Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dumping Fayyad for phony ‘unity’ would be wrong

After intensive Egyptian efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, the two parties have pledged to form a new “unity government” by the end of this month, and to begin planning for national elections. The two groups have made such pledges several times since 2007, but these have always gone unfulfilled. The prospects for real reunification remain fairly remote.

Because both sides lack political incentive to share power, and given the huge divisions between them on virtually every issue, genuine national reconciliation is likely to remain elusive.

In the context of the Arab Spring, the principal demand of the Palestinian people has been not regime change or even reform, but reconciliation. Palestinians know that the division between Hamas rule in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a split that started in 2007, is debilitating to the national cause.
Israel and others question what talks with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) can produce, given Hamas’ opposition to negotiations and a two-state solution.

Palestinian Islamists and nationalists still disagree on a huge range of issues, including the recognition of Israel, the use of violence, the role of religion in society, women’s issues and many other questions.

These profound disagreements, and the practical problems of sharing power, mean that the grounds for reunification just do not exist. The division between Gaza and the West Bank could drag on for quite a long time. But the Palestinian national identity is so strong that a permanent separation is extremely unlikely. Eventually reconciliation will come. The question is, on whose terms?

The continuing Egyptian efforts are only the latest in a series of attempts by Arab states to broker reunification. Saudi Arabia tried and failed early on. Last year, Qatar brokered a deal between Hamas policy chief Khaled Meshaal and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. But that pact was seen by many in Hamas, particularly in Gaza, as too advantageous to Mr Abbas; it was never implemented.

Since then, the two sides have repeatedly pledged to implement the existing agreement or create a new one. Egypt recently said both parties have committed, yet again, to implementing the pact they signed in Egypt in May 2011.

There are signs of movement, however symbolic. The PA recently allowed Hamas to hold its first West Bank rally in years. Hamas reciprocated, permitting a huge rally in Gaza. Both sides have released prisoners as “goodwill gestures”.

Some observers speculate that Hamas could not help notice the size and enthusiasm of the pro-Fatah rally. Hamas is widely perceived among Palestinians as primarily responsible for the lack of progress on reunification and new national elections. And Hamas is undoubtedly responding to pressure from Egypt, Qatar and its other new Arab backers to be more flexible in dealing with Mr Abbas.

However, in a reversal of fortunes from the negotiations in Doha about a year ago, Hamas now finds itself relatively strengthened by recent developments. The cash-strapped PA is struggling to meet payroll and faces strikes and other protests based on economic grievances. Hamas and some Fatah factions have used these protests to try to settle scores with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and undermine his constructive institution-building programme.

Indeed, the future of Mr Fayyad – who is neither a member of Fatah nor a PLO official – and his strategy remain contentious. He is despised by Hamas on ideological grounds, and disliked by some in Fatah who resent his independence and his reformist agenda.

The worst-case scenario would be an agreement predicated on creation of a new, largely symbolic, “unity” government without Mr Fayyad, one that abandons his institution-building plan and the constructive logic that informs it.

Real reunification will require a merging of security forces, which in effect will mean the victory of one vision of the Palestinian national agenda over the other: Hamas’s commitment to armed struggle and confrontation with Israel, and its willingness to subordinate the Palestinian cause to the broader regional Islamist agenda, or the determination of Mr Fayyad and his colleagues to keep working practically on the ground to build the framework for a successful independent Palestinian state.

Clearly there is no present prospect of merging the security forces, or of national elections to resolve the issue of political legitimacy. But conceivably, to placate public opinion and regional pressures, Hamas and Fatah might agree to form a unity government that dispenses with Mr Fayyad and the institution-building project. This “cure” would be worse than the disease, since institution-building is the only policy now available that offers practical, meaningful prospects for immediate improvements in daily life.

Given the diplomatic impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, institution-building is the only policy that promises to lay the groundwork for the creation of a successful Palestinian state, and that state is the sine qua non of an end to conflict.

Real Palestinian reconciliation requires consensus on national goals. And political legitimacy can be established only through national elections, not another stopgap “unity” cabinet.

