Who is seeking to destabilize Lebanon?

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of the truck-bomb killing of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri. Quite understandably, many of those most horrified by that killing are planning large-scale marches to commemorate it. This, amidst the the political crisis caused by the failure of the country’s political leaders to agree on a formula for forming the country’s next government. (That bottleneck has also led to the failure of the country’s MPs to form a quorum large enough to elect the new president; the country has been without a president since November 23.)
Obviously, many Lebanese and their friends are concerned at the possibility that the spate of acts of violence that has occurred in recent weeks might, at this very sensitive time, tip over that hard-to-discern brink into a large-scale, outright, very damaging, and possibly lengthy civil war.
Last Saturday, February 10, I wrote a post here in which I said that the real story in Lebanon is actually that there is not, already, a civil war there. I also noted the efforts that many Lebanese political leaders, including those from Hizbullah, had been pursuing in an effort to prevent the outbreak of a civil war.
But on that very same day, MP Saad Hariri, the son of the late Rafiq H. and a leader of the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc in the parliament, made a belligerent speech in which he said that if the country’s “destiny” is confrontation, then he and his allies were “ready” for that.
The following day, Hariri’s ally, the ever-mercurial Walid Jumblatt, went much further, issuing this very public threat:

    “You want disorder? It will be welcomed. You want war? It will be welcomed. We have no problem with weapons, no problem with missiles. We will take them from you.”

On Feb. 11th, too, at least two people were wounded Sunday in a gunfight between Jumblatt supporters and opponents in Aley, east of Beirut, and shots were reportedly fired Sunday in an altercation between Hariri supporters and members of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s security services.
(When I got to the bottom of my incoming mail pile on Sunday, I found a charming, Christmas card from Walid– featuring a photo he had taken of the snow-covered steps of his family’s feudal home in Moukhtara. Maybe I should have a conversation with him about Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence sometime?)
Back in November, Walid notoriously threatened to unleash car-bombs against the Syrian capital, Damascus. Yesterday, just such a bomb did explode there. It killed Imad Mughniyeh, long wanted by the US government as being the accused architect of the very lethal attacks against US military and diplomatic facilities in Lebanon in 1983-84, and by Israel for his alleged role in organizing very lethal attacks against Israeli and Jewish facilities in Buenos Aires. Hizbullah’s Manar website today described him as “a great resistance leader who joined the procession of Islamic Resistance martyrs.”
No indication, yet, of whether Walid’s threat of last November was related in any way to Mughniyeh’s killing. But did the belligerent words Walid pronounced last Sunday about “We have no problem with weapons, no problem with missiles” have anything to do with yesterday’s visit by US Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman to Beirut?
This AP report tells us that,

    Since 2006, the United States has committed US$321 million in security assistance to the Lebanese army, and has pledged to provide equipment and training to the country’s armed forces.
    In the letter Edelman handed (Lebanese PM Fuad) Saniora from Bush, the American president expressed strong support to the Lebanese government and said that Iran and Syria are trying to “undermine Lebanon’s democratic institutions through violence and intimidation.”

This move of accusing Syria and Iran of unacceptable intervention in Lebanese politics is an increasingly common one– from a US administration that is also, (a) majorly intervening in Lebanon’s domestic politics, and (b) quite evidently a non-Lebanese actor. It would be a laughable move to make if the reality that blies behind it– of US arms supplies to the Lebanese army and hostile, escalatory rhetoric– were not so serious.
All power to the de-escalators and the bridge-builders. May their efforts succeed.

Live-blogging Obama’s “Potomac” breakthrough

We did it! In Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, we voted Barack Obama overwhelmingly in the Democratic primary.
I’m watching Obama giving the victory speech. He’s doing it in Madison, Wisconsin, since Wisconsin is one of the upcoming primary states.
But Obama’s stupendous. He’s talked quite a bit about the need for clarity on the war. He said some good things about John McCain’s past heroism– a nice touch. But then he said that McCain lost his way. That McCain, who had once stood against the tax cuts Bush gave to the rich but now he supports them. A number of times Obama made the link directly between the cost of the war in Iraq and the lack of investment at home.
He’s been talking in a very personal vein– about the fact that his mother was a teenager in Hawaii, and then his father left the family when Barack was only two years old…
Most interesting of all, though, has been to see him suddenly looking like someone who is ready to be president. He’s been saying a number of times “When I am president…” and suddenly it looks as if he is growing into a self-realization of the possibility, growing into the role.
Half an hour ago, I saw a very mechanical speech from Hillary Clinton.
Oh, and now CNN has shifted over from Obama to McCain. The difference in age and energy level is evident.
Also, Obama was speaking in a huge, two-tiered stadium with tens of thousands of people there. (He has shown this amazing ability to mobilize large numbers of voters, especially young voters.) The camera there kept moving into a wide shot and then panning over the massive crowd. With McCain, now, all you can see is five other– all white– people in the frame behind him as he speaks in Alexandria, Virginia. One of them is, I think, the ageing and about-to-retie Republican Virginia senator, John Warner, who is 80-plus years old.
But McCain is also promising a respectful, decent campaign. Including– I just heard him using Obama’s signature chant of “I’m fired up and ready to go!” That, with a large smile.

