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October 28, 2008

America’s Military Attack in Syria—Possible Reasons and Likely Costs

 This piece appears at Huffington Post

Details are finally emerging of the American military operation inside Syria in Abu Kamal on Sunday afternoon. While there still has been no official on-record briefing from the Pentagon, unnamed DoD sources have filled in some of the gaps and reports on the operation appear in today's press. The target was apparently "Abu al-Ghadiyah" (Badran al-Mazidi), described alternatively as a high-ranking AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) operative or facilitator of smugglings and infiltration networks from Syria into Iraq, and vice versa. While it appears that there have been instances of cross-border "hot pursuit" by U.S. forces across Syrian borders before, today's Washington Post makes the assertion that this is "the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria." Syrian and Arab T.V. have been full of pictures of the area of the raid and its aftermath, interviews with the civilian wounded in hospitals, and now images of thousands attending the funerals of the 8 civilians who it is claimed also fell victim to this attack (there are claims that American forces nabbed two AQI operatives--these are as yet unconfirmed--there might still be a DoD briefing today).

Condemnations have been prevalent in the Arab media, with the headline of the UAE daily al-Khaleej being typical: "U.S. Aggression Against Syria". And criticism has not only come from the obvious places--Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world--but also from Russia, Europe and beyond. There have also been some interesting exceptions to this trend within the Arab world--notably Saudi Arabia, leading some to speculate that the Saudis encouraged or were even complicit in this operation. But even as the details are emerging many are still baffled as to why this raid took place, and especially why now. As ever when it comes to the Middle East, and especially where Syria is concerned, tantalizing and mischievous theories proliferate. Here is an attempt, then, to make sense of why this happened, and what the implications might be.

The most obvious explanation, the one seemingly offered by the Pentagon, and the least complicated, is of this being a target of opportunity that was simply too good to resist. Juan Cole is as usual the best source for the low-down on the apparent target, Badran al-Mazidi. Here's what Cole says on his blog:

"Abu al-Ghadiyah" (Badran al-Mazidi) of Mosul, a member of the fundamentalist vigilante group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (originally called "Monotheism and Holy War" but more recently "The Islamic State of Iraq"). Al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006. US intelligence fingered al-Mazidi as a major facilitator for networks of fundamentalist vigilantes who were infiltrating into Iraq from Syria. The administration allegation is that it struck when it did because it got especially good information on al-Mazidi's exact whereabouts.

But Cole then goes on to assert that as with so many decapitation exercises that we are familiar with--whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine, "Washington also tends to over-estimate the importance of individual leaders such as...al-Mazidi. Mostly they are fairly easily replaced." But even if al-Mazidi was a particularly cherished prize, it is hard to believe that this is the first time that America has had actionable intelligence regarding such a target's whereabouts inside Syria (after all, the Americans themselves have recognized that compared to the previous years of the Iraq War, there are less border infiltrations from Syria today--so there must have been more such targets in the past). Yet in the past, for the first five and a half years of the Iraq War, America did not carry out such missions inside of Syria. So it really begs the question of why now. In the less than 48 hours since the raid, there has been no shortage of attempts to answer that question, although none seem particularly authoritative.

The favorite for conspiracy theorists is to see this as the mini-version of the long awaited "October Surprise". The raid was designed at a minimum to push the American election agenda back to national security issues, thereby supposedly favoring McCain, or even better, it triggers a wider military escalation and a week of McCain looking commander-in-chief-like, towering over the inexperienced punk Obama (Ilan Goldenberg makes a great argument on Obama-McCain and who is more responsible on this Syria attack issue). I don't buy that for one moment. This is not a situation that looks likely to escalate, Obama justifiably has closed the gap on national security, and those characterizations never really gained traction and rightly so.

Human error is always a possibility, but that seems equally unlikely. As is the notion of this being a rogue operation that was not cleared at the highest decision-making levels (even if "going rogue" is the vogue phrase of this week).

It is hard not to see this as a huge going away present for the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration. They have had Syria in their crosshairs since day 1, or long before actually. Syria, for the neocons, was due to be next in line after the Iraq "cakewalk", and they have grown increasingly frustrated as the clock runs out on Bush-driven regime change in Damascus. Ian Black, writing in the Guardian, called it a "final vengeful lunge against a country that others are now wooing but which still attracts profound hostility in Washington." And today's Washington Post editorial page, so often a neocon echo chamber when it comes to the Middle East, appears to bemoan that this kind of attack on Syria did not happen sooner. Assuming that Syria would not respond given the Assad regime's expectations of better relations with the next U.S. Administration, this was something of a freebie whack at the Syrians--something that Josh Landis mentions on his informative blog, 'Syria Comment'.

