Saturday, December 18, 2010

US Mediation: Refreshing And Worrying

By Rami G. Khouri 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/12/2010

It is refreshing and worrying to discuss Middle Eastern issues with friends, colleagues and knowledgeable people in the United States these days. It is refreshing because most people are convinced that Washington is serious about working hard for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is worrying because Washington is serious about working hard for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The problem, it seems obvious from discussions with people with inside knowledge of what is going on in both the United States and Israel, is that the Obama administration’s energy and emphasis on the negotiating process lacks the needed vision of what a permanent settlement would look like and what the US sees as a fair resolution for all concerned.

This Israeli government, however, has a clear vision of what it wants as a final arrangement but most of the world rejects its demands as too ambitious and unfair to the Palestinians, while the more moderate Israeli public is content to let the right-wing government carry the day for now. And the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have both a clear vision of a comprehensive peace agreement and the negotiating means to get there, but they lack the leverage to generate any movement in that direction.

The US special envoy to the Middle East peacemaking process, George Mitchell, is in the region this week and has spoken of working to move the parties towards forging a framework agreement. This follows the bitter US experience of the past two years, when pressure, cajoling, enticements and one outrageous bribe attempt failed to move the Palestinians and Israelis, both of whom rebuffed US demands in their own ways.

The United States’ good intentions, lofty rhetoric and energetic action clearly are insufficient to move the parties toward an agreement. So it seems that one option now being considered is to put on the table American compromise ideas for a settlement. If the US moves in this direction, all the signs are that it will not generate much progress if all other things remain as they are – in other words if the Arabs and Israelis feel no new incentives or disincentives to change their positions and move faster toward an agreement.

This is being matched, in the meantime, by two possible initiatives from the Palestinians: to obtain European and global recognition of a Palestinian state within its 1967 borders; and to go to the United Nations and seek a resolution on Palestinian statehood.

Both of these are worthy goals, but neither will generate sufficient energy to move the parties toward making the hard decisions needed to break through the stalemate of the past 17 years, ever since the Oslo Accords were signed. The occupied, exiled and besieged Palestinians are the ones suffering the most today, and they have the most incentive to move things forward diplomatically, but the least leverage to do so. The Israelis have both the power and the incentive, but seem to lack the will to do so, believing perhaps that they can endure the current situation for decades or even generations to come.

Washington, therefore, remains the party everyone looks to for movement to break this stalemate. One American with much experience in the Middle East suggested in private that the reason the US seems stuck in the Middle East is that its efforts are hampered by three I’s: an inability to act; incompetence when it does act; and illegitimacy that sometimes negates any attempt to act. Two other I’s were also suggested: insensitivity and ignorance. This is a hard but probably broadly accurate description of the American experience in the Middle East. This now must be supplemented with a final I: impotence. This is based on the experience of the past two years in failing to move the Israelis and Palestinians forward, despite serious efforts to do so.

It seems quite foolish to look to the Americans to resolve a conflict that has been severely aggravated by American policies that have given Israel the power and diplomatic protection in recent decades to remain intransigent, aggressive and colonial in its attitude to Palestinians and other Arabs. Americans for their part are becoming understandably fed up with being asked to solve a conflict when the parties to the conflict themselves seem less eager to take the steps needed to succeed in finding a resolution. So Americans are increasingly wondering whether they should just drop their efforts and go home.

An important debate is finally starting to take place in the US about what can and should be done to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, but this debate has yet to fully include a discussion of the consequences of Washington’s own policies and the influence of pro-Israel forces in the State Department and throughout the US political system. Whether the American political system will allow this to occur remains to be seen.

Stay Out Of Trouble By Not Speaking To Western Spies

By Robert Fisk
This commentary was published in The Independent on 18/12/2010

Almost 30 years ago, a British diplomat asked me to lunch in Beirut.

Despite rumours to the contrary, she told me on the phone, she was not a spy but a mere attaché, wanting only to chat about the future of Lebanon. These were kidnapping days in the Lebanese capital, when to be seen with the wrong luncheon companion could finish in a basement in south Beirut. I trusted this woman. I was wrong. She arrived with two armed British bodyguards who sat at the next table. Within minutes of sitting down at a fish restaurant in the cliff-top Raouche district, she started plying me with questions about Hezbollah's armaments in southern Lebanon. I stood up and walked out. Hezbollah had two men at another neighbouring table. They called on me next morning. No problem, they said, they saw me walk out. But watch out.

Ever since this woman lied to me – more than two years later, her relative told me she was frightened by her line of work as an intelligence agent – I have avoided Western embassies throughout the world. With the exception of Irish, Swedish and Norwegian diplomats whom I know, you will find me at no Western missions anywhere. And I have never been kidnapped. But about the same time as this deceit was practised on me by the British embassy, the Iranians published in book form their massive, incredible volumes of US secret files from the American embassy in Iran. Students had spent years since the 1979 Islamic revolution painstakingly sticking together the shredded diplomatic cables to Washington from the US mission in Tehran. The Americans seized every copy taken to the US – these were the glorious pre-internet days of paper – but I bought the set and still have the lot in Beirut.

And, lo and behold, one of them is attaché Bruce Laingen's conclusion (13 August 1979) that "the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism ... The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own". I read that and reported it to The Times almost 30 years ago. And then up pops the very same cable on WikiLeaks, breathlessly highlighted by The New York Times and its dwarf the International Herald Tribune, as if this is an extraordinary scoop. There is – as usual – no human memory at The New York Times. Sorry, the Iranians got there first. And this week, aware that the documents may contain the names of hapless journalists who blurted out their knowledge to the "defence" attachés of Western embassies in the Middle East, I was happy to know I absolutely could not be among them.

It was fascinating, though, to watch Hillary Clinton initially denouncing the WikiLeaks flood as an "attack on the international community". She twice warned journalists that they might also find their names in the embassy cables – so no more bleating about freedom of the press when WikiLeaks might betray the warriors of the media. It was even more intriguing to watch the effect. No sooner had La Clinton refused to confirm that the 250,000 perfectly genuine documents were real – she called them "alleged documents" – than the BBC lady piped up with a question, also referring to the "alleged documents"; as if the story the BBC had been leading with on the hour, every hour, for the past 24 hours might be a hoax. Al-Jazeera, alas, caught the same bug later.

The problem, of course, is that it is not a hoax. And the pompous way in which La Clinton felt it necessary to explain to us the difference between embassy cables (which have a certain relationship to reality, if not always very literate) and the policy papers that emerge from her own diminished office told us almost as much as the WikiLeaks horde. For this lady, who could not write her own autobiography, ordered – and still I have to shake my head to believe this – her flunkies to spy on the United Nations.

That La Clinton should want her State Department slaves to play secret agents on the poor old UN donkey – the beast that forever clip-clops on stage to mop up America's failed policies in the Middle East, this decrepit skyscraper on the East River packed with enough asbestos to kill a nation of peacekeepers, this bureaucratic shambles with its pathetic Secretary-General whose English is still in need of vast improvement – shows what an utterly worthless institution the US State Department has become.

They were supposed to spy on the encryption details of delegates, credit card transactions, even frequent flyer cards. But who would want to read the nonsense that the UN's overpaid staff write, or how much they spend on lunch at Nobu's with the Nicaraguan consul, or who paid for whose mistress to fly to Havana on the shavings of his UN flights?

A long time ago, Air France agreed to hand over its frequent flyer details to American spooks – so why do they want this stuff all over again? And why spy on the UN when they are the most leak-prone organisation on the globe? I once received so many identical copies of confidential "sit-rep" reports from UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon – retired Irish Lieutenant-General William Callaghan is my witness – that I had to plead with UN soldiers not to send me so many.

