Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tripoli Airstrike: NATO Reponds

NATO has released the following statement:

"NATO continued its precision strikes against Qadhafi regime military installations in Tripoli overnight, including striking a known command and control building in the Bab al-Azizya neighbourhood shortly after 1800 GMT Saturday evening.

"All NATO’s targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the Qadhafi regime’s systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas. We do not target individuals,” said Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, Commander of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector.

"The strike was part of NATO’s coherent strategy to disrupt and destroy the command and control of those forces which have been attacking civilians.

"I am aware of unconfirmed media reports that some of Qadhafi’s family members may have been killed,” Lieutenant-General Bouchard said. “We regret all loss of life, especially the innocent civilians being harmed as a result of the ongoing conflict. NATO is fulfilling its UN mandate to stop and prevent attacks against civilians with precision and care - unlike Qadhafi’s forces, which are causing so much suffering"

The statement indicates that there was in fact a NATO strike on this target. But NATO is clearly backing away from claims it purposefully assassinated a son of Muammar Gaddafi in the speech, calling the deaths "unconfirmed" and reiterating that it does not target individuals.

Confusion Over The NATO Airstrike

The response on Twitter and satellite TV in the first few hours following the news that Saif al-Arab Gaddafi was killed in a NATO airstrike has been confusion. Certain aspects of the story don't quite fit together. This may very well be the result of a policy change by NATO or a strategic decision. But here are the confusing pieces of the story from a strategy standpoint:

1) Assassination is a very risky strategy for NATO. Given the number of potential replacements for Muammar Gaddafi within his own family, its unclear that assassination, even if successful, would be a good strategy. Also, a missed attack could generate serious reprisals in Misrata and elsewhere in Libya. Finally, the US policy that "Gaddafi has got to go" has drawn domestic criticism. No doubt this criticism would multiply if the US added assassination to its toolbox of options in Libya. News of the strike may very well have a political cost for the leaders of NATO countries.

2) Yesterday would have been a more ideal time for the strike. The British royal wedding would have overshadowed any news of targeting one of Gaddafi's sons. It also would have given the NATO governments the full weekend to let the story calm down a bit before Monday morning quarterbacking on the news. That being said, it's 100% plausible that the intelligence, capabilities, and decision didn't line up until today. If you think that's the case you can ignore this paragraph.

3) The norm of not assassinating leaders is still very much salient in international politics. Given the expertise with which the Obama administration navigated the norms of multi-lateral intervention with regards to the NATO no-fly zone resolution, it is confusing that they would be so eager to overturn the norm of not assassinating leaders. Gaddafi also escaped the assassination according the the Libyan government, but four others did not.

The intention of raising these questions is not to stir the pot of conspiracy theories vis-a-vis some elaborate scheme Gaddafi has concocted. Rather, it is to point out that the full story behind this strike is still very much unclear. In the 24/7 news age, it is important to carefully consider reports and wait until all the facts are clear before drawing conclusions.

I'll follow up on this post once things become a bit more clear. It's entirely plausible that NATO is in fact interpreting the "Responsibility to Protect" clause very liberally, but it's impossible to know for sure at this point.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How To Deal With Hamas

Fatah and Hamas reached a general understanding today about setting up a unity government and holding Palestinian elections within a year. The agreement was negotiated secretly in Cairo and Damascus, and is being largely understood as a prerequisite to the bid for Palestinian statehood planned for this fall at the UN.

Hamas' motivation for entering into the unity agreement is largely to wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, who have reached a stable, if stalled, status quo. Fatah is motivated to reconcile in order to demonstrate its legitimacy and strength, especially given that it was forcibly run out of the Gaza strip back in 2007. The unity agreement gives Fatah inroads to Gaza and demonstrates that it can effectively bring about Palestinian unity.

Statements from Israel and the US are largely consistent with their policies. Israel says Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas must choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. The US welcomed reconciliation efforts which promote peace, but reiterated that Hamas is a terrorist group.

Once the rhetorical dust settles, however, the US and Israel should seriously consider their position in the new status quo. Hamas has made a decision to re-enter Palestinian unity politics. Every objective they can accomplish through politics is an objective they will not try to accomplish through costly violence. The threat of violence will be ever-present with Hamas, but threats are much more manageable than a rocket landing in someone's living room.

