Obama’s first interview as president (Al-Arabiya TV exclusive)

Editor’s Comment — President Obama said that the new way the US will approach the Middle East is to “start by listening.”

“[George Mitchell]’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved…”

“– stop right there,” Hisham Melhem failed to interject. Had the interview been conducted by Al Jazeera instead of the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya news channel, Obama might at this point have been pushed to provide clarification.

If Mitchell is going to be speaking to all the major parties involved, he’s going to be talking to Hamas? Correct, Mr President? Whatever else might be said about Hamas it is beyond dispute that they are one of the major parties. Only yesterday, Jimmy Carter reiterated what in foreign policy circles is by this point the mainstream position: Hamas has to be engaged.

No doubt the question was in Hisham’s mind. Was he too polite to ask? Was it a ground rule for the interview that this question wouldn’t be answered and therefore should not be posed? For how much longer is this charade going to continue? Hamas isn’t going away.


Marc Lynch, who for several years has been promoting Middle East engagement of the type Obama is now picking up, is naturally enthusiastic:

His remarks hit the sweet spot again and again. He repeatedly emphasized his intention of moving past the iron walls of the ‘war on terror’ and ‘clash of civilizations’ which so dominated the Bush era. “My job is to communicate to the Muslim world that the United States is not your enemy,” Obama said, emphasizing as in his inaugural address that he is “ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest.” And where so much of the Bush administration’s ‘public diplomacy’ was about manipulating and lecturing, Obama begins — as he should — with listening: “what I told [Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by let’s listen.”

He clearly understands that this won’t be easy, that there are real conflicts and obstacles and enemies. He obviously recognizes that the Gaza crisis and eight years of the Bush administration have left a heavy toll on America’s reputation and credibility. He stressed the importance of engaging on Israeli-Arab issues right away, the need for new ideas and approaches, and the interrelationships among the region’s issues that I’ve always seen as the key to his Middle East policy (“I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated.”)

And above all, he understands that words are only the beginning, and that ultimately deeds and policy will determine Arab views of the United States. Public diplomacy is not about marketing a lousy policy — it’s about engaging honestly, publicly, and directly with foreign publics about those policies, explaining and listening and adjusting where appropriate.

Indeed, actions speak louder than words, but even if Obama is starting out with the right words, he’s also starting out with some of the wrong actions. For as long as people have reason to vent their rage, demanding to know why their relatives were just killed by the US military, Obama will be losing the diplomatic argument.

Just consider how utterly commonplace an image such as this has become. The Americans just killed some of local civilians who were unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — it happens again, and again, and again…

Part two: President Obama’s first interview (Al-Arabiya TV exclusive)

Mitchell’s challenge

The deep irony of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” first struck me in 1996 as I was driving through the West Bank from Hebron to Jerusalem. I had turned off the potholed main road that passed through Palestinian villages and refugee camps and headed west into Kiryat Arba. In that Israeli settlement, admirers had erected a graveside monument to Baruch Goldstein, the settler from Brooklyn who, in 1994, gunned down 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. From the settlement’s creepy candlelit shrine I cut north, and soon found myself on a quiet, smooth-as-glass “bypass” road. The road, I would learn, was one of many under construction by Israel, alongside new and expanding settlements, that would allow settlers to travel easily from their West Bank islands to the “mainland” of the Jewish state.

How strange, I thought naively, as I traveled that lonely road toward Jerusalem on a gray winter afternoon: Isn’t this part of the land that Palestinians would need for their state? Why, then, in the middle of the Oslo peace process — barely three years after the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn — would Israeli officials authorize construction that was visibly cementing the settlers’ presence into Palestinian land?

Twelve years later, these post-Oslo “facts on the ground” have all but doomed the traditional path to peace. The two-state solution, the central focus of efforts to end the tragedy of Israel and Palestine since 1967, has been undermined by the thickening reality of red-roofed Israeli settlements, military outposts, surveillance towers, and the web of settlers-only roads that whisk Israelis from their West Bank dwellings to prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City, or to shopping and the beach in Tel Aviv. So dense had the Israeli West Bank presence become by 2009, so fragmented is Palestinian life — both physically and politically — that it now requires death-defying mental gymnastics to imagine how a two-state solution could ever be implemented. [continued…]

Hamas and the peace process

What should be the next steps forward? Clearly, the cruel siege of Gaza must be lifted, not only for urgently needed humanitarian aid, but also for commerce, and to allow the movement of people cooped up for far too long. Gaza must be brought back to life.

