Sunday, June 7, 2009

Obama’s Gauntlet for the Muslim World

Feeling misunderstood, wrongly portrayed, discriminated against and on the defensive, Muslims appreciated US President Barack Obama's call for a new beginning in the relationship between Islam and the West. Indeed, there is much to criticize about Western attitudes, certainly in the post 9/11 period. Yet, Muslims play an important role in shaping non-Muslim perceptions of Islam and need to play their part in changing views of others.

While Obama's speech in Cairo in tone and substance constitutes one of the most far-reaching efforts by a Western leader to extend his hand to the Islamic world, it also laid down a challenge to Muslims to radically change the relationship by doing their bit not only to alter perception but to ensure that the dialogue between civilizations takes place on a level playing field. That is a tall order involving a far-reaching re-evaluation of Muslim perceptions of Islam, its history and tradition and how they project this within their own diverse communities and to the non-Muslim world – a reevaluation needed to frame a new relationship between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

Muslims stress the peaceful and tolerant nature of Islam. No doubt, Islam compared to Christianity has a great tradition of tolerance towards minorities, whose members often rose to positions of prominence and power in Muslim societies. Nonetheless, much of the portrayal of Islamic history by Muslim historians is not one of peace and tolerance but of conflict, war and struggle for power. Starting with sirat, the historiography of the Prophet Mohammed, Muslim historians have focused more often than not on the Prophet's military battles and successes rather than his efforts to achieve peace through dialogue and persuasion, particularly in Mecca and Medina.

Post 9/11 there has been much debate of madrassah education in various parts of the world constituting a breeding ground for religious extremism. Important in and of itself, the need to project a less glorified, less militaristic perception of Islamic history goes far beyond the madrassahs. It reaches into all spheres of society such as education, religious institutions, civic society and the media. It underscores efforts by many Muslims and non-Muslims to emphasize Islam's major contributions to human history, in the realm of science for instance, and the co-existence of reason and faith. These efforts however have to focus as much on Muslim communities as they do on non-Muslim ones.

That realization has already begun to emerge. In one of the most explicit exposes of the challenge Muslims face, Maulana Waris Mazhari, a leading Indian scholar of the Deobandi, an Indian Sunni revivalist movement founded in the 19th century to prevent British colonialism from corrupting Islam, says: "I think there is an urgent need for reappraising our approach to writing Islamic history. Many aspects of the Prophet's life, which numerous sirat-writers, in their obsession with war and conquest, ignored or else gave little attention to, must be highlighted as these are particularly relevant for Muslims living in a plural society today. For instance, the Mithaq-e Medina, the pact between the Prophet and the non-Muslims of Medina, which set out the rights and duties of the different communities residing in the town. And, of course, the thirteen years of the Prophet's peaceful preaching in Mecca." Mazhari was speaking in a recent interview with Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa's Graduates' Association.

Just how widespread the need for questioning one's own assumptions is, is reflected in the debate engaging not only the Muslim mainstream but also its radical fringe, in which many are questioning the assumptions that led them to violence. Inevitably if perhaps unwittingly, it constitutes a key ingredient in the Muslim world's effort to meet Obama's challenge. Propositions emerging from this debate often directly address issues raised by Obama in Cairo. Hizbullah in Lebanon is increasingly acting as a political party rather than a militia, Hamas in Palestine is discussing ong-term arrangements with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood recently acknowledged that Egypt's Copts should enjoy equal political rights. Exiled Tunisian Islamist leader Rashid Ghanouchi, has called for Islamists to enter into dialogue with other faiths, arguing that secular and democratic approaches do not contradict Islam. Others have said they would entertain the notion of a woman head of state.

For his part, Mazhari, stressed that the purpose of the dawa is to communicate God's message, not establish political entities. Mazhari's de-emphasis of the Prophet's military campaigns and successes in favor of his efforts to communicate and persuade directly addresses Obama's implicit call for a level playing field. In stressing dawa as the tool to communicate God's message, Mazhari reaffirms the Quran's view of all prophets, including Prophet Mohammed, as being of equal stature. Defining political rule as the purpose of dawa "would, God forbid, mean that many prophets of God had failed in their mission because they did not establish any religion-based polity… All the prophets, the Quran says, taught the same primal religion or deen, which, in Arabic, is called al-Islam or 'The Submission', although their methods may have been different in some respects," Mazhari says.

All of this responds to Obama's call for Muslims to honor religious diversity, Muslim and non-Muslim.

To do so effectively, the Muslim world will have to focus on issues it has so far often neglected: economy, education, media and interaction with civil society. That focus is emerging but is likely to involve a degree of change many Muslim countries have yet to embrace in deed rather than word. "No community can progress if it is weak in terms of economics, education and media presence. Because Muslims, not just in India, but globally as well, lag behind others in these spheres, their marginalization is hardly surprising. And, being marginalized, it is not likely that others will bother to listen to them. Even from the point of view of Islamic dawat, Muslim empowerment in these sectors is crucial," Mazhari says.

It will take time for the full implications of Obama's challenge to sink in. It involves radical change in the way Muslims understand their religion and how they project their faith, tradition and history. They will have to squarely place Islam in the context of a pluralistic, open society. Military history by its very nature paints the other as an opponent, if not an enemy. Islam's tradition of peace and tolerance constitutes a far healthier basis for others to empathize and understand Muslim concerns and for Muslims and non-Muslims to work together in seeking solutions. To do so, Muslims will have to overcome their defensiveness, be proactive rather than reactive and willing to replace glorification of Islamic history with emphasis on its positive aspects and confrontation of the negative ones, often involving un-Islamic acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. That may be a tall order, it is one that is unavoidable.






Sunday, February 1, 2009

Islamists Miss Opportunity

No doubt, Islamist opposition to autocratic regimes sought to capitalize on public anger in the Middle East at the incapability, if not unwillingness, of Arab regimes to come to the aid of Palestinians in Gaza during the Israeli offensive. However, in doing so, the Muslim Brotherhood with its tentacles in various countries, hardly proved any more effective than the very regimes it criticized. "Their discourse (was) not too different from that of the official Arab elite. This fact came across very clearly during Israel's war on the Gaza Strip," says Khalil Al-Anani, a senior fellow at Cairo's Al Ahram Foundation.

The Islamists likely benefited from high-riding, public emotions shocked and angry at what it saw on blanket coverage of the carnage in Gaza. But like Hamas, the Islamists were unable to strike a chord with non-Muslim public opinion and build bridges to international organizations that would help translate public outrage into effective pressure on Western governments. In failing to do so, the Islamists missed an opportunity to broaden the base for calls for an inclusionist policy that would help bring Hamas into efforts to find a long-term Israeli Palestinian arrangement and ensure that Islamists are fully integrated into the political process in Arab countries.

In doing so, the Islamists were wholly identified with Hamas and the notion of military resistance. Like Hamas, they misread anger at the perceived callousness of the Israeli offensive and sympathy with the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinians and wrongly assumed that it would translate into political support for the resistance and the armed struggle. For the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, Gaza constitutes an opportunity missed in terms of building bridges between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world as well as in terms of possibly becoming at player in the Middle East peace process.

Amid debate on whether the two-state solution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict has suffered a lethal blow and whether what can at best be achieved in the wake of Gaza is a long-term truce rather than an definitive peace, the Brotherhood could have set itself up as a potential go-between by accentuating Hamas' long-standing call for a 10-year truce instead of supporting its reversal to demands for an immediate opening of the Rafah crossing linking Gaza with Egypt and a 12-month ceasefire with Israel at best. Such an approach would not have jeopardized the Brotherhood's efforts to exploit the gap between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders and public opinion in their countries.

"The dilemma of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is that it still adopts the mentality of its founder Hassan Al-Banna, which was rooted in its confrontation with the West and the United States regardless of the circumstances and the passage of time," Anani says.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Jihadi Views on Energy and the US Economy

Making Sense of Jihad posts an excerpt of a 2007 DRAFT report she delivered to a client that August. "It was never completed for reasons I just can't recall now. Re-reading the entire report again for the first time, there are parts I wouldn't write today, or I would write differently. My understanding of the adversary has grown and developed in many facets. And yet in other parts I can see where my current ideas on AQ's threat to energy infrastructure came from.

The working title was Fueling the Engine of the West: Jihadist View of Energy and the American Economy from Sayyid Qutb to Al Qaeda . The excerpt below is really the only section you may find interesting. Note that the references aren't available here. Also, I've added a bit of commentary in green," Marisa Urgo writes

In Their Own Words

There are several apparent, recurring themes associated with radical Islamists’ [I would use Salafist-Jihadist now] opinions on the United States and its economic power.

First, is the vision of an unstoppable, engulfing, inhuman power represented in the Muslim world by multinational corporations that are extensions of American foreign policy.

Second, is the theme of the theft of oil. In their eyes the Arab world’s preeminence in the energy sector is a God-given blessing, a birthright that can sustain the Islamic nation for generations. The West in general and the United States, in particular, are is paying too little for these resources, and that is tantamount to theft.

A third theme is the perception of energy demand as a strategic weakness. The United States relies on the Arab world’s energy resources to maintain its economic superpower status, disrupting that vital link offers radical Islamists one of their best opportunities to curtail American global hegemony.

Sayyid Qutb

From a letter dated December 23, 1949, Colorado

Here is strange/foreign, real foreign, psychologically, spiritually, physically, and mentally. Here is that big workshop they call the new world. I know the extent of propaganda that America overwhelms the world with, and the Egyptians who came to America share that propaganda and in that light make comparison. The extent in which that the Europeans overwhelmingly advertise, and the Egyptians who return from there. And they are weak people. They do not find any value in themselves, and feel big by inflating Europe and America and derive their self respect from that!