Virginia’s Primaries (& Huckabee/Copeland note)

There’s much to mull over concerning Iran’s pending parliamentary elections – the vetting process yet again. Yet for the moment, we have the American political circus to comprehend, and our own “vetting processes” are less than perfect. For our Presidential primary here in Virginia tomorrow, we are pleasantly surprised to contemplate that our votes might still mean something. Alas, (and this is Scott writing) my early favorites (Chuck Hagel, Bill Richardson, or Ron Paul) either chickened out, gave up early, or have been quite marginalized. But there is still a race on; in both parties, it’s not yet certain who will win.
What’s an independent thinker to do? I’m tired of being “embarrassed” every time our current President speaks, smirks, or slurs.
By contrast, Saturday’s Jefferson-Jackson Day speech here in Virginia by Barack Obama gives me hope that we might yet have a President by this time next year who won’t cause me to cringe:

[W]hile Washington is consumed with the same drama and division and distraction, another family puts up a For Sale sign in the front yard. Another factory shuts its doors forever. Another mother declares bankruptcy because she cannot pay her child’s medical bills.
And another soldier waves goodbye as he leaves on another tour of duty in a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged. It goes on and on and on, year after year after year.
But in this election – at this moment – Americans are standing up all across the country to say, not this time. Not this year. The stakes are too high and the challenges too great to play the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expect a different result.

Many of these themes echo recent Obama stump lines. I especially like this passage:

If I am the nominee of this party, John McCain will not be able to say that I agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq; agreed with him on giving George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; and agree with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don’t like. Because that doesn’t make us look strong, it makes us look arrogant. John F. Kennedy said that you should never negotiate out of fear, but you should never fear to negotiate. And that’s what I will do as President. I don’t just want to end this war in Iraq, I want to end the mindset that got us into war. It is time to turn the page. (emphasis added)

Yes, this primary is personal for me. My son the Army reserves Lieutenant was just activated into the full-time Army, with his unit slotted for “deployment” later this year. So the ole’ “pro-life” card has, shall we say, a different meaning for me.
McCain, Huckabee & Kenneth Copeland!?
As much as I once liked him, voting for McCain, Mr. Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran, or Mr. “stay in Iraq for a 100 years,” would, for me, be the antithesis of “supporting the troops.”
I do realize that many “independent” friends think McCain is one of them — and that may indeed explain much of his success thus far. But for me, McCain gave up the “Maverick” mantle when he went with the imperialists of old, backing the surge and now loose chatter advocating staying in Iraq without end.
Huckabee for a few moments intrigued me. To be sure, he’s the ultimate un-foreign policy candidate, and he’s tried to turn it into a joke. (He’s been staying at a lot of Holiday Inn’s lately). When he wasn’t “boasting” of consulting with John Bolton, his campaign did float some curiously “independent” ideas, such as the notion of serious talking to Iran (what a concept!) in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. He also notably criticized the Bush Administration for its “counterproductive… bunker mentality” towards the world.
I anticipate Huckabee might do better than expected here in Virginia, though more on social issues, as conservative religious “folk” here remember John McCain’s blasts at them eight years ago. It was no accident that Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Guliani – after courting Romney) Huckabee yesterday was “speaking” before Falwell’s mega-church in Lynchburg.
But Virginia’s “conservative Christians” are hardly a monolith; the formulas that worked before are in tatters. Jerry Falwell is gone; Pat Robertson is on the way out, and his once intimidating “Christian Coalition” barely even exists – even what it stands for anymore is a mystery. (A friend yesterday even hinted that the current CC leader is quietly supporting Clinton)

Continue reading “Virginia’s Primaries (& Huckabee/Copeland note)”

Congratulations, Egypt and Abu Treika!

Egypt’s national football (soccer) team won the African Nations Cup final in Ghana last night. Huge congratulations to them and to their scorer! Muhammad Abu Treika (no. 22).
Abu Treika is probably today the best-known 29-year-old in Africa and perhaps the whole of the Muslim world. If you want to see one amazing recent goal he scored, look at the second goal on this Youtube clip. Abu Treika had already won attention by raising his No.22 shirt at the end of a game in an earlier round of the cup, revealing a tee-shirt underneath that said “Sympathize with Gaza.” (See his explanation of this, to English Al-Jazeera, here.) But the guy is also just an amazing player: intuitive and disciplined at the same time.
For those US or other readers who don’t know much about football the way the whole of the non-US world plays it, or who don’t know much about Abu Treika, Time’s Scott MacLeod has a nice post on Abu Treika, and on the wildly enthusiastic reaction that last night’s win saw in downtown Cairo. (Hat-tip Bram.)
MacLeod writes:

    A midfielder for Egypt’s hugely successful and popular al-Ahly team, he’s been the top-rated player in the country for four straight years. An outfit called the International Federation of Football History and Statistics said a recent poll it sponsored named Aboutreika the world’s most popular footballer, with more than 1 million votes, well ahead of the likes of Ronaldinho.
    It is Aboutreika’s character as much as his playing that endears him to his fans. His gesture to the Palestinians was in keeping with his active involvement in humanitarian causes, such as his role as a World Food Program Ambassador Against Hunger. In Egypt, he’s known as a devout, humble man who has not let success go to his head. He has been photographed with his mother, who wears a traditional hijab, or headscarf. “He’s a great player, but he’s also honest and knows his god,” a kid in the cafe wearing a Billabong sweatshirt tells me. Once, as the new young star for the Egyptian Tersana team, Aboutreika refused to sign a contract that elevated his salary way above those of his teammates. “We need to stop this habit of praising an individual player,” he told reporters after the 2006 Cup victory. “It isn’t Aboutreika, but the whole team who got the Cup. Without the others’ efforts, I can’t ever make anything.” His first words after tonight’s victory: “It’s one of the greatest days of my life.”

MacLeod was writing from a downtown coffee shop. (It goes by the significant name of the “Fallujah” coffee shop.) He wrote:

    Egypt, blessed with such an athlete, is desperately in need of a little joy. Everyone agrees that the country has been sliding backwards lately. The flood of Palestinians into Gaza exposed an embarrassing decline in the Egyptian government’s ability to influence developments in the Middle East, even on its own border. The regime has been arresting journalists, bloggers and Islamic fundamentalists in another big domestic crackdown on dissent. Meanwhile, ordinary Egyptians are grumbling about the higher price of such things as electricity, water and bread. Even government employees have been going on strike. “We wanted a reason to be happy,” says Salah, one of the customers at the Falluja coffee shop. “Egyptians are feeling choked. Everything is no good.”
    Except, that is, a certain No. 22 footballer who sent Egyptians by the millions into the streets tonight. After the winning goal, Gamal, a brick layer next to me, sits down and kisses his fingers. “Thanks to God,” he says. “It’s a victory for my country, my people.” As I passed Tahrir Square on the way home after the match, gathering crowds were waving the Egyptian flag and whooping it up. And they were chanting, “A-bou Trei-ka! A-bou Trei-ka! A-bou Trei-ka!”

The story: Lebanon NOT consumed by civil war…

… so what’s going on?
This is a really interesting story, though most of the western (“If it bleeds, it leads”) MSM haven’t even started to notice it.
But what’s been happening in Lebanon since even before the Feb. 14, 2005 killing of ex-PM Rafiq Hariri is that– okay, in addition to the ghastly Israeli assault of summer 2006, and the brutal fighting at Nahr al-Bared refugee camp last summer– there have been numerous other sporadic acts of lethal violence. And each time, many people around the world would perk up their ears and say, “Oh my! Is Lebanon about to plunge back into civil war?” But it doesn’t happen.
Why not?
I think this is due, in large part, to the sense of realism and political wisdom that so many Lebanese political leaders actually have. Starting with the country’s biggest party, Hizbullah, but extending far beyond them. Nearly all the acts of violence that have occurred since late 2004 have been unclaimed, and unexplained. Under those circumstances, normally, people would have every reason to be fearful. Where might it happen next, and to whom? People would be on-edge and ready to “counter-attack first”. Back in December 2006, there was a small eruption of fighting between Sunni and Shiite militias in South Beirut. But it was rapidly contained and defused. Last Sunday, there was another such cliffhanging incident. Again, it got contained. There is evidently some very serious and intentional conflict-defusing work going on there, for which the people of Lebanon and the region should all be glad.
I’m just thinking back to the few days I spent in the generally cosmopolitan hub of Ras Beirut last month. Ras Beirut seemed a lot more relaxed and pleasant to be in then, than it did when we were there for two months in later 2004 (i.e., before the Hariri killing.) Maybe that had to do with the removal of the Syrian military presence from the country, which happened– as a response to Hariri killing– in summer of 2005.
Last month, the main gripe of many people in Ras Beirut was against the selfishness and arrogance that so many local parliamentarians seem to display in various facets of their personal and political lives. The parliamentarians have periodically been enacting their big drama of “Can they convene enough MPs together and reach agreement on the formula for forming the next government?” Yesterday, they just postponed that constitutionally vital session for the 14th time. As a result, the country still doesn’t have a president. The sitting ministers– that is, all the non-Shiite ones, since the Shiite ones all resigned a year or so back– continue to get their hefty salaries and to do not very much of anything except renew the contracts they all gave to their friends a while back. The MPs also take their salaries, and throw out huge barricades around their lavish residences, which inconvenience everyone else no end. No legislating, and precious little real governing, gets done at all. The country generally keeps running along, even if in an extremely unorthodox way.
Lebanon, remember, is a country whose founding ethos was one of aversion to, or flight from, anything resembling central government authority. That’s what being a mountain-dominated society full of theologically heterodox communities is all about. Iraq, which is a plains country, is actually far, far worse affected when the central government doesn’t function, since back to the days of the Sumerians the river/plains systems there have always totally relied on having a central authority to regulate both waters and the livelihoods and communities so heavily dependent on them.
So in Lebanon, it is indeed quite possible that the country won’t get a new president or a new president before the scheduled holding of parliamentary elections next year. In which case, the main job for the sitting MPs will be to draw up the rules for that election. (A bizarre system, eh?) It will be interesting to see whether an international community in which George W. Bush is no longer a leading actor will be one that supports Lebanon at last having a strong, fair, and non-sectarian election system… Let’s hope so.

