Economist Debate

Economist LogoI am currently engaged in an online debate at The Economist with neoconservative journalist and former Bush speechwriter David Frum. The style is typical of a proper debate, with opening written statements for/against, rebuttals, and closing positions. The motion is, “This house believes that Barack Obama’s America is now an honest broker between Israel and the Arabs.” I’m supporting the motion.

I encourage everyone to take a look. Below is an excerpt from my opening statement. Rebuttals will be posted on Friday, July 24.

“I will argue that within the context of that US-Israel special relationship, the United States can still be an honest broker, should play such a role and has done so on several occasions in the past, and that President Obama’s America is beginning to occupy that political space.

Mr Obama is a friend of Israel. It is, however, a different type of friendship from the Bush years, more grown-up and grounded in reality, healthier for both parties. One should understand that the honest-broker effort under Mr Obama will be undertaken while maintaining the special relationship, not replacing it. He will, for instance, be especially sensitive to Israel’s legitimate security concerns (but not its territorial expansionism).

An appropriate analogy might be a sister-in-law’s role during a couple’s dispute: there is clearly a closer tie to one side, but that does not preclude a sufficiently effective evenhandedness. Let us say that Mr Obama’s America is now being enough of an honest broker.”

The “Swiftboating” of Human Rights Watch

 This piece appears on Huffington Post.

Last week witnessed a concerted attack against the credibility of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), seeking to link supposed fundraising activities in Saudi Arabia with that organization’s criticism (“bias”, according to its detractors) of Israeli practices in the occupied territories, also claiming HRW is soft peddling on Saudi violations. It started in a Wall Street Journal piece, the Israeli prime minister’s office and spokespeople weighed in, and then AIPAC and the rightwing blogosphere got onboard. The attack on HRW has now been ratcheted up according to today’s Jerusalem Post.

The former right-wing Israeli Government Minister, Natan Sharansky (also an ex-Prisoner of Zion, President George W. Bush’s favorite author and occupation apologist) claims that HRW “has become a tool in the hands of dictatorial regimes to fight against democracies.” Ron Dermer, director of policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office adds: “We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity”.

The apparent trigger for this assault on a group that represents the global gold standard in human rights monitoring, analysis, and advocacy, was a visit by HRW’s Middle East-North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, to the Saudi kingdom. I happened to find myself on a panel at The Century Foundation discussing the Middle East with Whitson just days before this storm broke—I went back and watched tapes of that panel discussion. To accuse Whitson of being soft on the Saudis or somehow singling out Israel for criticism is quite astonishing as I’m sure you’ll agree if you take ten minutes to listen to her presentation—of that, more in a moment.

According to reports Whitson was hosted one evening in Riyadh by prominent businessman and intellectual, Emad bin Jameel Al-Hejailan, for a private dinner which included business leaders, civil society leaders, and well-connected Saudis. It was not a fundraising event. HRW was certainly not fundraising from the Saudi government. Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent quotes Whitson—“We have never raised any money from the Saudi government or any other agency in the world.” That HRW does not take government money is something that is already well-known.

HRW does, of course, receive contributions from individuals and foundations—something that does not prevent them from producing releases and reports critical of the states from whence donors hail.

Does HRW’s fundraising from private sources in the US prevent it being critical of American human rights violations (and I obviously acknowledge the differences between the US and Saudi Arabia)? Apparently not. Yes, donors have agendas, but as long as the organization adheres to standards of fact-checking and objectivity, its credibility is sustained.

Sadly, these attacks on HRW demonstrate no such objectivity or credibility—they come from a narrow and misguided right-wing Israel advocacy agenda. One group that has been plowing this terrain for some years is Gerald Steinberg’s odiously named “NGO Monitor,” in the attacks on HRW he is being joined by bigger guns. Steinberg accuses HRW of being “linked to the terrorist campaign” (of Hamas …etc), and whines that “Human Rights Watch is an organization with a budget of $40 million a year; they are a superpower”. Poor Mr. Steinberg, his supporters in the anti-HRW campaign over at AIPAC only had an “$80 million purse” at their disposal.

Ms. Whitson at HRW is not rolling over, this was her response: “Please, if there is something we got wrong, if one of the incidents or attacks we described is wrong, I would love to hear it. Because the Gerald Steinbergs of this world, and I guess now the Sharanskys of this world, love to give blanket denials, love to give blanket dismissals. But let’s get down to the facts and let me know, did we get the fact wrong on any of these cases.”

Whitson had also been accused of using HRW’s criticism of Israel and the hits that it takes on that score in order to curry favor with potential Saudi backers. According to reports, Whitson discussed HRW’s work on both Saudi practices and on the Israeli occupied territories among other issues. Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic blog shares a thoughtful exchange on this with the executive director of HRW, Ken Roth.

I would suggest that Human Rights Watch is not at fault here, but rather those whose agenda is to smear its good name. The event held in Riyadh that has come under scrutiny is undoubtedly replicated by HRW in similar venues around the world and is crucial to their work in sensitizing elites—especially in countries where violations occur—to a broad human rights agenda, including its applicability to the venue in question.

The most perfunctory fact-checking debunks the claim of HRW having an anti-Israel obsession as being patently absurd. As Ali Gharib of IPS has pointed out, of more than 30 releases in June and July (so far) about the region, Israel was criticized three times, Saudi Arabia five times, and Iran on nine occasions.

And here’s how cuddling up to the Saudis and perhaps even seeking private Saudi money led to self-censorship by Sarah Leah Whitson in her criticism of Saudi Arabia at that TCF event: Whitson attacked the lack of due process in the recent Saudi terror trials. She described Saudi Arabia, along with Syria and Libya, as being on the less free side in terms of “the most basic human rights” violations in the region. She attacked Saudi Arabia’s lack of a penal code, and Whitson had this to say about women’s rights in the kingdom: “Saudi Arabia is the absolute worst. Women are treated as legal minor, as children.” Two of HRW’s recent releases are about women’s rights and domestic worker abuses in the kingdom.

So, why this coordinated attack on HRW all of a sudden? It pains me to say it, but this is all about Israel. The Israeli prime minister’s office was shameless enough to announce that it has decided to wage a battle with human rights NGOs and started with Human Rights Watch. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, (apparently without irony) accused HRW of having “seriously lost its moral compass.”

AIPAC then promoted the attack on HRW. The timing is not a coincidence. Human Rights Watch, similar to other global, respected human rights NGOs, obviously follows developments in the occupied Palestinian territories and obviously had something to say about Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza six months ago. Their recent Gaza report focused on the use or, rather, misuse of drones during these military attacks. Amnesty International has been similarly critical of the use of drones, asserting that Israeli forces did not employ insufficient care in preventing civilian casualties.

