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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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Interview with Gil Hoffman of The Jerusalem Post

15 Apr

Interview with Gil Hoffman, Chief Political Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post
by David Bratslavsky

Gil Hoffman is the chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post. I met him in Cincinnati, where he spoke on recent developments in the Middle East. What follows is a synopsis of our interview together (4/5/2011) with the full audio transcript. (Note: Audio was edited due to phone interruptions, but contains full responses) .

Q: Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama all agree in theory on the need for peace through a two-state solution. Why is there currently no progress on this issue?

A: America mishandled the peace process. Obama thought that pressure on Israel with regards to settlements, including those settlement that would remain as part of Israel under proposed agreements, would make the Palestinians more willing to make concessions. This policy backfired by creating a confrontation with Israel and making Palestinian demands less conciliatory, since Abbas could not be seen as demanding less than the US. Even though America has backed down from its demands, the Palestinians never did. The other reason Palestinians do not come to the negotiating table is that the international community gave indications that Palestinian statehood may be recognized at the UN General Assembly even without a negotiating process toward peace.

Q: What will restart the peace process?

A: The world must make clear to the Palestinians that the only way to achieving statehood is at the negotiating table and that Netanyahu is willing to go a lot farther than they may think if given the opportunity. The Palestinian Authority may need another election, currently schedule for September, before progress can be made.

Q: Is progress at the negotiation table possible while Israel’s settlement policies continue?

A: Settlements are not the issue. Israel froze construction for 10 months with little effect on Palestinian willingness to negotiate. Negotiations are necessary to determine boundaries. At that point it will be clear where each party can build housing. Israel and the Palestinians were negotiating since 1993. Only since settlements were made the primary issue by Obama did Palestinians start using it as a pretext not to negotiate.

Q: The peace process is predicated on a “land for peace” formula. If Abbas in the West Bank cannot guarantee peace and Hamas will not guarantee peace from Gaza, what is Israel’s incentive to consider further land concessions?

A: Netanyahu made clear that one of the conditions for statehood is that the area would be demilitarized under the supervision of the international community and that Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state to denote a complete end of the conflict. The arrangement necessitates a leader on the Palestinian side that could enforce this. Currently in Gaza this is not the case. In the West Bank it’s debatable.

Q: What can you tell us about Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman?

A: I cannot share personal opinions on the issue since I cover internal Israeli politics and must remain objective. As leader of the second largest party in the coalition Lieberman chose the Foreign Ministry portfolio. He has made clear that Israel can make concessions only to a genuine partner on the other side, which he believes Abu Mazen (Abbas) is not. Israel’s last election was during a war which helped propel Lieberman’s popularity. Currently his influence is “negligible.” He is not involved with the negotiations or the US-Israel relationship, instead focusing on improving Israel’s relationship with Eastern Europe, Africa, and South America.

Q: The removal of Mubarak from power in Egypt has allowed all segments of Egyptian society, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to participate in the formation of a new government. What is likely to be the nature of the new Egyptian government and how will this affect Egypt’s relations with Israel?

A: Israelis are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood will win Egypt’s parliamentary elections, allowing them to reorient policy away from the West and toward Iran. Israel now sees the potential to be invaded from all sides at the same time, a situation it did not have to deal with for the last 30 years. And yet, if Egyptians elect a moderate leadership, it will be better for both countries.

Q: What do you make of Egypt allowing two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, which hasn’t happened since 1979, and the foreign minister reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iran? Do these actions signal a reorientation of Egyptian priorities vis-a-vis the West?

A: “This is a transitional period. Egypt is led by a temporary government, and I wouldn’t look too closely at what they’re doing right now.”

Q: Is there a diplomatic and/or economic solution to Iran’s nuclear development?

A: The world has tried several approaches thus far. The political approach was hindered by Iran’s undemocratic elections. The diplomatic approach of reaching out to Iran’s dictators at the expense of their people did not bear fruit. Now the world is in the middle of an economic approach with sanctions. It is possible it could work if the sanctions are tightened, better enforced, and come with a credible military threat. If Iran’s leaders are told that what’s happening in Lybia—air campaign without boots on the ground—can happen in Iran, the economic approach may work and there will not be a need for military action.

Q: Does US action in Libya stretch America’s military even further, thereby undermining the credibility of a military option against Iran?

A: Never underestimate the power of the United States. They led the campaign against Libya for two weeks and handed responsibility off to NATO. American now has more strength. Also, they are well positioned on the Persian Gulf.

Q: How will the action in Libya affect Israel?

A: Libya and Israel are unrelated matters. There is a concern in Israel that American resources that should be in reserve to counterbalance Iran are being used in Libya, there is enough American power to go around.

Q: A column published in The Jerusalem Post put forward the theory that Europe will aim to please the Arab street by putting pressure on Israel as a way for diverting anger from the Arab street for attacks on Libya.

A: Europe will pressure Israel no matter what. What’s happening in Libya is unrelated to Israel and largely a waste of resources by the West.

Q: What makes European pressure on Israel inevitable?

A: Europe has not gone through a 9/11 attack and fails to realize that there is a battle between Islamic fundamentalism and the West. There is an impatience with making peace without understanding the realities undermining this goal. Israel has to deal with these realities on a daily basis in order to protect its citizens.

Full Audio:   Gil Hoffman of The Jerusalem Post (4/5/2011)

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 of Street Smart Politics.  Follow on Twitter.

How Egypt, more than Libya, will affect the Middle East

1 Mar

Rebel forces have taken over cities in Libya as Gadhafy declares “my people love me.”   Whatever the outcome of these battles, I believe Egypt more than Libya will help determine the fate of the Middle East.  Thus, I would like to offer a few additional thoughts on Egypt, even though media attention has shifted for now.

