Will Clinton’s overture get Iran to cooperate?

Iran’s former ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, suggested in the Financial Times on Thursday that Tehran’s cooperation, even on issues of mutual interest such as stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, will be dependent on an overall change in relations with Washington. “In Iran,” he wrote, “there is no willingness to co-operate with the U.S. without being paid back… Today, the two sides need a grand bargain.” He warned that from Iran’s perspective, “U.S. efforts to convince other nations to go along with its policies against Iran on one hand while pursuing the track of negotiations on the other means a continuation of the attitudes of George W. Bush, but with new words.”

The Obama Administration remains engaged in an Iran policy overview, however, precisely because of the failure of the policy inherited from the Bush Administration. Brandishing the “stick” of economic sanctions and the threat of military action, together with the “carrot” of economic incentives, has failed to deter Iran from making steady progress in developing its capacity to enrich uranium, which would give it a key building block for any attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

While on the campaign trail, Obama had promised to pursue “tough, direct diplomacy with Iran” — in contrast to President Bush’s refusal to talk directly to Iran until it suspended uranium enrichment. But the Obama team has yet to make clear how and when it will engage Iran, and most importantly, what it will put on the table. If the two sides simply repeat, face-to-face, the positions they’ve communicated to one another through intermediaries, the outcome is unlikely to be any different. Iran has not failed to understand what’s on offer from the U.S. and its allies; it has refused to accept the deal. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The fundamental problem in the US approach to Iran is that it focuses primarily on Iran’s nuclear program. The implicit message from the US to Iran is that if Iran was to abandon its enrichment program and was seen to pose no threat to its neighbors or the region, then it would be rewarded with benign neglect. It would no longer be perceived as a problem but neither would it be regarded with any particular interest. Along the way, a variety of enticements might be offered in order to reach the end point of Iran losing its status as a “problem” but unavoidably that end point would also involve a loss of power.

The starting point of a real engagement with Iran has to be the identification of larger, positive goals whose achievement may but will not necessarily require Iran’s abandonment of its nuclear program. For as long as the US is myopically focused on the nuclear issue it will be impossible for the US and Iran to advance towards a common ground.

Obama ponders outreach to elements of the Taliban

President Obama declared in an interview that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

Mr. Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years. “There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region,” he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.

In a 35-minute conversation with The New York Times aboard Air Force One on Friday, Mr. Obama reviewed the challenges to his young administration. The president said he could not assure Americans the economy would begin growing again this year. But he pledged that he would “get all the pillars in place for recovery this year” and urged Americans not to “stuff money in their mattresses.” [continued…]

Obama’s timid liberalism

Once upon a time in the United States, public goods — from retirement security and energy research to public roads — were provided by the government and paid for by taxes. As late as the Nixon administration, the provision of public goods by government was considered perfectly compatible with a robust market economy by so-called Modern Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon as well as New Deal Democrats like Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. In the intervening 40 years, however, free-market fundamentalists of the Chicago School have managed to change the debate, redefining “socialism” to mean not only public ownership of the means of production, but also public provision of public goods.

Rather than fight back, most Democrats in the last generation adapted to this hostile conservative political climate by jettisoning New Deal “big government” liberalism for “market-friendly” neoliberalism. Neoliberals shared the right’s enthusiasm for deregulating industries that New Deal Democrats had regulated in the public interest. Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy supported the deregulation of trucking and airlines, while Bill Clinton presided over the dismantling of the New Deal era’s banking regulations and declared: “The era of big government is over.” Neoliberals and conservatives agreed that public goods should be provided by private, for-profit or nonprofit entities, rather than government agencies. If private corporations or universities had no motivation to provide public goods, well, then, they would be bribed with tax credits or other government subsidies.

Neoliberals are liberals in one sense — they fret about unequal outcomes. But rather than help middle- and low-income Americans by regulating the prices of privately provided public goods, as the crude and direct New Dealers would have done, neoliberal Democrats have argued for allowing the “market” (translation: the publicly subsidized entities) to set prices and then promised to provide tax subsidies or grants to help middle- and low-income Americans pay for the expensive, privately provided public goods.

You might have thought that the Crash of 2008 would have led Democrats to reconsider this neoliberal approach to providing public goods by private means. But to judge from President Obama’s budget, the White House is still living back in the neoliberal era, when the diminutive Milton Friedman cast a giant shadow. [continued…]

U.S. warns it won’t recognize PA unity gov’t sans Fayyad

The United States will only recognize a future Palestinian unity government if Salem Fayyad is reappointed prime minister, according to a message relayed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to European and Arab leaders at last week’s donor summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The same message was relayed to Hamas by the Norwegian government, in response to the organization’s demand that Fatah replaces Fayyad with an independent candidate.

Senior Palestinian sources yesterday told Haaretz that the sudden resignation of Fayyad was a tactical move, designed to pressure Hamas into softening its opposition to Fayyad serving as prime minister in a unity government. The sources believe that the American threat, which is likely to be backed by the European Union and Egypt, will lead to Hamas changing its position and Fayyad rescinding his resignation. It is also feasible that the continuation of Fayyad’s term as Palestinian prime minister will be on the agenda during talks between the U.S. and Syria, where the head of Hamas’ political wing resides.

