After 19 months, President Barack Obama has finally convened Arab-Israeli peace talks and set a one-year timeline for securing a final peace deal. If he is serious about this goal, he will need to establish a regional environment conducive to peace -- a step that requires rebuilding American strength in the region.
Historically, the United States has made its most significant progress in Middle East peacemaking when it operated from a pre-eminent position in the region. That's what convinced Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to chuck the Soviets and turn to Washington to engineer his peace with Israel in the 1970s; it is also what convinced Arabs and Israelis to start the modern era of peacemaking at the Madrid peace conference, following the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait.
But this iteration of peace talks, which will resume on Sept. 14 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, begins with many in the Middle East questioning American strength, not deferring to it. This change has potentially negative implications for our ability to help Arabs and Israelis forge peace.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Mark Perry's article, "Red Team" (ForeignPolicy.com, June 30) argues that an intelligence unit inside the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) known as the "Red Team" is thinking outside the box about the Middle East and recommending strategies for Hezbollah and Hamas that are "at odds with current U.S. policy."
Perry's thesis is that there is an important divide in the U.S. government over how to deal with these militant groups, as evidenced by the apparent rift between "senior officers at CENTCOM headquarters" and everyone else. For Perry, a prominent advocate of negotiating with radical Islamist groups, this institutional discrepancy over Middle East policy proves that his ideas have achieved credibility at high levels within the U.S. policymaking community.
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Over the past year, the Obama
Administration has missed successive opportunities to bring real international
pressure on the Iranian government to address the severe human rights crisis
gripping the country. Instead, it has focused its political muscle on the
singular objective of convincing Iran's leadership to stop nuclear
enrichment. The result has been an almost cruel disregard for the plight of the
Iranian people and their urgent need for international attention to their human
Since joining the UN Human Rights Council in June 2009, the United States has worked to address crises in places as diverse as Haiti, Honduras, Burma, Sudan, Guinea, Kyrgysztan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet, since the Green uprising started last summer, not a single resolution has been presented by the United States or European states on the brutal repression taking place in Iran.
While packaged as a triumph, the rollout of a new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is in fact more of a relief, given the circuitous path required to arrive at the talks. Convinced of the need for a U.S. role that was at once more activist and yet more dispassionate, President Barack Obama's administration committed a series of early diplomatic miscues that strained U.S. relations with both Israelis and Palestinians, and likely delayed the onset of direct negotiations. The legacy of those early errors -- the Sept. 26 expiration (or perhaps extension) of Israel's settlement moratorium -- continues to hang as a dark cloud over the fledgling peace process.
In light of the experience of the last 18 months, therefore, it is prudent to use the commencement of "direct talks" not only to revisit the negotiating issues themselves, but also to reassess the U.S. role in the negotiations.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
In his Iraq speech tonight, President Obama has an opportunity to explain to Americans how the United States and Iraq got to the point where the combat mission had to end by a date certain and explain how his administration can apply these lessons to the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan.
Conventional wisdom among America's foreign policy establishment is that setting deadlines for troop withdrawals from war zones are detrimental for U.S. national security. But this foreign policy establishment is just as wrong about why America is leaving Iraq by a date certain as they were about why we had to go to war in Iraq in the first place.
The narrative constructed by those who advocated that the U.S. increase, or surge, of more troops into Iraq in 2007 goes something like this: President Bush's troop increase demonstrated that our commitment was open-ended and allowed the military to implement a real counterinsurgency strategy that paved the way to "victory." But a closer examination of the facts demonstrates that the opposite is true -- in Iraq, violence declined because more Iraqis perceived that U.S. troops were leaving and took appropriate action.
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.
On Monday, the International Criminal Court's (ICC) Pre-Trial Chamber judges issued a second arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, this time for three counts of genocide. Darfur activist groups here in the U.S. welcomed the news while calling on world leaders to prevent the type of retaliation against the people of Darfur that Bashir masterminded after the first arrest warrant in March 2009. As the world responds to the ICC's milestone decision, it's worth highlighting why this case and the overall push for justice for Darfur is so essential and urgent: without accountability, a negotiated peace will be little more than a long-term ceasefire.
Last Sunday was both a potent reminder of the horrific power of ethnic nationalism and the redemptive quality of multi-ethnic democracies -- lessons that we should be applying to one of the last great moral sores of our time, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territory and the Israeli-Arab conflict. On Sunday, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, world leaders joined 60,000 Bosnians to pay tribute to 775 more Bosnian Muslim victims of the Srebrenica massacre fifteen years ago, whose remains have been identified. Those whose nations or institutions shared responsibility for the massacre were in attendance. The President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, appeared in a brave act of national repentance and a former and respected colleague of mine, Andrew Gilmour, was there to represent the United Nations Secretary General.
