Soccer hooliganism in Israel took on a particularly violent tone on Monday when, after a game in Teddy Kollek Stadium, hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem supporters assaulted cleaning personnel in nearby Malha Mall. According to Haaretz, it "was said to be one of Jerusalem's biggest-ever ethnic clashes." Mohammed Yusuf, a team leader for Or-Orly cleaning services, described it as "a mass lynching attempt." Witnesses also stated that "mostly teenage supporters flooded into the shopping center, hurling racial abuse at Arab workers and customers and chanting anti-Arab slogans, and filled the food hall on the second floor," and that the "attackers also asked Jewish shop owners for knives and sticks to serve as weapons but none consented."
Eventually, the mall's security director deployed a group of guards "in an attempt to restore order, but they were outnumbered." He called the police, who evacuated the mall at about 10:30 pm, but they made no arrests because "no complaint was filed," even though there is CCTV footage of the brawl.
Yellow- and black-clad Beitar fans are notorious for their hatred toward Arabs. They frequently chant "Death to Arabs" during matches, and last year fans recorded themselves teaching racist chants to their children. The suspect in a recent price tag attack claimed that "he vandalized the school to avenge the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team's loss to two Arab teams two weeks ago." The team, which used to be sponsored by Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, has been described as "magnet for right-wing extremists" and criticized for not hiring Arab players.
FP looked at the history of sports-related political violence last summer.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Israel isn't having much luck with commercials these days. First there was the government-sponsored ad campaign late last year to persuade Israelis living in the United States to return home, which was yanked when it caused an uproar in the American Jewish community. Now, Iranian lawmaker Arsalan Fat'hipour is telling Iran's PressTV that the country may impose a ban on products from South Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung over a commercial depicting Israelis accidentally destroying an Iranian nuclear facility.
The ad couldn't come at a tenser time. Iranian leaders are accusing the Israeli spy agency Mossad of killing an Iranian nuclear scientist in January, and using increasingly heated rhetoric (just today, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that must be "cut"). Meanwhile, the media is abuzz with reports that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities could be imminent.
In the commercial for the Israeli cable company HOT, four characters from the HOT television series Asfur, all (poorly) disguised as Iranian women, meet a Mossad agent in Iran who's watching the show on his Samsung tablet. In checking out the device's features, one of the characters accidentally presses a button that blows up a nearby nuclear plant.
Here's the commercial:
PressTV has expressed outrage not only with the ad but also with its underlying assumptions -- that Iran is a "primitive society" and that "Israel is powerful enough to easily destroy Iran's nuclear facilities or assassinate the country's nuclear scientists." Fat'hipour, the Iranian lawmaker, argues that Samsung produced the commercial to cozy up with Israel. But a Samsung spokesperson in Iran tells PressTV that HOT -- not Samsung -- produced the ad, which promotes a cable deal offering subscribers free Samsung tablets. HOT has informed CNN that it has no comment on the controversy.
Of course, in the Middle East, any ad that veers toward the political is likely to be controversial. In 2009, for example, the Israel cell phone company Cellcom aired a commercial in which a soccer ball kicked by unseen Palestinians hits an Israeli military jeep patrolling the security barrier with the West Bank. The soldiers kick it back over the fence, only for the ball to return, sparking an impromptu soccer game among Israeli soldiers. "The ad has caused outrage among Palestinians and left-wing Israelis who accuse it of whitewashing the negative effects of the wall," ABC News noted at the time, adding that the ad agency that produced the commercial claimed that the spot was intended to show "how people can overcome obstacles between them to build friendship."
Iran's tough words for Samsung, however, may be about more than just HOT's incendiary ad. Last month, the Korea Herald reported that the Iranian government had retaliated against South Korea's support for Western sanctions of Iranian oil imports by demanding that Korean companies remove their billboards in the capital. One of the targets of Tehran's wrath? Good old Samsung.
My attention was struck by this tweet today from Newt Gingrich: "My first day in office, I will move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's chosen place, Jerusalem."
Putting aside the wisdom of that decision, is this symbolic gesture really the best use of the president's first day in office during a time of recession and war? I doubt that would even be the first thing on Benjamin Netanyahu's wish list for the new president.
Not to worry though, Gingrich has other plans for his first day -- and he's even taking suggestions on his website. In addition to the Jerusalem move, Gingrich will sign executive orders to "eliminate the thirty-nine White House "Czar" positions created during the current administration," reinstate the ""Mexico City Policy," to prohibit the funding of international NGOs that provide abortions (which is also what George W. Bush did on his first day) and "Restore conscience clause protections for Healthcare Workers."
These all seem like somewhat niche issues. But still, not a bad day's work.
Here's how the other candidates are planning to spend Jan. 21, 2013:
Rick Perry's going to repeal Obama's healthcare law on his first day, and he's even picked out the sharpie he's going to do it with.
Ron Paul says he'd start with foreign policy by "bringing the troops home so they can spend their money here instead of overseas.'
Jon Huntsman's got a busy day planned for himself, with "three immediate steps" on energy policy including clarifying rules to allow offshore drilling and fracking, opening the U.S. fuel network to alternative energy, and eliminating "every subsidy for energy companies."
But no candidate in the race has as ambitious a plan to hit the ground running as Mitt Romney, who has five bills and five executive orders planned for day one, including eliminating energy regulations, implementing the free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, labeling China a currency manipulator, and giving states waivers to opt out of Obamacare.
In case you don't remember, on Obama's first day, he froze White House salaries, unveiled new ethics rules, appointed George Mitchell as Mideast peace negotiator, and issued an executive order closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. (The last two didn't work out so well.)
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
With the news of Gilad Shalit's release from five years of captivity at the hands of Hamas, we found ourselves talking about the remarkable changes over the past half decade -- and what he's missed. It's not quite Charlton Heston waking up in a room full of talking apes, but there's a lot that Shalit might find surprising. Upon his release, he said during an interview that he looked forward to "not doing the same things all day long." There's certainly plenty to keep him busy.
1. The iPhone
Remember that morning in January 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone? For many people, life has been divided into pre- and post- iPhone since that moment. No word yet if Shalit was a Nokia man or a clamshell guy, but we're betting that he's never unlocked a smart phone with the swipe of his finger, never beheld Google Maps in the palm of his hand, and never tapped out a text message on a touch screen. Apple, get this man a 4S.
Back in the dark days of 2006, people still relied on phone calls and email to communicate. How anything was accomplished is lost to history, now that Facebook and Twitter have changed the manner -- and speed -- with which information is delivered. Facebook launched in 2004, but it was still a limited network when Shalit was abducted: Facebook did not open its doors to everyone over the age of 13 until Sept. 26, 2006. Twitter launched just one month after Shalit was detained, in July of 2006, and now boasts over 200 million users. Indeed, the platform was used extensively to spread word of Shalit's capture and any news of his release. The hashtag #GiladShalit spread around the globe, with the Jewish Week arguing it eclipsed the fame of the soldier himself.
