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Blast kills senior Syrian military officials

18 Jul

3 key Assad officials killed in Damascus blast

Reports indicate a bodyguard in Assad’s inner circle placed the bomb inside the room where senior Syrian military officials were meeting. Is the end near for Assad? Is a wider civil war to follow?

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Let’s get real on Iran

29 Feb

The cover of the latest Economist reads “Iran” in ominous black letters peppered with nuclear emblems, most of which, like Iran’s nuclear facilities, are depicted deep underground. Being dropped from above are two bombs, one emblazoned with Old Glory and the other with the Star of David. The imagery suggesting an American or Israeli pre-emptive strike could not be clearer. Neither could The Economist’s take on such prospects: “Why an attack will not eradicate the nuclear threat”.

The magazine sums up the views of many, particularly in Europe, who agree that Iran’s nuclear program must be halted but not through military means. While this is a reasonable stance, it must also be supported as such. And here, The Economist falls short, relying on weak assumptions and citing evidence that belie their own conclusions.

“If Iran is intent on getting a bomb…” starts one paragraph. If? Let’s consider, in November of last year the IAEA released a report asserting that Iran is carrying out “activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” including “the acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network.” Does The Economist believe that Iran is willing to withstand ever crippling sanctions and international isolation for a theoretical research project, an academic exercise?

Even the Iranians have dropped this pretense. A high level strategic analysis published by the Iranian Defense Ministry in 2010 contends that in the event of an unconventional attack, “Iran needs to respond with a nuclear strategy.” In other words, it’s not if they want the bomb, it’s if they can attain one.

Even so, warns the Economist, military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be ill advised because “using Western bombs as a tool to prevent nuclear proliferation risks making Iran only more determined to build a weapon.” Essentially, don’t try to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, otherwise Iran will want to develop nuclear weapons.

An attack will also prompt Iran to stop cooperating with the IAEA and move its nuclear production underground, warns the magazine. Except, this is already happening, and the authors acknowledge as much in the same issue. “In 2006 [Iran] restarted its centrifuge programme, ended compliance with the additional protocol and turned a deaf ear to the IAEA’s questions about weaponisation. It continues to allow inspectors in, but, as this week, refuses them access to the things they demand to see.”

The suggested solution? Ratchet up sanctions and hope for a new government to forswear the bomb. But which government is The Economist waiting for? Nuclear development started under the pro-Western and secular shah of Iran, continued under the mullahs since 1979, supported by the former reformist President Rafsanjani, paraded by President Ahmadinejad, and duly blessed by his opponent from the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Iranians of all backgrounds see nuclear development as a matter of national pride and every major political leader has reflected this sentiment.

All this is not to say that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the right move. The magazine does raise important considerations as well, such as the probability of success in striking nuclear facilities and the pace at which Iran can rebuild their program.

In the end, it may well be that the benefits of military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities do not outweigh the potential costs. But in making this analysis, let’s be frank about the reality of the situation. Iran wants the bomb, they’re actively developing one, and sanctions are unlikely to stop them. Now what? We will find out soon enough.

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem.  Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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What the US State Department doesn’t know about Mossad trained sharks and imperialist puppeteers

14 Feb

How should we react when AIDS, the swine flu, infertility, economic stagnation, natural disasters, revolutions, and a litany of other grievances are routinely blamed by Middle Eastern populations on the West—the United States and Israel in particular?

Because some of these accusations are so over the top—Mossad trained sharks—or we know them to be patently false—CIA behind the 9/11 attacks—Western analysts tend to dismiss such claims as the rantings of sadly misinformed oddballs:

Conspiracy theories are useful because they provide scapegoats through which disenfranchised societies and their rulers make sense of their predicament while crowding out inconvenient facts.  Accusations of “foreign hands,” Zionist plots, or imperialist (i.e. American) designs are conjured regularly by academics, government higher-ups, and the wider population alike with conviction inversely proportional to the availability of evidence.

Past history also plays a role.  The Middle East has been subject to foreign interference in the past, such as the overthrow of Iranian President Mohammed Mosssadeq in 1953 or the 1956 Suez invasion by Britain, France, and Israel, which makes modern day illusions seem more plausible.

Yes, America’s policy in the Middle East is sometimes counterproductive and has room for improvement.  But there is no policy adjustment that will accommodate grievances that arise from the belief that Americans or Zionists are responsible for every major ill from 9/11 to revolutions to natural disasters.

The problem in glossing over the impact of these lies, half-truths, distortions, and incitement directed at the West, including from our ostensible allies, is that we miss a defining factor of America’s relationship with the region.

How should our foreign policy deal with this challenge?

At the very least, we must acknowledge that some of our allies in the Middle East spread, tolerate, nurture, or co-opt anti-Western conspiracy theories and allow incitement through state media, schools, mosques, and even official communiques (see in order to redirect public anger, sow discord among state enemies, and justify repression as a means of defense against nefarious foreign plots—real or imagined.

