Monday, June 29, 2009

America's Role in the Settlements

In yesterday's Washington Post, Israeli-American peace activist Ronit Avni outlines the role Americans play in funding and encouraging Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Defense Minister Barak in Washington to discuss settlements

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is set to meet with the U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in Washington today to discuss Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A source of contention between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the issue of settlements has kept the two nations in a stalemate with regard to aligning policy and promoting peace in the region. Although the Obama administration has been calling for a complete freeze on illegal settlement construction, the right-wing Israeli government has yet to make such a compromise.

Barak is expected to bring to the table a proposal which will call for a temporary construction freeze of three to six months, during which time the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors will be engaged and regional dialogue can continue. Although this plan falls short of what the Obama administration had hoped for, it is the biggest compromise that the Israeli government has made yet and offers the promise of further negotiation and peace talks. Because of the unpopularity of the compromise among Israelis, as of yet no government officials have issued statements on the proposed construction halt. Additionally, this meeting comes on the heels of an announcement that Barak approved the construction of fifty new houses in the settlement of Adam to house evacuees of other West Bank settlements which are being closed down. It is unclear as of yet whether this circumstance will diminish the Defense Minister's credibility.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Settlements First

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been faced with mounting international pressure to answer President Obama’s call to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza. French Prime Minister Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi echoed these concerns when they met with Netanyahu this past week. And today the G8 and the Quartet of the Middle East peace negotiators will meet with the prime minister and insist on a settlement freeze and a renewed effort towards negotiations.

PM Sarkozy told Netanyahu during their meeting at the Elysee Palace, "You must conduct confidence building measures and the first must be the absolute freeze on construction in the settlements." Israeli settlements are illegal and dangerous to the peace-making process between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Israel agreed to stop building settlements in the Oslo Accord in 1993. Yet, since then there has been more than a 100% increase in the number of settlers in Gaza and the West Bank. 58% of the settlement growth occurred in the fourteen years after Oslo. Two-hundred and eighty thousand settlements stand in the way of any possible peace agreements. Until there is a resolution for dealing with this issue, there can be no productive talks about borders, demilitarization, or refugees.

AIPAC Distortions

Last night AIPAC hosted an event for Washington interns in which they distorted some basic information about the situation in the Middle East. Director Howard Kohr gave a brief speech and then answered questions from the overwhelmingly pro-Israel crowd. He said repeatedly that Iran was definitely on a "quest for nuclear weapons." However, the consensus view of the 16 agencies of the US Intelligence Community in their most recent National Intelligence Estimate on the topic of Iranian nuclear weapons concluded that Iran had halted their weapons program. There has been no publicly available information to suggest this view has changed. All we have is the "gut feeling" of IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei that Iran "would like to have" nuclear weapons. We have all seen where unproven gut feelings regarding alleged weapons programs got us in Iraq. This is all part of the Israeli whispering campaign on Iran that CNI has documented.

Kohr's distortions did not end there. He went on to say that the Arabs generally "do not seek compromise." This is in spite of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered normalization of ties with the entire Arab League in exchange for a withdrawal by Israel to her 1967 borders. Israel made no serious move to work toward a compromise with the Arab League over this, preferring to continue her West Bank land grab. Kohr went on to state that he thought the restrictions on the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state were reasonable and realistic. He compared them to the constitutional restrictions the US imposed on Germany and Japan after those countries' aggression and defeat in WWII. Leaving aside the fact that Palestinians have never committed anything like the atrocities and aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the comparison is false: both Germany and Japan can enter into defense treaties, control their own airspace and borders, and maintain their own militaries. Netanyahu's future Palestinian "state" would be able to to nothing of the sort.

Events on the ground and the status of Iran

By Shane McCarthy, CNI Staff Writer

As the situation in Iran continues to intensify, divisions have become deeper not only between the hard-line Islamists and protestors, but also between different members of the Clerical elite and other ruling factions. As the situation continues to escalate and the number of dead and injured continues to rise, there is growing international attention and concern about not just outcomes for the Iranian people, but also future implications for the entire Middle East and global community. With foreign governments (including the United States) becoming more and more involved in this uprising, the stakes will continue to increase exponentially.

Despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s repeated statements that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the victor in a fair election, evidence continues to pour in that states otherwise. In addition to the hushed discrepancies which have been picked up by most outside observers and news agencies, new evidence is now coming out directly from the top. Iran’s senior election panel has disclosed that in roughly fifty cities the number of votes cast exceeded the number of voters in the area. Although this fact is a major admission on the part of the government, it does not necessarily imply illegality due to the fractured nature of Iranian voting laws (Iranian citizens can vote in places other than where they are registered). However, the final election outcome still rests in the hands of the Ayatollah and the Guardian Council, and a final results announcement is to be made early next week. Judging by their recent statements, there is no reason to believe that the Council will acknowledge any degree of election fraud.

Reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s opposition to the election results has seemingly become more revolutionary with the government’s crackdown on demonstrations. It is widely agreed upon that Mousavi has no intention of sparking an uprising or bringing down the government. However, he has started to openly defy Khomenei’s call for an end to protest. Mousavi has appeared at several rallies calling for a continuation of the demonstrations and maintains that the election was stolen from him. He is supported by government elite and fellow former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani is also the head of the Assembly of Experts, a government council with the power to overthrow the Supreme Leader (although a political move that radical is extremely unlikely). Perhaps for this reason Rafsanjani has been under increased pressure from the Guardian Council and security forces, which culminated with the brief arrest of his daughter and several relatives last weekend. It is likely that if Mousavi continues along the same course of action he too will be subject to legal ramifications, which may or may not help his cause.

One aspect which has been recently brought into the open is the status of the Basij, the pro-Khamenei militia which has been carrying out most of the violence against demonstrators. The connections between this group and the government have become more apparent as events continue to unfold. Historically tied to the Revolutionary Guard but not directly associated with any authority, the Basij have been able to aggressively carry out the will of the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader without any accountability. For this reason, much of the violence has been undertaken without ramification or investigation. This makes the situation even more difficult for the U.S. when trying to negotiate an end to hostilities.

What has come as a result of the increasing violence is much greater international attention toward Iran. Although many nations (including the U.S.) have refrained from becoming involved in the actual electoral fallout, they have called on the government to end its brutal responses to protestors. Even Russia, which congratulated Ahmadinejad on his election victory early on, issued a statement condemning the violence. Government elites in Iran are becoming more and more isolated as international pressure grows.

For the most part, the evenhanded approach which the United States has been taking has been applauded by both domestic citizens and foreign powers. President Obama has made it clear that this election is an issue which must be worked out by Iranians themselves, and yet has also been fervent in his condemnation of suppression and police brutality. The worst possible thing that America can do is give authenticity to Khamenei’s claims of “Western meddling” in the post-election process. So far, this administration has been successful in establishing itself as an outside observer. However, it will be necessary to wait until the Guardian Council’s decision is made before deciding what our future foreign policy should be.

Obama to send ambassador to Syria

After a four year diplomatic hiatus, President Obama announced Tuesday that he would be sending an ambassador to Syria. The decision came several weeks after special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One senior administration official stated that Syria was a necessary partner at the table if comprehensive dialogue and peace processes were to be conducted in the Middle East. President Bush first removed the ambassador to Syria in 2005 in response to the assassination of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an action which the government believes Syria to be involved in. No one has been selected for the post yet, and any appointment must be confirmed by the Senate. Read the full article here.

