Saturday, May 7, 2011

Yemen's Women: Out From The Shadows

Despite great risks to them in a sexist society, thousands of women have stood up to demonstrate against President Saleh

By Nadya Khalife
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 07/05/2011

Women march against President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on 16 April
Women join a protest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on 16 April. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Reuters
"Security forces in civilian clothes have threatened me with the jambiyya, not just during demonstrations, but everywhere I go," the protest leader and journalist Tawakkol Karman told me, describing the traditional dagger that Yemeni men wear strapped to their waists.

In the past, any mention of Yemen's women in the news media has usually been about two issues, neither of them positive. The first is that they are more likely than most women in the Middle East to die in childbirth, and the second that they are among the least empowered women in the world.

The second assumption has recently been shattered by the uprisings in Yemen.

Since the beginning of the protests, women like Karman have come out in great numbers to demonstrate against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled in Yemen for more than 30 years. They have stood side by side with tens of thousands of Yemeni men to fill the city squares of Sana'a, Ta'izz, Aden, and other major cities, demanding his resignation.

Such has been the power of their presence that Saleh felt obliged to denounce women who join the protests as un-Islamic for demonstrating alongside men.

The protests have given women a chance to express their own concerns about their day-to-day struggles with the Saleh government, including their subordinate legal status as perpetual minors who require male guardians and the continued prevalence of harmful practices like child marriage.

Women have held their own demonstrations, but have also protested with their male counterparts, calling for democracy. Their courage has come at a cost: security forces and pro-government plain-clothes operators have threatened, verbally assaulted and attacked women protesters. At least 109 peaceful demonstrators or bystanders in Yemen have been killed since daily protests began in mid-February, and several hundred injured.

To be sure, many more male protesters have been targeted, but women in Yemen are particularly vulnerable to such attacks. Yemen is a traditional society, where women generally have low social status and are excluded from public life.

In 2010 a Freedom House report on women in the Middle East highlighted Yemen as one of only three countries in the region that had failed to make significant progress on women's rights in the preceding five years. Women have never held more than three seats out of 301 in the lower house of parliament. They do not have the same citizenship rights as men. And domestic violence is still not a criminal offence. Women's rights activists often face harassment.

In this context, many women are fearful about the consequences of participating in the uprising against Saleh. One young activist in Sana'a, who did not want to be named, told me she is one of several women she knows who don't tell their families they are going to the protests. She said the families have forbidden them from demonstrating, partly because they are worried about the women's safety, and partly because they know their reputations and honour are at stake.

The fears about their safety are not unfounded. On 27 April, unknown gunmen on motorcycles fired shots into the air outside the house of a prominent female activist, Bushra al-Maqtari, in Ta'izz, a city south of the capital. Maqtari said she had previously received anonymous verbal threats.

Another female activist from Ta'izz, a lawyer who also did not want to be named, told me about an incident she witnessed on 16 March when she went to pick up her daughters from school. She said she saw a group of men armed with sticks and stones harassing and throwing stones at several 16- and 17-year-old girls, to stop them marching to Tahrir (Freedom) Square in Ta'izz, the city's main protest area. They told the girls their parents did not know how to raise them, and that by going to the square, they were inviting sexual harassment. The men injured 14 of the girls.

These attacks, along with state-sponsored discrimination and their families' shame, are not making it easy on Yemeni women who are speaking out. But for now, they continue to stand up for their rights. Two days after Saleh's statement denouncing female activists as un-Islamic, thousands took to the streets again, determined to show that they will not be silenced or sent home.

"Should We Hit Gaddafi Next?"

The US president acted bravely in choosing to strike at Osama bin Laden. Will he act on behalf of the people of Libya next? Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz makes the case for further decisive action in the Middle East, in the current issue of Newsweek.

Article - Wolfowitz nw boldness Former President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on March 25, 2003 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: R.D. Ward Department of Defense / Getty Images)

Symbolism matters, and the symbolism of Osama bin Laden's death was not what his followers might have expected of him. His was not a glorious death.

It was not for lack of trying that bin Laden was not killed or captured much sooner. But, in one sense, it is good that he lived so long—long enough to see the defeat of so many of his satanic dreams. Most of all, there is profound justice in the fact that he had a chance before he died to witness the overthrow of so many Arab dictators, overthrown not by his followers but by men and women who were lovers of freedom (and of Facebook).

One of the most extraordinary features of the protests that have swept the Muslim world has been the courage of the demonstrators. The great bravery of Tunisians and Egyptians has been exceeded by that of the Libyans and Syrians, while Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi have joined the ranks of bin Laden as killers of the defenseless.

One of bin Laden's followers wrote that the trouble with democracy is that it encourages people to love life too much and fear death, and to become unwilling to perform jihad. What bin Laden and that writer fail to understand is that there are people who do love life but who love freedom more and are willing to risk their lives for it. It is that love of life—not a hope for paradise—that motivates the brave Americans who have defended their country through the generations. And we now see the same brave love of freedom demonstrated by thousands of Arabs.

When Mahdi Ziu, a 48-year-old Libyan oil executive and the father of two daughters, filled a car with propane canisters and detonated himself in it, he did so not to kill innocents but to save people by blowing open the gates of the Katiba military barracks in Benghazi and help the anti-Gaddafi rebellion in that city. “He said everyone should fight for the revolution,” his daughter Zuhur said. “He wasn't an extreme man. He didn't like politics. But he was ready to do something. We didn't know it would be that.” Unlike bin Laden, Ziu died a hero, as have so many others in places like Misrata and Daraa.

It is much too early to tell where the change that sweeps the Arab world will end. But if one had to pick a “strong horse” (to use bin Laden's own metaphor) it would be the Arab freedom fighters, not his jihadists.

President Obama's decision to order the strike on bin Laden also required courage; not the bravery of the battlefield but the courage to live with the consequences of a risky decision. Since the mission went well, he is being justly praised, and his political standing has risen. But there can never be a guarantee that a mission of this kind will not go tragically wrong. We are all the beneficiaries of Obama's decision, but in the end the buck stops at one man's desk.

For some reason, the president has so far held back from other decisions that would involve no risk to American lives but that could save the lives of Libyans that we have committed to protect—like recognizing the provisional government in Benghazi, providing them with military assistance, shutting down the propaganda broadcasts of the Gaddafi regime. None of these actions would guarantee an opposition victory, but they would reduce the risks of a prolonged stalemate that would cost more Libyan lives and increase the risk that the U.S. would eventually be drawn in deeper than we need to be. For the sake of the Libyan people and for America's reputation in the Arab world, one has to hope that President Obama has learned the value of boldness.

Wolfowitz, a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense, is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Libya Strikes Fuel Supply In City Held By Rebels

Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Crews fought Saturday to keep a huge fire from engulfing other fuel tanks in Misurata after rockets struck its fuel terminal.
At least one rocket hit a set of three mammoth tanks, which ruptured and burst into a fireball. The fire settled into a leaping blaze that towered overheard, visible for miles. Its glow illuminated the eastern section of the city throughout the night. Residents woke to a thick, drifting cloud of black smoke.

The attack on the terminal was another escalation against the besieged city, and the second pinpoint attack by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces in two nights.

Residents woke Friday to the news that Misurata’s port, its only lifeline to the outside world, had been peppered with antitank land mines.

