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December 27, 2008

What next on Gaza/Israel and Why Americans Should Care

For many people, what has happened today between Gaza and Israel may have all too familiar a ring to it – Israel warns and then retaliates to an alleged or real Palestinian escalation of violence, there is Arab condemnation and international exasperation, eventually things de-escalate but according to Israel’s timetable as the U.S. prevents  effective early international mediation, and we’re back to where we started - with the addition of more blood and death (many innocent, some less so), more wounded and more shattered families.

Most of those involved, often including Israel, tend to regret things not coming to a halt sooner. The Israel Defense Forces with their modern weaponry try to pinpoint  targets but invariably, predictably, and painfully there are plenty of “misses”; the Palestinians – well their weaponry is by definition more crude, they use what is available and the results are correspondingly messy and indiscriminate. Bottom line – Arabs and Jews are killing each other – so what’s new? And why on earth would America want to be involved?

Here’s the bad news folks – America is involved, up to its eyeballs actually. Today, after Israeli air-strikes that killed over 200 Palestinians in Gaza, the Middle East is again seething with rage. Recruiters to the most radical of causes are again cashing in. If Osama Bin Laden is indeed a cave-dweller these days then U.S. intel should be listening out for a booming echo of laughter. Demonstrations across the Arab world and contributors to the ever-proliferating Arabic language news media and blogosphere hold the U.S., and not just Israel, responsible for what happened today (and that is a position taken, for good reasons, by sensible folk, not hard-liners). America’s allies in the region are again running for cover. America’s standing, its interests and security are all deeply affected. The U.S.-Israel relationship per se is not to blame (that is something I support), the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is – and thankfully we can do something about that.

Why did today’s events occur? The list of causes is a long one and of course depends who you are asking. Here are five of the most salient factors as I see them:

(1) Never forget the basics – the core issue is still an unresolved conflict about ending an occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state – everything has to start from here to be serious (this is true also for Hamas who continue to heavily hint that they will accept the 1967 borders).

(2) The immediate backdrop begins with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza of summer 2005, ostensibly a good move, except one that left more issues open than it resolved. It was a unilateral initiative, so there was no coordinating the ‘what happens next’ with the Palestinians. Gaza was closed off to the world, the West Bank remained under occupation and what had the potential to be a constructive move towards peace became a source of new tensions – something many of us pointed out at the time (supporting withdrawal from Gaza, opposing how it was done).

(3) U.S., Israeli and international policy towards Hamas has greatly exacerbated the situation. Hamas participated in and won democratic elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. Rather than test the Hamas capacity to govern responsibly and nurture Hamas further into the political arena and away from armed struggle, the U.S.-led international response was to hermetically seal-off Hamas, besiege Gaza, work to undemocratically overthrow the Hamas government and thereby allow Hamas to credibly claim that a hypocritical standard was being applied to the American democracy agenda.

American, Israeli and Quartet policy towards Hamas has been a litany of largely unforced errors and missed opportunities. Hamas poses a serious policy challenge and direct early U.S. or Israeli engagement let alone financial support was certainly not the way forward, but in testing Hamas, a  division of labor within the Quartet would have made sense (European and U.N. engagement, for instance, should have been encouraged, not the opposite). Every wrong turn was taken – Hamas were seen through the GWOT prism not as a liberation struggle, when the Saudi’s delivered a Palestinian National Unity Government in March 2007 the U.S. worked to unravel it, Palestinian reconciliation is still vetoed which encourages the least credible trends within Fatah, and unbelievably Egypt is given an exclusive mediation role with Hamas (Egypt naturally sees the Hamas issue first through its own domestic prism of concern at the growth of the Muslim Brothers, progress is often held hostage to ongoing Hamas-Egypt squabbles).