Mubarak on the Gaza question

This is the English-language version of an interview conducted on January 30th with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak by two correspondents from Italy’s La Repubblica. A very well-informed person tells me it’s a good representation of what is known of Mubarak’s views. (Hat-tip to that person.)
Here is how it starts:

    “Listen to me carefully.” The Egyptian leader’s voice rose: “Gaza is not part of Egypt, nor will it ever be a part of Egypt.” Then he got tough: “I hear talk of a proposal to turn the Strip into an extension of the Sinai peninsula, of offloading responsibility for it onto Egypt, but what I say to Israel is this: Its plan is nothing but a dream, and I would add that I do not accept faits accomplis…
    “Some people in Israel are talking about creating an ‘expanded’ Gaza Strip, building a part of the Sinai peninsula into it via a trade in land between Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinians. Well, my answer is this: Let them trade in shoes and clothes but not in land, truly not in land.”

That part certainly rings very true. Mubarak’s political patron, Pres. Anwar Sadat, was extremely proud of the fact that in the Camp David negotiations of 1978 he managed to win Israel’s agreement to withdraw its forces from all of the Egyptian territory occupied in 1967. It’s quite clear that Mubarak would not easily agree to any non-Egyptian party infringing on Egypt’s sovereignty now. (The concept of Egyptian sovereignty goes back, um, around 7,000 years or so.)
The whole text of the interview is fascinating. Here are some more highlights:

    [Mubarak] …The strangulation of Gaza that Israel has put in place to try to weaken Hamas has produced a contrary effect. Hamas has been strengthened by it. There you have it, that is Israel’s big mistake.

I note that the great Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has described Olmert’s attempt to strangle Gaza’s population in very similar terms, as “worse than a war crime– a blunder.”
Back to the interview:

    [La Repubblica] What are the consequences for Egypt? Is proximity with an area under Islamist control a threat to your country’s security?
    [Mubarak] What happened in Gaza last June is important for us in terms of the implications that it has for the Palestinian people. Where Egypt’s national security is concerned, we are perfectly capable of defending ourselves. We are deeply aware of the suffering in Gaza, and sure enough, I have called on Israel to resume supplies to the Strip. We, for our part, are sending food and medical supplies from Egypt. But I will not allow new crises to be fomented at the Rafah border crossing, or a hail of stones to be thrown at the Egyptian security forces. Nor, I repeat, will I allow Israel, the occupying power, to offload its responsibilities towards Gaza, which is an occupied territory.
    [La Repubblica] President Bush came to the Middle East as a peace broker. Can he play a role in defusing the crisis?
    [Mubarak] A peace broker? I would not call him that…

Now, that is really something, from a guy considered to be a lynchpin of US diplomatic/strategic policy in the Middle East! Earth to Condi! Maybe you should pay some heed to what the Arab allies on whom Washington’s Middle East policy is so dependent think about your peace diplomacy?
Mubarak continues, about Bush:

    Of course, he came here to promote an accord, to assess the results of the Annapolis summit, in an attempt to implement his personal vision of two states. But from the United States I hear it being said and repeated that he is not going to intervene in the negotiations on the final issues, which are the most sensitive ones. It is almost as though he had forgotten the lesson of Camp David: President Al- Sadat and Prime Minister Begin would never have achieved an accord if Carter had not spurred them on.

