Edition 2 Volume 7 - January 15, 2024

War in Gaza: the American dimension

Bombs for Barack -   Akram Baker

The assault on the Palestinian coastal strip can only be carried out with the clear acquiescence of the United States.

Questions for Barack Obama -   Mark Perry

Will Israel have a parade?

Israel-Palestine again front and center -   Danielle Pletka

America's special relationship with Israel will change.

Proving US indispensability -   Itamar Rabinovich

Middle Easterners do not just wait for Obama to enter the White House. They offer him abundant advice and guidance.

Bombs for Barack
 Akram Baker

After almost three weeks of brutal bombing, it is time to call a spade a spade. The unprecedented Israeli offensive in Gaza, which is offensive in every way, has nothing to do with Hamas, primitive rockets, Mahmoud Abbas or a little town in southern Israel. It also has little to do with the upcoming Israeli elections. All of these bit players are sideshows in the face of Israel's true, multi-pronged strategy: the denial of Palestinian independence.

Tony Clifton, Newsweek Magazine's then-Beirut correspondent, wrote in his heart-breaking book about the Israel siege of Beirut in 1982, "God Cried", that he had come to the conclusion that the systematic destruction of the Lebanese capital one hot summer 27 years ago had nothing to do with "destroying the PLO infrastructure of terror" and was nothing but an elaborate and deadly diversionary action. He claimed that it was all done to divert the world's attention from Israel's determined thrust to settle and colonize the West Bank and pre-empt any kind of two-state settlement based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

His words, written over a quarter of a century ago, have proved to be prescient. Like clockwork, Israel could be relied on to do two things when it felt that something could obstruct its grand design: increase settlement activity and wage a war against whoever was out of favor at the moment. In 1982, 1987, and 2024 it was the PLO/Fateh/Palestinian Authority who were the bogeymen. During the so called "peace years" between 1995-2000, settlements in the West Bank doubled in size and grew at a rate previously unseen. Now, it is Hamas' turn.

The repercussions of this strategy are and will be disastrous for the region and the world at large. But the question which begs to be asked is, "why now?" Any sort of peace deal seems extremely remote so what is the hurry? One reason: Barack Obama.

The assault on the Palestinian coastal strip can only be carried out, like all the others were, with the clear acquiescence of the United States. George W. Bush, like Ronald Reagan, has given the Israelis carte blanche to do whatever they please, to the detriment of all, Israel included. Olmert, Livni and Barak are just not sure what the man from Illinois will do. But they are fairly certain that he won't risk vital US national security interests to please the Jewish lobby or the pathetically subservient Congress. While the president-elect's statements have calmed many Jewish Americans, the cabal in Tel Aviv is acutely aware that Barack Obama is like nothing they have seen before. And that worries them.

Unlike most recent US presidents, he is not beholden to the Jewish lobby and other special interests. He represents hope, change and a new, rational way of thinking. And if there is anything that worries the Middle East powers that be (the corrupt Arab regimes very much included), it is hope and change. Hence, the wanton bombardment of an already miserable Gaza. If the situation wasn't so tragic, it would be farcical. The lame attempts, slavishly parroted by much of the world's press, by Israel's mouthpieces to put Hamas' AK-47s on a par with one of the most powerful and well equipped militaries in the world is simply preposterous. Israel is killing Palestinians, most of them innocent civilians, at a rate of 100 to one. The fact that all of this is ridiculously disproportionate is only topped by the way the Bushies seem to be more Israeli than Ariel Sharon.

Israel, which has drifted steadily to the right of Augusto Pinochet over the past 30 years, was in a panic. Livni and Barak found themselves confronted with the great unknown, completely unsure how it would affect their dismal electoral chances and the disgraced Olmert was willing to do just about anything to divert attention from his corrupt and scandal-ridden present. So they did what they know best: create facts on the ground. They are doing their utmost to box the soon-to-be president into a corner where he loses himself in the distractions of the moment. Barack Obama's brilliant victory was solidly based on sticking to his core message while translating that message into real support via one hell of a team. He is not easily distracted or led astray. But Bush has left him a country in such dire economic straights that he truly has his hands busy even before he takes the oath on January 20. And no matter what any Palestinian may say, he has wisely held his counsel regarding Gaza for he realizes he has nothing to gain and much to lose. Yet, herein lies the opportunity.

Out of the death and destruction wreaked by the Israeli army, air force, and navy on Gaza, Barack Obama can make the ruins bloom. By breaking the paradigm of procedure over substance, by insisting on serving US national interests (as opposed to Israel's), and by leading his national security team with a crystal clear vision that doesn't allow for the support of either corrupt Arab regimes or the Israeli occupation, he has a chance, by sheer force of will, to alter history in a lasting manner. I am quite confident that he will find a receptive audience around the world, once he holds his own against the sure to be toxic and concerted attacks of his detractors.