3. Barack Obama
When Shalit was imprisoned, George W. Bush was president. Two years later, the U.S. elected its first black president, Barack Obama. In 2006, Obama was a senator from Illinois, arguing against the war in Iraq and raising the debt ceiling. After two years in office, Iraq is peaceful and U.S. debt is under control. Just kidding! Shalit actually didn't miss much here.
4. The Beatles
In all fairness, Shalit most likely knew a few Beatles tunes. However, he wouldn't have seen them play in his native Israel: The group was barred from the country -- over fears that they would corrupt Israel's youth -- until 2008, when the government apologized for the national ban, instituted in 1965, and invited the surviving members to play a concert for Israel's 60th anniversary. In Sept., 2008, Paul McCartney finally took the stage in Tel Aviv. That said, it was only McCartney, so it doesn't really count.
5. Economic Collapse
In 2006, when Shalit was taken hostage, the global economy was humming along, buoyed by a strong real estate market and easy credit. By 2008, the boom was over and a recession was sweeping the globe, shifting international power, both politically and economically, perhaps irrevocably toward the developing world. The United States was hit hard by the slump, as was Europe, both of which continue to be plagued by protests and government infighting. China, on the other hand, saw its economy boom, while other emerging economies, including Brazil and India, avoided the worst of the dip and recovered relatively quickly. Shalit doesn't need to worry too much, though: While Israel did feel some of the effects of the recession in 2009, its economy has more than bounced back as its technology sector continues to grow.
What other major milestones did Shalit miss over the last five years? Let us know in the comments.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Off shore, and generally off the radar, a fight is heating up between Israel and Lebanon over who controls a valuable piece of the Mediterranean that is known to have two major gas fields possibly worth billions of dollars. As always, when it comes to border issues between these two nations, the rhetoric has become heated -- and there's the fear that this could signal the next big clash between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah's deputy secretary general Sheikh Naim Qassem minced no words, saying today the group "will remain vigilant in order to regain its full rights, whatever it takes."
Israel's rhetoric has been equally heated. Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Uzi Landau said Israel "would not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect...international maritime law."
Qassem's comments today were in response to Israel, which on Sunday issued a map that it plans on submitting to the United Nations. Lebanon says, though, that the Israeli map encroaches on their territory by more than 1,500 square kilometers. Last year, Lebanon submitted a map of their own to the world body -- hoping for mediation.
Israeli officials say Hezbollah, boosted by its new political clout, is trying to pick a fight with Israel as a pretext for continuing their conflict.
But Hezbollah says that Israel is trying to snatch valuable territory and that it won't be "frightened by" Israeli threats.
A resolution is tricky. There is a lot of money at stake for the two resource-poor countries -- maybe up to $90 billion worth of gas. Hezbollah's position is not dissimilar from the previous Western-backed government led by Saad Hariri, which also accused Israel of taking part of its offshore territory.
So, who actually controls what? The only internationally recognized border between Lebanon and Israel -- the blue line -- was drawn up in 2000 by the United Nations, following the Israeli withdraw from southern Lebanon.
But trying to extend that into the sea isn't so simple. Israel says it drew a straight line out from shore to demarcate the sea border. But Lebanon says the angle Israel used gives it more territory than it should have, since it's drawn too far north. The territory extends to water controlled by Cyprus (both Israel and Lebanon have separate agreements with that country).
International law says countries that share sea borders have to reach bilateral agreements on how to demarcate them. But that's not so easy, given Israel and Lebanon are still technically in a state of war.
Israel would seem to have an advantage, legally -- since it has already staked its claim and is exploring the fields, experts say.
That's why Lebanon is asking the United Nations to step in. Though, as with everything when it comes to that world body, the process is sure to take a long time, if it's ever resolved. In the meantime, there will be more heated rhetoric. This weekend, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, compared the sea dispute to Shebaa Farms, the tiny area that Lebanon and Israel both claim and have led to flare-ups in the past. Given what's at stake in terms of mineral wealth, and the history of the border -- whether it stays at just heated rhetoric, or escalates to something more significant, is a question that has to be considered.
Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from around the world are planning to fly into Tel Aviv's airport in hopes of traveling to the West Bank. Over 700 people have already scheduled flights and as many as 1,200 are expected to arrive at Ben-Gurion between Thursday and Friday. Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel's Public Security Minister, responded to the planned ‘aerial flotilla', saying:
"These hooligans who try to break our laws will not be allowed into the country and will be returned immediately to their home countries."
Five activists have already been arrested upon arrival. While airport security is on high alert, activists like Nicolas Sheshni say there is no plan to riot or cause disruption:
"We have no intention of staging a political protest inside Israeli territory. We only want to tour Palestine and show solidarity with the Palestinian people."
Sheshni and 300 other French activists hope to plant olive trees in Ramallah and tour the ancient city of Bethlehem. Travelers usually conceal their intent to travel to the West Bank for fear of facing immediate deportation. But in the next several days, many activists will declare Palestine as their final destination, protesting their lack of ability to visit Palestinian friends and family. Dozens of Israeli security forces are now stationed at Ben-Gurion. Friday flights from Europe will be directed to a separate terminal and passengers will undergo thorough immigration procedures.
Netanyahu defended Israel's plan to deport the activists:
"Every country has the right to prevent the entry of provocateurs and trouble-makers into its territory. That is how all countries behave and that is how Israel will act. We must prevent the disruption of normal life for Israeli citizens."
Maritime efforts of pro-Palestinian activists have been paralyzed in Greek ports, but who knows what the skies will hold in the coming days.
llee_wu via Flickr Creative Commons
Newt to Obama: ‘Tide of war' isn't receding
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked President Barack Obama's assertion in his June 22 speech announcing the troop drawdown in Afghanistan that the "tide of war is receding." He said the country is facing a "tsunami of violence building offshore," according to Politico.
"I want to challenge the president to withdraw the phrase because it totally misleads the American people, and presents a delusional version of the world," he said at a Maryland Republican Party dinner in Baltimore.
Gingrich said the White House should have taken stronger action against Pakistan after it reportedly arrested CIA informants who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.
"We should have taken extraordinary actions against Pakistanis -- within 24 hours," Gingrich told the crowd. "We should have said if you don't release those people you can assume we have no relationship and we'll chat with you from India."
He also accused the president of "sleepwalking" through the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Romney to fundraise in London
One of Mitt Romney's favorite knocks on Obama is that he is too European. In the words of the GOP frontrunner, the president takes "his inspiration not from the small towns and villages of New Hampshire but from the capitals of Europe." So, it might strike some people as a little surprising that Romney is planning to travel to London next month -- which, after all, is one of those "capitals of Europe" -- to attend a fund-raiser, according to the Boston Globe. Very few presidential candidates have held fundraisers on foreign soil. Rudy Giuliani was the first in 2007 -- also in London -- and Obama held one in the London home of Rupert Murdoch's daughter, Elizabeth, in 2008.
According to the Globe, suggested contributions for the July 6 party at Dartmouth House -- "a building not far from Hyde Park that has marble fireplaces, Louis XIV walnut paneling, and a painted ceiling by Pierre Victor Galland" -- is $2,500 a person.
