Tag Archives: palestine

How would a Syrian civil war affect American interests?

The Russian-Chinese veto of a rather weak Security Council resolution that would have increased the international pressure on Syria has brought the international search for a diplomatic solution to an impasse. Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they have no interest in lending international legitimacy to a campaign for the end of Assad’s rule, so further actions will risk their fury. It’s likely that the next step will be stronger moves from the Arab League and the Arab Spring’s new great power, little Qatar. However, the end of the U.N. process has provoked a gush of violence around Syria that will certainly yield more calls for physical action. Calls for international support for the Free Syrian Army rebel group are becoming more common. This is an aggressive step that could lead to an all-out civil war. If the rebels win, there could be great opportunity for a regional transformation–Iranian influence in the Levant would be strangled, and a new government might change Syria’s decades-old rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Lebanon might become more stable. However, a rebel victory is hardly certain. Several constituencies within Syria still want Bashar in power, and he’s being fed a steady supply of Russian arms. Providing the rebels access to similar volumes of weaponry might yield a long and bloody war. How would this affect America’s interest in the region?

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Gingrich the Nasserite

Newt Gingrich has found himself at the center of a firestorm after remarks in an interview in which he called the Palestinians “an invented people,” stating that they are Arabs first and foremost. This has predictably drawn heavy criticism from his rivals to the GOP nomination and from Palestinian leaders. Saeb Erakat even called the remark “the most racist statement [he’s] ever seen.” Gingrich’s remarks in full:

I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state. Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, who are historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places and for a variety of political reasons, we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s. I think it’s tragic.

Yeah, it’s simplistic. It’s hard to argue, for starters, that Arabs strongly identified with the Ottoman Empire that conquered them–it’s typically regarded by Turks and Arabs alike as a dark age. It’s also a bit silly to talk about how Palestinians “had a chance to go many places,” considering that Palestinian refugees are still second-class citizens in many Arab states, even if they’ve been there for generations.

But let’s give the former Speaker some intellectual credit. (He is, after all, to use his own words, “the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson,” in what be the only time the name Wilson was referenced glowingly by a Republican.) There is, in fact, a historical rivalry of the Palestinian and Arab identities, and it plays a prominent role in pan-Arabist thought, especially that which originated in Egypt. Mr. Gingrich is, in other words, a Nasserite. Nasser wanted to unite all Arab peoples in one state. One of the fundamental goals of pan-Arabism, by geopolitical necessity, was thus the elimination of Israel, as Israel physically divides the Arab world into two parts.  He thus saw the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 as a serious threat to pan-Arabism, because it claimed that a Palestinian movement, not an Arab one, was most suited to the task of returning Palestine to Arab rule, and because it replaced the notion of one unified Arab people with parochialism. Nasser’s Syrian rivals were wise to this, and accordingly heavily backed the PLO and other Palestinian movements, allowing them to use Syrian territory and weaponry to conduct guerrilla raids into Israel.

Recall also that in Nasser’s day the territories which we now call Palestine–the West Bank and the Gaza Strip–were not Palestinian. Gaza was a part of Egypt; the West Bank a part of Jordan. Both Egypt and Jordan had very difficult relationships with their Palestinian subjects, but they were nevertheless in control. Advocacy of a return to this era is known as the three-state solution; it’s extremely unpopular because the Palestinian populations were never really beholden to or respected by Cairo and Amman. To advocate it is to ignore the last 50 years of Middle Eastern history. That’s the most charitable interpretation of what Gingrich  was saying–namely, the best solution for Palestine is for it to be absorbed by its neighbors. The less charitable interpretation, and what I suspect Gingrich actually intended to convey when he spoke, is that Israel should control both the West Bank and Gaza, and that the Palestinians should leave these areas and go live somewhere else. This position is most closely matched by the old Gush Emunim movement, which sought to settle the West Bank and Gaza to hasten the return of the Messiah. It’s a position that is not advocated by any major Israeli party. Gingrich, in his effort to show his pro-Israel credentials, positioned himself to the right of almost everyone in Israel. It’s a bit reminiscent of Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress earlier this year, in which the Israeli PM was repeatedly interrupted by applause, despite the fact that he made several remarks that were, in the Israeli context, partisan.

Gingrich’s remarks, then, weren’t as wildly unjustifiable and racist as they seemed, but they also did not show he has a deep “professorial” understanding of the challenges of the Middle East. As it turns out, his aides have stepped in to end the controversy, saying that Gingrich favors a two-state solution: “a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.” However, the spokesman added,

understanding “what is being proposed and negotiated” requires a grasp of “decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview.”

 

Well, almost.

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Whose Fault Is the Israel-Palestine Impasse?

