Tragedy and Perfidy: The Figure of Mahmoud Abbas

An edited version of this article first appeared in LobeLog

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with U.S. President Barack Obama this week, following in the footsteps of

Abbas and Obama confer at the White House

Abbas and Obama confer at the White House

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the month. But unlike Netanyahu, Abbas is a much less heralded, or even well-known figure in Washington. And, above all, he is a man with far fewer options.

With a deadline looming at the end of April by which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had promised first to broker a permanent Israel-Palestine agreement and, later, a more modest goal of a framework for continuing talks, Abbas arrived in Washington with little to offer and less room to make further concessions. It’s a familiar position for the Palestinian leader, one he has been in since 2004, when he assumed the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) upon the death of Yasir Arafat.

Arafat was a universally respected leader to the Palestinian people, even, grudgingly, among his rivals; a fighter who had proven his worth in conflict. Abbas, by contrast, had long been Arafat’s number two, but he was more intellectual, having been an advocate, a resistance politician and a fundraiser for most of his time in exile and then after his return to the Palestinian Territories in 1994. Continue reading

Why Israeli-Palestinian Talks Will Fail, Again

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the outset of a meeting focused on the Middle East peace process in Bethlehem, West Bank, on November 6, 2013. US Dept. of State/Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the outset of a meeting focused on the Middle East peace process in Bethlehem, West Bank, on November 6, 2013. US Dept. of State/Public Domain


There is an odd sort of atmosphere today around the soon-to-fail Israel-Palestine talks. A dramatic gesture by the United States, presenting its own security plans to both Israel and the Palestinians, has engendered mostly yawns. Yet the events of recent days have clarified the likely results of these talks, despite the ongoing secrecy around them.

Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently proposed that Israel agree to abandon the Jordan Valley (constituting some 20% of the West Bank and situated in Area C, which falls under complete Israeli control under the current arrangement) in stages over an extended period of time and subject to the “good behavior” of the Palestinians. The current plan seems to be that Israeli forces would remain in the Jordan Valley for ten years while Palestinian forces are “trained.”

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas disapprove of this idea. But they do so in lukewarm terms, not wanting to offend Kerry, with the hope that when the April deadline for the current round of talks rolls around that the Palestinian side will not, as it was in 2000, be portrayed as the party who refused peace. Still, as former US President Jimmy Carter once told me, a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley is unacceptable to the Palestinians. Indeed, it is impossible to say that an occupation has ended when the occupying army is still there. That should be obvious. Continue reading

Obama Punts Syria Question To Congress

US President Barack Obama’s decision to use force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons but to seek Congressional approval before doing so was very surprising. It is a major reversal of the behavior of every president since the 1973 War Powers Resolution was enacted. That Resolution, which set limits on the President’s ability to embroil the United States in a lengthy military action in the wake of two extended but undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam, has been a point of contention for presidents ever since, with all of them without exception calling the resolution unconstitutional.

The constitutionality of the resolution has never been tested in court, like whenever it has been violated (as Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon and Bill Clinton did in the Balkans). Congress has merely voiced its disapproval, but taken no further action. Neither side can be sure of how the Supreme Court would decide the question. But every Chief Executive from Nixon to Obama have claimed that it violates the separation of powers by impinging on the president’s purview as Commander in Chief. Others claim, with some justification, that it actually codifies presidential impingement on Congress’ exclusive authority to declare war.

Obama surely knows that the War Powers Resolution would not have even come into play in his proposed action. The resolution does not stop the president from taking a limited action that would last, at most a few days, although the constitutional question is considerably more complicated. But the tug of war between the legislative and executive branches that it represents is an ongoing one, with Congress always pushing for more involvement in foreign policy and the president jealously guarding his prerogatives. It is absolutely unprecedented for a president to give any ground on this without a fight.

That, however, is what Obama has done. He knows well that the US public does not want to see us involved in another Middle East war; that, as despised as Bashar al-Assad is, the Syrian rebel forces are no longer identified with the Syrian people Assad is hurting in the minds of many Americans, and that some of the most radical elements among them scare Americans more than Assad does; that Russia will veto any action against its Syrian ally at the UN Security Council; and that, especially after the vote in Britain’s House of Commons against action, the president has few allies abroad to offer international legitimacy to American actions.

