Archive for January, 2010

Putting Middle East peace back on the agenda

As we mark one year into the Obama era, several realities have
become painfully clear.

● There are limits to what a U.S. President is willing or able to
do.
 Obama began
his term in a rush to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, which he claimed was
in “America’s
national security interests.” One year later and he appears to be no
longer in a rush. In recent interviews he has analyzed the reasons for the
failure to make progress and he pointedly ignored any mentioning of the issue
in his State of the Union. What, of course, is
distressing is that in addressing the other unrealized priorities he set for
his first year (health care, reform of the banking industry, and energy/climate
change), the President has made clear his determination to fight “the
lobbyists and special interests” standing in the way of change. There are
no indications he’ll extend this same fighting spirit to Middle
East peace. His team, headed by George Mitchell, will continue to
work in the field, but for now, with a sluggish economy, still staggeringly
high unemployment, and Congressional elections in November, unless an unlikely
“breakthrough” is in the offing, Obama will direct his personal
energies on issues upper-most on the minds of voters. 

● Both the Israeli and Palestinian political situations have become
seriously dysfunctional.
 Obama
has alluded to this in recent interviews and at a Town Hall session in Florida, last week. This
problem is even more significant than the President suggested. Israeli
hardliners and religiously fanatic settlers pose a serious threat not only to
Palestinians, but to any Israeli government that tries to uproot West Bank settlements. They are a “civil war in the
making” and the danger they pose must be recognized and confronted. While Israel has, at
times made a show of taking them on, albeit in a limited way, I fear no
coalition Israeli government is ready to wage the fight needed to defeat these
elements. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu feels that he has
successfully “gamed” the U.S. Administration and has been emboldened
by his “victories.”

On the Palestinian side, the situation can
only be described as distressed. The Palestinian Authority’s leadership,
already weakened by their 2006 electoral loss, and their deep internal division,
has been further hurt by the “limbs” the U.S. walked them out on (a
settlement freeze and the initial rejection of the Goldstone Report), only to
abandon them in the end. And despite the disasters which Hamas’ failed
leadership has helped to bring down on their people, they don’t appear ready to
change direction any time soon.

● Finally there is the demonstrated weakness of the Arab States to
use their collective strength to launch any “game changing”
diplomatic initiatives.
 Arabs
should not have waited, as they did, for Obama to take office. The period
between the 2008 election and the Inauguration provided an excellent
opportunity to put forward an Arab initiative to which the new President would
have been forced to respond. Instead, it was Israel that attempted to greet the
incoming Administration with what they hoped would be their disastrous
“game changing” war to eliminate Hamas. And when, at the beginning of
his term, Obama challenged the Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab states to
make “confidence building” gestures to create an improved environment
for peace-making, once again the Arabs had the opportunity to advance their own
proposals. And once again, they did not.

* * *

And so here we are one
year gone, the wind is out of the President’s sails, the situation on the
ground is more troubled and complicated, and the Israelis, though facing some
international pressure, are feeling that they have regained the upper hand in
the U.S.
What can be done? The answer to this question is, most certainly, not to wait
for “magic” from Obama or Mitchell. There are concrete steps Arabs
can take during this period. First and foremost on the agenda should be to
follow the Saudi lead to achieve a broader Arab consensus that will both
restore some degree of Palestinian unity, pressing and helping them to rebuild
their house and support an institution-building effort, like that laid down by
Salam Fayyed. It will also be important for the Palestinians to lay out an
agenda for confronting the occupation and activating and mobilizing their base
in non-violent direct action. The demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah and at the
Wall demand attention. They can provide the basis for expanded joint
Palestinian-Israeli action.

Such a program can help reenergize the Palestinian base, bring the leadership
and their constituency into a closer working relationship, and draw
international support creating new leverage for Palestinians in future
negotiations. If this is augmented by a renewed Arab peace initiative with a
strong public relations component, it may provide a constructive “game
changer” that could pressure both Israel and US to respond. 

 

This piece was cross-posted from the Huffington Post with the author’s permission,

Focusing on domestic concerns

George S Hishmeh - Considering the serious economic
woes that many Americans faced last year, and are still facing, President
Barack Obama devoted most of his first State of the Union address before a
joint session of the Congress to how he hopes to turn the situation around.

As anticipated, foreign policy
played a second fiddle to the nation’s other domestic concerns and sidestepped
other serious international problems – US
military involvement in Iraq
and Afghanistan and probably
Yemen,
as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to cite just a few.

The first impression one gets is
that the Arab and Muslim worlds have been taken for a ride by Obama. What has
been disappointing to date has been the feeling that Obama’s stance in this
respect does not appear to be much different from that of his predecessors.