From The America I Have Seen In the Scale of Human Values (1951)

And we would do well not to forget the psychological state that wave after wave and generation after generation of Americans brought to this land...This psychological state springs from an enduring desire for wealth by any means, and for the possession of the largest possible share of pleasures and compensation for the effort expended to acquire wealth....

...They tackled nature with the weapons of science and the strength of the muscle, so nothing existed within them besides the crude power of the mind and the overwhelming lust for the sensual pleasure. No windows to the world of the world of the spirit of the heart or tender sentiment were opened to the Americans as they were opened to the first humans. A great deal of this world of spirit, heart, and tender sentiment was preserved by the first humans, and much of this continued to be preserved even in the age of science, and added to the account of human values that endured through time. And when humanity closes the windows to faith in religion, faith in art, and faith in spiritual values altogether, there remains no out for its energy to be expended except in the realm of applied science and labor, or to be dissipated in sensual pleasure. And this is where America has ended up after four hundred years.

Usama bin Laden, founder and current leader of Al Qaeda

From a December 30, 2004 audio tape

“Today There is a Conflict between World Heresy Under the Leadership of America on the One Hand and the Islamic Nation with the Mujahideen in its Vanguard on the Other.”

"You, the mujahideen: there is now a rare and golden opportunity to make America bleed in Iraq, both economically and in terms of human losses and morale. Don't miss out on this opportunity, lest you regret it. One of the main causes for our enemies' gaining hegemony over our country is their stealing our oil; therefore, you should make every effort in your power to stop the greatest theft in history of the natural resources of both present and future generations, which is being carried out through collaboration between foreigners and [native] agents… Focus your operations on it [oil production], especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this [lack of oil] will cause them to die off [on their own].

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second in command

From his commemoration of the fourth anniversary of 9-11 (September 2005)

"I call upon the mujahideen to focus their attacks on the stolen oil of the Muslims. Most of its revenue goes to the enemies of Islam, and most of what they leave is plundered by the thieves who rule our countries. This is the greatest theft in the history of humanity. The enemies of Islam are consuming this vital resource with unparalleled greed. We must stop this theft any way we can, in order to save this resource for the sake of the Muslim nation.

From his commemoration of the fifth anniversary of 9-11 (September 2006)

The materialistic Crusader western civilization knows not the language of ethics and principles but understands the language of punishment and retribution. So, if they taste some of what they are inflicting on our women and children, then they will start giving up their arrogance, stubbornness, and greed and will seek to solve the problem between them and the Muslims.

Sheik Abdelaziz bin Rashid al-Anzi
, a well-respected Al Qaeda scholar of Islamic law [I would characterize him differently now]

From the Ruling on the Laws of Targeting Petroleum-Related Interests and a Review of the Laws Pertaining to the Economic Jihad (2004)

The mujahideen have recently targeted a number of petroleum-related interests. As expected, these attacks were among the most powerful blows dealt to the enemy. These attacks dealt a blow to the economies of the infidel crusader countries...The conclusions that I have reached in my study, thanks to Allah's guidance, are briefly summarized by the following points:

1) The targeting of oil facilities is a legitimate means of economic jihad. Economic jihad is one of the most powerful ways in which we can take revenge on the infidels during the present stage....

3) The infidels do not own what they have seized from the Muslims. It is still
Muslim property.

4) The demolition of infidel property as part of a war is legitimate, as long as the benefits outweigh the costs of such an action.

5) It is okay to destroy Muslim property if infidels have seized control of it, or if there are fears that something like this may happen. This is true as long as the potential damage of the infidels making use of this property is greater than the potential benefit that can be obtained when this property is returned to Muslim hands....

Abu Bakr al-Naji, the nom de guerre of a well-known Al Qaeda ideologue

From the Management of Savagery (2005)

Therefore, what is the plan by which we shall shape [lit. “provoke”] events from now until we have completely accomplished (by the permission of God) our goals which we mentioned above?

- Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.. If an oil interest is hit near the port of Aden, there will have to be intensive security measures put in place for all of the oil companies, and their tankers, and the oil pipelines in order to protect them and draining will increase...

However, at least these operations will raise the price of oil, even if it is just covering the cost of the electronic security system and the salaries of troops and guards which will be disbursed along the paths of the oil pipelines and the massive factories of the petroleum sectors and their many annexes. We also anticipate an additional increase in the price (of petroleum) during the political crisis which the operations will cause. We also anticipate a rise in the price of petroleum even before the operations (take place) solely on account of the statement and the study which are issued. In this there is a good media gain since we raise the price of oil by merely issuing a statement, then we raise it again through some of the limited operations against petroleum targets which were poorly protected.
Al Qaeda’s Committee on the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda’s affiliate active in the Gulf states

From the article "Bin Laden and the Oil Weapon" by Al Qaeda memberAdib al-Bassam, published Voice of Jihad (Issue 30, February 2007)
Even though the oil does not belong to (former Saudi King) Faisal or his parents, he claimed that it is permissible to stop its production. Based on this statement, we can assume that it is permissible for the mujahidin to target the oil and try to stop its export, or at least minimize its export, and raise its prices; this will benefit our country and our people...Any pious Muslim should not be against targeting the oil; we should all work together to stop the exporting of oil to the United States, if we are truly devoted to aid Muslims who are victimized everywhere, and we should work together to stop the American aggression against the world....

Sheikh Usama's orders regarding oil targeting are clear and in order for the mujahidin to fulfill their duties they must collect precise intelligence, they must carefully choose their targets, they must collect all media material needed for the operation, and they must have everything ready for the operation throughout all the stages, including planning, preparation and implementation.

In the end, I assure you that the biggest losers will be the industrial nations and on top of them all the Untied States, the carrier of the cross. Oil producing countries will not be greatly affected; on the contrary, the oil producing countries will benefit from the price increase. This was proven in 1973 when the Gulf States used the oil and their economy benefited a great deal from that. The effects on the United States were clear when the Minister of Defense Schlesinger stated that military force is needed to avoid new oil threats, which are considered to be a threat to the American economy.

Muslim Brotherhood in Denmark (1969)

Making Sense of Jihad found this little gem tonight.
It's a 1969 Danish-language pamphlet published by the I.I.F.S.O with a forward by Afzal Rahman (from London). It appears to have been distributed by a group called the Scandinavian Foundation of Islamic Services. Not jihad related, but certainly a curio from the Brotherhood's still-formative years in Europe.

View article...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Did Hamas Really Win?

Who did win the Gaza war, Israel or Hamas? The answer to that question is political rather than military and hotly debated. With Israel on the eve of elections and Gaza having been devastated, neither side can afford to be perceived as anything less than victorious. Yet, the more important question is to what degree Israel and Hamas are better off than before the fighting and whether their gains outweigh their costs.

Israel has achieved at best tactical advantages at the price of seriously damaging its image, risking facing war crime charges and putting in jeopardy an Arab peace plan it endorsed as a basis for talks. Anthony Cordesman, a prominent military analyst of the Middle East argued in January 9 report to Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that tactical advantages Israel achieved were largely gained early in the war in strikes on Hamas facilities. Cordesman cautioned that the strategic cost of a pro-longed war as opposed to a halt after the initial Israeli air strikes outweighed any tactical advantage Israel would gain. "Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel's actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process? To be blunt, the answer seems to be yes… Any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert, (Foreign Minister Tzipi) Livni and (Defense Minister Ehud) Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves, and damaged their country and their friends," Cordesman wrote.

Israel said stopping the firing of rockets into southern Israel was its main goal in the war. The rockets posed however more of a psychological and political than a military threat. There is no doubt that innocent Israelis were killed by the rockets, albeit in far less numbers than Palestinians killed in Israeli retaliation operations. Most important to Israel's leaders however, was the need to break Hamas' political will so that it would accept a two-state solution with a Palestinian state that effectively would be totally dependent on the Jewish state. With Hamas defiant, claiming victory and no longer willing to accept a truce with Israel longer than a year, Israel's goal of ensuring that Hamas would sing a tone lower appears to have failed, That may prove to be far more important than whether Hamas dares fire rockets into southern Israel following the pummeling of Gaza. It also enhances the relative value of Hamas significantly increased popular support in the West Bank and across the Arab world as well as its claim to victory by virtue of survival.

On the principle of war is an extension of diplomacy, breaking Hamas political will was all the more important to Israel given that in the last year truly meaningful Israeli Palestinian negotiations were taking place with Hamas, not with the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. The indirect Israel Hamas talks focused on the same key issues as with Abbas: Israeli withdrawal, the terms of a cessation of hostilities, the flow of goods, border patrols and supply of arms. Contrary to the negotiations with Abbas, these talks excluded the notion of mutual recognition and sought to achieve agreement only for a limited period of time. Negotiations are now integrated with violence rather than posited as an alternative; and the two parties proudly proclaim their rejection of the other's legitimacy," says George Washington University political science professor Nathan Brown.

Some Israeli intelligence and military analysts acknowledge that Hamas has in fact accepted the principle of a two-state solution with a Palestinian state alongside Israel. While the Islamist group insists its acceptance is temporary without defining how long 'temporary' may be, former Mossad chief and national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ephraim Halevy, writing in Yediot Ahronot, says that Hamas "know(s) that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their co-operation, they will be obliged to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals."

The Gaza war may be to Hamas what the 1973 war was to Egypt. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat needed his claim to victory to pursue peace. Israel may have inadvertently handed to Hamas the equivalent albeit for something less than peace. "There may be no Nobel Prize to be had here, but making sure these real negotiations succeed – and then immediately worrying about the next step—is a far more promising approach than pretending that the parties can be cajoled, muscled and jawboned into a final and comprehensive settlement under current conditions," Brown says.