NPR interview with Mohsen Sazegara

Earlier today NPR conducted an interview with Mohsen Sazegara, one of the founding members of the Revolutionary Guard and former Deputy Prime Minister in Iran. Sazegara, who was one of the original architects of the 1979 Revolution, is now one of the principle dissenters to the hard-line regime. He was arrested in 2003 for speaking out against the government, and now lives in self-imposed exile in Washington D.C. In the interview, he discusses the history of the Revolutionary Guard and how they may be using this election to stage a military coup. According to Sazegara, the Guard knew that the election was rigged from the beginning and had been planning to use the fallout to their advantage all along. Listen to the entire interview here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

House Committee Budget has Full Aid for Israel

Tuesday night the full House Appropriations Committee approved the Fiscal Year 2010 State and Foreign Operations Appropriation Bill, which includes the full complement of military and economic aid to Israel. The bill contains $2.22 billion for Israel, which combined with the $555 million being forward by a special FY 2009 appropriation, comes to $2.777 billion for 2010. This is the full amount for FY 2010 as agreed to in a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Israel, meaning the Appropriations Committee does not feel Israel's intransigence over West Bank settlements merits any American rebuke. This will not go unnoticed in the Middle East, where it will be seen as the latest symbol of American hypocrisy.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds Iran roundtable

Capitol Hill – Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a roundtable discussion among a panel of experts and several Senators to confer over the recent events in Iran. Moderated by Chairman Kerry, the group focused on what implications the election fallout holds for the future of Iran as well as what actions (or lack thereof) the U.S. should take.

According to the panel, the recent demonstrations clearly display the societal rift which has been growing between the revolutionary hard-liners and the new “post-revolution” generation who seek a way forward. Additionally the demonstrations have caused the often behind-the-scenes leader Ayatollah Khomenei to come forward and get involved in the action directly, a move which is calling into question the role of the Supreme Leader. The panel was in agreement that the actions taken thus far by President Barack Obama have been evenhanded and “well calibrated”, and that the United States should be very careful as to not become too directly involved in Iranian affairs. It would be very easy for the Iranian government to point to the sordid history of U.S.– Iranian relations in order to regain support should the U.S. become involved, and so it is in the best interest of the President to tread lightly. The Guardian Council in Iran will decide on the final status of the election on Monday.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Truth on Settlements

NYU-based British historian Tony Judt has an excellent editorial in today's New York Times, explaining the true nature of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. He notes that they are not small bands of pioneers working the land, but massive towns and cities, subsidized by American tax dollars, and that all settlements in the West Bank violate international law. Judt suggests the United States "dismiss Mr. Netanyahu for the cynic he is and remind Israelis that all their settlements are hostage to American goodwill."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Unspoken hurdles to a real peace

BY FREDERICK BUTLER, CNI Communications Director

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both publicly spoken about the future of the Middle East peace process. Their approaches were somewhat refreshing however, there are issues that remain unaddressed

Netanyahu's claim that Jerusalem remain as the "united capital" of the Jewish state of Israel is sure to provide more fuel for driving tension. What about the refugees, checkpoints, borders and the wall? Opening up the Gaza crossings (wherever those might be) should be step one and part of the reconciliation process.

In his recent trip to Gaza Former President Jimmy Carter stated that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are being "treated more like animals than human beings."

How can a people treated like dogs negotiate with choke chains around their necks?

On a visit to the enclave, Carter condemned Israel's January bombardment and its continuing blockade, which he said forbids even children's toys.

"I understand that even paper and crayons are treated as a security hazard," he told Gazans at a local United Nations office. "I sought an explanation of this when I met with Israeli officials and I received none, because there is no explanation."

Now that the dust has settled what can be done now to solve these problems? What, if anything, should President Obama mandate as a precursor to negotiations between the Israeli's and the Palestinians?

In regards to the division of Jerusalem, the President should adopt a policy of working representatives of all three major religions in the United States and the Holy Land.

We also suggest the president advocate the present ten acre United Nations Headquarters in East Jerusalem, formally known as the Government House of the British Mandate for Palestine as a suitable site for the government of Palestine.

Netanyahu hasn't precluded the return of refugees to the West Bank and Gaza. Over a period of time some refugees should be absorbed into Israel.

Many of the current settlements have staked out large areas beyond the building line for future growth. Returning currently vacant land at this moment to the government of Palestine would assure that the Jewish colonies would not expand --keeping in line with President Obama's demands. Discussion should also include a broad transportation corridor between Gaza and the West Bank.

The first step should be the opening of the Gaza crossings. Not allowing the people of Gaza to travel in and out of their country is not only violates human rights, but is in some ways criminal. America promotes freedom as its most important value, and denying a people this basic human right denigrates our claim as a morally just nation.

Without ending the siege of Gaza and providing real evidence that Israel will end expansion of settlements, there will be no peace.

Dennis Ross put in “Time-out”?

BY FREDERICK C BUTLER, CNI Communications Director

WASHINGTON, DC (June 18, 2009) –President Obama’s decision to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prior to Iran’s nuclear proliferation as a first step to a Mid-East Peace Policy has caused a “rift” between the Israeli coalition government and the US administration.

But, recent activity within the administration may suggest that the “rift” has found a new home –in the White House.

Iran Special Envoy Dennis Ross was relieved of his duties and reassigned to a post in the National Security Council at the White House.

Ross, who co-authored the book Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, argues that tougher policies toward Iran — "either militarily or meaningful containment" — will be easier to sell if diplomacy is attempted first. The book also implies that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have no bearings over the problem with Iran whom the US should deal with independently.

These comments are similar to the stance of Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on his trip to Washington supplied the same rhetoric. However; the Obama administration believes that a peaceful Holy Land will isolate Iran and the rest of the Muslim world giving the US more authority in future negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

Iran has persistently refused to accept Ross as a U.S. emissary given the diplomat's Jewish background as well as his purported pro-Israel leanings. Ross is known to maintain contacts with numerous senior officials in Israel's defense establishment and the Israeli government.

According to Time magazine, behind the scenes senior officials in several branches of the Administration confirm the move and knock down speculation that it is a demotion in response to concern over Ross's positions on Iran. "Everybody knew his positions," said an official.

But, Ross’ new post as senior advisor to the National Security Council (NSC) will pit the diplomat closer to the President’s ear. But, there are already senior officials in place at the in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Gulf and Iran affairs –all areas of Ross’ expertise.

So, is this move an effort by the administration to prevent the hawkish diplomat from spoiling the peace process? Or is this just another opportunity for Ross to gain greater influence over Obama’s Mid-East policies?

The window of opportunity for peace in the volatile region is slowly closing. If the President wants to ensure peace in the region, and subsequently US national security, he will need to act swift and smart. Hopefully, this move is the administration doing just that.

When He Says Yes – What Does He Mean?

By Uri Avnery

“YOU MUST be celebrating,” the interviewer from a popular radio station told me after Netanyahu’s speech. “After all, he is accepting the plan which you proposed 42 years ago!” (Actually it was 60 years ago, but who is counting?)

The front page of Haaretz carried an article by Gideon Levy, in which he wrote that “the courageous call of Uri Avnery and his friends four decades ago is now being echoed, though feebly, from end to end (of the Israeli political spectrum).”

I would be lying if I denied feeling a brief glow of satisfaction, but it faded quickly. This was no “historic” speech, not even a “great” speech. It was a clever speech.

It contained some sanctimonious verbiage to appease Barack Obama, followed right away by the opposite, to pacify the Israeli extreme right. Not much more.

NETANYAHU DECLARED that “our hand is extended for peace.”

In my ears, that rang a bell: in the 1956 Sinai war, a member of my editorial staff was attached to the brigade that conquered Sharm-al-Sheikh. Since he had grown up in Egypt, he interviewed the senior captured Egyptian officer, a colonel. “Every time David Ben-Gurion announced that his hand was stretched out for peace,” the Egyptian told him, “we were put on high alert.”

