Political Islam 101

This piece appears at The American Prospect

Engaging the Muslim World

By Juan Cole

Palgrave Macmillan, 282 pages, $26.95

Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

By Rashid Khalidi

Beacon Press, 308 pages, $25.95

Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East

By Robin Wright

Penguin Press, 464 pages, $26.95

Few if any foreign-policy challenges will command the attention of the Obama administration more than those emanating from the broader Middle East. The scars of the Bush years are deepest there, adding to a long history of mutual suspicion between America and the Muslim world. As a step toward overcoming that distrust, President Obama has said he would deliver a keynote address to the Muslim world in a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office (though we shouldn’t be surprised if that deadline slips). Among the people of the region there is a fragile sense of hope for a changed relationship because of who Barack Hussein Obama is and, perhaps even more, because of who he is not—George W. Bush.

Success in the region, or just improved relations between America and the Muslim world, will require more than a feel-good speech. It will take a fundamental re-evaluation of policies and a rediscovery of the long-dormant capacity to listen, empathize, and understand on terms other than one’s own. In their new books, Robin Wright, Juan Cole, and Rashid Khalidi all begin to map out that terrain. Any re-evaluation cannot wish away, or continue trying to blast or boycott away, the most potent nongovernmental social force in the region today–Islamism. A survey course, Political Islam 101, should be compulsory for Middle East policy-makers, and they cannot be allowed to skip the class on distinguishing between the revolutionary destructive Islamists of al-Qaeda and the reformist democratic-oriented Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood (as troublesome as the latter may be across a range of issues).

If there were such a course, Dreams and Shadows, Engaging the Muslim World, and Sowing Crisis might all appear on the required reading list. When it comes to rethinking policy on political Islam, all three have much to offer. Cole has made engagement with political Islam the animating theme of his work, while Wright puts us in the room with leading Islamists, and Khalidi provides essential historical background, notably on the U.S. promotion of Islamism as the alternative to Soviet ideology during the Cold War.

Both Cole and Khalidi present their materials thematically–Cole from the perspective of America’s interaction with the Muslim world and the anxiety that each society has about the other; Khalidi from the vantage point of the Cold War, when American regional dominance developed and then took on even more imposing dimensions afterward. Wright takes us on a tour of eight regional destinations, introducing us at each turn to a triad of figures–autocrats, theocrats, and democrats–who will be shaping the future of the region, and her particular passion is for the latter. When she began her journey in 2006, the democrats were in the ascendancy, but by its conclusion they were cowering in the basement, to paraphrase former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, who has his own fascinating book on the subject, The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation.

Of the three books, Wright’s Dreams and Shadows is by far the longest but also probably the most accessible for the general reader. The book is replete with sociocultural insights and depictions of colorful characters, recounted by a keen journalistic observer. Wright is at her best, for instance, when contemplating what recent controversial Iranian movies such as Under the Moonlight or The Lizard tell us about contemporary Iran or when noting the proliferation of phone cards bearing the image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. In an ironic variation on the old “Where are they now?” genre, Wright tracks down former U.S. hostage takers in Tehran (now disillusioned with aspects of the revolution) and the topplers of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad (now equally disillusioned with the American occupation of Iraq). She explores the significance of the region’s youthful demographic profile and the potential impact of the new generation weaned on satellite TV, SMS, and the Internet. Her analysis of such matters as U.S.?Iran relations and the role that judges may play in advancing change in Egypt is astute.

Through her interviews with Islamist leaders and defenders of existing regimes, or in her enthusiastic, at times gushing depictions of liberal challengers to the status quo, Wright illuminates a Middle East that Americans rarely glimpse. In thoughtful and rich detail, she tells us about a new generation of women activists and their struggles, such as the story of Morocco’s Fatima Mernissi, author of the 1995 book Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Wright’s recounting of Mernissi’s efforts to secure equal rights in Morocco from within an Islamic discourse is a refreshing antidote to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent book, Infidel [see Stephen Holmes’ review, “The European Dilemma,” April 2007], and the peddling by right-wing think tanks of the notion that Islamic and Western values are incompatible.

Yet Wright’s tendency to romanticize the region’s Western-oriented reformers may also be a weakness of Dreams and Shadows. In each of the eight destinations in the region where Wright takes us to meet a democrat, a theocrat, and an autocrat, she provides a detailed description of the interview setting as well as the interviewee’s appearance and public role. The format becomes a bit predictable and belabored, though she does serve up a good read, and in breaking bread with Islamist leaders from Hamas’ Khalid Mashaal to Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, she puts flesh and bones on characters who often appear as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts in the American media. Demystification is a necessary station on the path to more mature policy. Wright has an impressive capacity to open a space for dialogue that America’s governmental decision-makers are often legally prohibited from conducting.

But in discussing political Islam or the challenges of democracy, Dreams and Shadows is strangely inattentive to the role of the United States itself. Sowing the Crisis and Engaging the Muslim World fill that gap by the spade-full. If Wright is about personalities, Cole and Khalidi are all about context–historical, contemporary, and geo-political–and especially the shaping role of American influence.

A professor of history at the University of Michigan, Cole has acquired a wide reputation for his award-winning blog on Middle East politics, Informed Comment. Here he sets out to examine “the myths and realities that provoke Islam Anxiety in the West, and the grounds, legitimate and illegitimate, for America Anxiety in the Muslim world.” Each chapter introduces and then critiques another form of anxiety–U.S. dependence on oil from Muslim states, Muslim radicalism (which he usefully distinguishes from Muslim activism), Wahabism, and the challenges posed by Iraq and Iran and now Pakistan and Afghanistan. To bring home the analysis to an American audience, Cole draws analogies between Islamists and what he sees as their American counterparts. In Cole’s vernacular, Salafi Jihadists are, for instance, best understood as fundamentalist vigilantes in the Timothy McVeigh or Waco mold, while Wahabis are akin to the Amish or Mennonites. That the paramilitary radical right in America draws on some of the same ideological sources as the right wing of the GOP does not make them synonymous, and for Cole the same criteria should be applied when considering al-Qaeda’s relations to the mainstream political Islamists of the Muslim Brothers. Not everyone will accept the comparisons, but it is a usefully provocative way of walking readers through the arguments.

Anyone familiar with Cole’s Informed Comment blog will not be surprised to discover that Engaging the Muslim World is rich in policy prescriptions across a diverse range of subjects. He is at his best when demolishing myths and dealing with complex issues. Can America make energy policy independent of Middle East oil considerations? For the next generation, Cole argues, it cannot. He has timely and pertinent things to say about the role of regional diplomacy in stabilizing Iraq, what to do about Kirkuk, engaging Islamists in Pakistan, and addressing the Iranian nuclear program. Most important of all is his call for an honest, ongoing conversation of equals between America and the Muslim world.

Engaging the Muslim World‘s most scornful moment is its critique of the disastrous and misinformed policies of the neoconservatives and the radicalizing and destabilizing effects they have had on the broader Middle East. Some of the omissions in Engaging the Muslim World are unfortunate. An examination of the Justice and Development Party and the role of political Islam in Turkey belongs here, and Hamas makes only a cameo appearance in the Iran chapter. But Cole has delivered an important book that members of the administration would be wise to read en route to the Middle East.

The role that the United States played in promoting Islam as an alternative ideology to the nationalist left in the Arab world forms only a backdrop of Cole’s study, but that story takes center stage in Khalidi’s Sowing Crisis. The two books complement each other nicely, as Khalidi discusses Lebanon, Turkey, and Palestine, as well as a possible source of future Gulf instability, namely Yemen, which Cole hardly mentions.

Sowing Crisis sets out, 20 years after the Cold War, to re-examine the effect of that era on the Middle East and the continuities as well as changes in policy since that time. Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, builds a rather strong case that even during the Cold War, the United States exercised regional dominance. Since then and most especially under George W. Bush, America has combined unprecedented military engagement with an equally unprecedented diplomatic self-marginalization. If Wright’s Middle East focuses on the internal dynamics of the region, Khalidi emphasizes external influence as the driving factor, even if the tail occasionally wags the dog (and that applied to both Soviet and American allies sometimes playing their superpower masters). Sowing Crisis provides a useful recap of a long and rich history of American undermining of democracy and support for authoritarianism in the Middle East, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran in the 1950s or in Palestine today.

Khalidi’s emphasis on the relationship between the expansion of U.S. military bases and arms sales in the region and the domestic military-industrial complex is particularly timely given the current economic crisis. Being an American ally in the region has translated into massive arms purchases, whether or not they are subsidized. In recent years, the United States also shifted from maintaining a largely over-the-horizon security presence to basing a huge and permanent physical military concentration in the region. Khalidi suggests that we should be concerned that the current economic crisis may create a dangerous incentive to ramp up elements of a war economy.

The global war on terrorism has replaced the Cold War as a defining frame of reference, acting as justification for this massively increased U.S. military role. Islamofascists have taken the place of Reds, and being “soft on terrorism” has become as terrifying a political accusation as being “soft on communism” once was. Sowing Crisis hardly bemoans the passing of the Cold War or its Arab world manifestation of competing camps led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but it does express a concern that a predictable and rules-based set of relations and constraints that held between America and the Middle East has been replaced by a rules-free environment, not least with regard to America’s own actions.

Khalidi describes America’s current Middle East posture as resembling a “stumbling giant.” The United States is deeply invested and embroiled in the region yet also likely to be outflanked by small or medium-sized local actors such as Qatar or Turkey. But his criticism of the other international powers and many Arab regimes is also stinging. He condemns the failures of international actors such as the European Union, Russia, India, and China as well as the Arab states themselves to act responsibly and in their own interests. With only rare exceptions he describes the Arab states as being “no longer an actor or a force,” unfavorably comparing them with non-Arab Middle East states such as Israel, Turkey, and Iran, which have demonstrated an independent capacity to act. And in one of the weak points of an otherwise impressive and highly useful book, Sowing Crisis in its final chapter descends into lists of seemingly hurriedly laid out policy prescriptions that it would have been helpful to expand on in greater detail.

Though Wright, Cole, and Khalidi are not exactly wide-eyed optimists, they all see paths to a more hopeful future for the region and for America’s relations with it. The Obama administration has so far displayed an interest in rethinking policy and re-engaging the region. It has empowered envoys to deal with the crisis in Afghanistan-Pakistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict, announced a plan to withdraw from Iraq, and sought a deal with Russia to help in pressing Iran on its nuclear program. It’s a meaningful beginning, but the hard work of steering American policy to less choppy waters has just started.

Even Wright, who most emphasizes the potential of indigenous regional actors to drive change, recognizes America’s decisive role in not undercutting or embarrassing reform efforts by guilt of association. For Cole and Khalidi, an inescapable centerpiece of any new strategy for the region must also be a genuine effort to address Palestinian grievances and to achieve a solution on Israel-Palestine. “Resolving this conflict in a way acceptable to all the major parties involved,” Cole says, “should be the highest priority of [Obama’s] administration. This step would resolve 90 percent of America’s problems with the Muslim world.” While that number is impossible to prove, it certainly has a powerful logic behind it.

But beyond Israel-Palestine, there has to be a move toward co-existence with non-al-Qaeda political Islamists. That is the message of these three books, and as the Obama White House speechwriters gear up for that address to the Muslim world, they might consult these studies to try to figure out how that new co-existence could become a reality.