Santorum and Beck discuss Israel
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was on Glenn Beck's Fox News show yesterday, and the pair discussed more than just kissing "on the mouth" -- though they did discuss that too.
Israel -- and specifically efforts to delegitimize Israel -- came up. Santorum said the United States should not force Israel to take part in negotiations since the "Palestinian Authority [and] others in the Middle East refuse to accept Israel's right to be there."
"Do you think America has enough courage to turn the tide on Israel," Beck asked the presidential candidate."
"If we had a strong leader who had the respect of the world," Santorum said. "We see now...a president backing away, who is an internationalist, someone who sees his role as almost transcending the presidency...and sees his role as to work with the international community to their ends. Not to the ends of the national security interest of our country. Not to the end of supporting allies who are strategic for us. But to the ends of some greater goal."
Whenever the two get together, the Middle East seems to come up. In April, they agreed that there is a coalition of "Sunni, Shia, socialists, and Islamists and jihadists working together [to form] a caliphate," Santorum said. Beck said the caliphate "begins with Turkey, Egypt and Iran."
Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions that reached a unity agreement last month, began negotiating in Cairo this morning over who would lead the new government. According to press reports and sources close to the sides, negotiators reached a consensus on a new leader, to replace current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is seen as close to Fatah. But negotiators are keeping the name under wraps until next Tuesday, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal are expected to officially mark the agreement.
"We have agreed that the talks will be finalized next Tuesday, on June 21, with the participation of Abbas and Khaled Mashal," a Fatah representative said in Cairo earlier today.
The choice could have major near-term repercussions for Palestinian statehood. The U.S. Congress has threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians if the candidate is seen as too close to Hamas.
Perhaps wary that he might be soon losing American support, Abbas is in Saudi Arabia today, trying to get more money from the kingdom's leaders, according to a Washington-based source.
Finding a choice to fill the leadership role seemed less than certain just this past weekend. On Sunday, Hamas firmly rejected Fatah's nomination of Fayyad, who is credited with helping to build up institutions and commerce in the West Bank (and was a representative favored by the United States). Hamas opposed him because, as prime minister of the Fatah-led government, he is blamed for supporting the arrests of Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank.
"For us, Fayyad is unacceptable because his name is connected with a black phase in the history of the Palestinian people," a Hamas official, Taher al-Nounou, told the New York Times.
Analysts say they are keeping the name under wraps so that both sides can minimize any campaign against the nominee. The negotiations have included only a very small circle of people close to Abbas and Mashal. And there are some in both camps who will likely disagree with the choice.
One Middle East analyst speculated, "At some level, both sides probably felt it was better not to reach an agreement for a while and keep things going as they are."
The two sides agreed earlier this year to establish a government of unaffiliated ministers, mainly made up of technocrats, and to prepare for elections within a year.
Mark Perry, an independent Mideast analyst, said the candidate would probably have to be someone from the West Bank, since it would be difficult to negotiate with a prime minister who is based in Gaza, since traveling to the capital Ramallah is not possible. But the candidate would likely have some affiliation with Hamas.
"Hamas is actually the stronger party at the table" in these negotiations, Perry said. "They won the election in 2006. It will be hard for Abu Mazen [Abbas] to argue their role should be diminished."
To thunderous applause before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister delivered what amounted to a stunning rebuke of Barack Obama's vision of Middle East peace, just days after the U.S. president outlined his basic parameters for a two-state solution.
There was little, if anything, new in Netanyahu's speech: He reiterated his longstanding positions on borders (he won't go back to the 1967 lines), Jerusalem (he wants it to remain undivided), refugees (none can return to Israel), and security (a demilitarized Palestinian state, with Israeli troops "along the Jordan River"). He again demanded that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" -- a determination Abbas says is for Israelis themselves to make.
Although he said Israel would be "very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state," Netanyahu was uncompromising about just whose land he was talking about. As he put it, "In Judea and Samaria" -- religious names for the West Bank -- "the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo."
Netanyahu also demanded that Abbas immediately "tear up" his recent unity agreement with Hamas, a movement he said was "the Palestinian version of al Qaeda."
However vague, these are not terms that any Palestinian leader concerned for his political survival can accept, and indeed, Abbas's side was quick to reject them in no uncertain terms. (One Palestinian official said Netanyahu's speech was "a declaration of war on Palestine.") Hamas, for its part, seems as intransigent as ever. There will be no negotiations for the foreseeable future.
Given their lack of faith in the "peace process" -- and Abbas's unwillingness to take any risks -- it now seems certain that the Palestinians will plow ahead with their statehood drive at the United Nations, a move that both Obama and Netanyahu vigorously oppose. Given how recent U.N. votes have gone, the United States will stand alone as the rest of the world denounces the Israeli occupation and embraces a Palestinian state. It may not change any facts on the ground, but it will further illustrate just how isolated America and Israel are becoming. And this may even be an optimistic scenario -- a third intifada may well break out, possibly leading to another round of destabilizing violence. Any shred of hard-won credibility the United States has regained in the Arab world as a result of the "Arab Spring" will be gone.
So is there any hope?
Even before Netanyahu's speech, Yossi Alpher, a devoted veteran of the peace process, had exhausted his well of ideas:
This writer has only one hope left. After this week, the speechmaking will be over for a while. All those Israelis, Americans and Europeans of good will who for months have evinced confidence that it is still possible to squeeze a viable peace process out of Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas, should now come to their senses. It's time to prepare not for a bilateral process but for a UN process. It's not too late to leverage the Arab UN initiative into a win-win dynamic for both Israelis and Palestinians that will transform a seemingly hopeless morass into a far more manageable two-state conflict.
Chances of that happening, given the display we just saw in Congress? About as close to zero as you can imagine.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
On Sunday, for the first time since January 25, the Arab world's attention was riveted not on scenes of protesters castigating their own governments, but on much more familiar imagery: that of Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation.
For months, Palestinian and Arab activists had planned to mark May 15 -- Youm an-Nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe," which usually takes place the day after Israel's independence celebrations -- with a civilian march on the occupied territories. For Arabs, Nakba Day represents a day of mourning, a time to commemorate the expulsion during the 1948 war of Palestinians from their villages and homes, press for the right of refugees to return, and denounce the Jewish state.
In past years, Nakba Day has generally passed without much fanfare: demonstrations around the world and in Palestinian villages, occasional attempts to march on Israeli-held territory, met with force.
But this is 2011, and things were rather different on Sunday. In Lebanon, a group of hundreds of Palestinian refugees tried to stream across the border and were fired upon by both Israeli and Lebanese troops. Near the Erez crossing in Gaza, IDF soldiers fired on Palestinians seeking to cross into Israel. Near Ramallah in the West Bank, a large crowd battled tear-gas-wielding riot troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. And in Syria, another large crowd swarmed over the fence along the disputed line that separates the two countries and made it into Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, before being rounded up by the IDF. (Jordan and Egypt prevented smaller crowds from reaching the border.) Altogether, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and dozens more wounded by live fire, according to the New York Times.
