The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Obama

Israeli-Palestinian talks – A very troubling “compromise”

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The sheer amount of media reports about these talks has been deafening, and the amount of comment has been an absolute deluge, to the point where I have been reluctant to write about it (until now), due to the difficulty of contributing something new to the discussion. However, a new piece of information has come to light that I could prove very important to the future of talks and solutions.

These past few days has seen a flurry of reporting, and to-ing and fro-ing, about an article filed by David Makovsky for the Washington Institute of Near-East Affairs:

According to senior U.S. officials, the administration’s efforts culminated in a draft letter negotiated with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and chief Israeli peace negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, and ultimately sent from President Obama’s desk to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

At its core, the draft letter offers a string of assurances to Israel in return for a two-month moratorium extension. More specifically, U.S. officials indicate that the document makes commitments on issues ranging from current peace and security matters to future weapons deliveries in the event that peace-related security arrangements are reached.

As agencies picked up the article, the White House issued a denial that there was any letter sent. As noted in that Haaretz report, Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat have repeatedly stated that they will leave talks unless an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction is extended, and the White House has been desperate to see such an extension so that talks can continue.

Outlets are now reporting that a deal is in fact on the table, whether or not a physical letter was sent. Politico’s Laura Rozen has a translation of a report in Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv up at her blog. The report is dated several days ago. The money graf, emphasis Rozen’s:

Sources close to the negotiations said that the American package includes a compromise for both parties on the issue of a construction freeze in exchange for a written American commitment to support the parties on other issues that are important to them in later stages of the negotiations. The sources said that in exchange for a compromise on the issue of extending the moratorium, Israel apparently demanded a written American commitment to support its demands on a number of issues, such as recognition of Israel as the Jewish people’s nation-state and security strategies that pertain to defending the eastern border of the Palestinian state. The Palestinians demanded, apparently, American commitments on the issues of borders and Jerusalem, in exchange for their concession regarding the discontinuance of the complete construction moratorium.

The WaPo report says:

Among other inducements, the administration has proposed that there be a lengthy “transitional period” for security on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state, a plan that would presumably include Israeli troops. The United States would also promise military hardware and pledge to veto U.N. resolutions relating to Arab-Israeli peace for a year.

As part of the package, Israel would agree to extend a partial freeze on settlement growth for 60 days.

While both are reporting that Netanyahu has not yet agreed to the offer, to me it seems quite troubling.

The Palestinians have repeatedly said that Israeli troops on Palestinian land would be unacceptable in any peace agreement. Various alternative ideas have been floated, including demilitarisation for a Palestinian state (effectively reducing it to a paper tiger and affecting its legitimacy as a state altogether) and/or international peacekeeping troops, both along the border and in sensitive parts of Jerusalem.

Military hardware is, of course, nothing new, and neither is the veto-ing of UN resolutions. Already the US has been blocking anything critical of Israel in the UN on the tenuous basis that it might “harm peace talks”. A written agreement, however, to block these things for an entire year is a serious smack in the face to international institutions that further entrenches the concept of American exceptionalism as a norm (which also extends to allies like Israel).

What’s most troubling, however, is the promise to officially recognise Israel as “the Jewish people’s nation-state”. The call for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has come loudest from Israel’s controversial hardline Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a West Bank settler and crazy UN speech maker.

Officially recognising Israel as a “Jewish state” is troubling for a number of reasons. Firstly, it affects the key Palestinian request of the right of return, and while, in my opinion, it’s the most unreasonable Palestinian request and the most likely to face the axe, it’s still a key part of their negotiating position.

Furthermore, such recognition by the US would only serve to undermine further the tenuous claims that Israel is a “Western-style democracy” and has “similar values” to the US, a call frequently made in defense of the “special relationship”. If separation of church & state is a key element of America’s identity, how can an expressly ethno-religious basis for Israel’s identity be considered “similar”?

Most worryingly, such recognition will dramatically affect the standing of over a million Arab, non-Jewish, citizens of Israel. There are already numerous Israeli laws that discriminate against Israeli citizens of Arab descent, placing them outside the state by virtue of its internationally recognised identity would serve to only further entrench this discrimination.

And making all these concessions on behalf of the Palestinians just for a 60 day extension on illegal construction of settlements in occupied land, that probably won’t be adhered to anyway, so that manifestly uneven peace talks can continue seems completely ludicrous. Make no mistake, these concessions should not be treated lightly, but it seems that, in its self-serving drive to score brownie points for “peace in the Middle East”, the Obama Administration is doing just that.