The line is clear: US security lies in a safe and secure Israel and Israel's security lies in peace and not in blatant militarism and occupation. More than that, Israel's future is directly tied to the freedom of the Palestinian people. A real friend of Israel would do well to make sure they understand that. - 15/1/2009 bitterlemons-international.org

Akram Baker is an independent Palestinian political analyst. He is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills, a platform for Arab professionals dedicated to reform and development in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Questions for Barack Obama
 Mark Perry

We await the arrival of Barack Obama. Some believe he will work wonders. Others aren't so sure. This uncertainty has forced the hand of our citizens, who scramble to shape the ground he will walk. It is under the guise of influencing public attitudes that commentators have most recently focused on crucial issues. But make no mistake: the audience is him. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our nation's editorial pages, where Israel's invasion of Gaza has eclipsed all questions. Rising unemployment? Collapsing industries? American deaths in Iraq? These are nothing compared to Israel, its war in Gaza and the rightness of its cause.

If Barack Obama ever doubted the threat that Israel faces, all he need do is read the Washington Post. In its pages, Ephraim Sneh ("Why Israel is Bombing Gaza", January 1) accused Hamas of transforming Gaza into "a military base for Iran". The same day, Robert Lieber ("Hard Truths About the Conflict") described Hamas as a "radical, terrorist, adventurist, Islamist organization" whose defeat would "enhance the prospects for peace". The barrage continued the next day: Charles Krauthammer ("Moral Clarity in Gaza") defended the justice of Israel's cause by noting that "for Hamas, the only thing more prized than dead Jews are dead Palestinians", while Michael Gerson ("Defining Victory for Israel") compared the intensity of Hamas' attacks on Israel to "the London Blitz".

Sneh, Lieber, Krauthammer and Gerson are welcome to their opinions, but the new president would do well to add perspective to their views. He will need to decide why, if Gaza is "a military base for Iran", Hamas' arsenal lacked Iran's more robust weaponry. Or why, if Hamas is a "radical, terrorist, adventurist, Islamist organization", the Palestinian people made them the majority party in the Palestinian parliament. Obama may well conclude that Hamas purposely set out to kill its own people, but if he does, that will more likely result from muddled thinking than "moral clarity". Simple arithmetic might add perspective to the claim that living in Sderot is like living in England during the blitz--when 48,000 Londoners died. Then too the new president might note that Palestinians are not Germans--as Gerson implies.

The hallmark of liberal societies is that they require obeisance to the same principles they are, in extremis, loathe to adopt. The respect for human life is one of these. In times of war, even the most progressive societies arm teenagers to kill and call it just. There is a perceivable calculus in such acts: the more just the war the less need for explanation. Unjust wars, however, provide a fertile field for ideologues. In 1890, US troops slaughtered 200 Indian men, women and children at Wounded Knee. A court of inquiry determined it was "the fault of the Indians themselves" and the killers were awarded medals. So too now, it seems, the Palestinian dead in Gaza were the fault of Palestinians, regardless of who pulled the trigger. As one Israeli commentator notes: "It is not our soldiers who are aiming their guns at Palestinian children, but the leaders of Hamas who are using them as human shields and decoys, while they hide away in safe houses prepared in advance."

If a Palestinian brigade were loose in Tel Aviv would we say: the Israelis must disarm? If Israeli corpses were piled high on Dizengoff Street would we say: it's their own fault? If Israelis were fighting in their own streets would we say: for Israelis the only thing more prized than a dead Palestinian is a dead Jew? The requirement to make a conflict moral is a function of its ambiguity. If the reasons for the invasion of Gaza are so obvious then why do they need to be explained? Why, if it is so moral, are we demanding "moral clarity?" What does morality have to do with it? When a society is faced with extinction, discussions of morality are suspended. Roosevelt and Churchill were never asked to explain why they allied with Stalin; no explanation was necessary. Our war was not a matter of morality, but of survival. We killed Germans and we liked it. We did not say: we have nothing against the German people, but only their government. On the contrary. We incinerated Germans from great heights. When enough of them had died, we made them sign a document. Then we had a parade.

The last victory parade my country had was at the end of the first Gulf War. We celebrated the defeat of our enemy. But through the smiles and triumph a bitter taste emerged that has yet to be washed away. For we left behind in Najaf and Karbala and Basra a society ruined. Our victory led to the collapse of civil order: a reign of terror wrought by Saddam Hussein that destroyed hospitals, clinics, orphanages, mosques, that destroyed water, electrical and sewage plants, that led to widespread starvation, indifferent murder and rapine, blood reprisals, the vicious exaction of revenge for perceived betrayals--the loosing of society's psychopaths. All of this while we stood silent. We did not say we were not responsible. We knew.