Al Jazeera Arabic went large with its coverage, deploying a split screen to show the events live, while thousands more followed developments on Twitter using the #nakba tag. So did Syrian state television, happy to change the subject from the domestic demonstrations of the last few months. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hailed the protesters, addressing them directly: "You are adamant to liberate your land no matter how many sacrifices you make and the fate of this [Jewish] entity is to fade." Hamas declared the onset of a third intifada; its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declared that changes sweeping the region would "lead to the collapse of the Zionist project in Palestine and victory for the program of the nation." Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a large crowd demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy, arresting a number of well-known revolutionary Twitterati.
Somewhere in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is smiling for the first time in weeks.
All of this sounds a bit like the old Middle East, doesn't it? Arabs raging impotently at the Jews instead of their own brutal rulers? And yet the narrative that the Arab revolutions were never about Israel has always been wrong, or at least incomplete. For Arabs living under authoritarian regimes, Israel (and America's support for Israel) has long been seen as an important reason for their subjugation. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak bucked popular opinion by selling gas to Israel below market rates and enforced a widely reviled blockade of Gaza. In Tahrir Square, there were plenty of chants denouncing Mubarak as an Israeli and American agent, no matter what Thomas Friedman says.
Yet there is nothing impotent about Sunday's tactics, which put Israel and its American ally in an incredibly tough position. Whatever Assad's cynical motives for allowing and even encouraging the protesters to reach the Golan ("See, Bibi, you need me after all!"), Palestinians now have a powerful tool at their disposal, and there will no doubt be attempts to replicate the feat. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn puts it, "The nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real -- that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.'"
Even more awkward for the United States, Netanyahu is due to visit Washington in a few days in what will likely be one long exposition of the words, "I told you so." If he is smart, he will announce a serious plan for peace and get out ahead of the most serious threat to Israel's security since the 1973 war. If he is true to form, he will use the opportunity to double down on his argument for the status quo.
President Obama has planned two speeches for the coming week: one for Thursday, billed as a disquisition on the Arab Spring, and another an address at the AIPAC conference. With George Mitchell's resignation, the peace process is officially dead. The Arab street now understands its power -- people clearly aren't going to sit around quietly waiting until September for the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The BDS movement ("boycott, divestment, sanctions") is gaining steam internationally. There will be more marches, more flotillas, more escalation, more senseless deaths.
What is Obama going to say now?
Jalaa Marey/JINI/Getty Images
The headline on the home page of the New York Times -- "U.S. Mideast Envoy Resigns After 2 Years of Frustration" -- says it all. George Mitchell's departing note to the president is curt:
When I accepted your request to serve as U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace my intention was to serve for two years. More than two years having passed I hereby resign, effective May 20, 2011. I trust this will provide sufficient time for an effective transition.
I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration. It has been an honor for me to again serve our country.
What's amazing is not Mitchell resigned, but that he hung in there so long. As my colleague Josh Rogin reports, Mitchell has long been marginalized: The Israelis weren't interested in meeting him, and his own ostensible colleague in the White House, longtime peace-processor Dennis Ross, developed his back channel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (In typical fashion, Israel and Palestinian officials took the opportunity to blame each other for Mitchell's failure.)
This is usually the point in an article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the author offers up an alternative strategy for advancing peace, but unfortunately I don't have one. The peace process has long been a charade -- a cowardly game of inches and incrementalism -- because none of the three parties to the dispute dares take any political risks. Most Israelis seem happy with the status quo, and the settlers' bloc has expanded to the point where its power may be impossible to check. Bibi Netanyahu has written an entire, tedious book explaining why he doesn't believe in a two-state solution, and takes every opportunity to exploit to the other side's obstructionism, divisions, and weakness. The Palestinian Authority is led by Mahmoud Abbas, a dumpy, charmless Fatah party functionary who has international support but close to zero street legitimacy; Hamas controls Gaza and has yet to admit the abject failure of its violent strategy. The Israeli and Palestinian publics still have vastly different expectations on sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the right of return, and the current political leadership on both sides has made no effort to prepare the ground for concessions. Peace seems as far away as ever.
The one bright spot is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has put his head down and built functioning institutions to the point where one of the many arguments made in favor of the Israeli occupation -- that Palestinians just aren't ready to run their own country -- is no longer so credible. But Fayyad is not popular domestically, either, and he may become a casualty of the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal, a move that would spook the international donors that would keep any nascent Palestinian state afloat. The U.S. Congress is already making rumblings about cutting off aid.
All of this comes months ahead of Abbas's September deadline for declaring independence, a move that will put him in direct disagreement with the United States just as the 2012 campaign begins to hit up. European countries have signaled quietly that they might break with Washington and recognize Palestine, and frankly at this point I think many Americans would welcome the idea, because nothing else seems to work. Barack Obama will likely give a speech in August signaling his "deep commitment" to Middle East peace, but there is no chance whatsover that he'll make any bold or creative moves in election season. According to Yahoo's Laura Rozen, he's not even planning to raise the Arab-Israeli issue during next Thursday's big speech on the Middle East.
So the floor will be clear for Netanyahu, who meets with Obama next week and is due to address Congress on Tuesday, May 24. If past is prologue, we can expect Bibi to bamboozle: offer just enough movement to seem reasonable but not enough to actually induce the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. And why not? There's very little pressure on him domestically to cut a deal, and he knows that little pressure will be forthcoming from Washington, especially given the risk that one Hamas leader or another will pop off and say something crazy.
Perhaps the abject failure of U.S. peacemaking efforts to date will encourage other folks -- I'm looking at you, Nabil El-Araby -- to come forward with creative solutions. But I wouldn't bet more than a few sheckels on it.
The Holy Land is contracting Bieber fever this week as the Canadian pubescent pop star makes a much-anticipated visit to Israel. He arrived in Israel on Monday, and is set to meet with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday ahead of a performance in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
Haaretz reports that Israeli tweens mobbed Bieber upon his arrival. "We are following him everywhere," a 14-year-old named Adi told the newspaper. "I will go with him to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea." But another Israeli is enthusiastically awaiting the Bibi-Bieber summit: Netanyahu himself, who hopes to use Bieber's visit to raise Western awareness of missile fire from the Hamas-administrated Gaza strip. Netanyahu's advisers invited a group of children from towns near the border of Gaza to attend the Bieber-Bibi summit.
i want to see this country and all the places ive dreamed of and whether its the paps or being pulled into politics its been frustrating
You would think paparazzi would have some respect in holy places. All I wanted was the chance to walk where jesus did here in isreal.
Bieber's international travel generated Internet buzz last July when pranksters from the notorious online message board 4chan rigged a contest where fans could vote for an international destination for a Bieber tour. North Korea beat out Israel as the contest's winner. When a Bieber spokesperson cried foul, different pranksters made the most-searched term on Google Trends "Justin Bieber Hates Korea."
Update: Netanyahu cancelled the meeting with Bieber after Bieber refused to meet with the children living in communities near Gaza.