(4) Failure to build on the ceasefire. Israel is of course duty bound to defend and protect its citizens, so as the intensity of rocket fire in 2007-8 increased, Israel stepped up its actions against Gaza. But there was never much Israeli military or government enthusiasm for a full-scale conflict or ground invasion and eventually a practical working solution was found when both sides agreed to a six-month ceasefire on June 19th 2008. Neither side loved it. Both drew just enough benefit to keep going. That equation though was always delicately balanced. For the communities of southern Israel which bore the brunt of the rocket attacks, notably Sderot, the ceasefire led to a dramatic improvement in daily life, and there were no Israeli fatalities during the entire period (only today, following the IDF strikes did a rocket hit the town of Netivot and kill one Israeli). Israel was though concerned about a Hamas arms build up and the entrenching of Hamas rule (which its policies have actually encouraged). For Gaza the calm meant less of an ongoing military threat but supplies of basic necessities into Gaza were kept to a minimum – just above starvation and humanitarian crisis levels – an ongoing provocation to Hamas and collective punishment for Gazans. The ceasefire needed to be solidified, nurtured, taken to the next level. None of this was done – the Quartet was busy with the deeply flawed Annapolis effort.

(5) A disaster was waiting to happen, and no-one was doing much about it. There was of course a date for the end of the ceasefire – December 19th. As that date approached both sides sought to improve their relative positions, to test some new rules of the game. Israel conducted a military operation on November  4th (yes, you had other things on your mind that day), apparently to destroy a tunnel from which an attack on Israel could be launched, Hamas responded with rocket-fire on southern Israeli towns. That initiated a period of intense Israeli-Hamas dialogue, albeit an untraditional one, largely conducted via mutual military jabs, occasional public messaging and back-channels. Again though the main reliance was on Egypt – by now in an intense struggle of its own with Hamas. When Hamas pushed the envelop with over 60 rockets on a single day  (December 24th), albeit causing no serious injuries and mostly landing in open fields (probably by design), Israel decided that it was time for an escalation. That happened today – on a massive scale - with an unprecedented death toll.

Israel clearly felt it was time to make a point, there was pressure (often self-generated) to act, and don’t forget that Israel is in an election campaign (the vote is on Feb 10th). Hamas too had scores to settle – not only with Israel, but it was also time to pressure Egypt, Fatah, and Arab actors who had done little to address the blockade of Gaza.

So here we are, in a dangerous escalatory cycle that is already sweeping the region, with scores of Palestinian dead, horrific images, a highly-charged blame-game and no obvious exit-strategy. Both Israel and Hamas are looking to emerge with a better deal than what previously prevailed – both are preparing their publics to take harsh hits over the coming days, weeks or even longer, and over 200 families in Gaza and one family in Israel already know what that means, first-hand.

So, what needs to happen next?

Sadly it is too late for preventive action but there is an urgent need for a de-escalation that can lead to a new ceasefire – and that will not be easy.

Useful lessons can be drawn from some very recent, and ugly, Middle East history – though it seems that to its dying day the Bush Administration is refusing to learn (today the White House called on Israel only to avoid civilian casualties as it attacks Hamas – not to cease the strikes, Secretary Rice was more measured).

In the summer of 2006 an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah led to a Lebanon war whose echoes still reverberate around the region. There were well over one thousand civilian casualties (1,035 Lebanese according to AP, 43 Israelis), thousands more injured, and other fatalities including the Israeli government which never recovered its poise, what little American credibility remained in the region (Secretary Rice was literally forced to return to Foggy Bottom as allied Arab capitals were too embarrassed to receive her) and much Lebanese infrastructure. That time it took 33 days for diplomacy to move and for a U.N. Security Council Resolution (1701) to deliver an end to fighting. The U.S. actively blocked diplomacy, Rice famously called this conflict “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” – it was no such thing, and the Middle East itself did not know whether to laugh or cry (the latter prevailed).

Just as in 2006, Israel needs the international community to be its exit strategy - and there is no time to waste. Even what appears as a short-term Israeli success is likely to prove self-defeating over a longer time horizon and that effect will intensify as the fighting continues. Over time, immense pressure will also grow on the PA in Ramallah, on Jordan, Egypt and others to act and their governments will be increasingly uneasy. Demonstrations across the West Bank are calling for a halt to all Israeli-Palestinian talks and for Palestinian unity.