We have all seen the story.  In eighteen short days 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign as president has come to an end. There is a deserved sense of triumph among Egyptians.  But this is just the first chapter of a developing saga.  Political stagnation, widespread corruption, economic inequality, abusive security forces, a 30% illiteracy rate, joblessness, and a litany of other legitimate grievances will not be addressed in Tahrir Square. These issues cannot be dealt with through slogans, populist rhetoric, religious salvation, or conspiracy theories. And they will not be resolved overnight, if indeed they are resolved.

A lot must occur to enable Egyptian reform. Democratic safeguards–free press, independent judiciary, protected constitution, independent political parties, protection of minority rights—are not yet present.  For example, deep-seated discrimination against minorities such as Copts remains.  Without minority protection and the rule of law, Egypt faces the prospect of either mob rule or exploitation of the democratic process by a new set of tyrants.

The army will soon retreat into the political background where it can maintain popularity while protecting its vast business interests. A nascent civil society will have to fill the political void. For now, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized political opposition.  This raises a few questions and concerns.  Will Egyptians build resilient democratic institutions that enable progress or will religious fundamentalism or populism reign the day? What will the inclusion of Islamist parties in the government mean for women, minorities, and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty?  Will elections infuse fresh blood into the political system or will the old guard remain under a new label?

How Egyptians deal with these issues will determine the fate of the Middle East.  Egyptian protests have bolstered the resolve of others in the region.  A disappointing outcome will serve as a harsh lesson. If democracy becomes synonymous with turbulence, indecision, and shattered hopes, the remaining tyrants will have evidence as to why oppressive stability trumps democracy.

Whatever government emerges, it must have space to craft its own policies.  At the same time, the US should unequivocally communicate that anti-Western populism will not be appreciated and stress how both sides benefit from close bilateral relations.  Respecting “the will of the people” does not mean acquiescing to developments that are detrimental to our national interest.

Trusted partners like the spy chief Omar Suleiman (a graduate of the US Special Warfare School in Fort Bragg) have been removed from their positions.  Cooperation on important international issues such as Iranian nuclear development will diminish. In fact, an emboldened Iran will jostle for input. Similar to what happened in Afghanistan after the Taliban and in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, Iran will aim to exploit the US freedom agenda to gain influence in a formerly hostile state. Already Egypt has let two Iranian war ships into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, the first such voyage since 1979.

While respecting the democratic process the US should not be naive about Egypt’s immediate limitations.  We must aim to influence reform in a positive manner before others fill that role to our detriment.  We already spend billions subsidizing Egypt’s army and government.  By also underwriting emerging civil institutions, something largely avoided thus far, we can increase the possibility that Egypt’s liberal revolution remains liberal.

One important consideration of US foreign policy is the American brokered Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The agreement looks safe for now, if only because $1.3 billion dollars a year of Egypt’s military aid is tied to it.  Egypt no less than Israel, wants to avoid war and border confrontations.  However, relations with Israel will undoubtedly worsen as strong anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment is calculated into government policy. A 2010 Pew Poll found that 95% of Egyptians held an ‘unfavorable view’ of Jews (compared with only 35% of Israeli Arabs). And in a 2007 Pew survey, an overwhelming 80% of Egyptians said that the needs of the Palestinians could never be accommodated so long as Israel exists.  Protesters in Tahrir square were actively chanting “To Jerusalem we’re heading, martyrs in the millions.” In a democracy, this attitude will translate into action. For example, a new government may quit helping contain Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. Egypt’s role as an example of Arab-Israeli peace will cease if Egyptian hostility is reflected in government policy.

The jury is still out on the ultimate success of the Egyptian revolt.  How Egyptians define success will matter as much as whether they achieve it.

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 of Street Smart Politics.  Follow on Twitter.

A rather convenient coma

16 Feb

As far as graceful exits go, this one isn’t.   Al Arabia reports that deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell into a coma shortly after his last speech as president, in which he handed over executive authority to his VP/spy chief Omar Suleiman.  According to the report, he is receiving medical treatment at his residence in Sharm el Sheikh.

This follows reports from a week ago in Der Spiegel that the US was helping arrange a “prolonged health check” in a German hospital as a possible exit strategy for Mubarak.  Mubarak is 82 and has health issues.  It is even rumored that he may have cancer.  But it remains difficult to believe his well timed coma.

Mubarak’s resignation was announced one day after he delivered an energetic speech signaling his intent to stay until the September elections.  His abrupt departure was a clear sign of an internal military coup, not a coma.

Had Mubarak understood the full extent of the opposition protests and reconciled with the fact that his time to leave had come, he could have still salvaged a decent exit.  He could have expressed understanding of the protesters’ wishes (which is what he did), but maintained that Egypt needs an orderly transition, which would be facilitated by his departure in a month’s time followed by military rule until the next elections.  He would have bowed out to pressure and given up transitional power to the military before the election, but done so on his own time table, thereby retaining a modicum of dignity.  Now he has to flee under the cover of coma.

Perhaps in response to the brave new world created by Egyptian protests, Mubarak is relying on Aldous Huxley’s formula for a graceful exit.  “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.  Thoroughly sensible, humane and scientific, eh?” suggests a character in Huxley’s Time Must Have a Stop. In a region that believes shark attacks to be evidence of a Mossad plot, a conveniently timed coma is hardly a stretch.  Or perhaps having left an impoverished country with $70 billion to his name (though I doubt this figure is accurate), Mubarak laughed himself into an actual coma.

In any case, Mubarak is out.  The people’s voice has been heard.   Of course the question remains, now what?  Let’s hope that in his supposedly dreamy state, Mubarak won’t have the last laugh.

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 of Street Smart Politics.  Follow on Twitter.

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