Losing Palestine to al-Qaeda

An above the fold front page piece in today’s New York Times makes a hard-hitting contribution to pulling people’s heads out of the sand on Palestinian issues and to realizing that the alternative to Hamas may not be a return to the warm familiarity of Fatah, but rather a lurch in the direction of al-Qaedism. The article “Jihadist Groups Fill a Palestinian Power Vacuum,” looks at the situation both in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and in Gaza. Steven Erlanger and Hassan Fattah describe a series of recent attacks in Gaza against internet cafés, music stores, and international schools, in addition to the ongoing standoff at Nahr al-Bared in Tripoli, Lebanon. They explain that in the context of the weakening of both Fatah and Hamas and the increasingly violent rivalry between them “Jihadi freelancers with murky links are filling a vacuum.”

The piece gets really interesting when they introduce Mr. Taha from the Ain al Hilwe refugee camp near Sidon. Mr. Taha confides to us that “there is a central problem and that is al-Qaeda and they are spreading…The Islamic awakening…is going to become a huge problem for us.” And here’s the punchline from the NYT: “Mr. Taha’s fears are remarkable because of who he is: not a secular campaigner or a Fatah apparatchik, but a senior member of Hamas.” This is what prospectsforpeace.com has been arguing – that al-Qaeda and Hamas are not the same thing and to lump them together makes not only for bad analysis, but also for bad policy – plus, the kind of political Islamic movements represented by Hamas may be the last line of defense before we see the proliferation of an even more powerful al-Qaedist threat. And for the umpteenth time, no, this does not turn Hamas into a bunch of lovable teddy bears. The world is more complex than good guys vs. bad guys. More often than not, sensible political alliance-building has to be with imperfect inhabitants of a broad grey area.

To re-cap: the focus of Hamas is on opposing the occupation and reforming Palestinian society, the focus of Al-Qaeda is on opposing the West per se and spear-heading a violent revolution in the Arab and Muslim worlds – the one is reformist the other revolutionary; one nationalist, the other post-nationalist; one grievance-based, the other fundamental.

There is a battle, both ideological and physical, taking place within the world of political Islam. Hamas have been targetted and criticized by Al-Qaeda. Most notably AQ number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, went after Hamas after it agreed to participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections and again after the Unity Government deal with Fatah. On both occassions Hamas were rejected as apostates and their actions as kufr – an abomination to Islam, they had sold out to the ‘Zionists and the Great Satan’. All this does not automatically make Hamas a partner, but it certainly begs the question and demands a serious exploration of the alternatives. AQ is a franchise and any Gazan mutation if it gains a foothold, will threaten Palestinian and Israeli society alike.

In Israel there appears to be more of an appreciation of this than in the US. Senior former Israeli security officials and Government Ministers have called for opening channels of communication to Hamas and for working with the PA Unity Government – they include ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy and ex-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami to name but two. Hopelessness, hunger, arms and anger are an attractive hunting ground for radical escapist ideologies. Even more worrying is that Palestinians have lost faith in the capacity of their political system to deliver anything – whether it be Fatah, Hamas or a hybrid of the two.

The advantage of disciplined political movements is that they can command loyalty, make new political moves or ceasefires and impose them. By arresting and assassinating an entire middle level cadre of Fatah and Hamas leadership, Israel weakened both movements as an adversary, but also as potential partners, and contributed to an environment in which what the NYT calls “Al-Qaeda wannabes” could flourish. Setting out to destroy the Palestinian national movement may turn out to be the most pyrrhic victory of all for Israel’s national security interests.

As a friend and someone who I respect greatly, Ahmad Khalidi, wrote in today’s Guardian blog;

Armed clans now hold sway in Gaza, as the PA’s writ fades and becomes increasingly irrelevant. Meanwhile, the infestation of Al-Qaeda-type salafism has already reached Gaza and the US- and EU-sponsored embargo, support for continued occupation and promotion of internal Palestinian conflict can only feed such trends in the future.

Global Peace Index Finds Israel Lagging Behind the Pack

A new Global Peace Index has just been launched, developed by the uber-credible Economist Intelligence Unit and an international panel of peace institute and think tank experts, with a star-studded list of endorsing individuals and organizations.  They rank 121 countries with Norway claiming pole position, and Israel coming in at… 119th.  Chapeau to my homeland for finishing ahead of Sudan and Iraq!

