Saturday, May 30, 2009

Disappointment and Crackdowns: Standard Fare

Double post today...

US Demands Settlement Freeze - Israel Reacts

Senior Israeli officials expressed disappointment over the results of a meeting with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in London. It appears that the Obama administration will be holding firm to a demand that Israel halt all settlement expansion. This latest development, for those tracking the Israeli-US relationship, yields a few important clues about the nature of the current relationship and its prospects for the future.

Firstly, it illustrates that the Obama administration is not as "naive" as some of its detractors would like to believe. The demand to halt settlements is strong enough to be seen as substantive by the Arab world, an important precursor to Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday. However, it is not so strong as to seriously jeopardize the US-Israel relationship, and more importantly, the Israeli public. Obama is walking a fine line in his defiance of Israeli policy, but he is doing so successfully. Ultimately, Israel will have no choice but to halt settlements, or risk harm to the US-Israel relationship. While Israel may ultimately choose the latter, Obama's demand is one which will have resonance in the Arab world. And this leads into another important point, which is that Obama, unlike former leaders, understands that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is regional and not localized. What happens in Gaza matters not only in Ramallah but also in Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Riyadh. The coordination of drawing a red line with Obama's speech is no accident and represents an extremely competent policy.


Secondly, the Obama administration continues to demonstrate a clear committment to the use of action, rather than words, in its Middle East policy. Treaties, road maps, and verbal agreements will no longer be the stuff of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Rather, the administration will require action. While this has been a fairly clear trend from the beginning of the administration's Israeli-Palestinian policy, the extent to which the US is taking resposibility and holding Israeli to its policy is unprecedented in the US-Israel relationship.

This hard-lining is reflected in the response of right-wing MKs, one of which compared the US' policies to that of Pharoah in Egypt. The grumblings from Jerusalem represent an Israeli leadership which is suprised and extremely unhappy with US policy. After years of holding to the policy that Israel is the best friend of the US, the government is now being asked to put its money where its mouth is. This in turn demonstrates that the US role has shifted significantly in the Middle East. Obama understands that the US has not been seen and will not be seen as a neutral mediator...by either side. Palestinians and Israelis alike expect the US to side with Israel. By accepting that this perception exists, however, Obama will be able to use it pragmatically to his advantage. Obama has a treasury of political capital with the Israeli government, and he is choosing to spend some of it now. This will increase his standing among Arabs, and ultimately better secure Israel.


Fatah-Hamas clash in the West Bank

Speaking of security, it appears that a clash erupted early this morning between Palestinian Authority security and Hamas. While on patrol, a group of PA security officers came under fire from a house. After intense negotiations, a hand grenade was thrown from the house, killing three officers. The PA forces stormed the house, killing the head of the Qalqilya Hamas organization, and the innocent owner of the house. While this may be an omen of more violence to come, the incident illustrates that the PA security is willing and able to take on Hamas in the West Bank. The article also describes Hamas weapons caches that the PA is discovering. This development is extremely important. As the US experience in Iraq shows, citizens are most likely to side with the power that has the capability to protect them.

If Fatah is willing and able to take on Hamas in the West Bank, it stands to become a sovereign security force in a future Palestinian state, meaning that violence against Palestinians - and Israelis - could be kept under control. This isn't to say it always
would be, but the opportunity exists. Some experts are skeptical of investing money in Fatah's security because a) it makes Fatah look like a puppet of Israel and b) Fatah security often clashes with the IDF and Israeli security interests in general. However, in Iraq, the Sons of Iraq were paid by the US yet were still successful in separating those with strong allegiance to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. This was called the Anbar Awakening, and it led to the Iraq-wide Sons of Iraq program which drastically reduced Al-Qaeda in Iraq's power. Arguably this was in the US' best interest...

Considering the dire state of Anbar province in 2006, with enough funding and understanding of the power structure in the territories, Israel could use many of the principles of the Awakening to create sustainable security for Palestinians and thus for itself. The two situations are not analygous, but they are similar (see: Future Dissertation, My).


Update 5/31:

Akiva Eldar echoes the idea that it would be a mistake for Israel to jeopardize the US-Israel relationship over settlement expansion. Best line from his article:

"The right believes that the more they fatten this bastard goat, the more its removal will be considered to be what former prime minister Ariel Sharon called a "painful concession." However, even Netanyahu knows that Obama does not intend to participate in these goat games."



Sources:

1) Israel: US Demand for Settlement Freeze 'Not Fair,'"
Haaretz, May 30, 2009.

2) "
Obama's decrees are like Pharaoh's," Jerusalem Post, May 31, 2009.

3)
Smith, Niel; Sean MacFarland, "Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point," Military Review (March - April 2008).

