Saturday, January 10, 2009

Egypt Moves Centerstage

With the exception of Jordan, no Arab country has more at stake in Gaza than Egypt, the only Arab nation to share a border with Gaza. Arabs, increasingly angry about the ongoing violence and frustrated by Arab government inability to come to the aid of the Palestinians, are focusing attention on Egypt's refusal to fully open the Rafah border crossing, Gaza's only gateway to the outside world that does not go through Israel. Tens of thousands of Egyptians on Friday poured into the streets alongside their brethren across the Arab world and elsewhere to vent their anger and frustration, in many cases targeting Egyptian embassies.

(As an aside, the war of words between Israel and the Arabs at times seems surreal in its ability to deny reality. David Pollack, a senior fellow focusing on political dynamics in the Middle East at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy in an analysis released on Friday asserts that "only a handful of major street protests have occurred, and almost no tangible support for Hamas has materialized." Coming from the institute that degree of denial – one only needs to switch on television news to see the masses in the streets – is worrisome given the fact that the institute is an important player in shaping US Middle East policy. Executives and associates of the institute will serve as senior officials in the incoming Obama administration's Middle East team and have served in past administrations, Republican and Democratic.)

What happens at the Rafah crossing will in part make or break the sustainability of any ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. To call a halt to the fighting, Israel wants a viable mechanism that would close down what is left of the underground tunnels that constitute Gaza's sole supply line. Those tunnels serve(d) to break the Israeli siege and bring in vital basic supplies like food and medicine; they were also used by Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups to bring in arms and other military materials. Any mechanism will involve an increased Egyptian role, all the more so if international forces are stationed on the Egyptian side of the border. Hamas has said it would allow international monitors to operate from the Palestinian side of the divide but will not accept an international force in Palestine., Egypt too is reluctant to allow an international force to operate from its territory although less firmly opposed than Hamas.. Instead, it wants to revive the 2005 agreement on movement and access, under which EU monitors oversaw the passage of people through the Rafah crossing and vehicles through Kerem Shalom, a deal that fell through when Hamas came to power.

Egypt's role in Gaza could become even more enhanced if the hopes of some Israeli leaders and politicians that the Israeli offensive will lead to regime change in Gaza were realized. That seems a far-fetched goal as the Israeli offensive enters into its third week. Most analysts assume the war is likely to end before US President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20. A real defeat of Hamas would mean that Israel would have to launch its third phase of the offensive – involving a virtual re-occupation of Gaza by Israeli troops moving into the centers the Strip's cities and towns -- and is able of delivering a fatal blow to Hamas within days. Israel on Saturday showered Gaza with leaflets advising residents that it was about to intensify the fighting by launching its planned third phase of the war. "Strip residents: Two days ago, the IDF dropped leaflets in Rafah, warning residents and instructing them to leave their homes for their safety. As Rafah residents complied with IDF instructions, civilians not involved in the fighting were spared any harm. In the near future, the IDF will continue to attack tunnels, arms caches, and terror activities with greater intensity all across the Strip. For your safety and the safety of your families, you are required to refrain from staying near terror elements or sites where weapons are being stored," the leaflet read.

Speaking in an interview with Sir David Frost on Al Jazeera's Frost over the World, Daniel Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, said: "I think Egypt will have a major role in any future regime" in Gaza. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is determined to thwart any Israeli attempt to foist Gaza on Egypt, a move that could provoke a true explosion of public anger. Even before the current pro-Palestinian demonstrations, protests against the government were becoming a fixture of daily life in the country. While most protests are small and focus on local grievances, some labor actions forced the government to make concessions.

Nonetheless, the absence of a swift Israeli victory too brings Egypt's role in achieving an end to the war to the forefront. Egypt has put forward a ceasefire proposal bolstered by the UN Security Council's call for an immediate ceasefire. Neither Israel nor Hamas is implementing the UN call or has accepted the Egyptian proposal, but both have agreed to talk to the Egyptians about it. Egypt is also seeking to blow new life into talks between Hamas and Fatah in a bid to end the debilitating divisions among the Palestinians. Hamas leaders were in Egypt on Friday and Saturday to discuss the Egyptian efforts. "The situation in Gaza represents a test for the Egyptian leadership and its ability to influence any part of the Middle East, and currently it seems that it is losing its soft powers," Muhammed Hassanein Heikal, a confident of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and one of the Arab world's most prominent journalists, told Al Jazeera

Israel and Egypt refuse to fully open the Rafah border unless it is controlled by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, a demand Hamas has so far rejected. The Times reported Saturday that diplomats at the United Nations were looking as part of the Egyptian plan at carving out "a triangle at the southern end of Gaza, including the Rafah crossing to Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing to Israel, to be policed by Turkish and French military monitors to stop arms smuggling into Gaza. The zone would nominally be controlled by the authority, the internationally recognized Government. Such a plan would allow the crossings to reopen for the first time since Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007." Abbas was in Cairo on Saturday for talks with Mubarak. "What Mubarak appears to want now is a ceasefire that avoids increasing Egyptian responsibility for Gaza and offers Hamas minimal concessions. Egyptian officials denied an Israeli newspaper report that Mubarak told European Union officials during a private meeting Monday that 'Hamas must not be allowed to win in Gaza,' but the comment might well reflect his thinking," says Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, in an article in The National Interest.

Finding common ground between Israel, Egypt and Hamas on arrangements at the Rafah crossing is no mean fete. Israel demands closure of hundreds of tunnels, which it says are Hamas' arms highway. Egypt claims that most weapons enter Gaza from the sea, although it admits that it has failed even with recent help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close the tunnels. While rejecting an international force, it has agreed to accept international help to install technical measures or physical barriers on the Egyptian side of the border. Hamas wants the free flow of goods to and from Gaza through Rafah restored – a move that would help it claim victory in foiling Israel's military objectives in the war. Its position may have been strengthened by the international outcry at the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli offensive. Egypt rejects the Hamas demand because it fears that a fully open Rafah crossing would allow Palestinians to flee the Strip in a mass exodus. An unidentified Egyptian official told Al-Hayat on Tuesday that Mubarak has resisted Arab and Palestinian pressure to open the crossing because he expects it would lead to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooding into Sinai and the inevitable reestablishment of semi-permanent refugee camps.

Complicating implementation of the Security Council ceasefire resolution is the fact that a cessation of hostilities at this moment would mean there is no clear victor. Hamas can claim survival as a victory albeit at a heavy price for the Palestinians. Continued human agony in Gaza still has some potential to score public relations points against Israel. Full opening of the crossings into Gaza would cement Hamas's claim to victory. The flip side of that coin is true for Israel. It wants to ensure that Hamas victory claims are undermined and that Hamas' capacity to fire rockets into Israel is destroyed, in part by cutting off its supply lines. Time will tell the degree to which that is possible. If Egyptian claims that Hamas gets its supplies by sea are true, there is no reason to believe that Israel and others would succeed where they haven't until now. In addition, closing down the tunnels is proving easier said than done. Also, most of Hamas' rockets are home made. Its ability to continue producing them in an environment in which the flow of goods into Gaza is even more controlled remains untested, "The (ongoing) violence is just to mark time because there's an incapacity to reach a solution and the solution is very complex. All the parties have to take into account what a ceasefire will mean for them," Chatam House fellow Nadim Shehadi told The National. Egypt too has a stake on who emerges as the perceived victor from the Gaza war. A victory by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, would strengthen the brotherhood in Egypt, where it constitutes Mubarak's main opposition and enjoys significant popularity.

On Thursday, the brotherhood issued a detailed critique of Mubarak’s ceasefire initiative. It called on him to break relations with Israel and accused him of colluding with the United States. Egyptian opposition groups - Islamist, leftist and liberal – have found a common ground in attacking Mubarak for failing to exert leadership in the region and to respect human and civil rights at home. For Mubarak, the challenge is to manage the crisis without taking deeply unpopular steps that would force him to step up repression and crack down at home.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Obama may talk to Hamas

Incoming US President Barack Obama, in what would constitute a welcome break with the Bush administration's war on terror and lack of even handedness in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, is willing to establish a line of communication with Hamas, The Guardian reports quoting sources close to Obama's transition team. Like past administrations used US intelligence channels for their contacts with the Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Obama is likely to use the CIA to talk to a group which features as a specially designated terrorist on the US Treasury's list of terrorists. The US Congress in 2006 banned US contacts with and funding of Hamas in the wake of its electoral victory.

