May 31, 2011

So, Netanyahu won't be making peace. OK?

It is worth recognizing that -- regardless of what's happening on the Palestinian side -- there's basically no chance of any real Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's Prime Minister. Those afraid he'll give away too much can rest assured. The rest of us should just get used to the idea, and let Obama bluff the mirage of a peace plan in order to keep the Europeans from "throwing Israel under the bus" as Republicans like to say.

Everyone who would be engaged in the negotiations (were they ever to resume) understands Israel will never agree to an absolute Palestinian right of return to Israel proper, beyond perhaps a small onetime influx of refugees under the humanitarian banner of family reunification. They also understand that Palestinians will not accept any agreement without some concessions on Jerusalem.

In his address last week to the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu promised that if Mahmoud Abbas were merely to say "I will accept a Jewish state," then: "With those six words, the Israeli people will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise." This allocution was definitely not part of prior understandings, including the 1993 Oslo Accords, where the Government of Israel already committed itself to significant territorial withdrawals. These Israeli concessions were based primarily on security performance on the ground. 

Even during his own previous term as Prime Minister, in the mid-1990s, Netanyahu never placed such an ideological condition. In the successive interim agreements over the years, the Palestinian side has always recognized Israel's rights as a sovereign state. But now, despite Netanyahu's vocal disdain for any preconditions to resuming the talks that were fairly frequent meetings under the previous two Prime Ministers -- he has added one more pre-condition of his own: The Palestinians must accept that Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and centuries of Jewish hope, and the culmination of millennia of persecution. (Funny, Mahmoud, you don't look Jewish...)

If Netanyahu were really interested in negotiations, he would have blocked all settlement expansion months ago and called the Palestinians' bluff. The catch is, Netanyahu has a bluff of his own. 

Netanyahu's goal is to find new reasons not to negotiate, rather than thinking up new ways to incentivize his own citizens as well as the other side to come together. My guess is, a significant minority of American Jews and close to half of the Israeli public will be OK with that. Some will deny or challenge my analysis, but others will be relieved and empowered by it.

May 24, 2011

Obama as Netanyahu's straw man

If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Shimon Peres were not the Presidents of Iran and Israel, respectively, I daresay Iran might have a nuclear device by now. Ahmadinejad is so offensive in his grandstanding and baiting that there's no way the Europeans could turn a blind eye to the nuclear program that progressed so quietly under Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. And given Netanyahu's skill for shifting blame and avoiding actual talks with the Palestinians (yes, the Palestinians have also made troubles), the Europeans would have lost patience with Israel months ago -- if not for the visionary, statesman persona of Shimon Peres.

The AIPAC banquet is one of the Jewish community's premier annual events. They do a great job. Tonight, no news was made, but that's not AIPAC's fault.

After the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House gave generally bland speeches, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a speech full of pride and platitudes, and crowned by a defiant pledge that Israel will "never" return to the 1967 borders. President Obama never suggested Israel return to the 1967 (really, PRE-67) borders, but it was clear Netanyahu meant to tar the President as having done so. BIG applause on that. Great stuff.

If in 2000, the two sides were at a point where Bill Clinton could paint a vision of what Israeli-Palestinian peace could look like, we've reached the point now where the best Obama can do is share his vision of what Israeli-Palestinian NEGOTIATIONS could look like -- and he still got pounded by Netanyahu.

May 22, 2011

Netanyahu flinched. Now what?

President Obama has now delivered his second Mideast speech in four days, and the most awkward outcome is the intervening public response by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In his AIPAC speech this morning, the President added a line that could have avoided much of the outrage from his first speech: Regarding his loaded statement that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," today he said, "By definition, it means that the parties themselves -– Israelis and Palestinians -– will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967." Thanks for that second shoe...

And in between the President's two speeches, Netanyahu essentially picked a fight with Obama, had a frank and candid White House chat, and helped fuel a firestorm of umbrage against the President of the United States among Israelis and a vocal segment of American Jewry. But to what end?


If Netanyahu is right, and Obama was making unrealistic and unfair demands of Israel, why confront him through the media just hours before sitting down face to face? And if -- as Netanyahu and his supporters insist -- no daylight between should appear between the U.S. and Israeli positions, why have they overplayed a few semantic details as though Obama "has thrown Israel under the bus" and other choice labels ("indefensible" borders was one of Netanyahu's critiques).

