INAUGURATION DAY, JANUARY 20, 2008

Thank you Mr Bush – really

As America and much of the world now celebrates, let’s not forget the man who made all this possible: George W Bush. Had he been he merely been mediocre, merely a below-average president, America in its caution, America who — let’s not forget re-elected Bush and just a few months ago, at least for a few weeks, was quite enamored with Sarah Palin — this America, the one we’re still living in, might not have been ready to make the bold leap of electing an exceptional man of unquestionable talent. So let’s give thanks that George Bush really was the worst president ever and let’s give thanks that desperate times have become the catalyst for an imaginative leap.

On first full day, Obama will dive into foreign policy

President-elect Barack Obama will plunge into foreign policy on his first full day in office tomorrow, finally freed from the constraints of tradition that has forced him and his staff to remain muzzled about world affairs during the 78-day transition.

As one of his first actions, Obama plans to name former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as his Middle East envoy, aides said, sending a signal that the new administration intends to move quickly to engage warring Israelis and Palestinians in efforts to secure the peace.

Mitchell’s appointment will follow this afternoon’s expected Senate vote to confirm Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. And tomorrow afternoon, aides said, Obama will convene a meeting of his National Security Council to launch a reassessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Here’s a comment on George Mitchell’s appointment from my colleague, the co-director of Conflicts Forum, Mark Perry:

    Barack Obama has said that he would make Middle East peace a priority. George Mitchell’s appointment is a reflection of that commitment. There couldn’t be a better person to do this job.
    He couldn’t have made a better appointment.

Israel wanted a humanitarian crisis

The scale of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip, and the almost daily reports of war crimes over the last three weeks, has drawn criticism from even longstanding friends and sympathisers. Despite the Israeli government’s long-planned and comprehensive PR campaign, hundreds of dead children is a hard sell. As a former Israeli government press adviser put it, in a wonderful bit of unintentional irony, “When you have a Palestinian kid facing an Israeli tank, how do you explain that the tank is actually David and the kid is Goliath?”

Despite a mass of evidence that includes Israel’s targets in Operation Cast Lead, public remarks by Israeli leaders over some time, and the ceasefire manoeuvring of this last weekend, much of the analysis offered by politicians or commentators has been disappointingly limited, and characterised by false assumptions, or misplaced emphases, about Israel’s motivations.

First, to what this war on Gaza is not about: it’s not about the rockets. During the truce last year, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was reduced by 97%, with the few projectiles that were fired coming from non-Hamas groups opposed to the agreement. Despite this success in vastly improving the security of Israelis in the south, Israel did everything it could to undermine the calm, and provoke Hamas into a conflict. [continued…]

The myth of Israel’s strategic genius

Many supporters of Israel will not criticize its behavior, even when it is engaged in brutal and misguided operations like the recent onslaught on Gaza. In addition to their understandable reluctance to say anything that might aid Israel’s enemies, this tendency is based in part on the belief that Israel’s political and military leaders are exceptionally smart and thoughtful strategists who understand their threat environment and have a history of success against their adversaries. If so, then it makes little sense for outsiders to second-guess them.

This image of Israeli strategic genius has been nurtured by Israelis over the years and seems to be an article of faith among neoconservatives and other hardline supporters of Israel in the United States. It also fits nicely with the wrongheaded but still popular image of Israel as the perennial David facing a looming Arab Goliath; in this view, only brilliant strategic thinkers could have consistently overcome the supposedly formidable Arab forces arrayed against them.

The idea that Israelis possess some unique strategic acumen undoubtedly reflects a number of past military exploits, including the decisive victories in the 1948 War of Independence, the rapid conquest of the Sinai in 1956, the daredevil capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, the stunning Israeli triumph at the beginning of the 1967 Six Day War, and the intrepid hostage rescue at Entebbe in 1976.

These tactical achievements are part of a larger picture, however, and that picture is not a pretty one. Israel has also lost several wars in the past — none of them decisively, of course — and its ability to use force to achieve larger strategic objectives has declined significantly over time. This is why Israelis frequently speak of the need to restore their “deterrent”; they are aware that occasional tactical successes have not led to long-term improvements in their overall security situation. The assault on Gaza is merely the latest illustration of this worrisome tendency. [continued…]

Gazans rally behind Hamas

sraeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as he announced a cease-fire in Gaza over the weekend, said Israel’s military objectives against Hamas had been met. But at least initially, the militant group appears to have gained what Israel and its Bush administration allies had long hoped they could damp: popular support.

“Hamas is now our army, the only ones fighting to defend the Palestinian people,” said Gaza resident Ahmed al-Sultan, standing outside the rubble of the north Gaza City home his family has lived in for 40 years. “I saw how they fight, their courage and their sacrifice, and so I’ve changed my opinion about them.”

Israeli tanks and troops continued to pull out of Gaza on Monday, the first full day of a truce between the Jewish state and Hamas, which rules the enclave. Gazans emerged from their homes seeking drinking water, firewood and missing relatives.

Mr. Sultan’s neighborhood of Toam was a sprawling landscape of destruction. Blocks of Palestinian homes have been leveled. His mother and sisters sat despondently at his feet in the deep ruts left by an Israeli tank.

Eighteen months ago, Mr. Sultan fought against Hamas during the group’s bloody takeover of the coastal territory. He’s a longtime member of the Palestinian Authority’s security services, which are controlled by the Fatah party, now led by moderate and Western-leaning Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

After it won control in Gaza, Hamas sentenced Mr. Sultan to death. He won a reprieve through a connected relative. Today, he calls the Palestinian Authority leaders he once served, who are based in the West Bank, “donkeys” and says Hamas, his onetime nemesis, are “rightful defenders of the Palestinian people.” [continued…]

Gaza operation weakens Palestinian Authority

With Israel and Hamas both claiming victory in the Gaza Strip, there is one clear loser: the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority, which desperately wants a peace accord with Israel and a unified Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel’s 22-day assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza made the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority look ineffective and marginalized, unable to stop the carnage. Popular support for its peace talks with Israel, already declining, now seems weaker than ever.

And a tentative cease-fire that left Hamas still in charge of Gaza threatens to reinforce the rift between the Palestinian territories, further setting back hopes for a settlement of the decades-old Middle East conflict.

At an Arab summit in Kuwait on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pleaded for a revival of the power-sharing arrangement that broke apart in 2007 when Hamas, an armed Islamist movement, ousted his secular Fatah forces from Gaza in a ruthless factional fight. [continued…]

Israel speeds withdrawal from Gaza

Israel accelerated its troop withdrawal from Gaza on Monday with the aim of finishing by the inauguration of Barack Obama on Tuesday, as Hamas reasserted control over the rubble-filled streets and tens of thousands of Palestinians sought to cope with destroyed homes and traumatized lives.

Decomposing bodies continued to be uncovered in the worst-hit areas, with the death toll for the 23-day conflict that ended on Sunday passing 1,300, according to health officials here, as the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas held. Policemen took up positions directing traffic and a few bulldozers began the enormous task of clearing the ruins. Garbage was everywhere, devastation rampant.

Hamas held its first news conference since the war began on Dec. 27, with two government spokesmen standing in front of a destroyed compound that had housed a number of ministries and asserting that their movement had been victorious. [continued…]

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