Archive for June, 2009

June 25, 2009

The End of the Obama Grace Period: Hypocrisy across the Middle East

by Gedalyah Reback

President Obama’s Middle East policies are naive and pathetic. He has abrogated agreements on issues that don’t need to be negotiated, and also made the United States the last country whose head of state has said anything meaningful about what just happened in Iran.

On Israel and its Settlements

In so doing, any concession he would get out of the Netanyahu government on settlements is no longer plausible. His idea of two states in peace, with the United States being the major power that backs that peace financially, politically and maybe militarily, is now a fantasy because he will never achieve the Netanyahu-led government’s backing for further concessions.

What concessions Sharon made are no longer relevant. Since Obama and Clinton have decided to ignore those agreements, even denying their existence, this gives the Netanyahu government carte blanche to expand, maybe even recklessly. Any new negotiated agreement will result in the same deal – the one Sharon and Bush reached. Bush’s policies may not be to your liking Mr. President, but precedent is binding.

If one party does not agree to a contract, the other has the right to bring them to an arbitrator. Since none exists in regards to international agreements like this, this voids any understandings and releases not one, but BOTH parties from those agreements.

If Obama is afraid the Netanyahu government is bad for peace, whatever that means, then the President has undermined his own objectives by destroying those agreements. This sets tremendous precedent itself, in that precedent can now be ignored. How far back will this extend, Mr. President? This leaves the door open for ignoring other agreements whimsically. The Obama Administration’s policies are arbitrary.

On Iran and Democracy

On engaging Muslims, the President has given reason to doubt his own fortitude in reaching understanding. Despite whatever criticism there was of his Cairo speech perhaps focusing on issues too important to political extremists (again, debatable), he did not respond quickly enough to support the freedoms of speech, assembly and association.

These are the core issues he can address and support. These are the major issues he can push on countries like Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But more than anywhere, they are ideas that have been the target for Iranians for the last two generations. He failed to condemn the suppression. He bought into Iranian rhetoric, which itself was intended to frighten Western leaders.

The vocal support which President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel, among others, delivered, was never going to confirm a grand Western conspiracy. The protesters, and even the conservative neighbors who had liberal friends rallying in the streets, know full-well why those Iranians were in the streets, and it wasn’t because of American designs. The regime’s rhetoric made the US hesitate.

Iranians are diverse, and would likely create a very pluralistic, maybe federal democracy. Iranians from all backgrounds, including religious leaders, oppose the current system of government because of its corruptibility. The United States’ outreach policy must be realistic, and cannot work if it only engages governments and their interests.

This would reproduce the same criticisms that the US props repressive regimes in the Middle East, religious or not. It does what is diplomatically convenient. The United States and European leaders have been prepared to embrace democratically elected religious governments, but this is a far cry from accepting the Iranian and Saudi Arabian ones.

From one Extreme to the Other

Refusing to have full diplomatic relations does not necessitate going into full scale war with those governments’ countries. There is a middle ground between war and diplomacy. The Obama Administration seems to be focused on reversing George W. Bush’s policies, rather than adjusting them. This is politically and strategically disastrous. The region is not how it was when Bill Clinton left office.

The End of the Obama Grace Period

Also, reversing bad, and sometimes extreme policy, focuses on dragging that policy to the opposite extreme. This would lead the Obama Administration head on into a major political backlash. That has already started. The administration’s hypocritical policies on Israel and its settlements, plus now on engagement and Iran, has emboldened Republicans of all streams. This also impacts the political center in the US.

June 19, 2009

Engaging Islam Mr. President, Requires Action

by Gedalyah Reback

The prevailing assessment of last week’s elections is that the Revolutionary Guards arranged for the colossal rigging of the ballot. At the same time, an ayatollah who is known as “Supreme Leader” lacks certain credibility as a grand scholar by his peers. Grand Ayatollahs have been arrested, sequestered and silenced. The Islamic credentials of the Islamic Revolution are a thing of the past to both lay Iranians and the major clerical figures of the Shiite branch of Islam.

Conventional thinking in the Obama White House assumes any vocal support from the United States would undercut any so-called “nationalist” credentials these protesters have.

