Sunday, May 25, 2008

Israel and Hamas continue their indirect negotiations for a cease-fire in Gaza. According to Yedioth Ahronoth the most likely agreement would for two stages. The first would commit Hamas to cease all firing of rockets and other attacks from Gaza and to stop all smuggling of arms, money and combatants from Sinai into Gaza. In return Israel would commit to cease all military activities in Gaza. In the second stage, Israel would lift its blockade of goods in and out of Gaza and negotiate with Hamas for the release of Israel captured soldier Gilead Shavit in return for Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners. Reaching agreement on this exchange will likely take a long time because Hamas's list of the prisoners it wants includes many whom Israel claims are murderers. Since Israel's declared policy is not to release such prisoners, a decision will be needed at the ministerial level, i.e., agreement among PM Olmert, Foreign Affairs Minister Livni and Defense Minister Barak. In view of Olmert's political fragility and impending competition between Livni and Barak to succeed him, these ministers will not rush to any decision.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008


This past week's two beig Middle East developments drew mixed reviews. They also made the Bush administration look like a marginal player in Middle East affairs and its policies toward Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas, Israel and Iran like miserable failures. The agreement that key Lebanese political players signed in Doha, Qatar was a victory primarily for Hezbollah and secondarily for Arab League diplomacy. The agreement resolves for now the political crisis in Lebanon: It commits the parties to a National Unity government in which Hezbollah will have veto power; it agrees to the election of the compromise presidential candidate Gen. Michel Suleiman and calls for certain revisions of the electoral laws that will increase Shiite representation in the Lebanese parliament. These changes correspond to the probable populations of the respective communities and certainly to their respective military strengths, as Hezbollah's recent armed seizure of West Beirut bluntly demonstrated. Through the agreement the government parties averted a coup d'état or civil war, which would have cost them more. The agreement, however, does not address the wider issue of Hezbollah's future character, viz., political party, movement, army; it does not quiet fears in Lebanon of Hezbollah creating a state within a state.

The agreement generally received regional and international applause. Even the United States, which had called upon Lebanon's government to stand up to Hezbollah expressed some satisfaction. Its spin was that Hezbollah's gains, achieved at gunpoint, had cost it its reputation and so political partners among other Lebanese Some skeptics, however, questioned whether the agreement just delayed the collapse of Lebanon into civil or could really defuse the situation. Yet the Arab patrons of the parties -- primarily the Saudis, on one side, Syria, on the other apparently signed off on the agreement. That suggests they have interests in making the agreement work or, put another way, keeping Lebanon from becoming the battleground of a proxy war between the United States and Iran. If so, the politics of the regional system have trumped those of the global system (not that Iran is really a global player). Since the regional politics are traditionally contentious and solidarity weak, the agreement testifies to the extent of the Arab states' disdain for the United States and suspicions of Iran.

Official Israel and Syrian statements that the two countries are indirectly negotiating peace through the Turkish foreign ministry are no surprise since reports of such negotiations have been leaking for the past month. The statements, however, made the countries' respective patrons, the US and Iran, look ineffective, since each had publicly warned its client against such negotiations. Indeed, a New York Times editorial rather imaginatively argued that George Bush's condemnation of appeasers in his May 14 speech to the Knesset was aimed at both Obama and Israelis who want to negotiate with groups to whom the Administration refuses to speak, viz., Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah. Secretary of State Rice said rather coolly that it was okay for Israel to negotiate with Syria. She then claimed that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were making such progress in their US sponsored negotiations that agreements could be signed by the end of the year. Since neither the parties to these negotiations nor any informed observers believe this, Rice is either terribly out of touch or just plain lying. Given her record, it's hard to tell.

Iranian president Ahmadinejad and his circle were reportedly pissed off by the revelation to the point of branding Syria's negotiations a betrayal of its friendship with Iran. Iran's foreign ministry, however, denied the truth of such reports. So Ahmadinejad is likely to soft pedal his opposition while working behind the scenes to block the negotiations.

