Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hamas on the Spot

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

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

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Beirut spokesman Osama Hamdan suggested the Islamists would hold their rocket fire only if all Israeli forces are withdrawn from Gaza - a demand Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack indicated Israel was not about to meet immediately.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 Failing to live up to their assertion that they will resist the Israelis in Gaza until Israeli troops have been withdrawn, will open Hamas to charges that it has succumbed under the weight of the Israeli bombardment.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Sliver of Hope in the Rubble

An emerging rift in the Hamas leadership between those bearing the daily brunt of the Israeli assault on the ground in Gaza and those based comfortably in Damascus could offer an opportunity for both Israel and the United States to draw more moderate elements of the Islamist group into a peace process that would ultimately lead to independent Palestinian statehood alongside Israel and enhanced security for the Jewish state.

If history is a guide, the carnage in Gaza could produce the ability to negotiate a long-term Israeli Palestinian arrangement that, if not initially cemented in a peace treaty, would put an end to violent confrontation, focus Israeli Palestinian relations on furthering economic development and kick start a process that would lead over time to formal diplomatic relations and agreed peace.

Recognizing the opportunity takes bold vision and courage and at times is an exercise in reading tea leaves. It is s a tall order for Israeli leaders, competing in forthcoming elections who have staked their immediate political future on breaking Hamas' back. The key to helping Israel and the Palestinians capitalize on what now may be no more than a sliver of hope emerging from the carnage lies in Washington. With President-elect Barack Obama only days away from taking office, it is an opportunity being cautiously discussed among those who may form the core of the new president's Middle East policy team.

The history of Israeli PLO relations offers a roadmap for how death and destruction can be turned into constructive political dialogue and lessons of how to accelerate that transition. Israel's offensive against Hamas, the walk-up to the latest violence, the torturous and convoluted language of Hamas, the Islamists' adherence to Lenin's principle of one step backwards for every two steps forward and the perception that Israelis and Palestinians are locked into a zero-sum game are in their essence mirror images of the violent road that led from secular Palestinian terror to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

Israel's refusal to deal with the PLO from its inception in 1965 until the late 1980s and its determination to destroy the guerrilla group's ability and will to fight the Jewish state mirrors its effort to break Hamas' back. It is a policy unable or unwilling to recognize subtle shifts in Palestinian attitudes crying out for a helping hand; shifts away from rejection of any long-term, if not permanent arrangement with Israel, towards an accommodation on the principle of live and let live, if not full-fledged peace – a policy that sees declared Palestinian positions as carved in stone rather than fluid, dynamic and malleable and fails to prick through offensive symbolism.

Hard line Palestinian leader George Habash rejected Arafat's initial tenuous steps in 1977 towards acknowledgement of Israel and surrender of Palestinian claims to pre-1967 Israeli territory as well as his efforts to forge a dialogue with US President Jimmy Carter, the first American leader to publicly accept the Palestinians' right to a homeland. Those efforts were couched in language open to interpretation rather than in an unambiguous proposal for peace. In effect they were trial balloons testing whether Israel and the United States would respond to moves suggesting Palestinian compromise.

Much like Hamas's pre-Israeli offensive call for a 10-year truce with Israel – in effect an offer to replace violence with economic and political development that would create the necessary vested interest in peaceful co-existence – Arafat at the time indicated his willingness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying the Palestinians were willing to establish "a national authority on any occupied territory from which Israel withdraws or which is liberated." A medical doctor and strategic thinker, who headed the rejectionist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), recognized that Arafat's initiative was likely to change the very essence of the PLO. "If I today accept Arafat's proposal for purely opportunistic tactical reasons, I know that tomorrow this tactic will become my strategic role. If I accept the concept of a national authority today, tomorrow I will recognize Israel and abandon the armed struggle. It's a trap, I have no intention of walking into," Habash told this reporter at the time. Hamas' call for a long-term truce mirrors Arafat's national authority.

Israeli leaders point to Hamas' charter and the virulent and despicable anti-Semitism often expressed by its leaders to argue that the group cannot have a seat at the negotiating table. In the past, Israel employed the same justification for its rejection of the PLO. Yet, symbolism representing a dream rather than a political goal is something Israel shares with Hamas. Israeli maps continue to show the West Bank as part of Gaza despite the government's declared commitment to a two-state solution. An Israeli hawk-turned-dove, Ezer Weizman, a former commander of the Israeli air force, defense minister and president, recognized the insignificance of symbolism as opposed to political process when he stood almost 30 years ago in front of the Likud's emblem incorporating a map of Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and said: "Everyone has the right to dream, I have the right to dream, they (the Palestinians) have the right to dream."

In the sixteen years from the very first Palestinian nationalist attempts to reach out to Israelis till Arafat's recognition of Israel – attempts that were mired in the blood of innocent victims like the 28 school girls killed in a Palestinian terror attack in 1972 in the Israeli town of Ma'a lot when Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) leader Nayef Hawatmeh sought to reassert his militant credentials after becoming the first Palestinian guerrilla leader ever to address Israelis directly with a call for peace – Israel employed the same brutal military tactics it uses against Hamas to destroy the PLO or break its political will: carpet bombing of urban centers like Beirut, occupation of Arab land as in the case of Lebanon, targeted killings of senior leaders and mass detentions. It took a Palestinian call in 1983 for peace negotiations with Israel and years of secret talks with the United States before Arafat publicly recognized Israel and denounced terrorism in exchange for US recognition of the Palestinian guerrilla movement and the opening of the door for a Palestinian seat at the negotiating table.

The torturous and blood-stained road may well have been significantly shortened had US and Israeli leaders in 1977 called Arafat's bluff and in quiet and secret diplomacy explored the PLO's sincerity and his ability to transform his militant guerrilla movement into a political entity with which Washington and Jerusalem could do business. That would have involved recognition of the need to nurture and encourage a fledgling sprout struggling to balance its legitimacy as a militant proponent of rejectionist armed struggle with the need to produce tangible results that would give Palestinians hope, the ability to build normal and prosperous lives and claim that they had achieved national aspirations. Hamas' call for a long-term truce amid its firing of primitive rockets into southern Israel offers another opportunity to nudge Palestinian militants who enjoy credibility and popular support down a road they hesitantly signaling they would be willing to travel. With Palestinian surveyor's estimating the damage to Gaza's infrastructure at $1.4 billion, Hamas more than ever will need in the wake of a ceasefire to focus on the strip's economic and social recovery from the Israeli offensive.

Perhaps because the PLO had effectively been moved away from Israel's immediate borders with their expulsion to Tunisia in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent taking of matters in their own hands with the first intifada in 1987 by Palestinians living under Israeli occupations, Arafat moved albeit cautiously forward with his efforts to achieve his goal of becoming the accepted Palestinian negotiating partner. Once there, he proved incapable of finalizing a deal with Israel that would have involved full-fledged peace and the creation of a viable, independent and sovereign state. His inability to capitalize on Israeli proposals put forward over a period of more than a decade coupled with his refusal to surrender personal power to the strictures of a state bureaucracy and widespread corruption in the ranks defeated the very purpose of the road he had embarked on in 1977.