Symbolic reconciliation that does not resolve Hamas-Fatah differences, but abandons institution-building and practical preparations for independence, would do the Palestinians far more harm than good.

The Goldberg Variations

One of the surest signs of a commentator worth reading is that they get vociferously attacked by extremists on both ends of a spectrum. I’m very well acquainted with this experience, as is Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. His most recent column, “Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are’,” has opened him up to unprecedented attacks from the Israeli right. Goldberg is a well-established supporter of the two-state solution and opponent of Israel’s settlement project. As such, he’s never been particularly popular with the Israeli far right.

Author and current staff writer for The Atlantic Monthly Jeffrey Goldberg speaks during a live taping of 'Meet the Press.' (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images for Meet the Press)
Author and current staff writer for The Atlantic Monthly Jeffrey Goldberg speaks during a live taping of ‘Meet the Press.’ (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Some members of the Likud party are painting him as a stalking horse for President Barack Obama, who they accuse of “gross interference” in Israel’s election and “taking revenge” against Netanyahu. According to the Jerusalem Post, some Netanyahu supporters believe this “revenge” is in response to Netanyahu’s “perceived intervention in the November US election on behalf of unsuccessful Republican challenger Mitt Romney.” The Post quotes Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan as saying “Goldberg was merely a dovish publicist trumpeting the views of the American far-Left,” and accusing him of engaging in inaccurate “gossip.”

The effrontery of these complaints is extraordinary. First, they virtually acknowledge that Netanyahu did try to intervene in the American election on behalf of Romney, at least at some stages. Second, there isn’t any reason to believe that Obama is using Goldberg as a stalking horse against Netanyahu. Third, such concerns are hardly limited to the “American left,” since none other than President George W. Bush expressed similar concerns on numerous occasions. In April, 2005, Bush said, “I’ve been very clear about Israel has an obligation under the road map. That’s no expansion of settlements.”

This is really just a backlash by Israeli ultranationalists against the nearly universal criticism that Israel’s settlement policies are self-destructive. As Goldberg wrote, these policies seem to be “foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution.” By asking Israel to restrain itself from aggressive settlement expansions, particularly in strategically crucial areas such as the E1 corridor, governments and commentators around the world are simply asking them what kind of future they are constructing for their society if Palestinian statehood is to be foreclosed.

What the whole brouhaha demonstrates is a kind of epistemic closure in which significant portions of Israeli society have lost the ability to hear the voices, even of their friends, who are simply asking them what kind of reality they are constructing through these policies. As Chemi Shalev noted in Ha’aretz, complaints that Obama is interfering in Israel’s elections are not only “a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black,” it is “not Obama who’s meddling in Israel’s elections: it’s reality.”

While the Israeli far-right appears to be suffering from some form of Asperger’s syndrome regarding any criticism of its settlement policies, and is taking it out on both Obama and Goldberg, the far-left has also been recently engaged in a scurrilous attack of its own against the columnist. In his book Prisoners, Goldberg recalls that for a brief period when he was 12, he was attracted by the writings of the violent and racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. But, he continues, by the time he was 14 he “came to see the egalitarian beauty of democratic socialism,” and was singing The Internationale. Nonetheless, some on the extreme left are so gripped with distaste for Goldberg that they continue to describe him as a follower of Kahane, and speculate that he may still be one.

And even more common and scurrilous charge is that Goldberg was involved in “tormenting” or even “torturing” Palestinian prisoners when he served as a guard in an Israeli prison in his youth. However his memoir demonstrates he was troubled by the abuses he saw and attempted to intervene to stop them. He does admit to having lied after another guard beat a prisoner. But, he writes, this was only after he had intervened to stop the beating, which was being performed with an army radio. “Yoram didn’t stop [the beating] when I came upon him. I took hold of his arm, knocking the radio to the ground.” There is nothing in Prisoners, or any other information I’m aware of to sustain the notion that Goldberg was involved in torturing or tormenting Palestinian prisoners. Indeed, it contains an interesting account of how he befriended one of them in an uneasy, complex relationship between detainee and guard.

