When Donald Trump announced that he was immediately removing all U.S. troops from Eastern Syria, I was surprised by the reaction. There was near glee in anti-war corridors. The initial response is understandable; the United States should not be in Syria, and that is true for many reasons. Moreover, many of those objecting to the decision are doing so because it doesn’t fit with their objectives to heighten tensions with Iran and continue to pursue endless conflict in the name of fighting terrorism. But leaving the way Trump intends is foolish and will not lead to a good outcome. Read more at LobeLog
This past Tuesday saw the latest in a horrifyingly long line of atrocities in Jerusalem. Two armed Palestinians entered a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood, killed five Israeli civilians and wounded six others before police gunned the murderers down. The reactions of Israeli and Palestinian leaders are worth examining.
Hamas, unsurprisingly, praised the murders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, equally unsurprisingly, condemned them unequivocally. In his official statement, Abbas said that he “…condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.”
But this didn’t stop Israeli leaders from continuing their campaign to demonize Abbas, the Palestinian leader who has tried harder, made more compromises and sacrificed more of his own credibility to achieve a two-state solution than any of his predecessors.
“Abbas has intentionally turned the conflict into a religious one between Jews and Muslims, and the systematic incitement he leads against Jews…is the ‘go-ahead’ for these despicable terror attacks,” said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Nov. 18, the day of the attack.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett meanwhile told reporters that “Abbas, one of the biggest terrorists to have arisen from the Palestinian people, bears direct responsibility for the Jewish blood spilt… while we were busy with delusions about the [peace] process… Abbas has declared war on Israel and we must treat that accordingly.”
Not to be outdone by the rivals within his own governing coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “This [attack] is a direct result of the incitement lead by Hamas and Abu Mazen (Abbas), incitement that the international community irresponsibly ignores.” He also dismissed Abbas’ condemnation of the attack because Abbas had said: “While we condemn this incident, we also condemn the aggression toward Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy places and torching of mosques and churches.” To Netanyahu, such a statement, though demonstrably based on factual Israeli actions and statements, is “incitement.”
Netanyahu didn’t stop there. He accused the Palestinians of “blood libel,” a term that refers to historical incidents where false charges against Jews of ritual murder were invented to incite anti-Jewish violence.
The vast majority of Netanyahu’s venom, and that of the other Israeli leaders was directed at Abbas, despite the shameful way Hamas applauded this heinous crime. There was a touch of irony to that, as on the same day of the attack, the head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency charged with internal security, had declared quite clearly that “[Abbas] is not interested in terror and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so ‘under the table.’”
All of this raises a question: Why is the Israeli right ignoring the low-hanging fruit of Hamas and going full bore at Abbas instead? After all, Hamas praised the attack, and Netanyahu and company could easily have stopped at tainting Abbas with the argument that he was in partnership with the Islamists via the unity government. Instead, the Israelis went much farther, to the point of virtually ignoring Hamas and the other Palestinian factions who voiced support for the attack.
The explanation for this behavior involves both the long-term and the short-term. In the short run, this is all part of Netanyahu’s broader public relations campaign linking Iran, Hamas, the Islamic State and now the Palestinian Authority. This campaign has several goals: to make it politically impossible for the United States to work with Iran against Islamic State (ISIS or IS), to make a deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries more difficult, to forestall any further international scrutiny of the siege of the Gaza Strip and to legitimize harsher Israeli measures in Jerusalem, among other goals.
On most counts, the strategy is failing, with the usual exception that Israeli actions in Gaza and Jerusalem are being downplayed, although not totally ignored. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is having more of an effect toward his long-term goal.
The endless refrain of “Iran is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas” is designed to use the universally despised Islamic State to further de-legitimize Iran and the Palestinians. The reasons for this are obvious: to paint both Hamas and Iran as such implacable enemies that Israel would be justified in any action taken against them. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is gradually broadening its scope of Palestinian targets. By blaming incitement from Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the recent attack in Jerusalem, and by repeatedly pointing out that the PA is now run by a unity government (however dysfunctional) that includes Hamas, Netanyahu is, in effect, subtly folding the PA into the “Hamas-ISIS-Iran” equation.
The strategy is working in Netanyahu’s target areas: Israelis at home and Israel’s supporters abroad, and Washington. After the synagogue murders in Jerusalem, John Kerry sounded just like Netanyahu when he blamed Palestinian incitement, clearly including the PA, for the attack. He was followed by a slew of Congress members from both parties, some of whom singled out Abbas by name.
