Obama Middle East speech changes nothing

Jews would be evicted from West Bank settlements like this one under the Obama Doctrine. Sony Stark photo


Wishful thinkers who had expected President Obama to lay out a new U.S. grand strategy for the Middle East – the so-called Obama Doctrine – during his much-anticipated address at the State Department on Thursday were bound to be disappointed.

That post-1945 American presidents were able to enunciate a series of U.S. “doctrines” to help mobilize support at home and abroad for American policy in the Middle East reflected a reality in which Washington – driven by pressures of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict – was advancing a set of core strategic goals that seemed to be aligned with U.S. interests and values.

The “good guys” deserving U.S. protection and support were the “moderate” Arab regimes that were supporting American (and Western) interests, providing access to the region’s oil resources, and seeking some form of coexistence with Israel. In that context, it is important to remember that until the administration of President George W. Bush started advancing its Freedom Agenda, no administration declared that spreading democracy was a core U.S. interest in the region.

The current political upheaval in the Middle East is just the latest and most dramatic in a series of changes that have been transforming the region since the end of the Cold War and that are making it more difficult for any U.S. president to articulate a set a principles that could guide policy in an area of the world that has been drawing in more U.S. military and economic resources.

Indeed, Obama’s speech only helped to demonstrate the failure on the part of the president and other officials and lawmakers to provide a clear rationale for U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Hence, Obama was trying to draw the outline of a revisionist narrative in which the goals of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were aligned with U.S. interests and values – despite the fact that the demonstrators there ended up ousting from power staunch pro-American allies.

And while most Americans would probably applaud Obama’s call for protecting individual rights, freedom of religion, the emancipation of women, and the promotion of free markets in Egypt and other Arab countries, there are no indications that the majority of the people who are driving the change that supports these principles.

If anything, considering the findings of several opinion polls conducted in the Middle East, Arab governments who will be more responsive to their people’s aspirations are probably going to be less inclined to move in the direction set by Obama and to embrace policies that will be less favorable to the interests of the U.S. and Israel.

Reiterating – as Obama did in his speech – that the collapse of the authoritarian regimes in the region doesn’t have to lead to civil wars between religious, ethnic and groups sounds nice. But the experience of Iraq – not to mention Lebanon — suggests otherwise, especially as the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites seems to be spilling over into Bahrain and the rest of the Persian Gulf.

And while in Iraq U.S. policies are helping to put in place a Shiite-led government with ties to Iran, in Bahrain Washington is backing the Saudis in their effort to suppress a Shiite revolt backed by Iran.

In fact, the alliance between the U.S. and the Saudi Arabian theocracy – less democratic than Syria, more corrupt than Libya, the purveyor of radical Islamic values, where women and non-Muslims have no political and other rights — makes a mockery of much of what Obama was saying on Thursday.

Moreover, Obama’s address on Thursday also highlighted what could be construed as a paradox. The more American military and financial commitments in the Middle East keep rising the more the U.S. becomes marginalized in the process.

Indeed, contrary to the hopes articulated by some Arabs and Israelis, Obama’s speech did not amount to the kind of “game changer” that could bring back to life the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace process. There is very little that the Obama administration could do to change the status-quo in Israel/Palestine. Why pretend otherwise?

Well, perhaps because Obama believes that he does not have any other choice but to continue muddling through in the Middle East from which the U.S. will not be able to extricate itself anytime soon. Hence, Obama’s disjointed response to the upheaval in the Arab World: Grudgingly supporting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, unenthusiastically backing limited military action in Libya, projecting a nuanced attitude to the unrest in Bahrain, and confounding supporters and opponents in Washington and in the Middle East who tend to project into him the respective fantasies (peacemaker) or nightmares (anti-Israeli).

That may not a doctrine. But then that is not too bad if you consider that his predecessor in office had one. With the single-minded determination required to prevail in ideological combat, W. saw the world through the prism of a great idea – the struggle between good and evil – and tried to impose it on a the complex reality of Iraq where the ethnic and religious identities took precedence over notions of democracy and liberalism.

Obama should be praised for recognizing that what is happening in the Middle East may follow neither the model of Iran in 1979 (radical Islam) nor the outline of Eastern Europe in 1989 (liberal democracy), but could instead generate a mishmash of changes that don’t fit into a linear and coherent pattern. But at some point, the costs of his ad-hocish and accommodating responses to the developments in the region could prove too high to sustain in the long run.

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy, international trade, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times.
His analyses on global affairs have appeared in many newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, World Policy Journal, Current History, Middle East Journal, and Mediterranean Quarterly. The broadcast outlets CNN, Fox News, CBC, BBC and VOA have interviewed him. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.