And indeed, that was Ben-Gurion’s method. Before every provocation he would declare that “our hands are extended for peace”, adding conditions that he knew were totally unacceptable to the other side. Thus an ideal situation (for him) was created: The world saw Israel as a peace-loving country, while the Arabs looked like serial peace-killers. Our secret weapon is the Arab refusal, it used to be joked in Jerusalem at the time.

This week, Netanyahu wheeled out the same old trick.

I DO NOT underrate, of course, the significance of the chief of the Likud uttering the two words: “Palestinian state”.

Words carry political weight. Once released into the world, they have a life of their own. Unlike dogs, they cannot be called back.

In a popular Israeli love song, the boy asks the girl: “When you say no, what do you mean?” One could well ask: When Netanyahu says yes, what does he mean?

But even if the words “Palestinian state” passed his lips only under duress, and when Netanyahu has no intention at all of turning them into reality, it is still important that the head of the government and the chief of the Likud was compelled to utter them. The idea of the Palestinian state has now become a part of the national consensus, and only a handful of ultra-rightists reject it directly. But this is only the beginning. The main struggle will be about turning the idea into reality.

THE ENTIRE speech was addressed to one single person: Barack Obama. It was not designed to appeal to the Palestinians. It was quite clear that the Palestinians are only the passive object of a discussion between the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Israel. Except in some tired old clichés, Netanyahu spoke about them, not to them.

He is ready, so he says, to conduct negotiations with the “Palestinian community”, and that, of course, “without preconditions”. Meaning: without Palestinian preconditions. On Netanyahu’s part, there are plenty of preconditions, every one of which is designed to make certain that no Palestinian, no Arab and indeed no Muslim will agree to enter negotiations.

Condition 1: The Arabs have to recognize Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” (and not just “a Jewish state”, as many in the media erroneously reported.) As Hosny Mubarak has already answered: No Arab will accept this, because it would mean that 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel are cut off from the state, and because it would deny in advance the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees - the main bargaining chip of the Arab side.

It should be remembered that when the United Nations resolved in 1947 to partition Palestine between a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state”, they did not mean to define the character of the states. They were just stating facts: there are two mutually hostile populations in the country, and therefore the country has to be divided between them. (Anyhow, 40% of the population of the “Jewish” state was to consist of Arabs.)

Condition 2: The Palestinian Authority must first of all establish its rule over the Gaza Strip. How? After all, the Israeli government prevents travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and no Palestinian force can pass from one to the other. And the solution of the problem by establishing a Palestinian unity government is also ruled out: Netanyahu flatly declared that there would be no negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that includes “terrorists who want to annihilate us” – his way of referring to Hamas.

Condition 3: The Palestinian state will be demilitarized. This is not a new idea. All peace plans that have been put forward up to now speak about security arrangements that would protect Israel from Palestinian attacks and Palestine from Israeli attacks. But that is not what Netanyahu has in mind: he did not speak about mutuality, but about domination. Israel would control the air space and the border crossings of the Palestinian state, turning it into a kind of giant Gaza Strip. Also, Netanyahu’s style was deliberately overbearing and humiliating: he obviously hopes that the word ‘demilitarized” would be enough to get the Palestinians to say “no”.

Condition 4: Undivided Jerusalem will remain under Israeli rule. This was not proposed as an opening gambit for negotiations but presented as a final decision. That by itself ensures that no Palestinian, nor any Arab or even any Muslim, could accept the proposal.

In the Oslo Agreement, Israel undertook to negotiate about the future of Jerusalem. It is an accepted legal rule that if one undertakes to negotiate, one accepts to do so bona fide, on the basis of give and take. Therefore, all peace plans provide that East Jerusalem - wholly or partly – will be returned to Arab rule.

Condition 5: Between Israel and the Palestinian state there will be “defensible borders”. These are code-words for extensive annexations by Israel. Their meaning: no return to the 1967 borders, not even with a swap of territory that would allow for some of the large settlements to be joined to Israel. In order to create “defensible borders”, a major part of the occupied Palestinian territories (which altogether make up just 22% of pre-1948 Palestine) will be absorbed into Israel.

Condition 6: The refugee problem will be solved “outside the territory of Israel”. Meaning: not a single refugee will be allowed to return. True, all realistic people agree that there can be no return of millions of refugees. According to the Arab peace initiative, the solution must be “mutually agreed” – which means that Israel has to agree to any solution. The assumption is that the two parties will agree on the return of a symbolic number. This is a highly charged and sensitive matter, which must be treated with prudence and the utmost sensitivity. Netanyahu does the opposite: his provocative statement, devoid of all empathy, is clearly designed to bring about an automatic refusal.

Condition 7: No settlement freeze. The “normal life” of the settlers will continue. Meaning: the building activity for the “natural increase” will go on. This illustrates the saying of Michael Tarazy, a legal advisor to the PLO: “We are negotiating about sharing a pizza, and in the meantime Israel is eating it.”

All this was in the speech. No less interesting is what was not in it. For example, the words: Road Map. Annapolis. Palestine. The Arab peace plan. Occupation. Palestinian Sovereignty. Opening of the Gaza Strip border crossings. Golan Heights. And, even more important: there was not a hint of respect for the enemy who must be turned into a friend, in the words of the ancient Jewish saying.

SO WHAT is more important? The verbal recognition of “a Palestinian state” or the conditions which empty these words of all content?

The public response is interesting. In an opinion poll taken immediately after the speech, 71% supported it, but 55% believed that Netanyahu just “gave in to American pressure”, and 70% did not believe that a Palestinian state would really come about during the next few years.

What exactly do the 71% support? The “Palestinian state” solution or the conditions which obstruct its implementation – or both?

There is, of course, an extreme right-wing minority which prefers a head-on collision with the United States to giving up any territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Along the road to Jerusalem one can see large posters showing a manipulated photo of Obama wearing an Arab headdress. (It sends a shiver down the spine, because it reminds us of seeing exactly the same poster with Yitzhak Rabin under the keffiyeh.) But the great majority of the people understand that a break with the US must be avoided at all costs.

Netanyahu and the right-wing hoped that the Palestinians would reject his words outright, thus painting themselves as serial peace refusers, while the Israeli government would be seen as taking the first small but significant step towards peace. They are sure that this could be achieved for nothing: the Palestinian state will not be set up, the Israeli government will not give up anything, the occupation will remain, settlement activity will go on and Obama will accept all this.

SO THE main question is: how will Obama react?

The first reaction was minor. A politely positive response.

Obama is not seeking a frontal collision with the Israeli government. It seems that he wants to exert “soft” pressure, vigorously but quietly. To my mind, that is a wise approach.

A few hours before the speech, I met with ex-President Jimmy Carter. The meeting took place at the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem. It was organized by Gush Shalom, with several other Israeli peace organizations taking part. In my opening remarks, I pointed out that we were in exactly the same room where 16 years ago, while the Oslo agreement was being signed in Washington, Israeli peace activists and the leaders of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem met and opened bottles of champagne. The euphoria of those moments has disappeared without leaving a trace.

Israelis and Palestinians have lost hope. On both sides, the overwhelming majority wants an end to the conflict but do not believe that peace is possible – and each side blames the other. Our task is to rekindle the belief that it is indeed possible.

For this there is a need for a dramatic event, a kind of invigorating electric shock – like the historic visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977. I suggested that Obama should come to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli public, perhaps even from the Knesset rostrum, like Sadat.

After listening intently to the participants, the former President encouraged us in our activities and put forward some proposals of his own.

