September 10, 2009
Number 09/09 #03
This Update focuses on some of the seeming contradictions and paradoxes accompanying US efforts to push Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
First up, Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar David Pollack points out that one effect of peacemaking efforts is that rejectionists step up their violent efforts in order to counter any progress. He looks at the efforts of Iran, Syria, Hamas and to a lesser extent, Hezbollah, to undercut peacemaking, make it more difficult to achieve any progress and weaken moderates. Pollack argues that US policy can counter this behaviour – if it focuses on strengthening moderates, and marginalising radicals rather than trying to engage them and thus empowering them in their competition with moderates. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Barry Rubin, always worth reading whether you agree with him or not, argues provocatively that while Israeli-Palestinian peace is not currently within reach, there is genuine political and diplomatic value in acting as if it is. He identifies several benefits from presenting peace as more feasible than it currently is. However, he calls for the peacemakers to acknowledge privately the actual reality because of various downsides and traps that result from acting as if peace is currently possible when it is not. For all of this provocative argument, CLICK HERE. Rubin had another good piece on the arrogance of those who think the residents of the region need to have a solution “imposed for their own good.” Meanwhile, arguing that low expectations for peacemaking efforts have their advantages is Ethan Bronner of the New York Times.
Finally, Amos Harel points out that despite the fact that the Palestinian leadership is currently refusing to talk to Israel, cooperation in the West Bank between security forces has never been better. While the economic situation in the West Bank is improving, violence and bloodshed also have fallen sharply amid good trust and cooperation between the security forces, as Harel illustrates with anecdotes and statistics. For the rest, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, by contrast, a comprehensive report on Fatah’s recent insistence that they still support “armed struggle” is here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- American columnist Jackson Diehl highlights the long-shot nature of the US Administration’s hope of Middle East peace. He also had a more recent column about the modest results of President Obama’s program of outreach to dictators and opponents of the US.
- Also raising questions about US policy toward Israeli is Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic.
- Academic and activist Yossi Alpher praises efforts by Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad to move unilaterally toward statehood. Meanwhile, Israeli columnist Ophir Falk argues that if there should be a moratorium on Jewish home-building, the same should apply to Palestinian building in disputed areas, while Moshe Dann argues that rejectionism, not settlements, is preventing peace.
- Quartet envoy Tony Blair says he is optimistic Israeli-Palestinian talks will begin and praises Israeli interest in getting talks going.
- Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center looks at the Hamas approach to education which lies behind the recent kerfuffle over its demands that the UN not teach anything about the Holocaust in Gaza schools. Meanwhile, Hamas’ approval rating is very low among Palestinians, according to the latest poll.
- Elliot Abrams, former White House official specialising in the Middle East, takes on recent comments from former US President Jimmy Carter, while Dr. Robert Rozett of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum takes on recent remarks by South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
- The Jerusalem Post on the destructive rejectionism of Arab League head Amr Moussa.
- A lot of interesting comments by academic colleagues following up on American academic Robert Freedman’s discussion of why the Palestinians should recognise Israel as a “Jewish state”, which we featured in Updates a couple of weeks ago.
- An interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine on the ongoing Syrian efforts to avoid IAEA scrutiny of its nuclear program and what this says about current nuclear safeguards. Meanwhile, Israeli proliferation expert Efraim Asculai says the IAEA’s credibility is today looking very frayed and badly needs to be revitalised.
- NGO Monitor has a new detailed report into the Middle East performance and personnel of Human Rights Watch (story here, full report here as a pdf). Meanwhile, even some Human Rights Watch founders and board members have started to criticise the organisation’s performance on the Middle East.
- A Spanish writer looks at complaints about supposed “disproportionate force” in Gaza in the context of Spain’s own efforts in Afghanistan.
- Australian academic Andre Oboler has an interesting new piece on Holocaust denial and the internet – especially Facebook.
- Israel and Australia cooperate to improve health in the Pacific Islands.