But let's stay in the Middle East. We now know that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "hates Hamas and considers them the same as Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood, which he sees as his own most dangerous political threat". Well, blow me down. Having watched Uncle Hosni's National Democratic Party hoodlums biffing the Brotherhood two weeks ago – not to mention the one-dollar-a-day cops throwing a thousand of its members into clink – this doesn't come as much of a surprise. And no wonder, by the way, that the post-election loyalist Egyptian press was trumpeting how the NDP has "saved the nation" with its massive victory (all this, of course, before a single election result was announced).

When Mubarak hears the name of his presidential opponent Ayman Nour – a perfectly charming man whom I met in Beirut just before the election – he claims, according to the WikiLeaks cable, to "feel sick". Which is just how Nour felt when Mubarak banged him up in the Tora prison complex after the 2005 election. We are still waiting, naturally, to see what US diplomatic reports really said about the ghastly Yasser Arafat and – more importantly – the Israeli colonial government in the West Bank. But fear not, any truth contained therein will not be reflected in those haughty "policy" papers churned out by La Clinton and her predecessors. More and more, WikiLeaks is exposing the hopeless nature of US foreign policy and that of its supposed "allies". Attack on the international community indeed!

Palestinians Must Be Free

Ignore the smoke screen thrown up by Israel and its apologists. The real reason for the lack of an enduring Mideast peace deal is the Israeli occupation.

By Maen Rashid Areikat
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 18/12/2010

Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon recently penned an article for Foreign Policy that perniciously distorts the Palestinian commitment to a lasting peace, and misrepresents our sincere efforts to find a diplomatic solution to this conflict. Let me correct the record.

The simple and overriding truth is this: Palestinians must be free. This overriding moral prerogative remains the driving force for every aspect of Palestinian political, social, cultural, and artistic expression. It is why the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was created, and it remains the raison d'etre for every one of our efforts.

There is nothing peculiar or unique about the Palestinian drive for liberty in our own land -- the land of our fathers, grandfathers, and their grandfathers -- living side by side with a secure Israel. The basic human impulse for freedom is shared by every man, woman, and child around the globe. This is why the Palestinian struggle for freedom has become so iconic throughout the world for those concerned with justice and civil rights. From Brazil to Turkey, from Indonesia to South Africa, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Kingdom, Palestinians stand as an icon for the responsibility of each of us to work for the freedom of any who remain oppressed.

This is true here in the United States as well -- a nation founded on the ethos of freedom and liberty. In this respect alone, Palestinians and Americans share an often unspoken but unbreakable bond.

The technocratic language of negotiations can make even a policy wonk yawn. But this jargon of the peace process does more than bore readers -- it obfuscates the most salient facts about our drive for independence. The Palestinian goal is to be free; free to live in our own country, free to build where we want, free to travel wherever and whenever we want, free to only pay taxes to a government chosen by us and that represents us and our interests, free to not worry every day and every minute about our security and the security of our children. This week's report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel documenting Israel's detention of over 1,000 Palestinian children from East Jerusalem this year alone cannot but break the heart of any parent, and reinforces the urgency of our struggle.

Perhaps because our cause is so universal, those opposing our freedom have concentrated their efforts on misdirection -- especially in the United States, whose role remains critical in ensuring a speedy and peaceful end to the occupation. Americans are told by Israeli officials and their apologists that Israel would be happy to provide Palestinians their freedom but that Palestinians themselves have rejected "generous" offers for their own liberty.

The truth is not quite so remarkable.

At Camp David in 2000, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an unwritten offer that would have kept Palestinian airspace, the electromagnetic sphere, international crossing points, and water resources under Israeli control. The "Barak Offer" called for a land swap that would have traded land on a 9 to 1 ratio in favor of Israel and failed to provide an acceptable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem and Jerusalem, two fundamental issues for Palestinians. It also would have allowed Israel to keep a military presence in the future Palestinian state. The only written proposal at Camp David was submitted by the Palestinians, regarding the refugee issue; the Israelis never responded.

At Camp David, Palestinians were offered a state with no sovereignty, no capital in Jerusalem, and no just solution to the refugee problem. This is the reason that talks failed -- not because of Palestinian intransigence or rejectionism, as has become the standard narrative in mainstream American political and media discourse.

The next round of serious talks, between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, did not produce an "Olmert Offer," although the two leaders discussed all permanent status issues extensively.

Toward the end of their meetings, Olmert showed President Abbas a map of proposed land swaps to compensate for land that Israel wanted to annex -- about 6.8 percent of the West Bank -- as part of an agreement. The Palestinians requested that Olmert put forth a written proposal, and also submitted 14 questions to the Israelis seeking clarifications on important issues on questions pertaining to the permanent status issues. Again, the Israelis never responded to either request. Contacts then broke down after Israel's savage attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008, and Olmert subsequently resigned after being implicated in a corruption scandal.

Over the past 10 months, Palestinians have, either directly or, through the United States, made offers and submitted ideas to the Israelis on every one of the permanent status issues. The Palestinians did not sit around and wait for the so-called moratorium to lapse, as some claim. Over the past four months of indirect talks and the one month of direct negotiations -- all hosted by the Obama administration -- Israel has refused to respond to Palestinian and U.S. urging to engage on the core issues, such as the future of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security and water issues. This has been the sad reality since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister 20 months ago.

The topic of settlement construction is also rife with misunderstanding and deliberate distortion. Israeli leaders have recently argued that settlements only occupy 1.7 percent of Palestinian territory, yet the military infrastructure for supporting these settlers, which includes walls, checkpoints, and "Israeli-only" roads, keeps over 82 percent of the West Bank out of Palestinian hands.

Even the question of recognition has become a red herring. The PLO recognized Israel's right to exist within its 1967 borders in 1988, and has repeatedly restated its position on this matter ever since. The PLO even convened its parliament in exile in 1998 to reiterate this acceptance in the presence of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. To this day, our recognition of Israel remains unreciprocated by the Israeli Knesset or the ruling Likud party.

Palestinians, however, are not passive victims. Our rights are not subject to or conditional on Israeli recognition or acceptance of them. Our rights to be free and to live in equality in our own homeland and our own state are inalienable. We appreciate the United States' continued efforts to end the occupation that began in 1967, but we are not sitting still waiting for freedom to be delivered to us.

To achieve our aims, we are entitled to resort to all peaceful, nonviolent, and legal means. This includes, but is not limited to, taking our case to the United Nations and other international forums, calling on other countries to recognize a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and working with the international community to realize Palestinian national rights of self-determination and statehood.

The irony for Israel is that its best guarantee for security and survival is not the continued humiliation and subjugation of the Palestinian people, but rather our freedom and independence. Israel's blinkered policies will never convince Palestinians to give up their legitimate right to liberty, and it is only true freedom that can ultimately make for the best neighbors.

Another Chance For Egypt To Commit To Transparency

By Michael Posner
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 18/12/2010

Although it has held a series of troubling elections this year, Egypt has an opportunity to fulfill the commitments its government has made to the Egyptian people as it prepares for next year's presidential election, if it takes steps to implement several changes to which it has committed.

Most reports show voter turnout in the recent parliamentary elections was less than 25 percent - reflecting Egyptians' lack of faith in their electoral process. Ongoing public demonstrations reinforce this fact. Indeed, in both rounds of parliamentary elections there were credible reports of significant government interference directed against voters at the ballot box. Opposition party observers and candidate representatives were blocked from polling places, domestic monitors were denied full access to observe the process, and international monitors were not allowed into the country. The June elections for Egypt's upper house of parliament were similarly troubled.

Both Egyptian elections stand in contrast to a trend in the region of greater electoral transparency. Iraq and Jordan also held elections this year, and both allowed independent international and domestic monitors to observe the voting process. While irregularities and some violence were reported in each of those elections, the relative freedom and transparency of their processes underscore the extent to which some leaders in the region are embracing international norms for democratic elections as a way to increase public participation and confidence in their governments.