THE DECISIVE point at this moment is, of course, the matter of the settlements. Will Obama insist on a total freeze of all building activity or not?

Netanyahu hopes to wriggle out of it. He has now found a new gimmick: projects that have already started must be allowed to be finished. One cannot stop them in the middle. The plans have already been approved. The tenants are waiting for their apartments, and they must not be made to suffer. The Supreme Court will not allow a freeze. (A particularly ridiculous argument, like the court allowing a thief to spend some more of the money he has stolen before passing sentence.)

If Obama falls for this, he should not be surprised to find out belatedly that these projects include 100,000 new housing units.

This brings us to the most important fact of this week: the settlers did not raise hell after Netanyahu’s speech. On the contrary. Here and there some feeble criticism could be heard, but the large and armed settler population kept remarkably quiet.

Which brings us back to the unforgettable Sherlock Holmes, who explained how he solved one of his mysteries by drawing attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“But the dog did nothing in the night-time!” someone objected.

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Holmes.

Israel & Apartheid - A Movie I Have Seen Before

By James McLoughlin
CNI Citizen Diplomat
One of the reasons I went on the recent CNI political pilgrimage was to see just how valid and extensive the comparison is between South Africa’s apartheid era and present day Israel. During the height of apartheid in the 80’s, I spent well over a year of my life in South Africa as a banker. While there, I used all of my free time to explore firsthand the suffering and despair under that system.

Not only are the comparisons valid, they are appalling. I’ll detail some of these but for those readers in a hurry, my impressions can be summarized by quoting a colleague on the trip: “Israel gives apartheid a bad name!”

Both Israel and the former South Africa are based on a religious/messianic orientation. In the case of the Jews, their claims are rooted in Scriptures and Moses’ parting of the Red Sea (signs from God!) They see Israel as an answer to their persecution and the stateless society they endured for so long. Likewise, The Afrikaners (Dutch and French Huguenots) fled to South Africa to escape persecution in Europe. They saw their victory over the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River as a sign from God that South Africa was meant to be theirs. (In fact, they called themselves the “twelfth tribe.” Sound familiar?) History is full of these claims and orientations. Invariably, they cause war and suffering because those adapting such ideas feel they are largely exempt from society’s efforts at secular law; they answer only to a higher calling. At the risk of simplicity, I would posit that more people have been killed or suffered in the name of religion than any other cause. (Muslims are not exempted from this – either as aggressors or victims.)

The most important comparison is the extent to which both systems go to ensure separation of people their architects simply don’t like. Yet, even here Israel fares far worse. The cornerstone of the South African system was the Group Areas Act. (Coincidentally, this idea was born at around the same time as the state of Israel.) It resulted in the infamous “Bantustans” and townships - large impoverished areas –both urban and rural- where blacks were officially confined and which had very little economic opportunity. However, they could move within these areas and could often find jobs in the more prosperous white districts for farming, mine work and service jobs. In Israel, a comparable act would have simply mandated Palestinians to keep a home in the West Bank but Israelis have taken matters much further. Indeed, they do not want Palestinians even to move from town to town and certainly not to travel to Jerusalem or between the West Bank and Gaza. There are now over 700 “checkpoints” to restrict freedom of movement among Palestinians. Unlike South Africa there is also an effort to replace Palestinian workers with more Jewish immigrants.

Then we have prisms. South Africa’s was color based; Israel’s is a religious one. Both are near perfect markers of prejudice and hope. In South Africa the lighter one’s skin, the better he did. The blacks of course fared the worst. They were followed by the “coloureds,” the Indians, the Cape Malay, the Portuguese labor class and finally the whites. Even at the top, there was a sharp distinction in values and income status between British whites and Afrikaners. It’s much the same in Israel. Muslims are at the wrong end of the prism but Christians are slipping as well as evidenced by efforts to get them out of the Old City. Jews have full protection under the law but there are class and economic distinctions between groups such as the Maghreb Jews, Sephardim, Mizrahi and Ashkenazim.

Like South Africa, the Israeli version of apartheid comes with the usual pre-packaged excuses and justifications from many government and corporate people who benefit from that system. Those on the “left” make apologies but still enjoy the good life; those on the right make no excuses and enjoy it more.

Finally, we should compare the likelihood that South Africa and Israel would end their occupation and brutality without outside pressure. Here the score could not be more equal. The white South African regime was at its most intractable just before sanctions and worldwide pressure were brought to bear. Based on what we saw on the pilgrimage, I feel Israel is in much the same spot. The entire political spectrum has moved sharply to the right and it was abundantly clear that it will take enormous pressure from the US just to get the smallest improvement in life for the Palestinians – and then only grudgingly. Obama has seen this all too well after just a few months in office.

As a nation, the US should let go of the totally unjustified collective guilt - and its resulting fear - in candidly discussing the atrocities of Israeli occupation. Americans need to get used to words such as colony, apartheid, racism, ethnic cleansing, state sponsored terrorism, and the like in discussing Israel. We had no problem using these terms for South Africa and they are equally applicable here. There will not be peace in the Middle East until Americans - particularly their congressman – begin to talk openly and frankly about Israel. Just like in the fight against AIDS: Silence=Death, especially for Palestinians and Gazans.

The brutal occupation of Palestine will be a bigger black mark on Israel (and on the US for allowing it) than apartheid will be for South Africa. While there is no excuse for the behavior of the occupying party in either case, the Afrikaners were largely poorly educated, parochial, insular farmers. By contrast, Jews had an enormously prolific and enlightened history. They made countless contributions in politics, human rights, the arts, science and literature almost wherever they went. In fact, those wonderful traits still apply; one need only look at the efforts American Jews made for the civil rights movement in the US. Also, Jews were at the forefront of efforts in South Africa to end apartheid and some, like Helen Suzman, risked their lives doing so. It is only a revival of that spirit among Israelis that will bring peace to the Middle East – not the Likud.

House Delivers Iran a Propaganda Coup

The House of Representatives stepped into Iran's electoral crisis today, passing a resolution condemning Iran's crackdown on demonstrators and the media following the disputed June 12 election. The non-binding resolution passed 405-1, with Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) the only vote against, though two other congressmen voted "present." The resolution is a much toned down version of the one introduced by Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN). Politico reports that Obama administration officials worked with House Democrats to soften the language to try and avoid it becoming a propaganda coup for the Iranian regime. Still, it is almost certain that conservatives in Iran will use the measure to attempt to portray their opponents as American stooges and could be an effective tool for galvanizing nationalist sentiment to the unpopular regime. The Obama approach of not commenting had been supported by many foreign policy and Middle East experts, including Henry Kissinger and Bob Baer and David Ignatius.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran Experts Encourage Dialogue and Non-interference

WASHINGTON, June 17—The National Iranian American Council hosted a conference on US-Iranian relations on Capitol Hill today, focusing on Iran's disputed elections and controversial nuclear program. Experts on Iran and nuclear weapons, as well as members of Congress, addressed the guests. These luminaries emphasized the need to engage Iran with respect and noted Iran would not give up its nuclear program.

The nuclear weapons and inspection experts were clear, in the words of former US weapons inspector in Iraq Dr. David Kay, "that we are beyond the point where you can deny Iran enrichment technology." The experts all emphasized that Iran would never accept "off-site" enrichment (enrichment abroad) as uranium enrichment was viewed as a matter of national pride and a symbol of national sophistication.

