Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On The IDF And Non-Violent Protest

Today's Haaretz contains a story to the effect that the IDF has no way of stopping mass non-violent protest in the West Bank. The story quotes all unnamed commanders, but alleges that a non-violent force of 4,000 Palestinians marching on a checkpoint would be unstoppable by non-lethal means.

Those who spoke with Haaretz reporter Anschel Pfeffer have two aims. The first is to protect the reputation of the IDF. The second is to signal political actors like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Tzahal is pretty darn good, but to expect miracles is a risky policy.

On the record, the IDF claims that it "has ways of dealing with large scale protests" and would likely never admit anything to the contrary. Israel's security, and Israeli public confidence, requires that the IDF maintain this dominant posture. Off the record, the article betrays some well-founded concern that mass non-violent protest may be out of the IDF's ability to handle without creating casualties. A challenge for any army, the IDF is nervous that it will bear the blame for when things go wrong in the wake of the next round of mass protests. By leaking such concerns off the record, the IDF can preempt accusations that it was unprepared for a mass protest.

The second important point is that these apprehensions demonstrate that the IDF is grounded in reality and has a sense of its actual capabilities. Other actors in the Israeli government are not so in touch. In light of the upcoming Gaza flotilla, The IDF has raised its media profile recently in order to create familiarity with its narrative and cast of characters. The relationship this media presence creates with the global public will help lend credibility to the IDF's version of events in the wake of a second flotilla raid. With regards to protests, the IDF publicized its lessons learned from Nakba day and implemented them well during the Naksa Day protests.

But in both cases, the IDF and not the Israeli Foreign Ministry or Prime Minister's Office is defining the narrative. Depending on one's perspective, the IDF is either undermining the authority of the government or picking up after it's many mishaps. When ministers in the Israeli government claim their own government's claims are unsubstantiated, this betrays a serious lack of confidence in the government's ability to exercise a nuanced and pragmatic policy towards the Palestinians. While the IDF takes stock of the threats ahead, the government is playing diplomatic catch-up, needlessly toughening conditions on Palestinian prisoners, and putting vague and unnecessary preconditions on discussions with the Palestinian Authority. None of these steps does anything to delegitimize non-violent protests over the Israeli occupation, or stop a flotilla of so-called activists from embarrassing Israel over its blockade on Gaza.

The IDF should be expected to follow the conventions of war, preserve human life whenever possible, and maintain the security of the State of Israel. However, it should not be expected to single-handedly address the myriad political crises which the current administration's myopic policies have created. Non-violent Palestinian protests are a political reaction for which the government bears primary responsibility. Rather than hide behind the IDF's ability to control reaction to consistently spurned policies, the government would be much more effectively advancing Israeli security by shifting the policies themselves.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Israel's Flotilla Emergency

A second Gaza flotilla is expected to set sail for Gaza in the next few days. The ship will attempt to violate the Israeli-imposed naval blockade of the Gaza strip, as its predecessor did last May.

To prepare for the raid, Israel has been issuing a combination of diplomatic pleas and threats. An Israeli group called Shurat haDin submitted a complaint to Greek authorities alleging the boats to be used in the flotilla were not seaworthy. The Israeli government has been pressuring the international community to prevent the flotilla from setting sail. The government also threatened journalists who rode with the flotilla with being banned from Israel for 10 years. The threat was later retracted at the request of the Prime Minister. Finally, the government is claiming that passengers have hidden sulfur aboard the ship, which could be used against Israeli soldiers.

The diplomatic efforts have had some success. The IHH, which sent a number of its members on the last flotilla, pulled out of this year's foray at the request of the Turkish government which has slowly been mending ties with Israel in the wake of last year's incident. Israel is at a disadvantage diplomatically, however, as a result of its foreign policy under the current administration which has exacerbated Israel's diplomatic isolation.

For Israel, the current situation is no-win. Gaza is a hot-button issue which draws universal resentment from the Arab world. Arabs see the Israeli blockade on Gaza as symbolic of Israel's overall treatment of Palestinians, and the West's relationship with the Arab world more generally. Any action taken by the IDF to preserve the blockade will be met with contempt. Even if the flotilla is stopped peacefully and without a single shot being fired or single person being injured, the Arab world will express righteous indignation. This anger will be exacerbated if Israel uses deadly force, regardless of who is responsible for the initial escalation. Unfair, to be sure, but also the state of play in 2011.

