Monday, August 30, 2010

Peace Talk Pundits - Assessing or Defining the Reality?

In the past few weeks, a great number of experts (and so-called experts) have written a spate of editorials predicting the failure of the upcoming negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians slated to begin September 2. The articles run the gammit from well-reasoned to spurious, and every shade in between. But with the notable exception of Martin Indyk and a few others, bloggers and commentators have jumped on the bandwagon of peace talk failure.

I too have expressed serious skepticism about the fate of the upcoming peace talks. Lack of political salience, and a failure to take account of radical actors are traps the parties have fallen into before. These traps have not been adequately accounted for this time around. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has little to lose politically by failing to make peace. So does Palestinian President Abbas. Hamas and radical elements of the settler movement have not gone away simply because the focus has been shifted off of them.

Yet in this age of unprecedented access to opinion and information, we know the power perceptions have. The general perception, at least in Washington, appears to be general skepticism about the success of peace talks. Yet the assessment itself has implications for that which it is assessing. Analysts are used to peering into the snow globe of Middle East politics. We are not used to our observations themselves having a role.

Simply by saying that meaningful peace is unlikely from these talks, analysts are shaping a reality different from that which would exist absent their assessment. So what is the obligation of an analyst who hopes peace talks will succeed, but expects them to fail?

The question seems esoteric and academic, but its origins are exactly the opposite. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more than just an area of interest for those who study it. Those who follow the blow-by-blow of the conflict know better than anyone the human toll this conflict has taken on Israelis and Palestinians alike. Yet when an bleak opportunity for peace presents itself, do we assess it as an opportunity, or as bleak? How do we navigate the conflict which emerges between advocating for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and pursuing the truth which says the odds are against them?

I posit four ways in which analysts who are pessimistic about upcoming negotiations can balance between the competing interests of accuracy and humanitarianism:

1) Be deliberate. Analysts need to recognize the power of their assessments. That doesn't mean they never assess negotiations as unlikely to produce peace. It does mean they consider the real-life consequences of that assessment before writing or speaking.

2) Be specific. What specifically will be the cause of failure in the peace talks? What in particular are policymakers overlooking? This more focused assessment is not only better analysis, but gives decision-makers a concise list of factors to take into consideration and potentially to even adapt.

3) Assess at the margin. Saying peace talks are likely to fail is a legitimate assessment. Saying peace talks will inevitable fail is not. There is a potentially infinite number of factors that will impact the ultimate outcome of talks. Analysts should be careful to frame their assessments as statements of probability, rather than seer-saying. Such statements are poor analytical form, and irresponsible.

4) Be proactive about identifying opportunities for peace. The truly credible voice on Middle East peace is one which identifies chances for progress not only when the topic of peace hits the top 5 topics in the news cycle. It is pessimistic when conditions look bleak, but optimistic when openings for progress towards peace exist.

Being deliberate about the consequences of our assessments is the key to speaking truth to power while not forgetting those impacted by those assessments. Deliberateness and responsibility truly do justice not only to those who making policy based on our assessments, but also do justice to those men and women in the Middle East impacted by them.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Erekat Responds

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat responded to Israeli Former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's comments that the Palestinian people should "perish." Erekat said these comments were tantamount to calls for genocide and asked, "Is this how the Israel government prepares its public for a peace agreement?" Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has distanced himself from the comments.

Journalist Thomas Ricks might file the news under, "Peace Talks: The Unraveling."

Question for readers: Assuming the peace talks fail, would these comments themselves be a cause of failure, or are they merely symptoms of a deeper issue?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

It Begins

Rabbi Ovadia Yossef had some interesting comments about Arabs in Haaretz today. He isn't a particularly extreme guy but is known for being controversial. The comments themselves, besides condemnation from the Palestinian Authority, won't have much effect on peace talks. But they do set the framework for more and more radical statements by other groups in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why The Peace Talks Won't Bring Peace

It's depressing to have to express pessimism about peace talks. Yet the problems which are emerging with this latest round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, set to begin in September, are ones which have been encountered before, and ones the parties are ignoring. While I certainly hope to be proven wrong, a substantial peace deal is unlikely between Netanyahu and Abbas because:

1) Neither side wants to be there. Netanyahu and Abbas are both participating in talks primarily to further engagement with the United States, not to make peace with each other. In 1979, there was a mutual desire between Begin and Sadat to cut a deal following the Yom Kippur War. In 1993, the aftermath of the first Intifada created pressure on Rabin and Arafat to cut a deal, which the U.S. mediated. But in this case, Netanyahu has simply calculated that the US-Israel relationship is too important to jeopardize any further and has nothing to lose by talking. Short of near-total agreement to his demands, Netanyahu has little to gain politically from a peace deal. Abbas is likely to get bogged down with the Israelis in negotiations, as his negotiating team is famous for its maximalist positions. The Palestinians are also likely to insist on dealing with Gaza and the West Bank as one, even though they are separate for all intensive purposes. From the American side, despite strong pressure from George Mitchell, Secretary Clinton, and the State Dept., President Obama has not made Middle East peace talks an administration priority a-la-Carter in 1979 or even Clinton in 1993. Short of pressure from the President of the United States, a deal is unlikely. And Obama is unlikely to put significant pressure on Israel two months before midterm elections.

2) The parties are dealing with violent extremists by ignoring them. Just because after a year and a half of talking about talking, both sides are coming to the table doesn't mean extremism has disappeared. Hamas, the radical Settlers, and extremists on all sides are watching the unfolding events closely [case in point]. These camps do not negotiate. But the U.S. and both negotiation parties have not taken preemptive action of any kind to mitigate the danger to peace talks these groups pose. Extremists in Israel and the Palestinian territories will wait until a critical moment in the negotiations to strike. At that point, the victimized side will withdraw from talks, asking how a side which has done XYZ could possibly want peace. The threshold for violence is still far too low for a peace deal.

Failure of peace talks will deal a blow to the already pessimistic citizens of the Middle East. In some sense, the money being spent on the peace talks might have been better spent on Palestinian infrastructure, or fostering IDF-Palestinian Security Forces cooperation. They might have been better spent on supporting non-partisan pro-peace social movements in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Investments like these usually garner less press. However, they are more effective at creating conditions in the Middle East which maximize the abilities and freedoms of citizens and promote the U.S. interests of liberal values, economic growth, and regional stability.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Greetings all,

Posting has been light lately and may continue to be light over the next few weeks, as I begin a PhD program in Political Science here in Washington DC. Thanks for reading and be sure to keep checking back for new posts!

- The Confused Sheikh

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Btselem Pics Update

The 11 pictures from Btselem's Facebook Group grew to about 14 as anti-Palestinian and anti-Israel Facebook users added content. At this point, Btselem has removed all these images, plus the image of the detainment drill. Additionally, it has removed the photo of a wounded Palestinian receiving an IV drip.

The soldier who originally posted photos has now been relieved of reserve duty and stripped of her rank, according to YNet News.

So far so good, IDF. But the Arab press is making comparisons to Abu Ghraib. The biggest tests are yet to come.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sexy Palestinian Detainees - English Translation of the Facebook Comments

UPDATE 8:50am: A discussion in Hebrew is unfolding on one of the pictures posted by Btselem. Commenters are pointing out that the picture is of a drill and not an actual operation. Both of the detainees are wearing IDF uniforms and the format appears to be instructional. Btselem argues that the drill is still dehumanizing. Commenters also questioned why other photos, showing Palestinian insurgents receiving medical treatment, are controversial. Btselem argues that the importance is not the action, but that wounded Palestinians are being photographed and posted to Facebook. What's interesting is that one of the commenters is Facebook friends with Shatil, Economic Empowerment for Women, and the New Israel Fund. She's hardly a classical right-winger.

UPDATE 8:15am: Btselem has posted 11 photos on Facebook taken in the presence of Palestinian detainees or casualties. Photos are being continuously uploaded, though it's unclear if these are pictures being sent in by users or if Btselem is releasing them as it discovers them. It does not specify how many separate individuals are behind each photo (faces are blurred), and nine out of tens of thousands of IDF soldiers is hardly a trend. But the point is that Btselem is making the case that this should be a topic of public discussion in Israel. In that sense, it is right.

Both Haaretz and JPost report that an ex-IDF soldier has posted photos on her Facebook posed next to Palestinian detainees, with friends making comments such as "Its sexiest for you like that" under a picture of the soldier mock kissing a blindfolded detainee. The detainees evidently were individuals captured attempting to infiltrate Israel from Gaza. The pictures are mixed in with other innocuous photos from the soldier's IDF service. Philip Zimbardo, eat your heart out.