If the U.S. is indifferent or still under the neocon ideological spell then Europe, the rest of the Quartet, Arab States and other internationals must act – with a variety of players using leverage with Israel and Hamas to de-escalate. Escalation poses dangers at a humanitarian and regional-political level. International leaders should head to the region before the new year, even if the warring parties discourage it, and for some of them Gaza must be on the itinerary, the boycott (anyway unwise) is a secondary matter now. High-level visits in themselves can create a de-escalatory dynamic.

Both sides will want to land the final big punch and both will need a dignified narrative for home consumption – any ceasefire deal will have to take this into account (and this during an Israeli election campaign, with violence usually helping the right, and the centrist government desperate for an image make-over after that Lebanon 2006 debacle).
 
The obvious ingredients will have to be creatively re-configured for this to be possible, including ending rocket fire at Israel and removing the blockade on Gaza. New ingredients may also be necessary and while extending the ceasefire to the West Bank is (unfortunately) probably out of the question, it might be possible this time to establish a monitoring mechanism for the ceasefire. Such a mechanism could serve both sides’ interests (Israel gets a more solid guarantee, Hamas gets more recognition). There is a precedent for this – after the April 1996 Israel-Hezbollah conflict a formal Ceasefire Understanding was reached that included the establishment of a Monitoring Group consisting of the U.S., France, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (with Syria basically acting as guarantor for Hezbollah). That mechanism proved useful and met with constructive IDF cooperation – something similar might be needed now.

In addition efforts need to be revived for achieving Palestinian national reconciliation (which itself could ease the management of the Gaza situation) and for allowing Gaza greater access to the outside world through Egypt via the Rafah border crossing.

But there is a bigger picture – and it is staring at the incoming Obama administration. Today’s events should be ‘exhibit A’ in why the next U.S. Government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to ‘manage’ it – as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda. That can happen on terms dictated to the U.S. by the region (bad) or the U.S. can seek to set its own terms (far preferable). The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts. A consensus of sorts is emerging in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that this conflict needs to be resolved – evidenced in the findings of a recent Brookings/Council of Foreign Relations Report or the powerful statements coming from elder statesmen like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, themselves building on the findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. It will require tenacity and bold ideas – in framing the solution, bringing in previously excluded actors, creating mechanisms to implement a deal (such as international forces) and utilizing the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative – but the alternative is far worse, its what we see today and it guarantees ongoing instability in a region of paramount importance to the United States.

December 19, 2008

Pursuing Peace Amid Pessimism

This piece also appears in The Forward today.    

If the emerging Washington consensus is to be believed, then here is the Middle East peace conundrum waiting to greet the new Obama administration: Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more than ever a strategic priority for the United States, but it also seems more difficult to achieve now, perhaps even unattainable in the foreseeable future.

The transition of power always produces a proliferation of policy papers, reports and recommendations. This season virtually all converge around some variation of the following message: President Bush’s seven-year neglect of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking eviscerated the regional standing of the United States, and this unresolved conflict fuels anti-Americanism, weakens allies, emboldens foes and is a recruitment tool for extremists.

The trouble is that a deep skepticism prevails as to what can be done given the divisions and political dysfunction displayed on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides and the failure of the Annapolis effort. Serious and well-intentioned people in America and Israel are arguing that the best the incoming administration can do on the Israeli-Palestinian front is focus on conflict management, postpone pushing for a comprehensive resolution and go for an Israeli-Syrian deal instead.

But it would be a profound mistake to put on the back burner efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough. Without addressing the Palestinian issue, it is extremely unlikely that the region can be re-stabilized, that American credibility can be revived or that Israel’s future can be secured. Nor is working to achieve a Palestinian-Israeli deal inconsistent with the goal of reaching an accord with Syria; regional issues are increasingly interconnected and a comprehensive approach (including American-Iranian diplomacy) makes most sense.

