Archives for December 2008

EDITORIAL: Trust is not a birthright

Trust is not a birthright

There is a conceit that has so thoroughly poisoned the minds of most Israelis that it is regarded as an unquestionable truth: we occupy the moral high ground.

This poison distorts every question, not least the most pressing issue of this moment: can a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas be restored?

Implicit in that question as it is being considered by Israel is the assumption that Israel’s willingness and ability to abide by a ceasefire is beyond question and that the only real question is whether Hamas can be trusted to do the same. But even that is not really treated as a question. The heart of the issue, Israel would have us believe, is: can Hamas be forced into a truce?

When, after ignoring the subject for several days, the New York Times finally got around to making an editorial pronouncement on the war on Gaza, it trotted out what is among most inattentive observers the conventional wisdom:

Hamas never fully observed the cease-fire that went into effect on June 19 and Israel never really lived up to its commitment to ease its punishing embargo on Gaza.

In fact, Hamas’ compliance with the ceasefire was stunningly disciplined. Don’t take my word for it. The proof comes from the Israeli government.

Look at this graph provided by the Israeli Foreign Ministry showing rocket attacks from Gaza per month during 2008. From January through June there were an average of 179 rocket attacks per month. From July through October there were an average of 3 rocket attacks per month.

For the residents of Sderot, those months were indeed a period of calm. But the calm ended when Israel unilaterally broke the ceasefire right after the US elections and just before Hamas and Fatah sat down for crucial reconciliation talks in Cairo.

If Israel, as it would currently have the world believe, was so strongly in favor of extending the six-month ceasefire, why did it attach so little value to what had already been accomplished? Why did it not acknowledge the effectiveness with which Hamas was holding up its side of the bargain? Why did it not demonstrate that it valued the calm by lifting or at least easing the economic embargo on Gaza in a significant way?

All Israel accomplished was to confirm Hamas’ suspicions – suspicions shared by most Palestinians – that Israel cannot be trusted.



Israel rejects proposed cease-fire

Israeli leaders rejected on Wednesday a proposal to immediately pause attacks on the Gaza Strip for 48 hours, declaring that there were no guarantees Hamas fighters would in return stop firing rockets into Israel. Discussions were continuing in hopes of developing a more durable cease-fire. But after looking at the existing proposal, “we saw that it did not contain the necessary elements to make the truce permanent,” said Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. “It lacks a plan to enforce the ceasefire, to make sure Hamas won’t shoot rockets into Israel anymore, and stop the smuggling of weapons.”

“It does not contain any guarantees,” he added. “There is nothing in the proposal that if we declare a unilateral ceasefire it will mean anything to Hamas and that it will ensure a durable ceasefire afterwards.” [continued…]

Behind closed doors, U.S. seeks Israel exit strategy

While publicly declaring strong support for Israel, the Bush administration is increasingly nervous about the 4-day-old campaign in the Gaza Strip and is urging its ally to settle on a timetable and exit strategy, say foreign diplomats and Middle East experts close to the discussions.

U.S. officials are concerned that the campaign could drag on without destroying Hamas, and might even bolster support for the militant group — just as the 2006 Israeli campaign in Lebanon strengthened Hezbollah, they say.

“You’re not hearing that same confidence you did in 2006 that the Israeli military can impose a new strategic reality and should go full force,” said one Arab diplomat in Washington. “There’s a real contrast between their words then and now.”

U.S. officials were talking intensively Tuesday to Arab and European powers about the possibility of a two- or three-day cease-fire, diplomats said. U.S. diplomacy is complicated by differences between the White House and the State Department, these sources said. [continued…]

Obama’s silence on Gaza confirms low Arab expectations

President-elect Barack Obama, with his silence on Israel’s attacks in Gaza, has confirmed Arab expectations that foreign policy changes will come small and slow when he moves into the White House next month.

On the fourth day of Israeli air strikes which have killed more than 380 people in Gaza, the U.S. President-elect has yet to take a position, though he spoke out after militants’ attacks in Mumbai and has made detailed statements on the U.S. economy.

“He wants to be cautious and I think he will remain cautious because the Arab-Israeli conflict is not one of his priorities,” said Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian political scientist and secretary-general of the Arab Thought Forum in Amman.

“Obama’s position is very precarious. The Jewish lobby warned against his election, so he has chosen to remain silent (on Gaza),” added Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

“If Obama continues to remain silent … his silence will be seen and will have the operational effect of providing an endorsement for Israel’s war on Gaza,” said Paul Woodward of Conflicts Forum, an organisation aimed at changing Western policy towards Islamist movements such as Hamas. [continued…]

The IAF, bullies of the clear blue skies

Our finest young men are attacking Gaza now. Good boys from good homes are doing bad things. Most of them are eloquent, impressive, self-confident, often even highly principled in their own eyes, and on Black Saturday dozens of them set out to bomb some of the targets in our “target bank” for the Gaza Strip.

They set out to bomb the graduation ceremony for young police officers who had found that rare Gaza commodity, a job, massacring them by the dozen. They bombed a mosque, killing five sisters of the Balousha family, the youngest of whom was 4. They bombed a police station, hitting a doctor nearby; she lies in a vegetative state in Shifa Hospital, which is bursting with wounded and dead. They bombed a university that we in Israel call the Palestinian Rafael, the equivalent of Israel’s weapons developer, and destroyed student dormitories. They dropped hundreds of bombs out of blue skies free of all resistance.

In four days they killed 375 people. They did not, and could not, distinguish between a Hamas official and his children, between a traffic cop and a Qassam launch operator, between a weapons cache and a health clinic, between the first and second floors of a densely populated apartment building with dozens of children inside. According to reports, about half of the people killed were innocent civilians. We’re not complaining about the pilots’ accuracy, it cannot be otherwise when the weapon is a plane and the objective is a tiny, crowded strip of land. Our excellent pilots are effectively bullies now. As in training flights, they bomb undisturbed, facing neither an air force nor defense system. [continued…]

Understanding Gaza

It’s fear of another Holocaust that has driven Israel to bomb the crap out of the Palestinians in Gaza — at least, that’s if you believe what you read on the New York Times op ed page. (Never a good idea, of course, because as I’ve previously noted, when it comes to Israel and related fear-mongering, there simply is no hysteria deemed unworthy of the Times op ed page.)

Morris, a manic fellow at the best of times prone to intellectual mood swings — having laid bare the ethnic cleansing that created modern Israel, Morris then didn’t as much recant as complain that the problem was that Ben Gurion hadn’t finished the job. And since the 2000 debacle at Camp David, of course, he’s been a de facto editorial writer for Ehud Barak, the failed former Prime Minister nicknamed “Mr. Zig-Zag” while in office because of his inconsistency — and who, of course, is the author of the current operation in Gaza.

Barak, never shy about spewing utter rubbish when his audience is American and prone to be taken in by demagoguery, last weekend offered the priceless suggestion to Fox News that “expecting Israel to have a cease-fire with Hamas is like expecting you to have a cease-fire with al-Qaeda.” Presumably it would not occur to Fox’s anchors to ask why, then, had Barak maintained just such a cease-fire for the past six months? And why had he been seeking its renewal? [continued…]

Gaza crisis: a crossroads for Obama

The catastrophe unfolding in Gaza has the dark force of a recurring Middle Eastern nightmare: Scattered guerrilla-like attacks from the weak lead to massive retaliation by the strong. Excessive lethal force provokes enraged recriminations. Fresh bloodshed fuels the hard-liners on both sides.

We have seen this cycle many times before: throughout Lebanon (2006), across the occupied territories during the first intifada (1987-93), in east and west Beirut (1982), and even during the founding of modern Israel and the subsequent dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948.

When the smoke finally drifts from Gaza, and the human rights investigations begin – into the death of schoolchildren in midday rocket attacks or the demolition of a women’s dormitory – sober voices will ask why Israel has still not learned a fundamental lesson: By trying to crush your enemy, you only make him stronger. [continued…]

How not to make peace in the Middle East

Throughout the years, polls consistently showed respectable Israeli and Palestinian majorities in favor of a negotiated two-state settlement. The world held its breath awaiting a breakthrough, promising wholehearted support for a resolution. Even traditionally passive and cautious Saudi Arabia put forward the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, persuaded Arab and Islamic nations to sign onto it, and formally presented it to Israel via the Arab League. Yet throughout, regardless of set-up, content, or style, the outcome has been depressingly the same. The plans were greeted with violence, bewilderment, and, more recently, a yawn. Why would more of the same, even if more intense, more vigorous, and more sustained, produce a different outcome?

Equally striking, three of the most significant Arab–Israeli breakthroughs occurred with the US nowhere in sight: Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, the Oslo negotiations, and Israel’s treaty with Jordan. Nor is this merely a historical reflection. When Israeli–Syrian negotiations restarted this year, they were under Turkish, not American, sponsorship and the US sought to prevent, not facilitate them. America was and will be needed to capitalize on opportunities or crown a deal. But it is worth contemplating why it has been so unfailingly inept at launching successful initiatives—the Camp David summit of 2000 and the Annapolis process of 2007 and 2008 being only the latest, saddest examples.

Obama ought to take note of another intriguing feature: arguably the most momentous shift in the Israeli–Palestinian landscape since the 1993 Oslo accords has occurred as a result not of US policy and bilateral negotiations but of a unilateral decision. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 has left much to be desired. But had then Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas sought to negotiate its details with American help, Israeli tanks and settlements almost certainly would still be there, as they are in much of the West Bank, despite endless negotiations. US-sponsored bilateral negotiations have become a formula for sustaining an otherwise untenable status quo. [continued…]



Hamas is hoping for an IDF ground operation in Gaza

Three days into Operation Cast Lead, Israel is proposing a diplomatic exit. A ground operation likely looms in an effort to increase the pressure on Hamas. At the same time, however, others argue that the air force is close to exhausting its target bank, so if Hamas can be brought to accept a cease-fire on terms convenient to Israel in the near future it would be better to do so.

Hamas intensified its rocket and mortar fire at Israel Monday. It is starting to recover from the initial shock of the assault, and the bad weather is helping to protect its launching crews from Israeli aircraft.

By 8 P.M., Hamas had fired more than 80 rockets and mortars at Israel, including a Grad Katyusha strike on Ashkelon that killed an Israeli construction worker and wounded 10 others. At 9:30 P.M., a Katyusha hit Ashdod, seriously wounding another two civilians . The Home Front Command says some of the civilian casualties of the last few days could have been prevented had people obeyed its orders and entered shelters when they heard the warning sirens.

Israel has thus far refused to officially discuss a cease-fire, but in practice it is conducting an indirect and hesitant dialogue with Hamas. As of yet, however, there is no official mediator.

Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ political bureau, has been calling for a cease-fire for two days now. However, communications with the organization’s leadership in Gaza are hampered because all its leaders have gone underground for fear of Israeli assassination attempts, while Israel’s air strikes have disrupted the Strip’s communications networks. Paradoxically, the same measures that have hampered Hamas’ military response are also impeding efforts to end the fighting.

Israel will insist that any truce include a complete, long-term halt to the rocket fire from Gaza. In exchange, it will apparently agree to reopen the border crossings at some point, though no final decisions have been made. Some ministers want to continue the military operation, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi, are more cautious. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The war so meticulously planned not to be a re-run of Lebanon 2006 is turning into a re-run of Lebanon 2006. Hesitant to enter into a ground war in which Israel justifiably fears it would get bogged down, suffer unacceptably high casualties and ultimately face humiliation, the choice at this point is to move over to an “expanded target list.” In other words, having trumpeted the claim that this is all about “precision” strikes on Hamas (disingenuous as that claim had to be since those targets were situated in the heart of densely populated urban areas) Israel is now widening its scope to a point where its flimsy facade of discrimination falls away. The Washington Post reports:

    Israeli military officials said Monday that their target lists have expanded to include the vast support network that the Islamist movement relies on to stay in power in the strip. The choice of targets suggests that Israel intends to weaken all the various facets of Hamas rather than just its armed wing.

It’s only a couple of weeks ago that 200,000 people crammed into the center of Gaza City to celebrate Hamas’ 21st anniversary. In the minds of Israeli commanders one can only assume that everyone in Gaza is now a legitimate target. “Everything is connected.”