This is part of the Israeli right’s “solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It begins with rolling back the arrangements under the Oslo Accords. The vision is something similar to what existed before the Accords were signed in 1993. Israel would have full security control in the West Bank, and the PA would be reduced to an administrative body in the increasingly isolated Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Freedom of movement for Palestinians would be increased in the hope that their economic conditions would improve (possibly through increased Palestinian employment in Israeli businesses) and that this would be enough, with increased Israeli security, to maintain relative calm.
This is a shared vision among Netanyahu, Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, and numerous other right-wing figures in Israel, even though they each present it differently. It was sketched out in broad terms in the Israeli media recently. Another prize in the arrangement for Israel is that it would diminish the PA as the international representative of the Palestinians, thus blunting the gains the Palestinians have gotten through various international recognitions of their statehood. The PA would still exist, but it would be disconnected from the Palestinian street in the Occupied Territories. This would, indeed, resemble the pre-Oslo era.
Even if Netanyahu is ousted from the Prime Minister’s office in the near future (not likely, but possible given the current political waves in Israel), another right-wing leader would certainly be his successor. Thus, the rollback of Oslo would continue, as would the freeze in the peace process. And without a visible representative Palestinian leadership, international pressure for peace would diminish, simply because there won’t be anyone to press Israel to talk to (the United States, Europe and even the United Nations will not, in any foreseeable future, push Israel to talk with Hamas).
The Israeli right believes that this is a status quo that could be maintained indefinitely, with the occasional flare-up of violence with Gaza and sporadic, but disorganized attacks by individual Palestinians from the West Bank. And since right-wing leaders will be controlling Israel until an opposition that can sway the Israeli public toward a more moderate course coalesces, the vision will be pursued.
But we’re already seeing some of the reasons why this vision is unsustainable. Israeli radicals will continue to agitate for greater Jewish control of the Temple Mount, and any right-wing Israeli government cannot simply ignore them. That will lead to more and more individual acts of violence like the one this week in Jerusalem and the several that preceded it recently.
Perhaps the Israeli right thinks they can handle that as well, and they may be correct. But there is another aspect about the pre-Oslo existence that they may be overlooking.
The separation of the Palestinian masses from the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1980s led to the development of a more grassroots, locally based Palestinian leadership. It was that leadership, not the PLO, which created the first, and by far the more successful, Intifada. Palestinians have been yearning for a new leadership, and a new generation of leaders with popular support would be most welcome among them.
The first intifada was certainly not non-violent, but it relied much more on strikes, protests and civil disobedience than the second one did. Violence was a very minor aspect of it at first, until Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of “breaking the Palestinians’ limbs” increased it. Even so, the non-violent aspects of that uprising remained front and center. It was then that the United States, and soon after, Israel, embraced the idea of peace with the PLO, in order to end the intifada and to blunt and co-opt that new Palestinian leadership.
If such a leadership arose again, it would be impossible to ignore politically, even in Washington and Tel Aviv. But Palestinians need to hope for it, because if the Obama administration is so removed from this issue that it is willing to blame Abbas for acts that he has strongly condemned, then the Oslo rollback-vision will prove successful, and there will be even less pressure on Israel to compromise. But that would also present an opportunity for the new Palestinian leadership to encourage renewed international activism aimed at economically pressuring Israel. And that could bring real change.
There is, however, a very long road between that sort of hope and where we are right now.
Chas Freeman, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and thirty-year veteran of the United States’ foreign service delivered a speech today that
everyone in the United States should be paying attention to. It is a searing indictment of American policy in the Middle East from a man who was in the middle of it for decades.
The focus of Chas’ talk is the current battle being waged against Da’ish, or the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, whatever the name you want to use may be. If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve seen my view in this, but I’ll re-state it briefly.
I believe the entire approach we’ve taken to IS is completely off-course. It is, in fact, a repeat of previous errors. IS wanted the United States to intervene, just as al-Qaeda wanted the US to react with massive force to 9/11. Any losses IS suffers will be more than made up for by the increasing radicalization of the region caused by US intervention. This reality is doubled because the US will only bomb, which will greatly increase damage to civilian lives and infrastructure. And from that soil will grow many more IS recruits, eager to battle their foes in the region and in the West.