A second necessary step will be the holding of Palestinian legislative and presidential elections as soon as possible, preferably this spring. They will need to be monitored by international observers, drawn perhaps from the EU and the Carter Center. Their aim will be to produce a new Palestinian leadership, leading to the formation of a unity government. This step is an essential pre-condition for negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.

A major obstacle, however, is Obama’s refusal to engage with Hamas until it recognizes Israel and renounces violence. These conditions, imposed by the United States and Israel when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006, need to be set aside. They are an obstacle to a settlement.

Mutual recognition between enemies occurs after a peace settlement is reached, not before. In any event, most Arab countries do not recognize Israel, and will not do so until there is peace. As for renouncing violence, Israel is by far the greater offender. Quite apart from its siege of Gaza, it has killed over 2,000 Palestinians since it withdrew from the Strip in 2005, whereas Hamas in the same period killed fewer than 20 Israelis. If terrorism is killing civilians for political ends, there is no doubt that Israel is the greater culprit. [continued…]

Army rabbi ‘gave out hate leaflet to troops’

The Israeli army’s chief rabbinate gave soldiers preparing to enter the Gaza Strip a booklet implying that all Palestinians are their mortal enemies and advising them that cruelty is sometimes a “good attribute”.

The booklet, entitled Go Fight My Fight: A Daily Study Table for the Soldier and Commander in a Time of War, was published especially for Operation Cast Lead, the devastating three-week campaign launched with the stated aim of ending rocket fire against southern Israel. The publication draws on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Jewish fundamentalist Ateret Cohanim seminary in Jerusalem.

In one section, Rabbi Aviner compares Palestinians to the Philistines, a people depicted in the Bible as a war-like menace and existential threat to Israel.

In another, the army rabbinate appears to be encouraging soldiers to disregard the international laws of war aimed at protecting civilians, according to Breaking the Silence, the group of Israeli ex-soldiers who disclosed its existence. The booklet cites the renowned medieval Jewish sage Maimonides as saying that “one must not be enticed by the folly of the Gentiles who have mercy for the cruel”. [continued…]

Hamas, Fatah hold reconciliation talks in Egypt

Palestinian officials from the Islamist Hamas group and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party held talks in Cairo on Monday to pave the way for possible reconciliation after Israel’s offensive in Gaza, Palestinian officials said.

The officials said Jamal Abu Hashem of Hamas and Azzam al-Ahmed of Fatah held the talks, the first in 10 months, on the sidelines of meetings between Palestinian groups and Egyptian intelligence officials. [continued…]

Anyone but Dennis Ross

President Barack Obama’s decision to name accomplished diplomats to deal with the Arab-Israeli and Pakistan-Afghanistan crises is more than welcome. Another appointment, however, will be even more important: special envoy to Iran.

George Mitchell faces an almost insurmountable challenge in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been intensifying steadily for 40 years and now, after Israel’s assault on Gaza, seems further from solution than ever. Turning the tide in Afghanistan and calming Pakistan, which is now Richard Holbrooke’s assignment, will be just as difficult. But it takes only a look at the map – or a cursory reading of any day’s news – to understand that Iran lies at the centre of this “arc of crisis”.

If Iran can be brought back into the world community as a full and welcome partner, it could pressure militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah to end their war against Israel. That, in turn, might lead Israel to stop its devastating attacks on nearby populations, which intensify hatreds, create terrorists and horrify the world. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — So what, if Iran becomes nuclear armed? It’s only two years ago that former Centcom commander, John Abizaid, said “there are ways to live with a nuclear Iran.” He stated the obvious by saying, “”Let’s face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we’ve lived with a nuclear China, and we’re living with (other) nuclear powers as well.”

But let’s move one step further. Can it be argued that the Middle East would be better off with a nuclear-armed Iran? Is Israel’s genuine fear that of an existential threat posed by Iran, or is it the threat that would be posed by a regional strategic balance of power? Is it afraid of losing its “right” to be the madman on the block who can intimidate all his neighbors by periodically going crazy?

