Israelis scoff at the peace merry-go-round.

The centerpiece of the current effort is to conclude negotiations outlining a two-state agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

The first thing to say is that this is unlikely to happen. Israel's key negotiators, Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, have traveled an impressive distance in their own personal political journeys towards acceptance of the two-state paradigm.

Yet their positions still fall short of a 100 percent arrangement on pre-1967 territory (even with land swaps) that will be necessary to strike a workable deal.

Olmert faces new and potentially tenure-threatening police investigations; Israel's governing coalition is shaky and the United States is not inclined to assertively carry its Israeli ally over the finishing line.

Likewise the Palestinian interlocutor not only faces an "opposition" which actually won a substantial majority of parliamentary seats in elections but is also increasingly isolated within its own Fatah movement. These divisions create the worst conditions for a Palestinian leader to sign off on an historic compromise.

Making matters worse is the shared assumption that any agreement reached will not be implemented in the foreseeable future.

Israel, with American support, has made clear that the Palestinians must meet all their Road Map obligations before two states can become a reality. Expect that message to feature prominently in any domestic Israeli marketing of a deal. Abbas knows this; another reason for his lack of enthusiasm to sign on.

And if signatures are attached to a piece of paper and nothing changes in the real lives or security of Israelis or Palestinians, then the belief of both publics in the peace option is likely to erode even further. Hope, or the mere promise of a better future, is no longer enough. Israelis and Palestinians have been there before. It is a tarnished currency.

That is why the logic of Annapolis - that an agreement on paper creates the conditions for its own implementation - is so flawed.

Israel could, but has chosen not to, take effective measures to enhance Fatah's standing (on checkpoints, settlements and transferring security responsibility).

Fatah could, but has chosen not to, work with Hamas to unify, strengthen and re-capacitate the Palestinian national movement as a partner to achieve de-occupation and deliver security predictability.

So both sides play along with this artificial Annapolis process. The American sponsor, mistaking fiction for reality, urges them to seal the deal.

A respected Palestinian analyst, Hussein Agha, commented to me recently that "Israel cannot make peace with Abbas for one simple reason - Israel is not at war with Abbas." The Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have declared themselves to be partners, not adversaries.

The Palestinian Authority security forces under Abbas's authority present no military threat to Israel; rather they operate according to limitations (geographic, hours of deployment, etc.) defined by Israel. The Fatah-affiliated militias that do continue to target Israel and Israelis do so against the instructions of Abbas - a fact recognized by Israel.

Abbas can vanquish neither these forces nor Hamas (and neither can the Israeli Defense Forces). The Israeli army operating in the West Bank provides security to Israelis, primarily settlers, but also to the PA regime, thereby sustaining it in power.

Abbas's repudiation of violence is courageous, and his determination to pursue negotiations even while settlements expand and checkpoints flourish is sincere, even touching.

All this might be laudable, but it renders the existing peace talks almost inconsequential. For while hostilities have ceased between the PA and Israel and peace papers are drafted, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continues.

The two peoples are locked in an adversarial relationship involving much violence, occupation and anger. This is not reflected in the dealings between their leaders.

Israel can no more end the violence by making a deal with Abbas than the United States can end the hostilities in Afghanistan by reaching an agreement with President Hamid Karzai.

And that is why what we have now is a make-believe process.

It doesn't have to be this way. Options do exist for making this process more meaningful and capable of delivering results: engaging, even indirectly, with Hamas; addressing the external actors, such as Iran and Syria, which are helping to shape the environment in which Hamas and others operate; facilitating a renewed Palestinian unity understanding whereby Abbas as a negotiator would also be representing that broader Palestinian adversary.

These options are not on the agenda. They should be. For as it currently stands, the Annapolis process is a chimera, and one likely to do more harm than good.

May 14, 2008

McCain, Obama, and the Hamas Banana Skin

 This piece was featured in today's Huffington Post.

Senator McCain’s ‘Hamas attack’ on Senator Obama has certainly got a lot of play.  The McCain campaign even used it in a fundraising email. 