The high hopes that Arabs and
Muslims, particularly Palestinians, had especially after Obama’s historic
speech in Cairo
are now almost shattered.

All recall his pledge at Cairo University
last year that he was “firm in my belief that the interests we share as human
beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart”. He had told
a large appreciative audience there that he was seeking “a new beginning”
between the United States
and the Arab and Muslim worlds, where they can “share common principles -
principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human
beings”.

But Obama has hardly done so in
his first year in office, particularly as far as the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict is concerned. True, one of his early and commendable decisions was the
appointment of George J. Mitchell as his Middle East
peace envoy. Regrettably, Mitchell has spent more than a year shuttling fruitlessly
between the two sides and recruiting somewhat unsuccessfully some of the Arab
countries to the flawed American position.

Even Obama, who is also being
criticised widely for his domestic policies, made an astounding confession in
an interview with Time magazine.

“I think that we overestimated our
ability to persuade” the Palestinians and Israelis “to start engaging in a
meaningful conversation”.

He added: “I think it is
absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough
that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on
both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

His observation is bewildering.
The outlines of the solution appear clear cut, almost simplistic. A two-state
solution can be reached in line with UN resolutions, whereby the Palestinians
would establish a viable and sovereign state on only 22 per cent of their
original homeland, and the remainder would be Israel. But the growth of Israeli
colonies in the two, non-contiguous Palestinian areas, the West
Bank and Gaza Strip, over the past 40 some years has become a
major stumbling block.

Since Obama chose not to undertake
any arm-twisting, the Israelis took advantage of his low profile, continuously
upping the ante. Their first demand prompted a shameless American retreat,
whereby the Obama administration dropped its insistence on a total freeze of
Israeli colonial expansion in the West Bank, a position the Americans
originally shared with the Palestinians who, in turn, remain firmly committed
to stopping Israel’s
continued usurpation of occupied East Jerusalem.

There followed another demand from
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who revived an old Israeli dream for
an army base alongside the Jordan River once a Palestinian state is
established. And on Israeli Arbor Day, while Mitchell was meeting with
Palestinian leaders, last Sunday, Netanyahu went out of his way to plant a tree
in an Israeli colony, where he announced arrogantly that several other settlement
blocks would remain part of Israel.

A Washington Post columnist
pointed out that the African-American president needs at some point “to
metaphorically, of course, actually slug somebody” as it is not enough “to use
variation of the word ‘fight’ [as he did] more than 20 times in relatively
brief remarks recently”.

Eugene Robinson added: “The point
isn’t that Obama should be seen slapping opponents and obstructionist around as
a way of demonstrating his presidential alpha-maleness. It’s that if Obama’s agenda
[domestically or internationally] is as vital and necessary as he says it is,
the White House should make its actions match up with its words.”

The chances of Obama following
through with his earlier promises on foreign policy now seem as remote as ever
in the wake of his disappointing State of the Union address.

This post was originally published on the
Jordan Times 
.

 

 

At the centre of peace efforts

 

As negotiators and politicians
wonder who needs to do what before moving, it is clear that all good minds and
good people should focus on one issue: how to resolve the conflict over Jerusalem.

If the 1980s and 1990s witnessed a
relatively nonviolent first Palestinian uprising and a breakthrough mutual
recognition between the PLO and Israel,
the first 10 years of the third millennium were violent and destructive. The
decades-long hard work and sacrifice of Palestinians, Israelis and
international supporters of peace evaporated almost overnight.

A year after the first Intifada
broke out, on November 15, 1988, PLO delegates at the 19th session of the
Palestine National Council supported Yasser Arafat’s declaration of an
independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Five years later, Arafat shook hands
with hardline Israeli prime minister Yitzhaq Rabin, in a gesture that many
thought was the beginning of a serious peace process.

Instead, however, US President
Bill Clinton, who witnessed that handshake, spent the last days of his two-term
presidency fruitlessly pushing for an agreement at Camp
David. A final effort to reach an agreement in the Red Sea resort of Taba brought the parties closer than
they have ever been, again with no results. Violent confrontations had erupted
by then, and since then, talks and negotiations have been replaced by failed
attempts to resolve the conflict through violence.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the
politicians was that they were unable to provide hope to their people and were
unable to stand up to those who tried to take violent shortcuts to resolve the
conflict.

The reasons for the breakdown of
the Camp David II talks have been talked about ad nauseam during this past
decade. But contrary to the oft-repeated Israeli spin, Jerusalem, and not the right of return, was
the reason for the summit’s failure. Indeed, if there is one issue that has
permeated and defeated all efforts to achieve peace, it is Jerusalem.