We should assess our allies’ intentions by what they say publicly to their own people and not the niceties their diplomats convey behind closed doors.  This means when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with her Saudi counterpart, her assessment of the Saudi-American relationship will take into account what is preached in Saudi-sponsored mosques.  It means that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not maintain the status of a peaceful moderate while he glorifies known terrorists. And so on.

This is not interference in domestic affairs.  It is a critical component of our national interest to insist that our allies, who are so devoted to influencing their domestic public opinion, desist from enabling anti-American animus.  And if we are serious about promoting the Arab-Israeli peace process, the same expectations must be applied to the anti-Semitism and denial of Israel’s legitimacy which is so common in this region.

People do not act on reality.  They act on their perceptions of reality.  While perceptions are influenced by much more than the efforts of regional governments, we will never win the battle for hearts and minds while our ostensible allies propagandize against us.  We must insist otherwise to secure our foreign policy interests.

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem and currently works for a political non-profit.

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Politics from the Kitchen Table

13 Dec

gingrich romney

Politics from the Kitchen Table
by Marie Tbili

I’m what they call a swing voter–working middle-class mother of two in Ohio. After three years of the Obama Administration, I am interested to hear what the Republican candidates have to offer. And after following the primaries, I’ve concluded that if the GOP nominates Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney, they are not interested in winning.

Gingrich is smart and good debater. In fact, I agree with much of what he says. But Obama was also a good rhetorician, and the result are…?

We need a president who can deliver economically and politically.

Gingrich may well be able to do that. He can navigate the politics of Washington and manage the necessary backroom deals. He brings with him excellent political experience. I like him. But is he electable in general elections? The answer is no. Who is? Within the GOP, only Romney.

Romney is criticized for not being charismatic enough. Well, we have a very “charismatic” president now. Is it only charisma that we are looking for?

A parallel from history. The Soviet Union’s Michael Gorbachev was very charismatic, a good debater and talker. But he led to the dissolution of his own country and political system. He had good intentions and paved quite a road with them. Obama’s intentions are similarly pure. Somebody has yet to “succeed” in the manner of Gorbachev and only because we have a system of checks and balances it is harder to do. But anything is possible….

And precisely because anything–including the worst–is possible, we need a proper president like a doctor amid an epidemic. First we need remission, then healing.

Romney, as a hands-on businessman, can improve our country’s economy. He is in politics long enough to know how to navigate the system and his positions are not extreme, but balanced. His business friendly approach can attract business professionals and independent voters.

But will independents vote for Gingrich? The answer is no.

If I can see all this sitting at my kitchen table, watching TV and reading periodicals, how is it that GOP strategists cannot see all this?

Perhaps they do see this, and there’s a much wider strategy in play to pave the way for an unbeatable 2016 election.

Let’s look back. In 2008, Republicans had no chance of winning no matter who was running. After eight years of the Bush presidency, the country was ready for a change. The only question was, which Democrat was going to win. Change works both ways. Another four years of Obama, and the country will be ready to boot him out just the same. At that point, the GOP will have the seat waiting for their candidate of choice.

Will it be Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio? Maybe this is what the GOP strategy is!? And if they pick the unelectable Gingrich now, they will pave the way for just that. With the primary elections around the corner, it will not take long to find out.

The author is solely responsible for views expressed.  Marie Tbili can be reached at

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Flotilla flotsam – Who benefits?

4 Jul

If the best way to win a battle is to avoid it, score one for Israel.  And for the international coalition—US, Canada, Greece, Spain, UK, even Turkey—that helped sink the latest plans of Hamas bound flotilla activists.

As Americans were waking up late on Independence Day, the riot-torn government of Greece managed to intercept a Gaza bound boat and frustrate the self-righteous indignation that guided the pro-Palestinian flotilla activists whose real aim was to provoke Israel rather than help Palestinians.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy Catherin Ashton, the governments of Canada, Spain, and others registered their unequivocal objections.  But it was Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who got the moral clarity award for declaring, “I strongly urge those wishing to deliver humanitarian goods to the Gaza Strip to do so through established channels.  Unauthorized efforts to deliver aid are provocative and, ultimately, unhelpful to the people of Gaza.”  For good measure, he added, “Canada recognizes Israel’s legitimate security concerns and its right to protect itself and its residents.”

Governments who reflexively criticize Israel while themselves resorting to more extreme measures remained largely mum.

Israel won the PR battle by doing everything to avoid it.

Amid the reverie, the realist in me wants to ask: By successfully bolstering its case against anti-Israel activists, has Israel captured a pawn at the expense of a rook?