Bibi decries Palestinian violence

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that the state of Israel, legally established 63 years ago, continues to extend a hand of peace toward its Arab neighbors. But, he says, the invasion of Israel’s borders Sunday by those who oppose Israel’s very existence is an indication that the hand that’s being offered is being rejected among extremists.

Thousands of Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese attempted, many of them successfully, to breach Israel’s borders on Sunday to mark what the Arab world calls Nakba Day, or “Catastrophe Day” – the day the modern state of Israel was created. Israelis celebrated last Tuesday – the day of independence on the Hebrew calendar.

Ten protesters were killed when Israeli troops and police fired at them as they attempted to illegally enter the country en masse.  Many more were injured.

“I regret that there are extremists among Israeli Arabs and in neighboring countries who have turned the day on which the State of Israel was established, the day on which the Israeli democracy was established, into a day of incitement, violence and rage,” Netanyahu said.

“There is no place for this, for denying the existence of the state of Israel.  No to extremism and no to violence.  The opposite is true.”

The Israel Defense Forces spokesman says that, at one point during the rioting, Palestinians on the West Bank used an ambulance for cover as they threw rocks at Israel troops. The IDF says that the rioters also used flares and firebombs, burned tires and damaged property.

Some of the most violent clashes occurred when hundreds of Syrian rioters infiltrated the Israeli-Syrian border into the village of Majdal Shams where they attacked IDF forces, the IDF says.

The IDF says that, in an attempt to turn the rioters back to Syria, forces fired selectively towards rioters who were targeting security infrastructure.

Rioting was reported, as well, in several locations in the West Bank. The IDF says that, south of Ramallah, in Qalandiya, approximately 600 Palestinians rioted.

There was rioting in the Gaza as well, most notably adjacent to the Erez Crossing where hundreds of Palestinian rioters threw rocks at IDF troops. The crossing, which is used to bring humanitarian supplies into the Gaza, was damaged during the rioting, the IDF says. Soldiers fired at the legs of rioters, the IDF spokesman said, in order to dispurse them and prevent them from entering Israeli territory.

IDF forces also spotted a Palestinian planting an explosive device along the security fence in the northern Gaza Strip. The IDF says soldiers opened fire hitting the bomber.

Syria condemned the killings as  “criminal acts” by Israel.

Dr. Moustafa Barghout, a Palestinian activist, said the coordinated effort in the West Bank, Gaza and along the Syrian and Lebanese borders was the direct result of the recent unification agreement, reached in Egypt, between Hamas and Fatah, Voice of America reported.

Those who believe that Palestinians have the right to return to Israel after being displaced when it was created heralded Sunday’s protests. MSNBC said they felt that the issue of return would be lost through negotiations and that the clashes put the issue back on the radar.

Israel opposes any suggestion that Palestinians have the right to occupy Israel in large numbers, fearing that a such massive influx of Arabs, many of whom, Israel argues, have no previous connection with the land, would tip the demographics so that Israel would no longer be a Jewish state.

Palestinians mourn bin Laden

In Gaza, sadness over bin Laden's death


JERUSALEM – International media outlets suggest that Osama bin Laden’s star had been on the wane across the Muslim world in recent years. But there is one place that was not true – amongst the Palestinian Arabs, where the A\al Qaeda leader still enjoyed relatively high approval ratings.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of Palestinian Muslims supported bin Laden. Some Jerusalem Arabs demonstrated that support on Monday evening when they gathered to mourn bin Laden’s assassination by American forces.

Dozens of Arabs from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan gathered for an evening vigil punctuated with rock attacks on Israeli police officers stationed nearby.

The Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem were the scene of mass Arab celebrations following the successful al Qaeda attacks on America on September 11, 2001.

In Gaza, Hamas harshly condemned the killing of bin Laden. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh referred to bin Laden as a “modest man and a Muslim warrior.”

Israeli Arab lawmaker Ibrahim Sarsour accused  President Obama of assassinating bin Laden so that he can win next year’s presidential election.

Article courtesy Israel Today Magazine

Territory annexation suggestion a bad idea



Another Likud minister says if the Palestinians unilaterally declare statehood as they have threatened, Israel should unilaterally annex the territories, the Jerusalem Post reports.

“You declared statehood? No problem. We will also declare…As children say: ‘You started it!’” the story quotes Moshe Kahlon as saying.
The most accurate part of what Kahlon says is “as children say.” Because he, and others in Likud who are making the same argument, are acting as children.

The issue of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a serious one. Neither side should be acting like children.

Kahlon knows its not a serious suggestion. Annexing the territories would create demographic issues that doesn’t want to confront.

A unilateral declaration by the Palestinians would be scoffed at by the United States and other supporters of Israel who feel that the only satisfactory resolution is one that is negotiated and agreed upon by all parties.

If Israel is to unilaterally declare anything, it should be that peace talks have been scheduled. The Israelis should show up at the table. Whether the Palestinian leadership sends delegates or not.

