The Limits of Diplomacy in the Middle East

Aug 30, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

August 30, 2007
Number 08/07 #10

Today’s Update features two counter-arguments to oft-heard claims that the keys to remedying Middle East problems are negotiations and engagement embracing all parties, especially radical actors like Hamas and the Iranian government.

First up, AIJAC’s Dr. Colin Rubenstein, in a piece published in the Melbourne Age Online argues that contrary to the assumptions of many, futile or inadequately prepared negotiations can do considerable harm. He offers various examples of the harm that can be done, and applies these lessons directly to the case of Hamas and Iran. He also explains the need for realistic goals with respect to the upcoming Middle East summit and talks with the Palestinian Authority. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. Another argument about the limits of what can be achieved in current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations comes from the former head of the Mossad intelligence service, Efraim Halevy.

Next up, Professor Barry Rubin, who recently visited Australia, dissects the argument that the key to Middle East peace is to use negotiations to engage, moderate and divide radical actors. He examines past such efforts and the assumptions required to successfully “engage, moderate and split” in the Middle East, and explains why these conditions just do not exist today for such efforts to succeed, as well as the damage that fruitless attempts to achieve such results can cause. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE.

Finally, this Update includes an important interview about Israel’s military challenges vis-a-vis Hamas and Hezbollah with the Israeli army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky. Kaplinsky reveals details about extensive Hamas training of fighters abroad, massive arms build-ups and fortifications, and argues that, while an attack is not imminent, the unimpeded continuation of the current situation will require a large-scale Israeli incursion into Gaza sooner or later. He also reveals the extent of Hezbollah’s re-armament since last year. For all the details, CLICK HERE. By way of contrast, Israeli strategic studies expert Efraim Inbar argues that Israel should not wait and should begin large-scale efforts to disarm Gaza soon.

Negotiation alone won’t fix the Middle East

Colin Rubenstein
The Age Online, August 29, 2007

CANDIDATES for the US Democratic Party’s presidential nomination were recently asked if they would promise to meet the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea. Senator Barack Obama said he would and it was “ridiculous” that the US had not done so already. Hillary Clinton, showing greater political maturity, said she could not promise this, because it was necessary to first “know better what the way forward would be”, adding, “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes.”

Those who, like Obama, urge direct negotiations with Hamas and its major sponsor, Iran, argue negotiations are necessary for any political settlement, and even if this proves impossible, what harm can they do?

Clinton rightly pointed out that premature negotiations, without adequate preparations and reasonable prospects for success, can do significant harm.

Futile talks can provide propaganda victories for rogue actors and help them portray their methods as successful. When the international community is using the threat of pariah status to pressure an actor to change its behaviour, official talks can also allow rogue actors to build momentum toward acceptance, to run down the clock, and to stave off efforts at concrete sanctions.

Syria’s recent overtures to Israel for negotiations are an example. Most Syria specialists believe that Damascus wants talks, not to seek peace, but because negotiations would divert international pressure over tough issues, especially the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri.

Diplomacy is largely about communication, but direct public negotiations are only one method of communicating. For instance, the international community is currently communicating very clearly with Hamas, saying direct international aid and recognition depend on acceptance of the rules of the game and purposes established by the Oslo accords – to establish an Israeli-Palestinian two state resolution, recognise Israel and desist from terror.

Public meetings with Hamas would muddy the waters rather than communicate this more clearly.

Meanwhile, the idea that comprehensive US-Iran talks can resolve issues such as the nuclear stand-off and Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents and other terror groups fails a simple test. The potential for achievements from such talks does not outweigh the potential costs.

The US has in fact repeatedly attempted to explore a deal with Iran through various back channels with little success.

Meanwhile, with US encouragement, the EU negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program. For six years, Iran stalled, signed and broke agreements, and scored propaganda points. Western vacillation has been perceived in Iran as weakness. A new overture for direct public and bilateral Iran-US negotiations (something the Iranian regime has actually always rejected) would fail, yet would strengthen those elements of the regime who argue that there will be no significant consequences for Iran’s illegal nuclear program.