Top place Middle Eastern spot goes to Oman at number 22, while the USA comes in at 96, squeezing Iran into the 97th slot, and Russia ranks one above Israel at 118.  The indicators for compiling this Global peace index are actually quite fascinating, and you can read them here.  24 indicators were used, and their site gives the source and methodology applied.  They include: wars, deaths from internal and external conflict, human rights, political instability, size of security forces and jailed population, military expenditure and sales, and involvement in peacekeeping operations.  This strikes me as something not to be poo-pooed, but rather to be taken seriously.

Of course many in the so-called “pro-Israel community” will do their best to ignore the index, dismiss it as biased, villify those behind it, or perhaps even a combination of the above.  Then there will be the predictable, and so overworn appeal that “what Israel needs is better PR” (we have a special word for it — hasbarah).  Some effective fundraising might even be done off the back of this.  That would be the business-as-usual response that has failed and is wrong.  It would once again address the symptom rather than the cause, and do absolutely nothing positive or helpful for Israel.  Israel’s security (not to mention that of the Palestinians or the region) has not been advanced by business as usual.  Israel last year had the lowest immigration (aliyah) numbers in almost 20 years, and an increasing number of Israelis of European background are taking out a second passport, just in case.  This is also hardly an Israel that can be attractive, enthusing, and inspiring to world Jewry, or that can be an anchor in fostering Jewish identity and values.

I hope this doesn’t sound too trite, but the one thing that Israel and the people who care about Israel should do to radically improve the country’s ranking in advance of next year’s index would be to promote an end to the occupation, agreed permanent borders with all the neighbors, and a positive response to the Arab League Initiative.

Watch out, Russia, Israel might overtake you.

Latest Quartet Statement – Words vs. Action

The Quartet Principles – Secretary Rice, UNSG Ban Ki-Moon, the EU’s Solana, Steinmeier, and Ferrero-Waldner, and Russian FMThe Quartet Lavrov – met today in Berlin.  I’ve been accused of overindulging in Quartet textual analysis in the past, so I’ll resist the temptation this time, and just point to a few noteworthy snippets.

Quartet connoisseurs can read the full statement here.  The Quartet’s latest position is one of its most comprehensive to date, which, on the one hand, means that it has a bit of everything; but on the other, it means that there’s actually some useful stuff in there.  The predictable (and necessary) condemnations of violence and calls for a ceasefire, and endorsements of President Abbas are all there.  Less expected may be the call to release the arrested Palestinian government and Parliament members, and for Israel to resume the transfer of Palestinian tax and customs revenues.  There is also a major focus on the Arab peace initiative, recently relaunched at the Riyadh Summit, as a vehicle for moving forward a regional peace process.  The statement ends with a tantalizing hint that the Quartet might actually do something.

Looking ahead, the Quartet discussed a calendar for the coming months to support and encourage progress on the bilateral and regional tracks. The Quartet principals agreed to meet in the region in June with the Israelis and Palestinians to review progress and discuss the way forward. The Quartet also agreed to meet in the region with members of the Arab League to follow up on the Arab Peace Initiative and efforts to advance the regional track.

The problem, as ever, will be in the follow-up.  The Quartet has still failed to actually develop a mechanism for moving an agenda with the parties.  Three of the Quartet members have an envoy.  The US does not.  But this structural gap can always be plugged, the more important missing ingredient is the lack of political will and of a political plan.

The Problem with the Boycott

Britain’s University and College Union (UCU) have just voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The motion passed by a majority of 158 to 99.

In so doing they have joined a smattering of other unions and some church groups from Western and Northern Europe that have also supported boycotts in recent years. The only really noteworthy equivalent in the US has been the divestment campaigns conducted by some of the Episcopalian churches, although these it must be noted were pinpointed against companies directly involved in facilitating the occupation, and have anyway been partially dropped. The boycott approach is normally attacked (quite viciously) as singling out Israel for unfavorable treatment, while ignoring wrong-doing elsewhere in the globe and particularly in the Arab world. It is even equated with support for terror groups. The most devastating criticism is to charge the boycott promoters with tactics against the Jewish state that are reminiscent of the methods used against the Jews during the darkest days of 20th century Europe. I think these approaches are wide of the mark and sometimes outright offensive. Undoubtedly, some boycott fellow-travelers and perhaps even instigators have ulterior and unpleasant motives. Still I think most of its supporters are making a genuine, humanitarian-based statement of opposition to the occupation. But I, too, oppose the boycott and here’s why:

Leave aside for the moment the essential ineffectiveness of the boycott policy, which has zero economic impact. Boycotting Israel to me represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what it will take to achieve peace in the region, to end the occupation, and to deliver security for Palestinians and Israelis alike.  Of course for some, this is not the goal and a boycott is part of a broader strategy of de-legitimizing Israel and its very existence in the Middle East. They should at least be told that Israel is not going anywhere, that a new Middle East dispensation without an Israel is a recipe for generations of bloodshed with plenty of injustice all around, and that they are taking up a position that is hostile to the aspirations of the vast majority of Jews around the world. This is probably why most Palestinian leaders support a two-state solution and place boycott-promotion pretty low on their list of priorities (even Hamas is fumbling towards a two-state formula). For that not insignificant body of international opinion that staunchly opposes the occupation without being Israel-haters, who believe in human rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and who, in wanting to be helpful, flirt with the boycott idea, the following might be helpful:

Support for the boycott amongst Jewish Israelis, both at home and in the diaspora, really is virtually non-existent and there is no nascent movement around which such support is likely to be built. Ending the occupation and realizing a viable and an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel will require an Israeli partner. Israelis will need to either be active partners or at least acquiescent in achieving a realistic two-state solution based on the ’67 lines. The international community will probably need to intervene or at least be engaged to achieve such a solution. If Israelis view the outside world as implacably hostile – and a boycott encourages that thinking – then the prospective international role fades further into the distance. Of course, the flip-side to this is that the international community begins to actively push a resolution to the conflict, including setting out its own parameters for peace.

It is much more effective to be understanding of legitimate Israeli concerns and aspirations, while not ceding an inch regarding the illegitimacy and counter-productive nature of the occupation. That is the kind of tough-love that takes into account Israeli psychology and that could actually be of help. The alternative only encourages the most unhelpful, hunker-down, garrison state mentality amongst an Israeli public whose self-perception is already one of persecution. The most dovish Minister in the current Israeli government, Yuli Tamir, who happens to have the education portfolio, was the first one to come out against the new UK boycott. The coalition for two-states and against occupation and war should be broad-based enough to embrace a large Israeli peace-camp, the majority of Palestinian and Arab pragmatists, and the global peace movement. And quite simply, a boycott-based agenda cannot do that.

The Problem with the Boycott

Rounding Up the Brothers

Who says that the Muslim Brothers (MB) in the various Middle Eastern countries do not have a role in elections?

They clearly do have a role, and that role is to sit behind bars.  That is the story in the run-up to elections for the upper chamber in Egypt’s parliament and to municipal elections in Jordan.

The Egyptian security forces have continued their arrest campaign against local MB leaders, rounding up over 30 in the past days in Al-Buheirah, Al-Dakhaliyyah and Kafar Al-Sheikh.  In Jordan, Prime Minister Maarouf Al-Bakhit’s government is in a stand-off with the Islamists and in an escalatory move, two members of the Jordanian MB – the Islamic Action Front, were arrested in Al-Zarqa City.

Now, I am not a card-carrying member of the MB, not a supporter and not a sympathizer, but this kind of action can hardly embellish the already wobbly popular legitimacy and credibility of the existing non-Islamist regimes.

In Jordan, these latest moves even threaten to upset historical arrangements between the Islamists and the state in which the former intentionally run too few candidates to challenge for a governing majority.

According to the Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper

…there is currently no trust at all between the two sides that are casting accusations against one another…there are ongoing and major debates in the ranks of the MB…

…within the Islamic ranks… there are now those advocating strong participation in the municipal elections to win the majority [of the seats] and respond to the governmental provocation.

The continuous provocations of Al-Bakhit’s government are starting to raise an opposition in the ranks of the old guards among the decision-making elite in the state and the senate, whereby they believe that dealing with the Islamists the way that Al-Bakhit is doing is very dangerous, because whether the government likes it or not, the Islamists adopt the rhetoric that is the closest to the mood of the street and because the consecutive governmental strikes against the Islamic Action Front and its leaders and against the MB institutions are increasing the popularity of the movement.