What these photos indicate is not just that there is a bad apple in the IDF. True, most IDF soldiers are more intelligent than to post pictures of themselves with detainees on Facebook, and this soldier does not represent all IDF soldiers. The post below can attest to that. However, this one incident is indicative of a greater trend of disrespect towards Palestinians. Here are the translated comments of two photos in question:

Friend: hahahahahahahahahahahahaha all of my loves in one picture!! My heart is beating so hard!!
Soldier: hahahahahahahahahahahahaha

Friend: It's sexiest for you like that... :)
Soldier: Haha I know. Whoa mama what a day that was, look how he completes the picture for me. It would be interesting if he had Facebook. I have to tag him in the picture. Hahaha.
Friend:Hahahahahahahaha you're mental.'s interesting who took the pictureeeeee.
Friend 2: [Soldiers name], he's erect for you...hahaha check it out.
Soldier: No sweetie he's erect for YOUU, that's why I took a picture of it hahaha. You photographed me!!!

The key measure of the IDF response will be whether the incident is viewed in the context of the professionalism of the IDF or simply a Hasbara disaster (it is both). What's posted is posted. But the deeper issue here is the attitude of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians.
What steps will the IDF take to dispel the notion that Palestinian detainees are less than human? The world will be watching closely. So will American Jews. And Israel will be judged by what it does, not how it justifies.


From this morning's Haaretz:

"In the beginning, instead of starting the sentence with 'Wakef' (stop), we said 'Sabah al-heir' (good morning ). This changed their reaction almost immediately," Cohen said.

'Instead of saying 'gib al awiya,' ordering them to show ID, we said 'min fadlakum' (please ), with an emphasis on the request,' he said. 'But it wasn't just the words. We decided that we would look everyone in the eye and that we would not aim our gun at anyone. This is out of the assumption that the overwhelming majority of people are interested in quiet and going to work."

Full article here.

The point is not that the IDF is just being nicer to Palestinians, it's that by being more polite it removes an element of the occupation which unnecessarily antagonizes them. This is one positive, albeit small, step towards drawing in the moderate center of Palestinians. If Palestinians feel less dis-empowered by soldiers barking at them at checkpoints, it may reduce the number who support violence against those troops and against Israelis. In war zones like the West Bank, rough language is sometimes necessary in a dangerous situation. However, in this case, a small change can make a big difference.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hope for Israeli COIN

"IDF soldiers in the West Bank have been asked to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public, particularly at the security crossings, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins Wednesday.

Soldiers have been asked to 'demonstrate a high level of respect and understanding,' the IDF said, in a statement it released Tuesday.

In advance of the holy month, 'Civil Administration representatives met with Palestinian religious authorities and discussed prayer times and upcoming religious events, in addition to informing the population of the accommodations being made,' the IDF said.

Full article here

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Holding Aid to Lebanon is a Bad Idea

JPost's Hillary Krieger reports that Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Aid, is withholding aid from Lebanon after last week's border debacle. The hold itself is unlikely to be sustained given the administration's high priority on Lebanon. But the move is a classic example of the difference between smart politicking and smart policymaking. Witholding aid to Lebanon is a bad idea in the long run for two reasons:

1) The Lebanese Government is a deterrent to Hizbullah. In fact, the U.S. strategy up until now has been to build up the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in order to increase the power of the government and check Hizbullah's power in the Shia south. Additionally, Hizbullah's participation in the political process of a strong, U.S.-supported Lebanon puts political responsibilities on it which conflict with its original aims of attacking Israel. That's why despite its 12,000 katyusha rockets, Hizbullah's weapon of choice today was a glorified powerpoint presentation. However, the weaker the Lebanese government gets, the more enticing a return to military action will look for Hizbullah.

2) Witholding aid highlights special treatment of Israel. Any call by Congress to withold U.S. aid to Israel would be a drastic, radical step. Yet the fact that lawmakers are threatening to withold aid to Lebanon after an incident which is, by all accounts, an anomaly, is a fact which will not be lost on the Arab world. Threats by lawmakers to withold aid will be percieved in the Middle East as a blatant double standard. From a policy perspective, this is damage that could easily be avoided.

UPDATE: U.S. support for Lebanon also wedges out Iranian support for Lebanon. See today's Haaretz.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Haaretz on the Bedouin

"The bulldozer cannot be the state's only answer, especially not when it is used only against the Bedouin. It's hard to understand why Israel is pushing a significant sector of its citizens toward extremism and crime. On the ruins of Al-Arakib a new generation of Bedouin will sprout that is alienated from the state, enraged and desperate. Neither they nor the state deserve this."

Full editorial here.