Posts Tagged Middle East

How can one not be worried?

inside-the-obama-white-house-ngepress.comThe Washington Spring — 7 —

Everything I’ve read in recent weeks, and everything I’ve heard from my friends who work in banking, points the same way: we have returned to the same practices, the same follies and abuses that led to the current crisis. Companies are distributing the same extravagant bonuses and making the same absurd deals, and they’re doing it with the same greed, the same contempt for the public good and the same indecent attitude to money as before.

One can’t help but wonder, with Paul Krugman, whether the new American administration — who is supposed to set the tone – hasn’t failed to deliver the right message. Dealers were wary for a while, watching to see if they could resume their business practices as before. It seems they are now confident that nothing is going to change, and that they can carry on with impunity. They are confident because all the same faces are playing the game — on Wall Street, in the Senate and in the administration — and no one seems to want, or to be able, to put a stop to it.

In a sense, it’s understandable. America’s corporate giants wield enormous influence, and it’s quite understandable why no administration can ignore them. And I understand, too, how tremendously difficult it is for one politician, even if he is President of the United States, to antagonise Wall Street and risk breaking the cogs of the world’s leading economic power.

But understanding all this doesn’t put my mind at rest; rather, it makes me even more apprehensive. I understand Obama’s dilemma; but I am only more worried about his chance of success for it1.

I’ve said it before and I say it again — he must succeed. He must succeed on domestic issues such as reform of the banking sector and health insurance. And he must succeed in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East, where it is critical that he bring peace to the Palestinians and Israelis and, more broadly, to the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, which is in danger of being swept away in the deadly reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. And then, of course, he must succeed in halting – or, at least, in significantly slowing – global warming.

I know it is very early days, still much too early to start talking about being disappointed. But it isn’t too early to articulate a few misgivings — about a certain lack of vision on some issues; and, on some other issues, a certain lack of determination.

(First published in French on August 7th).

  1. For those who want to deepen their understanding of the matter, I recommend the long article by the economist James K. Galbraith entitled ‘No Return to Normal’; his argument, well researched and brilliantly expounded as it is, is particularly worrying. []

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Is Obama’s initiative still alive?

The Washington Spring — 6 —

The United States has been on a diplomatic merry-go-round in the Middle East over the past few weeks. In an effort to understand what’s really happening, I’ve been following it closely, listening to the many statements and reading the op-ed pieces.

Are the Americans pursuing the solution that President Obama sketched out in his speech at the University of Cairo on June 4? Are they trying to establish a ‘comprehensive’ regional peace, one that reckons in all countries and peoples and takes into account all their claims and concerns, and of which the keystone would be the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel?

Or else are they falling back on the usual way of dealing with the conflict? Are they returning to a long process of negotiation, inviting the various players to come together and patiently build mutual trust, while Washington merely plays the role of intermediary or facilitator?

As I see it, only the first path can lead to peace, and I am convinced that if it were to be followed through, it would benefit all the peoples in the region. If the first path were to be taken, everybody — including many of the hardliners in Israel, Palestine and the entire Arab world— will one day have reason to be pleased. The second path, on the other hand, has never led to anything but disillusionment, a hardening on every side, and renewed violence.

Having unambiguously stated my position, I hasten to add that as I write these lines, I cannot yet say which way American diplomacy is heading. Both hypotheses are plausible, and I don’t yet know which will be borne out. Sometimes I tell myself that Obama’s initiative is at a standstill; at other times, I think it might be taking shape.

The logic of a blog

If I weren’t keeping this online journal, I would wait to be sure before expressing an opinion. But the point of keeping a blog is precisely to allow myself, as a concerned observer, to articulate my feelings at every step, to reveal my way of thinking, of inquiring into things, of analysing and reflecting upon them. The point is to articulate all this to others, of course, but also to myself, because when I make myself write and put thoughts into sentences, I become aware of certain things that otherwise would remain muddled.

Now that I’ve opened this parenthetical statement, I will take it a little further to say that, whenever I inquire into something and try to understand it, I keep two golden rules in mind. The first is that we live in the communication age, which means that statements made by political leaders should be taken not at face value but as formulations of what they’ve chosen to convey. The second is that we live also, paradoxically – and happily! — in the age of transparency, which means that anything we want to know, and anything that some would keep hidden, is accessible somewhere on the Web. You simply have to know how to look, and above all how to assess what you find — how to sort between those statements that bring the truth to light, and those that blur it, whether deliberately or not.

But I close the parenthesis now to return to my opening question — does the American diplomatic activity in the Middle East signify that Obama’s initiative is being carefully put into place, or else is it already being reconsidered, not to say abandoned?

