Friday, July 31, 2009

Some truth about the Gaza war: Terrorist who murdered American government employees killed; portrayed as civilian victim

I’ll bet you haven’t heard of Muhammad al-Dasuqi, right? Well that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Let’s start over again: Imagine, a couple of official U.S. government, large State Department mini-vans making their way through the Gaza Strip on a nice quiet day. Their mission? To help Gaza students get scholarships to study in the United States.

Suddenly, they are attacked. Three men, all American security guards employed by the State Department, are murdered. It is 2003 and so the Palestinian Authority (PA) is still running the Gaza Strip. The United States, protector and chief fundraiser for the PA, demands that the terrorists be brought to justice.

The PA promises to help…and doesn’t. But, of course, U.S. financial assistance and diplomatic support for the PA continues as if nothing has happened. The PA is America’s coddled client, and simultaneously an anti-American grouping; it is the beneficiary of extraordinary American help, and simultaneously the supposed victim used to pretend that the West doesn’t help the Palestinians, or Arabs, or Muslims.

But what about Dasuqi? He is a leader of the Popular Resistance Committee, a terrorist group which is the closest thing in the Palestinian political arena to al-Qaida. While it is certainly separate from Hamas, it is also treated usually by Hamas as a junior partner.

It is now December 2008. Dasuqi is standing on a field in Gaza at a graduation ceremony for Hamas’s police force. Almost all the members are also part of Hamas’s elite military forces whose goal is to wipe out Israel and its Jewish residents.

Just days before, the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip has torn up a ceasefire to which it had never completely abided. It announced a new offensive against Israel. There was a huge increase in the rockets and mortar shells fired at Israeli towns and villages. Hamas had gone to war.

And so Israel responded in self-defense. One of its first operations was an aerial attack which bombed the graduation ceremony. Dasuqi and a lot of others were killed.

But since police are regarded as civilians—assuming they are people who direct traffic and investigate burglaries rather than members of a terrorist militia—Dasuqi and all the others were counted as civilians, constituting in this one attack about 10 percent of the civilian fatalities claimed by Palestinian and Western sources as having been inflicted during the conflict.

The U.S government should have been pleased that Dasuqi was dead. There was no chance that he would be brought to justice by the PA or Hamas, he was a leading figure allied with al-Qaida which is America’s sworn enemy. Yet his death is counted as some kind of disproportionate, even arbitrary attack on an inoffensive neighbor.

The British government has made decisions—the basis of the arms’ embargo blocking the sale of several military systems to Israel--which claim the war was an act of internal repression.

This is one small piece from the massive and systematic misrepresentation of Israel’s defensive strike into the Gaza Strip.

Another is that detailed studies of the names of those listed as killed during the war shows that the number of civilians killed is closer to 400 than the 1200-1400 figure generally used by the media. Palestinian documentation shows that many of those listed as civilians were in fact Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters. Even of the lower civilian figure, a number were human shields, either volunteering to help shield Hamas’s military effort or involved against their will or even knowledge in being very close to headquarters, equipment dumps, or firing positions.

To know more, visit the official report on the war, summarized at

and with the full report at:

U.S. Iran Policy: Better Late Than Never But Too Little Too Late

By Barry Rubin

There are more signs that the Obama administration is switching gears on its Middle East policy. The recent visit of several U.S. officials to Israel did not bring any major friction over the construction on settlements issue which is probably far deader than people think.

There are two factors involved in bringing about this new phase:

First, it is dawning on the administration that its Middle East policy isn’t working so well. The phrase “no success in six months” is being heard. That obviously isn’t enough time to solve the world’s problems but to fail to have a single positive development anywhere in the globe--given the high expectations generated by this administration and its over-optimism--is humiliating. And as they look ahead they don’t see any successes on the horizon.

Second, the administration has to gear up for its sanctions-building plan on Iran. The leaks say that the basic timetable is clear. In August and September, the United States will try to mobilize international support (Europe, Russia, and China) for increasing sanctions. If Iran hasn’t changed course by the end of September—and it won’t—these sanctions will be put into effect.

What’s on the list? Cutting exports of gasoline and other ready-to-use petroleum products—something Congress is already passing--and no insurance for companies trading with Iran are highest on the list. There might also be boycotts of companies trading or investing with Iran.

All of this would be a step forward, but of course there are numerous problems:

--What will the Europeans support and implement? Probably less than the United States wants. While Obama has done everything possible to please the Europeans—and they have declared their love for him—getting them to act is something else.

--What will the Russians and Chinese back? Clearly, they will only go for even less impressive sanctions at best.

--How will Iran react? By ignoring the sanctions and trying to go around them. They will not find China and Russia helpful in that pursuit. As for Russia, Obama is viewed there with actual contempt.

Presumably, the administration will not get tough with those countries no matter what they do, or don’t do.

--By making the main theme of its foreign policy, “partnership” rather than unilateralism, the administration has tied its own hands so that the United States cannot get too far out ahead of its allies.

And it’s also too little too late, not because Iran is so much closer to getting the nuclear weapons and long-range missiles but because the Tehran regime has made up its mind. The time to do this was before the Iranian election, not after—as the Obama administration mistakenly chose.

Now that it’s stolen the election, crushed the opposition, and picked the most extremist leadership, the Iranian regime has decided to go for broke and regard the West as weak, helpless, and cowardly. Those in the establishment most willing to think otherwise have been pushed to the margins or out altogether.

So if the Obama administration gets phase 2 together it should be better than phase 1—an unworkable combination of getting Israel to stop settlement construction, persuading Arab states to help, producing dramatic progress toward Israel-Palestinian peace, and engaging Iran and Syria—but will also ultimately fail.

No one seems to realize—and it is better to avoid saying so in public—that Israel has won a tremendous diplomatic victory. Obama who, before running for office, was arguably hostile to Israel and who began his term as an incredibly popular new president by confidently issuing an ultimatum demanding Israel concede on the construction issue has now for all practical purposes backed down.

Of course, as always, much of the “credit” is due to a Palestinian leadership which made crystal-clear its intransigence on making peace along with Arab regimes who told the Obama administration they wouldn’t help. And of course as best-supporting actors, Iran and Syria also treated Obama with contempt and showed they weren’t at all interested in any real compromise with the United States.

Indeed, the administration itself helped sabotage its own policy. By coming out of the starting-gate so critical of Israel, the administration unintentionally signaled Arabs to sit back and enjoy a U.S.-Israel confrontation And since the new U.S. government made its desire to avoid friction with Arabs or Muslims clear, they knew there would be no cost for defying Obama.

Incidentally, the reason why U.S. policy is the critical variable in the region is not that America is so all-important in its own right, though of course it is—or should one say used to be?—such a powerful factor. The reason is that the stances of everyone else are fixed. In their basic course, Arab regimes and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians are not about to make huge changes.

And so U.S. policy is the only aspect of the region that really shifts much. Of course, this was another point which the Obama administration missed, thinking that changes of its own along with the application of energy, charm, empathy, and imaginative diplomacy would break log-jams and produce dramatic progress.

They were wrong, as anyone who knew the region well could have told them long ago if they’d been willing to listen.

One day--though it’s not going to happen this year--the administration is going to have to think about things like toughness, the use of force (not necessarily applied by itself), and defining enemies in serious terms.

Believe it or Not: Middle East leaders don't think like you; Policymakers make huge mistakes

People keep writing me along the following lines:

I read and respect your analysis but something in my gut tells me that....

Or, It simply isn't possible that administration officials so understand the nature of the|Middle East....

Or, They cannot possibly believe that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is within reach.....

Or, Would you really have us believe that this administration thinks (maybe by this point I should say "thought") that they could engage Iran successfully. (The Reagan administration thought the same thing, which shows this is not restricted to Democrats or the left.)

Let me stress that in political analysis what is important is not what you work out in your own head but what policymakers, dictators, revolutionary Islamists, and everyone else directly involved in action works out in their heads.

What is essential is evidence, not extrapolation from one's own thoughts and experiences.

And, yes, I have had hundreds of conversations in which powerful policymakers, officials, politicians, diplomats, academics, and journalists have said the most absurd things about Middle Eastern politics. I won't get into any names but to provide just a few examples from Washington alone, these range from Carter-era people re certain that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was going to be a moderate, to Reagan-era officials who had no doubt they were going to open up a new detente with Iran, to Clinton-era people convinced that Yasir Arafat would make and keep a peace agreement with Israel, to Bush-era officials who explained to me how the invasion of Iraq would lead to a transformation of the region.

But not only Westerners make massive miscalculations. Let's restrict ourselves to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He believed that Iran would crumble quickly in the face of an Iraqi invasion, that he would get away with seizing Kuwait and America would never attack, and then that he could continue (or pretend to continue?) his weapons' of mass destruction programs and not face a U.S. onslaught.

Here's just a couple of personal experiences. Imagine sitting in a high-level off-the-record U.S. government-sponsored conference in the 1980s and hearing the man billed as the Pentagon's leading expert on Israel predict a military coup is likely.

Imagine hearing a leading senator, a presidential candidate later billed as a possible secretary of state after the last election (no, he didn't get it) arguing that the main U.S. foreign policy theme should be an alliance with Moscow against the real threat, Peking.