Western diplomats confirmed over the weekend that Washington has relayed messages to Hamas, via a European country that is in contact with the organization. The message intimated that a future unity government in the Palestinian Authority must be composed of technocrats who are members of neither Hamas nor Fatah, apart from Fayyad.

Even though Fayyad is not officially a member of Fatah, the U.S. administration sees him as the leading candidate to replace Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas following the election that is due to be held within the next 12 months. While Marwan Barghouti enjoys wide popular support, Washington does not believe he is ready to assume the mantle of leadership. Fayyad, who studied in the United States and was a senior staffer at the World Bank for several years, is trusted by the administration and the international financial establishment. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — It sounds like Elliot Abrams is still lurking in the shadows, surreptitiously crafting policy for Clinton. Only last week, Abrams was singing Fayyad’s praises in the Weekly Standard:

    Under US tutelage, training of Palestinian security forces has begun largely under the radar, at a training centre in Jordan. But it is working: Sixteen hundred police from the West Bank have gone through the course, and there are plans to double that number. The newly trained forces are not exactly crack troops, but they are a far cry from the divided and ineffective gangs created by Yasser Arafat. Their success was visible during the recent Gaza war, when they acted in parallel, and sometimes in concert, with Israeli forces to prevent Hamas violence and terrorism in the West Bank. Order was maintained.
    Much of the credit goes to PA prime minister Salam Fayyad, a US-trained economist whose integrity, candour, and effective administration of the PA have made him a favourite of the United States and all other donors. Fayyad, a former finance minister (who brought order from chaos in the PA’s finances and continues to fight PA corruption), has presided over continuing economic growth in the West Bank and maintains a working if unfriendly relationship with Israeli officials. Fayyad is well aware of the history of his sometime partner, sometime foe in Jerusalem, the government of Israel, and indeed of the history of the entire Zionist enterprise: Institutions were built over long decades to prepare for Israel’s independence despite the uncertainty of when it would arrive. The Zionists struggled to be ready, hoping thereby also to bring the day closer. That is Fayyad’s task for the Palestinian people, as he appears to see it.

U.S. turns up heat on Israel over settlements

Israel is under increased pressure from the United States over settlement construction. In the past month, since Barack Obama was sworn in as U.S. president, Israel has received four official complaints from members of the new administration regarding various issues linked to West Bank settlements.

A senior government official in Jerusalem told Haaretz that the complaints represent a gradual increase in American pressure vis-a-vis settlement activity. “This is going to be one of the main issues that the Obama administration will be dealing with in the coming weeks and months,” the official said. “It is not going to be easy to argue with them.” [continued…]

Israel annexing East Jerusalem, says EU

A confidential EU report accuses the Israeli government of using settlement expansion, house demolitions, discriminatory housing policies and the West Bank barrier as a way of “actively pursuing the illegal annexation” of East Jerusalem.

The document says Israel has accelerated its plans for East Jerusalem, and is undermining the Palestinian Authority’s credibility and weakening support for peace talks. “Israel’s actions in and around Jerusalem constitute one of the most acute challenges to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making,” says the document, EU Heads of Mission Report on East Jerusalem.

The report, obtained by the Guardian, is dated 15 December 2008. It acknowledges Israel’s legitimate security concerns in Jerusalem, but adds: “Many of its current illegal actions in and around the city have limited security justifications.” [continued…]

Israeli spurns criticism from Clinton

After Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week criticized plans to extend a park across 88 buildings that house Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, newly elected Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said she was meddling in local control over zoning and the city’s economic future.

The threatened homes were built without permits and should not be there in the first place, Barkat told reporters Thursday, while the envisioned park — running from beneath the walls of the Old City across a valley associated with Old Testament kings — would draw more tourists to a city that could use the boost.

“I totally reject the criticism,” Barkat said. “It is a lot of air. There is no substance. Maybe it is because there is a new administration in the States.” He speculated that she had been misled by what he called Palestinian “disinformation.” [continued…]

In Mideast, Clinton turns up the caution

Some Middle East analysts said the Obama administration had calculated that immediately pushing Israel would make no sense — with so little to gain in a largely paralyzed peace process, and so many thorny domestic challenges of its own.

“Pressuring Israel because we’re frustrated with them or because we want to make nice with the Arabs is a dumb policy,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Pressuring Israel at the right moment during a peace negotiation that actually promises to produce a breakthrough is much smarter.”

Mrs. Clinton’s trip did produce two minor breakthroughs: she sent two emissaries to Syria, with which the United States has had little contact after the Bush administration withdrew its ambassador in 2005. And Mrs. Clinton proposed a major conference on Afghanistan, to which all its neighbors, including Iran, would be invited. On Saturday, the Iranian government reacted positively, setting up the prospect of the first face-to-face meeting with the Obama administration. [continued…]

Must Jews always see themselves as victims?

Have we Jews succumbed psychologically to a sense of eternal Jewish victimhood, a wholly negative Jewish exceptionalism, or is paranoia justified?