But I must ask, who does the Obama Administration worry about alienating? For what other reason would Iranians feel the need to send pictures and videos and news reports in English to the outside world? The hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Iranians dawning green know for sure that their spirit is not some artificial concoction of American instigation. Their cause is based on Iranian concerns, and they know that fact best.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is of no substance to demonstrators, and his rhetoric evidence of cynicism and desperation. Iranians do not fear the charges they are American or Zionist pawns. The way they defy demands to clear the streets makes it seem like they almost relish in such slander. This is a charge that is not being taken seriously by the Iranian street. No matter how the White House addressed this situation, it would inevitably be blamed by Tehran for involvement.

In John Kerry’s own words, “we need only listen to the demonstrators. Their signs, slogans and Twitter postings say nothing about getting help from Washington – instead they are adapting the language of their own revolution.” We as non-Iranians do not need to support one candidate over another, or advocate some fantastical return of the Shah’s crown prince, ideas that themselves would be reminiscent of 1953 and the lead up to 1979. Instead, supporting the demonstrations vocally will fit into the Obama Administration’s policy of outreach to the Muslim world.

The President was mildly criticized for his words about openness being spoken in a country as repressive as Egypt. The cynicism Muslims have toward his rhetoric will only inflate if he fails to take a stand against Iran on the treatment of its dissidents. Muslims never opposed George W. Bush’s words about democracy. They opposed his hypocritical actions, namely his diplomatic relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They hated him for his recklessness in Iraq, and his lack of focus on Afghanistan. They despised him for the promises he offered and could not fulfill with the rise of Hamas and Hizbullah.

President Obama has a chance to separate himself from those follies. Democracy in Iran is not going to produce an extremist regime, just the opposite. The likelihood of significant strides by engaging Iran has been determined to be limited by analysts. Engagement here may actually be leverage for the US and West in the nuclear program’s negotiations.

The Islamic Republic has lost its identity – years before this election’s protest movement hit the streets. The Revolutionary Guards have corrupt control of the country’s military industrial complex and likely pushed last week’s election as a coup to their benefit. The “Supreme Leader” of their religious country is not a ‘supreme’ authority on the country’s official religion. The truly great scholars and religious jurists of Shiite Islam have been suppressed by the faith’s most extreme and warped clerics. The true hand of friendship to Islam will be recognized when Mr. Obama differentiates among the politics of religious factions within Islam. The game will significantly change if Mr. Obama supports freedom for both the Iranian layman, and the leaders of the religion hijacked by the Iranian government.

This is a cry from that diverse Islamic world, between Muslims and their extremists that the President mentioned in Cairo. Any serious engagement with its democratic and religious social sectors, must occur now, when those sides are united. Any future engagement after a failed social movement will be taken as seriously as the words of Iran’s current leadership.

Everyone, please read more on this topic and remember that the consensus is growing for President Obama and world leaders to comment.

June 16, 2009

Jews Should not be Afraid to Vocally Express Solidarity with Iranians

by Gedalyah Reback

Jewish communities, whether they support right-wing or left-wing Israeli policies, are universally watching with baited breath at the developments in Iran. Since 1979, the regime in Iran has been a source of anxiety for Jews around the world, the same with Iran’s baby brother Hizbullah (a militia that was put together in 1982 with the help of Iranian intelligence). Additionally, many Jews and many Iranians have no mutual animosity; between them rest opportunities.

Jewish and Persian demonstrators hold Israeli and Iranian flags on Rome’s Campidoglio square during a protest against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attendance at the United Nations food crisis summit held at the Food and Agriculture Organization on June 3, 2008.

But Jews seem anxious to be too vocal. There is this prevalent fear among Jews and American democracy advocates in general (which include numerous expatriate groups), that

1) speaking out will associate the protesters with Americans and/or Jews, inviting pressure from traditionally anti-American, anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic Iranian conservatives on those protesters, or
2) that it will discourage protests and instigate anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli sentiment among enough Iranians that a similar type of pressure could kill the demonstrations or
3) that any change produced would be minimal and provide a disguise for Iranian nuclear policies to hide behind, without a demonized figure like Ahmadinejad to remind the world of that nuclear issue.

I sincerely think the fears are unnecessary. Bigots and authoritarians like the rulers of Iran have an interest in inducing fear and uncertainty among potential political opponents or advocates. Jews in American and worldwide should not fear disingenuous or bigoted accusations of Jewish domination and global political power; they should deny such dictatorial bullies the satisfaction of disillusioned opponents, and advocates should stand up for what they believe in.

