Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Iran, the Bomb and the Western Legacy of Appeasement

The IAEA report is not a surprise to anyone. It has long been known that Iran has sought to establish a nuclear weapons program, and it has been long known that Iran views Israel as a nation that should be destroyed. It is also well known that since the United States' foolish intervention in Iraq in 2003, Iran has assuming more and more power in the Middle East, championing armed resistance to Israel by arming Hamas and Hizbullah and counterbalancing Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The power ambitions of Iran's revolutionary leadership under Ayatollah Khomenei were initially restrained by the costly eight year Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988. Saddam Hussein's government, weary of Iranian meddling with Iraq's Shi'ite minority, took an increasingly hard line and escalated low level conflict against Iran. Yet, when Hussein's regime collapsed in 2003 and Islamist elements began to infiltrate post-Hussein Iraq, the ambitious Ayatollah Khamenei say a chance for increased Iranian hegemony in the region, especially by painting their closest rival, Saudi Arabia, as allies of the oppressive United States. All he needed was a President who could be the public face of this campaign and carry the plan abroad, and found a perfect match in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While there have been unsurprising tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, they had largely been on the same page. They have established a powerful message of anti-Western resistance, focusing largely on Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom as the primary agents of imperialism and the causes of the main problems of the world.

In this context, while nuclear weapons are a significant development, the more significant issue is how the West responds to it. Iran has laid down the gauntlet in the sense that the Iranian regime is feeling out how far it can go before provoking a response from the United States, Israel and the West. In the way that Neville Chamberlain's willingness to continue the policy of appeasement at the Munich Conference and while Hitler's forced marched into Czechoslovakia emboldened the Nazi regime, the Western reaction to Iran's actions and its threats against Israel will set the bar for how far the Iranian government is willing to go. While Chamberlain's capitulation on the Sudetenland issue was not, in itself, enough to throw the Europe into war, it was among the major catalysts (at least as to the European theater). Likewise, while the Western response to the IAEA report may not in itself be enough to throw the Middle East into war, if such war breaks out the lack of response to the IAEA report will be seen as a defining moment that emboldened the Iranians.

What the West is facing is an up and coming hegemon that has support from Russia and China as an anti-US counterbalance, which will prevent any UN sanctions from being enforced. Indeed, word has already come down that Russia and China will veto any new sanctions in the Security Council and the U.S. will not impose sanctions on Iran's central bank or its oil and gas sectors. The West has repeatedly backed down from the challenge and the leadership in the most powerful Western nations has proven unwilling to tackle the Iran problem for a host of reasons. Indeed, the United States was unwilling to intervene directly to help its allies in Europe until the Japanese dragged the U.S. into World War II.

There are, of course, other parallels. While Israel sits within missile range of Iran, the Israeli politicians and the Israeli public must feel a lot like the Czechoslovakians felt when the French and British refused to honor their defense pact. Israel is very much at the forefront of this conflict much in the way that Czechoslovakia was at the forefront of the German offensive. When microphones caught Presidents Sarkozy and Obama commenting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was a "liar," it was really just another moment in a long line of incidents that should make Israel very concerned about what happens when a confrontation really brews with Iran. Unlike the Czechoslovakians of the 1930s, Israel has independent military capacity to fight Iran on its own, but the economic and political pressure that Western governments (and of course its opponents) would bring to either prevent such an attack or punish Israel in the even of such an attack would be enormous. Indeed, Golda Meir herself resisted launching a preemptive strike against the Egyptians and Syrians in 1973 when she learned of their planned invasion 24 hours before Yom Kippur for fear of alienating the West if Israel was seen as the aggressor.