President Obama has made clear his support for the principle that all individuals should have the chance to shape the decisions that affect their lives. The United States, along with many other governments - including some in the Middle East, as evidenced by the Iraqi and Jordanian elections - embraces the globally accepted norm of international monitoring for democratic elections. These are universal principles, as valid for the Middle East as for Africa, Asia or North America.

The partnership between the United States and Egypt, one of our most important in the region, is rooted in common interests and shared aspirations. Both Americans and Egyptians want to achieve Arab-Israeli peace and hope to see a stable Iraq and an Iran that behaves responsibly within the international community. It is the administration's firm view that progress in political and economic reform in Egypt is essential to the country's long-term strength and success as a regional leader as well as to sustaining a strong foundation for our valued strategic partnership. The presidential elections scheduled for next fall present Egypt's leadership with an opportunity to set the stage for the future by making the reforms that will bolster citizens' confidence in their government and enhance the government's legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.

Egypt has publicly committed to steps that, if implemented, would be essential to a free, fair and transparent electoral process in 2011. The most important actions would be ending the long-standing state of emergency, under which the country has been operating since 1981, and enacting long-promised counterterrorism legislation that protects the universal rights of the Egyptian people. Egypt's High Electoral Commission, established by a constitutional amendment in 2007 transferring election oversight from the judiciary, has promised to review the irregularities reported in the recent elections; this new institution can demonstrate its credibility and independence by respecting and implementing court decisions on electoral issues, thoroughly investigating alleged violations of the electoral process and moving to prevent recurrences.

Free and fair elections require free and vibrant media; that includes bloggers and international coverage. The Egyptian government could also do more to encourage a broader array of political parties and to support citizens who want to form nongovernmental organizations to contribute to their country's future. It will also be important for Egypt to welcome both international and domestic election monitors and allow them to carry out their work freely throughout the campaign period and on Election Day next September.

When I visited Egypt in October, I heard a clear desire by many Egyptians to have the opportunity to participate more actively in their governance. This is why this administration is looking for signs of progress in next year's elections. We do this not out of judgment or the presumption that we know best. We look for these signs because we share common interests with the people and government of Egypt, including a political future worthy of Egypt's rich culture and history, one that signals the way forward for an entire region.

The writer is US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

Hezbollah Swings Back And Forth

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 17/12/2010

The swing between escalation and readiness for a political settlement is characterizing Hezbollah’s stance on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and the indictment that it will issue. This swinging back and forth does not indicate anything other than confusion and anxiety, contrary to what is maintained by the party’s leaders, namely that they are not anxious about or afraid of the STL. The excuse given – that Hezbollah can and will be able to defeat the tribunal’s objectives – does not necessitate all of this tension and some of the threatening rhetoric that has appeared in recent days.

Hezbollah, in terms of its political and military strength and capabilities, and regional relations, can until further notice confront any indictment and prevent any implementation of its directives, if in fact members of the party are accused of involvement in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri. Most likely, no one will able to get to any individual from the party who might be accused of the crime. Everyone is aware that it is difficult to reach any member of the party, even if being pursued by something less important than the STL, and on a charge that is much less important than that which some are rumoring, or leaking, might be made against individuals from the party. The latter has helped spread this rumor through the daily campaign it has waged against the tribunal for more than six months. Hezbollah can say that it is unafraid, because when its leaders and Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah maintain that it has faced pressures and difficulties greater than the challenges possibly imposed by the STL, this is closer to the truth. But if this lack of fear is true, it does not justify some of the tense stances that have been taken, because those who take them do not give the impression that they are unafraid.

If the fear of a “damaged reputation,” as Hezbollah leaders say, is what prompts them to engage in some escalation and defend the party’s reputation with the Muslim public and the resistance’s public itself, leading them toward “legitimate” self-defense, it is understandable, and justifiable, to see Hezbollah defend itself before the court of public opinion before that of STL. It might be understandable that the response to the so-called “damaged reputation” is to “damage the reputation” of the STL itself and of the international powers that have supported and continue to support the tribunal, and to make various accusations against it. It is thought that this will prompt other Lebanese groups, in the other camp, to accept the awaited political deal over the STL.

In parallel to these accusations against the side that is pro-STL, or at least does not want to abandon it, Hezbollah has been reiterating for weeks its commitment to Saudi-Syrian efforts, which are aimed at arriving at a settlement that will treat the likely repercussions of any indictment before or after it is issued. Meanwhile, leaders from the party reiterate their readiness for dialogue and cooperation to confront any sectarian Sunni-Shiite strife and their rejection of it, and their desire to sit together to discuss solutions that guarantee strife will be avoided.

Herein lie the swings that dominate Hezbollah’s stance. The party has been forced to “raise its voice,” which causes it to stoop to taking positions of which it becomes a prisoner, along with the other camp, in the trench of confrontation, instead of meeting this other side on the way to a settlement. The other side repeatedly calls for dialogue, leaving behind pressure and accusations that have arisen since Hezbollah launched its campaign six months ago, or since Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced in June that the blood of his father would not be a reason for strife between Sunnis and Shiites. Hariri has unceasingly reiterated his stance with more clarity and precision in closed meetings, although Hezbollah and its allies refuse to give Hariri the chance to develop his stance due to the harsh pressure they are exerting on him, whether by paralyzing his Cabinet, making accusations against him and threatening him and his public, and ridiculing his many initiatives to pave the way for a settlement. This was seen in the response to his interview in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, when he stepped back from political accusations of Syria for his father’s murder.

Hezbollah’s rivals might not oppose the demand by Sayyed Nasrallah to “leave the problem to us and the STL,” because this matches their stance that the tribunal has become the responsibility of the international community, and because this leads to seeing the domestic political settlement take a separate track, and protects Lebanon and the region from strife. However, the party should leave behind the fluctuations that have characterized its stance, including its proposal to freeze the Security Council resolution that established the court cannot be carried out. Freezing the decision will only lead to seeing the issue remain pending and open, while the settlement will represent a “closing the file” domestically. This is important, because it will head off strife, which cannot be “frozen.” Is it possible that the murdered man’s son will want to reach a settlement more than others?

President Abbas: Ecuador Next to Recognize Palestinian State

This article was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 18/12/2010

London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Bolivia is the latest country to recognize the State of Palestine after it officially announced yesterday that it recognized a sovereign Palestinian State along its 1967 borders.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday welcomed Bolivia’s recognition of a Palestinian state and praised the bilateral relations between the two countries..

Mahmoud Abbas said that he learned that Bolivia had officially recognized the state of Palestine three days ago during a telephone conversation with Bolivian President Evo Morales. During this conversation, Morales informed Abbas that Bolivia had taken the decision to recognize an "independent" Palestinian state based upon the 1967 borders.

In a recent telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas revealed that he expects Ecuador to be the fourth South American country to recognize the State of Palestine. Abbas, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat from Amman, Jordan, confirmed that the Palestinian Authority was seeking to convince more Latin American and Asian countries to official recognize a Palestinian State based upon the 1967 borders.

Responding to a question about his expectations from Europe [with regards to the recognition of a Palestinian State], Abbas praised Norway for upgrading the status of the Palestinian mission in its country from a "general delegation" to a "diplomatic mission." He also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that he was satisfied and content with regards to the European position towards the Palestinian issue as stated in the most recent European Union [EU] statement. Abbas added "we do not want to pressure European countries at this time."

President Abbas also expressed his satisfaction regarding a statement issued by the Arab League Monitoring Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative, which concluded its meeting in Cairo on Wednesday evening. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that "our Arab brothers did not object to what was proposed in the meeting." He also confirmed that there is a sense of Arab discontent towards the American position, and its threat to veto any Arab resolution [calling for the recognition of the state of Palestine] at the UN Security Council.