This complex political environment in which the IDF is being asked to operate is sub-optimal and reflects a concerning lack of governmental foresight. In the wake of two major Syrian border protests and a Palestinian bid for statehood, any situation which exacerbates Palestinian anger is gunpowder in a gas tank for Israel's control of the status quo. The government's reactive and reactionary security policy has created the environment for the political emergencies Israel faces at the UN come September, and now on the Gaza shoreline.

It is not solely the government's fault that each crisis arose. But instead of attempting to shape a less hostile political environment to bolster Israel's long-term security, the government chose reactionary policies with a complete lack of foresight for their long-term political consequences. The bottom line is this: after 63 years, the fact that political crises happen in the Middle East should no longer catch the Israeli government off guard.

Furthermore, in the current emergency, the IDF's job is to maintain order, not to serve as a political shield for current Israeli government. It cannot be blamed for allowing its soldiers to use force to defend themselves if they are violently attacked. If the use of such force will reflect negatively on Israel, it is the responsibility of the government to preempt and control the damage, and not to buck-pass the costs by launching an inquiry into the IDF's conduct or blaming delegitimization for the reaction of the global public, as it did the last time around.

Israel's best strategy against the flotilla is not military but political. To cut its losses from the flotilla, Israel needs to delegitimize it's rationale. Loosening tight and often arbitrary restrictions on goods going into Gaza would be an easy way to preemptively undermine the flotilla and make it look like a group of attention-hungry activists rather than freedom fighters. It would also have a negligible security impact on Israel to remove, for example, restrictions on strawberries or tomatoes. Some may spin such policy shifts as concessions. But this flotilla is not likely to be the last regardless of the steps Israel takes. The sooner the government can undercut a political environment which motivates flotillas and risks setting a Palestinian resistance (non-violent or otherwise) in motion, the better for Israel's security.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Engaging Ben Ami On Engagement

Regardless of your politics, J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami's editorial in today's Haaretz is worth a read. Ben Ami titles the piece "Caring Enough To Engage" but touches on this point only peripherally. The main thrust of his argument is that criticism of Israel is not disloyalty, and is necessary to ward off the threats Israel faces in its short and long-term future.

On the point of caring enough to engage, Ben Ami is dead on. The youth of the American Jewish community are motivated largely by service and the values of social justice and tikkun olam. Some have suggested that these values are stronger mobilizing factors than support for Israel as a value in and of itself. Israel's shortcomings as a state need not be understood as a blemish to be masked. Rather they should be presented as a challenge to be met. Young American Jews have a potentially positive role to play in improving the lives of poor Ethiopian immigrants, Bedouin schoolchildren, or elderly Holocaust survivors. The sense of ownership in Israel which programs like Birthright create could be more tightly linked to a sense of responsibility to help the people of Israel in all their myriad backgrounds, beliefs, and orientations.

Creating this sense of responsibility would also create an American Jewish community more willing to defend Israel's response to these problems and more educated on their complexities. For example, those who haven't been to Israel can easily criticize the prejudices of its society. Those who have been there and worked on behalf of minorities, however, can attest to the self-awareness of Israeli society to these prejudices. They can better understand the necessary steps which must be taken to create further equality, and defend Israeli efforts to do so. And most importantly, they will have the personal connection to individuals who are a part of that society to speak out against misinformed blanket statements from the heart and not only from the brain.

In advancing this strategy, many in the American Jewish community will be met inevitably with criticism, including accusations of disloyalty. These criticisms are a price worth paying to better ensure the security and well being of Israel.

Ben Ami's editorial, however, reads largely as a defense of criticism itself. Here, reasonable minds diverge. The fact that policy differences amount to criticism is largely peripheral to the debate over Israel's security. Criticism is valuable not for the shortcomings it identifies, but rather the solutions it offers. Defending criticism is meaningless if that criticism is devoid of meaningful content other than "No, I disagree."

Be it hosting a panel on BDS at its conference, or defending a Congresswoman who supported the Code Pink heckler at Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress, J Street's tendency to defend criticism for its own sake is out of synch with its doctrine of creating progress towards peace and security. Furthermore, continuing to press the talking point of restrained discourse under-sells the very real progress which J Street itself has made in widening the space for debate in the pro-Israel community. Ultimately, pointing out the injustice of people criticizing J Street is as self-victimizing as the criticism itself. And neither strategy creates tangible progress on behalf of Israel's well-being.