Or maybe, just maybe, something troubling from a human rights perspective might be taking place in Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories. This is a case of “shoot the messenger” on steroids. What happened to Gaza during Operation Cast Lead is being revealed not only by international sources, but also by Israeli sources, including this latest report from Israeli combat soldiers of the Breaking the Silence group, a collection of testimonies by Israeli combatants who served in Gaza.

Unfortunately, Israel did not—as was recommended by Israeli human rights groups including B’tselem—conduct its own credible state inquiry into the Gaza events. By leaving the Israeli Defense Forces to conduct their own cursory, closed, and, ultimately, not credible investigation, Israel has sent the signal to the international community, and notably to the human rights NGO community, that it will not do the job – that they will have to.

The logic of Israel’s continued occupation is such that the steps Israel is taking to maintain and entrench its presence in the territories are leading to ever-greater human rights violations. Often these practices are exposed, obviously human rights’ NGO’s do a lot of that exposing. In that context, one can expect the attacks on the human rights community to be ratcheted up. As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, there is “an increasing tendency by the Israeli government and by hawkish Jewish organizations to respond to criticism of Israel’s human rights record by lashing out against human rights groups.”

Attempts to defend the indefensible do not make for pretty viewing, even when beloved Israel is the subject (for another example see The Israel Project’s recent defense of settlements in the West Bank).  Surely, one can both be a supporter of Israel and it’s security while at the same time, defending human rights by, for instance, advocating an end to the conflict, a two-state solution, and an end to the occupation. Surely, supporting Israel cannot be about undermining efforts to advance human rights around the world. That is not just fundamentally wrong, it strikes me as being fundamentally un-Jewish, and goes beyond the pale of what is legitimate or ethical.

With Friends Like These

This article also appeared in yesterday’s Haaretz

There has been something almost grotesque about much of the mainstream Israeli reaction to post-election developments in Iran. Certainly one shouldn’t be surprised that official Israel has viewed the situation as an opportunity to advance its arguments against the Islamic Republic’s current leadership. This approach is probably legitimate, and Tehran’s leaders most certainly deserve the rebukes. But Israeli discourse, especially among the commentariat, has gone well beyond that, becoming an occasion for bashing the Obama administration’s supposed weakness imgin the face of the Iranian crisis.

Although Israeli political leaders have hinted at such criticism, it is really the analysts and commentators of the press who have set the tone. In so doing, large segments of the punditry class have indulged in an orgy of self-righteousness, while revealing an awful lot about their ignorance of Iranian affairs, of Israel’s potential role in influencing developments, and indeed of the limitations on constructive external involvement in this situation.

Leading the attack have been Ari Shavit in Haaretz and Ben Caspit in Maariv, both echoing the approach of the now thoroughly discredited neoconservatives in the U.S. While most of America has moved on, the extremes of far-right rhetoric, advocating a more aggressive foreign policy, still resonate in Israel.

The Obama administration has so far managed to avoid the pitfalls of self-defeating grandstanding. And the American public is with its new president. A new CNN poll highlights that only 33 percent feel the president should be more belligerent, while the vast majority approve of Obama’s handling of the situation, and oppose direct American intervention, or any U.S. military action. 

President Obama has achieved something that is both difficult and rare in national political life – he has demonstrated an ability to act on the understanding that while Americans may perceive their country as an unblemished beacon of freedom and democracy, the real-world perception of that image is not quite so generous, thereby rendering certain interventions, even rhetorical ones, counter-productive.

Obama appreciates that an over-enthusiastic embrace on his part of the Mousavi protesters would actually work against their interests. As he himself put it: “The last thing I want to do is have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States.” And he has maintained this restraint in the face of rightist Republican calls for the president to “do more, do something.” Obama is also clearly cognizant of the limitations of what the U.S. can actually do for the opposition in Iran; to make unkeepable promises would be beyond irresponsible, and also endanger the physical well-being of thousands.

The protesters themselves, and the overwhelming body of Iran experts in the U.S., have sided with Obama’s line. Azadeh Moaveni, the Iranian author of “Lipstick Jihad,” has been quoted as saying, “The protesters in Iran have a perhaps surprising view on Obama’s cautious approach – keep it up.”

This finely calibrated American approach was described just last week in these pages by Ari Shavit as “the paralysis that seized the king of the world in the face of Iranian evil – he [Obama] stammered and hesitated and apologized.” Ben Caspit also bemoaned Obama’s “stammering”: Where is the wondrous rhetorical ability of Barack Obama?” he asked, calling him a “new version of [Neville] Chamberlain.” Caspit, in an op-ed co-written with Maariv colleague Ben-Dror Yemini, did not stop there, also attacking Europe and the West in general, contrasting their supposed silence over Iran with their hyper-activism in responding to Operation Cast Lead and other Israeli misdemeanors in the territories.

Never one to be outdone, the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick accused the Obama administration of “effective support of the mullahs against their people.”

Unfortunately, this is the kind of hypocrisy, self-indulgence and ultimately stupidity that Israel’s punditocracy has been treating us to for the past fortnight.

Let’s start with the hypocrisy. Caspit, on the eve of the Iranian election, did not make do with calling on Israelis “to convince friends in Iran to vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – [As] no one will serve Israel’s PR interests better,” he even offered to “pray that Ahmadinejad will win.” Glick, post-election, went even further, arguing that if Israel led international support for Mousavi’s supporters but later was “compelled to attack [Iran],” the protesters would understand and remember who had stood by them.

Neither Iranians nor the rest of the world are stupid. They can read. They can recognize Israeli self-interest and the lack of any genuine human empathy today from those very people who just weeks ago were agitating for their country to be bombed, or supported Ahmadinejad’s re-election for selfish reasons. They are also aware of the regime of closure, checkpoints and violence imposed by Israel in the territories, including the over 900 civilians killed in January’s Gaza operation. How can apologists for the occupation hold any appeal for the Tehran protesters?

Indeed, Israel needs to develop a self-awareness that, unfortunately, one effect of the continued occupation is the silencing of Israel’s moral voice on the world stage.

But, most of all, what is happening today in Iran is simply not about Israel or America – it is about Iran. Iran expert Suzanne Maloney, of the Brookings Institution, in Washington, noted that, “No matter how much Americans like to think that they are shaping events in Iran, it’s just not true.” Israelis, too, should heed Maloney’s advice. This is not about Israel.

Or as Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American and author of “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ,” said of the neocons and other Iran hawks who had supported military action and aggressive regime change in Iran, but belatedly embraced the Mousavi protesters: “You are offensive, go away.” 

Netanyahu’s Cold Peace

 This piece appears in today’s Ha’aretz.Netanyahu Cold Peace

Speaking at Bar-Ilan University last Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to be targeting three distinct audiences with his messages. First was an audience of one – the president of the United States. The words “Palestinian state” were intended primarily for his ears. Next were Netanyahu’s supporters in the United States, desperate for ammunition in the battle to depict their Israeli champion as reasonable, and to push the blame for any impasse back onto Arab and Palestinian shoulders. Third, and no less important, was the premier’s domestic constituency. That his speech did not spark even the slightest coalition crisis reveals more about the stinginess of his words than it does about the sturdiness of his coalition.