Westerners need to recognise that authoritarian regimes, including Iran’s, often see negotiations as essentially a zero-sum game, not as an opportunity to explore mutual interests and creative arrangements.

For instance, Iranian and US interests in Iraq are mutually exclusive. The US wants a secular, democratic and stable Iraq. But Iran’s priority is to lessen America’s Middle East presence, so it wants the US chased out of Iraq.

Even where negotiations are a good idea, one must start with realism, adequate preparations, and a clear strategy about what can be achieved. This is certainly the case with the proposed Middle East summit on Israeli-Palestinian issues

A final Israeli-Palestinian peace is not currently possible. Hamas, which controls Gaza, rejects and would sabotage any such deal. Meanwhile, with his Fatah party in disarray, and his hold on the West Bank uncertain, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whatever his intentions, cannot deliver peace even in the area he does nominally control.

Therefore, negotiations before and during the conference should focus on stablising the situation and creating conditions where a two-state resolution may eventually become possible.

This means concentrating on three things. First, as US President Bush stated, it should “help the Palestinians establish effective governing structures, a sound financial system, and the rule of law”. Unless Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad can establish security control and an effective welfare system, the situation cannot improve.

Second, US efforts to channel Arab concern over the Iranian threat to encourage the Arab states to at last play a constructive role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking are very welcome.

Finally, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert says he has been meeting with Abbas in an effort to “agree on principles regarding the core issues that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, including borders, Jerusalem, refugees, exchanges of land” and so on. No such deal can be implemented yet, but such a declaration of principles would give Abbas tangible outcomes to take to Palestinians as an alternative to Hamas. However, the process must be kept low key, because a highly visible failure could have negative repercussions.

Constructive dialogue aimed to foster peace must be pursued in the Middle East, but not at the expense of undermining realistic peace prospects. Negotiations for the sake of negotiating will do nothing but strengthen the enemies of peace.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, and previously taught Middle East politics at Monash University.


Engage! Moderate! Split!

By Barry Rubin

GLORIA, August 25, 2007

Engage, moderate, and split – that’s the mantra for Middle East policy of the wrong-headed in many foreign ministries, newspaper editorial offices, universities, and other places where the rapidly growing international bad-ideas industry is centered.
Yet nothing could seem more self-evident than these propositions. What could possibly be wrong with engaging radical forces, persuading them to change their ways, and breaking up their alliances?

I’m glad you asked. Here is how these apparently obviously correct ideas are dangerous and even disastrous.

1. Engagement. Doesn’t one need to talk to enemies? How else can you get them to change? Well, it depends on whom, how, and when. Here are some of the problems of just having a cozy little chat with Iran, Syria, or Hamas for example.

First, what about history? If the past record shows that such efforts have failed it indicates that more such attempts are misguided and that other methods are needed. For example, the U.S. government sent numerous high-level delegations to Syria between 2001 and 2005 only to find that it was repeatedly lied to. This campaign only stopped when Syria’s government murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister (and most popular politician) Rafik Hariri.

As for Iran, Britain, France, and Germany spent three years engaged in diplomatic dialogue about Iran’s nuclear program during which Tehran lied, broke promises, and did not fulfill commitments, all along working full speed ahead to get atomic bombs. The International Atomic Energy Agency has just announced a new timetable. Wow, that should scare Tehran! And of course this, too, will be flouted to be replaced no doubt by still another deal until the day Iran gets nukes.

Second, there is the momentum of engagement. In order to enter into and sustain engagement, the Western party feels obligated˜and its radical interlocutor will keep pressing˜to provide proof of its good intentions in the form of concessions. Naturally, the radical side will give nothing since it will play the role of aggrieved party doing the democracies a favor by deigning to talk to them. As the process goes on, the Western side gives more and more while getting nothing in return. And at the end, there is no real agreement or change.

The radical side doesn‚t have to shout out, “Sucker!” but it might as well do so.

Equally, to keep talks going the Western partner feels constrained from taking tough action which might lead the radical party to walk out. If, for example, Hamas continues to commit terrorism, this would not be allowed to stop the flow of money or bring tougher sanctions since that would make them angry. Of course, if any action is taken, you can guess who will be blamed for the breakdown. This has been the story of many such engagements, for example the 1990s‚ Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace process.