Jewish Iranians

There is also an argument that Jews have no place to talk about Iranian domestic issues, and any outside commentary, Jewish or not, would hurt the cause. But Jews have plenty invested in Iran’s interior, socially. Iranian Jews numbering near 25,000 have been locked into political science over the last thirty years, under government pressure never to support the welfare of the State of Israel or its citizens. It was itself revolutionary, when the lone Jewish member of the Iranian parliament scolded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust in front of that entire Iranian parliament. But even then, it was only because the previous president, Muhammad Khatami, had publicly condemned Ahmadinejad for the denials.

Jewish Iranians fled after the revolution, many of them settling in Israel and the United States, especially Los Angeles with thousands of non-Jewish Iranians. Jews in the United States should not feel reserved, to the contrary, they should feel obliged to support their Jewish brethren in Iran and push for the right to free speech and free assembly in Iran. Jews in the US have much to fight for in this cause, and have right to feel wronged by the existence of Iranian political pressure on the Jewish community.

Recently, New York Times reported Roger Cohen was invited to and shown a lavish presentation of the well being of Iranian Jews. His February 23rd article in the New York Times was challenged as naive and labeled propaganda by Iranian Jews at a Los Angeles forum challenging Cohen’s assertions. Over the weekend, Roger Cohen wrote “Iran’s Day of Anguish”, and admitted he’d “erred:”

“I’ve also argued that, although repressive, the Islamic Republic offers significant margins of freedom by regional standards. I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.”

If Jews who themselves have tried to think outside the box can not see the silver lining any longer, Iranian Jews in the US and Jews throughout the world should feel free to speak out and oppose government pressure on their communities anywhere in the world.

Iranian Jews in Los Angeles challenge Roger Cohen at a forum in March

The Future of the Middle East

I don’t see how Benyamin Netanyahu, at least in the position he is right now, could fully mend ties between Israel and Iran. I am afraid to be too naive in the goals the Jewish community should envision for the immediate future of Israeli-Iranian relations or a democratic government coming to power in Tehran. But, there is no doubt that the developments there affect nations far beyond the Iranian borders, far beyond Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Lebanon. The several nationalist movements in Iran that have taken up arms could soon lay them down, and a source of immense tension and anxiety can finally be eliminated.

American Jews have with strength supported the rights of Israelis to exist free of external persecution for over a century. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ugly and disturbing, but it does not contradict the activism of democratic Jews. Even Jews who know their own safety is paramount see value in the granting of Palestinian sovereignty, despite the difficulties of mutual hostility and conflict. Jews overwhelmingly, whether liberal or conservative, express a preference for co-existence and mutual democratic governance, rather than in an unresolved state of war.

American Jewish communities have been at the forefront of democratic movements, civil rights movements and human rights movements. The Darfur crisis has been kept in the public eye because of amazing public relations by the American Jewish World Service. Jewish groups walked side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. from Alabama to Washington D.C. They have joined the Democratic Party to push for the interests of the poor in the United States, and supported the Republican Party to aid the disenfranchised overseas. The overt bigotry and alienation thrust upon Jews worldwide by the Iranian government should not shut down the Jewish world. Jews, religious or not, have held up a spirit of advocacy stronger than most groups, and have activists pushing causes throughout the sociopolitical spectrum.

Former Israeli President Moshe Katzav (an Iranian Israeli) and former Iranian President Muhammad Khatami greeted each other and conversed at John Paul II’s funeral in 2004

They truly do embody the words of Moses,
who demanded, “!וקראתם דרור בארץ לכל ישביה”,
“Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants!” American Jews and their brothers around the world should be reaching out to Iranian expatriates. The potential to breach the divide caused by politics is more than existent. There is no reason to be anxious, and no reason to be afraid.

June 14, 2009

The Obama Policy on Democracy?

by Gedalyah Reback

The Obama Administration will face its most devastating challenge to the credibility it has so far garnered with Iran’s election. The administration has already taken up the policy the election was rigged, but it totally undercuts any credible approach to the Iranian regime for negotiations. As elucidated in an article in the Los Angeles Times, hawks and realists will argue the Iranians will not budge on their policies and resist any influence from the United States.