Answering a question as to whether the Palestinians had asked US Peace Envoy George Mitchell for guarantees regarding the 1967 borders, Mahmoud Abbas said "we asked them to commit to the position held by the George W. Bush Administration regarding the 1967 borders and the handover of security in some areas to a third party, not Israel. However they [also] did not agree on this even." Despite this, Mahmoud Abbas told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had instructed the Palestinian delegation at the UN – in cooperation with the Arab bloc – to call for a Security Council meeting to discuss the issue of settlement building.

Bolivia’s recognition [of Palestine] comes approximately two weeks after both Brazil and Argentina announced their official recognition of the State of Palestine. This also comes just 24 hours after Norway raised the Palestinians diplomatic status from that of a "general delegation" to a "diplomatic mission" with the head of the Palestinian diplomatic mission now enjoying diplomatic immunity in Norway. This follow a similar move by France in July 2010 which saw Paris raise the diplomatic status of the Palestinian mission to its country from that of a "delegation" to a "diplomatic mission" led by an ambassador. In the past few days, the Palestinian Authority has also official requested –for the first time – that European countries recognize a Palestinian State should one be declared, even in the absence of a peace agreement with Israel. Palestinian officials announced that the Palestinian Authority had formally contacted Britain, France, Sweden, and Denmark to officially recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

The Bolivian decision to formally recognize the State of Palestine is widely expected to be condemned by the US, as was the case with the Argentinean and Brazilian decisions. These decisions resulted in the US Congress condemning unilateral measures to declare or recognize a Palestinian State, and called on the Obama administration to veto any attempt to establish or seek recognition of a Palestinian state via the UN Security Council, as the Palestinian Authority has previously threatened.

In a statement to Asharq al-Awsat, PLO representative to the US Maen Rashid Areikat said that he considers this congressional resolution to be an attempt to influence the Obama administration, disrupt its efforts, and prevent it from taking any steps to resolve the Palestinian – Israeli conflict. Areikat also revealed that the Palestinians had spoken with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Peace Envoy George Mitchell last week and informed them that the Palestinians were displeased with Washington's condemnation of Brazil and Argentina's recognition of a Palestinian State along the 1967 borders, saying that this was something that the Americans themselves recognized.

Areikat also told Asharq Al-Awsat that "we asked the Americans about what harm there is in countries recognizing the Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, as the Americans themselves are calling for this. We also informed them that the Palestinian efforts would continue in this the sense that we will not stop appealing to countries around the world to recognize the Palestinian state. This is our right and the right of this state."

Representative Areikat also added that "we have passed on messages to certain parties that have influence and relations with Israel, informing them that the US Congress should not involve itself in Middle Easter affairs if it doesn't have anything positive to say."

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bolivia’s recognition of the Palestinian state came in a speech President Evo Morales delivered to the Mercosur Summit on Friday, which was also attended by a number of South American heads of state. Morales began his speech by saying "Bolivia recognizes Palestine as an independent state along 1967 borders, together with Brazil and Argentina." This announcement prompted a standing ovation from all the South American heads of states attending the summit.

With this announcement Bolivia joined a number of other Latin American and South American countries that formally recognize the State of Palestine, including Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, whilst Uruguay has announced that it will recognize a Palestinian State in 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Saudi Succession Will Affect A Broad Circle Of Countries

By Theodore Karasik
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/12/2010

Recent discussions concerning the political succession in Saudi Arabia surfaced when King Abdullah flew to New York City for surgery, and his brother Crown Prince Sultan, himself ill, returned to take charge over everyday Saudi affairs. Aware of the dangers in the aging leadership, King Abdullah created a framework that will allow the ruling house to take sensible account of age and fitness when it decides on the next step in succession.

While this process is fascinating to Saudi watchers, another key question emerges: What are the general strategic ramifications of the Saudi succession issue? An answer is significant because much of the regime’s legitimacy comes from its role as the guardian of Sunni orthodoxy, the majority branch of Islam and the branch followed by most Saudis. Future kings are expected to follow this mantra in their world view and foreign policy decision-making processes. In addition, it is important to remember that the policies a new king adopts are not necessarily apparent while he is still a prince.

In the immediate neighborhood, Yemen, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Iran and Iraq will be watching very closely for shifts in policy toward them, while any future Saudi king will see the same threat perceptions.

Yemen, with its numerous domestic issues and as the home of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, will surely have much stronger influence over the affairs of the kingdom, as well as representing a major threat. Yemeni stakeholders will take advantage of the Saudi succession. The GCC states will align and support a smooth transition and will watch keenly for signals of any shift in Saudi foreign policy. It is assumed by GCC states that any successor will continue to expand Saudi influence over them.

Iran will also take advantage of the succession. As a regional challenger, Tehran threatens Saudi interests in Lebanon, where it has operated with Syria and its Shiite proxy Hizbullah to undermine the Saudi-supported government under Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Iran supports the Hamas movement against the Palestinian Authority; in Yemen, Tehran has been assisting the Houthi rebels who are fighting the Saudi-supported regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. And closer to home in the Persian Gulf, Iran has sought to curtail Saudi interests in Iraq and project its power into neighboring countries, particularly via their Shiite populations.

If Iran gains the upper hand, the Saudi royal family during and after the succession may face serious threats from Saudi Sunni radicals determined to stop the spread of Shiite Islam; as well as from Saudi Shiites encouraged by the rise of Iran and its Shiite regional allies. Both sides would seek to exploit the situation, leading to instability in Saudi Arabia and possibly in the region. Iraq itself would watch carefully and perhaps move closer to Tehran.
Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians form another tier. In contrast to the GCC and Yemen, the Levant has witnessed more explicit Saudi-Iranian rivalry and a Saudi effort to roll back Iran’s influence. Yet even within the economic and political strategies pursued by each power on such issues as Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian question, there have been nuanced “rules of the game” that tended to dampen sectarian strife and that may now be rejected.

Lebanon may fall into violence with the loss of the “Abdullah factor” and Syria will be more able to pursue its independent regional agenda. Turkey, under the neo-Ottomanist themes that are emerging in Ankara, will likely try to solidify its reach into Saudi Arabia’s domain. Egypt, which is facing a potential succession crisis itself, will watch for signs that the Saudi succession is smooth and observe how the Saudi example may be used in Egypt.

The United States, the United Kingdom and other European states as well as Russia, China, Pakistan and India – the outer core from Riyadh’s point of view – will be watching for any changes in the kingdom that could affect their strategic relations. These touch on counterterrorism policy, energy, arms purchases and training programs, and religious Daawa activities that will likely need to be reviewed.

Overall, several factors will come into play that all of the above countries will be watching closely. Primarily, what type of relationships will emerging Saudi princes have with the aforementioned players and issues? A secondary issue is the WikiLeaks episode and the fall-out from the release of American diplomatic cables. Third are the regional crises and conflicts, notably those involving the Sunni-Shiite divide as well as the eventuality of either attacking Iran over its nuclear weapons program or, alternatively, living with a nuclear Iran.

Continuity in strategic ramifications seems to have been the norm in the past. But Saudi leaders who may be in the line of succession will react and be emboldened by evolving threats, developments and machinations in an increasingly complex Middle Eastern neighborhood and challenging world. In the past few years, the old pan-Arab discourse of “rejection” and “confrontation” has shifted toward the vocabulary of “engagement”: with Israel, with old Arab rivals and, on occasion, with Iran as a form of containment. This may all be rejected during and after Saudi succession.

Theodore Karasik is director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter that publishes commentaries on Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.