It was because of Jerusalem that Israeli opposition leader
Ariel Sharon made his provocative visit to Al Aqsa Mosque in 2000. The visit
was met with angry protests. Unlike the prevailing Israeli narrative, the
Intifada did not start because of this visit; it broke out because of the
brutality the Israeli security personnel used to quash angry demonstrators.

Seven years after the famous White
House handshake and 13 years after the eruption of the first Intifada,
Palestinians were angry at the absence of a clear path towards an end to
occupation and an ever-expanding Israeli settlement effort. Then, scores of
Palestinian demonstrators were gunned down simply because they protested the Sharon visit.

Jerusalem continues to be a stumbling block. As the first decade of
the 21st century comes to an end, the eastern part of the city has been
surrounded by an 8-metre-high concrete wall. The number of demolitions of
Palestinian houses in the city has increased sharply. Over 4,000 Palestinian
Jerusalemites have been denied their birthright to reside in the holy city.

Meanwhile, Israel is
attempting to Judaise East Jerusalem, especially the Sheikh Jarrah area, moving
Jews in and non-Jews out. The settlements have become the major impediment to
the return to peace talks. Israel
still refuses to accept a settlement freeze in occupied East
Jerusalem.

These past 10 years has certainly
been bad for the Palestinians, and violence, the absence of negotiations and
the special focus on East Jerusalem are likely
to create many more problems. This is especially unavoidable if the issue of Jerusalem is going to be
swept under the carpet.

Ironically, while the issue has
been the major obstacle to a breakthrough in this intractable conflict, a
number of efforts were and continue to be exerted to find solutions. A more
recent effort is led by a number of veteran Canadian diplomats and researchers
who have correctly zoomed in on the need to resolve the status of the
one-square-kilometer Old
City.

Whether their hard work bears any
fruit depends on the political will to find nonviolent solutions to the
conflict. Because whether it is borders, Jerusalem,
the right of return, settlements or security arrangements, all parties to the
conflict must know that there are no military or violent solutions. If we have
learned anything from this past bloody decade in Palestine
and Israel,
it is that violence only begets violence.

This piece was originally
published in the Jordan Times. 

Breaking the Silence exposes humiliation of Palestinians, violence and theft by IDF soldiers

Noam Sheizaf - Anti occupation group Breaking the Silence published a new set of testimonies, this time from female soldiers
who served in recent years in the Palestinians territories. These include
stories of humiliation, systematic violence, cruelty and theft by IDF soldiers.
The Palestinians who were harmed by those acts were innocent civilians, or in
the worse cases illegal workers in Israel or stone-throwers. They
weren’t suspect of any terrorist activity against Israelis.

You can read some of the testimonies on Ynet (A good word to Israel’s
most popular news site for posting the story in English as well. I wonder what
people would have said if it was published on mainstream US media). On
the Hebrew version of the article, you can also hear one of the testimonies.

Even though we
heard such stories before, some of the stuff is not easy to read or listen to.
It seems that in some IDF units, hurting Arabs became a way to gain respect and
admiration of fellow soldiers. Some female soldiers, suffering from a lower
statue to begin with, apparently did their best to show they don’t fall short
from men in this field. This comes from one of the testimonies:

“A female combat
soldier needs to prove more…a female soldier who beats up others is a serious
fighter…when I arrived there was another female there with me, she was there
before me…everyone spoke of how impressive she is because she humiliates Arabs
without any problem. That was the indicator. You have to see her, the way she
humiliates, the way she slaps them, wow, she really slapped that guy.”

In some cases, it
seems that violence was kept secret from commanders, at least from the officers
in charge (though most officers know more of what’s going on with their
soldiers than they care to admit). In other cases, commanders took part in the
acts:

Another female
soldier’s testimony, who served at the Erez checkpoint, indicates how violence
was deeply rooted in the daily routine: “There was a procedure in which before
you release a Palestinian back into the Strip – you take him inside the tent
and beat him.”

That was a
procedure?

“Yes, together
with the commanders.”

How long did it
last?

“Not very long;
within 20 minutes they would be back in the base, but the soldiers would stop
at the post to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes while the guys from the
command post would beat them up.”

This happened
with every illegal alien?

“There weren’t
that many…it’s not something you do everyday, but sort of a procedure. I don’t
know if they strictly enforced it each and every time…it took me a while to
realize that if I release an illegal alien on my end, by the time he gets back
to Gaza he will go through hell… two or three hours can pass by the time he
gets into the Strip. In the case of the kid, it was a whole night. That’s
insane, since it’s a ten minute walk. They would stop them on their way; each
soldier would give them a ‘pet’, including the commanders.”