A little later, this:

    [La Repubblica] There is an additional problem, which some people call Iran’s interference in Middle Eastern affairs. Did Bush ask you to forge a common front against Tehran?
    [Mubarak] This is not the time for resorting to threats or to the use of force: That would serve solely to set the Gulf, the Middle East, and the whole world on fire. What is needed, rather, are dialogue and diplomacy. The US intelligence report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions lends itself to opposing interpretations, but in any case it paves the way for diplomacy. Greater transparency is needed on Iran’s part, and greater flexibility is needed on the part of the international community.
    [La Repubblica] Yet Egypt has now chosen to move down the path of nuclear energy. Is that, too, a reaction to Iran’s programme?
    [Mubarak] No, it is not. It is for purely economic reasons…
    [La Repubblica] We have recently seen the Arab countries making overtures towards Iran. People are talking about the resumption of diplomatic ties between Egypt and Tehran after fully 30 years. Is it going to happen?
    [Mubarak] Our contacts with Iran are ongoing despite Tehran’s breaking off ties back in 1979, after Egypt made peace with Israel. There are various issues on the table, but once they have been resolved, we are prepared to establish diplomatic relations once again.
    [La Repubblica] Does that mean that Iran’s influence today is a reality that the world needs to take into account?
    [Mubarak] I would prefer not to talk of influence so much as of the role and contribution of the countries in the region to peace, to security, and to stability. Iran is one of the most important countries in the region. It can play a positive and constructive role in the stability of the Gulf and of the Middle East. [Mubarak ends]

At the end of the interview, the authors note that, “Outside the door, the mirrors reflected the profile of the region’s new leading players: A composed and unruffled Iranian delegation stood waiting.”
Well, that interview was conducted ten days ago, and a lot has happened since. In the interview, Mubarak told the reporters that the border with Rafah would be closed “today”– yet it took his security people a further four days to close it; and even then, they were only able to do so with the help of Hamas.
The Egyptian authorities also made some quite heavy-handed attempts to mount a (dis-)information campaign against Hamas, with some writers even calling it something like an “Israeli fifth column” in the region. I’m not sure if that information campaign is still continuing?
The government has also continued its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting numerous MB organizers around the country.
And security chief Omar Suleiman– sometimes also mentioned as a possible political successor to the ageing Mubarak– has reportedly been in Israel trying to work out a solution to the Gaza issue.
Such a solution, to work, probably needs to include these elements:

    1. A ceasefire between Israel and at the very least Gaza, but preferably also one that covers the West Bank as well.
    2. A solution to the question of Gaza’s economic links– one that definitely does not include Gaza remaining shackled under Israel’s ever-tightening siege, and one that preferably also allows considerably more freedom of movement within the West Bank, and between the WB and East Jerusalem.
    3. A prisoner release/exchange that is actually implemented (as opposed to the many in the past that have been concluded but not implemented by Israel.)
    4. Agreement on a Fateh-Hamas working arrangement.

A tall order? Yes. If Suleiman can pull this one off, maybe he deserves to be president of Egypt!

Daniel Pipes, making sense?

Every so often people can surprise you. Thus it was today with Daniel Pipes, writing in the Jerusalem Post that Israel should just “offload” Gaza onto Egypt.
What I don’t like about Pipes’s piece is the extremely demeaning way he writes about the Palestinians. “Given that Gazans have shown themselves incapable of responsible self-rule… ” and so on. But here’s the thing about the “parallel unilateralisms” approach– parallel as between Likudniks like D. Pipes, and the people in Hamas, as I wrote about here, back in 2006: participants in that kind of approach don’t have to be all lovey-dovey; they don’t have to like each other, or even particularly pretend that they do. They just need to let each other get on with their lives.
Pipes says that the “disengage from Gaza” project was suggested to him by Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Pro-Israeli Policy. He writes that Satloff suggested that Israel announce these three steps:

    “a date certain for the severing of Israel’s provision of water, electricity and trade access, free entry for replacement services through Egypt, and an invitation for international support to link Gaza to Egyptian grids.”