September 1, 2009
With rumors in the air of a U.S.-brokered, mid-September meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, various regional actors are busy positioning themselves for the coming round of diplomacy. Analysis of these dynamics provides some useful perspective on the road ahead, beyond the usual focus on the minutiae of settlement construction, prisoner exchanges, or other immediate concerns. Especially noteworthy in this context are the latest maneuvers by members of the rejectionist or “resistance” axis: Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas. Their positions have hardened even further as the United States, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Egypt keep talking about peace talks. This drawing of lines at least has the virtue of clarifying the real possibilities — and the real partners — for any regional peacemaking efforts.
Iran: “Annihilation of the Zionist Regime Is within Reach”
Tehran, preoccupied as it may be with internal troubles, has not lost sight of its opposition to Israel’s existence and to what it derisively labels the U.S. “agent” Arab “conciliation camp,” supposedly led by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. On August 25, for instance, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, sometimes termed a relative moderate, or pragmatist, asserted that President Obama’s concept of peace “does not address even one of the Palestinians’ basic rights.” Since late June, Tehran’s two main hardline dailies — almost the only ones still allowed to publish there — have amplified this theme on at least three separate occasions. Kayhan editorialized that “the establishment of two states, Palestinian and Zionist, would be the same as totally crushing the rights of the Palestinian people.” Rather, the paper declared, “a solution can only be achieved by completely eradicating the Zionist regime.” Similarly, Jomhuri-ye Islami warned that the “Palestinians must not be satisfied with anything less than the annihilation of the Zionist regime — a goal that is within reach.”
Iran also used the platform of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad’s August 19 official visit to reaffirm its support for the “resistance camp.” Such rhetoric may indicate some anxiety in Iran about potential progress in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, but also clearly demonstrates that Iran itself has abandoned any hope of professing moderation on this issue — either to evade sanctions or buy time for its nuclear program. Instead, Iran has concentrated, with some success, on enlisting Third World diplomatic support for a new convention that bans attacks against any nuclear facilities. On a more practical level, Tehran reportedly continues to ship medium-range missiles and other weapons to both Hamas and Hizballah. For the time being, the main effect of these Iranian policies has not been to intimidate the Arab “conciliation camp,” but rather to reinforce the determination of Iran’s existing Arab friends — Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah — not to join that camp.
Syria: Questioning the Basis for Any Peace Talks
President al-Asad’s August 30 meeting with European Union representative Javier Solana was notable, judging by official Syrian reports, for going beyond Syria’s previous refusal to countenance direct peace talks with Israel and for venturing further to undermine the idea of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations as well. “We want to raise questions,” Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem told the Syrian Arab News Agency after the Solana meeting, “amid the mounting talk about meetings between Palestinians and Israelis: What happened concerning the halt of settlements … and stopping judaizing [sic] Jerusalem and demolishing houses? And what happened concerning lifting the siege imposed on the people of Gaza …?”
In other words, rather than encouraging Hamas to accept peace talks with Israel, as some American analysts had once hoped, Damascus is now trying to discourage even the PA from resuming these negotiations. This stance fits well with other recent Syrian moves: reaffirming its fealty to Iran and to Hizballah, and refusing to accept responsibility for terrorists crossing its border with Iraq. Such a posture may not spell the end of American attempts to engage Damascus, but it does suggest the impracticality of trying to entice Syria into an Arab-Israeli peace process any time soon.
Hizballah: Business as Usual
Since a brief flurry of missile-rattling rhetoric (“We can reach Tel Aviv”) earlier this summer, Hizballah spokesmen and media have not had much to say about Israel or the peace process. Hizballah has also refrained from provocations on the Lebanese-Israeli border, even as occasional explosions, UN reports, and scuffles with local residents demonstrate that it continues to rearm and prepare for another round of warfare. At the same time, Israeli press reports on August 31 strongly suggest that Hizballah is still seeking — so far in vain — to mount a dramatic, high-profile assassination to avenge the death of terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyah in a car bombing in Syria earlier this year.