At the fuel terminal, a small contingent of firefighters worked throughout the night and the day trying to contain the fire, which had destroyed all three storage tanks in one section of the terminal, but had not spread.

“We want to protect the other tanks from exploding,” said Mufta Youssef, one of the firefighters, after backing away from the containers’ blackened remains for a break from the heat.

No one was wounded in the attack or the firefighting effort, officials said.

The tanks contained diesel fuel and gasoline — each roughly 6,000 cubic meters, or 1.5 million gallons — said Muftah Bazina, the terminal’s director.

The effect on the city’s energy supply was not immediately apparent. Misurata has been cut off from new sources of fuel since the uprising against the Qaddafi government began in February. But it began the siege with large reservoirs of diesel fuel and gasoline, and so far there have not been shortages.

Several other fuel tanks remained intact, and terminal officials said the rebels’ de facto government would not disclose which tanks were full and which were not, nor would they make any public statements about how much fuel remained in the city.

“The exact information is a secret,” Mr. Bazina said.

He was willing to characterize the situation only in general terms. “We do have fuel,” he said. “But we do not have enough.”

For weeks, the lines at the few gas stations in the city have often stretched to hundreds of cars. But residents and officials have said the lines are caused in part by the small number of stations, which are often closed — not to any shortage of gasoline. Gas prices have remained low, indicating sufficient supply.

Supplies of pressurized cooking fuel, however, recently ran out.

The Qaddafi government has tried striking the terminal with rocket barrages at least three times in the past three weeks, officials said, and in previous attacks had destroyed an administrative building and a warehouse. The attack early Saturday was the first time a fuel storage tank had been hit.

Mr. Bazina and other officials at the port said at least one of the tanks was struck by at least one rocket, and the resulting explosion and heat ignited the others.

The impact craters and twisted remains of other ground-to-ground rockets were visible around the remaining tanks.

The tail section of one variant of a Grad rocket — a cold war-era munitions made in the 1980s in what is now Slovakia, and one of the most common fired on this city — was visibly stuck in the soil near the fire.

Workers at the terminal had also collected two others of the same variant of rocket, including one that had sailed just over another tank and struck the ground beside it without exploding.

Iraq: Negotiating Kirkuk

By Denise Natali
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 06/05/2011

As the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq draws nearer, concerns about conflict along the trigger line in the oil-rich, ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk have increased. Many worry that the absence of American-led joint patrols will create a security vacuum that encourages communal violence and terrorism. Others link the withdrawal to what they call ‘democratic negligence,' arguing for greater international efforts to resolve ethnic tensions in Kirkuk before the drawdown. These concerns are not unfounded; however, aside from a limited, Baghdad-approved U.S. military presence, the Kirkuk issue should be left for Iraqis to resolve. New realities in post-Saddam Iraq have increased the costs for everyone of a protracted Kirkuk conflict while creating opportunities for deal-making between Baghdad and Arbil.

Viewed from an ethnic and sectarian lens, the prospects of a post-withdrawal Kirkuk appear dismal. Since the creation of the federal Iraqi state in 2005, Arab-Kurdish relations in Kirkuk city have become openly strained. The Iraqi government has failed to provide security and services to Kirkuk residents while refusing to implement key articles of the constitution regarding Kirkuk's territorial boundaries and jurisdiction. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has fueled tensions by resettling Kurdish populations to Kirkuk, controlling the provincial council, and mobilizing its militia in the city center. Left unchecked, these trends could reinforce and entrench local and national power struggles.

Yet, the Kirkuk problem today is not the same one it was five years ago. Alongside tensions over territory and identity, it has become intertwined with energy demands, petroleum-based development and commercial interests that require security and inter-regional concessions. With plans to quadruple the country's oil revenues over the next five years, the central government needs a relatively stable Kirkuk -- and Iraq -- to continue exporting approximately 700,000 bpd of crude oil via the strategic pipeline that runs through the province northward to Turkish ports. The effort to secure the Kirkuk line comes at a time when the country's infrastructure needs repair, more expansive export routes are unavailable, attacks on pipelines are prevalent, and Iran is threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping.

The KRG has even more at stake in maintaining a stable Kirkuk and positive relations with Baghdad. No longer victims of Saddam Hussein or a repressive central government, the Kurds have gained large freedoms to develop their northern region within the federal Iraqi state. With multi-million dollar contracts with international companies to honor, the KRG needs a stable region to assure potential investors that it is still the "other Iraq." Such stability has become particularly important as Kurdish leaders try to prevent the ongoing unrest in their region from spilling-over into Kirkuk and from being fuelled by tensions in Kirkuk.

Kurdish officials have economic incentives to negotiate Kirkuk, at least in the short and medium term. Despite the large autonomy it has realized since 2005, the KRG does not have the political authority to export its crude without Baghdad's approval. The dozens of lucrative contracts it has signed with international oil companies still remain in legal limbo, even if Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has promised Kurdish leaders he would recognize the contracts and has made an initial cost payment (although not profits) to Arbil. Further, the Kurdistan region depends upon the central government for nearly all its revenues -- some U.S. $10 billion dollars in 2010. Protracted conflict with Baghdad over Kirkuk could jeopardize a critically important source of funds for the KRG, cause financial loss for leading Kurdish elites and their associated parties, and undermine the northern region's international business credibility.

Keeping the peace in Kirkuk is also important to the government of Turkey, a strategic partner of both Baghdad and Arbil. In addition to safeguarding Turcoman rights, Turkey has significant vested commercial interests in its southern neighbor. The recent visit to Iraq by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his accompanying business delegation underlined the importance of Iraq and the Kurdistan region to Turkey. Last year, bilateral trade was valued at U.S. $7.5 million, most of which passed through or remained in the Kurdish transit zone. Turkey expects this amount to increase to $10 billion in 2011. With such high financial and political stakes, it is unlikely that Kurdish president Mas'ud Barzani would antagonize Turkey by pressing for an immediate territorial negotiation of Kirkuk, despite public assurances that it is an essential part of Kurdish identity.

These realities have implications for U.S. policy. Even if Baghdad extends the Status of Forces Agreement, a U.S. military presence should not be used to cushion Iraqis from reaching political decisions on Kirkuk or other sensitive issues. Nor should the United States or international organizations be engaged in engineering a census or staging provincial council elections in Kirkuk. Such measures are more likely to stir ethnic tensions than alleviate them, particularly since they would appear to protect the interests of the Kurds and not the larger Iraqi populations.

This policy option certainly lacks the confidence-building measures and milestones that institution builders would like to set for Iraq. It also runs the risk of instability and more political bottlenecks in Baghdad and Arbil. Yet, because the Kirkuk problem lies outside the province and in regional capitals, and because intra-communal relations in Iraq extend beyond identity politics, concessions among Arabs, Turcoman and Kurds have a chance of being made as part of other pressing socio-economic demands. It is only when Iraqi leaders tire of conflict and its associated losses that they can sit down and bargain with each other. The initial outcomes may appear politically unpalatable; however, normalization of Kirkuk will have a better chance of being realized as a by-product of internal disputes and deal-making than as part of artificial and externally-imposed political exercises.

Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University and author of The Kurdish-Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010). The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Truth And Reconciliation? It Won't Happen In Syria

By Robert Fisk 
This commentary was published in The Independent on 07/05/2011 

If you want to understand the cruel tragedy of Syria, there are two books you must read: Nikolaos van Dam's The Struggle for Power in Syria and, of course, Patrick Seale's biography Assad.

Van Dam was an ambassador in Damascus and his study of the Baath party was so accurate – albeit deeply critical – that all party members in Syria were urged to read it. But this week, for the first time, Lebanese journalist Ziad Majed brought together three of Syria's finest academics-in-exile to discuss the uprising in their native country, and their insight is as frightening as it is undoubtedly true.
According to historian Farouk Mardam-Bey, for example, Syria is "a tribal regime, which by being a kind of mafia clan and by exercising the cult of personality, can be compared to the Libyan regime", which can never reform itself because reform will bring about the collapse of the Baath party which will always ferociously defend itself. "It has placed itself – politically and juridically – upon a war footing," Mardam-Bey says of its struggle with Israel, "without the slightest intention of actually going to war."

Burhan Ghalioun makes the point that "the existence of the regime is like an invasion of the state, a colonisation of society" where "hundreds of intellectuals are forbidden to travel, 150,000 have gone into exile and 17,000 have either disappeared or been imprisoned for expressing their opinion... It is impossible (for President Bashar al-Assad) to say (like Mubarak and Ben Ali) 'I will not prolong or renew my mandate' like other presidents have pretended to do – because Syria is, for Assad, his private family property, the word 'country' is not part of the vocabulary."
Assad has opened Koranic schools and "Bashar's recent proposal to create a religious Islamist satellite television channel as a 'gift' to Sheikh Mohamed Said Ramadan Buti (who supports the regime) shows very clearly his support for an obscurantist Islam which is loyal to the regime" as part of a plan, according to Ghalioun, since "the regime is gambling on sectarian discord to raise the spectre of war and chaos if the protests continue". In Aleppo and Damascus, Mardam-Bey insists very convincingly, the Assad regime wants to persuade the large Christian communities that "if the regime falls, it will be replaced by an extremist Islamist regime and that their fate will be the same as that as the Christians of Iraq".

In holding on to power, literary critic Subhi Hadidi said rather archly, the Assad regime has divided Syrians into three categories: "The first belongs to those who are too preoccupied in earning their daily bread to involve themselves in any political activity. The second group are the greedy whose loyalty is easy to buy and who can be brought on board and corrupted in a huge network of 'clientelism'. The third are intellectuals and activist opponents of the regime who are regarded as 'imbeciles who believe in principles'."
Yet none of these men reflect upon the frightfulness of the killings in Syria and the immense difficulties of reuniting a post-Assad country after civil war. By chance, the anniversary of the start of Lebanon's own 15-year civil war, which killed up to 200,000 people, was marked last month with an Amnesty report which estimated that 17,000 men, women and children had simply disappeared in the conflict, recalling repeated promises by the post-war Lebanese authorities to investigate their fate, none of which were honoured.

A 1991 Lebanese police report did in fact give an exact figure for those who must surely be in their graves – 17,415 – but this has been disputed. Most of these people were kidnapped by Muslim and Christian militias, but some families have related how their relatives were taken by Israeli soldiers in 1982 and by armed men who transferred them to Syria, never to be seen again. This was the Syria of Bashar's father Hafez, and Bashar did himself permit the setting up of a joint Lebanese-Syrian committee in 2005 to investigate what happened to those Lebanese who were abducted to Damascus. It has met 30 times. Needless to say, its conclusions – if any – have never been made public.
Even today, in the centre of Beirut, relatives of the disappeared camp out next to photographs of sons and husbands and fathers who vanished more than 35 years ago, clinging to a frayed thread of hope, permanent victims of the civil war. Neil Sammonds, who conducted the research for Amnesty, told me Lebanon "doesn't carry out its obligations properly and it hasn't done for years. The judicial authorities are unable or unwilling to do their job. Only when they do will we be able to find out the truth".

But I fear they never will do their job. Opening mass graves in a sectarian society is a very dangerous act – the Yugoslavs did this in a search for Second World War massacre victims, and within months the Balkan wars flamed back into life with mass killing, concentration camp atrocities and ethnic cleansing. Truth and reconciliation committees do not exist in Lebanon – nor will they, I fear, in Syria – and 20 years after the Lebanese authorities agreed to produce a national school history book to include the civil war, it does not exist. An extraordinary 67 per cent of Lebanese students go to private schools (D Cameron, please note), yet they prefer to teach "safe history" like the French revolution. If Lebanese children want to read of their fathers' and mothers' 1975-1990 golgotha, they often have to buy British and French books about the civil war.
The Syrian academics also warned that Syria's conflict could cross into northern Lebanon where Sunnis live next to Alawites, the Shia sect to which the Assads belong. Touring northern Lebanon this week, I saw posters outside Sunni Muslim homes, saying "Assad – you won't escape us". Not something their Alawite neighbours are likely to enjoy reading. But I will end by returning to a bloody if ultimately hopeful prediction of Subhi Hadidi. " The oppression of the (Assad) regime will be terrible. But the courage of the people in the street and the overall struggle – despite the difficulties they encounter – along with the very youth of the protesters, will lead the Syrian people to follow them all the way to freedom."

 I'm not so sure. In the wreckage of post-Assad Syria – if this time come to pass – it will be difficult to reunite Syrians amid the dried blood of their mass graves. Try writing their new history books for them.

In Praise Of Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation

Stuart Reigeluth writes: Supporting the new Palestinian government would set a precedent for co-existence across the Middle East
This commentary was published in The Gulf Times on 07/05/2011

Palestinians celebrate the reconciliation agreement between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas
Image Credit: Reuters
  • Palestinians celebrate the reconciliation agreement between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas during a rally in Gaza City on Wednesday.

This is it for Palestine. The next months will determine if Palestine joins the family of modern nation-states or remains an amputated and neglected by-product of European colonialism. This is the month for US President Barack Obama to endorse Palestine by supporting the Fatah-Hamas national unity government.
Unlike anywhere else in the Arab-Muslim world, opposing national political movements hammered out an agreement that would effectually create a power-sharing formula for the benefit of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank — and eventually in Occupied Jerusalem.

This should not be seen as a great victory for the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) — as most foreign observers would conclude — but rather as a necessity amongst the rival Palestinian factions that have been pitted against each other for years.
The inter-Palestinian rivalry has proven detrimental for the Palestinian people who have suffered the long occupation in the West Bank and medieval seclusion in the Gaza Strip, while also playing into the divide-and-rule game imposed by the Israelis — and the US.

Establishing a national coalition agenda that western-influenced or religious-oriented parties agree upon is simply the biggest paradox in the Middle East: subjected to military occupation and without a sovereign state to speak of, the Palestinians are at the avant-garde of Arab nation-building.
This has happened before. In February 2007, Saudi Arabia hosted and promoted the Makkah Accord between Fatah and Hamas. However, the national unity government was short-lived. As usual, other foreign power played a role in scuttling the agreement.