Still, they felt it was possible to establish a credible IAEA inspection regime that could detect Iranian non-compliance, was there sufficient international backing. Former French Ambassador to Iran François Nicoullaud said negotiations on such an inspection program need to be undertaken with seriousness and urgency, blaming European diplomats' lack of urgency (not Iranian obfuscation) for the failure of past talks. The panel of experts played down the notion that the US had only a short timeline in which to achieve results, with Kay saying that Iran was likely still far from being able to weaponize their nuclear technology and dismissed many of their centrifuge designs as "crap."

Two congressmen, Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade, and John Tierney (D-MA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, both emphasized the importance of dealing with Iran respectfully via dialogue and diplomacy. Meeks said, "Iran is too important—too important—not to talk to," and noted, "we can't ask them to respect us if we don't respect them." Tierney called on the US and Iran to "engage in matters of mutual strategic interest," and for US diplomats to "build a regional security framework that includes Iran."

Both Meeks and Tierney praised the US-Iranian cooperation that followed September 11, with Tierney noting that, "this country's, the United States', leaders, not Iran's," closed the door on those openings. The congressmen and the academics all felt that any perceived involvement by the US in Iran's disputed election would be foolish and counterproductive, especially if no Iranians requested US assistance. Meeks said this was a "sensible and sound, not cynical and cowardly" approach.

The speakers dismissed the notion that the Iranian leadership was inherently irrational. Tierney stated that the Iranian leadership saw itself as surrounding by unfriendly countries and that many Iranian policies are "rational to an Iranian realist." Kay said he felt it should be clear that "the only country to which an Iranian nuclear weapons program poses an existential threat to is Iran itself."

House Subcommittee to keep Israel on the Gravy Train

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Chairwoman of the House State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, announced today that the subcommittee approved their Fiscal Year 2010 bill, retaining full U.S. assistance to Israel. Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to halt settlement expansion, as demand by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israel would still receive $2.22 billion in assistance. The US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding regarding aid to Israel would be fully funded despite Israel's divergence from America's stated policy goals. If the subcommittee's aim is to show that opposing America comes without consequence, they are succeeding. The full text of the bill will be available Friday.

Unrest in Iran: More insights

By Shane McCarthy,
CNI Staff Writer

It is clear from events on the ground that the ruling cleric’s decision to halfheartedly investigate electoral fraud has done little to dissuade demonstrators or put an end to protests in Tehran. Though the inquiry may continue, the ultimate decision (for the moment) as to who will win this election will still be made by Ayatollah Khamenei. Because of this fact, it is almost certain that the official position of the Iranian government will continue to be that Ahmadinejad has been re-elected. After all, if a government has no problem marring the results of an election through an elaborate rigging scheme (as now appears to be the case), then they would most likely have no problem fixing the results of a small investigatory panel.

For this reason, the protests in support of reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi become even more interesting. During his tenure President Ahmadinejad has served as an effective scapegoat for Americans, who see his ambitious nuclear plans and repeated Holocaust denials as the crux of Iranian policy. However, Iranians know better than anyone else that their Presidency is really a glorified puppet whose decisions fall under the authority of Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Guardian Council. It is even a possibility that this entire election was used simply as a means for the Revolutionary Guard to execute a military takeover. What is the point therefore is rallying for a presidential candidate whose authority is ultimately moot?

A recent New York Times video examined the differences between the past Iranian political protests and the current demonstrations. For the most part, previous protests were usually confined to select groups of students on university campuses fighting for less widespread issues such as labor and education reform. Now, thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds are fighting for an issue with much deeper implications: national election fraud. Mousavi falls into the greater picture by serving as the rallying figure to bring all of these people together. Although Mousavi lacks the charisma or drive to act as a true revolutionary leader, he provides the motivation necessary to get the reform movement off the ground. The lack of a leader has been one of the main reasons why reform has failed for so long in Iran, and with Mousavi calling for civil disobedience it appears that this trend has changed.

Last year I had the privilege of speaking with Mohsen Sazegara, one of the architects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As he described it, the movement that formed the current Islamic Republic was very ideological in nature; a small group of intellectuals worked to overthrow the Shah and the people and army followed suit. The entire movement was based around the goal of ousting those in power, but after the coup was over the new elites were unsure of what to do with their country. The hardline Islamists and the socialists, who had worked together for a common goal ended up bickering over power (and in the end, the Islamists won). Eventually, as is the case with most revolutions, those who took over ended up becoming just as tyrannical as the government that was overthrown.

This movement is different in that it was not derived from an ideological or anti-Western debate, but from a populist movement among people working within their own country. Instead of fighting against something (the Shah), they are fighting for something (Mousavi). Perhaps most importantly however is the fact that the Iranians on the streets today are not seeking revolution or the overthrow of the government, but simply a fair say in the electoral process and the rule of law. Finally, in addition to the three differences laid out by the Times I would like to add a fourth: the lack of American involvement in the demonstrations and reform movement. Many have been critical of President Obama’s lack of an assertive response to the protests in Iran, but in order for these protests to be successful it must ultimately be the Iranians themselves who take the reins and create the kind of government that they want. Obama understands this, and so until it is clearer what the final outcome of this situation will be it is in our best interest to allow Iranians to do what they will.

For up-to-the-minute coverage of the events on the ground in Iran, I would recommend Nico Pitney’s live blog on Huffington Post.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Second Revolution?

By Shane McCarthy, CNI Staff Writer

Since Friday’s tumultuous election, Iran has seen more protest and political opposition than it has witnessed in a decade. With international media attention drawn to the Islamic Republic, the accounts of what is happening on the ground are pretty well drawn out. The one unanswered question which still remains however is what the implications of this election are. Is it possible that the growing progressive movement has finally come to fruition, or is this simply an issue which will be effectively put down by the clerical regime?

Roughly two hours after the closing of the polls, President Ahmadinejad was declared the winner with an overwhelming majority of the votes. Almost immediately his opponent Moussavi accused the government of rigging the election, and the rallies of support for each candidate turned into protests against the results. Three days later, these riots are continuing with fervor in Tehran and across the country. Earlier today, Supreme Leader Khamenei made an about-face on his original position and called for an investigation into vote rigging. Why this decision was made is unclear, although mounting international pressure may have had as much to do with it as domestic dissent.

Whether or not the government manipulated the election is blatant; in a fair election most regimes do not feel the need to shut down communications and the internet, or for that matter place the main political opponent under house arrest. Additionally, polls show that Ahmadinejad won with 8 million more votes than he gained in 2005 and claimed victory in the hometowns of his opponents, despite the major economic downturn under his watch.

What happens next? It makes little difference as to what the results of the Ayatollah’s 10-day investigation will be. If Ahmadinejad is allowed to stay in power (legitimately or otherwise) then the protests will continue and international pressure will increase. If Moussavi is given the presidency by default then his supporters will be appeased, but his power will only go as far as the Ayatollah and the ruling clerics allow. What really matters in this election is not the outcome, but the movement.

What exactly are Moussavi’s supporters rioting against? Ahmadinejad’s victory serves as an effective scapegoat, but what is really being questioned is the fundamentalist regime that he represents. While some protestors scream “give us our votes”, others scream “give us our country”. While Moussavi’s victory would allow for the pursuit of diplomacy between Iran and the United States, what really matters is that the catalyst has been tripped for a real social movement in Iran. Most Iranians have no intention or desire to start a new revolution, and only ask for fairness in their government. With the protests continuing and the world watching, this may finally be a possibility.

Netanyahu to Palestinians: No State

By Brian Doyle
CNI Staff Writer

In his speech at Bar-Ilan University yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a great show of calling for peace, but made clear he wanted nothing but a victor's peace. While accepting the premise of a Palestinian state for the first time, he made clear that it would be little more than a state in name only. This state would be demilitarized, which Netanyahu made clear means, "No army, no control of airspace." The Palestinians will not even be able to "make military treaties." It is doubtful whether such a state could be considered truly sovereign. It would certainly be illegitimate in the eyes of its people. Not even Weimar Germany was faced with such restrictions.

