Archive for category Israel Palestine

Mideast Mess

Two Palestinian children in the rubble after an Israeli strike in northern Gaza

My mantra:  You cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian.  You can not be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll either keep killing each other or find a way to live together.    There is one feasible solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel.

The frustrating thing about violence like this is that observers tend to join the combatants in forming two camps.   The pro-Israeli side condemns the Palestinians for engaging in terrorism, and dismisses concern about innocents by simply blaming Hamas.   In the US sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza is dismissed by pro-Israel hawks as “anti-Semitic,” or akin to support of the Nazis.    Never mind that a large number of Jews in Israel form the backbone of an Israeli peace movement even more radical, the pro-Israel side often paints the world in stark good vs. evil tones.

An Israeli woman worries for her children as air raid sirens sound in Tel Aviv

On the other side are the defenders of the Palestinians, pointing at the big bad Israeli military hurling massive weapons into Gaza, killing women, children and other defenseless folk.    They rationalize Hamas’ missile attacks into Israel by pointing out the horrid conditions in the occupied territories and how Israel’s grip limits economic opportunity and leaves millions with no real political and economic rights.   For them it’s good vs. evil as well, but the Palestinians are the victims, fighting out desperation for a better future against a ruthless foe.

Go on line and follow blogs and news sites for each side and you’ll find two self-contained narratives wherein it is absolutely clear that one side is right and the other wrong, with little ambiguity or uncertainty.   Of course, which one is right depends on the side you’re following.

The reality is that ambiguity and misunderstanding define this conflict, while the capacity to paint it in stark black and white terms makes it harder for each side to truly understand the other.    In turn, that makes it more difficult to solve the conflict.   But the Arabs won’t drive the Jews into the sea and the Jews won’t drive the Arabs into the desert.

The Gaza strip is small but densely populated (yellow area on the southern coast of Israel)

Consider this case.   Border clashes leave a Palestinian youth dead.   Mad at that and other IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actions Hamas shoots missiles into Israel.   In Hamas’ mind it’s a tit for tat, they’re retaliating.   For Israelis shooting missiles into residential areas is an escalation – the IDF was engaged simply in protecting Israel’s security.   So they retaliate hard against Gaza.   Hamas then retaliates back, upping the ante.

Emotions are ignited on both sides, the conflicts grows in intensity, and soon we have a full blown crisis that apparently neither side planned or wanted.   Protests world wide show sympathy to the residents of Gaza, while supporters of Israel grumble that the media is unfair and doesn’t understand that no country could tolerate missiles being launched across the border into residential areas.   Two legs good, four legs evil.   Or was it four legs good, two legs evil?

The reality is far more complex.   The Palestinians have suffered and often have been treated unfairly and denied dignity by the Israelis.   Hamas did send missiles into Israel in an action no state could ignore or just accept.   Hamas is a terror organization which could end this by renouncing its terror tactics and stopping the bombardment.   Israel does keep the Palestinians on the leash that naturally breed resentment and anger.     That’s why each side is so adept at seeing themselves as the good guys – each side has evidence to that effect.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly find concerns about Iran on the back burner as Gaza violence flares

At this point its foolish to try to say one side is “more to blame.”   That falls victim to that same capacity to choose evidence and make interpretations that will see one side as essentially good and the other as the cause of the violence.  The first step out of this is to see it as a problem to be solved, rather than enemies to be defeated.   Neither side can win unless they both win.   That can only happen if they solve the fundamental problems they face.

There is a reason why war maker Yitzak Rabin became a peacemaker, reaching agreements with the PLO in 1993.   There is a reason why ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon ultimately proposed unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories after running a much a different platform.   An objective look at Israel’s security interests makes clear that on going conflict is harmful to Israel, especially with the rise of non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah.   The Arab states never really could pose an existential threat to Israel.  The non-state actors?   That’s a different story.

So how to solve the problem?   First, the two sides need to agree to a cease fire.   Israel should not try for a ‘military solution.’   Invading Gaza will be no more effective than invading Lebanon in 2006. Even if they damage Hamas, the conflict will be intensified and Israel will be no more secure.

Partner for peace? Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas

However, Israel should work to split the Palestinians.   There are two groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.   Israel should turn to the PA and work with it, trying to get Arabs around the region to throw their support to the PA as the voice of the Palestinian people.    As this is happening, the US needs to pressure Arab states to emphasize the role of the PA as opposed to Hamas, with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as the primary Palestinian negotiators.

This will create dilemmas for both the PA and Hamas.   The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning Gaza.   The only way they can possibly break from Hamas is if Israeli military action in Gaza has ceased.   Israel would also have to renounce some of the new policies they have for settlements in the West Bank, as well taking a softer line on the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at the UN.

Some would see that as Israel giving into pressure, but it’s a clever “giving in.”  If done in a way that undercuts Hamas it would be a victory for Israel.  Hamas might respond by upping the ante with more attacks.   But a more likely response would be to communicate to the PA the need to be on the same page and try to influence the negotiations.

Much conspires against such a solution.   Can Israel really pivot to a political effort to isolate Hamas rather than a military effort to defeat it?   Will Israel and the Palestinian Authority be able to make enough progress on past roadblocks to negotiation to make real communication between the two feasible?   Will the PA be willing to risk “selling out” its rival Hamas, and will the Arab world side with the PA over Hamas?   Still, despite the mess, this could open up the chance for a real move forward.

The phrase may be over used but it’s true – in every crisis there is an opportunity.


No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.


