The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Syria

UPDATED: A Knesset bill to watch

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This isn’t getting much coverage:

The Israeli parliament’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill on Monday requiring a 60-MK majority and national consent on withdrawing from territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

The referendum bill on withdrawal from the Syrian Golan Heights and East Jerusalem mandates that any government decision be brought before Israeli citizens in a referendum, Israeli news site Ynet reported. [Ma’an News Agency]

I don’t know what the likelihood is that a bill like this would pass but the fact that it might see the light of the Knesset is troubling. Firstly, it damages the potential of success for a future Israeli-Syrian peace track. By putting a plot of land viewed widely by Israelis to be a key strategic advantage to a populist referendum it harms any opportunity of future Israeli governments easily returning it to Syria.

Most pressingly, what this bill essentially achieves is yet another barrier to a two state solution and an independent Palestinian state. By putting in place further political roadblocks, it makes it easier for far right populist politicians like Avigdor Lieberman to manipulate both public opinion and votes in the Knesset and further the two state impasse. Once again, one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan becomes ever more inevitable.

Update: One of the smartest Twitter users in the Middle East, @Elizrael, points out that there is already such a law in place for the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied after the Six Day War in 1967 and annexed in 1981 with the Golan Heights Law. This action is not recognised internationally and is still considered occupied territory, as per UN Security Council Resolution 242 which remains in force to this day.

The bill that @Elizrael refers to also appears to be called the “Golan Heights Law” and was proposed by Likud MK Silvan Shalom. Any return of the Golan Heights was to require a 50% special majority of Knesset members (61/120) as well as a majority in national referendum. This was a move by the right to preempt any move by Barak to hand the Golan back to Syria, as negotiations at that stage were considered quite advanced. Incidentally, one piece of evidence indicating that Israel’s current path of discriminatory lawmaking is not that recent an event, Likud MK Uzi Landau advocated excluding Israeli Arabs from such a referendum on the grounds that it would be unfair to have Arabs voting on a proposal to hand back Arab land. On March 1,2000, the Knesset gave the bill preliminary approval. (1)

Unfortunately, I can find no further evidence or information on the interwebs about this bill, or whether it was passed. If anyone hears of anything, let a brother know. According to @Elizrael, “The Golan law was passed, however, it needs additional legislation of how to conduct the referendum, which wasn’t passed. The additional legislation has been delayed for years (including by Bibi now) because it can cause problems with the US. This means that the current law will also never see the light of day.”

All this makes for some interesting food for thought.

1. The only thing I could find via google on this bill came form Steven K. Maize’s 2006 book, “Israel’s Higher Law”. Page 215.

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.

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

Israel & Turkey – Trouble in Paradise… for Israel

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Operation Cast Lead changed a lot of things for Israel, one of which was its relationship with Turkey. Since the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran, Turkey remained the only supporter and partner of Israel in the region, but all that changed with the Gaza offensive. Deeply unpopular with the Turkish consistuency, the relationship has always been troubled, but the world was shocked by Erdogan’s outburst at Davos earlier this year, whereas at home he was hailed as a hero. After that incident, tensions calmed down somewhat, it was clear that Israel needed Turkey and the arrangement was mutually beneficial. The ever-pragmatic Israelis wouldn’t let something like that ruin a good ‘friendship’, but was it already beyond saving? The Jerusalem Post reported that “exports between the two countries dropped 40 percent in the first nine months of the year.” That’s the same nine months since that Gaza offensive.

The latest nails-in-the-coffin have proved to be the Goldstone Report and the exclusion of Israel from joint-NATO military exercises, followed by a TV documentary airing in Turkey showing the IDF to be brutal murderers.

So is this truly ideological or is it merely populist politics? Well I’d suggest its probably a little from both columns. I’ve always been one to stress the realist nature of global politics, most states do things for self-interest, not due to the personal whims of their leaders.

For example, the AFP quoted Erdogan saying the following:

“We have taken the conscience of our people into consideration when we decided…. I had to be the voice that expresses the existence of my people and my people were rejecting Israel’s participation.”

Erdogan is seizing on the potential political capital of being the Turkish leader to break with Israel and the window of opportunity is obvious. If you’re in doubt about it, look at the world. The only real critics of these latest Turkish moves have been Israel and the US. The world doesn’t see Turkey as any less ‘moderate’ or any less level-headed. No country is about to break ties with Turkey in response to this. The world has given a collective shrug. This is an indicator of the shifting realities and attitudes to Israel. It is no longer seen as the poor little country bullied by all its bigger neighbours and fighting for its survival. It’s seen, at best, as the dominant military in the region with an unshakeable superpower supporter, and at worst as an aggressive warmonger. So given how much trade has already dwindled and how little risk there is, Erdogan is being a very shrewd politician.

Apart from domestic politics, Turkey is also making it’s regional intentions clear, it is attempting to flex its muscle further on the international stage and play a greater role in Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics. As Zvi Bar’ei points out in a well-thought-out commentary for Haaretz:

Turkey has overcome most of its economic problems and has been transformed into a regional economic power. It is a real strategic asset for the United States, increasing its importance after the Iraq war. It has also developed a different regional strategy.