The challenge, then, is how to make an Israeli-Palestinian deal possible in the near term. In tackling this issue, it is essential to resist the temptation to lapse into familiar and failed approaches.

Focusing efforts on improving the Palestinian economy or security capacity, gradually building trust and confidence, while receiving updates on and encouraging the parties’ bilateral negotiations — all of this sounds reasonable and laudable. It certainly creates lots of diplomatic activity, announcements, visits and conferences. However, as we have learned from experience, this approach is not enough to yield meaningful and sustainable results. Condoleezza Rice, as secretary of state, visited Israel an astonishing 22 times (compared with eight visits to China and India combined) with precious little to show for it.

We live in a transparent world. It can do more harm than good when an American administration declares the Israeli-Palestinian issue to be a priority — and invests energy, effort and visibility — but the result on the ground is more insecurity, settlements and closures. When the United States appears incapable of delivering, friends and foes alike take notice. There is no such thing as an “A” for effort.

Israel, for its part, urgently needs to achieve permanent and recognized borders, reach a two-state solution and end the madness of ongoing settlements in the West Bank. A process without progress does not advance Israel’s interests.

So, is there a more promising alternative that better addresses American and Israeli needs (and the unconscionable predicament of the Palestinians) that has a realistic prospect of success? I think there is, but it requires bold, ambitious and new thinking, especially about the “when,” “who” and “how” of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

First, the “when.” Delay, postponement and gradualism have ill-served the cause of peace. The conditions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do need to be created — but that can and should be a short-term project, not a perpetual pursuit.

As for the “who,” of course a resolution requires a threshold of Palestinian and Israeli capacity, but the idea that the sides need to do all the heavy-lifting and have hyper-charged peacemaking and implementation capacities is both unrealistic and holds back progress. Key and necessary ingredients for delivering peace and security can be substituted by the United States, the Quartet, Arab states, the European Union, NATO and others.

This is not to say that Israelis and Palestinians should be relegated to the roles of mere onlookers — sufficient local buy-in is essential. Israelis should be encouraged to acknowledge and address the stark choices and options that they face (occupation vs. democracy) and to build a consensus around the peace option. Palestinians need internal reconciliation and to build an inclusive national movement that can legitimately make national decisions and come to terms with Israel in the context of a dignified peace.

And finally there is the “how,” which really follows from the “who.” Israeli-Palestinian peace needs to be embedded in a new regional effort. That requires a comprehensive approach incorporating Syria and articulating a detailed plan for implementing the Arab peace initiative. Ultimately, a new regional security architecture should also be developed.

Closing the details of an Israeli-Palestinian deal cannot be left to the parties themselves — the emotional baggage weighs too heavily. When it comes to the minor modifications to the 1967 border and land swaps, special arrangements for Jerusalem’s holy sites and achieving recognition and compensation for Palestinian refugees absent relocation to Israel, there should be American proposals backed by the Quartet and Arab states. For both sides, closure is more easily reached by saying “yes” to a combination of the United States, Arab states and the international community than to each other. These external actors are also better placed to guarantee the implementation and finality of any deal — the end of claims being of particular importance to Israel.

Likewise, post-occupation security in a new state of Palestine should be internationally guaranteed by multinational (perhaps NATO) forces — at least for a period of time. This avoids creating the sort of power vacuum that followed Israel’s clumsy unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and gets beyond unrealistic attempts to incubate fully functional Palestinian security forces under the watch of both the Israeli army and a dispersed and increasingly violent settler population.

This, of course, is an ambitious menu. But it does suggest a direction for an administration committed to peace and to resolving the conflict, unwilling to cede this goal to the skeptics and open to new thinking.

Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation. He previously served as an adviser in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

A short path, from Gaza to Somalia

This piece can also be read on the Haaretz website.  

As the defined period for the Gaza cease-fire comes to an end today, preceded by a new cycle of violence, Israelis are being treated to a predictable dose of political posturing and chest-thumping. "We must do something, exact a price," we hear. Yes, the rocket fire needs to stop, but there is no military answer to this predicament.