So who was Netanyahu not talking to that night?

Certainly, the Arab and Palestinian publics, including 1.3 million of his own citizens, were not priority audiences. Yes, technically, the premier did turn to “all Arab leaders” and to “our Palestinian neighbors”; he is, of course, ready to meet them, any time, anywhere, and to cooperate on advancing an “economic peace.” But Netanyahu was not engaging, or even reaching out. He was offering a history lesson.

By far the longest section of the Bar-Ilan speech was devoted to answering a question that Netanyahu himself posed: “What is the root of the conflict?” For him there is only one narrative: a narrow, unreconstructed and self-righteous nationalist discourse. It is designed to resonate well with the Israeli-Jewish public, and its exclusivity guarantees its inability to muster any legitimacy on the other side.

The emphasis Netanyahu placed on this narrative begs the question: Can it coexist with a two-state solution? Before one even begins to address that, two important caveats should be noted. The prime minister raised a host of practical issues (among them territory, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and security), all of which he would have difficulty swallowing for a two-state solution to become reality, and that would probably happen only under a strong, U.S.-led external push. His narrative also precludes any true equality for the 20 percent of Israel’s population that is Palestinian Arab. Irrespective of any two-state arrangement, Israel finally needs to square the circle of being both a democracy and a national home to the Jewish people. Indeed, the “Jewish state” framing has thus far fallen woefully short in practice.

If Netanyahu really believes that in order to make peace, the Arabs and Palestinians will need to become Zionists, then there will be no peace. If retaining this recalcitrant narrative is his way of delivering a rightist-led yet viable two-state reality, however, then things get interesting. As Likud leader and bearer of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist legacy, Netanyahu should understand the inadmissibility of the former proposition. Jabotinsky understood that the Palestinian Arabs would never embrace Zionism – regardless of the economic peace and industrial parks on offer. One could even argue that the Abbas-Fatah leadership, in bucking this trend, was doomed to fail: It unconditionally accepted Israel, rejected resistance and assumed the mantle of peace partner, even while the Palestinians remained under occupation. Israel under Netanyahu is offering nothing to such a Palestinian partner, and perhaps it is more honest and even healthier that way. But can narratives be one thing and practicalities another?

Such an approach would have clear implications. It offers a cold peace of the kind that has worked and withstood the test of time with Egypt and Jordan. It should inform Palestinian strategy and drive the need for Palestinian national reconciliation. Most of all, it calls for a mature and dispassionate reading of those power dynamics by all the key protagonists.

I would agree with Palestinian academic Ahmad Khalidi, who suggested in The Guardian last month that “despite their current split, the majority of Palestinians – including Hamas – have accepted the political reality of Israel.” Nonetheless, he went on to argue, it would be a mistake to think they will “acknowledge Israel’s historic and moral claim to what were once Palestinian Arab lands.” Hamas has not gone far enough in recognizing the limitations and counter-productive nature of indiscriminate violence. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority has gone too far in limiting its toolbox exclusively to negotiations with Israel and in giving a nod to the idea of governance and security capacity being prerequisites to de-occupation. Neither Palestinian party has sufficiently appreciated the efficacy of nonviolent resistance to occupation.

Israel may have a longer journey to acknowledge the overreach constituted by continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and its thickening of the infrastructure of that occupation. Israel may be the world’s highest defense spender relative to its population (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), but there are limits to what that spending can deliver (as witnessed recently in both Gaza and Lebanon).

The increasingly aggressive and egregious measures that Israel’s occupation takes against the Palestinian civilian population are beginning to threaten, on an unprecedented scale, both Israel’s democracy and its international support. And this is no longer a conversation just among ourselves. Truths are being belatedly spoken to all sides where it matters most – in Washington. Israel now has a friend in the White House who is willing to hold a mirror up to these hard realities of political power.

Bibi’s Baby Step: What Next After Netanyahu’s Speech?

 By Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah

 This piece also appears at The Huffington Post.

“One giant leap for Benjamin Netanyahu, but just one small step for Middle East peace.”
That was how commentators in both of Israel’s leading dailies, Yehidot Ahronot and Ma’ariv, chose to describe the Prime Minister’s address yesterday. One thing can definitely be concluded from the speech, Ben Rhodes has not been on loan from the White House and stationed in Jerusalem for the last week. It was a poor speech stylistically. Even the historical and biblical quotes were of the predictable and plodding kind, it lacked grandeur or any sense of occasion. More importantly, it was also a mean-spirited, often petty and parochial speech in its substance, “a speech without a gram of nobility,” as commentator Ofer Shelach wrote in Ma’ariv.

Israel has just lived through two prime ministers who made significant journeys from their right-wing roots and even if neither entered the promised land of peace, both made gestures in that direction. Ariel Sharon acknowledged the occupation as did his successor Ehud Olmert, who went much further in recognizing a Palestinian narrative and displaying some empathy to, for instance, the Palestinian refugees. Judging from the Bar-Ilan University speech, Benjamin Netanyahu has barely set out on that journey. For him, there was no occupation, talk of Judea and Samaria but no West Bank, and there was no sense of humanity in his approach to the Palestinians. Although they are his neighbors and even 20% of his own citizenry, their world would seem to be totally alien to him. He called, for instance, on the Arab world to develop together joint tourist sites, such as, “around the walls of Jericho and the walls of Jerusalem,” with no apparent appreciation for the irony of referring to walls in this context.

Netanyahu, perhaps understandably, spoke to a lowest common denominator – Jewish Israeli consensus, and his right wing coalition was sleeping easy last night. And yet, he uttered those two magic words, Palestinian state. The list of conditionalities surrounding the establishment of that state may have been so extensive as to drain the very idea of statehood of any meaning but still, he said it.

The Obama administration had asked for two things: on a settlement freeze they received a blunt ‘No’; on Palestinian statehood, it was a highly conditioned ‘Yes, but…’. As Israel TV and Ma’ariv analyst Ben Caspit put it, “welcome Mr. Prime Minister to the 20th century. The problem is that we’re already in the 21st.”

So what happens next? What are the consequences of this speech and what can be done in its wake? Here are five suggestions, most of them for the Obama administration but a thought also on the Palestinian response.

First, as the White House Press Secretary immediately did, pocket that Palestinian statehood commitment. However minor it may seem, however wrapped in negatives, it is something to build on. It is also clearly something that cannot be left to the parties themselves to translate into a workable plan for actually realizing a two-state reality. That will be a job for the US and its international and regional allies.

Second, treat the Israeli Prime Minister’s emphasis on security issues and conditionalities as an invitation. Once he got past the historical lecture, Benjamin Netanyahu actually laid out some reasonable concerns with regard to the security arrangements and guarantees that a peace agreement would have to address. Netanyahu spent three paragraphs outlining the demilitarization, monitoring, air-space requirements, and other security factors weighing on his mind, and Netanyahu made a direct plea, “today we ask our friends in the international community, led by the United States for what is critical to the security of Israel.”