Livni needs a game-changer

 This piece also appears on Ha’aretz.

A sense of the absurd hovers over the current negotiations to form a new governing coalition in Israel. After previously serving in governments together, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas are belatedly discovering that they might just be incompatible. Having secured a clear mandate for a government composed of right, ultra-right and religious-right partners, Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be distinctly unenthusiastic about such a prospect. While Tzipi Livni’s principal stance seems principled rather than absurd, it too contains an element of the unreal.
Livni is demanding that Netanyahu affirm the “two states for two peoples” approach as a prerequisite for Kadima joining the coalition. Netanyahu’s response has been to suggest that the Likud and Kadima negotiating teams convene around a blank sheet of paper and draw up the coalition guidelines together. Translation: What’s important is that we can agree to a formula on paper; what happens in the real world after that is something we can argue about for the next four years. After all, paper can absorb anything. Indeed, a special place really should be preserved in Israel’s national pantheon for the wordsmiths of coalition guidelines throughout the ages.

So even if Netanyahu were to find a formula regarding two states that would satisfy Livni, would it really matter? Would two states really come into existence? This is not to suggest that Livni is insincere in her support for this position. Far from it. She pursues the issue with the true zeal of a convert, which is exactly what she is when it comes to the question of Palestinian statehood. After all, a mere declaration of intent to achieve two states would not satisfy the driving force behind Livni’s conversion in the first place. Urgency was the key then: She adopted the two-state formula out of a sense of urgency, perceiving that, as the occupation struck ever deeper roots, time was working against Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. And if immediacy is the litmus test, then a linguistic formula without any practical teeth is of little use.

I would hold that the demographic argument both misses the point (the other ramifications of the occupation for Israel and its democracy are far more dramatic) and can be co-opted by Avigdor Lieberman and his ilk (as it has been already), if one does not at the same time stake out a more inclusive vision of Israeliness, especially with regard to Israel’s Arab-Palestinian minority. But we are discussing Livni’s logic here, not mine.

For the Kadima head’s demand to receive greater weight and seriousness, it needs to include a more tangible and concrete yardstick. Here, Livni is in something of a bind. She could call for a settlement freeze, but that would ring rather hollow, given the record of expansion during the term of the outgoing government in which she was a senior partner. The same “gotcha” problem would exist if she were to make an issue of outpost removal. Livni could insist that the new government continue negotiations with PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but those talks look more like a recipe for avoiding decisions than reaching them.

No, if Livni wants her vision of two states to be both credible and meaningful, she needs to come up with a game-changer. Agreeing that Israel will define its permanent borders with the Palestinians by the end of the new government’s term of office would meet that test. One path to achieving that goal could be the traditional one, via negotiations with an empowered and domestically legitimized Palestinian leadership, but this need not be the only option.

Israel’s interlocutor might be the United States or the Quartet, either of which could conduct back-to-back talks with relevant Palestinian and Arab decision-makers. Alternately, Israel might negotiate indirectly, in the context of the Arab peace plan, with Arab states, which would in turn consult with the relevant Palestinians, thereby guaranteeing the necessary Palestinian buy-in and representation. Once a border is defined, this would of course have to be followed in short order by a withdrawal of the Israeli occupation to that line.

It is true that such a position was not part of the Kadima electoral platform; then again, neither was the veritable love-in between Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu seen in the days following the ballot.

At first glance, such an agenda would appear to be anathema to Netanyahu. It could, though, be linked to additional innovations, such as the establishment of an interim international trusteeship over the de-occupied area, thereby allowing him to avoid being directly responsible for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Perhaps this is what Netanyahu meant when he suggested to Livni that there might be another formula for defining the political approach to the Palestinian issue.

Certainly, the debate sparked by such a proposal would be a clarifying moment, and would move us beyond the yawn-inducing re-incantation of the “two-state” mantra. If it is accepted, then glory be. If not, then Livni has a real agenda with which to lead the opposition, and the public will finally be presented with real choices.

The Israel of the Three Likudniks

The elections were a clarifying moment for Israel and the Palestinians, but what about the Obama administration?

This piece also appears on Foreign Policy.

With the final results now in, the horse trading over forming a new government in Israel is very much underway after Tuesday’s elections seemed to produce the messiest of political outcomes – anything but clarity.

Two narratives regarding the voters choice are currently competing with each other; Livni and Kadima are claiming a mandate for a centrist government, being the largest party while Netanyahu and Likud argue that a shift to the right has occurred producing a mandate for the right to govern (the right-wing bloc has taken 65 seats in the 120 member Knesset). Some time next week in accordance with the Israeli rules of the game, President Shimon Peres will call on either Netanyahu or Livni (and most money is on the former) to form a governing coalition within 28 days with a possible extension of 14 more days. The coalition bargaining in the weeks ahead will suggest that everything is up for grabs. Yet in more ways than may seem immediately apparent, Tuesday’s results have added a degree of clarity to where Israel is at.

Some ways in which this is true are obvious. The structure of the Israeli system has, for instance, been definitively exposed as broken. It endemically produces dysfunctional governments by way of fragile, fractured, and survival-obsessed coalitions. Again, the largest single faction in the Knesset will constitute less than a quarter of the members of parliament. The system seems designed to avoid making hard choices given the permanent preponderance of either hybrid governing coalitions or reliance on small niche parties, or both. That is exacerbated by the way in which Israel’s relationship with its principal sponsor and ally, the United States, plays out. America’s coddling and often irresponsible indulgence of specific Israeli policies that work against America’s own national interest and often contribute to undermining Israel itself further exacerbate this tendency toward decision avoidance. Not surprisingly then, Israel is abuzz right now with discussion of the need for electoral reform and reevaluating governance system.

Israelis also witnessed during this election the stunning paucity of any meaningful public policy debate. One could search far and wide for a meaningful plan on the economy, on health care, on education policy, let alone realistic or detailed proposals regarding the security and regional challenges Israel faces. There is a degree of illiteracy clouding the election debate in Israel and surrounding the Israeli media coverage of issues that would be difficult for Americans to comprehend and indeed, Israel’s voters deserve better.

But the real clarifying moment in this election was a swing to the right that has at least made the Jewish part of the Israeli conversation into something resembling a family argument within the Likud household. What happened in this election is that the breakdown between the blocs went from being 70-50 in favor of the center-left to 65-55 for the right, ultra-right, and religious-right (although even these numbers are a little misleading, as the ten or so members of non-Zionist and ostensibly Arab parties are not considered to be potential coalition allies by the Zionist center-left). In simplified terms, there was a 15 seat swing from center-left to right which can be largely explained as eight seats lost by Labor and Meretz along with all seven seats of the imploded Pensioners party having mostly gone to Kadima, while about an equivalent number migrated from Kadima to Likud.

Always expect the unexpected in Israeli politics. At this stage, a Netanyahu-led government, with both Lieberman, religious parties, and Kadima, seems most likely. While a rotation of government between Netanyahu and Livni (as Israel experienced in the 1980’s) is possible, a Livni-led coalition is rather a stretch but not totally inconceivable.

Livni’s last minute message of hope for a non-Netanyahu-led government swallowed up much of the Zionist-left of Labor and Meretz. In one encouraging sign, Israeli voters, especially women, seemed to respond positively when Livni played up the change she represented as being a woman candidate, and they rejected some of the more chauvinist sloganeering of the Likud and Labor leaders.

So here we are in the Israel of the three Likudniks. Allow me to explain: Israel’s three largest parties (together accounting for about 75 of the 110 mandates decided by the Jewish vote) are now all led by Likudniks and by a Likud-derived outlook – albeit of slightly different emphases.  Kadima was of course birthed by the Likud, its founding father is none other than Ariel Sharon; its current leader Tzipi Livni was a former stalwart Likudnik; and its number two joined the Likud following a career in the military (Shaul Mofaz). Let’s call this Likud-lite. Then one has the brand name version of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Let’s call this traditional Likud. Finally, there is Yisrael Beiteinu (or Israel Our Homeland) led by longtime Likud party functionary and the party’s former director-general, Avigdor Lieberman. His number two, Uzi Landau, was a 22-year Likud Knesset member and led the so-called Likud rebel faction during Sharon’s Gaza disengagement. Lieberman rebranded the Likud for a Russian audience and gave it a nasty and overtly racist edge. Let’s call this Likud gone wild.

The power that has now been accrued by Lieberman’s party is one of Tuesday’s most stunning outcomes – he appears to be the king or queen-maker. What is more sinister and disturbing is how muted a political effort there has been to draw a red line in front of Lieberman’s racist rhetoric and policies and to place him beyond the coalition pale (for an excellent discussion of the Lieberman phenomenon, see Gershom Gorenberg’s piece at The American Prospect). Yisrael Beiteinu ran on a platform that would have Israeli Arabs needing to pass a loyalty test to Israel in order for their citizenship not to be rescinded. Lieberman is an almost bizarre Israeli twist on the European model of the populist, ethnonationalist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant parties that have done so well in France (Le Pen’s Front National), Austria (Heider’s Freedom Party), Belgium (Vlaams Blok), Switzerland (Blocher’s Swiss People’s Party), and elsewhere. Why the Israeli case is so special does not concern the level support for Lieberman or how hard-line he is but rather lies in the following two aspects: In Lieberman’s case, he himself is an immigrant (hailing from Moldova), and the targets of his invective are the Arab inhabitants whose presence here long preceded his. More importantly, in most other instances, a cordon sanitaire has effectively been erected around the racist right to exclude them from governing coalitions. In Israel, the opposite path is being pursued with Livni and Netanyahu both wooing Lieberman as a potential coalition ally. It’s still possible that Lieberman may be excluded from the coalition and he may even overplay his hand, though it is unlikely.

In a sense, something deeper might be at work here. Israel describes itself as a Jewish democratic state, and the Lieberman phenomenon in part may represent the extent to which Israel in practice has emphasized the Jewish part of that definition over the democratic part. The Israeli political establishment, notably including the Zionist left, has failed to create a more inclusive notion of Israeli-ness or even a political system that confers a real sense of democratic belonging on its non-Jewish, Arab minority. In very real and important ways, the challenge of marrying Jewish and democratic has not been addressed whether that be in terms of budgetary allocations, equality of opportunity, or in Israel’s national narrative. When the peace camp tried to win Jewish majority support for the idea of two states and an end of occupation, it focused on the demographic argument (Israel will only remain Jewish if it leaves the territories). It is not such a long journey from that line of logic to Liebermanism. In this moment of clarity, Israel will then have to decide whether Liebermanism is the Zionist end-game or whether a more inclusive and democratic Israel can flourish. I think Israelis can rise to the challenge and create a more open vision for Israeli society, and that will certainly be one of the issues to address for what is left of the left in Labor and Meretz. The Palestinian Arab minority in Israel and its leaders also need itself to think through how to best contribute to a more inclusivist vision of the future.

For the good of Israel’s democracy, Labor must now build a strong and alternative agenda to appeal to Israelis that is outside of the Likud family. That requires Labor to resist the temptation of government and instead lead the opposition by building a program around a social-democratic economic agenda, a civil rights agenda, a new narrative of national inclusivity agenda and an end to occupation agenda.  Indeed the balance of power within Labor strongly suggests that it would not join a Netanyahu government and is headed for opposition.