Pakistan Army accused of extrajudicial killings in Swat. Again.

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This video, which has been doing the rounds on the internet for over a week, allegedly depicts the Pakistani Army engaging in an extrajudicial execution of six unidentified men, purportedly in the Swat region. It was reported on blogs and Twitter, but the mainstream media was slow to pick it up, and most interestingly, so was Human Rights Watch.

Since then, it has been picked up by several agencies, and while it was also briefly linked to the Indian Army in Kashmir, most of the discussion seems in favour of declaring it the real Pakistani deal.

The New York Times report:

But American officials, who did not want to be identified because of the explosive nature of the video, said it appeared to be credible, as did retired American military officers and intelligence analysts who have viewed it.

After viewing the graphic video on Wednesday, an administration official said: “There are things you can fake, and things you can’t fake. You can’t fake this.”

Al Jazeera English has a better report that delves deeper into the video and its authenticity:

An organisation called the International Pashtuns’ Association posted the video on Facebook and says that the incident took place during the military’s crackdown on the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley the summer of 2009.

The uniforms and rifles appear to be consistent with Pakistan’s standard military equipment, and a former Pakistani general told Al Jazeera that while the video could not be verified, the images should be taken seriously.

“We have to take it at face value at the moment, and take it seriously,” said Talat Masood. “My view is that the CIA and ISI are in a much better position to authenticate this.”

“It looks as though they are Pakistani troops, but there are several other aspects that need to be re-checked  before we can say that it is authentic.”

Human rights groups say the video fits in with “credible allegations” they have received about the conduct of Pakistani troops. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in June that 282 extra-judicial killings by the army had taken place in the Swat region in the past year.

The AJE report also includes responses from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who also say that the video is consistent with numerous reports in the past of the Pakistani Army engaging in such executions. Indeed, both HRW and the NYT have reported it in the past.

The Pakistani Army has, predictably, denied reports and declared the video fake.

The real question is over what fallout this will cause.

Reuters says that it could threaten US aid to Pakistan and includes a quote from State Department spokesman PJ Crowley: “Human rights and the issue of extra-judicial killings has been a part of our ongoing conversation … with Pakistan.” I’d say that quote pretty much sums up the US response, an “ongoing conversation” is vague enough to indicate some sort of action, but nothing concrete or real.

Scarecrow at Fire Dog Lake sums up the inconsistency in relation to drone attacks:

But then one must ask whether there is some moral or legal distinction between what the Pakistan forces are alleged to be doing, which if true would be an egregious crime and warrant protests from all civilized nations, and what our own military teams are doing when they observe a Pakistani village or group of individuals via drone cameras and then, from targeting rooms that may be located in the US, direct the drones to bomb and kill those individuals. Because I’m having a hard time seeing a meaningful difference.

Indeed, it is difficult to find a meaningful difference. Moreover, there’s the much publicised case of Anwar al-Awlaki, and reportedly three other US citizens, all of which are in line to be assassinated by the US Army. Legal challenges to these assassinations have been blocked by the Obama Administration by invoking the State Secrets doctrine to shield it form judicial review. And, of course, there’s the ongoing protection of those involved in Bush-era torture allegations.

So is the US going to withhold aid from Pakistan or take any real action over these killings? Hell no, there won’t even be a statement of condemnation. Why? Because obviously, the Obama Administration doesn’t care. It will put sanctions on Iranian diplomats for torture, but it’s not going to censure a key strategic ally for the war in Afghanistan. In this case, American exceptionalism must, to some extent, be extended to strategic allies.

So anyone looking for something concrete to come out of this, don’t hold your breath. Instead, just wait for it to blow over, as undoubtedly it will.

Written by alexlobov

October 1, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike

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This piece was originally published at NOW!Lebanon, titled “Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of discussion in US foreign policy circles about the potential for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Much of this discussion has been focused around Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy and alarmist cover story for The Atlantic Magazine about the likelihood of such a strike happening within the next 12 months. However, no discussion of an Israeli, or indeed American, strike on Iran can ignore the unavoidable involvement of Lebanon, and the subsequent impact on the country.