The Obama administration should respond and present a detailed plan for answering Israel’s legitimate security concerns in the context of a two-state solution. There will of course be a parallel ask of Israel from its “friends in the international community led by the United States” – end the occupation, agree to a border based on the ’67 lines with only minor reciprocal modifications, including arrangements for Jerusalem, and for the refugees, and for real Palestinian sovereignty.

Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday opened the door for this kind of an arrangement. He also notably did not mention the effort of American General Keith Dayton or the Palestinian Security Forces. The message is clear. Security will have to be an internationally-led effort and capacity-building in the Palestinian security sector should from now on be treated as something that is perhaps useful but of a secondary order of magnitude.

Third, the Obama administration and the Quartet must push back in response to Netanyahu’s settlement freeze rejectionism. Netanyahu promised there would be no new settlements or additional land confiscations but there would be a normal life, which is referred to in the technical jargon as “natural growth”. The settler leadership understood this ruse for what it is, and when Israel Channel One cut from the speech to settler leaders in Ma’aleh Adumim, they were celebrating. “We do not need new land or new settlements,” said local mayor Benny Kasriel, former head of the settlers’ council, “just to keep building.” One can see his point. The West Bank settler population has increased from 111,000 to over 290,000 since the Oslo process began in 1993 (the number reaches almost 500,000 including East Jerusalem). The vast majority of that was under the rubric of natural growth, and there are vast expanses of land annexed to settlement municipalities awaiting construction.

The Obama administration needs to stick to its principle of a total freeze, whether in public or private conversation, and as former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer pointed out in Sunday’s Washington Post, there are no previous understandings on this matter between Washington and Jerusalem (and supposed friends of Israel, like Elliott Abrams, are a danger to Israel and to the America-Israel relationship when they claim otherwise). There can be only one place for a discussion of the future of settlements and that is delineating a permanent status border between Israel and Palestine.

Fourth, Netanyahu’s speech should provide a spur for Palestinian national reconciliation and unity (though we doubt this will be the case). The disappointed PA response, while understandable, was somewhat beside the point. The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza have heard an Israeli national narrative and position. Adhering to Palestinian divisions, and a strategy exclusively based on negotiations has even less logic or credibility as of yesterday. The Palestinians will need to find a way to sufficiently unify their own national narrative. Simultaneously they need to develop a common position on negotiations in parallel with a willingness to use nonviolent struggle in opposing the continued occupation (as President Obama hinted at in his Cairo speech).

Finally, the Obama administration should interpret both the venue of Netanyahu’s speech (the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies) and his repeated reference to Begin-Sadat as a subliminal message. Benjamin Netanyahu is asking to go down in history as a historical leader of Israel just as Menachim Begin did, and this time by securing a comprehensive peace and final borders with all of Israel’s neighbors, including the Palestinians (Menachem Begin settled for just Egypt). Begin never thought he would withdraw from all of the Sinai and evacuate the settlements there, but with American guidance, it happened and has vitally served Israel’s interests.

After only one month of American complaint regarding settlements, Netanyahu has already said the magic words – Palestinian state. Now at the Begin-Sadat Center he was signaling that he wants to be carried further, all the way in fact, and his non-mention of the Golan Heights was another hint that it’s a comprehensive peace he wants America to lead him to… well, maybe not. But we prefer this interpretation to all of the alternatives.

10 Comments on Obama in Cairo – Still Accumulating, Not Expending Capital

 This piece was also published at TPM Café.

The Obama team’s remarkable wordsmithery and the president’s unparalleled capacity for delivery were exquisitely on display again today in Cairo. But this speech should perhaps be remembered as much for what was not said. Gone was the arrogance and lecturing: there was no lavishing of praise on Egypt’s undemocratic leader – the word ‘Mubarak’ was not even mentioned once. Out too was the purple finger version of democratization and even the traditional American condescension toward the Palestinian narrative. But perhaps most remarkably of all, the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ did not pass the president’s lips. Here was a leader and a team around him smart enough to acknowledge that certain words have become too tainted, too laden with baggage, their use has become counter-productive, today the Global War on Terror framing was truly laid to rest.

Particularly striking was that President Obama almost certainly has emerged from the Cairo speech having accumulated additional capital rather than expending it, with greater popularity, traction, and respect among not only his ostensible target audience, the Muslim world, but also globally, including at home in America and even in Israel and with the world’s Jewish community. His future leverage across a range of issues has been enhanced.

It’s true that whenever the speech descended from the lofty heights of 30,000 feet to the 100-feet resolution of policy specifics and details, the magic dust seemed to dissipate as it emerged from the clouds, and those details were too often more autopilot than reset. But this was a big picture speech, and there is room later to make those course corrections on policy detail.

Here then are ten quick thoughts:

1. The Mother of All Resets

 The president’s speech literally in one fell swoop will have much of the Muslim world and certainly elites, opinion leaders, and activists scratching their heads and recalibrating their stance toward America. Yes, for everyone the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, what comes next and whether policy changes on specific issues. The immediate effect though is to buy America space and time. It gives those who share an affinity with American values a new lease of life, causes the majority who are not hostile to the US but deeply skeptical of its intentions to reconsider and suspend judgment, and it will induce in America’s enemies a splitting headache.

At a most basic level, the president managed to connect. He spoke humbly and touched on buzz words for this audience, discussing dignity, justice, and the truths we hold in our hearts. He even uttered the word colonialism and mentioned denial of rights and cold-ward proxies. Obama evoked Islam’s contribution to the world and to America, and yes, he quoted the Quran.  Above all, he restored balance, confining the label of enemy only to those violent extremists who threaten America’s security, while opening up to the vast majority of practicing Muslims, including, I would argue, Islamist movements.

2. In Cairo the Conversation with Political Islam Began

By narrowly focusing on al-Qaeda as the enemy and apparently articulating an understanding of the non-al-Qaeda Islamist narrative, the president seemed to extend a tentative but visibly unclenched fist to mainstream political Islam. It is those Islamist movements that we should be most closely watching in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to work through their own responses to the new administration.

Obama seemed to implicitly accept the legitimacy of political Islam and its role in the democratic process while challenging it to unequivocally reject violence against civilians. There was a stark contrast, for instance, between the president’s message to al-Qaeda (we will defeat you if you threaten us) as compared to his message to Hamas (whom he addressed directly as having a role to fulfill Palestinian aspirations and unify the Palestinian people).

The president’s historical analogies may not have been the best ones. In discussing the nonviolent resistance of black America to the “lash of the whip” in achieving equal rights he obviously made a powerful and reasonable point but one that may be more relevant to a Palestinian struggle for a one-state democracy rather than for national liberation and de-occupation. By claiming that the same story can be told in South Africa and elsewhere, he simply rewrote history – the ANC did of course use armed resistance in their struggle as did so many other successful liberation movements.