Jordan Denounces Muslim Brotherhood's Fatwa Against Afghan Role

By Suha Philip Ma'ayeh
This article was published in The National (UAE) on 18/12/2010

AMMAN - Jordan's government body for issuing religious edicts has moved to reaffirm its authority and denounced a fatwa from the Muslim Brotherhood which criticised the kingdom's role in assisting US and Nato troops in Afghanistan.

The department of Ifta issued a statement saying it was the only body in the country authorised to issue fatwas after the Brotherhood's offshoot and the country's main opposition, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), on Sunday banned Muslims from joining non-Muslims in their military presence in Afghanistan. The Jordanian government described the fatwa as "offensive".

"We are the only party to issue edicts on public matters. Nobody asked us to issue a fatwa," the Ifta department said on Thursday.

Jordan, a US ally, has for years maintained silence over its role in Afghanistan. But last year the extent of its involvement was revealed when one of its security agents was killed in a suicide bombing that also killed seven CIA operatives in a military base in Afghanistan.

The Ifta department highlighted the Jordanian army's role in providing help and medical aid in disaster and war-torn areas. It said "no party has the right to question that role".

The government has acknowledged that Jordan operates a field hospital in Afghanistan, but it remains unclear how many Jordanian troops are stationed there.

The fatwa, posted on the IAF's website, said: "Joining the allied forces in Afghanistan and other countries is considered assisting non-Muslims in their aggression against Muslims. This is haram and a [form of] oppression."

The fatwa considered "those who support the Americans and the allied forces in fighting the Muslims, non-Muslims".

The edict seemed to have struck a nerve because it came from IAF religious scholars, said Fouad Hussein, an independent analyst specialising in Islamic movements, and "therefore, it gives it a religious flavour rather than a political one".

It is also came amid growing tensions between the Islamists and the government after the IAF boycotted last month's parliamentary elections to protest against a new electoral law they said was designed to deprive them of votes. They also complained about a gradual loss of democratic gains and civil rights.

"It seems the IAF's fatwa was intended to provoke the government," Mr Hussein said.
Last week, Ayman Safadi, the deputy prime minister and the government's spokesman, defended the army's role in Afghanistan.

"Jordan is proud of the role played by the armed forces and all other security agencies to help our brothers and stand by them, whether in Gaza or Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Arab and Muslim worlds," the state-run Petra News agency quoted him as saying last week.

"Jordan will continue to help and stand by all brothers, including the Afghan people, to surmount challenges, and will do [the] utmost to protect Jordan's security and stability from anyone and anywhere."

How Arab Governments Tried To Silence Wikileaks

An appetite for state secrets led to bans on western newspapers and hacked news websites across the Middle East

By Ian Black
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 17/12/2010

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali
Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali: The website of a Lebanese newspaper that published US cables released by WikiLeaks about the president's nepotism came under cyber-attack. Photograph: AP
WikiLeaks may be breaking new ground to promote freedom of information by releasing leaked US diplomatic cables, but Arab governments have been resorting to old tricks to ensure that nothing too damaging reaches their subjects.

Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have all tried to stem the flow of Wiki-revelations, whether the subject is corruption, authoritarianism or simply the embarrassment of having private exchanges with American interlocutors enter the public domain.

There is certainly an appetite for reading state secrets.

Stories about the business interests of the king of Morocco and the nepotism of the unpopular president of Tunisia – both countries normally attract little interest in Britain - generated heavy traffic on the Guardian website.

But Le Monde, whose Francophone audience cares far more about the Maghreb, found its print edition banned from Morocco.

Spain's El Pais, another of the five media partners in the WikiLeaks enterprise, was banned too. So was Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the independent London-based pan-Arab daily which has been following up on the stories from the start.

Elaph, a Saudi-run website, was mysteriously hacked when it ran a piece about King Abdullah's sensational calls on the US to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme.

Lebanon's Al-Akhbar , a leftist and pro-Hizbullah paper, pulled off quite a trick: it somehow obtained unauthorised leaks from the WikiLeaks cache, posting 250 US cables from eight Arab countries on its website – only to find that it was cyber-attacked (and replaced by a shimmering pink Saudi girl chat room) when it published one of two devastatingly frank documents about President Ben Ali of Tunisia, who reinforced his country's reputation as the most internet-unfriendly in the region. "This is a professional job," said publisher Hassan Khalil, "not the work of some geek sitting in his bedroom."

In Arab countries where the media is state-controlled and even privately owned outlets exercise self-censorship to stay within well-defined red lines, outright censorship is usually a last resort.
So in Egypt, for example, there was little coverage of WikiLeaked material about the presidential succession, the role of the army and Hosni Mubarak's hostility to Hamas – all highly sensitive issues, though the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm did run some cables that were passed on by Al-Akhbar in Beirut.

In Syria, where newspapers are state-controlled, and the only privately owned paper is owned by a wealthy and powerful regime crony, one official insisted there was nothing discomfiting in WikiLeaks because "what we say behind closed doors is exactly the same as what we advocate publicly".

That's true enough when it comes to fierce hostility to any criticism of Syria's domestic affairs and its support for the "resistance" in Lebanon and Palestine. But the cables did show President Bashar al-Assad bluntly denying all knowledge of Scud missile deliveries to Hezbollah in the face of what the Americans called "disturbing and weighty evidence to the contrary".

Pro-western Jordan escaped serious embarrassment but Yemen's government faced awkward questions in parliament about its private admission of lying about US air strikes against al-Qaida – as well as concern that President Ali Abdullah Saleh's fondness for whisky would give ammunition to his Islamist critics. No one knew quite what to make of a document showing he had asked the Saudi air force to target the HQ of a senior Yemeni army commander.

Overall, Arab reactions to the WikiLeaks flood have been a mixture of the dismissive and the fascinated.

Some wondered why there are so few damaging revelations about Israel – giving rise to at least one conspiracy theory about collusion between Julian Assange and Binyamin Netanyahu. Others were disgusted if not really surprised at evidence of double-talk by the leaders who are quoted in the cables.

In many cases, it is striking to see the contrast between well-informed, warts-and-all American assessments of the Arab autocracies and the limited efforts made by the US to promote democracy and human rights.

Standing back to survey the big picture as the WikiLeaks effect fades in the Middle East, there are two other striking conclusions: one is the enormous scale of the US effort to contain Iran and its friends. The other – related – one is the sheer intimacy of US links to Israel.

The much-remarked dearth of documents about the Palestinian issue reflects still relatively low US priorities, a lack of contact with Hamas-ruled Gaza, and ties with Israel that are conducted through secure defence and intelligence channels or directly with the White House.

The US embassy in Tel Aviv is an inadequate prism through which to view a genuinely special relationship. No wonder that Netanyahu, unlike many Arab leaders, hasn't been too bothered by what WikiLeaks told us.

Two States, No Solutions

Barack Obama says the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is a threat to the United States' national security. But is he acting like it is?

By James Traub 

This article was published in Foreign Policy on 17/12/2010 

Last weekend I was in Abu Dhabi, where I teach a class on U.S. foreign policy, and I was asked to do a Q&A on the Barack Obama administration's Middle East policy. Preparing myself, I knew what I wanted to say about Iran, and Iraq, and elections in Egypt. But I was flummoxed on the "peace process." The process had just ground to a halt with the administration's decision to abandon the mortifying effort to bribe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into adopting the very modest gesture of a 90-day freeze on settlements. I always try to challenge my audience's assumptions. But if my Emirati listeners felt that Israeli intransigence had driven the Palestinians to despair of the possibility of a two-state solution, I had nothing to say in response -- except that internal Palestinian divisions had made the problem worse.

It was a friendly audience -- this was Abu Dhabi, not Cairo. But afterward I was asked, "How can President Obama permit this? Can't he put pressure on the Israelis?" I thought: What's the right answer to this question? Is it: "He tried, but not hard enough, and then he gave up"? Or is it: "No, like in Afghanistan and Iraq, he's found that he has less leverage than he thought"?

