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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.

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Guest Blog: ‘Israel Peace Week’ Sweeps US Campuses

9 Mar

Guest Blog: ‘Israel Peace Week’ Sweeps US Campuses
by Natalie Menaged

Pro-Israel students across the US and Canada have launched a powerful and innovative campaign to communicate important messages about Israel’s efforts for peace. The initiative also focuses on existential threats to the Jewish state, and the values and accomplishments of a thriving democracy in an otherwise despotic region that has captured the world’s attention in recent months. Known as ‘Israel Peace Week’ (IPW), the campaign is being hosted at nearly 50 universities across North America.

IPW also seeks to counter a disturbing trend called ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ (IAW). During each spring since 2005, the dishonest, vitriolic and unproductive IAW campaign sweeps across university campuses and urban communities. Last year events were conducted throughout North America and across the world, with organizers in more than 40 cities.

Responses from the Jewish community generally range from ‘quietly observing’ to ‘strategically ignoring’ the increasing parades of biased academic panels calling for Israel boycotts, guerilla theater displays like ‘apartheid walls’ and ‘die-ins,’ and ‘Palestinian solidarity demonstrations’ featuring veterans of the anti-apartheid movement in 1980’s South Africa that constitute IAW. The conventional wisdom has been that the pro-Israel movement should stay focused on proactive efforts to highlight Israel’s accomplishments, avoid discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to not draw any attention to IAW.

There is merit to this argument. After all, if the goal of IAW is for universities to actually boycott, divest and sanction Israel (also known as BDS), the movement has had very little tangible success on North America’s campuses. The secondary goal of IAW, however, is to delegitimize the state of Israel, and on that front, there is room for  concern.

Most supporters of Israel recognize that criticism of particular Israeli policies is legitimate, and not inherently anti-Semitic. However, when criticism of Israel consists entirely of Natan Sharansky’s ‘3 D’s’ it becomes problematic.

The first ‘D’ is demonization, misrepresenting Israel through lies, hyperbole, and graphic imagery. Examples include comparing Israelis to Nazis (and thereby equating the mass extermination of millions with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians), or Israel and apartheid South Africa (comparing a colonial, discriminatory regime with a thriving Israeli democracy where minorities enjoy equal rights).

The second ‘D’ is holding Israel to a double standard. The prime example is Israel being singled out by the United Nations while countries like China, Iran and Syria are ignored. A classic example of this occurred last week when, as hundreds of protestors were brutally killed by the Libyan regime, the United Nations was focused on a vote to condemn the building of Jewish homes in disputed territory.

Finally, there is delegitimizing Israel, denying Israel’s fundamental right to exist, such as re-writing history to deny any Jewish historical connection to the Land of Israel.

All three of the ‘D’s’ are standard components of the IAW campaign.

One particularly important point is that the BDS movement – whose leaders have consistently rejected the two-state solution—is out of sync with the national aspirations of the Palestinian people as well. Furthermore, IAW’s relentless focus on Israel leaves no room to discuss the real issues in Palestinian society, such as political corruption, violent incitement, and the rise of fundamentalist Islam. These issues affect the Palestinian people much more regularly than Israeli actions.

And as IAW has spread to campuses across the US in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Miami, San Francisco and many others, pro-Israel students have expressed concern that ‘strategically ignoring’ IAW has allowed public opinion on campus become increasingly anti-Israel.

Last year, a group of pro-Israel student leaders developed a clever way to counter the anti-Israel claims raised during IAW while communicating a proactive and positive message about Israel. ‘Israel Peace Week’ was conceived of by a group of 5 student leaders – one each from Johns Hopkins University, Boston University, University of Rochester, University of Cincinnati and University of Ottawa – during their participation on the Hasbara Fellowships activism training program in Israel.

The concept of ‘Israel Peace Week’ is simple: focus on a few basic messages, agreed upon by virtually everyone in the pro-Israel movement, and communicate them widely to the campus community during the week preceding ‘Israel Apartheid Week.’  Instead of avoiding difficult topics, the pro-Israel students feel that truth is on their side and they can tackle the Arab-Israel conflict head-on.