Rather than defending those who criticize, J Street's policy goals would be more effectively met by continuing to highlight concrete policy prescriptions like the Israeli Peace Initiative. Such a policy would open up debate more indirectly, but with no lesser value. Commenting on Tony Kushner and other petty and largely irrelevant matters with which some in the pro-Israel community choose to engage will only bring J Street down to the lowest common denominator of discourse. It does not take much research to understand just how low this denominator is. Instead, initiating a renewed focus on policy is the best way to create the engagement with Israel which Jeremy Ben Ami identifies as the ultimate solution.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Prisoner Posturing By Israel And The ICRC

There were two important statements from the Middle East today involving prisoners. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced today that Israel would cease allowing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails access to academic study. The move came on the same day that the International Committee of the Red Cross called on Hamas to give proof that Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit is still alive after nearly five years in captivity. The two statements are likely unrelated given the generally poor relationship between Israel and the ICRC. However, they come at a time of increased chatter about a potential deal to free Cpl. Shalit, and indicate that negotiations have reached a critical juncture.

Jean-Pierre Schaerer, head of the ICRC delegation in Israel, said that the ICRC would be willing to facilitate a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel. The move is likely intended to place the ICRC as a relevant actor in any potential deal involving Cpl. Shalit. The organization played a similar role on July 16, 2008 when the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were transferred back to Israel by Hizbullah in exchange for 5 living and 199 deceased Hizbullah fighters. Regardless of the ICRC's self-interest, offering the resources of the (somewhat) neutral organization will likely have a positive effect on negotiations over Cpl. Shalit's release.

As for Prime Minister Netanyahu, the causes and effects are more complicated. Studies indicate that individuals who commit acts of terrorism tend to be more highly educated. Additionally, the protesters in the recent uprisings across the Arab world tend to be educated, unemployed young men. However, from a policy standpoint the Netanyahu government's approach is treating the symptom rather than the cause. Better educating prisoners, and giving them vocational skills in particular, would allow those prisoners who are released to play a more productive role in Palestinian society and pose a lower threat to Israel. This effect would be consistent with Prime Minister Netanyahu's call to improve the Palestinian economy, which he also claimed "is booming" in his address last month to Congress.

The intent of the policy is not to decrease the risk of terrorism, however. More likely, it is an attempt to show toughness in the face of Palestinian demands. Covert negotiations have been ongoing to secure Cpl. Shalit's release. Netanyahu may be at a critical juncture in negotiations where he feels it necessary to demonstrate resolve to the Palestinian leadership. When they don't make concessions, the Netanyahu government tightens the screws. These tough tactics are the hallmark of many Israeli governments. However, they are hardly ever effective since they raise the cost of Palestinian concessions impossibly high. Palestinians will not perceive the change in prisoner's rights as increased pressure but rather as increased injustice. When they harden their line in response, the effect will be the same as it has been since the beginning of the peace process itself.

Netanyahu is under pressure to release Cpl. Shalit but also not to accede to Palestinian demands. Today's announcement might be posturing for concessions in the near future. However, the longer the Prime Minister waits, the more difficult the balancing act of his office will become.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

To The Readers

Hello readers,

Apologies for the light posting lately. There are some unforeseen and pressing issues outside the blogosphere which require attention at the moment. But a brand new post should be ready in the coming few days. Until then, check @thecamelsnoseblog on Twitter for updates.

Thanks for your patience and happy analyzing!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bibi Past = Bibi Present?

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave a speech before the Knesset yesterday in which he outlined six "principles" for negotiations with the Palestinians:

1) Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state
2) The agreement must be a final status agreement
3) The Palestinian refugee issue will be solved outside of Israel
4) A Palestinian state will be demilitarized
5) The settlement blocks will remain part of Israel
6) Jerusalem will remain the sovereign and united capital of Israel

During his first term as Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999, Netanyahu held a similar policy of Three No's 1) No Golan withdrawal 2) No discussion of the status of Jerusalem and 3) No preconditions to negotiations.

The policy then and the policy now are similar. While the Prime Minister is now willing to discuss Jerusalem in 2011 versus in the late 90's, his hard-line on the issue is not a significant change policy-wise. More importantly, in both cases Netanyahu presents pre-conditions within the rhetoric of principles.