While clearly steps to legitimize Hamas' use of violence and brutality against innocent civilians are ill-concieved, the focus of US and Israeli policy should be Israeli security, even if it means engaging with entities they rightly find reprehensible. The more political Hamas becomes, the more constraints it will have on the use of force and the pursuit of radical policies (see Sadrists, The). These constraints include internal political fracturing, stalling based on inexperience, and the political cost of violating agreements with Fatah and other entities.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Critical Test for Palestine

Details remain unclear surrounding the shooting of 25 year-old Ben-Yosef Livnat as he and a caravan of five cars carrying between 15 and 30 settlers were leaving the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus. The group was there without prior coordination with either the IDF or the Palestinian Security Forces. As the group attempted to leave, Palestinian Security Force officers opened fire, killing Livnat and wounding three others. While Prime Minister Netanyahu has referred to those who fired the shots as "terrorists," the IDF calls it "an unjustified attack against civilians."

Such incidents can quickly exacerbate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, including cases in which the IDF opens fire on Palestinians who run Israeli checkpoints. While in this case the settlers ran past a Palestinian patrol, the reason for the ultimate decision by the Palestinian security officers to switch from firing in the air to firing at the vehicles remains unclear.

The incident is largely a test of Palestinian Security Force legitimacy. MK Danny Danon (Likud) has already called for the US to reconsider funding the Palestinian Security Forces, a request he has passed on to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

To maintain what legitimacy it has, the Palestinian Security Forces will need to not only continue its ongoing inquiry, but follow through. The IDF has an interest in preserving both security cooperation and stability in the West Bank, and will likely play a constructive role in this regard. The Israeli public will want to see arrests, not only inquiries. Given the Palestinian bid for statehood, the Palestinian Security Force's ability to conduct inquiries into its own operations will be a key metric by which the international community may judge its ability to preserve the security of a future Palestine.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Makes Syria Different

At least 88 people are reported dead tonight after protests throughout Syria, including 22 in the capital Damascus. If Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are any indication, the protests are likely to worsen as a result. At the same time, there are three key differences between the protests we have seen thus far, and those in Syria.

1) Assad is untested. While Ben Ali was in power for 24 years, Mubarak for 30, and Gaddafi for 42 years and counting, Bashar Assad's 11 years in power do not carry similar momentum. Assad also rose to the presidency of Syria by accident after his brother Basil died in a car accident in 1994. He is an optometrist by trade. The effect of this inexperience is unclear, and may very well be the same over-compensation which cost Mubarak the Presidency. However, it may also be that Assad will delegate authority over the security services to more experienced members of the regime (or that they will out-maneuver him for control).

2) Iranian has influence in Syria. As opposed to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Iran is deeply invested in Syria. Syria is a point of leverage for Iran against Israel and the United States. While Iran has been supportive of the uprisings as the "rebirth of the Islamic Revolution," this attitude may quickly change once the uprisings are on Iran's doorstep. Especially after the 2009 Green Movement protests following rigged elections in the country, Iran will not be taking any chances with its stability. As with intervention in Iraq and elsewhere, Iran will be subtle, but it will also be effective. The fact that US engagement with Syria has been slow at best will exacerbate this issue because Iran will have little competition for influence in the country.

3) The Al-Jazeera Effect will be muted. There are two reasons why. First, because Syria has very tight restrictions on freedom of the press, severely hindering al-Jazeera's ability to broadcast. Second, because violence associated with protests are ongoing in Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and elsewhere. The eyes of the world are looking in far too many places at once for al-Jazeera to focus the same kind of attention on Syria that it focused on Egypt.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Drones in Libya Aren't an Escalation

Despite what the Washington Post may claim, today's announcement that the US has deployed drones over Libya does not represent an escalation in the US commitment to that conflict.

Firstly, there are a total of two drones which are being deployed over Libya. This is hardly an escalation, especially considering that the US has around 50 drones in total. Also, given that the drones are being deployed for a very specific purpose (distinguishing between civilians and Gaddafi loyalist combatants), the intent of using them clearly is not the kind of overarching change in the state-of-play that an "escalation" normally would entail.

Secondly, Secretary Gates stated at a press conference earlier today that the option to use drones was recommended by the DoD itself. Given the DoD's open reticence to getting involved in Libya, it would be inconsistent with the Department's own objectives to recommend escalatory steps in Libya.