As for the level ground on which Hamas is prepared to meet its adversary, the fact that Israel has amassed its forces on the border means it either has to advance and risk getting stuck both figuratively and literally in the Gaza mud, or it backs away. Either way, the likelihood is that Israel will once again have demonstrated the limitations of its own military power.

Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony

How easy it is to snap off the history of the Palestinians, to delete the narrative of their tragedy, to avoid a grotesque irony about Gaza which – in any other conflict – journalists would be writing about in their first reports: that the original, legal owners of the Israeli land on which Hamas rockets are detonating live in Gaza.

That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it – Askalaan in Arabic – were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They – or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don’t come from Gaza.

But watching the news shows, you’d think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story. [continued…]

Hamas credo led it to end cease-fire

… in Ramallah, anti-Israeli and American sentiment was high among a small crowd of protesters gathered, incongruously, beneath a Stars and Bucks Cafe. Even here, in Fatah’s heartland, people said they admired Hamas for its willingness to take on a regional superpower.

Challenged on the point that firing highly inaccurate rockets from Gaza into Israel carried a huge cost in retaliation, one 30-year-old Palestinian who refused to give his name compared the attacks to the impotent yet defiant gesture of the Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi, who became a folk hero across the Arab world for throwing his shoes at President Bush.

Mustafa Saleh, 37, said: “I am originally Fatah and my voice will always be Fatah. But Hamas is resisting and we are a nation under occupation. I support the resistance, even here in the West Bank.”

Hamas hopes such sentiments will bring it new supporters.

But as he watched the protesters go by, Mohanad Salah, 42, said that emotions would calm down. Palestinians were quite capable of wanting Hamas-style “resistance” with their hearts but peace talks with their heads, he said.

“The more military operations by Israel either here or in Gaza, the more it will make people go away from wanting agreements,” he said.

“But you should know that even after Israel carried out this operation yesterday, if today it says ‘We want a political solution, let’s reach an agreement,’ it would be completely accepted by the majority of the Palestinian people,” Mr. Salah added. [continued…]

The world gives Israel a free hand

Barack Obama’s aides, in explaining the US president-elect’s silence, are meanwhile sticking to their mantra that the US only has one president at a time. But as the carnage and the outrage mount, this hands-off stance begins to look less like tact and more like a sign of a man who, confronted by a raw conflict that has defeated many more experienced statesmen before him, lacks new ideas.

Obama and his replacement for Rice, Hillary Clinton, have closely followed the Bush line on the ostracism of Hamas as an illegitimate terrorist organisation. He condemned Hamas rocket attacks in emotive, personalised terms during a visit to Sderot in southern Israel earlier this year.

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing,” Obama said. Arab critics suggested at the time that a balancing line or two about the impact of the Israeli army on Palestinian family life in besieged Gaza would have been welcome. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The balancing line is utterly obvious (even if it’s impossible to imagine Obama using it): “If somebody was sending rockets into my house in Gaza where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Palestinians to do the same thing.”

Gaza: the logic of colonial power

Terrorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept. An empty word that means everything and nothing, it is used to describe what the Other does, not what we do. The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims’ struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.

Counterinsurgency, now popular again among in the Pentagon, is another way of saying the suppression of national liberation struggles. Terror and intimidation are as essential to it as is winning hearts and minds.

Normative rules are determined by power relations. Those with power determine what is legal and illegal. They besiege the weak in legal prohibitions to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively as if a neutral court had produced them, instead of the oppressors. The danger in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation and colonialism. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: Silence has become complicity

Silence has become complicity

Is the incoming president, world-renowned for his eloquence, about to become better known for his silence?

Barack Obama may not have assumed office yet but a war is already being conducted in his name.

Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, now says that Israel is engaged in a “war to the bitter end” against Hamas in Gaza. And in justifying this war to Israel’s state assembly, the Knesset, Barak said: “Obama said that if rockets were being fired at his home while his two daughters were sleeping, he would do everything he could to prevent it.”

Barak’s war has become Barack’s war — unless he breaks his silence.

Obama chooses his words carefully. He did so when speaking to the press in Sderot in southern Israel, during the presidential election campaign this summer. While he was clearly and shamelessly pandering to American Jewish voters, his statement expressed sympathy for the Israelis being targeted by Qassam rocket fire, but it also underlined that an effective response would focus on preventing further attacks — not merely the retaliatory and bellicose response with which Israelis are so familiar, that is, a military operation whose purpose is “to teach the Palestinians a lesson.”

If Obama continues to remain silent he will implicitly be sending a message to Israelis, Palestinians, and everyone else across the Arab world. His silence will be seen and will have the operational effect of providing an endorsement for Israel’s war on Gaza. His silence will set the tone for his whole approach to the Middle East. If his plan to give a major speech in a Muslim capital has not already been put on hold, it might as well now be scrapped.

But there is an alternative. This is what Obama can and should say:

I support the Israeli government in its goal of providing security for its citizens. However, I believe that the current operation in Gaza is unlikely to serve that goal and in the long run may further undermine Israel’s security.

What can Israel do now? Pull back its troops, offer to renew the truce and lift the siege.

The truce actually worked, as this graph from the Israeli Foreign Ministry clearly shows.

Rocket fire did not resume until Israel broke the truce on November 5.

What we now know, is that Israel did not view the truce as a means to bring calm to southern Israel but instead used it as an aid for gathering intelligence in preparation for war.

Had the Olmert government regarded the cessation of rocket fire as a foundation upon which it could build, it would have taken clear steps to lift the siege. (But to have pursued such a course would not however have provided the Palestinian body count upon which Israel’s next prime minister hopes to ride into office.)

Instead, what we now witness is a brutal spectacle in which, using the Orwellian language of war, Israel claims that it’s target is Hamas, not the residents of Gaza.

Obama is still in a position to exert influence, but the longer he waits, the less power he will have; the more likely he will be seen as the perpetuator of George Bush’s failed approach to the Middle East.



Israeli aircraft continue raids on Gaza; Arab anger rises

In a third straight day of deadly air strikes against the emblems and institutions of Hamas on Monday, Israeli warplanes pounded targets in Gaza including the Interior Ministry while the Israeli army declared areas around the beleaguered enclave a “closed military zone.” [continued…]

Hospitals face catastrophe as Israeli firestorm is unleashed

Gaza City was a ghost town of funeral tents and nervous bread queues yesterday as shocked residents ventured out of their homes under Israel’s massive firestorm only to carry out the bare necessities of life: buying food and burying their dead.

Hospital officials said that the death toll had risen to almost 300, with more than 1,000 injured. With 150 patients in critical condition and the city’s hospitals already on the verge of collapse even before the Israeli blitz, doctors expected the numbers of dead to swell even further.

“There is no way we can handle such a catastrophe. People are dying for want of basic amenities,” Hassan Abu Tawila, of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, said. “A normal country would have difficulty coping with such a catastrophe. Imagine the situation for a place that has been under Israeli siege for 18 months already.” [continued…]

The strategic price of Israel’s Gaza assault

Israel has acted in response to pressure to protect its citizenry from rocket attacks, but there’s a strong likelihood that such attacks will continue and possibly intensify as a result. That will draw Israeli ground troops into Gaza, where they, too, will suffer casualties at the hands of Palestinian gunmen. The Palestinian civilian death toll will be far higher, which will, in turn, isolate Israel on the diplomatic front — even those Arab regimes that would have been discreetly pleased to see Hamas dealt a harsh blow (because they fear the Islamist movement is becoming a model for those challenging their own governments) will be forced to distance themselves.

The air strikes will also give President Mahmoud Abbas no choice but to break off peace talks with Israel, although neither the Israelis nor most Palestinians treated those as any kind of serious peace process. Still, the Israeli offensive is likely to boost Palestinian political support for Hamas, and to further weaken Abbas. And, in the weeks preceding the strikes, Israeli security officials were warning that there’s no end game, because a limited campaign would be unlikely to eliminate Hamas in Gaza, and if Israel launched a full-blown ground invasion it would find itself forced to reoccupy the territory on a long-term basis.

So Hamas knows that Israel’s military intervention is unlikely to be a ground war to the finish, and it will hope that, like Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006, by simply surviving an Israeli onslaught it will emerge politically victorious. Israel will hope to sufficiently bloody the movement to put it on the defensive and make its leaders prioritize their own physical survival over pressing Israel to ease the siege. And hundreds more people could die in the weeks ahead as the two sides look to win the battle of wills. [continued…]

Israel has learned from its failure in Lebanon

Although many risks and uncertainties lie ahead, in particular the specter of getting bogged down in a ground war, the offensive has brought Israel to a psychological turning point, restoring a measure of the country’s confidence in its capacity to confront armed adversaries.

“Hamas is dazed and confused and has no explanation to offer its people,” Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, told Israel Radio on Sunday. “But we must refrain from bragging and marking dramatic objectives.”

Rather than remove Hamas from power, he and other Israeli officials say, the goal is to weaken the movement and demonstrate the price it would pay for continuing to launch rockets. Sooner or later, Israel hopes to restore and strengthen an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that worked for nearly five months before it started to break down in November.

“The army doesn’t even have the pretense of neutralizing Hamas’ ability to launch rockets. We have tried that before and failed,” said Alon Ben-David, military correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 television.

“This operation,” he explained, “is directed at Hamas’ motivation to fire rockets at Israel rather than its actual ability to do so.”

For reasons that became evident during the Lebanon conflict, it is far from certain whether even that limited goal can be achieved. [continued…]

Key Arab states hope for weakened Hamas

The war in the Gaza Strip spilled over into Egypt Sunday when dozens of Gaza residents crossed the border only to encounter Egyptian gunfire aimed at driving them back. The ongoing closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has become a symbol of Cairo’s policy, which critics charge is one of collaborating with Israel to impose economic sanctions on the Strip. Judging by Arab leaders’ statements to the media,
or the slogans shouted by demonstrators in several Arab capitals, one might have thought that Egypt, not Israel, was the one waging war on Gaza.

Hamas’ demand that Egypt open Rafah to all Gazans, and not just to the wounded seeking treatment abroad, has been rejected in part because Egypt
remains committed to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement from 2005 that governs the Gaza border crossings, even though it was never a signatory to the pact. But beyond this formal reason, Egypt wants to prevent thousands of Palestinians from once again crossing the border into its territory. This past January, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians broke through the border fence, the Egyptian government suffered harsh criticism at home for allowing Egypt’s sovereignty to be violated.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Cairo will long be able to withstand the enormous pressure being generated by the Arab media and public. [continued…]

Forty years, five lessons … will Israel never learn them

Israel’s use of its clear military superiority against Palestinians, Lebanese and other Arabs has consistently led to five parallel, linked and predictable consequences:

1. Israeli power temporarily shatters Palestinian and Arab military and civilian infrastructure, only for the bludgeoned Arabs to regroup and return a few years later – with much greater technical proficiency and political will to fight Israel. This happened when the Palestinians, who were driven out of Jordan in 1970, eventually re-established more lethal bases in Lebanon: and when Israel destroyed Fatah’s police facilities in the West Bank and Gaza a few years ago, they soon found themselves fighting Hamas’s capabilities instead.

2. Israel’s combination of military ferocity, insincerity in peace negotiations and continued colonisation sees “moderate” groups and peacemaking partners such as Fatah slowly self-destruct, to be challenged or even replaced by tougher foes. Fatah has given way to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to militant spin-offs from within Fatah, such Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Hizbollah emerged in Lebanon after Israel invaded and occupied south Lebanon in 1982.

3. Israel’s insistence on militarily dominating the entire Middle East generates new enemies in lands where it once had strategic allies, such as Lebanon and Iran. Israel once worked closely with some predominantly Christian groups in Lebanon, and had deep security links with the Shah of Iran. Today – the figurative 40 years later – Israel sees its most serious, even existential, threats emanating from Hizbollah in Lebanon and the radical ruling regime in Iran. [continued…]

Trying to ‘teach Hamas a lesson’ is fundamentally wrong

Israel is striking at the Palestinians to “teach them a lesson.” That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom – via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey.

The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to “liquidate the Hamas regime,” in line with another assumption that has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception: that it is possible to impose a “moderate” leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national aspirations.