Recall hearing another top senator explaining in 1991 that Saddam Hussein would certainly pull out of Kuwait because his advisors would tell him that the United States would invade and he would lose. (To which I responded that any such advisor would first have to make out his will, a factor discourging making such a revelation to Iraq's dictator.

Stand a few feet away from a supposed international affairs' expert--who would later become secretary of state--explain to a group of senators that President George Bush must be stopped from fighting Saddam in 1991 because the entire Arab world would rise up in rebellion.

I'll stop here but I could go on for many pages. And I know a lot of people--including readers of this blog--who would be happy to add their own similar experiences and anecdotes. (I invite them to send me some of their own personal favorites either for publication in disguised fashion or purely off the record.)

There are people, pseudo-experts, whose careers are prospering in Washington DC today because they claim that Syria can't wait to break with Iran and become America's friend, that Arab states are chomping at the bit to make peace with Israel but can't because of a lack of a freeze on settlement construction, that Hamas or Hizballah can be persuaded to moderate with a little kind treatment, and so on.

So to summarize, here are two all-important principles:

--Study what key officials and leaders think, do, and say, based on their ideology, experiences, and situations. Try to understand them in their own terms of reference, given the problems and opportunities they face, in the context of their beliefs no matter how they may clash with reality. If someone says to you: "If I were Yasir Arafat I'd...." then ignore everything which follows. What you think or would like to happen is unimportant. Imposing your own predetermined ideology on these matters is irrelevant and misleading. And you can't start at the end (we want Arab-Israeli peace) and then reason backward (so there must be something I can do to bring it speedily).

--Take into account that huge misperceptions and errors can be made by supposedly expert people. If they are arrogant and think they know everything, refusing to listen to others or modify their ideas, this is all the more likely. Powerful people are often extremely ignorant. It is Washington DC's biggest secret.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Conversations with Readers: Middle East dictators, Western comprehension, and the Iraq war

One advantage of new technology is it brings experts and readers together more closely. I often find that I get my best ideas when talking to readers and non-experts who ask interesting, basic questions and force a writer to express things clearly. Here’s a two-part interview with blogger James Biga which explores a number of interesting questions about the contemporary Middle East. I hope you find it interesting and useful.

James Biga: You always seem to be more positive about things. You always provide a "but if."

Barry Rubin: Most things in politics are more laid back, loose, and complex than they seem. It is easy to make a situation sound apocalyptic when it isn’t. I predicted for months that Netanyahu's trip to DC would go fine. It did. I predicted for months the Obama Administration won't bash Israel in a material way. It hasn't. When I forget about this principle—as in predicting the outcome of the Lebanese election, when in fact nothing much changed—I usually discover I should have remembered it.

After you've been dealing with the Middle East for many decades you realize that there is a Western misconception of imminent catastrophe—unless of course something is done, which nowadays means unilateral concessions. Yet in the 1950s, they believed that Nasser’s Egypt, pan-Arab radicalism, and Soviet influence was on the verge of seizing the region. In the 1960s it was neo-Marxist revolutionary groups. From the late 1970s, there were supposedly going to be a wave of Islamist revolutions emanating from Iran. And so on.

That doesn’t mean big events don’t happen—in the last 30 years one should count among them the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq war, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise and fall of the peace process, September 11, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example—but more rarely than we expect. And even then the world isn’t really transformed.

At the same time, though, we see the repetitive nature of mistaken assumptions about how international affairs work or what the Middle East is like which constantly mislead people. One example nowadays is the concept that force never achieves anything, so we get a progression like this:

Israel defeats Hamas in a military campaign
Hamas stops firing missiles
Western conclusion: Hamas is acting that way because it has become more moderate rather than it has been somewhat intimidated into changing its behavior, at least temporarily.

James: Treating the sniffles doesn't get rid of the flu.

Barry: Ah! But if you always have the flu you feel normal with it. That's an important point! In the West, they are used to what they think of as a perfectly stable society in which there is no risk, no violence, and no threats. But when you are used to a higher level of tension and difficulties, having problems seems more normal. This Western juxtaposition of saying things like: We must solve the Palestinian problem right now or the region will blow up has repeatedly been proven wrong.

But you are right. The idea, for example, that the goal of Western policy should be to bring down the Hamas regime is unthinkable in Europe and America. It is a terrorist, openly antisemtiic, and genocide-minded movement; it is a client of Iran trying to spread subversion and revolution; it is a huge barrier to any successful peace process; it is extremely oppressive to Palestinians in Gaza; and it is generally seeking to foment bloody armed conflict with Israel. Yet despite all that, the best that can be hoped for is a policy of isolation, and many Europeans seem eager to retreat  from even that posture.

Yet leave aside Israeli interests, does a policy of accepting a Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip accord with Western interests or any serious desire to have a successful Israel-Palestinian peace process? Definitely, no.
James: If someone such as me sees this, it has to be more than ideology that keeps this going. People like you write about this every day. What prevents people from actually stepping back, take in what is really going on, and then acting accordingly?

Barry: I would prefer the world to be different. There are answers to that question. First, many do see accurately and sometimes they even have the power to affect events. I also remember the phrase: In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and in the kingdom of the insane, the half-wit is hanged. The first part applies to establishment thinking; the second to those of us who try to explain things differently.

What are some of the factors involved, though, in the shortcomings of world view?

--Ideology. Certain things must be true and to hell with the facts.
--Mirror-imaging, there really isn’t any difference between the West and the Middle East.
--A good way to build a successful career is to tell people what they want to hear.
--Revolutionary romanticism.
--Some want to see the West destroyed and therefore deliberately subvert its interests while pretending to do the opposite.
--Some decide to support radical groups because that coincides with their ethnic, nationalist, or religio-political world view.
--Dissenting thought is dismissed between it is attributed to Zionism and American or Western imperialism.
--Mouthing certain ideas is a great way to make a lot of money.
--Short-term memory, forgetting the lessons of the relatively recent past repeatedly.

James: But these radical groups are power-hungry and in the end destroy themselves.

Barry: Yes, quite right. Though how long that takes, how much is destroyed, and how many die is the problem in that process. Consider Fatah, for example, it is now 50 years old. It has behind it a huge number of disasters and failures. In addition, the honest truth is that it is dominated to a large extent by thugs and thieves yet it—and the Palestinian Authority which embodies its influence—is the darling of the world. Money pours into their pockets and from thence to Swiss bank accounts.

Like so much that happens in the Middle East if it weren't so tragic it would be hysterically funny.

James: Arafat had billions in his bank account when he died.

Barry: Right. But also one cannot understand Arafat unless it is remembered that he wasn't interested in money. For him, money—as with Hafiz al-Asad, Saddam Hussein, Gamal Abdel Nasser, etc.--was a way to control others. He was interested in power. If the dictator is interested in money rather than power he's in trouble. But he used it because he knew everyone else's weakness.

James: These factors get all kinds of political leaders in trouble eventually.

Barry: Well, no, not necessarily.

James: How’s that?

Barry: If they are good at what they do and not blind. One shouldn’t just think of the Caligula type who goes crazy from these processes, or say an Idi Amin or a Bokassa.

James: If they are good then they have some ability to keep these characteristics in check

Barry: Precisely. Nasser, Assad, and others died in power, and Saddam could have also except for some unusual circumstances. I wrote a book about this called Modern Dictators.

James: Was the toppling of Saddam Hussein the right thing to do?

Barry: I don't know. That’s a very complex question and there are no easy answers. I never was an advocate of that war. In 2005 I wrote an article calling for withdrawal. Contrary to mythology, nobody in Israel was enthusiastic about this operation for a number of reasons, though of course when the U.S. government decided on it everyone had to go along. But people in Israel had no illusions that the United States would make Iraq into a peaceful, stable, democratic state.

The reason was that people in Israel who worked on the region knew too well how Arab polities and societies work. In addition, there was a belief at the time—which proved wrong--that Iraq might attack Israel. More correctly, there was concern that if the war went well, Israel would have to pay for it politically, and the same would happen if the war went poorly. I suppose that this is what’s happening now, because of the perception in Europe and America that the war was a mistake and went poorly.

One might say, to put it into a brief phrase, that Obama’s administration is to Iraq what Carter’s administration was to Vietnam.

James: If the US had fought this war in the same manner as, say, World War Two and fought for true victory instead would that have made it more palatable to American public opinion? America's fear of appearing colonial may have had a lot to do with how the war was fought and how it was handled afterwards.

Barry: One shouldn’t forget, though, the factor of Iraqi society, politics, and religion. You don’t win a victory over an Arab or Muslim or, perhaps more broadly, a Third World polity and then everything is fine ever after. If the basis isn’t there, one cannot create a moderate, democratic society which is going to be grateful to America for what it’s done. The German and Japanese post-World War Two model doesn’t work.

Look at Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Even there, one doesn’t find eternal gratitude for the fact that in 1991 the United States saved them from being crushed, raped, and ruined. The United States didn’t kill locals, didn’t inflict economic damage, didn’t try to change those societies, and didn’t stay very long and yet we see the results ranging from relative non-cooperation to Usama bin Ladin’s popularity.