Egypt is not Iran

Some pundits are comparing the situation in Egypt to the dilemma faced by President Carter when Iranians suddenly brought down the Shah in a revolt that virtually no one saw coming.   At that time there was pressure on President Carter to support the Shah, even though the protesters wanted freedom and democracy, not oppressive dictatorship.

Iran, however, was a pillar ally to the US in the region.  Bordering the Soviet Union, it was the regional power, receiving massive amounts of US military aid.  It protected Persian Gulf oil from the Soviets or anyone else who might want to control or disrupt the oil fields.  Iran is not Arab, and though Islam is the primary religion, the Shah was anti-religious, thinking only the weak minded needed such a crutch.   As such he brutally put down religious extremists, and was a good friend to Israel.   Losing Iran meant that suddenly Persian gulf oil was vulnerable and the regional powerhouse upon which US Mideast foreign policy depended became a potential adversary.

We know what happened next.  The Shah fell, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the most prominent face of the opposition, became leader.    The Iranians stormed the US embassy and took the Americans there hostage.   Khomeini used anti-Americanism to grip power even tighter (one of the first things the Obama Administration did when Egypt fell into disarray is to greatly reinforce security at the US embassy in Egypt).   In 1980 Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and that sealed the deal.   The religious fundamentalist government could say “you may disagree with us, but we have to come together to defeat the Arab invaders.”  In the eight years that war went in, the clerics coalesced power and shaped what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In Egypt there is another foreign policy priority at stake: Mideast peace.   When Israel was formed in 1948 the Arab peoples were angry.  They didn’t mind Jews living there, but they didn’t want what they considered to be Arab land taken and turned into a Jewish state.  Four wars and 25 years later Israel had expanded its borders, and was occupying the West Bank (formerly controlled by Jordan), Gaza and the Sinai pennisula (formerly held by Egypt).  At that point Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided that just or not, Israel existed and that fact could not be overturned with military power.  Rather than to condemn young people to continual (and pointless) war he made a deal: peace for land.  Egypt got the Sinai back, Israel promised to work on a deal for the West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt formally recognized Israel and became an ally.

Since Egypt was the dominant Arab military, this made another Arab-Israeli war impossible, ending that cycle of wars.  Israel couldn’t annex the occupied territories because that would give Arabs a majority in the Jewish state — they could vote it out of existence.  But they haven’t been able to figure out what to do, and the situation has festered for nearly 45 years.

The alliance with Egypt took pressure off Israel to make a deal over the West Bank and Gaza.  In the ensuing years frustration at being occupied and denied basic rights turned into anger, hate and violence.    Groups like Hamas formed against the corruption in the Palestinian authority, and neighboring Syria joined with Iran to back the Lebanese group Hezbollah, creating new dangers for the Israeli state.   Suicide bombers terrorized Israelis, as Palestinians lashed out against their occupation.  But as long as Egypt and Israel are allies, total war is impossible.   For 35 years Israel and Egypt have gotten the lion’s share of US foreign aid, most of it military.  This year’s share for Egypt is $1.5 billion.

As was the case with Iran, there is an Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Egypt.   In Egypt it is Islamic Brotherhood.   Started in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, it sought to promote the creation of a pure Islamic state.   Islam was not a strong political force in the early days.   Egypt’s first President, Abdul Nasser, came to power by joining other military officers in overthrowing King Faruk in 1952.  He espoused a kind of Arab Socialism, a non-Marxist non-aligned ideal of promoting Arab values.   He died in 1970, and replaced by Anwar Sadat.  Sadat was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 1981 because of his deal with Israel.  Hosni Mubarak has been in power ever since.

Most foreign policy elite are used to the Egypt of Sadat and the early days of Mubarak.   Egypt’s government allows people to live relatively free lives and do business as long as they do not threaten political instability.   The Muslim Brotherhood was banned (though some members do run as independents and get into the parliament).    Most citizens were satisfied that elections were being held, and though dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, some opposition was allowed.   But in the last election, in 2005, the NDP got 80% of the votes and Mubarak near 90%.   Effective opposition is not allowed.

The demographic trends I talked about two weeks ago conspire with the increasing ease of gaining information and organizing opposition to make this Egypt very different than the one foreign policy elites are accustomed to.  This is a new generation, a new century.  They are not satisfied with relative stability, and given rising food costs and increasing poverty (in part because of the population growth), there is a desire for change that goes far beyond groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.  Mubarak’s government — like those in much of the rest of the Arab world — has become obsolete.   Obsolete governments can hang on, sometimes for quite awhile, but sooner or later reality gets to them.   Trying to maintain the status quo by helping Mubarak will at best succeed for only a short time.

Yet the idea that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power like the clerics in Iran and set up a radical Islamic state is not a probable outcome.  Egyptians do not want to be like Iran, or like Saudi Arabia, and there is no reason to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood can do there what the Ayatollahs did in Iran.   Sunni Islam has a different sense of politics than does Shi’ite (Egyptians are Sunni, the Iranians are Shi’ite), and the Muslim Brotherhood does not provide the ‘face  of the opposition’ by Khomeini did.  Indeed, the protesters are mostly unaligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Moreover, Iran has oil, it had the resources to be more independent.   Any new government in Egypt has to deal with the problems of poverty and economic weakness.   The US and the EU will be in a position to make deals that the Egyptians cannot simply reject.

If one reads the alarmists, something which I labeled in my last post a “worst case scenario” gets put forth as if it’s likely.   War will break out, oil prices will skyrocket, a new Islamic state will emerge and further radicalize the Arab world!  Perhaps, but not likely.   Those who want to fear Islam see the worst case scenario as more likely than it is, just as those who yearn for change in Egypt see the best case scenario as more likely than it is.