If the 1982 war and the intifada opened the door to Israeli negotiations with a credible Palestinian counterpart, the war in Gaza despite efforts to arrange a ceasefire threatens to close that door. With Egypt nearing agreement on a ceasefire, the roles between Israel and Hamas are reversing. Historically, Israel has sought long-term arrangements cemented in peace treaties with its Arab enemies that guaranteed peace, stability and security while Palestinians were at best willing to accept short-term arrangements in advance of a new round of confrontation. In the current negotiations, Hamas has dropped its proposal for a 10-year truce and is says it is willing to accept only a one-year silencing of the guns at best while Israel is now willing to entertain a 10-year truce rather than a definitive solution of its dispute with the Palestinians.

The door to a long-term truce that would produce the economic, political and social dynamics over time for a definitive Israeli Palestinian peace treaty may no longer be as wide open as it was, but it also has not been slammed closed. It offers Obama the opportunity to apply his slogan, 'Change We Can Believe In,' to the Middle East in a way that would engage credible Palestinian representatives as well as Israel. That may be easier said than done. It involves recognition of the altered balance of power in Palestinian politics with a weakened Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and a strengthened Hamas, reconciliation between the feuding Palestinian factions, negotiation of a long-term ceasefire as a first step towards gradual achievement of real peace, tangible improvement of the lives of ordinary Palestinians, including economic development, lifting of debilitating Israeli restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians on the West Bank and thye flow of goods into Gaza, a halt to Jewish settlement of Palestinian territory and the nurturing of a credible and empowered Palestinian government that can cater to its people's needs.

As the ceasefire negotiations progress in Cairo, there is little doubt that in Palestinian eyes Hamas will emerge victorious by virtue of its sheer survival as a defiant Palestinian force. Israeli hopes that the war may have shattered Hamas' political cohesion so that it can be replaced by more moderate Palestinians – either the Palestinian Authority or a new entity that emerges from Gaza's rubble – are likely to be dashed. More likely is that if Hamas is unable to recover its cohesion and capitalize on its stature, it will be replaced by more militant Islamists who see the war in Gaza as evidence that armed struggle and terrorism are the only way to realize Palestinian aspirations. Whichever way Palestinian politics develop, failure to engage Hamas now will only lead the Middle East further down the road of escalating violence, destruction and death – an unnecessary cycle of violence that if history is a guide demonstrates that what will be achievable at the end of that cycle will fall short of what could have been achieved today.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Defining Victory

The history of Middle East wars is one in which military superiority or victory more often than not, does not translate into political success. The Israel Hamas war seems at this point of the fighting to be no different.

Despite Israel's overwhelming firepower, Israel and Hamas seem delicately balanced in the complex, multi-layered efforts to achieve a ceasefire. Both sides appear to be internally divided between those who see political and military mileage in continuing the fighting at the expense of ordinary Palestinians and those who feel the time has come for a silencing of the guns.

Hamas, riding on the waves of shock at the pictures of carnage dominating television around clock, is claiming its ability to survive the onslaught as a victory. Assuming Hamas continues to survive, both Israel and Hamas will have to justify their rival claims to victory with the terms of the ceasefire that ultimately will be agreed. Increasingly, the bare knuckles of an Israel Hamas agreement are clear: the opening of Gaza's border crossings in exchange for an end to rocket attacks on Israel. Packaging that so that both sides can claim victory and agreeing on the terms of that arrangement is what is prolonging the suffering in Gaza.

For Hamas, victory has to involve an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, full opening of the border crossings into the strip and the ability to maintain the mantle of resistance as long as some long-term arrangement in the form of a multi-year truce that allows for the emergence of a viable, sovereign, independent Palestinian state is not agreed. Israel needs the assurance that Hamas will no longer be able to smuggle military materiel into the strip through direct or indirect control of the Rafah border crossing, the one passage into Gaza that does not link the strip to Israel, and a halt to rocket attacks on southern Israel to argue that its offensive achieved its goal.

Ironically, the roles in demanding a long-term truce may have been reversed. Hamas has been calling for several years already for a 10-year truce; Israel consistently refused to negotiate with Hamas and kept pushing for a definitive Israeli Palestinian peace agreement negotiated with the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, with Israel so far unable to destroy Hamas' military capability and the pictures of the carnage in Gaza fueling pressure to end the fighting, Hamas is now seeking an immediate end to the violence on terms it can project as constituting a victory while Israel needs to ensure that Hamas rockets will no longer pose a threat to Israeli's in southern Israel. "Hamas retains most of its combatants and substantial reserves of rockets. While Israel seeks to compel Hamas to accept an end to violence for the long term, Hamas has yet to clearly accept that as necessary," says Jeffrey White, a Washington Institute for Near Policy fellow focusing on military and security affairs.

Hamas suffered Thursday a significant blow with Israel's killing of Saeed Siyam, the third most important Hamas leader in the strip. Known as a hardliner within the Islamist group, Siyam was Hamas' interior minister in charge of internal security. Hamas prided itself on its ability maintain security in Gaza since it took over power there in 2007. Siyam is second senior internal security to have been killed in the war. Hamas police chief Tawfiq Jaber was killed in the very first days of the Israeli offensive.

Egypt say it is making progress in attempting to secure an end to the fighting based on its proposal that calls for an immediate ceasefire followed by a long-term truce and the opening of all border crossings policed by an international force or monitors. Hamas negotiator in Cairo Salah Bardawil, asserting on Al Jazeera that his group was achieving its goals, said "the Egyptian initiative is the only initiative that has been put forward to us and we continue to coordinate with the Egyptians," the negotiator said. Hamas as of this writing is reported to be willing to accept a one-year ceasefire provided Israel withdraws from Gaza within a week. Speaking in Jerusalem, United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said it could take several days to finalize technical details of the ceasefire.

While foreign governments, parties to the conflict, journalists and pundits will pour over the fine print of any ceasefire agreement to determine who emerged from the Gaza war on top, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that the winner may only emerge over time. He advocates Israel following its strategy in the war with Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006 where it was seeking to "educate," a euphemism for pummeling the Shiite militia into submission, rather than eradicate the Shiite militia. "Israel's military was not focused on the morning after the war in Lebanon - when Hezbollah declared victory and the Israeli press declared defeat. It was focused on the morning after the morning after, when all the real business happens in the Middle East. That's when Lebanese civilians said to Hezbollah: "What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what?

"Here's what Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said the morning after the morning after about his decision to start that war by abducting two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006: 'We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.' That was the education of Hezbollah. Has Israel seen its last conflict with Hezbollah? I doubt it. But Hezbollah, which has done nothing for Hamas (in Gaza), will think three times next time. That is probably all Israel can achieve with a non-state actor, … If (Israel) is out to destroy Hamas, casualties will be horrific and the aftermath could be Somalia-like chaos. If it is out to educate Hamas, Israel may have achieved its aims" Friedman says.

Friedman analysis involving the need to establish a near monopoly on forces parallels that of Asher Susser, a director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies. "Israel cannot accept the rocketry of Iran's surrogates, which sends hundreds of thousands of its citizens scurrying for the shelters at any time of their choosing, as a way of life. All Israel's neighbors must be deterred from following Gaza's example by the recognition that the price to be paid for such provocation will be unbearable. If Israel demonstrates a lack of resolve and an unwillingness to fight it will prove itself to be incapable of delivering such a message to the neighborhood and its long term survival will be in serious doubt. … When Israel elected not to retaliate to the rocket attacks from Gaza it was understood by Hamas not as an act of restraint, but of weakness and lack of resolve. This produced the Hamas miscalculation of the Israeli response and the trigger for all out war…," Susser writes on the website of the Royal United Services Institute.