Finally, there is how the radical side takes the engagement process as a victory, a sign that the extremists are winning and that the West is frightened and ineffective. This is precisely what the radical side’s leaders say in Arabic or Persian to their colleagues and people. Meanwhile, the democratic side’s credibility plummets and deterrence crashes, sparking more extremism and aggression.

2. Why is moderating the radical forces also doomed to failure? The basic answer is that they do not want to become moderate and why should they? This misconceived model is based on the view that Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and radical Islamists generally are reluctant militants, forced to be so by misunderstanding (the West or Israel isn’t really so horrible and means them no harm) or a lack of alternatives.

In fact, the radicals take their stance based on a blend of true belief˜a deeply felt ideology based on a powerful world view˜and ambition. This is their route to power, money, and glory; to act in a contrary manner is to be a loathsome traitor. They are not, to say the least, easily persuaded, especially by people they hate and seek to destroy.  

Moreover, they think they are winning, an idea enforced by many experiences and often by the eagerness of the West to engage them in the first place. Only if they believe they are losing˜after the imposition of tough sanctions and other measures˜might they consider revising their strategies and tactics. And even the massive armed force used in Iraq shows that this is not so likely.
Finally, even if someone wants to become moderate there is the little consideration of being murdered by one‚s colleagues. Sunni moderates in Iraq cannot make a deal because it is difficult to engage in politics when you are dead.

3.      Splitting. Let‚s examine the Syria-Iran relationship. From Iran, Syria gets:

  • Lots of money.
  • A partner who shares its radicalism and wish to overturn the existing Arab regimes, drive out Western influence, and destroy Israel.
  • Islamic cover for a regime ruled by non-Muslims.
  • An ally with parallel interests in terms of anti-Americanism, fighting Israel, supporting Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas among the Palestinians.
  • Iran pays the bill for these groups so Syria gets a free ride.
  • Tehran provides strategic depth, protecting Syria against any Western or Israeli attack.

To believe that Syria would desert this arrangement for a dependence on the mistrusted West and abandonment of its most valuable asset – using an alleged imperialist-Zionist threat as excuse for the regime’s failures and rationale for its survival – is foolish. And parallel arguments could be provided, given space, for Iran‚s need to ally with Syria which, for instance, gives it a boost over the Persian/Arab (Syria is Arab) and Shia/Sunni (Syria is majority Sunni) barriers blocking Iran‚s ambitions to become the region’s leading power.

Engagement, moderation, and splitting sure sounds like a good strategy. But it is a very very bad one.
Dr. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center  and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).


Israeli Says Hamas Is Training Hundreds Abroad


New York Times
Published: August 28, 2007

JERUSALEM, Aug. 27 — Hamas has sent hundreds of its fighters abroad for military training, most of them to Iran, the Israeli Army’s deputy chief of staff says, and Israel has the names of more than 100 of them.

Israel is watching as Hamas, in control of Gaza, is building an army there on the model of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, said the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, in a wide-ranging interview conducted 10 days ago at his office in Tel Aviv. He said Hamas was constructing positions and fortifications, building tunnels for fighting and smuggling in explosives, antitank weapons and more sophisticated rockets through the Egyptian desert.

Hamas now has improved antitank missiles and mortars and possesses manufactured Katyusha rockets with a range of 10.6 miles, which it is keeping in reserve, General Kaplinsky said. But he said the military training was even more important.

“If you let them do what they want to do for a long time, I believe it will be a challenge,” General Kaplinsky said. “I feel we have time to make the most of other possibilities. But if it continues in this way, I believe personally that one day we’ll have to do it” — send Israeli troops into Gaza in a major incursion.

Hamas officials have denied that they are sending gunmen abroad for military training. They say that only some police officers have been sent, and none to Iran. But Hamas has been more open about its military efforts in Gaza since June, when it routed its rival Fatah forces in heavy fighting.

Hamas, which is classified by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, and which gets support from Iran and Syria, has a free hand in Gaza. Some leaders in the Israeli Army, including the commander of the southern division, Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant, argue for an Israeli incursion soon.