Chas lays all of this out very neatly in his speech. But there is an underlying point which, though Chas did make it explicit in his speech, he doesn’t spend a great deal of time on, as he decided to focus on current events. Let me give you my own take on it, so that you can be even more tempted to read and, more importantly, share widely, Chas’ speech. Continue reading
Former American diplomat Aaron David Miller is a frequent and worthwhile contributor to US foreign policy discussions in both Washington and the news media. His long career in Middle East diplomacy and strong focus on Israel have enabled him to clarify for the general public the many difficulties that exist under the surface of these issues. Unfortunately, as shown by his recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine, he sometimes obscures them as well.
Miller correctly points out that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the major source of regional instability and that Secretary of State John Kerry was foolish to imply that the lack of progress on this issue had in some way become a contributing factor to the rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State. But he also elides the enormous amount of responsibility the United States has and continues to hold not only for the Israel-Palestine conflict itself, but also for the difficulty in making any progress on the issue, let alone resolving it.
Miller states it explicitly: “Washington isn’t responsible for the impasse…The primary responsibility for fixing the problem lies with Israelis and Palestinians, and the lack of resolution is a direct result of their lack of leadership and ownership.”
That is unequivocal nonsense. It adds yet another layer to the enduring myths that surround the long-term lack of progress on this conflict. It is not lack of leadership and ownership that is the problem, it is the massive imbalance of power between the two parties that is the single biggest obstacle to a resolution. And that is an area where the United States is a major factor.
The power imbalance leads to a very simple reality: Israel has very little incentive to compromise. It is a regional superpower militarily, it has by far the most stable government in the Middle East, and it’s a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with a relatively strong economy. Israelis would undoubtedly prefer a cessation to the Palestinian rocket fire that periodically flares up as it did this past summer, and certainly want to stop incidents such as the one on October 22, when a Palestinian drove into a Jerusalem light rail station, killing an infant and wounding seven other people. But these concerns are not nearly enough to sway Israelis into the sort of compromises that would be bare minimums for a deal with the Palestinians.
From Israel’s point of view, the Palestinians’ minimal demands include a free Gaza and West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, a shared Jerusalem and the recognition of Palestinian refugee rights. In each case, there is a huge risk perceived by the Israelis.
Indeed, because most Israelis believe the narrative telling them that when Israel withdrew from Gaza and Southern Lebanon, all it got in return was rocket fire, they see a similar but much graver risk of that repeated outcome in the West Bank. In fact, most Israelis join their prime minister in rejecting the idea of giving up the Jordan Valley, a huge chunk of the occupied West Bank.
Sharing Jerusalem, and particularly the area of the Temple Mount, conjures fears of the years from 1949-67 when Israelis could not visit the holiest site in Judaism. More than that, Israel’s capture of the Old City in 1967 has become a powerful nationalistic symbol—a compromise on this issue strikes at the very heart of Israeli identity, and that arouses passionate responses.
The refugee question, which I explored in depth recently, is also seen by virtually all Israelis as implying the end of the Jewish State, something they desperately want to avoid. Finally, Israelis remain bitterly divided ideologically on many points, and there is a deep fear that making compromises will set off civil disturbances between secular, religious, nationalist and liberal camps within the country. Recent events around the Gaza war, where demonstrators for peace were repeatedly attacked, give credence to this fear.
The point is not to argue about the legitimacy or realism, or absence thereof, behind any of these fears. They are there, and they must be contended with in some fashion. But that involves confronting those fears, which, in turn, implies that Israelis perceive some pressure—be it military, economic or political—that forces them to take risks. The rewards of peace are, at best, uncertain to Israelis who don’t trust Palestinian intentions and perceive rising militancy in the Arab world and therefore an uncertain future no matter what commitments the current Arab regimes may offer. After all, as many contend, these governments may not be around for long.
Due to its position of relative power, the potential incentives for Israel are negative. The Israeli reaction to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which has not yet had any significant economic effect (though it has certainly altered the public discourse), is a testament to how worried Israel is at the prospect of true economic pressure. The Israeli government’s reaction to the EU’s relatively minor moves to adhere to its own laws regarding partnering on projects in the Occupied Territories and labeling products imported from the West Bank is further proof of this trend.
