The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Bashar al Assad

Syrian Scuds & Israeli Settlements

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It’s been a Middle East fest for the Obama Administration today with several key pieces of news being discussed. An issue that’s dominated discussion over the past few days is the alleged transfer of scud missiles from Syria to Hizbullah in Lebanon, with Hillary Clinton fielding questions on it on Thursday. Israeli President Shimon Peres has accused Syria of sending Scuds to Hizbullah. Syria denies the charge and says Israel may be using the accusation as a pretext for a military strike. (Daily Star)

The National gives a succinct roundup of the latest phase in Syrian-Israeli games:

Syria wants the Golan Heights back, but Israel does not feel the necessity to make concessions to a weaker adversary. Israel wants Syria to break its ties to Iran, but Damascus will not abandon an alliance that gives it more influence. When the two countries have engaged in indirect talks, most recently under Turkish mediation, they have been interested in theatrics, not progress.

FP’s Blake Hounshell, in a controversially titled post, cannot understand why Syria would do something like this, given its position:

For all the figures you read in the press about the size of Syria’s military and its vast arsenal of tanks, the country is essentially a tin-pot dictatorship with little ability to project power beyond Lebanon, where for decades it has dominated its smaller neighbor’s domestic affairs.

That post drew the ire of a Syrian embassy spokesman in Washington that fired back:

How can the “dumbest country” outmaneuver the strongest country in the world, and its superpower, along with the numerous Western and other countries that followed in its footsteps and that tried to isolate it? How can the superpower, during its previous administration, work so diligently on isolating “the dumbest country”, yet end up being isolated itself (former Bush-official and current Obama-appointee, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman: “consequently, the United States, not Syria, seems to be isolated”; Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in a 2008 op-ed: “our policy of non-engagement has isolated us more than the Syrians.”)?  how can the “dumbest country” face all these economic sanctions imposed by the superpower, while simultaneously achieving some of the highest economic growth figures in the region and being considered one of the top ‘frontier markets’?

It seems this Scud fiasco is provoking a broader discussion about Syria’s position in the region and the future of Syrian-Israeli talks as well as Obama’s policy of engagement.

UPDATE: There is growing doubt about whether this transfer actually took place and, it seems, certain US officials at least, agree that Syria is usually not a dumb country:

“We don’t think Scuds of any shape or size have been moved to Lebanon,” one of the officials said.

“The Syrians aren’t always known for making the right political calculations. But in this case, surely they realize that transferring this kind of weapons system to Hezbollah — and especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon — could lead to serious consequences,” the official added. [Khaleej Times]

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has rejected President Obama’s request to halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem:

The aides said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his government’s position to Obama over the weekend, ahead of the arrival Thursday of the US president’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the contact between the two leaders was private.

The State Department responded via spokesman Philip Crowley who told reporters that the long-standing Israeli position on settlement in East Jerusalem is understood but that the status quo cannot last. There has also been talk of a “gentleman’s agreement” between Obama and Netanyahu whereby Israel won’t publicly announce a freeze in East Jerusalem so as not to lose face but will not announce any new settlement building either. This, to me, at least seems the most likely case. While it’s obvious that Netanyahu cannot afford to to be seen as if he is giving in on this issue so as to preserve his coalition in Israel, neither would he want to rock the boat further by announcing more settlements, considering the shit-storm the last announcement caused.

The other piece of US-MidEast news today has been further talk of renewed Iran sanctions in May. Read the full story here.

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Obama ‘humiliates’ Bibi over settlement impasse

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Not a happy camper. Image credit: REUTERS

Not a happy camper. Image credit: REUTERS

It’s been a hefty week of diplomatic news for Israel. Apart from the news of the expulsion of a UK diplomat and the possibility of Australia following suit, there has also been settlement news, Obama love-hate news, potential intifada news and even Osama comes back from the dead to weigh in with his two cents, what fun.

On the settlement/Obama front there’s been so much random news that I don’t even know where exactly to start digging in all this muck. Let’s start with the fact that Israel announced another 20 settlement units in East Jerusalem, once again impeccably timed with Netanyahu’s visit to the US. Paltry, you might say, nothing compared to announcing 1,600 to welcome Joe Biden with, but still, fairly similar. Sure 1,600 is a bigger number than 20 and Netanyahu is visiting the US not welcoming Biden, but in principle, it’s essentially the same damn thing. Mondoweiss rightfully asks the question, why isn’t Obama outraged?

Moreover, constructing the new 20 units is going to involve demolishing a historic building, the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah:

The Shepherd Hotel, close to the British consulate, was once a headquarters for Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem. After 1967, Israel deemed it absentee property. It was then bought, reportedly for $1m, in 1985 by Irving Moskowitz, a Jewish American millionaire who funds settlements.