Some pioneering research, published as Israel’s bombing of Gaza began, throws some light on this. It reveals just how much the feeling that no matter what we do, we are perpetually at the mercy of others applies to Jewish Israelis. A team led by Professor Daniel Bar Tal of Tel Aviv University, one of the world’s leading political psychologists, questioned Israeli Jews about their memory of the conflict with the Arabs, from its inception to the present, and found that their “consciousness is characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering”. The researchers found a close connection between that collective memory and the memory of “past persecutions of Jews” and the Holocaust, the feeling that “the whole world is against us”. If such a study were to be conducted among Jews in Britain, I suspect the results would be very similar.

For Jews to see themselves in this way is understandable, but it’s a distortion and deeply damaging. As Professor Bar Tal says, this view relies primarily on prolonged indoctrination that is based on ignorance and even nurtures it. The Jewish public does not want to be confused with the facts. If we are defined by past persecutions, by our victimhood, will we ever think clearly about the problem of Israel-Palestine and the problem of anti-Semitism?

To justify its attack on Gaza, Israel threw the mantle of victimhood over the residents of southern Israel who have lived under the constant threat of rocket attack from the territory since 2001. Israeli government and military spokespeople seemed to get a remarkably sympathetic hearing in the media when they made this argument. But history did not begin in 2001. As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass notes, the origin of Israel’s siege dates back to 1991, before suicide bombings began. The relentless emphasis on Israeli suffering, to the exclusion of all other contextual facts, and the constant mantra that no other country would tolerate such a threat posed to its citizens over such a long period provided the basis for arguing that the military option was the only alternative. The victim is cornered and there’s only one way out.

But the popular Israeli phrase ein breira, “there is no alternative”, won’t stand one second’s scrutiny. There was a wealth of informed senior military and security opinion, especially following the disaster of the 2006 Lebanon war, which argued that there is no military solution to the problem of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah. Even before Lebanon, in 2004, former IDF spokesman Nahman Shai, a senior figure in the Israeli establishment, said: “Despite all the anger, frustration, and disgust we feel, we ought to talk to Hizbollah. We must exploit every possibility to reach a compromise with them and gain precious time. Does it really embody all the evil in the region? What are we waiting for? We can always go back to fighting terrorism.” [continued…]

The rule of fear

As Benjamin Netanyahu ascends to power, his message is the danger of a holocaust at the hands of Iran. Avigdor Lieberman emerges victorious and his message is that Israeli Arabs are a cancer. Never before has a government been established here solely based on sowing fear. Devoid of promise or hope, the government being formed offers only the prophecies of apocalyptic doom on whose waves the right rode to power. Now it’s the right’s only agenda.

Fear of an external enemy has from time immemorial been the most effective weapon of every right-wing or fascist regime. It’s good for national unity, it’s effective in stifling dissent, and it hides every other pressing issue. Israel, which has known far worse dangers and which has already been ruled by rightist governments, has never had a government that only speaks the language of fear-mongering. [continued…]

Gaza homes destruction ‘wanton’

Human rights investigators say Israeli forces engaged in “wanton destruction” of Palestinian homes during the recent conflict in Gaza.

Amnesty International has told the BBC News website the methods used raised concerns about war crimes.

Israel’s military said buildings were destroyed because of military “operational needs”.

The Israeli Defense Forces said they operated in accordance with international law during the conflict.

However, the use of mines to destroy homes contradicted this claim, the head of the Amnesty International fact-finding mission to southern Israel and Gaza, Donatella Rovera, has argued. [continued…]

Show of Sunni-Shiite unity in Iraq

Sunni Arab residents welcomed more than 1 million Shiite pilgrims to the city of Samarra on Friday to mark the anniversary of a Shiite saint’s death, local officials said, the latest sign of reconciliation among Iraqis eager to put the country’s civil war behind them.

Pilgrims gathered from all over Iraq after Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr called for worshipers to mark the holy day in Samarra. Security was tight and there were no reports of attacks.

The calm was a remarkable feat in a city where Sunni militants three years earlier had bombed the Golden Mosque and ignited the civil war between the sects that left tens of thousands dead. A Sunni mosque even hosted Shiite pilgrims for a prayer service to commemorate the death in 874 of Imam Hasan Askari. [continued…]

Justices erase ruling that allowed detention

The Supreme Court on Friday erased a lower-court ruling on perhaps the most fundamental national security question of all: Does the president have the power to order the indefinite military detention of legal residents of the United States?

The court’s action, which had been urged by the Obama administration, wiped away one of the Bush administration’s greatest victories in the lower courts, a 2008 ruling that expanded the limits of executive authority to combat terrorism by allowing such detentions.

But the one-paragraph Supreme Court ruling leaves open the question of whether the military detention of legal residents as enemy combatants can ever be constitutional. The ruling came in the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar who was lawfully in the United States as a student when he was arrested in 2001. The court, which had agreed to hear Mr. Marri’s challenge to his detention in December, said it would not hear the case after all in light of his indictment last week on criminal charges in federal court. [continued…]

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