What seems to support the first hypothesis is that the American officials going to the region are the very men and women whose contribution to a peace treaty would be essential. Such a treaty should include the creation of a Palestinian state on territory from which Israel would retreat; security measures to ensure the Israelis don’t perceive such a retreat as a threat to their safety; a normalisation of relations between Israel and its neighbours; and, most certainly, the establishment of a substantial development and compensation fund — financed by the Americans, the Europeans, the Japanese, the Chinese and also by the oil-producing nations — to encourage the Palestinians as well as the Israelis to be steadfastly committed to the path of peace.

Importantly, the American officials who visited the region in the last few weeks have the authority to give assurances on the military and security aspects of any eventual peace accord. The visitors included Secretary of Defence Robert Gates; General James L. Jones, National Security Advisor to President Obama; Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has ultimate control of the Middle East in the National Security Council; and former senator George Mitchell, the president’s Special Envoy to the region, who is charged with managing the dialogue with the various players.

This is encouraging, up to a point. To my eyes, however, it isn’t yet enough to dismiss the second hypothesis — that the process is at a virtual standstill and might still be derailed. I am convinced that things cannot move forward unless Israel is reassured. And it is critical that any measures taken to reassure Israel do not make the peace treaty unacceptable to Palestinian leaders or indeed, the rest of the Arab world.

Let me be more precise: everything to do with the balance of military power doesn’t worry me. That the future Palestine will have no army will no doubt shock Arab opinion. But when you think about it, only international safeguards can provide the future Palestine any real protection; and rather than embark on a ruinous arms race, it would be well advised to follow the example of post-war Japan and pursue economic success behind the shelter of its internationally guaranteed borders.

On the other hand, if the Al-Aqsa mosque, for instance, remains under Israeli control, no peace treaty will be worth signing, since extremist movements will continue to muster support all over the Muslim world, from North Africa to Indonesia, over the issue, for hundred of years.

In other words, everything genuinely to do with security has a place in any treaty; anything to do with territory and symbols must be handled with great care.

I don’t yet know what the proposed peace treaty will look like once the current negotiations have finished. Frankly, I won’t allow myself to put words into anyone’s mouth. I will simply keep my eyes, ears and mind open. I continue to hope, but I remain cautious.

(First published in French on July 29th).

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I’ll admit I’m slightly impatient

The Washington Spring — 5 —

When I listened to President Obama’s speech in Cairo on the 4th of June, it struck me as a seminal statement, one intended to found a lasting solution in the Middle East and an historic reconciliation between the West and the Muslim world. The two outcomes go hand in hand. That is what I wrote at the time, and I stand by it. However, I admit to a degree of impatience on the matter. I don’t see a new approach to peace taking shape; rather, it seems to me as though we’re returning to the usual diplomatic practices, which thus far have helped only to perpetuate the conflict.

Of course, some will retort that a conflict that has been going on for decades cannot be settled in a few weeks. This is true, on the surface — but only on the surface. Equally, some argue that by taking small steps, the belligerents can only draw closer to peace. Both arguments seem obvious and logical; but, in my opinion, they are misleading.

In a conflict of this nature, where the populations live in deep, mutual distrust, any proposed solution must be comprehensive, so that each party knows exactly where it will be standing at the end of the process; otherwise, one paves the way for escalation and brinkmanship, which plays into the hands of hardliners. This is exactly what has happened in the Middle East over the past few decades. We have seen a proliferation of initiatives, meetings, plans and roadmaps; as a result, the most intransigent factions on both sides gained the upper hand.

In his speech at the University of Cairo, Obama showed that he was aware of this reality, and that he wasn’t going to be drawn into the quagmire. He made it clear that he wouldn’t be satisfied with the role of an intermediary or facilitator. “We cannot impose peace,” he said, “But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

This last sentence describes the voluntarist line that the president had in mind. He wasn’t inviting the various parties to meet and share their points of view. What good could it do to hear them for the hundredth time? Everyone knows what each side is obliged to assert in public and what they quietly admit to on the side. It is now up to “us” — meaning the United States — to act.

His envoy George Mitchell flew to the Middle East bearing the same message: an all-encompassing plan is imminent, and Washington expects everyone to embrace it. The rumour in Washington was that the plan’s broad outlines would be made public as early as the 15th of June. But in the ensuing weeks, we started hearing proposals that sounded hopelessly familiar, such as the idea that Israel should temporarily suspend settlements and, in return, the Arab nations should give El-Al overflight rights. In Washington jargon, these are known as ‘confidence-building measures’, but I think they should be called ‘momentum-breaking measures’ instead. And I do get the feeling that the momentum has slowed down significantly.

I hope it’s my impatience talking. I hope that, il the near future, I will have reasons to publish on this blog a humble and fervent mea culpa. I hope I will get the chance to say that this slowdown was due to events in Iran, or to the need to draw up an appropriate peace plan, or to other factors, but that the new administration remains clearly committed to ending a conflict which, though it looks local, has in fact become a global one, and one of the most toxic.