The messages are:

  1. Israel wants peace and has demonstrated its willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace.
  2. Israel does not currently have a partner for peace in the Palestinian and Arab leadership.
  3. Israel is a model of democracy, human rights, and innovation, despite its neighborhood.

In little over a month, pro-Israel students from more than 20 other universities organized ‘Israel Peace Week’ programming to their campuses in spring of 2010, and this year the number will reach nearly 50.

Many of the campuses hosting the IPW campaign this year are elite schools such as Columbia University, Harvard University, Tufts University, Yale University, Emory University, UCLA, Tulane University, and George Washington University. Schools that have experienced intense anti-Israel propaganda this year, including Rutgers University, Florida International University, UC Berkeley, Arizona State University, Brandeis University and Brooklyn College are participating as well.
The movement is primarily student-led, with organizers using a detailed primer that includes messaging, strategies, sample schedules and ideas. Hasbara Fellowships is providing print materials and campaigns, as well as on-the-ground professional support. Other organizations are also lending resources and funds.

Programming varies at each campus, but the all schools devote at least one day to highlighting Israel’s efforts for peace. One day or program focuses on threats Israel faces – from a nuclear Iran to terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah that ring Israel’s borders. Finally, many schools are highlighting Israel’s accomplishments ‘beyond the conflict’- civil liberties and human rights; advancements in hi-tech and eco-innovation; and a commitment to ‘tikkun olam.’  In many instances these events are being co-sponsored by non-Jewish groups on campus with which pro-Israel student leaders have built strong relationships based on shared values.  Student leaders have also reached out to campus media to widen their audience.

As our stomachs churn with the oncoming approach of an annual week of Israel demonizing, it is inspiring that pro-Israel students are standing up for Israel and speaking the truth.

Natalie Menaged serves as National Director of Hasbara Fellowships, overseeing the campus staff and programming, designing and producing materials and campaigns, and organizing the activism training programs in Israel.  Find out more about ‘Israel Peace Week’ or contact Hasbara Fellowships to join the IPW effort.

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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.

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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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Doing the wave in the Middle East

1 Feb

Is there a possibility that Egyptian protests, like the Tunisian protests for Egypt, will lead to similar results in other Arab countries? Here’s what’s brewing:


Facebook pages are popping up calling for Syrians to follow the Egyptian example, which also sparked protests via social media and the blogosphere.  Syria has about 7.8% (as of 2008) internet penetration, which is roughly equal to Egypt’s.  Despite Facebook being officially banned in Syria, access can be obtained via proxy servers.  According to a MEMRI report:

In the past week, Syrian activists have been using Facebook to call for mass protests in Syria on Saturday, February 5, 2011, dubbing it the “Day of Rage.” In Facebook pages created specifically for this purpose, members have called on the Syrian public to take to the streets on that date and stage peaceful demonstrations and rallies in all parts of the country, as well as in front of Syrian embassies in Arab and European capitals, in protest of the oppressive Syrian regime.

Syrian authorities have prepared the security forces.  They already dispersed one solidarity protest on Saturday.  The President, Bashar al-Assad, is raising fuel subsidies and tightening control on the internet to mollify public discontent and stem possible unrest.


King Hussein dismissed his cabinet and appointed Marouf Bakhit as the new Prime Minister.  However, the protests in Jordan have been largely calling for reform rather than regime change.  According to a report in LA Times:

Even the Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s main opposition group and a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has denounced the kind of regime change being called for in Egypt.

Saudi Arabia
Protests have spread to Saudi Arabia, but are relatively small and focused on demanding infrastructure improvements and an end to corruption.  Video of the protests below:

While protests point to widening discontent in the Arab world, each country’s predicament is unique. Yemen was already in turmoil before Tunisia/Egypt. Algerian protesters continue to organize but its not yet clear what they will achieve. In Saudi Arabia, people are orders of magnitude wealthier due to the country’s oil, which means there is less discontent. Protests were relatively small and easily dispersed. Jordanians focused their anger on the recently dismissed Prime Minister rather than the monarchy, the true source of power. It is difficult to read Syria’s public mood from available news reports. No doubt there is much frustration, but the chances of mass protests leading to an overthrow of the government are infinitesimal. Of course, that was the consensus about Egypt not too long ago. US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks quote the US Ambassador’s view that Mubarak will “inevitably” win the next presidential election and stay in office for life.