Let us remember, part of the rationale for the Gaza blockade was to economically weaken Hamas, which rules over the Gaza Strip, while enabling the Palestinian Authority to run an economically flourishing West Bank.  The contrast between the two territories was to allow Palestinians to conclude that Hamas rule is not in their interests.

Yet, to counter the accusations of flotilla activists, Israelis expounded on the thousands of tons of supplies entering Gaza, its well-stocked markets, Olympic sized swimming pools, restaurants, shopping malls, water parks, amusement parks, luxury hotels, etc.  They provided sufficient proof that “there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” as UN’s Middle East envoy Robert Serry concluded.

Did Israel thus undermine its goal of economically weakening Hamas?

Admittedly, when Israel did enforce the blockade more stringently, it enabled Hamas control over the resultant shadow economy.

The dilemma is no doubt complicated, but until Israelis can solve the Gaza blockade’s Catch-22, they may continue to win battles while finding it ever more difficult to win the war.

[this post has been edited since first publication]

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Become a Facebook fan. Follow on Twitter.

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Obama-Netanyahu: What’s the deal?

24 May

Netanyahu and Obama

Has President Obama’s reception of PM Netanyahu form a constructive dialogue, a rift, an insult, an honest discussion, a small disagreement among friends and allies, a reaffirmation of the US-Israel strategic relationship? It all depends who you ask, and not that you’re asking, but below I offer a few reflections.

Obama’s speech.

Israelis took objection to a number of points in Obama’s speech.

From an Israeli perspective, Obama gave the Palestinians the crux of what they would presumably receive through negotiations—“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”—at a time when Palestinians are refusing to negotiate.

Two, By adopting the 1967 lines as a US platform, Obama further transformed this position into the opening foray of potential negotiations for Palestinians rather than the end result of a negotiating process.

Three, Palestinians are less likely to rejoin a negotiating process where they will be expected to make their own concessions if they are able to extract Israeli concessions through Obama outside the negotiating process.

Four, in Netanyahu’s perception, as expressed at the join press conference on Friday, a “full” withdrawal to the 1967 lines, even with swaps, is not acceptable since it would leave Israel incapable of properly defending its people. As to the last point, Netanyahu could be posturing in an attempt to reset the middle ground on the issue of borders. But he could also be genuine in expressing Israeli policy while he is in office, which means the US position runs counter to Israeli security interests as Netanyahu perceives them.

At Friday’s press conference, and presumably in the Oval Office, Netanyahu pointed out that Israel’s War of Independence created two refugee problems, as roughly the same amount of Jews and Arabs fled their respective opponents. The President’s speech on Thursday took into account only “the fate of Palestinian refugees.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian demand to “return” these people to Israel along with millions of their descendants is nothing short of demographic destruction from an Israeli point of view. Netanyahu took umbrage that Obama was very specific with what Israel will have to accept as part of a settlement, but did not “state frankly what everyone knows” regarding Palestinian refugees, that they and their descendants will have to remain outside of Israel.

Since these were the issues put forward by Netanyahu at the press conference, we can assume they were the primary sticking points in the Obama-Netanyahu meeting at the Oval Office. We can also assume that there were significant areas of agreement as well, such as on Iran and other matters of security cooperation.

However, the media seized on the points of tension to cover the speech through the lens of a US-Israel rift.

Netanyahu’s press conference did not help with this perception. Netanyahu could have presented the same Israeli positions as points of general agreement rather than disagreement. Obama’s speech had enough positive elements to accomplish this.

For example, Obama stated, “As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security.” Netanyahu could have couched his intention to keep Israeli forces along the Jordanian border within the context of what Obama said above instead of voicing this position as a disagreement with Obama’s insistence on “full” Israeli withdrawal.

Even a full withdrawal is conditional on Palestinian security cooperation. Israel could try to raise the expectations of what is acceptable security cooperation.

While Obama did give credence to the issue of Palestinian refugees, it can be reasonably concluded that the US position does not support a Palestinian “right of return.” Obama’ expressly supported “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.” Netanyahu was fair in pointing out that there was also a Jewish refugee problem, but he could have forcefully agreed with Obama that Israel must remain “a Jewish and democratic state,” which is why Palestinian refugees and their descendants will remain outside of Israel. In other words, the issue of refugees is not one of disagreement, but one of agreement as Israel understands it.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The Palestinians did this in February, when they put forward a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, lifting the language from Secretary Clinton’s recent statements. While the US vetoed the resolution due to its one-sided nature, it was made harder since they were essentially vetoing their own expressed positions. While Netanyahu must be careful not to misconstrue Obama’s words, his same points could have been made using a different tone and approach. Let’s remember, press conferences are for public consumption, and the primary goal is to posture effectively.  Netanyahu is one the few Israeli leaders who understand media savvy, so perhaps his focus on setting the record straight was more calculated than I imply.  Still, it seems that a different tone would have been more effective.