Goldberg interviewed around “forty current and past Israeli decision-makers” as background for his piece, but many of them remain anonymous, and those who are named appear to contribute little different to what we already knew: Israel considers Iran an “existential threat” and is very worried, and all options are always on the table, some of them more likely than others. Thus, the motivation of Goldberg’s sources must be better understood. Why would Israeli decision makers be telling Jeffrey Goldberg that there’s a good chance of an Israeli strike on Iran? Because they understand Goldberg’s influence in Washington, and they want to mainstream the idea of not only an Israeli strike, but a potentially pre-emptive one from the US. This story has already had a broad ripple effect in the political media ecosystem, having been expanded into a fully-fledged debate on The Atlantic website and picked up by other outlets and blogs alike. This process helps an idea gain a legitimacy it didn’t have before the original big story dropped.

While, of course, such a story alone cannot be blamed for a military strike, in many ways, this process is reminiscent of similar discussions in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, during which Jeffrey Goldberg played a remarkably similar role. In 2010, the potentially disastrous consequences of such a strike by the US, many of which would also eventuate in the case of an Israeli one, cannot be easily dismissed, and some are even mentioned by Goldberg himself: a closing of the Straits of Hormuz; a massive spike in the price of oil, exacerbating the global recession; destabilisation of the Gulf region; deadly reprisals from Iranian-sponsored terrorist outfits abroad; a nail in the coffin for the Iranian “Green Movement;” and a shoring up of sympathy for Iran’s regime internationally. Most alarmingly, Iran’s actual pursuit of nuclear-weapons capacity, both the details and progress of it, are still in doubt. A strike would, much as it did with Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, impel Iran’s regime to redouble its efforts to reach such a capacity.

The consequences of a strike on Iran for the fragile détente between Israel and Hezbollah are unpredictable at best and a powder keg at worst. “Israel or the United States cannot just bomb Iran and (expect) things to continue normally,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, told Reuters in March. “Any attack on Iran could ignite the whole region and the assailant will pay a heavy price whether it’s Israel or the United States.”

Cross-border rocket reprisals from Hamas and Hezbollah are widely expected in the case of a strike on Iran, but the extent of the potential conflict cannot be precisely anticipated. Many analysts already believe that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of when, not if, and there are plenty of potential excuses for war already. One major cause for concern is the exploration of Tamarand Leviathan,two recently-discovered gas fields that could, as estimated by the US partner in exploration Noble Energy, contain up to 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. The maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is not well defined, and Beirut has also taken steps to begin off-shore exploration. Natural resources aside, Hezbollah’s steady rearmament since 2006 and Israel’s continued manned overflights over Lebanese territory, both in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, are reason enough for a major conflict to be sparked by either side.

Concerning Hezbollah’s rearmament, as noted by Daniel Kurtzer in his July report for the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, the party has improved both the quantity and quality of its weaponry since 2006, although it is unclear exactly by how much. Since Gabi Ashkenazi’s ascendancy to IDF chief of staff, Israel has also maintained that it is far more prepared today to fight a war with Hezbollah than in previous years. As repeatedly noted in Kurtzer’s report, Israel has not only levelled at Hezbollah the as-yet-unproven charge of acquiring Scud missiles from Syria, but also prepared for it, as well as the strategic threat from Syrian M-600 rockets or even advanced surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-300, which Israel considers a “red line.”

What this indicates is that Israel takes the threat from Hezbollah very seriously, and would be keeping this threat in mind in accompaniment to any potential strike on Iran.

If Goldberg’s story, particularly its many statements from Israeli officials, is to be viewed largely as an Israeli PR exercise, then Israel probably wishes to allow time for the off chance that the Obama administration will conduct a US strike on Iran, something Israel almost certainly prefers. The administration is in no hurry. As reported in the New York Times last week, administration officials believe that there is roughly a year before Iran achieves “breakout” nuclear capacity, or the time it would take to convert low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade.  Iran’s distance from real nuclear-weapons capacity, and Israel’s current wariness of an immediate military conflict with Hezbollah indicate that a strike would likely occur toward the end of Goldberg’s proposed 12-month window, if at all.

No mistake should be made about the consequences for Lebanon. Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that, as a result of Hezbollah’s inclusion in Lebanon’s cabinet, the whole country would be held responsible for attacks on Israel. This is an apparent extension of Israel’s supposed “Dahiyeh Doctrine” to cover not only southern Lebanon but the country’s institutions and infrastructure on a national level, bringing with it alarming possibilities stemming from Israel’s destruction of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

Obama does not have the stomach for the initiation of another major conflict, but only time will tell whether Israel is prepared to put aside concerns of a complicated entanglement with Hezbollah, along with the other host of issues mentioned above, and actually execute a strike on Iran unilaterally. The possibility for unmitigated disaster is great, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail.