To recap: For most of the six months of the cease-fire, relative quiet prevailed, and life returned to near-normal for the residents of Sderot and environs (though not for Gazans, who remained under siege). Then on November 4, an Israeli operation sparked a new round of dangerous, if controlled, violence - characterized by occasional Israeli strikes and incursions, matched by Palestinian rockets and shooting across the border.

The cease-fire, while far from ideal, was an improvement over what had preceded it. Of course, Hamas sought to upgrade its military and defensive capacities during this period, as Israel should have been doing on the other side of the border - it would have been absurd to expect otherwise. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and the cease-fire will be extended - it is in the interests of both sides. The military alternative is not an attractive one - from Israel's side, escalation leading to partial or full reoccupation of Gaza, from Hamas, rockets and perhaps armed attacks from the West Bank in response. It also has no obvious exit strategy.

But the debate in Israel about continuing the cease-fire largely misses the point. Whether or not it's extended, Israel's overall approach toward Gaza is dangerously mistaken. A siege designed to depose Hamas rule (a problematic goal in itself, but that's another story) risks triggering a social collapse that would have devastating consequences for all concerned. Anyone in search of a cautionary tale, and a peek at a possible future scenario for Gaza, should look at Somalia - which has the dubious distinction of having reintroduced piracy to the daily news lexicon, and from which Ethiopian troops are now planning to withdraw following an ugly two-year occupation.

Somalia has gone through 17 years of impoverishment, chaos, destruction and warlords, featuring 13 transitional governments - and is somehow still getting worse. In June 2006, having overrun most of the country, a coalition known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), together with businessmen and clan leaders, ousted the various warlords and the woefully ineffectual Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) from the capital Mogadishu. The following months of ICU rule, despite the often unpopular imposition of strict Islamic law, according to The New York Times, "turned out to be one of the most peaceful periods in modern Somali history."

But that December, the Ethiopian military, with American support and at the invitation of the discredited TFG, invaded Somalia and has been there ever since. Though the initial military victory was a rout, the illegitimacy and brutality of the Ethiopian presence soon led to the inevitable - a bloody insurgency.

The insurgents, now divided and including the ICU and other armed factions, are winning. The Ethiopian military and a small African Union force are readying their withdrawal, and the TFG is bitterly divided. The future looks bleak.

What, if anything, might Israel learn from all this?

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is beginning to approximate that of Somalia, where 77 percent of the population requires emergency humanitarian support, and the rate of malnutrition is the world's highest. Food insecurity in Gaza currently runs at 56 percent and is deteriorating rapidly, 42 percent of the Strip's population is unemployed and 76 percent is receiving humanitarian assistance (all UN figures). Harsh closures have effectively led to Gaza becoming deindustrialized, and Israeli reluctance even to replenish tattered banknotes is demonetizing the economy. There is a slippery slope from an entrenched humanitarian crisis into bloody anarchy and ungovernable chaos - especially when arms are ubiquitous and there is an open wound of unresolved national grievance.

One thing that can prevent a descent into the abyss is the existence of recognized and accepted political leadership. At the very least, Hamas today is an address for possible deals and decision-making, but Israel's assassinations and imprisonment of its leaders take their toll. An Israeli military escalation would likely accelerate the splintering of Hamas' leadership and the emergence of more radical alternatives; that was the effect of Ethiopia's intervention in its backyard. Both Somalia and Palestine are in need of broad and inclusive power-sharing arrangements, brokered internationally and insulated from neighborhood vetoes.

If Israel were again to find itself stuck in Gaza, don't expect international forces to come riding to the rescue. Ethiopia's military hoped to be replaced by an internationally sanctioned African Union force, but the troops couldn't be summoned. Handing over a Gaza that's been re-invaded by Israel to Arab and international forces is equally unrealistic.

