« July 2008 | Main | September 2008 »

August 2008 Archives

August 27, 2008

Diminishing returns for Rice in Israel

This piece appears in the Guardian Online and can be read here.  

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice just completed her seventh visit to Israel-Palestine since the Annapolis conference nine months ago. You remember Annapolis, when after almost seven years of neglect the Bush administration committed itself to securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal during its last year in office and to dramatically improving the day-to-day situation on the ground.

Displaying admirable consistency and tenacity, albeit a disconnect from reality, Rice reiterated that goal during her visit this week. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders she met with were polite in their encouragement. Yet even among those who desire a deal, most consider the clock to have run out on this administration. Israeli foreign minister and chief negotiator (and contender to be the next prime minister) Tzipi Livni actually warned against pushing too far too fast in advance of Rice's arrival. There is also an increasing sense within the US government that Rice is somewhat out on her own and on a limb in believing the process can be significantly advanced in the dusk of her time at Foggy Bottom.

In relaunching the peace process last November, the US sought to address three issues. First, get a deal on the parameters of a permanent status peace. Second, significantly upgrade the situation on the ground – enhance security, ease closures and stop settlements. And third, improve the regional climate for peacemaking. In pursuing all three in parallel, they got the "what" right. It is the "how" that went horribly wrong.

Next month will mark 15 years of the peace process. At this stage we need more peace and less process. Clearly, defining the endgame parameters, achieving closure, is a necessity. Getting Israelis and Palestinians negotiating again is certainly an achievement. The problem is that after nine months, the negotiations today are barely back to where they left off in January 2001. America probably needed to asses the party's positions from the get go and then either advance closure, accept that the gaps were too significant or submit it's own bridging ideas. None of these were done. In the meantime, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, lack domestic political legitimacy, and even the optimists talk of a shelf agreement rather than a plan for implementation.

In emphasising the open-ended negotiations, the Annapolis process relegated developments on the ground to being an issue of secondary political magnitude. While the US did enhance its efforts and monitoring on the day-to-day issues, it did so without either a willingness to expend political capital to push for compliance or a readiness to recognise and adapt to certain new realities (in particular Hamas's election victory and subsequent political pre-eminence on the Palestinian side).

Unsurprisingly, the result was too much of the same ongoing deterioration. Settlements continue to expand (see the latest Peace Now report showing that settlement expansion almost doubled this year), obstacles to Palestinian movement have increased not decreased and any gains registered on the security front are at best marginal. Yes, Israel did release 198 Palestinian prisoners to President Abbas to coincide with Rice's arrival. However, such ephemeral gestures unrelated to a broader prisoner release or political plan do little to build Palestinian confidence and only leave Israelis more confused and anxious as to what this means in terms of their security and the bigger picture.

Paradoxically, the most significant development on the ground was extraneous to the US-Israel-Fatah Annapolis track and occurred as part of the parallel Egypt-Israel-Hamas process, namely the ceasefire which has brought a significant degree of security quiet to Gaza and to Israel's southern communities.

In trying to create a supportive regional climate, US efforts if anything achieved the opposite. Bringing the Arab states into the Annapolis process was the right thing to do and belatedly built on the potential of the Arab initiative first launched and ignored in 2002. But the US also framed Annapolis as the everyone-against-Iran-club, both magnifying Iran's sense of being a regional hegemon and incentivising it to play a spoiler role. Engaging in a parallel diplomatic effort with Iran (as was recently hinted at when undersecretary of state William Burns joined the Geneva talks) would have made far more sense.

The Bush administration remained adamant in opposing a peace process with Syria even as Israel relaunched its own talks via Turkish mediation. As Annapolis stuttered, the Arab states embraced by the US as moderate allies again seem to be embarrassed and on the weakened side. These factors together with the unwillingness to generate a more politically sophisticated and smartly calibrated approach to Hamas and now the increasing tensions with Russia have created a regional climate even less conducive to the current US approach.