The initiation of clandestine contacts with Hamas stems from a belief among Obama advisers that isolating the group is proving counter-productive. The move would constitute a welcome signal that Obama may be willing to take a fresh approach to Middle East peacemaking, the Bush administration's war on terror, and the US reluctance to engage with Islamists rather than Jihadis, who significant chunks of public opinion across the region. It would also at least implicitly call into question the rationale of Israel's refusal to engage at least more moderate elements within Hamas as well as it policy that led to the offensive in Gaza. It would also heighten concern among Israeli leaders that they may no longer enjoy the kind of uncritical US support they did with the outgoing Bush administration. Steve Rosen, a controversial former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) official and driving force in the Israeli lobby in Washington who was indicted on charges of passing classified information to Israel, says on his blog, Obama Mideast Monitor, that he has been reliably told that Obama would not violate his campaign pledge not to talk to Hamas as long as it fails to recognize Israel and disavow terrorism. Although initially clandestine, US Hamas contacts would contribute to repairing the United States' damaged international reputation, which Obama has vowed to repair.

Confirmation of news reports that Richard Haass, a former National Security Council official and head of the Council of Foreign Relations, will be appointed Obama's special Middle East envoy would likely be seen as confirmation that Obama may be willing to engage Hamas. Haass has advocated low-level contacts with Hamas, provided there is a ceasefire in place and Hamas achieves reconciliation with Fatah, the group that dominates the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. "This is going to be an administration that is committed to negotiating with ­critical parties on critical issues," The Guardian quoted one of its unidentified sources as saying.

Haass together with Martin J. Indyk, a former Steve Rosen-protégé, US ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution whose has been mentioned as a candidate for a senior Middle East-related position in the Obama administration, argue in an essay entitled Beyond Iraq: A New U.S. Strategy for the Middle East that "the Bush administration's boycotting of Hamas after it freely and fairly won the Palestinian elections enabled the United States' opponents in the Arab and Muslim worlds to raise the banner of double standards," a reference to the US refusal to engage Hamas after it won a landslide in elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006 that were judged free and fair. The essay notes further that "in the war of ideas, Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, have made some headway with the argument that violent radicalism is the way to liberate Palestine and achieve dignity and justice for Arabs and Muslims."

Although the essay was written prior to the Israeli offensive against Hamas and assumes the existence of the Israel Hamas ceasefire that broke down last November after Israeli forces killed a Palestinian in Gaza, Haass and Indyk note that "given Hamas' control of Gaza and its support among at least one-third of Palestinians, a peace process that excludes it could well fail." They argues that as the governors of Gaza, Hamas' leaders should have to choose between launching rocket, mortar, and terrorist attacks on southern Israeli towns and meeting Palestinians' needs by establishing order and taking the steps necessary to attract aid (including ending the use of tunnels for arms smuggling and returning the Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit). The cease-fire agreement that Egypt negotiated is holding for the moment precisely because the Hamas leadership has effectively policed it, choosing to place the needs of Gazans ahead of Hamas' interest in 'resistance.'"

"The United States should encourage such developments but leave it to Egypt, Israel, and the PA (Palestine Authority) to handle their relationships with Hamas. If the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas continues to hold and a Hamas-PA reconciliation emerges, the Obama administration should deal with the joint Palestinian leadership and authorize low-level contact between U.S. officials and Hamas in Gaza. If the cease-fire breaks down irreparably and the Israeli army reenters Gaza, the United States should then work with others to create and insert an Arab-led international force to restore PA control and bring about Israel's withdrawal. Obviously, it would be highly desirable to avoid such a scenario. One way to do this would be to ensure the kind of progress in the negotiations that would create a dynamic in which Hamas feels pressured by Gazans not to miss the peace train that is beginning to move in the West Bank." Parallel to this, the two former diplomats call for increased US focus on Israeli Syrian peace talks, noting that if successful this would weaken external support for Hamas or at least for its more militant tendencies," the essay goes on to say.

In a separate Memo to the President: Renew Diplomacy in the Middle East, Indyk and former National Security Council Kenneth M. Pollack last week suggested that the war in Gaza offered Obama an opportunity to jump start his Middle East policy and implied that this could involve a role for Hamas. "Hamas would prefer to avoid losing control of Gaza. By offering a sustainable ceasefire that ends rocket attacks on Israel, leads to Israeli troop withdrawals from Gaza, prevents smuggling of weapons into Gaza and includes international monitoring of the flow of goods and people, you may be able to convince both sides to de-escalate. A ceasefire in Gaza might also create pressures on Hamas to reconcile their differences with Fatah, enabling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to speak again for all Palestinians," the memo says.

In a New York Review of Books review of separate memoirs of past Middle East peace negotiators, including Indyk and Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former senior State Department official and US ambassador to Egypt and Israel whose name is mentioned as a possible candidate for a Middle East role in the Obama administration, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley say that Indyk "shows sensible pragmatism in suggesting a different approach toward Hamas, arguing that if it abides by its cease-fire with Israel, the US should support efforts at reconciliation among Palestinians. At a US Institute of Peace this week on Israeli Palestinian peace, Kurtzer suggested that once the guns in Gaza fall silent “there will be an unacceptable situation on the ground, no matter how this particular phase” wraps up, because Israel and Hamas are like “that Monty Python sketch with the 100-meter dash with runners for no sense of direction." Kurtzer said it was hard see how the ceasefire would “lead to a conclusion where a mutuality of interest will emerge from it.” Carefully couching his words, Kurtzer said the proposition of negotiating an Israeli Palestinian peace settlement as long as the Palestinian leadership was divided had not yet been fully tested. In speaking about the leadership, Kurtzer did not specify whether he meant the Palestine Authority, Hamas or both. But by suggesting negotiating a peace agreement that would then be submitted to a referendum, Kurtzer appeared to be suggesting that at least initially Hamas should be circumvented. That approach nonetheless would not rule out clandestine US contacts with the Islamist group.

I don’t think we have fully tested the proposition” of negotiating an agreement with the Palestinian leadership — he doesn’t come out and say Fatah, but it’s probably what he means — and then subjecting it to a Palestinian national referendum. Clearly, he’s thought about working around Hamas.

With a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza finally in place, how Hamas responds in terms of adhering to a ceasefire once it takes effect, including a likely mechanism to prevent it from replenishing its arms stocks, is certain to influence the Obama administration's attitude towards contact with the Islamist group. Israel will view a ceasefire that effectively cuts Hamas off from military supplies – although it may continue to find ways to build its largely ineffective home-made rockets – as evidence of success of its military campaign. Nonetheless, the history of Israel Hamas relations resembles a dance in 1981 that Israel and the PLO engaged in, which ultimately was part of the process that led to direct albeit failed peace talks between the two.

At the time, Israel agreed to a ceasefire mediated by the United Nations and the United States with an enemy it had assiduously sought to delegitimize and place beyond the pale of permissible engagement by others. Like Hamas, the PLO at the time was involved in a torturous and often contradictory effort to formulate a position that would lead to peace negotiations based on a two-state solution. Hamas' current position is a far cry from officially acknowledging Israel but its repeated call for a ten-year ceasefire with Israel is an indication of where Hamas could be heading as are past defeated calls from more moderate forces within Hamas for a halt to the armed struggle. Like the 1981 ceasefire with the PLO that was followed by subsequent military clashes that culminated in Israel's expulsion of the Palestinian guerrilla group from Lebanon in 1982, Israel agreed last year to the ruptured ceasefire with Hamas because of an appreciation of its enhanced military capability modeled on Hizbollah, which Israel failed to defeat in 2006.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Saudi Crown Prince Reported Terminally Ill

The Saudi government has dashed hopes of Saudi human rights activists that mounting public anger over the Israeli offensive in Gaza would force it back down at least temporarily from its ban on public manifestations. The Current of Justice, Shura and Human Rights, which last November organized the kingdom's first public hunger strike in support of a dozen political reformists detained without charge, had petitioned the government to authorize sit-ins in solidarity with the Palestinians. The government, afraid that lifting the ban would lead to demonstrations demanding more rights in the kingdom, last week enforced the ban by arresting tens of people who had defied the ban in southern predominantly Shiite city of Qatif.