The protests are indeed exciting. A tired people standing up to oppressive rules; change coming to a stale and recalcitrant region.  But no matter how valid the objections, change is not automatically for the best. To close, a sobering piece in by Shmuel Rosner (a former guest of

Revolutions can bring chaos, or failure, or even more oppression, or radical Islamization, or terrible violence. They create opportunity not just for the good guys (human rights activists) but also for the bad guys (Hezbollah, Iran). They take time and patience and determination and planning and, yes, caution. And while there’s very little most observers can do to help them succeed, the least they can do is greet the revolution that is unfolding in their living rooms with wariness rather than a reality-show response of juvenile glee.

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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What’s happening in Egypt?

30 Jan

The week long protests in Cairo have led to the resignation of President Mubarak‘s cabinet and the appointment of Omar Suleiman as Vice President and Ahmed Shafik as Prime Minister.  This shakeup can be interpreted in several ways.

One, Mubarak knows his rule is over and is setting up a graceful exit while trying to avoid anarchy.

Two, by appointing military men long part of of his inner circle, Mubarak is signaling that his regime is here to stay. Suleiman is a former general and head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service since 1993. Shafik is a former air force commander (like Mubarak) and headed Egypt’s Civil Aviation since 2002. With these appointments, Mubarak is also sending a message to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that a strongman policy against the group will continue.

Three, the appointments are necessities of internal politics, imposed by the military as a condition for taking over crowd control and protecting Mubarak. A similar scenario happened in the ‘bread riots‘ of 1977 when the army agreed to step in to quell protests only after then-President Anwar Sadat agreed to reinstate bread subsidies. The military has been a political institution and the bedrock of the Egyptian regime since a military coup overthrew King Farouk I to establish the republic in 1952.  As part of the military establishment, Suleiman and Shafik are now more in charge than Mubarak himself.

What are the consequences of the protests?

The Muslim Brotherhood is not behind the demonstrations but has joined in and will look to take advantage of the turmoil in order to position themselves as the leading alternative to Mubarak’s regime. They are the best organized political opposition group with strong grassroots support propagated mostly through mosques and religious institutions. Their adoption of the freedom agenda and support for democracy reflect the calculated sense that a popular vote will be to their benefit. Similarly, Khomeini espoused democracy while riding popular sentiment to power in Iran’s 1979 revolution only to do away with it once in control. Should the Brotherhood gain significant power, their moderation and commitment to democratic ideals are likely to evaporate as they advance their agenda. They espouse sharia law and have strong anti-American and anti-Israel undertones. Egypt’s alliance with the United States, peace treaty with Israel, and embargo against Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza) are likely to disintegrate under the Brotherhood’s leadership.

However, the Brotherhood’s ascendancy to power is not a forgone conclusion.  While their historic 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections solidified the group’s force, their strength may be tempered.  The secular national army has so far avoided clashing with the people, generating some sense of solidarity. The military establishment may still be able to assuage public sentiment and maintain power, at least as part of an interim government. The longer the chaos continues, the more the Egyptian middle class will seek stability, which only the army can provide. But it is not clear how the military can diffuse the situation without arranging for the departure of Mubarak and either promising fair elections or enacting sweeping reforms, none of which is yet to happen.

The secular opposition is strong but diffuse. Mohammad El Baradei, a Nobel laureate and former head of UN’s IAEA, returned to the country last year and is positioning himself as the leader of the pro-democracy opposition. Since El Baradei is a public persona in largely amorphous protests, the secular opposition is uniting around him. However, he has been out of the country for too long to have established deep support and may be seen as opportunistic and too ‘intellectual’ to generate wide appeal.

The ideal scenario for the United States is anything that tempers the tide of Islamism and keeps Egypt in a pro-American alliance. But any such solution must also been seen as legitimate by Egyptians.  It is unlikely that the new military establishment will be able to accomplish this short of allowing for real elections.  The US must therefore work to ensure fair elections while giving the secular pro-American voice the financial means and tacit support to organize. This does not mean the US should bet on one horse in this race. Rather, it should quietly align itself with all groups that would maintain good bilateral relations. This includes the current military establishment, especially Suleiman (a graduate of the U.S. Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg). This scenario would also require the US to use whatever leverage it has left to privately urge Mubarak to transition out of government, if not immediately then soon.  The US must then work with the new government to insist on the development of strong civil institutions that would temper extremism and extend democratic reforms beyond one election.