So one can have success, one can greatly improve the situation, but victory is something else. This is part of the problem with a Western expectation of “solution” in which problems come to an end. So Israel can win meaningful successes, as in 1967, 1973, and 1982 wars, or the military successes that ended the two intifadas, or the leverage against Hizballah in 2006 and Hamas in January 2009, but the conflicts continue. And that is why some misperceive many of these events as either defeats or deadlocks. What is important, however, is that afterward Israelis can live their normal lives and the threats are reduced for some time.

But there won't be anyone on the other side who will say: We lost. Let's end the conflict. We want nice quiet lives and we won't bother you any more. Arab liberals have visited China or Japan and been astounded by the contrast. The Chinese say they suffered greatly under imperialism; the Japanese were hit by two nuclear weapons, but their attitude is: ok, that's history now. Let's move on, not bear grudges, and be constructive in avoiding violent conflict and building up our own countries. That's not the Middle Eastern approach.

Iran? Israel? Palestinians? Don't Understand the Middle East? Blame the Media

Even in the smallest news items frequently reflect the media bias against both Israel and accurate explanations of Middle East realities. For example, consider this one-paragraph AP item of July 25:

“U.S. gives $200M to Palestinians: The United States has transferred $200 million to the Palestinian government to help ease a growing budget deficit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has been struggling in recent months to keep his government afloat, borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars from commercial banks just to cover the public payroll.  The reasons for the shortfall include Israel's restrictions on the Palestinian economy, the border blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and the failure of some donor countries to make good on their aid pledges, Fayyad said during a video news conference with Clinton. – AP”

Three reasons are given for the Palestinian economy doing poorly. None—repeat none—of them related to the Palestinians themselves, and two of the three are blamed on Israel.

So what’s left out? Things that everyone knows about on the scene:

--The administrative incompetence of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
--The PA’s rejection of peace with Israel in the past and present.
--The waste of money on ridiculously high numbers of people in security forces. That is why the "public payroll" is so expensive, a fact that has nothing to do with Israel. Moreover, the PA does not tax its people, getting all its money from foreign handouts. Such actions might build its popularity but also ensure a deficit.
--Past waves of violence by the PA’s Fatah ruling group and current talk of returning to armed struggle in the future.
--The extremist policies of Hamas—including maintaining a state of war with Israel--which could easily behave in a way that would make a blockade unnecessary.
--High levels of corruption in both regimes.
--The overall international economic downturn.

The reader is being directed to conclude: If only those mean Israelis and unreliable donors were nicer to the poor Palestinians everything would be fine. And indeed this seems almost like an unwritten rule for the Inquirer, AP, Reuters, and large sectors of the media: The Palestinians can never be blamed for anything.

But if all those points aren't made, how can anything ever be fixed? Even assuming there was no sanctions against a regime in Gaza which is terrorist, radical Islamist, openly antisemitic, and genocidal-intended--yes these are very strong words but they are completely accurate ones--the Gaza economy wouldn't be doing well.

As for the West Bank, the current Israeli government has explicitly made helping the economy there prosper and recent reports is that it is doing relatively well.

But here is the only choice much of the media allows us: It’s all Israel’s fault. Hamas and the PA aren’t to blame for anything, merely being eternal victims of Israel and the West. Therefore, the PA doesn't have to change any of its policies, does it?

If you want another example of how this basic concept works, consider an article of July 28, "Israel refuses limits on halting Iran nukes," by Anne Gearan, Associated Press. You see those Israelis are just trouble for the United States, as the headline to put it, “Top U.S. officials urge restraint as they seek to conduct broader peace talks in the Mideast.”

Like many articles on the Middle East, this is so biased and misleading as to be almost comical. The lead signals to the reader who is the bad guy here:

“Israel hardened its insistence yesterday that it would do anything it felt necessary to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, just the ultimatum the United States hoped not to hear as it tried to nudge Iran to the bargaining table.”

Israel's hardline messing up U.S. efforts for peace, the article tells readers. Actually,  however, Israeli press reports on the same meeting said that Israel’s leaders told the United States they would cooperate with U.S. efforts, precisely the opposite of this article.  Indeed, the article itself presents no evidence for its thesis.

What is the proof offered of such a “hardening” position? Here it, allegedly, is.

“Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak used a brief news conference with Gates to insist three times that Israel would not rule out any response, an implied warning that it would consider a preemptive strike to thwart Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

"`We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table,'" Barak said. "`This is our policy. We mean it.'"

Obviously what Barak said is not some “hardening” but the traditional Israeli position. And by the way, even President Obama has said that he isn’t taking any option off the table. Clearly, the Israeli position is: we will give you every chance to try the engagement and sanctions' route.

So the entire thesis of the article is simply wrong, ridiculously wrong. This is what is presented as serious coverage of Israel in American newspapers.

But that’s not all. The article continues:

“Iran says it is merely trying to develop nuclear reactors for domestic power generation. Israeli leaders fear that the U.S. prizes its outreach to Iran over its historic ties to Israel and that the United States appears resigned to the idea that Iran will soon be able to build a nuclear weapon.”

What’s missing here, though it is implied, is that the United States agrees with Israel. Gearan, by the way, also misstates the U.S. position. (On this point, see here)

None of the rest of the article contains any evidence that Israel has either hardened its line or is causing problems for U.S. diplomacy on the Iran issue.

At the end of the article, in all contrast to supposed journalistic guidelines, the author interjects her opinions unsupported by facts:

“All this comes at a time when Washington's policy of dialogue with Iran itself has hit an impasse because of that country's election turmoil after the disputed vote June 12. A more cooperative Iran is important for the Mideast peace drive. With its links to Hamas and Hezbollah extremists, Iran is capable of heightening tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

First of all, is the only problem for dialogue due to “election turmoil” or rather the hardline—here’s a place where it’s appropriate—nature of Iran’s regime? Moreover, why do we have any reason to believe Iran would be more cooperative? The article presents the issue purely in terms of the United States having to be nice to Iran or else.

Iran isn’t just “capable” of heightening tensions, it works to do so every day. To show there are good articles also, see a much better piece on this point from the Washington Post.

And the author concludes with this bit of wisdom:

“At the same time, an Israeli strike on Iran would probably push Arab nations away from any peace gestures toward Israel, despite their own rivalries with Tehran.”

This is pure opinion and is quite debatable. But journalists sticking in their ideological-based opinions is now par for the course in the American media. It shouldn’t be.

In Israel: A Secular Diplomat Gives A Great Religious Lesson on Politics

There’s an old joke that asks: What's a Jewish holiday? The answer is a day on which we say: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!

Of course, that’s not precisely true. Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, could spawn its own joke: Only Jews have a day when you'e supposed to be depressed. Personally, it's hard for me to muster any extra depression since I deal with Middle East politics on a daily basis.

All kidding firmly put aside now, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon has written a fascinating op-ed piece on Tisha B’Av, in the Jerusalem Post of July 29. It’s worth analyzing because it tells a lot about Israel and the present moment.

Let’s start with Ayalon himself. He’s a brilliant, personable, articulate guy, a professional diplomat who's become a politician, elected as member of parliament and made deputy foreign minister. He is a senior member in the party of Avigdor Lieberman, rather inaccurately seen as an evil racist, reactionary, etc. (Lieberman is a demagogue on the election trail but fortunately not in office; he is also relatively dovish).

At any rate, Ayalon is none of these things of which Lieberman is accused. He’s not even right-wing. He is also pretty cosmopolitan and secular.

Yet Ayalon has also shown himself a man who respects Jewish religious tradition. And so on this day he gives a “drash”--what might be most closely approximated in the Christian world as a combination of intellectual lecture and sermon--on the meaning of Tisha B’av.

For those who don’t know, Tisha B’Av is the worst day on the Jewish calendar, the day when the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (yes, they were in Jerusalem, Yasir) were destroyed and many other bad things happened.

Tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans because of needless hatred, strife among Jews. (It really might be traced more to the combination of a repressive Roman puppet regime; Rome’s dominating ambitions; and a heroic but hopeless rebellion.) Ayalon points out that the exile after the First Temple lasted only 70 years while the one after the Second lasted 2,000 years.

Now applying impeccable rabbinic logic—which by the way is every bit as rational and a basis for Western civilization as Greek logic--Ayalon points out that the sin of internal division must far outweigh all the sins that lead to the destruction of the First Temple. In making this argument, Ayalon quotes Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Halogen Kook, former chief rabbi and the intellectual father of modern religious Zionism.

Ayalon then says:

“The State of Israel faces many challenges that we can only overcome as a united people. We are presented with a growing nuclear threat from Iran, terrorist groups primed to strike once again into our city centers, rockets aimed at our towns and villages in the North and South, and the increasing hatred and delegitimization of Israel around the world.

"Today, the State of Israel is a thriving pluralist and multicultural society. However, recently we can see major strains of disunity of purpose, and discord. Many see the different elements in Israeli society as the "other" and frequently defame them. Many groups pull their weight as citizens for the good of the country, while others contribute far less. We need to achieve a national solidarity which pulls in the same direction to meet the rising challenges which we face as a nation.”

What’s he talking about here? The meaning is very different from what people might expect.

One group is the Haredim:

“It can surely only contribute to disunity when Israelis of some religions and backgrounds send their children to the front lines in the battles against our enemies and those who seek to destroy us, while others do not.”

