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.