This all has a nice internal logic to it and no doubt the neocons are clucking and delighted to have established this new precedent, and yet it suggests a last gasp reclaiming of neocon ownership on the Syria file for which there is little evidence. American policy has been drifting away from confrontation with Damascus, not towards it. Secretary Rice recently met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, which all suggests that there is probably more to this than a 9th inning neocon walk-off homerun.

Then there is the diametrically opposite explanation (there always is with Syria): namely, that the entire thing was preplanned and coordinated between America and Syria as part of an ongoing effort and shared interest to undermine al-Qaeda, and that was actually a prelude to warmer bilateral relations.

It is certainly the case that Syria has been plagued recently by the actions of Salafist Jihadi groups, some emanating from Lebanon, and some from Iraq. There is also evidence that Syria and the U.S. have cooperated in the past in pushing back al-Qaeda activities. Juan Cole speculated on this yesterday, and Israeli intelligence analyst at the leading Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, Ronen Bergman, takes the claim several steps further today, and states, sourcing two unnamed American officials, that "the American commando attack in Syrian territory on the Iraqi border was coordinated in advance with Syrian military intelligence (translated from the Hebrew-DL)." Bergman sites as evidence that no anti-aircraft guns were used on the American helicopters, nor did local Syrian military units engage, although this occurred in broad daylight and in a police state where the presence of security service personnel is ubiquitous. Bergman is a respected commentator in Israel. He also of course is reliant on sources that may be using him as a mouthpiece for their own psyche-ops and propaganda. In this scenario, the shrill response of Syrian officials to the raid, which Baath party number two Mohammed Saeed Bkheitan called an "act of piracy" and "state terrorism", becomes part of the game.

Some Syria analysts do see a struggle going on in Damascus right now within the Assad regime, in broad terms between a modernizing, open up to the West approach of Bashar Assad, and a 'hunker down, stick with our trusted allies, don't rock the boat' demand led by some in the military and intelligence community. The recent suicide bombing in Damascus which killed 17 is sometimes explained in this context. So might this be part of the reality of a split and shaky regime? Could Assad be using an American raid to send a signal to some of his own military? While nothing can be ruled out, this sounds to me like a serious stretch.

Perhaps the reality lies somewhere in between the two more extreme explanations of collision or collusion. Here are some things we do know. The Pentagon sees Syrian efforts to seal the border with Iraq as having been a mixed bag, and they would certainly want further improvements. General Petraeus has acknowledged these improvements and carries with him a PowerPoint presentation that includes a box entitled "Improved Relations and Coordination with Syria". The Pentagon would also have noted that shortly after an Israeli air raid against a suspected nascent Syrian nuclear program, the Israelis and Syrians were actually conducting peace talks via Turkish mediation (the Israeli press has made much of this analogy--the storm before the calm). So this might be a calculated American move that sends a message to Syria that "we are not bullshitting, we are ready to use force, but we would much prefer that you respond to our diplomatic asks and overtures."

And perhaps Syria was not the main intended recipient of the message sent by this operation at all. A number of other possible addresses come to mind. Most obviously there is Iran. If the U.S. can conduct cross border raids in Pakistan and in Syria with impunity, then surely Iran is not off the agenda, as Kaveh Afrasiabi discusses in this Asia Times online piece, 'U.S. Raid in Syria Spooks Iran'. Then there is Russia, which has been increasing its Syrian cooperation lately, is upping its sales of arms to Damascus and which hosted President Assad in Moscow just days after the Georgia crisis. This might in part be a shot across the Russian bow. Given the timing of the attack--it coincides with Syrian FM Moallem's high profile visit to London--one cannot exclude that America was sending a message of displeasure to the Europeans regarding their increasing openness to the Assad regime (although it seems to me that in this instance, the timing was coincidental and more a case of "who cares if we insult and embarrass our closest European allies").