There is considerable doubt among Israelis that the negotiations can succeed, though arguably both sides can benefit if Israel gives Syria the entire Golan Heights in return for a peace that includes an end of Syria's alliances with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. For one thing, earlier negotiations between Syria and Israel failed because the two sides could not agree on the extent and modality of Syria's control of the Golan. Second, Israel PM Olmet is too weak politically to get the Israel public behind such a deal. Indeed many skeptics believe he chose to disclose the negotiations now to deflect attention from a police investigation of his possibly corrupt practices when he was Minister of Industry and Commerce in a previous government. Third, although Israeli governments have tended to look at negotiations as an alternative to negotiations with the Palestinians, the Israel will need some assurance that some peace can be reached with the Palestinians before it will agree to relinquishing all or most of the Golan.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

On the Brink or in the Bazaar

Reuters and al-Jazeera report that talks in Doha, Qatar among Lebanese leaders have fasiled to reach any agreement for ending the political crisis in Lebanon. According to al-Jazeera one major disagreement is over proposals concerning the size of electoral districts, particularly in Beirut, with Christians fearing that large sized districts would dilute their representation in Parliament. According to Reuters, the sticking point is Hezbollah's refusal to a compromise proposed by the Qatari hosts that would give Hezbollah 10 ministers in the government cabinet and some say over the appointment of a n eleventh. This would give it close to, but not guaranteed, veto power in the government.

The compromise proposal evidences Hezbollah's strength and indicates how out of touch with reality is the Bush administration in thinking, as Bush's Security Adviser Stephen Hadley puts it, the talks are an opportunity for the Lebanese government to clip Hezbollah's wings.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Articles in Le Monde and The New York Times highlight the threat of radicalization among Lebanese Sunni, who feel humiliated by thrashing Hezbollah gave the Sunni militia and institutions in Beirut. Their attention has increasingly turned to hardline and even Salafists preachers who have denounced Hezbollah and Shiites in general as enemies. Fighting along sectarian lines broke out in Tripoli last week. Although the main players are different, this type of polarization has reminded many Lebanese of the situation before the outbreak of the civil war in the 1970s.

Of further interest regarding Lebanon: New York Times columnist David Brooks reports speaking to Barack Obama about Lebanon, among other flash points in the Middle East, and being impressed by the candidate's knowledge and policy sense. Obama clarified to Brooks's satisfaction that he did not consider Hezbollah just a political party and that he would strengthen the Lebanese state as a provider of services to its citizens in order to peel away Lebanese Shiite support for Hezbollah. Obama would not rule out any talking with Hezbollah, because tough strategies work best when coupled to diplomacy, but he would not talk unconditionally with Hezbollah, Hamas or Iran. Brooks concluded that Obama is a realist regarding the Middle East. That's quite a good thing for Brooks and other moderate conservatives.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Fighting Words

In considering a comment on Crusader-in-Chief George Bush's speech yesterday to the Knesset, I recalled the contradictory advice of Proverbs 26: 4-5:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.
Since Bush does not read this blog and much has already been written about his gratuitous, attack on Obama, McCain's hypocritical follow on and the Democrats' replies, I thought it better to focus on the Israeli response to the speech.

  1. It was warm. Most Israelis were predisposed to applaud whatever he said. They think they owe him. On their view, the invasion of Iraq removed a threat to Israel, albeit an overrated one, and the occupation has created so much chaos in Iraq that another threat cannot arise from there for decades.
  2. They found nothing wrong in what he said and a lot to their liking. Right wing Israelis could ignore his mention of a Palestinian state in a vague future, because they know in the present Bush ignores the building of settlements in the West Bank and does not even support his Secretary of State's demand to remove checkpoints. Israelis centrists could applaud the vacuous words that demanded nothing of them -- no flexibility in negotiations with Palestinians -- while congratulating Israel for comprising with the United States the moral center of the universe. Left wing Israelis could join with the others in applauding Bush's pledge to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. While many Americans view Iran's president Ahmadinejad as a scruffy, contemptible, little man, almost all Israelis see him as a an existential threat and even leftists do not want to relinquish Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.
  3. Israelis felt honored that Bush attended the 60th anniversary celebration. Although Bush has disgraced the presidency and the United States, Israelis still regard the United States like an older brother, a friend and protector. With its leader present, along with several other foreign dignitaries, Jewish gliterrati from the Diaspora and a few goyisch celebrities, the Israelis could briefly feel relaxed and triumphant rather than kvetchy and apprehensive.
Well not entirely. An editorial on the speech in the supposedly dovish Haaretz applauded Bush's pledge on Iran, but worried that it would not bind his successor. No problem if McCain is elected, but if Obama becomes the next president... In that case, the editorial suggested, Bush should take military measures against Iran in the months between the election and the inauguration. He could be assured that Israel's military would willingly assist in such operations. The editorial was likely written by Yossi Melman, one of the newspaper's military correspondents. Melman has been extremely hawkish on Iran, but he often directly reflects what his IDF and Mossad sources tell him. So the editiorial might signal to the world that Israel's security establishment is running out of patience with and trust in the United States over Iran. That is scary.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Only Place He is Loved

Following upon the allegations that an American Jewish entrepreneur bribed Israel PM Ehud Olmert when Olmert was Minister of Commerce and Industry, Israel journalist gadfly Gideon Levy wrote a column asking American Jews to stop intervening in Israel politics. While Levy acknowledged the present case was somewhat different, it was pointed to the perversion and corruption of Israel politics and policies by American Jewish money. In particular, Levy took issue with American funding of the numerous settlements in the territories and the various settlers' movements. Without the more than $100 million which American Jews have contributed, these efforts would have failed. And the settlements and settlers, Levy argues, are the major obstacle and opponents to finding peace with the Palestinians.