The two policies also parallel each other in that Netanyahu is deploying both in similar contexts. Faced with a Palestinian public on the edge and increasing pressure from an increasingly exasperated United States, Netanyahu is stretched thin between maintaining a conservative coalition, keeping Israeli public confidence, and holding onto US support.

While Netanyahu did eventually come to the table with Yasser Arafat at Wye River in 1998, the agreement was not enough to maintain the confidence of the Israeli public. His previous hard lining, including a strategy of neutralizing the Oslo accords, had alienated the Israeli left, while negotiating with Arafat in the first place alienated the Israeli right. Stretched too thin, and thanks in part to rumors about his marriage, Netanyahu lost the 1999 elections to Labor MK Ehud Barak following a no-confidence vote from both left-wing and right-wing parties.

Today, Netanyahu is faced with the choice of continuing to hardline, alienating the center-left and the United States, or to negotiate, alienating the far right. If a failed UN Palestinian statehood bid sparks Palestinian protests, this stretching effect will likely be exacerbated.

Given the similarities between the present and the past, it will take a shift from current policy to keep Netanyahu of 2011 from meeting a similar fate as Netanyahu of 1999.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

AIPAC Press Release - Full Text

MEMO: Palestinian Provocations Undermining U.S. Peace Efforts

Rather than responding to Israel’s efforts to negotiate peace, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is engaging in diplomatic warfare against the Jewish state. The PA is choosing reconciliation with Hamas over talks with Israel, and is campaigning internationally to isolate Israel. The United States—which is trying to facilitate direct peace talks—should strongly oppose PA provocations and veto Palestinian attempts to seek U.N. Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state outside negotiations with Israel.

Palestinian preconditions are blocking U.S. and Israeli efforts to restart peace talks:

• PA President Mahmoud Abbas is blocking the resumption of talks by setting onerous preconditions on issues that are supposed to be solved through negotiations.

• The Palestinians wasted nearly 10 months of an unprecedented Israeli moratorium on housing starts in the West Bank by avoiding negotiations. Now they refuse to talk with Israel until the Jewish state halts all construction in the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem.

• The Palestinians have now stepped up their preconditions by demanding that Israel publicly commit that a Palestinian state will be based on the pre-June 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

• According to prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements, all final status issues—including settlements, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security—are to be determined through negotiations, not predetermined prior to talks.

The Palestinians are implementing a strategy of diplomatic warfare to isolate Israel and avoid talks:

• At the same time the PA is refusing to talk with Israel, it has launched a campaign outside the negotiations process to win admission as a full member of the United Nations by this September.

• By avoiding negotiations and seeking recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, the Palestinians are violating past agreements with Israel that say the conflict must be solved through direct negotiations between the parties.

• Abbas, in a May 16 New York Times op-ed, said the admission of a Palestinian state into the United Nations is not part of a strategy to solve the conflict, but a way to perpetuate it. He said this step “would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one.”

• President Obama has publically rejected the Palestinian unilateral approach at the United Nations, saying on May 22 that “no vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state.” On May 25, Obama called the Palestinian efforts at the U.N. a “mistake.”

• While demanding the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state prior to final-status negotiations, Palestinian leaders continue to refuse to affirm Israel’s status as the homeland of the Jewish people, as President Obama has articulated.

• In fact, the PA is backing efforts aimed at delegitimizing the existence of the Jewish state. The PA supported efforts by Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza to overrun Israel’s borders during the “Nakba” protests in May against the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

• Abbas praised the protestors that violated Israel’s borders, saying, “Their precious blood … was spilt for the sake of our nation’s freedom.”

Abbas’ decision to sign a unity deal with Hamas is another major blow to U.S.-led peace efforts:

• Rather than talking with Israel, Abbas signed a deal to form a unity government with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group bent on destroying Israel.

• Under the April 27 accord between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas did not accept the Quartet’s (U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russia) conditions of recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence and endorsing previous Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements in order to participate in the transitional government and election.

• Fatah appears to have decided to reconcile with Hamas rather than abide by its peace commitments to Israel, under which it is required to fight terror. Incorporating an unreformed Hamas into the PA makes it impossible for the Palestinians to meet these commitments.

• Hamas’ past involvement in political activity has not moderated or otherwise altered its stated goal of destroying Israel and building a radical Islamist society.

• President Obama has made clear that Israel cannot reach an agreement with Hamas, saying, “No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction—and we will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist and rejecting violence and adhering to all existing agreements.”