Simultaneously, the World Cup's championship match got under way in the multi-racial democracy that is now South Africa. Earlier, Nelson Mandela, the first president of a free South Africa, showed up briefly to be welcomed by tens of thousands of jubilant fans.
One day later in Jerusalem, in sharp contrast and mundane by comparison, the Israeli municipal planning committee in the city approved another 32 settlement units in the Arab eastern half of the city. As Elisha Peleg, a member of the committee put it, "[w]e will continue to plan and build in every neighborhood in this city and we will not allow external forces to intervene." (Presumably, he was referring to President Obama.) And today, in an equally symbolic move, Israel also ended its unofficial ban on destroying Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem.
This week saw Iran formally submit its fuel-swap proposal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil last week, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet it is important to recall the curt response of U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton to the initiative to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff and the far-reaching repercussions it is likely to have in the region. Indeed, just one week before the Turkish-Brazilian initiative, U.S. officials reiterated that the fuel-swap proposal for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) -- a confidence-building initiative that was designed to open the way to Iranian negotiations with the West on a range of issues -- was still on the table and that its terms could not be altered. The 20 percent enriched uranium that would be returned to Iran was earmarked to fuel a fully safeguarded reactor which produces isotopes for the treatment primarily of cancer. Previously, Iran purchased the necessary fuel on the open market.
The Brazilian-Turkish diplomatic breakthrough with
Iran has taken Washington by surprise.
Clearly, the geopolitical center of gravity has shifted -- five years of EU-led
negotiations led nowhere while the new emerging powers Brazil and Turkey
only needed a few months to produce a breakthrough. Now, the West needs to pull
off some political acrobatics to avoid being on the diplomatic
Before Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's trip to Iran this weekend, few among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council were optimistic about his chances of success. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was charitable when he put Lula's odds at 30 percent. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly called her Brazilian counterpart to discourage Brazil from undertaking the diplomatic mission. And few in Washington seemed to have been prepared for a diplomatic breakthrough.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was finally re-launched this week following an almost year-and-a-half long hiatus during which new governments took office in both Israel and the U.S. Arguably the most remarkable feature of such a long-awaited resumption of talks (albeit indirect ones) was the absence of not only any fanfare surrounding the occasion but also of almost any expectation that these might produce results.
Sadly, this skepticism is more than justified. Many point to the format of the talks - that these are so-called proximity talks rather than direct negotiations--as being indicative of how deep into retreat the prospects for peace have sunk. In fact, these are not even real proximity talks, which normally imply ongoing mediation by a third party between two parties ensconced in the same location though in different quarters. The process launched by Special Envoy Mitchell might be more accurately described as indirect and mediated talks.
The timing of the "Jewish Call for Reason" (or JCall) in Europe last week, as well as the identity of its authors, created a splash in the European media. The question pundits are asking is whether JCall represents a genuine attempt by European Jews to pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation begun in 1967 or to distance the authors from the policies of an ever more right-wing Israeli government. Simply, will it provide an opportunity for greater cohesion among advocates of peace in Europe?
The Israeli government has it in for Richard Goldstone. Ever since Goldstone, a Jewish South African judge, issued a report in September charging Israel (and Hamas) with war crimes during the January 2009 invasion of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attacked him -- and his report -- as a grave threat to Israel's legitimacy.
On Thursday, leading Israeli government officials escalated their campaign against Goldstone, accusing him of sending 28 black South Africans to their deaths while serving as a judge during the apartheid years.
"The judge who sentenced black people to death … is a man of double standards," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin proclaimed. "Such a person should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists." Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon insisted, "This so-called respected judge is using this report in order to atone for his sins," likening Goldstone's statement that he was forced to uphold the laws of an unjust regime to "explanations we heard in Nazi Germany after World War II."
And the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth declared breathlessly -- with nods of approval from Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait -- that "the man who authored the Goldstone report criticizing the IDF's actions during Operation Cast Lead took an active part in the racist policies of one of the cruelest regimes of the 20th century."
So did Israel's government.
Regardless of the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the reports about Syria allowing the transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah, the absence of the Lebanese government from the debate is extremely alarming. It is also telling of the subdued state of affairs in the country, as well as the changes in the recent political dynamics, which have come at the expense of the United States and its allies.
The trumpeted U.S.-Iran showdown at the United Nations was over moments after it began. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strutted and fretted his almost-hour on the stage of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference on May 3. Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her smack down. If it were a boxing match, the refs would have ended it.