And he notes that “Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, would also detach Gaza from its customs union with Israel and the West Bank.”
This would be music to the ears of many or most of the leaders of Hamas. Interesting. Particularly interesting if Likud comes into power and actually does this.
Parallel unilateralisms is almost the polar opposite of the “integrationist” approach to peacemaking that has been pursued in particular by Shimon Peres and some people in Fateh– with huge amounts of funding from well-meaning people and governments in the west who just love all that encounter-group bonding stuff. However, I worked in one such project, at the non-governmental level, for nearly two years back in the early 1990s; and I can tell you there are a lot of very unhealthy power plays that go on in many or most of them. How could there not be? What you’re talking about, after all, is representatives from one very powerful group, that have passports and resources and nearly all the contacts with the funders, ability to set the agendas, etc etc, and representatives from the other group who have almost none of those advantages…
Thus you had, for example, Shimon Peres who even while he was professing all his “New Middle East” business, was the one who as Prime Minister launched Israel’s extremely lethal 1996 punitive military attack against Lebanon and supported various other uses of quite disproportionate military violence. He wasn’t about to cede any real say in the diplomatic agenda to anyone, no matter how nice he made… And there are power plays and huge vested interests from many of the “mediators” and would-be mediators in the west, too.
I know politics and diplomacy are not the same as interpersonal relations. But they sometimes have a lot in common. Speaking from my experience of my first marriage breaking up, I think it was essential for me– and maybe for my ex, too– to be able to have a “Clean break” from each other. While we still both tried thereafter to deal with each other in a cordial, indeed helpful, way in our management of our continued joint interests (that is, the rearing of our children), once we’d made the decision to divorce neither of us was under any pressure to be “best friends” with each other any more. That would surely have led to some horrendous “Kramer vs. Kramer”-type difficulties. Instead, we both moved on and married other people, and created two new blended families.
The “integrationist” approach has been pursued by Israel towards the Palestinians– without success– since Oslo. Maybe it could have worked in the 1990s, under very different circumstances. (Including some serious and visionary engagement by Bill Clinton in the process, rather than having him just act as in-house attorney for whoever happened to be in power in Israel which was the role he played for eight years there.) But we are 15 years on from Oslo now. The integrationist approach has not worked and it shows no imminent signs of working. Maybe it really is time for a “Clean break”– but of a kind notably different from the one the Likudniks and PNAC-ers proposed back in 1996.
I have Palestinian friends who, when we’ve discussed this matter, have argued passionately that if Gaza “switches” from being tied to the current Israeli-dominated customs union to being linked to Egypt’s economy, then that would signal a disastrous break between Gaza and the West Bank. A long-held mantra of the Palestinian nationalists has been that Gaza and the West Bank are “one political entity.” All previous moves Israel has made at enacting a “Gaza first” approach were strongly criticized.
But Gaza has been disconnected from the West Bank, in practice, for 15 years now. And meanwhile, its people– as also, indeed, the 2.2 million Palestinians of the West Bank– have been suffering hugely from their subordination to Israel’s economic as well as military domination. So if the 1.4 million Gazas have a chance to escape that economic servitude, at last; to break out of the completely anti-humane conditions of economic siege that Israel has imposed upon them and re-open their economy to the world through Egypt: then why should a completely unelected Mr. Salam Fayyad in Ramullah and his many western bankrollers forbid them from doing that?
We should underline the fact that since Oslo it has been forbidden for nearly all Gazans even to visit Jerusalem or anywhere else in the West Bank. Travel between the two territories was far easier before Oslo– even during the height of the First Intifada! It was Oslo that brought the tightened restrictions on travel and trade. Most Gazans alive today have never had the chance even to visit their holy places in Jerusalem.
But– and this is important to note– the fact of this longlasting separation in practice between Gaza and the West Bank has not diminished by one jot the feeling that Gazans have of allegiance to the Palestinian national identity, or their love of and longing for Jerusalem. Similarly, nearly all the millions of Palestinians living as multi-generational refugees in Jordan, and Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere, also still keenly feel themselves to be Palestinians, who have a special tie to Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. So the argument that if Gazans build new economic ties with Egypt then they will somehow “forget” their Palestinian-ness, seems without merit.
It’s worth remembering, too, that more than 80% of Gaza’s people are also multi-generational refugees from inside current Israel. They are certainly not about to simply forget all those longstanding claims they have against Israel, which are specifically Palestinian claims and are not shared by Egyptians or any other non-Palestinians.
To be honest, I haven’t made my mind up yet– for what it’s worth– as to whether the unilateralist (or more precisely, Egypt-focused) approach to socioeconomic reconstruction and regional diplomacy can offer a viable path forward for Gaza’s people. What I do see is that the “integration with a much more powerful Israel while sporadically trying to disentangle” approach ihas not worked for the Gazans or the West Bankers… Worse than that, it is inflicting visible harms on Gaza’s people (and the people of the West Bank) day after day after day.
Hey, here’s an idea: Why not let the people of Gaza– or, the people of Gaza and the West Bank– have a free and fair vote on this matter? Why, the vote might even take the form of a parliamentary election… (What do you mean they did have just such a vote back in January 2006? They did? So where are all those parliamentarians now? Oh, in Israel’s jails… Ain’t democracy great?)

Speaking next Tuesday, Capitol Hill

Next Tuesday, I’ll have the honor of being part of a panel of people speaking on the theme of “Re-calculating Annapolis”, in the Rayburn House Office Building.
The co-panelists will be Rob Malley, head of the Crisis Group’s Middle East department; Daniel Levy, whiz-kid of the Israeli peace movement; Andrew Whitley, currently with UNRWA, previously head of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division; and Ghaith al-Omari, previously an advisor to Abu Mazen.
Here are the sponsors of the event:

    Churches for Middle East Peace
    Americans for Peace Now
    Brit Tzedek v’Shalom
    Israel Policy Forum
    The Arab American Institute
    American Task Force on Palestine, and
    The Foundation for Middle East Peace