Syria eyes strategic gains after Gaza war

Syria is trying to capitalise on Israel’s failure to crush its Islamist ally Hamas to enhance its regional clout in peace talks with the Jewish state and forge good ties with the new U.S. administration.

The Syrian government, which has recently emerged from years of isolation, is now advocating a role for the Islamist group in Middle East peacemaking, Syrian officials and diplomats say.

But Damascus has to nudge the Palestinian Islamist group towards meeting international demands if it wants to further strengthen its international position as it faces risky challenges relating to two U.N. investigations, diplomats said. [continued…]

Pakistanis outraged over continued drone attacks

Western security analysts argue that the [drone] attacks are necessary because the border areas are lawless and under the control of Taliban and al-Qaida militants – not the Pakistani government.

But many locals argue that innocent civilians are the main victims of the attacks. In North Waziristan, the drone strikes are leading to mental disorders, especially among women and children, according to Dr. Munir Ahmad, a 50-year-old psychiatrist in Miranshah, a city on the border with Afghanistan that is North Waziristan’s main population center.

“The situation among the people is alarming,” he said. “The women and children are so frightened from hours of drones circling overhead and then the thunderous noise of the missile attacks that now even a door slamming frightens them to uncontrollable tears,” he said.

Ahmad, who specializes in treating the effects of violence, told us that two years ago he used to treat about 10 patients a day for different mental disorders – he said he now sees around 160 patients a day suffering from uncontrollable fear and rage. “I am especially worried about long-term affects on the children,” he said. [continued…]

Fearing another quagmire in Afghanistan

Can President Obama succeed in that long-lamented “graveyard of empires” — a place that has crushed foreign occupiers for more than 2,000 years?

Ever since the Bush administration diverted its attention — and resources — to the war in Iraq from the war in Afghanistan, military planners and foreign policy experts have bemoaned the dearth of troops to keep that country from sliding back into Taliban control. And in that time, the insurgency blossomed, as Taliban militants took advantage of huge swaths of territory, particularly in the south, that NATO troops weren’t able to fill.

Enter Mr. Obama. During the campaign he promised to send two additional brigades — 7,000 troops — to Afghanistan. During the transition, military planners started talking about adding as many as 30,000 troops. And within days of taking office, Mr. Obama announced the appointment of Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Balkan peace accords, to execute a new Afghanistan policy.

But even as Mr. Obama’s military planners prepare for the first wave of the new Afghanistan “surge,” there is growing debate, including among those who agree with the plan to send more troops, about whether — or how — the troops can accomplish their mission, and just what the mission is. [continued…]

Pakistan: A mounting problem for Obama

To understand the scale of the challenge facing him as President Obama’s envoy to promote U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke might consider the story of Amjad Islam. Islam, a schoolteacher in Matta, Pakistan, refused to comply when local Taliban leaders demanded that he hike up his trousers to expose his ankles in the manner of the Prophet Muhammad. The teacher knew Muslim teachings and had earned jihadist stripes fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their edict was wrong, Islam told the Taliban enforcers; no such thing had been demanded even by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the ’90s. The scuffle that resulted left Islam’s body hanging in the town square. To drive home their warning to the locals, the militants also shot the teacher’s father.

In introducing Holbrooke’s mission to promote counterterrorism cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama on Thursday warned that “there is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the al-Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border [in Pakistan].” But Amjad Islam was not killed in some frontier village abutting Afghanistan; his body hung 80 miles (129 km) from Pakistan’s capital in the Swat Valley, which until 2007 had been a popular tourist destination dubbed the “Switzerland of Asia.” Today about 75% of the valley is under the control of a particularly virulent branch of the Pakistani Taliban, which has destroyed schools and terrorized the population. If the authorities in Pakistan have been unable to tackle a homegrown insurgency just hours from its seat of power, prospects for their cracking down on Taliban and al-Qaeda forces along the border are grim. [continued…]

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  1. Carol Elkins says

    Jimmy Carter was interviewed last night on “The News Hour”. He is the wee small voice that does not go away. He understands what needs to be done and what can be done, and when. I believe this interview was harbinger of change to come. Jimmy Carter is no longer viewed as a pariah!