There are two things that every commentator deserves from readers and interlocutors. One is the right to change their minds, and particularly not to be held to views they long since abandoned (especially when those opinions were formed at the age of 12 and quickly abandoned). Second, they have the right not to have their opinions distorted beyond recognition. Criticism is one thing, and that’s always fair game, but outright misrepresentation is indefensible. It’s been fascinating, instructive and disturbing, to watch Goldberg being subjected to this in recent weeks by both the ultra-right and the far-left in the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio.

Obama’s Iran cabinet

The constellation of new national security/foreign policy appointees coalescing around President Barack Obama for his second term bears all the hallmarks of an overriding priority issue: Iran. Obama has assembled a team perfectly positioned to present itself to Iran as offering the best deal possible. Failing that, it is also the ideal group to convince the American public that—should negotiations fail and the administration decide to take some form of military action—these are precisely the policymakers who can be relied upon to have done so only as a last resort and because there are no other options.

The group is led by Senator John Kerry, nominated to be Secretary of State, and former Senator Chuck Hagel, nominated for Secretary of Defense. Both are highly decorated Vietnam War veterans, noted for their cautious approach to power projection and wariness of military conflict. They are augmented by former counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, nominated to head the Central Intelligence Agency. There will also probably be continuing roles for existing administration figures such as Dennis McDonough, who may be elevated to White House Chief of Staff, and current National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon.

Whatever the final makeup of his new national security team—which will certainly eventually have to include some women such as Susan Rice or Michele Flournoy—it will be based around the Kerry/Hagel/Brennan nexus. The message to Tehran is clear: Whatever you are offered by this group is the best deal you’re likely to get.

In his first term, Obama repeatedly laid out what appears to be a straightforward position on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He rebuffed efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to adopt as a benchmark for action Iran’s potential ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon, instead insisting the American position is that Iran must not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon. As summarized in the New York Times, the American position is that “We have a red line, which is a nuclear weapon.”

But, as with Netanyahu’s own “red line,” Obama’s position is somewhat nebulous and subject to numerous potentially varying definitions. What does a nuclear weapon constitute? What does it mean to possess one? How far could Iran go without triggering American action? Behind the veneer of clarity, there is a great deal of deliberate ambiguity in both the Israeli and American positions, even though there is also an obvious difference between the two.

Nonetheless, Obama’s stance does lock the United States into taking action if Iran crosses a line, even though it’s not exactly clear where, precisely, that line is. So, here’s what you can expect from the next administration: intensive diplomatic efforts aimed at arriving not at a “grand bargain” with Iran on all outstanding issues, but a specific understanding about how far Tehran can go with its nuclear project without triggering an American military response.

And it will be emphasized to Iran and to the world that this is the most forthcoming, least warmongering, group of senior American policymakers that can plausibly be assembled. Indeed, Iran has already cautiously welcomed Hagel’s nomination.

The message to Tehran is clear: This group wants to make a deal, and it’s going to offer you the best terms you can possibly expect. Take it. But the administration remains committed to the broadest outlines of its continuously repeated position that Iran will not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon. Recently Hagel has reportedly joined Obama in reiterating that the military option is by no means off the table. And the message to both Tel Aviv and Tehran is that it isn’t Israel that’s going to be taking action if necessary, it will be the United States.
Should it come to that—and given the administration’s stated positions this is an entirely plausible scenario—the American people and the rest of the world will then be told that military action against Iran is being undertaken by the last group of people who would do so recklessly or avoidably.

They are presented as informed and sophisticated realists, non-interventionists, battle-weary war skeptics and advocates of diplomacy, agreements and alliances. In the American political spectrum they have been packaged and marketed as, in effect, the “anti-neoconservatives.” As New York Times columnist Nick Kristof anticipated the argument, “How refreshing to imagine decisions about war made by brave doves rather than by chicken hawks.”

Obama’s new defense/foreign policy team is an Iran cabinet, assembled to decide and act on war or peace over the nuclear file. Tehran should understand this as both the unparalleled opportunity and significant threat that it is. Take the deal, or face the consequences of an American action led by a group perfectly positioned ideologically and politically to lead their country, with credibility, into an exceptionally dangerous and risky conflict.