In case you haven't heard, Al Jazeera (along with the Guardian) on Sunday announced it had gotten its hands on more than 1,600 Palestinian documents detailing negotiations with Israeli and U.S. officials. The documents aren't all released yet, but the story is already roiling the Arab world, prompting fresh cries that the Palestinian Authority is "selling out" to Israel by offering politically sensitive concessions on Jerusalem, its holy sites, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Perhaps more damning, in Arab eyes, is the language used by some Palestinian leaders. Longtime peace negotiator Saeb Erekat is quoted in one document, a write-up of a Jan. 15, 2010, meeting with U.S. envoy David Hale, saying he had offered Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state ... what more can I give?"
Erekat and other Palestinian leaders have made no effort to prepare their public for these kinds of concessions. In 2009, for instance, Erekat appeared on Al Jazeera and said, "There will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem -- with every single stone in it -- becomes the capital of Palestine."
No wonder Palestinian leaders are scrambling to contain the damage, ripping Al Jazeera and even the emir of Qatar, which sponsors the satellite channel. Erekat told reporters that the documents have been "taken out of context and contain lies… Al Jazeera's information is full of distortions and fraud." For its part, the network says it has "taken great care over an extended period of time to assure ourselves of their authenticity," as has the Guardian. The State Department says it's looking into them.
So, who leaked the papers? Most likely people within the Negotiations Support Unit, the Palestinian organization that staffs Erekat and took most of the notes, the Guardian reports:
[A]s the negotiations have increasingly been seen to have failed, and the Ramallah-based PA leadership has come to be regarded by many Palestinians as illegitimate or unrepresentative, discontent among NSU staff has grown and significant numbers have left. There has also been widespread discontent in the organisation at the scale and nature of concessions made in the talks.
If this speculation is right, the leakers intended to embarrass their former bosses. Mission accomplished.
So what now? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been ruling outside the law for some time now; there doesn't seem to be a legal means for his opponents to oust him. That means Palestinians who oppose the PA are going to need to take to the streets to voice their disapproval, Tunisia style.
And what of the two-state solution? It was probably already dead, and these documents will only reinforce the point. But I imagine the "peace process" will limp along, one way or another, until it becomes impossible to defend anymore. I hope the Obama team has an exit strategy.
R65 -- the Griffon vulture arrested last week on suspicion of spying for Israel because of the Hebrew lettering on its GPS tag -- will soon be released according to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Saud al-Saud:
"These systems are fitted to birds and animals, including marine animals. Most countries use these system, including Saudi Arabia," Saud told Saudi media on Sunday, according to Emirates 24/7. "We have taken delivery of this bird, but we will set it free again after we [have] verified its systems."
Saud insisted he wasn't defending Israel, but called for calm.
"Some of the Saudi journalists rushed in carrying the news of this bird for the sake of getting a scoop without checking the information," he said. "They should have asked the competent authorities about the bird before publishing such news."
This is certainly good news. No innocent bird -- even a vulture -- deserves to be held on trumped up charges. I also hope that R65's colleague, reportedly still circling around Saudi Arabia, will stay safe.
Though given the political realities of today's Middle East, Tel Aviv University might want to consider slightly more innocuous tags for future research subjects. Unlike Israeli gerbils, Israeli vultures do not recognize natural boundaries.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted his pay slip on Facebook today, in what his office is billing as a step forward for government transparency. The picture reveals that Netanyahu makes approximately $120,000 a year, significantly less than President Barack Obama's $400,000 salary.
To me, the greatest surprise of this news was Israel's high income tax rates. Netanyahu's gross income was 43,952 shekels, but after tax deductions, his net income came out to 15,027 shekels. That's a tax rate of almost 66 percent! And I thought the Israeli socialist ideal was dead.
The Palestinian foreign ministry has announced that in the coming months, Chile and Paraguay will join the growing number of countries in Latin America recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela have all announced support for a Palestinian state in rapid succession in the last month. The LA Times' Daniel Hernandez writes:
On Saturday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera met one-on-one with Abbas in Brazil during the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil's first female president. Abbas attended the inauguration in Brasilia to "thank the presidents" that have recognized the Palestinian state, reported the Chilean daily La Tercera (link in Spanish).
Chile is home to a significant population of about 350,000 mostly Christian Palestinians (link in Spanish). Like many of its neighbors, Chile also has a large Jewish community. A Jewish leader in Chile called the decisions to recognize a Palestinian state "imprudent" (link in Spanish).
The declarations have confounded Israel, as none of the South American countries have been directly involved in U.S.-led peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Those negotiations remain deadlocked.
The Palestinian Authority also plans to open an embassy in Ecuador soon, and Pinera plans to visit the West Bank in three months.
As blogger Greg Weeks notes, the interesting thing about this development is that it appears to be uncoordinated. As none of these countries have really involved themselves heavily in Israeli-Palestinian politics before, it's hard not to read this in the context of U.S.-South American relations and Brazil's rising influence. Uruguay was actually the first in the latest wave of Palestinian recognition, but the snowball really starting rolling after Brazil's announcemnt on Dec. 3, one of former President Lula da Silva's last acts in office.
Under Lula, Brazil has become an increasingly important player in Mideast politics, often taking positions directly at odds with U.S. policy. But the fact that governments ranging on the political spectrum from Sebastian Pinera's Chile to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela have been so quick to follow Brazil's lead on a political gesture guaranteed to annoy Washington, is a pretty good sign of where power is shifting on the continent.
The country to watch here is Colombia, traditionally staunchly pro-American, but increasingly, under President Juan Manuel Santos, willing to reach out to regional rivals. If Colombia signs on to supporting the Palestinian state -- they've been silent so far -- the Lula-Amorim foreign-policy legacy is going to start looking pretty impressive.
ADRIANO MACHADO/AFP/Getty Images
The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) claimed to have uncovered two Israeli spy cameras placed in the mountains overlooking Beirut. And how did it know that the devices belong to Israel? Well, one of them had the word "Israel" written in English on its side. The LAF promptly posted photos of the cameras on its website.
A mysterious explosion also rocked the southern Lebanese city of Saida on Wednesday night, which Lebanese media said was caused by Israel destroying another espionage device. Israel denied that was the case, and Lebanese authorities have so far been unable to produce munitions with "Israel" written in large letters on its side.
Critics of the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peace, a group that includes just about everyone who is paying attention, say that focusing on Israeli settlements for the last 2 years -- as opposed to "core issues" -- was the key mistake that hindered potential progress in other areas.
Instead, these folks say, Obama & co. should have focused on borders, because once the Israelis and Palestinians agreed on the outlines of a future Palestinian state, it would be clear what was a "settlement" and what was merely a suburb of Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put himself in this camp Monday, dismissing settlements as a "marginal" issue and calling instead for negotations to focus on -- you guessed it -- "core issues."
"To reach peace, we need to discuss the issues that are really hindering peace, the question of recognition, security, refugees and, of course, many other issues," he reportedly said in a speech just hours before meeting U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
One way to read those remarks is that Netanyahu is ready to roll up his sleeves. More likely, he has no intention of meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's demand to get serious and lay his cards on the table. Note that he did not mention borders at all. Instead, he appears to be reiterating his position that the Palestinians must explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which they refuse to do, that Israel needs to have control of the Jordan Valley, another nonstarter for the Palestinians, and that the Palestinians need to give up the "right of return" (this one is more reasonable) before he'll even think about trading land for peace.