Because Israel is perceived as not relatively helpless against Iran the way that the Czechoslovakians were against Nazi Germany, many commentators and critics have said that the focus on Iran's nuclear program is misplaced. Indeed, many believe that it is Israel's ambiguous, though largely acknowledged nuclear program that is the primary source of conflict in the Middle East. While it is obviously true that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East possessing a nuclear arsenal, it also faces largely unique geopolitical circumstances. First, Israel is a nation whose neighbors have made war on it on several occasions within the last 60 years. Second, all but three of Israel's regional neighbors, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, refuse to acknowledge Israel's legitimacy and right to exist. Even those three nations have incredibly strained relations with Israel. Third, despite possessing nuclear weapons for around 40 years, Israel has never publicly established a nuclear strike policy and most scholars claim that Israel has only seriously contemplated the use of nuclear weapons twice: during the early stages of the Yom Kippur War and in 1991 when Iraq launched missiles into Israel during the Operation Desert Storm.

So while Israel does possess nuclear weapons, its well establish war record indicates its unwillingness to use them in the majority of its conflict, and certainly not to engage in first use. Israel has, indeed, never made any threats against Iran nor has it ever threatened to invade or attack Iran until the Iranian government initiated hostilities after the 1979 Revolution. Indeed, Iran under the Shah was one of Israel's few Middle Eastern allies and was one of Israel's main oil suppliers for many years. Despite Iran's overt hostility toward Iran both in its rhetoric and its significant financial support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah, Israel has patiently waited for its allies to ratchet up pressure on Iran and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons to further both its regional hegemonic and anti-Israel ambitions. However, the unique threat that Israel faces from Iran may require a significant rethinking of Israel's own nuclear policy. For example, Israel may have to release the genie from the bottle and establish a policy of calculated ambiguity, acknowledging its possession of nuclear weapons while making intentionally ambiguous statements about the circumstances under which it would use those weapons. While continued delay makes a surgical strike similar to the 1983 Osirak bombing highly unlikely (not least because Iran learned from that attack and spread its nuclear materials around and secured them much better than Iraq did), Israel possesses and has undertaken increasing campaigns of subterfuge and assassinations. Of course, operating in Iran undercover is extremely dangerous and risks unplanned escalation should spies be captured.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a military strike has to be weighed more and more heavily. Israel cannot sit like Czechoslovakia did, waiting for its more powerful allies to neutralize the regional menace. The U.S., France and U.K. can and will sell Israel down the river if they think it will improve their position vis-a-vis Iran. If selling Israel out can avert a direct confrontation, then I would not be surprised if the U.S. began to pressure Israel into significant concessions tied directly to avoiding conflict with Iran, such a quid pro quo agreements involving the Palestinians. But unlike the Czechoslovakians, Israel has the ability and the obligation to itself not to wait for its saviors. It has the power to save itself, but the longer it waits for the U.S. to realize what is going on, the less time it will have to take decisive action to save itself from Iran's deadly ambitions.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Arab MKs and Apartheid: A Study in Hypocrisy

Israel Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, a member of the Arab Balad Party, recently stated addressed the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (one of the myraid international organizations the Palestninian refugee "problem") and levied the usual accusations against Israel: that it is a racist state practicing apartheid and that Zionism is an exclusionary nationalist philosophy that denies Palestninian rights and elevates Jews over non-Jews in the Israeli political and spheres. Zoabi's political leanings are well known, she rejects any notion of Israel as a Jewish state, she rejects all military service for Arab Israelis, she has openly and notoriously supported a variety of organizations that seek Israel's destruction and she, interestingly enough, fights vigorously to retain her Israeli citizenship. 

Haneen Zoabi is a rare commodity in the Middle East: she is an Arab Muslim female politician serving on the highest legislative body of her country. The very existence of her political career is something that would not be possible in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria or Egypt. More interestingly, it is something that would probably not be possible in Hamas or the PLO government. Moreover, female Arab voters can choose to elect her or not to elect her because they have the right to vote in Israeli elections, a right that Saudi Arabia is now considering giving women, but only on local elections. 

The irony runs deeper, of course. Apartheid South Africa had a minority whites only government that controlled and exploited a country that was majority non-white. The South African government specifically imposed laws the precluded non-whites from having social, political and economic rights. Zoabi, however, is speaking as an elected representative of her ethno-religious minority, she is one of many Arab ministers who serve in the Knesset. Indeed, a variety of ethnic minorities, such as the Druze, receive political representation in Israel, while their kinsmen across the border with Syria receive none whatsoever. Arab political parties are legal and highly visible in Israel and Israeli Arabs not only have the right to representation in the Israeli govenment, they have the right to choose among a host of political parties. Of course, some may say that Arab representation is not ideal in Israel, as Arab representation in the Knesset is, for example, disproportionate with the total Arab population. However, there have never been allegation of Arab-Israeli citizens being systematically deprived of the right to vote or not being able to vote for their preferred candidate. 