In a bid to demonstrate support of the Palestinians and to offer ordinary Saudis a sense demonstrating their solidarity, the government organized a nationwide fund-raising campaign for Gaza. The campaign collected more than 100 million Saudi riyals (Euros 20 million) in less than two days, with 30m riyals (Euros 6 million) coming from King Abdullah. Al Riyadh daily, which reflects government views, described the campaign as a "good protest".

Heightened public emotion albeit focused on Palestine rather than the kingdom, comes at a moment that Saudi Arabia is facing economic and political problems. The global economic crisis that sparked a steep market downturn is driving consolidation in the finance industry. Six Saudi financial services companies are pondering a merger to weather the economic crisis while several other companies are considering liquidation.

"These companies have very difficult options in front of them, either to proceed with further losing of the remaining portion of their capital or accept the current harsh reality by seeking alternatives," said financial analyst Mohammad Al Omran, according to Al Riyadh. The UAE's Gulf News cited Saudi economists at saying that layoffs in the finance sector were likely and that some institutions would need capitalization.

On the political front, Stratfor, an online geopolitical intelligence publisher reports that Saudi Defense Minister and Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz is terminally ill. The report comes less than 24 hours after the Crown Prince, who has been reportedly ill for some time, met in New York with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to the Saudi Gazette.

Stratfor said Sultan had arrived in Morocco after doctors in New York told him his radiation treatment was finished and there was nothing more they could do. Senior members of the Saudi royal family were reportedly are on their way to Morocco. Late last month, King Abdullah was concerned about attending the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Oman while Sultan was in New York for treatment because that would have meant that no appointed ruler would have been in the kingdom during his absence.

As Crown Prince, Sultan is next in line. King Abdullah last month appointed 35 sons and grandsons of Saudi Arabia's founder King Abdul Aziz to a commission that would help select future kings. The decree finalized a process to institutionalize succession which until then was decided by the inner councils of the royal family in a shroud of secrecy. The death of Sultan would be the first time the family would have to replace a crown prince rather than a king. The nomination could pit various factions in the royal family against one another. This will likely be the first time the Saudi royal family will have to replace a crown prince. Sultan's death could leader to a shake-up in the kingdom's top leadership because he head the Sudairi clan, the most powerful clan within the al-Saud family, and serves as deputy prime minister and defense minister. Sultan's younger brother, Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman, is widely seen as the frontrunner to succeed him as crown prince should he pass away.

Israel: Shooting itself in its own Foot

When Theodore Herzl in the late 19th century conceived the Jewish state, he had in mind a country that would serve as a safe haven for Jews, particularly those in Europe suffering a far greater degree of persecution and discrimination than their brethren in Arab and Muslim lands. The Holocaust gave the need for a safe haven greater urgency. Increasingly, Jews over the decades became less inclined to uproot and immigrate to the ingathering of the exiles as Israel perceived itself. Yet, the very existence of the Jewish state gave psychological comfort to Jews across the globe and became a building stone for communities' identity as well as a, if not the, center of Jewish culture.

However, Israeli policies towards the Palestinians as well as towards the Jews are defeating the very goals of the Zionist movement. Israel, which capitalized on sympathy towards the Jews in the wake of Germany's genocide, today hardly looks like a safe haven. "..from war to war, it has become clear that there are many places in the world where Jews are safer than in Israel," says Israeli journalist Tom Segev. Israel is a continuous target of terrorism and embroiled every several years in military conflict that the international community increasingly finds difficult to swallow; increasingly Israel no longer produces the kind of clear cut military victory it used to be able to deliver. No doubt, military confrontation today is not against conventional national armies but against non-state militias deeply embedded in the population, often in densely populated areas. Israel may well be seeking to minimize civilian casualties but the pictures coming out of Gaza and the assessments of the humanitarian situation by international organizations are so powerful, there is no way it can the win the public relations battle – a key aspect of any war. Leaving aside the analytical question whether Israeli policy is radicalizing the Arab and Muslim world rather than removing an extreme terrorist movement to create space for more moderate forces, the images of Gaza and perceived Israeli callousness makes it impossible for Israel to garner the kind of international and Jewish support it enjoyed when it was fighting battles that almost unanimously were perceived as existential and because it had no alternative and where there was no obvious political and diplomatic alternative.

To be sure, the greatest military threats on Israel's borders – Hizbollah, Hamas and other religiously inspired militant groups – are hardly nice guys. Beyond the fact that they are in part a product of Israeli policy, history shows that they cannot be militarily removed from the stage, at least not at a price that Israel morally would be willing to pay or would be allowed to pay by the international community despite the international community's inability so far to call a halt to the fighting in Gaza. One needs only to hark back to the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s that led to the 1993 failed Oslo peace process That process emerged once Israeli military commanders advised then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that they could control the uprising but that the solution needed to be political because the price Israel would have to pay to crush the role was neither morally nor internationally acceptable. The question arises whether the price Israel is paying for Gaza in terms of loss of international goodwill and sympathy, an asset it will need in future peace negotiations, is worth the outcome of the battle at a time at which in many ways prospects for a Middle East peace may never have been better. The Arab world led by Saudi Arabia have put a peace plan on the table Israel views as an acceptable base for negotiation. In addition, a closer look at Israeli policies over the years towards the occupied territories, including the 18-month blockade of Gaza, have contributed to severe economic deterioration rather than to the nurturing of an economic and social environment that would create the vested interests needed for a viable peace process.

The failure of Zionism, measured by its goal rather than its success in establishing a vibrant, viable state, may in part have been inevitable but in part is Israel's own doing. Inevitably, there was going to be a divergence of interests between well-established Jewish communities across the globe and the Israeli nation state, rendering Israel more the 13th tribe than the representative of global Jewish interests. While Zionism sought to promote Jewish immigration, Israel needed to keep influential Jewish communities in major capitals as part of its global support network. Invariably, those communities are impacted by Israeli actions and policies, which at times spark more often than not privately rather than publicly expressed disagreement. That divergence focuses not only on repercussions of Israeli foreign, regional and military policies but also, for example, on the very notion of who is a Jew. Legally, Israel recognizes anyone with a Jewish mother. Much of the Jewish community in the Diaspora however is religiously liberal or conservative rather than Orthodox, yet orthodoxy controls Israel's religious hierarchy and apparatus refusing to recognize any other form of Judaism as legitimate or legal in religious terms.

Nothing justifies outbursts of racism and Antisemitism from Dubai to Florida in response to the Israeli offensive in Gaza, outbursts that say more about its perpetrators than about Israel. Nonetheless, the outbursts constitute the fringe of a swell of opinion that less and less views Israel and the Jews as a moral and democratic force seeking to carve out a secure national existence of their own even if that is only achievable by ensuring that Palestinians enjoy that same privilege and more and more as a belligerent military bully that appears to have lost perspective and the ability to think and act boldly; a power that uses its political, moral, economic and military strength to help shape an environment conducive to peace, a power that is politically proactive rather than defensive and reactive exploiting primarily its military capability. The outbursts must raise concern in Jewish communities around the world. They range from a car ramming into a synagogue in France to the spraying in Belgium of swastikas on a Chabad menorah and Jewish-owned shops, a banner at an Australian rally demanding "clean the earth from dirty Zionists," demonstrators in the Netherlands chanting "Gas the Jews," protesters in Florida demanding Jews "Go back to the ovens!" to an editorial in Dubai's Gulf News denying the Holocaust. "My fear," says Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance "is that the rage we see in the protesters marching in the streets is far more profound and dangerous than we would like to believe. There are a great many people in the world who, even after Auschwitz, just can't bear the Jewish state having the same rights they so readily grant to other nations."

A statistical analysis of Palestinian Israeli violence from 2000 till today despite the vulgarity of these outbursts calls into question whether anti-Israeli sentiment can be reduced to a racist refusal to accept the notion of a Jewish state. Basing herself on Israeli official and non-governmental statistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and investigator Nancy Kanwisher. Kanwisher concludes that:
-- A systematic pattern exist in which it is overwhelmingly Israel, not Palestine, that kills first following a lull
-- Hamas can indeed control the rockets, when it is in their interest. The data shows that ceasefires can work, reducing the violence to nearly zero for months at a time.
-- If Israel wants to reduce rocket fire from Gaza, it should cherish and preserve the peace when it starts to break out, not be the first to kill.

