On the top floor of a towering apartment block in Cairo, half a dozen Syrian activists are hunched over their laptops. Each man organized demonstrations in his home town before escaping the Assad regime's intelligence agents in the last few months. Now, armed with a list of trusted contacts that stretches across the borders from southwest Syria to Lebanon and Jordan, they have become a key link in the supply chain of an opposition movement that is struggling to outmaneuver a brutal crackdown. Donations collected from Syrians and well-wishers in Cairo are used to purchase cell phones, satellite communications equipment, medicine, and money, which is smuggled to friends and family members on the inside. In turn, protesters send out video evidence of attacks, which the men in Cairo catalogue, upload to YouTube, and forward to media outlets.
The men work with close contacts in their own villages and neighborhoods, independently of organizing committees or opposition bodies. Abdel Youssef fled from Ad Dumayr, a city northeast of Damascus. Syrian authorities went door to door there searching for military defectors on Wednesday night and he spent the day following their movements through eyewitness accounts. As he tells the story of how he fled, a Skype window flashes up on his screen. A woman he knows tells him that security forces attempting to arrest a man have captured his daughter instead. "Now I'm looking out the window," the message reads. "She is being beaten up by the security forces because she is saying ‘Allahu Akhbar'." Abdel Youssef passes on information like this to a contact in the Free Syrian Army, who he says use this information to block roads and set up ambushes in an attempt to protect demonstrations.
In light of the resignation of the National Security Council's Dennis Ross, and as the international community waits for the United Nations to consider Palestine's road to formal statehood, we call upon the Obama administration and so-called Middle East experts advising the various presidential hopefuls to take some introspective "down time." The purpose is to reassess heretofore time-honored policies, practices, political campaign pronouncements, and come up with a realistic and viable way forward.
It is clear that Obama's efforts toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire have been nothing short of a failure. When tallying on to previous failed administration attempts, the cumulative effect has been a clear loss of strategic leverage. This loss is detrimental to the U.S. interest of securing two states living side by side in peace in the region, as well as influencing the likes of Syria and Iran at a critical time. This trend must be reversed and replaced by revitalized action on a critical U.S. national security issue.
So the UNESCO's general conference has voted to admit Palestine as a member. The U.S. government has made good on its Congressionally-mandated commitment to withhold its dues payments to UNESCO. Israel has come up with a cute PR line (UNESCO is supposed to be about science, not science fiction), Europe is hopelessly split -- oh, and the Palestinian territories are still occupied.
Nevertheless, there are a few signposts for what might be coming down the pike worth paying attention to after today's vote:
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Is there anyone familiar with the history of the Israel-Palestine peace process who still believes that this Israeli government would defy the over half-a-million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- by far the most influential political force in Israel -- and their networks of supporters within Israel, and present Palestinians with a reasonable peace plan for a two-state solution that would be acceptable to even the most moderate and accommodating of Palestinian leaders?
Shelly Yachimovich, an Israeli Knesset Member who is a leading candidate for the Labor Party's leadership, recently declared that Israel's settlement project is "not a sin or a crime" since it was initiated by a Labor government, and therefore "a completely consensual move." Leaving aside the bizarre notion that the consensus of thieves legitimizes their theft, if these are the views of candidates for Labor Party leadership in today's Israel, what prospect can there possibly be for an acceptable peace accord to emerge from the peace process?
After serving nearly six years as the special advisor to the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I came home convinced of one thing, cognizant of another. The first was that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not only in the vital security interests of Israel and the future state of Palestine, but also the United States. The second, initially noted two years ago by a former IDF Chief of Staff, was that, "The USSC, the IDF and the Palestinian Security Services were buying time, time for the politicians.... [A]nd they're wasting it." As we approach the United Nations General Assembly session in September, the first conviction remains immutable, while sadly, the reality of the general's observation appears not to have changed in the slightest.
T. E. Lawrence wrote in the aftermath of the First World War, "...[W]hen we achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew... We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly, and made their peace."
After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country's majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country.
This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh's immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.
Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli intellectual and politically very much a centrist, is to be commended for dismissing Israeli fears that outside criticism of their country's occupation policies is an effort to challenge Israel's very right to exist. Writing in Ha'aretz, Avineri notes there is not a single country in the world that maintains diplomatic ties with Israel that has ever questioned the legitimacy of Israel's existence.