(By the way, I am not sure how much spin could have salvaged the issue of 1967 lines. However, by voicing the other positions as points of agreement, 1967 lines would have become the only point of obvious contention.)

Finally, Obama gave Netanyahu an easy out. Obama’s language could have been stronger (as it was during his follow-up speech at AIPAC on Sunday) but he did say that the Fatah-Hamas pact is an obstacle to negotiations. The Israelis can now emphasize their agreement with the US that Palestinians are preventing negotiations.  Netanyahu did take advantage of this at the press conference.

Palestinian reaction.

Hamas rejected the speech outright. Palestinian President Abbas, head of the rival Fatah faction, was disappointed for his own reasons, although chose to withhold public comment.

The Palestinians have not been on the same page as the US for a while now. By brokering a unity deal with Hamas and insisting on declaring Palestinian statehood through the UN, Abbas has sidelined the US.

What explains this seemingly counterproductive pursuit?

Palestinian President Abbas is at an age where he cannot continue to lead much longer, as he himself acknowledged. As a result, he is thinking more about his exit strategy and legacy than about an arduous negotiating process.

With Netanyahu’s government in charge, he figures he cannot maximize Israeli concessions. Besides, a newly resurgent Hamas (a side effect of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in the Egyptian revolution) would make proper negotiations impossible. By ushering a detente with Hamas, he would leave a less divided Palestinian body politic upon his departure.

The declaration of statehood at the UN is meant to embolden Palestinian public opinion and enhance international pressure on Israel at a time when negotiations are not desirable. Palestinians know that real statehood can only come through an accord with Israel, which only the US is in a position to broker, but the symbolic victory at the UN can be achieved now. There is some speculation that Palestinians may seek to invoke the United for Peace resolution by which the UN Security Council is bypassed and a binding resolution is enacted by the General Assembly with the help of Arab and Islamic states. However, this is unlikely to succeed (see in depth analysis by Robbie Sabel here). The ultimate purpose is to strengthen the Palestinian position in the court of public opinion and enhance international standing.

The US is clearly unhappy about this, and Obama’s speech made that point clear. However, Abbas likely figures that US aid will continue unabated, or be replaced by the Europeans in the worst case scenario. As for US-Palestinian diplomatic relations, they will resume where they left off once Palestinians are ready to negotiate. At that time, however, the Palestinians will be in a stronger position vis-a-vis the Israelis.

Netanyahu at joint session of Congress.

As I write this, Netanyahu is addressing the a joint session of Congress. I’m on a train, and will hear the speech only later, but I can presume the following.

I expect that Netanayhu will reiterate Israel’s stance on the 1967 lines, but generally take a positive tone, emphasize close US-Israel ties, and focus on areas of agreement. Congress is perceived as more favorable to Israel than Obama’s Administration has been at times. By focusing on the positive, Netanyahu would separate his disagreement with Obama as one between two leaders rather than one between two nations whose close relationship is defined by mutual trust and cooperation.

Addressing a US Joint Session of Congress is an opportunity few leaders are granted, and Netanyahu is unlikely to have another such opportunity himself. Mere platitudes about close US-Israel ties would waste this opportunity. He has to say something big, which is why I suspect he will unveil his own peace initiative. But even here I wonder what can he say that would add anything new to the conversation. At the very least, he can deflect criticism from the Israeli Left by showing initiative and presenting a plan, however stillborn, rather that merely reacting to events.

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Become a Facebook fan. Follow on Twitter.

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Israel Cannot Get a Break

17 May

Guest Blog: Israel Cannot Get a Break
by Jess Sadick

Indulge me for a moment while I tell you something you already know too well.

Israel never seems to get a break, even on its birthday.

This week, on what Arabs refer to as al-Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, Arabs in Syria and Lebanon amassed at Israel’s border.  Some of them set upon cutting down the border fence while others were content just with trying to climb over it.  There was little reaction from the media, other than to predictably focus on the dozen or so Arabs said to have been killed, by whose gunfire remains unclear.  Reports are that Lebanese, not just Israeli, soldiers fired.

But the impetus for this column lies in other distasteful events of late that seemed not to go Israel’s way.

We start with the U.S. Administration, which not surprisingly managed even to bungle its traditional Israel Independence Day greeting.  President Obama could not help but seize the occasion to show the requisite balance and objectivity.  In the same sentence in which he called Israel a “close ally,” Obama said he hoped to see the “legitimate aspirations” of all of the region’s people fulfilled, alluding of course to the Palestinians.  There was no compelling reason why, on this particular occasion, Palestinians needed mention.