That said, Obama’s effort to carry the argument in somewhat sympathetic terms to the Palestinian resistance–“violence…rockets…is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered”–was a valiant one and should be encouraged, not least in Israel. I might be reading too much into this but the speech could be seen as an acknowledgement that a process that engages Hamas is more likely to produce results than one that does not.

Responding immediately on al-Jazeera, Ahmed Yusuf, advisor to Gaza Prime Minister Haniyeh, lavished praised on Obama’s “Martin Luther King-like speech” and his rejection of the clash of civilizations discourse while defensively questioning his call for Hamas to accept the international community’s three preconditions (end violence, accept past agreements, recognize Israel).The distinction though was clear and the years of wrong-headedly lumping together the Salafist jihadis of al-Qaeda with the Muslim Brothers of Hamas or the Hezbollah movement is over.

3. Regaining the Moral Clarity of 9/11

Almost eight years on, there it was, an American president explaining to the world what happened on that day and the war of necessity against al-Qaeda that was launched in its wake. It was an important moment in resetting and reconfiguring for international and Muslim public opinion what happened then and has happened since. It is also perhaps the most damning indictment of all for the Bush presidency that in 2009 such a reiteration by an American president is so necessary.

President Obama also reissued a clear statement of America’s interests across a range of issues from getting out of Iraq and achieving a Palestinian state to its goals in Afghanistan, and shared values with so much of the Muslim world in promoting basic freedoms, religious pluralism, women’s rights, and development.

4. Finally a President Who Can Talk to Palestinians

 Obama’s words on the Palestinian situation were not remarkable for his advocacy of a two-state solution, his mentioning of Palestine, or his opposition to the settlements. All of that we have heard before, and in fact, the speech gave precious little by way of actually articulating a plan for Palestinian de-occupation and statehood. But that was also its strength.

The idea of a Palestinian state, even before it exists, has lost much of its luster and appeal for Palestinians precisely because American and Israeli leaders talked about statehood as a technical fix for a Palestinian problem, in exclusively economic, governance, and security terms. In so doing, they ignored or demeaned and denied the Palestinian narrative and made the whole arrangement sound rather unappetizing.

Today, President Obama began to redress that. PA capacity and economic opportunities were something of a footnote. And thankfully, the building of Palestinian security forces was not even mentioned.

Instead Obama spoke a language that actual Palestinians could relate to, recalling the 60-year “pain of dislocation,” the “wait in refugee camps” (without in the same breath emasculating the refugees of any rights). He spoke of humiliation, occupation, and an intolerable situation – in other words, Palestinian daily reality. Only after recognizing the Palestinian experience did he chart the course for achieving “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity,” namely, via a Palestinian state. This shift in discourse may be lost on most American ears, not so for Palestinians and in the Arab and Muslim world, and it begins to give Obama a moral authority that will allow him to address this issue in speaking directly to the Palestinian people above the heads of their divided leadership.

5. Shimon Peres Could Not Have Done a Better Job

In what is becoming classical Obama, he at the same time presented perhaps the most compelling justification and explanation of Israel’s rights and its existence ever spoken in an Arab and Muslim capital. No Israeli has ever done a better job, he is a true friend. In the most unequivocal of terms and in a speech that so captured Muslim world attention, Obama placed the notions of threatening Israel’s destruction, stereotypes of Jews, and Holocaust denial, as being irredeemably beyond the pale and unacceptable. And he reaffirmed America’s “unbreakable bond with Israel.”

Tellingly, if unsurprisingly, it is these messages that are leading the Israeli news coverage of the speech. While the government of Benjamin Netanyahu may be squirming in discomfort at Obama’s reasoned and repeated calls for a settlement freeze, for reopening Gaza, and for Palestinian statehood, the Israeli public will, I think, be both reassured and keen to believe in the hope for change and a better future for them also.

One imagines too that the day is not so far off for an honest, empathetic, and home-truths Obama speech to Israel and the Jewish world. Expect that speech to be not only well-received but also to bring us dramatically closer to finally ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieving that two-state solution. Obama’s use of the phrase, “align American policies with those who pursue peace,” will also be noted in Jerusalem. Finally, by referring to “Jewish homeland” rather than a Jewish state, Obama, I think, studiously avoided giving succor to the slew of racist laws being presented in the new Israeli Knesset.

6. Policy Details – More Auto-Pilot Than Reset.

In a speech that I genuinely think carries game-changing potential for so many issues that America and the Muslim world are caught up in, there was virtually nothing new in detailed policy terms. That is very probably due to the nature of the speech, and the detailed policy changes might follow in the coming months. But if they don’t, Cairo will go down as a moment of unrequited promise and opportunity.

On Israel-Palestine, we dusted off the Road Map (yet again), a Bush relic that should have long ago been filed in the trash can, and the Afghanistan and Iraq plans still do not sound too convincing. It’s unclear how even Obama’s more sophisticated version of democratization will be advanced with America’s staunchest and most democracy-resistant allies, and the way forward with Iran remains opaque. Noteworthy, too, was that in a speech stating that America has no designs on maintaining military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continued American military footprint elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world was not touched upon.

7. Hosni Mubarak and the Perils of Playing Host

Egypt’s rulers would no doubt have been mortified had this speech taken place anywhere else in the Arab or Muslim world. There is an understandable Egyptian sense of pride in their history and sense of longing to still be considered the region’s leading power. Having landed those hosting rights, Mubarak’s regime today had to live with the consequences. Obama spoke to his audience and to the Egyptian people, and in an interesting break from past practice, his presidential host Mr. Mubarak was not even mentioned let alone lavished with praise. It will not go unnoticed.

Obama did mention Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority and of course spoke to human rights and people choosing their own governments to loud applause. So much for all the neocon bleating before the speech about Obama being a valueless realist ready to sell freedom-spirited Egyptians down the river. I was not there, but a sense of being empowered almost seemed to echo around the room at Cairo University and well beyond, and it might have major implications for Egypt and the region that will be played out in the coming years.

And finally, we have an American president who avoided the Pavlovian repetition of how American support for the Egyptian regime is so linked to Egypt’s historic peace with Israel. The way that linkage has played out – that America goes soft of non-democratic tendencies in the Arab world as long as they are pro-Israel – has done a great disservice to the public perception of not only peace but also of America and even Israel.

8. More Hand Less Fist on Iran

There was even some encouragement for Obama’s Iran policy in today’s speech. It was beginning to look disturbingly like the Obama administration would be brandishing the stick of sanctions in one hand and the stopwatch of deadlines in the other, thereby leaving no hand free to shake any prospective Iranian unclenched fist.  Obama moved beyond that. Many will point to his acknowledgement of history: “The United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” as being the money line.  It’s true that is a big deal and goes further than what was said in his Norouz message. However, I think this was more important, if not entirely new: “any nation- including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the NPT.”