Analyst Michael Singh (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), summed up an article previewing the election like this:

Whatever the outcome on Friday, the U.S. message to Iran’s leaders should be simple: we honor not the trappings of democracy but the free exercise of it, and we will judge you not by your words but by your actions.”

To give a sense of what the Obama Administration has walked into, this analysis of his June 4th Cairo speech to the ‘Muslim world’ summarizes the Obama approach to democratic reform:

“Richard Eisendorf noted the choice of Cairo as the venue for the speech as the center of the Arab world and that the diversity of the crowd represented the full breadth of Egyptian public opinion. He then pointed to the loud applause during sections on democracy and human rights as evidence the crowd was not full of Mubarak loyalists. Acknowledging the concerns of his fellow panelists, he asserted that while policy follow up to the speech will be the most important element of his outreach to the Muslim world, the speech did leave a very strong feeling of respect in the way the United States under Obama intends to reach out to the Muslim world. He also pointed to the three D’s the administration has heretofore considered the cornerstones of its foreign policy: diplomacy, development and defense. He argued that in the president’s speech he appeared to add the fourth ‘D’ of democracy to the fold.”

There is much adieu about the timing of that speech, the week before Lebanese and Iranian elections. But Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (and author of “Treacherous Alliance” about the backdoor diplomacy among the US, Israel and Iran over the last 30 years) scoffs at the idea the speech hurt Hizbullah and predicted it had little influence on Mousavi’s supporters:

“Parsi, though a supporter of Obama’s outreach program, said the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations was only a minor factor in the election, far behind economic concerns and the incumbent’s management.

‘The argument is a little far-fetched,’ he said.”

Mousavi Groupees at a Campaign Rally

Balancing Democratization & Diplomacy with Non-Democratic Regimes

Barack Obama will be wise in trying to keep US hands out of domestic Iranian politics, but he would be stupid to not condemn the election results. But again he will have to talk down critics who will accuse him of cowardice regarding implementing his own words into real policy. It seems that if there were ever a time to promote the position of democracy, it would be when it is blatantly under attack.

But the Obama Administration has an opportunity to pursue an aggressive democratic policy without subverting the Iranian government, and that comes in continuing to upgrade its newest alliance, that with Iraq. Iraq’s drawbacks are that its democratic form of government is still young and functions with much more central authority and assumption of public trust than Westerners themselves would be comfortable with. There are also mutual allegations of corruption and militancy.

But as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out, “The most valuable thing that Mrs. Clinton could do right now is to spearhead a sustained effort to resolve the lingering disputes between Iraqi factions before we complete our withdrawal.

“If a decent and stable political order can take hold in Iraq, it could have an extremely positive impact on the future of the Arab world and on America’s reputation.”

Administration’s Plans to Still Offer Negotiations

The Obama Administration still wants to negotiate with the Iranians, based on a two-year-old promise of Barack Obama’s. This is one of several campaign promises he is committing himself to, even though the change in situation probably justifies a change in policy.

VP Joe Biden has said publicly they’d continue pressing for talks. But these were prefaced on certain conditions:

Last week, a senior administration official explained that Mr. Obama’s plan to give engagement until the end of the year to show success would stand no matter who won.

But not since the Islamic Revolution in 1978 and 1979 have there been such rallies in Iran. They are bigger than they have ever been, and are catching more eyes around the world than ever before. There has never been more of a golden opportunity to pressure the Iranian government than now. Already, the supreme ruler of the country (not elected) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered a ‘review’ of votes. This is presumably an attempt to placate rioters, or a review on whether the government will want to maintain its decision on rigging the election.

US Support for Popular Change in the Past

The United States supported these populist “velvet revolutions” under the Reagan and W. Bush Administrations, throughout Eastern Europe, and then in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon. All of them were successful, and happened within a span of a year and a half. The Georgian “Rose Revolution” in particular involved political leaders who had been trained by American NGOs after the fall of the Soviet Union. Each revolution is thought to have inspired any popular revolutions that occurred afterward, and might have actually been the catalyst for the sudden consolidation of power by the Iranian government in 2004.

This subtopic deserves its own analysis and post.

June 14, 2009

Obama Must Condemn Iranian Election Result or He will be Irrelevant

by Gedalyah Reback

The public is angry and there is no popular dispute about it: the Iranian election was stolen.

Riots continue across Tehran against the official results.