Among those who believe there is no peace negotiation possible with Hamas, Friedman is an optimist. Hizbollah's refusal to be drawn into renewed confrontation with Israel in support of Gaza bolsters Friedman's argument. Acceptance by Hamas of a long-term truce with Israel would further strengthen Friedman's perspective.

Pro-Israeli skeptics however doubt there is any prospect of achieving peace with Hamas. Basing himself on conversations in 2006 with Nizar Rayyan, the hard line Hamas leader favoring suicide bombings and father of Hamas' usage of civilians as human shields who was killed by Israel in the early days of the offensive together with his wives and children, Jeffrey Goldberg, an Israeli Army prison ward-turned reporter, argues that the approach represented by Friedman is at best a temporary fix. He refers to Rayyan's deep-seated, virulent anti-Semitism and his belief that Allah turned some of the ancestors of the Jews, a "cursed people," into pigs and apes. "There is a fixed idea among some Israeli leaders that Hamas can be bombed into moderation. This is a false and dangerous notion. Hamas can be deterred militarily for a time, but tanks cannot defeat deeply felt belief. The reverse is also true: Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation. Neither position credits Hamas with sincerity, or seriousness," Goldberg says.

Rather than focusing on Hamas, Goldberg suggests that preparing a Palestine Authority governed West Bank for "real freedom," a term he does not define in terms of the status of the West Bank and its territorial integrity, may over time lead Gazans to see the light and shove Hamas aside. Goldberg seems to disregard the further loss of credibility Abbas has suffered as a result of the Gaza carnage and the fact that he in the wake of the war will not be able to afford to move ahead with a settlement that does not include Gaza – a move that would paint him even more in the corner of being portrayed as an Israeli and American lackey. Almost half of Kuwait's parliament voted in favor of a resolution objection to Abbas' expected visit next week to the oil-rich emirate to attend an Arab economic summit because his opposition to the “Zionist aggression” was weak.

As the Arab world splinters, incapable 20 days into the war of even agreeing on a venue or in what constellation Arab leaders should meet, Friedman's argument that Hizbollah was successfully "educated" in 2006 and that Iran's other major non-state ally in the ally, Hamas, needs to go through the same learning process presupposes that the Iranian relationship with the Shiite Muslim group is comparable to its ties to the Palestinians. Beyond the fact that Iran and Hizbollah share common religious and cultural roots while Hamas comes from a Palestinian and Islamist tradition that has always had an uneasy relationship with Tehran, it also assumes that Iran can only benefit from deepening divisions among Arab governments and between governments and public sentiment in their countries. Until the moment that public opinion is no longer emotionally swayed by theatrics and rhetoric rather than deeds, Iran indeed can capitalize on Arab inaction and mounting public frustration and anger.

Those short term gains however may not justify the risk the Gaza war poses to the possibility of opening a new chapter in Iranian US relations as President-elect Barack Obama takes office. "This conflict is the last thing Tehran would have wished for in the last few weeks of the Bush administration. It increases the risk of a US-Iran confrontation now, and reduces the prospects for US-Iran diplomacy once President elect Obama takes over - neither of which is in Iran's national interest. Rather than benefiting from the instability following the slaughter in Gaza, Iran stands to lose much from the rise in tensions. … If the fighting in Gaza goes on for too long, the spillover effects will be felt in increased Arab-Iranian tensions at a time when Tehran is more interested in soothing ties with the Arabs in order to minimize Arab disruption to any potential US-Iran opening," says Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance - The Secret dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States and president of the National Iranian American Council in The Huffington Post.

In an interview published on the website of the Council for Foreign Relations, Martin Indyk, director of the Brooking Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, former US ambassador to Israel and a candidate for a senior position in Obama's Middle East team, said the new president to resolve the Gaza crisis would have to embed efforts to achieve a ceasefire in a broad brush approach that would also engage Iran and revive Israeli Syrian peace talks. Taken together, Indyk said, these initiatives would "generate some positive synergies."

Indyk, acknowledging that a ceasefire in Gaza might not be achieved in the five days before Obama takes office, suggested that one way to circumvent Egyptian sensitivities about the stationing of an international force to police the Egyptian Gaza border in a bid to prevent the smuggling of arms to Islamists in the strip, would be to involve the Multilateral Force of Observers (MFO) that has been stationed in the Sinai for the past 30 years to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. "The American-based force that exists in the Sinai could be augmented and some of its parts moved to the border without changing anything actually. So I'm hopeful that can be solved and serve as a lever for the Israelis to wind down the conflict," Indyk said.

In remarks that are likely to further fuel speculation that Obama may authorize some kind of US contact with Hamas, Indyk was careful not to rule out categorically talking to the Islamists. "Overall, there is a belief among Obama and his advisers that not talking to enemies is a mistake. And he's made it clear that he tends to try to talk to the Iranians about their nuclear program in particular. But in the case of Hamas, his focus has got to be a cease-fire first and then a new initiative to make peace. But Hamas is not interested in making peace. So, it's hard to see how you'd construct a peace process with Hamas. On the other hand, given the division in Palestinian politics for the moment--Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank--it's also difficult to see how you can achieve movement in this process without some closing of ranks on the Palestinian side. The way that he should approach it is to leave this task to the Arabs and the Turks--they also have influence with Hamas--who have intense interest in trying to promote unification amongst Palestinians. If they got to a situation where Hamas and Fatah reconcile, where Hamas observes a cease-fire, where Hamas agrees that the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas should negotiate with Israel, then I could imagine Obama allowing some low-level engagement with Hamas. … If Hamas gets the trophy of American recognition before anything is changed, especially in the context of the provocation of this crisis and the launching of these rockets onto Israeli civilians, then Obama will be starting off on the very wrong foot. Rather than the United States playing a positive role in terms of trying to end this conflict, he'll end up in a whole political conflict of his own," Indyk said.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Arabs and Iran Battle for Hearts and Minds

As Arab leaders prepare for an emergency summit on Friday, their inability to achieve an end to the Israeli offensive is defeating the very offset some Arab leaders had hoped would emerge from a cutting down to size of Hamas. To key Arab leaders, including those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestine Authority, a short and surgical Israeli operation would have contributed to putting Islamists across the region on the defensive and countering Iranian efforts to exploit widespread public discontent.

Instead, Iran, despite spewing primarily theatrics and rhetoric rather than real support for the Palestinians, is benefiting from the prolonged horror of the carnage in Gaza and the perceived Arab inability to have an impact on international efforts to silence the guns. Its imagery strikes an emotional chord with an angry and frustrated Arab public, something Arab governments have so far been unable to achieve. The stature of the summit has further been undermined by the decision by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia and Egypt not to attend.

Egypt, which is in the lead of Arab efforts to end the fighting, is seeking to reverse the credibility gap stemming from its refusal to fully open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza in a bid to alleviate Palestinian suffering and its desire to prevent the country's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot, from capitalizing on the crisis. Public anger and frustration with Arab impotence plays into Iran's hand even if Sunni Islamists like the brotherhood are standoffish towards Iran at best. For his part, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is fighting a legitimacy battle of his own. His term expired five days ago, yet the war in Gaza makes a Palestinian election not only physically but also politically impossible. Israel, the United States and conservative Arabs fear that Hamas would win an election with another landslide as it did in 2006.