Israelis should wish Obama well in Europe

For which audience did President Obama tailor last Thursday's long speech on the Middle East? Of course, Arabs were interested in how Obama might meet the seismic changes rippling across the Middle East, but it's been a long time since they stopped taking speeches seriously. And they're hardly waiting on Washington's green light to take to the streets and fight for their rights. 

Israelis seem not to mind that their Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was doing nothing substantive to promote meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians even before the Fatah-Hamas merger. Netanyahu had been using House Speaker John Boehner to get his own Capitol Hill pep rally and one-up the President, so Obama pulled rank and moved up his own Mideast speech to the day before his own meeting with Netanyahu. But mutual spite still doesn't impact a major Presidential speech. Obama must know the peace process is going nowhere for a while, so what impact could he hope to make with such a speech?

One audience that could be useful to the President is the Europeans, whom he will be visiting this coming week. Nearly all the Western European nations were already signed up to support Palestinian statehood next September at the United Nations. Then, in a belated tribute to the efforts of Hosni Mubarak, Hamas and Fatah agreed to try out a reconciliation. Almost immediately, the Europeans made clear they wouldn't support the declaration of statehood if the new Palestine embraced the rejectionist, terrorist Hamas. So Hamas started intimating its readiness to accept further negotiations with Israel... possibly just enough to keep the Europeans hanging on.

May 20, 2011

So WHY is Netanyahu coming to Washington?

If anything, President Obama's Middle East speech yesterday was anti-climactic. Support democracy and intervene when it's possible and helpful; help Egypt and Tunisia transition; Iraq; and continue supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace BASED ON the 1967 (really, 1949) borders with land swaps. Nothing particularly new, but then it would be hard to top the past six months of change on the ground, from popular revolution to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been disappointed with the President's restatement of what seem to be the parameters for a workable arrangement with the Palestinians. Rather than waiting to tell the President directly, since they are meeting TODAY, the Prime Minister chose to publicly express his concerns about the Obama speech, with little or nothing positive to say about it. He said the 1967 borders are "indefensible", as though the President was talking about returning to the Green Line. He even said what assurances he expects Obama to give him when they do meet face-to-face, which is always so helpful for a President of the United States to know in advance. Why even meet at all...

May 19, 2011

Pakistan's decline is not India's rise

India must be breathing easier since the United States got Osama bin Laden right in the middle of Pakistan.

India and Pakistan cannot find enough proxies for their decades-old rivalry. Afghanistan is only the latest battleground. As has been obvious for many months, Pakistan was an active player behind the 2008 Mumbai terror spree, even though bilateral reconciliation talks have continued to sputter along. If not for the headline-grabbing nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, the arms race between India and Pakistan would be at the top of the list. And so on...

India looks better when Pakistan looks bad, whether it's for harboring the planet's number-one terrorist (who also happened to be what many Indians would call a "bloodymuslim"). Pakistan will continue to receive U.S. support because Washington needs Pakistan's help in Afghanistan and around the region, and because -- even if the Pakistanis did know for five years that Osama was living a few blocks from their elite military academy -- Pakistan is in a tight spot and probably had little choice. Or they just totally missed it, which is also believable. But like anyone else, the Indians enjoy being more popular than Pakistan, even if the decline of U.S.-Pakistan intelligence cooperation adds nothing to the U.S.-India relationship. 

May 16, 2011

Will Obama use AIPAC to announce Israel vacation?

It looks like President Obama will address the AIPAC Conference Sunday morning, one day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does the same. The President may use the opportunity to announce the details of his upcoming visit to Israel, as Laura Rozen has just reported. He already said he'll visit this year. Since there continues to be little hope for a genuine peace breakthrough in the short term, there's nothing holding him back -- since if there were any chance, a President would wait until there's something he can throw his weight behind. The fact that George Mitchell is stepping down empty-handed is a further sign that nothing serious will happen this year.

The President has learned the hard way that (1) in addition to believing in Greater Israel in his heart, Netanyahu will also not be taking any risks beyond what it takes to keep his day job; (2) he will therefore have to meet the Arab Spring without the credibility of delivering an Israeli-Palestinian deal; and (3) he can win over Israelis and retain the "Jewish vote" stateside if he just makes a re-election campaign visit to Israel, spends quality time with Israeli President Shimon Peres, and appears to get along with Netanyahu. If he can't secure a lasting peace, at least he can avoid looking hard on Israel.