Levy, I believe, is right. Over Israel's 60 years, especially since 1967, the money and political support raised by American Jews has relieved Israel of the need to seek seriously accommodation and peace with the Palestinians. The settlement policies and activities, in particular, have further Israel's relations with them, pushing farther off a peaceful two-state solution. Moreover, this support, like that given by most Christian evangelicals, was given to fulfill the donors' fantasies, such as revenge on the goyim, rather than out of consideration for Israel's best interests.

However, I would Levy to ask that Israeli Jews return the favor. He should tell them to stop intervening in American politics and, in particular, to stop their ridiculous support of George W. Bush. One might argue whether the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq, its threats to Iran and its acceptance of Israel settlements were in Israel's best interests. According to the prevalent short-sighted Israel analysis, they were. But clearly the Israelis who cheer Bush for these steps have no concern for what they have cost the American people. They express no concern for the American lives and money wasted in Iraq, the U.S.'s moral stature shrunk by the administration's torture policies nor the administration's violations of its own citizens' civil liberties. Perhaps they are use to similar conduct by their own governments, army, security agencies and police similarly rationalized in name of security.

Even many of the best are filled with such dispassionate intensity. The supposedly liberal newspaper Haaretz in an editorial urges the United States to attack Iran. The editors know the American army is stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it kindly advises the use of planes, missiles and naval ships. Its Washington correspondent Shmuel Rosner, who apparently has not heard of Katarina or seen the last five years of incompetence in Iraq, extols Bush as hard at work every day for the good of the world. Supposedly wise Israel president Shimon Peres, interviewed in the Washington Post, praises Bush for having toppled Saddam Hussein, for otherwise Israel would have to contend with both Iraq and Iran. He ignores that the revulsion through the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, to the occupation of Iraq has strengthen Iranian influence throughout the region. And it has strengthened the grip and audacity of the hardliners in Iran.

If Israelis lack the curiosity to ask why 72% of the American public disappove of Bush, if they are indifferent to costs other bear for their free ride, they might at least spare us the fawning over Bush.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lebanon Update

A tense quiet has settled in Lebanon. The Lebanese army took up positions in West Beirut that were vacated by Hezbollah gunmen and the streets have emptied of armed fighters. Army commanders declared they would suppress by force, if necessary, armed or other paramilitary activities by the various parties and factions. Supporters of the government have expressed some satisfaction with this outcome, although they were disappointed by the army's failure to intervene over the weekend. While some have explained the army could not for fear of spllitting the soldiers and officers along communal lines, others, like Christian far right winger Samir Gagea, questioned keeping the army intact at the price of letting the country fall apart. In any case, the army is ill equipped and untrained to quell factional fighting or less violent demonstrations, so it will be unlikely to intervene effectively, even should the commanders want that. So the main effect of the declarations is to give the various sides an excuse to take a break (or more hopefully step back from the brink), before the next flash point comes up. That will be next month, when the Lebanese government, having today passed on voting for a new president, is now scheduled to meet for that purpose.

An op-ed piece in Le Monde calls Hezbollah's actions a coup d'état. Actually they were more a rehearsal for one. Political scientists and schemers know that the neutrality of a country's army is vital for the success of a coup d'état. Hezbollah now knows (or believes) it can count on that if and when it goes for the real thing.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Sowing the Wind

The cunning of history, Hegel's term for unintended consequences coming back to bite political actors, might be in the works in the country formerly known as Burma [Myanmar]. The Iriwaddy delta is devastated, 35,000 to 100,000 people (depending on whose estimate) have already died, another 1.5 million are without food, potable water, shelter and are vulnerable to disease. Yet the generals who rule Myanmar have limited the influx of aid from outside, diverted resources from relief efforts for a referendum to rubber stamp their rule and even prevented rich Burmese from providing money and aid to the cowevne's victims. They are suspicious that any collective actions, self-organization or outside intervention, which is not under their control, can become politically charged and weaken their grip on power. Such suspicions are frequent among leaders or authoritarian governments and even democracies, when facing or contemplating the aftermath of disasters.