One of the worse
cases described is that of a child who’s arms and legs were supposedly broken
by soldiers. This is hear-say evidence, but even the fact that it was never
reported nor investigated teaches us something about what’s going on in the
territories.

“I don’t know who
or how, but I know that two of our soldiers put him in a jeep, and that two
weeks later the kid was walking around with casts on both arms and legs…they
talked about it in the unit quite a lot – about how they sat him down and put
his hand on the chair and simply broke it right there on the chair.”

Read the rest here.

——–

As I said, this is not the first time these kinds of
testimonies are published. Personally, I would have rather these soldiers
reporting the acts as they happened or refusing to serve in the WB and Gaza
altogether, but as I know form my own experience, it is never that simple.
Sometimes you don’t fully understand what’s going on, and even if you do, going
against your peers – as well as your commanders – in a combat unit is difficult
in a way it’s hard even to begin explaining for those who never served.

Altogether, it’s better to talk late than never. It’s
especially important given the fact that there are many people – especially Israel’s supporters in the US – who still
believe that Palestinians’ lives are basically OK, that the IDF is “the most
moral army in the world”, and all this crap. You can go on supporting Israel or
thinking that Israel has no choice but to hold on to the territories and keep
the siege on Gaza, but at least be honest enough to look at the price of these
policies. I would expect Israel’s
supporters – if they are really honest – to be the first to listen to the
people of Breaking the Silence.

In the face of
another smearing campaign which is likely to come, we should also remember that
the testifying soldiers have done their service for the same causes the people
who go against them now believe in, and that these soldiers have nothing to
gain and sometimes much to lose from speaking in public, even as
veterans.  I think they have earned their right to be heard – in Israel and
abroad.

In fact, to me this set of testimonies is even more
important than the one Breaking the Silencepublished regarding operation Cast Lead in Gaza – or at least just as important -
because it reveals something of the real nature of the occupation that many
people don’t get.

Israel’s occupation is not the most murderous regime today, certainly
not in history. It’s the daily pressure on the entire population and the
humiliations all Palestinians go through that’s unprecedented, at least today. We
are talking about millions of civilians, in roadblocks, on the streets and even
in their houses, at the hands 18 years old kids, with no one to appeal to and
no law to guard them – and that’s before the settlers come into the picture. In this
reality, and with a popular uprising against the occupation in the background,
acts like those described in the Breaking the Silence report are almost inevitable. This is almost what Italian
philosopher Giorgio Agamben called “a bare life”, where one is striped out of all protections
modern society is supposed to provide him – and it has been going on like this
for more than four decades.

 

Cross-posted from the Promised Land blog.

 

Has Obama given up on the Mideast?

Eileen White Reed - The very first question at President
Barack Obama’s town hall event in Tampa, FL, yesterday underscored the political foolhardiness of
his omission of the MidEast peace process from
the State of the Union speech on Wednesday night. A young woman who had worked
in his campaign came at him with both barrels over the human-rights situation
associated with Israel’s
occupation of Palestinian lands. His response showed he was totally unprepared for
the question:

“The Middle East
is obviously an issue that has plagued a region for centuries, and it’s an
issue that elicits a lot of passions, as you heard,” Obama said. “Here’s my
view: Israel
is one of our strongest allies. It is a vibrant democracy. It shares links with
us in all sorts of ways. It is critical for us, and I will never waver from Israel’s
security. … What is also true is that the plight of the Palestinians is
something that we have to pay attention to.”

The best line he could muster,
according to Politico:
“I make no apology for trying to fix stuff that’s hard.”

Watch it here on CBS News:

A
new piece in Time magazine
looks at a group of policy experts, convened regularly by the United States
Institute of Peace, to funnel advice to Middle East Special Envoy George
Mitchell. Their general view:

“The status quo is not sustainable,” says a senior member of the
group. “International tolerance of Israeli policies is eroding and Palestinian
democrats are coming under increasing pressure. The prospects for a two-state
solution are eroding as well as Palestinians lose confidence that peace is
possible.”

…. One senior member of the group, expressing his own opinion,
says that in the wake of Mitchell’s failure last weekend, the Administration
has two options: taking a “minimalist approach,” in which the U.S. goes through
the motions of pushing for peace for appearances’ sake, without actually
driving a process that could achieve it; or putting specific ideas on the table
about the contours of a final peace agreement.”

Looks like Obama has opted for going through the motions thus far.
Does he lack the political will to take on AIPAC, the neocon lobby, and a major
U.S.
ally – hard stuff indeed.

This piece was cross posted from True/Slant blog