As a corollary, Israel has also always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over. [continued…]

We have no words left

“I will play music and celebrate what the Israeli air force is doing.” Those chilling words were spoken on al-Jazeera on Saturday by Ofer Shmerling, an Israeli civil defence official in the Sderot area adjacent to the Gaza Strip. For days Israeli planes have bombed Gaza. Almost 300 Palestinians have been killed and a thousand injured, the majority civilians, including women and children. Israel claims most of the dead were Hamas “terrorists”. In fact, the targets were police stations in dense residential areas, and the dead included many police officers and other civilians. Under international law, police officers are civilians, and targeting them is no less a war crime than aiming at other civilians.

Palestinians are at a loss to describe this new catastrophe. Is it our 9/11, or is it a taste of the “bigger shoah” Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, threatened in February, after the last round of mass killings?

Israel says it is acting in “retaliation” for rockets fired with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on 19 December. But the bombs dropped on Gaza are only a variation in Israel’s method of killing Palestinians. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food, cancer treatments and other medicines by an Israeli blockade that targeted 1.5 million people – mostly refugees and children – caged into the Gaza Strip. The orders of Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to hold back medicine were just as lethal and illegal as those to send in the warplanes. [continued…]

Hamas has been targeted since it was elected

Again the Israelis bomb the starving and imprisoned population of Gaza. The world watches the plight of 1.5 million Gazans live, on television. The western media justifies it. Even some Arab outlets equate the Palestinian resistance with the might of the Israeli military machine. None of this is a surprise. The Israelis just concluded a round-the-world public relations campaign to gather support for their assault, gaining the collaboration of Arab states like Egypt. The international community is guilty for this latest massacre. Will it remain immune from the wrath of a desperate people?

An American journal once asked me to contribute an essay to a discussion on whether terrorism or attacks against civilians could ever be justified. My answer was that an American journal should not be asking this question: this is a question for the weak – for the Native American in the past, for the Jews in Nazi Germany, for the Palestinian today – to ask. Terrorism is an empty word that means everything and nothing. It describes what the Other does, not what We do.

The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims’ struggles as terrorism. The destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, these will never be called terrorism. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: Surf’s up… while the bombs fall

Surf’s up… while the bombs fall

President-elect Obama has an excruciating dilemma: If he opens his mouth, he feels compelled to lie; if he says nothing, he ends up looking like an ineffectual, indifferent coward. The only thing going in his favor is that his current moral torpor is shared by the majority of Americans who look at the Middle East and simply say, “Oh my, there they go again. The Jews and the Arabs just don’t know how to get along. Isn’t it a shame, but what can we do?”

To reinforce this comforting sense of helplessness, The Huffington Post‘s Karin Kloosterman – “a member of the press” in Israel – kindly published President Shimon Peres’ statement to the press on why Gaza now reeks from blood and explosives.

Peres begins:

It is the first time in the history of Israel that we, the Israelis, cannot understand the motives or the purposes of the ones who are shooting at us. It is the most unreasonable war, done by the most unreasonable warriors.

From that disingenuous opening there follows a litany describing how Israel, in all its saintliness, has done everything it could to improve the lives of those who live in Gaza.

No mention of course about the fact that Israel – with international support – chose to disregard the democratic will of the Palestinian people when they elected a Hamas-led government in 2006. No mention that the siege on Gaza has been condemned by the UN as collective punishment that “constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

Before Hamas assumed power, Gaza was notoriously lawless. Under Hamas’ governance, law and order – even with such civil niceties as traffic control – have been established. But because Israel has been “pelted” – yes, that’s the apt term that’s used in the Israeli press – by Qassam rocket fire ever since Israel broke the truce on November 5, Israel is now engaged in Operation Cast Lead which is systematically destroying Hamas’ security structure in the name of preventing rocket fire. Oh, and never mind that most of the rockets were being launched by members of Islamic Jihad.

Just so that we can be sure that in the dwindling days of his tenure, Ehud Olmert is not being impulsive (no rerun of the 2006 war on Lebanon — that’s a relief!), Haaretz provides a highly informative description of the operation that was being planned even before Israel and Hamas entered an Egyptian-brokered “truce”. In front of all their critics who cried out that a truce would simply give Hamas time to rearm, Olmert and Barak can now grin with satisfaction, knowing that the truce was a ruse that Israel could use while it gathered intelligence in preparation for its next war. As Mechi Fendel, mother of seven in Sderot said: “What’s been happening in Gaza is fantastic” — although she still intends to vote for Netanyahu.

Now Kadima has demonstrated its willingness to start a new war, Israelis can be assured that Likud will remain committed to continuing the war — no matter who’s in the White House.

Does it matter who’s in the White House? (I’d still like to imagine so.)

And as the Arab world now vents its frustration at Israel’s brutality and the duplicity of its autocratic rulers, many observers will be taking note that — as Haaretz pointed out — two days before launching the operation, Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, went to Cairo to inform President Mubarak what was about to happen.

This might explain why Egypt is now engaged in its own propaganda campaign portraying Hamas as unwilling to let casualties be taken to hospitals in Egypt. Perhaps Hamas is holding back victims, but it would not be hard to understand their anger at a country that remained silent when forewarned of an attack and only rushed to “help” once it was too late. Indeed, this report suggests that Egypt has a deep level of complicity in the Israeli operation.

Egypt collaborated with Israel by deliberately misleading Hamas and allowing Tel Aviv to deal a blow to the movement, a report claims.

Citing diplomatic sources, the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi reported Sunday that Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman had deceived Hamas into believing that Israel would not launch an attack on the Gaza Strip in the near future.

According to the report, the misinformation lured Hamas into not evacuating its security compounds and headquarters.

Suleiman convinced a number of Arab leaders that Israel was intending to launch only limited operations into the Gaza Strip to mount pressure on Hamas ahead of signing a new ceasefire agreement, the report added.

So, back in Hawaii, what’s a president-to-be to do in the midst of this ugly mess?

Carry on surfing.


What happened to the fierce urgency of now?

What happened to the fierce urgency of now?

Suppose the scenes now unfolding in Gaza were happening in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. President-elect Obama would not have his chief national security spokesperson Brooke Anderson telling the press that he was “monitoring” the situation, mindful that “there is one president at a time.” Obama himself would be speaking in person about the unthinkable horror of what was being inflicted on Israel.

But the dead and wounded are not Israelis — they’re Palestinians. And so today is a day for international handwringing mixed in with the occasional absolving from guilt for those who can do no wrong.

Once Obama takes office, is he going to find the political courage that he clearly lacks right now? His current willingness to duck for cover suggests that when it comes to Israel, the prevailing view across the Middle East — that it makes little difference who occupies the White House — is well-founded.



Scores die in Israeli air strikes

Israeli F-16 bombers have launched a series of air strikes against key targets in the Gaza Strip, killing at least 155 people, medical chiefs say.

Gaza officials and the Hamas militant group said about 200 others were hurt as missiles hit security compounds and militant bases across the territory.

The strikes, the most intense Israeli attacks on Gaza for decades, come days after a truce with Hamas expired. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — What will Obama have to say? I expect that as a matter of political convenience he’ll rattle off the “Israel has the right to defend itself” line — yet again — and beyond that, it’ll be back to the one-president-at-a-time barricade.

At the same time, one message will go out for the millionth time across the Middle East: the political leadership across the region is impotent and their Western allies largely indifferent when it comes to the misery inflicted on Palestinians. Europeans will frown and say that the Israeli response is disproporationate, while Americans won’t even go that far. Another few thousand young men will be radicalized and the foundation of their conviction will be that institutionalized political power is indifferent to their plight.

Abbas in ‘urgent contact’ with other states over Gaza strikes

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Saturday that he was in “urgent contact” with numerous countries over the deadly Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip.

“We have carried out urgent contacts with numerous Arab countries and other nations to stop the cowardly aggressions and massacres in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas told AFP from Saudi Arabia which he is currently visiting. [continued…]

Hezbollah calls for urgent steps on Gaza among Arab leaders

Hezbollah’s head of international relations Nawaf Mousawi said Saturday that Arab leaders should take urgent steps against Israel’s attack on Gaza.

Mousawi criticized the Arab “suspicious silence” which will have its impact on the whole Arab nations by losing Jerusalem and Palestine.

He urged Arab people to resent the collaboration of their leaders, and go to the streets to pressure their leaders for urgent steps. [continued…]

Protests call for Palestinian unity

Palestinians in the West Bank have demonstrated for unity between the rival factions, Fatah and Hamas, after Israeli air attacks on the Gaza Strip killed more than 155 people and wounded 200 others.

Hundreds of Palestinians gathered in the centre of Ramallah in the West Bank on Saturday, some carrying banners reading: “We will not forget you, Gaza.”

The Israeli bombardment also sparked rallies across the Arab world, including in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Damascus in Syria. [continued…]

How can anyone believe there is ‘progress’ in the Middle East?

If reporting is, as I suspect, a record of mankind’s folly, then the end of 2008 is proving my point.

Let’s kick off with the man who is not going to change the Middle East, Barack Obama, who last week, with infinite predictability, became Time’s “person of the year”. But buried in a long and immensely tedious interview inside the magazine, Obama devotes just one sentence to the Arab-Israeli conflict: “And seeing if we can build on some of the progress, at least in conversation, that’s been made around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a priority.”

What is this man talking about? “Building on progress?” What progress? On the verge of another civil war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, with Benjamin Netanyahu a contender for Israeli prime minister, with Israel’s monstrous wall and its Jewish colonies still taking more Arab land, and Palestinians still firing rockets at Sderot, and Obama thinks there’s “progress” to build on? [continued…]

Peace for the Mideast

President-elect Barack Obama is about to inherit not just a nation entrenched in two wars but a world of instability and an entire Middle East that is sick with discord. While disputes in this region may seem eternal, there are reasons to be optimistic. If Obama joins with forces for peace and stability and acts boldly, his presidency could have a marked impact on world affairs.

The best medicine yet formulated for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the Arab peace initiative of 2002. One must consider the prospect of “peace” in context.

In May, Israel celebrated the 60th anniversary of its creation. For Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim brethren, Israel’s founding is “al-Naqba,” or “the Catastrophe.” It is the day the dream of an independent, Arab-Palestinian state was shattered; a day when the idea of a world built on equality, freedom and self-determination died. [continued…]

Pakistan moves troops amid tension with India

Pakistan has begun moving some troops away from its western border with Afghanistan and has stopped soldiers from going on leave amid rising tensions with India, Pakistani officials said Friday.

Two of the officials said the troops were headed to the border with India in the east.

The move is likely to frustrate the United States, which has been pressing Pakistan to battle militants in its lawless northwest territories and working hard to cool tempers in the two nuclear-armed countries, following terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, last month. Indian officials have blamed a Pakistani militant group for the attacks.

By late Friday there was little to indicate that the troop movements constituted a major redeployment. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — It’s a bit early for the planners of the Mumbai attacks to start unfurling banners that say “Mission Accomplished”, but events are clearly moving in the direction that they wanted.

Every time a government engages in a military response to terrorism, the message rings out across the world: terrorism works. It accomplishes its intended strategic goals — ironically, with much greater frequency than armies do!

‘Little blue pills among the ways CIA wins friends in Afghanistan

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

“Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills. [continued…]

The shoe-thrower becomes an issue in Iraq election

Iraqis go to the polls next month in provincial elections that promise to be the most fiercely contested thus far, as the post-Saddam era moves to open a post-U.S. chapter. And one major issue will undoubtedly be case of shoe-tossing journalist Muntader al-Zaidi, who became a hero on the streets of Iraq and much of the Arab world after his failed attempt to bean President Bush at a press conference. Zaidi is to stand trial on New Year’s Eve, Abdul Satar Birqadr, the spokesman for Iraq’s High Judicial Council said Monday, on charges of “assaulting a foreign head of state visiting Iraq.” Even if putting Zaidi on trial appears to risk igniting public hostility, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may yet seek to make the case work to his a political advantage ahead of next month’s poll, for which some 17.5 million are registered to vote. [continued…]



Transcending an imaginary divide

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would convene a conference of Muslim leaders from around the world within his first year in office.

Recently aides have said he may give a speech from a Muslim capital in his first 100 days. His hope, he has said, is to “make clear that we are not at war with Islam,” to describe to Muslims “what our values and our interests are” and to “insist that they need to help us to defeat the terrorist threats that are there.” This idea of trying to reconcile Islam and the West is well-intentioned, of course. But the premise is wrong.

