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September 23, 2009

More Than Just a Photo-Op

Barack Obama's handshake meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu is not getting nearly the credit it deserves. In fact, Obama's Mideast peace strategy is far more sophisticated than most observers realize.


This piece also appeared in Foreign Policy

Headlines are now being prepared following U.S. President Barack Obama's convening of a trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-American peace summit today in New York. Many will seek to belittle the president's efforts thus far. The summit was being dismissed as a photo-op before it even happened.

The right, in the United States and in Israel, will spin this meeting as further proof of the young president's foreign policy naïveté. Prioritizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, creating expectations in the Arab world, and publicly disagreeing with Israel, on settlements for instance, are all exhibits in the right's case against the new administration (Steven Rosen here on ForeignPolicy.com provided a boiler-plate incantation of this hawkish line).

The spin from the left, in the United States and in the Arab world, is just as predictable. The president blinked on settlements when Israel said boo, the Palestinians have been thrown under a bus, and the U.S. is pursuing more of the same failed incrementalist policies.

In large measure, both of these views are wrong. The contours of a strategic methodical Obama approach to achieving the comprehensive Mideast peace of which he speaks are starting to become visible.

The way in which today's trilateral was announced is in itself instructive. Special Envoy George Mitchell was getting played by the parties last week as they tried to leverage America's desire to see the three-way meeting take place. Sometimes that is the lot of an envoy. It is also an advantage of having an envoy, allowing the president to step in, cut to the chase, and simply announce where and when the parties were expected to report for a meeting with him. The Americans decided that this week's news cycle would not be dominated by the vagaries of Middle Eastern leaders' mood swings or the potentially embarrassing ‘will they-won't they' speculation about an Abbas-Netanyahu meet. Obama decided. The trilateral happened. It's over on Tuesday, now move on to climate change and nonproliferation.

While some on the Israeli side (with many Arab commentators agreeing) will be portraying this as an Israeli win, with Obama weakened and Abbas squaring up to a large helping of humble pie, I think that's a misreading of the current state of play.

Let's take the issue that has received most attention - settlements. Analysts will jump on the fact that a meaningful settlement freeze has not been achieved and that President Obama called today to "restrain" such activity, a seeming climb-down from his previous statements. While it is certainly true that some of the newfound Middle Eastern goodwill toward the U.S. has been squandered by the American inability to deliver a freeze and a price has been paid in America's standing and credibility, something else has also been happening that is likely to prove more significant over time.

By holding Israel's feet to the fire over settlements for a sustained period, America may actually have achieved a great deal in strategically advancing the two-state goal. The most significant effect may be this: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's preferred approach was to focus on interim issues and confidence-building measures (CBMs) and to avoid negotiating the core issues (territories, settlements, Jerusalem, etc.) on which his positions are the most unreasonable. In particular, Netanyahu has attempted to advance an economic peace agenda, with his supporters feverishly spinning the idea that the West Bank is becoming an economic paradise. The Obama team has staked out a clear position - items number 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the interim/CBM agenda are entitled "settlement freeze." They have been giving short shrift, including today, to the economic peace narrative (they acknowledge the desirability of progress on the economy and freedom of movement, and should even congratulate themselves that the partial progress made is mainly a result of the heat Israel feels on settlements).

The result: The settlement freeze focus has made Netanyahu's natural comfort zone -- the interim/CBM world -- a prohibitively uncomfortable place to inhabit. So paradoxically, it is Netanyahu who now feels compelled to embrace and prefer negotiations on permanent status end-game issues. That is no small achievement.

In addition, the most right-wing government in Israel's history is, in practical terms, limiting its pro-settlements proclivities, and a tantalizing pivot has been established: namely, that having failed to reach acceptable arrangements on a settlements freeze, the best and obvious alternative is to proceed now to delineate borders. In other words, the territory -- the border component of the two-state deal -- becomes the default solution to what the Americans have established, possibly in a premeditated way, as the never-ending settlement freeze saga.