Jeers, not cheers
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become the new Muammar al-Qaddafi. He dropped into the United Nations from an alternate reality with talk of Iran's "longtime acceptance" of the proposed nuclear fuel deal and how Iran has always "called for love, compassion, and peace for mankind." This would be news to the negotiators from the six countries that Ahmadinejad stiffed last October, first accepting, then rejecting the fuel deal, and the green movement protesters shot in the streets of Tehran and jailed and tortured in the regime's prisons.
When a prime minister refers to the Iranian leader as his "brother," his country's approach to nonproliferation and the Iranian nuclear crisis starts to generate interest and concern in the West. This is especially true if that country shares a border with Iran. This is the situation Turkey and its leaders are now faced with.
Turkey's approach to Iran is shaped by a number of contradictory elements. On the positive side, relations between the two countries have been peaceful for almost four centuries. The Turkey-Iran border set out by the "Qasr-i Shireen" Treaty of 1639 has remained unchanged, no small accomplishment in a turbulent region like the Middle East. In more recent times, with the end of Iranian zeal to export the Islamic Revolution, relations have improved significantly. Today, they are characterized by the principles of noninterference in domestic affairs, good neighborliness, and economic and security cooperation. As a result, Iran is not viewed as a direct threat by the Turkish establishment or in Turkish public opinion.
The Middle East has not received much attention in the British electoral campaign. Yet whoever forms the next government will have to establish a stance on the putative Middle East peace process, on Iran, on relations with the Arab Gulf states, including security cooperation and arms sales, and on developments in Iraq, even if British troops are no longer on the ground there.
Judging by the statements of the three main party leaders in their televised debate on foreign policy, all are supportive of British troops in Afghanistan, but none want to see them remain there indefinitely. Labour Party leader Gordon Brown has nonetheless argued that the British deployment is integral to a broader strategy to counter the forces of extremism that could still inspire or instigate attacks on British soil.
In an op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal (04/26/2010), Richard Haass, the President of Council on Foreign Relations, argues that advocates of a more forceful U.S. intervention in the Middle East peace process have exaggerated that conflict's impact on America's interests elsewhere in the region.
I don't know anyone among those who have cited the damage the Israel-Palestine conflict is causing U.S. interests in the region who believes this concern to be anything other than a secondary reason for a more muscular U.S. initiative to bring this conflict to a close. For everyone, the main reason is the human cost to millions of Palestinians who have lived under the boot of a military occupation for over 40 years, and to Israel's citizens who, while living increasingly undisturbed and prosperous lives, nevertheless exist in the shadow of the threat of recurring wars and Qassam rockets.
[This week the Middle East Channel posted answers to questions about the elusive quest for peace from experts and former leading practitioners of the peace process. Continuing this series below is the response of Ambassador Nabil Fahmy.]
Aaron David Miller's piece entitled ‘The False Religion of Middle East Peace' is as typically passionate and insightful as many of his other contributions. I share his frustration and have recently published articles reflecting that in the Arabic Middle Eastern press. So, at least two Middle East negotiators from different parts of the world (with accumulative professional experience of over 60 years) share a deep frustration and concern with the present state of play.
[This week the Middle East Channel posted answers to questions about the elusive quest for peace from experts and former leading practitioners of the peace process. Continuing this series below is the response of Dr. Ron Pundak--one of the two Israelis behind the secret Oslo talks that made history in 92-93]
1) What have you learned?
Both publics are tired of the conflict; a majority on both sides want peace. Though for the Palestinians peace translates first of all as an end of the occupation and not having to see Israeli soldiers or settlers; while for Israelis, peace translates as security and quiet, an improved quality of life and preferably without seeing Palestinians.
President Barack Obama's nuclear summit of 47 world leaders last week aimed to address a major flaw in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT): namely, its neglect of non-state actors. In this regard, the summit was a success, as it laid the foundation for creating safeguards against non-state actors' acquisition of weapons-grade nuclear material. However, the other major flaw of the NPT--its inability to achieve universal membership--remains unattended to.
The Washington nuclear summit contributes to re-establishing US leadership in the nuclear nonproliferation business, especially after the signing of the ‘New START' treaty and the release of a more engaging Nuclear Posture Review. President Obama can now capitalize on these successes and take steps to improve the universality of NPT. That would affirm US leadership and at the same time improve global security significantly.