Ultimately, it appears that in deploying the drones, the U.S. government is balancing its humanitarian concerns for Libya and desire to show commitment to NATO and its European allies with budget shortfalls, an overstretched military, and a reluctant American public.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bibi v. Obama, Round Two

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received an official invitation today from the United States Congress to address a join session in late May. Many are saying that this speech will be a response to a major Middle East policy speech President Obama is expected to deliver around the same time.

But there is another important implication of this speech. Netanyahu was invited to speak at the behest of the Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). Both speaker Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) have expressed that they are "honored" and "look forward" to the Prime Minister's speech.

In other words, the speech is an opportunity for Netanyahu to rally Republican opposition to the President's Middle East agenda, which will almost certainly include measures to which Netanyahu and his coalition are opposed. Giving the speech to a Republican-run House constrains President Obama politically because the speech will allow Republicans to make their opposition to settlement freezes, negotiations with the PA, and dividing Jerusalem high-visibility issues. Now that Obama has officially declared his candidacy for President in 2012, these constraints are only multiplied.

Furthermore, Netanyahu's position vis-a-vis the administration will be win-win. If he goes to the right of the administration he will strengthen his base. If he aligns with the administration he gets reconciliation. In contrast, the Obama administration is faced with the choice of alienating the moderate center which is largely traditional on Israel, or looking manipulable by the Israeli Prime Minister.

The best strategy for the Obama administration would be to reconcile now and make provisional agreements that it would tacitly conditioned on continued reconciliation. This won't stop Netanyahu from being conservative, but it may cause him to tone down his rhetoric. It also allows the administration to save face by making it clear that positions in opposition to the administration will cost Netanyahu political capital.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

US Must Cut Losses on Palestine

A U.N. assessment today said that the Palestinian Authority is capable of governing a state of its own, and that Israeli occupation is the largest impediment to Palestinian statehood.

Firstly, this is wrong. A lack of investment capital, reconciliation with Hamas, connections between the West Bank and Gaza, and sustainable relationship with Israel are impediments which are at least as important as occupation, if not more.

Secondly, given that this is the U.N., none of that matters. The Palestinian bid for statehood is unlikely to be withdrawn. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has reacted to the planned bid by considering preemptively withdrawing from several areas in the West Bank. Conceivably he could leverage this plan towards a deal in which the Palestinians would drop the bid but receive real autonomy over certain areas. While the PA would be wise to get an on-the-ground withdrawal versus theoretical statehood, it is more likely than not that they will continue to pursue U.N. recognition.

All indications are that the U.S. opposes unilateral efforts to establish a state. But both the U.S. and Israel will face significant PR damage from a U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood.

What all this boils down to is that U.S. strategy planning on the bid for statehood should focus on plans for mitigating the damage of a veto. Given that the veto is likely to go forward, and the U.S. is likely to oppose it, the political aftermath of the resolution may be far worse than the content of the resolution itself. Given the huge unpopularity this position is likely to generate, the U.S. needs to start thinking now about how to best frame the veto so as to mitigate the negative reaction.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why Bibi Ignored Lieberman on Gaza

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is about to be indicted for fraud, breach of trust, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, expressed disagreement with the implementation of an Israel-Hamas cease fire today. The foreign minister noted that the coalition agreement with Likud calls for overthrowing Hamas in Gaza.

The implementation of a cease-fire (and Lieberman's subsequent disapproval) indicate that Netanyahu is taking advice from the IDF rather than Lieberman, who is yet again contradicting the stated policy of his own government. The IDF realizes correctly that a second invasion of Gaza would be costly in terms of economic and political capital. It would also have much of the same mixed result as Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Some have tied the IDF's reaction to the Goldstone Report, but more likely the change come as a result of the IDF's own assessment.

In addition to considerations of basic military feasibility, Netanyahu is also dealing with uprisings across the Middle East, pressure to restart the peace process, and EU condemnation of settlements. Each of these issues translates to a need for Israel to not exacerbate its already strained relationship with the international community. There is no question that an invasion of Gaza would be severely limited by pressure from the international community to cease fire. By demonstrating restraint, Netanyahu is building trust which he can leverage for other issues.