Secretary of State Clinton’s Independence Day message was no better.  She called Israel a “young nation” and “a beacon of hope and freedom “for so many” around the world.  “For so many” sounds like she is referring to Jews only.  Do not Israel’s many achievements in its relatively short life thus far serve as inspiration for all people around the world and not just “for so many?” Certainly, some will find this nit-picking.  But such speeches are carefully prepared, with every word having specific meaning and intent, sometimes purposefully hidden.  Clinton’s choice of words was a way to sound, perhaps without really meaning to be, sincere.

This also seemed the intent of France’s Ambassador for Human Rights, Francois Zimeray, who delivered a speech to members of the American Jewish Committee in Washington on May 1.  Zimeray started off by saying that some who address such audiences pronounce themselves a friend of Israel but then have only criticisms of it to share.  When Zimeray then insisted that he was a friend of Israel but really meant it, I knew what was coming next would not be good.

Zimeray then proceeded to treat Israel as a child, telling it what to think and do and suggesting it is paranoid.

“We have to tell the Israelis that the changes in the Middle East are positive and good things,” he said, effectively suggesting that Israel’s caution is misplaced.  “One has to show the Israelis the positive aspects of Middle East change.”  With the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islam on the rise in post-Mubarak Egypt and in Syria, how is Zimeray so sure that the changes unfolding are no cause for concern?  Doesn’t Israel know its neighbors best?  After all, its survival depends upon it.

Most outrageous was Zimeray’s suggestion that Israeli Jews do not yearn for peace.  He said, “Israel often asks where is the next Arab Sadat,” meaning who among Arab leaders will next visit Jerusalem in a sincere effort to forge peace?  But, then he asked, “Where is the Jewish Sadat?” as if to suggest Israeli Jews, themselves, do not sufficiently aspire for peace.  In fact, there are more than 5.5 million of them!

Zimeray didn’t stop there.  He insisted that expecting Palestinians to recognize Israel – a key demand of the current Israeli government before peace talks can proceed – is “impossible for them at this moment.”  And he implied that Israel’s fears and concerns are not legitimate but stem, instead, from irrational paranoia:  “Sometimes Israel acts as if it has no friends.  We have to tell the Israelis that they are [a] legitimate [state]…. Israel needs to wage the battle for world public opinion.”

Zimeray should be part of that battle and should be telling his Arab interlocutors at every opportunity that Israel is a legitimate, permanent member of their region and the world.  It’s the Arab countries, not Israel, that need to hear it, and it should not be Israel’s job alone to convey it.  If Zimeray is the “friend of Israel” he professes to be, he should be helping Israel to make its case to the Arabs and everywhere he visits.

Speaking of Zimeray’s travels as France’s Ambassador for Human Rights, an AJC event program listed Iraq as the only Arab country Zimeray has visited.  Has Zimeray not found it necessary to investigate first-hand the continued deprivation of human rights in places like Syria and Saudi Arabia, where human rights are violated daily and without consequence?

I wish I could say that I would have expected better from the Frenchman.

Jess Sadick, a social media entrepreneur in Washington, DC, is a former Middle East terrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of State and Federal Bureau of Investigation and Editor of

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Middle East expert Dr. Walid Phares speaks

12 May

Interview with Middle East expert Dr. Walid Phares
by David Bratslavsky

I was recently in Washington D.C. and had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Walid Phares. He is an American scholar born in Beirut and frequent commentator on global terrorism and developments in the Middle East. Dr. Phares has testified before committees of the US Departments of Justice, Defense, State, Homeland Security, as well as Congress, UN Security Council, and the European Parliament. He is a frequent contributor to publications on international affairs and author of eleven books, the latest of which is The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.

What follows is a summary of our interview.

Q: What is the impact of bin Laden’s death?

A: It’s going to be a “game changer” that transgresses geopolitics and political division.

Number one impact is the US relationship with Pakistan. For bin Laden to be in a conspicuously fortified compound near a Pakistani military academy so close to the capital indicates that there was a shielding of bin Laden on some level within the intelligence apparatus of Pakistan. I personally project (unless proven wrong) that the government was not shielding him, but “there are segments of the national security apparatus within Pakistan which allowed this to happen.”

Although, a new theory is now emerging that segments of Pakistan’s ISI was in fact containing bin Laden in a type of house arrest. But up till what level in the intelligence and defense establishment it was covered, that we’ll have to discover. For it would be illogical that the top leaders pf the People’s Party in the cabinet would have endorsed a shielding of Bin Laden, as his group, the Taliban and the Jihadists in general were waging a terror campaign against them. In any event, the Pakistanis must have known at least of his presence inside Pakistan while svery few people knew of his presence there.

Q: What happens next?

A: Congress and the Administration are going to initiate a review of the relationship with the Pakistanis.

In this review I am calling for two things:

The Pakistani government must reform its intelligence services. Government policy is already on the right track. However, the ISI has a historically sympathetic relationship with Islamists in general and al-Qaeda in particular, which remains in some capacity today. As part of the reform, more action on al-Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistani territories is required.