The US was training pro-Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas outside of Amman and sent them back to the West Bank to prepare their take-over of the Gaza Strip. This all happened with the complicity of Israel that permitted the Palestinian forces to deploy. Fatah's Mohammad Dahlan helped orchestrate the failed deployment to the Gaza borders. Hamas responded by repelling the advancing Presidential Guards but also by annulling any dissent from Fatah forces within the Strip in June 2007. Hamas was brutal.
Fatah learned its lesson and has been quite ever since in Gaza. In the West Bank, however, Fatah has been actively assisted by Israel in detaining Hamas officials and supporters in their homes and streets, but this almost seems normal now in the pathetic state of affairs in Palestine. The Europeans were not helpful in suspending their civilian border management mission at the Rafah border in response to the Hamas ‘take-over'. Since June 2007, the Egyptian side was only forced open with the exploding of the Israeli-built wall in January 2008.

Opening borders
The Egyptians play a pivotal role in the inter-Palestinian negotiations. The conniving former Egypt spy chief Omar Sulaiman was instrumental in helping to reach different agreements in the past and Egypt is now moving to open its Sinai border with Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood connection is clear and present.

The Fatah-Hamas accord is about who controls the internal Palestinian security apparatus. If the Palestinians can present a moderate Fatah front to Israel and the United States, then the accord will take effect. An EU presence is no longer necessary; Egyptian participation is crucial.
Opening its borders with Gaza will demonstrate that the movement of people and goods can occur without endorsing an Islamist agenda. Cairo can show that bilateral and transnational relations can go into effect in a positive and non-belligerent manner. Eventually Israel will have to do the same. Hamas has not come this far simply to release full control of Gaza. Hamas will share Gaza, but Hamas will control the streets and security system. Fatah knows this and is willing to deploy its western-trained police forces to patrol the borders of Gaza. They will buffer Israel and Hamas.

For Hamas, this buffer can last for as long as the parties like. Hamas has time on its side. With the changing tides in the Middle East, the Islamist penchant will become only more pronounced and parties prone to endorse western initiatives will become less relevant.
Regional dynamics are changing so quickly that the Quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia) for the Middle East Peace Process will become meaningless — unless Obama can make a historical pronouncement this month to encourage Netanyahu to recognise a Palestinian state.

Obama can say that the US will endorse Palestinian independence within the 1967 borders led by a national coalition government comprising of Fatah and Hamas without harming Israel's security — Fatah can negotiate with Israel as usual and coordinate security with Hamas. Obama's words to Netanyahu should be in praise of Palestinian reconciliation. Supporting the Fatah-Hamas government would set a precedent for coexistence across the Middle East. This is good for Israel too and good for peace.
Stuart Reigeluth is managing editor of REVOLVE magazine.

Iraq: Al Sadr Walks Fine Line

The Economist (07/05/2011) writes: He was widely regarded as someone who performed astutely in the violent game of Iraqi politics. But he has still not revealed his latest goals and allegiances

Every year, on the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the streets of Iraq fill with people baying for American troops to go. This year, the most virulent demands came from the Shiite cleric, Moqtada Al Sadr, who said he would revive his Mahdi Army militias if American troops stayed on after the agreed deadline for their withdrawal at the end of this year.
His militias killed thousands of Iraqis and western soldiers in 2006 and 2007, the bloodiest years of the American occupation, so the prospect of their resurgence frightens Iraqis (especially Sunnis) and westerners alike. Most of the militiamen are still armed and zealous but ill-trained; today's spruced-up Iraqi security forces could probably crush them. Still, whatever their military deficiencies, the Sadrists have grown into Iraq's most visible and disciplined social, political and religious movement. They have regained much of their power.

Part of a revered dynasty of Shiite religious leaders who fought against Saddam Hussain, Al Sadr has a cachet among Iraq's millions of poor Shiites, especially in the slums of eastern Baghdad. Since he decided in 2009 to focus on politics as violence ebbed, his Ahrar party has been well groomed in the political arts. After Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister, sent in regular Iraqi forces to crush the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra in 2008, Al Sadr repaired to the safety of Iran. But he retained his influence from afar. Indeed, Al Maliki would not have kept his post as prime minister after last year's inconclusive election without Al Sadr's endorsement. When Al Sadr was displeased by Al Maliki, he teamed up with Iraq's leading secular politician, Eyad Allawi, whom many Sunnis support, to criticise the government.
In any case, it is social and religious issues that most preoccupy Al Sadr. A new movement in his thrall, called the Munasirun (supporters), has recently paraded itself in Baghdad and Basra. It claims already to have thousands of members, including some who are not Shiites and others — it says — who are not even Muslim. It plans to open offices across the country, focusing on religious education and charity. Al Sadr has told all his politicians to spend a day sweeping the streets to stay in touch with the poor. Sadrist charity is extensive and well-publicised. The group is fond of arranging opinion polls. Some results are unsurprising; for instance, Iraqis want better public services. But as a public-relations exercise the polls make the movement look democratic and efficient.

Cosiness with Iran
Al Sadr has also sought to distance himself from the Mahdi Army's reputation for violence. Former militiamen showing promise as future leaders undergo a programme of religious study. Last month Al Sadr declared: "I rejected [the militias'] brutal and sectarian acts and they are not linked to the [violent] resistance in any way." That seems to contradict his threats to reinstate them. Al Sadr is walking a fine line between keeping up his fiercely anti-western stance and becoming an influential political and religious leader who does not rely on his old militias. But he still boasts of his small, highly trained ‘Promised Day' brigades, who are said to be ready to hit the Americans at any moment.

 For their part, the Americans are still nervous about Al Sadr's increasing cosiness with Iran. His Mahdi Army used to flaunt nationalist credentials in an effort not to be viewed as being in Iran's pocket. But during Al Sadr's time in Iran, where he has been studying in Qom, he renewed his friendship with the clerics. The deal he struck last year to keep Al Maliki in power may have been brokered by them. And Al Sadr, like the Iranian authorities, has vociferously backed Bahrain's Shiite opposition. On the other hand, Sadrists in Baghdad said that they backed the Green Movement in Iran, which rebelled against the regime there in 2009.
He was also widely regarded as someone who performed astutely in the violent game of Iraqi politics. But he has still not revealed his latest goals and allegiances. After two years in exile, Al Sadr has made only two high-profile appearances in Iraq to address his followers. A spokesman said he was testing to see whether Al Maliki or the Americans would arrest him. But Al Sadr has recently spent more time in Iraq, mainly in Najaf. As the Americans draw down their numbers, his supporters may see a lot more of him.

A Concert For Middle East peace

By Dr Cesar Chelala from New York
This commentary was published in The Gulf Times on 07/05/2011
He has been called “a real Jew hater” and a “real anti-semite” by former Israel’s minister of education Limor Livnat. However, few musicians have done as much for peace between Israelis and Palestinians as Daniel Barenboim, the noted Argentine-born Israeli orchestra conductor. It is only through efforts like his that peace can eventually be reached in the Middle East.

On May 3, Barenboim conducted a concert in the Gaza Strip. The orchestra, that had musicians from European countries such as Germany, Austria, France and Italy, played the concert “…as a sign of our solidarity and friendship with the civil society of Gaza”, said Barenboim in a statement released by the United Nations, which co-ordinated the concert.   

In 1999, together with the Palestinian-American professor Edward Said, one of the most prominent Palestinian intellectuals worldwide, Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, a youth orchestra based in Sevilla, Spain, with musicians from countries in the Middle East of Egyptian, Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian background.