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is not unlike his father. Hafiz al-Asad was a foreign policy pragmatist who went against the grain on occasion based on perceived national interest. He was able to steer a foreign policy course for Syria where it could play on both sides of the regional and international fences. Syria is the only country in the Arab world that can do so in any meaningful way. On the one side of the fence Syria has been a cradle of Arab nationalism, yet it supported non-Arab Iran against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It was the leader of the Arab confrontation states traditionally arrayed against Israel, yet it has engaged in direct and indirect negotiations with the Jewish state for almost three decades, coming tantalizingly close to a peace agreement in 2000. It was a client state of the Soviet Union during the superpower Cold War, yet it sent troops to fight alongside American forces in the US-led UN coalition to evict Iraq from Kuwait in 1990-91. This foreign policy hopscotch can be frustrating to those countries that would like to see a more consistent policy path emanating from Damascus, but it is exactly the ability to do this that has allowed Syria to muddle through various crises in the recent past as well as provide what otherwise is a relatively weak state some leverage and utility.
[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the last in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. The series also includes pieces by Gideon Lichfield and Leon Hadar.]
Reactions to the recent diplomatic squabble between the U.S. and Israel over building in East Jerusalem display a startling lack of historical memory. More than 30 years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted on building beyond the green line, and President Jimmy Carter proved unable to stop him. President Barack Obama risks a repeat performance. With the Netanyahu government's announcement to build 1,600 more housing units in Ramat Shlomo, the consequences of U.S. inaction will prove even more damaging than in Carter's time. Given a shift in American priorities, Obama can't afford to stand down.
Back in 1977, Carter recognized that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was central to broader regional peace. He got to work immediately upon taking office. Yet two days after his initial meeting with Begin, Carter was astonished to hear that the Israeli prime minister had returned home and legalized three West Bank settlements, declaring them "permanent." These settlements had existed before Begin's victory, but the declaration of permanence secured government subsidies and attempted to assert Israeli claims across the green line. Begin cast this bid to expand Israel's territory in religious and nationalist terms, receiving critical support from then Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon. Together they established a matrix of control in the West Bank that gnawed away at the foundation of a viable future Palestinian state.
Just as Saturday's Arab Summit approaches, the Lebanese government has been reminding the Libyan government of the requirements of social etiquette in inviting nations to a diplomatic gathering. We all know the basic rules for a successful invitation. A proper host will include a telephone number or an email address to respond and in the case of a particularly formal event, there will be a self-addressed, stamped RSVP card included. It is important that invitees pay particular attention to RSVP deadlines as adjustments will be made by the host based on the response. In the event that the invitation was improperly mailed, return to sender-- which is exactly the path the Lebanese have taken.
With just one day to go, Lebanon appears to be the last nation to commit. Libya, a member state and the host of this year's meeting to be held in Sirte March 27-28 has now extended not one but two invitations, neither which were received by the Lebanese representative to the Arab League.
Trying to hold Israel to the coals over its construction in East Jerusalem, as the Obama administration has been doing for the past two weeks, may have been necessary in the wake of the Biden visit provocation, but it doesn't make for a smart, ongoing tactic.
The administration, worried about America's image in the Arab world, has been trying to look tough ever since the Israeli government tactlessly announced the building of 1,600 new houses in Ramat Shlomo, a settlement area in East Jerusalem just across the Green Line, while Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting. This week the White House gave Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a very public snub by denying him the customary photo-op and press conference on his visit to President Barack Obama in Washington.
In a joint statement on Friday, the Quartet - which groups the U.N., U.S., EU and Russia - spelled out very clearly the requirements of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called for a resumption of negotiations between the protagonists to agree the details within 24 months.
In scope and tone the statement is more assertive and specific than previous U.S. pronouncements on what is required, but echoes a December statement of the EU Council of Ministers. Calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to act on the basis of international law, the Quartet, "re-affirms that unilateral actions taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community."
Friday is weekend newspaper day in Israel, and when the political waters are stormy that's normally an occasion for the big papers to tell the public what their fellow citizens think with some new polling data. This week was certainly not without its political turmoil in Israel, and this sabbath's papers did not disappoint.
The leading circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth and the more high-brow Ha'aretz both carried new surveys delving into the U.S.-Israel spat and how it is impacting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Israel Radio (Reshet Bet) released its more minimalist numbers yesterday.
Jonathan Guyer / mideastbymidwest.com
It took a little over 24 hours, but in the end a version of events was agreed on that allowed for the resumption of something resembling business as usual in Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu had not known about the planning approval of 1600 housing units in Occupied East Jerusalem - this was all terribly embarrassing, Israel was sincerely sorry for the unpleasantness caused, and the minister directly responsible displayed appropriate contrition. You see, the relevant district planning committee in Jerusalem had its timing wrong, completing the approval process would anyway take several more months, and actual building on the ground would only happen some time in the distant future.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.