Finally, there is the destabilizing regional effect of failed states. In Somalia's case, it was Eritrea and Djibouti that bore the brunt of the impact, in addition to Ethiopia, and of course the infamous piracy in the oil-shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden. Alongside Israel, Egypt is most immediately affected by turmoil in Gaza - with potentially severe consequences for regime stability and legitimacy, and for security in the Sinai and beyond.

Gaza is not yet Somalia. But the warning signs are there. There was nothing inevitable about the disintegration of Somalia. It happened as a result of misguided policies - notably of the current Bush administration and Ethiopia - which should not be repeated by Israel in Gaza.

Israel must do more than extend a cease-fire - Israel must allow Gaza to breathe, to reconnect to the world, to live on more than international handouts, and to reclaim its dignity. Could Hamas benefit in the short term? Perhaps. But worse things can happen - and not just to the Palestinians. For Israel, too, much is at stake. It's no fun to live in a Somalia, and no picnic either being its next-door neighbor.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

December 16, 2008

The Bushies Having a Last Laugh at the UN

 This piece also appears at TPM Cafe

The U.N. Security Council today passed its first resolution on Israeli-Palestinian peace process-related issues in 5 years.  The resolution was essentially intended to anchor the Annapolis process as an ongoing effort in moving forward beyond the Bush Administration and it closely followed the language of a Quartet statement from last month.  UNSCR 1850, however, not only contains little that is new, it also offers very little encouragement that progress is being made by the current approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. 

From the Bush Administration’s perspective it is a last gasp effort at legacy-building, having failed to achieve the goals set out at Annapolis one year ago.  How ironic that this Administration would seek a U.N. imprimatur for that legacy, given its characteristic hostility to the U.N. and indeed to multilateralism and international law in general.  But this is an unhelpful resolution, and it looks like the Bushies are having a farewell snicker at the U.N. Plaza.

From the international community’s perspective, this looks like a farewell gesture to an Administration who for seven years neglected Israeli-Palestinian peace-making and whose belated efforts were never really found to be convincing.  So it can only be hoped that UNSCR 1850 in no way locks the Obama Administration into an Annapolis process that is structurally flawed.  The resolution’s insistence on maintaining bi-lateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on pursuing the Roadmap and on adhering to the Quartet principles for engagement with Palestinians all seem woefully inadequate when faced with the real challenges that will have to be overcome to advance progress toward Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. 

Only this month two of the most respected establishment Washington think tanks, the Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings, suggested dropping those Quartet principles: “Washington should eschew the Quartet’s conditions on Hamas.”  The bi-lateral negotiations themselves will almost certainly need to be buttressed by external intervention, as two of the wisest U.S. national security heads, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft have suggested: “A key element in any new initiative would be for the U.S. president to declare publicly what, in the view of this country, the basic parameters of a fair and enduring peace ought to be.”

More than anything, UNSCR 1850 looks like a clumsy attempt to intervene in domestic Israeli and Palestinian politics—and one that is likely to backfire. 

When Israelis go the polls in February, the main choice for Prime Minister will be between the Annapolis-supporting Tzipi Livni (Kadima) and the more hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud).  If this resolution is designed to embarrass Netanyahu and to tie his hands when it discusses the “irreversibility of the bilateral negotiations”, then it is unlikely to succeed.  The Israeli-voting public can be open to listening to messages from the international community, but not when they are delivered with so little sophistication, in a way that lacks meaning, teeth, or follow-up and that actually borders on being nonsensical—what on earth does the “irreversibility of the bi-lateral negotiations” even mean? 

The effort to assist the Palestinian Fatah leadership in Ramallah is even more woeful, transparent, and unconvincing.  The resolution “calls on all states and international organizations…to support the Palestinian government that is committed to the Quartet principles and…to maximize the resources available for the Palestinian Authority.”  Yet one has to question how much of a selling point this resolution can be with the Palestinian public when the entire text makes no mention of occupation, settlements, or the humanitarian situation in Gaza—all things that might just concern the average Palestinian  If anything this is only likely to further discredit the P.A.