Meanwhile, Israel has been doing the job for Fatah on the Palestinian front.  Israel arrested a number of members of Hamas’ political wing in the West Bank, including mayors, members of Parliament, and the Palestinian Authority Education Minister Nasser al-Shaer.  Israel used a similar tactic last June, with little effect.  This is in addition to the military strikes against Hamas in Gaza and the targeting of a building identified with PM Haniyyeh (although the IDF denied that he personally had been targeted).

There is precious little indication that all this is actually serving to strengthen Fatah against Hamas, and the opposite seems to be the case.

What we appear to be witnessing are yet more examples of the manifestly short-sighted and self-defeating policy of undemocratically going after non-Al Qaedist Islamists.

I have been advocating a policy of stepped-up efforts towards political inclusion rather than aggressive exclusion and isolation of the MB movements – including opening appropriately calibrated Western channels of dialogue to them.

In order to more effectively counter Al Qaeda, it will require a change of mindset and an appreciation of the more nuanced and varied toolbox that needs to be used and alliances that need to be built.

Paul Krugman hinted at this in his latest New York Times op-ed, “Trust and Betrayal.”

When Mitt Romney says that a coalition of “Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda” wants to “bring down the West,” he should be ridiculed for his ignorance.

Krugman is right – and it is high time that the policy alternatives to this ignorance start getting articulated.

Israel’s Labour Party (almost) Chooses a New Leader

Yesterday’s first round of voting in the Israeli Labour Party’s primaries failed to produce a new leader. No candidate received the necessary 40% of the votes cast and a second ballot will now take place on June 11th between the top two candidates Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon. The results in the first round in which 65% of the party’s 103,568 members participated were as follows:

Ehud Barak – 35.6%
Ami Ayalon – 30.6%
Amir Peretz – 22.4%
Ophir Pines-Paz – 8%
Danny Yatom – 2.7%

Ehud Barak & Ami AyalonThe head to head between Barak and Ayalon hardly offers two dramatic and radical competing visions for the Israeli future. Both come from a military background and both have been cautious in their messaging not to over-rock the boat, but there are real differences. Barak has been running on a ticket of experience, having already served as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001. He claims to be a safe pair of hands to lead the country in a time of war, which is an unfortunate indication of where he intends to take the region. Ayalon has marketed himself as Mr. Clean, suggesting that he represents a new style of politics that stands in contrast to the scandal-ridden current leadership. Ayalon has never held Ministerial office and this is being used against him. Ayalon’s counter-argument is that Barak may have reached the pinnacle of the political pyramid, but that he was a failed Prime Minister.

Barak is in many ways the father of unilateralism, having promoted the “no-partner” narrative following his electoral defeat to Ariel Sharon in February 2001. Ayalon largely rejected the unilateral mantra and notably launched a political initiative together with Palestinian professor, author, and activist Sari Nusseibeh, in which they produced a 6-point set of principles for Israeli-Palestinian peace, around which they then gathered the signatures of members of the Israeli and Palestinian publics. The Ayalon-Nusseibeh principles are quite decent and realistic and you can read them here. In general, Ami is being seen as the candidate who could most breathe new hope and life into the prospects for peace. Akiva Eldar, in this article, explains in more details the reason why.

There are also differences in their respective approaches to the current government and to serving in a coalition under Ehud Olmert. Barak has stated that he is willing to join the government, but would seek agreement on a date for new general elections. This would allow a new Olmert-Barak formation to avoid an immediate coalition crisis, even though the promised election date would create somewhat of a sort of Damocles situation. Ayalon, following the harsh report of the Winograd Commission into last summer’s Lebanon war, went on record that he would not enter a government led by Olmert. Ayalon has said that he is not opposed to being in a coalition with Kadima, but they would have to choose a new party leader other than Olmert. This currently appears unrealistic and it is a weak point in the Ayalon candidacy as most Labour members have little enthusiasm for collapsing the coalition and thus, precipitating early general elections. Of course both Barak and Ayalon could find a face saving formula if it comes to the political crunch and their positions on this political question are likely to be further prodded and tested for the duration of the primaries campaign.

Ironically, Amir Peretz having been ousted as King, now finds himself in the position of King-maker. The support of the Peretz party machine would probably be enough to push either Barak or Ayalon over the top in their run-off. Peretz has a deep seated hostility to Barak and the elitism he represents and he is leaning towards Ayalon. But the final word has not yet been spoken on this and Israeli politics makes for especially strange bedfellows.