(First published in French on July 26th).

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On Obama’s Cairo speech


Will Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4 one day be seen as the cornerstone of an historic reconciliation between the West and the Islamic world and between Israel and the Arab world, or will it look like he was spitting in the wind? Any prediction here would be rash, but we can reasonably suppose that the answer will appear sooner than later.

Sooner, because the logic underpinning the American president’s initiative is not that of the long negotiation process. He never mentioned the word ‘negotiation’ in his speech. There will be talks and meetings, of course, because Obama cannot force the opposing parties to sign agreements they do not want. But he is well aware that in the Middle East, negotiations are a quagmire and that ‘step-by-step’ diplomacy leads to deadlock. This paradoxical truth arises from the nature of the conflict and the tragic histories of its peoples. How to persuade the Israelis to make territorial concessions if we cannot guarantee the perpetuity of their State? And how to persuade the Palestinians to recognise Israel when it refuses to finalise its borders, thus giving itself the option of pushing them further, at the expense of a hypothetical Palestinian state? So long as both sides have no clear idea of what the future might look like, those opposed to compromise will have little trouble convincing their peoples that any concessions they are asked to make will only weaken them. Given this, it is no surprise that hardliners regularly win majorities in both the Knesset and the Palestinian Parliament.

Obama didn’t criticize Israel’s hawks, and he spoke about Hamas in moderate terms. He asked only that the settlements end. And he demanded an end to all violence. Beyond these, he made no pre-requisites. The conflict’s various players will be judged only when the final agreement is in their hands. Those that accept it will be on the side of peace; those that reject it will be the warmongers. And, as has happened at the resolutions of so many other conflicts, whatever they will have done through decades of conflict will be written off.

Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo revealed that he won’t be satisfied with the role of the intermediary or facilitator: “We cannot impose peace,” he said, “But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

This last sentence limns the voluntarist line that the president has in mind. He isn’t inviting the various parties to meet and share their points of view. What good could it do to hear them for the hundredth time? We know what each side is obliged to assert in public and what they quietly admit to in private. It is now up to “us” — meaning the United States — to act.

The June 4 speech laid out unambiguously the political and moral foundation of Obama’s approach: “The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

The wording here is a priori unacceptable to the great majority of Arabs, and probably to most Israelis, too. Yet it is now the only conceivable point of agreement.

In these terms, Obama defined his view of the legitimacy of Israel. For the Arabs, however, there is no such legitimacy; they see a people who came from Europe, settled in Palestine, took over its land and houses and expelled the Arab population from the country; and because the West justifies the founding of Israel and supports it with money and weapons, it is seen as Israel’s accomplice. Some Arabs have adapted to this state of affairs because they cannot do otherwise; others limit their criticism to Israel’s actions in the territories it occupied in 1967; but privately, very few Arabs accept the legitimacy of Israel. Obama knows this and is taking the bull by the horns. If we want to establish lasting peace, then we have to give the Arabs, and even the Palestinians, a reasonable explanation for the creation of a Jewish state, and for the United States’ backing of it — a bond that is “unbreakable”, as Obama made clear from the outset of his speech, leaving his audience under no illusion. “Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald…”

Historical legitimacy or biblical legitimacy

In Israel, there are two ways of justifying the creation of the state. One is historical, the other biblical. The first claims that to end persecution and humiliation, Jews needed their own state and that the choice fell on Palestine because, long ago, it was the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel. The second claims that Palestine is the land promised to the Jews by the Lord, that it is and always has been theirs by right, and that the Arabs who have lived there through the centuries were merely occupying it illegally. When George W. Bush became president, he brought with him an electoral base of fundamentalist Christians fascinated by the biblical universe, which led to the United States in effect subscribing to the latter theory.

The argument’s political implications are obvious. If Israel is a refuge for persecuted Jews, then it must have safe and recognised borders, which its political leaders must be empowered to define according to strategic reality. If, on the other hand, Israel exists because of a divine promise, then every place mentioned in the Bible may be legitimately settled.

Over and above theological subtleties, and beyond even the territorial implications, what’s at stake here is the future of the relationship between today’s “civilisations”, as well as the future of the relationship between religion and politics across the planet. If we tell the Muslim world that Israel exists because the Bible promises it to the Jews, that for centuries the Arabs of Palestine have been squatters, and that now they simply have to accept their lot, then we will see interminable religious wars and embark on centuries of intellectual and moral regress. If, on the other hand, we tell the Muslim world that Israel was created as a safe haven for persecuted Jews — and Obama was careful to evoke the death camps, the gas chambers, the six million victims (“more than the entire population of Israel today”) to the University of Cairo’s students — and if we add, as the president did, that the Palestinians have also been victims, and that the time has come to give them, too, a country where they might live in peace, dignity and prosperity, then we will have laid the foundations of a peace accord that will let both sides hold their heads high.