A U.N. Security Council Resolution is a tool that if effectively deployed could be helpful in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, but Resolution 1850 only cheapens and demeans this tool.  That the resolution has been largely well received is perhaps testimony to only how low the bar has now been placed for what is considered to be a positive development on Israel-Palestine.  International support for such a timid approach, and one so steeped in the failure of the past, is unfortunate to say the least.  It is also very out of sync with the hope and expectation of more effective and creative diplomacy that has characterized the international mood since the election of Barack Obama.

In fact, this is not the only issue on which the Bush Administration is trying to have a last laugh at the United Nations—they are also pushing for a UN Security Council Resolution on the situation in Somalia to militarily protect the discredited and impotent Transitional Federal Government there.  Bush’s Somalia policy has come close to being matched in its wrongheaded ideological dogmatism and devastating effects by the policy towards the Palestinians. 

The only good news is that this resolution was the product of U.S.-Russian co-sponsorship (nice to see) and that like the many Israel-Palestine resolutions that preceded it, this one too is likely to be ignored.    

December 5, 2008

Israeli Settler Pogrom Against Palestinians; CFR/Brookings Report Suggests Linking U.S. Aid to Settlement Freeze

 This piece also appears at TPM Cafe

A week of Israeli settler outrages against Palestinians and against Israel's own security forces reached a crescendo over the last 24 hours with settlers opening fire on Palestinian civilians and unleashing violent disturbances across the West Bank. Israel's Justice Minister, Daniel Friedman, has just called the events a "shocking pogrom", journalists have described how their presence saved Palestinian residents of a home near Kiryat Arba from a lynching, and IDF sources described how the right wing activists "want to spark a religious war that would inflame the entire region." The belated IDF action in upholding a court order to evict settlers from a home that they illegally occupied in Hebron, led by Defense Minister Barak, was at least effective, although the same cannot be said of the limp-wristed measures taken in the face of settler rampages against Palestinians, and of the general approach to settler lawlessness.

While the Israeli press is full of graphic descriptions of the settler outrages, there has been remarkably little coverage in the American mainstream media, and as Jeff Goldberg points out on his Atlantic blog, there was no mention at all in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization's daily news digest (Daily Alert)--not surprising given that it is put together by the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs led by Dore Gold. Settler extremism has become a strategic issue with implications for American policy, American private funding of settlements, and how to manage the security dynamic in the West Bank.

The litany of settler actions over this week makes for particularly bleak reading on a Friday night. On the walls of home and in mosques in the West Bank villages of Yatma, Sanjil, Turmus Ayya, and Isawiyya, graffiti has been scrawled reading "Mohammed the pig" and "Death to the Arabs", elsewhere cemeteries have been desecrated, Palestinian homes set on fire, olive trees uprooted, tires punctured, and yesterday two Palestinians were shot and seriously wounded by settler fire. Israeli security forces overseeing the evacuation of the Hebron house and sometimes trying to bring order were stoned and assaulted by settlers, along with the customary hurling of choice abuse, notably the word "Nazi". According to the Israeli Yedioth Ahronot newspaper, Ethiopian IDF soldiers "enjoyed" their own variation on the abuse theme, being told "niggers don't expel Jews".

All of this should not be described as madness. It was premeditated and there was a plan behind it that the Israeli establishment is calling a "price tag". In the immediate term, the settlers were hoping to prevent the evacuation of the Hebron house by setting off violence across the West Bank and by trying to provoke a Palestinian response that would in turn require the IDF to focus elsewhere and therefore be unable to carry out the Hebron mission. But the real goal was to send a signal that any future settler evacuation would carry a price far more bloody and devastating than the Gaza Disengagement of summer 2005--namely, to inflame the entire Occupied Territories, if not the region. The settlers (thus far at least) did not achieve that goal, but they have certainly caused great damage, and it would not be an exaggeration today to call settler extremism a potentially strategic destabilizing factor in the Middle East.