Flying from New York a few days ago, I met a lovely Egyptian woman on her way back from Cairo. She pointed out, “Amazing what change a few days can bring to a timeless place like Egypt.” Indeed.  Having spent a summer in Egypt in 2006, I have fond memories of a welcoming people.  My sincere hope is that the final outcome of this chaos ends with little additional bloodshed and a positive path forward, first and foremost for the Egyptian people.

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.  He may be reached at
Become a Facebook fan of Street Smart Politics.  Follow on Twitter.

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Pulse of the Middle East: Q & A with Shmuel Rosner

26 Jan

Q&A with Street Smart Politics Guest:  SHMUEL ROSNER

Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli journalist and editor based in Tel Aviv. He writes for the Jerusalem Post and Maariv, and also wrote many articles for, The New Republic, Commentary Magazine, and other publications. He was formerly senior editor (1996-2005) and Chief US Correspondent (2005-2008) for the Israeli daily Haaretz. Pursuing his interest in US history and politics, Rosner also traveled across the United States covering the 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 elections. While in the United States Rosner lectured in Yale, Boston University, Berkeley, American University, The Army War College, The Hudson Institute, The Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, and other venues. He is also author of an upcoming book on American Judaism and Israel-Diaspora relations. He is married with four children.

1) Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama’s relationship has been described as rocky from the outset. However, both leaders have made a public effort to smooth over this perception. How would you describe their relationship now, and to what degree does their liking or not liking each other affect US-Israel diplomacy?

I still don’t think they like each other very much – it would have been nicer to have the two leaders of the two countries to be on friendlier terms – but that’s not the end of the world. President Clinton and PM Rabin got along very well, but President Bush and PM Sharon were not real buddies. Presidents Carter and Reagan didn’t find PM Begin agreeable, but both had to work with him. President G.H.W Bush had to work with PM Shamir (and Shamir had to work with Bush) – no great friendship there. All in all, very good personal relations between leaders are the exception rather than the norm.

The impact this has on diplomacy depends on the men (always men!) involved. I suspect that both with Obama and with Netanyahu the personal rarely have real sway over policy decisions. This means that the President will pursue the same policy with Netanyahu that he would have pursued with someone else – that is, unless one is convinced that Netanyahu the man is the obstacle for peace. In such case, the policy of personal pressure might be applied.

To end: President Obama has many things to worry about – the economy, jobs, China, Russia, Iran, 2012 elections. I don’t think he has much time to worry about Netanyahu – and the Israeli PM would do fine if he makes sure not to give the President reason to worry about him.

2) Palestinian statehood under the Oslo Accords was based on the “land for peace” formula. With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in a stalemate and gaining international support for an “imposed solution,” is a Palestinian state inevitable whether or not it leads to peace?

There’s no such thing as “inevitable” – we do not know what the future holds. However… I’m yet to see any more plausible scenario. The Israeli public might not worry about Palestinian rights as much as it should – but it did realize long time ago that demographic trends will make it very tricky to keep control of the occupied territories. On the other hand, an “imposed solution” is no more than pipe dream. How will it be imposed and by whom? The international community proved to be quite incapable in Lebanon in recent years – as recent events clearly demonstrate – and it will not be more efficient if it tries to “impose” peace in the Palestinian territories. While frustration of those wanting peace is understandable, vying for solutions that will only complicate matters is definitely not the right course to pursue.

3) Is the leakage of the ‘Palestine Papers’ the nail in the coffin for Mahmoud Abbas and the current Palestinian Authority leadership, at least in terms of domestic credibility? Is the Palestinian public ready (or could they be) to accept compromises that an agreement with Israel would entail?

I’m not sure if Palestinians are ready for the compromises offered according to the Palestinian Papers, but I do think that those quick to mourning the early political demise of Abbas’ were hasty and somewhat hysterical. Abbas will not benefit much from recent publications, but I get the feeling that most of the “Palestinian anger” over the alleged “compromises” was manufactured and hardly authentic. Palestinians seem to be busy with their lives and for the most part un-bothered by the Papers.