Will the Arabs buy it? Not light-heartedly. But they are helpless, battered and exhausted, and may do so out of necessity; they may do so because they know that all negotiations become bogged down and that violence leads nowhere. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reported to have told the American president, in essence, “Write an agreement and we’ll sign it. Force us to do it, if necessary!” But the president knows that this doesn’t amount to unconditional licence. No leader will sign an unjust or humiliating treaty, one that looks like a diktat handed down by an unfriendly power. For the Arabs to accept an historic compromise that recognises Israel, then the United States, as the agreement’s sponsor, must be seen as a friend to both sides. A friend to Israel, of course, but equally a friend to the Arabs. Obama has given himself the considerable task of restoring the lost trust between America and the Islamic world, a task that he began to tackle in his Cairo speech with dignity but without arrogance; respectfully but without complacency. He talked about Islamic civilization, of its contributions to humanity, of the muezzin he heard calling to prayer during his childhood in Indonesia. But he did so only after having made clear: “I am a Christian.” He mentioned the tradition of tolerance in Islam, but didn’t hesitate to mention the lot of the minorities, the Palestinian Christians, the Maronites and the Copts. And he talked about the rights of women, too. He took a line that didn’t dodge controversies, notably on the wearing of the veil. But he chose his words carefully – “Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons”. His audience applauded him at various stages of the speech, notably when he accused of duplicity those political leaders who talk about democracy when they’re in opposition, then forget it when they come to power. He didn’t quite manage to pronounce the Arab words correctly, but he found the right tone and came across as a friend.

It is hard to gauge what the reaction in Israel will be to the compromise put forward by the new America. A priori, we might expect virulent opposition. On the other hand, we might be in for all sorts of surprises, and that’s what Obama is counting on. He’s trying to convince the Jewish state that he is also their friend, and a far more genuine one than was his predecessor.

During the Bush era, Israeli leaders felt that they could do whatever they wanted. Even when Washington tried to hold them in check every now and then, the Israelis knew that they had nothing to lose by carrying on regardless. Impunity is a poor teacher, however. By allowing the settlements in the West Bank to expand and indefinitely delaying the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Israeli government reduced its own room for manoeuvre and discredited any potential Arab partner. Israel found itself in the unenviable position where peace is impossible and successive wars resolve nothing.

Without attacking his predecessor by name, Obama implied that those who encouraged the Israelis down this dead-end track did not behave as a friend would. A true friend would take the opposite course and lead Israel out of the impasse. If the conflict in the Middle East East brings into focus all the hatred between the West and the Islamic world, then an equitable solution would become the starting point for an historic reconciliation between the two spheres. Israel’s future would no longer depend on the continued escalation of the “clash of civilizations”. Instead, its rebirth would be anchored to an historic reconciliation.

Many Israelis refuse to entrust the defence of their country to international guarantees. In Cairo, Obama told these people with as much clarity as is possible on a subject as taboo as this one: they will not be asked to disarm or even give up their nuclear arsenal. He said this in coded but not indecipherable language. The United States will adhere strictly to the clauses of the non-proliferation treaty. Signatory countries — including Iran — have the right to develop civilian nuclear facilities, but not weapons. Israel, who is not a signatory, is under no such obligation. And the president never mentioned the nuclear-weapons-free Middle East that the Arabs are demanding. Instead, he talked about “a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons”, which is, of course, mere wishful thinking.

Can Obama’s initiative succeed where so many others have failed? It could go either way. Hardliners on both sides now see the American leader as an enemy and a threat. From those who carry out what he carefully called “violent extremism” — thus distancing himself from the word “terrorism” that was forever on his predecessor’s lips — we can expect the worst. We can expect provocative actions that will put the president on the horns of a dilemma: to not retaliate would make him weak in the eyes of his people; to retaliate would jeopardize his open-door policy. And in Israel, it goes without saying that a section of the political class, supported notably by the settlers, will seek to destabilize the democratic administration by any means possible.

The Cairo speech leads the West and the Islamic World, the Arabs and the Israelis, into a turbulent zone. But if the undertaking Obama proposed in his speech succeeds; if a significant number of Arabs and Israelis consent to it; if, indispensably, the Jewish-American community supports it; if it takes into account the concerns of every party, including those of the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank; if it is backed by a generous ‘Marshall Plan’ that brings prosperity to families and nations; and if it draws the moral and material support of Europe, China, Japan and the oil-producing nations; then it has a good chance of succeeding. Still, the road to peace remains slippery and perilous from start to finish.

(First published in the French news magazine l’Express on june 11th 2009).


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