Talking to The Guardian about the ensemble Barenboim said: “The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know “the other”, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. 

“I am not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and I am not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward (Said) died a few years ago -…create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.” 

Barenboim is certainly no stranger to controversy. On July 7, 2001, Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in part of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, despite the fact that Wagner’s music had been unofficially taboo in Israel’s concert halls. 

Originally, Barenboim had been scheduled to perform the first act of Die Walküre. However, facing strong opposition from Israel Festival’s Public Advisory board, which included some Holocaust survivors, Barenboim agreed to substitute Wagner’s music by music by Robert Schumann and Igor Stravinsky. 

At the end of the concert he regretted his initial decision and decided to play Wagner as an encore, inviting those who opposed it to leave the concert hall. After s strong debate, 50 attendees walked out and 1,000 remained, applauding enthusiastically after the performance. 

Barenboim has performed before in Palestinian territory. In 1999, he performed at Palestinian Birzeit University. In January of 2008, after a concert in Ramallah, Barenboim accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship, a decision strongly criticised by Israeli authorities.  

Following these events, the leader of the Shas party stated that Barenboim should be stripped of his Israeli citizenship.

Barenboim, however, declared that it was a big honour for him to have been given the Palestinian passport.

Barenboim’s visit to Gaza had been conducted in clear defiance of Israeli law, which bans Israeli citizens from visiting the Strip. With this concert, Barenboim and his orchestra had done more than bring hope to hundreds of thousands of people who felt neglected by the world. They have proved the power of music to triumph over war, the power of music to exalt life.  

Dr Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.

Yemen And GCC Initiative

By Labeed Abdal   
This commentary was published in The Arab Times on 07/06/2011 

Under the GCC ‘transition of power’ initiative on solving the crisis in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh should resign within one month and he must hand over power to his deputy within a week after signing the initiative. A government with the ability to strengthen national unity will be formed by members of the incumbent govt, the opposition and other political groups to be followed by its oath taking in the presence of Saleh.

However in terms of timing and content, the initiative came too late. It was presented only after the people of Yemen took to the streets to demand for change and the alleged killing of several young protesters by Saleh’s forces, thereby raising doubts on the legitimacy of the regime.

Without a doubt, there are similarities between the tense situation in Yemen and that of Egypt before the downfall of the previous regime. Reforms are no longer beneficial when the regime loses the sense of justice and respect for the people, especially their fundamental right to express their views freely.

Moreover, the regime reached a point of no return when it lost the people’s trust.

The US Administration And The Uprising Of The Arabs

By Raghida Dergham from New York 
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 06/05/2011 

The surprises of 2011 will not stop with the death of Osama bin Laden, having started with the ‘Arab Street’ crushing all expectations wagering on its deep slumber. Instead, the Arab Street rose up and rebelled, forcing all countries to return to the blackboard, to draft policies that would seriously take into account a ‘public opinion’ that now imposes its views, and that is not merely a ‘street’ or a ‘herd’ anymore. The phenomenon known today as the ‘Arab Spring’ started completely independent from the doctrine of destruction embraced by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. As a result, this doctrine suffered a great decline in the Arab mind, and as regards the generation of change which elected building as a doctrine instead of destruction. Osama bin Laden was then killed, earning President Barack Obama international recognition as a man of determination, resolve, and a man of action, who must be reckoned with and seriously taken into every account.

The fact that the uprising of the Arab peoples has coincided with the decline of al-Qaeda and the elimination of its infamous leader, as well as with the US President regaining his momentum and power of initiative, represents yet another moment that carries the seeds for more surprises. Such surprises are not far from the priorities of the Americans, Russians, Chinese and Europeans, and mostly involve the Middle East and the Gulf. In truth, decision-makers in those countries are studying the meaning of this moment and are exploring how to exploit it and benefit from it on the long term. Washington hence is very preoccupied these days.

The Obama administration wants to exploit the momentum of resolve and determination that the US President revived in the mind of the international community, as a serious and capable man, and it is now inevitable to be extremely calculating when dealing with him. The world today will listen more carefully than it did when Barack Obama vacillated between hesitation and retreat, or when he seemed incapable of delivering on his pledges and promises.

With regard to Afghanistan, the death of Osama bin Laden may prove to be the spark needed to implement an American exit strategy. The US President, who is seeking a second term, does not want to remain weighed down by what is now known as ‘Obama’s war’ in Afghanistan. Striking a near fatal blow at al-Qaeda by liquidating its leader, will thus no doubt help justify a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and will give the case for an exit strategy a big boost.

Meanwhile, Pakistan will not become an ‘enemy’ to the US administration, no matter how strong public criticism of Pakistan and voices demanding it be held to account are, as Pakistan is being accused of harboring bin Laden near a military zone, whether with prior knowledge or inadvertently. The fact of the matter is that while the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is complex, it is not frail. It is a strategic relationship that goes beyond the war against extremism and terrorism, especially at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.

There are clear concerns regarding the fact that greater numbers of Pakistanis are joining the ranks of al-Qaeda and similar groups, at the level of senior positions. There is talk of a Pakistani man from Kashmir taking over leadership of Al-Qaeda, both effectively and on the field, and not Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who is considered to be Bin Laden’s successor during the current transitional phase. There is also concern resulting from Pakistan’s military, security and intelligence institution having possibly been infiltrated by extremists and terrorists from the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The death of Osama Bin Laden removes the Arab face from the leadership of terrorism, and this is very valuable for the Arab Spring. The Arabs have paid the highest price for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which brought them nothing good. In taking revenge for the attacks of 9/11, former President George W. Bush launched the “War on Terror” and its doctrine, in the name of which he invaded and occupied Iraq. Arab youths became the subject of questioning and interrogation at every station and airport. The Palestinians paid an exorbitant price because al-Qaeda hijacked their cause and used it to serve its own narrow considerations, contributing to branding the Palestinians with terrorism and allowing Israel to benefit from this to mobilize its forces and reduce the Palestinian issue to one of counter-terrorism.

Nor did Osama Bin Laden spare the Arabs from his destructive attacks in their homeland. However, this backfired against him and against al-Qaeda, and led the majority of the Arabs to become partners in combating the terrorism of al-Qaeda and its ilk.

The scene today is contrary to what was desired by Osama Bin Laden’s destructive streak that he sought to unleash on the Arab region. The Arab Spring has completely ignored the doctrine of al-Qaeda which calls for the hatred of America and for violence and destruction as a means of inducing change. The Arab Spring has chosen instead, to rise against the regimes that have oppressed it as well as against al-Qaeda, which had set itself up as the only alternative to those regimes. This was the first staggering blow to al-Qaeda, and it came from Tunisia and Egypt, and from Libya and Syria as well.

The inter-Palestinian reconciliation also represents a strong blow to Osama bin Laden’s doctrine and to his organization. Such reconciliation has come as a result of the climate of change on the Arab scene, stretching from Egypt to Syria. Were it not for the events in Syria, which highlight the weakness of the regime as a result of the protesters’ insistence on change, the Hamas leadership would not have decided that it was time to act and bring the Palestinians together.

And just as Hamas lost hope in Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Palestinian President lost hope in the Obama Administration, and it is this common factor that was decisive in bringing them together.