The cherry on the icing emerged today when the president notably and crucially failed to give a formal blessing to continued construction in East Jerusalem and in almost 3,000 settlement units as an "agreed exemption clause." By not providing this kosher stamp, by calling for restraint, actions not just words, America (just) retained its credibility on the settlements issue. So the settlements focus can best be understood as an important exercise in setting down a marker, even though it is also an important issue in its own right.

This is also the best way to understand the Mitchell team's several months' worth of investment in obtaining Arab gestures toward early normalization with Israel. The point here was not necessarily the immediate deliverables, which may be meager, but rather to create an expectation. This administration is serious about comprehensive peace, and the Arab states will need to be serious about making good on their full normalization pledge, which is part of the Arab Peace Initiative. Mitchell has begun to seriously have that conversation and to get people's heads in the Arab world around the idea of what normalization really means.

What we have been witnessing thus far, including today, has been a table-setting exercise. President Obama's message today continued to emphasize key themes -- the urgency of achieving a two-state solution, his personal engagement and commitment, and why this is an American national interest. Starting on day one, as Obama did, rather than in year seven as his predecessor did, has its advantages. It allows one to invest several months and even to reach an impasse in order to make a point. I would argue that this administration is determinedly and inexorably moving this process toward a moment of truth that may take another several months or more to arrive, but arrive it will.

The straw-man argument that a focus on CBMs and economic peace can substitute for end-game negotiations has been defenestrated. A settlement freeze will continue to be pursued but will now be delinked from these permanent status negotiations, which will be launched in parallel, and the Palestinians will be walked back from their preconditions. Israelis and Palestinians will be brought together to negotiate directly but with an ongoing American presence and guiding hand.

More than that, in fact, one can expect the existing modus operandi to continue, with most of the serious talks and negotiations taking place on three parallel axes of dialogue: American-Israeli, American-Palestinian, and American-Arab states. Most of that will be via the continuous shuttling of Mitchell and his team, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who is more keenly involved in Middle East peace efforts than is often acknowledged) and President Obama being deployed as and when necessary.

Over time, one imagines that those key issues that have been addressed only tentatively thus far, or that have even remained taboo, will also be taken on. Syria, for instance, will at the appropriate moment need to shift from the orbit of hesitantly engaged outlier, to being a centerpiece in a comprehensive peace effort. A way will also need to be found to deal with the Hamas "untouchables." Ultimately, that might mean an indirect engagement via a consortium of regional and other actors (such as the Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and others, including but not exclusively Egypt) or by actively encouraging and accepting internal Palestinian political reconciliation.

If there is indeed a strategy here, and I at least think one can be discerned, then it is heading towards the presentation and active promotion, at the appropriate moment, of an American plan for implementing a comprehensive peace. America will have to recognize that it is dealing on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, for all their differences, with two deeply dysfunctional polities. The parties simply cannot do this of their own volition, and this is too important for them and for America for it to be left to the mercy of the vicissitudes of their respective domestic politics. America will have to create the incentives and also the disincentives.

It is not a question of wanting this more or less than the parties themselves. It is about who is best placed to carry this effort over the finishing line -- and only determined American leadership with international support can achieve that. Senator Mitchell frequently talks about his 700 days of frustration in Northern Ireland and one day of decisive, break-through success.

Today's trilateral may register on the frustrating side of the ledger, but President Obama has set off on a path that can lead to that one game-changing day of peace-making. Given the urgency, as acknowledged again by the president today, let's hope he dramatically trims down that 700 number.

September 18, 2009

Israel Must Now Heal Itself

 This also appears on the Guardian online

The report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict is outrageous, a disgrace. The mission's head, Richard Goldstone, was the chair of the Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, chair of the World ORT education organisation with more than 150 schools in Israel and a self-declared friend of Israel whose daughter made aliyah – Zionist emigration to Israel – and she told Israeli army radio this week, "Israel is more important to me than anything."

Wait a moment, that doesn't sound right. Ah, here it is – the report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict is outrageous, a disgrace. The UN Human Rights Council is composed of non-democratic, Israel-hating, human rights-violating nations and the mission was born in sin to delegitimise Israel and excuse terrorism.