In other words, don't expect the new, settlement-free U.S. approach to yield any more progress than the old one. What's more, even if the talks did focus on borders, where the parties are supposedly closer together, it wouldn't take very long for them to come back to areas where they're further apart... namely settlements and Jerusalem. Israel won't freeze the former, and Netanyahu has said he won't divide the latter, while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their future capital.
The lesson here is that it's devlishly complicated to jerry-rig negotiations to avoid the tough topics, especially when neither side seems especially eager to do a deal. One can come up with all kinds of sophistry justifying one U.S. tactic or another, but if Israeli and Palestinian leaders aren't serious, and aren't feeling pressure from their own publics to make peace, then nothing will work.
Over the weekend, Israeli authorities finally contained the wildfire that devastated parts of northern Israel, near Haifa. The fire, which killed 42 people, including Israel's highest-ranking policewoman, is being called the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Today, a 14-year old boy admitted to throwing a piece of coal from a hookah pipe into the forest, starting the blaze.
Israel prides itself on its self-reliance and is usually a provider of rescue teams and medical personnel during other countries' natural disasters. The government was reportedly ill-equipped to handle a blaze of this magnitude, and had to take the unprecedented step of asking for help from abroad. Noting that both the United States and Russia have asked for international help in fighting major wildfires, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "We also did not hesitate, nor were we ashamed in requesting such assistance." (Netanyahu also reportedly looked to President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina as an example of how not to respond to a natural disaster.)
What's most surprising is the not the help Israel received from the United States, European Union, and Russia, but that from Turkey and the Palestinian Authority. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained since May's deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, killing eight Turks and a Turkish-American. Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time since the raid to thank him for sending two airplanes to help battle the blaze. "We very much appreciate this mobilization and I am certain that it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries, Turkey and Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement released to the press after the call.
Netanyahu also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday for the first time since direct talks broke down in September. Abbas volunteered to send three fire trucks to the area.
Will disaster lead to diplomacy? Turkey has already engaged in "hurricane diplomacy" with Greece after a series of earthquakes devastated both countries in 1999. Greece and Turkey had maintained fraught and conflict-ridden relations for centuries. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, each sent rescue teams to help the other and newspapers were full of stories about Turkish citizens offering to donate kidneys to Greek victims (and vice versa).
Turkey doesn't seem as enthusiastic about improved relations this time. Erdogan said he still expects an apology and compensation from Israel for the flotilla deaths, noting that the aid for the fire was purely humanitarian.
"We would never stand by when people are being killed and nature is being destroyed anywhere in the world," Erdogan told CNNTurk. "No one should try to interpret this any differently." In a dig at Netanyahu, who said Turkey's gesture could help improve Turkish-Israeli ties, he continued:
"Now some are coming out and saying, 'Let's begin a new phase.' Before that, our demands must be met ... Our nine brothers martyred on the Mavi Marmara [the vessel raided by Israeli commandos] must be accounted for. First an apology must be made and compensation must be paid."
In his new book, George W. Bush writes that he was under pressure not just from hawks in the United States to invade Iraq, but from Arab statesmen as well.
In a revealing passage, Bush writes that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt "told Tommy Franks that Iraq had biological weapons and was certain to use them on [American] troops," a VOA article highlights. Bush goes on to say that Mubarak "refused to make the allegation in public for fear of inciting the Arab street."
Additionally, Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as the influential Saudi ambassador to the United States for over 20 years and who Bush calls "a friend of mine since dad's presidency" also wanted a "decision" to be made -- although this seems less direct an indictment than "Iraq has biological weapons and will use them against you."
So while the Arab street was firmly opposed to American intervention in Iraq, Arab heads of states were quietly and secretly either encouraging or tacitly endorsing allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a fact that was directly being used as the principal justification for invading the country.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Egyptian Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, travelled to Israel on Thursday to officially discuss the Middle East peace process. Haaretz reports that Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Suleiman and "discussed different methods to jump start the flailing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians."
The visit reflects the importance of Suleiman and the Egyptian state security apparatus -- not only for domestic issues, but broader international objectives as well.
As the director of the powerful Egyptian GIS, Suleiman enjoys the support and confidence of President Hosni Mubarak, and the multifaceted role of Suleiman reflects the nature of the present government in Egypt, where regime support is highly valued and loyalty is rewarded with top trusted positions.
This is not the first time Suleiman has served such roles for Mubarak. Suleiman hosted "talks aimed at encouraging... cease-fire between Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israel" in early 2009, according to UPI.
The stated purpose for Suleiman's trip is to talk about the peace process, but there's likely more on the agenda. The two countries also share concerns over the rising influence of Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Egypt last year in a bid to create Arab opposition to counter the Iranian nuclear program.
Relations between Egypt and Iran detiorated following the Islamic Revloution in Iran; last year, Egypt has accussed Iran of backing subversive Hezbollah operatives in the country and convicted 26 men of espionage against the state.
Israel is likely looking to capitalize on Cairo's growing discomfort.
Debbie Hill - Pool/Getty Images
If you watched the midterm election results come in -- and if you're reading Passport, there's a good chance you did -- you likely saw this commercial from The Israel Project. And according to the organization's president, you're going to keep seeing the ad for some time.
The commercial, which was arguably the most prominent instance of a foreign policy issue rearing its head on election night, features remarks from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair interspersed with pictures of smiling children. Both Blair and Netanyahu are quoted lauding the Israel's democracy and affirming its desire to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Another ad urged Israel and the United States to work together on developing alternative energy sources, "so that some day, every neighborhood will be free from our dependence on Middle East oil."
Jennifer Mizrahi, the Israel Project's president, said that the ads started airing during the night fo the midterm elections, and will continue to appear for sometime. The organization bought air time on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and Comedy Central, among other networks.
"We bought a lot of ads," said Mizrahi. "I don't know, but I think we were on every break. And we should still be on -- it's a very heavy rotation."
Mizrahi estimated the cost of producing the ads at $50,000. She said that her organization had spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on ad time over the past year.
Mizrahi said that the Israel Project decided to buy ads at this time because they knew that they would reach a demographic concerned about national security issues. And she wanted to ensure that, though the election may have hinged on domestic economic issues, the next session of Congress doesn't neglect the U.S. alliance with Israel.
"[W]e want people in Washington to understand that the holding of the peace process is very important to Israel and to people who care about Israel -- that we want these peace talks to move forward," said Mizrahi. "That was the first thing: to show the Israeli prime minister's commitment to a peace process and a two state solution, and a better future for all."
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli authorities say a cache of weapons seized at a Nigerian port this week originated in Iran and were bound for Gaza:
Agents with Nigeria's secretive State Security Service discovered the weapons Tuesday hidden inside of 13 shipping containers dropped off at Lagos' busy Apapa Port. Journalists allowed to see the weapons Wednesday saw 107 mm rockets, rifle rounds and other items labeled in English. Authorities said the shipment also contained grenades, explosives and possibly rocket launchers, but journalists did not see them.