The US Administration is aware of this, yet it is not clear whether it intends to comply with the incitement to punish the Palestinian Authority because of the reconciliation, or to make use of the momentum of determination and resolve to act independently and implement Obama’s promises. The Obama administration is aware of the possibility of a vacuum occurring that would harm its role in the future, if it were to ignore the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are indications that it realizes that neither the Arab Spring nor the killing of Osama bin Laden will take away the issue from the Arab mind, but perhaps that the opposite would happen. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether the US President will have the boldness to create a surprise when it comes to Israel during an electoral year, but the administration realizes that the old considerations are out of the question when it comes to the new Arab Spring.

In the past, US Administrations used to rely on the authorities in the Arab World to quell the voices of their people, and they used to presume in their strategies the exclusion of the element of “the street”, being assured of containing it. Today, after the Arab peoples have risen, it has become inevitable for Washington not to be prejudiced, nor to excessively trust its predictions on what Arab public opinion may hold in its pockets. That is why it is being cautious. Thus, the leaders of the US Administration have the following considerations in mind:

* The need for strategies that would support the democratic transitional period, specifically in Tunisia and in Egypt, with economic and trade strategies. This is while insisting on the success of those two experiences, which have arisen from within and represent the absolute response against the discourse of al-Qaeda and the likes of it. In addition, friends in power in Morocco, Jordan and the Gulf, must be enticed, behind the scenes, to adopt reform and change, by taking the initiative, and not by being forced into it.

* Setting down security strategies that would strengthen relations of partnership with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially against Iran, while stressing the necessity of complying with the legitimate demands of people and resorting to political solutions through dialogue, and not through security solutions.

* Encouraging and supporting the role being played by the GCC in Yemen, while being convinced that the GCC initiative attempting to push President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down will succeed.

* Encouraging the role being played by Turkey in both Libya and Syria, knowing that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has demanded that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi step down immediately, after Turkey had put forward an initiative similar to the GCC initiative with Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, this was met with cynicism and rejection by Gaddafi. Indeed, Washington considers that Gaddafi will certainly be driven out, if he does not leave voluntarily, by the military pressures being exerted by the NATO and the financial pressures that prevent the Libyan regime from hiring mercenaries. It also considers Turkey to represent a ‘gauge’ for the situation in Iraq and Syria, and in Iran as well.

* Washington considers that the Syrian regime’s “arrogance” and the Iranian regime’s “conceit” are misleading them into believing that they are above being held to account and to believe that they enjoy extraordinary immunity. The Obama administration admits that it had been slow to deal with the Syrian issue three weeks ago. But today the matter is different, and there have been three developments: first, the fact that Ankara reached important conclusions on the Syrian issue after it tried to convince Damascus of the necessity of anticipating events and the latter paid no heed; second, the fact that Europe is prepared to impose further sanctions and take further measures to isolate the Syrian regime at the international level; and third, the fact that the United States has become convinced that the time has come to act with more resolve by taking measures and public stances at the level of the US President.

In other words, the Obama Administration will move forward with reinforcing and strengthening its core message, which is that the Assad regime “has lost all legitimacy”. It has become convinced that there are many gaps in this regime that can be exploited, by the US taking unilateral measures to remove legitimacy and the cover of protection from Damascus, and by international measures being taken through, for example, the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) next month, which could find its way to the Security Council. This is alongside endorsing the British proposal of having the International Criminal Court (ICC) look into whether the Syrian regime is committing crimes against humanity.

* Lebanon is not on the US Administration’s radar except in terms of developments in Syria and Iran. The leaders of the US Administration consider Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati’s task of forming the government to have become more complicated due to the developments in Syria, and in view of the process taking such a long period of time. Regarding Hezbollah, the strategy it will choose depends on what will happen within Iran. Most likely, according to the American analysis, Hezbollah will not take risks in turbulent times such as these and take over power and the country, but will rather be more cautious.

But this is the time of surprises, and not all of them are of the same kind or go in the same direction, which is why this is also the time to be extra-cautious.

So far, the Arab Spring remains the best of all surprises, having engendered what is new and constructive to replace what is destructive and authoritarian, or what has long been imprisoning Arab history.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Internal Strife Emerges As Tehran Looks Westward

By David Ignatius
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 06/05/2011
When there’s political upheaval in Tehran, it’s often interwoven with the explosive question of possible outreach to the United States. And that may be the case with a recent feud between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The key figure in this dispute is Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff and said to be his choice as successor in the next Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for 2013. In recent months, Mashaei is said to have initiated a series of contacts attempting to open a dialogue with the United States.
This new outreach follows Ahmadinejad’s efforts in 2009 to explore a possible nuclear deal with the West, which were rebuffed by Khamenei. Paradoxically, the hard-line president, notorious for his anti-Israel rhetoric, would also like to take credit for a deal that eases Iran’s isolation and opens the way for greater contact and cooperation with the West.
“He [Ahmadinejad] craves recognition from outside, and Mashaei is his instrument,” says one well-informed Iran analyst.
The political ferment in Tehran is one more sign of the Arab Spring, an earthquake that is shaking the entire Middle East. In this environment, both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei understand that the legitimacy of their increasingly isolated regime is in danger. Ahmadinejad’s circle seems to favor outreach; Khamenei and the clerics want deeper retrenchment.
Sources say Mashaei has sent multiple signals indicating that he wants to meet with American representatives. U.S. officials say there hasn’t been a meeting, and that’s probably because Washington isn’t clear precisely who Mashaei represents or what his agenda for talks might be. Although President Obama has never dropped his offer to talk with Iran, it would be risky for the United States to engage any single faction. That’s likely one explanation for U.S. wariness about Mashaei’s overtures.
“The history of U.S.-Iranian relations is littered with corpses of failed contacts, where the U.S. was talking with a single faction or an intermediary who couldn’t deliver,” says the senior Iran analyst.
Given the widespread rumors about Mashaei’s travels, it is likely that Khamenei and his allies are aware of his efforts to open a channel to Washington. A search of the Iranian press doesn’t yield any hard information about Mashaei’s outreach, but it may help explain the recent attacks by mullahs on him and his patron, Ahmadinejad.
The public turmoil included an unusual warning from Khamenei that he “will never allow deviation in the movement of the Iranian nation” and a chorus of criticism by senior clerics against Ahmadinejad and his allies, who are referred to in the Iranian press as “the perverted team.” In parliament late last month, Speaker Ali Larijani, who is a key Khamenei loyalist, declared, “The perverted group will never succeed!”
Ahmadinejad boycotted cabinet meetings for 10 days last month, and when he returned last weekend, he said in a show of loyalty that he was “ready to die” to defend Khamenei and was “a servant of the political system.” According to Iranian press reports, the president added defensively: “Impeachment requires a reason. What have I done?”
The political battle erupted, according to these reports, after Ahmadinejad and Mashaei attempted to get greater control over the intelligence ministry, prompting the resignation of Heydar Moslehi, its director. But on April 20, Khamenei refused to accept the resignation, and Moslehi was reinstalled — in an unusual public rebuke by the supreme leader of Ahmadinejad.
Mashaei is described as a clever operator who, like Ahmadinejad, mistrusts the clerical establishment. The dislike is mutual. Iranian media have reported that a cleric close to Khamenei named Mojtaba Zolnour argued: “Currently, the actual president is Mashaei. Intervention in the affairs of various ministries and the episode with the Ministry of Intelligence are the result of his intervention. . . . These people do not believe in clerics and Velaayat-e-Faqih [rule by the clergy]. They want Islam without the clergy.”
Mashaei isn’t the only Iranian who has indicated a desire to meet with Americans. Similar signals are said to have come last year from Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a rival of Ahmadinejad who is thought to be close to Khamenei. But this track apparently didn’t lead anywhere.
What’s intriguing is that the battles among Iran’s leaders take place as Muslims from Morocco to Pakistan are questioning their regimes and seeking greater self-determination. The ferment inside Iran may seem different, spoken in the arcane language of Shiite religious politics, but it’s part of the same process.