US foreign policy must better identify and deal with the long term strategic threat to the US and the region. This analysis should clarify for the US that “there are two species of jihadis.” On the one hand there are the Salafists, al-Qaeda being the most extreme, and on the other hand is Iranian Islamism. I call on the US government administration to “start developing a national security doctrine which will see the threat as it is and not as it wants it to be.”

Q: How is the media in the Middle East reporting bin Laden’s death?

A: There are several kinds of media. Pro-Jihadist and Salafist media on the web and certain shows on Al-Jazeera are clearly anti-American. They are calling this an attack against Islam. The spin on bin Laden’s death is that he “wanted to die as a martyr” and “this will not change the course of al-Qaeda.”

For the most part, Al-Jazeera, although influenced by a Muslim Brotherhood-type outlook, is not making an issue of bin Laden’s death. They are making an issue of Pakistani sovereignty. They’re also advancing the point that now that bin Laden is dead, there is no reason for the US to be deployed in the region.

Q: How popular is this mindset?

A: Even if this viewpoint is not the majority, it is often the most vocal. We see this phenomenon in general with respect to Islamic fundamentalism. While civil society is generally moderate, the extremists are the most organized and the best equipped. I made the case for this in my last book, The Coming Revolution, which was published before the revolutions, in which I said that eventually all these societies are going to stand up. But at the same time, because they are not organized, “those who will harvest the revolution are the Islamists.” We see that now everywhere, including in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Q: Do we have a clear understanding of these dynamics in the West?

A: Many in Washington and the West have a bifurcated outlook. Some focus almost exclusively on the Islamist element and others focus almost exclusively on moderate civil society. We need a better analysis. What we have seen are truly popular revolutions on the onset. The Islamists on their own would not have been able to get hundreds of thousands into the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not show up until the third or fourth day. At the same time, the tidal wave of popular outrage is then co-opted by more organized Islamist elements whose aim is to take over the leadership. The West and the United States in particular have to be smart in understanding these forces, in understanding who controls what.

We need to partner with the right people. Within Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, and even to some degree the Arabian peninsula, the US must determine what are the pro democracy and civil society elements in those societies.

Q: Why has the American establishment analysis been clouded in your opinion?

A: Over the past many years, the body of  experts serving the US foreign policy establishment “have not given the administration, the president, and Congress the right expertise.” In my book, Future Jihad, I describe how our academic expertise and the national security analysis that is derived from it is compromised. Most of those who give academic advice come from the universities, whose Middle East departments are funded to a large degree by petrodollar regimes with strings attached. Thus, we have generations that have been raised in the classroom with the ideas of apology for jihadism. In sum, this explains why the President and Congress did not have from their experts the right information on either the threat or the democracy forces in the region.

The bigger change has to be done not in the Middle East but here in Washington.

Q: Should the US have gone into Libya?

A: With the exception of genocide, there is no single principle by which to decide whether to enter a conflict. The other exception is helping defend an ally if we’re bound to do so by treaty. There is a ground to help the Libyan civil society defend itself against brutal oppression but at the same time the forces seeking democracy have to be identified clearly 

Q: Is the conflict in Libya a revolution or a tribal conflict?

The jury is still out on this. In the beginning these were popular demonstrations against Qadaffi inspired by Tunisia and Egypt. The response by the regime was so sharp and violent that it encouraged members of the armed forces to break away and join demonstrators from their tribe or home town who were harmed in Qadaffi’s response. When you have a split army fighting each other along tribal lines, it’s a civil war.

We know Qadaffi is a bad guy, but we must also understand who is there to replace him. In my analysis, the core of the revolution in Libya is made up of former diplomats, bureaucrats, military personnel, and intellectuals. However, a wide swath of rebels is made up of Islamist-inspired militias. The concern is that if this conglomeration of groups reach Tripoli, the Islamists “would overthrow the others and then declare a Taliban or Muslim Brotherhood inspired state.”

Q: Do you believe economic sanctions will dissuade Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

A: “Sanctions are not a policy, they are tools of a policy.” To change the course of the Iranian regime, additional pressure must accompany sanctions. Sanctions worked against South Africa and may work against Syria along with other measures,  given the nature and interests of those countries. Iran, on the other hand, is interested in becoming a regional empire and a few sanctions will not dissuade them.

I am not even sure that more pressure will alter Iran’s course. Ultimately, what may required is regime change.
Some hold that they are against regime change in Iran because such change is accomplished through military action. Since they are against military action, by extension they oppose regime change.

But when we say regime change, it does not necessarily entail military action. The military option is for instances when national security is concerned. The other option, which I propose in my book, is to support the popular movement against the regime.

Q: Do you believe that the current US Administration failed to do this so far? 