4) PM Netanyahu’s public position is that a ‘united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.’ Is this a red line or a starting position for potential negotiations?

You can divide Jerusalem and still call it “United Jerusalem”. Dividing the city will be very complicated, but insisting on it remaining all under Israeli jurisdiction, while also claiming to be striving for peace, will also be complicated.

5) Being in Israel, what is more worrisome, a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities (and the likely reprisal) or a nuclear armed Iran?

What’s worrisome is the fact that Iran seems to be gaining and having more influence and that the forces opposing Iran seem to be weakening and loosing ground. What’s worrisome is the happenings in Lebanon and the inability of the international community to form a policy that is viable to counter Iran’s growing strength. The two options you’ve mentioned are the two bad options – can’t we try first to have one option that isn’t as bad?

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SOTU ‘Word Cloud’

26 Jan

Below is a “word cloud” created on of the President’s State of the Union Address and the Republican response. An interesting visual representation of what each speech focused on.

State of the Union

(click to expand)

Republican Response

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Guest Blog: Teary-Eyed But Alive

21 Jan

Teary-Eyed but Alive: A Former IDF Soldier’s Personal Encounter With Tear Gas
by Michael Bassin

That exposure to tear gas can be painful there is no doubt.  But baseless allegations that a thirty-six year old Palestinian woman died last week purely from exposure to Israeli tear gas prompted me to write about my own experience suffering from its effects. 

There I was crying in front of the cameras.  Four of them to be exact.  The cameramen zoomed their lenses on my panicked face the second I collapsed to the ground.  My vision blurry, I could barely make out the figures standing feet away, separated from me only by a string of barbed wire.  I knelt on the gravel road, legs apart, feeling like I was about to die.  My face contorted, my eyes bulged out of their sockets, I coughed uncontrollably, and my nose dripped so much snot that I looked like a baby stricken with pneumonia. 

I loosened the strap of my helmet and to my left dropped my magen david, the plastic riot gear shield named after the Shield of David.  I powerlessly allowed television crews from around the world to photograph me as the gun toting, mucus spouting, occupation enforcing, disheveled Israeli soldier I appeared to be.   I rubbed my eyes with my hands but the burning only intensified.  All puffed up, my entire torso seized from pain.  I stared up at the July sun beating down on me.  I felt completely vulnerable despite the M-4 semi-automatic assault rifle still dangling around my neck. 

The tear gas canister my company commander had thrown wasn’t intended for me but I received the full brunt of the blast in any case.
Every Sunday in Beit Jala, the Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the Nachshon battalion, of which I was a part, was based during the summer 2010, throngs of pro-Palestinian activists converged to disrupt the construction of the security barrier Israel began building in 2002.  These demonstrations rarely proved peaceful. 

Most of the construction workers were themselves Palestinians and to protect them, twelve to fifteen soldiers from my company based blocks away were sent each week to make sure these demonstrations remained non-violent.  Since I was one of the unit’s only proficient Arabic speakers, I was always tasked with keeping the crowd under control. 

When the thirty screaming protesters headed towards us in front of our barbed-wire barricade, my company commander grabbed me by the arm and shoved a megaphone into the ceramic bullet-proof vest covering my chest.

“Handle them,” he ordered.  I raised the megaphone to my mouth and calmly addressed the arriving group first in Arabic and then in English. 

“Stop where you are.  This is a closed military zone.  Peaceful protest is permitted.  For your own safety, please stay back.  Do not touch the soldiers. I repeat stay back.” Garbled slogans in Arabic drowned out my words.  My modest requests seemed to incense the crowd because they only chanted louder and crept closer towards us, their shouting mouths less than a foot away from our faces.
A Palestinian teenager taunted me, waving his hands right in front of my face, shouting epithets at me, enticing me to snap in front of the half-dozen journalists present. 

“Hit me in the face, you stupid soldier,” he yelled in Arabic.  “Hit me for the cameras.  Please, please.”  He smiled and pointed over to a camera crew videotaping us.  “Hit my hand, hit my finger.  Come on do as I say you Jewish dog,” he shouted trying to create a media spectacle for that evening’s news.  I stared blankly at him as he screamed at me, traces of his spit striking my cheek. 