Given that he surely knows Congress has no legal right to vote on this question, Obama’s decision is a purely political one. He is quite likely unhappy that his foolish declaration of a red line at chemical weapons has put him in this position, and he is being attacked from all sides, either for not acting right away or for bringing the US closer to a new intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts. He knows that his credibility in the region is now at stake and that allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as adversaries like Iran, will lose even more faith in him if he fails to act. So he is sharing that burden with Congress.

I suspect that, given that the red line has been drawn and most members of Congress will not want the US to look weak and indecisive — however much the Republicans might enjoy Obama looking that way — Congress will vote to support a strike. There will also very likely be a lobbying push in support of Congressional support for Obama. Saudi Arabia opposes Assad, so it would certainly want to see an attack. Israel is much less interested in seeing Assad ousted because a new Syrian government is unlikely to keep the Syrian-Israeli border as quiet as the Assad dynasty has for four decades now. But, despite his being the devil Israelis know, the Israelis don’t have any stake in seeing Assad emerge triumphant at this point, since that would represent a major victory for Iran and, especially, Hezbollah, and there is no way of knowing how Assad would deal with Israel after a victory. Still, while Israel has no great stake in the victor of this conflict, it very much wants to see the chemical and biological weapons Assad has destroyed. Israel does not want those weapons in Syria at all, whoever might have them. So, AIPAC will spur into action, although they may do so quietly, not wanting to be perceived as pushing the US into a war for Israel.

If Obama is wise, he will use the time he now has to try to, at best, find some common ground with Russia where they can come together on a diplomatic plan or, at least, shore up more international support for his “limited attack” on Syria. What seems unlikely, unless Congress does vote against the attack, is any other way to avoid a strike on Syria. Obama has committed the US with his red line declaration, and now, if he doesn’t act, not only does it damage his credibility; it will also tempt the Assad regime to do it again.

No doubt, Iran will be a major part of the debate. A major argument for striking Syria — and it is likely to be very persuasive on the Hill — will be that if we don’t, it will destroy our credibility with respect to “all options” being on the table in preventing Iran from a nuclear weapon. The more productive place for Iran to occupy in this discussion is much more of a long shot. That is, that Iran, if brought into the diplomatic process as a partner, can help find an actual resolution that stops, or at least curtails the massive violence in Syria. Such an engagement with Iran could also help solve the ongoing nuclear conflict and give Washington time to test the intentions of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. That course seems to have been hinted at by Obama in recent statements, and some excellent analysts, including Jim Lobe and Barbara Slavin believe he may be trying to open the door to including Iran in the process. I would applaud loudly if this turns out to be the case, but it still seems far too risky a political move to me.

In the end, I think Congress will approve the resolution. Having gotten an unprecedented gift from Obama in the form of a president asking for congressional authorization when he doesn’t have to, lawmakers will want to encourage such behavior in the future. Combined with the credibility question and Saudi and Israeli lobbying, that should bring a sufficient number of votes into his column. I suspect Obama must have done some informal gauging of Congressional opinion on this question in the days before he made this announcement.

It is unclear what Obama will do if the vote goes against him. It would seem unlikely that he would defy such a vote, but he might if the House and Senate split on it. That’s a possibility, as the House GOP is more virulently anti-Obama and isolationist in orientation.

But if Obama gets his stamp of approval, then the lasting legacy of this episode will be his decision to ask Congress at all. There’s a real double-edged sword here. On the one hand, it is obviously a more democratic way of operating. On the other hand, a major reason for keeping foreign policy in the hands of the executive is that Congress is much more subject to political pressure and lobbying. Increasing Congress’ role in foreign policy means increasing that role for lobbying groups, and not only AIPAC. It lessens the role of strategic thinking in the process, a role which is already far too small. As with many other aspects of life in the United States, it will only work well if people get involved on a much larger scale than they are now.

Limited US Influence in Egypt Can Still Do Some Good

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

When is a coup not a coup? When calling it that carries repercussions that make a bad situation worse.

US President Barack Obama is struggling with recent events in Egypt. Once again he’s presented with a situation in the Middle East where he has few good options but is still facing expectations based on a long history of US influence over events — an influence that is no longer situated in reality.