Remember that Lieberman’s policy is not some “fascist” or ultra-right party but essentially an ethnic party of Soviet-origin Israelis who tend to be secular. Ayalon does not indicate enmity toward this particular religious community but urges them to engage in alternative service, helping the sick, disabled, aged, and poor.

Implied, too, is a criticism of both extreme left and right. By quoting Kook and addressing it in its own terms, Ayalon is reminding the settlers and right not to undermine the government.
The settler movement sometimes puts its own interests over those of the nation; the far left sometimes seems to show more concern and support for Israel’s enemies than its survival.

But wait! Isn’t there something strange here? Hasn’t Lieberman, through his hostile stance toward Israel’s Arab minority contributed to an atmosphere of internal strife? Yes. So is Ayalon just being a hypocrite? Well, first of all, since the election Lieberman has not spoken in such terms and has certainly not tried to enact any legislation along those lines. Then, too, Ayalon is suggesting that it is better to stop such talk altogether.

What reigns in Israel today is not a "right-wing" or "hard-line" government but a centrist coalition, bringing together the main left and conservative parties. "Well-wishing"observers in Europe; left-wing anti-Israel "Jewish" lobbies in Washington; extreme right-wingers in America may not comprehend this but it is quite obviously true in Israel itself.

Ayalon concludes with an appeal and appreciation o Israel’s democracy:

“In a free society like Israel's, every person is entitled to their own opinion. Nevertheless, this does not include inciting violence or hatred for other groups, and especially not for Israel as a whole. Such incitement will essentially lead to the breakdown of our vital national solidarity and weaken our resistance to those who seek the destruction of every one of us.”

Perhaps Ayalon himself might be a good candidate for prime minister some day.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Obama Administration, meet Middle East Reality; Middle East Reality, meet Obama administration

By Barry Rubin

Hints are being dropped in the media and by U.S. officials visiting Israel that President Barack Obama's Middle East policy has altered somewhat. Now the spin is that Israel isn't just being asked to make a unilateral concession to stop construction on settlements (about 4000 to 5000 apartment units a year) but that such a concession would coincide with some Arab confidence-building measures.

In principle, this is a good thing. But let's begin by recognizing that it is a shift. Administrations like to deny they ever make a mistake or that they ever alter course. Journalists, academics, and analysts have the job of pointing out: they were wrong, now they see that--in part at least--and are making a change.

At the same time, from a U.S. policy standpoint, the slightly revised strategy is just as foolish as the original. Let's review:

Act One, Scene One: Without prior consultation with Israel, the U.S. government demands in an insulting and public manner that it make a big concession. It throws out old commitments, insists that Israel will get nothing in exchange, and makes no demand on the other side that it needs to do anything.

Underlying U.S Strategy: Israel makes a big concession and then the United States goes to the Arabs, asks them to do something. Meanwhile, these Arab countries will supposedly be so pleased by American success on the construction freeze that they will give the United States more help in constraining Iran and in other policy goals.

This concept has nothing to do with the Middle East as it actually exists.

At least, thank goodness, the United States has not actually done anything to pressure Israel: no aid cutbacks, no denunciations at the UN, and no sanctions on weapons' deliveries. This point is widely misunderstood. So far the U.S. "offensive" has all been words.

Moreover, the problem is not that Obama hates Israel or wants to destroy it. His administration has simply put forth a very silly, unworkable strategy based on a profound misunderstanding of Israel, Arab regimes, the Palestinian movement, Iran, and the proper American role in the region.

Act One, Scene Two, the new development: Recognizing at least in part that it has dug a big hole for itself and jumped into it, the administration now modifies the policy. Presumably this is supposed to make Israel more attracted to the idea of making a big concession. More emphasis is put on getting Arab states to make some gesture toward Israel at the same time. Instead of unilateral concession it would be mutual, simultaneous concession.

Now what the administration should be doing instead is to push for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to stop incitement to murder Israelis in its media, schools and mosques and stop telling its people that the goal is to wipe Israel off the map. That would really impress Israelis. And since the United States has just given the PA another $200 million it might have some real leverage there.

But no, instead the administration is going to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab countries, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and perhaps others saying: Do something.

And of course they won't do anything. So the policy still fails but now it fails on two fronts instead of one.

Special mention here should be devoted to the meaning of the word "pressure." Some administration officials in background interviews and also reporters are now saying that the administration is putting "pressure" on Arab states to do something. This is not true. It is all letter-writing and "please" and "wouldn't it be nice if you...."

That's not pressure, that's begging.

Of course, something similar could be said about what the administration is doing to Israel, but at least there has been public criticism and very vague hints of punishment. Let's call this "verbal pressure" at most. One might say, however: That's not pressure, that's nagging.

Now, a minor course adjustment is being made. But the basic strategy is still wrong. Either more adjustments must be made or bigger failures will follow.

What is most important, however, is that the administration's basic concept of how the Middle East works--what its issues are; what it means if Iran gets nuclear weapons; how Syria's regime will inevitably oppose U.S. interests and stay allied with Tehran; how a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is decades off; the need to bring down the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip; the necessity of backing moderate forces in Lebanon in a serious manner; and similar such things--come into line with reality.

In other words, we are now in Act 1, Scene 2, but what we really need is for the U.S. government to move into Act 2.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). Click here: To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Obama administration to Israel: Forget about what we do! Didn't Obama say he supports Israel?

By Barry Rubin

It is truly remarkable that even when the Obama administration is consciously, explicitly trying to show that it understands the Middle East, it shows that it…doesn’t understand the Middle East.

And Israel most of all.

Here’s the background. Aluf Benn, a brilliant reporter for whom I have great respect, wrote a New York Times op-ed that says what everyone in Israel knows (and what I’ve written repeatedly): the Obama administration has alienated Israeli public opinion across the political spectrum.

(True, foreign reporters can find some people who say Israel should go along with Obama, but even they are clear that this is only to avoid making him angry and because they think his policy will fail any way.)

Then Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, another superb reporter, interviewed two senior administration officials who claim that Benn and everyone else in Israel--which is after all the point, isn’t it?—got it wrong. Obama did two things in his Cairo speech for which Israelis are supposed to be grateful.

First, he spoke of America’s strong support for Israel, while talking directly to the Muslim world. (This was no doubt useful in case anyone in the Muslim world didn't know that the United States supports Israel.)

Second, he pointed out that regimes used the Palestinian issue as a diversion from their own problems and spoke in favor of democracy. (And then went on to fit his own policy completely into that deception.)

Goldberg seemed to find this claim at least partly persuasive. I find it completely ridiculous.

Here is a president whose administration publicly stated--before any consultation with the Israeli government--that he's going to force Israel to make a major concession, offered nothing in return, and made no demand on the Arab world. (Obama suggested politely and privately that Arab states should give Israel some confidence-building measure.)

Meanwhile, he told a Jewish leaders' delegation--into which he forced leaders of two anti-Israel groups--that the United States needed to distance itself more from Israel. Oh, and he said that a U.S. guarantee to Israel which Israelis believe had been given--correctly, I am positive--by the previous president never happened.

How could those silly Israelis be uncertain of his firm and reliable backing, administration officials say. Let me count the ways:

In the Cairo speech, Obama pandered to Islam, exonerating Muslims of any past intolerance whatsoever, focusing on Palestinian suffering (and alleged eagerness for a comprehensive peace agrement) while strongly implying that Israel only existed because of the Holocaust.

Yes, he also said that the United States strongly supported Israel and would continue to do so. Well, every president has said it and they actually did it. When Obama put that into his Cairo speech it had to be viewed by his audience as either something obvious or--wink, wink; nudge, nudge--a figleaf for a drastically different new policy.

And he did say Arab states used the Palestinian issue as an excuse to avoid democracy and to face their own failings.

But so what? At the same time his administration stopped any pressure toward democracy (he could barely support it verbally in Iran after a stolen election when millions were protesting) and accepted the idea--precisely the point he was supposedly contesting--that the Palestinian issue is the most important thing in the Middle East, maybe even in the world.

Let's review that last factor. Obama says: You're just pushing this issue to hide behind. But we will go along with this game and act as if we have to deliver on it to get anywhere with you.

Obama himself completely negated the point he was supposedly making.

No doubt, these senior officials are sitting around in Washington DC congratulating themselves on how they showed Israel that it could feel secure with an Obama administration.

At the same time, everyone in Israel keeps saying: No, we don't feel secure.

And when someone points that out right in their faces--the op-ed page of the New York Times-- so they can't ignore it--the response is: oh, no, you aren't paying proper attention.

What a wonderful symbol this is for the Obama administration's foreign policy! It takes a wrong tactic, strategy, statement, but then interprets it as if everyone else gets it wrong.

Iran;s regime doesn't understand that the United States is getting tough? Arab states don't understand that the United States will protect them from Iran? Central Europeans don't get it that Obama isn't selling them out to the Russians?

Hey! They just aren't paying attention!

But it's the Obama administration officials who aren't paying attention. They still didn't respond to Benn's point: Obama should speak to Israelis. They responded by saying that he spoke about Israel to Muslims. Isn't that better? No, it isn't.

It reminds me of the Stalinist Bertolt Brecht's reaction to the workers' uprising in East Germany and Poland in the 1950s: The workers have failed us. Let's elect a new proletariat.