As part of a broader regional strategy, Turkey needs to make sure it can actively engage with those countries that are openly hostile to Israel but are, to some extent, power-brokers in the region. Commentators who link Israel to the Iranian-Syrian “Axis of Evil” get one thing right, Turkey is seeking to engage these sorts of countries, Syria at least, though that hardly makes Turkey part of any axis.

Proof that this is not a one-off political move is in the rhetoric. They’re in it for the long haul strategically, or so President Abdullah Gul says, criticising Israel from the position of being a friend, much as many suggested Obama should be doing. In these sorts of statements, Turkey is showing its credentials for level-headedness and moderation in the region:

“Turkey is one of the rare states that has strong ties with both Arab countries and with Israel. We will continue to criticize and act when necessary, without undermining the foundations of these ties,” Gul was quoted as saying in an interview with Turkey’s popular state-run TRT1 television station.

Responses from the pro-Israel-at-all-costs lobby have been predictably shrill. A cafe chain has stopped serving Turkish coffee (never mind that they could just as simply sell Greek or Armenian coffee instead), echoing the ‘freedom fries’ idiocy after France condemned the Iraq invasion, and there is talk of boycotting Turkish Independence Day. These actions look as shrill and desperate as they ever have, and are embarassing for Israel. Ridiculous comments like those of Yoel Marcus suggesting that this somehow hurts Turkish international standing are falling on rather deaf ears, apart from perhaps those of Israelis clutching at straws, wanting to nod in agreement, pretending that anyone still cares.

The repercussions of these actions for Turkey are still unfolding. Turkey’s distancing from Israel and establishing of closer ties with Syria is quite alarming for Israelis, Netanyahu has stated that he doesn’t want Turkey to play a role in negotiations with Syria any longer, however this move shows little but Israel’s prolonged contempt for peace negotiations. Also, among other things, Obama is thought to have discussed the issue of Israeli-Turkish relations in a recent phone conversation with President Gul, this being seen as a fairly large departure from usual policy for Israel. Obama is understandably displeased.

Those who are pretending that Israel does not need Turkey, or that Turkey needs Israel more, are fools. Watch the news over the coming months. No doubt there will be a thaw in relations between the two after the very public ice-fest. Erdogan’s political capital will have risen at home, Israel will have lost out on the military exercises and will have to deal with the TV show but will still come back to Turkey, Israel needs Turkey. Israel will be practical and pragmatic as usual and Turkey is already dictating the terms. They say every relationship comes down to a power balance, this power balance is shifting heavily in favour of Turkey.

If there is any more doubt that this is damaging for Israel, read this piece by Stephen Walt for Foreign Policy about how limiting the relationship with Israel really is for the US:

Israel’s pariah status within the region reduces its strategic value significantly. It explains why Israel could not participate in the 1991 or 2003 wars with Iraq, and why it is difficult for Arab governments who share Israel’s concerns about Iran to openly collaborate with Israel or United States to address that issue.

Turkey is behaving shrewdly and reflecting its status as a country who’s star is on the rise. Israel is resorting to boycotting Independence Days, not serving coffee and burning straw-men while dancing around in celebration. You be the judge.

Written by alexlobov

October 19, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Discrimination and revenge

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A rickshaw seat in Karachi, Pakistan

A rickshaw seat in Karachi, Pakistan

Much has been said about Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan being stopped at the Newark airport in the US and detained for an hour for questioning – while the actor – who was a presenter at the Golden Globes and has just finished shooting for (a film ironically called) My Name is Khan which deals with perceptions of Muslims post-9/11.

But while the actor has said this isn’t the first time this has happened to him, he at least managed to get out after the Indian consulate and a Congress MP intervened. Sepia Mutiny pointed out what happens to those of us who aren’t famous:

But what happens to people who aren’t famous? Let’s say they’re Muslim, Brown, Pakistani and working for the US government? Then it seems you can be detained and not even the government agency you’re working for can get you out:

Rahman Bunairee is a Pakistani journalist who works as a contract reporter for VOA’s Deewa Radio and for a privately-owned Pakistani television station. The 33-year-old planned to join VOA [Voice of America] in Washington for one year, and arrived at Dulles Airport on Sunday with a visa issued by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. It is not clear why he was detained and why he is still being held in U.S. custody… The journalist, whose home was destroyed by the Taliban last month, was taken into custody on Sunday. [link]

Post-9/11 cases such as these have been reported so regularly that there impact has been lost. I have personally been quite fortunate to not have had to deal with questioning at any point during my travels (but I’ve already been dealt a bad hand because of my Pakistani passport, which ensures denials of visas for no reason (thanks Lebanon!)) But the racial profiling isn’t likely to change soon: and honestly, I feel it may get worse in the years to come courtesy the extreme right-wing elements that have begun to proliferate in the EU.

That said, I often feel countries also exact their revenge on hapless Westerners. I love Syria but having witnessed the runaround they make American and British citizens do at the land borders may be an entertaining sight for some of us (who are welcomed in with Marhabas and Ahlan wa Sahlans and get to pay lesser entrance fees at the Ummayad Mosque by being Muslim) but doesn’t help the cause of tourism any. Same goes for Pakistan – I have heard terrible stories of people trying to get visas who are either made to run around or find their visas delayed for some reason or the other. Of course, there’s another side to the story, and both Syria and Pakistan are incredibly hospitable countries but you’ll find horror stories on both sides – and they’ll both need to clean up the mess.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

August 16, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Pakistan

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