So how do we pull this all together, and what are the implications? In U.S. terms, there may well have been a convergence of interests at work--a kind of internal U.S. win-win. The Administration hawks would always be happy to poke Assad in the eye, while the pro-engagement folks may have been convinced that this would do no harm and might even elicit a more positive Syrian response, with the Pentagon eager to further extend the principle of the violability of sovereign borders when it comes to pursuing those that harm Americans and hoping that Syria might be nudged toward greater cooperation. To take this last point a step further, a more general effort seems to be afoot, now extended from the Afghan-Pakistan border region to the Iraq-Syria border with regard to U.S. military freedom of action in cross border missions, with today's New York Times quoting several "senior administration officials" expressing hope that this rationale "would be embraced by the next President as well." That begins to sound like a problematic attempt to box-in a new Administration. Even if such an internal win-win might exist, it is far from certain that a similar calculation applies to the external consequences of this action.

Most immediate may be the effect on American efforts to negotiate the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with Iraq, which already faces significant obstacles. One issue of contention has been the guarantee that American troops would not use Iraq as the staging point for attacks on neighbors. Iran, for one, is likely to push its Iraqi allies even further on this point after the Syria action. Kaveh Afrasiabi argues that "unintended consequences of the US's raid into Syria may turn out to be more ammunition not only in the hands of Iranians but also the forces of Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and others who have categorically opposed the security agreement as anti-Iraqi." Afrasiabi even suggests that the Pentagon may be intentionally sabotaging the SOFA, the terms of which are increasingly disliked.

Beyond the SOFA, the cooperation that America will need from Iraq's neighbors as it withdraws is unlikely to be well served by this latest development. Syria has made several constructive gestures over the last period, helping to broker a standoff to the Lebanese political crisis and finally establishing diplomatic relations with that country, resuming peace talks with Israel, opening an embassy in Baghdad, and drawing closer to Europe. Unless the attack was an elaborate U.S-Syrian collaboration, it endangers setting back this more constructive Syrian role, and the decision by Syria today to close an American school and cultural center in Damascus is hardly a good sign. In particular, the Israeli-Syrian peace talks are in need of American support to be both sustainable and make progress.

Another by-product would be to again fuel anger in the Arab world at a seeming indifference to the cost in civilian casualties of American military actions and disrespect for the sovereignty of Arab and Muslim countries. In that sense, Syria joins a long list, including not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also of course Pakistan and even Somalia, Yemen, and other locales. And this is likely to just further fuel anti-Americanism. As if all that wasn't bad enough, it really is a head-scratcher that this is happening while the Syrian Foreign Minister is visiting London. A joint press conference with British FM David Miliband had to be called off to avoid embarrassing questions. French President Sarkozy, who has invested much in getting Syria to be more constructive via diplomatic engagement, must also feel slighted (he was quick to condemn the attack).

I doubt that this was an intentional snub to the Brits or Europeans, rather another example of the kind of indifference and condescension towards allies and their needs that has characterized the Bush Administration. As today's Guardian editorial suggested, the attack was another sign of a U.S. Administration which "shoots first and thinks later."

In this respect, the Bush Administration has probably managed to yet further complicate the work of its successor in the Middle East with this latest act. And at this stage that really takes some doing.

October 24, 2008

Lessons from Lebanon 25 years on

This piece also appears on Huffington Post.   

Yesterday, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of U.S. and French peacekeeping force barracks in Beirut – an assault which remains one of the most deadly and ugly attacks of its kind – the New York Times chose to run two opinion pieces on the subject, both offering the same lesson to be learned – and both wrong.   

The articles – one written by Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s national security advisor at the time of the attacks, the other by Randy Gaddo, former Marine staff sergeant and a photographer – both slavishly follow the failed global war on terror American narrative toward the Middle East, and radical Islam.

Both connect America’s immediate withdrawal of forces from Lebanon following the ’83 attack with the events of September 11th. Both suggest the experience in Lebanon ought to lead America to “stay the course” in Iraq.  McFarlane suggests GWOT started 18 years too late in September 2001, that the Americans should have gone on the military offensive then in Lebanon and are being “vindicated” now in Iraq “to establish an example of pluralism in a Muslim state.” Oh dear.   

The Shi’a adversary that killed nearly 300 troops in Beirut in 1983 was not, of course, the same foe that struck the USS Cole, American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and the World Trade Center in ’93 and ‘01. That enemy was Al Qaeda, a takfiri salafist Sunni ideology that deems the Shi’a faith heretical.  