Comment I wrote for a course; the topic is two articles in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, pitched as a debate on Israel’s current weak international position. The first is Ronald R. Krebs’ “Israel’s Bunker Mentality: How the Occupation Is Destroying the Nation.” The second is Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner’s “The Problem is Palestinian Rejectionism: Why the PA Must Recognize a Jewish State.” Both articles are well-written and worth reading, but both, in my opinion, miss the mark.

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The Imposed Crisis

The LA Times has a rundown of Israeli preparations for September protests related to the Palestinian UN recognition bid:

As Palestinian leaders rally West Bank residents on Facebook and activists prepare campaigns against Jewish settlements and military checkpoints, Israel’s Defense Ministry has spent about $22 million on new riot gear and police have canceled September vacations.

[ . . . ]

To prepare, the military is stockpiling tear gas dispensers, rubber bullets, stun grenades and so-called skunk water cannons, which spray a foul-smelling liquid and have been used to disperse weekly Palestinian protests against the separation barrier in Bilin and other villages.

Yisrael Beiteinu FM Avigdor Lieberman is predictably agitated:

When you prepare a demonstration in which tens of thousands will storm the Kalandia checkpoint, everyone can just imagine what would happen if 30,000 or 40,000 people try to forcefully enter Israel. How are soldiers and officers supposed to react?

The article does suggest that Palestinian activists have been unable to achieve effective organization so far. However, the mere possibility of a major crisis, the mere possibility of massacres, riots, bombings, is all avoidable. The Iranian government referred to its war with Iraq as the Imposed War. If strife breaks out, IDF grunts might have a similar nickname for this conflict. Israeli PM Netanyahu’s fear of UN recognition is at odds with Israeli history and the facts on the ground, as I’ve discussed before. Misperception is extremely dangerous in politics. If cooler heads don’t prevail, this will be demonstrated–Netanyahu will give Israel a crisis it cannot profit from and could have avoided.

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Netanyahu Gets It, For the Wrong Reasons

You have to wonder about the timing of this story–with the debt ceiling thing on everyone’s minds around the world, it’s a great time to slip in a new policy without getting a lot of bad press. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a serious peace bid for the first time in his tenure. The basis of negotiation will be pre-Six Day War 1967 borders, and Palestine will trade land in its territory that hosts settlements for Israeli land beyond the 1967 lines–there will be “mutually agreed swaps.” That phrase, of course, is taken from Barack Obama, who was subjected to extensive criticism for it from his own domestic audience, even though everybody from Toronto to Tehran knows that that is the only realistic basis for peace talks. Any peace policy that doesn’t recognize the Palestinians’ more reasonable claims (i.e., we’re leaving out right of return here) will not get their support–any such policy is not a policy. The folks at J Street must have been extremely unhappy, as the criticism of Obama was a testimony the ability of the Likudniks–and not left-leaning groups like themselves–to get their talking points airtime, regardless of sensibility. To see Israel’s reliably rightist PM quietly taking a position that just a few weeks ago was deplored as foolish pie-in-the-sky leftism in the US shows the very weird way that the Middle East peace process is discussed in America.

But back to Bibi. It’s obvious that the reason he’s suddenly making serious steps in the peace process is the Palestinian bid for increased recognition at the UN next month. As I’ve argued in this space many times before, Israel has nothing to worry about from this. It will move the peace process forward by about an inch, because Palestine already has standing to take a lot of actions in international forums, and because the peace process will forever be between Israel and Palestine only, not Israel and the international community. An Israeli Prime Minister, especially one as seasoned as Netanyahu, should know that. Elements in the international community have been at Israel’s throat since Ben Gurion read out the Declaration of Independence, and Israel has continued to exist and thrive. In spite of this, there have been many rumors that Netanyahu was terrified of the UN bid, that he thought it would bring a “diplomatic tsunami” against Israel. We can now see that those rumors are true. They fit perfectly with Netanyahu’s image as a paranoid politico, always watching his back for maneuvers. That’s a sensible stance in the chaotic world of the Knesset, but it’s a bad way to make decisions in a state protected by one of the world’s most effective militaries and sitting on strategic, surprisingly defensible land. Netanyahu has restarted the peace process on realistic grounds due to threats from an imagined enemy. It’s as if Don Quixote, while jousting windmills, had accidentally lanced a real giant.