In analyzing the data, Kanwisher defined conflict pauses as periods of one or more days when no one is killed on either side and looked at which side kills first after conflict pauses of different durations. "This analysis illustrated in the above figure shows that it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict: 79% of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian, while only 8% were interrupted by Palestinian attacks (the remaining 13% were interrupted by both sides on the same day). In addition, we found that this pattern -- in which Israel is more likely than Palestine to kill first after a conflict pause -- becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses. Indeed, of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96%, and it unilaterally interrupted 100% of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days," Kanwisher says. The figure shows in black the percentage of times from the Second Intifada in which Israelis ended the period of nonviolence by killing one or more Palestinians, in grey the percentage of times that Palestinians ended the period of nonviolence by killing Israelis and in white the percentage of times that both sides killed on the same day. Virtually all periods of nonviolence lasting more than a week were ended when the Israelis killed Palestinians first.

The latest outbreak of violence is no exception. For all practical purposes, the Israel Hamas ceasefire that came into effect last June was effective. The figure below based on a fact sheet of the Israeli consulate in New York shows that the rate of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza dropped to almost zero, and stayed there for four straight months. The ceasefire came to an end when Israel on November 4 killed a Palestinian to which Palestinians responded with a volley of mortars fired from Gaza. In turn, Israel launched an Israeli air strike that killed another six Palestinians prompting a second barrage of Palestinian rockets.

A complex history and psychology that goes beyond the trauma of the Holocaust and the existentialist fear of coming to the world in a sea of enemies willing to use force to achieve a still born birth explains Israel's overly reliance on overwhelming force. Prominent left-wing Israeli journalist Tom Segev, an exponent of the New Historians who challenge Israel's version of the history of the Jewish state and Zionism, argues that for much of their history, Israelis defined themselves in opposition to the traditional, persecuted and submissive Old Jew whom they looked down. The Israeli, the New Jew, resembled Lenin's New Man or Ataturk's New Turk: upright, strong, patriotic, honorable a fighter and warrior rather than the Old Jew, a lamb available for slaughter. The role of the Holocaust in Israel identity and policy is all the more intense because as described by Segev in his book, The Seventh Million: Israel and the Holocaust, Jews in Palestine during World War II faced an impossible choice: build a Jewish state designed as a safe haven for future generations or focus on the immediate and save persecuted Jews facing genocide in Europe. The Zionist movement, Segev argues, had no choice but to choose the former, burdening the new state with a legacy few countries have to confront. "…the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust was an obvious defeat for the Zionist movement: The Zionists were unable to convince the majority of the world's Jews to come to Palestine before the war, while that was still an option. And though the yishuv (Jewish settlement of Palestine)leaders certainly could have displayed greater compassion for and identification with the Jews of Europe, they could not have done more to save them; the yishuv was helpless when faced with the Nazi extermination program," Segev says.

On a lighter note:

Al Aqsa TV, the Hamas television station, broadcasting live images of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, is not the channel one would turn to for Western-style entertainment and pornography is certainly not part of its programming. But late last night Al Aqsa viewers, at least those with access to electricity, were treated to six minutes of erotic entertainment broadcast on Polish channel Patio TV. A Hamas technician presumably seeking relief from the tensions of war and the images of suffering and destruction apparently decided to zap satellite channels and settled on Patio TV unaware that the images were being broadcast live on the Hamas station. To view the clip: MEMRI . WARNING: This clip contains nudity.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Talking to the Devil

While Hamas portrays a unified face to the outside world and so far appears to be surviving the Israeli offensive in Gaza severely battered but intact, it consists of multiple factions divided by differences in vision of the identity of a future Palestinian state, tactics and strategy and personal and regional rivalries. The shifting balance of power among those factions is to a significant extent determined by Israeli policies that reinforce the views of one faction and weaken those of others. Just how divided Hamas is was evident in the run-up to the Israeli offensive when some leaders rejected extension of the six-month ceasefire with Israel while others publicly advocated renewal. Ultimately Hamas rejected extension in a victory for the hardliners. The question is whether a different Israeli policy in the period preceding the rejection, including an adherence to Israel's pledge to lift the siege of Gaza as part of the ceasefire would have produced a different power of balance within Hamas.

To some analysts, Matthew Levitt, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow, who publishes frequently on Hamas, seeking to engage with moderate elements with Hamas is "counterproductive." Levitt argues that differences within Hamas regarding U.S. policy are merely tactical and that engaging more moderate Islamists would undermine efforts by the U.S., Israel and conservative Arab governments to strengthen the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Levitt's rejection assumes that the various positions taken by the different Hamas factions are cast in stone and unlikely to develop in the course of a political process that gives them a stake. It also assumes that violence rather than a political process that shows that Abbas can delivery tangible political and economic results will serve to position the Palestinian president, whose Fatah movement lost an election to Hamas, as the leader with the most credibility among Palestinians. Those are two assumptions that so far have been defeated by the history of Arab Israeli conflict and Middle East peacemaking.

On that premise, an analysis of the shifting balances within Hamas points to potentially lost opportunities to bring at least parts of the Palestinian Islamist movement to the negotiating table. If successful that could have significantly altered the balance of power within the movement, to a break-up of Hamas into various groups and a segmentation of public support. The most significant fault line in Hamas is between those whose priority is to solve the Palestinian problem and those motivated by religious zeal. Proposals by the more nationalist faction, which garnered much of its support from the West Bank and the Palestinian business community, to halt military action and focus exclusively in line with the path followed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan on political and social activity constituted one opportunity for Israel and others to draw parts of the Islamist movement into the peace process. Those proposals culminated in the fall of 2004 in an internal memorandum drafted by a senior Hamas leader to dismantle its underground military apparatus. The proposal was defeated by the Hamas leadership in Gaza as well as the exile leadership in Damascus.

The move to call a halt to military activity came months after Israel had killed Gaza-based Hamas founders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in separate operations. The killings prompted splits within the Gaza leadership. Hamas' Gaza political wing was inherited by deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar. Haniya has not been seen in public since the Israeli offensive began but Hamas' Al Aqsa television earlier this week broadcast a taped defiant statement read by Zahar. Supporters of Al-Rantissi joined Muhammed Diaf, head of the group's military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Haniya's willingness to cease attacks on Israel in response to pressure from the business community were denounced by another Rantissi supporter Nizar Rayyan, who is the most senior Hamas leader to have been killed in the current Israeli offensive. In a bid to thwart Haniya's move, Rayyan paraded armed through the streets of the Jabalya refugee camp. Flanked by masked Qassem Brigade fighters, he dismissed Haniya's plan, distributed pamphlets describing Hamas' military operations and announced that the group was developing Qassem rockets capable of reaching deeper into Israel.

Hamas' 2006 victory in Palestinian elections on the West Bank and in Gaza strengthened the position of the leadership in Palestine versus the exile leaders in Damascus, whose influence stems from their control of Hamas' finances and relations with Syria and Iran, and initially appeared to reinforce more moderate forces within the group. That began to change with the split between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian group defeated in the election, and Hamas takeover of Gaza. The Israeli and Western boycott of Gaza imposed after the takeover shifted power led by Zahar and Said Siam, a proponent of suicide attacks who served as interior minister in the unified government, through control of the group's Executive Force and Qassem Brigades. Last summer, the position of the radicals was reinforced when hardliners emerged from secret balloting dominant in Hamas' Gaza Consultative Council or Shura Council on a slate dominated by younger members of the Qassem Brigades and headed by Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. The Gaza council answers to is Hamas' highest decision-making body, the Majlis a Shura, which incorporates representatives from all Hamas constituencies: Gaza, the West Bank, Israeli prisons and Damascus. The slate, many of whose members opposed reconciliation with Fatah because they feared it would lead to an end of the armed struggle and acceptance of a two-state solution, prompted more moderate figures like Ghazi Hamad – a Hamas veteran who served as spokesman and editor of Hamas weekly Ar-Risala and was imprisoned by both Israel and the Palestine Authority -- and Ahmad Yusuf, a political advisor to Haniya, not to stand in the election. The Shura Council victory is believed to have undermined the position of moderates like Haniya. It is reasonable to assume that the tightening siege of Gaza played into the hardliner's hands.

If the Gaza leadership is divided, so are their rivals in Damascus split between Gazans led by second-in-command Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzouk, who was sentenced in the United States on charges of financing Hamas, and political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, whose supporters hail from the West Bank and studied or worked in Kuwait. Their differences result from competition for influence rather than ideology. The Gazans views the Kuwaitis as too dominant. Palestine Authority officials say internal Hamas correspondence that they seized in November shows that the Damascus leadership together with Hamas leaders on the West Bank favored continued dialogue with Fatah and was critical of the hard line Gaza leadership's moves to thwart Egyptian mediation efforts.