In the effort to rebuild Gaza, those opposed to rewarding Hamas –Israel, the pro-US Arab governments, the European Union and the United States – will find themselves working through Hamas whether they like it or not if they want their funding to have any effect. Statements that funding has to be channeled through the Ramallah-based Palestine Authority lack clarity and seem meaningless. "If they mean funds can never leave the control of the Ramallah-based government, how can that be accomplished when that entity has no effective presence on the ground in Gaza?... If the assistance is to go through regular PA channels, those answer to Hamas. Even if rebuilding and assistance is the task not of the PA but of international actors, those can only operate with the permission and cooperation of the Gazan PA," Brown says.

Nathan cautions against believing that the aftermath of the Gaza war may constitute an opportunity to drive a wedge within Hamas between soft and hardliners. Differences in Hamas tend to be regarding perspective and priority with things looking different from Gaza, the West Bank or Damascus. Discussion is also fueled by the fact that the group's various arms – military, social, religious and government – at times have different short-term needs. However, debate seldom focuses on long-term, strategic or ideological issues. Rather differences emerge on more immediate tactical questions. The Gaza war serves as an example. Once all had been done and dusted, Hamas in a unified decision opted to match Israel' unilateral ceasefire with one of its own. In this, resembles its ancestry, the Muslim Brothers who often squabble but rarely splinter.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Studies Urges Trans-Atlantic Push For Middle Eastern Reform

If there is one issue beyond the Israeli Palestinian conflict that has damaged US credibility, and to a lesser degree that of the European Union, in the Middle East, it is their failure to stand by their principles of democracy and human rights when it comes to the Arab and Muslim world. Examples of the inherent contradictions of US and EU policy are multiple and glaring: rejection of free and fair elections when the outcome is not to the West's liking such as Hamas' victory in 2006 and the electoral success of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1991, continued support for autocratic Arab regimes in the Middle East and a disregard for human rights in the war on terror.

In his very first days in office, President Barack Obama has signaled his sincerity in seeking to restore US credibility and return it to its adherence to values of respect for human rights and the pursuit of democracy. His executive orders to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and ban torture of suspected terrorists as well as his shift in tone although not in substance on Israel and the Palestinians create expectations. While the Middle East has heard this before from Washington and seen no shift in policy either towards the Palestinians or political reform in the Arab world, tangible changes of US policy, if pursued, are likely to be gradual. Given the fragile balance in the Middle East, policy change resembles an oil tanker seeking to change course.

Public opinion in the Middle East recoils from the unqualified support the Bush administration granted Israel in its war on Hamas and the impotence of the international community and Arab governments in seeking to impose a halt to the carnage. Hamas enjoys a groundswell of support from ordinary Arabs and Islamist opposition to Arab governments is riding high on the predicament of their governments. Fear that change would undermine Arab government support for US policy in the region has repeatedly in the past defeated past lofty US promises to nurture democracy in the Middle East. So has concern that change could produce governments more in tune with their people but less attentive to US needs. The Obama administration has yet to prove that it is able and willing to chart a course key to restoring US credibility and true to Obama's declared ambition in what constitutes a treacherous minefield. Inevitably, this would involve engagement with the region's Islamists, something the US and Europe has been reluctant to do even though it has done so on various occasions. To do so, the United States and Europe will have to balance their long-term objective of political reform with short-term geo-strategic goals such as Middle East peace, continued access to the region's energy resources and a coming to grips with Iranian regional ambition.

In a report entitled 'Europe, The United States and Middle Eastern Democracy: Repairing the Breach,' published by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Tamara Coffman Wittes and Richard Youngs, argue that to achieve both short and long term goals, the United States and Europe need to adopt a common approach. In a series of recommendations, they suggest:

1) Establishment of a high-level transatlantic forum to coordinate policies in the Middle East similar to the U.S.-E.U. strategic dialogue on Asia established in 2005.
2) The United States and Europe should leave Arab leaders in no doubt of the West’s continued interest in and attention to democratic growth and human rights improvements in the Middle East, in part through joint statements
3) Europe and the United States should agree on common criteria on rewards and positive conditionality as incentives for reform
4) The allies should uphold the principle that local civil society can seek and accept foreign assistance and make US and European support of Arab civil society non-negotiable
5) The United States and Europe should engage with non-violent Islamist organization, make clear that their defense of peaceful political activism is not selective, and exert pressure on regimes that crack down on such organizations or seek to prevent them from meeting with Western donors
6) US and European government funders should engage in sustained and regular dialogue on funding strategies for democratic development in specific states
7) The United States and Europe should stress that democratic development in the Middle East is a common interest shared with the peoples of the region, not a means to other ends.

For too long, the United States and Europe paid lip service to reform in the Middle East, but feared that commitment to a reform policy could endanger energy supplies, nurture the emergence of forces less inclined to embrace the compromise needed for a two-state solution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and embolden militant forces. Failure to insist on reform has produced regimes that increasingly lack credibility and opposition groups opposed to the West in part because the West failed to stand against repression and violation of human rights and refused to engage with them.

Lack of Western commitment to reform is stifling indigenous attempts at a more modern interpretation of Islam that challenges the views of the Islamists. Arab regimes, seeking to neutralize the appeal of the Islamists, often close ranks with conservative religious forces opposed to more liberal approaches to Islam, such as the Koranists, an Islamic reformation movement that focuses exclusively on the Koran and opposes implementation of Sharia law.

"For nearly a decade, as (the Koranists have) gained momentum, they have come under increased attack from the Egyptian government for their religious ideas. Al Azhar University, which is based in Cairo and is the leading center for conservative Sunni learning in the world, has rejected the views of the Koranists and has sought to systematically dismantle the movement. To curry favor with this influential religious establishment, the Egyptian government has brutally cracked down on members of the Koranist movement, leading to the imprisonment and torture of over 20 members and the exile of many more," says Ahmed Subhy Mansour, president of Washington's International Quranic Society.

Progress in seeking a modus vivendi for long-term Israeli Palestinian coexistence would ease Western efforts to nudge Arab governments towards democratic reform. Palestine constitutes a double-edged sword for Arab rulers. For too long, it served as a lightening rod that distracted attention from problems at home. Increasingly, Arab inability to further a peace agenda that incorporates Palestinian aspirations and impotence to force a halt to the latest war is fueling support for Islamist opposition groups. A coordinated US and European peace effort would allow the allies to help regimes embark on reform.

In a separate study, India's Strategic Foresight Group, backed by governments or other agencies in Norway, Qatar, Switzerland and Turkey, has concluded that conflict in the Middle East since 1991 has cost the region $12 trillion. The study says the region's population could have been twice as rich as they are today had conflicts, that prevent the Middle East from capitalizing on its location and resources, been resolved. The report looks at the cost of conflict across the region, including the Israeli Arab dispute, the war in Iraq, tension between Iran and Israel rivalry between Hamas and the Palestine Authority and al-Qaeda. It estimates the opportunity costs of conflict in the region at 2% of growth in gross domestic product and suggest that peace coupled with good governance and sound economic policies would allow some countries to grow at 8%. The report says with peace incomes per capita of the population in Israel in 2010 would be $44,241 instead of $23,304, on the West Bank and in Gaza $2,427 as opposed to $1,220 and in Iraq $9,681 against the current $2,375. The report put the cost since 200 of Israeli checkpoints on the West bank impeding Palestinian freedom of movement at 100 million person hours. "Considering the enormity of the costs evidenced in this report which have direct or indirect negative consequences for the whole world, the urgent necessity of a stronger international engagement is inescapable," says Thomas Greminger, a senior Swiss diplomat who worked on the study.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Palestine: A New Beginning?

US Vice President Joe Biden warned last year that then President-elect Barack Obama would early in his term be tested by a foreign policy crisis. The crisis came quicker than even Biden may have expected and tests the very tenants of US foreign policy. The war in Gaza poses a multitude of challenges. How Obama responds will influence the president's ambition to restore US credibility, particularly in the Muslim world as well as efforts to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

  • Converting the halt to fighting in Gaza into a sustainable, more permanent arrangement. The stakes for the Obama administration are high. Obama this week signaled his understanding that failure to engage would embolden both Israeli and Palestinian hardliners and reinforce widespread perceptions in the Arab and Muslim world that the US continues to uncritically support Israel and therefore is not an evenhanded mediator. He will have to underline his sincerity by investing significant political capital to push for a two-state solution.


    The current ceasefire is likely to hold for some time as Israel focuses on its Feb. 9 election and Hamas seeks to exploit its survival of the Israeli onslaught and empathy for the Palestinian plight generated by the images of the carnage to ensure that it is granted a seat at the negotiating table on terms more favorable to the Palestinians. The appointment of Senator George J. Mitchell as Middle East envoy warrants the assumption that the Obama administration may seek, however cautiously, to come to grips with the post-Gaza war reality of the Middle East. Mitchell demonstrated diplomatic agility as well as toughness and fairness in his successful mediation of an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland by bringing the Irish Republican Army and Protestant militias to the negotiating table. Already, one major American Jewish leader has expressed concern that Mitchell may be too fair and evenhanded and not sufficiently pro-Israeli.


    The United States has a critical role to play in defining the terms of a more durable ceasefire, monitoring its implementation and providing incentives for both sides to stick to it. To do so, Hamas will have to be a party to any arrangement made. A failure of efforts to reunite Palestinian ranks could complicate efforts to stabilize the ceasefire. Prospects for reunification are dim given that the Palestine Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas has by its own admission been marginalized by the Gaza war. Hamas, despite playing lip service to Palestinian unity, may conclude that Abbas has been so discredited that reunification no longer is an option. Speaking at a news conference this week, Abu Ubaida, the spokesman for Hamas' military wing, the Martyr Izz al Din al Qassam Brigades, asserted that Hamas rather than Abbas' Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had become "the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people".