In the bigger electoral picture, according to the polls, Ayalon poses a great threat to Likud leader Netanyahu. This was largely born out by yesterday’s primary first round results. Barak’s main support came from vote contractors and the support he received amongst the old guard of the party machine, as well as amongst the Arab and Druze communities – all of which are largely irrelevant to the Labour Party when it comes to general elections. Ayalon, by contrast, polled well where the election was genuine and genuinely competitive and where Labour needs to grow its strength in the general elections, notably in the large cities (Ayalon won Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa).

The Israeli Labour Party has a pronounced cannibalistic streak and tends to devour its own, especially promising new leaders. Barak would likely survive, but it is unlikely he will achieve much beyond that should he win the second round. If Ayalon is to succeed not only in two weeks, but also in repositioning Labour to be a driving force in Israeli politics, then he will need to build on the courage and daring which we have seen fleeting glimpses of to date.

A Fitting Farewell to Falwell

It may be a tad out of date, but Haaretz has just run this no-punches-pulled op-ed by Evan Goldstein of the “Moment” magazine about the late Jerry Falwell and his relations to Israel and the Jews.  The title, “A Toxic Legacy,” tells you where this is going.  Here are some choice nuggets:

Jerry Falwell… would no doubt be pleased by Abraham Foxman’s declaration that he was a “dear friend of Israel”… Was it true?

Falwell comes out of a pre-millennial tradition rooted in… the conversion or death of all nonbelievers, and the dawning of the messianic age.

There can be no apocalypse, no battle of Armageddon, and ultimately no salvation for Christians without the “ingathering of the exiles” to the Land of Israel.

He… preached an uncompromising commitment to the cause of Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank… [and he] forged a series of cynical and opportunistic partnerships with leaders on the Israeli right…

…Falwell typified how philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism tend to coexist comfortably in the same depraved minds.

Theological philo-Semites, like Falwell, seem to relate to Jews more as mythical figures from the Bible than as real living, breathing people. Similarly, Falwell was not concerned about Israel the country – the messy, inspiring, infuriating experiment in Jewish democracy on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. To him, Israel was a symbol, the link between the beginning and the end of things. 

There will not “be any real peace in the Middle East until the Lord Jesus sits down upon the throne of David in Jerusalem,” Falwell said a few years ago… Falwell had no use for a prosperous, democratic and Jewish Israel with clearly defined borders living at peace with its neighbors.

The jowly pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia, was many things over the course of his long life – a bigot and a demagogue are two that come quickly to mind – but he was definitely not a “dear friend” of the Jewish State or the Jewish people.

A Generous Farewell to Amir PeretzTomorrow Amir Peretz will almost certainly be voted out as the leader of Israel’s Labour Party and by extension as the country’s Defense Minister, as party members go to the polls in primary elections. Peretz has had a torrid time in the Defense Ministry. Even if he was dealt a harsh hand when the situation on Israel’s northern border spiraled into a crisis so soon after he entered office, Peretz has justifiably been criticized has having failed to show leadership, provide strategic direction, and stamp his authority on the military top brass. In his first senior government role, Peretz came up short.

The media in Israel and the region will be full of harsh eulogies on his term in office, so I thought I would provide a few positives from the Peretz era that should not be lost in the wave of negativity. For any of my Israel Labour Party card carrying member friends out there, this is not an endorsement of Peretz and certainly, perish the thought, not me suggesting that he be re-elected in Monday’s primary. Here then are my top three positives on Amir Peretz (what did you expect, ten?!):

1. Peretz’s potentially most significant, if larger unrealized, contribution was to bring to together a progressive socio-economic platform with a pro-peace message. The key disconnect in Israeli politics has for too long been that those who suffer most socio-economically from the absence of peace are also those who are most easily rallied to the uber-nationalist, anti-peace flag. Peretz tried to bring Israel’s Sephardi working class and the residents of the peripheral development towns into the Labour and peace camps. It is this community that Peretz came from and his rise to the leadership represented a real hope. It is true that Peretz failed to deliver or even advance a peace platform, but any new leader will need to strengthen that peace-economic self-interest linkage.