In contrast to the PA, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demonstrated Israel’s commitment to direct negotiations and peace:

• During the past two years, Netanyahu has taken far-reaching steps toward substantive talks with the Palestinians—calling for a Palestinian state, reducing barriers to movement in the West Bank and implementing the 10-month moratorium on new West Bank housing construction.

• In a joint meeting of Congress on May 24, Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s desire for peace with the Palestinians, delivering his most far-reaching statements on the peace process to date by outlining steps Israel would take to facilitate a two-state solution to the conflict.

• Acknowledging that Israel is prepared to make painful decisions to make peace, Netanyahu said that while settlements remain a final-status issue to be addressed in talks, “in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”

• While restating Israel’s longstanding position that Jerusalem will remain united, he added that “with creativity and with goodwill, a solution can be found.”

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Israel's Choices Are Preemption Or Concession

A third round of protests are scheduled for al-Quds day, this coming Tuesday, marking the Israeli capture of East Jerusalem during the 1967 war. The IDF has already begun preparations for the protests, which are not likely to be the last round given the upcoming Palestinian statehood bid at the UN this fall.

Protesters have clearly not been deterred or sated by the results of previous protests. In addition to these three protest days, weekly scattered protests in cities such as Bilin and Nabi Saleh have been ongoing for years. The missing piece for these protests has been a unified voice, organization, and set of demands. However, the UN vote stands a good chance of being the perfect spark to congeal a unified movement which at best will be non-violent and at worst will undertake a third intifada.

The status quo is clear: Israel's control over the stability of the West Bank is a runaway train headed straight for a concrete wall. And we can see it coming a mile away.

It is patently in Israel's security and diplomatic interest to undercut the possibility of a unified protest movement, which would have a negative impact on Israeli citizens and the State as a whole. A non-violent and unified protest movement in Palestinian areas would also draw support from Europe and an awkward blend of apathy and interest from the United States. It would also force Israel to make concessions more hastily than an optimal security posture would require. Economic improvements, authority transfers, and force re-deploments require careful planning and time.

Taking action now will allow policy shifts which are preemptions on Israel's terms. If they are not taken now, the same shifts will happen later this year, only they will be concessions and not on Israel's terms.

The IDF is receiving blame for shooting 22 protesters at the Syrian border last weekend, a claim which has still not been independently verified. But the demonstrators aren't there to protest the IDF's rules of engagement. They are there to protest Israeli government policy towards Palestinians. Even if the IDF performed at a utopian level of efficacy, killing and injuring zero protesters, the protests would likely continue given the continuance of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Yet the Israeli government is focused like a laser on the UN statehood bid, trying to recoup the inevitable losses of its reactionary take-no-prisoners foreign policy. In doing so, it is ignoring the externalities of State policy which are motivating this bid in the first place.

This is not good enough. Israel cannot have its cake and eat it too. Preventing the UN statehood bid from sparking a unified movement will require real policy shifts.

Some may term these shifts "concessions." In the sense that its a concession to ruin your shirt by diving into a pool to save a drowning child, that's accurate. But whether saving a child or Israel's security posture, preemptive policy shifts will incur a cost far less than the potential costs of a unified uprising.

Furthermore, these relative costs pale in light of the sea changes taking place throughout the Middle East. Israel cannot hide from the Arab uprising like a turtle in its shell, nor should it. Policy shifts that will result in increased security for Israel will look less like concessions and more like strategic realignment in the rapidly changing environment of the Middle East. It is better to make these shifts now rather than to wait.

Ultimately, given Israel's current security posture, preemptive policy shifts are a cost-effective way to undercut protest movements which will gain considerable legitimacy if they unify. The measures may need to be significant, but the threat Israel faces is significant as well. They may be costly, but ignoring current policies will only add to this cost.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Free Amina - Whoever She Is

Earlier today, I took a quick break from researching to watch a few how-they-do-it magic videos on Youtube. Whether it be sleight-of-hand or grand illusions, magicians manipulate our assumptions about reality to create a false belief about what has occurred. We know that we are making assumptions, yet knowing exactly which assumptions are false is often difficult and is the key to a magician's success. And despite this blatant manipulation, we still enjoy magic. Experiencing an illusion, even though we know it's just an illusion, taps into the deepest aspects of what it means to be human. It sparks our imagination and spurs our sense of hope, even as we rationally know that levers and smokescreens are the true agents at work.