There is further hypocrisy in what Zoabi is saying. Indeed, while the world tries to demonize Israel as a racist monster, there is little to no discussion of the very racist laws and policies of many of Israel's neighbors. For example, the Palestinian Authority (and of course Hamas) have indicated that they would prefer the Palestinian nation to be formed under a two state solution be free of Jews, while of course demanding that Arabs continue to live and be allowed to "return to" Israel. For example, in 2010 the Palestinian Authority upheld the propriety of capital punishment for any person who sells land to a Jew or Israeli. Jordan maintains similar penalities, and it is also illegal for Jews to be citizens of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or many other Arab nations. The PLO ambassador the United States stated in September that Palestine should be free of Jews while of course neglecting to mention whether that means Israel should also be free of Arabs. From a historical perspective, 800,000 Jews were evicted from the Arab states during the 1948 War. Almost all of those that remained had to flee in the wake of the Six Day War, as the previously poisonous antisemitic atmosphere in those nations became downright deadly for Jews that wished to remain. Indeed, both the Arab states and the Palestinian authority have repeatedly, publicly and intentionally stated their wish to establish apartheid states that not only disenfranchise Jews, but affirmatively ban their presence. Yet, these public pronouncements favoring apartheid and the creation of Judenrein in the Middle East is repeatedly ignored by the global media. 

But it goes even further. To the extent that Zoabi and her ilk are frustrated by Israel's disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, she needs to look no further than across the Jordan river to see how poorly her people are treated. In order to maintain power, the Hashemite authorities in Jordan have, over the past few decades, stripped thousands of Palestinians of their citizenship. Despite being a demographic majority in Jordan, Palestinians significant political rights and face significant discrimination from Hashemite authorities. In Lebanon, Palestinians are subject to de jure segregation and prevented from integrating into Lebanese society because the powers that be find it politically beneficial to keep the Palestinians as refugees and available for both political and demographic pressure on Israel. Refugees in Syria face largely identical conditions. Muammar Quaddafi famously expelled 30,000 Palestinians living in Libya when negotiations started between Israel and the PLO, ostensibly to increase Arab demographic pressure on Israel. More significantly, the Kuwaiti government responded to Yasser Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein's 1991 invasion by evicting around 300,000 Palestinians. 

Haneen Zoabi and the other Arab representatives in the Knesset have been able to publicly state anti-government, anti-Israel positions and, while obviously being the subject of derision by Jewish representatives for their anti-Israel, anti-Semitic views, they have not been killed or thrown in prison the way anti-government activists and politicians in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Iran or Egypt have been and continue to be. Yet, Israel receives more media coverage and criticism than these nations do except in the rare instance of a major political flareup, like in Syria.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Settlements, Rocket Attacks and Negotiating Leverage

As anyone with negotiation experience knows, leverage is the name of the game in successful negotiation. Having an advantage over the other party, or putting the other party into a situation where they need to reach a negotiated solution is criticial to getting a negotiated outcome that is advantageous to you.

The history of the attempted (and failed) negotiations among Israel and its Arab neighbors read like a history of the importance of leverage. Leverage was critical to Israeli peace with Egypt, as Nasser's catastrophic warmongering in 1967 saw Egypt lose the Sinai Peninsula. When the IDF encircled Egypt's Sixth Army in the Sinai in the waning days of the Yom Kippur War, the stage was set for Egypt to make peace with Israel as its forces had at least somewhat redeemed themselves from the 1967 disaster. The key, however, was territory. Israel had it in the form of the captured Sinai Peninsula, and Egypt wanted it back. It is extremely unlikely that Egypt would have made peace with Israel in 1978 had its forces fully recaptured the Sinai Pensinsula in 1973.