The need for accurate civilian casualty figures in Afghanistan

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This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “NATO’s responsibility to Afghan civilians”.

June was the deadliest month for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict. As fighting intensifies and as British troops pull out of Sangin, proponents and detractors are still squabbling over the relative success of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN), spearheaded under the Obama administration, and the GOP is arguing over whether chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele’s recent ill-advised comments about the war should be a cause for his resignation.

While domestic discussion over whether various countries should remain in Afghanistan gathers steam, a key metric that should be strongly related to the ‘success’ narrative is not getting enough airtime. Much has been made of whether NATO is ‘winning’ the war in Afghanistan or what it really means ‘to win’ such a war in the first place, but civilian casualties have rarely been discussed in any precise context.

According to a UNAMA survey released in January, 2009 was the deadliest year to date for Afghan civilians and a striking amount were killed by increased Taliban activity. But whether it’s the Taliban, suicide attacks, or U.S. forces killing civilians, the pain for the families of those killed is on the rise — and they may not care who is responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The lack of attention from coalition governments to the details of how many civilians are killed is not encouraging.

According to James Denselow, neither the U.S. Defense Department nor the British Ministry of Defense “maintain records that would enable a definitive number of civilian fatalities to be recorded.” This is in stark contrast to scrupulously maintained numbers of military casualties. Denselow thinks that this is part of the propaganda war and that it’s aimed at maintaining control over the ‘win’ narrative. NATO governments need to take more responsibility for the accurate recording and reporting of information related to civilian casualties, much as they do for military casualties. This should not be left solely to UNAMA.

Military casualties are an understandable cause for concern for those at home, but we must also care about civilian casualties and the increasing humanitarian crisis in the country. While far from a perfect measurement, Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index has rated Afghanistan as 6th in 2010, a position that has deteriorated every year since the Index began in 2005 (when Afghanistan was 11th).

It is notable that under General McChrystal’s rules of engagement, more protection was supposed to be provided for civilians. Equally notable is the news that General Petraeus might change the rules of engagement again due to concerns that they are putting coalition forces in greater danger. The UNAMA survey mentioned above indicates that during 2009, with McChrystal’s changed rules of engagement in place for half the year, the number of civilian casualties killed by coalition forces had indeed decreased, but statistics are not yet available for 2010.

So far the debate over rules of engagement has focused greatly on the balancing act between protecting civilians and endangering coalition forces; however, I struggle to see how this debate can be properly carried out when reliable metrics are not available for half of the balance.

Apart from policy wonks and military types engaged in the debate over rules of engagement, the tax payers who are bankrolling this war need to start thinking independently about what it means to ‘win’ and whether three Australian soldiers killed is so momentous that Afghan civilian casualties pale in comparison. In the war over numbers, we need to stop looking after our people only and look deeper into what the ‘win’ narrative means. While the U.S. and its allies have a lot at stake in this war, the people of Afghanistan have immeasurably more. Whether history judges NATO or the Taliban to be the ‘winners’ in Afghanistan, the Afghan people could end up being the losers.

Written by alexlobov

July 13, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Updates: Aftermath of flotilla attack during the second day

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Israeli forces approach one of six ships bound for Gaza yesterday. Photograph: Pool/Reuters Hat-tip: Guardian

For anyone not yet up to speed, a flotilla of vessels carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza with the aim of lifting the blockade imposed by Israel was intercepted and attacked by Israeli commandos yesterday which resulted in 9-19 deaths (depending on which reports you believe, Israel still has not released an official list of names of those killed). To get up to speed on developments yesterday check out my first and second posts.

More news has come today, kicking off with a marathon UN Security Council meeting called by Turkey with the aim of eliciting an official response from the Council. The bulk of the meeting went on behind closed doors but reportedly it constituted mostly a back-and-forth between the Turkish and American representatives, the latter refusing to allow the Security Council to officially single out Israel for condemnation.

Turkey proposed a statement that would condemn Israel for violating international law, demand a United Nations investigation and demand that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay compensation to the victims. It also called for the end of the blockade.

