Category Archives: Situation Report

Truth and Consequences in the Middle East

My latest on Tomdispatch:

Israel Won’t Change Unless the Status Quo Has a Downside

Obama’s peace plan is doomed because failure costs Israel nothing

Uncomfortable at the spectacle of the Obama administration in an open confrontation with the Israeli government, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman — who represents the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party on Capitol Hill as faithfully as he does those of the health insurance industry — called for a halt. “Let’s cut the family fighting, the family feud,” he said. “It’s unnecessary; it’s destructive of our shared national interest. It’s time to lower voices, to get over the family feud between the U.S. and Israel. It just doesn’t serve anybody’s interests but our enemies.”

The idea that the U.S. and Israel are “family” with identical national interests is a convenient fiction that Lieberman and his fellow Israel partisans have worked relentlessly to promote — and enforce — in Washington over the past two decades. If the bonds are indeed familial, however, last week’s showdown between Washington and the Netanyahu government may be counted as one of those feuds in which truths are uttered in the heat of the moment that call into question the fundamental terms of the relationship. Such truths are never easily swept under the rug once the dispute is settled. The immediate rupture, that is, precludes a simple return to the status quo ante; instead, a renegotiation of the terms of the relationship somehow ends up on the agenda.
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Israel’s Apartheid Without Consequences

Those who live behind its walls are still ruled by the Israeli state

The former US president Jimmy Carter set off a firestorm in 2006 when he said that Israel would have to choose between maintaining an apartheid occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians. That Mr Carter brokered Israel’s most important peace treaty with an Arab country was immaterial; he was branded an enemy of Israel, an anti-Semite and even a Holocaust-denier.

Israel’s friends in the US reacted out of instinct, knowing that an association with apartheid – South Africa’s erstwhile system of racial oppression – would bring international condemnation and isolation. But there was no word of protest from that quarter last week when Israel’s defence minister said what Mr Carter had. “If, and as long as between the Jordan (River) and the (Mediterranean) Sea there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” warned Ehud Barak, speaking at Israel’s annual Herzliya security conference. “If the Palestinians vote in elections it is a binational state and if they don’t vote it is an apartheid state.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Mr Carter was arguing…

…It should come as little surprise that Israelis are cool towards Mr Obama’s peace effort: Israel’s cost-benefit analysis weighs against pursuing a peace agreement that carries risk. There are no consequences for maintaining the status quo. Unless Mr Obama and others can change that cost-benefit analysis, they’re wasting their time.
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Bracing for Israel’s Next Gaza Attack

There were no winners in the Gaza war that Israel launched a year ago today, but no shortage of losers. And failure to address its underlying causes – the economic siege through which Israel, Egypt and the US hope to force Hamas from power, and that organisation’s ability to respond by firing rockets into Israel – means that far from anyone learning the lessons of the brutal folly that was Operation Cast Lead, a repeat may be imminent. Continue reading

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How I Overcame My Jewish-Evangelical Upbringing and Learned to Love Christmas, Anyway

Guest Column: Gavin Evans Back in the day, when Gavin and I were young activists trying to change the world, the doorbell rang at our Observatory student house. I opened it to see a tall and handsome man in the silky purple shirt and dog collar of an Anglican Bishop. “You must be Tony,” said Bishop Bruce Evans. “I hope you’re going to make a mensch out of my son.” I was a little gobsmacked to hear +Bruce, as I came to know him, tossing out yiddish bon mots. But as his menschedik son relates here, many are the pathways of the lord, and all that….

The fundamentalist century

By Gavin Evans

So, Christmas and Hannukah have rolled past again, following in the wake of Eid and Diwali. Lots of celebrations all around and, perhaps, time to put a bit of religion back into the mix.