It is ironic that Israeli and Western policies towards Gaza appear to have reversed the traditional relationship between exiles and those that have remained in the homeland with the exiles usually able to afford a more radical position because they run less personal risk and are less exposed to the pressures of circumstance that forced them into exile. By the same token, for all its bluster against the failure of Arab states to intervene, Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and the only Arab military force that could be expected to come to the aid of Hamas, has restricted itself to words rather than deeds. Speaking in Beirut on the occasion of Ashura, the Shiite commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein some 1,400 years ago and amid mounting fears in Lebanon that Israel mat strike at Hizbollah, the militia's leader, Sheikh Hassan Narallah, vowed that his men were prepared to counter any Israeli regression. The 2006 "Lebanon war was just a walk in the park compared to what we have in store for you," Nasrallah said. In what has become a tat-for-tat spat between Nasrallah and Egypt following the militia leader's call last week on Egyptian to revolt against their government for not opening the Rafah Gaza Egypt border crossing, Nasrallah today again singled Egypt out. "Yesterday (Tuesday) a senior Egyptian official asked the Security Council if it needed to see more than 650 Palestinians killed and 2,500 injured in order to act responsibly. I ask that same official – does the Egyptian government need more than that in order to open the Rafah crossing for the sake of Gaza's inhabitants and their firm resistance and triumph? All you are required to do is open the crossing, not to declare war," Nasrallah said.

Israel's conduct of the Gaza war is increasingly drawing criticism not just from the usual suspects but also from those that have traditionally supported its policies, particularly with regard to taking a hard line towards Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. "Tehran has been aiding Hamas for years with the aim of radicalizing politics across the entire Arab Middle East. Now Israel's response to thousands of Hamas rocket provocations appears to be doing just that," writes Reuel Mark Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and Foundation for Defense of Democracies fellow in The Wall Street Journal. Gerecht, arguing that Sunni Hamas far more than Hizbollah, offers Iran the opportunity to train its sights on stirring the pot in Egypt, in his words 'the ultimate prize' in the geo-political power chess game playing out in the Middle East, notes that Iran has been careful never to respond to conservative Sunni anti-Shiite rhetoric. For starters, Iran's support for Hamas positions the Islamic Republic as a more reliable supporter of the Palestinians than the conservative Arab states. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation straddling Asia and Africa that was once ruled by a Shiite dynasty, may be potentially volatile than it has been since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Gerecht points to the fact that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is aging and questions exist about the state of his health, but that it is unclear who will succeed him. The grip of Egypt's security forces is pervasive but whoever succeeds Mubarak, his jet-setting son or a military officer, is unlikely to resuscitate the regime's credibility and weaken the Muslim Brotherhood which most likely would win with a landslide in a free and fair election. "A turbulent Gaza where devout Muslims are in a protracted, televised fight with the cursed Jews could add sufficient heat to make Egyptian politics really interesting. The odds of Egypt cracking could be very small…but they are now certainly enough to keep the Iranians playing," Gerecht writes.

Marc Lynch, a George Washington University political science professor better known by his nom de plume Abu Aardvark, argues that irrespective whether Hamas wins or loses, Al Qaeda is certain to emerge a winner from the Gaza crisis. If Hamas wins, it benefits from the setback for the West and its Arab allies, if it loses, one of its major rivals is seriously weakened. “Either way, the Gaza crisis guarantees that a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration”, Lynch says. He notes that the way the crisis is developing demonstrates “the bankruptcy and strategic dangers of trying to simply reduce Hamas to part of an undifferentiated ‘global terrorist front.’” In fact, Hamas, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, a major Al Qaeda rival, played a key role in preventing the Jihadis from getting a real foot on the ground in Palestine. “…the doctrinal and political conflict between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda's salafi-jihadism has become one of the most active fault-lines in Islamist politics. As Abu Qandahar’ wrote on al-Qaeda's key al-Ekhlaas forum in October 2007, the ‘Islamic world is divided between two projects, jihad and Ikhwan [Brotherhood],’” Lynch says. “From al-Qaeda's perspective, therefore, Israel's assault on Gaza is an unmitigated blessing. The images flooding the Arab and world media have already discredited moderates, fueled outrage, and pushed the center of political gravity towards more hard-line and radical positions… Governments are under pressure, most people are glued to al-Jazeera's coverage..., the internet is flooded with horrifying images, and people are angry and mobilized against Israel, the United States, and their own governments. That's the kind of world al-Qaeda likes to see.”

Struggle for Identity

At the core of the Israeli Palestinian struggle lays a struggle for identity couched in existential, political, national and religious terms – a struggle that reflects a quest for identity across the Middle East. That quest pervades all aspects of politics, economics, culture and daily life and shapes countries' domestic and foreign policies. The quest for identity is the architect of the region's future, sculpted in opposition to one or more perceived enemies.

For much of the Middle East's post-World War Two history, Arabs and Israelis viewed one another as the enemy. Already before 9/11 but certainly in the wake of those attacks, definitions of the enemy became more complex with new, more radical forces emerging. These new threats produced new alliances, particularly across the once impermeable Israeli Arab divide, which is giving way to a majority of Arab countries agreeing with Israel that Iran as well as Shiite and Sunni Islamists pose the greatest threat to regional stability. In turn, strategic re-alliance, even if it doesn't translate into peace treaties and diplomatic relations, has widened the gap between Arab government policy and public sentiment.

For much of post-World War Two history, Israel served as a lightning rod for Arabs, deflecting attention from domestic issues and authoritarian regimes' failure to cater to people's economic and political needs. As Arab governments shifted the geopolitical paradigm, large segments of the public turned to Islamist forces as the only credible opposition to discredited, corrupt regimes. Even so, the fault lines are not always crystal clear when it comes to defining regional threats. Conservative governments, moderate Islamists and their sworn enemies, Sunni Jihadis, may disagree in their assessment of Hamas or their attitude towards Israel, but find common ground when it comes to Iran and the Shiites. In recent months, conservative Arab governments together with Sunni moderate and militant Islamists have waged a war of words with strong racial overtones against Iran, Hizbollah and the Shiites.

Domestically, Arab governments use a carrot-and-stick mix of pervasive security forces and economic incentive to manage restive public sentiment. Nonetheless, tensions have been on the increase. Rising food and commodity prices raised temperatures in the course of 2008. Gaza is raising temperatures further. Emotions are running so high that some media even in the UAE, the Arab nation that prides itself of multiculturalism and tolerance, has harked backed to the worst demagogic rhetoric of the Israeli Arab conflict. "Today, the whole world stands as a witness to the fact that the Nazi holocaust was a mere lie, which was devised by the Zionists to blackmail humanity. The same Zionist entity swindled the world out of billions of dollars over the years to compensate the wrong and unjust which they claim to have been inflicted on their people. It is evident that the holocaust was a conspiracy hatched by the Zionists and Nazis, and many innocent people gave their lives as a result of this inhuman plot," writes Mohammad Abdullah Al Mutawa, a professor of sociology at Al Ain's UAE University in the Gulf News.

Arab governments from Oman to Morocco walk a tightrope that is becoming shakier as public anger explodes into protests demanding Arab action to put a halt to the violence. It puts governments hoping privately for an Israeli defeat of Hamas and incapable of exploiting the regional and international outcry to achieve an immediate ceasefire on the defensive. It illustrates the region's inability to translate financial clout and control of much of the world's energy resources into political and diplomatic clout and highlights Arab dependence on the United States, which in Arab eyes has little regard for Arab concerns when it comes to definitions of Israel's security.

Mounting public anger and frustration on Arab streets is unlikely to spark immediate or radical political change, but it does contribute to Arab government's continued loss of credibility and an ever growing quest for change -- a creeping process continuously boosted by regional crisis, pressure for greater political freedom, existential fear and a struggle to forge a post-colonial identity. In an emotional denunciation of Egyptian government policies towards the Gaza conflict as well as corruption, Zeinobia, author of Egyptian Chronicles,concludes: "Big strong country's future are not planned by other countries." In Saudi Arabia, where public protests are banned and demonstrators protesting the Israeli offensive have been arrested, people have started to wear Palestinian-style keffiyahs in solidarity with Gaza and are expressing their anger in the blogosphere, according to John Burgess's blog, Crossroads Arabia.