The Obama administration refused to endorse a statement that singled out Israel, and proposed a broader condemnation of the violence that would include the assault of the Israeli commandos as they landed on the deck of the ship. [NYT]

Reportedly the Israeli army will be transferring the humanitarian aid found on the boat to Gaza.

Here’s a very interesting piece of news from the excellently-run Al Jazeera English liveblog:

11:37am: His wording is far from conclusive, but the Jerusalem Post seems to think Israel’s deputy defence minister, Manan Vilna’i, hinted that Israel sabotaged some of the ships in the Gaza flotilla.

When asked during an Israel Radio interview whether it might not have been possible to stop the ships in a more sophisticated manner, Vilna’i responded, “Every possibility was considered. The fact is that there were ten less ships in the flotilla than were originally planned.”

Hosni Mubarak has opened the Rafah border and, according to this Arabic source, there are no restrictions on who is allowed to enter and exit. Would be interesting to see some reports on traffic there. Also, the EU and Russia have released a joint statement condemning Israel’s use of force and calling for the Gaza blockade to be lifted. (Hat-tip: AJE liveblog again on both).

The MV Rachel Corrie, another ship that was supposed to be part of the original flotilla but the  departure of which was delayed due to mechanical malfunction has reportedly set off for Gaza and is due to arrive within 48 hours. In a response that can now only be viewed as ominous, the Israeli Navy has stated that it is ‘ready’ to receive her. The ship is a joint Irish/Malaysian vessel.

As far as the mainstream media’s reporting has been, I would like to direct you to WashPo’s fairly extreme piece by Scott Wilson on the Free Gaza Movement. What the hell kind of lead paragraph is this:

Once viewed only as a political nuisance by Israel’s government, the group behind the Gaza aid flotilla has grown since its inception four years ago into a broad international movement that now includes Islamist organizations that Israeli intelligence agencies say pose a security threat to the Jewish state.

Clearly WashPo has missed the memo. Most of the mainstream media is treating this event with a lot more caution. I normally consider the FP a fairly reliable weathervane. I certainly wouldn’t consider it a liberal newspaper and yet it has included condemnation of the attack from Stephen Walt, Mark Lynch and its own editor-in-chief Blake Hounsell, all essentially calling for the blockade to be lifted.

So if the mainstream is not exactly lining up behind Israel, what does that mean for the defenders of this monstrosity. I direct you to the following tweet by Middle East expert (though she can’t see it from her house) Sarah Palin:

Assume u WON’T get straight scoop on Israeli flotilla incident via mainstream media;PLEASE read Krauthammer,Horowitz,et al 2learn other side

Palin has long been a shrill critic of her perceived unfair treatment at the hands of the supposedly pro-liberal mainstream, but what this shows is the increasing radicalisation of the pro-Israel-at-all-costs lobby and the increasingly ridiculous sounding hasbara that is being thrown up to defend the atrocities committed by the State. Witness this tweet from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon:

Participants on the armada of hate had ties with global Jihad and Al Qaeda and used live weapons against our troops

Apparently tying any Muslim you don’t like to al Qaeda and ‘global Jihad’ hasn’t really worked since the whole thing about how Saddam Hussein didn’t quite have anything to do with 9/11, but clearly Mr. Ayalon and his Islamophobic friends missed that memo. I also like how the activists on the Turkish-flagged vessel used “live weapons” (as opposed to, presumably, dead weapons) against “our troops” (ie. elite commandos who stormed their boat in international waters). Wow? It doesn’t take an undergraduate degree to sort the BS out of that one.

Speaking of the legality of the raid, I’m going to paste this in its entirety, thanks to Mondoweiss and Craig Murray, ex UK Ambassador and one time Foreign Office specialist on maritime law:

“A word on the legal position, which is very plain. To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.

Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody’s territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.

There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.

Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.

Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.

In brief, if Israel and Turkey are not at war, then it is Turkish law which is applicable to what happened on the ship. It is for Turkey, not Israel, to carry out any inquiry or investigation into events and to initiate any prosecutions. Israel is obliged to hand over indicted personnel for prosecution.

Meanwhile, Blake Hounsell for FP:

It already has the makings of a huge international fracas that will make the Goldstone Report look like small potatoes by comparison.

and

There’s a huge unwillingness on the Israeli right to face reality — that Israel is fast losing friends and allies in the world, and that this government in Jerusalem has only accelerated the shift. It’s not hard to imagine boycott campaigns gaining momentum, damaging the Israeli economy and isolating the country diplomatically, especially in Europe.