The president also had this intriguing chestnut to share on nuclear nonproliferation: “I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not.” Now I may be a bit Israelocentric in how I look at the world but this sounds like a not too subtle hint to me. Might this be a kind of “yes – we acknowledge there is a double standard here regarding the Israeli nuclear issue, and eventually we will get to that too.” It won’t be a headline, Israel will officially ignore it, and when asked Obama’s spokespeople will obfuscate but in more than a few capitals, including Jerusalem, a parsing industry will grow up around those few words.

9. Giving a Finger to the Purple Finger Theory of Democratization

Obama did it. He reclaimed the democratization agenda by placing it in a broader context as a set of rights and freedoms, and by going on to address religious pluralism, women’s rights, and the challenge of adapting economic development and modernity to traditional values. To be honest, it’s not a particularly difficult one to pull off, but to give him his fair dues, Barack Obama does do it better than anyone else. And there’s something of a new policy here, timely with the Lebanese election elections next week: “…we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”

The genius was in the pivot. Obama respected Islamic tradition and religious piety, and for instance, a woman’s right to wear the hijab, and he then pivoted that into a broader discussion of the values of female education and women’s rights, placing those things in seamless harmony rather than in contradiction. After an American president who was perceived as doing so much to sow division in the Muslim world, one of Obama’s most powerful lines was undoubtedly, “fault-lines must be closed among Muslims… the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence,” and all this couched in a constant appeal to young people.

 

10. And He Was Also Speaking to the American Public

After years of fear-mongering, Islamofascist awareness weeks on campuses, and tens of millions of copies of the vile “Obsession” DVD appearing in newspapers and mailboxes, yet another, no less important, reset button was pressed today. The president will no doubt be accused of apologetics and moral relativism, but he decided to face this head-on, to go to Cairo, speak with respect and honesty to the Muslim world, and to do what was best for America’s national security interests.

In so doing, he was also broadcasting a message back home. Most American Muslims will no doubt be feeling a great sense of pride and inspiration from this speech. The rest of America was given a timely and even touching reminder of the contributions that American Muslims have made to this country and that Muslims have given the world in general. Oh, and there might have even been a little message in there upping the ante, for Congress and even for his own party–“I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.”

From ‘comfort zone’ to ‘decision zone’

This article appears in Ha’aretz.

The morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds his own formula for embracing the two-state solution – perhaps in Cairo next week or in Washington the week after – will we wake up to a new Middle East? I somehow doubt it. There may be internal political criticism (which Netanyahu can harness) and some may call his move courageous, but the focus will soon shift to settling into a diplomatic process in which the ultimate goal of two states is never reached.

With renewed American interest in delivering a two-state reality, the leaderships in both Jerusalem and Ramallah appear to share one common goal: finding a comfort zone, a place where the peace process can continue ad infinitum, and hard decisions can be avoided.
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Netanyahu’s proposal for three negotiating tracks with the Palestinians (economic, security and political) fits neatly within that comfort zone. While a vigorous discussion with the Obama administration over settlements and mutual steps to be taken by Israel and the Arab states to advance the Arab peace initiative gradually might appear less convenient for Netanyahu, this, too, will have a comforting familiarity to it. It’s easy to envisage endless months spent (wasted) on the sequencing of who goes first, on the scope of limitations for settlement expansion, and on the time-honored tradition of mutual recriminations and blame games.

Despite their desperate situation, such a reality has the quiet trappings of a comfort zone for the Palestinian Ramallah-based leadership, too. The bills are paid by donor countries, the political life-support tubes remain firmly attached. The PLO might even succeed in goading the U.S. into an occasional public spat with Israel. The Arab states can grandstand over the injustice of it all, while the resistance movements will decry the hypocrisy of the West and the impotence and complicity of the so-called moderate Arab regimes.

If simply declaring the two-state solution as a goal, but doing nothing meaningful to achieve it, is so convenient and comfortable for all concerned, then why not just go with the flow? One reason is that the narrow interests of political leaderships don’t necessarily accord with their respective peoples’ broader needs, with the desire for regional stability and certainly not with U.S. national interests. Business as usual, postponing the two-state solution, may well place that option beyond reach, feeding radicalization, encouraging the eruption of greater violence – as witnessed recently in Gaza – and crippling American efforts elsewhere in the region.

Today’s fault line on the two-state solution is not about declarations – whether by Netanyahu or anyone else. It is about what one might call the “comfort zone” versus the “decision zone.” Consequently, the two critical questions have become: How does one negotiate a two-state solution, and how does one implement a two-state solution? The comfort zone leaves the negotiations up to the parties alone, with their endless bilateral wrangling, and it conditions implementation on the Palestinians meeting a high bar for proof of self-governance capacity. Entering the decision zone would change that equation. The parties can continue talking, but reaching a solution becomes externally-driven, being U.S.-led and involving back-to-back consultations with all the key actors, Israelis and Palestinians included. Likewise, implementation of the two-state solution is no longer conditioned on incubating Palestinian self-governance while under hostile Israeli occupation. Instead, the international community assumes responsibilities and creates a partnership for a period of time, as it did in Bosnia, East Timor and elsewhere, thus playing a decisive role in filling the security and governance vacuum.

Entering the decision zone involves hard choices for all concerned. The Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah will be asked to accept a heavy international footprint (notably in the security arena) during the early years of statehood, and a far-reaching practical compromise on the refugee issue. Hamas will be asked to acquiesce to this outcome as constituting the conditions for a long-term hudna, or cease-fire (yes, Hamas will have to be engaged, whether directly or indirectly, and guaranteed full political participation in exchange for reciprocal obligations).

The Arab states would be expected to make good on the Arab peace initiative and to establish normal relations with Israel. In this respect, the two-state solution should be part of a comprehensive regional approach also addressing Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace. Iran should be pushed to make good on its own commitment to accept any outcome agreeable to the Palestinians, and if it refuses, then Iran will become a lone voice, no longer able to rally popular regional support for its rejectionism.

Israel, of course, will be asked to dismantle the infrastructure of occupation and cease its control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem (reciprocal and minor modifications to the 1967 lines will have to be delineated alongside other practical and thorny arrangements).

Only the U.S. government can lead this process, invest in it politically, and drive home a resolution to the conflict – which itself will entail international and notably European and NATO support, incentives and active involvement.

Making the transition from the comfort zone to the decision zone will by definition be unnerving and disruptive, but in reality, there is no comfort in continuing a process whose design guarantees that the conflict will be prolonged and that the two-state solution will never be reached.

Potential Traps for George Mitchell

This piece appears as a web exclusive for Foreign Policy

President Obama’s special peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, is just wrapping up his latest visit to the Middle East. It’s his third trip since being appointed and this time in addition to Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt, included Saudi Arabia and North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria), with an emphasis on a comprehensive regional peace, building on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. (Mitchell has yet to visit Damascus or Beirut, something unlikely to take place until after June’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon.)

In meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mitchell continued to reiterate U.S. support for a two-state solution, although the emphasis of the visit, perhaps understandably, still seems to be the listening tour aspect, including the first meetings since Israel’s new government took office.

Some reports on these latest meetings portray PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas as carrying a message of hope and peace in the face of a rejectionist Israeli premier. Others depict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as being seized by the more urgent calling of the Iranian threat, and showing a willingness to make progress on practical issues with the Palestinians, such as the economy, while avoiding a possibly dangerous and premature effort to address the political differences — especially given the enfeebled nature of the Palestinian counterpart.

Both views are wrong.

The sad truth is that neither leader has a meaningful strategy for creating a new equilibrium for resolving this conflict. Despite all their differences (and there are many), Netanyahu and Abbas are similar in two major respects: Both stand atop deeply dysfunctional political systems that eschew bold decision-making. And both are focused on short-term political survival, an understandable instinct and one certainly not unique to the Levant, but also woefully inadequate given the challenges faced by their respective peoples.

So, due to both circumstance and a generous dose of intentional design, Senator Mitchell’s Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors are busy preparing sugar-coated traps and distractions. The Mitchell team should be well prepared to recognize the pitch of a snake- oil salesman when they hear one.

On the Israel interlocutor side, here are the main traps Mitchell should look out for:

1) The ‘Say the Magic Words’ Game. Thus far, Netanyahu is refusing to explicitly endorse the two-state formula. This is being nicely set up to become a rather large red herring, whereby diplomatic attention becomes focused on teasing out a linguistic formula to claim that Israel’s premier is indeed a “two-stater.” Last Friday’s headline in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv even suggests that Netanyahu is planning for a dramatic climb- down gesture during his first visit with U.S. President Barack Obama (now postponed from early May to possibly later in the month), during which he would declare acceptance of the two states position. What a colossal distraction and waste of time.

To paraphrase what always used to be said of former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat –what matters are his actions, not his words. Saying the magic words is of minor import. Ending the occupation and actually delivering on a two-state solution is what should matter to the Mitchell team. The latest ruse to apparently come out of the Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting was an Israeli demand that the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state (something that neither Egypt, nor Jordan, did in their respective peace treaties with Israel) — a meaningless diversionary tactic.

2) It’s not the economy, stupid. Netanyahu advocates focusing first on what he calls “economic peace” — developing the Palestinian economy as a prerequisite for two states. Indeed, economic improvement would be welcome, and no one should oppose moves such as ending the closures, removing the 600-plus obstacles to freedom of Palestinian movement in the West Bank (that dovetail with the map of settlements and settler road use arrangements), lifting the siege on Gaza, etc. However, by now the secret may be out that developing the Palestinian economy in order to make the Palestinians a peace-loving people, while maintaining the Israeli occupation and the settlements, is precisely what’s been tried for the last 15 years — with dismal results. The Palestinians won’t be bought off; this is a political conflict requiring political solutions. Economic improvements are important as a support ballast, not as a central plank.

3) “You go first; no you go first.” If Netanyahu is smart (as I consider him to be), then he is likely to spot a tantalizing diversionary opportunity in the Arab Peace Initiative. That plan, initiated by the Saudis and adopted by the Arab League in 2002, and reissued in 2007, calls for recognition, security, and normal relations between all the Arab states and Israel in exchange for a comprehensive agreement between Israel and its immediate neighbors, based on land-for-peace, two-states, and U.N. resolutions. It’s a potential game-changer, and the Obama administration (unlike its predecessor, which ignored the initiative) is apparently keen on using the initiative as a framing principle for its peace efforts. Its beauty is in its simplicity and in its comprehensive nature: everything for everything.

The lurking danger would lie be if Netanyahu attempts to break the initiative down into gradual, sequential, bite-size mini-steps that each side would be expected to take. For instance, Israel says the words “two states” or returns to negotiations, or freezes settlements in return for partial normalization from the Arab side. This may sound nice, but beware: In practice, it will prove to be a recipe for an endless, fruitless, and oxygen-sucking debate on the sequencing — “you go first; no you go first” — reminiscent of an Alphonse and Gaston routine, minus the exaggerated politeness.

All this even before Netanyahu gets out his bag of Iran party tricks and distractions. So much for the Israeli side. On to the Palestinians, who talk a good game and often sound eminently reasonable, but are equally infatuated with distraction promotion. (Here, it’s important to remember that Mitchell’s interlocutor is not the “Palestinians”; it is a political leadership with political calculations and a well-developed fear of change.) So what cards might they be expected to play?

1) Cheering on a fight. Judging by reports from Friday’s meetings, the focus in Ramallah right now seems to be egging on a fight between Israel and America. Such a spat would undoubtedly create a fleeting, feel-good factor, but then what? While it’s nice to sound good on CNNi, to play the blame game, and to appear closer to Washington’s talking points, winning the media war is hardly a strategy for national liberation.

If Israel and America are at some point to publicly disagree, then it should be about something meaningful, such as an actual plan for implementing two states, rather than, for instance, over terminology or a dozen out of more than 600 obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement. Often, the PLO leadership seems interested in spectacle for its own sake rather than real results. Bottom line: the U.S.-Israeli spat is a distraction.

2) Cross-dressing on preconditions. Ever since the first Palestinian national unity government was formed in 2007, bringing together the electorally victorious Hamas, and the ousted Fatah, Israel, America and the Quartet demanded that any Palestinian government meet three preconditions (recognize Israel, accept past agreements, and renounce terrorism). Since the Netanyahu government was sworn in, the PLO leadership has adopted this same mantra: In order for negotiations to continue, the Israeli government must accept two states, abide by previous agreements, and freeze settlements.

Preconditions were a mistake when applied to the Palestinians, and will be equally mistaken if applied to the Israelis. (And in fact, this is much more about domestic Palestinian politics than Israel-Palestinian affairs and it’s being used by Fatah in its struggle with Hamas.) Most troubling, this approach could hamper an especially urgent issue: reopening Gaza and allowing a regular flow of goods and materials, including those desperately needed for reconstruction following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

3) Nostalgia for Bush and Annapolis. Palestinian leaders never had very many good things to say about the Bush administration, so it’s ironic that they are advocating a return and adherence to the Roadmap and the Annapolis process. Again, don’t be fooled. The latter is little more than a pushback against the Israeli government’s apparent rejection of Annapolis as explicitly stated by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Plus, as with so much of the Bush legacy in the Middle East, Annapolis was a failure and structurally flawed, relying on bilateral negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships with no U.S. presence, and making Palestinian performance a prerequisite for ending the occupation.

Just as there have been policy reviews and significant course corrections on Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, the Mitchell team should apply the same principle of a rethink on the Israeli-Arab track. The United States should not be maneuvered back to the flawed Annapolis design, whether in response to a Palestinian bear hug or an Israeli pushback.