At the end of her seventh visit, Rice gets an 'A' for effort, but the results seem less generous in every other category. Rice could still produce a handover to the next administration, which could be, with some justification, portrayed as a significant improvement on the hand received in January 2001. She may even suggest American guidelines for a peace deal based on her own conclusions from the current talks. But to be useful, such a plan would have to get the content right (and previous Bush announcements are a cause of concern), be adopted by the new president-elect and be introduced at an appropriate moment in the Israeli and Palestinian political cycles (which may not exist between now and January).

More likely, Rice will need to hand over a work that is not only in progress but also in need of major repair. A new administration of either political stripe will likely express commitment to continuing negotiations and pursuing peace, but they should be warned that if achieving a two-state solution is still the goal, then an 'A' for effort will not be enough this time. It is not an alarmist or exaggerated claim to suggest that on the watch of the next US president the two-state solution will either finally be realised or have definitively passed its sell-by date.

NAF Middle East event today at Denver DNC

This morning at 9 am my colleague Steve Clemons and I will be hosting a Middle East event at the Colorado History Museum in Denver.  Here is the line up of speakers: former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Congressman Mel Levine, the Honorary Greg Craig, Senior National Security Adviser to Senator Barack Obama, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, and Senator John Kerry.
Panelists are Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group, James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, and Janice O’Connell, Senior Adviser, Stonebridge International and Former Senior staff member (30 years) on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee plus myself. Steve will be moderating.

We expect an interesting morning and are planning to do something similar in the Twin Cities next week.  The event will be streamed live on the New America Foundation's website as well as on Steve's blog, The Washington Note. You can watch here.   

August 21, 2008

Rethinking Israel's Approach to Iran

This piece appears in this weekend's Haaretz as "There are Better Options"

Israel's response to the Iranian challenge has been out of synch with developing realities for some time. Recently though, it has become dangerously counter-productive, anchored as it is in denial. As Israel intensifies its role as threatener-in-chief, and clings to a "more sticks, bigger sticks" line, events all around are moving on.

The supposed logic behind Israel's escalating threats, suggesting it is ready to go it alone militarily, is threefold. It pressures Iran, thereby increasing international leverage in negotiations; a nervous world feels compelled to up sanctions and deliver results; and the path is smoothed to international acceptance of possible future Israeli action. Except that the logic (always a tenuous one) is now being repudiated on all three fronts.

Iran apparently views the threats as a reason to pursue more vigorously, not desist from, its enrichment program. In general, Iran's perception that it is the threatened party (surrounded by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arabian Gulf) adds impetus to its weapons-acquisition program. Israeli threats only add to that momentum. Sanctions tend to be a plodding, blunt and ineffective policy instrument. Iranian technological advances have outpaced sanctions every time. Anyway, the prospects of intensifying collective UN sanctions has likely been buried in the rubble of America's spat with Russia over Georgia and its breakaway provinces.

But the collapse of Israel's policy has been most dramatic in eliciting a public and vocal pushback against Israeli military action - from, of all places, the United States. All of America's top military brass have gone on record recently cautioning against a military strike against Iran - and each time after having held meetings with senior Israeli officials. It seems clear that as far as the Pentagon is concerned, there will be no third front in its broader Middle East quagmire and no military green light to Israel.

In addition to losing its efficacy, the "threatener-in-chief" position is also based on a false and now more transparently false premise - namely, that Israel has a military option that carries an acceptable level of risk. American reticence is just one consideration. Several influential studies, most recently one from the Institute for Science and International Security, in Washington, suggest that an attack would only strengthen Tehran's resolve to acquire a bomb, and that its centrifuge program could be quickly rebuilt. An attack would very likely rally the public around the most hard-line elements of the Iranian regime. Already the saber-rattling has allowed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's faction to distract attention from its economic mismanagement and to play the nationalism card.