The generals, however, may not have considered that a regime's refusal or inability to alleviate the suffering of its subjects after a disaster erodes whatever legitimacy it might have. Thus the Iranian government's incompetence in organizing effective relief for earthquakes in 1977 and 1978 fueled popular opposition to the Shah and hastened his downfall. Of course all such failures do not have such a result. The mullarchy in Iran has been no more effective in responding to earthquakes since the Shah, Stalin did not suffer for letting the Ukrainian peasants starve in the 1930s and George W. Bush is still president, despite his administration's miserable failure in responding to the devastation of Hurricaine Katrina.

But Christian Science Monitor's David Montero reports from Bangkok that observers expect the regime to lose some power as a result of its inaction. "This is an opportunity for opposition groups to make limited gains," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "There will be mounting pressures on the government because of its inadequacies. Opposition groups have the upper hand."

In contrast to the Burmese generals, Chinese authorities appear to be effectively handling the aftermath of today's devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. NPR's Melissa Block reports from the provicial capital Chengdu that cranes were on the scene in a few hours to remove debris of flattened buildings in desperate searches for survivors. Perhaps this contrast will finally convince Chinese officials that the Burmese generals do not merit China's support -- a conclusion that the Burmese dissidents and their supporters have long been pressing China to reach.

More on the Chinese response to the earthquake from James Fallows, an old China hand and editor of the Atlantic Monthly:

Most of the channels on the (state controlled) CCTV are running the normal game shows, Olympic warmups (especially torch-relay updates), teen music shows, etc. But the CCTV-1 news channel is having all-out coverage of the earthquake in Sichuan province. Brief cultural notes:

- The coverage included a long segment of premier Wen Jiabao reading a speech about his deep concern for the people of Sichuan, from aboard an airplane en route to the disaster scene. Background: after the country was paralyzed by unexpected snow storms in February, the leadership was criticized for a Katrina-like slowness in dealing with the problem. Prominent coverage now of the main officials responding immediately to this disaster.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sounders of Swine

With the fall of the US housing market only halfway to bottom, the Republican opposition to the House housing bill would be ironic were it not tragic. Led by House Minority leader John Beohner, most Republicans complain that the Federal government's helping homeowners facing foreclosure would create moral hazards at taxpayers' expense. That means, that people gulled into predatory mortgages or who jumped at some deal they knew was too good would not suffer the full consequences of their decisions. What is ironic is these same Republicans do not acknowledge they created greater moral hazards by voting for and continuing to support the war in Iraq. This war has already cost American tax payers over $800 billion dollars and will likely end up costing three or four times that amount.

The Republican leadership instead has been well compensated by the defense contractors and oil companies who have benefited from the misadventure in Iraq. They are looking forward to a similar payday from banks and other financial institutions when the sustain Bush's veto of any housing bill that emerges from Congress. This is because such a bill to be effective will include requiring the banks and other mortgage holders to write down the amounts of principal and/ or reset rates to amounts the homeowners can bear. Consequently, the institutions would be forced to write off the differences, which would increase their losses, further depress the share price of their stocks and reduce the bonuses of their senior managers.

Undoubtedly the bankers, insurance companies, investment houses and their Republican gofers will discover some national security argument that makes the dispossession of millions of Americans virtuous. For example: any alleviation of current economic hardship will make the current sign up bonuses for army recruits less attractive and hence prolong our path to victory.
Or: any lessening of individual responsibility will sap our will to resist the Islamic fascist collective.

The conduct and allegiances of the Republicans might recall Samuel Johnson's and Ambrose Bierce's definitions of patriotism. For Johnson, patriotism was the last recourse of the scoundrel, for Bierce, it was the first.

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Hezbollah appears the winner in the ongoing test of strength in Lebanon. The Lebanese government turned over to the army the decisions on shutting down Hezbollah's private telelphone network and the firing of the airport security chief, who had allowed Hezbollah to install its own security cameras. The army, still headed by the Michel Suleiman, the compromise candidate for Lebanese president, then revoked the government's decisions. Hezbollah, in return, withdrew its fighters from West Beirut, but continues to demand a government in which Shiites will have one third of the cabinet seats and hence veto power. Its fighter will also continue to carry weapons openly.