Egypt is not Iran.   History has yet to be written.  The US can’t shape events, but how we and our allies react to them will help guide the trajectory of history.  So far the Obama administration has done the right things and adopted the right tone — President George H.W. Bush’s former Secretary of State James Baker made that point publicly.   The test, however, is yet to come.  As protesters and “pro-Mubarak thugs” fight it out in Tahir square, the diplomats have to get ready to be creative and innovative as they move into uncharted territory.  That’s probably something they’ll need to get used to.


You Say You Want a Revolution?

As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa.   In Egypt half the population is under 24.   In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25,  22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26.  For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.

And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children.  The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.

For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa.   After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy).  He is currently grooming his son to take his place.  Egypt is more like North Korea than the US.  The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq.    Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.

If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights.   Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council.    The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq.   Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.

The reason is obvious.   The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship.   To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine.    To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.

This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches.   In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire.   When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t.  It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.

The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family.   It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom.   It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.

However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt.  The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power.    After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.

These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.   Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever.  They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom.   It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm.   In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.

What will this mean?   Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern.  He’s trying to fight against change.   Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought.  For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.

Most young Arabs don’t think that way.  A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world.   The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.

There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line.   If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust.   Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.

We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world.    One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.

President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq.   The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish.   He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes.  But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be.   Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.

Because change is coming.   There will be revolutions of some sort.   The current order cannot last.   Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt.   Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy.   If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.


What if Israel is Right?

In the latest confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, the interception of supply ships headed to Gaza, the usual lines have been drawn.   Those supporting Israel claim the ships represented a danger to Israeli security, while those supporting the Palestinians paint this as just another episode of Israeli evil and brutality.

Now, I’m absolutely convinced that Israeli policy has been misguided for some time.   A policy of occupation that humiliates the civilian population and focuses on military security over humanitarian concerns has utterly and absolutely failed.   Israel is less secure than it was in 1967, militarist groups like Hamas have grown stronger and used Israeli actions as propaganda, and the international community views Israel as a rogue state.   The approach they have taken hasn’t worked — they need to completely rethink their policies and consider ones grounded in a more humanitarian concern for the civilian populations.   The economic blockade of Gaza needs to end; Israel is only hurting itself and empowering its most radical opponents with this tactic.

However, that does not mean that Israeli fears are wrong, or that the Israelis don’t have a legitimate fear of Hamas and nefarious activities in Gaza.   The smuggling of weapons, firing of missiles into Israel, and the growing possibility of an all out military conflict in the region combine with concerns about Hezbollah and Iran to create a sense of urgency in Israel.   In many ways the existence of the Jewish state threatened more than any time since the war of 1948.

The shift from “conventional” warfare to asymmetrical wars and terrorism has come at the expense of Israeli security.  Moreover, the rise of Iran as a regional power terrifies Israeli officials.   If things continue, it may be possible that nuclear terrorism and an insurgency backed with Iranian power could threaten the continued existence of Israel.  So what if Israel is right?  What if Iran is plotting the destruction of the Jewish state?   What if Hamas and Hezbollah represent a potential to disrupt the region and weaken Israel?  What if nuclear terrorism is part of the plot?

If those worst fears of Israeli supporters are accurate, then one could expect at some point a crisis in Gaza or even the West Bank to expand, igniting another war.  It could be against Hamas, Hezbollah, or both at the same time.  Israel would hold its own in the fighting, but would find that weaponry sent by Iran would give Hezbollah the capacity to do real damage.   There would be real temptation for Israel to expand the war and attack Iran.  That could be playing right into the hands of the Iranian conservative leadership.

Consider Iran to be akin to the rising Prussia of the late 19th century.    Prussia fought two wars to unify Germany and become the dominant central European power.   However, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was smart enough to realize that if Prussia invaded other states it would be seen as the aggressor and condemned by all European states.   As strong as the Prussian military had become, it wasn’t strong enough to counter all of Europe!   So it suckered Austria and France into each declaring war in Prussia.   Prussia was seen as the victim and benefited from the aggression of others.  If Israel were to attack Iran outright, it could be akin to the French invasion of Prussia — a gift to a country that wants to expand its power, but doesn’t want to appear an aggressor.

If Iran has nuclear weapons, it also would not use them first.   Israel has lots of nuclear weapons, and might be tempted to destroy a number of Iranian sites.   If so, then Iran theoretically could use Hezbollah to launch nuclear terrorism (or missiles) into Israel.  Israel’s small size would allow even a small number of weapons to devastate the landscape and essentially destroy the country.  Israeli counter strikes into Iran could escalate, but that would yield massive civilian casualties and world pressure would be against Israel.   Israel would be seen as getting what it deserved, since it used nuclear weapons first.   Even the US at that point might wonder why it should support a state that is nothing but ashes — and could even turn against remnants of the Israeli military.   Iran would emerge as dominant in the region, while Israelis and Palestinians would ironically share the same fate — their lands poisoned and their people dead.

Note: I do not think this a likely scenario, I actually don’t believe that the worst Israeli fears are accurate.   But it’s nonetheless a feasible scenario, and I may be wrong and they may be right.

So what should Israel do?  First, don’t make Iran the modern Prussia — do not strike first, especially not with nuclear weapons.  Israel is too vulnerable to the possible responses.  Second, recognize that there are splits within the terror networks, and even between Hezbollah and Iran.   The fear Israel has of Iran is only slightly greater than the fear the Arab states have of their Persian neighbor.  Nobody wants Iran to dominate the region.