Or perhaps to paraphrase the famous statement falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette: They aren't finding any bread in our policy? Didn't they see the cake we gave them!

Islam’s Civil War

By Barry Rubin

I’m reading a good book by Richard Dowden, a veteran reporter on Africa who now heads the Royal African Society. It’s entitled Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, published recently by Public Affairs press. Especially interesting from a Middle Eastern standpoint is his chapter on Somalia:

“Somalis are Sunni Muslims, but always followed the Sufi tradition….Their religious spirit is tolerant…and is mixed with elements of Somali’s pre Islamic Cushitic beliefs....In recent years their culture and religious practice have been undermined by Arab Wahabi preachers and Saudi money. Until recently Somali women played a major role in society, dressed in bright colors and did not cover their heads or arms. Today Somali women are expected to dress in the full Saudi black niqab and obey their men.”

This seems a bit too romantic. Somalia's Islam could be very strict and intolerant, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes in her own childhood. Nevertheless, Dowden makes an important and valid point: things have gotten much worse in recent years.

In addition, a radical Islamist movement has arisen in Somalia which at times has come to dominate the country, impose harsh laws, and even links up with al-Qaida. Dowden stresses that a lot of these developments are due to local conditions, including people being fed up with warlords and civil wars tearing apart the country causing famine and bloodshed. Islamism imposes unity and at least for a little while a decline in internal conflict.

While Afghanistan was always far more—if one can use this word—puritanical in its Islam, the pattern there with the rise of the Taliban was similar. Islamism, that is the political rule by an Islamist movement imposing its version of Islam, has the appeal of imposing a moralistic system on chaos and unity on anarchy. Elements of this kind of situation were visible among the Palestinians and Iraq, for instance, as well.

Still, the result of putting such movements into power is horrendous first and foremost for their subjects.

My view is that for centuries what I call conservative, traditional Islam dominated societies. It was politically quietist focusing more on individual behavior. Islamism is a definite break with that world view though, of course, it is rooted on basic Islamic teachings, beliefs, and writings.

The Egyptian thinker Tarek Heggy, who appears to be the Arab world’s most interesting and creative intellectual today, makes a distinction between a more moderate Egyptian-Ottoman Islam and a more intolerant Wahabi-Saudi version. That is a viable way of looking at the developments, though a lot of Islamism emerged from Egypt and other places that are not at all Wahabi, too.

Heggy also points out the great debates among Muslim thinkers in the early medieval period which led to the defeat of those more flexible and ready to integrate logic by the hardliners, who were the ancestors of the modern Wahabis but also of contemporary Islamists more generally.

When one looks at places like North Africa, Indonesia, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there is clearly the phenomenon Dowden writes about in Somalia. In part, ironically, it is due to moderate transportation and communication, when the ideas of hardline Muslims and Islamists in places like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are quickly transported to every corner of Muslim communities throughout the world. Money is sent; teachers are trained or dispatched to outlying areas.

The idea of Islam as a religion of peace is as simplistic as that of Islam as innately extremist. There is a struggle going on. The difference, however, is that in other religions, the moderates have been gaining victories for the last 500 years, while in Islam the hardliners closed down the use of reason in religion (closing the gates of ijtihad) 800 years ago and have been making huge new advances in the last 50 years.

One sees a steady erosion of conservative-traditionalist Islam as the Islamists have been pulling much of it over, steadily in their direction.

An example is suicide bombing. A couple of decades ago if someone had argued that this behavior qualified as an act of martyrdom he would have been thrown out of the offices of mainstream clerics. Now, lots of them accept this deed as heroically proper in Islamic terms albeit only under certain conditions.

The same can be said with the idea of implementing a violent Jihad in contemporary situations. When Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who split off to engage in revolutionary activity, wrote the book about Jihad, "The Neglected Obligation," almost thirty years ago, he was viewed within Islam as a marginal crank. Now his views are mainstream and motivating thousands to fight and millions to support them.

The Islamists gains have not been enough to take over whole societies—one should also never underestimate the attractiveness of Arab nationalism as an ideology and of the regimes’ power to survive--but if this trend continues things could get a lot worse for the region and its inhabitants. At a minimum, fighting out this battle will take the next 30 to 50 years at least.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What’s futile: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons or U.S. policy to stop it?

By Barry Rubin

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on July 26 to Iran that if it’s seeking nuclear weapons, “Your pursuit is futile.” She continued:

“What we want to do is to send a message to whoever is making these decisions that if you’re pursuing nuclear weapons for the purpose of intimidating, of projecting your power we’re not going to let that happen.”

Now this no doubt sounds good at a Washington cocktail party but please just try to imagine how that sounds in Tehran:

What? When we have nuclear weapons that won’t be an improvement in our strategic situation?
And then they burst out laughing. This kind of statement is counterproductive.


--Iran won’t profit mightily from upward zooming oil prices, based both on fear of regional stability and increased leverage for Tehran in demanding higher prices?

--Millions of Muslims won’t shout, “Allahu Akbar!” and believe that Iran is now their leader because it can obliterate the Zionist entity and frighten the West?

--European states are going to be more eager to confront Iran and oppose its subversive and aggressive policies?

--Iranians won’t be inspired in large numbers through nationalist pride at the greatness of their state and regime, despite the many who hate that government?

--Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are going to be more willing to defy Iran by being pro-American or making peace with Israel or opposing Iran’s demands?

--The Islamist regime in Tehran is going to believe that an American government afraid to stand up to them now is going to be more willing to do so after they have nuclear weapons and long-range missiles? At the behest of a secretary of state who didn’t mention the use of force or of material power in her main foreign policy speech?

--The Syrians aren’t going to feel completely secure that no matter what they do, including assassinating Lebanese leaders in terrorist attacks, no one can touch them because they are under Iran’s nuclear umbrella?

I could go on. But the gap between the thinking and rhetoric of the administration compared to the way people think and act in the Middle East has grown to record proportions.

Like us, Iranian leaders understand that Clinton’s statements aren’t warnings of future action but substitutes for any real action.

“We’re not going to let,” Clinton says, Iran extend its power.

What are you going to do: counter the spread of Iranian influence to Lebanon by destroying Hizballah and to the Palestinians by forcing Hamas out of the Gaza Strip?

Maintain a large U.S. force in Iraq?

Strike back at Iran’s regime because of its sponsorship of terrorism?

Here’s Clinton’s plan: promise the Saudis, other Arabs, and presumably Israel that if they are attacked by Iran with nuclear weapons the United States will…what? Attack Iran with nuclear weapons after these countries are flattened?

Of course, that means that Iran’s regime is going to extend its power by flourishing the weapons, not firing them.

Concepts like this one are turning the United States from superpower to super-pitiful.

Hamas and the House of (No) Commons(ense)

By Barry Rubin

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has just issued a 100-page report on the Middle East. Here is the main conclusion as expressed by Mike Gapes, the committee chair:

“We see few signs that the current policy of non-engagement with Hamas is achieving the Quartet’s stated objectives....We therefore reiterate our recommendation from 2007, that the government should urgently consider engaging with moderate elements within Hamas.”

In those few words are expressed six of the main and most harmful Western myths about the Middle East.

First, make the problem go away. Anything other than that is failure. Containing Hamas, weakening it over time, showing that radicalism doesn’t pay, or other such goals are not worth pursuing. Only if there is no more problem can the objective be considered achieved. This assumes that peace, quiet, and the existence of no problems is the normal state of politics and international relations. It isn’t.

Thus, follows the conclusion that policy has failed, but it can succeed, and something must be done.

Second, problems can and should be made to go away fast. Patience is a failure, not a virtue. So something must be done immediately. Naturally, this is not the rule the Middle Eastern factors play by. They believe in attrition, wearing the other side down, in the belief that God and history is on their side, while the West is cowardly and weak. They are half-right.

Third, that something which must be done must be Western and Israeli concessions. The argument is that if the other side is intransigent, that means its intended victims cannot be since a quick solution has to be achieved. Even if the status quo is not so bad for the West and the other side is supposedly losing, since issues must be resolved our own defeat is preferable to steadfastness.

There are--in a reversal of all previous thinking--only two alternative strategies offered since victory has been defined as both impossible and undesirable: surrender because our side is suffering losses and casualties, or give in because the other side is suffering at our hands.

The first--human losses, fear of terrorism, desire for more money by, say, trading with Iran--is often the real reationale; the second--deprivation and death of those on the enemy side--offers a chance for humanitarian self-congratulation. The fact that this would empower terrorists and extremists to kill and repress more people is ignored since it isn't admitted that the conflict would continue no matter what concessions are given.

Fourth, the nature of your opponent is irrelevant. Ideology is unimportant. We all believe in the same things, don't we? So just because a group, Hamas in this case, says that Jews are sub-humans, that Israel must be wiped off the map, that Western power must be broken, that Islam must triumph over everything, doesn't really mean anything, does it? We all "want the same things" supposedly. So you deal with Hamas or Hizballah or Iran or Syria the same way you manage, for example, an environmental group from Surrey or a local housing authority in Kent.