Wale Adeniyi, a spokesman for Nigeria's Customs Service, said Thursday that the MV CMA-CGM Everest dropped the weapons off in July. Adeniyi said the ship last stopped at Mumbai's Jawaharlal Nehru Port before coming to Nigeria.
If the Israelis are right, that would mean that in order to travel the roughly 1,000 mile distance between Iran and Gaza, the weapons first had to travel about 1,700 miles in the opposite direction to Mumbai, then take a roughly 8,000 mile journey around the Horn of Africa before landing in Nigeria, where, if they hadn't been seized, they would still have had to travel over 5,000 miles through the Mediterranean before landing in Gaza.
Seems like distance is still very much alive for the international weapons trade.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
"We reversed our trade since the easing of the Israeli blockade and now we export," said a tunnel operator who goes by Abu Jamil.
"The Egyptian traders demand Israeli livestock to breed with their own to improve its quality," the 45-year-old smuggler said, calling his partners on the other side of the heavily-guarded border to tell them the cows are coming through, each with an Israel tag on its neck extolling its breeding potential.
The Egyptians also order Israeli coffee, blue jeans, mobile phones, and what Abu Jamil refers to as "raw materials" -- scrap copper, aluminium and used car batteries that can be recycled in Egypt.
Israel eased the blockade over the summer after the flotilla fiasco drew international attention to conditions in Gaza, but most export from Hamas-controlled territory is still largely banned. (What could be Israel's security concern in Gazan fruit being sold in Europe or Egypt is beyond me.)
The smugglers in Sinai and Gaza who were getting rich off the blockade can continue their profits, it seems, by getting Israeli consumer goods and Gazan agriculture into Egypt. Maybe this says as much about the state of Egypt's economy as it does about Gaza's.
SAID KHATIB/Getty Images
The Iranian energy sector may currently be the target of aggressive and renewed U.S. sanctions, but that's not stopping it from offering assistance to the energy sectors and consumption needs for other countries -- especially those in the Arab world.
Iran is now looking to expand energy ties with Lebanon, in addition to longer standing negotiations it has been conducting with the Persian Gulf countries of Bahrain and Oman. This time of year, it seems, the talk is all about cash, pipelines, and energy.
When it comes to Lebanon, the country "continues to suffer from power shortages that can reach 15 hours a day," reports Bloomberg news. That's a problem Iran wants to have a role in solving. "Iranian officials said they were looking into helping with the rehabilitation of Lebanon's two refineries, which currently are only used for storage."
An Iran-Lebanon pipeline could potentially be in the works, theoretically passing through Iraq, Syria, and possibly even Turkey, according to the same report. Iran has even offered the Lebanese government (note: not Hezbollah, but the whole government) "unlimited" economic and military support, following the United States' suspension of $100 million of military aid to the country a few months prior.
In no small part due to sanctions that specifically target its gasoline refining capacities, Iran has enacted rationing within its own borders and invested heavily in updating its refining capabilities -- reportedly not only attaining self sufficiency, but also exporting gasoline for the first time last month.
This, among other achievements, has prompted Juan Cole to ceremoniously label Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "Mahmoud the Great." Though, admittedly, there is a lot to debate on that subject.
These talks also come on the brink of a historic visit to Lebanon by Ahmadinejad -- his first as president, and a visit that the Israelis have been frantically trying to prevent (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not appear to be too pleased, either). Ahmadinejad is planning on visiting southern Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah, including villages hit particularly hard during the 2006 Israeli invasion. To further get into the spirit, Ahmadinejad may actually be throwing a rock at Israel while at the border.
This might be the closest direct contact that Iran and
Israel, I mean
the Zionist Regime, may approach in a long time. Talk about one-sided
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Syria is ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel, but only if Turkey acts as the intermediary. Let's see how that works out.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Sunday that only Turkey can act as an intermediary in any indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.
"Turkey has shown itself to be an honest intermediary. Indirect talks must therefore be under Turkish mediation, and begin in Turkey at the point where they stopped" in December 2008 when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, he said.
He ruled out any country other than Turkey being involved in indirect talks, telling reporters: "Any efforts by other parties will consist of helping the Turkish role."
Turkey mediated between Israel and Syria before, starting in May 2008. Those talks broke down in December after Israel began Operation Cast Lead, the assault on Gaza that enraged much of the Muslim world -- including Turkey.
Even after the break down in talks, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly stated that Turkey was a "fair" mediator.
But relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated considerably since December 2008. The biggest flare-up, of course, was when Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish activists (and one Turkish-American) on their way to Gaza in May. Even before that, though, the current Israeli government didn't look like it would too happy to have Turkey as a mediator. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a year ago that it would be impossible for Turkey to act as an honest broker.
There hasn't yet been any response from the Israeli government to the news out of this weekend's Syria-Turkey meeting, but don't expect any encouragement.
It's worth adding some additional pessimism to all of this. Even when the Turkish mediated negotiations were going well, the closest Damascus and Tel Aviv ever came to success was nearing an agreement to sit down for direct talks. Once that happened, who knows how far those negotiations would have gone, but probably not far. Syria remains, at least rhetorically, committed to getting the Golan Heights back from Israel, which has been occupying the territory since 1967. Netanyahu has said unequivocally that Israel "will never withdraw from the Golan," as has his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the precipice of collapse after only a month, it's hard to imagine why anyone else in the region would choose to sign up for more ill-fated negotiations.
Unless George Mitchell can work a miracle in a region that has seen far too few of them over the last 2000 years, it looks increasingly like the direct Middle East talks are headed for an ignominious early failure.
One clear sign (in case you needed any after the Palestinians threatened Saturday to walk out) is this story in today’s Haaretz by the very well-sourced Barak Ravid, who reports that Mitchell has dramatically overstated the extent to which the negotiations were going well -- to the chagrin of the Palestinian side.
We’ll get to the reasons to be a little skeptical of this story in a minute, but first let’s look at what Ravid’s sources are telling him.
The main takeaway is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been telling anyone who will listen, that his ostensible partner for peace, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not serious. He only wants to talk about security, and won’t engage on other “core issues” of the conflict such as the borders of an eventual Palestinian state. "I heard nothing from Netanyahu but niceties," Abbas is quoted as telling unnamed “foreign diplomats” at the U.N. General Assembly.
The second interesting bit is that we’re learning more about what the actual contents of the discussion were. Abbas and Netanyahu held three meetings. The first one, Ravid tells us, was mainly about setting the ground rules for the discussion and agreeing to keep talking, though the two sides did have a conversation about whether to deal with borders or security first. At the second sitdown, Abbas and Netanyahu attempted (and apparently failed) to define what the “core issues” to be discussed actually were.
The third meeting, held in Jerusalem, sounds like a real disaster, with Abbas trying to get Netanyahu to discuss the offer made by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, while Bibi again focused on security and supposedly didn’t engage on Abbas’s presentation of Palestinian positions. “The American brokers were reportedly extremely frustrated after the meeting in Jerusalem and some of them wondered if the talks hadn't in fact gone backward.”