Further, Netanyahu rejected any right of return by Palestinian refugees, any sharing of Jerusalem, and was silent on settlements. These being the main issues of contention between the sides, Netanyahu essentially said Palestinian autonomy was the best they could hope for and showed no willingness to make meaningful concessions. He added fuel to the fire by requiring that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab states recognize Israel as a "Jewish State."

Netanyahu called on Arab leaders to take the initiative in peace making, but the terms for a future Palestinian state, his demand that Arab states recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and his refusal to accept the return of any refugees made it clear he does not plan to ingratiate himself in Arab capitals. The response from the Arab world has been overwhelmingly negative. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stated, "No one will support this appeal in Egypt or elsewhere." Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called for Arab unity and said that the Arab states should stick to their guns on the refugee issue. A Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu's preconditions "left nothing for negotiation" and amounted to an Israeli rejection of the two-state solution. A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused the Israeli Prime Minister of "sabotaging" the peace process.

It seems probable that Netanyahu is betting the negative Arab response will let him weasel out of negotiations. The Israeli right and their cheerleaders in the US will be able to accuse the Arab states of ignoring their overture, giving them cover for their obstructionist policies. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has welcomed Netanyahu's speech as a "step forward." In truth, it was a step back.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Elections in Iran: Implications and Outcomes

By Shane McCarthy, CNI Staff Writer

After a campaign marked by spirited supporters, dirty tactics, and international attention, Election Day in Iran was marked by massive voter turnout as the hawkish and anti-Western President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced off against his several opponents. This election comes as a culmination of a youth movement which has been growing ever since the Islamic Revolution first took place in 1979, and presents what many believe to be the possibility of real reform in Iran. Nevertheless, it is still uncertain as to what a successful progressive candidate could accomplish, or whether or not fair standards will be used in the processing of votes.

The main challenger to Ahmadinejad is Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who served as Prime Minister during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. A figurehead for the reform movement in Iran, Mousavi has campaigned for better human rights (including equal rights for women) as well as improved relations with Washington. Accompanying him on the campaign trail is his wife Zahra Rahnavard, who often addresses crowds on her own and is already being labeled “the Iranian Michelle Obama”.

Both President Ahmadinejad and Mr. Mousavi have spent most of their campaigns bashing each other, going so far as make accusations of Nazi-like propaganda tactics. Iran’s deep political rift is demonstrated in their speeches as well as in the equally-intense rallies held by their respective supporters. As of right now the two candidates are almost even in the polls, with different news organizations predicting different outcomes. However, is this election really the catalyst that it has been hyped up to be?

The fact of the matter is that whatever the outcome, all final decisions in Iran are still made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. This means that even if human rights reform began to take place, there is no doubt that conservative Islamic Law will continue to be the norm. It is also unlikely that any sort of halt to the nuclear program will occur, meaning that this election will do little to stem Israeli rhetoric against Iran. The final candidates were, after all, subject to approval by the Supreme Leader (out of hundreds that applied, only four were chosen). Even if the reformist candidate did obtain the simple majority of votes needed to win, the results could be shot down by the Supreme Leader on the unquestionable accusation of “fraud”.

Therefore, what are the implications of this contest? Of the two possible outcomes, it is obvious that Mousavi’s victory would mean infinitely better chances of normalizing U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic and to some extent advancing peace in the region. However, even if Ahmadinejad does emerge victorious, the seeds of reform have already been planted. For the first time Iranians have shown that they are not afraid to voice their opinions, regardless of where they fall in line with the rhetoric of the ruling clerics. Because of this fact, there is no doubt that diplomatic relations will improve regardless of the victor.

Obama Admin to Netanyahu: "You're on the clock"

By, Frederick C Butler, CNI Communications Director

WASHINGTON, DC (June 12, 2009)- Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be delivering a speech addressing the peace process and outlining his plans for the future of Israel. Counter to President Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, the address will take place after a weeklong public debate over settlement expansion, the legitimacy of Obama's support for Israel, and reports surfacing about alleged deadlines for peace proposals.

The Israeli Prime Minister will have a tough act to follow -not because of the daunting challenge of having to match Obama's soaring rhetoric, but the arduous task of having to match the President's soaring demands.

Prior to departing for his trip to Egypt Obama made a guest appearance at a meeting between National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In the meeting the President reportedly told Netanyahu's Defense Minister that he is giving the Israeli leadership until July 1st to submit a proposal outlining their six-month plan for peace.

But, on June 8th Ha'aretz reported that Obama submitted a two-year peace plan which he is giving the Israeli Prime Minister six-weeks to review. A date close to the same deadline Obama asked the Israeli Defense Minister for an "updated position" regarding settlements, and a six-month plan for progress toward Middle East peace.
Netanyahu has kicked and screamed about the US Administration's demands to cease all settlement expansion projects including "natural growth". But unlike years past, the US Administration hasn't backed down or turned a blind eye to the continuation of settlement construction.

What is even more unusual is that the subtle rift that has occurred between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister has been portrayed in the public eye. The "subtle differences" could lead one to believe that the problems between the two are probably more intense than we really know.

On June 10th multiple reports about the content of Netanyahu's speech suggested that Netanyahu would agree to the principals of the road map, but not agree to the settlement freeze. Also, the speech allegedly states that the settlements in the West Bank are not an obstacle to peace.

Sources close to Netanyahu say the Prime Minister is developing multiple ways to freeze settlement expansion, including temporary holds on new construction starts in return for reciprocal measures on the part of the Palestinians and Arab states.

These statements are sure not to bode well with the current US Administration. After Netanyahu's statements were made public a senior Washington source confirmed that there has been progress, but he stated that "our position on the need to cease settlement construction has not been altered at all. The talks were good and we will continue in a few days."

In short, nice try Netanyahu but not good enough.

The proposed concessions by the Israeli Prime Minister are a clear disregard to the US Administration's demands. Temporarily halting your future plans for illegal development is not repayment for current illegal activity.

As much as the US Administration and the Israeli coalition government would want us to believe, they are not just having "small disagreements." If so, we would never hear about them. They would be cast off as small scuttles which have no impact over the grand scheme. The two administrations have been issuing public statements contradicting each other's stances on settlements -and that's no small skirmish.

On June 9th Ha'aretz reported that according to Netanyahu aides, the Prime Minister believes that Obama wants to create a confrontation with Israel to help him improve relations with the Arab world.

But could it be the other way around? Could the Israeli Prime Minister be using his disagreement with the US Administration as cover to continue illegal settlement growth? And what exactly is wrong with the American President trying to cool tensions with a threatening contingency infuriated by our inadvertent support of illegal activities and human rights violations? Shouldn't the President act in the interest of the safety and moral regard of the American people?

Netanyahu has been trying to use agreements prior Israeli administrations "supposedly" had with the Bush Administration as reason to continue settlement activities. The "Bush letter" reportedly was a verbal agreement that the United States would not take issue with growth in "settlement blocs."

Recent news reports have quoted those involved in the 2004 talks between Sharon and Bush as saying that they talked about an exception for natural growth, but the Israelis would not agree to a definition of such growth. Specifically, they would not agree to "grow up and not out," limiting the footprints of settlements to what they then were. Given that many settlements have been platted for areas many times their current size, that would allow huge growth.

The Obama Administration has shunned such policies, and also noted that the same letter was also issued under and understanding that a plan for a Palestinian state would be aggressively pursued.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that she neither heard of any agreement nor recognize it as legitimate US policy.
"There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements," said Clinton. "If they did occur, which of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States."