That second narrative has been pushed harder since the report's publication, but they are equally ridiculous. Indeed there exist two extreme poles of response to a report such as this: one, of the reflexive Israel-haters for whom this is a gotcha moment extraordinaire, and they gleefully wave the latest proof that Israel is a world pariah without parallel. Their mirror image is the pavlovian and delusional Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd, for whom behind any serious critique of Israel lays the nefarious machinations of age-old antisemitism, singling out the Jewish state and to hell with the facts.

But for the vast majority of non- or only mildly partisan individuals with a capacity for cognitive reflection, the Goldstone report should be treated seriously and even perhaps as a wake-up call.

The report investigates events during Israel's Operation Cast Lead from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, the context in which they occurred and the events preceding and following that operation. In 574 pages of painstaking and well-documented detail, the report is unsparing and casts a broad net in its criticism. It finds grounds for concern that Israel did not take necessary precautions to protect Gaza's civilians. This covers disproportionate use of force, targeting of civilians and the foundations of civilian life, among other things, all against the backdrop of the sophisticated and precision weaponry at Israel's disposal (Israel is a world leader in defence and military R&D and manufacturing, and was the world's third-largest arms exporter in 2008).

The Hamas-led authorities in Gaza are accused of indiscriminately and deliberately attacking the civilian population in southern Israel, as well as the targeting and use of violence against internal actors and notably Fatah opponents inside Gaza. Even the Palestinian Authorities in the West Bank are cited for their violence targeting Hamas supporters and restrictions applied on the opposition's freedom of movement and assembly.

In its conclusions, the report calls for a process to be set in motion of independent investigations by the respective local authorities whose veracity would be internationally verified, and for procedures that include referrals to the UN security council and ultimately the international criminal court in The Hague and even recourse to national courts using universal jurisdiction in states that are parties to the 1949 Geneva conventions. Both Israeli and Hamas officials have expressed opposition to the report, although the latter have praised parts of it and are considering implementing the investigation recommended by the mission.

Most of the pushback and the vituperative attacks have come from the Israeli side, and indeed while comprehensive, the preponderance of the report does deal with Israel's actions. This is no coincidence. The overwhelming majority of causalities and destruction were incurred on the Palestinian side (which is not to detract from the fact that all loss is tragic). The report is forthright in acknowledging the power dynamic at work, noting that there is no equating "the position of Israel as the occupying power with that of the occupied Palestinian population or entities representing it. The differences with regard to the power and capacity to inflict harm or to protect, including by securing justice when violations occur, are obvious and a comparison is neither possible nor necessary" (report, clause 1,673, p521).

This relationship of power is crucial – too many Israelis and Palestinians have effectively dehumanised the other, but the practical policy and operational consequences of that dehumanisation are very different for an occupying power as opposed to an occupied people. Since the report's publication, and in the context of its pushback, Israel has bemoaned a different power dynamic, namely that investigations such as these are not conducted when it comes to, for instance, American transgressions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, it is not a fair world: the Palestinians are to Israel as Israel is to America. Ironically, it is international human rights law and humanitarian law, the essence of this report, that exists to partially redress this unfairness.

The official Israeli response has followed a familiar if disappointingly ritualistic pattern. The emphasis has been on pre-emptively discrediting the report's findings rather than substantively addressing them. Israel's key claim – that the mission had concluded its findings in advance of its investigation – would appear to be true, only in reverse: namely that the Israeli government had decided on its response to the report in advance of its publication.

Official Israel refused to co-operate with the mission, refused to meet with its members or grant them official entry into Israel (or to the West Bank or Gaza via Israel), and had even banned the media from being in Gaza at the time of Operation Cast Lead. Israeli officials have marched in lock-step in their assertive rejection of the report, from the avuncular figure of Shimon Peres right down to the pugnacious ex-bouncer foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman (lambasting the report from, of all places, Serbia – no sense of irony was detected).

Israel has launched a veritable global PR offensive. The relentless bashing of the UN Human Rights Council, reconstituted in 2006 (and certainly far from perfect), sits uneasily with the fact that the US assumed a seat on the council this year and along with others is working to reform and upgrade that body's standing. However, this response is in part understandable. The report is very problematic, and offence as the best form of defence is as natural in the political world as in the sporting arena. But a PR-centric response is insufficient, both substantively and legally.