Cleary, we’re getting largely the Palestinian side of the story here, so we don’t have a full picture of what is going on (the story also contradicts what we heard about the first meeting, after which Abbas aides told pan-Arab daily Al Hayat that they were feeling optimistic about the talks). But it looks like Ravid did try to confirm details with Netanyahu’s office, which doesn’t seem to have pushed back very hard. Be on the lookout for a follow-up article that tells Netanyhu’s side of the tale.
The real significance of the story, though, is not the details -- it’s the fact that they’re emerging now in such an ugly way. We’re no longer in the middle of a negotiation; we’re well into the blame game, with each side trying to hang the likely failure of the talks around the necks of the other.
That failure is going to have repercussions for both sides. On the Israeli side, some in the Labor Party are agitating to withdraw from Bibi’s coalition, and some in the opposition Kadima Party want Bibi to boot out Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his far-right Yisraeli Beitenu party -- which has become a national embarrassment -- thus paving the way for Kadima to join the government. Meanwhile, the right is blaming Netanyahu for agreeing to the settlement moratorium in the first place. A collapse or a reshuffle of Bibi’s coalition may be exactly what the Palestinians are hoping to provoke by withdrawing from the talks. But it’s not clear whether these rumblings have much traction, and in any case Defense Minister Ehud Minister, the head of the Labor Party, seems to enjoy being at the center of the action.
The key player to watch now is Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who has kept her criticism of Netanyahu to a minimum while the negotiations still held out some hope of success. On Saturday, she urged Netanyahu to keep the Palestinians at the table, warning of dire consequences to Israel’s security if the talks “blow up.” Look to her now to start speaking out more often, and try to make some moves behind the scenes. It’s not clear whether she can do much, however, and she has her own internal opposition to worry about.
Hamas, meanwhile, is licking its chops, vowing that Palestinians will return to “resistance” when, not if, talks fail. And then things will really get ugly.
UPDATE: Haaretz, citing a story in London's pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, reports that Netanyahu has agreed to extend the settlement freeze for two months. Sourcing looks weak on this one, so let's see what actually happens.
Nearly across the board, the president's initiatives are going down in flames. Nowhere is this more true than in Pakistan where, Jane Perlez reported Wednesday, the civilian government in which the U.S. has invested billions is perilously close to collapse -- if not facing a military coup.
Now comes word that Pakistan is cutting off NATO's supply lines into Afghanistan in retaliation for U.S. helicopter strikes in Pakistani territory -- strikes made necessary because the Pakistani military can't, or won't, crack down on militants unless they threaten the Pakistani state directly.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it's going very badly.
Further east, the United States seems headed for a disastrous currency war with China, although Beijing's recent diplomatic blunders have sent Asian countries running into Uncle Sam's loving arms.
To the west, Iraq still has yet to form a government after seven months of post-election deadlock, and attacks on the Green Zone are metastasizing in a frightening way.
One rare bright spot is Russia where, despite the complaints of Cold Warriors and human rights campaigners, relations are at their highest point since the Yeltsin era. But much of the good work Obama's team has done could easily unravel, especially if the Senate deep-sixes the new nuke treaty.
As for Iran, it's a mixed bag. Obama has kept Europe on board with tough sanctions, and brought along a few other players. But China is likely to undercut those efforts and relieve the economic pressure, leaving the United States and Israel with few options for stopping Iran's nuclear drive. Meanwhile, the drums of war are beginning to beat in Congress.
Of course, if Obama really wants to make a hash of the world, I can think of no better way than to start launch airstrikes on Iran. But I doubt he's going to do that.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, said today that the best response to the end of Israel's 10-month "settlement freeze" would be a reconciliation with rival Palestinian faction Hamas.
Meshaal argued that internal reconciliation would make the Palestinians more powerful in negotiations, calling it a national necessity and the best way to react to the 'Zionist intransigence.'
does have a point. A leadership that represents only half of the Palestinian
people, and basically acts as though Gaza doesn't exist, is pretty
limited when it comes to negotiating the "final status" issues with
Israel. At the same time, the Israelis probably wouldn't be willing to
enter negotiations with a Palestinian coalition that includes Hamas.
(U.S. envoy to the region George Mitchell has said as much.) It certainly doesn't help that Meshaal also said today that Hamas will continue to "kill illegal settlers on [Palestinian] land."
We may soon find out how a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation will affect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Good news for the Palestinians may be on the horizon. A Hamas spokesperson told a Kuwaiti newspaper today, "We will all celebrate Palestinian national reconciliation in Egypt soon."
Of course, we've heard that one before. In 2008 Hamas and Fatah signed a Yemeni-sponsored deal Sanaa saying they would begin the reconciliation talks soon. They changed their minds a few days later. In September 2009 the two groups were again close to reaching an agreement, but nothing came of that. In January of this year, Meshaal told reporters in Riyadh, "We made great strides toward achieving reconciliation," and, "We are in the final stages now."
Will this time be different? It's hard to tell and these agreements have often been called off at the last minute. But if Fatah and Hamas do reach an agreement, it will undoubtedly change the course of the negotiations that President Obama has been supporting so vocally. The Palestinian negotiators will become more legitimate and the Israelis more resistant.
It ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Israel's 10-month settlement freeze expires at midnight Jerusalem time today, and rather than the explosion many feared -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's withdrawal from the talks, fresh violence from Hamas, a provocation from the settlers -- it looks like the moratorium will disappear with little drama. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his ground, while dispatch his defense minister, Ehud Barak, to offer compromise proposals that he could always disavow. Meanwhile, he urged the settlers to "show restraint" and asked his cabinet to keep quiet.
Abbas, who had vowed in no uncertain terms that he wouldn't stay at the table unless the freeze was extended, instead kicked the decision to the Arab League, which gave him political cover to join the talks in the first place. It seems likely Arab governments will swallow their pride and instruct Abbas to continue.
Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn says that Netanyahu is emerging the big winner in this showdown, and that may be true. He's conceded nothing while deflecting U.S. and international pressure to give way on the settlements. His coalition remains intact, and he's proven that the United States, with all its might and power, can't push tiny Israel around (at least, not before the midterm elections). Barack Obama took a huge risk calling on Israel to extend the moratorium at the U.N. Thursday, and now he looks ineffectual and weak.
In the end, though, this isn't supposed to be about winners and losers. If Netanyahu is serious about peace -- and it remains an open question whether he is -- he'll have to make painful concessions that probably will rip his government apart. There are at least 60,000 settlers who will have to leave their homes in the event of a peace deal, according to the estimates I've seen. The last time settlers were uprooted, in Gaza, it took several thousand Israeli troops to evict them.
As for Abbas, I don't envy the man. If he's equally serious about peace, he'll need to tell his people that the "right of return" is dead, and that they'll need to give up on the notion that Palestine will control its own border or have many of the other prerogatives of normal states. All the while, Hamas and various other Palestinian factions will be eagerly looking for him to fail.
For now, I guess, the talks will limp ahead.
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