In that respect, magic and policy analysis are similar. We know that what appears to be happening is never quite the reality. A meeting between two heads of state is never just a friendly gesture. Yet we relish the regalia of state dinners. We know the odds of total democratic revolution in the Middle East are slim. Yet seeing the courage and passion of protesters in Tahrir Square, or Pearl Square, or in the streets of Tunis inspires Western analysts, filling us with hope and sparking our imagination about a democratic and free Middle East. Hope and imagination are not shortcomings, in fact they are advantages which allow us to recommend responsible and compassionate policy. Yet we should never forget that we, like all analysts, are hardwired to make assumptions. And knowing which assumptions are correct and which are not can at times be impossible.

Two days ago, a post appeared on this blog about a woman named Amina Abdullah, a widely read blogger based in Damascus who was in hiding from the regime. When she was kidnapped, #freeAmina was a trending topic on Twitter, and the story was covered by all major sources in the Western and international press.

Enter Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist at NPR. In what may easily become the fact-check of the year, Mr. Carvin did some research yesterday into Ms. Abdullah, digging into her presence online and communicating with people throughout the Middle East. The more he searched, the more hazy details became. He couldn't find anyone who had spoken to her in person, and the pictures posted alongside her story turn out to be of a British woman named Jelena Lecic who had no idea who Amina was.

Mr. Carvin continues to believe Amina exists and obviously is apprehensive that by calling her identity into question it may put her in more physical danger. Amina may easily be a pseudonym for a very real Syrian dissident who, for her own safety, kept a low profile. She may be in very real danger at the moment.

But the incident also illustrates the assumptions analysts made about Amina, and the assumptions we continue to make about the Arab uprising.

The strong voice of a young lesbian female Arab is one we were ready to hear. And in a region filled to the brim with spin and propaganda, the voice of an independent blogger is the last one analysts would think to call into question. In many ways, making this assumption was the effect of a bounded rationality, in which our human brains took cognitive shortcuts to triage the fire hose of information coming at us. In the chaos of the dynamic changes in Syria, what mattered was harvesting signals coming out of the region. If Amina's story didn't seem out of place amongst the 20 other sources analysts were using, questioning it would only have impeded our understanding of the brutal reality on the ground.

So our assumption at the time may not have been a bad one. However, Amina teaches us that while making assumptions may be unavoidable, being consciously aware of those assumptions is something we should not avoid. It was because Andy Carvin was aware of his own assumptions that he was able to blow this entire story open. And it is by better understanding our own assumptions that we become analysts who see reality for the complicated and messy business it is.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why Obama Should Push Bibi On The Mosque Arson

This morning, settlers possibly from the illegal Alei Ayin outpost torched a mosque in the Palestinian village of Maghayer, near Ramallah. Spray painted in Hebrew on the side of the mosque were the words "Price Tag, Alei Ayin." Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the arson as a "criminal act" and both the IDF and the Palestinian Security Forces are investigating. However, the outcome of the event is likely to exacerbate Palestinian perceptions that they are treated with a different standard of justice in the Territories. No doubt, a Palestinian who torched a synagogue would be branded a terrorist, not a criminal.

Netanyahu's cautious treatment of the event is an obvious effect of the constraints he faces within his coalition. This far right coalition has limited Netanyahu's ability to maneuver politically, and he often walks a fine line between pleasing his coalition and pleasing the United States. Yet the Prime Minister has also hidden behind his coalition in Washington, arguing that they tie his hands with regards to strong action towards peace and linking cleavage between him and his coalition with domestic interference.

To speak frankly from an American perspective, this coalition largely has not advanced US interests. Foot dragging on the peace process, renewing settlement building while Vice President Biden was physically in the country, referring to the President as equivalent to Yasser Arafat, and countless other childish antics have damaged US credibility in the region and constrained its ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Arab Spring. The coalition is applying constant pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Obama administration should do the same.

Ultimately, the only way to procure positive results from the Prime Minister will be to give him a choice between alienating his coalition or alienating the United States. A JPost editorial today by the conservative leaning Gil Troy illustrates why (case in point - title of article: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Obama). Israelis are no fan of President Obama, but they do not support Israeli alienation from the United States. Prime Minister Netanyahu is savvy and understands this point. That's why after months of foot dragging, he offered the United States a partial settlement freeze in 2009. Given that the plan lacked political capital after so many months, Netanyahu had nothing to lose but US confidence in Israel. Given pressure, the Prime Minister will respond.