It is fitting to start with the obvious point that these festivals and commemorations are not all they seem. Take Christmas: the date of December 25 was chosen by the Romans sometime after 350 AD, probably to coincide with a pagan festival (and certainly not the birth date of the historical Jesus) – one of the many ways the Romans managed to wed Christianity with pre-existing Pagan traditions and beliefs. But Christmas only became prominent after Charlemagne was crowned on December 25, 800, and it took more than another millennium before the traditions of trees, and presents crept in (Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens did their bit) – and a bit longer before the North Pole Santa arrived. In other words, its connections with Christianity are tenuous, to say the least. It has become, essentially, a secular celebration – which is one of the reasons why I am happy to embrace its charms.

But this was not the way I grew up. I was raised on fundamentalism, and Christmas certainly wasn’t exempt. We were told the point wasn’t the actual date but rather that this was celebration of the birth of Jesus and that we give presents to remember that God gave his son for our salvation (I later discovered that other cultures – Spanish, for example – give their presents later as a celebration of the gifts given by the Three Wise Men). Continue reading

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Why Obama Defaulted to Bush on Iran

This from my latest on

Having concluded that President Obama’s outreach has failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program, the final weeks of 2009 find his Administration focused on mustering support for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Iran’s rejection of the terms offered thus far by the U.S. and its partners has prompted Obama to largely revert to the Bush Administration’s approach of ultimatums backed by sanctions — with little obvious prospect of producing a substantially different result.

So how did he get here? In a nutshell, he allowed the Washington hawks, in concert with Israel and European hawks such as Sarkozy, to paint him into a corner by setting an artificial deadline on his diplomatic effort, and more importantly, basing them on the same demands as the Bush Administration which Iran had repeatedly rejected. Not only has Iran’s domestic turmoil limited its own regime’s room for maneuver, Iran’s opposition is as vehement as its conservatives in rejecting Washington’s demand that Iran give up uranium enrichment.

So Obama is going out on the road of further sanctions, now, but it’s generally agreed that sanctions aren’t going to change Iran’s position. At which point those who set the time-limits on diplomacy will demand that Obama go to war….
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Hannukah Without the Taliban

In a country occupied by a Western power, the locals are faced with a choice. Some have opted to reconcile their own traditions with those of their occupier, borrowing from Western ways that open the path to philosophy and science, and integrating themselves into a wider culture. Others fiercely resist, waging a bitter and bloody war not only on the occupier, but also on those in their own community who seek to collaborate or integrate with the occupiers who are denounced as defilers.

If this were contemporary Afghanistan-Pakistan, you’d know who was whom, right? But before you bite into that latke or sing the dreidel song, you may want to consider that in Judea in the second century BC, the Taliban role is played by the Maccabees. And it is the Maccabees, of course, who are lionized in the Hanukah tale.

In fact, they pretty much invented the holiday… Continue reading

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The Fiction at the Heart of Obama’s Afghan Surge

As he prepares his Tuesday speech to present Americans with his plan to increase troops in Afghanistan, the US president Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling like the economist in the old joke that finds him marooned on a desert island along with an engineer, a chemist and hundreds of cans of food but no way of opening them. The engineer gets to work trying to fashion tools for the job; the chemist tries combinations of salt water and sun to get the tins to rust. Having had no luck, they ask the economist to lend the insights of his profession. His answer: “Assume a can opener…”

The “can opener” in Obama’s Afghanistan exit strategy is the Afghan security forces. Continue reading

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When Obama Meets His Banker

An assortment of European leaders gathered last week at a tepid commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty years ago the collapse of communism was hailed as the final triumph of western liberal democracy, which would sweep aside the vestiges of authoritarianism everywhere. So the downbeat tenor of this year’s anniversary was hardly surprising, since it hasn’t quite worked out that way: not only has authoritarianism proven remarkably resilient, but the western economies have suffered a near cataclysmic collapse as a result of allowing their bankers too much freedom and creativity.