These concerns are well-known, but it's worth recapping them: The region would be radically, and perhaps in the medium term irreversibly, destabilized, with a potentially huge blowback for both Israel and the U.S. Israel is understandably keen to avoid a confrontation on several fronts with Iran and its allies - but an attack would create the optimal conditions for exactly that eventuality to be realized. Iranian enmity for generations would be guaranteed and friendly regional regimes shaken, or worse. For American and coalition troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Gulf, an already harsh reality would likely become untenable, and that's even before one considers the effects on oil markets and implications for world food prices and instability, and for European dependence on Russian energy supplies. Israel quite simply cannot and should not risk it.

The good news is - there are better options. For one, Israel should be leading, or at least contributing to, rather than retarding, a policy re-think on Iran. Instead, when the U.S. sends Under-Secretary of State William Burns to sit in on talks with Iran in Geneva or considers opening an interest section in Tehran, Israel takes umbrage. The same is true when our back-channel mediators with Syria, the Turks, host Iran's leaders.

Israel needs to encourage this direct hard-headed diplomatic engagement between its friends and Iran - contributing talking points of its own and suggesting the dialogue address a broad range of issues of concern to Israel. Israel might even wrong-foot its adversaries and advance a constructive regional dynamic by developing an offer occasionally hinted at by President Shimon Peres - that Israel will support a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction in the context of regional peace, mutual recognition and security guarantees.

Beyond that, Israel should de-emphasize its unilateral military options and stress confidence in its own deterrence capacity vis-a-vis Iran. Rather than irresponsibly scaring its own public and broadcasting fear to the region, Israel's message can be that it is uniquely placed to meet the military challenges potentially posed by Iran. In fact, without giving anything new away, Israel might reiterate that of all regional actors, it has reason to be the least concerned by developments on the Iranian side. Mutual deterrence would be an acceptable, if undesirable, outcome. That would create the sense of this being a shared problem far more than the desperate cries of gewalt and threats of unilateral action.

Don't expect preventive diplomacy to be swift or simple - but Israel would be making a terrible, even fatal, mistake if it attacked Iran. It does no one, least of all itself, any favors with the parrot-like repetition of the "threatener-in-chief" mantra.

August 7, 2008

Civil War in Gaza Isn’t in Israel’s Interests

This piece appears in today's Forward.

When a bomb exploded in the Shaja’iyyah district of Gaza last month, killing four Hamas operatives and a 5-year-old girl, Hamas blamed Fatah, and moved violently against its remaining Gazan enclaves. Fatah forces then pursued retribution against Hamas in the West Bank. Another round of intra-Palestinian conflict and bloodletting ensued, with the leading pro-Fatah family in Gaza, the Hilles clan, fleeing to Israel in the hopes of making it to the West Bank.

Think that Palestinians nearing civil war and the ongoing collapse of a central Palestinian governing entity serves Israel’s security interests? Think again.

Those who are taking comfort in the televised images of Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence or in the “propaganda coup” of Human Rights Watch condemning both the Hamas government in Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority are dangerously misguided. These events neither exonerate Israel for its own violations of human rights and international law in the territories nor improve Israel’s own strategic environment.

Nearly 50 days ago, a cease-fire took hold in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. Under the terms of the deal, which was mediated by Egypt, both Israel and Hamas would cease attacks against the other side’s territory, Hamas would prevent other Palestinian factions from firing rockets at Sderot and its environs, and Israel would gradually ease the closure that was devastating the economy and daily life of the Gazan population.

The cease-fire is fragile, but largely effective — and the reality on both sides of the line is incomparably better, if far from normal. When Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama visited Sderot on July 23 and held an open-air press conference with the world’s media, he was flanked by an impressive display of rocket fragments. What went uncommented upon was that absent the cease-fire, such a press conference would have been unimaginable.

One byproduct of the ongoing Fatah-Hamas violence is the endangering of that cease-fire. Any Palestinian faction seeking a distraction from its domestic misdeeds and courting its own public opinion is likely to turn, sooner or later, to targeting Israel. Renewed violence would not only return the residents of Sderot to their shelters, but would also undermine any prospect of a prisoner exchange deal for the release of Gilad Shalit.