The interior ministry contacted Mir Hossein Mousavi before results were announced, telling him he had won the election, but supposedly to wait for a public announcement. When the campaign leaked the results openly, the Iranian government quickly responded that Ahmadinejad had won, even though only 20% of the vote had thus far been counted. The results’ final percentage barely changed, even as precincts that were overwhelmingly supportive of Mousavi submitted their results.

The Iranian public will never accept this result as legitimate, no matter how much longer this regime lasts. Additionally, Muslims will watch carefully to how Barack Obama reacts to this result. To seriously engage democrats in the Muslim world, or be taken seriously in regards to freedom from repression and the rights of free speech, assembly and representation, he will have to condemn this election result. President Obama cannot have both democratic progress and dialogue with Iran at the same time. Choosing ‘pragmatic’ diplomacy will not be appreciated by Middle Easterners in this situation. This is the most extreme of cases, and most blatant attack on democratic principles there in decades. The Bush Administration never encountered such a blatant violation of free and fair elections.

June 12, 2009

A Demilitarized State? Netanyahu Will Soon Have the Advantage in Public Discourse about the Two-State Solution

by Gedalyah Reback

It has only been written about, at least recently, in a couple of articles. One talks about this “major policy speech” Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will give in the next few days that will finally outline an explicit Israeli policy on the West Bank. The second points how Netanyahu has actually been hinting at that policy in public statements and talks with the Obama Administration. Basically, some people are predicting he will endorse two states, but with several important conditions.

The Principle of Limited Power for a Palestinian State

When Israel accepted the Road Map for peace in 2003, the government of Ariel Sharon accepted on 14 conditions. It did not accept the plan itself right away (partially why Israel has an advantage in the debate with the Obama Administration about its obligations under that Road Map. Netanyahu is expected to make a couple important demands, one of which would be the demilitarization of the Palestinian state.

The author of an editorial in Haaretz points to prevalent opinions about stationing peacekeepers directly on the West Bank of the Jordan River to prevent smuggling, or throughout the West Bank. This, the author says, is evidence the Western world is itself not prepared to grant all the powers of a state to a potential State of Palestine. So, would that “state” actually be a second state? Would it actually be what Benyamin Netanyahu is calling for, that Palestinians “govern themselves” but without the maintenance of a state?

It would be too naive to expect a demilitarized Palestinian state to accept sitting next to a traditional enemy, the State of Israel, which will continue its military relationship with the United States, Turkey, India and increasingly the Russian and Chinese governments. This leaves few options for military balance, and that void might be filled not by paramilitary groups like Hamas, but by a West Bank state’s neighbor – Jordan. The Jordanians have already volunteered on several occasions to train Palestinian police, including those involved in operations against Hamas. Even if the Jordanians are not willing to provide all the metal, the Saudis might be eager to 1) station some influence there or 2) segue into a military discourse with the IDF in coordination against Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas.

Previous Events Justify ‘Demilitarization Doctrine’

But saying that a West Bank state would be demilitarized in this scenario is also difficult to accept, logically. The IDF fought pitch battles with Palestinian police during the first year of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. It was 2002, with Operation Defensive Shield, when the Israeli Defense Forces reconquered the West Bank from the Palestinian Authority and suppressed a combative police force. The point is that the Palestinian police are themselves armed and regimented, with operational experience in warfare.

The absence of a military can only refer to things besides soldiers, which is a role the police would fill. No country would provide a Palestinian state with the tools necessary to invade another country. The Jordanians would never support a Palestinian tank corps, or a Palestinian air force, both of which could interfere in Jordanian domestic politics if a crisis unfolds at home pitting Palestinian Jordanians against the government. The Syrian invasion of Jordan in 1970, during Black September, proves it is a valid fear.

Making a Concession into a Gain

The unique thing Netanyahu has done is call the Obama Administration’s game-changing policies with one of his own. He took an issue which itself had been understood as a given, the two-state solution, and turned it into a bargaining chip. Knowing of oncoming demands from the Obama Administration, the Netanyahu government has wisely taken its time accepting any policy desires Obama has. Just like the Arab states have predicated recognition of Israel on an incredibly risky set of concessions by the Israelis, Netanyahu’s government has predicated recognition of a Palestinian state on similar political gestures.