Elisha Peleg, a Jerusalem city councillor, said the Shepherd Hotel building permit was a “technical step” and that more construction would follow there and in other Palestinian areas of the city. “We will continue to build all over Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah and Ras al-Amud as well,” he said. [Guardian]

So what of the talks between Bibi and Obama? Reportedly, Bibi got freaked by the supposed crisis happening in US-Israeli relations, cancelled a bunch of appointments and flew to Washington quick-smart. A media blackout was imposed during the meeting, an unusual step and a possible indicator of the frosty atmosphere. This was no ‘beer summit’.

The White House spokesman suggested that talks were “honest and straight forward” and early reports from Israel suggested that Netanyahu was claiming ‘progress’ made during the meeting but a recent report from the Sydney Morning Herald suggests otherwise. Apparently, according to leaked documents, Bibi was ‘humiliated’.

According to leaked accounts reported in the Israeli media, Mr Obama humiliated Mr Netanyahu by leaving the meeting early.

”I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls,” Mr Obama reportedly said, adding that Mr Netanyahu should consult his aides about goodwill gestures Israel was prepared to make towards the Palestinians before renewed peace talks. ”’I’m still around,” he said. ”Let me know if there is anything new.”

When the President returned, Mr Netanyahu is said to have made a counter-offer which Mr Obama did not accept. [SMH]

I’d snub Bibi for dinner with Michelle and the girls too. After all, they are considerably more attractive than that stern-faced gargoyle pictured above.

For an alternative and very well-reasoned take on how the talks should have gone, Avi Issacharoff for Ha’aretz:

How could Netanyahu have safeguarded the construction in East Jerusalem? By offering something in return. Past Israeli governments have indicated their intent to build in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, but they simultaneously gave the U.S. a political strategy to present to the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s government is backtracking on all fronts and offering nothing to the Americans or the Palestinians.

More on the Shepherd Hotel demolition, also from the Guardian, an important thing to consider:

“What it means politically is that it is one very important project that can torpedo the peace talks,” said Hagit Ofran, a settlement expert at the Israeli group Peace Now. “It is in the hands of the settlers to decide when to bring the bulldozers … It is a very dangerous step.”

This is a salient point. If the settlers control the bulldozers then the settlers have a very provocative tool at their disposal, it’s like allowing a bunch of potentially crazy wingnuts to have control over the red button that starts a war. How’s that Palestinian powder keg coming along?

Well not great, Israel is still planning to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. I’ll let Electronic Intifada explain this one:

The site eyed by Israeli officials is located at the Mughrabi Gate, an entrance to the mosque compound known as the Haram al-Sharif, the most sensitive site in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Inside are al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

Earlier encroachments by Israel on Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare Israeli rights there sparked the second intifada.

There’s also the contentious killing of four Palestinian teenagers at the hands of the IDF that has sparked protests in the Occupied Territories and, supposedly, an Israeli investigation into the matter. All of this sounds very very intifada-like.

Also, Ban Ki Moon is going to ask the Arabs to go back to peace talks, yeah… that’ll work. Sometimes the man’s, or rather the position’s, impotence astounds me.  Jordan’s King Abdullah thinks Israel is playing with fire. Bashar al Assad has no faith in Israel. Oh and there’s also that other guy, he’s not happy either. And if anyone is still wondering why people are angry about Gaza, here’s yet another story. Two soldiers are being tried in an Israeli military tribunal (any guesses as to how it will turn out) for using a 9 year old boy as a minesweeper… classy.

Syria – Israel peace talks to resume?

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Much has been made of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad’s statement that he would like to see peace talks resume between Israel and Syria. Of course, the mind wanders and wonders: who exactly will be brokering this? If Turkey is cooling its ties with Israel, I doubt that they will step in again between the governments of both countries. The new broker could have been Croatia, whose president has been speaking to both parties, but Netanyahu wants to talk directly to Syria now.

If it does ever get down to the negotiating table, the real question will be of the Golan Heights. As an editorial in Ha’aretz points out today while slyly cutting Netanyahu down for “setting preconditions under the guise of opposing the setting of preconditions”:

The Israeli approach to relations with Syria needs to be managed from the end to the start, and the end is a vision of regional peace between Israel and its neighbors. In parallel to efforts to reach a permanent settlement with the Palestinians and without hurting their interests, Israel must seek peace with Syria in the context of Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967: full and secure peace in return for complete withdrawal. Those who do not want such a deal will seek to undermine it using arguments of procedure.

And across the border from Syria and Israel, its been 15 years since Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty. The date went unnoticed until US President Barack Obama referred to it, and Naseem Tarawnah at The Black Iris puts it best:

Jordan and Israel’s Inspiring Peace

“As we work with Arabs and Israelis to expand the circle of peace, we take inspiration from what Jordan and Israel achieved fifteen years ago, knowing that the destination is worthy of the struggle.” – US President, Barack Obama on the 15th anniversary of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty. Monday, October 26, 2009. [source]

After all that has happened in the occupied territories and even in Jordan these past 15 years later: does anyone feel inspired?

Written by Saba Imtiaz

October 30, 2009 at 4:24 pm