The Goldstone report is only the most recent, albeit the most important, of a series of investigations that Israel has chosen to dismiss as biased. Israel has, I would argue, mistakenly chosen not to undertake its own independent commission of inquiry. Had that taken place, the Goldstone report would either never have been commissioned or (assuming a credible Israeli inquiry) would never have suggested referral to the UN security council or the international criminal court. Instead, Israel produced a 157-page internal report mainly conducted by the IDF on the Gaza operation, but this serves as an exercise in self-justification, not investigation.

For months, the Israeli human rights community has been beseeching its government to launch a credible, independent Israeli inquiry as the alternative to being hauled in front of the international community. Nine Israeli human rights NGOs responded to the Goldstone report by repeating this call and suggesting the Israeli government take the Goldstone findings seriously.

Such an inquiry would not be unheard of – prominent precedents exist such as the Kahan Commission Report on Sabra and Shatila in 1982, the Winograd Commission Report on the events of military engagement in Lebanon 2006 and the Or Commission Report with regard to the treatment of Israeli-Arabs. There was even the SELA Disengagement Authority Report in 2006 to investigate the functioning of the administration established to absorb Gaza settlers following the withdrawal.

Will a UN mission manage to nudge Israel in ways that the reports by human rights NGOs, including Israeli ones, failed to do? The instinctive answer would be no. Israel, if anything, has entered into more of a hunker-down mode with its highly dismissive response and has a track record of deep suspicion towards the UN. Repetitions of the mantra that the IDF is the most moral army in the world are again being heard from Jerusalem. Yet closer examination of these first 48 hours since the report's publication suggest the picture is more nuanced. One of Israel's most prominent, uncritical and rightist commentators, Ben Dror Yemini in the daily Maariv suggested that the lesson perhaps was that Israel should have ended the war after the first 48 hours of the strike. Haaretz's Aluf Benn argued that Israel would not be able to act in such a way again after this report, a comment quite widely echoed.

While official Israel is now focusing on out-manoeuvring the implementation of Goldstone's recommendations, it is also coming closer to a recognition that there may be consequences and repercussions for what happened during the Gaza operation. Israel's image was already tarnished but the attention that a report of such magnitude attracts and the unimpeachable credibility and standing of its lead author, Goldstone, may cause many who dismissed previous reports to take a second look. This is likely to be a cause for particular division and concern within Jewish communities. Those groups who unquestioningly attack the report's veracity find themselves further alienated from significant swaths of Jewish opinion, especially among the younger generation. But it is in the arena of practical judicial consequences and of implications for future behaviour that the Goldstone report could have most impact.

In these matters there is always a tension between the demands of seeking justice now and of influencing the course of future events. I anticipate that the constellation of political forces will mean that this does not reach international criminal proceedings, and I have no desire to see Israelis appearing before such tribunals. But what this report does, and this is one of its most significant contributions, is to point a finger at a failure and in fact an illegitimacy to the overall policy that guided Israel's actions in Gaza. The report finds that the manifestations of human rights violations in Gaza were the structural byproduct of policies that encouraged the targeting of civilians – namely, an expansive definition of the so-called infrastructure of terrorism and an intentional price-tag of disproportionality.

In its Lebanon war of summer 2006, Israel declared the existence of a Dahiya doctrine, after the southern Beirut neighbourhood of the same name, a Hizbullah stronghold. The Goldstone report quotes the IDF's then head of northern command as stating, "What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on … we apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there … This is a plan, and it has been approved" (report, p329). Israel applied the Dahiya doctrine in Gaza.

The second doctrine is an expansive definition of the so-called "supportive infrastructure of terrorism", whose practical application, according to the report, by extension made "the foundations of civilian life" and the "civilian population" a target. Since the Hamas election victory in 2006 and more assertively after the Hamas Gaza takeover in 2007, a policy was quite openly proclaimed that was sometimes known as the "West Bank first" approach. Living conditions in the West Bank would be improved while Gaza would be kept at a subsistence level, with the supposed intention of turning the population against their rulers. Instructively, the report digs deep into this issue, explaining the system of blockade imposed on Gaza prior to the operation and the attempt to deny Gazans a dignified living. The precise term for this is collective punishment. It is a short distance from this collective punishment to what was pursued during the operation, which translated into the targeting of governmental institutions, police services, prisons and even hospitals.