Syria's Middle Class Can Defeat Bashar Al-Assad

By joining with the discontented poor, middle-class Syrians will tip the balance against Bashar al-Assad's wealthy supporters

By Ahmed Hussein
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 06/05/2011

Protest in Banias, Syria
Syrians protest against the government in Banias, May 2011. Photograph: AP
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the end of January, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad claimed he was immune from the pressures of the pro-democracy revolutions sweeping the Middle East because his regime was "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people". How mistaken he was. The beliefs of the regime and the Syrian people could not be further apart.

Assad thought his people would never take to the streets to demand freedom because his entourage of cronies, those officials around him who benefit from the regime, convinced him that the overwhelming majority of the people supported the president and his government. This was evident in Assad's beaming face when, during his speech to parliament on 30 March, members gave him a standing ovation, recited poems and showered him with praise. He also thought that the opposition to his rule represented nothing but a tiny minority that, as the state security tightened its grip on the people in Syria, would never take action for fear of the hordes of intelligence officers who are stationed all over the country.

But despite the towering wall of fear the regime has been building throughout the past four decades, Assad has lost his bet and has been stripped of his legitimacy by the protesters calling for freedom. And he is fast losing the battle for the people he needs most – the middle class.

From the early days of the uprising, a major split emerged within Syrian society pitting loyalists and revolutionaries against one another, sometimes even dividing families. Those who have supported the revolution with great enthusiasm have done so out of sheer desperation with the state of their daily lives in Syria today. This is the majority of Syrians – poor and oppressed. Those who have supported the regime have done so because the privileges they enjoy depend on the regime surviving. In this camp you have officials close to Assad, senior security and military officers, and their families.

But there is a third group who so far have also supported the regime for fear of an unknown future. These are the middle classes, the people who own businesses and trade. This third group is affected by scenes of Syrian cities turning into military cantons for the first time in our modern history. They have been led to think the demonstrations are a prelude for civil war – another Libya.

Nevertheless, the continual mistakes of the regime have led the middle classes to shift position with each passing day from being silent supporters of the regime to supporters of the revolution. The Syrian government is fumbling, like all governments that faced and are still facing Arab revolutions have done, as they continue to escalate the situation to the extent of waging war on an unarmed population. Think Deraa, al-Rastan, Banias.

The Syrian government imitated the tactics used by other governments to suppress the demonstrations, particularly the methods of the Libyan regime. They used professional snipers who targeted the heads of the demonstrators, using bullets that explode inside the victim's head leaving horrible mutilations, in order to terrorise people. The government also recruited "thugs", pro-regime armed groups that are involved in trafficking of drugs and weapons, to spread chaos and create sectarian strife. Those thugs opened fire on people from speeding cars and motorcycles. They also infiltrated demonstrations to spread provocative sectarian slogans.

The security apparatus is quite used to eliminating anyone who dares to even whisper a word about reform or human rights. Now they see large demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the regime, so they react by attacking hospitals and mosques, killing protesters everywhere and terrorising the entire population. This mess is made worse by the state media, who belong to a prehistoric era. They spread lies that are deeply provocative even to those supporting the regime and they still cannot comprehend what's happening now.

Perhaps some people might wonder what drives demonstrators to the streets despite the threat of death at the hands of security forces. The reason is simply that the Syrian people have come out to tell the world that they will never again be silent about the massacres committed in Deraa or the regime's efforts to starve and terrorise its own people. Syrians will never again be silent about the regime's atrocities committed against its own Syrian brothers. The age of silence is over and the age of freedom has just begun.

This is true citizenship in its noblest form. The western world used to spend millions of dollars in an attempt to promote citizenship – today they ought to learn the values of citizenship from the Syrians and from all the Arabs who sacrificed their lives for the sake of citizenship and humanity.

• This article was commissioned and translated in collaboration with Meedan.

The End Of The “Peace Process”

ByElliott Abrams
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (R) talks with President Mahmoud Abbas (L) during their meeting in Cairo May 4, 2011.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (R) talks with President Mahmoud Abbas (L) during their meeting in Cairo May 4, 2011. (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)

The agreement between Fatah and Hamas marks the end of a long period of cooperation and negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s worth reviewing the recent history briefly. In 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon endorsed the two-state solution and said Palestinians should govern themselves. At a summit meeting in Aqaba, Sharon and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (whom Yasser Arafat was forced to appoint) exchanged words of peace and Abbas explicitly renounced violence as a tool of Palestinian politics. In late 2003 and with more detail in early 2004, Sharon announced that he would pull Israeli settlers and troops out of Gaza and withdraw symbolically from 4 small settlements in the West Bank, and after a long political battle did so in the summer of 2005.

In November 2004 Arafat died and Abbas was chosen as his successor in a free election in January 2005. Negotiations over a final settlement started up again after the Annapois Conference in November 2007, though they ended when Operation Cast Lead began in late 2008 and have never recommenced. Despite the Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007, Israeli-PA cooperation on the ground improved from 2006 right through to 2011, allowing for a significant progress in economic conditions in the West Bank and for considerable security cooperation against terrorist groups including Hamas. Under American training, PA security forces improved greatly in the last several years, just one piece of the institutional progress that has taken place since Salam Fayyad became prime minister in 2007.

In choosing to enter a coalition with Hamas, Abbas is abandoning all the advances made to date and abandoning his own former approach. Cooperation with Israel to improve life in the West Bank and security cooperation against terrorism have now been jettisoned in favor of the appearance of unity. All of Abbas’s past statements about Hamas as his enemy, Fatah’s enemy, and the PA’s enemy have been put aside in an embrace of Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader.  Under the agreement, elections will be held for the PA presidency and parliament, and for the PLO bodies, in one year, and security forces are to be put under one umbrella.

Why now? Why Hamas entered this coalition is easy to explain. Its invaluable support from Syria is as shaky as the Assad regime itself, and its usual opposition to PA elections is softened by the prospect of winning them. Moreover, Hamas has long sought to enter and dominate the PLO but was kept out of it. Abbas’s willingness to let Hamas in is a considerable victory for Hamas.

But why did Abbas do it? Public opinion polls suggest that Palestinians want national unity and reconciliation, so Abbas is playing to the voters. (Whether those voters will be able to distinguish real reconciliation from a façade put up by Hamas and Fatah leaders who hate each other is a different matter.) And Abbas is calling for a September UN vote recognizing an independent Palestinian state, which would be harder to win if the PA manifestly ruled over half the territory only, with Gaza wholly independent. Abbas may also have felt that with polls showing that Hamas is quite unpopular in Gaza and weaker than in 2006, Fatah should be able to win the PA and PLO elections.