Israel needs to work with the Arab states to balance Iranian power.   That’s only possible if there can be a peace agreement allowing a viable Palestinian state, and ending the brutal treatment of the Palestinian people.   Israel has a strategic interest in finding a long term solution to this crisis as the existence of the Jewish state becomes more tenuous the longer the situation remains as it is.

The biggest block to that peace is not the Palestinian people or the Palestinian Authority.   The problem, again, is Hamas and Hezbollah.   As long as violent terror organizations which openly wish to end the existence of Israel have strength, Israel cannot risk a Palestinian state.   With Hamas governing Gaza, this roadblock is immense.  So Israel has attempted to use force and economic pressure to weaken Hamas.   Just as in 2006 Israel hoped to use military force to weaken Hezbollah, the effort has failed.  Terror organizations are different than armies; they cannot be defeated in the usual way.  The flotilla fiasco, a PR nightmare for Israel, shows the problem — it’s easy for the extremists to play the entire situation for propaganda purposes.

Israel needs a new approach.   Besides lifting the siege of Gaza, a major humanitarian offensive should start with the goal of lifting up the Palestinian people.   Israel needs to try to recast the situation as a humanitarian problem to be solved, rather than a conflict to be won.   Israel cannot win this kind of asymmetrical struggle, and over time becomes more vulnerable.   But working with the international community, Israel could reconfigure the discourse surrounding the conflict and undercut the extremists.   The bottom line remains the same: one cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian.  The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll sink or swim together.

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The Foreign Policy President

President Barack Obama was ridiculed by some on the right early on for alleged foreign policy weakness.   Removing the missile defense system plans from Poland and the Czech Republic was criticized, and it was alleged (without evidence) that Sarkozy and Merkel don’t respect him.    Obama was also chided for not giving Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK the proper respect.

First of all, it’s heartening that those on the right are now concerned about being on the good side of France of Germany.   But more importantly, Obama actually looks to be setting the stage for having foreign policy has one of his strengths come 2012.   As with his domestic policy (and his Presidential campaign), he started slowly, but is building up steam.

1.   He’s tough.   Yes, he didn’t treat Gordon Brown like a brother, he humiliated Netanyahu, and his pressure caused Hamid Karzai to throw a hissy fit and threaten to join the Taliban.   The world is certainly getting the message: Obama is not some dovish ‘let’s all get alone and hold hands’ President.   If he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’ll respond with both actions and words.

Take Israel.   The Vice President of the US arrives for a visit and on that day the Israeli government announces new settlements in East Jerusalem, officially land taken in the 1967 war and considered occupied territory.   No doubt the US would have opposed such a move anyway, but when it’s done while Biden is on a state visit, that’s needless provocation.   Perhaps Netanyahu was testing the Obama Administration?   The US sent a message in its response, the Israelis are complaining, but they now know that they need to stay on the good side of Obama or they will be punished.   They now are unsure if Obama will give them the unrestricted ‘blank check’ support they expect from the US.   That will force them to be reconsider their positions, and ultimately Netanyahu may have to switch coalitions and join the centrist Kadema party.

Moreover, word is that unlike President Clinton, who tried to hammer out a peace plan with the various sides, Obama is thinking of presenting his own plan.   In that he would give Israel real benefits, such as dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran, taking into account Syria, Hezbollah and Lebanon.   In exchange, Israel will have to make some compromises that held up talks before.   If Israel knows that rejecting the US might mean less support, and if they see real benefits from this kind of plan, there could be a real breakthrough in the peace process.   If Obama can engineer that, he’ll not only show he deserves the Nobel Prize, but he will be seen as again succeeding where others failed.

2.   Russia.   The Obama Administration has handled Russia brilliantly.   They understand that Russia is not the threat it used to be, and that ‘saving face’ is important.   So he’s made symbolic concessions.   The missile defense system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic was not really scrapped, it was just altered to cover more of Europe.   But the way it was announced appeared a victory for the Russians, and they needed that.   The new nuclear strategy of the US also fits in those lines.   Russia has long had a ‘no first use’ doctrine for nuclear weapons.   Obama’s change of strategy not only recognizes that the old approach was based on Cold War realities, but had no real value in the current strategic environment.  By changing it (though everyone knows that in a crisis Presidents can easily put options back on the table) he makes it easier for other states to work more closely with the US and approve sanctions on Iran.   The result: a new START treaty, and real movement with China and Russia on sanctions focused on Iran.

3.   Iran.   Obama gave them a chance to change behavior, something he promised to do.   They did not, and the conservatives there, fearing loss of power, have clamped down harder.   Obama has decided to shift course and increase the pressure — with the promise that if they avoid getting nuclear weapons, they can still join the globalized world economy.   This pressure, should China and Russia finally join, would be immense.   Iran has real weaknesses, especially on the economic front.

4.  China.   Obama’s policy towards China has been similarly realist as the one towards Russia.   He recognizes the importance of symbolism, and internal struggles within China.   Like President Bush, he also recognizes the symbiotic relationship between the two, and how the future will likely see China trying to diversify its markets so it is not so reliant on the US.   For the first time since President Nixon, Obama seems able to navigate the Chinese political landscape and reshape a relationship that has been on the rocks for ten years (remember the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kosovo and angry Chinese response?), despite the fact the two know they need each other.  Treasury Secretary Geithner’s trip to China also suggests growing economic cooperation, something in the interests of both countries.

