US Policy and the Peace Process / Talking about Islam and Terrorism

Jul 16, 2010

Update from AIJAC

July 16, 2010
Number 07/10 #05

This Update features some new analysis of the likely future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the wake of the Obama/Netanyahu summit last week.

First up is Washington Institute analyst and former US National Security Council Middle East expert Michael Singh looking at what happens if and when direct Israeli-Palestinian talks resume. Singh argues that the key is to get beyond zero-sum approaches to peacemaking from both sides, and says the key to doing so is to get away from issues like land borders or Jerusalem, which are typically seen in this light. Instead he urges focusing first on “win-win” issues like Palestinian economic development and institution-building, before trying to build complete packages, in which more zero-sum type issues can be traded off, and for Washington to focus on keeping spoilers such as the activities of Iran and Hamas from derailing the process. For Singh’s complete prescription for progress, CLICK HERE.

Next up, another US National Security Council veteran Elliot Abrams takes on the problem of incitement and the inadequate Palestinian response to date. Abrams points out that while Palestinian official incitement remains widespread, PA President Mahmoud Abbas either denies this or refers all discussion of it to a currently non-existent committee called for in the Oslo accords. Abrams urges that the nature of Palestinian society is an essential determinant of peace, and that US President Obama should make Palestinian incitement a top priority in moving forward. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, former CIA Middle East analyst turned thinktanker Reuel Marc Gerecht takes on the Obama Administration’s response to the nexus between Islam and Islamist terrorism. He argues that the administation’s preference to avoid any mention of Islam in discussing terrorism has led to a situation where all conversations on the subject in government circles have become “boring, lightweight, and sometimes inane.” Gerecht contrasts the administration’s approach to the openness he found toward discussing the subject in the Muslim world, and also tries to put the long history of Islam’s complex relationship with both the West and Jihadist violence in to some historical context. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE.

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Tough Road Ahead in Middle East 

By Michael Singh

The Hill
, July 12, 2010

With their warm words and smiles for the cameras in the Oval Office last week, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took an important step toward surmounting what has lately been a serious obstacle to progress in the Middle East peace process — a frosty U.S.-Israel relationship. Like galaxies in an expanding universe, each party to the process — Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs — seems to have been moving farther away from all of the others.

Even if last week’s summit succeeds in halting this retrogression, it will only have returned the peace process to square one. If the President in fact achieves his stated goal of commencing direct Israeli-Palestinian talks by the end of September, the parties will be no closer to — and arguably much further from — an actual agreement than they were three years ago, when the Annapolis Conference kicked off the last round of negotiations.

Once the Israelis and Palestinians finally make their way to the negotiating table, the primary barrier to progress will not be the issues themselves, but rather the zero-sum mindset that pervades their relationship.

After decades of hostility, each party sees any gain by the other as a loss for itself, leading them to stake out apparently self-defeating positions. For example, Israel last year effectively blocked the launch of a second Palestinian mobile telephone company, despite the fact that it would have created thousands of jobs and a much-needed jolt for Palestinian economic development, both of which are patently in Israel’s interests.

This zero-sum attitude is readily perceived by anyone who has labored at Israel-Palestinian peace. Israelis harbor suspicions — fueled by the duplicity of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat and the proclamations of Hamas leaders — that the Palestinians’ true intent is to push them into the sea; Palestinians believe that Israel intends to engage them endlessly in negotiations while creating “facts on the ground” that render Palestinian statehood infeasible.

Ironically, this zero-sum mindset endures despite the increasing convergence of interests among Israel, the Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors. All sides are threatened by Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapons capability, terrorism and the proliferation of and advanced conventional capabilities to extremist groups, and stagnant regional economic growth. Regional cooperation would amplify the international effort to reverse these malign trends, but is absent.

Because of this pervasive zero-sum mindset, proposals that borders or settlements be tackled first and in isolation are misguided. These are the ultimate zero-sum issues — one party can gain only what the other yields. Likewise Jerusalem is a matter of dividing a fixed plot, and one which both parties consider sacred to boot.

Overcoming the zero-sum mindset and making progress in the negotiations requires a threefold approach. First, Washington must begin the process with a focus on “win-win” issues. Foremost among these are Palestinian economic development and institution-building. Progress on these fronts would not only deliver prosperity and good governance to Palestinians, but assure Israelis that a future Palestinian state will be stable and viable. Likewise, the further expansion and improvement of Palestinian security forces will relieve from Israel the resource and moral burden of policing much of the West Bank, while providing Palestinians with a further measure of dignity and autonomy. Other examples abound, such as restoring a PA role in Gaza and countering Iranian influence.