But his superior, General Kaplinsky, is in no rush for a lengthy campaign in the crowded cities and refugee camps. “We can do it tomorrow,” he said. “But we also understand the price. And given the way Hamas fights, we’ll hurt a lot of civilians, and we don’t want to do it.”

The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also does not want to damage new political progress with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who will meet again on Tuesday with Mr. Olmert in American-sponsored discussions of the principles of a final peace agreement.

In Gaza, too, there are signs of disaffection with the heavy-handedness of Hamas, General Kaplinsky said, and Israel is not eager to provide Hamas an excuse to escape the difficulties of governing Gaza amid international isolation.

On Sunday, the deputy director of Shin Bet, the internal security agency, told the Israeli cabinet that 40 tons of explosives had been smuggled through Egypt into Gaza since June, a sharp increase. He also suggested that Hamas leaders in exile in Syria were preparing a new round of terrorist attacks inside Israel to try to derail the recent rapprochement with Mr. Abbas, who leads Fatah.

Israel has time to watch developments, General Kaplinsky said. “What happens with Fatah?” he asked. “What will be the Egyptian attitude, which may change? What will happen inside Gaza?”

Israel and Mr. Abbas have an opportunity, the general said. “It’s maybe even a new era. But the Palestinians have to decide where they’re going, if they want the situation as in Gaza or not.”

Hamas and another militant group, Islamic Jihad, can create political havoc, General Kaplinsky said. “The situation in the West Bank is very fragile,” he said. “Any mistake, any failure on our side to prevent terror can change the situation in a day. If tomorrow morning there is a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, we’d have to change a lot of things.”

Hamas is strong in the West Bank, too, and Fatah’s hold there is problematic. Asked whether Fatah’s situation is different in the West Bank, where he spent three years as Israel’s commander, General Kaplinsky said: “I really don’t know the difference. I do know for sure the reason that Hamas is considered weak there is because of our security activities.”

His job is to worry, he said. And his largest worry is Iran. Its nuclear program aside, he said, “Iran is involved in every instability in this region.”

The other main concerns are Syria and Lebanon. Syria is building up sophisticated weaponry at a rapid pace. In the last three years, Israeli officials said, Syria has spent nearly $3 billion on weapons, half of that this year alone. By contrast, in 2003, Syria spent only $75 million.

Neither Israel nor Syria wants war, General Kaplinsky said, but he said he worries about Syrian intentions and miscalculations. “We are aware of what we see, and we can’t ignore it,” he said, so Israel has increased its preparations in the north. “It would be very helpful for us to understand what they really want.”

As for Lebanon, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Parliament’s foreign and defense committee on Monday that despite the presence of United Nations forces, which are not allowed to patrol the border with Syria, Hezbollah now has more rockets of all kinds than it did before last summer’s war, when it fired some 4,000 rockets at Israel. Israel considers Hezbollah, which was hit hard in the inconclusive war, unlikely to attack again this year.

General Kaplinsky said Iran and Syria had replaced much of Hezbollah’s arsenal, “especially the long-range missiles.” Last summer, Israel’s major intelligence success was to know where those large missiles and launchers were hidden, and a majority of the launchers were destroyed in the first two days of the war, meaning that few large missiles hit Israeli cities like Haifa or even Tel Aviv.

Asked if Israel possessed similar knowledge today, General Kaplinsky said he could not answer in detail, then added, “We know what we have to know.”



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Much of the Arab world knows Hamas ‘is the problem’: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News

Image: Shutterstock

Faith: Shavuot

Image: Shutterstock

Australia must never be a party to cynical, pro-Hamas lawfare

Image: X/Twitter

AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism


“The reason we don’t get to a two-state outcome is the continuing extremism of the Palestinians”: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News


Much of the Arab world knows Hamas ‘is the problem’: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News

Image: Shutterstock

Faith: Shavuot

Image: Shutterstock

Australia must never be a party to cynical, pro-Hamas lawfare

Image: X/Twitter

AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism


“The reason we don’t get to a two-state outcome is the continuing extremism of the Palestinians”: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News