Avineri maintains that whatever political problems might result for Netanyahu's government from a United Nations decision to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, it would in no sense "delegitimize" the state of Israel. On the contrary: recognizing Palestine within 1967 borders, he argues, would result in the international recognition of the 1967 lines as the border of Israel, which would mean recognition for the first time of West Jerusalem as a legitimate part of the state of Israel. Avineri concludes, therefore, that "there are no significant moves afoot anywhere on Earth to delegitimize Israel."
Historical dates often emerge by sheer coincidence. In 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad formulated an operational goal for his tenure: by 2011 he wanted to build institutions that would justify the proclamation of a Palestinian state. This would not just have symbolic value, as PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat's statement in 1988, but would carry practical implications. Fayyad's efforts have commanded international admiration. The West Bank is indeed run in a way that meets many criteria for successful statehood. As opposed to the past, funds are used responsibly and accounting standards are transparent. The security forces -- originally trained by U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton -- are remarkably effective. Both the Palestinian population and the Israel Defense Forces rely on them more than ever. Hence, September 2011 began to crystallize as a realistic date for the founding of a Palestinian state.
Fayyad's 2011 deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood had acquired enormous importance, even though Fayyad never connected it to the bid for U.N. recognition. It has provided Palestinians with a political horizon and a strong motivation to try the route of peaceful resistance and reliance on the international community's support for the new state. The idea of turning to the U.N. for recognition of Palestine seems not to have been a long-term strategy; it emerged as an option faute de mieux, in the absence of negotiations, and without reasonable hope that Netanyahu has the will or the mandate for a meaningful Israeli compromise.
What conclusions are to be drawn about the state of Middle East peacemaking from the extraordinary spectacle of the adversarial encounter between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their several major adversarial addresses in the second half of May?
The spectacle did not bring an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement any closer. Indeed, Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress, no less than Congress's reaction to that speech, effectively buried the Middle East peace process for good. For what America's solons were jumping up and down to applaud so wildly as they pandered pathetically to the Israel lobby was Netanyahu's rejection of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, thus endorsing his determination to maintain permanently Israel's colonial project in the West Bank.
If Netanyahu succeeds in his objective, these members of Congress will be able to take credit for an Israeli apartheid regime that former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert predicted would be the inescapable consequence of policies the congressmen cheered and promised to continue to support as generously as they have in the past.
To most observers witnessing events in Syria, the goal is clear-cut: end the killing, support democracy, and change the Assad regime -- hoping it will be removed or reformed to an unrecognizable degree. State actors looking at the same reality will often bring a different set of considerations into play, especially if they happen to be neighboring Syria. Israel has had a complicated relationship with the popular upheaval in its northern neighbor -- and, indeed, with the Baathist Damascus regime in general over the years.
As of Sunday, that complexity entered a new dimension. Of course the popular uprising in Syria is not about Israel, nor will it be particularly determined by Israel's response. Nevertheless, Israel's leaders, like those elsewhere in the region, will have to position themselves in relation to this changing environment, and this will, in part, impact Syria's options.
On Sunday, June 5, marking Naksa Day (the Arab "setback" in the 1967 war), protesters -- mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendents -- marched to the Israel/Syria disengagement line representing the border between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. According to reports up to 22 unarmed Syrian-Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli forces apparently resorted to live fire (Israeli laid mines may also have been detonated and may have caused causalities, the exact unraveling of events remains sketchy). In most respects, this Sunday's events were a repeat performance of the outcome of May 15's Nakba Day commemorations (which Palestinians mark as the anniversary of their catastrophe in 1948).
Europe and America have shared a settled conviction over the last decades: It is that Israel, out of its own necessity, must seek to conserve a Jewish majority within Israel. And that with time, and a growing Palestinian population, Israel will at some point have to acquiesce to a Palestinian state in order to maintain that Jewish majority: that is, only by giving Palestinians their own state and thereby shedding a part of the Palestinians it controls, can Israel's Jewish majority be preserved.
This simple proposition has given us the security-first doctrine: Meeting Israel's self-definition of its own security needs -- it is presumed -- stands as the unique and sufficient principle, allowing Israel to transition with confidence to the two-state solution.