In contrast to the revolution that deposed Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the ouster of Mohammed Morsi raises some profound questions, not only for foreign powers, but for Egyptians themselves. There is no doubt that Morsi brought a lot of this on himself. He neglected the major issue for almost all Egyptians, the economy; he shamelessly tried to grab dictatorial powers; he did not follow through on his campaign promises to include the widest spectrum of Egyptians in his government; and, when confronted with all of this, he remained obstinate. Continue reading

Israel’s Next Ambassador to the US: A Jewish Karl Rove

Ron Dermer, the man who is rumored to be the replacement for Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren (who resigned today), has been compared to Karl Rove. The comparison is an apt one.

Oren, an academic who easily slipped into the role of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lead US propagandist, projected an image that was a bit friendlier in its Americanism. His academic stature, his experience of having written a best-selling book on the 1967 war that was very well-received in popular circles (less so in more critical academic environments) and his general demeanor was meant to soften the hardline Israeli leader’s image while still representing the Likud’s hawkish views in the US.

Dermer, whose experience is much more imbued in politics, will likely cast a different, more Machiavellian shadow. He is steeped with neoconservative connections, comes from a family that was heavily involved in politics and is undoubtedly reflective of the more hawkish strains even among the Likud. When rumors of his likely appointment first surfaced at the end of 2012, Marsha Cohen wrote this excellent and concise profile of Dermer for LobeLog.

Unlike Oren, Dermer is opposed to a two-state solution, having referred to it as a “childish matter,” though he later backed off the statement. But Dermer, who has long been a political adviser to Netanyahu and his lead speech writer, was also a key figure in arranging the controversial trip to Israel taken by then-Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney prior to last year’s election. In fact, despite his father having been a Democratic mayor in Florida, Dermer’s Republican and neoconservative roots run very deep.

But Dermer understands very well the need to work in a bipartisan fashion as an Israeli representative in Washington. “I haven’t encountered [ideology] as being much of an obstacle. We don’t get into deep conversations about our world views,” Dermer told the Washington newspaper, Politico. “Did Churchill and Roosevelt have a good relationship? You have foreign affairs, and you work together on issues where you agree.”

Also unlike Oren, Dermer is prone to more direct language. When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the self-evident truth that the US Congress is “bought and paid for” by Israel’s lobby, Oren said that “…Unintentionally, perhaps, Friedman has strengthened a dangerous myth.” Dermer, on the other hand, went on the warpath against the Times as a whole, saying the paper, well-known for its long-standing editorial support of Israel but not necessarily its settlements, “…consistently distort(s) the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace. They cavalierly defame our country by suggesting that marginal phenomena condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu and virtually every Israeli official somehow reflects government policy or Israeli society as a whole.”

That is likely to be a good snapshot of the differing styles of Oren and Dermer, the latter being much less inclined to diplo-speak, but with a much keener knowledge of conservative US politics. This will likely to serve him well as Israel becomes more and more a right-wing issue, a shift that Netanyahu embraces. While bi-partisanship remains the byword for pro-Israel lobbying, the money from the Jewish community, which is key and which continues to pour into the political coffers of Democrats, is increasingly coming from Jews who are either Republicans or whose views on Israel break with those of many Democrats. This split among Democrats was laughably visible during the spat at the Democratic National Convention last year over the forced inclusion of a plank in the party platform opposing the division of Jerusalem.

Oren was certainly no bridge-builder. He was sharply critical of the centrist group J Street and feuded with them off and on during his tenure. Dermer will likely be even more disdainful of even the tepid criticism of Israeli policies that J Street offers, much less groups that are more forthright.

But Netanyahu is well aware that the Palestinian issue, despite John Kerry’s many travels, is dropping farther and farther down on the list of US priorities. And the likely appointment of someone like Dermer is further evidence that Netanyahu also is willing to see the US right-wing take more ownership of the pro-Israel agenda, while campaign contributions and the continuing illusion that Jewish money is closely tied to a pro-Israel agenda keeps the Democrats toeing the line.

In the long run, this sort of characterization of the Israeli image is likely to alienate more and more US citizens, including a majority of Jews. But Bibi has never cared much about the long-term view, as the comeuppance will hit Israel long after he has left office. Ron Dermer, who shares a similar outlook, is Bibi’s kind of guy.