    The Obama administration as well its partners in the Quartet – the European Union and the United Nations who refuse direct talks with Hamas – can work indirectly with Hamas through Egypt and Russia, the fourth party to the Quartet, which maintains relations with Hamas, to bring it further into the fold by initially focusing on humanitarian and security issues. A likely Israeli demand that Hamas release Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006, as part of any deal to lift the blockade of Gaza, offers another opportunity. A further, more significant avenue to create needed incentives would be a quid pro quid that is difficult to swallow for Israelis and Palestinians: a commitment by Palestinian security forces must commit to doing everything in their power to prevent attacks on Israel in exchange for an Israeli halt settlement construction on the West Bank and support of humanitarian relief and economic development in the West Bank and Gaza.


    Speaking at the State Department on Thursday, Obama reiterated conditions for direct talks with Hamas: recognition of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of violence and adherence to past agreements made by Palestinian authorities. He stressed that aid to Gaza would be channeled through the Palestine Authority in a bid to revive its credibility as the only acceptable interlocutor for the international community. Obama did however say that Gaza's border crossings need to be open to support aid and commerce, a demand being touted by Hamas as a condition for perpetuation of the Gaza ceasefire that will be welcomed by ordinary Gazans and exploited by Hamas as more evidence of the success of its steadfastness.


    Middle East peacemaking has a track record for finding ways for parties who refuse to talk to one another to sit at the same table without necessarily acknowledging the fact. Richard Murphy, a Council of Foreign Relations fellow and former Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East and US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, draws a comparison to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)'s participation in the 1992 Madrid peace conference at a time at which Israel still refused contact with the Palestinian movement. "There is the same strong Israeli opposition to (Hamas) as there was toward the PLO. But Israel found a way to deal with the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir with great unhappiness put up with the PLO presence within the Jordanian delegation at the Madrid conference in 1992," Murphy recalls.


  • Addressing the political fallout of the Gaza war in the Arab and Muslim world. President Obama and a prominent Saudi on Thursday expressed two dramatically different views of the future of US relations with pro-US Arab governments. In his remarks at the State Department, Obama stressed Israel's right to defend itself, expressed empathy for Palestinian suffering and reiterated the need for a peace process leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He called on Arab states to act on their peace plan drafted by Saudi King Abdullah, endorsed by the Arab League and embraced by Israeli leaders as a basis for negotiation by normalizing their relations with Israel.


    Obama's remarks contrasted starkly with a warning to the United States by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies and a former director of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the United States. Obama may be getting off with Saudi Arabia on the wrong foot. Saudi King Abdullah was not listed among the Middle Eastern leaders Obama was reported to have phoned nor did he include the kingdom on his swing through the region last July. Al-Faisal warned in his article for the Financial Times that "unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk… (Saudi) King Abdullah spoke for the entire Arab and Muslim world when he said at the Arab summit in Kuwait that although the Arab peace initiative was on the table, it would not remain there for long. Much of the world shares these sentiments and any Arab government that negotiated with the Israelis today would be rightly condemned by its citizens. If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia – it will have to drastically revise its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine.


    "The incoming US administration will be inheriting a "basket full of snakes" in the region, there are things that can be done to help calm them down. First, President Barack Obama must address the disaster in Gaza and its causes. Inevitably, he will condemn Hamas's firing of rockets at Israel. When he does that, he should also condemn Israel's atrocities against the Palestinians and support a UN resolution to that effect; forcefully condemn the Israeli actions that led to this conflict, from settlement building in the West Bank to the blockade of Gaza and the targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians; declare America's intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella for countries that sign up and sanctions for those that do not; call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shab'ah Farms in Lebanon; encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace; and support a UN resolution guaranteeing Iraq's territorial integrity," Al Faisal said.


    In a stunning revelation, Al-Faisal suggested the major divide in the Middle East between pro-US Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and Israel on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other hand may become a casualty of the Gaza war. Al-Faisal disclosed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad last week in a letter to King Abdullah recognized Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and called on him to take a more confrontational role over "this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children" in Gaza. "The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom's primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni…So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain…Eventually, the kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel. Today, every Saudi is a Gazan, and we remember well the words of our late King Faisal: "I hope you will forgive my outpouring of emotions, but when I think that our Holy Mosque in Jerusalem is being invaded and desecrated, I ask God that if I am unable to undertake Holy Jihad, then I should not live a moment more," Al Faisal said.


    By contrast to Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan may be charting a very different course. The monarch replaced in early January Muhammad Dahabi, who as head of the General Intelligence Department (GID) had initiated a dialogue with Hamas, as well as his top aides with Muhammad Raqqad, The move signaled a return to the GID focusing on its core business: internal and external threats to the kingdom." "Raqqad's appointment may be an indication that the government has decided to end its brief flirtation with Hamas and turn inward to protect its domestic front. The suppression of demonstrations around the Israeli embassy in Amman and the severe beating of the Amman-based correspondent of al-Jazeera satellite TV who earlier had spearheaded an anti-Israeli campaign are evidence of this policy change. Ultimately, it is unclear how this security change will affect the issue of civil liberties and reform in Jordan. There is little doubt that the new GID director is a professional who will confront the Hamas challenge in the kingdom. It is less certain, however, whether Raqqad envisions how to balance the requirements of security with the demands for reform," says Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Matthew Levitt.


  • Balancing Obama's ambition to restore the credibility of the United States as a nation of values with political realities in the Middle East. Sacrificing democratic reform in Jordan for a hardening of attitudes toward Hamas highlights the contradictions Obama will need to resolve attempting to achieve his goals of improved US credibility and Middle East peace. As does Hamas' claim to legitimacy by virtue of the fact that it won a democratic election universally accepted as free and fair.


    The dilemma is reinforced by what Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, describes as "the deeper reality that plagues the Arab world," namely "that the average Arab citizen faces an unsatisfying choice between a brand of Islamist-nationalist military resistance that triggers enormous Israeli attacks and Arab death and destruction, and a brand of Arab autocratic governance that breeds mediocrity, corruption and perpetual vulnerability and dependence. The choice is stark: Hamas or Fatah in Palestine; Hizbollah or Hariri in Lebanon; Mubarak & Son or Muslim Brothers in Egypt -- and the list continues through every Arab country. The slow gravitation and polarization of the modern Arab state system over the past three generations into two broad camps of status quo conservatives and resistance fighters is more apparent than ever, and equally frustrating.

    'Resistance' rings powerfully in the ears of ordinary Arab men and women, as we can witness on television screens throughout the region these days. Resistance will continue as long as oppression and occupation persist. But perpetual resistance means constant warfare and repeated Israeli destruction of Lebanese and Palestinian society, given Israel's superiority in conventional weapons and its barbaric willingness to inflict severe pain on civilian populations. The world's powers largely turn a blind eye to, or tacitly support, Israel's savagery against Palestinians and Lebanese, as we witnessed in 2006 and today. Europe and the United States actually joined Israel in its long-term material blockade and political strangulation of Gaza after Hamas' electoral victory in 2006," Khouri says.

    The inability of Arab governments to come to grips with Israel in war or peace as well as their inability to establish a modus vivendi with the Islamist opposition renders governments effectively paralyzed. Islamist movements thrive on this. The Gaza ceasefire perpetuates the choice confronting ordinary Arabs. With Hamas likely to resist pressure to make the full transition from a militia to a political movement, its perceived victory will reverberate throughout the Arab world.

    The dilemma for Obama is that America needs to be seen to be true to its own values to restore its credibility. But like in Palestine, pressing even delicately for greater freedom and democratic reform in the Middle East means engaging with Islamists and realizing that the legacy of support for autocratic regimes means that the people's will may not be to Washington's liking.

  • Exploiting competition between rival internationalist and nationalist Islamist factions. The aftermath of the Gaza war highlights divisions in the Islamist movement between those pursuing nationalist goals such as Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbollah and those with a global agenda aimed at the United States, European nations, Israel and Arab governments. "There is nothing to negotiate with the global jihadists, but the Islamo-nationalist movements simply cannot be ignored or suppressed," says Olivier Roy, a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and lecturer at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. "Hamas is nothing else than the traditional Palestinian nationalism with an Islamic garb. The Taliban express more a Pashtu identity than a global movement. The Iraqi factions are competing not over Iran or Saudi Arabia, but over sharing (or monopolizing) the power in Iraq."


    Roy argues that former President Bush's failure to distinguish between Islamists with global ambitions and those seeking to achieve national goals had stymied any effort to seek a political rather than a military solution to national conflicts such as the Israeli Palestinian dispute. He notes that the political approach proved successful in Iraq where it drove a wedge between Al Qaeda and other armed Sunni insurgents by recognizing them as political actors pursuing an Iraqi rather than a global agenda.


    Adopting the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the International Herald Tribune reasoned in an editorial that the "deep-seated hostility between the Al Qaeda current of Islamism and the more nationalist tendency represented by Hamas suggests that Israel, the United States, and others might do well to shape policy with these distinctions in mind. If Hamas acts as a barrier against something much worse - the undeterrable fanatics of Al Qaeda - then the political eradication of Hamas might not be a desirable goal,"


    The rivalry between global jihadis and Islamist nationalists is clear in their responses to the Gaza war and Obama's taking office. Al Qaeda this week called for attacks on Western nations and their Arab supporters, in retaliation for Israel's offensive in Gaza. "It's high time that this criminal country, I mean Britain, paid the price of its historic crime," Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi said in a video posted on an Islamist website, holding Britain responsible for Israel's creation. "There is no child who dies in Palestine ... without this being the outcome of the (country) that handed Palestine to the Jews ... Britain…"Make them taste the bitterness of war and the tragedies of homelessness and the misery of horror," he said in a call to militant fighters. "They should not be secure while our people (Palestinians) are scared. "O, mujahideen (holy strugglers) everywhere rise like an angered lion ... do what you can to make the infidel capitals of the West and America and the Arab Tyrants taste what our brothers and weak folks in Palestine have been tasting," Al-Libi said in the 31-minute video.