May 15, 2011

Good 'ol boys at the top


The latest news about Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged sexual assault of a New York hotel maid is typically shocking, and typically it will go down as another isolated incident. There will be no connection between what has now becomes a criminal matter and what goes on in capitals and international centers every single day. Strauss-Kahn, as it happens, is head of the International Monetary Fund and WAS the leading prospect to challenge French President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's election. (He might still have a future in Italian politics...)

Strauss-Kahn's previous affair with a subordinate did not cost him either job, though Paul Wolfowitz had a similar complication that did force him to leave as head of the World Bank (especially when he awkwardly pulled strings on her behalf). Israel's former President Moshe Katsav is currently awaiting his appeal, having been convicted of raping and assaulting women right in his office. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are also susceptible to this institutional culture.

When the men at the top have no sense of propriety, and their behavior goes unreported (as it so often does), public campaigns against sexual harassment and even sex trafficking ring hollow. What impact can they possibly have, and what hope does a female lawyer or economist have of getting the same consideration as her male colleagues?

My seat at the table, FWIW

Having recently shifted my professional focus to local and domestic politics, after more than two decades exclusively engaged in international work, I've had a few moments to reflect on some of my experiences as well comparing both fields. For now, here are a few memories of world leaders current and past.

Of the several meetings I had with Eduard Shevardnadze when he was President of Georgia, visiting him in his office tower in Tbilisi definitely stands out. On a Friday afternoon, the building was nearly deserted, and I had the impression he opened it up just for our meeting. He had one or two aides with him, including an interpreter (more for our benefit than for his), and yet he took his own meticulous notes on what each member of our delegation had to say. When we had finished, he went back over each point we'd made and gave thorough responses. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I remember a meeting at Blair House with a visiting dignitary from another Soviet successor state who had a dozen officials on his side, to match the dozen or so representatives on our side of the table. While most of us were making at least cursory notes, not one member of his delegation even picked up a pen. And their interpreter was so incoherent and inaccurate that the ambassador later apologized in private. And right after the meeting, a handful of us repaired to a side room where one of the top leaders of American Jewry - who happens to know fluent Russian - conveyed to us what had actually been said.

Back to Shevardnadze for a moment. At the end of our meeting in Tbilisi, we posed for photos. The old man crossed over to where his nation's flag stood, leaned down and carried it back to where we were standing (weighted base and all), just so it would be in the shot. I honestly thought he might keel over then and there (it was also a hot day).

May 10, 2011

Outsourcing American Jewish identity?


Right before the royal wedding and Osama's descent into Hell, a brief press item reported that North American Jewish Federations "generated nearly $2.5 billion for program needs in 2010." Most Jewish community leaders seem to agree that continuity is a key challenge, and that Jewish education is the key ingredient to strengthening Jewish identity and securing the future of the Jewish people. And yet, Birthright Israel -- which brings young Jews to Israel for free 10-day Israel tours with no strings attached -- is considered to be the silver bullet of Jewish identity. So what's not to like...?

If (1) the cornerstone of our Jewish future is supposed to be promoting Jewish identity; (2) $2.5 billion was raised last year in North America (though serving the elderly and the poor and supporting Israel are also high-ticket necessities); (3) presumably several hundred million was spent on Jewish schools, camps, and informal education; and (4) the best thing we did was send kids to Israel for ten days -- then why even bother with Jewish education at all? Isn't it better to just invest in El Al futures?

So maybe that's a rhetorical question, or maybe it's just sarcastic. Oops.

My expectation is that truly independent research would show that Birthright is not so successful overall, that many of the kids who return with a strong Jewish identity already had it or that it wears off pretty fast. The fact is, when Birthright was first designed, there was basically no follow-up programming, and even today, what was tacked on after the fact reaches 10-15 percent of the Birthright alumni in any meaningful way. The fact is, most of the tour operators have no consistent standards for training and overseeing counselors on Birthright trips, and the most prevalent qualification is prior experience as a Birthright participant.