Remaining in Lebanon and expanding operations there in the 1980s would have entailed literally standing in the middle of a civil war. During this period, Lebanon was effectively occupied by two foreign forces, both the Israelis and the Syrians. Further, Palestinian militants, having already been expelled from Jordan, presented a major destabilizing force, between attacks on Israel and inter-faction feuding. It’s difficult to fathom what maintaining a U.S. troop presence would have achieved, or what lesson various terrorist factions might have learned from further massacres of U.S. servicemen. 

Lebanon itself only emerged from the Israeli occupation of its south in May 2000 and from the pervasive Syrian military presence in April 2005.  Just this month Syria and Lebanon finally established formal diplomatic relations.  All this ought to tell us something about the corrosive effects of foreign occupations (American-led ones included), about the hard diplomatic slog of stability-building and the need to follow the difficult path of inclusivity and decisiveness in political conflict resolution. 

First, the travails of occupation.  It is worth recalling that it was the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978 and then more dramatically in 1982 that facilitated and fueled the rise of the Shi’a Hezbollah; just as it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq which brought the virulent Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and elsewhere to Iraq.

Foreign occupations tend to stir resistance, violent resistance, among occupied populations – and can become self-perpetuating for the occupier.  It is much easier to get in than to get out (and becomes increasingly so over time, especially if a civilian settler population from the occupying country is added to the mix – just ask the Israelis and Palestinians).  Over time the political mutations that occupation breeds can become more entrenched and more deadly.  For the New York Times to publish two op-eds on the same day both favoring more and longer US occupations of Arab countries is particularly appalling. 

The hard political work of conflict resolution and stability-building in the Middle East is not primarily a military mission.  It requires commitment, a willingness to be assertive diplomatically and a stomach for engaging (directly or indirectly) with thoroughly unpleasant parties, often bloody adversaries – but with whom one can find just enough common ground to cut acceptable deals (remember who the Sunni “Awakening Councils” were before they got that nice laundered name).  

To borrow a phrase from a different policy arena – this work requires a scalpel not an axe, it’s a fragile region and a fragile political reality – lumping AQ, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Taliban, etc. together and then vowing to destroy them all is not a smart plan. 

And what might all this tell us about the Presidential candidates?  Senator Obama favors diplomatically engaging more broadly to build stability.  He, for instance, favors talking to the Syrians and Iranians.  On Iraq he also displays understanding that an occupation can be a key part of the problem – he promotes US troop withdrawal as a way of incentivizing a more effective political reconciliation process.  And he appreciates how central the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the narrative of radicalization in the region, and the need to resolve that conflict, urgently, and not least for Israel’s sake. 

Obama has not though extended this problem-solving realism to the question of how to deal with non-al Qaeda, non-state actors – whether that be, for instance, in response to senior NATO officers calling to bring Taliban elements into the Afghan political tent or to Israel’s ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza. 

Intriguingly, Senator McCain, in his previous incarnation was one of just 27 Republican representatives (McCain was a newly elected Congressman at the time) to oppose extending the Marine deployment in Beirut, prior to October ’83 barracks attack.  It is something McCain has mentioned on the campaign trail—but it also represents a McCain that barely exists today – so lost he is in the all-embracing neocon bear-hug.  McCain is largely opposed to diplomatic engagement with both the state and non-state actors in the Middle East with whom the US finds itself in conflict.  Military threats and bellicose rhetoric have become the standard operating procedure for candidate McCain and his GWOT-narrative.    

It’s a shame that Senator McCain was not challenged on this 25 years after that terrible bombing – it is even more of a shame that 25 years later most of the wrong lessons are still being learned.

October 7, 2008

McCain’s Flip-flop on Iran, and a Powerful New Plan for a Grand Bargain

This piece also appears on TPMCafe

One of the lesser noticed shifts that has taken place during this Presidential election campaign is that everyone now favors some kind of diplomatic engagement with Iran:  Obama, of course;  President Bush since earlier this summer, when Undersecretary of State Burns joined the Geneva P5+1 talks; and as of late, John McCain.  The big challenge now becomes what type of engagement, and Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann have just released the most powerful case made so far for America to go for a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran and what the agenda for such an effort might look like.

Flynt (who is a colleague of mine at NAF) and Hillary presented their plan today at a New America event—as part of the NAF ‘Big Ideas’ series.  The entire paper can be read here, their talk from today can be viewed here, and an abbreviated version of their plan also appears in this month’s Washington Monthly.