Amb. Phil Wicox, the president of FMEP and a distinguished former US diplomat, including head of Counter-terrorism, will be chairing the discussion.
Every single one of these organizations does a great job and has talented and thoughtful people working for it. It is particularly great that work together on projects like this one, demonstrating right here in Washington DC that Arab-Israeli peace is not a zero-sum game in which if one “side” wins the other loses. Not at all! With a sustainable, fair peace agreement, everyone wins.
(Disclosures: I have sat on the Leadership Council of Churches for Middle East Peace since the LC was founded four or five years ago. FMEP has on occasion given support to my travel expenses, including for my latest visit to Damascus.)
It should be an interesting discussion. A lot has changed since the Annapolis conference, which was only ten weeks ago. Of course, a lot has also stayed the same: lack of progress in the negotiations; Israeli settlement projects continuing to get funded and built, especially in and around Jerusalem; deadly conflict between Israel and Gaza, impacting mainly on Gaza but spreading fear and uncertainty both sides of the line; another suicide bombing in Israel; Israel. the US, and– particularly tragically– also Fateh continuing to try to exclude and crush Hamas despite its popular support; re-marginalization of Syria from the diplomacy; etc.
If you’re interested in coming to the discussion, you will need to RSVP to the email address given on the announcement as they need an idea of the numbers to provide the light lunch to. This is planned as a “widely attended event”, so members of Congress and their staffers are allowed to take advantage of the free lunch offer.
If you can’t make it, I imagine they’ll be videoing it for C-SPAN so you can watch it later.

Where did my 5th blogiversary go to, anyway?

I’ve been pretty busy this week– including on a special project, see below. So though yesterday was my 5th blogiversary I completely forgot about marking that fact here. Darn!
It’s been quite a quinquennium. I am really glad I got into the blogging habit before the start of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, because now I have a somewhat full, though still of necessarily incomplete, record of many of the main portions of the war here– including of its last-minute preparations. My very first blog post, February 6, 2003, was a quick critique of Colin Powell’s notable (and, as it turned out, notably mendacious) presentation at the UN the day before. (Goodness, I mentioned there having read the whole text but I didn’t hyperlink to it! What was I thinking?)
In the next day’s post, five years ago today, I focused in on the claims Powell had made about Saddam having sponsored the presence in Iraq of sa network of Al-Qaeda supporters. In that one, I did hyperlink Powell’s text– and also, the text of a recently released Crisis Group report that had examined the whole phenomenon of that pro-Qaeda network (“Ansar al-Islam”) and said of the area in northern Iraq where they had been entrenched that, “This is a region outside Baghdad’s control and we see no evidence that Ansar has a strategic alliance with Saddam Hussein.”
Now, over the weeks ahead, I shall be thinking more about that whole period of the build-up to the war and way that so many Americans– but most especially the members of the political and media elites, and those who aspired to join them– got so badly caught up in war fever. Some of them even in spite of the conclusions they reached in their rational, analytical modes, that the war could well end up being a disaster.
It was an emotional time.
But I’ll also be remembering the way that so many of us here in US resisted getting caught up in the war fever. On February 16, 2003, I blogged about the huge antiwar demonstration I took part in, in New York the day before. That was a historic– and in retrospect, oh so tragic– moment.
Meanwhile, in Bushistan, the preparations to launch the war were getting near the “ready-to-go” point. Probably we should have encircled the Pentagon, instead.
Look where Iraq’s 29 million people, and the stretched-to-busting US military, and the US National Debt, and the families of 3,940 US service members killed and many thousands more badly wounded all find themselves today.
So say a prayer for wisdom and healing. And say a prayer for Sen. Barack Obama– a politician who notably got it right throughout all of those crucial, emotion-laden weeks of early 2003.
Here’s what Obama said during last Thursday’s debate:

    “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”

Go, Obama!

Finally, a quick word about my special project this week. Back in January 2003, it was my son Tarek who was the one who urged me, “Mom, you really should check out this blogging thing and get yourself a blog.” He then patiently helped me get JWN started, and he’s been my tech advisor here ever since. Tarek’s 30th birthday is coming up, so I’ve been making him a special present for it. [Obviously, I’m not about to reveal what it is. But it took more work than I’d been expecting… ]
Recently, Tarek became engaged to his fabulous girlfriend of some 3-4 years, and they will be married in July… Meantime, he’s working hard on completing a Master’s program at MIT… So we have a huge amount to celebrate and be thankful for.
Mazel tov, Tarek! Thanks for everything!

Amayreh-Froman accord: A way forward for Israel and Palestine?

Today’s Haaretz carries exciting news about a proposal for an Israel-Gaza ceasefire that has been jointly drafted by Khaled Amayreh, a Hebron-area journalist who is close to Hamas (and whose work I have frequently cited here), and Rabbi Menachem Froman of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa.
Haaretz’s Yair Ettinger writes:

    “Our proposal was presented to the highest political echelon in the Hamas government in Gaza and gained 100-percent approval,” Amayreh told Haaretz Sunday, while refusing to name the government officials. Froman said the document was presented to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has yet to respond to it.
    Even if the attempt turns out to be merely an academic exercise, say Froman and Amayreh, its elements could be used by the Jerusalem and Gaza governments.