While I’m still skeptical of how much damage exactly boycott campaigns will actually have and whether the ‘friends and allies’ are actually going to be lost (all I’m seeing so far are spirited statements, as usual), I think that Hounsell makes a good general point: the tide does appear to be turning, as evidenced by how increasingly shrill and crazy Israel’s defenders currently sound.

I’m going link some great pieces by Stephen Walt and Arabist at the bottom of this post to save me having to essentially paste them in its entirety (especially Arabist, his post was that good) but here are my thoughts.

If we are to accept the Israeli narrative of events – that the activists on the Flotilla attacked Israeli troops with sticks, knives and deckchairs, thus provoking them to respond and unfortunately kill some of them – as the truth, the argument still has massive, gaping holes.

First of all, the boat was in international waters and Israel had no legal right to storm the boat with commandos, some of the best soldiers in an army considered already to be one of the best in the world. Since the boat was raided by soldiers, the occupants of the boat surely had the right to defend their vessel. The fact that they supposedly did so with a ragtag assortment of improvised weapons and were shot at with automatic weapons as a means of self-defense makes about as much sense as napalming a mosquito. This is pretty much the antithesis of proportionality and anyone who buys this is clearly deluded. Moreover, “the most moral army in the world” and certainly one of its best would surely have been able to manage a situation involving sticks and knives a little better than in such a way that resulted in at least 9 fatalities. Oh yeah, shal I remid you again? Commandos vs. Civilians. Proportional? No. This. Does. Not. Hold. Water.

Also, to those pundits that suggest that Israel’s main mistake was to board the boat in international waters and not in “Israeli territorial waters” appear to be missing the point. The boat was headed for Gaza, not Israel. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 (and still claims political kudos for doing so). Yes, Gaza is not recognised a state but that doesn’t make Israel’s siege of Gaza legal, nor does it just hand jurisdiction over Gaza’s territorial waters to Israel as a sort of parting gift. It is obviously not that clear cut.

Oh yeah, and the blockade. Need I remind you people how cruel and barbaric it is? No I don’t, because Stephen Walt will (if Glenn Greenwald didn’t in the post I linked last time). One final note to those supposedly hyper-realist defenders of Israel’s rights as a state: stop glorifying the State. There is no good reason why I, as an Australian (or any self-respecting national of any other country), should take Israel’s security any more seriously than the security of the people of Gaza. Right now, the biggest threat to their ‘security’ is not Hamas (as is often claimed by the Zionist lobby) but an Israeli blockade that is causing death by starvation and lack of medical attention, that is robbing the Gazans of the right to rebuild their shattered economy destroyed by air raids and Operation Cast Lead, and that is conducting a crude campaign of national humiliation and collective punishment. Oh, but the activists on the boat constituted a ‘threat to Israeli security’.  Time to wake up.

And here’s that piece of gold by Arabist, read it.

Just who, exactly, is a terrorist worthy of outrage over?

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Alleged members of the Hutaree militia from Michigan. Photos released by the US Marshals Service/AP

Complaining about the fact that terrorism perpetuated by white people isn’t considered terrorism is nothing new but always worth pursuing. This is not a straw man, this is a serious gaping hole in our society’s fabric of reason and consciousness. The fact that right wing crazies, teabaggers, birthers and the like go nuts over possible connections between falafel vendors and Hamas but fail to mention non-Muslim terrorists should not be surprising. They are, after all, crazies. They are not the voice of reason and while their mere existence and relative prominence in our society scares me, it is not as scary as the wanton lack of reason displayed not only by our own mainstream media but even alternative media that are more broad-based and even supposedly carry a liberal bias.

Exhibit A (February 2010):

Leaving behind a rant against the government, big business and particularly the tax system, a computer engineer smashed a small aircraft into an office building where nearly 200 employees of the Internal Revenue Service were starting their workday Thursday morning. [NYT]

Let’s see… flying a plane into a government building on a weekday morning because you’re angry at the government. Sounds like terrorism to me.

Exhibit B (March 2010):

Nine people federal prosecutors say belong to a “Christian warrior” militia were accused Monday of plotting to kill a Michigan law enforcement officer and then attack other police at the funeral.