Before looking at the plan, it is just worth mentioning what is up with the McCain position on Iran.  Initially, McCain tried to tag the Obama tough diplomacy line as appeasement.  Then a few things happened:  President Bush and Secretary Rice sent America’s number three diplomat William Burns to Geneva; the Pentagon leadership made it clear that they looked distinctly unfavorably on the bomb, bomb, bomb Iran approach; and then one afternoon five former Secretaries of State all came out in support of engagement.  So Senator McCain flip-flopped and changed his tune (while of course claiming consistency).  Here is what McCain said in the first debate: “He [Kissinger] said that there could be secretary-level and lower level meetings. I've always encouraged them.”  Having lost on the substantive policy question of yes or no to engagement, McCain tried to make this all about a personal Presidential-level meeting with Ahmadinejad by misrepresenting Obama’s position as inexperienced and naïve.  The McCain line sounds like exactly what it is, clutching at straws. 

In the policy debate, two things are happening now.  One is a pushback from the anti-engagement crowd, while the other consists of the various efforts to shape what engagement might look like. 

While not explicitly rejecting diplomacy, the newly-launched organization—United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI)—looks like a cover for the anti-engagement camp.  It’s mission seems to be all about educating Americans on the dangers of Iran, while having nothing intelligent to say on what to do about it.  If it is not explicitly designed to create the public mood for a future confrontation with Iran, then it could certainly be used to that effect.  It is a shame that Democratic-affiliated luminaries such as Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross have leant their names to an effort that looks and smells like another neo-conservative rehash of the rather successful PNAC push for war with Iraq.  Jim Woolsey is on the Advisory Board of UANI; it looks bad—judge for yourself.

And so to the Flynt-Hillary plan, and to the question of what type of engagement with Iran should be pursued.  The importance of their advocacy for a ‘grand bargain’ and their contribution to the debate is in how it gets beyond the often repeated discourse of bigger carrots and bigger sticks. 

Leverett-Mann argue that “a partial easing of tensions…détente, won’t do”, and they explain why:

Simply put, the next U.S. administration will not be able to achieve any of its high-profile policy goals in the Middle East -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Arab-Israeli arena -- or with regard to energy security without putting U.S.-Iranian relations on a more positive trajectory. And that requires more than U.S.-Iranian détente.

The main thrust of their argument, and it is worth reading the whole report, is that

Nearly three decades of U.S. policy toward Iran emphasizing diplomatic isolation, escalating economic pressure, and thinly veiled support for regime change have damaged the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East

In its place they recommend a policy of “thorough-going strategic rapprochement”, which would be “most effectively embodied in the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian ‘grand bargain’”: 

Iran's strategic location (in the heart of the Persian Gulf and at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia), its growing influence and standing in key regional arenas, and its enormous hydrocarbon resources make it a country critical for the United States…For the U.S. administration that takes office in January 2009, strategic rapprochement with Tehran will fall into the "must have" category -- something truly imperative for American interests in these critical regions.

Flynt and Hillary set out a quite detailed framework for structuring the ‘grand bargain’ that would need to address three sets of issues:

  • U.S. security interests, including stopping what Washington sees as Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, its support for terrorism, its opposition to a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its problematic role in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Iran's security interests, including extending U.S. security assurances to the Islamic Republic, lifting unilateral U.S. and multilateral sanctions against Iran, and acknowledging the Islamic Republic's place in the regional and international order; and
  • developing a cooperative approach to regional security.

They don’t address it, but I would argue that there is a lot of material here and a strong argument that this approach would make a lot of sense for Israel and best serve not only American, but also Israeli, interests.  There are, for instance, provisions for ending military support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and fully integrating them politically and for extending the Arab League offer of contingent normalization with Israel to also include Iran, as well as for a comprehensive approach to regional security (something that was proposed recently by the Bahraini Foreign Minister and well-received in Israel). 

Of course no one, not the authors of this plan nor myself, would claim that a ‘grand bargain’ would be anything like an easy thing to achieve.  Yet Leverett and Mann argue convincingly that the Islamic Republic of Iran, while acting in ways that we may oppose, has for many years acted not crazily, but rather “in instrumentally rational ways to defend and advance its interests.”  By injecting a good deal of rationality, realism, and interest-based thinking into the American debate on Iran, Leverett and Mann are doing everyone a significant service. 

October 3, 2008

The Alternative to Paralysis

 This article appears as an op-ed in today's Haaretz

If Tzipi Livni becomes Israel's next prime minister, she will bring to that office a belief in the urgency of reaching an extensive, two-state solution with the Palestinians. This in itself distinguishes Livni from her two main rivals. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu disputes the very framework of two viable, independent states, while Labor leader Ehud Barak parts ways on how pressing the need is to get there.