In describing the gap between Arab governments and Arab public opinion, Karma Nabulsi, a former Palestinian representative to the United Nations, noted on Al Jazeera that Latin American nations like Venezuela and Bolivia had taken steps against Israeli like breaking off diplomatic relations while Arabs have yet to act. "The protests make it clear that Arab leaders will have to move or will be left out of the process," Nabulsi said.

In the battle for Arab public opinion, Iran and assorted Islamists, many with no links to Iran appears to be winning on points. Iranian statements and paper tiger moves like signing up volunteers for the fighting in Gaza who don't have a hope in hell of making their way to the strip or establishing a court to try Israelis for war crimes, capture the headlines. Arab backroom diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire play less well in the media. "IIran's political success from this episode, even if it proves to be only short term, could prove to be a political embarrassment for the Arab regimes in the long term and may possibly bring wider and more dangerous political repercussions and domestic instability," warns Leila Nadir in an analysis published by The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

In a bid to stir the pot, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in early January that Gazans were justified in their belief that some Arab countries had "betrayed" them. While Arab leaders have little to show for their efforts beyond a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire that has been ignored by both Israel and Hamas, Iran does not have the clout to push a substantial diplomatic initiative of any kind. Its call for an Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) summit has been ignored. It can together with Syria, however, influence whether the conflict spreads to other parts of the Middle East, particularly Lebanon through its ally, Hizbollah. Yet, there it like Arab governments has been careful to ensure that the fighting is restricted to Gaza.

Some analysts warn that Iran's strategy is not without risk on the eve of President-elect Obama Barack taking office. "…the criticism (Iran) is leveling at the Arab world will prove to be a setback to the diplomatic links Iran has been working hard to cultivate in the face of US pressure on the Arab world to keep Iran in isolation," Nadir says. Iranian and Hizbollah attacks on Egypt's refusal to open the Rafah crossing wipe out a cautious improvement of relations Iran had achieved in the course of the last year. Iran's vocal support for Hamas will also not play well in any Obama effort to engage Iran in a bid to realign its posture and policies through diplomacy rather than confrontation.

For pro-American Arab governments battling Iran for the hearts and minds of the Muslim Middle East, the tone the Obama administration strikes from day one is of crucial importance. A US engagement that strikes a note more sensitive to Arab sentiment while maintaining support for Israeli security would help vindicate their position. Media in pro-Western nations responded positively to Hillary Clinton's initial statements in Congressional hearings on Tuesday to confirm her as Secretary of State. In stark contrast to the Bush administration, Clinton while stressing Israel's right to self-defense expressed concern about the "tragic humanitarian costs" of the conflict not only for Israelis but also Palestinians and the price being paid by civilians on both side of the divide. "Gone was the tone of confrontation and ideological rhetoric that characterized the foreign policy of the United States during the past 8 years," said the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper.

As pundits debate whether Israel will want the war in Gaza to still be ongoing when Obama takes office, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Hamas, despite the Israeli pummeling, is not willing to settle for a ceasefire at any price. Hamas does not need to defeat Israeli troops to emerge victorious from the fighting. The longer it holds out and the longer it is perceived by Palestinians and Arabs as acquitting itself well, the bigger the chance that the war will allow it to strengthen its claim to Palestinian leadership and strengthen opposition to Arab governments seen as having failed the people of Gaza.

So far that strategy may be succeeding. Israeli intelligence officials briefing journalists according to The New York Times said they had damaged Hamas' military wing “to a certain extent” but that the group’s military capability was still intact. However, the officials suggested that the offensive so far had been more successful in undermining Hamas’ political cohesion and that cracks were appearing in the group’s political leadership.

That could ultimately result in a for Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza even messier situation in which the military wing enjoys greater autonomy. The intelligence officials noted that the leadership in Gaza was more eager to reach agreement on a ceasefire than their colleagues in exile in Damascus. The New York Times, apparently corroborating the Israeli assertion, quoted Egyptian officials as saying that Hamas representative had openly disagreed with one another during ceasefire negotiations in Cairo. Tariq Alhomayed in Asharq Al-Awsat says Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mashaal rejects a permanent truce and negotiations with Israel as well a proposed agreement to reopen the border crossings to Gaza based on a 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Authority because that would prevent the movement from procuring arms in Gaza. By contrast, Alhomayed quotes Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniya as arguing in favor of a ceasefire, saying that “we will work positively with any initiative that aims to bring [Israeli] aggression to an end, to bring about withdrawal, to end the siege and to open the crossings.” While Mashaal was calling for an uprising in the Arab world, Haniya refused to criticize Arab governments, Alhomayed said.

In figuring out who won what in the Gaza war once the guns falls silent, the devil is likely to be in the details. Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer predicts that Israel will likely have to concede to lift the siege of Gaza as part of ceasefire agreement. "After the military campaign is over, Israel's control of Gaza's economy will be its principal lever for translating its military achievements into political gains—above all, the continued degradation of Hamas control. Gaza will be desperate for all material things. Whoever controls their distribution will effectively control many aspects of daily life in Gaza. This is a card Israel must be careful not to trade, either for a cease-fire or for international anti-smuggling cooperation on the Egypt-Gaza border. ... Israel should be willing to ease sanctions only if an international consortium for reconstruction is established, which has the legitimate Palestinian Authority as its sole agent within Gaza. In any cease-fire agreement, Israel should agree to open the crossings only to emergency food and medical aid—as it has during the fighting itself," Kramer says.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Kramer’s colleague at the Washington Institute, David Schenker, argues that the key to achieving that control lies in Egypt’s ability and willingness to shut down the underground tunnels linking Egypt with Gaza. The tunnels have been a major target of the Israeli air force in the offensive. Israel asserts that Hamas uses the tunnels to replenish its military stockpiles. “As pressure mounts for a cease-fire, the disposition of these tunnels -- and specifically, what actions Cairo is prepared to take to close them -- seems likely to prove the difference between war and peace,” Schenker says. He says that Hamas had smuggled “some 80 tons of weapons from Egypt, including longer-range Iranian-made rockets that brought 10 percent of the Israeli population within striking distance" during the six months of the Israel Hamas ceasefire that ended last month. Egypt has asserted it could not properly police the border because it was hamstrung in its efforts as a result of restrictions imposed by the Israeli Egyptian peace treaty on its ability to deploy troops in the Sinai desert. Some Israelis charge that corrupt Egyptian civilian and military officials benefit from the lucrative trade through the tunnels; Schenker says Egypt may have turned a blind eye to demonstrate support for the Palestinians and build goodwill with Hamas.

Despite political infighting notwithstanding within Hamas, among the Palestinians and in the Arab world at large, Palestinians may be winning a key battle. "Palestinians are winning the legitimacy war and that might be more important than winning the military war. That's what defeated the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan… it is also what defeated apartheid in South Africa ," United Nations Special Human Rights Rapporteur Prof. Richard Falk told Al Jazeera earlier this week.