I looked to my left and saw three Palestinian men and two European women attempt to push past another soldier at the edge where the barbed wire strip ended and shove two female officers from Border Police out of the way.  One of the men disrespectfully tapped the soldier’s helmet to divert his attention, forcing his head backwards. 

“Sir, you’ll be sorry if you touch that soldier again,” I warned in Arabic. 

The female Border Police officers intercepted the two European women, ordering them to stay back. 

“These people won’t listen,” my company commander said as he grabbed the megaphone away from me.  “Stand by for my response.” 

Just then, three stones thrown from the crowd struck me, two in the chest another in the head.  Thank god I wore a ceramic vest and a helmet or I would have been seriously hurt.  Other soldiers nearby were also under attack.

Reasoning with these people proved ineffective.  A different response was needed to prevent this scene from morphing into a full-fledged riot, the kind that didn’t need a megaphone translation.  My company commander lobbed a stun grenade at the ground.  People scrambled backwards before the non-lethal blast erupted, igniting a bright flash and a loud bang, temporarily disorienting all who stood in the vicinity.  A different commander threw another, sending four masked men wearing red checkered keffiyehs sprinting to a safe point behind the other protesters.

For a few moments, the chanting ceased, the hecklers were silenced.  I thought that maybe protesters would quit their antics and begin behaving like the peace seekers they professed to be.
But then, like meteors falling from the sky, more stones speedily approached from behind the crowd.  A few missed our positions as others bounced off the shields we held to protect ourselves. 

“You’re acting like Nazis, you’re all Nazis,” an English-accented demonstrator screamed.

“If we were acting like Nazis, you wouldn’t have the guts to talk back,” I snapped in English. 

 My company commander calmly walked towards my position, glanced at the mayhem ensuing, and pulled out a hand held tear gas grenade to quell the stoning once and for all.  The grenade firmly in his right hand, he twisted the pin clockwise with his left, and flicked the grenade at the ground where the remaining protesters stood.  Finally, it would be over. 

But a hand-tossed gas grenade generates little hesitance to intercept.  The second the canister smacked the pavement, it was picked up by a mustachioed, balding photographer with arm pit stains the size of pitas.  He tossed it quickly in the air and lamely kicked it just a few inches where it became entangled in the barbed wire.  Women screamed, the mustachioed man moaned woefully, and I took a deep breath and saw something they didn’t.  The canister’s opening was pointed directly at me.

In basic training, commanders force new recruits to do twenty pushups and sing the Israeli national anthem inside a tent filled with tear gas to get them used to the feeling if they’re ever exposed.  But I learned in those first moments that singing about the longing for Zion in an enclosed environment is nothing compared to a full canister’s concentration spraying mightily at your face. 

I stood in place because I had no permission to leave but remained confident that I would overcome the effects and show the world that Israeli soldiers never falter.  That notion lasted seven seconds until my cardiovascular system panicked. 

I lost track of time and the world became a haze.  I learned that the tear gas used at demonstrations causes shocking, disabling pain.  But I quickly realized that my obituary would not read death by tear gas. 

When I rose from the ground I saw a much emptier scene.  Although I was the main casualty, the tear gas had worked.  The protesters fled the scene and the violence ceased.  My face still covered with mucus and tears, I continued to cough but smiled and joked with cameramen.

“I’m ready for my close-up,” I struggled to blurt out in English.  “Who wants to photograph the pretty soldiers?”  I repeated in Hebrew and Arabic, and all the cameramen laughed.    Although I genuinely feared for my life when the tear gas entered my lungs, the effects were temporary and couldn’t even kill my sense of humor.

Michael Bassin is a former Israeli army Arabic translator and the author of the upcoming memoir, I Am Not A Spy: An American Jew’s Odyssey Through the Arab World and Israeli Army.

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What’s happening in Tunisia?

16 Jan

Protests in Tunisia

Tunisia has been (belatedly) cast into the international limelight as widespread protests led to the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s ruler of 23 years, and only it’s second President since independence in 1956.