Livni will inherit the Annapolis peace process - and that is where her problems begin. Annapolis is constructed on a flawed logical edifice; it is broken. But because Livni is heavily invested in these latest peace talks, she may not recognize their shortcomings, and her inclination will be to continue on this path.

She is also unlikely to view favorably the other options available - to maintain the status quo or return to unilateralism. The reasons for rejecting the status quo are obvious: The ongoing occupation undermines Israel's interests and its future, and is unsustainable. The issue of unilateralism - and rest assured that it will be revived - is more complex. Unilateralism has become deeply unpopular, a hard public sell, and for good reason. But consider this scenario: Talks with the Palestinians are stuck or they unravel, the threat of a unified Palestinian call for a one-state solution looms, Israel needs to act and wants to do so on terms that it alone dictates. Welcome back, unilateralism.

The current panic being spread about the danger of a one-state campaign may even, in part, be designed to pave the way for unilateralism's return. The Reut Institute has gone so far as to circulate a plan in which Israel attempts to impose a Palestinian state with provisional borders in part of the West Bank. Livni instinctively opposes such unilateralism, and these plans are indeed a very bad idea. Palestinian opposition is almost guaranteed, prospects for sustainability are low, broad international support is unlikely, and Reut's own authors, demonstrating intellectual integrity, acknowledge that their plan could approximate the unsuccessful (and ugly) South African Bantustan model.

Does that mean the Annapolis process is Livni's only option? Livni, her chief negotiators, and their Palestinian counterparts are serious, they are discussing real substance and even making progress, but they will not succeed. The approach itself is flawed.

The Palestinian interlocutor now lacks the internal legitimacy to either cut or sell a deal. Israeli talk of strengthening the partner only makes that partner appear weaker and more beholden, especially when set against a reality of expanding settlements, entrenched closure and restrictions on freedom of movement, as well as a domestic perception that the PA is beginning to resemble an Israeli security subcontractor. Israeli officials openly declared that any agreement reached would in any event not be implemented without preconditions being met that are wholly unattainable. Many in Fatah, let alone Hamas, are revolting against this paradigm.

So is Livni doomed to a premiership of paralysis? Not necessarily. There is an alternative - let's call it the "Livni Initiative."

It can be considered an Israeli response to the Arab League peace initiative and would lay out a new challenge of its own. Under the Livni Initiative, Israel would announce its readiness to withdraw to borders based on the 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem, to evacuate settlements accordingly, and definitively end the occupation. The Initiative would move beyond the vague language of "painful concessions" and "two states," and be explicit, including a commitment to actually implement "de-occupation" according to a proposed timetable. Israel would call for reciprocal, one-to-one minor modifications to the '67 line (to incorporate a majority of settlers), special arrangements for Jerusalem's Old City, and reasonable security modalities (not a wish list that empties the future Palestine of its sovereign status), and while displaying understanding for the plight of Palestinian refugees, Israel would insist on an international rehabilitation and compensation program in which practical resettlement is focused outside of Israel and in particular in the new Palestinian state.

There would be no single recipient address for the Initiative. Israel would set the gauntlet down before the Palestinians, the U.S., Arab states, the Middle East Quartet, and the entire international community. Israel would not dictate nor wield a veto over the identity of the partner, only stipulate that an acceptable response is required on three levels: one, an empowered and legitimized counterpart with whom to define and delineate the exact final border and arrangements for Jerusalem; two, a detailed implementation plan to address Israel's legitimate security concerns and to provide a predictability of security and governance outcome in the de-occupied area; three, recognition of the legitimacy and finality of the outcome.

An effective response would probably entail overlapping alliances of a variety of actors. A reconstituted PLO agreed upon by Fatah and Hamas could be a major factor, the Arab League might address key elements, as could the United Nations and even the European Union, and some components would require heavy U.S. lifting. Such an offer would probably trigger keen debate among Palestinians and their political leaders in Gaza, the West Bank and beyond, but even absent that, Arab parties or the UN could temporarily fill the void and, along with others, be part of both solutions on the ground and a legitimacy-granting process.

And Israel of course would have to accept a reasonable yes as an answer.

The Livni Initiative would serve one additional and important goal: It would prove that Israel can still display bold and courageous leadership despite its dysfunctional and increasingly discredited political system. Over to you, Tzipi.