4) Akiva Eldar: "What Will Happen if Israel 'Defeats' Obama?"
Haaretz, May 31, 2009.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

We Hate Intolerance: Opinion Piece 1

Haaretz reports on May 27:

"The Knesset plenum gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to publicly deny Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, punishable by a sentence of up to a year in prison...It would outlaw the publication of any "call to negate Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state, where the content of such publication would have a reasonable possibility of causing an act of hatred, disdain or disloyalty" to Israel.
Forty-seven MKs voted in favor of the bill and 34 voted against, with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) abstaining from the vote."


Where to begin.

To some extent writing about this bill is just stirring up a storm in a teapot. The chance that this bill will actually pass is small, especially considering the extremely vague language (what constitutes a 'reasonable possibility?') However, the significance of the bill is only partly a result of its immediate political implications.

Let's start with the basic arguments. Firstly, a democracy without free speech is no democracy. Groups inside the US call for the subversion of the government all the time. Granted, few of these groups have ties to Islamic fundamentalist movements, but the point stands that dissent, now matter how radical, is an essential component of democracy. In reality, very few Israeli citizens openly call for changing Israel's nature as a Jewish democratic state. As repulsive or distasteful as these views may be, they must be tolerated. Additionally, if limiting free speech is the vehicle of choice for this bill, it is unlikely that the true motivation of its sponsors is preserving democracy.

Secondly, this bill makes a dangerous classification of certain thoughts as criminal. An "act of disdain" could easily be as simple as a protest or a button on a shirt. What would it say about the nature of Jewish democracy if such draconian measures were put in place to protest it? No wonder even the president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) opposes the bill. Censorship is defaming, no matter how offensive or repulsive the idea being censored.

And even if calls to negate Israel's nature as Jewish or democratic were legally limited, it doesn't mean that thoughts of negation suddenly disappear. Rather, they would be driven underground as a result of an establishment which makes a decision to further alienate those who disagree with its policies. In a region of the world where rejection of the establishment as an agent for change is often a precursor to terrorism, perhaps this strategy is unwise for the Israeli government on a national security level.

On a deeper level, however, the idea of censoring dissenting views about Israel speaks to a greater misunderstanding within a segment of Israeli society. Israeli Ministers of Knesset (MKs) who voted for the bill see their role as patriotic. No other state would stand for such acts of blatant sedition, so why should Israel?

Unfortunately, the Israeli-Arab conflict is one which will not be solved by giving each party their fair due. In a conflict where both sides have legitimate but competing claims, efficacy must take precedence over nihilistic limitations on speech. By engaging those who express skepticism about Israel's motivations and goals, Israel will be much more successful in reducing those who call for a fudamental change to the basic nature of the state.





Sources:

1) Nadav Shragai, "Knesset Okays Initial Bill to Outlaw Denial of 'Jewish State,'"
Haaretz, May 27, 2009.

2) Haviv Rettig Gur, "US Jews Discomforted by Rightist Bills,"
Jerusalem Post, May 27, 2009.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Der Spiegel

The German newspaper Der Spiegel is reporting that Hizbullah and not the Syrian government is behind the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Ministerial candidate Rafik Hariri. The article makes the claim that an arm of Hizbullah led at one time by Imad Mughniyah was responsible for the car bomb which killed Hariri and several others. Mughniyah himself was assassinated February 12, 2008.

The article claims this information comes from "sources close to the tribunal" and "internal documents." This description is extremely inconclusive. Additionally, the alibi given is that Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah became jealous of Hariri's popularity. This seems dubious considering that Hizbullah wields a significant amount of power compared to the Lebanese government. Additionally, the article fails to take into account Syria's almost immediate withdrawal from Lebanon after almost 30 years of occupation following the assassination. And even if Hizbullah were responsible, Syria may still bear some responsibility considering its role in weapons trafficking to Hizbullah from Iran. However the article makes little mention of the conventional thinking on Syria's role in the assassination, and is therefore not transparent enough of an analysis to consider conclusive.



Sources:

Erich Follath, "New Evidence Points to Hizbullah in Hariri Murder,"
Der Spiegel, May 23, 2009.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Righteous Indignation

A quick media tracking sweep of Jerusalem Post and Haaretz reveals that Israeli opinion on the Obama Netanyahu meeting is less than favorable. Obama is characterized as being naive and generally too soft on Islamic fundamentalism. Israelis had low expectations for the meeting and things generally seem to have gone according to expectations. These views are not unique to Israelis however. American Jewish columnist Jeff Jacoby also takes a swipe at the failed history of peacemaking as a result of Arab intransigence in today's Boston Globe.