You can make a reasonable argument that Obama has done about as well as he could with the hand he was dealt in Iran, in Iraq, and even in Afghanistan (though this last case has become harder and harder to make). You can't make this argument in regard to the peace process, where the administration has in effect admitted defeat, giving up hope for promoting direct talks between the two sides in favor of "parallel" talks, with an American mediator shuttling back and forth between capitals. Although this will remove the impediment of a settlement freeze Israel declined to accept, it will require compromises on underlying issues which neither side seems prepared to make, and offers accordingly little prospect of success. At the same time, Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Gen. David Petraeus have stated publicly that the ongoing failure of the peace process constitutes a threat to American national security. The despair the Palestinians now feel, and the anger among broader Arab publics, is very dangerous for the United States. Not only al Qaeda, but Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the anger in the Islamic world over the plight of the Palestinians

The White House has a number of potential alternatives, which I'll come to in a moment; the problem is that the Palestinians don't. I asked Rami Khouri, a Palestinian-American intellectual who directs a public policy institute at the American University in Beirut, what he felt Palestinians could or should do at this point. "There's zero leverage on our side," he said. "If this completely fails, I think the likelihood is you're going to get intense pressure within Palestinian society for a reconfigured politics -- maybe a national unity government, maybe a reactivation of the PLO, maybe resistance through peaceful means or military means."

As yet, there are no signs of a return to violence in the West Bank, only scattered talk of civil disobedience. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas fears that violence would discredit his own government and strengthen Hamas. As for the proposed "national unity" government, Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Social Science Research in Ramallah, told me that Abbas views reconciling with Hamas as tantamount to cohabitating with a wolf. "Fatah and Hamas perceive as each other as the most significant threat they confront," says Shakiki.  But how long can Abbas and his government survive rising public anger and disillusionment? This, in fact, is the problem with Thomas Friedman's recent suggestion that the best way for the United States to advance the cause of peace at this moment of stalemate is to "just get out of the picture" and force both sides to contemplate the nightmare scenarios before them. For the Netanyahu administration, any nightmare scenario appears to lie in a future beyond the prime minister's own political horizon; the status quo is fine. But it is precisely this prospect which will increase the pressure for resistance inside the Palestinian territories.

Abbas doesn't want to be "reconfigured" out of power. He will probably continue to build the institutions of Palestinian statehood, which Washington has encouraged and Israel has tolerated. Perhaps the Obama administration can press Tel Aviv to advance that project with more cooperation on security issues: fewer checkpoints and greater ease of movement. But Abbas's goal is to execute an end-run on the failed peace process by gaining unilateral recognition for Palestine's statehood. Brazil and Argentina have recently granted such recognition, though the European Union has said that it would do so only when "appropriate." This does, indeed, sound like a real form of leverage, though the state for which Abbas will be seeking recognition will remain strictly hypothetical until Palestine and Israel can agree on its borders. The real goal would be to gradually "delegitimize" what the Palestinians view as Israel's illegal occupation of its territories.

Indeed, international delegitimation may be the most powerful weapon the Palestinians have. The West Bank leadership will keep raising accusations that Israel is violating international law, whether through its blockade of Gaza or its commando raid last May on the flotilla seeking to break the blockade, in the hopes of shifting global public opinion and thus raising the pressure on Israel. Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University and a pronounced skeptic of the peace process, suggests that the "South Africanization of Israel, if coupled with a domestic nonviolent campaign," might make the status quo far less acceptable to Israelis.

Israel, of course, has been living with delegitimation for a long time, and is prepared to keep doing so. But is the Obama administration prepared to continue acting as Israel's sole bulwark against the world? Officials have steadfastly defended Israel from criticism and backed off the demand for a settlement freeze, even as their own frustration has mounted. Netanyahu has now killed Plan A. Plan B, the parallel talks, will finally allow the administration to put its own proposals for borders and perhaps the other "final-status" issues on the table. Maybe something will come of that; but it's unlikely. The two sides are becoming less, not more, prepared to make painful sacrifices.

The Netanyahu government has gotten very deft at stringing Washington along without explicitly saying no. What if that happens again with the parallel talks? Is the Obama administration prepared to do something that would put real pressure on Tel Aviv? The answer is almost certainly no. There are no signs that Clinton or others are leaning in this direction, and with an incoming Congress even more primal in its support for Israel than the current one, the White House is unlikely to risk the political costs of tightening the screws on Israel. And yet Israel's intransigence ensures that the "new beginning" with the Middle East that Obama famously promised in his Cairo speech of June 2009 will not happen, with all the attendant consequences for America's standing in the region. Is that really acceptable?

If the White House fears the consequences of Palestinian efforts at applying leverage, whether through violence or civil disobedience or "South Africanization," then it must find leverage of its own. Certainly, it has a lot more sticks and carrots than the Palestinians do. Should the administration begin to apply conditions to U.S. aid, as the blogger M. J. Rosenberg recently proposed? Should it open up channels with Hamas, as others suggest? Should it stop automatically rushing to Israel's side every time its ally is accused of violating international law? Far less controversially, what about going public with a proposed map of the two states, either directly or through the medium of the United Nations? Both the Netanyahu government and Hamas would be likely to reject the proposal, but it might galvanize publics on both sides, thus strengthening Abbas's hand and weakening Netanyahu's.

If the Obama administration really believes that the impasse in the Middle East is a national security threat for the United States, than Obama will have to mobilize American public opinion behind whatever action he chooses to take. He will have to explain that this is not a question of pitting American interests against Israeli ones, but of acting in a way that ensures the long-time security of both states. In the Cairo speech, he eloquently addressed the hopes of the Middle East. Now he must face the equally difficult, and equally crucial, task of addressing the public at home.

Progress In Afghanistan, With Caveats

By David Ignatius from Zhari, Afghanistan
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 17/12/2010

Visiting areas that until recently were Taliban strongholds, you can see the gains that President Obama described Thursday - and also why they remain, in his words, "fragile and reversible."

Here's what progress looks like for Casey Johnson, a civilian aid worker in the district where insurgent leader Mohammad Omar once led a mosque. Now that Taliban fighters have been cleared, Johnson can go "outside the wire" to the district council office and listen to residents' grievances and requests about such matters as land disputes. He can help Afghan officials organize a district "shura," or local council, that perhaps can solve problems.

And here's the fragility: The Afghans don't trust the Americans or the Afghan government yet. They supported the Taliban for years because it provided a kind of rough justice and security, and they don't know if the new power structure will last. They fear the return of Taliban fighters who just a few days ago detonated a massive bomb nearby that killed six U.S. soldiers.

"People are waiting, they're on the fence," says Johnson. "Their question is, 'Will you still be here next spring and summer when the Taliban come back?' "

Zhari lies to the west of Kandahar, in what's probably the decisive battleground of the war. It was cleared by Canadian troops in 2006, but the Taliban came back strong - which explains why residents are skeptical about the new American surge.

The Afghan government presence has been corrupt or nonexistent. As a State Department official here puts it, Zhari has "broken politics" - a description that sadly fits most of the country under the presidency of Hamid Karzai. Local farmers think about change in very practical terms, he says. "Do people go to Taliban courts for justice or do they come to government courts? Do they trust the police for security or the Taliban?"

Even a few months ago, many experts doubted that better governance was possible here. The local power brokers, such as Kandahar kingpin Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother, were corrupt and incompetent. Reform may still be mission impossible, but with the Taliban on the run, some Zhari residents have decided to give it a try.

Last week, protesters armed with picks and shovels demanded the removal of a corrupt police official who was running a camp for war refugees north of town. He's out now. About 70 farmers attended a training session at a new government agriculture center and went home with gift bags of farming gear.