Fifth, there’s got to be a moderate in there somewhere. President Ronald Reagan once joked that an optimist is someone who sees a room full of manure and concludes that there must be a pony in there somewhere. A modern European (and often American nowadays) statesman is someone who sees a terrorist movement or aggressive radical regime and is certain there's a moderate in there somewhere. And naturally if the West gives enough concessions to these "moderates" the "naturally" moderate character of the movement's members will take over and lead to a compromise settlement that will make the problem go away quickly.

Sixth, if anyone stands in the way of this grand design--like Czechoslovakia in 1938 or Israel in 2009--that foolish little country which actually thinks its own survival, much less interests, are of any importance becomes the villain. Why if only it sacrificed itself the problem could be solved and peace in our time established! There's an appropriate Yiddish proverb here: When a man is dead his problems cease.

A European in the audience angrily asked me during a recent lecture why they should all die because of Israel. Islamist terrorists are coming after them, you see, but if they just feed Israel to the carnivores, the sheep will be left in peace to live or at least make money and be left along. Such an accusation would be huffily denied and usually doesn't appear on the surface but it is, nonetheless, quite true.

One can only gape at the wisdom of Gapes. In the hands of such ignoramuses--not only ignorant of facts (which could be forgiven) but also on the most fundamental principles of politics and diplomacy--does the Western world's fate lie. Why not Israel's fate? Because it won't heed such counsels. But of course they can also do a great deal of damage to it as well.

This reminds me of something. In 1969, according to declassified British documents, the British government decided to open a dialogue with Fatah, which was daily carrying out terrorist operitions against Israel, portraying the PFLP as the radicals and Fatah as the moderates. Basically, in the meetings the British government is begging Fatah not to attack the UK and to discourage the PFLP from attacking.

The next year, in the war between King Hussein of Jordan--one of the closest British clients--and Fatah/PLO, the British government threw King Hussein under the bus and was ready to accept Arafat as Jordan's ruler. Fortunately, the US and Israel saved the king. If UK policy had had its way then, the results would have been horrifying.

Oh, and so the House of Lords doesn't feel left out here's something about UK policy toward Hizballah, which has been along similar lines.

Obama’s Love Letters in the Sand; Big Strategy: Ask Arab Leaders to Make Peace with Israel

By Barry Rubin

“How you laughed when I cried,
Each time we saw the tide,
Take our love letters from the sand.”

So went the 1931 song made famous by Pat Boone in 1957. And that’s what President Barack Obama’s been writing. Talking about his respect for Islam and distancing himself a bit from Israel and hoping that his love will be requited by relatively moderate Arab states.

It does have an amusing side. A very large part of the big U.S. strategy for the Middle East is that while demanding publicly Israel makes a unilateral concession about construction on existing settlements, he’s also politely privately asking Arab states to offer confidence-building measures toward Israel.

They won’t. Then what?

It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years back with a former deputy assistant secretary of state. She’s spent much of the Bill Clinton years travelling to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Arab states trying to get them to help the peace process. Even, she begged, to give some money to Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. They did virtually nothing.

The message was (and is): it’s the job of the United States to deliver to us the diplomatic outcome we want, including forcing Israel to meet our demands; it’s our job to complain about it.

So Obama himself went to Saudi Arabia and got…nothing. Hillary Clinton went to the Gulf Arab states and got…nothing. U.S. envoy George Mitchell went to the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt and got…nothing.

And Obama, reportedly, wrote at least seven Arab states—including Morocco--asking them to show they wanted to make peace with Israel. He, too, will get nothing. Indeed, even if settlement construction were to freeze over he will get nothing.

The Saudis have already said they aren’t inclined to give anything.

Doesn’t everyone know this?

But consider how this is being carried out. First, the United States bashes Israel and demands a concession. Only then does it ask for some Arab quid pro quo. Why should they give anything when they would rather maintain a U.S.-Israel rift?

Of course, the pretense is that Israel hasn’t given enough, the same line that was used all through the 10-year-long 1990’s peace process era. But if Israel’s prime minister were to stand on his head and sing Um Kalthoum hits would that change anything? No.

Why? Well it’s called political analysis, a craft not much in favor in Western policymaking circles these days. Arab regimes need the conflict with Israel to stay in power, using it as diversion and excuse. Moreover, they know that any peace moves would provide ammunition to their Islamist foes and upset their masses who have been fed an anti-Israel diet for decades.

The main reported confidence-building gestures being asked of the Saudis is to let Israeli commercial airliners ly in Saudi airspace. Saudi Arabia is in a state of war with Israel. Can you imagine how the Saudi clerics and public would react to an announcement of such permission being granted?

Well, the regime can do so. Anybody who could make such a request has no comprehension of Middle East politics. Anyone who thinks that this would be possible if only Israel stopped building a few apartments on the West Bank has no comprehension of reality in general.

And why on top of that should Arab states do anything when Western criticism of Israel is at all-time high levels? They are, endless grumbling aside, rather pleased with that status quo.

Moreover, why do the other Arab states—outside of Egypt and Jordan which have benefitted from a signed document since they are immediate neighbors of Israel--need formal peace any way when the current no war, no peace suits them fine?

As for Syria, it’s doing just fine with its “resistance” philosophy, allied with Iran and trying to gobble up Lebanon once again. Conflict with Israel, at least in theory and through Lebanon, is one of the main assets of the Syrian regime.

So far, Obama has little to show for six months of effort: some sycophantic remarks by King Abdallah of Jordan, probably the least effective of Arab leaders and an op-ed piece by Bahrain's Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

Let’s take another look at that op-ed piece. It has been made to sound good by Western media reporting but if you read it closely the text shows how unlikely Obama is to get anywhere. He wrote: "The reality is that peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning--patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel.

In other words, the Arabs haven’t done a good enough job propagandizing Israelis. There is no mention of negotiations. But if the Arab side has nothing much to offer what is it going to communicate? True, he added, “All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."

But he has no intention of doing so. And neither does anyone else.

What’s really interesting here is what Obama will do as the months pass and nobody in the Arab world seems willing to help him. He might say: Guess I was wrong. Not everyone’s so eager for peace as I thought.

Or he might say: If only those Israelis had stopped construction on settlements I’d have the Nobel Peace Prize by now.

But this is an old game, played repeatedly in the 1990s: if only Israel recognizes the PLO, turns over territory to it, lets 200,000 Palestinians return, stops expanding settlements, let’s the Palestinian regime have guns, gives free access to its workers, pulls out of southern Lebanon, pulls out of the Gaza Strip, etc., etc., etc., than everything will be fine.

And since so much evidence has disproven that the Arab states are yearning for peace and just need some gesture from Israel or invitation by the United States, why go on believing it?

Or as the song about writing letters like Obama’s put it:

“You made a vow that you would ever be true
But somehow that vow meant nothing to you.”

Can someone in this government please study the history of the issue they are purporting to solve?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Egyptian Succession: The Crisis Waiting to Happen

By Barry Rubin

There’s one crisis in the Middle East to which attention is rarely paid but which will one day, soon, explode onto the front pages: Who will be Egypt’s next president?

President Husni Mubarak will pick his successor all by himself. And if he dies without doing so? A meeting of the regime’s elite will make the decision.

Mubarak is 81 years old, was made vice-president 34 years ago, and has served as president without any vice-president for 28 years. His health is not good but those who know how bad it is don’t say and those who say don’t know.

There are two main candidates to be taken seriously: Gamal Mubarak, 46, the president’s son who had a career as an investment banker, and Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence. For Egypt to follow Syria’s example and have what looks like a hereditary monarchy under the guise of a republic would be to invite ridicule.

Otherwise, Gamal might appear impressive on the surface to Western governments but that could well be a deceptive. When Syrian President, dictator Hafiz al-Asad decided to hand over to Bashar, he spent years preparing the ground, grooming the young man superficially, securing the agreement of the elite, and getting rid of any possible rivals. Bashar has been repressive, adventurous, murderous, and radical. He has murdered Lebanese politicians, also dispatched terrorists against Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. But from a Syrian regime standpoint, his reign has been successful precisely because he’s been so terrible in his foreign policy.

Gamal seems a nice young man, Westernized, technocratic, friendly to business. Yet in the Middle East, nice guy dictators finish up in front of firing squads, in a manner of speaking. Contrary to his reputation as monster, the last shah was closer to Gamal than to Bashar in character.

Can Gamal really control a country of 80 million people with seething poverty and a growing radical Islamist movement? He may well lack the required toughness and is certainly unlikely to become a popular figure.

And if members of Egypt’s elite don’t think so, they will try to keep him out of office and start plotting if he ever does sit on the throne, um, presidential seat.

In contrast, Suleiman, 73, is tough and street-smart. He is well-regarded at home and in the West, but how the all-important army high command feels about him is not so clear. Moreover, given his age, he would likely prove an interim president. Still, he knows how to play the Middle East political game quite well.

If Gamal can claim that he would be better from a developmental standpoint, Suleiman would do a better job in the regional and domestic security areas.

The danger to Egypt is more medium- than short-term. The country is nowhere near an Islamist takeover. But if Gamal becomes president would one be able to say that in five or ten years?

Finally, the regime elite might come together to insist on a third candidate, say a former general who has gone into administration. The timing of the decision and implementation on succession is going to be a central factor. Keep a close eye on this issue. It may soon be a crisis.