But whenever Europe, which is an even more indispensable trade partner for Israel than the US, has started to move in this direction, the United States has worked hard behind the scenes to change European minds. In a similar, but far more visible and impactful way, the US has used its veto power repeatedly at the UN Security Council to protect Israel from any consequences of its constant violations of international law. And we do this despite Israel’s defiance of stated US policy in the region.
These are the realities that Miller’s viewpoint elides. They have nothing to do with the Islamic State, and Miller is correct to chide Kerry for trying to tie the two together. But this ongoing hand-wringing about how the Israelis and Palestinians can’t be brought together needs to end. Even more, the nonsensical view that this is due to the personal mistrust between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas has to be shunted into the dustbin. Roosevelt and Churchill didn’t trust Stalin at Yalta. Gerry Adams and David Trimble in Northern Ireland didn’t trust each other either, and many of us who were paying attention at the time can remember the constant accusations of bad faith they hurled back and forth, which were very similar to what Netanyahu and Abbas say about each other today. Yet there are also other examples of leaders coming together. It is becoming a cliché, but it is nonetheless true that peace is made between enemies, not between friends, and it is also generally made between parties that neither like nor trust each other.
The reason this is even an issue in the Israel-Palestine conflict is because of the imbalance of power. Because Israel is so powerful and because US policymakers—for reasons that have nothing to do with the Palestinians or the occupation—continue to see Israel as an indispensable ally in security, intelligence and business matters, diplomacy has become ineffective. That’s why we keep hearing excuses for the ongoing failure. Miller makes one of the classic excuses. But it all covers up for US fecklessness and for the fact that, despite the pronouncements, peace between Israel and the Palestinians may be official US policy, but it is not a high priority. Kerry, in a credit to his character and his naiveté, tried to buck this, but found that he didn’t have the diplomatic tools he thought he had.
For all of these reasons, the US bears an enormous responsibility for the ongoing and deepening conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territories. And yet, that doesn’t mean the US needs to be doing more to resolve it.
On the contrary, the US needs to do less. The American commitment to Israel’s military superiority is now law, but even without that, the ties between the US and Israeli militaries, intelligence communities and businesses are extremely deep. There is no realistic path to undoing these ties.
But that doesn’t mean the United States has to keep acting to thwart European efforts to raise the price of its occupation for Israel. Nor does it mean that the US has to keep running interference for Israel at the UN Security Council. Most of all, it does not mean that the US has to keep insisting on its exclusive role as the mediator of this conflict.
If the United States simply refrains from doing these things, and takes no other action to pressure Israel, the change in the status quo would be enormous. But that would, itself, be a major shift in US policy on the ground. And it is not going to happen as long as we delude ourselves into believing the status quo is not our fault and that we bear no responsibility for changing it.
In the United States, we seem to be surrounded by irrational hysteria these days. Two, perhaps three cases of ebola within our borders have
generated a great deal of fear despite the fact that there are far more virulent, widespread and equally deadly diseases around us all the time.
The Islamic State has generated similarly cowardly reactions in the US. The media and, especially, members of Congress from both parties are whipping up terror far beyond what IS is capable of on its own, despite its murderous ideology and actions so brutal even al-Qaeda is appalled. The hysteria is, itself, something to be addressed because rational decisions cannot be made under such conditions and no decisions call out for rationality than military ones. But more than that, the panic over IS allows the United States to reframe the entire view of the Middle East’s descent into ever-widening sectarian war.
It is the evil “ISIS” or al-Qaeda, or the “Nusra Front” or this or that Islamic cleric that is at the root of this. No one thinks in terms of the US’ own responsibility for the conditions in the entire region. But in fact the US, while certainly not the root cause of sectarianism in the Arab world, is very much responsible for unleashing the madness engulfing the region, through decades of politically invasive policy decisions based on US self-interest and rooted in an appalling ignorance of the social, economic, religious and political realities of the region and capped off by the invasion of Iraq over a decade ago which served as the spark to light the fire.
The problems in Iraq go far beyond IS, even of IS is the most horrifying symptom of them right now. That’s why this new report on the conditions for minorities in Iraq is so helpful. The perspective it brings goes beyond IS into the larger problems of sectarianism in Iraq and the difficulties that arise not only from the ongoing strife but also from the weakness of security and the Iraqi government. Americans in particular need to see this. The solutions lie in international law and international action, but the responsibility lies with us.