The events of recent weeks have clearly deepened Palestinian political divisions. Again, one is tempted to conclude that this might be a good thing for Israel — divide and rule, weaken the enemy. Again, one would be wrong. Or rather, let me nuance that: wrong if one considers a two-state solution and permanent, recognized and secure borders between Israel and its neighbors to be a vital Israeli interest.

For supporters of a one-state solution or anyone keen on entrenching a regime of segregation and discrimination in the territories, this might indeed be a reason to celebrate. That is because a two-state solution, at least as things are currently configured in the negotiations, requires a Palestinian national movement that is sufficiently unified and legitimate in the eyes of its own public to be capable of agreeing and implementing a deal. Palestinian geographical and political splintering makes that more, not less, challenging.

Israel providing shelter to Fatah fighters, as it did recently with the Hilles clan, and constantly referring to the P.A. leaders as partners does those Palestinians little credit in the eyes of their own public. A Palestinian leadership that is perceived by its own people to be a security sub-contractor for Israel is unlikely to be in a position to reach a historic deal replete with historic compromises. The last thing we need is another South Lebanese Army. Despite the warm words showered on Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his security efforts in Jenin, Nablus and elsewhere, the sad reality is that Israeli policy is consistently undermining him.

But perhaps most worrying of all is that as Palestinians lose hope in the peace process, and look despairingly at both the Fatah and Hamas leaderships, there is a danger of extremist Al Qaeda-style alternatives emerging. Such activity may already be taking place today, as politics breaks down into clan structures and groups like the Army of Islam appear. Hamas is not Al Qaeda, but the alternative to it might be.

Most of the possible Arab mediators are reticent about expending political capital on Palestinian reconciliation. Saudi Arabia tried last year by brokering a Hamas-Fatah unity deal in Mecca. That has since collapsed, and the Saudis have withdrawn from the arena. Egypt, and now Jordan, maintain contacts with both Hamas and the P.A. Neither Egypt nor Jordan, however, is rushing to fill the mediation vacuum, as both inevitably accord primacy to domestic political considerations.

Of course, Israel has contributed, and not insignificantly, to the hollowing-out of the Palestinian national movement — by failing to deliver an end to occupation assassinating leaders, enbracing unilateralism and more.

But at the end of the day this is primarily a Palestinian story, and ultimate responsibility for ending the violence and pursuing an internal dialogue is with the Palestinians themselves. In the meantime, though, Israel should be doing three things — if for no other reason, than out of self-interest.

First, take a hands-off approach to Palestinian domestic politics. Don’t veto internal dialogue. The more we break it, the more we own it.

Israel obviously has an interest in pragmatists carrying the day, but the reality is that Israelis and Palestinians are in a conflict. For a Palestinian leader, being Israel’s “favorite” is a decidedly mixed blessing — especially when favoritism translates into unsophisticated declarations (about “our partners”) and indifference to actual Palestinian needs (like lifting the closure or freezing settlements).

Second, create practical working arrangements where possible — with whoever can deliver on their commitments, and with whoever is willing to cut a deal, even indirectly. That means maintaining and solidifying the cease-fire with Gaza and extending it to the West Bank, and closing the understanding with Hamas for Shalit’s release. It also means working with the P.A. government in the West Bank to improve daily conditions in real and meaningful ways.

Finally and crucially, ensure that Israel itself avoids descending into chaos and maintains its own democracy and government by a central authority. Israel is facing its own wild West Bank. Video footage, available for all to see on YouTube, offers a shocking window into unchecked settler violence against Palestinian civilians and property and close-range shootings by the military of unarmed demonstrators and onlookers. Supreme Court rulings are ignored as the separation barrier cuts deeper into the West Bank, while settlements and outposts expand without respite.

Attending to this chronic erosion of the rule of law in Israeli society is long overdue — and it is one challenge Israel can meet unilaterally.