While neither campaign has come out of the episode bathed in glory,  the way in which Senator McCain manipulated this raises some worrying questions as to just how irresponsible on national security his campaign is willing to be to score points.  The NYT has a good factual account of the story, including the quotes from a WABC radio interview by senior Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef and the responses of the respective campaigns.  Yousef did not endorse Obama and Obama was not fishing for endorsements off the Gazan coast.  Gazans do not have a vote in US elections (they did though vote in American-sponsored elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, the results of which the Bush administration then attempted to overturn by arming up a faction within Fatah, as David Rose recently exposed in Vanity Fair).

Obviously the McCain spin was all about politics.  But the substantive policy piece of this should not be ignored.  As has been clarified on numerous occasions by Senator Obama, the candidates’ policies are identical on the issue of Hamas—a terrorist organization with whom there will be no engagement.  That symmetry is rather a shame.  Current policy, including toward Hamas, is not working.  It is not delivering security to Israelis or Palestinians, not advancing the peace process and not contributing to overall re-stabilization in a dangerously radicalized Middle East.  Israel is currently in the midst of considering Egyptian-mediated ceasefire possibilities with Hamas.  Very senior Israeli officials and ex-officials, including ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, ex-National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, and former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, are advocating Israeli engagement, direct or indirect, with Hamas.  And sitting ministers and parliamentarians (albeit somewhat constrained by coalition discipline) are making similar noises.  The Israeli government and defense establishment are in constant contact with a variety of regional and international officials and non-officials who meet with, and are able to convey a better understanding of, Hamas and its positions.  Laura Rozen has a very thoughtful piece on this in MoJo.

In the run-up to last November’s Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis peace conference, over 60 prominent Americans led by Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lee Hamilton, and Carla Hills signed a letter to President Bush and Secretary Rice (initiated by the New America Foundation, among others) that argued: “As to Hamas, we believe that…dialogue…is far preferable to its isolation” and that if “Hamas is ostracized, prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically.”  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has adopted a similar position

For John McCain, Hamas policy (or lack thereof) is part of his parroting of Bush’s talk-to-no-one policy and his more-of-the-sameness.  Barack Obama has embraced the idea that tough diplomacy, even with adversaries, might actually have a role in problem solving, but that Hamas is a non-state actor and listed terrorist organization, and therefore is not on the to-be-engaged list.  It’s a reasonable distinction to draw even if there are, of course, no Palestinian interlocutors who are ‘state actors’.  Obama in general has demonstrated diplomatic sophistication in his Middle East pronouncements, and these were on display again in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic,  where the Illinois Senator gave vent to his deep familiarity with the Zionist idea, the meaning of Israel in Jewish life and the impact that the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict has on the region. 

Much has been made of the role or lack thereof of Robert Malley in the Obama campaign.  The Malley association was being used by various groups to misrepresent Obama and Malley has now stepped down from what was anyway an informal association with the campaign.  Malley is the director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group and a former Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs (full disclosure:  he is also a friend and former  colleague). 

In his professional role, it is Malley’s job to understand the Middle East, the major players and forces, their considerations and the backdrop against which decisions and policy options can be evaluated.   As such, Malley has met with the Hamas leadership as well as with leaderships and opposition in a range of countries across the region, including Israel.  That is called expertise and a deep, first-hand understanding.  It is what you have in the room if you do not want to be Chalabied time and again when you make foreign policy.  Not setting oneself up to be Chalabied by filling a room with ignorance and ideological groupthink is part of the change that is required in November.  The Robert Malley’s should be in the room.  US and Israeli officials frequently seek his counsel.  By the way, the under-attack Robert Malley’s impeccable credentials have also been defended in this letter from his former colleagues and the most respected Israel policy-hands.

But what of the dangerous irresponsibility on display in the McCain campaign.  McCain wants to stay 100 years in Iraq, to bomb bomb bomb Iran, continue ignoring Syria.  He makes no mention of the peace process (unlike Obama in his Israel at 60 greeting), and wants to turn up the heat on Russia and China at the same time. 

So how does this link back to our Gaza chap Mr. Yousef.  There are two ways of interpreting Ahmed’s Yousef comments on the American election:  the first, is that as a member of Hamas’s pragmatist camp, which has reached out to the West before, Yousef is genuinely hoping for a dialogue with the US and that the differences between the US and non al-Qaeda political Islamists, like Hamas, can actually be bridged.  That interpretation makes sense to me and would be a rather encouraging sign. In unequivocally rejecting Hamas, Obama would seem not to adhere to this interpretation.  Again though, Obama makes an important distinction in his Goldberg interview:

I welcome the Muslim world’s accurate perception that I am interested in opening up dialogue and interested in moving away from the unilateral policies of George Bush, but nobody should mistake that for a softer stance when it comes to terrorism or when it comes to protecting Israel’s security or making sure that the alliance is strong and firm

Everything suggests that McCain would categorically reject seeing Yousef’s comment as outreach.  So how else can one explain Yousef’s comments? 