5.  Afghanistan.   Obama’s decision making on Afghanistan is text book of what a President should do.   He listened to advisors, considered the plans, avoided pressure to make a hasty decision (such as when former Vice President Dick Cheney accused him of ‘dithering’), and then made a call.   His decision was based largely on input from the military and especially Gen. David Petraeus, with whom he seems to have developed a very close working relationship.   Yet he had no good options, and has signaled the Afghan government that if they don’t change, they’ll get a lot less support from us.   Karzai is angry about that, it’s clear that the US is no longer going to be boxed in by some sense that we have no choice but to stay and support a corrupt government.   Our focus is on terrorists, we do want to defeat or coopt the Taliban, but it’s on our terms.   I suspect that by 2012 successful withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan will be underway.

A lot can still go wrong.   A lucky terrorist strike opens the door on numerous possibilities.  Hezbollah could launch attacks on Israel, there could be a lot of crises that can’t be anticipated this early.   But don’t be surprised if in future years Obama’s foreign policy successes are what he’s remembered for.  It’s early, but there are signs of positive change — and given the last decade’s debacles, we need that!

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Rumors of War

As the United States public settles into debates on the economy and health care, foreign policy and the “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq fade from public consciousness.    Yet there are still soldiers over there, civilians are still being killed in the conflicts, and the future is uncertain.   Ultimately, solving these problems will be necessary to assure that the 21st century is stable and relatively peaceful.

Israel and Palestine: If only this could be settled, things would be a lot easier.  It appears on the surface that settlement should be easy.   The Israelis cannot push the Arabs into the desert, and the Arabs cannot push the Jews into the sea.   An secure viable Israel must exist alongside a secure viable Palestine.  Just as the Arabs can no longer claim Jews there are mostly “European colonists” trying to steal their land, the Israelis cannot deny Palestinian identity and say they are just Arabs who could live elsewhere.   The two peoples have linked destinies.

Yet the kind of commonsensical solution that seems so obvious to a neutral observer has proven virtually impossible to achieve.  Israel correctly fears that extremist elements could use a Palestinian state to continue a war against Israel, and the Palestinians correctly resent and want to end decades of humiliation and mistreatment at the hands of the Israelis.   Both sides see clearly their side of the issue and feel righteous; neither side has been able to adequately empathize with the other.  I think some top politicians understand, but publics are fickle and easily manipulated, especially when their emotions are played.

Iranian regional ambitions. Iran, buoyed by the fact the US military has proven relatively weak in the region, and that the American public does not want any more war, has set its sights on becoming a regional central Asian power.   Iran fancies itself as a major player between China and Russia in the region, with global import due to the world addiction to oil.   To secure its position, however, Iran must confront numerous threats.   First, there is American and EU opposition to Iran’s regime and its effort to expand its military might and potentially develop nuclear missiles.   Second there is the geopolitical rivalry against more powerful states, Russia and China.   Third, Iran’s regime is feared by Sunni Arab states who see the Shi’ite Persian Iran as a threat.   Finally, Iran’s influence will be limited by the rule Pakistan can play in the region, and however the Afghan situation develops.   Iran is the natural regional power, but faces intense rivalries and threats.

Iraq:  The failure of the US to turn Iraq into a pro-American ally has been key to Iran’s power play.  Once it became obvious the US could not pay the price it would take to dominate Iraq and subdue it, Iran slowly infiltrated all levels of Iraqi government and is very close to the current government of PM Maliki.   The Saudis and their allies would have no problem giving some support to al qaeda elements and Sunni Bathists to try to undermine the pro-Iranian Iraqi government and shift it to one more neutral.   Whatever one thinks of the old Hussein Bathist regime in Iraq, it was part of a stable regional balance of power.   Shifting Iraq to the Shi’ites and making it a defacto Iranian ally has been destabilizing.

Oil: Of course, all of this might be easy to ignore if not for oil.   China and Russia each see it in their interest to woe rather than work against Iran.   China wants access to Iranian oil, Russia fears a Chinese-Iranian alliance.   They also do not want American or western military action to expand in the region, because of the threat that might pose to their oil interests.  This gives Iran some cover as it pursues its goals.   As the planet runs shorter on oil, the price and regional geopolitical stakes will rise.  Iran knows that if it is to be a true regional power, a real player in future global battles over oil reserves, it has to position itself now.   That brings us back to Israel and Palestine.

Terrorism: One way Iran can counter the Sunni Arab efforts to limit its power is to emerge as a dominant force supporting the Palestinians against Israel.   That has emotional appeal in Arab lands, and could create chaos in the region which Iran might ultimately see in its favor.   Iran has supported Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite organization ironically created in the early eighties in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.   Iran has tried to make inroads with the Sunni Hamas organization, and is on good terms with the Syrian government.   Syria’s leadership is Shi’ite, though the public is overwhelmingly Sunni.   Syria is not a loyal ally of Iran, and even Hezbollah has shown it refuses to be simply an Iranian proxy, but Iran has positioned itself to benefit from on going tension between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Since the Hezbollah-Israeli war in the summer of 2006, the prospect of a joint Hamas and Hezbollah uprising against Israel, funded and supported by Iran and Syria, has been the nightmare of Israeli officials.  The power of these organizations has also helped marginalize Palestinian moderates who truly want to find a path to peaceful co-existence.  Fear, of course, inspires nationalists, and the right wing in Israel has used this to drum up support for anti-Arab sentiment.   This creates a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Right now, no state benefits from war.  Israel realizes that its ability to truly ‘defang’ Iran is limited, and worries that if they start a war, Hezbollah and Hamas will be able to respond effectively.   The US simply wants to leave Iraq, and the Obama Administration hopes to be leaving Afghanistan by 2012 — they know the American people are sick of war.  Iran wants to be a regional power, but knows its vulnerabilities.   A real war could mean the end of the Iranian regime, and they understand that.   The Sunni Arab states essentially want stability with the oil states hoping to milk their oil reserves for all they’re worth.