These moves have quieted Beirut, but fighting between government supporters and the opposition broke out on Saturday in Tripoli and on Sunday in mountain villages southeast of Beirut, a mainly Druze area. Druze leader and government supporter Walid Jumblatt called on his rival and opposition supporter Talal Arslan to stop the fighting and submit to army control. As this fighting demonstrates, the alignment of forces is not entirely along communal lines. While the Shiite parties, viz., Hezbollah and Amal, are in the opposition and the Sunni generally support the government, the Druze and Christians are split, mainly as a consequence of factions within these communities trying to increase their respective power and resources through opportunistic alliances. The fragmentation is far from that during the civil war, when militias were ubiquitous and rivalries played down to the street and family level. But it might be heading there.

The Arab League has dispatched an emergency mediation team to Beirut. It will meet with Hezbollah chairman Nasrallah and Sunni leader Sa'ad Hariri, in the hopes of getting their agreement to the long-delayed appointment of a new Lebanese president, a principal part of any exit strategy from the crisis. Lebanese PM Fuad Siniora in the meantime, according to the Israel press, bitterly criticized Hezbollah, saying "not even the enemy Israel dared do to Beirut what Hezbollah has done" [armed occupation and shutting access to the airport]. The rhetoric is especially provocative, because the rationalization in Lebanon for Hezbollah maintaining a heavily armed militia is its being the de facto resistance to any Israel incursions.

Hezbollah's convincing show of strength moves the regional balance of power toward its partron Iran. Iran also scored a symbolic success in Iraq this week, when it again brokered a face-saving truce for the Al-Maliki government in its indecisive struggle against the Mehdi army in Sadr city. These gains increase the unlikely prospects for diplomatic-political efforts to reduce Iranian influence, say, detaching Syria from its alliance with Iran or promoting a tacit alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab states . So Israel leaders will see little purpose in discussing peace with Syria at this time or speeding up peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead, feeling bracketed by Iranian clients, they are more likely to seek coordination with the Bush administration on some intervention in Lebanon or even confrontation with Iran.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

A Gathering Storm?

Yesterday's commemorations of Israel's independence and the Palestinians' nakba (catastrophe) are already overshadowed by crises in Israel and Lebanon. Israel PM Olmert is under another police investigation, his third in recent years, concerning new charges of bribe taking (in incidents uncovered during the course of an earlier investigation). He is liable to be indicted, in which case, he says, he will resign. That possibility raises the question of his succession by Foreign Minister Livni and her ability to keep a governing coalition, on one hand, or early elections, on another. Olmert and his supporters claim the charges are trumped up by opponents to peace talks the Palestinians or Syria, that, he says, are making progress. So far Olmert has not given any evidence for this claim. Moreover, to judge by the government's record and the current state of the talks, the opponents would need no help from the police to derail they. They can just leave that to Olmert, his coalition partners and the Israel army, all of whom appear quite capable and willing to do that themselves.

In Lebanon, Chairman Nasrallah declared war on the Lebanese government after, he says, the Lebanese government declared war on Hezbollah, by trying to shut down the private communications network that Hezbollah had set up throughout Lebanon, with Iranian help. Hezballah gunmen have blocked the road from Beirut's international airport to the city and also wrested control of West Beirut from Sunnis. These moves come after months of a political stalemate over choosing a Lebanese president, that has pitted Sunni, Druse and most Christian communities in Lebanon against Lebanese Shiites, dominated by Hezbollah. The political situation is aggravated by economic deterioration in Lebanon, due to several factors: a) the devastation from the war with Israel two years ago; b) the political stalemate itself scaring off foreign investment; and c) rising costs of food and other necessities which has provoked violent demonstrations.

In addition, Hezbollah military leaders want to show their muscles, because the party has failed to strongarm its candidate into the presidency of Lebanon, while the Sunni, Druse and Christians grouped in the anti-Syria, anti-Shia coalition would rather have a showdown now rather than later when Hezballah is even stronger. So the parties are likely to spiral into a civil war. In that case, Israel leaders, with or without Olmert at their helm, will decide to "help" the Lebanese government either overtly or clandestinely. The Bush administration would undoubtedly green light any such Israeli move, since it regards conflicts involving Iranian clients -- Sadrists in Iraq, Hamas, Hezballah -- as proxy wars with Iran. Iranian leaders have a corresponding view of conflict directed at US clients, viz., Israel, the Lebanese government, the Arab gulf states. Lebanon today is an opportunity for them to demonstrate Lebanon's disruptive power and consequently its being a necessary player in achieving some stabilities in the Middle East, regardless of Western efforts to isolate it over the nuclear program issue.

International relations in the Middle East are like the old joke about in New England. If you don't like what is happening now, just wait a bit.

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