All this does not mean that one should give up on a government of the national right-wing camp when it comes to the issues of territories, peace and security. In fact an opportunity has been created to test whether having the hardliners in government in Israel can produce a game-changing moment of realism. If he is to be prime minister again, it is unlikely that Netanyahu wants to have another abrupt and inglorious term. Greatness tends to ultimately only be achieved by those Israeli leaders who deliver on the peace agenda. So a Netanyahu government could spend its time attempting to destroy Hamas, expanding settlements, and demonstrating its fealty to greater Israel (while very likely, coming to realize the limitations of military power), while, the international community could spends its time containing the violence and the damage. Alternatively, one could try to tempt Netanyahu with a very different option. That possibility will be greatly influenced by the postures adopted by the various external actors, principally the Palestinians, Arab states, the Obama administration, and the Quartet.

For the Palestinians too, this should act as something of a clarifying moment. President Abbas’s response to the Israeli elections, namely that the international community should only work with the new Israeli government if it meets the same criteria applied to Hamas (i.e. accept a Palestinian state, continue the peace process, and the equivalent of nonviolence, which in this case would be no settlement expansion) seems on the face of it not unreasonable. But Abbas’s admonition might make more sense in reverse; in other words, the international community should work with whatever government Israel elects to advance a two-state solution just as they should have worked with whatever government the Palestinians elected. If there were ever a time for a more serious effort toward Palestinian internal reconciliation, this is surely it. Indeed, were Abbas able to deliver a unity government now and an arrangement with Hamas, then it would be difficult for the international community to continue to apply the existing and unreasonable conditions for working with such a government. This may not be the first choice for President Abbas but after last Tuesday, the other options make even less sense, especially with Hamas gaining in popularity.

The entire Fatah political platform has been predicated on Palestinian independence and de-occupation being achieved exclusively via the negotiations with Israel– an already discredited and now desperately  implausible premise. The Palestinian false binary choice of only negotiations or only armed resistance needs to be refreshed as the attempt at rebuilding a national movement, including the reform of the PLO, goes forward. There are also more urgent reasons to advance the Palestinian unity agenda, notably the immediate challenges posed by the destruction in Gaza and the need for an address for the international community in pursuing reconstruction efforts there. The forthcoming Arab summit in Qatar at the end of March should be seen as a target date for a breakthrough on Palestinian reconciliation efforts. That will require a team of Arab mediators, including but not restricted to the Qatari host and encompassing supporters of both the so-called moderate and resistance camps (including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and almost certainly Turkey as well). A quiet and discrete clarification by the US and Europe that they are encouraging such efforts might be crucial. If the Palestinians do take this as a clarifying moment then it could also create a more constructive backdrop against which the new Israeli government will have to make its decisions on whether to move forward toward confrontation or to pursue a somewhat unexpected but certainly more promising track. And that brings us to the key and perhaps defining role that the new Obama administration will have to think long and hard about.

The Obama administration has proposed an ambitious agenda for the Middle East and notably for resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and has appointed Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to lead that effort. President Obama defined the attainment of a two-state solution in terms of America’s own national security interests. If that is the case – and there is a powerful and compelling argument to be made for it – then one should not be too deterred by internal domestic political developments on either the Palestinian or Israeli sides. Of course both the Israelis and the Palestinians have their own responsibilities and interests that cannot be ignored nor can they be left entirely to their own devices. The Obama administration can choose to spend its time in office preventing further deterioration, limiting damage, and improving aspects of Palestinian economic and security capacities, and it might find itself having to do some of those things anyway.

However, such an approach will not get to grips with the core of the conflict or its ramifications for America in the region. In fact, US power and prestige might again be deployed in an exercise best described as death not so much by a thousand cuts as by a thousand checkpoints. The question then becomes whether the new political realities in Israel will also act as a clarifying moment for American involvement. The peace process as it was already structured, in Oslo and then again in Annapolis, was not delivering. There are structural flaws – not least, that Israelis and Palestinians cannot negotiate the core issues alone and need an outside broker and that Palestinian statehood cannot be incubated under Israeli occupation. The very structure of the peace process has become a disincentive for peace itself. There now exists an opportunity to do away with the illusion, even if the danger also exists that events may take a more violent, confrontational and bloody turn.

A different approach would require the US conducting back-to-back talks with the Israeli side and with a Palestinian (or Palestinian plus Arab states) interlocutor, in which one attempts to address the key legitimate needs and concerns of each party. It will be the role of the US and international partners to produce a proposal and implementation plan. One should take a leaf from the pages of Don Corleone, and make them an offer they can’t refuse, and do not then get sidetracked by conversations about industrial parks in Nablus or Jenin.

Naturally, one does not only have to contend with the Israeli/Palestinian track, and there is some value to the adage that one way to get out of an intractable problem is to expand it. In other words, work on a comprehensive peace effort that involves Syria and the Arab states as well and that seeks to put into effect the Arab Peace Initiative that would give Israel peaceful and normal relations with the entire Arab world. A sincere good-will effort should be made with Israel’s next prime minister, particularly if it is Mr. Netanyahu, to propose an eminently reasonably plan for Israel’s future peace and security that is also predicated on ending the occupation. Iran too will have to feature, as Israel’s concerns on this front will need to be allayed without resorting to military action. A trade-off is imaginable in which the US is given space to pursue the engagement option with Iran while the US gives Israel cover as increased calls are heard for a WMD-free Middle East, also probably providing Israel with a broader set of security guarantees. If Mr. Netanyahu or any Israeli leader is finally put in the position of having to make real choices, then don’t be too surprised if they choose well.


President Obama, the United States and the Middle East

This piece appears in the current edition of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs – a publication of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations which is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress. Here is their website and the current edition is not there yet but will be in the near future.

At the time of writing this piece, events in Gaza and the Israeli operation are still unfolding. While the outcome is unclear, what is known is that there has been a terrible toll on the civilian population, that passions in the entire region are again inflamed and that peace is certainly no closer. When the fighting halts and a ceasefire is achieved, the same problems will still be there confronting Israel, its neighbors and the new Obama administration—though perhaps with an added sense of urgency. What the latest Gaza crisis has again shown, if indeed further evidence were necessary, is just how iconic an issue the unresolved Palestinian grievance is for the region and beyond, and how this issue has a capacity to generate crises that also affect the United States and its interests.

On several occasions during the presidential campaign and transition, Barack Obama suggested that he was well aware of the centrality of this issue and would move swiftly to address it. When introducing his national security team to the world on December 1, he explicitly referred to Israeli–Palestinian peace as one of only three items that were highlighted. During the campaign, in a particularly compelling interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the then-senator from Illinois noted that “what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.”

Of course, there will be a multitude of demands on the new president’s time, not least an almost-unprecedented economic crisis and two wars. But he seems to be exhibiting a clear intention to take on the Israeli–Arab conflict (unlike his predecessor). The key question then becomes less whether or when the Obama administration will pursue a peace process, but rather how and with which toolbox?

The temptation will be to pick up the existing Annapolis process initiated under President Bush in November 2007 and to run with it. It is a temptation that should be resisted. The failure of Annapolis is about more than bad luck and bad timing. It is a structurally flawed process that embraced all of the shortcomings of the earlier Oslo efforts and then added some more of its own (gradualism, excessive reliance on bilateral negotiations, exacerbating Palestinian divisions).

The Middle East that President Obama inherits will be a very different one from that which Bill Clinton bequeathed to George W. Bush. The policy instruments deployed under Clinton (successful compared to the Bush years, but that is a very relative yardstick) require retooling in light of the new regional realities.

“Birth pangs of a new Middle East” was the unfortunate and now infamous phrase used by Secretary Rice during the 2006 Lebanon crisis to explain America’s insistence on delaying early ceasefire efforts in order to pursue this more far-reaching change via military means. President Obama will indeed, in many respects, face a new Middle East, but not necessarily the one that Secretary Rice was hoping to birth. Regional divisions and rivalries have intensified to breaking point. The image of two camps competing regionally, moderates and extremists, is an incomplete one—the so-called moderates often do not seem that way to their own domestic opponents, while the so-called extremists often include in their coalition popular, secular and democratic reformers. And it is this so-called moderate camp that is very much on the defensive against a narrative that has an increasingly broad popular appeal in the region. They tend to also suffer from a democracy and legitimacy deficit. Simply put, America’s allies are not on the winning side.

Within this mix, ironically, Iran has been much empowered by the policies of the Bush years. With America having generously neutralized its neighborhood rivals (the Baathists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan), Iran has been able to increase its regional focus and influence.

The experiment with Islamist political inclusion in Palestinian democracy and the subsequent election victory of Hamas was woefully mismanaged by the West (including Israel), helping to produce a violently divided Palestinian house—an edifice upon which it will be almost impossible to construct Palestinian statehood. Israel, too, albeit in less dramatic ways, appears to be in a period of deeply entrenched political dysfunction, and any peace process ignores this factor at its peril. Even the outgoing Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who was probably bolder than any of his predecessors in articulating how existential and urgent a need it is for Israel for there to be a viable Palestinian state, will leave office having presided not over peace and de-occupation, but rather over two wars and further settlement expansion.

When President Obama turns to the Middle East, he will discover a region in which America’s credibility and standing have been painfully sapped. This is a result of not only war, but also of perceived American indifference to legitimate regional grievances, most notably the Palestinian issue. This, of course, has enhanced an environment ripe for exploitation by the most extreme salafi jihadist forces of al-Qa’ida and its ilk. Into this fray will enter an America that is stretched both economically and militarily. It is also an America that has limited the number of actors, including key actors, with whom it is engaging in the region. The Bush administration frequently indulged in self-marginalization.

The vacuum created has been partly filled by others. Turkey, for instance, has been mediating proximity peace talks between Israel and Syria. Qatar brokered the arrangement for internal Lebanese political reconciliation. The Saudis managed to create a Palestinian national reconciliation and unity government in Mecca in 2007, and the Egyptians were the mediators for June 2008 ceasefire arrangements between Israel and Hamas (efforts undermined by the Bush administration). On occasion, America’s diplomatic downsizing in the region has created new openings for Europe—the EU 3 talks with Iran, French outreach toward Syria and in the latest Gaza crisis and the Italian efforts during the Lebanon 2006 war are examples. Russia, too, has reasserted itself as a regional player, and while China continues to tread only gently in regional affairs, it will not have escaped anyone’s attention that China dispatched its first foreign naval expedition since the fifteenth century when it joined international patrolling efforts off the coast of Somalia to prevent piracy in late 2008.

Yet the US remains an indispensable player. The efforts of others at mediation in the absence of American support or follow-up, more often than not, will fall short. This was the experience in Lebanon 2006, and on the issues of Iran, the Israel–Syria peace talks, Palestinian division and elsewhere, and is playing out in Gaza as these words are written. To restabilize the Middle East, achieve a new equilibrium and advance the peace process, America will very much be needed at the table, and often in a leading role.