The anti-Israel demonstrations in Western capitals, anecdotal evidence and opinion polls in the United States suggest that Palestinians may not only be winning the legitimacy battle in their own backyard but in the West too. Author Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing in the International Herald Tribune recounts a story recounted by historian Tony Judt several years ago. Judt was discussing with his class at New York University the emotional resonance of the Spanish Civil War the fact that Franco's had long remained "a land of shame that people boycotted for its crimes and repression." Judt told the class he could not think of a contemporary equivalent of a country so disliked and despised. To which a young woman responded: "What about Israel?" To the surprise of Judt, who grew up supporting Israel and has since become a critic of the Jewish state, most of the class including many Jews nodded in approval.

"Those college kids were the next generation of adult American citizens, and we can now see the times a-changing in polls. A majority of Americans still endorse the Israeli action in Gaza, over those who don't and think Israel should have pursued a diplomatic path - but only by 44 to 41 percent, a much slimmer margin of support than Israel enjoyed quite recently. More to the point, Democratic voters oppose the Israeli attack by a margin of 22 percent, and a Democrat is, after all, about to be inaugurated as president... For more than 60 years Israel has shown that it can win every battle by military might. But there is also what the Declaration of Independence calls "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind," and the battle for opinion cannot be won by brute force alone," Wheatcroft says.

Steve Rosen, writing on Obama Mideast Monitor agrees with Wheatcroft’s 44 percent of Americans supporting Israel’s use of force, but quotes a McClatchy/Ipsos poll that found that only 18 percent considered Hamas' use of force appropriate; 57 percent thought that Hamas was using excessive force, while only 36 percent said Israel was.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Arab Summit: What Emergency?

When Arab leaders gather on Friday in Doha to discuss Gaza in what they describe as an emergency summit, Palestinians will have the region's empathy while Hamas is likely to discover that it is more disliked than ever.

It is hard to see how the summit is going to immediately bridge the credibility gap that has widened after virtually daily mass demonstrations in Arab capitals demanding Arab action to call a halt to the suffering in Gaza. Many Arabs like the Palestinians will take the urgency Arab leaders ascribe to their summit at best with a grain of salt. After all, the summit will be convening one day short of three weeks after Israel launched its offensive.

For many Arab leaders, particularly those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the urgency lies in the fact that their hopes that the Israeli offensive would produce a clean and swift defeat have turned into a nightmare with some of the worst civilian carnage that the Arab Israeli conflict has witnessed. In fact, it threatens to produce exactly what it was designed to prevent: the strengthening of the Islamists and the emergence of even more militant forces than Hamas.

As a result, Arab leaders more than ever are likely to look for speedy involvement by President-elect Barack Obama. That involvement will have to be literally from the day he takes office on Jan. 20 if no Israel Hamas ceasefire has been agreed and implement by then and immediately thereafter will have to involve efforts to revive peace efforts. Saudi King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestine Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas need to show their Arab constituency that their pro-American policies can produce results for the Palestinians. This would not only lend legitimacy to their opposition to Hamas but also help them undermine the opportunity the Gaza conflict presents to Islamists of all stripes, moderate and Jihadi.

The level of anger the Israeli offensive has generated in Arab public opinion and among Arab leaders who have seen Hamas ride roughshod over their political calculations was expressed by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the United States, when he last week told the 6th Gulf Forum on January 6th: "The Bush administration has left (the United States with) a disgusting legacy and a reckless position towards the massacres and bloodshed of innocents in Gaza…Enough is enough, today we are all Palestinians and we seek martyrdom for God and for Palestine, following those who died in Gaza."

Hamas is unlikely to benefit at the Arab summit from the emotion expressed by Prince Turki. It seems to be banking more on the capital it has garnered in Arab public opinion for its resistance to the Israel and less inclined to exploit that to build bridges to conservative Arab governments and seek their support in the current crisis. Hamas this week criticized Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa's successful efforts to achieve a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Hamas' criticism did not focus on the fact that the UN does not have the teeth to enforce its resolution but on the Arab failure to consult with Hamas on the terms of the resolution.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that Hamas's attack on Saudi Arabia will cause it to lose all of its support since the Saudis endured the political recklessness of some Hamas leaders who have foreign ties in order to avoid any dispute with them. These peripheral battles that come at a time when Hamas is in need of everybody's support demonstrate the extent of the crisis of leadership and the lack of a commander to take final decisions … It is odd that the Hamas leadership is calling for an end to the crimes being committed by the Israeli killing machine and the genocide of the Palestinians in Gaza, and is condemning the Security Council's procrastination. Yet when an Arab delegation together with a number of Arab ministers worked continuously for days in New York, pushing for a resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire, a number of Hamas officials attacked these people," said Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, general manager of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, writing in Al Sharq Al Awsat. Al-Rashed was referring to Iran when he spoke about Hamas' foreign ties.

Anger and frustration in Arab official circles appears to translate itself in turning a blind eye to a revival of some of the worst racist anti-Jewish rhetoric the Arab world has seen. Following last week's denial of the Holocaust in the Gulf News, this week Dr. Walid Al-Rashudi, head of the Department of Islamic Studies at Saud University, declared on Hamas' Al Aqsa television: "Allah! Allahm count the Jews and kill them to the last one and don't leave even one."

Allowing the venting of frustration by racist Jihadis constitutes for Arab leaders a double edged the sword. In the same speech Al-Rashudi denounced pro-American Arab governments as traitors. "We believe in Almighty Allah and you believe in America and Israel. We believe that Allah sent His soldiers against America in many places in the world."

As Islamists capitalize on public Arab outrage at the continuing carnage in Gaza and Israel pushes ahead with its military campaign, Egypt and the direction it will take in the post-Mubarak era is the political battleground for Hamas and Israel. The more brutal the Israeli offensive becomes – Gaza is reported to have last night witnessed one of its worst nights since the attack began – the greater Mubarak's predicament becomes. Critics charge Mubarak's ability to relieve Palestinian suffering by fully opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is restricted by the US and Israel. Conceding to Islamist demands would strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition to the regime, and would risk thousands of Palestinians pouring across the border, something many Egyptians don't want to see.

Most immediately, the battle for Egypt involves Hamas and Arab public pressure on Egypt to fully open the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, control of the passage once a ceasefire has been agreed and Israel seeking to force Egypt to seriously crackdown on smuggling. Israeli officials argue that the underground tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza through which Palestinians smuggle badly needed basic goods in a bid to break the Israeli siege of the strip as well as arms continue to function because corrupt Egyptian officials benefit from a booming business. Egypt has denied the Israeli allegation. In addition to this, Mubarak wants to prevent an Islamic republic arising on its border.

The Gaza crisis poses a dilemma and creates an opportunity for Egypt. Sudarsan Raghavan notes in The Washington Post that rarely has an Arab leader been attacked for supporting Israel against the Palestinians as has Mubarak. Emotions have been fueled by the government's refusal to adhere to a court decision on Tuesday upholding an earlier ruling banning the sale of Egyptian gas to Israel. The government has appealed the decision. Raghavan describes demonstrators on Friday in Cairo as chanting:

"O Hamas, O Hamas, you are for all the people. We are behind you," the protesters chanted. Then they went after Mubarak.

"O Mubarak, Mubarak, make a decision. Open the crossing. Remove the siege," they chanted. "O Mubarak, Mubarak. Are you with us or against us?"