Such an initiative would reinforce the all-too-accepted but false notion that “Islam” and “the West” are distinct entities with utterly different values. Those who want to promote dialogue and peace between “civilizations” or “cultures” concede at least one crucial point to those who, like Osama bin Laden, promote a clash of civilizations: that separate civilizations do exist. They seek to reverse the polarity, replacing hostility with sympathy, but they are still following Osama bin Laden’s narrative.

Instead, Obama, the first “post-racial” president, can do better. He can use his power to transform perceptions to the long-term advantage of the U.S. The page he should try to turn is not that of a supposed war between America and Islam, but the misconception of a monolithic Islam being the source of the main problems on the planet: terrorism, wars, nuclear proliferation, insurgencies and the like. [continued…]

Arabs are looking for deeds, not words

President-elect Barack Obama faces major challenges and opportunities in his foreign policy, and he is getting plenty of unsolicited advice. Here’s my contribution on an issue that he – in an interview with The Chicago Tribune earlier this month – defined as a priority for his administration: improving the US image in the Muslim world.

Obama plans a major speech in an Islamic capital to emphasize that the United States is not waging war against Islam or Muslims. This is a simplistic approach that he should drop quickly, because it reflects the failed strategy of President George W. Bush that treated Muslims as simpletons who could be swayed by nice words, rather than as adults who react to how people and countries actually behave. [continued…]

Afghan and U.S. officials plan to recruit local militias

Taking a page from the successful experiment in Iraq, American commanders and Afghan leaders are preparing to arm local militias to help in the fight against a resurgent Taliban. But along with hope, the move is raising fears here that the new armed groups could push the country into a deeper bloodletting.

The militias will be deployed to help American and Afghan security forces, which are stretched far and wide across this mountainous country. The first of the local defense forces are scheduled to begin operating early next year in Wardak Province, an area just outside the capital where the Taliban have overrun most government authority. [continued…]

Ending chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan

U.S. diplomacy has been paralyzed by the rhetoric of “the war on terror” — a struggle against “evil,” in which other actors are “with us or with the terrorists.” Such rhetoric thwarts sound strategic thinking by assimilating opponents into a homogenous “terrorist” enemy. Only a political and diplomatic initiative that distinguishes political opponents of the United States — including violent ones — from global terrorists such as al Qaeda can reduce the threat faced by the Afghan and Pakistani states and secure the rest of the international community from the international terrorist groups based there. Such an initiative would have two elements. It would seek a political solution with as much of the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies as possible, offering political inclusion, the integration of Pakistan’s indirectly ruled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the mainstream political and administrative institutions of Pakistan, and an end to hostile action by international troops in return for cooperation against al Qaeda. And it would include a major diplomatic and development initiative addressing the vast array of regional and global issues that have become intertwined with the crisis — and that serve to stimulate, intensify, and prolong conflict in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan has been at war for three decades — a period longer than the one that started with World War I and ended with the Normandy landings on D-day in World War II — and now that war is spreading to Pakistan and beyond. This war and the attendant terrorism could well continue and spread, even to other continents — as on 9/11 — or lead to the collapse of a nuclear-armed state. The regional crisis is of that magnitude, and yet so far there is no international framework to address it other than the underresourced and poorly coordinated operations in Afghanistan and some attacks in the FATA. The next U.S. administration should launch an effort, initially based on a contact group authorized by the UN Security Council, to put an end to the increasingly destructive dynamics of the Great Game in the region. The game has become too deadly and has attracted too many players; it now resembles less a chess match than the Afghan game of buzkashi, with Afghanistan playing the role of the goat carcass fought over by innumerable teams. Washington must seize the opportunity now to replace this Great Game with a new grand bargain for the region. [continued…]

The Mideast’s ‘two-state solution’ is now a three-way stalemate

President Bush had hoped to leave office with Israelis and Palestinians having agreed on a two-state peace solution. Instead, he’ll leave behind a situation more akin to a three-state standoff primed to explode in a new bout of violence. And the embattled Palestinian leader upon whom the Bush administration has been depending in its peace efforts looks likely to see his role diminish even further.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who made a valedictory visit to the White House on Friday, has seen his political authority steadily enfeebled since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections almost three years ago, and then seized military control over Gaza 18 months later. Today, it is with Hamas that Israel has to deal — via Egyptian intermediaries — when it seeks to stop Palestinian rocket fire onto its territory. Abbas may enjoy the good offices of a lame-duck U.S. President, but he has been reduced once again to a powerless spectator as Israel and Hamas tussle over whether the tahdiyah truce, declared dead after six months by the militant group last week, will be revived.

And there may be worse to come for Abbas. Although Hamas has continued to recognize Abbas as the legitimate President of the Palestinian Authority, that may be about to change. Abbas’ presidential term expires on January 9. Although his own Fatah party makes a case that the term could legitimately be extended by another year, Hamas is having none of it. In the second week of 2009, it will no longer recognize Abbas as President, thereby formalizing the political divorce between the two Palestinian entities. Abbas has long since withdrawn recognition of the duly-elected Hamas government in the West Bank, which is controlled by his security forces in concert with the Israelis; now Hamas will formalize its de facto denial of Abbas’ authority in Gaza. [continued…]

Obama Mideast watch: Ross vs. Kurtzer

Middle East watchers are trying to follow a behind the scenes contest for Barack Obama’s ear when it comes to the region. The winner could become the incoming administration’s single most influential advisor on the area–perhaps Obama’s Middle East czar. Obama has properly emphasized that as president he will set the policy, and his subordinates will be tasked with implementing it. Yet his choice of Middle East guru– a special envoy, or whatever the title may be– will be an important signal of his inclinations. And given the complexities of the Middle East, and the complex intersection of those complexities with American politics nowadays, it’s hard to exaggerate the influence such a position could have as the question of war and peace hangs in the balance in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.

Judging from press reports such as here, here and here, the contest includes among others two Obama campaign advisors with very different perspectives: Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s Arab-Israeli negotiator, and Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Ross and Kurtzer are both Jewish; during the campaign, they sought to rally American Jewish voters wary of indications that Obama was lukewarm toward Israel. Each has influential supporters in the Beltway’s foreign policy establishment.

My take is that Ross would be a significant disappointment, Kurtzer an excellent choice. The contest, in fact, is more a tussle between two approaches to Middle East policy making than between individuals. [continued…]

Obama’s best pick?

On Friday, December 19, President-Elect Obama made his fifteenth and final appointment to the cabinet. In a move that was cheered by the AFL-CIO and greeted, predictably, with groans and whining from the business community, he chose Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA) to be his Secretary of Labor.

While Obama has taken considerable flak from leftist intellectuals and the progressive wing of the Democratic party for many of his earlier cabinet choices—being accused of everything from “selling out” to Establishment interests to being inordinately “cautious” (after hammering us with his Time for Change campaign theme)—his choice for Labor Secretary has to be seen as a bold and decisive move.

Of course, it’s impossible to say in advance how any political appointee will perform in office. But based on what we know of Ms. Solis’ personal background and what can be ascertained from her voting record and history of social activism, she could very well turn out to be exactly what the doctored ordered—providing the doctor ordered a dramatic shift in how America views its “working class.”

Solis is not only the daughter of poor Latin American immigrants, she could very well be the first Labor Secretary in history who has firsthand knowledge of what it actually means to “work” for a living. Her father, a Mexican, was a shop steward with the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters), in Mexico, and her mother, a Nicaraguan, was a former assembly line worker. [continued…]

What we will remember from 2008

Will the election of Mr Obama as US president or the collapse of Lehman Brothers prove to be the more significant event? That depends partly on whether you believe history is shaped more by the actions of remarkable individuals or by “vast, impersonal forces”. The global financial crisis has left me in a fatalistic mood – so I am opting for the vast, impersonal forces.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15 was the signature moment of the credit crunch. It has already triggered events that seemed unthinkable 12 months ago – massive state-funded bail-outs of some of the world’s leading financial institutions, the disappearance of investment banks, renowned companies such as General Motors on the edge of bankruptcy, interest rates slashed to close to zero. As one gloomy Parisian banker put it to me recently: “This is not just another boom-and-bust cycle. This is the failure of a system. It is the collapse of the Berlin Wall.” A trifle melodramatic perhaps – but the financial crisis is already threatening the economic and political stability of governments all over the world. [continued…]

Light at the end of a dark tunnel

FT: Is there a risk that the capitalist system doesn’t recover from this shock?

NR: We’re going to avoid the Great Depression and a severe recession even if there is a risk of protracted slow economic growth. So I don’t think this is the end of capitalism, of market economies, but it suggests that really there are significant market failures, that markets don’t self-regulate each other.

FT: Are you advising the future Obama administration?

NR: I’m not directly advising the administration. I’m of course in touch with a number of members in the economic team.

FT: What could be the next shoe to drop?

NR: There are many of them. I think the process of deleveraging is going to continue. You could have a thousand if not more hedge funds going bust all at the same time.

Another source of stress is emerging market economies. There are about a dozen of them that are on the verge of a potential financial crisis: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine in emerging Europe…Pakistan, Indonesia or Korea in Asia. Places like Ecuador that just defaulted. Argentina and Venezuela in Latin America. Some of these countries could get in trouble and there could be contagious effects to other financial markets in other emerging markets. [continued…]

(See the video of this interview.)

How Bush can transcend the shoe thrower

As a holiday gesture, President Bush ought to ask the Iraqi government to pardon Muntazer al-Zaidi — the Iraqi journalist who tried to hit him with his shoes.
[Commentary] AP

Sometimes a small outrage affords an opportunity for a grand gesture. The president was not harmed by the stunt. He had the grace to joke immediately afterwards that the missiles were a “size 10.” Video of the shoe-throwing, which went viral on the Internet and has been seen now by just about everyone on the planet, has mostly elicited laughter.

But already the consequences have been no joke for Mr. Zaidi. By most accounts, he has been roughly treated in prison, where he was taken after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s guards were seen beating him after he threw the second shoe. He now faces as many as 15 years in prison, one for every one of his 15 minutes of fame. [continued…]

Conflicting reports on Iran-Russia missile deal

Iran has left little doubt that it wants to buy a sophisticated antiaircraft weapons system from Russia. The confusion in recent days has been over the question: Has Moscow said yes?

Under pressure from Israel, which views Iran as one of its major threats in the Middle East, Russian officials have promised not to sell S-300 mobile long-range defensive weapons to Tehran. But a flurry of recent conflicting reports has muddled the matter.

On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman was cagey. Hassan Qashqavi told reporters that he had not “received any report” regarding the missiles from “relevant” officials.

“You know we have cultural, economic and political as well as defensive cooperation with Russia,” he said. “I cannot confirm or deny the news. You all know that we have several agreements with Russia. Some of the agreements have been implemented, some not.” [continued…]

No war and no peace

While a frenzy of war talk has animated the media on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, Washington has assured Islamabad that its satellite surveillance of the region reveals no evidence that India is preparing for war. But if physical preparations are absent, the rhetorical signs are more ambiguous.

An editorial in Pakistan’s The News International said: “Continued rumblings from the Indian side of the border keep tensions high. Sonia Gandhi, the chief of the Congress Party, has been the latest to warn Pakistan that her country is capable of delivering a ‘befitting reply’ to those who harbour terrorists. She has stressed India’s love for peace is not a weakness. The tone from Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee also remains threatening, demanding action even as Pakistan maintains that it lacks evidence on the basis of which it can take any.

“The tensions have been elevated to their highest level in six years. But the war hype is also being taken forward by hawks in both countries. The media has played its part. Evening papers, even though few people any longer believe their hysterical headlines, warn of Indian invasion. On the Indian side, many of the television channels and publications have been no less high-pitched; indeed in many cases they have gone further than their Pakistani counterparts. In cyber space chat rooms, Indians and Pakistanis banter and bully each other, comparing military readiness. Some of these exchanges are mock-serious; others seem to be in earnest. Tales of patriotic feats by citizens are told in many places, as if a mental preparation for war is taking place. Hawkish elements everywhere seem to be revelling in the current climate.” [continued…]

Cheney’s admissions to the CIA leak prosecutor and FBI

Vice President Dick Cheney, according to a still-highly confidential FBI report, admitted to federal investigators that he rewrote talking points for the press in July 2003 that made it much more likely that the role of then-covert CIA-officer Valerie Plame in sending her husband on a CIA-sponsored mission to Africa would come to light.