May 9, 2011

Netanyahu faces Obama's rising star


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Washington in two weeks to address the annual AIPAC Conference, as he did in March 2010, and so he also gets to meet again with President Obama. Last year's White House meeting produced no photo op, underscoring the Administration's general disappointment with Netanyahu's failure to open any functioning doors to substantive talks with the Palestinians. It also didn't help Netanyahu that Obama was fresh from winning one of the biggest fights of his Presidency -- comprehensive health care reform. I'm guessing Netanyahu was caught off guard by a President not looking to waste time on losing propositions (as if Netanyahu really intends to cut a realistic deal with the Palestinians) -- especially on one of his best days.

This year, Netanyahu's visit comes shortly after the President's biggest and gutsiest victory so far: The killing of Osama Bin Laden. And the timing only gets worse. The Palestinians Netanyahu could have dealt with last year have now merged with Hamas, largely out of weakness and desparation brought on by no resumption of talks -- and partly thanks to Obama for persistently highlighting Israeli settlements and to the Israelis for consistently flaunting them. Last year, Israeli-Palestinian peace could have taken the pressure off the United States for its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now the Middle East has a dozen countries in various stages of democratic change, thank you very much. 

President Obama could have used an Israeli-Palestinian peace process under his belt BEFORE the Arab Spring. He could still use it, were his domestic policies still under assault from all quarters. But his approval rating got a serious boost following the Bin Laden kill, and being seen to twist the arm of an Israeli Prime Minister -- an inevitable consequence of any serious peacemaking -- is not a useful way for a popular President to secure re-election. 

May 4, 2011

Can't the media let Bush be modest? (No.)

Once again, the "news" media seem to have no patience for real news to come their way, as if the operation to get Osama Bin Laden and its aftermath are not pressing enough. Since Tuesday, the hot subplot has been former President George W. Bush reportedly declining President Obama's invitation to join him when he visits Ground Zero on Thursday in New York.

President Bush is trying to be a gentleman and defer to the current sitting President, and the press pervert that gesture and use it to upstage President Obama's military success and his effort to provide some closure for thousands of 9/11 survivors and millions of Americans. Bravo!!

Shortly after President Obama announced the killing of Osama, George W. Bush issued a brief, magnanimous and patriotic statement praising the operation, U.S. forces, and the President. Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader and former Speaker -- and one of Bush's prime adversaries on Capitol Hill -- called the former President to thank him for his leadership in the cause that culminated in Sunday's dramatic operation. Since he left the White House, Bush has avoided politics and public roles, which is why he decided against accompanying the President to Ground Zero. He did partner with Bill Clinton to help the victims of last year's devastating earthquake in Haiti, because President Obama asked him and because a million or more lives were hanging in the balance.

Do the press really expect Bush to take a victory lap around Ground Zero? Do they really think Bush is being petulant by not joining Obama on a solemn occasion?

May 3, 2011

Mission Accomplished.

Any American, and anyone who believes in civilization, should be relieved and even pleased that Osama Bin Laden no longer walks this Earth. CNN and other news media have so redundantly explained the obvious reasons, I have no interest in repeating them here. He was evil. The legitimate concern about revenge attacks following his death should be balanced by the reality that most Al Qaeda supporters were already out to get "us" even before Sunday evening. The only reasons they haven't attacked more are a lack of capability or the success of anti-terrorism policies and practices worldwide.

The fact that Bin Laden had been living for years without phone or internet service, relying upon couriers who evidently conveyed only verbal commands based on personal visits to the compound, all confirms that he was not in operational command for some time. He had never really been the operational commander of Al Qaeda anyway, but the point is: Al Qaeda's tactical capabilities have not been significantly impacted, other than the disruptive value of documents and data acquired during the raid.

More than the direct relevance of Osama Bin Laden was the sidelining of the whole Al Qaeda ethos during the "Arab Spring". Despite murmurs of openings for Al Qaeda in Libya and Yemen, none of the uprisings or popular movements sweeping the Middle East has demonstrated any effective allegiance to Al Qaeda or Bin Laden, nor any functional collaboration. Al Qaeda has tried to catch up to history, but it's been a tough year. The Yemen-based cells remain a potent threat, but that has little or nothing to do with the public resistance to President Saleh.

Even the posthumous tears for Osama being shed by Hamas (and that's no revolution) are really tears of relief, for Osama and Al Qaeda would have gladly destroyed Hamas had they the opportunity. No one needed Osama out of the way more than Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.