On the diplomatic and geopolitical front, Egypt's key role as a mediator between Israel, Hamas and the Palestine Authority allows it to reclaim to a degree its leadership in the Arab world, lost when former President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977 and subsequently signed the Arab world's first peace treaty with the Jewish state. It would also allow it to improve relations strained over human rights and other issues with US as a new administration takes office in Washington.

In a bid to counter the at times vicious criticism and position Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation straddling its Asian and African constituent elements, this week launched a public relations counter-offensive. A 16- page document entitled, "Egypt's position on the situation in Gaza and the Rafah border", addresses Egypt's policy on Rafah and touts its recent efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Monday, January 12, 2009

An Arab or Iranian US Negotiator for the Middle East?

US President-elect Barack Obama appears to be missing a unique opportunity to demonstrate that his efforts to bring peace and stability to the Middle East will differ from substantially those of his predecessor. That would be to include an Arab-American and possibly an Iranian-American in his line-up of Middle East negotiators – a move that would largely break with tradition which hitherto involved almost exclusively negotiators with a Jewish or Christian background.

Granted, such a move would immediately set off alarm bells in Jerusalem and probably in The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, already uncertain of what the Obama administration means for US Middle East policy, but it would send a signal to the Arab and Muslim world at a moment that unconditional US support for Israel's Gaza offensive has fueled public anger at a United States that is fighting an uphill battle to win hearts and minds.

International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen jokes that he has the scoop on Obama's line-up: Shibley Telhami, Vali Nasr, Fawaz Gerges, Fouad Moughrabi and James Zogby, all widely respected, prominent Arab and Iranian Americans whose views on the Middle East may not be pro-Israel but are certainly moderate and even-handed. "…forget the above, I've let my imagination run away with me. Barack Obama has no plans for this line-up on the Israeli-Palestinian problem and Iran. In fact, the people likely to play significant roles on the Middle East in the Obama administration read rather differently," Cohen writes.

In fact, Obama's line-up as described by Cohen and others, including, Steve Rosen, a controversial former AIPAC official and driving force behind the lobby who was indicted on charges of passing classified information to Israel. Rosen monitors the shaping of Obama's Middle East team and policy on his blog, Obama Mideast Monitor. Obama's team is likely to include Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator for past Democratic and Republican administrations and a consultant to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs dean James (Jim) B. Steinberg, former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel Daniel C. Kurtzer, long time Obama aide Dan Shapiro and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.

"Now, I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; I've looked in the mirror…. They're knowledgeable, broad-minded and determined. Still, on the diversity front they fall short. On the change-you-can-believe-in front, they also leave something to be desired," Cohen says, focusing on the fact that Ross has little success to show for years of attempting to mediate peace between Israelis and Arabs. "I don't feel encouraged - not by the putative Ross-redux team, nor by the nonbinding resolutions passed last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The former offered 'unwavering commitment' to Israel. The latter recognized 'Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza.' Neither criticized Israel."

To be sure, Obama has had to stress his support for Israel during the election campaign to overcome widespread doubts and questions in the Jewish as well as the non- Jewish pro-Israel community in the United States. There is no doubt about his support, particularly on the fundamental issues: Israel's right to exist within secure borders. Yet, Obama seemed to signal a break with the Bush administration's policies when during the campaign he said: "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress."

To the degree that Obama intends to change US policy in the Middle East, he will have to contend with a US public that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel as evidenced in the resolutions Cohen mentions that were passed by the US Congress. Critics and opponents of Israel like to blame that on the power of AIPAC. No doubt AIPAC sways significant influence. That it is able to do so is in part a testimony to its success but equally a testimony to the dismal failure of Arabs and Palestinians to do what it takes to create a credible voice of their own in Washington.

That is beginning to change and the track record of Cohen's suggested names of Arab and Iranian Americans who could be included in Obama's Mideast team bears witness to that. But changing deeply ingrained public perceptions and sentiments does not occur overnight. For too long, and even today if one looks at the torturous and convoluted language of the likes of Hamas that is similar to the process of change of concept and terminology Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) went through, Arabs and Palestinians refused to express themselves in clear and unambiguous language. Too often, they were unwilling to spell out or think through in public convoluted and veiled messages they were sending, wrongly hoping that by moving a millimeter someone would send them the life raft they would need to reach land. They were too afraid of giving away the store before having an assurance that the pay off would be acceptable and too frightened of reaction in their domestic constituencies to a policy that would lead to recognition or at least acceptance of Israel's existence.

The value of having an Arab or Iranian American on the team is illustrated in Cohen's quoting of "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East" written by Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky. The book describes the problems that arose at Clinton's Camp David peace negotiations encountered by US negotiators because they lacked the expertise on Islam and an Arab perspective. To bridge that gap, negotiators had to call in the State Department's top Arabic translator because "the lack of cross-cultural negotiating skills was so acute."

The Gaza war may not have tipped the balance but the daily reporting from inside the strip and the images of the carnage and suffering of innocent men, women and children is casting doubt on the proportionality of the Israeli response to Hamas' rocket attacks and undermining the moral benefit of the doubt that Israel has long enjoyed in the West. The cost benefit analysis of the damage the war has done to Israel's image versus what it ultimately will have achieved on the ground has yet to be done. That may make it easier for Obama should he really wish to change US policy. "The fact remains … that the growing human tragedy in Gaza is steadily raising more serious questions as to whether the kind of tactical gains that Israel now reports are worth the suffering involved," says the Center for International and Strategic Studies' Anthony H. Cordesman.

Changing US policy involves addressing issues that Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and many Americans passionately care about. It will involve taking into account the aspirations and needs of all the parties to the conflict rather than looking at the region through the post-9/11 prism of the war on terror, the fate of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Israel's policy of seeking to destroy or silence Palestinian voices more sensitive to Palestinian national aspirations than Israel's perception of its security needs and an effort to bring in through reconciliation with the Palestine Authority representative groups like Hamas which shares with many, if not most, Israeli and Palestinian politicians a heritage involving the use of politically motivated violence. That is no mean fete and one that demands delicate maneuvering. Including an Arab or Iranian American in Obama's team would be noticed in the Arab and Muslim world and would send a signal that would make waves but not immediately rock the boat.

Pushing for a speedy reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestine Authority could shield Gaza’s battered civilian population from renewed internecine violence once the guns in the Israel Hamas war fall silent. Fatah, the political faction headed by Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, hopes that the Israeli offensive will provide an opportunity to regain control of Gaza lost to Hamas in 2007. In addition, the Israeli offensive bolsters more radical forces in Gaza and on the West Bank, including supporters of Al Qaeda. In seeking to regain control of Gaza in the absence of reconciliation with Hamas, Fatah will have to tread carefully so that it is not seen as riding in on the wings of Israeli tanks. It has already suffered significant damage to its credibility because of its apparent siding with Israel in the first days of the offensive with Abbas holding Hamas responsible for the assault, his inability to effectively aid the Palestinians in Gaza and his failure prior to the war to produce tangible results in talks with Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians in both Gaza and on the West Bank are likely not to emerge from the crisis broken in spirit as Israel had hoped but even more resolved to achieve statehood at whatever cost. “There will be disappointment if Fatah stops being a resistance movement after this war. Hamas will be more and more strong and this atmosphere will give Al Qaeda a real chance to start strongly in Palestine,” Hassan Qader, a long standing Fatah member on the West Bank told Al Jazeera International.