But Israel has not done this -- despite many opportunities over the last 19 years -- and does not seem any more disposed to "give" a Palestinian state now. Seldom is it asked why, if the logic is indeed so compelling, have two states not emerged?
As the Palestinian leadership struggles to contain the damage caused by Al Jazeera's release of leaked documents detailing years of their negotiations with Israel, there is one lesson that risks being buried in all of the current hype. The Palestine Papers, and much of the response to them, demonstrate the increasingly narrow line the Palestinian leadership must walk between satisfying its U.S. and Western benefactors, as well as Israel, and maintaining credibility in the eyes of its own people.
As someone who was involved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for many years, including in the development of many of the documents now in question, I have been particularly struck by the extent and tone of the outrage surrounding the leaked documents. For those Palestinians and other Arabs who actively oppose a two-state solution, I can understand and appreciate their outrage over some of the "unprecedented concessions" contained in these documents.
On the other hand, for those who understand the basic requirements of a two state-solution-an outcome most Palestinians and other Arabs still say they favor, even as they remain highly doubtful of the other side's intentions and the ability of their own leaders to achieve it-there hardly seems cause for surprise, at least as relates to the concessions on permanent status issues - if not on other matters.
Later this evening, the House is set to vote on a resolution "condemning unilateral declarations of a Palestinian state." Introduced by Rep. Howard Berman, the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the suspension bill urges Palestinian leaders to "ease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process, including efforts to gain recognition of a Palestinian state from other nations, within the United Nations, and in other international forums prior to achievement of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and calls upon foreign governments not to extend such recognition." In other words, despite the fact that the Netanyahu government recently rejected what Thomas Friedman characterized as a $3.5 billion "bribe," the blame, yet again, is put squarely on the Palestinians.
The riled-up congressional response is predictable but in way, it also contradicts the traditional hardline argument in favor of continued occupation. One might naively expect foreign policy hawks to be overjoyed at the news that Palestinian leaders are thinking about declaring a state along June 4, 1967 borders. The hawks have long insisted that the Palestinians' raison d'être is to eradicate Israel. For instance, Jonathan Schanzer, research director at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writes in his book Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, "Palestinian nationalism has been based more on destruction (of a Jewish state) than creation (of its own state)."
But today we have Palestinians contemplating independence in territory limited to just 22% of historic Palestine. In other words, the very fact that the Palestinians are willing to settle for 22% of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean demonstrates that the issue they care about is having their own state and ending the occupation, not supplanting Israel. If Palestinians take their case to the United Nations, then it's proof that their nationalism isn't rooted in destruction. It's a move that you'd expect hawks - especially those who understand that the occupation jeopardizes Israel's character and security - to endorse.
If we believe the recently leaked U.S. State Department messages, some leaders of Arab states harbor unkind thoughts about their Iranian neighbors. In addition to describing them in terms like "liar" and "snake," they have expressed a wish to American visitors that this troublesome neighbor would somehow go away. For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stung by these harsh epithets, claims that the entire WikiLeaks affair is a foreign conspiracy to sow discord between Iranians and Arabs and to strengthen the Americans' claim that Iran has become a diplomatic polecat in its own region.
Arab-Iranian hostility is not uniform. Iranians enjoy correct if not warm relations with their Qatari and Omani neighbors. Relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are icy, with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait falling somewhere in the middle. When pushed to the wall, both sides have been capable of putting aside old prejudices and grievances (real and imagined) and can act in their own interest and maintain cordial state-to-state ties. Nevertheless, the big picture is negative, as the cables dramatically show.
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It has become a truism to state that President Obama erred when he picked a fight with Israel over settlements at the outset of his Middle East peace efforts. Like many Mideast truisms, this one too is false.
Obama's error had nothing to do with settlements. His error was picking a fight that he apparently wasn't committed to winning.
Because if Obama wasn't ready to play tough and demonstrate -- to both sides -- that there are real consequences for not playing ball, then his Middle East peace efforts were doomed to failure from the start, regardless of what strategy or tactics he adopted along the way.
One of the silent victims of Iraq's political paralysis has been the country's long-delayed census. On Oct. 3, the census was postponed for the third time since 2007, when the cabinet pushed it back from Oct. 24 to Dec. 5. The main reason for the latest delay was the concern of some Iraqi politicians, neighboring states such as Turkey, and the United States that going ahead with the census now could just foment unrest in the disputed territories that border the federal Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
Given the current configuration of the census, however, a delay is not such a bad thing. If anything, Iraq's caretaker government should give serious consideration to delaying the census even further, until the new government can correct its flaws and turn it into something that will be truly useful for the whole country.