The best news is that about 80 people showed up Monday for the first meeting of the shura despite the assassination last week of one of the organizers. Will people keep coming back for more meetings despite the intimidation? That will be the measure of future progress.

Visiting with American soldiers here Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned that success "isn't going to happen overnight." But the fact that he can even visit a base that a few months ago was under regular mortar fire tells you that something has changed.

The awkward balance - of better security but governance structures that may be fatally weak - was evident in Marja, a district in Helmand province that has been a case study of the difficulties of the Afghanistan war. The area was cleared last February by U.S. Marines with much fanfare and talk about installing "government in a box." Ten months later, security is finally getting better, but there's still more box than government.

Violence is down. But many positions in the district government are empty. And the Afghan army, which is supposed to take over from U.S. forces, is still shaky, operating at only about half its authorized strength. The problem is structural: Afghan battalion commanders pay superiors to get their posts and then are paid for authorized troop levels. They hire fewer soldiers and pocket the difference. That's unfortunately a model of how much of Afghanistan works. The power brokers profit from underperformance.

"Our [local] governor needs a complete staff," says Lt. Col. James Fullwood, who commands the Marines in the area surrounding Marja.

President Obama says that the measure of success in Afghanistan is that he can stick to his schedule and begin withdrawing U.S. troops and transferring responsibility to the Afghans next July. That part still sounds like wishful thinking, given the mixed picture. There's progress, but as the president rightly said, it's still very frail.

60% Of The Lebanese And 40% of Shiites Support The Choice Of Justice

By Raghida Dergham
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 17/12/2010

New York-Two noteworthy reports were published over the past two weeks by each of the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the International Peace Institute (IPI). Both deserve our attention and close examination of the meaning of the message each of them bears. Under the title “Trial by Fire: The Politics of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon”, the ICG report recommends bargains to leap over justice under the pretext of preserving stability in Lebanon. It suggests “compromises” and “scenarios” aimed at evasion, within the Security Council and through a trial in absentia of those against whom the indictment would be issued on charges of having been actively involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his 22 companions. This report, which was edited and prepared primarily by Peter Harling, who is permanently based in Damascus and holds the position of “Director of the Iraq, Syria and Lebanon Project” in the International Crisis Group, mentions Syria more than it does Lebanon, and makes use of an unacceptable sectarian and provocative language. For example, in pointing to Hezbollah’s threats of undermining stability in case an indictment is issued against party members, the report states that “the Shiite movement, having warned of catastrophe, can ill afford to do nothing”, and that current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, “having taken the helm of the Sunni community, would pay a heavy price for turning his back on the murder of the man who was both his father and that community’s pre-eminent leader”. The ICG thus recommends a “compromise that [would] distanc[e] Lebanon somewhat from the STL”, and striking bargains at the expense of justice and the STL, on the basis that the goal is “to ensure the Lebanese people do not emerge [from this crisis] as the biggest losers of all”, in the words of Robert Malley, the ICG Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa. Yet the majority of the Lebanese people, according to the IPI report, which includes a public opinion poll, support the STL in a proportion of three fifths, with 60 percent of the Lebanese wanting to move forward towards justice regardless of the consequences. Also noteworthy is the fact that, according to the poll, 40 percent of Lebanon’s Shiites support moving forward towards justice. This bears important indications, since such a rate of support for the Special Tribunal and for justice comes in spite of Hezbollah’s opposition to the STL and its threats against the tribunal’s decisions. Also noteworthy is what the poll revealed in terms of criticism by the Lebanese of Hezbollah’s attacks against the STL being coupled with disappointment and a loss of illusions of trust in the Lebanese government, as the poll reflected dissatisfaction with current Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Indeed, despite the fact that 63 percent have a favorable opinion of him personally, only 36 percent say that he is doing a good job as Prime Minister, while the rest expressed dissatisfaction with his performance. If new elections were held today, the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri would obtain a mere 29 percent of votes, according to the poll which was not limited to public opinion in Lebanon, but also included Palestine and Israel, in turn bringing noteworthy surprises. Most prominently, two thirds of Palestinians expressed their trust in both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, not just in the West Bank but also in Gaza. The poll also showed that Palestinians were less pessimistic about their future than the Lebanese. Israelis have increased their approval of their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the incident of humanitarian ships headed to Gaza, which brought international condemnation of Israel after civilians were killed on the ship which Israeli forces raided, killing 9 activists. Also noteworthy is the fact that Israelis are opposed to the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers complete recognition and coexistence with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied territories on the basis of the 1967 borders, because most of them have not been informed of its content and do not know what it offers the Israelis, as was stated by Craig Charney, who supervised the Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli poll, and found many surprises. Yet the greater surprise came in the form of the ICG report, due to its bias and its disparaging justice publicly and openly.

The new President of the International Crisis Group (ICG) is Canadian Louise Arbour, who had previously assumed the position of Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to which she was succeeded by Serge Brammertz, who had previously headed the UN Investigation Commission into the assassination of Rafic Hariri. Arbour had also previously held the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights.

For Louise Arbour to approve of the report prepared by Peter Harling from Damascus, calling for submitting to Hezbollah’s threats under the pretext of concern to save Lebanon, in fact places Arbour under a microscope and focuses the spotlight of suspicion on her. Indeed, Arbour is supposed to be the first to raise the banner of international justice and the principle of non-impunity, and yet she in this report ratifies undermining both the banner and the principle. Her only justification would be that there is no other choice.

Who placed the International Crisis Group in charge of the world’s future? And who appointed it to speak in the name of the peoples it is analyzing, or at least to ignore what 60 percent of them want?

The ICG has several times in the past few years suffered from reports that were characterized by bias in favor of Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, in favor of Hezbollah at the expense of the Lebanese state, and in favor of Syria in a stereotypical fashion, the basic cause of which might be that Peter Harling is permanently based in Damascus, so that he may always inform us of his bias. This time Harling, as well as Malley and Arbour, have gone beyond bias and published a report that is prejudiced and biased, but also one that ignores the Lebanese – or half of them at least – and insults them.

Indeed, even in its introduction, the report deals with the events of May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah turned its weapons against the Lebanese interior and sought after military control of Beirut, as if they were merely another round of regular protests in the streets. That is a very dangerous misrepresentation, and it in fact represents falsification of history. Furthermore, the report is rife with a language used by the opposition in Lebanon, as it uses for example the expression “so-called majority”, exactly as prescribed by the language of Hezbollah and other opposition leaders.
The report’s executive summary contains infringements that should be rejected by someone like Louise Arbour in particular. Indeed, the STL has not issued any rulings, neither condemning Hezbollah nor clearing Syria. Yet the report reads like a Damascus press statement, as it includes anticipation of STL decisions and what are nearly accusations of treason against those who had in the past accused Syria.

The report claims, for example, that Lebanese and international players reached “consensus (…) on a narrowly defined judicial process, resting on the assumption that Syria was guilty, and that its guilt could and would be established beyond doubt”, reaching the conclusion that “to invest such high expectations in the investigation was both slightly unfair and exceedingly optimistic. They rested on a series of misjudgements – about the effective balance of power in Lebanon [and] about Syria’s ability to withstand pressure and isolation”… The report then adds that “Syria withdrew from Lebanon and, far from being ostracised, was being courted again, notably by France but also, to a lesser degree, the US”.

Such talk anticipates the STL, and is political par excellence. The worst part of it is what the ICG recommends in terms of submitting to Hezbollah’s threats with astounding bargains that consecrate impunity, obstruct justice and intimate to the local players ideas and suggestions for manipulating the work of the STL and driving Lebanon into the meanders of undermining its sovereignty, its self-respect and its future at the Security Council.