In an analysis on the website of the Brookings Institution, Martin Indyk, director of the institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a candidate for Obama's Middle East team, spells out his view of what the terms for an Israel Hamas ceasefire should be. The terms indicate what the Obama administration probably will look for in a Hamas Palestine Authority reconciliation. "The terms of a new truce will need to include: no rocket fire on Israeli civilians, no offensive Israeli operations, an international mechanism for enforcing a ban on smuggling offensive weapons, Palestinian Authority (PA) involvement in the control of open passages, and large-scale humanitarian and reconstruction assistance funneled through the PA rather than via Hamas," Indyk says. Indyk reference to Palestine Authority involvement rather than control of the border crossings, a reference primarily to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt appears to leave open the possibility that Hamas would not be excluded from policing the passage.

Indyk notes that achieving a ceasefire along those lines is urgent because "Islamic extremists--from al-Qaeda to Hizbollah to Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--have gained great advantage from the anti-American anger in the Arab and Muslim world that the Gaza crisis has brought to a boil. They had feared that Obama, with his appealing narrative and middle name, would calm the waters and so dilute their influence. They now see an opportunity in the Gaza crisis to brand Obama as no different from Bush. A commitment to resolve the Palestinian problem also takes on new urgency because the potential Arab partners in this effort--from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia--need to demonstrate to their irate populations that pro-American moderation and reconciliation can actually provide a better future for the Palestinians."

If Hamas Palestine Authority reconciliation is urgent, so is tackling the settlement issue on the West Bank. The settlers' growth spells out the urgency. In 1993, when the Oslo process began, 116,000 Israelis lived in the Gaza Strip. By 2003 that number, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry, had increased to 236,000. A year after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of all settlers from the strip, the settler population on the west Bank numbered 253,000. By last year their numbers had jumped to 290,000, living alongside 2.2 million Palestinians. Another 187,000 Israelis live in annexed East Jerusalem next to 247,000 Palestinians.

"To a large degree, the Israeli and Palestinian publics have accepted the need for a two-state solution. But time, and the construction crews, are working against it. No one knows exactly where the point of no return is—when so many Israelis will have moved into so many homes beyond the pre-1967 border that there is no going back. But each passing day brings that tipping point nearer. If a solution is not achieved quickly, it might soon be out of reach," writes Gershom Gorenberg in this month's Foreign Policy magazine.

"The settlers’ growing power makes it harder for any Israeli leader to act. The head of the Shin Bet security agency recently described “very high willingness” among settlers “to use violence—not just stones, but live weapons—in order to prevent or halt a diplomatic process.” He was articulating a country’s half-spoken fears: Withdrawal involves more than the social and financial costs of moving hundreds of thousands of people. It poses the danger of civil conflict, of battles pitting Jews against Jews. The more settlers, the greater the danger. The longer the wait, the more settlers. The more settlers, the more hesitant politicians are to talk about evacuating them, much less do anything else about them. It’s anybody’s guess where the point of no return lies.... So, time is in short supply. As U.S. President Barack Obama enters office, he might be tempted to put off dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But delay may mean finding the road to a solution closed," Gorenberg says.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Death of Peace?

The Israeli offensive in Gaza may have produced the very result that hardliners on both sides of the Israeli Palestinian divide prefer: the death, at least temporarily, of efforts to resolve the conflict once and for all. As cynical as this may sound, that may enhance President-elect Barack Obama's chances of restoring some semblance of stability to the region, not by achieving definitive peace but by securing a long-lasting ceasefire based on the principle of live and let live.

That would certainly be in line with the call for a 10-year truce by Hamas, which 16 days into the Israeli offensive appears to be emerging politically stronger albeit militarily weaker. "In Hamas' diplomatic body language...a long-term truce means that it would no longer fight Israel militarily, which would open the door for credible negotiators on both sides to explore opportunities for a negotiated permanent coexistence or formal peace. Hamas has also stated that any negotiated peace accord should be ratified by a referendum of the Palestinian people - the mirror image of Israelis submitting their peace agreements with the Arabs to the Knesset," says prominent Arab journalist Rami G. Khouri in a column in Lebanon's The Daily Star.

It also reflects a growing sentiment in Israel that is losing faith in the possibility of peace and affected by the daily pictures of civilian suffering beginning to wonder whether it is not time to stop the offensive, an implicit admission that there is no military solution to the conflict.

Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal this weekend adopted a hard line towards negotiations with Israel and ending the war in Gaza. "The time for talking is over... “(Hamas) will not accept any negotiations for a cease-fire while we are under fire. Let Israel withdraw first and our people live rightfully without a siege and with open (border)crossings,” Mashaal said.

Writing in The Washington Post, prominent Israeli journalist and writer Tom Segev says: "I belong to a generation of Israelis who grew up believing in peace. At the end of the Six-Day War of 1967, I was 23, and I had no doubt that 40 years later, the Israeli-Arab war would be over. Today, my son, who is 28, no longer believes in peace. Most Israelis don't. They know that Israel may not survive without peace, but from war to war, they have lost their optimism. So have I."

Instead of conflict solution, Segev says, the way forward is better conflict management. That would include Israel talking to Hamas, which he recognizes as genuine, popular national and religious movement that "cannot be simply bombed away… . Rather than design another fictitious 'road map' for peace, the Obama administration may be more useful and successful by trying merely to manage the conflict, aiming at a more limited yet urgently needed goal: to make life more livable for both Israelis and Palestinians," Segev says.

One reason Segev has lost faith in the possibility of a solution is the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are battling about much more than security, land or water: they are fighting over a national identity in which "both the Israelis and the Palestinians define themselves by the Holy Land -- all of it. Any territorial compromise would compel both sides to relinquish part of their identity. In recent years, with the rise of Hamas and the increasing militance of some Jewish settlers, this precariously irrational conflict has also assumed a more religious character -- and thereby become even more difficult to solve. Islamic fundamentalists, as well as Jewish ones, have made control of the land part of their faith, and that faith is dearer to them than human life," Segev says. "So I find myself among the new majority of Israelis who no longer believe in peace with the Palestinians. The positions are simply too far apart at this time."

While Khouri does express the same degree of pessimism that Segev does, his analysis is not all that fundamentally different. "Israel has used such barbaric tactics against Hamas and the civilians of Gaza because it wants to wipe out forever any Palestinian insistence on dealing with the core national and human issues that emerged from the 1948 war and the creation of Israel. Hamas is a troubling reminder for Israel that the state of the Jewish people was created on the ashes of the indigenous Palestinian Arab community - the community that is now the refugee population of Gaza and other regions in the Arab world. Israel is not just bombing Hamas facilities; it is trying to bomb into oblivion the idea that any Palestinian man, woman or child can stand up and demand the end of their national dismemberment and exile," Khouri says.

The Israeli government may well too have given up on the notion of a definitive peace. Its actions in recent years appear to contradict its pronouncements in favor of a final settlement. Israel is turning itself into a ghetto with a high-tech security fence built to separate itself from the West Bank and siege of Gaza. These "are in the end attempts to shut out reality. Palestinians have become a vague abstraction to the vast bulk of Israelis not within the range of Hamas rockets: out of sight, out of mind," says columnist Roger Cohen in the International Herald Tribune. "Israel has the right to hit back at Hamas when attacked - but not to blow Gaza to pieces. What it does not have the right to do is delude its people into thinking that peace is achievable without coming to terms with the deeply entrenched Middle Eastern realities that are Hamas and Hezbollah. Those realities have been strengthened by (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert's last fling, the reckless foray of a failed leader."