Cheney conceded during his interview with federal investigators that in drawing attention to Plame’s role in arranging her husband’s Africa trip reporters might also unmask her role as CIA officer.

Cheney denied to the investigators, however, that he had done anything on purpose that would lead to the outing of Plame as a covert CIA operative. But the investigators came away from their interview with Cheney believing that he had not given them a plausible explanation as to how he could focus attention on Plame’s role in arranging her husband’s trip without her CIA status also possibly publicly exposed. At the time, Plame was a covert CIA officer involved in preventing Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and Cheney’s office played a central role in exposing her and nullifying much of her work. [continued…]



Taliban taunts US over 30,000 extra troops

Plans to double the number of US troops in Afghanistan will see them suffer the same defeat as the Soviet army, the Taliban claims.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Washington could send up to 30,000 more troops over the next six months. The senior US commander in the country, General David McKiernan, had previously asked for more than 20,000 soldiers to counter the increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.

But Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman claiming to represent the fugitive leader Mullah Omar, said: “Russians also sent that many troops but were badly defeated.

“When the US increases its troop levels to that of the Russians, they will also be cruelly defeated.”

He added: “More troops – that means there will be more targets for the Taliban.” [continued…]

It’s Hamas who decides

What suspense, what panic ensued at the end of the week. Will Hamas extend the cease-fire or won’t it? How exactly should Khaled Meshal’s “no” be interpreted, along with Mahmoud Zahar’s “maybe” and Ismail Haniyeh’s vague mutterings? In the communities of the western Negev, quotes from Al Jazeera have become more important than what Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak have to say.

It is not the state that will determine what happens, it is the organization. And the organization decided – no more cease-fire. Ostensibly, a clear and agreed-on modus operandi has been created between Israel and Hamas. Hamas shoots – Israel closes the crossings; Hamas is quiet – Israel opens the crossings. Both sides know that military options are limited. Hamas will not bring Israel down with a few dozen Qassam rockets and Israel recognizes that at least at this stage it cannot propose more than a limited return of fire and continued sanctions.

But Hamas has a major advantage in this violent dialogue. The initiative of whether to extend the cease-fire or shoot has passed to them. Israel has been left in the position of reacting, and Hamas has scored some successes. [continued…]

Hamas: Israel can invade, by all means

Despite increasing calls among Israeli ministers of a need to launch a military operation to tackle the escalating threat of rocket attacks on the southern border, Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip seemed unperturbed, with one senior member even daring Israel to take the action.

“For three years we’ve been hearing comments about an Israeli invasion into the Gaza Strip. Israel is like a teenager who begins to smoke, chokes, then stops,” Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said during an interview with a Nazareth radio station. “If they want to [invade] – by all means.

“Even in the days of the ceasefire, Israel didn’t allow vital supplies into the Gaza Strip, and this is a callous violation,” he continued. “Israel promised to open the crossing but that never happened on the ground.” [continued…]

Will Obama press Israel to allow nuclear inspection of Dimona reactor?

One Israeli official who should be busy during the presidential reign of Barack Obama is Shaul Horev, director general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. The new president and his choice for secretary of state, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, intend to revive international arms-control efforts, which have been on hold during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration. Such initiatives inevitably arouse suspicion and testiness among Israeli officials, who are anxious about the erosion of their country’s deterrent capability.

In their campaigns, Obama and Clinton promised that arms control would once again play a central role in American diplomacy. Their associates and supporters, some of whom are candidates for positions in the new administration, have repeated this message relentlessly to Israeli colleagues and acquaintances.

Last Sunday, Jim Hoagland, who writes a column on foreign affairs in The Washington Post, wrote that Obama should learn from president John F. Kennedy and call for worldwide nuclear disarmament. Hoagland’s columns generally express the consensus of the U.S. foreign affairs establishment. Kennedy was the last American president to have tried to stop the Israeli nuclear project. He threatened that there would be serious ramifications vis-a-vis U.S. support for Israel if the reactor in Dimona was not opened to frequent visits by inspectors. The pressure that Kennedy applied on the matter of Dimona was apparently one of the factors in David Ben-Gurion’s resignation in 1963. Kennedy’s assassination several months later led to a relaxation of that pressure and Israel was able to complete construction of the reactor in the Negev. [continued…]

Can Obama restore the US image in the Middle East?

… if “not being Bush” is not enough to turn around US relations with the Middle East, what will it take? A further analysis of polls, as well as focus groups I have conducted in five Middle Eastern countries, suggest that there are numerous questions about US policy in the Middle East that people there will be looking to the Obama administration to answer. The three most central ones are: (1) will the United States continue to have a dominating military presence in the region? (2) will the United States play an even-handed role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict? (3) will the United States support democratization in the region? [continued…]

Despite the optimism, Iraq is close to the edge

George W Bush, barely a month away from leaving office, flew to Baghdad last weekend for an eight-hour visit. On Wednesday, it was Gordon Brown’s turn. The arrival of president and prime minister in the Iraqi capital is part of a concerted effort to draw a line under the debacle that Iraq has become for the American and British governments. After nearly six years of occupation, Bush was keen to stress the progress he claimed had been made.

“The Iraq we’re standing in today is dramatically freer, dramatically safer and dramatically better,” he told American troops. Brown was a little more circumspect, simply declaring: “We leave Iraq a better place.” The startling actions of Iraqi journalist Muntazar al-Zaidi in throwing his shoes at Bush indicates that all is not as positive as Bush would have the world believe. There is a grave danger that by overstating the good news from Iraq, both Bush and Brown are making a return to civil war more likely. [continued…]

Iraq threatens to expel Iranian rebels

Iraqi officials say they intend to expel members of an Iranian exile group living in a camp north of Baghdad that is protected by the U.S. military. The expulsion, which the Shiite-led government has long sought, is expected to become feasible once the U.N. mandate that regulates the presence of U.S. troops — and which gave the Iranian opposition group protected status — expires at the end of the year. [continued…]

Al Shabaab on the rise as Ethiopia withdraws from Somalia

Two years after invading Somalia, ousting the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government in Mogadishu and subsequently propping up the increasingly weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Ethiopia has reiterated its commitment to withdraw its forces in the next few days.

“This week, Ethiopian troops have begun to make preparations for their withdrawal. This has not, however, prevented continuing clashes with al Shabaab forces,” an Ethiopian foreign ministry statement said, referring to an ICU splinter group that has now taken control of much of the country, AFP reported. [continued…]

Forest plan in Brazil bears the traces of an activist’s vision

Twenty years ago, a Brazilian environmental activist and rubber tapper was shot to death at his home in Acre State by ranchers opposed to his efforts to save the Amazon rain forest.

After his death at age 44, Francisco Alves Mendes, better known as Chico, became a martyr for a concept that is only now gaining mainstream support here: that the value of a standing forest could be more than the value of a forest burned and logged in the name of development.

This month, Brazil took what environmentalists hope will be a big step forward in realizing Mr. Mendes’s vision. The government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva introduced ambitious targets for reducing deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions in a nation that is one of the world’s top emitters of this heat-trapping gas. [continued…]

What motivates the torture enablers?

It is instructive to watch Major Matthew Alexander and Federalist Society kingpin David Rivkin discuss the torture issue on the Riz Khan Show:

We’ve seen this scenario played out several times in the last week, as broadcasters and newspapers around the country see the Levin-McCain Report as an opportunity to debate torture, despite the logical fallacy of this approach. (Perhaps for Christmas proper we’ll be treated to arguments for and against genocide, and on the fourth day of Christmas we’ll read the arguments for and against the practice of infanticide.) We’ve been treated to Christopher Hitchens against Michael Smerconish, Duncan Hunter against Jim Moran, and now the Alexander versus Rivkin encounter.[continued…]

The homicides you didn’t hear about in Hurricane Katrina

What do you do when you notice that there seems to have been a killing spree? While the national and international media were working themselves and much of the public into a frenzy about imaginary hordes of murderers, rapists, snipers, marauders, and general rampagers among the stranded crowds of mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, a group of white men went on a shooting spree across the river.

Their criminal acts were no secret but they never became part of the official story. The media demonized the city’s black population for crimes that turned out not to have happened, and the retractions were, as always, too little too late. At one point FEMA sent a refrigerated 18-wheeler to pick up what a colonel in the National Guard expected to be 200 bodies in New Orleans’s Superdome, only to find six, including four who died naturally and a suicide. Meanwhile, the media never paid attention to the real rampage that took place openly across the river, even though there were corpses lying in unflooded streets and testimony everywhere you looked — or I looked, anyway.

The widely reported violent crimes in the Superdome turned out to be little more than hysterical rumor, but they painted African-Americans as out-of-control savages at a critical moment. The result was to shift institutional responses from disaster relief to law enforcement, a decision that resulted in further deaths among the thirsty, hot, stranded multitude. Governor Kathleen Blanco announced, “I have one message for these hoodlums: These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” So would the white vigilantes, and though their exact body count remains unknown, at least 11 black men were apparently shot, some fatally. [continued…]

Katrina’s hidden race war

The way Donnell Herrington tells it, there was no warning. One second he was trudging through the heat. The next he was lying prostrate on the pavement, his life spilling out of a hole in his throat, his body racked with pain, his vision blurred and distorted.

It was September 1, 2005, some three days after Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, and somebody had just blasted Herrington, who is African-American, with a shotgun. “I just hit the ground. I didn’t even know what happened,” recalls Herrington, a burly 32-year-old with a soft drawl.

The sudden eruption of gunfire horrified Herrington’s companions–his cousin Marcel Alexander, then 17, and friend Chris Collins, then 18, who are also black. “I looked at Donnell and he had this big old hole in his neck,” Alexander recalls. “I tried to help him up, and they started shooting again.” Herrington says he was staggering to his feet when a second shotgun blast struck him from behind; the spray of lead pellets also caught Collins and Alexander. The buckshot peppered Alexander’s back, arm and buttocks. [continued…]


NEWS, VIEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Treating the Hamas-denial complex

Livni: I will topple Hamas regime in Gaza if elected PM

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni vowed on Sunday to end Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip if she is elected prime minister in a February election.

“The state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Livni told members of her centrist Kadima party. “The means for doing this should be military, economic and diplomatic.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Did Tzipi Livni make this announcement in front of a crowd of 200,000 supporters (the size of the crowd in Gaza City that came to celebrate Hamas’ 21st anniversary)? Will her Kadima party even be around for 21 years?

The fact that Hamas is still in power is not due to a lack of effort on the part of Israel and its allies to apply a massive amount of pressure to bring the group down. Indeed, not only has Hamas demonstrated its resilience but it has also benefited politically from the pressure.

Having won parliamentary elections in 2006, had Hamas been allowed to govern, its merits and failings as a political organization and governing entity would subsequently have been judged by the Palestinian electorate. But neither Fatah, the Israelis or The Quartet were interested in finding out whether Hamas could pass this democratic test.

But let’s entertain some of Livni’s wishful thinking and suppose that a couple more years of siege and periodic bombardment might do the trick and lead to the collapse of the Hamas government. What then? Is liberal democracy going to rise from the ashes? Probably not. A much more probable course would be something parallel to what’s happened in Somalia. With the ousting of the Islamic Courts Union, taking its place as a political force has been the strengthening and expansion of the more radical Shabaab.

Those who dream of the end of Hamas should fear what the fulfillment of their dreams might bring.

Tony Blair, the dolt with a part-time job as envoy for The Quartet (a job to which he devotes just one week a month) told Haaretz: “I can’t see any basis for an agreement between the international community and Hamas. How do you negotiate the two-state solution with people if they don’t accept your right to exist? That’s the problem. Some people tell me, ‘You spoke with the IRA,’ and I tell them we only did that once they accepted that the solution will only be through peaceful means.”

Is Blair telling a pure, unadulterated lie, or has his political seasoning left incapable of discriminating between deceit and truthfulness?

The British government — as Blair surely knows — started talking to the IRA long before it renounced violence. The Good Friday Agreement enshrined that commitment. The end of violence, as everyone understood, would be among the fruits of successful negotiations — not a pre-condition for entering into talks.