Second, the core issues themselves must be negotiated as a package, in order to take advantage of differences in how much each party values each issue. To take one example, Israel is likely to be more forthcoming on borders if it receives assurances on refugees. Any dealmaker, whether his background is in politics or finance, can confirm that thorny issues are far more difficult to address in isolation than as part of a package.

Finally, Washington must use its unique position and capabilities to clear away potential distractions and obstacles to progress. This should comprise a spectrum of actions, both to counter potential spoilers such as Iran by interdicting Iranian shipments to Hezbollah and Hamas, and to empower agents of change such as PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad by providing him with budget support. While the U.S. administration may be called upon occasionally to prod the parties or provide them with bridging proposals, the majority of its energies should be expended on this track, working with or against the ancillary players in the region and beyond who can help or hinder progress.

While history gives us every reason to be pessimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace, there is also good reason to be hopeful. Palestinian statehood is the ultimate win-win issue; a prosperous and democratic Palestine is the best guaranty of Israel’s long-term security, and the only answer to Palestinian aspirations.

Michael Singh is the Ira Weiner fellow at The Washington Institute and former senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

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The two faces of Mahmoud Abbas: He says one thing to the Palestinians, another to Obama

By Elliott Abrams

New York Daily News, Wednesday, July 14th 2010, 4:00 AM

“I say in front of you, Mr. President, that we have nothing to do with incitement against Israel, and we’re not doing that,” claimed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to the White House in June.

It is unfortunate for the prospects of Middle East peace that this denial by Abbas (who is also head of the PLO and Fatah) was just plain untrue. In fact, this two-faced stance of Abbas and his cronies – proclaiming peaceful intentions to the international community while inciting their population to hatred of Israel – is one of the primary impediments to any sort of solution to the longstanding crisis.

And yet there are countless examples of pronouncements or actions by Abbas and other Palestinian leaders that suggest a glorification of violence and terrorism and undermine the belief that they seek peace. This very month, for example, Abbas publicly mourned the death of Mohammed Oudeh, mastermind of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre: “The deceased was one of the prominent leaders of the Fatah movement and lived a life filled with the struggle, devoted effort, and the enormous sacrifice of the deceased for the sake of the legitimate problem of his people.”

Abbas also told Arab journalists in Amman, Jordan, that “We are unable to confront Israel militarily, and this point was discussed at the Arab League summit in March in [Libya]. There I turned to the Arab states and I said: ‘If you want war, and if all of you will fight Israel, we are in favor. But the Palestinians will not fight alone because they don’t have the ability to do it.’ “

Why should Israelis, or Americans for that matter, believe his commitment to peace in English, when in Arabic he treats war as an acceptable option?

President Obama is well aware that popular incitement remains a thorn in the side of serious talks. In May, the President said that he had “mentioned to President Abbas in a frank exchange that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square, because all those things are impediments to peace.”

At a dinner for Abbas during his Washington visit, I confronted him with several recent examples of incitement, as well as the denial that he made to the President. His reply was that of a bureaucrat, not a peacemaker: He did not deny the allegations, but said that if true they should be raised at a tripartite committee (the United States, the Palestinian Authority and Israel) that had been established by the Oslo Accords.

If peace is our goal, such a response is deeply inadequate. Abbas should handle incitement by stopping it, not seeking committee meetings – and especially not by denying that incitement occurs in the first place. Of course, it’s easy to see why, politically, Abbas and others in the PLO and Fatah leadership avoid confronting these organizations’ long involvement in terrorism, but if they cannot do so, the chances for real peace are slim. A leadership whose maps do not even show an entity called Israel is unlikely to tell Palestinian refugees that it has given up their “right of return” or that their long-hoped-for Palestinian state within the 1967 borders will not include control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

In fact, the critical insight achieved by the Bush administration was that the character of that state, and of Palestinian society, are more important than final borders in achieving and maintaining peace.

Is terrorism defended and glorified by the top officials? Are terrorists who murder children branded as heroes whom schoolchildren should admire? Is war with Israel a tactic that must be set aside only for pragmatic reasons, and even then only as a short-term strategy?

Obama is right to keep raising this subject with Abbas, but Presidents have been raising it for years. As the Palestinian leadership never seems to pay any penalty for its words, America’s seriousness about the peace process is in doubt.