Given these issues though, Prime Minister Netanyahu will force the world’s powers to openly admit opposition to an armed Palestinian state. The idea no army would stand under the Palestinian Authority has always existed, and so far has not been denied by the Obama Administration like other American commitments regarding the peace process have been denied (understandings on settlements).

Even the most ardent of advocates for the Palestinian cause are troubled when they realize how serious an issue this would be, and might result in a major concession by the Palestinian Authority. The so-called “Obama-Abdullah” Plan imagines a demilitarized Arab state alongside Israel, that is also forbidden from entering international security agreements that do not include Israel.

The two states would have to have a symbiotic relationship under any mutually acceptable plan for peace, not to mention accept as ambiguous certain issues in order to avoid sparking civil wars in either state.

June 8, 2009

Israeli Settlements between Law and International Agreements

by Gedalyah Reback

Ma’ale Adumim

The developing international dispute over settlements is not new, but itself is being used as the issue on which the Obama Administration thinks it can most easily gain concessions from Israel. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have never realistically considered impeding or uprooting major settlements, especially the ones that continue to grow as suburbs of cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Introduction to the Legal Arguments

The important thing the Obama Administration has not done is call any of the settlements illegal. Even Madeline Albright, Secretary of State for Bill Clinton, said explicitly that they were legal (This link will bring you to a right-wing Islamic website called, but it confirms the quote). The new administration is highlighting the Road Map for Peace as the precedent for ceasing new settlement construction, not any UN resolutions or aspect of the Geneva Convention.

This leaves open the idea that the US is either 1) implicitly acknowledging that the legal argument against the settlements is weak and easily countered by the Israeli argument, or 2) recognizes that emphasizing prevailing policy of many governments to the Israelis is not a rational ground to stand on for persuading the new Israeli government to undertake a policy favorable to the US.

The Israeli argument is partially based on its reading of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which argues effectively that Article 2 of the Fourth Geneva Convention undercuts Article 49. Article 2 states that “The Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party . . .” Article 49 states that there will be no transfer of citizens from an occupying power’s territory to the occupied territory (of the High Contracting Party). Article 49 lacks the terminology “High Contracting Party” because it is already explicitly mentioned as a qualifier to what type of occupied territory is being addressed in the convention. Several international court decisions have not accepted this argument, but ex post facto provide no practical grounds (if any) for dismantling the settlements.

Members of the Democratic party in Congress have been hesitant to oppose too strongly any policies stated by a powerful and popular personality like Barack Obama. But they still seem to be less in favor of placing the onus on Israel or even limiting natural growth in the settlements. Since these are political issues having to do with application of agreements Israel has entered into, they are issues of negotiation even more so than issues of interpretation. They are not law, as much as states always try to apply non-treaty agreements as law because it is convenient and good for political stability. The US implicitly follows this principle as it continues to escape past understandings between Israeli and American governments before the Netanyahu and Obama eras.

Natural growth in settlements has never been applied as an element of concern under the Road Map, and was never applied as such by Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert or George W Bush. Saying the Road Map does call for it is a very difficult argument to make, and requires the US to negotiate changes to the Road Map, rather than the Israelis.

Israeli Adherence? American Reluctance?

This brings up the issue the US has instigated and is being debated in Israel. The US is seeking to amend, or dismiss certain understandings between the US and Israeli governments made between the last two Israeli governments and the Bush Administration. These are agreements initiated by Kadima-led governments, not Likud, that the Obama Administration wants to change and is chastising the Likud-led government for not agreeing to.

How can Israelis take seriously a demand to follow mutually-agreed understandings to the letter between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority if the United States government will not implement its understandings with the Israeli government to the letter?

This leaves two primary choices: 1) Declare as “non-binding” any agreements Israeli governments have made over the last several years with the Palestinian Authority and the United States, or 2) the United States continues implementing the understandings the Bush Administration made with the Sharon and Olmert governments that are themselves the basis of understandings between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority. Otherwise, the US undermines the value of precedent in terms of past agreements and opens the door for amending the Oslo Accords, something the Obama Administration does not want to find itself responsible for enabling.

Conclusion, for Now

The Obama Administration is trying to pressure Israel on an issue that is not as important as other issues because it feels like the Netanyahu government will more easily make agreements on it than it would on security or on Jerusalem. The administration is right to think it. At the same time, the Obama Administration’s negotiating position on a mutually agreeable policy is awkward, bizarre and undervalues the human needs of settlers.