If all sides were willing to simultaneously renounce violence, that would be a fine thing. Language after all is a far more constructive tool than explosives. But of course neither side believes it would benefit from unilateral disarmament. Instead, we can only have a much more ugly process that involves a mix of words and violence. The most practical and immediate goal should be for both sides to explore ways of adjusting the proportions of that mix. Right now, they’re both heading in the wrong direction.

Talk to Hamas

Politicians, generals and the public all know that any substantial incursion into the Gaza Strip will be a catastrophe. Still, no one dares ask why, for heaven’s sake, not try to talk directly with Hamas?

Gaza has an established authority that seized power democratically and then forcibly, and proved it has the power to control the territory. That, in itself, isn’t bad news after a period of anarchy. But Israel and the world don’t like Hamas. They want to overthrow it, but their diabolical scheme isn’t working out. The two-year siege and boycott that included starvation, blackouts and bombardments have produced no sign that Hamas is weaker. On the contrary: The ceasefire was violated first by Israel with its unnecessary operation of blowing up a tunnel.

What everybody already knew to be false – that the political choice of a people could be changed through violence, that the Gazans could be made into Zionists by being abused – was tried anyway. Now we have to finally change direction, to do what nobody has tried before, if only because we have no other choice.

Any excuse against such an attempt does not hold water. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel; what does it matter? Hamas is a fundamentalist movement? That’s irrelevant. Hamas will decline holding talks? Let’s challenge it. Direct talks with Hamas will weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? He’s weak anyway.

What does Israel have to lose besides its much-anticipated wide-scale operation that it can carry out anytime? Why not try the diplomatic option before the military one, and not the other way around like we’re used to? [continued…]


NEWS ROUNDUP: December 21

Ambush raises unsettling questions in Afghanistan

It was one of the most humiliating attacks the Afghan security forces had ever suffered. On Nov. 27, Taliban insurgents ambushed a supply convoy in the northwest province of Badghis, killing nine Afghan soldiers and five police officers, wounding 27 men, capturing 20 others, destroying at least 19 vehicles and stealing five, Afghan officials said.

The Afghan authorities quickly learned that the man suspected of having orchestrated the attack, Maulavi Ghulam Dastagir, had only weeks before been in police custody on charges of aiding the Taliban.

Mr. Dastagir had been personally released by President Hamid Karzai after assurances from a delegation of tribal elders that he would live a peaceful life, officials said this month.

The ambush, and the presidential pardon that allowed the insurgent to go free, have become the subject of a governmental inquest and the source of profound embarrassment for the Afghan government.

The case has also underscored the vulnerabilities of the Afghan security forces as the Taliban have multiplied their presence around the country and, in only the past few years, have gained strength in regions that were once relatively peaceful, like the northwest. [continued…]

US opens fire on Brown’s ‘war fatigue’

As the United States prepares for a troop surge in Afghanistan in the new year, Robert Gates, the defence secretary, and senior commanders are concerned that the British government lacks the “political will” for the fight.

General John Craddock, the Nato commander, said last week that Britain must put more troops into Helmand province to defeat the Taliban insurgency.

In an interview with The Sunday Times at Nato’s supreme headquarters in Mons, Belgium, he said Gordon Brown’s announcement last Monday that more troops would bolster Britain’s 8,100-strong force in Afghanistan by March was not enough. Although planning is under way to send up to 3,000 extra troops to Afghanistan next summer if required, Brown committed only 300 in his Commons statement.

“I don’t think 300 more, if you are talking about Helmand province, will do the trick. We’ve got to hold down there until we’ve got some Afghan street forces who can take over,” Craddock said. [continued…]

‘Baghdad Clogger’ suffered brutal beating after arrest

The Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President George Bush was viciously beaten after being taken into custody, according to a police officer who accompanied him to prison.

Wrestled to the ground and then buried under a frantic mound of security officers, Muntazer al-Zaidi was last seen being dragged into detention. Controversy has since raged over what treatment was meted out to the man hailed a hero in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world for his protest against the invasion of Iraq. Yesterday there were further demonstrations in the Middle East calling for his immediate release.

Witnesses to his arrest and imprisonment have told the Observer Zaidi was badly beaten, during and after his arrest last Sunday, and that he risks losing the sight in one of his eyes as a result. [continued…]

Bush attacker ‘incensed by bullet-riddled Koran’

The young Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President George W Bush had been incensed by a story he covered about an American soldier who used a copy of the Koran for target practice, according to his family.

Muntathar al-Zaydi, 28, who became an overnight hero in the Arab world, worked as a reporter for the popular al-Baghdadiya satellite TV station.

In May he was sent to report on an incident in Radwaniyah, west of Baghdad, in which Islam’s holy book was found riddled with bullets from an American sniper.

“He talked incessantly about the subject,” recalled his elder brother Uday. It was one of a number of assignments that appear to have radicalised Zaydi during his brief journalistic career. [continued…]

Somalia crisis talks in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is hosting a series of talks on the deepening crisis in its neighbour, Somalia.

Foreign ministers from east Africa are meeting in the capital, Addis Ababa, to be followed by talks by the African Union’s peace and security council.

The emergency meetings come after Ethiopia decided to withdraw its troops from Somalia by the end of December. [continued…]

White House philosophy stoked mortgage bonfire

Eight years after arriving in Washington vowing to spread the dream of homeownership, Mr. Bush is leaving office, as he himself said recently, “faced with the prospect of a global meltdown” with roots in the housing sector he so ardently championed.

There are plenty of culprits, like lenders who peddled easy credit, consumers who took on mortgages they could not afford and Wall Street chieftains who loaded up on mortgage-backed securities without regard to the risk.

But the story of how we got here is partly one of Mr. Bush’s own making, according to a review of his tenure that included interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials.

From his earliest days in office, Mr. Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own home with his conviction that markets do best when let alone.

He pushed hard to expand homeownership, especially among minorities, an initiative that dovetailed with his ambition to expand the Republican tent — and with the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards. [continued…]


NEWS, VIEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: A president who believes in science

Obama science picks hailed as signal of policy shift

President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to name two of the nation’s most prominent scientists to crucial roles in his administration was being heralded in the scientific community as a signal that the new president is serious about taking on the challenges of climate change and creating a new energy policy for the nation.

Obama is expected today to name John P. Holdren, 64, a former professor of energy and natural resources at UC Berkeley who is now at Harvard, as his science adviser and executive director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

He also reportedly has settled on Jane Lubchenco, 61, a world-renowned marine biologist and expert on the ocean environment at Oregon State University, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The influential agency measures the pace of global warming, tracks hurricanes, predicts the weather and monitors the health of the world’s seas.

Their impending selection, along with the naming last week of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy, is seen as the surest sign yet that Obama will reverse Bush administration policies on energy and global warming. [continued…]

Obama’s strongest message on climate yet

John Holdren’s selection] is an even stronger signal than the terrific choice of Steven Chu for Energy Secretary that Obama is dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming. After all, the science adviser works out of the White House and oversees science and technology funding, analysis, and messaging for all federal agencies. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — With all due respect to everyone who was offended by Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to serve God’s middleman on Inauguration Day, it’s important to highlight the difference between those choices that Obama makes that matter and those that don’t. I doubt that even among those who found the Warren pick offensive that many imagined that this ominously marked top of a slippery slope.

What Obama did was toss a symbolic bone to evangelicals who can now savor it and feel respected. It has no policy implications and it also pays the dividend of making it clear that Obama is not afraid of offending progressives (again).

Contrast this with his choice of John Holdren. Most Americans have never heard of him, but to put his voice in a pivotal position in policymaking is of vital importance for the future of the planet.

Note that Obama made the announcement through his YouTube address on the weekend that most Americans are out lost in shopping psychosis.

Perhaps this will be the signature of his presidency: that he makes his most important moves with the least amount of noise.



An outreach to Muslims

Since democracy, a deeply held value of Americans, has become an aspiration for most Muslims, democracy should be central to Obama’s message — and to his choice of where to deliver it. Two key Muslim-majority countries are many years into a steady democratic transition. The first is Indonesia, which with more than 200 million people is the most populous of all Muslim lands. An additional attraction is that Obama spent much of his childhood there. A visit would be a homecoming of sorts.

The second country is Turkey. With more than 70 million people in territory lying in Asia and Europe, it is literally and metaphorically a bridge between East and West, North and South.

The political and sociocultural choices that Indonesia and Turkey have made are in clear accord with the essence of modernity. By their example, Indonesia and Turkey have laid to rest both Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” proposition and the idea that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

While the rest of the Muslim world has a long way to go toward democracy, Indonesia and Turkey should be celebrated as role models. Nothing would speak louder and clearer to that notion than an early visit by the universally popular Barack Obama. [continued…]

Ethnic divide in Iraqi city a test for nation

Darawan Salahadin, dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, strolled out of his home in the Kurdish part of his ethnically fragmented neighborhood, passing concrete barriers and a checkpoint guarded by a Kurdish fighter. He entered the Arab section and walked swiftly to his tan, flat-roofed school.

In the classrooms were only Kurdish students. The Arabs would arrive as Kurds left, and then the Turkmen students would get their turn. The school has three names, one in each community’s language, and three sets of teachers and principals.

“I have no Arab and Turkmen friends. I have only Kurdish friends,” said Salahadin, a slim 17-year-old with thick, gelled black hair. “I can’t speak Arabic or Turkmen. So I don’t know them.”

The school’s divisions illustrate the tensions rippling through this neighborhood and all of Kirkuk, ground zero of Iraq’s most vexing conflict over land, oil and identity. The battle over who will rule Kirkuk is a significant test of whether the Iraqi government can solve the country’s internal disputes as the U.S. military draws down.

In contrast to security improvements elsewhere in the country, Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen residents of Kirkuk remain targets of political violence as their leaders vie for control of what they see as their ancestral lands. Last week, at least 57 people died in a suicide bombing on the outskirts of the city, the deadliest assault in Iraq in six months. [continued…]

Iraqi shoe-hurling journalist said to ask for pardon

The Iraqi television journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush during a news conference this week has apologized to the Iraqi government in a letter to the prime minister and asked for a pardon, an Iraqi government official said Thursday.

The government did not release the letter, and a lawyer for the reporter said that during a conversation with him on Wednesday the reporter did not tell her about it. But the lawyer, Ahlam Allami, also said the reporter, Muntader al-Zaidi, had told her he had never meant to insult the Iraqi government or Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki when he hurled his shoes at the president during a news conference with the two leaders on Sunday. [continued…]

24 officers to be freed, Iraqi says

Iraq’s interior minister said all 24 of his officers who had been arrested in a security crackdown this week would be released. And in a bold gesture of defiance, he publicly condemned his own government’s investigation, calling the accusations false and motivated purely by politics.

The minister, Jawad al-Bolani, in a series of interviews and at a news conference on Friday, insisted on the innocence of the officials detained on charges of aiding terrorism and having inappropriate ties with political parties, including Al Awda, an illegal party that is a descendant of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. [continued…]

How Bush failed Somalia

Americans don’t spend much time thinking about Somalia. And what time we do spend has in recent months been focused on somewhat amused accounts of the uptick in pirate activity off the Somali coast. But the piracy is but a symptom of the larger problem of lawlessness and anarchy in Somalia. To Americans who have paid no attention to East Africa in the time between the departure of U.S. forces from Somalia in 1995 and the recent spate of pirate attacks, this situation may appear merely endemic to the region. But it’s not. The Somali situation was, in many ways, improving as of two years ago. At which point the Bush administration initiated a new adventure that, like most Bush administration deeds, was ill-conceived and worked out poorly. In this case, it destroyed the country, has been responsible for the deaths of untold thousands of people, has created the pirate problem, and is breeding a new generation of anti-American jihadists.

And nobody in the United States seems to have noticed.

In part, this is because Somalia is an obscure corner of the world. And in part it’s because the crucial events took place almost exactly two years ago — during the Christmas season when most journalists were on vacation and most people weren’t following the news. [continued…]

Will Bush officials face war crimes trials? Few expect it

Emboldened by a Democratic win of the White House, civil libertarians and human rights groups want the incoming Obama administration to investigate whether the Bush administration committed war crimes. They don’t just want low-level CIA interrogators, either. They want President George W. Bush on down.