But leverage has a far more complex and fascinating history in Israel and Palestine. Until the early 1970s, the Palestinians had no leverage. The land lost in the 1948 war was controlled by Egypt, Jordan and Israel and they had little international attention. Indeed, while in hindsight the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War created many of the core issues between Israel and the Palestinians today, at the time those wars were not fought over the rights of the Palestinians nor were they central figures in the fighting. It was not until those wars failed to destroy Israel that the Palestinians moved to the forefront. But, the newly formed PLO had to find a way to get leverage with the Israelis, to force them to the negotiating table and to give the Palestinians what they wanted. Since traditional warfare had failed, the PLO turned to terrorism in the form of airplane hijackings, kidnappings and assassinations. In a world transitioning from colonialism, many people simultaneously viewed the terrorism as reprehensible behavior but also a sign of desperation. The rationalization was that neither the Israelis nor the other Arabs were willing to help advance the cause of Palestinian nationalism (the latter highlighted by Black September in 1970), so the Palestinians had turned to terrorism as a desperate attempt to shed light on their plight as a stateless people.

And it worked. With spectacular events such as the Munich Massacre, the Entebbe hijacking, the seizure of the Israeli embassy in Bangkok and the massacre at Lod Airport, many people saw these events as the acts of a desperate people. The PLO created leverage against the Israelis by bringing significant attention to their situation. That many of these attacks took place outside Israel, in Germany, France and Thailand, drove the importance of the situation home and the willingness of the Palestinians to "do what it takes" to get attention made the world stand up and listen. The PLO took the plight of the Palestinians global through its willingness to conduct high profile, high risk attacks. The die had been cast.

The Israeli response was predictable. Many high profile PLO/Black September targets were targeted for assassination by the Mossad in the 1970s, during a time when the Mossad operated with such ferocity and brashness that reached PLO operative everywhere. While Israel got away with a substantial amount of assassination activity, everything changed with the Lillehammer Affair, where six Mossad agents killed an innocent Moroccan waiter who they mistakenly believed was a PLO ringleader involved with the Munich massacre. After that, the era of the freewheeling Mossad that conducted daring raids across the globe ended.

Currently, with the continued failure of negotiations, there is a battle for leverage. The Palestinians have continued with their basic negotiation strategy: give us what we want or we will resort back to violence. Mahmoud Abbas has portrayed himself as a man struggling to keep the Palestinian resistance from erupting into a Third Intifada, creating leverage in the international community by portraying the Palestinians as a people who have tried everything to make peace with the Israelis, only to be stonewalled at every turn.

Israel, on the other hand, has taken a very different approach. While Hasbara (Advocacy) has remained an important part of Israel's strategy, Israel has increasingly sought leverage by creating what its detractors call "facts on the ground." At this point, it is disengenious to believe that increased construction in various parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank are not intended to create leverage against the Palestinians, the idea being that if the Palestinians continue to go down the path of unilateral action, Israel will take steps to ensure that Jews will continue to live in the proposed Palestinian state, which is anathema to both Hamas and the PLO. Moreover, by increasing construction, Israel has essentially created its answer to Abbas or Hamas' continued threats of terrorism should negotiations fail. At this point, a breakdown in negotiations leaves the PLO threatening to revert to violence, while the same breakdown leaves Israel shoring up its position in the West Bank. Of course, there is no moral equality between building houses and blowing up buses full of children, but Israel could never get away with creating leverage the way that the Palestinians do. Israel also seeks leverage against Hamas' surprising rise to legitimacy by continuing its restrictions on the flow of goods into Gaza. Indeed, Ariel Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza was a classic mistake in negotiation strategy because Israel gave up what would otherwise have been an important negotiating position for nothing. Mahmoud Abbas, for example, tries to counter Israel's construction leverage by demanding that the end of "settlement construction" be a prerequisite to peace talks, not an issue to be discussed in those talks. Of course, even when Israel agreed to a six month moratorium, peace talks went nowhere both because at this point Abbas lacks legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinian factions and because he is unwilling to give up the right of return.