The wild cards are the terror organizations and oil.  Lacking a geographical center, terror groups have less to lose if things get out of control, and they often are motivated by emotional extremism rather than rational self-interest.   But that can be overstated.  Many terror leaders are very comfortable running something that is akin to an organized criminal organization — they do not want to risk their power for a quixotic cause.

If peak oil theory is correct and oil resources start running low once the world economy starts growing again, there will be an increased threat of oil wars.   States like the US, Russia and China could be involved directly, or through proxies.   Such a situation could escalate quickly.   Word is that Vice President Cheney wanted to attack Russian forces during the 2008 Georgian war.   That was rejected because it could have expanded into a broader war whose limits could not be predicted.  The same could happen if larger states, driven by the need for oil, are willing to risk military action.

The failure of the US operation in Iraq has shown the world how difficult it is to use military power to try to shape the region.   It should make it less likely that larger states will think it easy to achieve interests int he region through war.  The success of Hezbollah in 2006 makes an Israeli offensive less likely, especially against Iran.   The cost to Hezbollah of that success, however, makes Hezbollah less willing to risk all out conflict.  Given the loses they suffered, their ‘success’ was in some ways pyrrhic.

Still, however much we shift focus to domestic affairs, and however likely it appears that Obama will successfully end the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2012, the Mideast is still a dangerous place, and an even minor event could unleash a chain of  reactions that lead to major war.

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Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name in News?

Wednesday night was an indication of how a satirist and comedian has been able to outflank serious journalists in earning a reputation of integrity.   Stewart had two Mideast activists on his show, a Jewish human rights activist Anna Baltzer and a Palestinian pro-democracy advocate Mustafa Barghouti.   Their message: the way to peace in Palestine is through diplomacy and non-violent reconciliation.   They criticized Israel for creating the problem through its long repression of the Palestinians, and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  They suggested that such conditions certainly can inspire extremist reactions.   They spoke of reason and non-violence.

At the time I didn’t realize I was watching something extremely controversial.   In fact, I graded papers, thinking the “good” part of the show was over.   Only this morning do I read that pro-Israel groups are incensed, angry that Stewart wasn’t “fair and balanced” enough to have a hardline Israel proponent on the show, and calling for a boycott of the Daily Show.

Before taping, the Daily Show and the two guests were pressured to cancel and not go on.   It was clear that powerful forces did not want this discussion to air on US television, and if the station involved had been CNN, FOX or MSNBC, it certainly would not have.   The mainstream stations would have wilted under pressure and threats from pro-Israeli voices, feeling forced to talk about “Palestinian suicide bombers” and focus on this as a conflict that must be settled by one side “winning.”   Such a discussion would not be allowed, it would risk advertising dollars and generate negative publicity.

Yet the myth of “fair and balanced” news is more poisonous to accurate reporting than even the real existence of bias.  Consider: if someone is talking about the holocaust, does one need to have a holocaust denier present to have the news be fair and balanced?   If one is interviewing a free marketeer does one have to have a Communist present to rebut the points?   If you interview survivors of 9-11, are you required to have Islamic extremists present the pro-terrorism viewpoint in order to have balance?   No, I’m not saying Israel’s position is akin to any of these, only that the idea of ‘fair and balanced’ is really always a biased and subjective call.   The range of ‘acceptible positions’ is relatively narrow, and it is not at all uncommon to leave out many perspectives.

Jon Stewart is Jewish.   One of his guests was Jewish, the other Palestinian.   Could it be that the Israeli hardliners are really upset about the fact that a perspective friendly to the concerns of the Palestinians is being put forth by Jews?   Does that perhaps risk undercutting the myth that there are only two points of view, the Jewish and the Palestinian, and that the question is whether terrorism is worse than Israeli security actions?   Is the real threat the reframing of the debate, meaning that the pro-Israel side can’t frame it in a way favorable to themselves?

Perhaps one way to be fair and balanced is to consider different ways of framing a debate.   It can be a Jew and a Palestinian discussing ways to peacefully solve the problem, or it can be Jews and Palestinians arguing about who is more to blame.   In the former, violence is seen as misguided form both sides, and each are called to take steps to bring a peaceful resolution to the problem.   In the latter, you have to choose which side’s violence is legitimate by deciding which kind of violence is worse.  In the former, both can work together for mutual benefit.  In the latter, one side must win and the other side lose.

If the mainstream media stays “fair and balanced” by going with the latter perspective without taking into account the Barghouti-Baltzer perspective, isn’t Stewart doing the public a service by showing the other perspective, one generally silenced by the mainstream media?   Isn’t the courage to do so in the face of massive pressure from those who want to shape the public framing of the debate something we want from our newspeople?   Why do they not provide it, why do we rely on our satirists?   This isn’t the first time I’ve made this point about Stewart’s contribution, I also brought it up when he had his monumental interview with Jim Cramer.

Yet it may seem odd that an academic whose methodology has involved analyzing media (the subject matter has been German foreign policy) should promote a comedian to the status of the most trusted name in news.   Jon Stewart is not truly a journalist nor a newsperson.    He should not be the most trusted name in news, and if pushed I’m sure I could find a number of serious journalists who do dig and are unafraid of pressure; indeed, most news anchors are not true journalists but good looking hosts.   Still, Stewart does seem to show the hypocrisies and dis-ingenuity of politicians of all stripes in a way most mainstream journalists do not.