Is the Muslim Brotherhood targeting the UAE?

After quietly brewing for the past year, the controversy over alleged Muslim Brotherhood efforts to infiltrate and destabilize the United Arab Emirates has now openly erupted. The most recent development is the arrest of 11 Egyptian expatriates in the UAE on charges of subversion, stealing state secrets and operating under the influence of—and sending large amounts of money to—the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The men are accused of belonging to a “cell” seeking to overthrow the UAE government, with the intention of exporting the influence of Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated political order.

These arrests turned into a significant diplomatic incident, with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi dispatching one of his key advisers, Essam Haddad, and several security officials to Abu Dhabi to disavow any relationship to any conspiracy and demand the release of the detained Egyptian nationals. The UAE has refused to release the suspects. Brotherhood leaders in Egypt have angrily denied any connection to the men, or any accusation that they have been involved in subversive plots against Gulf States.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia beg to differ. The arrests were a joint effort by Emirati and Saudi authorities, and led to an outcry by numerous pro-government commentators in Gulf Cooperation Council states that not enough work is being done to counter Muslim Brotherhood ambitions in the region. The latest arrests were only the most recent, and are taken by many as confirmation of suspicions raised by previous raids.

Earlier last year, Emirati officials arrested 60 members of the Al Islah movement on various charges of subversion. Al Islah denies it is the UAE branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, but former group members, including the vice chancellor of United Arab Emirates University, Ali Rashid Al Noaimi, dismiss the denials as flatly untrue. According to Noaimi, Al Islah “get their orders from outside,” and “they are not loyal to their country.” For years, the UAE government has been trying to distance Al Islah from the educational system in which they once thrived. Now, in the context of the Arab uprisings, it seems they are regarded less as an irritant than as an outright threat.

The Al-Khaleej newspaper summed up the Gulf governments’ perspectives, writing that the arrested Islamists admitted to trying to establish armed groups aimed at the overthrow of existing regimes and that the Brotherhood “gave a number of courses and lectures to members of the secret organization on elections and ways to change systems of government in Arab countries.”

The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan has not minced his words, stating bluntly that “The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in the nation state. It does not believe in the sovereignty of the state.”

Probably the most outspoken Gulf official critical of the Brotherhood is Dubai Police Chief Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan. Beginning last March, Khalfan traded accusations with Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Khalfan had threatened to arrest ‎Youssef El-Qaradawi—probably the most prominent regional Brotherhood spiritual leader and star of Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic station—after Qaradawi denounced the deportation of Syrian activists from the UAE. The Egyptian Brotherhood countered by accusing the UAE of financing subversion within Egypt.

The intermittent exchange of accusations hasn’t stopped since, and the arrests have only intensified the tensions.

If it’s the case, as seems probable, that the regional Brotherhood movement has its sights set on the UAE, this cannot surprise anyone. Lapsed senior Muslim Brotherhood member Tharwat Kherbawi’s explanation to several Arab papers that the Brotherhood, regionally, finds the present UAE government to be an impediment, and the country itself to be “a treasure” and a crucial strategic and economic prize, rings true.

Muslim Brotherhood parties operate differently, and often independently, in various countries in which they are active. But it should never be forgotten that they represent not only an ideologically unified and, to some extent, coordinated movement in the region. They are the only major, coordinated, popular and region-wide mass movement in the Arab world presently, and have a special relationship with Hamas in Gaza. It makes perfect sense that the Brotherhood would try to either gain direct control of the UAE as a springboard to further expansions, or, failing that, they would at least aim to ensure the UAE ceases to act as an impediment to the Brotherhood’s regional agenda.

Conspiratorial? Certainly. But outlandish? By no means. It’s possible that Brotherhood efforts to destabilize the UAE have been somewhat exaggerated. But they are almost certainly based on fact.

The scenario is too plausible and predictable to be considered non-credible. These tensions are more likely to intensify into the future rather than dissipate. What is ultimately at stake is the political direction and future of the Arab world, including the outcomes in such crucial battlegrounds as Syria and Palestine.