In some ways, a tougher line by the United States would give the Prime Minister more leverage of his own. Bibi is conservative but he is far from radical. If the US is interfering with the internal balance of power in Israel, it is only to bring the Prime Minister closer to his own ideological home base in the center right.

Calling loudly for an investigation, trial, and punishment of the perpetrators will send a clear signal to the Arab world that the United States does not apply a double standard in the region. It will show that the US takes Palestinians seriously, and that it is willing to push Israel to hold accountable those who would spoil what little peace and stability exist in the region. Prime Minister Netanyahu has no good excuse not to continue supporting the investigation, and the US should not be persuaded by the argument that it will alienate the Prime Minister from actors who blatantly exacerbate tensions between Israel and the US. Ultimately, pandering to these actors is not in the interest of the United States.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Netanyahu is a rational actor striking constant bargains between two sides. The United States needs to drive its bargain harder. Such an action would be widely supported by the Arab world, international community, Israelis who fear that settlements are delegitimizing Israel, and those who support dialogue over violence.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Free Amina Now

Amina Abdullah is a Syrian woman who edits the A Gay Girl in Damascus blog from Damascus, Syria. Her posts discuss both her personal life and the latest news out of Syria. Unabashedly liberal, her views on Israel and the Palestinians are often extremely divergent from those expressed on this blog. However, her reporting from on the ground provides a rare firsthand impression of life in Syria during the current unrest there. As a result, Amina's blog has drawn the attention of many in the Western press.

Today at about 6pm in Damascus, Amina was abducted by three men presumed to be part of either the Syrian security services or the Baath Party militia. She is an American citizen. Given the powerful anti-Assad tone of her blog, and her flamboyant discussion of the taboo topic of homosexuality, Amina's life is in danger. On her blog, she has described previous abduction attempts in the past few months. Her family, while trying to keep the outside world updated, are themselves in hiding as well.

The abduction of a blogger whose only crime is accurately reporting the treatment of the Syrian people by the Syrian regime is completely illegitimate and demands an international response. Amina is only one of hundreds of Syrians who have been abducted, kidnapped, and arrested in the past few months. These arrests have included a 13 year old child who was arrested and tortured to death by the regime. While Amina herself cannot speak, thousands can speak for her. They demand her immediate release and an end to the crimes against humanity of the Syrian regime. The United States should lead the effort, even if covertly, to secure the release of one of its own citizens, and hold the Syrian government accountable.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Israel Border Protests Need A Political Solution

UPDATE: Andrew Exum, who actually has tactical military experience, concurs.

Original Post:
For the second time since May, Palestinian protesters demonstrated on the Syrian border with Israel. Today's protest was in commemoration of the Naksa, or "setback" which refers to displacement of Palestinians in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967. Casualty reports from the protests were mixed. SANA, the official Syrian news agency, claims
20 people were killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims 31 were killed. The IDF confirmed at least 12 injuries, but did not confirm casualties.

The protesters were not non-violent. They used both molotov cocktails and stones against Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border. In response, Israel used a combination of tear gas and rubber bullets against the protesters. When protesters reached the border fence itself, the IDF used live fire allegedly aimed at the lower extremities. At the moment, the protesters are camping out at the border, and may continue protests again tomorrow.

In the wake of the first round of protests on May 15, the IDF adapted its tactics to better control the situation and keep it from escalating. The IDF's rules of engagement on the border call for a verbal warning to protesters, followed by warning shots, and then shots at the lower extremities of those involved in a breaching attempt. Verifiable information at the moment indicates these rules of engagement were followed. However, the number of fatalities remains unclear. The figure of 20 fatalities is being widely reported in the Western media after initial reluctance for most of the morning to do so. Furthermore, while the IDF has not confirmed any casualties, it has also not claimed there were no casualties. It is imperative that the IDF continue to study the lessons of today's protest, regardless if protesters were killed or not, in order to minimize future harm to protesters as much as possible.

On a more general level, however, it the Israeli government, not the IDF which must take steps to alleviate the pressure on Israel that the protests cause. Whether or not civilians were killed in today's protests is largely irrelevant. Those who sympathize with the Palestinian protesters will believe that 20 people were killed regardless of what the IDF claims. The protests are not about the IDF's rules of engagement, but rather about what protesters feel is Israeli insensitivity to the needs of Palestinians. This battle is entirely political, and falls largely outside the operational purview of the IDF. Regardless of whether protester's claims are justified or fair, Israel's only effective response in the long-term will be a political one. The longer the Israeli government waits, the more its political leverage will be constrained by more protests and more international pressure.