But right now, Hizballah’s main efforts seem to focus on maintaining its power inside Lebanon — Prime Minister Saad Hariri is still struggling to form a new cabinet — despite Hizballah’s own electoral losses in June. In this connection, Hariri’s recent pronouncement that Hizballah will be part of his new government “whether Israel likes it or not” offers some sense of the influence this radical movement continues to exert on every aspect of Lebanese affairs.
Hamas: Taking Itself Out of the Equation
Most significant of all these recent reactions is that of Hamas. After months of scattering verbal hints of possible concessions, Hamas has now clearly opted out of diplomacy. Symptomatic was the August 30 speech by its political leader, Khaled Meshal, briefly allowed back into Jordan — after ten years of enforced exile in Syria — to attend the funeral of his father. Meshal, once viewed in some quarters as comparatively pragmatic, placed primary emphasis on the “right of return,” a guaranteed diplomatic dead end. He presented this as a kind of Palestinian gesture to the interests of Jordan, home to some four million citizens of Palestinian origin or ancestry — but one that represents the antithesis of peace for Israel. On the same day, as if to rub salt in the wound, the Hamas Popular Committee for Refugees wrote in opposition to a rumored plan to mention the Holocaust in a new UNRWA history curriculum: “We refuse to let our children study a lie invented by the Zionists.” Moreover, Hamas officials have practically ceased talking about terms for Palestinian unity or reconciliation with their Fatah rivals. Those few Fatah leaders still alive and not under arrest in Gaza were not even allowed out to attend the recent, long-awaited all-Fatah Congress in the West Bank.
This Hamas attitude is especially noteworthy because — as Meshal and other leaders must be aware — the movement’s condition is currently quite weak. Ever since last January’s very damaging war with Israel, Hamas has dared to fire very few rockets or mortars across the border. A few senior members of the movement, like Ghazi Hamad, have even admitted recently in public that Hamas should “not want emotions and pompous slogans to push aside and take the place of facts.” Credible Palestinian public opinion polls show Hamas steadily losing ground, to the point that barely a quarter of the public supports it any longer — and elections are scheduled just four months from now.
The paradox, however, is that Hamas, far from seeking a peaceful way out, seems to be hunkering down. If it agrees to Palestinian unity, it could lose its hold on Gaza. If it agrees to peace with Israel, it could lose its very identity. And Hamas is determined to hold on to those possessions at any cost.
The Moderates on the Line: Implications for U.S. Policy
Can the Arab moderates simply reject this rejectionist challenge and proceed with the peace process? The answer, to paraphrase President Obama, is “Yes, they can” — if Washington encourages rather than undercuts them. Some observers have noted that in apparent response to U.S. policy shifts, Palestinian and Egyptian officials have taken to insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze as a new precondition for peace negotiations. Few observers, however, have noted that previous prerequisites for such negotiations — such as “Palestinian unity” or lifting the “siege” of Gaza — have virtually vanished from the Egyptian or Palestinian lexicon. The PA, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Qatar have just about given up on the chimera of Palestinian unity on any terms that might be acceptable to Hamas, at least for a while. President Mubarak, after his White House meeting in early August, softened his earlier position that new Arab overtures to Israel must await a comprehensive peace agreement, in favor of the view that that other Arabs would “support” peace talks as soon as they commenced. In concrete terms, this could mean that most Arab states would increase their support for the PA and decrease their support for Hamas. That alone would have more meaning than all the landing rights, quasi-diplomatic offices, or other symbolic gestures that any Arab government might offer Israel directly at this stage.
For U.S. policy in the Arab-Israeli arena, the implications are clear: To bring these Arab moderates willingly to the peace table, find a reasonable resolution of the Israeli settlement dispute as soon as possible. Give priority to the Palestinians over the Syrians or Lebanese in the peace process. Keep containing, rather than trying to engage, Hamas or Hizballah, and concentrate on further improving conditions in the West Bank. Today, for a change, it is the peacemakers who are on the rise and the warmongers who are actually on the defensive. The key to keeping it that way is to recognize the rejectionists for what they are and to leave them by the wayside.
David Pollock is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the political dynamics of Middle Eastern countries.