The Israeli offensive immediately after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rebuffed Egyptian President Husni Mubarak’s pleas for restraint, reminds Egyptians of their country's apparent helplessness. It plays into the hands of the secular neo-Nasserites and left-wingers as well as the Islamist opposition, who charge that Cairo’s alliance with Washington has brought Egypt to its knees, rendering it incapable of opposing Israeli policies. Israel’s attacks in Gaza will inevitably radicalize Egypt’s political discourse in much the same way they did after the July 2006 war in Lebanon, which placed Mubarak on the defensive, says Stephen A. Cook, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow. Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, adds: "To admit that Egypt can't even open its sovereign border without permission from Washington tells you all you need to know about the powerlessness of the satraps that run the Middle East for us. Open the Rafah gate (to Gaza) – or break off relations with Israel – and Egypt's economic foundations crumble. Any Arab leader who took that kind of step will find that the West's economic and military support is withdrawn."

While Fisk's widely-circulated writing reflects a popular sentiment, the article coupled with demonstrations in several capitals outside Egypt's embassies against Egypt's alleged collaboration with Israel in the build-up to the Gaza war and the shooting of an Egyptian border guard by Hamas gunmen is provoking a backlash among Egyptians, including government critics. The backlash is compounded by calls by Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Egyptians to rise up in their millions to force open the Rafah border gate and Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri's description of the killing of the border guard in an internet message as "an example to follow for the zealous and free in the Egyptian army". Says female Muslim blogger on Tales of a Fattractive Egyptian Woman: "I'm sick of the sudden 'let's blame Egypt' mentality." Blogger Sandmonkey was far more explicit, laying into "all of you f*****s who are badmouthing my country, which – by the way – fought four f*****g wars for the Palestinian cause and lost more people than all of you."

Authoritarian Arab governments have little to be proud of. They preside over anemic economies and poor educational systems and have failed to educate their citizens to participate effectively in a globally competitive economy. Average unemployment hovers around 15 percent, second only to sub-Saharan Africa. Some 30 percent of the region's population of which 60 percent is under 30 years of age is believed to be illiterate. Political and economic reforms have been cosmetic and symbolic at best, primarily designed to maintain the image of progress. In many Arab countries, dissidents still go to jail, albeit that today they are given the courtesy of a trial.

Many Egyptians see the Palestinian problem and Egypt's role in it as inextricably linked to corruption, repression and the looting of Egyptian state assets by the country's western-backed business and political elite. Opposition demonstrations in the 1990s rallied around the slogan "The road to Jerusalem goes through Cairo." Demonstrators then saw Egyptian financial interests and the country's security forces as prolonging the status quo of Israeli occupation. Today, they view the government's privatisation programme accompanied by corruption scandals, rising unemployment and inflation as part and parcel of global interests that keep Gaza under siege and consign Palestinian self-determination to a pipe dream. "The Gazan crisis has emerged just as popular actions to subvert the systems of social repression that keep Egyptians alienated from their own economic and political processes are snowballing. The previous two years have seen more strikes and sit-ins than at any time since the second world war; a second major industrial sector has managed to break free of the five-decade state monopoly on trade unions; over 2,000 police officers have just resigned en masse over the use of torture as a security tactic and woeful working conditions, writes Jack Schenker in The Guardian.

The battle for Gaza does not constitute exclusively a boon for Islamists, across the Arab world, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the vanguard. Public anger at a lack of Arab response constitutes a welcome opportunity to garner increased support for their efforts for political change. The Islamists will be able to capitalize on the Gaza war as long as Hamas retains control of Gaza and is not ousted in favor of the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is unlikely to destroy Hamas or crush continued resistance against Israeli occupation but could deal it a significant blow from which it will take time to recover. Glorification of the Palestinian struggle will resonate with public sentiment and allow the Islamists to blame a possible setback on Arab collusion with Israel and the United States. "A solution (to the Palestinian problem) has to be found on an equal basis. That is what the new message is from Hamas and Hizbollah. Arabs will no longer allow themselves to be subjugated to colonialism. They no longer accept colonialism. They can resist as long as any human can resist. There are new rules that apply to the Israeli-Arab conflict by some people who insist on fighting for their rights. This is the new paradigm" in the region's quest for identity says Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut told Al Jazeera International.

The rise of the Islamists is the product of a pervading colonial-era mentality that dominates Arab governments who look for protection and salvation from foreign forces rather than their own populations, which they seek to control through heavy handed security forces and a buy-in into economic development. As a result, Arab governments are dependent on the United States. That mentality and dependence increasingly has polarized Arab society. In response, large segments of society have turned to religion for their salvation and self-assertion in what is the most dramatic social and political shift in the region in the past three decades. Spearheaded by Islamists, the shift constitutes a break with the 'vassals of the West' mentality in a bid to assert their own identity and interests.

Yet, the Islamists have been unable to translate their call for an Islamic state and the rule of Shari'a into a coherent program offering solutions for political modernization, economic development including job creation and protection of the environment. Gaza buys the Islamists time given their effectiveness at confronting Western powers and Israel to formulate constructive and coherent positions on economic and social issues that will become even more pressing as the global economic turn down takes its toll.

Islamist movements have so far failed to influence policy. They must convince their supporters that political participation is the best way to affect government in the long term, despite seemingly poor short term gains, concludes a Carnegie Endowment study,Islamists in Politics: The Dynamics of Participation, written by Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy. “While participation is not invariably a process of further democratization and moderation, it is also clear that non-participation—either enforced by governments or chosen by the leadership of Islamist parties and movements—is a guarantee that a process of moderation will not take place. This is a sobering thought for those governments and their international backers that would like to set the bar for participation by Islamists extremely high. The choice is not between allowing the somewhat risky participation by Islamists in politics and their disappearance from the political scene. It is between allowing their participation despite the existence of gray zones with the possibility that a moderating process will unfold, and excluding them from the legal political process—thus ensuring the growing influence of hard-liners inside those movements and the continued existence of gray zones," the report says.

An Israeli victory against Hamas would pose a problem for the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded Islamists, who dominate the religious inspired opposition among Sunnis in the Middle East, not only because it could affect their standing in the region, but because it would create a vacuum that at least in part could be filled by the Jihadi fringe of the Islamist movement. The rise of Jihadi groups in Gaza would repeat developments in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. To Al Qaeda and its supporters, Hamas constitute a deviation from the true path of Islam. "They are traitors. Compared to us, they are Islamism lite… Hamas represents an American style of Islam," says Abu Mustafa, a Jihadi leader in Gaza who studied chemical engineering in Germany in a rare interview prior to the Israeli offensive.

Dressed in Pakistani garb and walking on crutches since he was wounded after an Israeli retaliatory missile strike a year ago minutes after he and his comrades fired rockets into Israel said Gazans were disappointed with Hamas' failure to introduce a real Islamic lifestyle and its willingness to accept democracy.. He said up to 10 people, many of them Hamas fighters, approach him daily to join the ranks of the Jihadis. "These are tough men and they have insider knowledge. They will be very useful should it come to a power struggle," he says. Many of the Hamas defectors opposed Hamas willingness to join a Palestinian conflict and agree to a truce with Israel. Jihadis in the Gaza Strip first made their mark when in 2007 they kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston and held him for four months. "It was nothing personal. It was a message to the West that they should release imprisoned Muslims," Abu Mustafa says.