On this score, Israel is far from standing alone in the dock – the international community was complicit and in some cases actively assisted this policy. Many of us considered it to be misguided – the ceasefire period after June 2008 was far more effective in providing southern Israel with security and may well have achieved more had the siege been lifted. There is now a strong body of evidence to suggest that it was also illegal under international law. In some measure, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank lent a hand to this policy, presumably out of a calculation of its own political gain. Egypt too lent a hand by maintaining the closure of Gaza's one non-Israeli controlled entry/exit point to the world – the Rafah border crossing in Egyptian Sinai (it is true that Egypt was under pressure to adhere to this policy, but it is a sovereign state and makes its own choices). Some members of the Quartet and the international donor community were too timid in raising their opposition. Others were instrumental in implementing the policy. The report explicitly acknowledges this international failure, and this is one reason among many for a likely lack of appetite of international actors to pursue the legal recourse that the report recommends.

It is, however, time to acknowledge the inadmissibility of the twin policies of a Dahiya doctrine and of collective punishment, based on an expansive definition of the so-called infrastructure of terrorism. I hope that Israel will do so, at least privately and practically, if not declaratively.

Finally, Goldstone's report is clearly asking to be interpreted as a red flag regarding future behaviour. The report makes a central theme of the ongoing impunity and lack of accountability of actions taken by Israel in the context of its occupation of the Palestinian territories: "The prolonged situation of impunity has created a justice crisis in the oPT that warrants action" (p543, item 1,755).

There is no military solution. Israel, in fact, negatively affects its own population's security by pursuing one, let alone what it does to the situation of the Palestinians. The endless and ever-more-entrenched occupation constitutes the greatest threat to Israel and its future. Reading this report powerfully brings home the fierce urgency of a political solution. Certainly the report's findings on human rights violations will have to be addressed, and it would be advisable for Israel to do so with its own investigation. I hope that any resolution that the UN security council may vote on in six months is one that approves an internationally sponsored peace plan for a viable and dignified two-state solution, and not one that sends the legal pursuit of Israel's actions to the international criminal court.

From the perspective of a friend and supporter of Israel – wishing to see Israel healed and its future guaranteed – the message is loud and clear. To rephrase a well-known adage, occupation corrupts, but prolonged occupation corrupts profoundly.

September 11, 2009

Human Rights Watch and Israel: Questions to Answer

 This piece was originally published at the Huffington Post.


Two months ago the Israeli government announced that it would be launching a campaign against the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the smear industry of supportive rightist NGOs and journalists swung into action with a volley of attacks on the group.

The timing of this move was no coincidence. HRW was the latest, if perhaps most prominent group, to produce a report detailing serious and disturbing human rights violations that took place during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (HRW also reported, with equal condemnation, on Hamas violations). At the time, I blogged here of my sadness that Israel and some of its friends had chosen the low and easy road in responding to such serious allegations, and I suggested , "surely supporting Israel cannot be about undermining efforts to advance human rights around the world," describing that as "fundamentally un-Jewish."

New information has now come to light regarding a particular hobby pursued by HRW's Senior Military Analyst Marc Garlasco. He collects Nazi-era Wehrmacht memorabilia (specifically flak badges), and has published a 450-page book on the subject. The information on Garlasco comes from part of that smear industry - a right wing Israeli group NGO Monitor- but it does raise, what for me at least, are real questions that need to be answered.

The Likud-America blogosphere is going Glenn Beck on this story, and some on the left have joined in, albeit more respectfully.

Let me as usual wear my bias on my sleeve - as a Jew and one with a Holocaust family background, any person's passion for this memorabilia is more than weird, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Looking at the cover of Garlasco's book at the Iron Cross website it is marketed on has been a quick path to appetite loss today. I am not, I repeat not, calling Marc Garlasco a Nazi-sympathizer or worse. That is an extremely serious accusation, one that would be devastating to someone innocent of that charge, and it is one that others have made.