Government corruption and high unemployment, combined with a lack of political freedoms have lead to growing resentment among the population.  Although Tunisians hardly required an outside reminder of their predicament, the recent release of WikiLeaks documents showing American recognition of these problems may have served as a catalyst for public unrest. The final straw came when a 26-year old university graduate, Mohammad Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his fruit stand by police and high unemployment.

[spoiler show="Click here for Timeline of Events"]17 Dec: Man sets himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid over lack of jobs, sparking protests
24 Dec: Protester shot dead in central Tunisia
28 Dec: Protests spread to Tunis
8-10 Jan: Dozens of deaths reported in crackdown on protests
12 Jan: Interior minister sacked
13 Jan: President Ben Ali promises to step down in 2014
14 Jan: Mr Ben Ali dissolves parliament after new mass rally, then steps down and flees
Source: BBC[/spoiler]

President Ben Ali’s hasty departure to Saudi Arabia led to initial confusion as to who was in charge, after which parliamentary speaker Foued Mebazaa was sworn in as interim president.  He is promising to hold down the fort in a coalition government until elections are held within 60 days, in line with Tunisia’s constitution.

But with political opposition having been stamped out under Ben Ali’s rule and the army enforcing martial law,  it remains doubtful if proper elections can be held on such short notice.  On Al Jazeera’s list of three possible successors to Ben Ali, two were part of Ben Ali’s government (and are therefore unpopular).  The third on the list, Progressive Democratic Party leader Nejib Chebbi, is largely unknown outside of a small circle of activists and intellects.

On Saturday, Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of a banned Tunisian Islamist movement, said  he would return in the next few days from exile in London.  Tunisia under Ben Ali has been brutally and efficiently enforcing a secular nationalist form of government by either jailing, executing, or exiling any traces of Islamism within its borders.

With ministers from an unpopular government, little known secular reformists, and exiled Islamists all looking to join the new political order, what will happen to Tunisian politics is anyone’s guess.  Unless the new government is viewed as legitimate, stable, and quickly effective, which is unlikely to happen should elections be held within 60 days, then a post-Ben Ali Tunisia may trade repression for turmoil.  The lessons of Ben Ali’s expulsion from government are yet to be learned since much will depend on how Tunisia emerges from the current political vacuum.

Still, the events in Tunisia are already affecting neighboring states, many of whom have similar social, political, and economic problems.  Neighboring Algeria was embroiled in anti-government protests over rising food prices shortly after Tunisian protests broke out.  Thousands protested food and gas prices and denounced the government yesterday in Jordan.  A small group gathered in front of the Tunisian embassy in Cairo to show support for what happened in Tunisia and the blogosphere is filled with expressions of solidarity.  According to Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center, “This is going to be quite inspiring for people who live in similar conditions. It really is an indication of how weak authoritarian regimes really are. It just took Tunisians three weeks from December to today to get rid of him, and they got rid of him. This really does away with the aura of strong autocratic rulers … Objectively we are looking at the same ingredients in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. Whether it will happen is another issue.”

While public sentiment is certainly growing against Arab governments, their weakness should not be overestimated.   They are on high alert and are accustomed to suppressing dissent.  Given the Islamist nature of political opposition in neighboring states, they may also be more motivated than Ben Ali to hold on to power.  Michael Koplow explains:

Unlike other Arab leaders such as Morocco’s King Mohammed VI or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, [Ben Ali] has been unwilling to adopt any sort of religious title or utilize Islamic imagery to justify his rule. Most importantly, Ben Ali never attempted to co-opt Islamists by controlling their entry into the political system, but instead excluded them entirely from the political dialogue.

This history is vital to understanding why the protests were successful in removing Ben Ali’s government. There is an appreciation within the corridors of power in Tunis that the Islamists are not at the top of the pile of the latest unrest. The protesters, though they represent a threat to the political elite’s vested interests, have not directly challenged the reigning creed of state secularism.

Agaist this backdrop, it may be fortuitous for the US that it was Tunisia’s government that fell, as opposed to one of its neighbors.   By comparison, a revolution in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, would have been comparable to Iran’s anti-American Islamic revolution.  But Tunisia’s population of 10m and reduced risk of Islamic takeover means that the possibility of a new, more progressive government may actually make America’s case for Arab reform easier.

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