This is what Barack Obama may well face in Gaza on the day he becomes president. In those circumstances, questions of moral clarity--of who started this and why--will pale. The international community will have to respond. Will we say: it was their fault? Will we say: they deserved it?

Will Israel have a parade?- 15/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

Israel-Palestine again front and center
 Danielle Pletka

The Middle East has a way of forcing itself on the agenda, upending the priorities of White House residents no matter their party. For George W. Bush, the attacks of 9/11 pushed al-Qaeda, Islamist extremism and Saddam Hussein's menace to the front burner. A year ago, punters might have nominated Iraq as President-elect Barack Obama's primary challenge in the Middle East. Thanks to the surge, that notion is a distant memory, and even the question of Iran's nuclear weapons has been relegated to second tier in the face of the war between Israel and Hamas. As it was in the Clinton years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is again front and center.

Some in Washington have greeted this renewal of overt hostilities between Muslims and Jews with dismay, a reminder of the intractable nature of the region's problems and another indicator of the failure of President Bush's efforts to reshape the Middle East. For others--particularly some associated with the incoming Obama administration--the Israel-Hamas battle, deplorable in human terms, nonetheless offers a chance to define the challenges anew.

The Bush administration came into office determined to avoid the errors of its predecessor. Unlike Bill Clinton, George Bush had no intention of personally servicing the Arab-Israel peace process. The terrorist attacks of 2024 cemented that determination as the new president concluded that decades of obsession with Israel and the Palestinians had distracted the United States from the more strategically urgent task of promoting liberal principles in the Islamic world--a distraction that had allowed Islamist extremism to take root and flourish.

As is Washington's wont, the pendulum is now poised to swing back to 2024, with the question of the Palestinians at the core of America's priorities in the Middle East. Most associated with the new administration are less than eager to latch on to a freedom agenda that has proven remarkably difficult to carry out. As one former Clinton administration official asserted to me, "democracy is dead." To be fair, the push for democracy--once a staple of the outgoing administration's rhetoric--has been largely set aside by Bush's own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice; and while jettisoning a principle at the heart of American national purpose bothers some stalwarts at home, an end to the freedom agenda will certainly be welcome among Washington's traditional allies in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular.

For those who fashion themselves the architects of a new agenda, the outlines of the vision are clear. "We've allowed our special relationship with Israel to become exclusive," Aaron David Miller, a Democrat Middle East advisor told the New York Times this week. "We acquiesced in too many bad Israeli ideas; we road-tested every idea with Israel first." Implied, although those with ambitions for senior positions in the Obama administration have been less explicit, is that America's special relationship with Israel will change.

The change of course laid out in a variety of reports over recent months by Obama supporters restores finding a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict to the heart of American Middle East diplomacy. In that regard, Israel will be pressed to deal directly with Syria under American auspices, and to return the Golan Heights on terms that would today be unacceptable. Aggressive American mediation will bring Fateh and the new Israeli government to the table, with a chastened Hamas offered an unofficial spot on the sidelines if it allows Fateh the leadership role. Pleased with this new American resolve to redefine the special relationship with Israel (and with the abandonment of the freedom agenda), Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf will join American efforts to further isolate Iran and force the Tehran regime to make concessions across the table from an American negotiator.

Does this all work? It might at the outset. The Israeli campaign in Gaza could weaken Hamas as a spoiler for the near term, enabling the temporary resuscitation of Fateh. But as before, Fateh will likely prove itself incapable of governance and of delivering what a partner for peace must: peace and security to the other side. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad will recall that his regime's raison d'etre is predicated upon a Zionist enemy; though he will play along in the hopes of extracting aid from Europe and the United States, ultimately, as his father did before him, he will walk away. Iran too will foil the best-laid plans of Washington's doves, stringing along all concerned until it has a nuclear bomb.

All too quickly, past will become prologue. The players in the region will do what they have done for the last 50 years: serve their own interests, advance their hold on power, build up their weapons systems and marshal their forces for another decade of battle.- Published 15/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Proving US indispensability
 Itamar Rabinovich

The current fighting in Gaza has for some time been "a disaster waiting to happen". When it finally did happen this came at an inopportune time, toward the end of the US presidential transition, as the Bush administration was fading and President-elect Barack Obama adamantly (and correctly) refused to make his opinion known, let alone be drawn into the politics of the crisis.