What I am saying is that this does not sit easy with me and cannot be ignored. Yes, I know - people collect all kinds of things, Garlasco collects World War II memorabilia from other armies, has not hidden his hobby, and this need not imply anything related to the veracity or otherwise of his analysis and reporting for HRW. And still, it doesn't pass my smell test. So I think the onus is on Mr. Garlasco and Human Rights Watch to clarify further. HRW has put out a statement explaining the background to Garlasco's hobby, his expressions of support for Germany's defeat in the war, and describing the accusations of Nazi sympathies as "absurd." That's okay so far, but in this case, not enough.

If this is to be put behind us, I think we need to hear more from Garlasco in his own words. If that is done and in a robust manner, I would expect Israel and friends to, at the very least, respond in the same way as they have greeted actual former real fascists who have recanted and set the record straight. I still feel queasy at the reception that Israel gave to then Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, in 2003, just after he declaratively turned a page on Mussolini, who he previously described as "the greatest statesman of the 20th Century." The guy was head of the succession to the neo-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale for heavens' sake - I am not so forgiving.

Let's be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that Garlasco is anything like a Fini. Indeed, a sincere response by Garlasco passing that smell test would merit at least an apology to him and HRW from those who have jumped to making the Nazi-sympathizer accusation.

And of course that's the point that must still not be lost here. There is a concerted, determined, and even transparent effort to create distractions, to distort, and to avoid the subject when it comes to Israel's behavior regarding the Palestinian territories.

In that respect, the smear industry is being somewhat hoisted by its petard. Even in a case like this which merits investigation, the smear industry has richly earned the skepticism and distrust with which it should be treated. They do not come to this with clean hands. They keep crying wolf and even this supposed wolf, which smells bad, still needs to be proven or rebutted.

Institutionally, there is every reason to have confidence in the professionalism and seriousness of Human Rights Watch under the leadership of Ken Roth. Garlasco did not investigate exclusively on Israel, far from it. He has reported on civilian deaths in Afghanistan, torture, detainee abuse and wars conduct in Iraq, violations by Russia and Georgia, and more (in fact, when Garlasco has indulged in op-editry in his own name, not as HRW, he seems to have exclusively focused on attacking the British government on the issue of cluster munitions - hardly an anti-Israel obsession or bias there). All those reports are no doubt vetted by HRW's program and legal departments and leadership.

Is HRW's work on Iraq, Afghanistan, and cluster bombs now discredited? Of course not, and the right governmental response, from any government, is to fully investigate serious allegations - as the US is, for instance, now doing on torture, but the Russians and Georgians are still refusing to undertake. And that is what's still so disturbing on the Israel front - its ongoing refusal to meaningfully address the documented accusations of IDF violations of laws of war and their impact on the civilian population in Gaza - and thereby to avoid their repetition.

There are several organizations in addition to HRW that have documented such concerns - the UN's investigation into attacks on its facilities, Amnesty International's report, and most recently the report of Israeli human rights NGO B'tselem, focusing on civilian casualities.

In responding to B'tselem, the IDF claimed that it had conducted its own inquiry and reached different conclusions, or to quote the IDF spokesperson, the report has been "verified by the Research Department of the IDF Intelligence Branch." We checked ourselves and we're okay... Oh, dear!

The report of the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission into the Gaza war, led by South African Justice Richard Goldstone, is due imminently, and my main hope there is that the smear industry can maintain a sufficient modicum of dignity to treat Justice Goldstone with the respect that he has earned as a remarkable and inspirational figure in contemporary Jewish life.

Israel and its supposed friends are indulging in a dangerous and highly self-defeating twofer. By responding and continuing to conduct itself in this way, Israel is undermining both its image and its own future security. The best answer, as it has been since the days immediately following the Gaza operation, is not to shoot the messenger but rather to render these reports unnecessary by adhering to B'tselem's call to create an independent committee of inquiry in Israel.