Against this gloomy backdrop, there are at least two pieces of good news for the incoming US president. Firstly, there is an increasing consensus within the US regarding the failures of Bush Middle East policies and the need to chart a new course. Crucially, this includes an acknowledgement that a restabilized Middle East and an effective peace process are important American national security interests. Already in December of 2006, the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group report, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, expressed at length the connection between America’s prospects in Iraq and the need to create a new regional environment principally via reengagement on Arab–Israeli peace. A report published in December by two of the most establishment US think tanks, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, entitled “Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President,” is further evidence of how mainstream and consensus this trend of thinking has become. The bottom line—if the US wants to reestablish its standing, re-empower its allies, create a conducive regional climate for troop withdrawals in Iraq, push back against salafists and decrease Iranian leverage, then it has to deliver a credible peace process and especially progress on the Palestinian front.

Secondly, the Middle East is ready to look again at an America led by Barack Hussein Obama, and eager to turn a new page. The hope that is manifest in so much of the world, a world that is not anti-American but has been concerned by American policies, has not passed the Middle East by. President Obama is popular and has a new opportunity. It should not be squandered.

How, then, might the Obama administration use this moment to its advantage? Here are seven suggestions for a new approach:

1. Count to Ten and Rethink

Once the Gaza crisis is over, there will be pressure to dive headfirst into the Israeli–Palestinian issue, to relaunch the Annapolis talks and to use the channeling of donor assistance for Gazan reconstruction as a way to continue playing internal Palestinian politics and accentuate division. Don’t do it (well, do the reconstruction, but deploy the aid wisely). Take a long, hard look at why Annapolis failed to deliver. Can the Palestinian economy be rebuilt under a system of closures and checkpoints that themselves are the product of the basic unresolved conflict and ongoing reality of an occupation duty bound to protect a civilian settler population? Are Israeli security concerns going to be sufficiently addressed by building Palestinian security forces that are likely over time to lack credibility with their own public and come under intense pressure to turn their guns on the IDF and/or settlers? When it comes to the thorniest issues on the two state agenda, can the parties alone in bilateral negotiations resolve these issues? Will a leadership on the Palestinian side that presides over a geographically and politically divided Palestinian movement and that is increasingly lacking public support be in a position to close an historic and difficult deal? And after all of the past failures and public cynicism, will Israel close a deal without a significant incentives package, Arab support and security guarantees and, on the other hand, real disincentives for not doing so? I would suggest that all the answers to those questions are negative and that the first challenge is to undertake a serious policy rethink.

2. Find a New Language

It is not only policy on the Middle East that must change, but also the vocabulary. No one in the Middle East is expecting America to drop its Israeli ally, nor should this happen. The US will, and should, remain staunchly and unswervingly committed to Israel’s security. But it needs to find a way of doing so while at the same time articulating genuine and convincing understanding for the Palestinian predicament. It is possible. No president could be better placed than Barack Obama to find such a vocabulary. It will be a question more of nuance than of absolutes. And the new administration will be judged from the very first words it utters.

3. Get America’s Regional and International Allies on Boardimg

Before embarking on a new policy, the Obama administration should conduct a round of frank discussions with its allies in the region and beyond. Friends in the Arab world will need to be told that America is now in the business of calming and resolving, rather than exacerbating, regional tensions. It will do so by being inclusive in whom it talks to and whom it encourages others to talk to. It will continue to promote democracy, but focus on building the software—rule of law, various freedoms in civil society—rather than an obsession with the hardware of elections.

The US will expect significant Arab support in advancing peace with Israel and will seek to build on the Arab peace initiative. Ultimately, in ratcheting down tensions and reconciling intra-Arab conflicts, the US will begin to develop an inclusive regional security architecture.

A similar conversation should take place with Israel, its main predicate being that the US is interested in a peace outcome more than a peace process, and will walk in lockstep with Israel on all of its key legitimate concerns (on security, finality of borders and their recognition/legitimacy), while making clear that it wants to get this done, to see de-occupation and Palestinian statehood. Finally, the US should articulate this new approach to the Quartet, particularly its European partners, and expect strong European support—diplomatic, financial and otherwise—in moving forward.

4. Apply the Rethink to Israel–Palestine

In seeking to address the key concerns of the respective Israeli and Palestinian sides, the US should rely less upon and defer less to bilateral negotiations, and should advance its own solutions, where relevant, finding international, regional and multilateral substitutes for issues on which the parties are in bilateral deadlock. This could include proposals for solutions on key issues. Security arrangements could emphasize, initially at least, an international role (i.e., NATO forces to guarantee that there is no vacuum or anarchy for a period of time post occupation), Arab guarantees for the finality of claims and recognition of Israel and its new borders, and an international mechanism for rehabilitating Palestinian refugees, including an acknowledgement of the historic injustice.

To this would be added a package of benefits and incentives that an international alliance would be in a position to confer. Finally, the US should encourage internal Palestinian reconciliation and create a division of labor whereby regional parties and certain Europeans (rather than America itself) work to motivate and test Hamas to clearly move away from armed resistance toward an exclusively political focus.

5. Re-engage with Syria

The US has not had an ambassador in Syria since February 2005. The US should rebuild its own relationship with Syria, and directly involve itself with Israeli–Syrian talks, something it has avoided since the re-launching of those talks via Turkey. An Israeli–Syrian agreement would be needed in the context of a comprehensive Israeli–Arab peace and normalization as per the Arab peace initiative, and is almost certainly a prerequisite for an Israel–Lebanon deal. In addition, there is strongly emerging support in the Israeli security establishment for a deal with Syria, including all that it would entail regarding Golan withdrawal, largely because of the positive regional implications from such a deal for Israel (regarding Iran, Hamas, Hizbullah, etc.).

A deal will not be easy and has floundered in the past on details or on Israeli political and coalition concerns. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to consider that at this stage a broad package on the Palestinian, Syrian and pan-Arab front would make more sense, be more attainable, and even more marketable in Israel than a piecemeal process, especially if the incentives are well calibrated and sufficiently attractive. Even absent a breakthrough with Israel, the US should work on its bilateral relations with Syria, in concert with the Europeans, in attempting to maximize the prospects of Syria playing a constructive regional role.

6. Lock in the Political Process in Lebanon

In working to avoid a return to violent internal conflict in Lebanon, efforts should be enhanced to strengthen the current political process, notably in advance of elections this June. All sides should be encouraged to be invested in that process, and part of that process will be the signals that other regional actors are sending. The US should discourage its allies and others that it will now reach out to (such as Syria) from pursuing proxy conflicts in Lebanon. It should also seek to remove as many as possible of the outstanding issues with Israel that can be exploited to trigger tension—such as the Rajah and Shebaa Farms territorial issues and Israeli air force over-flights. Efforts should also be made to strengthen the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and the demilitarization of Lebanon (notably of Hizbullah). It is interesting to note that as of this writing, Hizbullah has not opened up a second front against Israel during the current Gaza crisis, which suggests that incentives can be created that can significantly and even decisively influence the calculations and actions of parties like Hizbullah.

7. Face the Challenge of Iran Policy

The dramatic recent decline in oil prices has had more of an impact on the Iranian economy and Iranian decision making than years of sanctions. Taking the steps outlined in 1 through 6 above would be the diplomatic parallel of the oil price plummet. In other words, Iran’s regional political leverage would be significantly reduced if these steps were to be taken. Iran, after all, is able to use and feed off the unresolved Palestinian issue, Palestinian division, crises within Lebanon and overall regional tensions, including the existing Syria policy. As the US seeks to enhance its leverage in advance of, and as part of, negotiations with Iran, it would do well to consider utilizing these aspects of regional policy as more effective tools than the issuing of further threats.

Direct US engagement with Iran is now almost inevitable. Indeed, it already exists to an extent on the Iraq issue (with the previous ambassadorial meetings in Baghdad) and in Undersecretary William Burns having joined the recent P5+1 in Geneva. In moving forward on such engagement, the US might consider these five suggestions:

  • be willing to engage in the broad range of issues of mutual concern, not just issues of US interest;
  • try to build on areas of agreement—Afghanistan might be one, certain Iraq-related questions another;
  • display a degree of patience—there is a long history here, and while negotiations cannot be used as a time waster by Iran, they should also not be conducted with a stopwatch in hand;
  • maintain the international alliance moving forward; and
  • be creative on solutions that accord Iran its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rights to pursue a civilian nuclear energy program while insisting on the maximum safeguards to guarantee and verify non-militarization.

Of course, this might not work, and one might have to return to the exclusive path of sanctions and containment. But the regional dynamic will always be crucial, and there seems little reason to continue to empower Iran regionally.

In fact, this might be the central message for an Obama administration—to face the region holistically and to appreciate the connections that intertwine the various issues. The Bush administration connected the Middle East dots in a way that left a very ugly mess. The Obama administration does not have the luxury of a blank page, a clean slate. But it does have a new opportunity, and that is a rare and precious thing that if thoughtfully nurtured can indeed help create a livable equilibrium in this most troubled of regions.

No Magic Required

This article also appears in Haaretz

President Barack Obama has been thrust into center stage in Israel’s general election. Not by choice, of course. Democratic hopeful Obama met with the leading candidates during his own campaign swing through the Middle East last July, and his newly appointed special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, met with them all this week. If it were up to the U.S. president, one assumes that would be it.

But Kadima’s spin doctors have other ideas, and have concocted a campaign message suggesting that a victory by Benjamin Netanyahu would lead to a rupture between Israel and the White House. Likud retorts that Netanyahu enjoyed excellent meetings with Obama when the latter was a senator, and that their views on an “economic peace” are closely aligned.

If this all sounds a little childish, that’s because it is: Neither Barack Obama nor his brand of inspirational hope, combined with an agenda for progressive policy change, are on the Israeli ballot on February 10.

Despite the attempts to demonstrate difference, all of Israel’s major parties are offering a staple diet of more of the same. Whether the label says “continuing the Annapolis process” or “economic peace,” we already know what the unappetizing results will be: more improvisation and absence of strategy, and more tactics and permanent avoidance of the difficult decisions that need to be made.

On paper, government guidelines always talk about peace. On the ground, though, governmental actions just further entrench the infrastructure of occupation and expand settlements. When it comes to land and peace issues, Israel’s leaders have become experts in one thing – postponing decisions. (The Palestinians don’t exactly have a strategic plan, either.)

In fact, the argument over who will do best with President Obama comes down to this: Who can best assure that Israel will be left to its own devices to pursue…well, what exactly? There’s the rub. We have become tactical masters, improvisational impresarios. But what strategic vision are we seeking to implement? Greater Israel? Then annex the territories and expel the Palestinians. Recognition, peace and a two-state solution? Then dismantle the settlements and end the occupation.

So on February 10, most Jewish Israelis will again be choosing not to choose – even if the consequences will be an ever-deteriorating national security environment in Israel, and even if the option of a democratic Israel with a Jewish character is receding with such speed that it is unlikely to outlast the Obama administration. (To be fair, voters for the far-right parties and those supporting Meretz will be expressing a choice.)

America and its new president do, of course, matter. The U.S. plays a key role in setting the stage for this exercise in improvisation. Without American facilitation, the make-believe, fairy-tale world of the never-ending, oh-we-are-so-close “peace process” cannot be sustained. And in this fairy tale, Tzipi Livni is not the Good Witch of the South, nor is Benjamin Netanyahu the Wicked Witch of the East. Rather, they are both competing to lead a body politic that more closely resembles a hybrid of the Cowardly Lion, the Brainless Scarecrow and the Heartless Tin Man.