And yes I know, when I say settlers it is not all settlers, but let's not be naïve. Extremism is deeply entrenched in the settler movement. This does not apply to the economic settlers or what could be termed the "accidental settlers" close to the Green Line--their sin is one of indifference. But the settler movement has nurtured and produced this phenomenon of extremism, just read Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal's "Lords of the Land", or Gershom Gorenberg's book "The Accidental Empire". The most noticeable aspect of the settler presence this week were the youths, often barely in their teens, and who might be described as Israel's child soldiers, high on the teachings of fanatical religious leaders. As Ben Caspit writes in today's Ma'ariv:

The hilltop youth...are not errant weeds, we are talking about a well-ordered organization with a hierarchy, with rabbis, with separate incitement, with a combat doctrine and with weaponry...they have messianic insanity in their eyes...This monster has to be stopped now. Afterwards, it will be too late.

In fact, this was the tone in much of the Israeli press (and not just in Haaretz) and from much of the Israeli establishment. Senior sources in the Israeli Prime Minister's office were quoted as saying "these Jewish terrorists are as bad and dangerous as Arab terrorists." The American mainstream media, which tends to get very excited at Arab violence, had precious little to say either in the print or electronic media.

Beyond the shock and condemnation, the lurch by hard-line settlers toward a more extreme and confrontational approach has implications for Israeli and American policies. On the Israeli side, the state long ago ceased to uphold its own laws when it comes to the coddled settler community. That community now poses a direct threat to Israel's survival as a democracy with a Jewish character, in which the rule of law is upheld. And as this week proved, the hard-line settlers have become a clear and present danger to Israel--only drastic measures will suffice.

But I want to focus for a moment on the consequences for American policy, and in particular for a new Administration. The U.S. is on paper opposed to settlement expansion. The U.S. narrative, though, has shifted. Initially settlements were characterized by the U.S. as "illegal"--that description was dropped by the Reagan Administration and never returned to. Settlements became no more than "unhelpful" and later on an "obstacle to peace"--a language which the Bush Administration has occasionally used. What the U.S. has not done is to take a firm, consistent, and unrelenting position that Israel uphold its commitment to a settlement freeze--and without such U.S. action, the Israeli cost-benefit calculation on settlement expansion vs. freeze is always skewed in favor of the former.

This week, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Saban Center at Brookings released a report in the form of a book, entitled "Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President", including a chapter addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of its five key recommendations was for the U.S. to "press Israel to freeze settlement construction" (they also recommended bringing Hamas into the fold, but that's another story). The Report went on to suggest how this might be done: "Both public criticism of Israeli settlement policy as well as conditioning portions of aid to a settlement freeze can be effective in eliciting Israeli compliance." So that's Brookings and CFR--and it doesn't get much more establishment than them--linking U.S. aid to Israel to a settlement freeze. Interesting, methinks.

Many groups in the U.S. (including right-wing Christian Zionists) provide financial support to settlements and settler causes (see here and here), often to 501(c) 3s as tax-deductible, charitable contributions, and that is something into which an investigation is long overdue. Jewish groups in particular should be vocal in their opposition to settlements (see Bernard Avishai on J Street here at TPM). After the Shin Bet Chief spoke of certain settlers groups posing a security threat, my colleague Steve Clemons suggested on his blog that the U.S. investigate and place those in question on the Terror Watch List. U.S. efforts to support the Palestinian economy and ease the closure and checkpoints (for details see the U.N.'s OCHA website) are undermined most of all by the existence of settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, which are protected by the IDF, have their own access roads, whose residents demand freedom of movement, and whose existence largely dictates Israeli-imposed restrictions on Palestinian mobility.

American efforts at building up Palestinian security capacity are also compromised by the settler scourge. The Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) will be unable to stand by and watch for long as settler militants unleash their wrath on the Palestinian population--indeed their intention is to provoke a PSF response.

And finally of course, the greatest threat to the entire two-state solution is the settlements enterprise. In short, there is no credible peace policy unless one is willing to get hard-assed about settlements--and that is true for both Israel and the U.S.