A: “The Administration is not yet there.” They were given a great opportunity in June 2009 when 1.5 million people marked for reform in the streets of Iran. The beauty about it is that 60% of them were under the age of 20 and half of all demonstrators were females. This is unusual. When you have young protesters of both genders who are not proposing fundamentalism as a solution, you are in business with moderate civil society.

The Obama Administration did not go for it and I do not see in Washington a real change of direction yet. We’ll see a real change when the narrative, speeches, expertise, behavior, and funding priorities will change.
Q: Iranian public opinion surveys, to the degree that they are accurate, show a wide support for pursuing nuclear development. The issue is seen as a matter of national pride and defense across the political spectrum. Will a more moderate regime alter nuclear development given the popular base of support for it? 

A: If Iran was Italy or Poland, one would worry less about it seeking a nuclear segment of the economy or even a nuclear deterrent because those countries are committed to democratic ideals and norms.
Iran is a regime which has a stated goal to destroy Israel. To this effect, they support Hamas and Hezbollah and threaten use of missiles and gas. A nuclear weapon in the hands of such a regime is extremely detrimental to regional stability and to the West. What we need to see in Iran is not just a change of regime but of the political direction of that regime.
Currently, nuclear development is one way of expressing their national pride. Were they a practicing democracy, the Iranian regime would be focused on what to do with oil revenues, labor unions, and other quotidian concerns about the welfare of their citizens. In such an environment, Iranian nuclear ambitions could then be negotiated and they will likely find more productive ways of expressing their national dignity.

Ukraine provides a good example, since at one point it had nukes. It left the Soviet orbit and is developing as a democracy. The basis of their pride now revolves primarily around economic development.

The Iranian alternative, the Green movement, is another Iran. If this Iran takes over, I would be less inclined to see Iranian nuclear development as posing a problem. But if, say, another president replaces Ahmadinejad, this is not true reform. We need to see change at the level of Khamenei—not an Islamic republic, but just another democratic republic.

Q: Switching our focus for a moment, how will the recently announced Fatah-Hamas unity government affect prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

A: First issue is how will the alter the Palestinian scene itself. It is unfortunate that Mahmoud Abbas accepted the deal of unifying Fatah and Hamas without even asking Hamas to reform. They have killed hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. In my opinion, Mahmoud Abbas has done a poor evaluation of events after the Egyptian revolution. He figured the Palestinians are not getting much from the Israelis and the United States is busy with other matters. These are legitimate concerns. The reaction to this was to go to the opposite pole of their position and join with Hamas.

What factored into this decision? The Egyptian revolution has brought the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to have a significant influence on the Egyptian military, which is now going to be more supportive of Hamas, and MB offshoot. Also, since Hamas is going to be supported by a Sunni regional power, they are expected to move away from Iran. The thinking was that if Fatah connects with Hamas, they will be at equal distance from the Egyptians. This is a big mistake because in Egypt there will be a struggle between MB on the one hand and the moderates on the other. The military will aim to survive and maintain the dollars coming from the US. Palestinian interests are not their primary concern.

My view is that the military is allowing this level of MB influence for peculiar reasons. The MB has a lot of embarrassing information on the military establishment about their financial involvement in the Egyptian economy. As a result, the military is trying to establish an understanding with the MB while keeping an equal distance from the United States. The military does not fear distancing from Israel because it does not receive any tangible support from them. With respect to maintaining peace, the US will anyone come and moderate between the US and Israel because it is important to them.

In short, Egypt will not be as important a partner as the United States for the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas should have instead built a direct relationship with the United States, and that would have been his guarantee to continue negotiations with the Israelis. As for the original question, my feeling is that Hamas will eat the PLO and not the other way around in this instance.

Q:  Does that change European policy?
The Europeans are divided. We have the classical more “progressive” Europeans who will continue to be with Hamas, albeit in a very limited way. There are also Europeans who are concerned with the rise of Islamism worldwide. The politics in Europe are moving slightly right, while the political establishment remains tilted to the left. In other words, the majority of the elites in Europe are on the progressive/left while the majority of the public is going in another direction. At some point there will be a political clash within Europe. That is why official Europe considers Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as acceptable partners, but the emerging Europe will be very different.

David Bratslavsky comments on US foreign policy and the Middle East.  Follow StreetSmartPolitics on Facebook and Twitter.

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What really bothers London?

7 May

What really bothers London?
by Adi Schwarts

How come the UK is more concerned with issues of human rights in Israel, than in Syria, Libya or Egypt?

The British Foreign Office published at the end of March its annual Human Rights and Democracy report for 2010. One could have imagined that due to the tremendous ongoing turmoil in the Arab world, Britain would prioritize promoting human rights issues exactly there. The whole world’s eyes are fixated since last December not only on the cruel brutality of Arab autocratic regimes facing huge demonstrations, but also on the decades-long systemic violations of basic human rights that sent so many millions of people to the streets in the first place.