 

2. It could have been worse. This is of course the get-out-of-free-jail card of any unsuccessful politician, but Amir might have more justification than most in playing this card. Peretz apparently had a crucial role in preventing Israel from extending last summer’s attacks over to the Syria arena – despite the prompting of some in the US administration. Peretz worked to dampen some of the excesses of Yair Naveh, the outgoing head of the IDF’s Central Command. Naveh is a West Bank settler and acted like one in office. He constantly thwarted any political efforts to ease Palestinian conditions in the West Bank. Peretz at least made an effort to push back. Peretz was sometimes given to unexpected bouts of frankness. Just last week when Israel arrested Hamas political leaders in the West Bank, Peretz responded “What would you prefer? Military strikes and assassinations?” In this, Peretz is probably telling it exactly as it is. There were pressures to revenge Hamas for the Qassam rocket strikes and Peretz tried to guide things in the direction of reversible, rather than irreversible measures.

 

3. The summer 2006 Lebanon debacle. This is obviously the failure that Peretz will be most remembered for and associated with and to a degree deservedly so. But the military lack of preparedness and lack of strategy and the non pursuit of peace options were all things he inherited, rather than created. A detailed reading of the Winograd report into the war presents a very interesting picture regarding Peretz’s role. Peretz constantly seems to suggest that Israel’s military options would face severe time limitations and would have to be over in a matter of days. For him the exit strategy was obvious – the intervention of international, US-led diplomacy to put an end to the hostilities. Peretz’s fatal mistake in his analysis was a failure to appreciate just how ideologically blinkered and indeed counter-productive to Israel’s security were the neocons driving US policy. Elliot Abrams and Ambassador John Bolton aggressively opposed an early diplomatic resolution to the war. In so doing they acted contrary to the expectations of Peretz and it seems other Israeli decision makers. On day thirty-four a UN resolution did indeed end the war and the only difference in outcome to the kind of resolution that would have been passed on day four were the Israeli and Lebanese lives lost in the meantime.

Betting It All on the Maliki Government

The fatal flaw in the “benchmarks” approach to Iraq, and what an effective alternative might look like.

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The congressional leadership and the White House have just reached a deal over war spending that drops a timetable for withdrawal and focuses instead on benchmarks that the Iraqi government should meet. At the same time, the president has further rubbed the Democrats’ collective noses in mud with a speech given at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, wherein he delivered a new version of the spurious accusation that opposition to the war in Iraq is tantamount to support for al-Qaeda.

Ignore for a moment that Iraq-based al-Qaedists only exist and have become a threat because of this administration’s misconceived and mismanaged war. Ignore, too, that the achievements the president hailed in confronting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan are being rolled back, not least because attention and resources were diverted to Iraq. Ignore even the president’s defense of Guantanamo (rising, as it did, nearly to the level of the last GOP presidential primary debate) or the fact that the detention center provides grist for the mill of jihadist anti-American recruitment and thereby weakens U.S. security.

Ignore all that, and return to the funding deal. Maybe a war funding compromise was inevitable. But, beyond the basic recoil inspired by any bill that funds an open-ended continuation of the war, this specific compromise is based on a fundamental flaw — namely, the benchmarks approach.

Here’s why: Setting benchmarks for the current Iraqi government assumes that it can rise above the sectarian fray andMaliki and Bush deliver a degree of effective central governance. But the Maliki government is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution. It is insufficiently politically inclusive, and it lacks credibility and delivery capacity. To place all one’s eggs in this basket smacks of the kind of irresponsibility that has characterized the entire Iraqi misadventure from the get-go.

Rather, the current Iraqi Government should be dealt with as one of a number of actors that need to be brought into a new political, security, and regional accommodation, around which Iraq can begin to be restabilized.

As a recent International Crisis Group report on Iraq put it, “the Iraqi government and security forces cannot be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered; they are simply one among many parties to the conflict.” Or, in the words of a Chatham House Briefing Paper released last week called “Accepting the Realities in Iraq”:

Iraq has fractured into regional power bases. Political, Security, and Economic power has devolved to local sectarian, ethnic or tribal political groups. The Iraqi government is only one of several “state-like” actors… there is not ‘a’ civil war in Iraq, but many civil wars and insurgencies… The surge is not curbing the high level of violence.