Seeking to exploit, the moderate Islamist dilemma and Jihadi criticism of Hamas, Al-Qaeda's second-in-command Zawahiri called on Muslims on Tuesday to strike Western and Israeli targets around the world in response to Israel's raids on the Gaza Strip. He accused US President-elect Barack Obama of complicity. "Hit the interests of the Zionists and crusaders wherever and in whichever way you can," Zawahiri said in an audio tape posted on Islamist websites. "What you are facing now ... is a link in a chain in the Zionist crusader campaign on Muslims and Islam," Zawahiri said. "These attacks are Obama's present to you (Palestinians) before he takes office." Zawahiri, an Egyptian, blasted Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak as a "traitor" for failing to back Palestinians in the face of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

A Hamas weakened by the Israeli offensive is likely to complicate Egyptian efforts led by General Intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman to mediate between Hamas, Israel and the Palestine Authority. The Israel Hamas ceasefire that ended last month aimed to position Hamas as the force preventing other militant factions like Islamic Jihad, the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade and Al Qaeda supporters from launching rockets on Israel. In post-war Gaza, Hamas is unlikely to be able to wield that kind of power and may well be unwilling to do so. As a result, Egypt, and Israel, could face turmoil, lawlessness, and factional violence in Gaza. Egyptian officials fear that could undermine stability in Sinai where Palestinian and Egyptian militants could link up and attack Israel from the peninsula. The question for Egypt is how Israel would respond to such an attack. In his internet message, Al Qaeda leader Zawahiri called on the bedouins in the Sinai to help Palestinians break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

If Hamas viewed a full-fledged military confrontation with Israel as its opportunity to repeat Hizbollah's 2006 success in Lebanon, it made a strategic miscalculation; not only because of the ferocity of the Israeli offensive but because the very success of the ceasefire with Israel in the period between June and November 4, 2008 was turning Hamas into a legitimate negotiating partner. That may well have been one reason why Israel pounced on Hamas' refusal to extend the ceasefire. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abdoul Gheit, a key mediator between Hamas, Israel and the Palestine Authority, for that reason, described Hamas' refusal to extend the ceasefire as Hamas giving Israel – and with it conservative Arab states like Egypt itself and Saudi Arabia -- a gift on a "golden platter." Boston University professor Augustus Richard Norton and Harvard Middle East Center researcher Sara Roy quote an Israeli intelligence report published on the website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry as saying that "Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire" and that "the lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire carried out by rogue terrorist organizations in some instances in defiance of Hamas." The report goes on to say that the vast majority of rockets fired from Gaza at Israel occurred after November 4 when Israeli forces killed six Palestinian fighters in an attack on Gaza. In addition to failing to exploit an opportunity that even Israel was forced to acknowledge, Hamas went to war at a military disadvantage and in an environment in which it had alienated key Arab governments. Only weeks before the Israeli offensive, Hamas infuriated Egypt by foiling Egyptian attempts to bridge the divide between it and the Palestine Authority. One indication of Hamas' post-war strength will be its ability to follow through on a pledge to derail an Egyptian and Saudi initiative to extend Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential term until 2010. Hamas has said it intends to appoint as president the Palestinian parliament speaker – a Hamas member now in an Israeli prison – once Abbas’s presidency officially ends on January 9.

For all the horror of the television pictures emerging from Gaza, the suffering of the Palestinians in the strip, the discussion of proportionality and Israeli denials of the humanitarian crisis in the strip, identity also shapes Israel's conduct of the campaign. Israeli leaders are quick to note that their assault is a far cry from past wars waged by others like the United States against Germany and Japan or the Russians in Chechnya where less caution was exhibited to limit the number of civilian casualties; yet the public relations battle over the humanitarian aspects of the conflict is one Israel cannot win. If anything, is Israel is shooting itself in the foot by seeking to downplay or deny the human suffering and suppress coverage by preventing media from accessing Gaza. To be sure Israel is exercising a degree of caution in a bid to buy the time needed to fulfill its military goals before international pressures forces a focus on the humanitarian cost of the war and a halt to hostilities. Priding itself on being a democracy, it also has to take into account intense scrutiny by its own lawyers, judges, opposition politicians, reporters and human-rights activists. Mass demonstrations in 1982 in the wake of the massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps by Christian militiamen under the watchful eye of Israeli troops forced the resignation of then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and led to an independent commission condemning the Israeli government. Virtually every Israeli military campaign against a non-state actor has had its Sabra and Chatilla, a single incident that occurs by design or default involving the deaths of a large number of civilians that comes to symbolize the hostilities. The Gaza war's may have been yesterday's attack on a UNWRA school.

Israel's conduct of the war is defined by a field of tension between on the one hand the moral fiber of a democratic society exhibited in the response to Sabra and Chatilla and the scrutiny mechanisms that go with that and on the other the concept of the New Jew described so well by Tom Segev in his book, Elvis in Jerusalem, the Jew who unlike his brethren who allowed themselves to be led like sheep to the gas chambers during World War Two, does not turn the cheek but hits back hard at those who threaten his existence. This latter mentality leads to the view that will to resist can be broken by overwhelming force and terror, a view that focuses on the effect of resistance rather than he cause. Israel cannot ignore Hamas's attacks, not only because of the primarily psychological damage they inflict, but also because Israel continues to view itself as a state that is one battle away from destruction, and therefore cannot allow its enemies to think that it can be attacked with impunity. But at the same time Israel cannot do what it takes to wipe out the enemy, because of the constraints imposed by its own public, which is far less willing than in the past to suffer or inflict bloodletting and at the day more sensitive to human suffering than Israeli conduct of the Gaza war and current public support for that war reveals. "Israelis have to discard Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous maxim: 'War's objective is victory -- not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory.' They will have to settle for a substitute because from their standpoint 'prolonged indecision' is better than the alternatives -- the annihilation of themselves, which would be unthinkable, or of their enemies, which would be unconscionable," writes Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in The Wall Street Journal.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

War Shatters Both Israeli and Palestinian Dreams

If the history of national, ethnic and religious conflict teaches one anything, it is that battles for perceived national rights, security and identity are dynamic rather than frozen in time. They are an ever shifting combustible product of history, clashing perceptions of political, security, legal and moral rights, balances of power and domestic and geo politics mixed with humankind's most irrational emotions: fear, despair, the desire for revenge and a determination to achieve minimally accepted goals at whatever price. Nowhere is that explosive mix more evident than in the long-standing Israeli Arab and particularly the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Ironically, amid apparently hardening positions of both Palestinians and Israelis as Israeli troops pour into Gaza in the second phase of Israel's offensive against Hamas, reading the tea leaves of statements by leaders on both sides of the divide shows that Israelis and Palestinians have moved not only a long way from the zero sum game they have been locked into for much of their intertwined history but they are also shifting positions , even if only in barely noticeable nuances, almost daily as they fight what they perceive to be an existential battle in Gaza.

In a broad stroke, if the Israeli Palestinian struggle from the establishment of Israel in 1948 till the late 1970s, if not the 1980s, was about who Palestine belonged to, today it's a battle on whose terms the land will be divided. Israelis have become more determined than ever to shape the body politic of Palestine and ensure that their Palestinian counterpart is one that is weak and unable to challenge Israeli territorial demands often veiled under the cloak of security. Palestinians seek to end Israeli occupation and create a viable, independent and truly sovereign state in a part of historic Palestine.

These Israeli and Palestinian goals are a far cry from declared positions of right-wing nationalists on both sides of the divide: Yehuda and Shomron, the Biblical names of the West Bank, as part of the historic Jewish homeland and Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement by an Islamic Arab Palestine. An Israeli hawk-turned-dove, Ezer Weizman, served as commander of the Israeli air force, defense minister and finally president, recognized the irrelevance of declared positions and a nation's need to maintain a dream even if that dream is an illusionist fata morgana. Standing in the early 1980s in front of Likud's emblem incorporating a map showing Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, Weizman said: "Everyone has the right to dream, I have the right to dream, they have the right to dream."

Gaza is for Israelis and Palestinians alike not about dreams but about who is a party to a solution and on what terms. Israel has come a long way from the late Gold Meir's denial of the very existence of Palestinians with its acceptance of the principle of a territorial compromise leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and its engagement with Palestinian nationalists. Hamas has deviated from its charter by calling for a 10-year truce with Israel. That may be a far cry from Israel's desire for a full peace with open borders and far-reaching cultural and economic interaction. Nevertheless, despite the fog of military struggle, it constitutes the willingness to engage in a process that would more likely than not give all parties a stake in the status quo and diminish chances for renewed violent conflict. A process in which tactical aims necessarily become strategic goals and past more far-reaching targets become little more than unrealistic dreams. That in and of itself offers prospects, all the more so given that Hamas is likely to emerge as a party that no longer can be excluded. On what terms is likely to be determined on the Gaza battlefield as well as at the Israeli, and possibly, the Palestinian ballot box.