In the past eight years, administration critics have demanded that top officials be held accountable for a host of expansive assertions of executive powers from eavesdropping without warrants to detaining suspected enemy combatants indefinitely at the Guantanamo Bay military prison. A recent bipartisan Senate report on how Bush policies led to the abuse of detainees has fueled calls for a criminal investigation.

But even some who believe top officials broke the law don’t favor criminal prosecutions. The charges would be too difficult legally and politically to succeed.

Without wider support, the campaign to haul top administration officials before an American court is likely to stall.

In the end, Bush administration critics might have more success by digging out the truth about what happened and who was responsible, rather than assigning criminal liability, and letting the court of public opinion issue the verdicts, many say. [continued…]

Blair is steeped in the ways intelligence works

After Dennis Blair’s assignment as military liaison to the CIA 13 years ago, he groused about all the cloak-and-dagger politics at Langley headquarters. “You’d go to a meeting and think everyone had agreed” to a particular course of action, and then the meeting would end and “someone would come up to me in the hallway and say, ‘Forget what you heard in there’ ” — what we really want to do is something different, Blair once explained.

Secret agendas have never been “Denny” Blair’s style. The reserved former four-star admiral, who is widely understood to be President-elect Barack Obama’s choice as director of national intelligence, is well known in Washington as an intellectual who values straightforwardness and has mastered the byzantine interagency process during his various government stints.

In choosing a man so steeped in Washington’s ways, the Obama administration is signaling its intention to streamline the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is widely seen as too large, too cumbersome and still too disjointed, according to transition officials. [continued…]

Madoff scheme kept rippling outward, across borders

By the end, the world itself was too small to support the vast Ponzi scheme constructed by Bernard L. Madoff.

Initially, he tapped local money pulled in from country clubs and charity dinners, where investors sought him out to casually plead with him to manage their savings so they could start reaping the steady, solid returns their envied friends were getting.

Then, he and his promoters set sights on Europe, again framing the investments as memberships in a select club. A Swiss hedge fund manager, Michel Dominicé, still remembers the pitch he got a few years ago from a salesman in Geneva. “He told me the fund was closed, that it was something I couldn’t buy,” Mr. Dominicé said. “But he told me he might have a way to get me in. It was weird.”

Mr. Madoff’s agents next cut a cash-gathering swath through the Persian Gulf, then Southeast Asia. Finally, they were hurtling with undignified speed toward China, with invitations to invest that were more desperate, less exclusive. One Beijing businessman who was approached said it seemed the Madoff funds were being pitched “to anyone who would listen.” [continued…]



Afghanistan: Soviet failures echo for US

Recent headlines from Afghanistan have read like a history lesson from the Soviet 1980s.

That war “devolved into a fight for control of … the road network,” concludes a 1995 US Army study. Militants are now stepping up attacks against American supply routes, destroying some 200 trucks in Pakistan this month.

Anti-Soviet militants controlled “the rural areas,” says a former Soviet official. Today’s militants have a “permanent presence” in 72 percent of the country, according to a Dec. 8 study.

There are differences between then and now. Yet 20 years later, many problems are similar: The US and NATO control neither the countryside nor the militants’ hideouts in Pakistan, and as civilian casualties increase, Afghan anger is mounting. [continued…]

Pakistanis protest US supply line into Afghanistan

More than 10,000 Pakistanis protested Thursday against allowing U.S. forces to ship supplies through Pakistan into Afghanistan in a sign of growing pressure on Islamabad to harden its foreign policy.

It was one of the largest rallies against the government since it took office in March. Militants have attacked trucks using the critical Khyber Pass route several times in recent weeks.

The protesters — backers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a hard-line Islamist party — also decried U.S. missile strikes targeting al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border and Pakistani military offensives against Islamic insurgents in the area. [continued…]

The global political awakening

A new president is assuming office in the midst of a widespread crisis of confidence in America’s capacity to exercise effective leadership in world affairs. That may be a stark thought, but it is a fact.

Though U.S. leadership has been essential to global stability and development, the cumulative effects of national self indulgence, financial irresponsibility, an unnecessary war and ethical transgressions have discredited that leadership. Making matters worse is the global economic crisis.

The resulting challenge is compounded by issues such as climate, health and social inequality – issues that are becoming more contentious because they have surfaced in the context of what I call “the global political awakening.” [continued…]

The Madoff economy

The revelation that Bernard Madoff — brilliant investor (or so almost everyone thought), philanthropist, pillar of the community — was a phony has shocked the world, and understandably so. The scale of his alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme is hard to comprehend.

Yet surely I’m not the only person to ask the obvious question: How different, really, is Mr. Madoff’s tale from the story of the investment industry as a whole?

The financial services industry has claimed an ever-growing share of the nation’s income over the past generation, making the people who run the industry incredibly rich. Yet, at this point, it looks as if much of the industry has been destroying value, not creating it. And it’s not just a matter of money: the vast riches achieved by those who managed other people’s money have had a corrupting effect on our society as a whole. [continued…]

Iran’s power rooted in Shi’ite ties

As president-elect Barack Obama’s national security team assesses the challenge of Iran’s role in the Middle East, it confronts a paradox: Iran is seen as having ambitions of regional hegemony, but it lacks the military power normally associated with such a role.

That paradox is explained by the fact that Iran’s position in the Middle East depends to a significant degree on its cultural, spiritual and political ties with other Shi’ite populations and movements in the region. That characteristic of Iranian foreign policy, which Iranian officials and think-tank specialists emphasized in interviews with this writer, poses some unique problems for the United States in opposing Iranian influence in the region.

The pivotal development in the new Iranian position in the region has been the emergence of Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated regime. [continued…]

Hamas formally ends truce with Israel

Hamas declared a formal end to its cease-fire with Israel on Thursday, ruling out an extension of a 6-month-old pact that had begun to fray weeks ago with tit-for-tat attacks across Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the militant group that controls Gaza, said the truce would expire early today. He said it was not being renewed because “the enemy refused to comply” with promises to lift a crippling blockade of the Palestinian enclave.

The decision’s immediate effect was unclear. Hamas stopped short of threatening an escalation of rocket and mortar attacks, and Israeli officials said they were reluctant to launch a major military offensive in the densely populated territory. The border remained quiet in the first hour after the truce lapsed. [continued…]

A short path, from Gaza to Somalia

As the defined period for the Gaza cease-fire comes to an end today, preceded by a new cycle of violence, Israelis are being treated to a predictable dose of political posturing and chest-thumping. “We must do something, exact a price,” we hear. Yes, the rocket fire needs to stop, but there is no military answer to this predicament.

To recap: For most of the six months of the cease-fire, relative quiet prevailed, and life returned to near-normal for the residents of Sderot and environs (though not for Gazans, who remained under siege). Then on November 4, an Israeli operation sparked a new round of dangerous, if controlled, violence – characterized by occasional Israeli strikes and incursions, matched by Palestinian rockets and shooting across the border.

The cease-fire, while far from ideal, was an improvement over what had preceded it. Of course, Hamas sought to upgrade its military and defensive capacities during this period, as Israel should have been doing on the other side of the border – it would have been absurd to expect otherwise. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and the cease-fire will be extended – it is in the interests of both sides. The military alternative is not an attractive one – from Israel’s side, escalation leading to partial or full reoccupation of Gaza, from Hamas, rockets and perhaps armed attacks from the West Bank in response. It also has no obvious exit strategy. [continued…]

The rise of the Shabab

The Shabab has learnt from its mistakes in 2006, when it was overwhelmed in a few days by the Ethiopian army. It is now more pragmatic and more aggressive. This time round, it is apparently not picking fights with wealthy qat merchants. Men can chew what they like—but won’t be “clean enough” to get a lucrative job in Kismayo’s port. Education is encouraged. Girls can go to school. Charcoal burning is forbidden for the sake of the environment.

But the Shabab has also tightened its own security. Alleged spies for the transitional government or for Ethiopia are routinely beheaded with blunt knives. Mr Turki, the jihadist leader who lives mostly in the bush near the Kenyan border, sleeps in different houses when he is in a town. Public floggings and executions strike fear. So do masked faces. “Before, we knew who killed our relatives,” says a Kismayo merchant. “Now we don’t even know that.”

Most tellingly, the Shabab has learnt how to get hold of money faster. It concentrates its fighters in towns where there is money to be earned. The aim is to create an army that puts Islamist identity above divisive clan loyalties. Shabab commanders say a pious state will emerge once weaker militias have been disarmed. Some reckon that the Shabab shares some of the ransoms earned by pirates who operate out of the central Somali port of Haradheere. Those in Puntland, farther north, are apparently beyond the Shabab’s reach. [continued…]

Arrests in Iraq seen as politically motivated

Iraqi politicians said Thursday that the arrests of government officials accused of supporting a group linked to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was an attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to demonstrate his power.

Members of parliament charged Thursday that the prime minister was using Iraq’s security forces to instill fear in his rivals ahead of provincial elections set for next month. Critics noted pointedly that a special counterterrorism task force that reports to Maliki made the arrests.

“Forces under the direct control of the prime minister engaged in these arrests. This is not something normal in a democratic process,” said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni lawmaker. [continued…]

Retired admiral picked as spy chief, officials say

President-elect Barack Obama has settled on a former commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific to fill the nation’s top intelligence job, congressional officials knowledgeable about the decision said yesterday.

If he is confirmed, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair will become the nation’s third director of national intelligence, succeeding Mike McConnell as leader of the federal government’s 16 intelligence agencies. He had been the rumored front-runner for the job for several weeks, as Obama moved cautiously to make appointments to the nation’s most sensitive intelligence posts.

“It’s definitely Blair,” said one congressional official who had been briefed on the selection and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Obama transition team declined to comment. [continued…]



Is a US-Iran deal on the Middle East possible?

Would a negotiated agreement between Iran and the Barack Obama administration be feasible if Obama sent the right signals? The answer one gets from Iranian officials and think-tank analysts is, “Yes, but … ”

The Iranian national security establishment has long salivated over the prospect of an agreement with Washington. But there’s a big difference between Iranian and US ideas of what such an accord would look like.

Washington is fixated on what it would take to get Iran to agree to stop enriching uranium. On the other hand, Iranians interviewed here indicate that an agreement would only be possible if it represented a fundamental change in the US-Iran relationship.

Iranian officials and analysts see the problem of US-Iranian relations as a seamless web of issues on which agreement must be reached as a whole. And in addition to the bilateral issues of normal diplomatic and economic relations, they see a new US-Iranian understanding on the Middle East
as essential. [continued…]

Somalia on the edge

As the fight against Somali piracy intensifies, warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States, may soon be joined by naval forces from China. A Chinese merchant ship became the fourth vessel to be attacked in two days.

“The crew of the China Communications Construction Co. ship fought pirates for five hours before coalition helicopters chased them off, Noel Choong, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau, said by phone today. He said a Turkish cargo ship, a Malaysian tug, and a yacht were seized off Somalia yesterday, the same day the United Nations Security Council backed military action against piracy,” Bloomberg reported.

Naval operations have thus far been of limited success since the asymetry between a warship and a fibreglass skiff is one that counts to the pirates’ advantage. As an Italian naval officer told The New York Times, “going after them in a 485-foot-long destroyer, bristling with surface-to-air missiles and torpedoes, was like ‘going after someone on a bicycle with a truck.’ [continued…]

35 Iraq officials held in raids on key ministry

Up to 35 officials in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior ranking as high as general have been arrested over the past three days with some of them accused of quietly working to reconstitute Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, according to senior security officials in Baghdad.

The arrests, confirmed by officials from the Ministries of the Interior and National Security as well as the prime minister’s office, included four generals. The officials also said that the arrests had come at the hand of an elite counterterrorism force that reports directly to the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. [continued…]

Report says Iraq may ban Blackwater

The State Department’s inspector general has warned in a new report that Blackwater Worldwide, the security contractor, may not be licensed by the Iraqi government to continue to protect American diplomats in Baghdad next year, forcing the Obama administration to make new security arrangements. [continued…]

The torture report

Most Americans have long known that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not the work of a few low-ranking sociopaths. All but President Bush’s most unquestioning supporters recognized the chain of unprincipled decisions that led to the abuse, torture and death in prisons run by the American military and intelligence services.