Finally, the Israeli public is not exactly chomping at the bit to invade Gaza. Lieberman represents a loud minority, but a minority nonetheless. For pessimistic and war-weary Israelis, war would be a pointless exercise. It would also bring Tel Aviv, the Dan region, and Israel's population center into the war.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Israel's Bargaining Game

In the wake of 6 rockets fired into Israel Saturday evening, bargaining over the future of Gaza is beginning to reach a critical phase. The past 24 hours have been marked by de-escalatory steps by Hamas. First, Hamas clarified that its targeting of a school bus yesterday was unintentional. Secondly, it sent a message to Israel regarding a cease fire. Israel is seriously considering the message, and is waiting for a halt in rocket and mortar strikes as a sign that Hamas is serious.

Yet some in Israel are pressuring the government to return a harsh response. Danny Ayalon has warned that "there is a heavy price for terrorism." Prime Minister Netanyahu echoed the sentiment but noted that he does not wish for an escalation.

For those who study bargaining in international relations, the key variable in this latest bout between Israel and Hamas is the intention of both actors. Rationally, neither Israel or Hamas have any interest in Operation Cast Lead II. Israel cannot afford such a war, neither economically nor politically. Hamas would also face similar costs, especially as PA-Hamas reconciliation efforts are underway. Hamas would be blamed for instigating chaos on the border of Egypt, whose security remains critical though stable. It may also face higher levels of criticism for using violent means, in contrast to the largely non-violent resistance of Egypt and Tunisia.

Yet in the dog-eat-dog world of the Middle East, it's better to be safe than sorry. This is why Israel is conditioning a cease-fire on a costly signal from Hamas. Stopping rocket and mortar attacks would demonstrate clearly that Hamas is serious. The problem is that this demand is at the very outer edge of Hamas' bargaining range, and might be outside it. Stopping the rockets would be a wise choice, but it's unclear if doing so would constitute "backing down" in the eyes of Gazans and in Israel's eyes as well, an unacceptable cost to Hamas.

But Hamas' two statements today are costly signals in and of themselves. If Hamas' objective were to draw Israel into a war in Gaza, de-escalation would be completely against its interests. By recognizing these signals, Israel can save itself the costs of an invasion, and move quickly towards a cease fire which would save Israeli lives.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Iron Dome Success

An excellent day for Israeli counter-terrorism technology:

(courtesy: AFP)

This is the picture of the Iron Dome missile which successfully intercepted a short-range Grad rocket fired at Ashkelon earlier today. Today's intercept is the first time in the history of the conflict with Gaza in which a short range rocket has been intercepted.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Goldstone Says About Israel

The complexity of the debate in the Israeli press over the Goldstone editorial is a key indicator of the state of Israeli society in 2011. The rise of multiple factions indicate a vigorous debate about a military operation whose implications are very much an unsettled matter in Israeli public discourse.

On the right are those who would have Goldstone fall on his own sword. They argue that he must now literally repent for his "sins." The damage done by the report, they argue, has been irreparable, even if Goldstone has now retracted fallacious conclusions in the report. The whole debacle is yet another case of how anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment is rampant in the international community.

On the left are those who caution that a retraction of some of the report's claims is not tantamount to a complete retraction. They caution that the underlying problems identified in the report still exist today. While the report may be essentially annulled, the issues it raises largely are not.

The majority of coverage, however, appears to be somewhere in the middle. Authors argue that Israel should have cooperated with Goldstone in the first place, even as they reject the report's claims. More commonly, they welcome the retraction but express the confusion over what should happen next between Goldstone and Israel, and in Israel's next engagement in Gaza.

At the heart of this complexity is the fact that public opinion over Operation Cast Lead itself remains mixed in Israel. To some extent, Goldstone is more clear on the implications of the Israeli government's moral and strategic decisions during Cast Lead than is the Israeli public. The editorial is the final word in a debate which is still ongoing between competing public opinion factions.

Goldstone's remarks will almost certainly play a positive role in moving the debate forward. However, while this debate may be vigorous and at times nasty, it is also an indication that even in this era, the institution of free speech in Israeli democracy remains a central component of the state and its society.