If the Obama administration is dedicated to a major peace effort in the coming year, the incitement issue should be at the top of its agenda. Because when direct negotiations do finally begin, the key test of Palestinian commitment to peace will not be what Abbas and his colleagues say to Americans in English, but what they say in Arabic to Palestinians – about Israel, about terrorism and about real peace.

Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Islam: Unmentionable in D.C.

Reuel Marc Gerecht

The New Republic
, July 14, 2010

The recent suicide bombing against Pashtun tribal elders in Mohmand, a region not far from Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, made my mind return to conversations I’d had in Peshawar in 2000. Westerners could then roam the non-restricted areas of the province without much fear. Peshawar, which was a hotbed of Islamic militancy, still offered the full range of Pashtun cosmopolitanism: international hotels where VIP natives and foreigners could get alcohol; lots of Internet shops where locals emailed their relatives abroad and scanned porno sites; and video-and-DVD stores where you could easily get contraband copies of newly-released Hollywood blockbusters or, with a bit more effort, skin flicks. It was a lively, dirty, dilapidated, but relatively well-organized city (the British empire lived on) swamped with Pashtun Afghans who greatly preferred life there to the boredom, poverty, and religious unpleasantness of Taliban rule north of the border.

What I liked best about the place was how easy it was to have conversations about Islam. Westernized businessmen and officials, journalists, imams from neighborhood mosques, the ordinary faithful after prayers, rug merchants, taxi drivers, soldiers, and die-hard Islamic militants pumping iron in god-awful gyms would all proffer their opinions about the faith, America, Christianity, Jews, and Osama bin Laden (most applauded the man). Pakistanis become intellectually serious pretty quickly. And even among the hesitant, it didn’t take that long before you could have an energetic conversation about what many Westerners would describe as sensitive issues. After the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000, everyone there knew that bin Laden and the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar had found some common ground. By and large, the Peshawaris saw jihad against the United States as understandable and acceptable, and those who agreed, and those who didn’t, weren’t offended when an American asked them about the earthly manifestations of their faith.

I haven’t returned to Peshawar since 2000, but it’s a good guess that the same conversations are to be had, though undoubtedly in greater variation, since jihadist violence has now savaged Pakistan. It’s an odd situation: Throughout the greater Middle East, frank discussions about Islam are easier to have than they are in Washington, D.C.—especially among government officials. Ask someone in the Obama administration about jihad and, unless the official knows the conversation is off the record—and sometimes even if it is off the record—that official likely will become a bit panicked, nonplussed, and try to change the subject.

It’s been 18 months since Mr. Obama became president; thirteen months since he gave his Cairo speech and rolled out his “New Beginning” approach to the Muslim world. Primary result: In the nation’s capital, conversations have become boring, lightweight, and sometimes inane.

Although it’s deeply politically incorrect to say so, intellectually, things were better under the Bush administration. President George W. Bush struggled briefly with the issue of whether it was okay to use the word “Islamofascism.” I’m against its use but it’s not philosophically absurd to use this term in describing some of the modern Islamic movements that sprang from the Egyptian Hassan Al Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood and the subcontinent’s great modern theologian Abul Ala Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami (Maududi was quite open in his admiration of fascism’s inspirational capacity). President Bush’s public use of the term one time provoked considerable debate in the West and in the Middle East. Mr. Bush’s more adamant embrace of democracy-exporting rhetoric provoked even more discussion. Such controversy was all for the best. Muslim-versus-Muslim debate is always more robust when the West, especially the United States, is also actively engaged in the discussion. Whether the invidious subject is slavery, female genital mutilation, Sharia’s draconian corporal punishments (hudud laws), women’s rights, corruption, jihadism, “oriental despotism,” or representative government, intra-Muslim ethical deliberations on most of these subjects have been provoked by Westerners and Westernized Muslims taking issue with prevailing practices.

President Obama’s operating philosophy toward the Muslim world appears to be that being “offensive” towards Muslims can’t be good for Muslim–non-Muslim relations. Mr. Obama’s dispensation more or less follows the arguments made by a wide variety of liberal intellectuals while Mr. Bush was president. To wit: The Iraq war (though not the Afghan war), Guantanamo, rendition, waterboarding, and Mr. Bush’s existential presence (his Christian Evangelical essence) accentuated the Muslim–non-Muslim divide, thereby contributing to anti-American anger and the manufacture of holy warriors. We never knew how many holy warriors Mr. Bush produced, but the implication was lots.