How long will this last? Who will bow down first? Many experts believe Netanyahu's defiance of US demands for a halt in settlement expansion could cause his coalition government to fail. Ehud Barak's Labor Party is one entity whom experts predict would lead the exodus if Netanyahu continues to butt heads with Obama.

Israel's Channel One TV reported that Netanyahu was told Tuesday by an "American official" in Jerusalem that, "We are going to change the world. Please, don't interfere." The report said Netanyahu's aides interpreted this as a "threat."

On Sunday advocates for peace will be looking to see which direction the Prime Minister plans to go in regards to the his differences with the US Administration. Bibi could either use this opportunity to use rhetoric to attract gain support of the growing "post Obama speech" neo- Israeli nationalist, or back down from his stance on settlements and enter into a legitimate peace process.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New Beginnings, New Policies?

By Brian Doyle
CNI Staff Writer

On June 4th President Obama took an important step in repairing US relations with the Muslim world in his speech at the University of Cairo. The President presented a kinder, gentler America, one knowledgeable and appreciative of Islamic culture and history.

Head on, Obama addressed the biggest sources of conflict between America and the Muslim world: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and America's blind support of Israel.

Obama made perhaps the clearest comments of any American President regarding the plight of the Palestinians, stating, “They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

The President also had strong words for Israel’s refusal to recognize the need for a Palestinian state:

“Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's,” said Obama “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

These remarks are welcome, but expected. Obama has previously stated his support for an independent Palestine and an end to settlements. In the Arab world, where people are so used to dissembling by their own government, as well as the US, the verdict on Obama is still out.

Beyond his statement of support for a Palestinian state, Obama offered few specifics, other than that the US would "align our policies with those who pursue peace." He refused to break with Israel, saying "America's strong bonds with Israel" are "unbreakable."

The Israeli government is making clear it wants nothing but a victor's peace, and has no intention of halting its settlement expansion, let alone sharing Jerusalem. A game of chicken between Obama and Netanyahu seems to be in the works, and Netanyahu will be marshalling the powerful forces of the Israel Lobby to his side, especially in congress.

As long as America's largesse of cash and guns continues flowing to Israel, Netanyahu will feel confident enough to ride out America's verbal scolding.

If Obama allows this to happen, his trip to Cairo will have been a waste of time. He will be seen the world over as a hypocrite beholden to Israel. The unique opportunity Obama has to make real change will be dashed. Many of the root causes of the violent extremism Obama so eloquently denounced will remain.

In his vitriolic response to Obama's speech, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei did get one thing right: improving America's image in the Muslim world "will not be achieved by talking, speech and slogans."

As President of the United States, Obama must make clear that however strong the ties between America and Israel are, he will always act in America's interest. If Israel still refuses to have constructive dealings with the Palestinians and continue their settlement expansions, it is their business. But, the United States should not continue to pay for Israel's defense in the conflicts that result from Israel's choices.

Just as Egypt and Jordan would lose their aid if they openly opposed and obstructed American aims (as happened to Jordan, our most stalwart Arab ally, in the first Gulf War), so should Israel. If Israel continues stalling on peace talks with the Palestinians and continues its settlement expansion, Obama should veto the appropriation of foreign aid to Israel. If it passes over his veto, he should impound the funds.

It is instructive to consider the lessons of the 1956 Suez Crisis, when America's other special relationship, the one with Britain, came into crisis.

That year, Britain, France, and Israel launched surprise invasion of Egypt in response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal. Despite America's cultural and historical ties to Britain and France's status as our oldest ally, America forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw in humiliation. The Eisenhower administration took action against the three at the United Nations and threatened to attack the pound sterling by selling off US reserves of British currency.

No bonds between two countries are truly unbreakable, nor should sympathy and past friendship equal a blank check.

With his evenhanded remarks on Israel and Palestine, Obama is giving Israeli hardliners (and their Israel-first friends in the US) plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. Eisenhower would not let America's allies, however close and culturally dear, threaten America's interests. Barak Obama should do the same.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Israeli Whispering Campaign on Iran

It seems an Israeli whispering campaign is afoot to lay the foundation for preemptive military action against Iran. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Iran's nuclear program contains comments from unidentified (though undoubtedly Israeli) foreign officials questing the US intelligence community's work on Iran's nuclear program. They contend US underestimates Iran's capabilities and that Iran definitely intends to seek nuclear weapons, in contradiction of the most recent US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.

Former senior US intelligence official Pat Lang says the Israelis are deliberately undermining the US intelligence community and that Israeli abilities regarding Iran are actually "rather primitive," stating Israel gets about 90% of their raw data on Iran from the US. During CNI's recent political pilgrimage to the Middle East, a senior Knesset member told our team that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had recently told him they had no good intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.

Friday, June 5, 2009

UN team arrives in Gaza to investigate possible war crimes

In an expedition similar to the one recently conducted by Council for the National Interest, a fifteen-member UN investigatory team has entered Gaza in an effort to determine whether Israel or Hamas committed war crimes during the recent 22-day siege of Gaza. Because of accusations by Israeli officials that the group has an “anti-Israel” bias, the prominent Jewish war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone was selected to lead the expedition. Mr. Goldstone is a prominent South African Constitutional Court judge and also served as the Chief UN Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Despite this gesture, Israel still refused to grant visas to the group and necessitated their entry to the area via Egypt, causing major delays.

In an effort to obtain a complete and accurate account of what took place during Israel’s offensive in December and January, the group plans to meet with any and all concerned parties, including UN representatives, witnesses, victims, and local NGOs. So far the group has spoken to roughly 70 witnesses and relatives of victims. Although the mission was originally intended to focus solely on Israeli offences, outcry from Israeli officials led to the inclusion of actions taken by Palestinian extremist groups as well. Hamas rocket fire into Southern Israel was the cause of death for dozens of Israelis and was the catalyst for Israel's military action.

It is estimated that roughly 1400 Palestinians were killed during Israel’s military operation in Gaza, although this number is disputed by Israeli officials. Since then, several organizations have conducted investigations into alleged war crimes with mixed results. Some of the more prominent accusations include the use of white phosphorous (supplied by the United States) on schools, hospitals, and UN buildings in Gaza. Additionally, there are allegations that the Israeli military is continuing to harass and even shoot Gazan farmers and workers. While the Israeli military investigation concluded that their soldiers acted lawfully with the exception of a few errors, the Arab League analysis went so far as to claim that both the Israeli military and Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has requested $11 million of compensation for UN property destroyed in the siege.

We will continue to post updates as results from the expedition come in. Read the full BBC article here.

Frank wants US-Israeli Disagreements in the Open

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) refused to sign a letter from members of the House of Representatives to President Obama that encouraged the President and the Israelis "to work closely and privately together ... especially on areas of disagreement". Frank told Roll Call that he believed any US-Israeli disagreements should be handled openly, as is the case between the US and European allies. We hope more members of congress see Frank's wisdom in treating Israel the way US treats other nations, and not with special favors.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Democrites: Are Congressional Democrats Siding With Netanyahu Against President Obama?

BY, Sam Sedaei
Civil Resistance Educator, Executive Producer, International Affairs Contributor
Huffinton Post

Congressional Democrats and President Obama ran on the platform of significantly changing the direction of this country, from domestic policy to national security. But lately, Democrats have been taking a number of actions on national security that are alarming at best and hypocritical at worst. This post is part of Sam Sedaei's new blog series "Democrites," coming from the perspective of a member of loyal opposition, to call Democrats out on their questionable actions when they occur.