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By Barry Rubin*
Gloria Centre, August 26, 2009
When Muammar Qadhafi first became Libya’s dictator, Heikal was dispatched to meet and evaluate him by Egypt’s ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser. After returning to Cairo, Heikal was quickly ushered into the president’s office.
“Well,” said Egypt’s president, “what do you think of Qadhafi?”
“He’s a disaster! A catastrophe!”
“Why,” asked the president, “is he against us?”
“Oh no, far worse than that,” Heikal claims to have replied. “He’s for us and he really believes all the stuff we are saying!”
The point was that the Egyptian regime took the propaganda line out of self-interest that all Arabs should be united into one state under its leadership, all the Arab monarchies overthrown, Israel wiped off the map immediately, and Western influence expelled, but it knew itself incapable of achieving these goals and to try to do so would bring disaster. Indeed, when Nasser had tried to implement part of this program in 1967, he provoked Israel into attacking and suffered his worst disaster.
Come to think of it, Arab regimes are still playing this game of systematically purveying radicalism, hatred, and unachievable goals to distract their populace, excuse their own failings, focus antagonism against foreign scapegoats and seek regional ambitions.
Western governments do this kind of thing a bit differently.
In this regard, recent statements by a number of leaders including President Barack Obama, prime ministers Gordon Brown and Benjamin Netanyahu, and others, establish an important principle:
Actually achieving Middle East peace is of no importance. The only thing that is important is saying that progress is being made and that peace will come soon.
I don’t mean that as a statement of cynicism but as an accurate analysis of what goes on in international affairs at present. What’s achieved by pretending there is progress and there will be success? Some very real and—in their way—important things:
–World leaders are saying that they are doing a great job, doing the right things, remaining active and achieving success.
–By saying peace is near, the issue is defused. Why fight if you are about to make a deal?
–Israel (and anyone else from the region who joins in—see below) shows that it is cooperating so others should be patient and not put on pressure.
–Since the West is taking care of business, Arab states supposedly will feel comfortable working with it on other issues, like Iran for example.
I want to stress that this behavior is not as silly as it might seem. Often this is how indeed politics do work. Moreover, pretending is better than a sense of desperation which would lead to very bad mistakes being made by energetically doing stupid and dangerous things. Certainly, it inhibits strong pressure or sanctions against Israel.
The freeze on construction within settlements is a scam. If Israel gives something on this issue, the Western governments declare victory and go home, so to speak. That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons for not doing so, but the virtually open cynicism of the U.S. and European strategy is striking.
When the U.S. president portrays the possibility of two tiny states, Oman and Qatar, letting one-man Israeli trade offices re-open as a major triumph in confidence-building , despite being his sole achievement after months of top-level diplomacy, what can one do but snicker?
Finally, since Israel-Palestinian peace is not within reach, pretending it is while knowing the truth is not such a bad alternative. It is certainly progress since the Obama administration came into office and originally pursued a policy based on the idea that it could achieve peace in a matter of months.
What is the downside here?
There are three problems. The first is if Western leaders believe their own propaganda. Because if peace is “within reach” but isn’t actually grasped, then someone must be blamed. That someone will, of course, be Israel.
Why? Because if the West blames the Palestinians, leaders presume that Arabs and Muslims will be angry and not cooperate on other matters. There could be more terrorism and fewer profitable deals and investments. They gain nothing.
But if they insist that everything is going well there is no need to blame anyone. This is the phase we are now entering.
The second problem, however, is that neither the Palestinians nor Arab regimes will join in the optimism. Their line is: The Palestinians are suffering! The situation is intolerable! Something must be done! And since we will make no concessions or compromises, the only solution is for the West to pressure Israel to give more and more while getting nothing in return.
Since this is not going to happen too much if Israel resists, they fall back on their alternative approach. Ok, so since you aren’t forcing Israel to give us what we want you have to give us other things, like money and you cannot demand we help you.