And the black Barack Hussein Obama would do wonders to fix all this. In the immortal words of The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, Mr. Obama’s “face” would be “the most effective potential rebranding of the United States since Reagan.” In December 2007, Mr. Sullivan asked us to consider this hypothetical: “It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image,

America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm…. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close.” What does one do with this extreme mirror imaging of one’s one biases into the minds of foreigners? Senator John McCain obviously didn’t know how to handle it. (But I have a suggestion: In 2010 Mr. Sullivan and I should travel together through Pakistan, visiting the Pashtun and Punjabi breeding grounds of jihadism and see how President Obama’s “face” is doing.)

The history-annulling quality of this “New Beginning” line of thought (Islamic militancy has a very long history; it attracted many of the Muslim world’s best minds to its standard long before President Bush destroyed Saddam Hussein; being a black Christian son of an African Muslim is much more important and estimable in America than in the Middle East) really should have encountered a bit more resistance from those who knew the Muslim world.

But time is quickly cruel. Although Mr. Obama could make a recovery among devout Muslims, he appears to have become more or less irrelevant to fundamentalist discussions—except on the issue of Israel/Palestine where there is considerable disappointment. (President Obama was supposed to come down hard on the Jewish state; that he has not done so has significantly diminished his “change” appeal among both religious and secular Arabs). Radicalization among

American Muslims seems to have actually increased during Mr. Obama’s presidency and, if this is true, it would be dubious to suggest that anything Mr. Obama has done provoked that increase. The radicalization of Europe’s Muslim community—probably still the greatest jihadist threat to the West—doesn’t seem to have changed course because Barack Obama is in the White House.

The number of die-hard jihadists may have gone down in the Muslim world since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but if this is so it is undoubtedly because (1) the United States military and allied armed forces have killed and imprisoned jihadists more quickly than they could reproduce and (2) Arabs and Pakistanis—the two big constituencies for Al Qaeda and like-minded organizations—have seen so much Muslim-on-Muslim bloodshed in the Middle East and Central Asia in the last decade that they have begun to recoil from the organizations that once fascinated so many of them. Muslim militants aren’t children. They know a hell of a lot more about their faith than do American presidents who assert that “Islam is a religion of peace.” (What Islam is, as with Christianity and Judaism, is an evolving question, but it’s not just Muslim holy warriors who don’t care for the Prophet Mohammad being depicted as a pre-modern peacenik.)

Since the inauguration of Mr. Obama, the Saudis certainly haven’t reformed their massive, state-financed export of virulently anti-Western Wahhabi ideology, or their own school books, which still depict Jews and Christians as being pretty far down the evolutionary ladder. Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was certainly used as a rhetorical battering ram by Iran’s pro-democracy dissidents; but these dissidents no longer shout “U ba ma” (“he is with us”) in Persian since it became obvious that the president really only wanted to talk to Mr. Khamenei about his nukes, not about representative government. Needless to say, the supreme leader’s Islam is not the Islam of Barack Obama, who declared in Cairo, “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” (Is it possible that President Obama discussed the “negative stereotyping” in his private correspondence to Khamenei?)

Now it’s possible that President Obama’s play-nice approach to the Muslim world won’t leave us in any worse shape than we were in when he arrived in the White House. It is, however, questionable. When Mr. Obama’s attorney general twists himself into knots trying to avoid juxtaposing the word “Islam” with the word “terrorism,” and when the president’s senior counterterrorism advisor gives speeches on Islam that would be more appropriate on “Sesame Street,” you gotta wonder whether the dumbed-down level of public Washington discourse is the visible sign of internal bureaucratic rot. In any case, we would do well to remember the observation that Princeton historian Michael Cook made about Islamic history:

“It was the fusion of … [an] egalitarian and activist tribal ethos with the monotheist tradition that gave Islam its distinctive political character. In no other civilization was rebellion for conscience sake so widespread as it was in the early centuries of Islamic history; no other major religious tradition has lent itself to revival as a political ideology—and not just a political identity—in the modern world.”

Osama bin Laden, a rebel if there ever was one, is much older than he appears. We would do well also to remember that the libraries in Iran’s dissident-rich universities and the homes of the country’s increasingly secular intellectuals are full of books that are chapters to the exquisitely invidious but enormously productive dialogue between the West and Islam. And great books, like great statesmen, are almost never nice.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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