While skepticism is well-founded, cynicism is perhaps less so. To wonder whether or not an American president with little background in Middle East politics can bring effective change is a reasonable doubt. However, as the metaphor goes, a drunkard who drops his keys is not likely to find them by walking across the street and checking under the lamppost, even if it is easier to see there. Many in the Israeli and American press are looking under the so-called lamppost of cynicism because it is easier and makes the most sense on a superficial level. However, opportunities for progress, no matter how significant, will not be found under this lamppost. It will take gaining enough of a reason to venture into the dark to motivate progress towards sustainble security.


Update - Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman makes a statement that the meeting was successful, more so than portrayed in the media. This reinforces the point that significant disagreements between Israel and the US are not in Israel's national interest. Lieberman does however make a distinction between agreement on the end goals and agreement on the means to achieve these ends.


Sources:

1) Shmuley Boteach, "No Holds Barred: Netanyahu Must Find Mettle to Resist Obama's Pressure,"
Jerusalem Post, May 18, 2009.

2) Israel Harel, "Obama is Dividing Jerusalem,"
May 20, 2009

3) Barry Ruben, "The Region: Don't Overestimate the West's Naivete - or its Resolve,"
Jerusalem Post, May 17, 2009.

4) Jeff Jacoby, "Peace Isn't Arab Goal,"
The Boston Globe, May 20, 2009.

*5) Ora Koren, "Lieberman: Obama-Netanyahu Meeting Went Better Than You Think,"
Haaretz, May 21, 2009.

*added as part of update 5/21

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama and Netanyahu: Much Ado About Nothing

As predicted, the Obama-Netanyahu meeting went off fairly smoothly, with some clash occurring on issues of Iran and settlement building. While the media have also made a big deal of Netanyahu's refusal to commit to a "two-state solution," Netanyahu has called for economic development leading to a "Palestinian-entity," the kind of conditions-based agreement that had been his party line in Israeli elections, and de facto prioritization of this goal.

That there are disagrements between Washington and Jerusalem is important. Obama, while a newcomer to foreign policy, has political currency to spend in the Middle East. His scheduled speech in Cairo is a not-so-subtle signal that this American president is welcome in the heart of the Arab world (unlike his predecessor). A leader with this kind of capital also has currency to spend with Jerusalem. Obama will be a supporter of Israel, but not a supporter of all Israeli policies. For his part, Netanyahu is balancing between the more extreme elements of his coalition, and the moderate and leftist Israeli public. He held to his party line while still demonstrating committment to the peace process.

However, to say that this meeting signifies a significant change in US-Israel relations is inaccurate. The overall relationship between the two countries remains strong, and neither side has any strategic interest in changing it. Additionally, differences in policy between the US and Israel are nothing new. In 2008, then-Secretary of State Condi Rice spoke against settlement building. Additionally, the Bush administration also never issued Israel an amber light to attack Iran. In fact it told Israel straight out "no" when asked. Differences on some policy matters have always existed. The increased attention to the clash this time around appears to be the result of three factors:

1) Obama won on a ticket of change. He has cleverly and successfully crafted the narrative of his presidency to be about departing from the policies of President Bush. This means that even when his policies do not depart significantly from those of the last administration, the tendency by the public and in the media to assume they do will not be challenged by the White House.

2) Netanyahu is a consevative elected in the wake of the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive. Just prior to elections, Israel showed its hawkish side with the invasion of the Gaza strip, a move which cost it militarily and politically. During the offensive, Netanyahu was critical of Livni and the government, saying that the operation was insufficient and should have gone farther. Finally, his subsequent appointment of the very right wing Avigdor Lieberman served as a tacit endorsement of some of the radical policies advocated by Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party. For these reasons, Netanyahu is being watched closely by interested parties. One only need to look at the reactions of the Arab press to see the extent to which certain entities seem to be waiting for a radical right-wing Netanyahu to rear his head.

3) The idea of the "Israel Lobby" has entered the public debate. In response to the article and subsequent book by Walt and Mearsheimer, the US-Israel relationship has come under the microscope as of late. Additionally, the rise of progressive Israel groups such as the J Street Lobby have made debates over the nature of the relationship more public and more legitimate. The Obama-Netanyahu meeting is proof positive that perhaps the US-Israel relationship is not as parallel as some have claimed or hoped.

As US-Israel policy continues to develop, the next round of posturing by both sides will be a good indication of the real storm which is yet to come. Obama's rhetoric about Palestinians in Cairo will need to be carefully considered as well as Netanyahu's actions in the Knesset upon his return to Israel. Ultimately however, the two sides have far too many interests in common to take steps that would seriously jeopardize the US-Israel relationship in any significant way.




Sources:

1) Elise Labott, "Analysis: Obama's toughlove approach to Israel,"
CNN, May 18, 2009.

2) Ewan MacAskill, "Obama to Deliver Speech to the Muslim World,"
The Guardian, May 8, 2009.

3) Arshad Mohammed, "Israeli Settlement Building Hurting Talks - Rice,"
Reuters, June, 15 2008.