Aaron Mannes, who interprets computer modeling of terrorist group behavior at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, suggests some of the thinking probably underlies the Israeli offensive in Gaza and would strengthen the belief of those that a definite resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is not possible, at least not while Hamas sways major influence. Writing on TheTerrorWonk blog, he says: “ Strategic decisions to reduce violence were not in evidence (with Hamas(. The key driver appeared to be capability. .. It could be argued that the 2006 war in Lebanon was a relative success – Hizbollah has kept that border quiet since. The likelihood of a similar modus vivendi with Hamas is Gaza seems less likely based on the model and also based on Hamas rhetoric. In an interview given just days before Hamas began launching rockets in November that helped end the ceasefire with Israel, the deputy chief of Hamas’ Damascus wing (Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzouk) stated: Your 'question implies that the Tahdiah [truce] is a central issue behind [our] decisions, consultations, and mediation attempts. However, the opposite is true… [for us,] resistance is the main [element] in the relations between the Palestinian people and the Zionist occupation.'"

Iran: A Different Perspective

One probably shouldn't hold one's breath, but the dawn of the Obama administration offers an opportunity to revisit the question whether confrontation or dialogue is most likely to produce an understanding with Iran that would alleviate Western, Israeli and Arab fears. Engaging Iran in a constructive dialogue would help reduce tension and the potential for violence in the Middle East. Obama has said he intends to engage Iran more actively.

The Israeli offensive in Gaza highlights the threat to stability in the Middle East that confrontation with Iran poses. If Hamas rockets were the immediate driver of the Israeli offensive, tacit support by conservative Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, effectively gave it at least initial diplomatic cover and support. Underlying Israeli and conservative pro-Western Arab calculations, is a deep-seated fear of Iranian ambitions in the region that through Hamas cuts across the Sunni-Shiite divide.

Reading between the lines of statements by militant forces in the Middle East often is an exercise comparable with Kreminology in the days of the Soviet Union or second guessing succession in Saud Arabia. Messages designed to open the door to dialogue, settlement of differences and even rapprochement or at least intended to test the waters, are usually buried in a torrent of militant phraseology, war-mongering rhetoric and blood-stalling verbage and often contained in what a radical state or group does or does not do. Iran is no exception.

Iranian leaders from across the country's political spectrum have been signaling a desire to engage in a dialogue with the United States that could define the Islamic republic's role in the region provided that takes into account Iran's size, resources and regional clout. Some fear that engaging Iran on those terms could shift the balance of power in the Gulf. "US-Iranian detente would sacrifice GCC interests. There is a fear that … a grand bargain would marginalize the GCC states," Mahmoud Monshipouri, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, said in a recent speech in Abu Dhabi. He said such a détente would harm Dubai, which has benefitted considerably from the embargo on Iran. UAE exports and re-exports to Iran amounted to $6.57 billion in 2007, according to figures from the UAE Federal Customs Authority. However, a lifting of the embargo may have less of an impact on Dubai than meets the eye. The Washington Post, quoting reports by the US Justice Department and the Institute for Science and International Security, reports that Iran has shifted the axis of its smuggling of components for its nuclear program from Dubai to Malaysia.

Some US intelligence officials believe that Iran is already capable of building one nuclear bomb every eight months and that Obama will have no choice but to engage Iran and embed it in a broader regional security arrangement. The New York Times reports that President Bush last year rejected an Israeli request for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted to drop on Iran’s main nuclear complex and had also refused Israel permission fly over Iraq to reach the facility. Instead, Bush, according to the Times quoting US and non-US officials, advised Israel that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort. Some US intelligence officials however argue that the covert operation, if the past is any indication, will at best delay but not derail the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran most recently signaled its interest in playing a constructive role and engaging in dialogue through its response to the Gaza crisis – a combination of theatrics and some diplomacy. Iran has ruled out military support for Hamas, witness the refusal of Hizbollah to attempt to alleviate Hamas, by opening a second front against Israel on its northern border. Beyond not wanting to jeopardize Hizbollah's ability to perform well in Lebanese elections scheduled for later this year, Iran believes that Israel has created a situation that will cost it dearly, if not in military terms, certainly in political and diplomatic ones. Reason for Mohammed Ali Jafari, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) to say this weekend: "Gazan resistance does not need other countries' military help."

No doubt, an advertisement last week offering a reward of $1 million to anyone who would assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for betraying the Palestinians placed by the Basij, a volunteer-based paramilitary force subordinate to the revolutionary guards, hardly points to a desire for dialogue. It does however fit into the category of tasteless, counterproductive and provocative theatrics. It is unlikely that Iran is about to dispatch a team of assassins. More probable is that Iran would like to stir the pot in Egypt, witness the call by Iran's Lebanese ally, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, on Egyptians to protest their government's refusal to fully open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Hizbollah does "not like to target Israeli civilians during election years – and Lebanon has parliamentary elections coming up in April. Hezbollah even kept their rocket attacks down for 1998’s local elections... Extrapolating, this trend indicates how highly Hezbollah values its legal and political standing in Lebanon and its recognition that this standing is damaged when it is held responsible for provoking Israeli strikes," says Aaron Mannes, who works on models of terrorist group behavior at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics on the TheTerrorWonk blog.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has a particular pension for setting himself up as the boogeyman, denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel's demise. Yet, his predictions that Israel with be destroyed or simply wither away from the pages of history reflect a belief that Israel is digging it own grave and will self-destruct as a result of its own contradictions and policies. Critics of Israel in the west may too argue as they watch the carnage in Gaza continue that Israel's is its own worst enemy. Moreover, Iran's real targets are the conservative Arab governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, Israel is a tool towards that goal.

Iran sees political mileage in the mass demonstrations across the Arab world not only denouncing Israel but also Arab government failure to bring an end to the crisis. That political capital is all the more important in a period of transition in which it has yet to emerge whether US President-elect Barack Obama will break with the Bush administration's policy of seeking to force Iran to make concessions before engaging in constructive dialogue.

Iran limiting itself to theatrics and rhetoric in Gaza contains another message: compare Iran's response to Gaza to its response to issues about which it is really concerned: Iraq and Afghanistan where Iran's hand in the resistance against the presence of US troops is clearly visible.

Nonetheless, theatrics and rhetoric contain pitfalls. Iranian leaders encouraged Iranians to pour into the streets to protest the Israeli offensive and to volunteer to fight in Gaza. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei declared that "true believers" were "duty-bound to defend" the Palestinians promised anyone who died for the cause of Gaza that he would be a martyr. Demonstrators took things in their own hands and attacked foreign embassies, including those of Britain and Jordan. They had to be cautioned to maintain public order.

Some 200 volunteers of the 70,000 who reportedly signed up to fight in Gaza held an angry sit in at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, demanding that they be sent to the strip. Ahmadinejad's brother, Dawoud Ahmadinejad, was sent to the airport to advise them that they would not be travelling to Gaza any time soon while IRGC commander Jafari asked them to end the demonstration and called for a "mental and political jihad" against the enemy.