    The Arab world may well be where the global jihadis seek to make their mark. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al-Dostor in Cairo warns in an editorial entitled 'The Coming Terrorism' that the Gaza war is likely to fuel religious extremism as younger, more religious Arabs conclude that their government's tacit siding with Israel and rejection of Hamas amounts to opposition to Islam. "The people are repressed. They will not raise their swords against their governments but their hearts will be stronger than their swords," Eissa says, predicting that terrorism will adopt a new form. This could well be scattered, uncoordinated attacks perpetrated by people with no connection to Al Qaeda or other globalist jihadi groups and not exposed to discussion on Jihadi Internet forums.


    Some moderate Islamists are willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt. Mohammed Essam Derbala, a leader of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, which employed terrorism from 1981 to 1997 to topple the Egyptian regime, urged Al Qaeda in a statement to declare a four-month truce with the United States in response to Obama's call to improve relations with the Islamic world.


    In a similar vein, Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mashaal this week sought to exploit the aftermath of the Gaza war to ensure that Hamas would be included in diplomatic efforts to achieve a durable ceasefire with Israel. "I tell European nations ... three years of trying to eliminate Hamas is enough. It is time for you to deal with Hamas, which has gained legitimacy through struggle." Describing the Gaza wars as the "first and great real war that our people won" in which "Hamas and the resistance emerged as an indispensable part, Mashaal said. He said "there are (still) two battles to gain. Those of the lifting of the blockade and the opening of crossing points, including Rafah, which is our window on the world."


    Speaking barely an hour after Obama's appearance at the State Department, Hamas spokesman Osam Hamdan welcomed Mitchell's appointment, saying he believed the former senator "could make a change" and that his appointment was "a good sign." Hamdan was careful not to reject Obama's conditions but said Obama should have also demanded that Israel recognize Palestinian rights. "To achieve a peaceful solution, we need to talk about recognition of Palestinian rights and a clear definition of the realization of those rights," Hamdan said.


    Hamas is certain to hold on to its mantra of resistance. But popular sentiment in Gaza may be pushing it to focus on politics rather than resistance. While a majority of Gazans hail its steadfastness in public and would probably vote for it in an election, in private they may be less willing to sacrifice in the wake of the Gaza war. Jordanian counter terrorism expert Abdul Hameed Bakier suggests that the fact that Hamas launched few suicide attacks against Israeli forces while they were in Gaza is an indication that the Islamists have difficulty recruiting volunteers.

    Retired Col. Shmuel Zakai, who commanded Israeli forces in Gaza until 2004 and in the 1990s was sent to Britain to study counter-insurgency in Northern Ireland, argues that the groundswell for Hamas could have been predicted. Winning hearts and minds is as import as battlefield victories in the struggle against Hamas, he says. "We just keep creating bigger problems. Military power alone is not enough. We should be the first ones on the ground helping to rebuild Gaza and making sure Hamas isn't."

Perhaps, the biggest challenge to Middle East peacemaking is the need for a fundamental shift in the way Palestinians and Israelis look at one another. For Palestinians, this means accepting that Jewish Israelis are a people that have struck roots in Palestine and are there to stay with the attributes of nationhood and national identity that come with that. Israel can play a major role in changing Palestinian perceptions. "We Israelis must begin to realize this simple fact: the Arabs are not metaphysical creatures, but human beings, and human beings have it within themselves to change. After all, we Israelis change our positions, mitigate our opinions, and open ourselves up to new ideas. So we would do well to get out of our heads as quickly as possible the illusion that we can somehow annihilate Hamas or eradicate them from the Gaza strip. Instead, we have to work, with caution and good sense, to reach a reasonable and detailed agreement for a lasting ceasefire that has within it the perspective that Hamas can change . Such a change is possible and can be acted upon. Such fundamental changes of heart and mind have happened many times in the course of history," says A. B. Yehoshua, one of Israel's most prominent literary figures.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Arabs Prime Targets for Jihadis

If the Gaza war has increased the popular appeal of Jihadi groups in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East and many analysts believe, than Arab countries even more than the United States and Israel could be their primary target. Norwegian Middle East scholar and expert on militant Islam Thomas Hegghammer notes that the front page Gaza coverage in most recent issue of Sada al-Malahim (SM), the magazine of Al Qaida in Yemen, barely mentions Israel and the United States. Instead, it lashes out Arab governments and clerics for having aided Israel's siege of Gaza by repressing militant Islamist groups. "[The rulers] incriminated anyone who merely thinks about liberating the holy sites, which can only be liberated by toppling these governments," Hegghammer quotes Sada al-Malahim as saying. Hegghammer says the magazine is echoing the distinction drawn by Ayman al- Zawahiri, Al Qaida's number two, who has argued that Arab governments were near enemies that needed to be confronted first before the Islamists take on the far enemy, the United States. Yet, a text accompanying the magazine quotes Al Qaida Yemen's emir, Abu Bashr, as referring to the far enemy by saying: "We are preparing to open training camps to send you [Palestinians] a generation of reinforcements."

Demographics Likely to Loom Large In Peace Efforts

Israelis and Palestinians going at each other at regular intervals has become a fixture of the Middle East. Israelis can live with that as long as they maintain military superiority, American backing and are able to install the fear of God in their opponents. Israeli leaders take Hizbollah's domestic political calculations leading it not to broaden the last Gaza war with rocket attacks on Israel as evidence that their strategy is still valid. They hope the same will prove true in Gaza.

Yet, as Israelis go to the polls in three weeks time in which Binjamin Nethanyahu, a hard line believer in Israel's strategy of overwhelming capability and force, is the front runner, that strategy may well have run its course in much the same way that military technological advances made the geographic depth that occupation in 1967 of the West Bank and the Golan Heights obsolete in terms of security.

If there is a sliver of hope, demography may be it for many Palestinians and Arabs who have lost faith in the feasibility of the two-state solution involving a Palestinian state alongside Israel despair in the wake of the Gaza war and 21 years of failed peacemaking based on Palestinian concessions to Israel, Many Palestinians do not see an alternative to the two-state solution beyond notions of continued resistance and steadfastness that offer little prospect for building normal, prosperous lives, amid Palestinian

If the Israeli Palestinian conflict is turning existentialist in Palestinian perceptions, it is doing so for Israelis too even if Palestinians are unlikely to pose a military existentialist threat to Israel any time soon. Demographics could constitute a far greater threat to Israel than Palestinian rockets or terrorism and may be the monkey wrench that will break the cycle of death and destruction. It is what already has motivated Israel's partial withdrawals from occupied territory even if it refused to surrender control and empower Palestinian government and persuaded it to pay lip service to the two-state solution although it was unwilling to demonstrate the boldness and vision needed to make that happen.

The figures speak for themselves. Although Jews will remain a majority within sovereign Israel for the foreseeable future, they are projected to become a minority in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea within the next decade. As long as Israel remains in the West Bank and Gaza, this demographic forecast will pose a threat to the country's Jewish identity. Nethanyahu has warned that if the Palestinians living inside Israel's pre-1967 border cross the 20% threshold, the Jewish nature of the state would be in danger. Fear of the demographic threats persist despite some studies that the demographic threat may be less imminent. Demographics leaves Israel with a choice: encourage Palestinian immigration, pursue a policy of attempting to break Palestinian will or seek a political accommodation that gives both parties a sufficient modicum of their aspirations. While Israel retains all three options, the memory of the images of the Gaza war are likely to focus the spotlight to a greater extent on the human rights aspects of Israel's military conduct as well its policies in the occupied territories. That may contribute to sparking debate in Israel on whether accommodation may in the end be its best bet.

Discussions mediated by Egypt throughout the Gulf war offer a sliver of hope. Israel has professed throughout its history that it seeks full-fledged peace with its Arab neighbors. Ceasefires were agreed after violent confrontation in a bid to give peacemaking a chance. In the Cairo talks, Israel appeared willing to settle for less. For more than a decade it rejected Hamas' call for a ten-year truce, its way of seeking accommodation with Israel without surrendering its refusal to recognize Israel or drop its insistence on the Palestinian right to armed resistance. In Cairo, Israel was gunning for such a truce while, Hamas emboldened by its survival in Gaza, dropped its proposal in favor of a one-year truce at best. For the Obama administration, the question is whether it should lower the sights of immediate peacemaking and seek to negotiate a long-term truce rather than definitive peace in the expectation that an end to violence and repression over a longer period of time will generate the vested interests needed to negotiate a final settlement.

Seeking more limited goals would allow the Obama peacemaking effort to give the dynamics of an armed truce time to do their work. The nature of the questions peacemakers need to answer would than in due course probably be different and no longer be as complex at those they confront now. Currently, peacemaking means trying to bring parties together who either don't want to talk to one another or whose goals are mutually exclusive. That would likely change if a long-term truce would prove to Israelis that non-violent coexistence and security is possible and demonstrate to Palestinians that they are being allowed to build a national existence of their own with a promise of political, economic and social development. That would reduce their urge to risk quiet and prosperity for violence, and nurture a majority that no longer would see militant confrontation as the only way of achieving moderated national goals.