Aside from the construction of new housing, most of Israel's activities toward the Palestinians are reactive, not proactive. Operations in Gaza follow rocket launches, and do not occur preemptively for the most part. The current decision to continue construction in Jerusalem is a reaction to the rash of rocket attacks from Gaza. The situation has essentially become a cycle, whereby the Palestinians use rockets and suicide bombers while the Israelis use houses, goods flow restrictions and targeted military strikes. Each side is trying its best to create an edge both in terms of facts on the ground and in terms of perception. The incentive on both sides to seek leverage instead of peace is overwhelming. For the Palestinians, there has been such a consistent drive toward extremism and outright rejection of Israel's existence promoted by the Arab states who see the Palestinians as an effective weapon against Israel that the mythical "moderates" who would make peace either do not exist, lack any power or credibility or are killed off quickly. The money flowing out of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia goes to groups who are carrying on the fight against Israel. The incentives are for the Palestinians to gain as much leverage as they can by seeming desperate and unable to exercise any alternative beyond violence.

The Israelis are therefore presented with only a few choices. They can either go away and give up the Zionist enterprise (not likely), launch a full scale military conflict against the Palestinians with the hopes of killing off their leadership or driving a large part of their population into Jordan or Egypt (again, not likely) or they can make moves that are designed to force the Palestinians back to the table by establishing harsh and strict responses to Palestinian violence and unwillingness to bargain. While it is clear that the Palestinians will not come back to the table easily, Abbas' strategy of requiring that Israel give up on all of its positions as a precondition to negotiations demands that Israel apply pressure to him.

The Western media has turned "settlements" into the great barrier to meaningful negotiations. This belief presupposes that talks will get results. Palestinian nationalism and Zionism are fundamentally incompatible as they exist now because Palestinian nationalism requires the destruction of the Jewish homeland and preferrably, to forbid Jews from living in Palestine. Since carrots, such as security assistance, financial and material support, and promises of territory have failed to sway the Palestinians from their singular desire to destroy Israel, it only makes sense for Israel to try the "stick" approach to force the PLO back to the table. Israel has, for the most part, been relatively restrained in its responses to Palestinian intrasigence, especially when compared to the response Sri Lanka had to the Tamils breaking ceasefires or that Morocco has had for Sahrawi independence movements. Accusations that Israel is changing "facts on the ground" to harm the PLO and the Palestinians are not totally unfounded. Given their history, it would be bizarre to say that Israel "owes" the Palestinians anything considering that the Palestinians want nothing more than to destroy Israel. Moreover, Israel has provided and continues to provide significant aid and resources to the Palestinians despite the deep enmity that exists.

After 64 years and decades of failed "peace talks," it is not surprising that both sides are doing their best to entrench their positions ahead of another potential confrontation. To the extent sham talks will continue, it is only logical that both sides will try to pressure each other back to the negotiating table. The only difference is that while the Palestinians do it by rockets and terrorist attacks, Israel does it with buildings and targeted military responses. And that's a big difference.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mahmoud Abbas and the 1947 "Mistake"

Mahmoud Abbas acknowledges that rejecting the 1947 Partition was a mistake. This is a fascinating revelation from a man who purports to represent the Palestinians. Abbas, even in acknowledging how rejecting the partition injects some of his classical distortions of history, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge either what the mistake was or why the Arabs action was a mistake.

In 1947, the Arab representatives rejected the UN's proposed solution to the Arab/Jewish conflict by splitting the British Mandate west of the Jordan river, giving 55% to the Jews, 45% to the Arabs and making Jerusalem an international city. While the Jews reluctantly accepted this proposal, which deprived the Zionists of many of their primary goals (such as retaking Jerusalem), they were satisfied to get any international recognition. When the Arabs rejected the plan the day before the British Mandate ended, Israel declared its independence on May 14, while the Arabs never declared independence or attempted to establish a government or entity either within or without the confines of the British Mandate, and instead launched attacks on Israel, to be joined by Transjordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While there is substantial dispute among Arab scholars as to why the Arabs rejected the partition, with explanations range from antisemitism to a belief that the partition gave too much land to the Jewish minority, there is no dispute that the Arab rejection represented a complete unwillingness to accept any form of Zionism in the Middle East and a desire to eradicate it by force.