Like this: it’s a play out of the Karl Rove book of political psych-ops.  Why?  Well, McCain equals a continuation of Bush policies that have strengthened Hamas and have undermined Hamas’s competition—the moderate Western allies.  So Hamas has thrown some encouraging words in Obama’s direction, anticipating the predictable responses, thereby intentionally harming him—and helping McCain.  Right Karl?

Either McCain is wrong about Hamas (interpretation 1), or he has fallen into their trap, been suckered, and given a foreign agent (and one he defines as terrorist at that) a prominent role in an American election. Neither version exactly flatters the Arizona Senator. McCain doesn’t recognized psych-ops?  Who would’ve thunk it? 

Quick quiz:  Which is the appropriate response for an anti-terror warrior: “I will not lend a hand to this attempt by terrorists to intervene in the American electoral process”; or “Dear voters, listen to the terrorists, send me cash.”?

May 8, 2008

Israel at 60

This piece appeared in today's web version of The American Prospect.

I don’t often, or ever really, write about my own relationship to Israel or how I ended up there, but I’ll make an exception for the 60th anniversary.

It started at the time of the ‘good’ Iraq war.  You rememberthe one whose ambitions were limited to ensuring continued access to Kuwaiti oilnot the contemporary Iraq tri-fecta effort—to own the oil, change the regime, and transform the region.

So there I was in January of 1991, working in London as the political officer of the Union of Jewish Students, arguing Israel's case on campus (and attempting to do so from within as liberal a discourse as could be summoned for the occasion), while Tel Aviv came under scud missile attack from Iraq. I signed up for one of the Jewish community's solidarity missions and went off to Israel to receive my obligatory gas mask and, well, kill time in between the curfews and sirens.

The Tel Aviv that I came to love and that I now consider to be my home was displaying its customary irreverenceBaghdad Café on Ben Yehuda Street became the obvious tongue-in-cheek hang out for the short duration of the scud crisis.

The trip solidified my own decision to make Israel my home. By years end, I had upped sticks and made aliyah (emigrated to Israel, literally 'gone up'). I have been fortunate enough to have pursued my interest (well obsession really) of advancing Arab-Israeli peace both in and out of government in Israel and now in a brief sojourn in Washington D.C. (though not fortunate enough to have succeeded, yet).

For anyone steeped in the narrative of contemporary Jewish history, or any neutral observer for that matter, Israels achievements are rather remarkable. It is a new nation forged from the remnants of European Jewry and immigrants from across the Middle East, a biblical language dusted-off and modernized, and it possesses that most precious resource – gifted human capital. Israel today is at the cutting edge of contemporary creativity, not only in the high-tech fields that keep the economy buzzing along impressively, but also in the artswitness the latest batch of award-winning Israeli movies. Israel's premier basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, is a permanent fixture in Europe's Final Four. Tel Aviv itself is a gloriously hip and hedonist bubble of escapism.

And yet that same escapism is also frustrating, even infuriating. Not twenty kilometers from liberal Tel Aviv is a reality that is unforgiveably ignored. In the West Bank, Israel imposes one of the longest, last remaining and most de-humanizing of occupations in the world on Palestinian population.  Worse, the Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel are not part of this nation-building exercise, subjected to ongoing and structurally-embedded discrimination.

To try to understand that co-existence of modern cosmopolitan Israel with the Israel of permanent violent occupation, it's worth going back to that rather silly 1991 solidarity visit and those scud misiles. Ah, of course, Israel is under permanent threat from an relentless foe, or set of foes, unswervingly committed to its destruction, to a second holocaust—it has to be like that. The conversation normally ends there. If it continues, it's about why embattled Israel deserves empathy, maybe a prayer, along with the unconditional support of the U.S., and why it should certainly avoid making risky territorial concessions.