Chances of achieving even the more limited goal of a long-term truce are waning in the wake of the Gaza war. Hamas recognizes that getting humanitarian aid and kick starting reconstruction in Gaza are a priority. In a bid not to appear as an obstacle to Gaza picking up the pieces, Hamas has said it will cooperate with the Palestine Authority headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Hamas describes as a traitor, to ensure the needed funding. As Hamas hardens its attitude toward Israel in the belief that the war solidified its position as the primary Palestinian representative even if much of the international community refuses to deal with it, international assistance becomes the key to attempting to bring the Islamist group back to entertaining a long-term arrangement with Israel. Early indications are that the international community will attempt to use assistance to strengthen Abbas and weaken Hamas, a strategy that since 2006 has failed and is unlikely to prove more successful now. In the meantime, is back to its rejectionist rhetoric. “After the ceasefire, if the Israelis pull out, maybe we will sign a one-year truce with them. Maybe we will sign a truce and after that we will continue to liberate all the Palestinians lands, from the river to the sea, including the 1948 lands….There can be no accommodation with Israel. Anyone who signs such an accommodation is a traitor,” said Hamas’ spokesman in Syria, Talal Nassar.

The hardening of positions is not just among militants. Pro-western Arab leaders are finding that they have to take public opinion in account where Hamas has gained in popularity. Speaking in Kuwait at the Arab economic summit, Saudi King Abdullah cautioned: "Israel has to understand that the choice between war and peace will not always stay open and that the Arab peace initiative that is on the table today will not stay on the table," Abdullah said during a speech at the summit.” Abdullah fathered a peace plan in 2002 that has twice been endorsed by the Arab League calling for peace with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israelis officials have said the plan could serve as a basis for negotiations. Saudi Arabia is among Arab states that pledged $2 billion in Kuwait but are reluctant to see cash flow directly to Hamas.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mitchell to the Rescue?

Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton may be about to signal President-elect Barack Obama's intention to be more evenhanded in his approach towards Israelis and Palestinians in the quest for peace.

The New York Times reports that Obama may appoint former Senator George J. Mitchell as his Middle East peace negotiator. Of Lebanese and Irish descent and raised as a Maronite, Mitchell played a key role in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. His experience in bringing the Irish Republican Army and Protestant militias to the negotiating table would serve him in good stand in the Middle East where closing the divide between Palestinian factions and bringing Hamas in from the cold are prerequisites for any peace effort to have a fighting chance of success. Mitchell may have the credibility to gain a degree of Palestinian trust as well as Israeli respect.

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, Mitchell, headed The Mitchell Commision, established in 2000 at a summit in Sharm el Sheikh during a meeting of president Bill Clinton and Middle Eastern leaders as a fact finding mission. The five-member commission headed by Mitchell included European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel; and Norwegian Foreign Minister Thobjoern Jagland. The report called for a freeze on Israeli settlements, a halt to the use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators and a halt to punitive measures against the population in the West Bank and Gaza and a Palestinian crackdown in terrorism. The reported was noted for its noted neutralism in discussing Palestinian violence and Israel's attempt to stymie it.

If appointed, Mitchell is likely to be seen by Palestinians as more sensitive to their aspirations and by Israelis as tough but honest negotiator. Mitchell's appointment would signal that Obama is going to free himself of the exclusive relationship that we've had with the Israelis. This is the clearest indication to me that they're trying to inject more balance into the Israeli-U.S. relationship," Aaron David Miller, a public policy analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and former Middle East negotiator told The New York Times.

Mitchell's appointment could well signal change without immediately alienating Israel, spoiled for the last eight years by the uncritical support of the Bush administration. Mitchell "is a prominent symbol of 'evenhandedness,' but he is not regarded as hostile to Israel. As a Senator, he had many supporters in the pro-Israel community, and he generally favored legislation important to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has many friends among Israel's leaders, and in the American pro-Israel community, says former senior American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) official Steve Rosen on his Obama Mideast Watch blog.

Mitchell will need that appreciation if Israeli polls prove correct that Likud leader Binjami Nethanyahu is the frontrunner in the upcoming February 10 Israeli election. Nethanyahu appears to be benefitting from the fact that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s increased popularity in the wake of the Gaza war is at the expense of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party. Nethanyahu is critical of the government’s decision to declare a ceasefire in Gaza while Hamas still stand over end and a halt to smuggling of arms into Gaza has not been secured.

Rosen says if Mitchell is appointed, Fred Hof of Armitage Associates, the company of former senior State Department official Richard L. Armitage, would be likely to play an important role. Hof is credited with drafting much of the Mitchell. Report.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gaza Puts Peace in Intensive Care

Israel's offensive against Gaza has put efforts to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflict on life support, if not buried them six feet under the ground.

World leaders, gathered in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh on Sunday to discuss the aftermath of the Gaza war, drove yet another nail into the coffin of the peace process. They focused on ending the smuggling of arms into Gaza, a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the strip, the opening of all border crossings into Gaza and the urgent need for humanitarian aid and assistance in reconstruction. And they paid lip service to the peace process. But virtually none of the leaders, not even Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, addressed the core problem head on as seen by Palestinians and Arabs: Israel's occupation of lands designated to be part of a Palestinian state.

For many Palestinians and ordinary Arabs it will be hard to fathom that what they see as the root of the problem goes unmentioned at such a gathering less than 24 hours after a three-week war in which Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip with its military force, killed 1,300 people, many of whom were innocent men, women and children and destroyed its already feeble infrastructure. Adding insult to injury, European leaders congregated in Jerusalem immediately after the Sharm el Sheikh summit to again focus on humanitarian issues and the prevention of smuggling rather than on the fundamentals that fuel the cycle of violence. They also failed to note that reconstruction of Gaza will demand not only significant international assistance but will also have to involve a reversal of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank that have effectively stymied economic development.

Palestinians and ordinary Arabs are likely to conclude from the meetings in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem that they have little to expect from peace efforts fostered by an international community that was unable because of unwillingness by major powers, foremost among whom the United States, to impose an end to the fighting and in its aftermath shies away from addressing core issues. That perception will be reinforced by the fact that 48 hours before his inauguration and despite the carnage in Gaza, US President-elect Barack Obama has yet to publicly identify key members of his Middle East policy team. Obama said this weekend he would do so "very early on in the administration." Some analysts suggest that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to sound out Middle Eastern leaders before enunciating a clear policy.

The palpable sense of despair and disgust in the Middle East puts pressure on pro-American Arab leaders to bridge the gap between their adherence to a peace process aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel and widespread popular perception that peace is a pipe dream and that the ceasefire in Gaza merely allows the parties to catch their breath before the next round of death and destruction. Public opinion in most Arab countries appears to favors Hamas. "That's what is important to watch: whether Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia modify their positions towards Hamas. If they do, that would be a major indication that Hamas is 'winning,' says a blogger on Arab Media Shack

For world leaders as well as Hamas and Israel, the immediate focus is on restoring a resemblance of normal life to Gaza. But even that threatens to be thwarted by politics and could be mired in renewed bloodshed. Beyond the fact, that the silencing of the guns as the result of two separate, unilaterally declared ceasefires, one by Israel, the other by Hamas, constitutes a very shaky basis on which to build an edifice, Hamas' future may be less bright than most analysts predict. For the time being, its victory is rooted in its ability to have largely, physically survived the Israeli onslaught and its basking in the aura of its resistance.

Little so far is known whether Hamas truly put up a fight in the ground war beyond firing its primitive rockets into southern Israel. What is probable however is that more Palestinians in Gaza than meets the eyes were during the war willing to pass reliable information to Israel, which would account for Israel's ability to locate and kill three of Hamas' top leaders. "We used to hear these slogans of how strong our resistance is. I believed the slogans. But when the war started, nothing happened. I live in an area close to the border with Israel. I used to see hundreds of Hamas and other factions' gunmen waiting for Israeli troops who might storm Gaza. But, since the first day of the war, none of them appeared. And Hamas still talks about a resistance that did nothing to protect our people," 37-year old civil servant Ahmed Tawfiq was quoted by The Observer as saying.

Hamas needs to cement its claim to victory with tangible results such as the Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza, lifting of the Israeli siege and the opening of the crossing into the strip. If it fails to do so, it is likely to be challenged by more militant Palestinian groups advocating increased violence against Israel and greater links between the global jihadi movement and the Palestinian resistance, which even in its Islamic guise, has focused until now on nationalist goals.

Hamas' unilateral ceasefire is conditional on Israel withdrawing its troops from Gaza within a week. It reserves the right to resume armed resistance if Israel maintains its presence in the strip. Reports from Gaza at the time of this writing say Israeli troops have begun to redeploy. Israel nonetheless insists that it is holding its fire rather than ending its military operation to see whether Hamas and other Palestinian groups are bent on continued military confrontation or will concentrate on badly needed humanitarian and economic reconstruction.

While humanitarian aid is already pouring in, reconstruction is likely to be dependent on progress in efforts to put Palestinians and Israelis on a course towards peace. To nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution, confidence building measures will be needed that go far beyond the terms of a ceasefire that ensures a continued cessation of violence. Israelis will have to signal that they are willing to enable to Palestinians to rebuild their lives and pursue the goals of happiness and prosperity their Jewish neighbors enjoy. "The world community should discourage Israel from enacting further restrictions on Palestinians that will prevent them from working inside of Israel. This has…further transformed Gaza and the West Bank into Bantustans, confining a population which used to work inside of Israel. An economic and developmental solution needs the input of all parties, in addition to the political/military situation, so that Palestinians do not live in closed areas devoid of sufficient employment, or food and goods…," says a US Army Strategic Studies Institute report published on the eve of the Israeli offensive.