Barack Obama didn’t go to Berlin, but this week he visits China – arguably the big winner from the global economic changes that began in earnest in 1989. China certainly passed through its own dramatic convulsion in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, but that anniversary went largely unmarked in June. Nor should anyone expect that Mr Obama will bring it up; or, for that matter, the execution last week of nine Uighurs accused of fomenting deadly protests in Xinjiang this year. Telling your bank manager to stop beating his wife is hardly prudent when you’re running an $800 billion overdraft.

The twist, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is that most of the countries thus liberated from authoritarian one-party rule are currently struggling to emerge from recession, while China – with a self-appointed ruling party that ruthlessly defends its monopoly on power – has been such a rip-roaring capitalist success that it feels compelled to protect its investment in the US by advising the Obama administration to rein in deficit spending. History, it seems, has a wicked sense of humour.
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Obama Faces the Key Afghan War Myth

President Obama’s plain-speaking Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, on Nov. 12 summed up the Administration’s Afghan dilemma in a single question: “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?” The fact that there’s no good answer explains the Administration’s hesitation in committing more troops to the fight. Indeed, the objectives cited by Gates may function at cross-purposes.

Signaling America’s resolve to prevail is essential, as Gates notes, because as long as Afghans and others in the region believe the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan is finite, they’ll hedge their bets. And hedged bets right now work in the Taliban’s favor because, as General Stanley McChrystal has warned, it is the insurgents who have the momentum.

The Taliban knows that time is the indispensable ally of the indigenous insurgent facing a foreign army… Given the limits of U.S. control on the ground and the expectation that, sooner or later, like the Russians, the Americans will leave, many ordinary Afghans see little incentive to risk their lives in supporting the U.S. mission.
The calculations of ordinary Afghans could change, of course, if they believed the U.S. was there to stay and had the will and capability to prevail. But, as Gates also notes, the U.S. military is not in Afghanistan to stay, and Obama is under growing domestic political pressure to find an exit strategy from a costly war whose importance to U.S. national security has grown murky.

The simple answer to the Administration’s dilemma, in the minds of many in Washington, is to train and equip Afghans to do the job themselves. Obama reportedly rejected all four options offered by his national-security staff on Nov. 11 … because they failed to make clear how and when responsibility for the war would be transferred to Afghan forces. By doing so, Obama may have pointed to the elephant in the room. On present indications, the Afghan forces are unlikely anytime in the near future to be ready and willing to take over the fight against the Taliban.
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Does Obama Have a Mideast Plan B?

It’s hardly surprising that President Barack Obama chose to schedule a White House visit by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the dead of night on Monday, because right now Obama has little to show for his 10-month effort to revive a Middle East peace process. The Israeli leader’s refusal to abide by Washington’s demand for a complete freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and the Palestinians’ refusal to enter talks without one — has left the Obama Administration’s plans in tatters, with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas threatening to resign and pull the plug on the PA and the peace process of which it forms a part.

Netanyahu insists that Israel is ready for unconditional talks; he blames the stalemate on the Palestinians for making the settlement freeze a precondition. But Netanyahu also refuses to accept that such talks be directed toward establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital — and that’s the minimum the Palestinians are prepared to accept. Abbas, meanwhile, feels betrayed that the Obama Administration has backed down from its own insistence that Israel halt construction in occupied territory. That, say the Palestinians, is clear evidence that Washington won’t pressure Israel to do things it’s not willing to do, and that it’s therefore pointless to go through the motions of yet another series of negotiations with an Israeli government more hawkish than its predecessors. (See pictures of Obama’s overseas trips.)

Obama had prioritized resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his demands — of a complete settlement freeze by Israel and reciprocal gestures toward normalizing ties with Israel by Arab governments — has been rejected on both sides. And while no recent Administration has had much success in this realm, veterans of the peace process concur that the President’s initial approach was flawed. It may have even done more harm than good, they argue, by raising expectations that could not be met, leaving both sides mistrustful of Washington’s intentions and creating a situation where either Netanyahu or Abbas would be painted into a corner. (That turned out to be Abbas, after Netanyahu rejected Obama’s demands.) Continue reading

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