NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 9

The wrong questions on Iraq – again

I know it’s a summer news doldrum, despite the morbid antics of the presidential candidates, but all this “war on Iran” speculation seems to be missing some key points. Despite Sy Hersch’s recent revelations of stepped up proxy warfare by the Bush Administration against Iran — which mostly reprised previous reporting he’s done, with the only addition I could see being that congressional Democrats have signed off on this fool-headed business — I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that suggests an attack on Iran is imminent — or even likely.

That the Democrats signed off shouldn’t come as any surprise — even the Obama campaign seems ready to embrace the idea that Iranian progress towards the capacity to build a nuclear weapon is “the most dangerous crisis” facing the U.S. in the next decade. And candidate Obama appears to have signed up to the same broad outlook as Bush and McCain, demanding tougher sanctions on Iran in response to its latest missile test. There’s no reason to believe that Obama sanctions would be any more effective than Bush or McCain sanctions in resolving this problem, and it shouldn’t be difficult to understand the Iranian missile test as a response to Israel’s training for air strikes and the stepped up war talk. After all, the Iranians are explicitly saying that they have no intention of attacking any other state, including Israel, but that if they are attacked, they will hit back in a very nasty way. The idea that the appropriate response is to escalate the confrontation seems, to me, to be very much in keeping with the longstanding self-defeating approach to the Iran question we’ve seen up till now.

Olmert wants U.S. to sponsor Israel-Syria talks

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to get the United States involved in the negotiations between Israel and Syria, to persuade President Bashar Assad to advance to direct talks. The U.S. has not been willing until now to become involved, but Olmert said during a Tuesday morning meeting with Italian Foreign minister Franco Frattini that he can persuade President George W. Bush to sponsor the talks.

Frattini recounted conversations with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, and shared his impression that the Syrians are pleased with the negotiations with Israel. However, Frattini told Olmert he is skeptical that progress is possible in view of Assad’s statements in an interview this week with a French newspaper.

Assad told Le Figaro that he does not think Syria will enter direct talks with Israel before the end of Bush’s term in the White House. “The most important thing in direct negotiations is who sponsors them,” Assad said. “Frankly, we do not think that the current American administration is capable of making peace. It doesn’t have either the will or the vision, and only has a few months left.” Assad added that the next U.S. president will play an important role in peace talks with Israel.

Looking into the Lobby

For three days in the capital in early June, suspense built over the question of how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference would greet Barack Obama. There was a lot of grousing about Obama in the hallways of the Washington Convention Center, and AIPAC officials repeatedly warned the faithful to be respectful. “We are not a debate society or a protest movement. … our goal is to have a friend in the White House,” executive director Howard Kohr said in a strict tone. It wasn’t hard to imagine things going poorly: Obama gets booed on national television. He feels insulted. Conservative Jewish donors and voters turn off to Obama. He becomes president without their support. AIPAC has no friend in the Oval Office.

But of course, Obama complied. His speech became the annual example the conference provides of a powerful man truckling. Two years ago, it was Vice President Cheney’s red-meat speech attacking the Palestinians. Last year, it was Pastor John Hagee’s scary speech saying that giving the Arabs any part of Jerusalem was the same as giving it to the Taliban. Obama took a similar line. He suggested that he would use force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, made no mention of Palestinian human rights, and said that Jerusalem “must remain undivided,” a statement so disastrous to the peace process that his staff rescinded it the next day. Big deal. The actual meeting had gone swimmingly.

Eager to tap Iraq’s oil, industry execs suggested military intervention

Two years before the invasion of Iraq, oil executives and foreign policy advisers told the Bush administration that the United States would remain “a prisoner of its energy dilemma” as long as Saddam Hussein was in power.

That April 2001 report, “Strategic Policy Challenges for the 21st Century,” was prepared by the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy and the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations at the request of Vice President Dick Cheney.

In retrospect, it appears that the report helped focus administration thinking on why it made geopolitical sense to oust Hussein, whose country sat on the world’s second largest oil reserves.

‘It’s like living at the end of the world’

Sufian Odeh used to be able to see his cousin’s house across the street from his apartment window – until Israel built a wall of concrete down the middle of their neighborhood two years ago.

Standing eight metres high and just 13 metres from his building, it overshadows Sufian’s second-floor apartment like the wall of a prison, darkening this once thriving Palestinian district.

“When I look from the window and see the wall, I immediately close the blinds and smoke a cigarette. It’s like living at the end of the world,” says Sufian, who asked to change his name to preserve his family’s privacy.

His neighbours fled long ago, as the West Bank barrier crept down the main street of al-Ram, dividing families, separating children from schools and patients from clinics, and severing the road back to Jerusalem. Stranded outside Jerusalem by the barrier, al-Ram has become a virtual ghost town.

Living alongside the enemy

In the circles of Middle East peacemaking it is called “coexistence”, the often difficult and usually pioneering work that brings together Jews and Arabs, treats them as equals and tries to bridge their differences.

Within Israel it still happens a lot, despite the terrible violence of the second intifada and the flagging political peace process. There are organisations that run bilingual Jewish-Arabic schools, including one in Jerusalem. There are joint business projects, musical ventures and even comedy shows.

In Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, the small Yaffa cafe and bookshop became the first store in the mixed Jewish and Arab city to sell Arabic books since 1948. It brought a rare, mixed clientele to its wooden tables and won an award for promoting dialogue. Next month, Joe Cocker will perform at a high-profile “coexistence festival” featuring Jewish and Arab musicians in Gilboa, in northern Israel, which will also include a children’s “Bible-Koran quiz”.

Free this detainee

There’s someone I’d like to introduce to President Bush. Also to Chief Justice John Roberts and Sen. John McCain. His name is Huzaifa Parhat, and that get-together might be tricky to arrange. Parhat is also known as ISN (Internment Serial Number) 320 at Guantanamo Bay.

Parhat is Uighur, a Muslim ethnic minority group from western China. He fled China for Afghanistan, and, when the camp he was living in there was bombed by U.S. forces, went to Pakistan. For a bounty, Parhat was turned over to U.S. authorities and shipped to Guantanamo.

He has been held as an enemy combatant for more than six years — even though the government concedes he was never a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda and never took part in any hostilities against the United States.

Indeed, Parhat’s detention is based on evidence so flimsy that a federal appeals court here told the government it had to free Parhat or come up with something more.

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