As Hamas emerges strengthened from the Gaza war, efforts to reconcile the Islamists with President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestine Authority will likely see Palestinian attitudes towards peace stiffen. Already, Hamas no longer talks about a 10-year truce with Israel that would give both Israelis and Palestinians an economic stake in living and let live. Instead, they are best willing to see the unilateral silencing of the guns extend into an agreed ceasefire for a period of a year. "Not for the first time, we have a ceasefire with no understandings underpinning it…. We are back to where we were when the (Israel Hamas) ceasefire collapsed (in December) … The uncompromising war opens a new strategic chapter. The politics that will emerge from this will be equally uncompromising," Alastair Crook, a former negotiator with Hamas on behalf of the European Union and ex-British intelligence official, said on Al Jazeera.

Mouin Rabbani, a contributor to Middle East Report, listened live on Al Jazeera to the speeches of world leaders in Sharm el Sheikh, figuratively tearing his hair out. "I'm speechless that you can have in 2009 an international conference on the Israeli Pal conflict and the word occupation is not mentioned once…. This war, perhaps more than any other event in the last decade, has transformed peace into a dirty word and negotiations into an even dirtier word. Resistance that was a dirty word is now the word and concept on the lips of people in the region. … Most Palestinians believe a two state settlement is the most realistic path to national self determination. The problem is that since 1993 the peace process has nailed one nail after another in the coffin primarily through the Israeli colonization process. It is practically impossible for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. So, on the one hand you no longer have a two state solution and on other hand don't have an alternative. I don't think a one -state bi-national solution is on the horizon in our life time. The prospect is increased and eventually existential conflict," Rabbani said.

If hopes for a negotiated two-state solution were fading already prior to the Israeli offensive, Palestinians across the political spectrum express post-war predictions of doom and gloom. "Palestinians will continue to suffer and bleed," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society. That perception is likely to be strengthened in Gaza in the coming days as the death toll rises with the discovery of more bodies under the rubble and Gazans confront the devastation of their homes. "Israel started the war against Palestinians. They imposed sanctions on Palestinians. Hamas demands the world just leave the siege and break the blockade on Palestinians by opening the curtains. Hamas spent a long time helping the Palestinian people here and worked for its interests. Hamas has the authority and the legitimacy to rule Gaza. I don't think the war affected Hamas that much. They destroyed everything, but Hamas is still there. Hamas will show its power when the war is over," 38-year old bookshop owner Wael Abed Latef told The Observer.

Throughout the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Palestinian determination to achieve independence was reinforced by the way Arab countries treated refugees and an Arab failure to match rhetoric with deeds. This round in the conflict may prove no different. Palestinians being deported after having been arrested and abused in Egypt in conversation with veteran Arabic-speaking CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman expressed anger at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders as well as the United States for supplying Israel with the weapons employed against them as they returned by bus from Egypt to Gaza. “I’m surprised at how buoyant people are given the circumstances. Talking to them, I find morale high and an overall sense of defiance. At one point I saw a young boy on a donkey cart, unaware I was observing him. As an Israeli jet passed overhead, he shook a fist at the sky,” said Wedeman, one of the vast majority of journalists who was prevented by Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza until now, describing his first impressions of Gaza.

The widespread anger and despair enhances the Obama's initial statements on and moves in the Middle East. The president-elect has so far said little beyond the fact that he intends to engage in the early days of his administration, sees the need to tackle problems across the region from Pakistan to Palestine in an integrated fashion and feels the generally accepted outline of an Israeli Palestinian settlement based on a two-state solution is the way forward. For Obama to have a chance of reviving a peace process that would have any credibility, he will have to signal his willingness to be far more sensitive to Palestinian aspirations and concerns while remaining committed to Israeli security. Palestinians and Arabs will monitor his early statements closely for indications that he will take Israel to task on the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and willing to seek to draw credible representatives such as Hamas into the process. "The man in the street will no longer accept the status quo," Abdul Hadi says.

The US Army study effectively argues that the very assumptions are flawed on which past Middle East peacemaking attempts were based. The study takes particular aim at the Israeli and US demand that Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas, must recognize Israel first before they can be included in the peace process. Implicitly it also suggests that peacemakers may have to lower their sights by seeking to achieve a long-term Israeli Palestinian truce rather than a full fledged peace agreement in the expectation that a prolonged period of quiet and economic develop eventually can be morphed into definitive peace.

A sudden reversal of policy along the lines suggested by the study would damage Obama domestically and jeopardize his role as a broker. However the study does provide an analytical context for subtle suggestions by several former US officials believed to be candidates for Obama's Middle East policy team that the president-elect may cautiously explore ways of engaging Hamas. One suggestion is that he may allow the Central Intelligence Agency to engage in quiet exploratory diplomacy which could rekindle Arab and Palestinian hope for a long-term arrangement that would guarantee Israeli security and allow for the emergence of a viable and independent state.

The report notes that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized Israel and that the Palestine Authority was willing to bargain for a state in less than the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and yet "it is not clear that Israel has ever agreed to accept a Palestinian state." The study argues that recognition of Israel by Hamas as it is described in the Western media, cannot serve as a formula for peace. Hamas moderates have, however, signaled that the group implicitly recognizes Israel, and that even a tahdiya (calming, minor truce) or a hudna, a longer-term truce, obviously implies recognition." The report quotes Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mashaal states as saying: "We are realists … There is an entity called Israel (but) realism does not mean that you have to recognize the legitimacy of the occupation. … I am concerned with the establishment of my state. … The movement (Hamas) accepts a state within the 1967 borders and a truce."

The report, which anticipated the Israeli attack, blames Israel's refusal to engage Hamas following its 2006 electoral victory in polling that was universally judged to be free and fair for the failure of the peace process. "The viability of a two-state solution rested on an Israeli acknowledgement of the Islamist movement, Hamas, and on Fatah's ceding power to it," the report says. "Hamas' political and strategic development has been both ignored and misreported in Israeli and Western sources which villainize the group, much as the PLO was once characterized as an anti-Semitic terrorist group… Israel claimed significant victories in its war against Palestinians by the use of targeted killings of leadership, boycotts, power cuts, preemptive attacks and detentions, and punishments to militant's families, relatives, and neighborhoods etc., because its counterterrorism logic is to reduce insurgents' organizational capability. This particular type of Israeli analysis rejects the idea that counterterrorist violence can spark more resistance and violence… Negotiating solely with the weaker Palestinian party—Fatah (the Palestinian group dominating the Palestine Authority)—cannot deliver the security Israel requires. This may lead Israel to re-conquer the Gaza Strip or the West Bank and continue engaging in 'preemptive deterrence' or attacks on other states in the region in the longer term," the report warns.

For a revival of the moribund peace process, the Palestinians will have to play their part. More important than whatever declarations they make with regard to Israel is their ability to bridge the gap between the Palestine Authority and Hamas to form a united front. "The way out of the crisis is a Palestinian united Front. … We need our independent state in the occupied territories. For that the united front is vital," Fatah parliament member Abdullah Abdullah told Al Jazeera. Hamas spokesman have echoed the need for Palestinian unity. The question is on what terms the Palestinians will come together. They are likely to be far stiffer than the basis on which the Palestine Authority negotiated with Israel and could include terms of reference for resistance against Israel, and possibly the United States.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hamas on the Spot

Israel's unilateral declaration of a ceasefire in Gaza this weekend brings an immediate end to the bloodletting Gaza but may provide at best a tenuous building block for a more durable silencing of the guns. It leaves Israel unrestricted in its political, economic and military policy towards Gaza, but allows Hamas to claim that Israel blinked first. It also enables Israel to bolster its justification of the war as designed to stop Palestinian rockets from being fired at Israel if Hamas refuses to adhere to the Israeli dictate to silence the guns.

The aftermath of the ceasefire will determine who lost and won what in the Gaza bloodletting. By unilaterally declaring a halt to the carnage, Israel has deprived Hamas of what it appeared to be achieving in the Cairo-mediated ceasefire talks: de facto recognition by Israel that it has to come to grips with the Islamists to ensure its security.

Israel needs to show that its offensive ended Islamist rocket attacks on southern Israel. Interviewed on Al Jazeera Hamas' Beirut spokesman Osama Hamdan suggested the Islamists would hold their rocket fire only if all Israeli forces are withdrawn from Gaza - a demand Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack indicated Israel was not about to meet immediately. The Israeli intention to temporarily keep troops in Gaza to see whether Hamas still has the stomach for resistance and until arrangements are in place to prevent Hamas from replenishing its military stocks puts the Islamists on the spot. Failing to live up to their assertion that they will resist the Israelis in Gaza until Israeli troops have been withdrawn, will open Hamas to charges that it has succumbed under the weight of the Israeli bombardment. Al Jazeera reports that since Israel unilaterally declared its ceasefire an hour ago and an hour before the ceasefire is to take account, some six Palestinian rockets have been fired into Israel. Hamas' military wing claimed to have fired three of those six rockets.

Hamdan said Israel could only guarantee a stop of Palestinian attacks on Israel through talks with the Islamists. "If those troops stay on Gaza soil, people will resist that. Nobody can guarantee anything unless we see something on the ground. If they left Gaza, the situation will be evaluated and then we can talk about new decisions maybe... Unless there is a ceasefire agreed no one can guarantee anything. … They have to understand they have to talk to the resistance. Its useless to talk to (Palestine Authority President Mahmoud) Abbas," Hamdan said.

Israel hopes the aftermath of its offensive will accelerate a pre-war decline in Hamas' popularity among Palestinians. Israeli military analysts say they have shattered Hamas' political cohesion and ability to govern Gaza. If true, that could produce a result that complicates rather ensures Israeli security: the rise of more more militant Jihadi groups as well as chaos and anarchy in Gaza.

Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer writing on his blog, Sandbox, dismisses asserts that the 18-month Israeli long siege of Gaza had failed to weaken Hamas, citing polling results of the Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre:

Hamas' pre-war declining popularity highlights the importance of its being able to claim the war in Gaza achieved the lifting of the siege. "Hamas was losing popularity before this operation. It was losing popularity because it had failed to open the crossings," says prominent American Palestinian academic Rashid Khalidi. Veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Milhelm concurs. "Hamas wanted to weaken the Israeli siege because they have been hurt politically and economically because of the siege," Milhem says.

Kramer, a proponent of continued economic blockage of Gaza as long as Hamas retains power, represents one extreme of the debate on how to build on the rubble of Gaza to achieve durable understandings between Israel and the Palestinians that can lead to peace. "Economics will be crucial when the guns fall silent and the rockets stop falling. Here, too, Israel and the international community have to remain steadfast if they want an outcome that doesn't just stop the violence today, but also provides hope for tomorrow. When the dust settles, the people of Gaza will be desperate for a return to some normalcy—one denied to them under the rule of jihadists who fanatically tell them they must suffer on the deluded promise that Israel will be destroyed, and that Gazans will one day "return" to repossess all that they lost 60 years ago. Normalcy can be restored only if the needs of Gazans are answered by the international community and the legitimate Palestinian Authority—without the Hamas middleman," Kramer says.

Kramer believes that a continued blockade depriving Hamas of its goal of securing the opening of Gaza's border crossings and its callousness in sacrificing innocent Palestinian lives to achieve its political goals will accelerate its declining popularity. More likely is that Palestinian anger will focus on perceived Israeli savagery and to the degree that it impacts Hamas will see its more militant rivals gain popularity. Hamas is likely to capitalize on the political legitimacy conveyed upon it by yesterday's Arab summit in Doha and the ineffectiveness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' inability to tangibly play a role in ending the fighting or come to the assistance of the Gazans during and after the war. That legitimacy, however, will generate pressure on it to seek reconciliation with the Palestine Authority and deliver tangible economic and social results for ordinary Palestinians. Hamas assumes that three weeks of continuous images of carnage and suffering in Gaza, mounting anger and frustration at perceived Israeli insensitivity to civilian casualties and growing demands for an investigation into Israel's conduct of the war will make it increasingly difficult for Israel to maintain a siege of Gaza.

Assuming that Hamas indeed survives the Gaza war as a coherent political force, it will have to be seen by Palestinians as capable of helping them rebuild their shattered lives by rebuilding the strip's damaged infrastructure and economy. Palestinian surveyors estimate the infrastructure damage inflicted by Israel at $1.4 million. Helping Hamas confront this formidable task by channeling funds through the Palestine Authority would further healing of inter-Palestinian wounds, strengthen those within Hamas amenable to long-term accommodation with Israel albeit in the form of a multi-year truce rather than a definitive peace treaty and enhance its ability to fend off threats by more militant, if not, nihilist Islamist forces.

Those threats are part of a hardening of public attitudes towards Israel across the Middle East. This hardening could complicate Arab efforts to embed an Israeli Palestinian arrangement in a regional peace agreement with Israel based on the unanimously accepted Arab peace plan put forward in 2002 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Already, Syria has suspended its Turkish-mediated peace talks with Israel. "The most dangerous thing is that liberal people are telling me they are thinking of, or are the process of…going back to their Islamic roots because it's starting to be clear to everyone that (the Gaza war) is becoming a crusade war against Islam… ," The National quoted Saudi political analyst Ahmad al Farraj as saying.

Prominent American commentator Fawaz Gerges, writing in The Nation, reports that he just returned from the Middle East where he witnessed how the Gaza war is radicalizing the region's public opinion. "Shown endlessly on Arab and Muslim television stations, the massive killing of civilians is fueling rage against Israel and its superpower patron, the United States, among mainstream and moderate voices who previously believed in co-existence with the Jewish state. Now, they are questioning their basic assumptions and raising doubts about Israel's future integration into the region. … I was struck by the widespread popular support for Hamas--from college students and street vendors to workers and intellectuals. Very few ventured criticism of Hamas, and many said they felt awed by the fierce resistance put forward by its fighters. Israel's onslaught on Gaza has effectively silenced critics of Hamas and politically legitimized the militant resistance movement in the eyes of many previously skeptical Palestinians and Muslims," Gerges says.

Israel's perceived wanton disregard for the deaths of civilians will not have gone unnoticed by Islamists across the Middle East, particularly in pro-Western nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. "They have seen the barely concealed pleasure of the regimes that run those states. The message is clear: the struggle for the future of this region is going to be uncompromising and bloody. ... Islamists are likely to conclude from Gaza that Arab regimes backed by the US and some European states will go to any lengths in their struggle against Islamism. Many Sunni Muslims will turn to the salafi-jihadists, al-Qaida included, who warned Hamas and others about the kind of punishment being visited on them now. Mainstream movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah will find it hard to resist the radical trend. The middle ground is eroding fast.," warns former EU negotiator with Hamas and other Islamist group and ex-British intelligence agent Alastair Crooke.

This week's Israeli memorandum of understanding with the United States that involves Washington hands-on in policing Gaza's border with Egypt in a bid to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its military capability will give the US enhanced leverage. The Obama administration will not want to be seen to be a hands on party to efforts to undercut Hamas by depriving already battered Palestinians from the basic they need to reconstruct their lives. It would also be in line with Obama's expected shift in emphasis of America's war on terror. "You use force with people who already made a career choice as terrorists; that will not help you preventing young men and women going down that path… We can t shoot or kill our way to that achievement," Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, a candidate for a senior role in Obama's Middle East policy team told Al Jazeera.

Speaking in an interview with The Washington Post, Obama on Saturday sought to manage expectations of what his administration may initially be able to do in the Middle East. “Most people have a pretty good sense about what the outlines of a compromise would be, Obama said, noting that the problem is political weakness on both sides. Obama said he aimed “to provide a space where trust can be built” and pointed to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s suggestion “to build some concrete deliverables that people can see,” such as greater security for Israelis and economic benefits for Palestinians."

A US Army Strategic Studies Institute analysis published weeks before the launch of the Israeli offensive concluded that ‘Israel’s stance towards the democratically-elected Palestinian government headed by Hamas in 2006, and towards Palestinian national coherence – legal, territorial, political and economic – has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking.’ The study's authors said they had detected signs that Hamas was considering a shift of its position towards Israel: "Hamas moderates have, however, signaled that it implicitly recognizes Israel, and that even a tahdiya (calming, minor truce) or a hudna, a longer-term truce, obviously implies recognition. Khalid Mish’al states: ‘We are realists,’ and there is ‘an entity called Israel,’ but ‘realism does not mean that you have to recognize the legitimacy of the occupation,’" the study says.

Drawing in those elements within Hamas willing to focus on political arrangements with Israel rather than military confrontation is likely to be facilitated by shifts in power within Palestinian politics as well as within Fatah, the Palestinian group that dominates the Palestine Authority. "Mahmoud Abbas is battling for his political survival. Abbas is under tremendous pressure and criticism for the absolute failure of all his initiatives since he assumed the presidency in 2004. …. Increasingly it is important to replace him with someone who can more authoritatively represent his people," said Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani on Al Jazeera. Adds Gerges: "Regardless of how this war ends, Hamas will likely emerge as a more powerful political force than before and will likely top Fatah, the ruling apparatus of President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority."

In a bid to counter increasingly militant discourse and a reflection of Arab concern about the radicalizing effect of the Gaza war, Sheikh Zaid Shakir, an Islamic scholar at the UAE-funded Zaytuna Institute in California argues against widespread calls in the Arab world for the killing of Israeli civilians to achieve Palestinian goals and who have reverted to anti-Semitic rhetoric. "Such calls for indiscriminate killing have nothing to do with our religion. Our Prophet forbade the killing of women and children in combat... Discarding such teachings not only allows Israel to claim a moral equivalency between empty words threatening the death of Jewish children and Israeli actions that actually result in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children, it also leads many Muslims to miss the opportunity to demonstrate the loftiness of the ethical standard our Prophet defined for us. We are the followers of a merciful Prophet and not the ideological and philosophical children of those who have introduced the idea that the slaughter of an opponent’s civilian population is an acceptable stratagem or consequence of warfare," Shakir writes in The National.

With Islamists, whether more moderate or Jihadi, emerging politically strengthened from the Israeli offensive, diplomatic efforts are likely to focus on preventing the two-state solution becoming a casualty of the war in Gaza. “The war on Gaza has killed the two-state solution by making it clear to Palestinians that the only acceptable Palestine would have fewer rights than the Bantustans created by apartheid South Africa. The only acceptable alternative is a single state for Jews and Palestinians with equal rights for all,” says British Pakistani author Tariq Ali. To do so, the Obama administration will have to secure a clear, unambiguous Israeli commitment to the establishment of a viable, independent, sovereign Palestinian state rather than Palestinian recognition of Israel. The US Army Strategic Studies Institute study concludes that Israel’s failure so far to give that commitment is at the root of hitherto failed efforts to achieve an Israeli Palestinian peace. “It is frequently stated that Israel or the United States cannot ‘meet’ with Hamas (although meeting is not illegal; materially aiding terrorism is, if proven) because the latter will not ‘recognize Israel’. In contrast, the PLO has ‘recognized’ Israel’s right to exist and agreed in principle to bargain for significantly less land than the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it is not clear that Israel has ever agreed to accept a Palestinian state. The recognition of Israel did not bring an end to violence, as wings of various factions of the PLO did fight Israelis, especially at the height of the Second (al- Aqsa) Intifada. Recognition of Israel by Hamas, in the way that it is described in the Western media, cannot serve as a formula for peace,” the study says.