The Case for Anti-Freeze: Regarding Israeli Construction on Settlements

By Barry Rubin

Let me begin by saying that in exchange for full peace and an end to the conflict, I not only support the dismantling of all Jewish settlements on the territory of Palestine, I enthusiastically endorse it. Why then am I against freezing construction on existing Jewish settlements?

I'm focusing now on the freeze question. Since we are so far away from a peace settlement, I will save the other, hypothetical issue for some future time.

Here, in brief, are reasons why I oppose a freeze on construction within existing settlements:

--No advantage for Israel. It has been made clear that in exchange for this major concession, Israel gets nothing in return. Yet while Israel is being “ordered” to go beyond the Road Map plan, the Palestinian side is not even being pressed to fulfill its obligations under the plan. Indeed, if Israel were to stop construction, no matter what the Palestinian did to violate their own previous commitments in future, Israel would not have Western support or restarting it.

--Doesn’t advance peace. Any construction freeze will do nothing to advance peace. The problem on the Arab-Palestinian side includes regime interest, total lack of empathy for Israeli rights and interests, radical forces, desire for Israel’s elimination, and fear of Islamists and the masses. These factors are not total and vary widely among different forces but are sufficient to block any chance of comprehensive peace for decades.

--Doesn’t advance struggle against Iran and radical Islamism. Such an Israeli concession will not bring increased Arab state assistance on these other issues, despite U.S. expectations. Indeed, this, too, is also becoming increasingly obvious even to Washington.

--Sends signal of weakness which will lead to escalation of Arab demands. We’ve already seen this. Both the Palestinians and Syrians were ready to resume negotiations but once they saw U.S. policy they added more preconditions of their own.

--This step will merely lead to the next demand on the U.S. and European list. We have seen how previous Israeli concessions, such as the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip or indeed the Oslo accords themselves, have quickly been forgotten despite Western promises to reward Israeli risk-taking. Within two weeks or so, some new non-negotiable demand will be put on Israel.

--It would compromise Israel’s goal of border modifications. Construction on settlements is not random but focuses on close-in places located in small areas which Israel intends to claim in any comprehensive peace agreement (called the "settlement blocs" concept), possibly as part of territorial swaps. These areas, no more than three percent of the combined West Bank/Gaza Strip area, are high-priority strategic locations for Israel such as Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim.

--The inclusion of east Jerusalem. By including east Jerusalem as settlements, the demand sets the stage for a return to partition of the city along pre-1967 lines. Even people like me—a minority in Israel—who are ready to have a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem aren’t willing to give up the places where housing is being built, like the Jewish Quarter and the area around French Hill, for example.

--Accepting the United States going back on its word sets a terribly dangerous precedent. I don’t care what Obama administration officials say, I know enough former officials in the U.S. and Israeli governments who were there to be certain that the U.S. government did agree to allow continued construction on existing settlements. This has also been the public position of all Israeli prime ministers since 1993 when the Oslo agreement was signed. If Israel accepts this double-dealing (no matter how much it is a sincere mistake), how can it take seriously U.S. guarantees given as part of a future comprehensive peace agreement or any other issue for that matter?

--Settlements are not merely a negative factor in the peace process. It is important to remember the realities of politics. If the continued existence of settlements and even construction on them is such a horror for Palestinians that should give them an added incentive to make peace, get a state, and have settlements removed completely from a Palestinian state’s territory. It is only because they don’t want a compromise peace that they complain about settlements without taking the simple step that would eliminate them.

--Finally, I believe that for all practical purposes, the United States is bluffing. In real terms, an Israeli refusal to back down will not have a serious material effect on Israeli interests or on long-term U.S.-Israel relations. I have argued this case more fully here. But I will just remark that to foment a confrontation on this issue would deny the United States any help or concession from Israel regarding anything else. In addition, whatever the congressional, Jewish, or popular support the administration has for advocating a construction freeze does not extend to punishing Israel for refusing to capitulate.

This makes for a pretty compelling case. Most Israelis across the political spectrum agree with it, though they would add additional points or omit some of those made above. But anyone who thinks this is merely a "right-wing" position understands nothing about contemporary Israeli politics and public opinion.

And that’s why Israeli policy is going to follow the anti-freeze path.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition, Viking Penguin), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). Go here to read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fatah and the Palestinian Movement: Weak, Divided, Intransigent, and Heading For Bigger Problems

By Barry Rubin

With Fatah, ruler of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO--in effect, Israel’s Palestinian negotiating partner--planning to hold a rare congress to determine the group’s future, it’s a good time to examine its leadership, the Fatah Central Committee.

Two important facts leap out at you: the high degree of both age and intransigence among those who lead the Palestinian movement. A generational struggle cannot be postponed forever, but the younger cohort may be even more radical.

Almost all the members have been on the committee for more than 20 years; the last one was added in 1995. All are over age 65.

Why are Fatah’s leaders so rarely discussed? Because to do so immediately shows there isn’t going to be any comprehensive peace agreement in this generation and that the designation of Fatah as "moderate" rests on a rather broad definition of that word. The following analysis of the actual Palestinian power structure can be ignored but not refuted.

PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, 74 years old, is no dictator able to order around the other leaders. Even if he wanted to make a compromise deal—which he doesn’t—he couldn’t deliver even his own purported followers, much less his Hamas rivals.

Of the Fatah Central Committee’s seventeen surviving members, only three can be classified as relative moderates. At least seven can be called radicals—many still oppose the original 1993 Oslo agreement—even in relation to the late PLO, Fatah, and PA leader Yasir Arafat. The remaining seven might be called hardliners whose views are close to those of Arafat, which makes any peace agreement with Israel impossible.

One thing that unites them all is a hatred of Hamas and a belief that Fatah is the natural and only conceivable leader of the Palestinian movement. They are eager to make a deal with Hamas, but only if the Islamists accept a subordinate role, which won’t happen. Many in the younger Fatah generation, however, are sympathetic to a more equal coalition with their “brothers” to fight Israel.

At present, fourteen of seventeen members could never make a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel. Even the fifteenth, Abbas himself, is so firm on demanding all Palestinian refugees must be allowed to return to live in Israel he could be added to this group.

The two genuine moderates on the Committee, at least by Palestinian standards, are Nabil Shaath, 71 years old, and Ahmad Qurie (Abu Ala), 72 years old. Both have declined in importance in recent years. Shaath reached the peak of his power as Arafat’s moderate front-man, though he briefly served as prime minister in 2005. Shaath owns his own successful—though partially through his political connections and with serious accusations of corruption—business.

Qurie was prime minister for most of the 2003-2006 period but quarrelled with Abbas. Neither Shaath nor Qurie has any political base of support. These two might well be willing to make a two-state deal with Israel but their political power today is zero.

In comparison, many of those who are far more extreme hold positions of power and influence in the organization. They and not Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (who is technically an independent) or PA leader Abbas are the ones who really control Fatah, the main Palestinian institutions, and the West Bank.

The best-known of those rejecting a two-state solution and the leading figure in the radical group is Farouq Qaddumi, 78 years old, who is Fatah’s chairman. He continues to oppose the Oslo agreements and lives in Tunis. Qaddumi is very popular in the movement though clearly of the generation now moving off the stage, and extremely close to Syria. Periodically, he snipes at Abbas. While he isn’t going to displace Abbas, his views—which have not changed over the last 40 years—still set much of the organization’s and movement’s tone.

Another influential radical is Salim al-Zaanoun, head of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s quasi-parliament. Zaanoun has always denied that the PLO changed its Charter to recognize Israel, as it pretended to do in 1996. He ought to know and in fact he is quite correct. This was a violation of the Palestinians’ obligations under the Oslo agreement, one of many which have gone unnoticed by the West.

Others among the radicals, both of them opponents of the Oslo accord who didn't return to the West Bank, are Muhammad Ghana'im (Abu Mahir)and Brigadier General Muhammad Jihad, a former Palestine Liberation Army officer. Arafat’s former spokesman, Tayyib Abd al-Rahim, supported the accords but is also a radical in today’s spectrum.

The most actively important radicals in Fatah's hierarchy are Sakhr Habash (Abu Nizar), long-time head of Fatah’s Revolutionary Committee (the body immediately below the Central Committee) and Fatah’s key ideologue, and Sharif Ali Mashal (Abu Zaki), long-time PLO director of Arab world relations and now Fatah’s representative in Lebanon. Both men are close to being traditional radical Arab nationalists. To hear what these two say is to be back in the world of PLO politics from the 1960s and leaves no illusion about the possibility of peace between the Palestinians and Israel.

What about the “merely” hardline group? This includes veteran Fatah member Hani al-Hasan, 72, who criticized Abbas’s leadership and urged continued attacks on settlers but not within Israel itself, and three former PLO diplomats: Hakam Balaoui (Abu Marwan), a personal favourite of Arafat, Abdallah Franji, and Subhi Abu Karsh (Abu Monzer). Another is Intisar al-Wazir (Um Jihad), 68, widow of a key PLO leader and sometime minister of social warfare, the only woman on the committee. Finally, among the most veteran members is Nasir Yusuf, a former police commander and national security advisor.