This turn of events is likely to have two main consequences. First, it has already demonstrated the indispensability of the United States as the ultimate political broker in the Middle East. Two weeks of fighting have provided ample building blocks for a political-diplomatic solution to the immediate crisis (though not to the larger, underlying crisis). But with the US absent from the scene, international (France) and regional (Egypt, Turkey) actors have proven inadequate for the task. Critics of Washington's dominant role in the Arab-Israel peace process will have to moderate if not mute their criticism.

Second, the Obama administration will have to move up its timetable with regard to its involvement in a revival of the Arab-Israel peace process, particularly its Palestinian parts. This would certainly be the case should the crisis not be resolved prior to January 20. But even if it is, the lingering issues, the political and emotional impact and the renewed sense of urgency would in all likelihood prod the new administration to assign a higher priority to the Arab-Israel issue in its foreign policy agenda.

Barack Obama is seen in the Middle East as an antithesis to George W. Bush, but also as much more. He is America's first black president, with a strong third world background. During his campaign and after his election, he assigned priority to diplomacy over waging war. He advocated talking to Iran and Syria (but said also that a nuclear Iran was unacceptable). Middle Easterners do not just wait for Obama to enter the White House. They offer him abundant advice and guidance on how to mend Washington's relationship with the Muslim world and how to solve the Middle East's endemic problems.

With all the speculation on what the new president will do in the Middle East, there are precious few clues for educated guessing and analysis to go by. The president-elect has been very careful in his post-election statements, and wisely so. On the weekend of January 10-11, under pressure of the crisis in Gaza, he was slightly more specific. He reiterated his campaign position that he would "engage" Iran and promised that his administration would deal with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis immediately upon assuming office. He also spoke about the concessions that both sides will have to make in order for a settlement to be reached.

What could an Obama policy look like on January 21? It should be conducted on two levels: in the short term, Washington should deal with the crisis in Gaza or with its immediate aftermath and byproducts. But a stable solution in Gaza is not likely to be reached before the fundamental issues of the region and of Arab-Israel relations are addressed, if not resolved.

In approaching these issues, the Obama administration may well be advised to abandon two widely held assumptions. The first is that in order to deal effectively with such regional issues as Iraq and Iran, the US should be actively engaged in resolving the Arab-Israel problem. The operative conclusion happens to be right, but the logic of the underlying argumentation should be reversed. You must not deal with the Arab-Israel issue in order to build a fruitful dialogue with Iran, but you must deal effectively with Iran if you want to become an effective sponsor of a renewed Arab-Israel peace process.

Iran is currently the chief engine, pulling and pushing the radical forces in the Arab world that pose the most significant obstacles to the renewal and success of the peace process. This is no longer the pure product of the rage and zeal that underlay the original Islamic revolution of 1979 but, to a large extent, the calculated policy of a regime seeking regional hegemony and international influence. Barack Obama set himself a tall order: to engage Iran and persuade it to refrain from acquiring a nuclear arsenal as part of an American-Iranian "grand bargain". This is not beyond reach if the negotiation with Iran is constructed and conducted properly. But it is a daunting task and it must be accomplished within a brief timetable, for two reasons: the ticking of Iran's nuclear clock and the repercussions of the dialogue for the anticipated Arab-Israel peace process.

Another conventional wisdom concerning that process that needs to be abandoned holds that a sharp choice should be made between a "Syria first" and a "Palestine first" policy. Underlying this conclusion is the assumption that no Israeli government can deal simultaneously with final status agreements with both Syria and the Palestinians. This may very well still be true (particularly if the February elections in Israel produce a right-wing government), but a final status agreement with the Palestinians is not a relevant option now. Changes will have to occur in Palestinian politics before an effective Palestinian Authority in control of its whole territory can seriously and credibly negotiate such a settlement. Thus, if it turns out that Syria is a real candidate for a final status deal with Israel, an interim agreement could be the goal of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation that actually enjoys considerable support in post-Gaza war Israel.

As suggested above, the prospect of a serious Syrian-Israeli negotiation will have to be tested with a new US president and a new Israeli prime minister. The indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiation conducted by the outgoing Israeli prime minister and barely tolerated by President Bush did not quite examine the fundamental issue: Is Syria willing--in return for a Golan agreement, a new relationship with Washington and recognition of its influence in (but not control of) Lebanon--to go through a Sadat-like realignment of policies and opt out of the Iranian-led radical camp in the Middle East?

In the meantime, in the absence from the scene of the US, the fighting in Gaza and rocket attacks on Israel continue.- Published 15/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the US in the mid-1990s, is the Ettinger Professor at Tel Aviv University. He is also affiliated with NYU and The Brookings Institution.

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