But it seems that the British Foreign Office has a different agenda.

Most of the official document is dedicated to 26 “countries of concern”, but Egypt, for example, is not one of them. It is the most populated Arab country, with paramount regional importance. It is also a place where tens of thousands of people were arrested and tortured by virtue of the draconic emergency law enacted in 1981, and it is where the ruling party managed to get more than 80 percent of the votes in the elections in December 2010. But Egypt is apparently not concerning enough, and does not merit a chapter of its own.

The few references to Egypt appear in a handful of paragraphs, and all in all there are no more than 778 words dedicated to the country. Would the 846 Egyptians that lost their lives in the uprising write the same report?

And who are the 26 countries that do bother Britain? One of the most prominent of those is Israel, with a long and detailed chapter (2,918 words). A bit less worrying apparently is the situation in Syria, the same one which Bashar Assad is currently flooding with rivers of blood (2,647 words). Even less worrying is the situation in Libya, where according to Western officials more than 10,000 people lost their lives, some of whom were shelled with cluster bomb by the Kaddafi regime (1,772 words).

Israel and Colombia are the only democratic states among the 26 “countries of concern”. The report is very careful not to criticize any other Western or democratic state, despite many human rights violations by them in 2010, such as killings of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the American army, the inhuman conditions in which immigrants and asylum seekers are held in Greece, the deportation of thousands of Roma from France, and so on. None of these, it seems, bothers Britain.

The document has a very brief and gentle reference to the Guantanamo detention camp. Regarding a British resident held there, Shaker Aamer, the document politely states: “Ultimately, any decision regarding Mr Aamer’s release remains in the hands of the US government”.

The report states in its introduction that “it is not an exhaustive list, nor should it be seen as a league table”. Nonetheless, someone in the Foreign Office had to decide which countries to include in it. Someone also had to decide how elaborate and detailed should every chapter be. And after all this decision making process, the British Foreign Office concluded that Israel is worth a much longer discussion than Syria, Libya and Egypt.

In order to understand better the rationale behind this thinking, I approached the British Embassy in Tel Aviv with a few questions:

1. Why is Israel considered a “country of concern”?
2. Since Israel and Colombia are the only democratic countries in the report – is Britain not concerned by human rights violations in any other democratic country?
3. How come there’s more on Israel in the report than on countries with far worse human rights record?

The Embassy ignored the second and the third questions, and sent the following response to the first question: “The featured countries of concern are those countries where we had the most serious and wide-ranging human rights concerns during 2010, but it is not an exhaustive list. When deciding on which countries to include, we also considered whether highlighting that country could have broader positive impacts in the wider region should their human rights record improve”.

It is hard to know if Britain fully understands how severe a blow to its reputation is a report that treats Kaddafi and Assad in a lighter way than it treats Israel. What is crystal clear, however, and is even worse, is the harm done to the justified cause of fighting for human rights. If remorseless leaders such as Kaddafi and Assad are of less concern to London than Israel, then who will hold them accountable?

If someone really wanted to promote the cause of human rights, he would write a totally different document.

Adi Schwartz is a journalist, author, and editor.  He is a Monocle Magazine correspondent in Israel and also blogs on

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Bin Laden

2 May


US Navy Seals shot bin Laden in a mansion in Abbottabad and recovered his body.  It was confirmed through DNA analysis that it was in fact bin Laden.  It appears that a US helicopter went down near the scene of the operation.  However, President Obama confirmed that no Americans were harmed.

Interestingly, the following spot was marked as Osama’s compound on Google Earth:

Link to map: (updated picture)

Pakistani TV has a picture of Osama dead:

Is this picture genuine?  American special forces most likely took photographs, but I find it difficult to believe it would be released to Pakistani TV.  Then again, perhaps only a picture can adequately satisfy doubts about Osama’s death, and the US officials could have made it available for this purpose.  If in the US some wonder if Tupac and Biggie are still alive, how much more so would bin Laden’s death be questioned in a region rife with conspiracy theories?

Several thoughts:

1) Osama bin Laden will be seen as a martyr in some parts of the world.  As a symbol of martyrdom bin Laden is less damaging than as a symbol of anti-American success.

2) This helps President Obama tremendously. But for how long?   George H.W. Bush’s immense approval rating in 1991, after victory in the first Gulf War did not ensure election success in 1992.

Bush (Sr.) approval ratings 1989-1992

3) Difficult to determine if Pakistan’s ISI (spy agency) was helpful or not, in spite of Obama’s official remarks.  Osama bin Laden spent his days in a city of 80,ooo+ people, in mansion with a government university to the east and a police station 800 feet away to the west, and the ISI didn’t know he was there from the beginning?

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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