The last member added, in 1995, and the only one not living in exile for decades is Zakariyya al-Agha, a 67-year-old doctor who Arafat made token leader of Fatah in the Gaza Strip with no real power. There is not a single local West Bank member, despite the fact that this is the area that Fatah rules.

The end of Abbas’s career is in sight. There’s no conceivable consensus candidate to become head of Fatah, the PA, and/or the PLO. Equally, there’s no leadership willing to make any comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. The Palestinian movement’s troubles may get much worse.

How can such huge factors be ignored by those many people and governments in the West acting as if a quick resolution of the conflict is both possible and such a high priority?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fatah's Big Meeting: No Recognition of Israel; No End to Armed Struggle and New Leaders, Too?

By Barry Rubin

On August 4, Fatah is scheduled to open its general assembly, the first since 1990 in Tunis, which I had the honor to attend as a journalist. Having followed Palestinian politics for 30 years and written three books on the subject, I’m always amazed by how few people recognize the importance o this topic.

For them, it was enough for, say, Yasir Arafat to make a remark to some Western diplomat or politician or journalist in English. The fact that there were 100 contrary statements made by him and others in Arabic was of no interest whatsoever.

Yet there can be no Israeli-Palestinian peace—which often seems as if it is the world’s most important issue—without a position being taken by the PLO, Fatah, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and let’s not forget Hamas conducive to such an outcome.

So the fact that PA “president” (incidentally a term which, typically, the Palestinian side agreed in the Oslo negotiations not to use but has nonetheless employed—one of many commitments broken) or the prime minister (a position which exists and a man who holds it only due to the pressure of Western donors) says something moderate in English seems to outweigh that statement being daily contradicted by everyone else, including these same two people, when speaking in Arabic.

The problem with Fatah, the PA and PLO’s ruling group, is it is far more concerned about preserving its radical image than developing a moderate one.

One recent gimmick is to deny that Fatah has recognized Israel’s right to exist, a statement made both by Rafik Natsheh, a Fatah Central Committee member, and Muhammad Dahlan, the PA’s national security advisor. The claim actually rests on a technicality: the PLO and PA, whose leaders were all from Fatah, signed agreements recognizing Israel but not Fatah itself.

Not only does Fatah not recognize Israel, they say, but isn’t asking anyone else to do so. In other words, willingness to accept Israel’s existence is not being required of Hamas as a condition for its joining the PA or allying again with Fatah.

What message does this send to Israelis? There’s no real partner for peace. What message should it send to Western observers? The same one.

And what about dropping armed struggle against Israel from Fatah’s Charter? Also, no. In Natsheh’s words:

"Let all the collaborators and those who are deluding themselves hear that this will never happen.” In other words, anyone who favors declaring that Fatah will seek a state through only peaceful means is a collaborator. And since Natsheh is head of Fatah’s internal disciplinary court, that’s a threat. Being judged a collaborator is punishable by death.

Will Israel let the delegates in? Will Hamas let the delegates out (of the Gaza Strip)?

Will the conference even be held? The Fatah leadership doesn’t like to have the members play a role in decisionmaking and already it has become clear that if Hamas doesn’t let Fatah people go to the meeting it would be cancelled.

I can’t wait to see who will be on the new Fatah Central Committee. And remember also that the retirement of Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PA and PLO is probably coming within the next year or so. It is impossible to guess at this point who will replace him and be only the third leader that Fatah has known in its almost 45 years of existence and for the PA in its 16 years in power.

Sources for quotes:,7340,L-3750930,00.html

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to To see his blog,

Iran: Extremist, Terrorist, Repressive Dictator? Ok! Doesn't Hate all Israelis? Fire him!

In a rather amusing example of how the Israel issue works in the Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority world, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a problem. He appointed an aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, as first vice president.

Now this appointment isn't being questioned because Mashaie is someone who has faced charges of corruption and incompetence.

Nor is it in trouble because Mashaie, who is about to take what is technically the third highest position in Iran (after supreme guide and president), has experience only as an aide to Ahmadinejad.

Nor is the issue the fact that Mashaie is the president's in-law. His daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son.

Nor is it that the leadership has been involved in stealing an election and suppressing peaceful mass demonstrations.

No, the problem is that Mashaie once in an excess of public relations' oriented enthusiasm said that Iran's government doesn't hate Israel's people, only its governments, policies, and the existence of their state.

This rather minimal gesture at trying to show that the Iranian regime isn't intent on genocide has made Mashaie a pariah in many circles.

But if Mashaie was wrong to say that, this means that Iran's government does hate each and every individual Israeli. This says something rather significant about its intentions if it should ever get nuclear weapons.

Of course, this is not atypical in the region. In a July 16 Washington Post op-ed widely hailed as a paragon as moderation, Bahrain's crown prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa writes:

"An Israeli might be forgiven for thinking that every Muslim voice is raised in hatred, because that is usually the only one he hears. Just as an Arab might be forgiven for thinking every Israeli wants the destruction of every Palestinian."

Not so. The former point is based on facts. Hatred is the only voice that Israelis hear because 99 percent of the time that is the only voice that is spoken. If you survey Arab media, schools, mosque sermons, and government statements that is almost all you see. Every exception is so rare as to be prized and exhibited.

An Iraqi member of parliament who visits Israel faces an assassination attempt and expulsion from the legislature. Palestinian Authority media, schools, and mosques daily exalt terrorism.

If, however, one were to look at the equivalent institutions and voices in Israel, it is the exact opposite.

So if in Iran it is forbidden to say: I don't hate all Israelis, and if equivalent rules apply to Arabic-speaking states, it is not hard to figure out where the responsiblity lies for the absence of peace and the persistence of violence.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Understanding What Governments Say: Two Case Studies, Israel and Peace; America and a Nuclear Iran

By Barry Rubin

How to analyze statements by governments is an important task. In doing so, we should focus on context and not force-read extraneous ideas based on conceptions of their ideological orientation.

An example of how not to do this task is the Western media coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's positions and the new Israeli peace plan. Assuming that Netanyahu is just a "hardliner" who "doesn't want" peace, there is a tendency to ignore what he actually says and does to the point of caricature.

First, Netanyahu was criticized when he didn't say he wanted a two-state solution. Then when he did, this was simply dismissed as bowing to U.S. pressure and insincere. Yet the context was that he would accept this option as long as Israel's requirements were met. He then laid this out quite clearly.

Let's take another example. Dan Meridor, Israel's minister for security agencies, told interviewers that a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied a willingness to accept a nuclear-armed Iran.

What Clinton said was:

"We want Iran to calculate," that if it gets nuclear weapons, "the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region [and will] do even more to develop the military capacity of those (allies) in the Gulf, it is unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer."

In short, Meridor misunderstands Clinton; Clinton misunderstands the Middle East.

What was Clinton obviously saying? Iran, don't bother to develop nuclear weapons because even if you do you will be no better off. We will counter that move by U.S. actions.

Is she wrong? Yes, quite obviously so. Iran knows that it isn't going to launch nuclear weapons at, say, Saudi Arabia. Tehran will merely use possession of such weapons to intimidate Arab and European states into doing what it wants.

Moreover, Iran's popularity in the Muslim and Arab world among the masses would soar, as it would be seen as an Islamic superpower that is going to flatten Israel, defy the West, and defeat the United States.

And any Islamist regime in Tehran that would make an apocalyptic choice to use nuclear weapons on Israel--which is not so likely but chillingly possible--won't be deterred by a U.S. threat. After all, it knows that Israel already has nuclear weapons of its own.

For their part, Arab states will not feel so secure with a promised U.S. nuclear umbrella. It will be cold comfort on them if America strikes back at Iran after they are all dead. And would you trust your life to a promise by Barack Obama to go to war on your behalf? As or the idea that America will strengthen Gulf Arab allies to the point that they can defeat Iran or even defend themselves against Iran's nuclear arsenal is laughable.

Consequently, Arab states will rush to appease Tehran, and given America's self-inflicted weakness today who can blame them?

In other words, Clinton is flatly wrong, quite distant from realities that millions of people in the Middle East understand. But being dangerously mistaken is not the same thing as desiring something bad to occur.

Similarly, a State Department spokesman responded to a question at a press briefing asking whether the U.S. government was considering putting financial pressure on Israel to get it to stop construction, he responded, "It's premature to talk about that." This was not a major new U.S. threat, it was simply an official without guidance on what to say, simply answering: No one is talking about that now.

Then he added, "What we're trying to do...right now is to create an environment which makes it conducive for talks to go forward." But obviously U.S. sanctions on Israel would sabotage any such climate.

It is imperative to comprehend what a given government is actually saying.

If a government is acting on bad intentions--as the West often mistakenly thinks about Israel's leaders and many mistakenly think about the Obama administration--it is an enemy.

And if a government is making huge mistakes and misreading the situation--like the current U.S. administration but decidely not like Israel--it should be persuaded.

One also must watch as events show it to be wrong and point out the increasingly obvious gap between policy and reality.

The irony is that Israel's analysis is demonstrably in accord with reality, so much so that to argue otherwise requires ignoring such things as the last 15 years of history, the nature of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, the ideology and structure of Iran or Syria, and so on down a long list of items.

Good analysis, which should be followed by good policy, doesn't come from projecting motives or engaging in stereotypes but through real comprehension of what is going on.