(Drawing by G.A. Harker, via MainLesson)

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Have We Gone Insane? The US Reaction to Palestine’s UN Statehood Bid

The Daily Telegraph is reporting that the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, made some very strong remarks at a recent event in Washington. Speaking about September’s Palestinian bid for recognition in the UN, Rice remarked that a successful recognition vote would be “exceedingly politically damaging in our domestic context” and that there could be “[no] greater threat to our ability to maintain financial and political support for the United Nations in Congress.” In other words, if Palestine gets recognized by the UN, the Obama Administration will be unable to fight off Congressional Republicans (and probably some Democrats too), who would presumably make an effort to defund the UN. The government has distanced itself from Rice’s remarks, saying that they “were informal remarks in a domestic setting.” Still, it is shocking to hear these comments coming from such a senior figure. American UN ambassadors are typically closely supervised by the State Department and have little or no autonomy to make decisions on their own. One would think that being in this position would make her extremely cautious in her public comments. What, then, are we to make of this remark? It’s definitely a headline-grabber, though I haven’t seen it making the rounds in the media just yet. It could be an attempt by the Obama Administration to create some breathing room on the issue by aggressively changing the direction of debate. It could be an attempt to make the world push the Palestinians harder to renew peace talks and shelve the statehood issue for now. What seems most likely, however, is that it was an accidental disclosure by Ambassador Rice of conversations in the corridors of power. People within the Administration are apparently worried, perhaps with cause, that Congress would react to Palestinian success at the UN with defunding.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. (Image: Daily Telegraph/AFP)

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Netanyahu’s Prisoner Gamble

Xinhua is reporting that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has revoked certain “privileges” of Palestinian terrorists in Israel’s prisons. The exact extent of the move is not yet clear–the only concrete element is that they will not be able to earn academic degrees while in prison, which is certainly a privilege and not a basic right. Netanyahu has stated that the reductions will be in compliance with Israeli and international laws on the treatment of prisoners, but that prisoners will be afforded no privileges beyond that. The move came in response to Hamas’ announcement that it will not allow the Red Cross to visit Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier that they have been holding since 2006. The 5th anniversary of Shalit’s capture falls on Saturday, so Netanyahu surely wishes to show Israel that some kind of progress is being made. However, he has chosen a risky path. The status of prisoners associated with politicized movements is always an issue of contention. Consider, for instance, the infamous H-Block hunger strike by members of various Irish Republican paramilitaries, which created a political crisis in the United Kingdom as several prisoners starved to death. That was over a minimal distinction in legal status. If the militants in Israel’s prisons feel they are being treated unequally, even if the treatment is not abusive and is within international norms, they could begin engaging in similar behavior and give Israel its own crisis. Additionally, Israel will lose a potential rhetorical point in the international arena–what Israeli diplomat, when confronted with, say, the widespread allegations that prisoners have faced torture in interrogations, would not love to be able to “brag” about prisoners receiving doctorates on Israel’s dime?

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No Savior, but No Fool: A Response to Nathan Brown on Salam Fayyad

Given that I’ve sung the praises (or drunk the kool-aid) of Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad in the past, I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t reply to Nathan J. Brown’s thought-provoking obituary for the Fayyad era that recently appeared in Foreign Policy. The article, entitled “No Savior,” challenges the traditional view of Fayyad, that he is a new kind of Palestinian leader, an ex-technocrat instead of an ex-terrorist, a man who ignores deep factional disputes to get things done and make a Palestinian state a real possibility. Instead, Brown argues, Fayyad made minimal progress at developing institutions, and was merely quite good at keeping the old ones from collapsing. Most damningly, he argues that the West fundamentally misread Fayyad when it saw him as a new voice for Palestinian self-sufficiency, because Fayyad’s greatest talent was appearing competent enough to get the West to pour in buckets of aid money. Fayyad made Palestine “ready for independence” by deepening its dependence.

Palestine's departing Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. (Image via AllVoices)

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Nakba: Hamas Says No to Fayyad

Hamas dropped a bombshell today, announcing that it “will not accept” current Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as the new PM, and that it will also not accept him in the cabinet as a junior minister. This is an extremely bad sign for the character of the emerging unity government, and it is a step backwards for the average Palestinian. As I have written before, Fayyad is, unlike so many past Palestinian leaders, acceptable to Israel and the West. He has a reputation as a technocrat, not an ideologue, someone who will work for the interests of the Palestinians without excessive grandstanding and without being too stubborn. This is why Hamas hates him–or, more accurately, this is why Hamas resents him. They have seen how successful he has been. Without Fayyad, the Palestinian statehood bid this fall would not be taken seriously. Fayyad’s popularity with the West and Israel enabled him to secure large donations and assistance projects that have beefed up Palestine’s institutions–the court system, for instance, has been a key area of progress.

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Egypt Opening Gaza Border: Minimal Change for Security, Big Change for Palestinians

On Saturday, the famous Rafah border crossing between Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate and the Gaza Strip will be opened, with most Palestinians not needing visas to cross. The action represents a substantial shift in Egypt’s foreign policy, one that will be quite popular on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. The Egyptians had been tacit supporters of Israel’s extremely controversial blockade of Gaza, which (coupled with the Sadat-era peace treaty) drew accusations that Egypt had subverted its foreign policy to the needs of Israel. Despite hysterics from many commentators, the new military regime in Egypt would be insane to abrogate the peace treaty and attack Israel, for Egypt’s military has always been a political institution and not a thoroughly professional fighting force.

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