Thankfully though it doesn't end there. Israel does have enemies, bitter, even implacable ones. But Israel also has the most powerful military in the region and it's most sophisticated military-industrial complex and R+D capacity.  It is one of the world's largest arms exporters and has an economy that is the envy of its neighbors.

The disconnect, I would argue, is that Israel has locked itself into a box of fear that is not only substantially self-generated and all-embracing, but has also become a danger in itself, preventing Israel from taking urgently needed steps. Explaining that fear is easy—remember the Holocaust, look at how Israel is targetted—it does not though alter the fact that it has become utterly unhealthy and paralyzing, and ironically a reason to actually be concerned.

Post 9/11 America knows a thing or two about the dangers of a policy and popular discoursedriven by nurturing and abusing people's fears. Now imagine living in a country whose self-understanding is that it is 3am all the time and that bloody red phone never stops ringing. Welcome to Israelnot the reality of Israel but the sense of self that has been formed. Every enemy is a potential Hitler, every threat an existential one, there is a fatalism and almost a desire to retreat into a ghetto and build a big wall (in fact there is a wall, its called the separation barrier). 

This is how one of Israel's smartest political commentators (and occasional basketball reporter) Ofer Shelach, put it in yesterdays Ma'ariv newspaper:

Sixty years have gone by, and we still do not accept the very idea that it is certain that we will still be here twice as long…A very powerful propaganda machine, some of it deliberate and most of it self-inflicted, works against this simple and normal premise…Anyone who sees themselves as constantly on the defensive against a Holocaust, whose politicians, when they court votes, instead of promising hope and change, purport to be defending against destruction, such politics recognizes no limits, because when you are defending yourself against a Holocaust, there is no limit to the degree of force, and it has no purpose except that of survival.

The point is, of course, that this is not 1938. It has not been 1938 since 1948, so to speak, since Israel’s creation. Sixty years later Israel is in an extremely favorable position to establish permanent, recognizable and defensible borders and be accepted in the region. Many states live with a degree of insecurity, face certain manageable threats, as Israel will likely have to.  But they avoid hysteria and calibrate their national security postures, their deployments and responses, accordingly. Belatedly, so too must Israel.

The entire Arab League, via the Arab Initiative, has expressed its willingness to accept, recognize and live in security with an Israel that ends the occupation of 1967 (not 1948). The Palestinian PA-Fatah leadership in Ramallah has the same position, while Hamas has stated their acceptance of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.  Even Iran has said it would respect a deal authorized by a legitimate Palestinian leadership. So Israel has a choice, has an alternative to oy vey every day, and there are plenty of other fissures in Israeli society that require some well-overdue attention.

Michael Chabon's wonderful novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union is set against the backdrop of Israel having lost the 1948 War of Independence, with the Jews having been given a long-term lease in part of AlaskaThe Federal District of Sitka. If I am wrong, and Israel is constantly on the verge of destruction, violently rejected by its neighbors even within the 1967 lines, and condemned to live by the sword in perpetuity, then bring out the thermals, Sitka here we come. Such an Israel would represent a danger to, rather than a cornerstone of, Jewish continuity.

But Chabon's work is fiction. Israel won that 1948 war. Sixty years later an Arab and Muslim offer is on the tablewe accept '48 if you undo '67.

If Israel can overcome its own fears and embrace the hope and the courage on which it was founded, then forget Alaska, we can continue to sun our buns on the warm shores of the Mediterranean, ad meyer ve'esrim as we say, til one-hundred and twenty, and thensome.

May 7, 2008

Counting West Bank Checkpoints—Making Gulliver Look Lilliputian

I have written before about the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of checkpoints and obstacles to movement in the West Bank.

Trying to get some progress on easing this closure—which is a prerequisite for improving Palestinian daily life and economic prospects—was again a focus of Secretary Rice’s visit to Israel and the PA this past weekend.

Rice met with the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on no less than three occasions in the course of what was only a two-day visit.  The main subject of these confabs:  these restrictions on movement.  On the one hand Rice scores high for perseverance and effort—and not just because one meeting with Barak, let alone three, is not much fun.  But alongside that it is remarkable, and not in a good way, that the top diplomat of the world’s only superpower is reduced to the role of arguing over and counting a couple of dozen obstacles to movement out of a total of over 600 in place in the West Bank. 