The way Ettinger describes the document, the agreement would include provision for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who has been held by Gaza Palestinians as a POW since spring 2006 and is now well established as being under Hamas’s general control. It would also include a full tahdi’eh (ceasefire) between Israel and Gaza and some, though not all, elements of a more far-reaching hudna between Israel and Palestine.
Ettinger writes:

    The Hebrew and Arabic document contains verses from the Koran and the Bible and states, “God is the greatest of all and He alone can bring an end to the problems between the noble Palestinian people and the distinguished Jewish people in the Holy Land.”

I really love this formulation for dealing with the 120-year-old contest between Palestinians and Jews for control of the Holy Land: Leave that big issue to the Almighty, working in His or Her own time, which is not the same as politicians’ time!
And more immediately, there is this:

    The proposal calls for Israel to lift its sanctions on the Gaza Strip, permit economic relations between Gaza and the outside world and open all border crossings. The Israel Defense Forces would end “all hostile activities toward the Gaza Strip, including targeted assassinations, the setting of ambushes, aerial bombardments and all penetrations into Gazan territory, in addition to ending the arrest, detention and persecution of Palestinians in the Strip.”
    The Palestinians would be obligated “to take all the necessary steps to completely end the attacks against Israel,” including stopping “indefinitely all rocket attacks on Israel,” assaults “on Israeli civilians and soldiers” and “to impose a cease-fire on all groups, factions and individuals operating in the Strip.”

Two last quick points here. One is that I’m assuming that in addition to the release of Shalit the document also makes provision for the release of many of the Palestinians held in Israeli detention– who include around 45 of the parliamentarians elected in the free and fair Palestinian elections of January 2006.
On another page, Haaretz tells us that “Hamas has given Israel a letter apparently written by abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit… The authenticity of the letter has been examined and sent to the Shalit family.”
So it looks as if the letter was deemed authentic enough to send it on to the family. It seems, too, that Hamas has underlined in this way that it does indeed have control– whether direct or indirect– over Shalit and therefore, by extension, is in a position to assure his release if its conditions for an Israeli counter-release are met.
The Haaretz article gives further details of the negotiations over how many, and which, Palestinians Israel is prepared to release. Olmert is reported to have relaxed his criteria for the release somewhat, but negotiations among Israel’s various security bodies still continue and the writer’s sources say there may not be a deal for a number of months yet.
And finally– this is something of direct relevance to what I was writing yesterday— this morning, a Palestinian suicide bomber who had reportedly crossed into southern Israel across the lightly guarded border with Egypt blew himself up in the Negev town of Dimona, killing one Israeli woman and himself, and wounding 11 other people. A second reported bomber was shot dead at the scene by police before he could detonate his vest.
So here’s a very important aspect of the attack that Haaretz and others report:

    Abu Fouad, a spokesman for the Fatah-allied Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades – which claimed responsibility for the attack – said the operation had been planned for a month, but was made possible after militants violently opened Gaza’s border with Egypt on January 23.

But here is my concern: Is there a possibility that Israel’s leaders, politically embattled and embarrassed by last week’s release of the final portion of the Winograd report, might use the Dimona attack as a pretext to hit back hard against the people of Gaza and the newly empowered Hamas leaders there?
Israel’s often pugnacious Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, has reportedly been pushing for a significant military attack against Gaza for some time now. He doubtless has the plans for such an attack all ready to go. Barak has been particularly embarrassed by the fall-out from Winograd because before its publication he had vowed that if the report was critical of PM Olmert then he would lead the Labour Party out of the governing coalition. The report was very critical of Olmert’s leadership during the 33-day war, though not naming him or anyone else by name. Barak has not resigned.
(Btw, I find it fascinating that party discipline in the Labour Party is so weak these days that this was apparently a decision that Barak alone, as party leader, could make. Shouldn’t it have been a party decision? Just asking here… )
I’ll just note that almost exactly 25 years ago, when Defense Minister Areil Sharon was itching for any excuse at all to launch a big attack against the PLO in Lebanon, he used the pretext of an attack made against the Israeli ambassador in London by operatives from the virulently anti-PLO Palestinian faction of Abu Nidal to launch that attack.
Let’s hope wiser heads will prevail this time.
Look at what Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon led to!!!

    * The birth and amazingly successful establishment of Lebanon’s Hizbullah party, which previously never existed.
    * An 18-year quagmire for the Israeli troop presence in Lebanon, which was finally ended only when Ehud Barak himself, as the newly elected Prime Minister of Israel decided to pull the last troops out unilaterally, in 2000.
    * The rise in the occupied territories of the first generation of home-based Palestinian national leaders, who five years after 1982 launched their first, remarkably successful– even if ultimately aborted– Intifada.

A full-scale invasion and reoccupation of Gaza this time round could be expected to have results considerably more counter-productive than that from Israel’s point of view.
That’s why the Amayreh-Froman document and the cautious, tension-calming path forward that it lays out, may gain some traction within Israel in the weeks ahead, just as it already has with the Hamas leadership. Let’s hope so.