As to the meaning of all this for the “peace process,” well…..there is no more “peace process.” Abbas has given up on it, just as he has given up on President Obama. He recently commented to Newsweek that “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.” Abbas is turning instead to internal politics, and his message to us is “Go away and leave me alone. I am finished with peace negotiations for now.”  Of course, as he has promised not to run again in next year’s presidential elections, he himself is presumably finished with them forever. He wants his legacy to be some semblance (no matter how false) of national unity, rather than a difficult and controversial peace agreement with Israel that requires him to make compromises—and be accused of treason by Hamas for each one. In this sense he is casting himself as a transitional leader between Arafat and whatever comes next, a man too weak to lead his people across to the promised land of real national independence.

It remains to be seen how the United States and the EU will react to the new situation. When Hamas won the 2006 elections, the US and EU (with Russian support, briefly) adopted what became known as the Quartet Principles: “It is the view of the Quartet that all members of a future Palestinian Government must be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations….”

Trying to get around the Principles in 2006 and again now, the Palestinian formula is that there will be a non-party technocratic government. That way, they can say Hamas is not actually participating in the PA government—not yet anyway. It is a hollow formula, and not only because it merely delays the problem of Hamas’s role until elections are held. Will “all members” of the new government now truly endorse an absolute end to violence and terror, not simply tactically but morally and permanently?

In his 2003 Aqaba speech, Abbas said “we repeat our renunciation, a renunciation of terror against the Israelis wherever they might be. Such methods are inconsistent with our religious and moral traditions and are dangerous obstacles to the achievement of an independent, sovereign state we seek. These methods also conflict with the kinds of state we wish to build, based on human rights and the rule of law.” Excellent words. Will every new appointee swear to them, even though Hamas obviously rejects them? After all, it is only a month since Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus. And this week, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told Al Jazeera Hamas would never recognize Israel and “the rule of Poles and Ethiopians in their land.” But don’t worry about that, said Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath: “many others agree with us that the old rules of the quartet were not logical, and are not workable.”

Back in 2006 and 2007, it seemed to me the EU would abandon the Quartet Principles if Hamas gave them the slightest pretext—but the Hamas guys did not come through for the eager European diplomats. They wouldn’t move one inch toward the Quartet. Perhaps they will in 2011, in which case Israel will find top-level Hamas representatives being wined and dined in all the capitals of Europe. If not, the EU will likely oppose the PA effort at the UN in September, led by the Germans. For obvious historical reasons and because it is led by a principled person, Germany has already taken a tougher line. When this week President Sarkozy said “If the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of recognition of a Palestinian state,” Chancellor Merkel rejected an appeal from Abbas and said “We do not think that unilateral steps are helpful.”

If the EU does not support the Palestinians in New York come September, the Palestinian effort will likely succeed in winning a majority but fail nevertheless. Because if the new entity does not have EU and US recognition, the Palestinian effort to replace negotiations with Israel by unity between Fatah and Hamas and by unilateral diplomatic moves will have led into a cul de sac. Who cares how Zimbabwe and Venezuela and the Arab League vote, if the United States, the EU, and nations such as Canada and Australia vote against the Palestinian effort or (for those who are afraid to do so) even abstain on it?

What should Netanyahu say when he speaks to a joint session of Congress in a couple of weeks? That Israel wants peace and remains committed to the two-state solution; that it realizes the State of Israel will have to give up some settlements in the Land of Israel, if peace is obtainable; that the refugee problem must indeed be solved, but the solution must be found in Palestine, not in Israel; that the fundamental problem is security, and the continuing refusal by the Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish State; that there can be no return to the 1949 armistice lines; and that anyone who seeks peace must regard the entry of Hamas into the PLO and into the Palestinian Authority as a grim development.

And what of Washington? Due to the deal with Hamas, any hope Israel’s enemies, or its “friends” in Europe, had that President Obama would push Netanyahu into serious concessions when they meet in late May is now gone. I was one of those who, over the past few months, were urging Netanyahu to consider far-reaching steps toward the Palestinians, but that was back in the old days when the PA and Fatah were enemies of Hamas. Such steps are impossible now in both American and Israeli politics. The President would be wise to adopt a new policy now: the goal should be to try to avoid Israeli-Palestinian violence, let the Palestinians vote next year, and then see where we stand. If the President has a second term and the conditions are good he can return to this subject then; for the remainder of his first term it needs to be parked. It is fair for him to ask Netanyahu to avoid provocative actions, such as starting new settlements in the West Bank or announcing large new housing projects in Jerusalem (new projects will be started there, but Israel should seek less rather than more publicity for them).

And the President should tell the Palestinian Authority leadership that we will give it aid to the extent that its officials are committed to the Quartet Principles and continue to fight terror.  Secretary Clinton said on Wednesday that “we are waiting to see the details. We obviously are aware of the announcement in Cairo yesterday. There are many steps that have yet to be undertaken in order to implement the agreement. And we are going to be carefully assessing what this actually means, because there are a number of different potential meanings to it, both on paper and in practice. We’ve made it very clear that we cannot support any government that consists of Hamas unless and until Hamas adopts the Quartet principles. And the Quartet principles have been well known to everyone for a number of years. So we’re going to wait and make our assessment as we actually see what unfolds from this moment on.”

This is not reassuring. The PA will not have “a government that consist of Hamas,” but a non-party technocratic government meant precisely to get around the Quartet Principles. The United States needs to be far clearer: we cannot and will not support any government where Hamas has a real influence and the security forces stop fighting terror. We must certainly not fund such a government, and indeed once Fayyad leaves we should be very wary of the financial practices of the PA. For years Fayyad has resisted Fatah Party efforts—often led by President Abbas—to put corrupt officials into the Finance and other ministries, and this is one reason Fatah leaders dislike him and want him out.

But the critical test will be security work. According to descriptions of the agreement, “Among the first tasks to be tackled is the establishment of a higher security council tasked with examining ways to integrate Hamas and Fatah’s rival security forces and create a ‘professional’ security service. The accord also calls for…the release of a number prisoners held by the rival movements in jails in the West Bank and Gaza.” This suggests an integration of the American-trained security forces with Hamas terrorist forces known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, an end to fighting terror, and the release from prisons of terrorists from Hamas and other groups. If this transpires, it would mean the PA/Fatah leaders are choosing the armed struggle over peace with Israel, and would mean that Hamas will henceforth be the leading Palestinian faction.

Perhaps not; perhaps the West Bank security forces will continue their work, given their long years of war against Hamas. Perhaps this agreement like its predecessor will soon break down, for the Hamas and Fatah leaders have been enemies for decades. Yuval Diskin, who is about to step down as the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and who knows as much about Hamas and Fatah as anyone, said this week “I think the chance of a real reconciliation between the sides over the next two or three years is slim. The signing of the agreement creates a facade of unity, but it is unclear how they will implement the agreement on the ground.” In that sense Secretary Clinton was right to say we need to see what unfolds. But we need to be absolutely clear on the standards we will apply. We do no favor to any Palestinian who really seeks peace, democracy, and independence if we pull our punches when a murderous terrorist group maneuvers to gain power in—and then take power over—all the Palestinian territories.