The five-count indictment unsealed Monday charges that between August 2008 and the present, the defendants, acting as a Lenawee County, Michigan, militia group, conspired to use force to oppose the authority of the U.S. government. [CNN]

Let’s see… I wonder what would happen if a group of nine Muslims plotted to kill law enforcement officers?

Exhibit C (May 2010):

A pipe bomb exploded at a mosque in north Florida May 10 and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. The FBI says they have few leads, and have joined the mosque and a nearby church in offering a $20,000 reward for information.

The FBI, however, says it could have caused serious injuries and deaths had the bomb been placed inside the mosque instead of outside.

The bomb went off during evening prayers, when about 60 people were at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville. No one was injured. [TPM]

Let’s see… trying to bomb a place of worship. I wonder what would happen if the bomb was planted at a synagogue? The blame would be shifted onto ‘Muslim extremists’ in a heartbeat. But here… ‘no leads’.

Now compare these to the reactions to the ‘pantybomber’ and the foiled Times Square plot? I’m sure I didn’t see any of the above exhibits trend on Twitter like these two did and while I’m sure that an evacuation of Times Square is a major event and that the concept of a ‘panty bomber’ is possibly very amusing I don’t think these factors warrant the major scale shrug given to the above three exhibits. So how did the supposedly liberal interwebs do?

Florida mosque bombing = 211,000 results

Michigan militia = 221,000 results

Plane into IRS building = 986,000 results (hoorah)

as compared to:

Underwear bomb = 2,990,000 results

Times Square bomb = 13,000,000 results

OK, I don’t pretend to be some kind of SEO expert and I’m sure the above search terms or keywords or whatever aren’t precise and neither is my method but you’re getting my drift here, right? Why do we see constant articles written about Faisal Shahzad (9,650,000 results, incidentally) and related obscure facts, like that his handwriting “reveals hostility”, but nothing about the origins of the Michigan militia or the Texan IRS-bomber, Joe Stack?

All of this gives rise to the old paradox about the media: is it the chicken or the egg? Is the cause here a failing among the media to properly report on important events or is it the fault of the public for not being interested enough to demand such reporting, explaining the lack of supply? The Google and Twitter watch would suggest that the latter may well be the case. But then again, can the blame be shifted back to the media chicken for incubating, via years of selective reporting and broad-based orientalism, an egg that has hatched a desensitized and apathetic drone unquestioningly consuming panty-bomber lulz and Times Square oh noez?

How much do we really care about events that don’t fit our prejudiced race-based dichotomy, that white people are victims and Muslim people are terrorists? (Note: this is further complicated of course by white convert Muslim ‘terrorists’ like “Jihad Jack” and David Hicks treated like weird cross-cultural abominations that have given up “white person” status and are now the Other with added circus freak curiosity status).

I’m using the pronoun ‘we’ here because I believe I am equally guilty. Sure, I busted out this post and maybe a few tweets but I probably tweeted more about Faisal Shahzad too. I probably haven’t given this issue enough attention either. I mean the IRS bombing was in February and this post is coming out in May? I know many of my most respected Tweeple and fellow bloggers are equally guilty.

Note: I suspect that this is also the reason for the muted outrage over Barack Obama’s recent approval of the extrajudicial assassination of a US citizen who just happened to be… Muslim (Anwar al-Awlaki, 323,000 results). Would we be so quick to apply a prejudiced assumption that the person is probably a terrorist anyway, with or without trial, if the target was, say, a militantly aggressive white Christian member of an anti-Government tea party faction? I can only imagine the outrage. I can see what you’re thinking: “but, uh, I oppose that assassination!” Sure, but how much do we oppose it? If Obama plotted to assassinate a cheerleader from Ohio whilst on holiday in Amsterdam, I’m assuming y’all would blog about it a little more, eh?

Let’s face it, we’re no shrinking violets, we’re good at outrage, we love a spot of anger and a powerful target to rail against. Why then, is our outrage so selective and often so muted, particularly, when double standards are so undeniable? We need to take a good hard look at ourselves and our prejudices, and realise that, no matter how intellectually aware of it we are, orientalism pervades not only our key institutions and power structures but also the hope for the future – our own hearts.

Domestic politics – Frustrations with the Peace Process

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We’ve heard that the appeal has been made in private before but, over the weekend, Mahmoud Abbas publicly requested that President Obama impose a solution to the Middle East conflict. This implies, of course, that he’ll ‘impose’ a Palestinian state on the Israeli people, and ‘impose’ concessions on behalf of the Palestinians also. While I can appreciate Abu Mazen’s frustrations, even he must understand this is impossible and stating it is also not doing Obama any favours.