4) "Report: US Rejected Israeli Plea to Attack Iran,"
CNN, January 11, 2009.

5) "Netanyahu: Gaza Offensive Stopped Too Soon,"
CBS News, February 4, 2009.

6) "Netanyahu Shrugs off Obama call for 2-State Solution,"
ArabNews.com, May 18, 2009.

7) John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby,"
London Review of Books, March 23, 2006.

7) "About Us,"
J Stret Lobby, online: http://www.jstreet.org/about/about-us.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Obama - Netanyahu Meeting: Clash of the Titans

The upcoming meeting between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be a key indication of the future of the American-Israeli relationship. Despite the recent election of both heads of state, the two have already staked out positions on some critical issues. This post discusses the ideal strategy for both leaders at Monday's meeting.

Netanyahu has two key objectives at the meeting. Firstly, he must nail down a clear American policy vis-a-vis an Israeli strike on Iran. Last week, Obama sent Netanyahu a message warning him not to attack Iran without first notifying the US of an intent to strike. This put Israel in the defensive position of issuing a commitment to inform the US prior to any strike. However, Netanyahu must clarify what circumstances would be grounds for an amber light from the US to carry out such a strike. He also must assess what the damage would be of forgoing an amber light.

Secondly, Netanyahu must begin serious posturing in response to a renewed US interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace. He must continue to present Israel as America's top ally while strengthening Israel's position on key issues, chief among them West Bank settlements. Clash between the US and Israel on this issue is almost guaranteed at Monday's meeting. At the recent AIPAC conference, Vice President Biden identified "not building more settlements" as a key Israeli obligation in the path towards a two-state solution. However, Netanyahu expanded settlements after being elected prime minister the first time in 1996 and supports doing so again. Under pressure from Washington, Netanyahu is likely to agree to a freeze based on certain conditions (cessation of rocket attacks, election of a moderate government in upcoming Palestinian elections). Whether these conditions will be accepted by the US remains to be seen.

For his part, Obama's interest is in setting limits to Israeli policy while not damaging the overall US-Israel relationship. While Obama will affirm the commitment of the US to preserving Israeli security, he will also be critical of settlement building and will warn against an Israeli attack on Iran. He must befriend Netanyahu at the same time that he seeks to fundamentally alter the relationship between the US and Israel. Doing so will be critical to any further progress in the Middle East.

As an added complication, Obama will be very much under the magnifying glass on Monday. He has yet to win over the Israeli public, and a certain elements of the American Jewish constituency still view his Israel policy with suspicion. Obama will also draw the scrutiny of the American Arab community, and America's Arab partners in the Middle East. He faces the challenging of uniting two sworn enemies, and will almost definitely not please everyone.

Obama's best strategy, therefore, is to act with decisiveness. He must confidently demonstrate the firmness of America's Middle East policy. He will also need a confident starting point from which to defend inevitable attacks on his policy in the media and by special interest groups.

In a larger sense, the outcome of Monday's meeting will be indicative of the future of the US-Israel relationship. The sides are headed for a showdown, but the major changes in the relationship are likely to develop slowly over time and not suddenly appear. While the media will make big of the meeting, it will be important for analysts not to jump to conclusions. However, the positions both sides take will be an indication of how the changes in the US-Israel relationship will ultimately play out.


Sources:

1) Aluf Benn, "Obama warns Netanyahu: Don't surprise me with Iran strike,"
Haaretz, May 14, 2009.

2) Aluf Benn, "Israel: U.S. will know before any Iran strike,"
Haaretz, May 15, 2009.

3) Warren P. Strobel and Dion Nissenbaum, "Obama, Israel could be headed for clash over settlements,"
McClatchy Newspapers, May 15, 2009.

4) Stephen Dinan, "Biden: Dismantle West Bank settlements,"
Washington Times, May 5, 2009.

5) "60 Interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu on NBC’s Chat Auditorium- 15 December 1996,"
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 15, 1996.

6) "Obama: US Support for Israel's Security Firm,"
Jerusalem Post, April 1, 2009.

7) "Israeli Views of President Obama and US-Israel Relations,"
The Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Anti-Defamation League, May 4, 2009.

"Blogging: Show the whole world why no one listens to you."

You have arrived at the first post of The Camel's Nose blog. TCN provides concise and sourced-based analysis on the Israeli-Arab conflict. The blog highlights security and human rights developments in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the greater Arab world.

The name of the blog comes from a Bedouin proverb: "When the camel's nose enters the tent, can the rest of the camel be far behind?" TCN blog identifies events which are indications of greater trends in Israeli-Arab relations. The analysis contained in these postings is nuanced yet easy-to-understand. It is intended for fellow students of the conflict and other interested parties, and serves as a clearinghouse for resources and a forum for discussion.