Now, a bipartisan report by the Senate Armed Services Committee has made what amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William J. Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including the former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

The report shows how actions by these men “led directly” to what happened at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in secret C.I.A. prisons. [continued…]

“Leaked Obama transcript” explains Rick Warren decision

The following conversation may, or may not, have occurred between President-elect Barack Obama and the chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, US Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA):

BARACK OBAMA: So who we gonna have do the invocation at my inaugural?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Oh my God, you’re gonna love this, B.

BO: Okay Di, hit me.

DIFI: Ready? Rick. Warren.

BO: You mean conservative evangelical Christian leader Rick Warren?

DIFI: Yup.

BO: Rick Warren who wants to ban all abortions and basically said that I support a holocaust?

DIFI: Uh huh.

BO: The guy who compared gay marriage to pedophilia and incest, and helped lead the fight for Prop 8 in California?

DIFI: That’s him.

BO: The man who said he agrees on everything with far-right nut James Dobson.

DIFI: Yesiree.

BO: But Di, the guy has devoted his entire life to destroying everything I stand for, everything I believe in, everyone who worked so hard and so long to put me into office.

DIFI: I know, isn’t it brilliant!

BO: I don’t get it.

DIFI: Okay, think about it. You’re so post-partisan that you’re willing to embrace and promote someone who loathes you, didn’t vote for you, and will do everything in his power to destroy your presidency. It’s like the Lieberman thing, but even bigger!

BO: So you mean, by promoting a guy who represents none of my goals, ideals or hopes that the majority of the country voted for, and by devastating my own supporters on what was supposed to be a day of celebration and national rebirth, I’m actually promoting “change” by publicly undermining it?

DIFI: Exactly!

BO: But won’t I be screwing the gays, women, and pretty much everyone else who got me elected?

DIFI: Never stopped me.

BO: But doesn’t this make me no better than the guy I’m replacing or the guy I just beat?

DIFI: Never stopped me. [continued…]

Russia, testing U.S. sway, offers Lebanon 10 warplanes

Lebanon’s defense minister announced in Moscow on Tuesday that Russia had offered to give the country 10 MIG-29 fighter jets that would significantly upgrade its antiquated air force and serve as a slap to the United States.

The United States is Lebanon’s main military partner, but American plans to help rebuild the country’s army and air force are moving slowly. And Russia, which is increasingly challenging the United States in regions where American influence has been paramount, has made other gestures toward reasserting itself in the Mediterranean.

Lebanon’s military had no official comment on the offer. It is far from clear whether the jets would be delivered. The deal would depend on the Lebanese government’s approval and would have to be discussed with the country’s allies, said a former Lebanese military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivities. [continued…]



The most important number on Earth

Sooner or later, you have to draw a line. We’ve spent the last 20 years in the opening scenes of what historians will one day call the Global Warming Era—the preamble to the biggest drama that humans have ever staged, the overture that hints at the themes that will follow for centuries to come. But none of the notes have resolved, none of the story lines yet come into clear view. And that’s largely because until recently we didn’t know quite where we were. From the moment in 1988 when a nasa scientist named James Hansen told Congress that burning coal and gas and oil was warming the earth, we’ve struggled to absorb this one truth: The central fact of our economic lives (the ubiquitous fossil fuel that developed the developed world) is wrecking the central fact of our physical lives (the stable climate and sea level on which civilization rests). For a while, and much longer in the US than elsewhere, we battled over whether this was true. But warm year succeeded warm year and that fight began to subside. Instead, the real question became, is this a future peril, the kind of thing you take out a reasonably priced insurance policy to guard against? Or is it the oh-my-lord crisis you drop everything else to deal with? Will Hitler be happy with the Sudetenland, or is the world going to spend every cent it has, not to mention tens of millions of lives, fighting him off? Trouble, or TROUBLE? These last 12 months, we’ve found out. [continued…]

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” Target Atmospheric CO2, James Hansen et al.

Playing power politics with Iran

In the midst of the global financial crisis, Western politicians have found a ray of light, namely that reduced oil prices will compel Iran to come to terms with the international community on its nuclear infractions. Such perceptions misread Iran’s history and the mindset of Tehran’s current rulers.

The West confronts an Iranian regime that has reconceptualized its national interests – choosing strategic gain over economic growth. Neither economic distress nor additional sanctions are likely to alter Tehran’s course. The most effective means of addressing Iran’s proliferation tendencies is to alter its strategic calculus.

On the surface, the theocracy’s challenge is daunting. The inflation rate stands at 30 percent, while approximately 14 million Iranians live below the poverty level. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist policies have also taken their toll, as he has mismanaged the economy and raided the oil stabilization fund designed to cushion the state from periods of price fluctuation. Still, Iran’s leaders remain more sensitive to their strategic environment than economic predicament. The displacement of Iran’s historical nemeses in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the decline of America’s influence in the Middle East have generated a recognition that it is a propitious time for the Islamic Republic to claim that mantle of regional leadership. Iran has a rare historical opportunity to emerge as the pivotal power in the Persian Gulf, a role that Iran’s monarchs and mullahs have aspired to for decades. [continued…]

Encountering peace: The emerging bi-national reality

Palestinian affairs expert and longtime journalist Danny Rubenstein came to visit me a couple of evenings ago. He was researching the issue of the transfer of cash to Gaza that Defense Minister Barak had allowed. After clarifying this issue our conversation went on to discuss what Danny called the emerging “bi-national reality” that has developed in the West Bank and has become more entrenched, perhaps beyond the point of no return. Danny is one of the real experts. He’s been covering Palestinian affairs since 1967, has written several highly respected books on Palestinians, their national movement and leaders. He has contacts in every part of Palestine, with all sectors of the society. His conclusion concerning the “bi-national reality” is drawn from observations over the past months after traveling north, south, east and west – all throughout the West Bank, spending hours listening to people and observing the reality on the ground.

I told Danny that I am not ready to give up the hope that our leaders will find the wisdom and the courage to implement the “two-state solution” before it is too late. In my heart, I had to wonder if Danny wasn’t right. Perhaps it is already too late. Perhaps the events of Hebron, of the forced removal of the settlers from the building that they claim and the riots that broke out afterwards when they went on the rampage against Palestinians in Hebron demonstrates in the most bloody terms that these two communities might be too locked into a entanglement that is already beyond the possibility to untangle. [continued…]

All Hamas demands is Israeli respect

Reasonable people would expect that Israelis and Palestinians alike prefer a cease-fire to active warfare, especially since mutual attacks have never resolved the core conflict. Hamas’ decision to extend the cease-fire is not going to be made on the basis of what makes its people more or less comfortable, or what entices Israelis into opening the gates a little bit wider to allow more consumer goods to enter Gaza. The basis on which Hamas makes such decisions reflects its wider worldview of the character and aims of Israel, and the nature of its confrontation with Israel.

Like other Islamist groups, Hamas calculates on the basis of a longer time frame than the next election, shifting public opinion, or whether or not it will be invited to tea at the White House. The single most important factor in the mind of the Islamist leaders is whether the agreement to renew the cease-fire reflects mutual respect and an acceptance of the principle of equal rights for Israel and Hamas.

If the deal proposed is seen to have forced Israel to change its position and respect the terms of the agreement, Hamas will extend. If it merely comprises vague Israeli promises in return for Hamas and other militant groups stopping their rocket attacks against Israel, the deal will collapse. Hamas’ view is that mutual requirements, rather than the unilateral requirement of Israeli security, must be assured for a cease-fire to happen. The driving force for such a posture is the Islamist sense that the battle to defend and reclaim the land will be a long one, and it will require a heavy price in lives and suffering before Israel negotiates sincerely and views the Palestinians as humans worthy of the same rights as Israelis. [continued…]

NATO supply route imperiled as Pakistani truckers refuse to carry goods

As a truck driver, Gul Mohmamad regularly ferries containers full of food and other supplies along the Khyber Pass route to Western forces in the Afghan capital.

It’s an increasingly dangerous occupation, with Taliban forces attacking trucks on the road and increasingly in the terminals.

“We don’t have any security here. When we are parked here outside the terminal we are afraid of being attacked,” Mohmamad says. “We have the same fears and problems when we are driving on the roads. That is why we cannot perform our duties properly.”

In response to the increased danger, an alliance of some 3,500 truck and fuel tanker owners announced on December 15 that it would no longer make deliveries for NATO along the alliance’s main overland supply route. [continued…]

Pakistan groups banned but not bowed

Pakistan submitted to the will of the international community and cracked down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure – LET), already banned as a terror outfit and linked to the Mumbai attacks last month, and the Jamaatut Dawa, last week labeled by the United Nations Security Council as a front for the LET.

One of the more sensational arrests was that of Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, the LET’s operations chief who had been characterized as a villain in dozens of Indian Bollywood movies; his picture was released for the first time ever to the media.

The Pakistani electronic media, though, were unimpressed by the international pressure, and hit back. They showed footage of the massacre of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002; of atrocities committed by Indian forces against Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir and called the Mumbai attack a reaction from within Indian society. [continued…]

Pirates outmaneuver warships off Somalia

Rear Adm. Giovanni Gumiero is going on a pirate hunt.

From the deck of an Italian destroyer cruising the pirate-infested waters off Somalia’s coast, he has all the modern tools at his fingertips — radar, sonar, infrared cameras, helicopters, a cannon that can sink a ship 10 miles away — to take on a centuries-old problem that harks back to the days of schooners and eye patches.

“Our presence will deter them,” the admiral said confidently.

But the wily buccaneers of Somalia’s seas do not seem especially deterred — instead, they seem to be getting only wilier. More than a dozen warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States have joined the hunt.

And yet, in the past two months alone, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot Saudi oil tanker.

The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea. [continued…]

Welcome to the Blagosphere

The schemes Blago allegedly invented to “monetize” his public authority, while never rising to the sophistication of, say, a credit default swap, still showed a cunning that would command the respect of any Wall Street Ponzi master. The governor allegedly speculated about trading the Senate seat for the job of energy secretary because, as “Deputy Governor A” helpfully informed him, that was the cabinet position “that makes the most money” — by which he almost certainly did not mean that it carried the greatest salary. Blago also apparently cooked up a plan in which a labor organization would create a highly paid position for him in exchange for the seat.

The governor’s fondest idea was allegedly to trade the Senate seat for a 501(c)4 organization that he believed the country’s best-known billionaires would graciously fund and that he would get to lead. And why not? Washington is filled with advocacy groups funded by the very wealthy that sometimes appear to be little more than retirement homes for political favorites.

The right has been gloating about the alleged Blagojevich villainy because it interrupts, in spectacular fashion, a long stretch in which most of the Beltway scandal-makers had an “R” after their names. Besides, this would-be mega-grafter comes from the same city and the same party as the hated Mr. Obama; it’s just a matter of time until the right blurs the two into one.

What outsiders seldom grasp about Illinois politics, though, is how bipartisan, how apolitical, the whole reeking thing is. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune, a connoisseur of the region’s corruption, refers to it as “the Combine.” Republicans run the machine when it’s their turn, and then hand the wheel over to Democrats when the public has had enough. [continued…]


NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Muntader al-Zaidi

When the shoe fits

In a war that has been punctuated by iconic moments, the shoe will be the symbol that most likely endures longest in connecting George Bush to Iraq. In 2003, the sight of a statue of Saddam Hussein being assaulted with footwear highlighted the moment in which, at Mr Bush’s instigation Saddam’s regime had visibly lost power. In 2008, the sight of the US president ducking to avoid flying shoes conveyed the eagerness among many Iraqis to witness Mr Bush’s exit from power.

While Muntader al-Zaidi may have been simply been venting a spontaneous outburst of anger as he hurled both his shoes at the president of the United States of America, his act of defiance struck a chord with many Iraqis along with fellow Arabs across the region.

As Hazim Edress, a resident of Mosul, told The New York Times: “He has done what the whole world could not.” [continued…]

(via Firedoglake)

Editor’s CommentMarc Lynch is concerned that the Muntader al-Zaidi story might distract attention from Human Rights Watch’s new report, The Quality of Justice: Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court. But reports, however worthy of attention, rarely garner much public interest. Indeed, if reports and rumors about Zaidi’s mistreatment in detention turn out to be true, his case may well serve to draw attention towards Iraq’s failed justice system.

This is a case where one would have thought that out of pure self-interest and political expediency, the White House would be pushing for Zaidi’s prompt release simply to serve its own public relations interests. The longer that takes to happen, the more potent a symbol Zaidi will become.