Indeed, the Harling-Malley report approved by Louise Arbour spoke of “a deal [that] would not be neat, and (…) would not be pretty”, on the basis of scenarios of the following type: “Lebanon could request the Security Council to halt STL activities once indictments [against Hezbollah members] have been issued, for the sake of domestic stability”; or “[Lebanon] could condition further cooperation with the tribunal on its taking certain steps”, such as “[for example] foregoing the option of trials in absentia [and] agreeing to look into the so-called false witnesses affair”; or Lebanon could continue its cooperation with the STL, coupled with “express[ing] serious doubts as to the basis of its findings”, provided this is “accompanied by a collective agreement to allow the prime minister to govern more effectively – something he systematically has been prevented from doing”.

This is a political discourse which the International Crisis Group was entrusted to voice from where Peter Harling is based, while it would have been more useful for it to preserve some of its credibility and not to go into the meanders of politicians’ bargains at the expense of justice and of the principle of ending impunity, which by the way meets with the report’s sarcasm.

Indeed, what is required is not allowing Saad Hariri to govern more effectively in exchange for aborting justice and accountability for political assassinations – assassinations that will be repeated if are struck the bargains promoted by the ICG, which pretended to forget that 34 political assassinations had taken place in Lebanon since the assassination of Rafic Hariri, not just the one that targeted the current Prime Minister’s father. Indeed, the proposed formula holds an insult not only to the Lebanese, international justice, the Security Council and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, but also to Saad Hariri himself as well as to the martyrs who fell in political assassinations.

Let Louise Arbour then take note of the results of the poll conducted by the International Peace Institute, so that she may truly get to know what revolves in the minds of the Lebanese, before assuming, along with her associates, that the interest of stability in Lebanon resides in submitting to Hezbollah’s threats, or employing the methods of Syrian skill with means and ways of submitting and subjecting. Indeed, Damascus behaves as is in its interest, but there is great suspicion today over what interest the ICG holds in promoting scenarios of leaping over justice, the STL and the principle of non-impunity.

In Iran: A Taboo Is Broken

By Amir Tahiri
This article was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 17/12/2010

Is opposition to the rule of a mullah in Iran tantamount to the denial of God? This is the question that is peppering political and religious debate in Iran these days.
The debate was launched last week by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati during a conference to define Islam. Friday Prayer Leader for Tehran, Jannati, also holds the politically more important post of Secretary of the Council of the Custodian of the Constitution (CCC) and is, thus, one of the most powerful mullahs within the regime.

The CCC consists of six mullahs and six 'common people' jurists and holds the right of veto over legislation passed by the Islamic Majlis, Iran's ersatz parliament.
Addressing the conference, Jannati claimed that on '"rare occasions" some "special personalities" among the clergy would be chosen by "Divine Power" to rule over the lesser mortals.
Jannati also claimed that the system of Walayat al-Faqih, or rule by the theologian, was "a fundamental principle of Islam."
"Rejecting Walayat al-Faqih means rejecting God Himself," the ayatollah claimed. "We must consider Walayat al-Faqih one of God's edicts on earth."
During the conference, the message was further hammered in by another mullah, Ali Sa'idi, who represents the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
"Today, there could be no proper Islam without absolute obedience to the Supreme Guide" Sa'idi said. "Those clerics who stand against the Supreme Guide must be pushed off the stage."

Earlier, another mullah, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, had claimed that "compared to the gift of Walayat al-Faqih, all of God's beneficence is as of naught."
The attempt to define, or rather redefine, Islam came in response to another debate provoked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his philosophical guru Esfandiar Masha'i who have been trying to market their "Iranian school" as a new brand, much to the chagrin of pro-regime mullahs.

A new poster that declares "the Iranian school is the way to progress and salvation" has just been put up in many government offices throughout the country.
As defined by Masha'i, the so-called "Iranian school" is a mixture of values espoused by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, and the teachings of Islam which appeared over 1000 years later. Masha'i demands that Cyrus be acknowledged as being equal to the Semitic prophets mentioned in the Koran and the Bible.
Debating what is Islam and what is not may sound strange in a country whose rulers, since 1979, have claimed to represent "the truest of Islamic systems." It may be a sign that the ruling establishment, which consists of several thousand mullahs and their allies within the military and security services, is experiencing a loss of confidence.

Last year's split over the presidential election and the continued tensions caused by workers' strikes and growing middle class discontent have sapped the regime's claim of legitimacy. At the same time, there are signs that at least part of the clergy may be prepared to openly reject Khamenei's claim of being the Supreme Leader of Islam throughout the world.
Partly to address that problem, Khamenei has made an unusual visit to Qom, the "holy" city south of Tehran where many of the better known mullahs reside. However, the visit seems to have highlighted the split.
In one meeting, the "Supreme Guide" was faced with students of theology chanting "Where is your thesis of Ijtihad?"
In Shi'ism, no mullah could use the title of ayatollah without publishing an ijtihad thesis approved by at least one grand ayatollah. Khamenei, whose supporters call him ayatollah, has not done so.

Periodically, government-controlled media have published reports that Khamenei would soon publish his thesis, known as the "risala al-marjaiyah", promising that it will be "the greatest text of Islam in centuries."

Some prominent ayatollahs of Qom have already come close to challenging Khamenei's position.
Grand Ayatollah Asadallah Bayat Zanjani has rejected the claim that denying Walayat al-Faqih is tantamount to abandoning Islam. Grand Ayatollah Yussuf San'ei, for his part, sees the present system as "despotism using Islam as a pretext." Grand Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani has gone further by asserting that mullahs should not assume political positions. All three refused Khamenei's demand for a meeting during his recent visit to Qom.
Even Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Dast-Gheib, a member of the regime's nomenclature, has expressed concern that attempts at pushing Khamenei's cult of personality beyond certain limits could undermine the "Islamic system" created by the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.
Trying to heal the rift within the establishment, Khamenei has called on his allies among the mullahs to seek "compromises." Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani has been charged with reconciling the political factions. At the same time, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, who is also a major businessman, has been ordered to try to bridge the gap with dissident clerics who regard Walayat al-Faqih as an innovation (bid'aa) by Khomeini.
The ruling mullahs, however, face graver threats to their rule.
With the Iraqi Shi'ite "holy" city of Najaf no longer closed by Saddam Hussein's despotic rule, some Iranians are looking to its clergy for guidance on religious matters. Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani is emerging as the primus inter pares of the Shi'ite clergy, thus reviving an old tradition. For the past 300 years all but one of the grand marja'a al-taqlid of shi'ism have been based in Najaf. (The exception was the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Borujerdi who lived in Qom.) Even when Khomeini was alive and in power in Tehran most believing Iranians regarded the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassem Mussawi Kho'i as the top marja'a.

Of even greater concern to the ruling mullahs is the fact that half of Iran's population of 75 million were not born when Khomeini seized power. Another quarter are too young to remember the murderous mullah. Thus, for two- thirds of Iran's population, the spectacle of mullahs fighting over what is and what is not Islam is either irrelevant or pathetic. A majority of Iranians are more interested in education, job opportunities, social security, and the rule of law than esoteric debates among often semi-literate mullahs.
Soheil Soheili, a mullah in charge of religious places in Iran, complains that Iranians no loner build mosques. In a speech in Tehran last Sunday he claimed that the country needed at least 72,000 new mosques. Before the revolution, private citizens financed the building of mosques. Now, private citizens don't build mosques. Soheili insisted that the government should foot the bill.
Before Khomeini seized power, mullahs enjoyed some popularity thanks to their tacit or open hostility towards the ruling establishment.
By seizing power, Khomeini transformed the mullahs into the ruling establishment thus depriving them of their political raison d'etre.
By seizing power, the mullahs lost the people. By opposing the present regime, some mullahs are trying to recover at least part of that lost position. However, regardless of how Islam is defined and redefined next in Tehran, they may find that it is already too late. A taboo has been broken.