Delivering on the benchmarks — passing a new oil law, provincial elections legislation, a revised constitution, and security improvements — in a way that is sustainable, meaningful, and builds Iraqi stability, cannot be achieved by exclusively relying on the Maliki government. What is required is to exhaustively engage a broader set of actors within Iraq and with its neighbors. As the ICG says:

… it will take more than talking to Iraq’s neighbours to obtain their cooperation. It will take persuading them that their interests and those of the U.S. no longer are fundamentally at odds … That cannot be done … as long as the Bush administration’s paradigm remains fixated around regime change, forcibly remodeling the Middle East.

So the diplomatic alternative requires a lot of tough talking both within and beyond Iraq. Much but not all of what is required politically was already suggested in last December’s Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report. As The Washington Post reported a couple of days ago, people have been dusting off the report for ideas.

Secretary Rice attended two gatherings of an International Iraq Support Group, most recently in Egypt. In a policy reversal, she has met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, and talks are scheduled with Iran at the working level.

Yet the strong impression given is that the administration is going through the motions rather than giving robust, concerted, creative diplomacy a real try. The Iraq Study Group devoted a significant chunk of its recommendations to how the United States might create a more conducive regional atmosphere for the heavy political and diplomatic lifting required in Iraq. Not surprisingly, that ten-person bipartisan commission identified active American reengagement with Israeli-Arab peacemaking as being decisive to restabilizing U.S. credibility, reviving U.S. alliance-building capacity, and reversing the growth of radicalism in the region.

This key recommendation has yet to be taken up, and U.S. national security interests (not to mention Israeli ones — but that’s another story!) are suffering every day it is ignored. In conditioning any extension of war funding, the starter should be a diplomatic surge. That could include at least 5 elements:

(1.)

    • Rather than convening the Iraq International Support Group merely every 2 months with great fanfare, create a permanent group on Iraq that meets all the time, with all the neighbors. Americans discussing Iraq with Syrians, Iranians, and others should not constitute an eyebrow-raising image but rather an everyday occurrence.

(2.) Work with the neighbors on an inclusive, broadly defined set of stakeholders inside Iraq that extends well beyond those in government, and only excludes al-Qaeda. This should be done in conjunction with Iraq’s neighbors as part of a regional approach suggested below. (By the way, introducing U.S. troop draw-down timetables would help, rather than hinder, such an effort.)

(3.) Make the Iraq effort part of a broader rethinking of regional diplomatic engagement. The issues are linked. One cannot ask for Syrian and/or Iranian cooperation on Iraq in one press conference while threatening them in another. If the decision is for diplomatic engagement, then the conversation cannot be artificially narrowed to the Iraq issue only. Everything should be on the table with Iran and Syria. That does not translate into a neglect of nuclear concerns regarding Iran, nor of the Lebanon file with Syria. With those issues, too, diplomatic solutions should be tried.

The entire region has been destabilized — look at Lebanon and Gaza. There is a tendency to parcel or even block out the rest of the region and focus narrowly on Iraq, the argument being that zooming out would only make it more difficult. But actually, the best approach at this stage may in fact be a comprehensive, regional one.

(4.) Drop the allergy towards non-al-Qaedist political Islamists: An approach to the Middle East that combines democratization with political isolation of all political Islamists was stunningly unrealistic from the start, and the tendency to view political Islam as a monolith has crippled regional policy. The Muslim Brothers, including Hamas, do not see the world through the same lens as al-Qaeda, and they may be more effective as allies than secular nationalists in preventing the spread of violent Salafist jihadism. Establishing agreed-upon guidelines for an engagement with the Brothers will not be easy — there is plenty to argue about — but it is an absolute priority. The United States should probably not take the lead in this effort — but it should encourage and take an interest in other third-party-led dialogues, rather than denounce and shut its ears to such initiatives. Certain European countries, and others such as South Africa, should be supported and listened to as they plough this difficult terrain. (By the way, in effect, this is what the United States is already doing in Iraq in its dialogue with non-al-Qaeda Sunni groups.)

(5.) Do not pursue an exclusively al-Qaeda-centric policy in Iraq. The president’s Coast Guard Academy speech focused on that for domestic political reasons, and featured yet more misleading rewriting of reality. Success against al-Qaeda is one (vital) thing; success in Iraq is another, and to define the latter exclusively in terms of the former is to add insult to injury.