The best outcome is that certain Arab states, since they have other interests at stake, will downplay the conflict altogether and focus on more pragmatic needs. The radicals—principally Iran and Syria—will never do so, of course, and will claim that the situation shows how the West cannot be trusted and must be defeated.
What’s the third problem? That certain actions which might promote regional stability, or even Arab-Israeli peace, are not taken. These include two especially important tactics:
–More energetic efforts to overthrow the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. As long as Hamas is running about half the Palestinian territories and outflanking Fatah in militancy, there won’t be any peace. Keeping Hamas from taking over the West Bank, isolating it, and maintaining sanctions against it is a good policy and can preserve the status quo. It is not, however, the best policy and the pressure on Hamas could erode over time.
–More pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to moderate and compromise. The PA and its positions are the main barriers to peace. As the PA possibly becomes more radical, the likelihood of violence increases. Thus, while in the short- to medium-run the “feel good” and status quo policy may work, it also has risks and limits.
Still, it is the best that can be expected at present.
By Amos Harel,
Haaretz, Sept. 6, 2009.
Mohammed Na’if, a 14-year-old Palestinian from the Jalazun refugee camp near Ramallah, was killed Monday night by Israel Defense Forces fire after Na’if and another youth threw firebombs at the settlement of Beit El.
A force from the Kfir Brigade saw them, and one of the soldiers shot Na’if. The IDF investigation showed that a bullet aimed at his legs hit the youth in the abdomen. He died of his wounds in an Israeli hospital.
The death of a teenager during Ramadan would normally have set off a wave of riots in Ramallah. But current relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are very different from what they used to be, and the city remained calm. Advertisement
Tuesday morning, a senior PA official called Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, and said “there are rumors in Jalazun that the boy was not even throwing firebombs.” Mordechai denied this, adding that if his Palestinian interlocutor were not convinced, he would send over photos from the scene. “There’s no need,” the Palestinian said. “If you say so, I believe you.”
Mordechai is a key member of the Israeli troika that has been carrying out a silent revolution in the West Bank for more than a year. Its other members are GOC Central Command Gadi Shamni and Brig. Gen. Noam Tivon, commander of the IDF forces in the West Bank – both of whom will soon be leaving these positions.
The process has been closely watched by Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and, lately, also Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it has mostly been built from the bottom up: It began in the field and only later expanded to the government echelons. The chief of staff describes it simply: “Wherever they [the PA] take more action, we will take less action.”
The international community is mainly interested in the lifting of restrictions on Palestinian movement and the optimistic forecasts for economic growth on the West Bank (at least nine percent in 2009). But what will determine whether the experiment succeeds or fails is how much blood is spilled.
Since the start of 2009, 13 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, and four Israelis. In 2008, 51 Palestinians died, and no Israelis. The last suicide attack inside Israel took place in February 2008, claiming the life of a woman at a Dimona mall. The security situation has changed completely, and it has led to the improvement in the Palestinian economy – though Netanyahu’s promise of “economic peace” still seems exaggerated.
In view of the calm, senior IDF officers have begun referring to the PA’s leadership – President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – in terms never before heard from such highly placed Israelis. Even during the brief period of hope that followed the Oslo Accord, the attitude was not like this.
Abbas and Fayyad have completely ended the former Palestinian doublespeak about violence, lowered the level of anti-Israeli incitement and tightened control over their security forces. Moreover, there is now close cooperation among the IDF and the Shin Bet security service, the various Palestinian security organizations, and their American advisers.
All this does not mean the Palestinian leaders have ceased to be tough opponents in diplomatic negotiations: On that front, they are making no concessions. And the compliments about their behavior on the security front have bolstered their negotiating position in the international arena.
The most noteworthy change in the PA’s behavior has to do with the fight against Hamas. The PA got the point after the Islamist organization took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007. When Fatah emerged from its shock, senior PA officials recognized that if they wanted to prevent a repeat of Gaza in the West Bank, they must stop leaving the war to Israel.
First, they targeted Hamas’ charitable network and placed Fatah-affiliated imams in mosques. Then they arrested Hamas operatives en masse, killing those who resisted.