Last December, Israel engaged in one of the most horrific military acts in recent history against Gaza. It did so in the name of national security, claiming that this action was a response to HAMAS rockets, refusing to acknowledge that the rockets were a response to Israel's two-year-long water-land-air blockade on Gaza that, BBC once reported, was "sucking the life" out of its citizens. Israel caused an outcry by the entire world (with the exception of the United States) for its indiscriminate and disproportionate use of violence against the people of Gaza, strike on a U.N. school that killed forty people, and for its use of white phosphorus--a weapon that militaries use widely to obscure the battlefield but that is also limited under an international convention that bans targeting civilians with it -- against Gazans.

During a five hour interview on May 5, HAMAS leader Khaled Meshaal (knowing full well the U.S.'s unequivocal recognition of Israel as a state) told The New York Times, "I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period," and according to The Times, "he urged outsiders to ignore the Hamas charter, which calls for the obliteration of Israel through jihad," saying it was 20 years old and adding, "We are shaped by our experiences."

If Israel's claims of self defense are accurate, then one would expect Israel to have a kinder attitude toward the peaceful Palestinians in the West Bank, which aren't sending any rockets into Israel. So what has Israel done for the West Bank lately? After the implicit willingness by Hamas to recognize Israel, should we not at the very least expect Israel to abide by its own previous commitment to a two-state solution? Apparently, not.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu came to the U.S. late last month, each side had a goal: Israel wanted the U.S. to have a timetable for dealing with Iran, and in return, President Obama expected Israel to work with the Palestinians on a peace plan and freeze the building of settlements in the West Bank (which are completely illegal anyway according to international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention). President Obama did his part, saying, "we are not going to have talks [with Iran] forever." But Prime Minster Netanyahu refused to promise a freeze on illegal settlements in the West Bank, and shockingly, he even refused to restate Israel's previous commitment to abide by the two-state roadmap, which the vast majority of the countries involved in the process and regional experts believe is the only way to have peace in the Middle East.

So there is a new dynamics in the Middle East where Hamas is stopping the launching of rockets and opening the door to recognizing Israel, and Jewish hospitals in Iran get boost in their funding under Ahmadinejad while Israel uses white phosphorous on Gaza, expands illegal settlements deeper into the West Bank and refuses to accept a two-state solution.

President Obama, Secretary Clinton and others in the administration have wisely changed the U.S.'s tone, taking an appropriately tougher stance on Israel. During a recent interview on Al Jazeera, Hillary Clinton unequivocally expressed the position of the administration against any expansion of settlements in the West Bank, whether within or outside of the borders of current settlements.

However, while President Obama understands the importance of taking a tougher stance on Israel to fit the new circumstances, some Democrats in Congress do not. When it comes to the split between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, these Democrats are siding with Israel against President Obama. In response to the administration's position, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) said, "My concern is that we are applying the pressure to the wrong party ... I think it would serve America's interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements." This may come as a surprise to Rep. Berkley, but Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East. The other one is Turkey, which is coincidentally predominantly Muslim. And according to Rep. Berkley, when threats come from places like Iran, we must preemptively stop them, but if they are from Israel in the form of illegal settlements on occupied land, it's "natural growth."

Meanwhile, Rep Anthony Weiner (D-NY) also attacked President Obama's position, saying, "There's a line between articulating U.S. policy and seeming to be pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies, and the president is tiptoeing right up to that line." Memo to Rep. Weiner: Settlements are not a legal part of Israel, and therefore, Israel's settlement policy is not Israel's "domestic" policy. And Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) made a similar comment, saying "I don't think anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national security interests." So if one of our allies pursues a policy that is completely contradictory to what we stand for as a country, we have to accept its behavior over our own principles and interests? If we are to accept any behavior by our ally, then why are we being so selective in picking allies to begin with? Why not just call Iran our ally too and overlook everything they do because they will be our ally? What is the point of having allies if having them will require us sacrificing our nation's own self-interest?

There are occasional debates within political circles on what is the real third rail in American politics. Is it social security? Military spending? If there is such a list, policy toward Israel certainly belongs to it. But despite that context, here we have a courageous administration and president who is willing to put America's interest first and pursue a Middle East policy that seems more fair-minded than that of any other administration in recent history. This policy is America's best shot at forging peace in the Middle East; Congressional Democrats need to get on board.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Israeli Right has done it. They called Obama's bluff. Successive US administrations have called for a two state solution and the end to Israeli settlements on the West Bank, but thanks to the all powerful Israel lobby in Washington, the US never put much pressure on Israel, in the way it did with Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinians. Israeli intransigence never brought more than a few sharp words from the US while American money and arms flowed to Israel uninterrupted.

Obama promised to be different. He has vowed to take the tough steps necessary to bring about the two state settle so often talked about. Both he and Secretary of State Clinton have said the settlements must stop. Because of his background and message of hope and change, Obama has given hope to people of the Muslim and Arab worlds that things will be different.

Recently, senior members of the government in Israel have said the settlements will continue
, thumbing their nose at the United States, confident that the Israel Lobby will prevent America from putting pressure on Israel. The ball is now in Obama's court. Every President since Carter has spoken out against Israeli settlements. Yet when Israel has balked, these Presidents showed that the word of the United States was an empty one, and stood idly by while Israel thumbed her nose at the US. Obama has the best chance of any American has had to remake America's image in the Middle East. When confronted by Israeli intransigence, will Obama move to end massive annual gift of arms and money that enables Israel's bellicosity? Or will he follow his predecessors down the path of failure and violence in the Middle East?

Obama's speech in Cairo: What's next?

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo is set to usher in a “new era” of American policies in the Middle East. US politics have long been dominated by “domestic pressures” that have inhibited our ability to practice genuine diplomacy and spread democracy in the region.

The President is sure to offer the same eloquent rhetoric that led voters to overwhelmingly select him as the 44th President of the United States. But, it remains to be seen whether the rhetoric will turn into reality, and subsequently foster a “real” peace in the Middle East.

The Administration has taken a firm stance with Israel concerning settlement expansion projects leading to a subtle rift with Netanyahu. The disagreement over Israeli settlement expansion between the two leaders came shortly after they expressed their differences in strategies dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama believes dealing with Israel-Palestine would calm tensions with Iran. The Israeli Prime Minister believes the Israeli-Palestinian issue is irrelevant to their scuttle with Iran, and contends that Iran posses an immediate threat to Israel’s sovereignty and should be addressed first.

Could the differences between the two new Administrations be a sign America is finally ready to take the training wheels of Israel subjecting it to the law of the land? Could the free ride Israel has been given brokered by lobbies, propagated by the media, passed by compromised integrities in congress, and unconsciously bankrolled by American tax-payers slowly be coming to an end?

CNI has recently conducted a 17-day Political Pilgrimage of all six states in the Middle East. The delegation led by former Ambassador Stephen Buck and Harriet Fulbright, held sit down meetings with leadership in the region –including leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Israeli Knesset.

What we found was an overwhelmingly optimistic people who believe that a “real” peace is possible, but reconciliation between the “political players” will have to be step one.

Halting settlement expansion projects, tearing down illegal outpost, opening the Gaza borders for transportation and goods exchange, and direct dialog between Israel and Palestine’s “elected” officials, should be initiated immediately, and are a rudimentary element to a lasting peace process. Harriet Fulbright and a large group of former diplomats are urging the State Department to adopt these initiatives by submitting a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Obama will give his speech in Cairo tomorrow and what will come out of it remains to be seen. But, as the President’s operatives set the stage for a landmark speech, we hope the President is also setting the stage for new US-Mid East policies and diplomatic efforts –built solely from the fabric of the National Interest.