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In what is possibly a first for the mainstream U.S. media, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently noted some of the parallels between Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and Morocco's attempted annexation of Western Sahara:
It's fair to acknowledge that there are double standards in the Middle East, with particular scrutiny on Israeli abuses. After all, the biggest theft of Arab land in the Middle East has nothing to do with Palestinians: It is Morocco's robbery of the resource-rich Western Sahara from the people who live there.
And just as one would expect, Morocco's ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar, issued a prompt retort denying that Western Sahara was ever stolen. But the ambassador's logic was a bit fuzzy. "Far from stealing Western Sahara," Mekouar argued, "Morocco has offered the region autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty." Which is like saying that theft is not theft if you are willing to sell the stolen object back to the victims for a good price.
Eleven years ago, current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, inherited one of the world's oldest thrones together with one of Africa's most intractable conflicts, the Western Sahara dispute. For his father, King Hassan II, the seizure of Western Sahara from Spain became a blessing and a curse. It was arguably Hassan's greatest achievement and yet Western Sahara soon became the greatest challenge to the consolidation of the post-colonial Moroccan state. Over a decade into his rule, Mohammed VI has yet to find a way to make good on his father's conquest and legacy in the contested Western Sahara.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, recently startled his fellow cabinet ministers - and Middle East analysts everywhere - with a proposal that Israel end its status as an occupying power in the Gaza Strip and allow Hamas to establish an independent Palestinian state in that enclave.
Most everyone dismissed Lieberman's suggestion out of hand, coming as it did from a man derisively referred to by his Israeli critics as "the bouncer from Kishinev" (having in fact been employed as a night club bouncer in the Moldavian capital before emigrating to Israel).
Lieberman proposed that Israel fashion a border regime that removes Israel's effective control over Gaza's economic lifelines while satisfying legitimate Israeli security requirements - hardly an idea expected from an Israeli leader who has distinguished himself by his contempt for democracy and xenophobia towards Arabs, whether Israel's own citizens or under Israeli occupation.
Turkey's rugged Kurdish region in the country's southeast has exploded in violence once again, posing a new challenge for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More than 80 soldiers have been killed this year in attacks orchestrated by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group, already exceeding the total for all of 2009. Turkey responded this week by bombing PKK strongholds in northern Iraq.
This renewal of violence should serve as a reminder to Erdogan that peace begins at home -- not in Gaza or Iran. The prime minister won regional prestige for undercutting U.S. diplomacy by striking a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran in May and for lambasting Israel in June over its botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turks. Translating this newly aggressive foreign policy into domestic support, however, has proved trickier.
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Just days before a scheduled fence-mending visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I received an email from the Jerusalem Post that invited me to move to territory that most of the world considers occupied Arab land.
The email, titled "Enhanced financial assistance for Aliyah to Israel's North in 2010," promised up to $14,000 in cash and numerous other benefits ("aliyah" is the term for when Diaspora Jews move to Israel). The email showed a smiling young mother and daughter looking out over a vista of red tile-roofed houses, rolling green hills, and a large lake.
A few clicks revealed that the Golan Heights -- which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war -- is among the "northern" communities seeking prospective immigrants.
Throughout modern history, there has been a direct relationship between conflict and the emergence of new ways of arbitrating world affairs. Every major war since the 17th century was concluded by a treaty that led to the emergence of a new order, from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that followed the Thirty Years' War, to the Congress of Vienna of 1814-1815 that brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars, to the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles that concluded the first World War, to the agreement at Yalta that laid the groundwork for the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. Yet the Cold War, which could be regarded as a global-scale war, ended not with grand summitry, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no official conclusion; one of the combatant sides just suddenly ceased to exist.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent officials in Damascus and Washington scrambling when he claimed Tuesday that Syria is providing the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah with Scud missiles whose accuracy and range threaten more Israeli cities than ever before. His unexpected announcement, though vehemently denied by the Syrian regime, threatens to spark a new war between Israel and its antagonists in the region while further undermining U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts at engagement with Syria.
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