He can use this issue to get closer to Muslim countries and Muslim populations that view them as a colonialist enterprise, but refusing to advance an understanding of the Israeli position on them only undermines any chance Israel will have to enter into this new Middle Eastern order of peace and understanding. It benefits the Americans and hurts the Israelis. Even if politically disagreeable, settlers, who often have bought their properties and have the force of law behind their settlements should not have to arbitrarily restrict adding an extension to their house when they bring new children into their families.

June 8, 2009

It’s Safe to Say Hizbullah Lost the 2006 War

by Gedalyah Reback

The idea purports that Israel failed to break Hizbullah’s operational capabilities, or destroy its weapons arsenals, or eliminate it from the political scene. And, consequently, this all implies Israel lost politically and militarily in 2006. Reality demonstrates, especially after the loss by Hizbullah’s political coalition in the June 7th elections, these ideas are categorically wrong. Hizbullah can now be called the statistical loser of that war. While both governments that fought that war were defeated in parliamentary elections this year, Hizbullah’s loss is much starker. Hizbullah predicated its “victory” on its actual survival and political capital. Israel never calculated any sort of loss in regards to the political fortunes of the Kadima government, but in military and strategic outcomes. Hizbullh lost the Second Lebanon War.

As incompetent a decision Ehud Olmert’s government made to fight the war the way it did, there was little credit or acknowledgment ever given to Israel for its successes during the war or that Israel had held back the bulk of its force from invading Lebanon. 1982 was an instance of a calculated, full-scale invasion that saw Israel with totally different objectives. The Israeli army was in Beirut within days. In 2006, Ehud Olmert started his war in immediate response to provocation, and was meant to both demonstrate the strength of Israel’s capabilities plus hurt Hizbullah politically for recklessness.

Comparing 1982 to 2006

In 1982, the Israeli government had made a controversial decision to not only throw the PLO out of Lebanon, but fill the power vacuum left open by the Lebanese Civil War and establish a government friendly to Israel. It was seen as a once-in-a-generation chance to stabilize one of Israel’s neighbors and establish peaceful relations with an Arab state. As this objective became clear, Israelis saw the political goals as dangerous and prone to new problems Israel had never experienced before. But at the time of the invasion, public support was immense and the country was unaware the motives were more than just destroying the PLO.

In 2006, Hizbullah was not thrown out of Lebanon, nor was there ever a chance they would be totally destroyed militarily. It was a total response with the objective of inflicting as much visible damage to Hizbullah as possible in the shortest possible amount of time. Dozens of raids across the Israeli-Lebanese border were not launched in invasion formations, nor were they intended to cpature large swaths of Lebanese territory like in 1982. There was no mission on the table to capture southern Beirut, the stronghold of Hizbullah’s political power and administration.

Hizbullah’s Political War

The response was in fact predicted by Hizbullah’s leadership. Hassan Nasrallah himself has denied this implicitly. He said in August 27, 2006, “Had we known that the capture of the soldiers would have led to this, we would definitely not have done it.” The statement though is controversial, considering Hizbullah’s raid on Israeli soldiers was made at the height of Operation Summer Rains, the first Israel-Gaza war, lunched that June in response to the capture of Gilad Shalit.

Nasrallah launched his raid to capture soldiers, banking on an Israeli response similar to the massive onslaught in the Gaza Strip that was already going on. His motives were not based on capturing soldiers for a prisoner exchange like he has claimed, but because of the intense pressure the Lebanese government was imposing on Hizbullah to disarm. The Lebanese government had been trying to negotiate an Israeli withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms, hoping to take away Hizbullah’s last reason to hold on to its weapons. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had been sending messages to Israel, via the US and British governments, for months.

In September 2004, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which advised the disarmament of Hizbullah and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. In 2005, Lebanese went into massive protests demanding the Syrians leave after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Hizbullah was under intense pressure.

Now, almost three years after the huge “victory rally” in September 2006, Hizbullah’s political alliance has not come out with the results it foresaw. It may have to fight for veto power in the new government. Lebanese have responded they do not overwhelmingly support a “resistance” that uses its firepower to take over half of Beirut and coerce the government into giving the militia more power. Lebanese know full well the assassination of major politicians, including ministers, has made Hizbullah’s ascent in the government easier.