He mocks the way the mainstream news media covered a so-called “Obama war on Fox,” and then juxtaposed a Cal Thomas condemnation of Obama for trying to silence the media with un-American pressure with praise he gave a year earlier for the Bush Administration’s similar attack on MSNBC.  If only the mainstream media would out hypocrisy so clearly — and Stewart shows no mercy to the Democrats on such things either.

The problem seems to be that the news media is caught in a voyeuristic effort to present different narratives without seriously trying to investigate the internal coherence and evidential support of each one.    They bow to pressure prefer a ‘he said, she said’ reporting to ‘what might be wrong with what each of them said.’   The result?   People trust a comedian more than their news media for understanding current events.  And, as much as I enjoy Jon Stewart, we shouldn’t have to leave it up to our satirists and comedians to help us critically assess world events.


Obama’s Mideast Chance

I have said for a couple years now that I have been impressed by how the Bush Administration learned its lessons from the utter failure of its foreign policy choices in the first four years.  By shifting from Rumsfeld to Gates, giving Rice a larger role, and sidelining Cheney, the Administration engaged in a stealth switch a realist foreign policy many didn’t notice.  Even the radical change in objectives in Iraq reflect the realist mindset.  The latest proof is that the Bush Administration apparently rejected many pleas from Israel to attack Iran, or to allow Israel to attack Iran.

This wasn’t, of course, out of some Bush fondness for the Iranians.  Rather, they feared that the use of Iraqi airspace with American weapons (which would be needed to have the possibility of success against deeply buried Iranian installations) would have implicated the US in the attack, and assured US expulsion from Iraq.  Instead, the US shared with the Israelis details of American efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, and other covert operations involving Iran.

There is some irony in this.  If the US had not attacked Iraq in 2003, and thus not gotten bogged down for coming on six years, there would have been no reason for the US to deny Israel the weapons.   If the US hadn’t wasted so many resources and prestige (not to mention life) on Iraq, both Israel and the US would have been in a far stronger position vis-a-vis Iran.

This adds to the evidence that attacking Iraq was perhaps the biggest fiasco of American foreign policy history.  Iraq was attacked because Saddam was feared as a threat, perhaps he might develop WMD and arm terrorists.   Yet Saddam was far from developing WMD (the weapons inspectors said so at the time), and as a secular Baathist, he saw the religious fundamentalists as enemies.  He might at times assist them against the US, but now with a nuclear weapon!  It took loads of imagination to really see how Iraq was a threat.  That’s why Dick Cheney called it “the one percent doctrine” (leading to a book by that title from Ron Suskind) — if there was one percent chance Iraq could do it, we should act as if it was a certainty.  That, of course, was absurd on its face, and look where it’s led.

Iran is a natural regional power.  It is large (near 80 million), sits on the Persian Gulf, has oil, and borders the Arab world on one side, the former USSR to the north, and Afghanistan to the south.  It was well armed by the US during the time of the Shah, though those weapons are now quite old.  Aiding and supporting terror organizations isn’t theoretical for Iran, they created Hezzbollah in Lebanon in 1982 after the Israeli invasion, and as the summer war of 2006 showed, Hezbollah remains strong and active.

With the US invading Iraq, Iran not only was shielded from a potential Israeli or American attack, but the Iranians have capitalized on the chaos to exert considerable control over Iraqi parties and militias.  The Iraq war has been a gift from President Bush to the Iranian Guardian Council.   Moreover, the Iranians have also learned some realism.  President Ahmadinejad spoke with Bush like bombast early on, but has now learned to the limits of Iranian power and has moderated his rhetoric (and, of course, he has a more realist guardian council to reign him in — the President of Iran is not the most powerful post in the country).

So what now?   Clearly Israel’s invasion of Gaza is a sign that they feel a two front existential threat, from Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the local grown Hamas in Gaza.  Hamas is Sunni extremist and Hezbollah Shi’ite, so at least Israel knows that there are divisions amongst its opponents.

A few days ago I wrote that there was no local solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; neither side can win, the two peoples’ destinies are intertwined.  With the new revelations about how badly Israel wanted to strike Iran, I read the Gaza invasion in a different light.

This conflict sets Barack Obama up for an early Presidential triumph.   If the US comes forward with a plan to internationalize the conflict by bringing an outside alliance into Gaza and the West Bank, that also sends a message to Hezbollah and Iran: attack Israel, and you’re engaging a multi-lateral force, which will likely include some of Israel’s severest critics.   Impossible?

Not necessarily.   President elect Obama brings with him a sense of hope and change that might allow him to take bold moves early, bringing allies on board who might have otherwise been skeptical.  The carnage of the Gaza invasion may make Arab states more willing to support and participate.  The expected opposition of Israel to such a move may be weaker if they truly feel threatened by Hezbollah and Israel; they might see this as a game changer.  Suddenly Israel will be the one with more international favor, more cooperative, and willing to make peace.

In the past Israel’s had the rather weak “well, if our opponents wouldn’t fight us, then all would be peaceful” argument.   That doesn’t win international support.  But if they decided to embrace an Obama plan for an international response, it could recast the conflict into a clear division between Israel and forces working for peace on one side, and Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran on the other side.   This could be a major step towards working out of this dilemma.  It could weaken Iran’s hardliners without risking a war that would kill massive numbers of innocents and which could spread, cause oil price spikes, and who knows what else.   From this dark day of headlines of death and destruction, perhaps a new dawn is ahead that will forge a path to ending the seemingly unendless conflict.