The question for President Obama and his new envoy, former senator Mitchell, will be whether to maintain the fiction, or to chart a bold, game-changing course to resolve this conflict.

The former would entail continued American support for a West Bank strategy taken from classic counterinsurgency doctrine: supporting moderates through economic assistance, security training and a political embrace. However, the defining characteristic of the Palestinian situation is not the Fatah-Hamas rift, but a very different variable: namely, a continued hostile occupation that includes a dispersed civilian settler population. By not addressing this and by excluding Hamas based on political preconditions, and not just behavioral ones (cease-fire, end to violence), the prospects of any sustainable success for this strategy are totally negated.

The existing approach also invites occasional American spats with Israel over such policies as settlement expansion and checkpoints. But these distractions deal only with the problem’s symptoms, not its cause. Settlement and closure policies are a derivative of the lack of a recognized border for Israel, of no Palestinian state and of no end to occupation. Settlements need to be removed, not just frozen in place.

A game-changing approach would address these issues or, in other words, the causes. Such an approach would probably require a U.S-led plan to resolve the conflict, together with regional and international partners. This plan would also have to address Israel’s core and legitimate concerns: avoidance of a security and governance vacuum and threats from the areas Israel evacuates (probably necessitating deployment of NATO or other forces), international recognition of the new border and a finality of claims, Israeli sovereign discretion over its own immigration policy, and a regional framework based on the Arab Peace Initiative, whereby Arab states establish relations with Israel.

Israel’s challenge would be to strategically and positively respond to such a plan and the opportunity it offers – or, even better, to initiate just such a game-changing move itself.

To stretch that “Wizard of Oz” metaphor a little further: No magical wizard is really needed. Rather, a determined American president who can speak in a language of common sense and shared interests to Israel’s leaders, and in so doing help Israel to locate its collective and long underutilized brain, heart and courage.

Can George Mitchell Astound the Skeptics, Again?

This article also appears in The Huffington Post.img

In the hectic days of Presidential campaigning of July 2008, then candidate Obama took time to visit the Middle East and Europe. That trip will be most remembered for the huge crowds in Berlin and basketball shots at Camp Arifjan U.S. Army base in Kuwait, but the words Barack Obama spoke in one of the ostensibly less memorable stops on that trip, in Amman, gained great resonance this week. In the Jordanian capital on July 22nd, Senator Obama made this commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace: “…my goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs.”

Yesterday, he began to make good on that pledge with the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell to the position of special envoy for Middle East peace. Mitchell’s new appointment closes a circle of sorts — he was the last Middle East peace appointee of President Bill Clinton (October 2000), and will be the first of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Mitchell announcement came after eight years during which there has been no American peace envoy, and the substance of the Mitchell’s previous work on Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine is both attracting attention and igniting a precious, if cautious, spark of hope that progress toward peace might just be possible.

In April 2001, George Mitchell delivered the report of a fact-finding commission that he headed, assessing the previous year’s outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence and how it might be brought to an end (see here). That report set the gold standard for understanding the conflict and the motivations of the different actors. Had Mitchell’s recommendations been implemented by the Bush administration, the region might now look very different. The report eschewed apportioning of blame, calling instead for a ceasefire, a cooling-off period, mutual confidence-building measures and a return to credible political negotiations, without which violence could be expected to resume.

Mitchell was uncompromising on the need for Israel’s legitimate security concerns to be addressed. He was also unequivocal in drawing the connection between the political environment and the security climate. For instance, on the impact of settlements, the Mitchell Report had the following to say: “A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement construction activity.” The report’s recommendations did not though receive the active political backing of President Bush.

Despite the appearance of similarity to 2001 in today’s Israeli-Palestinian strife, especially following the latest Gaza crisis, were Mitchell to produce a new report, its findings would likely highlight a rather changed landscape. The six percent of the Palestinian territories constituted by Gaza is settlement free, but is now separated from the West Bank not just geographically, but also politically. Fatah has lost its monopoly on political power and Hamas has entered the political arena, won parliamentary elections, and probably been strengthened by the latest conflagration. Israel, too, will likely experience political change in next month’s elections with Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party poised to return to the premiership.

Current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have an unreal quality to them, seeming distanced from, and almost irrelevant to, the respective societies. The negotiators might consider each other to be partners but their peoples’ are still locked into an adversarial and violent relationship.

This is where special envoy Mitchell’s Northern Ireland experience might be most relevant, even if no two situations are fully analogous. George Mitchell served as U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland from 1995 to 1998. His Ireland strategy was to be inclusive, to bring the hardliners inside the political process, be patient, get parties into a room who had never met before but who held the key to the legitimacy of a process and for the only conditions for entry to be behavior related (a commitment to pursuing exclusively peaceful means), not ideological or political (recognizing a united Ireland or the permanence of Union with the British mainland, for instance).

Writing about the ‘Irish Lessons For Peace‘ in the International Herald Tribune in May 2007 (together with Richard Haass), Mitchell suggested that “those previously associated with violent groups” should be brought in, preconditions be kept to an “absolute minimum”, parties be allowed to “hold on to their dreams”, and that sanctions be imposed for backsliding on commitments. All sound advice for anyone seeking to overcome the flaws in the current Middle East peace process.

Could a distinction for instance be drawn between the political wing of Hamas – the Change and Reform Party that won elections, and its military wing – the Izz-Al-Din al-Qassam brigades? Drawing a similar distinction between the political wing of the Republican nationalist movement – Sinn Fein – and the military IRA played a significant role in facilitating progress during key moments of the Irish process (and at times the same line has been pursued with the Basque separatist movement Herri Batasuna which competed in elections, and the ETA militant group).

While early U.S. engagement with Hamas is unlikely (and perhaps premature), other third parties might prod Hamas in this direction and away from violence, with a credible claim that a seat at the table of a meaningful political process awaits them. A division of labor might, for instance, make sense here, with Europeans or other regional actors (Turkey or Qatar, perhaps) conducting exploratory talks with the political Change and Reform wing of Hamas, while the U.S. adheres to a more rigid position. Mitchell’s painstaking work in moving both Republican and Unionist militias away from violence and in gradually addressing the issue of de-commissioning of arms is also worth remembering.

In accepting his new envoy appointment, Senator Mitchell was not shy in setting an ambitious target: “There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings (Mitchell at the State Department, 1/22/09).”img

Ironically, his first challenges may comes less from the Israelis and Palestinians that he will meet on his travels and more from the skeptics and naysayers in the Middle East peace industry back home in Washington D.C. He should expect to hear lots of “it can’t be done” refrains, but as Mitchell himself noted speaking in Israel just last month: “In negotiations which led up to that agreement [Good Friday agreement] we had seven hundred days of failure and one day of success.” New thinking is needed and a determination to create that one day of success for Israel/Palestine.

Some of Senator Mitchell’s other observations from these previous postings are just as worth re-calling and applying in his new role. From Ireland we see that economic improvements were only sustainable alongside political progress, that political empowerment from back home in Washington is crucial to success and that an externally driven peace plan and diplomatic leadership can break a local political impasse.

It is clear too from George Mitchell’s own book recounting his Ireland experience, “Making Peace: The Inside Story of the Making of the Good Friday Agreement”, that skills finely tuned in the U.S. Senate can be put to effective use – hard-nose brokering of deals, stoical patience, and the imposition of deadlines when needed.

In one of the most dramatic scenes of all in Northern Ireland’s history, in May of 2007 at Stormont, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness stood alongside the DUP’s Ian Paisley, as Deputy and First Ministers respectively (and erstwhile, sworn enemies), and declared that the peace work in Ireland had “confounded the critics and astounded the skeptics.” Mitchell’s task in the Middle East will be to again confound and astound and to realize an equally historic moment.

Picking up the Peace

This piece appears in the new issue of The American Conservative

At this writing, the Gaza crisis continues, exacting a painful toll on the civilian population, hammering Israel’s image in ways unseen since Lebanon in the early 1980s, and relegating talk of peace to the funny pages. The working assumption is that there will be a ceasefire in which Hamas continues to be the governing address for Gaza—a political victory for the Islamic Resistance Movement (the literal translation of the acronym for Hamas). But for a ceasefire to hold, there will need to be an opening of the border crossings in an ongoing and predictable way, as well as a mechanism for preventing weapons smuggling into Gaza


The desire to avoid any semblance of Hamas achievement is one factor that has prolonged the fighting and encouraged alternative endgame scenarios. But the other options are even less attractive or realistic: an indefinite Israeli re-occupation of Gaza (publicly unpopular and militarily draining given anticipated resistance), handing Gaza over to Palestinian Authority/Fatah control (a killer blow for Fatah credibility when conducted on the back of an Israeli tank and likely to lead to an anti-PA insurgency in Gaza and possibly the West Bank), or stationing international forces in Gaza (just try recruiting nations willing to deploy for that mission). There is an in-between option: IDF troops remain on the Gazan side of the border with Egypt or conduct ongoing incursions, as they do in West Bank cities, creating conditions hardly conducive to a ceasefire.

Whatever the details of the de-escalation, when the smoke clears there will still be Hamas, there will be more angry Palestinians and Israelis, and the 94 percent of the Occupied Palestinian Territories that is not Gaza will still be dotted with settlements and Israeli forces. The larger conflict will remain very much unresolved.

Some might be tempted to push on with the Annapolis process launched by President Bush in November 2007. The new Obama administration will almost certainly flirt with the idea. But doing so would mean ignoring the flaws in the existing approach that the Gaza crisis has cruelly exposed. A hesitant Israeli leadership, enfeebled Palestinian Authority, and popularly challenged Arab regimes have all found a shared comfort zone in a process that has no end and almost never requires hard choices. Except that Operation Cast Lead has shown this zone to be not so comforting after all.

The edifice upon which Annapolis and U.S. policy toward the conflict have been constructed cannot hold. Israel, Fatah, and America’s Arab allies are unwilling or unable (sometimes both) to take the kind of action that might constitute a robust alliance against the regional forces that challenge them—forces of change and resistance, sometimes violent, often religiously inspired. Israel is not ending the settlements and occupation. The moderate Arab states cannot openly embrace Israel absent this step. And Fatah has neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to sign or implement a reasonable deal were such an offer available. The state of contemporary Israeli-Palestinian relations is one of conflict, not partnership. Israel and Fatah cannot defy this reality without a radical reconfiguration of the landscape.

The Gaza crisis has brought all of this to the fore. The handicap that plagues the so-called “alliance of the moderates” is visible in all its debilitating deformity. Israel brings destruction on Gaza and claims it is serving the cause of moderation and peace. Enraged Palestinians disown Fatah and the PA, accusing them of complicity, and are in turn intimidated by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. Fatah leaders fight among themselves. Certain Arab allies are quietly supportive of Israel’s move, or unwilling to counter it, and are thereby further alienated from their own publics. Egypt bears the brunt of popular regional displeasure. The regime in Cairo looks more fragile than at any time during the 17 years of Mubarak’s rule, and such frailty is no basis for regional leadership. The idea that this collection of actors holds the key to negotiating and implementing an historic peace simply does not pass muster.