As Israeli troops move forward in Gaza, Israeli leaders are grappling with that very issue. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been careful to limit the goal of Israel's offensive to eliminating Islamist capability to fire rockets at Israel. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni like Vice Premier Haim Ramon have gone a step further saying that Hamas will remain a problem as long as it remains in control of Gaza. Reflecting Livni and Ramon's concern, Israeli political analyst Aluf Benn warned in Haaretz that "if the war ends in a draw, as expected, and Israel refrains from re-occupying Gaza, Hamas will gain diplomatic recognition. No matter what you call it, Hamas will obtain legitimacy." The opposite outcome, the destruction of Hamas, risks an equally dangerous outcome from an Israeli perspective: complete chaos that would pose as big a threat to security in southern Israel. "Hamas assumes (probably correctly) that its Palestinian opponents fed Israel with much of the intelligence it needed to wage precision warfare against Hamas. There is likely to be a vicious settling of scores as soon as a cease-fire is in place, if not before, and which could approximate a civil war. This could open space for small groups like Islamic Jihad and other gangs, which could shoot off rockets at their own initiative (or that of Iran). If something can go wrong in Gaza, there is a good chance it will. Much of the aftermath will have to be improvised, and much will depend on how thoroughly Israel has degraded the capabilities of Hamas, says Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Amid the contradicting statements on the extent of Israeli ambition in Gaza, Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Major Avital. Leibovich appeared to lower Israel's sights below even the initial Israel goal of destroying Hamas' ability to fire rockets at Israel to simply reducing its capability. If Israel's offensive achieves no more than Leibovich's very limited goal, a probable reflection of what Israel's military brass truly considers realistic, that will no doubt raise serious political and moral questions about the government's apparently callous cost-benefit analysis. "The objective at this stage is to destroy. The terrorist infrastructure of Hamas in ... order to greatly reduce the quantity of rockets fired at Israel," The Sunday Times quoted Leibovich as saying. Backtracking on what Israel may achieve may well also reflect Israeli concerns that Israel has a limited period of time until international pressure, so far hindered by US support for Israel and divisions in the Arab world, will gather steam and will force it to halt operations in Gaza.

Similarly, Hamas too appears to be lowering its sights. "You will only have security when we have security," said a Hamas spokesman, addressing Israelis directly during a news conference. Hamas has repeatedly said it would agree to a ceasefire in exchange for a lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza. Israeli military commanders and intelligence officials are advising the Israeli government that Hamas is moderating its positions. "There are first signs that Hamas is toning down its views in regards to a possible ceasefire. Hamas is willing to reach an agreement," Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahranot quoted Avi Diskin, head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, as telling members of the Israeli cabinet. At the same time, Diskin warned that Palestinian rocket fire was likely to continue. Yediot quoted Diskin as going on to say that "the Hamas leadership abroad is stressed, working to obtain a ceasefire and disappointed by failure of Arab countries failing to stand by it. The situation of the leadership in Gaza is similar. A real threat exists today to the Hamas enterprise in the Gaza Strip. The leadership in Gaza and abroad feels an existential threat." IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Cabinet members that "not much is left of the Hamas government. Military Intelligence chief Major-General Amos Yadlin suggested that "Hamas understands that violating the truce was a strategic mistake. It suffered a great blow." The assessment of military commanders and intelligence chiefs notwithstanding, Yediot quoted Defense Minister Barak as saying that Israel had "yet to reach a situation of changing the reality in the southern part of the country," a reference to Israel's goal to destroy Hamas' military capability. And while the Israeli offensive may well destroy the Hamas leadership in Gaza, it leaves intact the leadership abroad led by Hamas Political Bureau chief Khaled Mashaal. In addition, Hamas has demonstrated its ability of maintaining a leadership in Gaza for much of its more than 25-year history despite Israeli targeted killings since Israeli withdrawal in 2005 and intrusive house searches, mass arrests, torture, intimidation, and extensive systems of movement control during the Israeli occupation.

Israel's assessment of how long it has until international pressure restricts its freedom of movement is likely to influence Israel's further conduct of its military campaign. Israeli troops in the first 24 hours of the ground offensive have advanced cautiously into Gaza rather than re-conquering it in a blitz. Israeli officials have stressed they have no interest in reoccupying the strip. Israeli ground troops may well be limiting their ground operations to curtailing Hamas' ability to fire rockets from specific sectors closest to the Israeli border rather than throughout Gaza. In a limited scenario, Israel would also be seeking to significantly complicate Hamas' efforts to replenish its military stock through underground tunnels along Gaza's border with Egypt. Some Israeli hardliners advocate a limited reoccupation involving only areas bordering on Israel. "I believe that Israel is right to go ahead: to deliver ground incursions, in various sectors, to bleed Hamas and ultimately to destroy its will and ability to rocket Israel by occupying the border area permanently," writes Benny Morris, a lecturer on Middle East history at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion University, in The Sunday Times.

Irrespective of what Israel's military tactics are, the key word in the parameters set out by Morris is Hamas' will to maintain its resistance. Whether Israel can break Hamas' will is what will determine ultimate success of the Israeli offensive. Reflecting a dawning realization in Israel, Morris notes: "... the problem is that Hamas, like Hezbollah, will remain -- and at some point down the road it can be expected to harass or assault Israel, independently or in collaboration with Hezbollah or Iran." That is if Israel continues to lack the kind of bold leadership that politically would lock Hamas and other Palestinian groups into a peaceful process which instead of seeking to impose terms gives Palestinians a vested interest in its success. Some Israeli leaders appear to acknowledge this privately even though their actions in office call their sincerity into question. That is certainly true for outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on whose watch the Gaza campaign was launched weeks after telling The New York Review of Books that Israel cannot achieve peace without a return of "all, or nearly all," of the territories occupied in 1967, agreement that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state and a commitment conveyed to its Arab counterparts that negotiations would focus on implementation of these principles. Olmert conceded that Israel has so far refused to give such a commitment to the Palestinians, adding that is why all previous negotiations have failed.

In many ways, the analysis of Benny Morris and hardliners of his ilk threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Morris notes that Hizbollah has built an armory of up to 40,000 rockets, some of which can reach Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear facility in Dimona, in less than three years since the Lebanon war in which Israel sought to destroy the Islamist movement. "Only a change of mindset among the Palestinians and the wider Arab and Islamic worlds, could allow for peace. And that's not going to happen as long as the Arab world is..... governed by a mentality of grievance and victimhood," Morris concludes. Once a pioneer of the movement of New Historians in Israel that helped shatter the Israeli myth that Palestinians at the time of the creation of Israel voluntarily left territory being taken over by Jews instead of being expelled by Israeli forces, Morris has since shed his dovish conclusions for a more hard line analysis.

Ironically, his conclusion that for progress to be achieved, the Arab world must first rid itself of its colonial-era mentality is shared by some of the Arab world's most enlightened thinkers. "We remain deeply mired in a colonial-era mentality in many respects. The massive attention paid to awaiting the new Middle East policies of the Obama administration in the United States is the most dramatic manifestation of trend," writes journalist Rami G. Khouri in the International Herald Tribune decrying the fact that many in the Arab world "look abroad for protection or salvation, in the form of countries, ethnic groups or political movements that rely on foreign patronage for their survival more than they do on their own people." Where Morris and Khouri differ is the impact that Israeli and US policies have on the Arab world's ability to shake off its colonial-era mentality. "Political liberalization and democratization are dormant for the time being. These remain buried beneath the stultifying weight of corruption-riddled Arab security states, emotion- and fear-driven mass movements, and the debilitating impact of Israeli, American, and other foreign interventions," Khouri says.

That mentality expresses itself in the Arab world's lack of bold leadership. For a brief moment in 2002 and again in 2008, the Arab world led by Saudi King Abdullah appeared to be breaking the mold. Abdullah crafted a comprehensive peace plan that recognized Israel, acknowledged its security needs and promised full diplomatic relations in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The plan was twice approved by Arab summits in 2002 and again in 2008. At a UN-hosted interfaith conference in late 2008 initiated by Abdullah, Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Abdullah's plan and said it constituted a basis for discussion.

Yet, like almost always in Arab Middle East diplomacy -- with the exceptions of Jordan and Egypt --, Arab leaders lack the courage or boldness to follow through on an initiative of their own with steps that would force Israel to respond with more than words. Israel and conservative states share common concerns with regard to Iran, Islamist movements and perceptions of Hamas and Hizbollah, yet Arab leaders fearful of public opinion in their own countries are incapable of taking concrete steps on the basis of their peace plan, waiting instead for a tangible Israeli response. They fear too that making further steps towards Israel without tangible Israeli concessions will deprive them of assets in future negotiations. Taking such steps in today's environment has become virtually impossible, rendering Arab states even more impotent.