This depends on the will and actions of a lot of different people with diverse interests.  But it’s a chance I hope Barack Obama takes as soon as he enters office.

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Bringing Peace to Palestine

Inevitably and expectedly the pictures of children with shattered spines, head wounds, and removed limbs are starting to spread, showing the suffering caused by Israel’s incursion into Gaza.  Meanwhile, Israel’s defenders play a surreal game of trying to talk about the assignment of responsibility, noting that the incursion would not have happened if not for Hamas tactics, and thus Hamas is to blame.  However, abstract arguments about blame and responsibility may make for interesting pundit debate, the reality is that such arguments are meaningless when compared to looking at the consequences of the Israeli action.  The consequence appears almost certainly to be a radicalized Hamas, weakened Palestinian moderates, an end to the blockade of Gaza, and an ambiguous conclusion to Israel’s attacks.  In fact, it appears that Israel may be playing right into Hamas’ hands.

One thing that leaders of states with a strong military force have been slow to learn is that military action against terrorist gangs and militias is more often than not counter productive.  The US learned that the hard way in Iraq, and had to radically adjust its goals just to find a face saving way out (which could still go wrong).

Israeli leaders have a clear goal: disarm Hamas and destroy as much of the leadership as possible.   In the short term, they will certainly have a weaker Hamas military wing, and a lot of dead Hamas leaders.    In traditional military thinking that’s progress — the more of them that are killed, the less of them that can threaten you.   But with organizations like Hamas, the more of them you kill can mean even more will arise to threaten.  Most of the population in Gaza is young, and easily radicalized by extremists who survive.  Moreover, in the Arab world sympathy for Hamas could rise.   Up until now, Hamas has not generated a lot of sympathy and even Gaza Palestinians have grown to resent Hamas’ tactics.

Why is it that politicians like to think that military force can simply eliminate this kind of opposition?   No doubt they can put together really persuasive plans that graph out tactics and estimate the amount of damage they can inflict on enemy combattants.  They certainly are thinking about how powerful their military is compared to Hamas, and quite likely they’ve got the upcoming Israeli elections in mind.    But they clearly are not thinking about the Palestinian innocents who are killed; they are just abstract collateral damage, a cost of war that must be paid.  They are not humans, they are statistics.

Past military leaders could think like that.  Before WWI, most war deaths were military personnel.   But now when 80% of the dead in most wars are civilians, and when asymmetrical war places a militia/political/terror organization like Hamas against a nation state like Israel, the usual war calculus has to be thrown out the window.   Israel cannot just occupy Gaza and declare victory.  That didn’t work in 1967, and in fact it spawned the violence we see today.  Israel can’t just back off and say “OK, now that we’ve proven our strength, deal with us.”  Extremists like Hamas don’t surrender, and the emotion caused by seeing family, friends and innocent children die (even if a lot of Hamas fighters die too) leads to anger and hatred.  In short, this kind of tactic does not work in this kind of conflict.

The Israelis are not dumb.  They know the risks, and I suspect many political and military leaders are extremely nervous about what this incursion may mean.   Their attempt to keep images of dead children and civilians out of the media has failed, and even UN schools have been hit.   At a certain point any military benefit gained by such an incursion loses to the propaganda benefit gained by the other side.  Moreover, Hamas recent goal has been to remove the blockade imposed on Gaza; when this is over, aid will certainly come pouring in.

But, while it’s easy to criticize Israel for a response that seems to create far more death and destruction than it prevents, one has to take seriously their difficult position.   They are afraid of rising threats from Iran, Hezbollah, and Islamic extremism.   They feel very vulnerable, despite their large military, to these rising non-state military organizations.   The only response that seems feasible is a military response — what other options exist?

When you look at it that way, Israel’s tactics are more easily understood, and one can sympathize with their effort to maintain their security.  Therefore I am forced to conclude that the problem of Palestine, Israel, and Hamas as no local solution.  Israel can’t win, Hamas can’t win, and if they keep it up, they may all lose.  The solution has to come from the outside.

The US, the EU, and a coalition of Arab states should develop a proposal for a two state solution, and a multilateral force to defend the borders between the two states.   A Marshall plan like proposal to rebuild Palestine should be developed, administered by a joint committee of the “alliance,” Israel and Palestine.   Counter terrorism experts from the special operations services of the countries in the “alliance” should converge on the region to, working with a provosional government in Palestine to de-fang extremists.  This operation should be backed by the UN Security Council, and the US should use a threat of cutting aid to Israel to force Israel to accept this.

I don’t really like this plan.  I am anti-interventionist at heart, and can see a lot of things that could go wrong.  But unlike Iraq in 2003, there is a crisis here which is on going and carries a tremendous cost in human life.  If the international community comes together and asserts its collective will to settle the one dispute that still could throw the world into a major war, it would be a signal that real multilateral cooperation to solve tough problems is possible in the 21st century.

Is such a course of action likely?  No.  It may be impossible for a variety of reasons.   But in looking at the entrenched positions in the Mideast, and the way Israeli and Palestinian moderates seem to have all chances for peace blocked by extremists of each group, I don’t think anything else will work.  The alternative — this conflict lingering and the militias like Hezbollah and Hamas growing stronger — creates an existential threat to Israel as well as to the Palestinian people.   And intervention with true multilateral cooperation, burden sharing, and with a goal of ending a deadly and dangerous conflict is one kind of intervention I could support.  Because right now the people who are suffering the most are innocents who happen to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time.