The policy question for the new U.S. government is whether there will be an acknowledgement of the collateral damage inflicted upon the Annapolis process during this Gaza crisis. It is now a victim of friendly fire and will need to find its resting place alongside many far more innocent victims.

There is no decisive victory to be had in the Middle East against an axis that is sometimes called “Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah,” but which is far more and far less than that. Less in that the so-called extremists do not walk in lockstep. There are distinct national, movement, and religious tensions within this camp. We are often the glue that holds them together. They also represent far more, offering an alternative narrative, many elements of which have popular appeal, and a broad following in the region—not just with Islamists but with democrats, reformers, and nationalist-based oppositions. Paradoxically, these may well be the people who can most effectively counter the brand of Islamism that actually does represent an implacable and dangerous foe: al-Qaeda-style Salafi extremism.

The Bush administration’s attempt to score a decisive victory for the so-called forces of moderation has more often than not been rejected in the region as an antidemocratic, humiliating neo-imperialist project. It has of course also been used as a recruiting tool by al-Qaeda and Co.

After Gaza, all sides must take a step back from exacerbating tensions, deepening divisions, and dreaming of unequivocal victories in this destabilized Middle East. The language of moderates versus extremists must be abandoned or at least much more sparingly applied. It is relevant for the Salafi jihadists, but that is it.

A new starting place would be to differentiate and disaggregate the various actors lined up against the U.S., Israel, and the ancien regimes. A region bubbling over with conflicts that are part regional proxy, part local circumstance is not a desirable situation. Gaza is the latest example—and a particularly bloody one.

The best way forward is simultaneously to de-escalate tensions at the regional level and resolve or at least defuse specific local conflicts. For instance, at the regional level, a Syrian-Saudi reconciliation might be encouraged and a similar approach adopted for overcoming internal Palestinian divisions. More broadly, and over time, a modus vivendi will need to be found with the non-al-Qaeda reformist Islamist groups, often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. None of this means that the excesses of the hardline narrative or the recourse to unprovoked violence should be accepted. The de-escalation formula will probably face its keenest challenge in attempts to test flexibility in Iran’s behavior. The current approach has mostly served to extend Iran’s reach well beyond its natural echo chamber.

Gaza again is an example. The Hamas-Israel conflict is primarily a local one, but if the local circumstances are not addressed, it can take on regional dimensions, as is currently the case. The local conflict and the regional equation—Syria, Iran, and the Muslim Brothers back Hamas; America and its allies are ranged against Hamas—feed off one another. De-escalation should happen in both directions, regional and local.

Recent developments in Lebanon may be instructive. Hezbollah has not joined the Gaza confrontation, avoiding a second front with Israel (at least as of day 18 of the conflict). According to the regional dynamic, Hezbollah should be getting involved. But in this case, the local dynamic is pushing in a different direction. The power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon brokered by Qatar sees Hezbollah back in government and looking ahead to new elections in June. A local incentive has been created which causes Hezbollah, a constituency-based organization, to weigh local considerations against regional alliance ones. So far local concerns are proving more resilient.

Now apply that to Hamas, Gaza, and the Israel-Palestine situation. Insufficient local incentive has been created to affect Hamas’s calculation. Hamas is also a constituency-based organization, attentive to the needs of the Palestinian population. By maintaining the closure on Gaza, Israel and the international community gave up a potential lever for modifying Hamas’s behavior—public Gazan pressure for extending the ceasefire. Likewise, when a Palestinian power-sharing arrangement was negotiated in the Saudi-brokered Mecca deal of February 2007, it was opposed and actively undermined. An opportunity was again missed for reframing Hamas’s options. The situation is most decisively effected by paralysis in addressing the bigger issue—the need for de-occupation and Palestinian statehood alongside secure borders for Israel.

A post-Gaza reconfiguration of Middle East policy may not come with the hugs and handshakes of past peace deals. It may look more like a begrudging separation with hard borders, international guarantees, and even NATO forces deployed, as well as strong incentive packages for both sides. It will require local conflict-resolution and regional de-escalation components. Crucially, it will demand an American rethink and a jettisoning of the certainties of neocon dogma, support of credible mediators where possible (sometimes European, sometimes regional such as Qatar or Turkey), and finally, frank discussions between the U.S. and its regional allies—and that does not just mean Israel.


Lull After the Storm

This is a piece co-written with my colleague Amjad Atallah, who co-directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. This also appears on the Guardian online.  

After exactly three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli unilateral ceasefire declaration came into effect on Saturday night. While that is a very welcome development, particularly for the civilians of Gaza, it leaves open as many question as it answers. The steps taken by a series of actors, including the combatants and their neighbours and supporters, will determine whether or not this actually leads to a de-escalation and end to hostilities to what has been to a horrendously bloody start to 2009.

Can the ceasefire work?

The unilateral nature of the Israeli declaration is no coincidence. In Saturday’s declaration of a ceasefire, Israel is hoping to send the message that Hamas is not a legitimate actor.

So who is the ceasefire actually with? It is, not coincidentally, consistent to some extent with the Egyptian-Turkish-Hamas negotiations which called for a ceasefire for 10 days during which the parties would agree to border crossing mechanisms, followed by an Israeli withdrawal, and an opening of the borders to humanitarian and economic aid.

However, by making the ceasefire a unilateral affair, accompanied only by an arrangement with the US (with whom Israel signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Friday regarding the prevention of weapons smuggling), Israel can continue its attempts to politically isolate and ostracise the Hamas government in Gaza.

That obviously serves the election campaign narrative of the Israeli governing coalition – yet if Hamas has no political stake in maintaining the ceasefire, it obviously will have little incentive to keep the peace. No one watching the news in the last weeks will have missed Hamas officials shuttling back and forth to Cairo and Doha for both the private and public relations component of preparing a ceasefire. There was a practical reason for the diplomatic activity that included them – they were the ones ruling Gaza.

The diplomatic challenge now will be to provide Hamas with its ladder to climb down – and the crucial ingredients of this are a short timetable for an IDF withdrawal from Gaza and guarantees regarding the opening of border crossings to Gaza in a predictable and ongoing fashion.

But there is also no third party mechanism on the ground to shepherd the two parties through this very dangerous period. A continued IDF presence in Gaza almost guarantees ongoing hostilities. Even if these are of a more sporadic nature then what we witnessed over the last three weeks, there will be a constant risk of escalation. There will be three necessary steps for securing the ceasefire: (1) getting both sides to immediately cease hostilities, (2) ensuring the IDF withdrawal and removing Israeli troops immediately from Palestinian population centres, (3) putting the broader ceasefire package in place which involves amongst other things, opening Gaza and preventing weapons getting in. Beyond that, of course, the underlying issues of the conflict and of the occupation will have to be addressed.

What next for Gaza and a divided Palestinian polity?

The most immediate need is for a massive humanitarian effort to help the injured, the newly homeless and destitute, and to deal with the current health crisis. Many of the some 5,000 injured may very well die in the coming days without immediate medical intervention. The international community will need to make this a priority or risk having the death toll continue to rise even after an end to the bombing.

But very early on, the question will arise of what is the governing address in Gaza, including who is to act as the interface for aid and assistance provision. Aid distribution and assistance will be made much more difficult by the fact that most of the institutional and physical infrastructure of Palestinian governance in Gaza has actually been destroyed or very badly damaged (ministry buildings, police stations, jails, even schools and hospitals). Much, but not all of this, can be channeled through UNRWA and other UN agencies. Still, any effort in Gaza will have to deal in some way with Hamas.

Hamas has been widely recognised since it took power as having provided an effective and functioning central government address, albeit a controversial one. Hamas has largely restored law and order and effectively imposed discipline (and imposed a ceasefire while it was in fact being honoured) on both its own militia and that of other factions- the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and Fatah, although in the case of the latter this has taken the form of political suppression.

The question of acknowledging and dealing with the reality of Hamas versus attempting to forcibly remove it remains the same today as it has been since the Hamas election victory and its assumption of exclusive power in Gaza. The difference today is that this will now be played out against the backdrop of a devastated and enraged Gazan landscape, one in which the test-tube conditions now exist for al-Qaida-style jihadists to gain a stronger foothold.

If the West continues with its current policy then the temptation will be to use donor reconstruction assistance as a stealth instrument to achieve regime change. The Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad do have a role in rebuilding Gaza but that can either be done as part of a genuine effort at national reconciliation or the continuation of a policy that has failed dismally.

As the West considers how to assist Gaza in its moment of most need, it must belatedly heed the advice of the likes of Israel’s former Mossad chief Ephraim HaLevy, former US secretary of state Colin Powell, former Middle East envoy General Anthony Zinni, Sir Jeremy Greenstock and many others, and find direct and indirect ways to engage Hamas and encourage putting the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again (It’s worth noting also that there is a sense in certain European quarters of Gaza and West Bank reconstruction assistance being a Groundhog Day budget, a request that keeps getting repeated after every round of destruction).

In many ways, this might be a decisive moment on the internal Palestinian front. The current Fatah leadership has been weakened in many Palestinian eyes by appearing to be an irrelevant bystander during this crisis. Indeed, there have been prominent voices of dissent from within Fatah, such as Marwan Barghouthi confidant Kadura Fares and former security chief Jibril Rajoub. There was even a joint statement by all Palestinian parliamentary factions criticising the Palestinian Authority’s handling of demonstrations and opposition in the West Bank and its suppression of “freedom of expression and democracy.” Will Fatah try to use this moment to forge a new unity government or will its supporters see this as an opportunity to try to replace Hamas politically?

Hamas too has its own internal calculations to make. As a political movement it has been strengthened even as it has been militarily weakened. But hard questions will be asked within the movement regarding the extent to which they share responsibility for what has happened in Gaza. It will not be surprising if Hamas enters into a process of consultation, rethinks and potential leadership shifts over the coming months.

As Israel focuses during the next week on its internal politics, so too might the Palestinians, this being perhaps one of the last chances to forge some unity and pull division back from the brink of being irredeemable. The more independent groups, such as Mustafa Barghouthi and his Mubadara party, as well as the more independent voices within Fatah and Hamas, and NGO and civil society leaders will need to rise to the occasion and take a lead role in this. This might well determine whether a potential US-led effort to forge a broad Middle East peace will have the advantage of a relatively unified Palestinian polity or whether a resolution will need to be promoted without true Palestinian representation.

The impact on Israel: war and elections (or why the two shouldn’t mix)

In the lead-up to the ceasefire declaration, the government PR machine in Israel was working overtime, telling its citizens what a success this has been. A series of reports appeared about Hamas collapsing, of its poor performance in the fighting and of the regional and international support for Israel’s actions. The conduct of this war and the election campaign which formed its domestic political backdrop have never been far apart. That campaign, nominally suspended for the three weeks of fighting, will now be rejoined in full force as the outcomes of Operation Cast Lead are dissected.

An unusual challenge that faced Israel’s leadership from the moment it launched this campaign was the need to emerge with not just one but two Israeli victory narratives and victory photos – one each for the defence minister and foreign minister Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, who will lead their respective competing parties in the elections on February 10. That particular acrobatic feat was achieved when Livni could claim her supposed diplomatic victory and there being a ceasefire without Hamas alongside the more obvious and equally suspect claim of military victory for Barak.