In his wonderfully insightful and honest new book “The Much Too Promised Land:  America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace”, Aaron David Miller discusses what he calls ‘Gulliver’s troubles’—how America as a great power is made to look Lilliputian when it gets sucked in to unsuccessful micro-management by the small powers of the Middle East. 

The checkpoint debacle is the perfect example of a phenomenon that Miler accurately identifies. 

Secretary Rice, to be fair, seems not particularly amused and is beginning to suggest that she is aware that not only is she being given the run around, but that ‘improving’ the occupation is something of a thankless task;  while ending it—well that’s also not so easy.  It appears that Rice now realizes that the latter may actually be more doable than the former. 

Here’s how she responded to press questions on the checkpoints and settlements issue during her Ramallah stop with PA President Abbas:

The best way to handle all of this, of course, is to get an agreement because we need to have a Palestinian state and Israeli state.  We need to know what belongs in each of them. 

Rice also began drawing the distinction that ‘not all checkpoints are created equal’, suggesting that she would start focusing on the real bottlenecks rather than just a numbers game. 

Thus far precious little has been achieved either in the border negotiations or in improving the day-to-day realities.

Here is the situation: 

Israel maintains an elaborate network of obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank—for the most reliable data visit the website of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA).  That closure system includes manned checkpoints, fixed-barriers, earth-mounds and fences—in total they number over 600.  These are not, repeat not, checkpoints or obstacles that prevent Palestinians from entering Israel proper—that function is fulfilled by the wall/separation barrier and by crossing terminals.  These are physical obstacles to movement whose function is to prevent Palestinians from moving freely within the West Bank—from getting to one village or town to another within the Palestinian areas.

To get a sense of the dimensions involved, the West Bank—home to 2.6 million Palestinians and 600 such obstacles—is smaller than the size of the state of Delaware, the 49th largest state in the Union.

The Israeli army (IDF) maintains this network of restrictions for two ostensible reasons:  (1) it helps keep control, keeps tabs on what is going on in the West Bank, provides useful intel, which makes the lives of militants more difficult…etc.; and thus is part of an overall preventive security deployment (2) to protect the freedom of movement of Israelis in the West Bank—mainly the settlers and also the IDF itself.  The approximately 260,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank of course face no such restrictions on movement.  The IDF is doing its job—as long as there are Israeli citizens in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—settlers—the IDF is duty bound to protect them.  They should not be there—but while they are—the IDF provides their defense.  Unless and until the occupation ends, this will be the lot of the IDF—a terrible drain in itself on the military—but that is also another story.

The effects—on Palestinian daily life, society, family life, and economic opportunity—is devastating.  Oh, and people are very angry—more easily recruited to violence…etc.  So all this aggravation, yet the net result is that it actually makes Israel’s security worse in the long-term. 

So what is the correct scorecard on checkpoints and obstacles to freedom of movement:  Here are the numbers from OCHA—the credible source—that even the IDF asks to verify checkpoint removal when it happens: 

Current count—612

Count during the previous Rice visit on March 30th (when Israel promised the removal of 50)—580

Count when Annapolis launched (November ’07)—561.

And just to round it all off:  the count when Secretary Rice negotiated the Agreement on Movement and Access (November ’05, designed to systematically reduce the closure and the date from which OCHA keeps score)—376. 

Now there’s progress!!

The World Bank by the way argues that if these restrictions are not removed, the Palestinian economy will continue to contract—even if all of the pledged donor aid is disbursed.

And one final, yet more disturbing thing to note:  the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem is reporting that there are IDF attempts to intentionally falsify data by putting up obstacles just in order to film their being removed—in order to claim (presumably to the US) that action is really being taken.

Here is an excerpt from a newly released B’Tselem report, which can be read in full here:

On March 31st , the army placed three obstructions made of boulders and dirt piles on the road running between Deir al-Ghussun and al-Jarushiya, which lie about one kilometer apart, north of Tulkarm.  According to local residents, the next day, an Israeli bulldozer removed the three obstructions, while an army film crew documented the obstructions before and during their removal.  These obstructions appear…on the list of physical obstructions that the army contends were removed as part of its efforts to ‘ease’ Palestinian movement.

Tomorrow I will indeed be celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary—Israel is a truly remarkable achievement—but not the checkpoints, not the occupation—they are not something to celebrate.