Indeed, there seems little value then in recycling that approach. A moment has presented itself where there is a new U.S. administration, a new Israeli government, and a chance to devise a new way of finally achieving — and not just talking about – two states living side by side in security and dignity. These new circumstances can be seen more as an opportunity than a crisis. The Mitchell team would do well to avoid the distractions and traps on offer, whether from Israelis or Palestinians, and take its time in devising an American plan that delivers on the American interest in resolving the conflict. It’s time for the United States to step up.

No Sphinx, but a Peace Challenge from Damascus

Israel’s preeminent Syria expert, Moshe Ma’oz, famously dubbed that country’s former leader Hafaz al-Assad “the Sphinx of Damascus” in his political biography of that title, an inscrutable man, impossible to decipher. Almost ten years into office, his son and successor Bashar al-Assad has yet to have collected too many nick-names but his ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was anything but sphinx-like in openly embracing the peace process and setting forth a challenge to both the new Israeli and America governments on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show yesterday. Zakaria’s hour of thoughtful policy discourse on CNN has become for me one of the few things worth watching on a Sunday.

Ambassador Moustapha surprised many yesterday and made headlines in Israel when he countered Fareed Zakaria’s skepticism that progress on peace would be possible given the new Likud-Lieberman government in Jerusalem by suggesting that, “It’s better to deal with someone like Lieberman than someone like Livni – Lieberman is candid and says what he believes,” which he contrasted to Livni and colleagues talking peace while making war, notably in Gaza. This is an interesting position to take not least from a senior Syrian representative and contrasts to what many others in the Arab world have been arguing – it also seems to me more realistic and constructive especially given the lead peacemaking role that Moustapha penciled in for the Obama administration. Perhaps even subconsciously, Syria seems to be sending the message – you want to make peace, deal with the bad guys, whichever side they are on (and that might as much be a self-reflective comment as it is a critique of Israel’s new leadership).

Ambassador Moustapha did not have an easy time in Washington for the last years of the Bush administration. He would sometimes joke that he was the closest thing DC had to an ambassador of the Axis of Evil and was treated as such. But he stuck around and reached out to whoever was willing to listen, notably to some of the key players in Congress on both the Democrat and Republican sides, a number of whom visited Damascus in recent years. Judging by his performance yesterday, Moustapha seems to be suggesting that now is the time to shift Syrian public diplomacy toward the US up by several gears. In responding to Zakaria’s question about the Obama election victory and how it was received in Syria, the ambassador stressed that, “America has vindicated herself… after eight terrible years,” describing how the ordinary Syrian was, “overjoyed.”

The ambassador’s headline-generating readiness, even eagerness, to negotiate peace with a Likud-Lieberman government and his preference for them as a negotiating partner over Livni and co. is something that one can understand and even partially agree with. Again, the implicit message at least is almost to be saying – ‘everyone always criticizes our regime, while the Israeli side are no teddy bears now either, so let’s just get over it, take a hard look at everyone’s key interests, including America’s, and get on with the serious business of getting a deal.

Indeed, Avigdor Lieberman and what he represents is not really Syria’s problem or even America’s – he is primarily Israel’s problem (although given that the America-Israel relationship is to some degree based on shared values, a Lieberman reality in Israel is not a simple or comfortable thing). There is of course also the argument that Netanyahu is in a stronger position to deliver on a deal than the center-left would be and as PM in the late-90’s, sent his personal envoy (former US ambassador Ronald Lauder) to convey messages to the Syrians of Bibi’s willingness to withdraw from the Golan. Imad Moustapha told Zakaria that Syria would be ready for a similar peace deal that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan (i.e. land for security and cold peace) but would prefer for a comprehensive peace to prevail, in other words, for the Palestinian track to also be addressed thereby creating new dynamics and opportunities for relations in the region.

This contrasts with the positions that have begun to be articulated by some of the PA leadership in Ramallah and other US allies including Egypt. In public statements and op-eds, some of the Fatah-PA seems to be delighting in appearing to be the reasonable party set along-side the recalcitrant new bosses in Israel. They are suggesting that Israel meet preconditions (acknowledge two states and past agreements, freeze settlements) before negotiations can resume, and they are egging on a fight between Washington and Jerusalem.

While all that may sound fun, have a self-righteousness to it, and play well on CNN, I fail to see how it actually helps accomplish anything or how it advances an end of occupation and peace and security for both peoples. The last Israeli government continued building settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and maintained checkpoints and closures but that did not stop the Palestinians from negotiating. And even if Netanyahu, or even Lieberman for that matter, were to say those magic words – “two states” – as their predecessors have done, then would it actually bring such a reality any closer?

We seem then to be in a situation where both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ strategies lead to a dead-end. The PA-Ramallah leadership appears eager to score points, avoid internal reconciliation, and to get back to the meaningless roadmap and Annapolis process – a path to nowhere if ever there was one. The Likud-Lieberman government thinks that economic projects can deliver a happy occupied people and be a substitute for getting to grips with the basic political realities of territory and occupation – as if this approach has not been tried and stunningly failed for the last fifteen years.

The Syrian Ambassador, and here I agree with him, seems to be suggesting something very different – no preconditions, don’t be squeamish about who you talk to, a comprehensive regional peace, and most of all, get the Americans to lead and drive the process (as he put it, “a vigorous, creative role in brokering peace between Arabs and Israelis… Israel will be very careful not to say no to the American president”).

This won’t be easy but it seems like the right way to go given the current constellation of actors and our historical experience of the failed previous efforts that were over-reliant on bilateral negotiations. Rather than expend political capital on an argument with Netanyahu over the words “two states” or over a settlement developments in far flung corners of the West Bank, the Obama capital would be better invested in driving home a plan for peace. The US should also allow for constructive progress in the US-Syria bilateral relation even if the Israel-Syria track is in question, and that might already be happening given the visit of senior officials Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro to Damascus (even the US-Syria track will not be simple, not least given the Hariri tribunal as Jay Solomon points out but Syrian cooperation is important for American efforts in the region and there is always the Libya compromise precedent).

Two camps seem to be emerging. One is spoiling for a public spat between the new Israeli government and the Obama administration. The other is urging the Obama administration to act early and decisively to deliver a new land-for-peace deal and equilibrium in the Israeli-Arab arena that will be essential for broader regional stability. The former might tickle some people’s fancy but it’s the latter that is needed.

Turkey, the Obama Visit, and the Middle East

My Bloggingheads discussion with Nuh Yilmaz of the SETA Foundation is now up. Among other things, we discussed how the Turkish mediation role in the Middle East has successfully combined an official policy that is simultaneously critical of the Israeli occupation and committed to a continued strategic relationship, and the likely impact that Obama’s recent trip will have on Turkish-U.S. relations and common interests in the region.