Both, though, will share a message of this having been an effective campaign in downgrading Hamas, removing much of its missile threat, with minimal Israeli losses while sustaining strong support from Israel’s allies and having the sound judgment to know when to call it a day and before resigning oneself to an indefinite reoccupation of Gaza.

Most of the push-back against that position will come from the right. They will argue that Israel did not go far enough, that the IDF was not allowed to finish the job and totally annihilate Hamas, that rockets were still being fired on the last day, that the hostage Gilad Shalit is still held captive, and of course, that this should all have been done a long time ago.

The Israeli left will offer a politically quieter, although morally more booming, critique that the war was unnecessary and its aims could have been achieved without fighting as they are the same that existed on December 19. Thus far, the Gaza war has significantly strengthened Barak and his Labour party but not enough to challenge the front-runners Netanyahu of Likud and Livni of Kadima with the former still maintaining a slight lead. Ultimately though, the world of political campaign rhetoric will look rather divorced from the real world implications for Israel of what has happened over the last three weeks. If one defines national security in an irresponsibly narrow way, then yes, Hamas does indeed now have fewer missiles overall and long-range missiles in particular, and a sense of deterrence, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned, has been restored after the battles in Lebanon in 2006.

But at what costs?

Israel’s allies have been weakened and a more hard-line, anti-Israel stance has found new resonance and new adherents. All this should matter to Israel’s long-term security. Perhaps most disturbing has been the sense, amidst the civilian losses and suffering, of a deep absence of a moral compass, something that 41 years as an occupier can do to a country and that many feared would be the most harmful effect for Israel of this unresolved conflict. Israel’s image internationally has not been at such a low point since Lebanon in 1982, and even Egypt‘s president excluded the Israeli leadership from its Sharm summit. The destruction has created new levels and new generations of hostility toward Israel.

The regional swing vote

While the Gaza crisis has been mostly about the local, immediate dimensions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it has fuelled region-wide tensions. While it is too reductionist to view this as a proxy war, it has certainly pitted two rival regional camps against each other. The two camps in the Arab and Muslim world have roughly divided into those who believe that Palestinian freedom can only be achieved through resistance, and those who believe that only diplomatic non-violent engagement will accomplish this aim. It may be a false choice in that neither has actually created a Palestinian state or created a peace agreement between Israel and her neighbours.

Nevertheless, those who have argued adamantly for a diplomatic approach have again been set back. The Arab world and its collective institutions, notable the Arab League, have been shown at their most dysfunctional. For three weeks, the Arab League failed to convene its leaders despite the events in Gaza dominating Arab media around the clock, and despite mass-street protests across the Arab world. America’s government allies were caught between a rock and a hard place, being hostile to Hamas but unable to identify with Israel. They found themselves ever more alienated from their own public.

Even when key Arab leaders at the UN Security Council helped pass resolution 1860, little changed on the ground. Perhaps the most interesting aspect has been to follow what one might call the regional swing vote, actors that are not part of the Iran/Syria/Hamas/Hezbollah camp on the one hand or the Egypt/PA/Saudi/Jordanian camp on the other. The mood in the swing camp was summed up by Qatar hosting a consultative session of the Arab League on Friday in Doha with the Iranian and Syrian presidents and Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal in attendance, alongside Turkish, Lebanese, Algerian and Organization of Islamic conference senior representatives. This is indicative of where the popular mood has been with secular nationalists, reformists, and democrats siding with Islamists in their support for Hamas as the representative of the Palestinians in Gaza.

The US will be faced with the choice of either continuing this dichotomy, and the conflict which has so exacerbated regional tensions, or whether it will seek to shuffle the deck by addressing the conflict at its root while engaging region-wide to address the specific national interests of various parties consistent with its own national security interests.

The new Obama administration and the future of the peace process

While the Obama inauguration is probably not the only factor that determined the timing of this ceasefire, it is hard not to see a connection with Israel almost certainly not wanting an ongoing Gaza crisis to rain on Tuesday’s parade and to force their conflict with the Palestinians any higher up the new administration’s agenda than it already is. Nevertheless, solidifying the ceasefire and the aftermath of this conflict will exercise the Obama team from day one in office, forcing them to make early choices in how they will approach the Israel/Palestine issue. The Obama administration will likely have to ensure the full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, follow-up on US support for weapons smuggling efforts, while simultaneously taking a position on Gaza reconstruction efforts.

The backdrop will be whether US assistance will be used to build Palestinian internal reconciliation, to help with a broader effort to finally secure Israel’s and America’s security through a broad inclusive peace deal, or to continue the Bush policy of promoting divisions in the hope of continuing to help Israel manage the occupation at great cost to both American and Israeli national security interests.

This much seems clear: the Annapolis approach is badly in need of a rethink. Indeed, the Annapolis process has been one of the less innocent victims of Operation Cast Lead. Beyond this immediate crisis, the bigger Israeli/Palestinian conflict looms.

A post-Gaza peace effort may not come with the hugs and handshakes of past deals. It may look more like a begrudging separation with hard borders, international guarantees, and even Nato forces deployed, as well as strong incentive packages for both sides. Rather than the friendly peace imagined by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, the US may need to force a Kosovo or East Timor-style peace with reconciliation to come later. In either case, it will mean finally achieving de-occupation and Palestinian statehood along with a secure Israel and recognized borders. Crucially, it means moving beyond the neo-conservative dogma and the policy it represented that has so destabilised the Middle East for the last eight years.

Gaza and the Obama Effect—Ending the War

This piece can also be read at Huffington Post

Barack Obama is not even President yet but he may have just played a central role in getting to a ceasefire in the current Gaza Israel crisis–just by being there.  All the signals are that we are in a final and ugly escalatory cycle in advance of hostilities being ceased and that the proximity of this war ending to next week’s inauguration of the new President is not coincidental.

Here’s where things stand:

Egyptian mediation is now reaching a ceasefire package building on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860, and barring last minute hiccups, it is likely to deliver a breakthrough in the very near future.  The elements of that ceasefire package are well known:  ending military actions and rocket strikes, withdrawing IDF forces, opening the Gaza border crossings, and preventing future weapons smuggling into Gaza.  In fact, one of the most painful truths of this conflict is that these ingredients were known in advance and had the current, frantic diplomacy been conducted one month ago, this terrible human suffering could probably have all been avoided.  The details are now being hashed out with the comings and goings of Israeli and Hamas officials in Cairo.

On the Israeli side, there have been fierce disagreements within both the political and military leaderships since Operation Cast Lead was launched.  Defense Minister Barak apparently supported a truce during the very first days of the attack.  Foreign Minister Livni later got on board for a de-escalation, and with the military chief of staff widely reported to be unenthusiastic about an entrenched and prolonged re-occupation of Gaza, the Prime Minister seems finally ready to bring this to an end.

In recent days, the Israeli media has seemed to be building to this crescendo with generous helpings of propaganda with regards to Israel’s achievements and the of enfeeblement of Hamas (the true picture is likely to be more mixed).

The Defense Minister also scored his victory photo today with the killing of Hamas Interior Minister Said Siam. While that is the picture most Israelis will be looking at, the rest of the world is likely to be pouring over further bombings of U.N. facilities and a death toll that is now over a thousand, of which according to Israeli estimates, only 360 are Hamas fighters (according to Ofer Shelah in the Maariv newspaper, quoting Israeli military sources). Nevertheless, the war has given Ehud Barak and his Labor party a boost in the run-up to February’s elections.

The war has been popular with Israelis and a key element in delaying a ceasefire has been the need for not just one, but two, victory narratives and photos–one each for the two senior ministers whose parties are competing in elections (Livni and Barak).  By the way, it’s worth remembering that the Iraq War was just as popular with the American public after three weeks as this action is with the Israeli public.  But even if Israel ends now, the longer term consequences are likely to be as debilitating for Israel in this situation as they have been for the US in Iraq.

According to the latest news, Livni is now likely to get her own victory photo, too.  The Israeli Foreign Minister is on her way to Washington to sign a memorandum of understanding with Secretary Rice regarding American commitments to assist in preventing weapons smuggling into Gaza.  It will almost certainly be Rice’s last act in office.

Hamas, too, is busy preparing its own victory narrative.  They will claim to have withstood the Israeli onslaught and to have deterred the Israelis from entering deeper into the urban warfare awaiting them in Gazan cities.  They will assert that despite international efforts to isolate Hamas, they have been negotiating the terms of the ceasefire and that they have achieved their key demand of lifting the closure on Gaza (it’s worth noting that according to Israeli’s former Mossad chief and former national security adviser, Efraim Halevy, “If Israel’s goal were to remove the threat of rockets from the residents of southern Israel, opening the border crossings would have ensured such quiet for a generation”).  Expect Hamas to also emerge politically strengthened with President Abbas having looked like a bystander throughout this conflict and even being perceived by many as complicit in the destruction wrought on Gaza. The terrible images emerging from Gaza, and that may get worse (when foreign camera crews finally get into Gaza and the extent of damage becomes known) are likely to generate further sympathy.

If a ceasefire is becoming imminent, then it is fair to assume that while the dynamics of the conflict (Israeli recoil from fully re-occupying Gaza), and the diplomatic effort have played a role, the key element to timing here is the approaching Obama presidency.

First of all, the various actors–and one imagines Israel in particular–will not want to piss on Obama’s parade this Tuesday.  More substantively, there is an expectation that the new president would have felt compelled to immediately intervene in this situation.  While there is an assumption that the Obama administration will remain strongly supportive of Israel, one can also anticipate a more thoughtful articulation of what serves American interests in the Middle East, how the close Israel-America relationship should be managed, and the taking of corresponding efforts to immediately de-escalate this spiraling crisis.  It might be pushing the envelope to call Obama the peacemaker here, but it’s hard to deny that his impending entrance to the world stage has an effect.

If this conflict does now end (as one desperately hopes it will), then it will of course be the Obama administration that is left to deal with the fall out.  The memo of understanding, due to be signed by Israel and the US tomorrow, is one part of that.  It seems to be a smart move by Condoleezza Rice to give this to the Israeli Foreign Minister in order to get her fully on board for ending the war.  If it is indeed mostly political theater, an election campaign photo-op for Livni, then so be it.  But if it amounts to more, then this might well be one final poison chalice that the Bushies are bequeathing to 44.  If America is to play an active military role in the Sinai, then expect complications and a scenario with all the makings of nurturing over time another insurgency with possible blowback, and even with consequences for the shaky and unpopular regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Then there is the rest of the post-Gaza mess: a humanitarian emergency to alleviate, the further weakening of America’s regional allies, notably including the Palestinian Authority, and a new wave of anger in the region directed at America and its Israeli ally. The first challenge is to make the elements of the ceasefire actually work – ensure an end to hostilities, an IDF withdrawal, and functioning border arrangements. Immediately following that comes the need to rebuild and rehabilitate Gaza which will require an international effort. Essential here will be to avoid the temptation of using reconstruction assistance as a blunt instrument to advance regime change in Gaza but rather to shape this as a core ingredient in facilitating the beginning of a serious Palestinian national reconciliation. That means changing course on the previous failed policy and encouraging – and not vetoing – third party mediation efforts between Fatah and Hamas.