Of course, after the 1948 War, the Palestinians almost immediately had the geopolitical form of buyer's remorse. Not only did they lose the war, but their "allies" in the Arab Liberation Army, Egypt and Transjordan, took over the bulk of the territory that the UN allocation to the proposed Palestinian state. For the next several decades, as the Israelis and surrounding Arab nations refused to abide the Palestinian desire for national independence, the PLO looked back longingly at the time when the UN had promised them a state and sought to whitewash over their decision to reject the partition. In 1988, Yasser Arafat issued the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, a statement that might have had relevance in 1947 or 1948, but was utterly meaningless given the radical historical changes that had occurred since the 1948 War. More than twenty years later, Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's longtime protege, revived the Partition Plan idea again, this time using it in conjunction with his attempt to bypass the "Peace Process" and seek unilateral recognition for Palestine at the UN.

Within this context, Abbas' claim that the 1947 rejection was a mistake is very clear. Obviously, with the benefit of 64 years of hindsight and how the Palestinians' Arab "brothers" continually betrayed them, it is unsurprising that the Palestinians would now prefer to have taken 45% of Israel with international recognition to their claim. Abbas laments that it is unfair that the Arabs have been punished for 64 years for the Arab mistake of 1947. Abbas, of course, misses the point. First, at the time of the rejection of the Partition, as today, the political situation within the Palestinian community saw vehement anti-Israel forces systematically crush moderates or others who wanted to accept the plan. Indeed, certain powerful forces within the Palestinian community, such as the Nashashibi family (who were the primary opponents to the al-Husseini family), favored union with Transjordan because of their better relations with the Hashemites. However, as today, moderate voices within the Palestinian community were swept away. Abbas reflectively views the "mistake" of 1947 as an isolated incident, when it in fact set the stage for decades of hard line and uncompromising Palestinian leadership.

However, Abbas' oversights do not end there. 1947 was neither the first nor last mistake that the Arabs made. Certainly, the rejection of the 1947 Partition Plan started the Palestinians down a path of rejecting essentially all negotiated diplomatic solutions to their problems while routinely turning to violence instead. More interestingly, the original targets for violence were as much the Jews as their fellow Arabs. While the Palestinians have continued to be useful to other Arab governments as a thorn in Israel's side, the Palestinians' behavior in Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait have caused them to suffer significant reprisals from those governments, while making them many other enemies. While Abbas frames the Palestinians as unfairly suffering from a single mistake made 64 years ago, the truth is that the Palestinians have refused numerous Israeli attempts to solve the Middle East crisis, most notably Prime Minister Ehud Barak's 1999 offer of all of Gaza and 98% of the West Bank as part of a recognized Palestinian state in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel and the renunciation of the Right of Return. Yasser Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, turned down this offer. Abbas conveniently forgets other mistakes, such as firing rockets into Israel, kidnapping soldiers, launching suicide bombings and political assassinations when taking a reflective look at his people's history.

Most interestingly, Abbas does not say why the rejection was a mistake. Was it a mistake because in reality the Arabs were not prepared to make war on Israel at the time and the Palestinians lost "their" land to Israelis, Jordanians and Egyptians? A reasonable interpretation of the Abbas is belief is that acceptance of the Partition would have been a more effective way to destroy Israel because the Arabs could have taken time to get organized before attacking Israel. Nothing about Arab behavior at the time suggested that the Arabs were prepared to accept the existence of a Jewish state any more than they are now, when Israel is far more established then it was in 1948. This is especially true because the All-Palestine Council headed by Hajj Amin al-Husseini resembled Hamas far more than it resembles the current Fatah movement. Regardless, Abbas' statements at best include his continued vague references to living side by side with an entity called "Israel," which is not acknowledged to be a Jewish state. Until he is willing to acknowledge that, his statements about 1947 being a mistake or that the 1967 borders should be the basis for any peace settlement are utterly meaningless.