Requiem for a Victory

Today, UNIFIL in southern Lebanon patrols the border with 15,000 soldiers. Hizbullah was hesitant to launch another war this January when Israel went to war with Gaza for the second time in three years. Iran is increasingly unpopular as an instigator, while the United States’ new president gains traction among Arabs. The US will now become a stronger patron of the Lebanese army, ratheting up pressure on Hizbullah to disarm. In the picture I see, I would say confidently Israel won the Second Lebanon War.

(June 8, 2009) Note: I published this stating both “governments” involved in the 2006 war lost elections this year. This is a misnomer, Hizbullah was a minority member of the cabinet and that Lebanese cabinet never authorized the operation. Ehud Olmert’s government at the beginning of the war declared the Lebanese government as a whole responsible for Hizbullah’s actions because of that minority, but several days later publicly declared it considered Hizbullah the beliigerent with whom Israel was at war.

June 4, 2009

The Obama Speech in General

by Gedalyah Reback

I think Barack Obama is clearly prioritizing mending ties with Muslims, but at the same time undermined himself by spending 9 minutes talking about the Israelis, 3 minutes talking about the Iranians, and absolutely no time talking about Lebanon.

Settlements are a talking point, because they simply are not the most important issue Israelis and Palestinians concern themselves with. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have never realistically considered impeding or uprooting major settlements, especially the ones that continue to grow as suburbs of cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The President has picked an issue he thinks Israel can give some leeway on, compared to security and Jerusalem, that the US can used to win points in Muslim public opinion.

The Obama Administration was designed to build up US ties with Muslim countries in order to make the pursuit of American goals much easier by ending Muslim opposition to US policies. It will be slow in coming and I doubt that after four years Muslims will overwhelmingly support American policies, but it seems to be that they will support them 5 to 6 times more than they did under George W Bush.

But if he was thinking Muslims would understand US policies better by emphasizing the points that he did in this speech, he is absolutely wrong. US goals of undermining nuclear proliferation by Iran and North Korea will not get any more tension than they already have, since he spent only three minutes on the issue, and scarcely mentioned Iranians.

But Muslims around the world, even Sunni Arabs, do not conceive of an Iran that would ever use nuclear weapons, especially against Sunni Arab countries. The Obama Administration banked raising poll numbers on being stern on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I doubt that Muslims will ever take this as the major initiative the US needs to undertake to earn back any respect.

Even the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, as he described with as much detail as he could in Cairo, nor an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, will placate public opinion in Muslim countries.

Iraq and Afghanistan are recent issues that result from past issues that are yet unresolved. Issues with Israel are not directly related to the United States, and the idea that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will solve the problems for Israelis in their foreign relations and domestic relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs is also naive – but this is again an Israeli concern that the United States cannot effectively relate to as the world’s most influential empire and not as a small embattled state like Israel.

For the US, issues of ties to governments like Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, and eventually to Iran will be the issue. It’s those ties to despotic regimes, just like Barack Obama emphasized in regards to the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq, are what irritate Muslims. There is consequently a double-edged sword in fostering ties with certain countries if those countries never make progress toward change.

He took a few important shots at Muslim countries and European countries on major issues. Firstly, he highlighted Bosnia and Darfur. For Darfur, Egypt has been criticized for its ties to the Sudanese regime and especially defending President Omar al-Bashir. The entire Arab League has vowed to defend him from the warrant issued for his arrest by the International Court of Justice, an amazing policy considering they implemented it while trying to criticize Israel for its Gaza operation, which killed 300 TIMES LESS the amount of people than Bashir’s operations in Darfur the last six years, and in fact better targeted enemy fighters than the Sudanese military ever has.

Toward Europe, he attacked the idea of banning Muslim hijab in public places, especially schools, and said he would take to task anyone who tried to take away the right of Muslim women to wear it. He also said it was wrong to think that women that do cover their hair, or wear any other conservative clothing, are in any sense lacking in equality compared to their male counterparts – the emphasis should be on their opportunity in their countries and not whether common culture demands a more conservative style. (This I thought was an interesting point, because as a sound bite it doesn’t just apply to Muslims.)

Overall, there is a lot more to be said in the implications of his differing policies toward Iran and North Korea, and for that matter toward Israel and South Korea as American allies. There is obviously so much more, and many more issues with settlements that the Obama Administration is instigating more than it realizes, especially on natural growth.

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