It appears the IDF is taking all efforts to address the protests in a way which prevents needless injury or political escalation, though many may disagree with that assessment. It is unrealistic to expect any military in the world to stand by while protesters actively attempt to violate a border. Yet even were the IDF to perform at 100%, injuries and political pressure would still occur. Therefore, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Israeli government to proactively address the underlying causes of the protests, rather than hide behind the IDF.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Why Obama Should Tell Assad To Go

Over 1,100 people have been killed in Syria since 15 teenagers sprayed "The people want the downfall of the regime" in graffiti on a wall in Deraa in March. The regime continues to use brutal and repressive force against unarmed civilians. During today's protests, internet access in Syria was restricted and government-aligned snipers fired into crowds, killing about 70 people. Yesterday, Hamza al-Khatib was brutally tortured to death by Syrian security forces. He was 13 years old.

The Obama administration has toed a cautious line with regards to Syria. After all, the odds are against Assad falling out of power, even in light of Tunisia and Egypt. Furthermore, Obama's call for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to step down has committed the US to an unpopular NATO-led intervention there. But Syria is not Libya by any stretch of the imagination, and the administration is correct to approach each situation on a case-by-case basis.

At a press conference yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that expectations the Assad government can change are, "if not gone, nearly run out." She added that the US was working behind the scenes to cobble together an international consensus on how to react to Syria. But even senior IDF officials, not known for being spurious or optimistic in their thinking about Arab regimes, see the Assad regime as terminal, according to a Haaretz article today. This statement, while made anonymously, demonstrates that international consensus on Syria need not be cobbled together. It already exists.

Therefore, the President of the United States should publicly call upon Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

There is no question that Assad has forfeited his legitimacy as ruler given the way he has treated his own people. The administration's concern about future US-Syrian relations is both legitimate and well-placed. However, Bashar Assad is highly unlikely to make any reform overtures to the United States if he remains in power. If anything, he would make overtures to Iran, which is actively intervening on his behalf in the country.

Furthermore, in this era of change, it is high time for the United States to demonstrate clearly that its partners and allies in the region are not only the rulers, but the Arab people as well. Calling for Assad to step down will be a positive step for US-Arab relations not only in Syria, but throughout the Middle East. A call to step down need not be followed up with a Libya-style UN vote or a no-fly zone to be effective. Calling for President Assad to leave will revitalize the protests, and delegitimize the regime and those who assist it. It will also strengthen US leverage in efforts to coordinate internationally on Syria, not weaken it.

As Secretary Clinton realizes, reform in Syria is an option long since relegated to the dustbin of history. Efforts at reform in Syria have been confounded by a combination of Syrian mistrust, Iranian interference, and US policy elsewhere in the region. There is room for debate over why reform in Syria failed, but little argument that it was, in fact, unsuccessful. The best chance for Syrian reform moving forward lies not in a regime which is pulling off the fingernails of its people, but in the country's citizens who seek the basic freedoms which the US has committed itself internationally to defending.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kol haKavod, Jerusalem Police

Today, 40,000 people marched through Jerusalem in commemoration of the unification of the city in 1967. The march, which is highly nationalistic and often controversial, was particularly controversial this year. Due to ongoing construction of the Jerusalem light rail system, the parade was rerouted and began in the heavily Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The neighborhood is the site of ongoing tension between its Arab residents and religious nationalist Jews attempting to gain a foothold in the area.

Given the explosive conditions of today's march, it is impressive that the Israeli police arrested only 24 people out of the 40,000 marchers and many thousands of Arab residents. Approximately six of those arrested were Arab. Additionally, only three people sustained injuries during the march, two of whom were throwing rocks at each other.

Today's successful and largely peaceful march demonstrates that the Israeli police were prepared for a very difficult and explosive situation. Clashes, particularly in Jerusalem, are likely to continue in the coming months. That the police are able to maintain order and use non-violent measures bodes well. Protesters will thrive off any missteps or excessive uses of force from the police. Hopefully, this careful IDF and police preparation now can prevent a response which exacerbates the likelihood of violence later.