The obvious implication of Abu Mazen having the boldness to make such a request is that he believes Obama is firmly on ‘his side’. In an increasingly polar, divided and confrontational political arena, this is more bad press for the President as it could further erode his base of support within Israel and the Jewish community as well as giving tea party activists and the like another bone to chew on. I don’t see any political benefit for Abu Mazen here either. What political ends could it possibly serve for him to once again confirm his total political impotence? Begging the President of the US to do the job for him against the Israelis does not build confidence in a leader.

No, I see this as a statement made purely out of desperation. Perhaps Abbas really thought that he would be the one to bring a Palestinian state? Perhaps he really thought he could finally step out of Arafat’s shadow and be the father of a new Palestine, a Palestinian Ben Gurion or something. But even Abbas must think twice, a state will not be achieved by begging. Politics respects the strong, not the weak.

Let’s take a quick look at the frustrating political stalemate that has brought this desperate situation about.

Of the main players:

  • Abbas is looking inreasingly weak, impotent and useless. He has completely lost Gaza, there have been plenty of allegations about corruption and very few people among his own constitutents have any respect for him or hope under his leadership. He has been treated like a pawn by the Israelis time and time again, eclipsed even by Salam Fayyad’s proclamations of Palestinian statehood being just around the corner.
  • Obama is presiding over an increasingly bitter and divided country. The watered-down health care reform bill that he passed may have been lauded in the papers as monumental but drew a huge toll in blood & sweat from the Democratic party and himself. His first term has been far from easy. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are still looking like losing battles, Israel-Palestine is spiralling out of control, his power base on the left thinks that he hasn’t gone far enough whereas the right is getting more and more hostile as the days wear on.
  • Netanyahu, what can we say about poor old Bibi. It’s a testament to the man’s political canniness that he has been able to hold his shaky coalition together for this long. The inordinate amount of power held by the far right in the Israeli Knesset has made it almost impossible for Netanyahu to make any real progress in any direction when it comes to Palestine. What the man actually wants to do is no longer even relevant, he is basically a middleman. Bibi is trying to strike a balance between increasing pressure from the international community in the wake of Cast Lead and from a far less friendly President in the White House on one side, and a powerful far right not willing to make any concessions on the other.

But more on Netanyahu. This piece from Hagai Segal for YNet further highlights the delicacy of the tight-rope that Bibi is walking. Segal highlights what we already knew, there is no actual construction going on in East Jerusalem, probably a part of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Bibi is said to have struck with Obama. Bombastic announcements of settlement expansion were made and we assumed they were to curry favour with the right, but is the right so stupid as to accept these announcements without bricks and mortar? Is the Israeli public going to keep buying the line that Bibi is running rings around Obama? Or is something going to give somewhere?

Meanwhile, Abu Mazen is still refusing to enter negotiations with Israel until they agree to a total settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. So while the settlement announcements served to hold the right-wing at bay for a time and the lack of construction is holding Obama at bay, Abu Mazen is refusing to accept it. The only political points Bibi can score at the moment is that the Palestinians are being belligerent about refusing to enter peace talks. He can’t even point out the lack of construction in East Jerusalem as a concession because it’s meant to be one that flies under the radar.

Where to from here?

The AFP reports that Abbas has been invited to Washington for direct talks with Obama. Ha’aretz is reporting that the stalled indirect ‘proximity’ talks are to start no later than mid-May, citing the perennial deus ex machina, unnamed officials. I’m inclined to believe this claim. I think Abbas is heading over to Washington for drilling. Obama is going to tell Abbas to back down on the request for a settlement freeze, to take heed of the lack of construction, to stop pushing Bibi because a collapsed coalition and a political vacuum in the Knesset would help no one (least of all Obama) and to enter ‘proximity’ talks.

The irony of the settlement situation is that, although settlement construction in East Jerusalem has stalled, none of the principal actors mentioned above can draw any political capital from it unless proximity talks begin. If proximity talks happen then that can be considered a limited victory for Obama & Mitchell, which is why they are presumably keen to see them start again in earnest.

Whether these talks will amount to anything is the million dollar question asked before every single round of talks, every single new ‘peace process’ or ‘road map’. I’m tempted to say no, but presumably Obama wants us to have ‘the audacity of hope’.

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