Note: The "repentance" article to which I link is Alan Dershowitz's article in the Jewish Daily Forward, clearly not an Israeli source. However, the article has been posted on Haaretz and circulated widely in the Israeli blogosphere. Additionally, Israeli politicians have made similar statements, indicating public support for repentance.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Goldstone Straw-Man

The pro-Israel community spent much of this weekend drinking in the sweet wine of vindication over an editorial published by Richard Goldstone in which the South African Judge retracts many of the fallacious and misleading claims made by the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead. The shortcomings of the report were not trivial, and merit the kind of clarification Goldstone is now giving to the context in which the report was prepared.

But the pro-Israel community should remember that the tragedy of the Goldstone Report was the recklessness with which the international community formed claims, many evidently unfounded, against Israel. In other words, the tragedy is not Goldstone himself. Judge Goldstone is perhaps naive, and the frustration and criticism of the pro-Israel community are warranted. But which the wine of vindication may be sweet, there are some who would get downright drunk off it.

To focus the attention of Israel and the international community on one person ignores the larger and long-term problem of delegitimization which Israel faces. And while Goldstone may have changed his mind, many in the international community have not. They will make up their minds not by what a UN-appointed judge writes in a WaPo editorial, but by the actions Israel takes to remedy some of the very real issues raised in the report. Already, Israel has begun to take these steps. But continued consideration of the contemporary media space will be critical to generating the kind of political leverage Israel will need for its next engagement in Gaza. This task will not be easy. It demands far greater attention than the hedonistic delights of told-you-so columns and self-congratulatory op-eds.

Israel's media strategy should begin with publicizing the Goldstone editorial. It should then thank him for his clarifications and respect that at a time where the media is quick to jump to conclusions about this often-misunderstood country, one judge is willing to prioritize integrity over valor. Israel should also study the Goldstone Report as a case of how misperceptions about Israeli military doctrine are formed, and its lessons should continue to be internalized into IDF policy.

Friday, April 1, 2011

BREAKING: Second NFZ Imposed by International Community

This morning the United States fired 112 Tomahawk missiles in the opening stages of an internationally supported effort to impose a No Fly Zone on the song "Friday," by Rebecca Black.

The strikes are the latest move by the international community to contain the song, which has been wreaking havoc over the ears of the international community since its release February 10.

Earlier this month, the US Treasury Department froze Friday's assets in an attempt to limit the cereal intake of the singer, Rebecca Black. Treasury secretary Tim Geithner highlighted the importance of the move, noting that "Black has stated previously that she's 'gotta have her bowl, gotta have cereal.' By denying her these assets, we are taking strong steps to put pressure on the song." There was no word as to whether the Treasury would limit school busses as well.

But the response has been harsher in the international community. Speaking before parliament earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the song "a threat to the progress of Chasing Pavements, by Adele."

Response to the song, which has over 1.3 million dislikes on Youtube, has been mixed in Washington DC. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that imposing a no-fly zone would be "complex and involve a prolonged engagement by US forces. This isn't just air-dropping earplugs, guys."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen agreed that limited aims were better during his engagement last Sunday on Meet the Press, telling host David Gregory, "Ousting Black is not the goal at this point. Our concern is with her 13 year-old friend driving a convertible, and with those lyrics which are particularly heinous. We understand that when a songwriter composes lyrics like 'partyin' partyin' / fun fun fun fun' that action is necessary. However we believe playing a support role is best at this point."

UN Ambassador Susan Rice has been forward in calling for a no-fly zone. "I mean seriously...'Yesterday was Thursday / today it is Friday.../ and Saturday comes afterwords?' We have a clear imperative to act." Analysts have linked Rice's adamant tone to her role in the US response to the emergence of the song Waterfalls by TLC in 1995.

Meanwhile, in the song itself, tension remains high. The song has stated, "kickin' in the front seat / sittin' in the back seat / which seat can I take," a clear sign of it's expansionist aims. A similar tone has been taken by an African-American man in the video who appears to be in his early 40's. In a statement delivered from a car, the man expresses the song may soon resort to drastic measures, noting "Fast lane, switchin' lanes." He warns, "Makes tick tock tick tock wanna scream." Sources have indicated the man may attempt to defect to Great Britain.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the song ended its latest remarks "looking forward to the weekend," a well known reference to the post-messianic age described by Ayatollah Khomenei. In a similar statement last year, Iranian President Ahmedinejad stated, "We look forward to the weekend in which Israel is erased from the pages of time." It is unclear whether Hizbullah has any linkage to the song at this point.