But it is the bigger picture of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will continue to sap US credibility and security until a workable equilibrium can be found. That will require a realistic approach not only to Gaza and its rulers but also to the other 94% of the Palestinian territories – the West Bank and East Jerusalem (the ’67 territories) – an approach that finally guarantees Israeli security within recognizable borders and Palestinian independence and de-occupation. US leadership will be a prerequisite for achieving it.

This issue has forced itself early onto the Obama agenda and if it returns to the back burner than it is guaranteed to periodically explode in everyone’s face, sucking America in and costing America dear.  A better option is to push for a workable solution now. Nothing will more dramatically and positively affect the prospects for successful US diplomacy in the vital challenges it faces in this most dangerously destabilized of regions.

Our Man in Tel Aviv

This article appears as a book review in the newest issue of the Washington Monthly.

Innocent Abroad:
An Intimate Account of American Peace
Diplomacy in the Middle East

by Martin Indyk
Simon & Schuster, 512 pp.

Just the thought of another book about Middle East policy under President Bill Clinton might make the most stout-hearted reader quake; but he or she would be well advised to consider Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, by Martin Indyk. Indyk, who was (twice) U.S. ambassador to Israel, and now directs the Saban Center of Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, has managed to write a new, very readable chronicle of Mideast policy during the Clinton years. Rather than focusing narrowly on the Oslo Accords, Camp David, and all things Israeli-Palestinian, Indyk methodically works us through the broader Israeli-Arab peace process, Iran, and Iraq as they feed off one another in a regional context. It is precisely those policy linkages that will have to be redrawn by the new Obama administration, and that theme is clearly uppermost in Indyk’s mind.

The timing of the publication of Innocent Abroad is fortuitous. Indyk, who was responsible for Near Eastern affairs at both the State Department and the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, is particularly well positioned to advise a new Democratic president gearing up to tackle a Middle East in devastating disarray, especially given the recent events in Gaza; and he is doing so with a Clinton at his side at Foggy Bottom. All good reasons for a little recap of how the last Democratic president approached the region. (It’s also worth noting that Indyk has remained close to the Clintons and advised the New York senator during her presidential bid.)

The book at times has a disjointed feel—it was apparently edited down from a much larger manuscript—giving the impression that linking material is sometimes missing. As a narrative, Innocent Abroad has something for everyone—hawks, realists, neoconservatives, and peaceniks alike—and there are plenty of “gotcha” moments, but they are sufficiently varied as to provide sustenance to both right and left. That can be frustrating. Indyk’s conclusions, however, are less polygamous: American efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict are central to re-stabilizing the region, and America should discard the policy of regime change as it engages with both Syria and Iran.

The book reminds us of the series of peace breakthroughs in the 1990s—the various Oslo agreements, for instance, under Israeli Labor and Likud leaders: Gaza-Jericho, Oslo B, Hebron, and Wye River. In addition, there was the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, and real progress in defining the parameters for a possible comprehensive deal between Israel and Syria, alongside the largely effective dual containment of Iran and Iraq (a policy framing of Indyk’s own invention). Indyk also points to the shortcomings of the Clinton era and to the weighty, unfinished business on the Obama menu. While he is often scathing about Bush’s Middle East policy, Indyk notes the not insignificant ways—from the extension of the no-fly zones over Iraq to the support of an official policy of regime change—in which the Clinton administration helped to seed the ground for the disaster that followed.

If President Obama is to pursue a policy of “I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place,” then he will also have to jettison some of that mindset’s inheritance from the Clinton years. Doing that with a Clinton as his most senior diplomat is not unrealistic, particularly if the evolution in Indyk’s thinking is at all indicative of Hillary’s approach. And, as Indyk reminds us, the United States limits both its options and its influence when it is talking to fewer actors in the region.

Indyk’s recounting of Israel and Syria’s attempts at a rapprochement makes for some compelling reading. The not inconsiderable (although not exclusive) blame Indyk assigns to then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the failure of those talks has already caused a stir in Israel, where the Hebrew version of Innocent Abroad was released last summer. His blow-by-blow account of the Israeli-Syrian process, in particular from 1999 to 2000, of the summit at Shepherdstown, and of Clinton’s fury at Barak for “gaming” him, is riveting. (Barak had insisted on a summit with the Syrians and then backtracked on his own proposals. When he again called on Clinton to host a parley with the Palestinians at Camp David, the U.S. dutifully played host. This time around, as Indyk tells it, Barak informed him on the flight to Andrews Air Force base that “he had not had time to prepare for the meeting.” This in spite of the fact that “he alone had insisted upon” the confab.) The ultimate demise of these efforts came on March 26, 2000, in Geneva, when an exhausted American president (on his way back from Asia) met an ailing Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, who passed away just two months later.

Still, it is the section on the Syria track where Innocent Abroad is groundbreaking. Indyk shares largely new material on the details of talks between Syria’s Riad Daoudi and Israel’s General Uri Saguy as they negotiate the thorny issues of demarcating a future Israeli-Syrian border and re-delineating the 1967 boundaries between the two states.

As a new administration takes office, there is some debate as to whether the United States should give priority to peace talks between Israel and the Syrians or Israel and the Palestinians. Indyk suggests that resolving the Palestinian conflict is the priority (and I agree with him on this), but that the U.S. should also reengage bilaterally with Syria and support the ongoing Israeli-Syrian talks currently being mediated by Turkey. He persuasively explains the effect that progress with Syria would have both in reducing Iran’s regional leverage and in facilitating progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian deal—by, for instance, causing Hamas to recalibrate its regional options and probably soften its negotiating stance. In doing so, Indyk rejects the “Syria first” line sometimes promoted in Washington.

I agree with Indyk’s logic, but with one caveat: Indyk seconds the conventional wisdom that Israel cannot pursue deals on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks simultaneously, but I believe this thinking may well be outdated. In fact, only a comprehensive deal may now make sense, one that both closes bilateral peace deals between Israel and its neighbors and articulates a regional peace based on the Arab League/Saudi peace initiative of 2002, whereby Israel would have normal and secure relations with all of the Arab world.

While the best of Innocent Abroad is in Indyk’s prescriptions for a future Middle East policy, there are some charming stories he tells of his tenure in the diplomatic service. There is, for instance, the special handshaking technique developed by U.S. diplomats to ensure that the “no-kissing rule” was adhered to when greeting PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Or the sometimes extreme lengths that Secretary of State Warren Christopher would go to in order to avoid overnighting in Arab capitals because of his delicate stomach.

In his concluding chapter, Indyk wisely reprises the Clinton Parameters, presented by the departing president in December 2000, offering the only official American guidelines ever written for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document clearly outlines what a Mideast peace deal might look like and the role America would need to play in making that happen. Indyk suggests a few tweaks to the Clinton Parameters (which he had a hand in preparing), notably when he suggests that a special international regime be created in the Holy Basin–Old City area of Jerusalem. Some of the recommendations (such as engaging in peace efforts early in a new administration, and not waiting, as Bush did, until year eight) would be on most people’s checklist. Others are more innovative in the Washington context: Indyk supports a more active role for the Arab states. To build Palestinian national reconciliation he would like to see the deployment of multinational forces to help facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state (without replacing one occupying power with another), and have international support for Arab efforts to co-opt rather than confront Hamas. (I would be in favor of all of these, including the last, although unlike Indyk I would suggest that no single Arab state play an exclusive role in mediating internal Palestinian dialogue.)

Martin Indyk is candid and self-critical enough to acknowledge that the peace team sometimes had “tin ears” when it came to understanding the true intentions of Israel’s leaders and were “poorly informed” on intra-Palestinian politics. Unfortunately, his book occasionally lapses into its own tin-eared moments. When there are dismissive references to the Palestinian “sense of entitlement” to all the territories occupied in 1967 or to a “perception of increased settlement activity” during the 1990s (the settler population did increase, by more than 100,000), the credibility of the book is harmed, as it is when the Israeli-Jordanian peace and King Hussein’s outreach to the Israeli public is described as a model for securing future Israeli concessions. What concessions? Israel essentially withdrew from no land and gave up no settlements in making peace with Jordan.

These nuances may be trivial, but they can skew the U.S.-Israel relationship or U.S. policy in a way that is utterly unhelpful to both U.S. and Israeli interests. Innocent Abroad is full of anecdotes (some with explicit lessons, some implied, others perhaps unintentional) that, taken together, produce an inescapable policy prescription: that the management of the U.S.-Israel relationship needs to be recalibrated, for everyone’s benefit. We are told that on many occasions the Clinton administration “took an Israeli idea and turned it into an American proposal.” The result of this was that the very deals from which Israel, the United States, and others would have so greatly benefited were made more difficult to achieve. America’s diplomats are frequently depicted as dancing to a tune spun out in Jerusalem. And the outcome is rarely pretty, for either the U.S. or Israel. (It is notable that American presidents have a slightly better track record when it comes to handling recalcitrant leaders of the right—no small thing, given the prospects that Benjamin Netanyahu will return to the Israeli premiership after February’s election.)

To suggest that the United States play the role of honest broker in the Middle East is almost seen as taboo in American political discourse, yet a reasonable reading of this book’s narration of the Clinton years suggests that only by taking a more balanced approach (note: more balanced, not totally balanced) can the U.S. be an effective broker. Part of that will depend on the team assembled to handle these matters under Obama. As Indyk reminds us, Clinton’s peace team was described in the Arab media as “the five rabbis,” and a bit of diversity would certainly not be a bad thing. But that diversity is as much about openness to different approaches as it is about backgrounds. For example, take Robert Malley or Daniel Kurtzer, both “rabbis” according to the above definition, and who both served under Clinton in different capacities and have spent the last eight years challenging parts of the conventional thinking and talking to a more inclusive array of regional actors. While that might make them controversial picks, it also makes such voices indispensable around the U.S. policymaking table. Including Malley and/or Kurtzer in the Obama administration would send a signal that some of the lessons contained in Innocent Abroad have been internalized.

New thinking is also required in Congress. When discussing Iran policy, Indyk describes how “our own zealots on Capitol Hill” managed to split the United States from its European allies by passing the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, thereby undermining Clinton administration efforts to maintain a united front in containing Iran. The knee-jerk congressional habit of running to the right of the executive (any executive—Congress even outflanked Bush from the right in opposing Palestinian aid, for instance) needs to be redressed.

Indyk is very critical of the Bush policy on Iran, of subcontracting the negotiations to the Europeans and placing preconditions on direct U.S.-Iranian talks, favoring engagement across the range of bilateral issues. The point that he constantly returns to in discussing the Iran file, both in the past and in the future, is the need for a credible American initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a vital component in reducing Iran’s regional influence and leverage. A book that is organized around the tapestry of interacting issues in the Middle East, in which “everything is connected here,” inevitably ends up advocating for a more thoughtful connecting of the dots in regional policy, and the central dot is the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would read Indyk as an antidote to the naysayers who insist that “[t]he time for peace isn’t ripe, Israelis and Palestinians are in disarray, little can be done.” It is not enough to say that one needs to effectively address Israel-Palestine; one must also chart a course of how to do it: ripeness can be created, the regional strategic context can be reshaped, and many of the ingredients are contained in Innocent Abroad. I might add some, and blend them slightly differently, but Indyk gives us a good baseline recipe with which to start experimenting.