If Israel does that, the Palestinians have just two choices. Either come to the table to negotiate with Israel. Or refuse to come to the table, which would take away from them the high ground they’ll try to capture by declaring a state.

Red Cross official claims no Gaza humanitarian crisis


Mathilde Redmatn is the deputy director of the Red Cross in the Gaza Strip. Redmatn has had the opportunity to see with her eyes what most of us only see on television screens.

On previous assignments, Redmatn has lived in Congo and Colombia. Her activities in Gaza are completely different, she says.

“Of course the work is different everywhere, but here the fabric of life is problematic,” she says. “There are two peoples, one living under closure and one living under daily rocket fire, which violates international law.”

Redmatn has a lot to say about problems related to the closure Israel has placed on Gaza but she also talks about the surprising normalcy in one of the most explosive regions of the world that receives extensive media attention.

“There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” she explains.

“If you go to the supermarket, there are products. There are restaurants and a nice beach. The problem is mainly in maintenance of infrastructure and in access to goods, concrete for example. But above all, it is important to remember that the Israeli army has the right to protect the civilian population in its country. Israel is also hurt on a daily basis by violations of international law by Hamas.”

The Red Cross is an international organization founded in 1863. It promotes laws that protect the victims of war and provides humanitarian aid to people living in conflict zones. Red Cross representatives have worked in Gaza since 1967. Their goal, says Redmatn, is twofold.

“We are documenting human rights violations according to international law and we speak with relevant parties on how to take care of the issue,” Redmatn says.

“We are talking about captives , soldiers, the wounded, and in fact anyone defined by the Geneva Convention. Additionally, in the area of humanitarian assistance, we are mainly engaged in the areas of water and sanitation. We are talking about a highly dense population. Most of the infrastructure cannot be improved due to the closure so we try to improve the situation with existing tools. One example of this is a factory we helped establish in order to clean sewage water that spills into the sea.”

It is important to remember that the Red Cross is not a political organization by definition. It operates through reports and two-sided dialogue, without expressing its own positions, maintaining complete neutrality.

“Our goal is not to negotiate peace, but to ensure the well-being of the civilian population,” Redmatn says. “We understand and recognize Israel’s right to security but it needs to maintain the balance between that and the right of Palestinians living in Gaza to a living and to proper medical care. Of course this is also the responsibility of Hamas to its citizens and therefore we also have relations with them.”

The Red Cross played a role in the Gaza flotilla incident last year.

“We offered our assistance to Israeli authorities in regards to people who were arrested who were from countries without diplomatic relations with Israel,” Redmatn says. On the question of whether the flotilla was peaceful, she answers neutrally “this is a matter we discuss with the responsible parties.” According to her, the flotilla led to changes in Israeli policy on Gaza but those changes are not yet complete.

“More goods enter, but there is still room for improvement” in regards to exports and the passage of people, she says.

A clear goal, but is it possible in light of the current threat? The subject, Redmatn says, is sensitive.

“Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip is against international law because it is directed at civilians,” she says. “We conduct hidden dialogue with Hamas on the matter. As time passes, the dialogue also develops.”

On recent events in the Arab world, Redmatn says: “The new wind blowing in the Arab world doesn’t change the current activities of the Red Cross in the Gaza Strip. It’s still too early to tell what will happen and how needs will change. In any case, we will respond quickly to changes and we will see what the future holds.”

As to the continued holding of an Israel soldier by Hamas, captured in 2006, Redmatn expresses a degree of frustration:

“We will continue to ask to monitor Gilad Shalit but we do not have the capability to force anything on Hamas.”

Operating in the Gaza Strip requires the Red Cross to work on an ongoing basis with the IDF.

“The relationship with the IDF has developed over the years,” Redmatn says. “The army understands our mandate.

“We are in daily contact with each other to coordinate the entry of goods into Gaza and the entry and exit of people, sometimes our personnel and sometimes patients who are going to Israel to receive medical care. The second matter still needs improvement as the time required to cross the border is still long. We hope to augment the medical equipment in Gaza itself in order to reduce the number of people who need to go outside [of Gaza].”

These days, she says, the organization has the goal of strengthening the relationship with IDF soldiers.

“Not everyone understands what we are doing,” she says. “Therefore, we talk about our work to soldiers who serve at the Erez crossing. The intention is to expand this to the entire area around Gaza.”

Redmatn called on all sides to abide by international law.

“It is important that organizations and countries respect international law,” she said. “Only thus will the situation get better.”

Suspects in Italian activist’s death killed

Two suspects in the killing of Italian human rights activist Vittorio Arrigoni in the Gaza have been killed in a clash with security forces, Hamas says in a written statement.

A third suspect was wounded as were three civilians.

Arrigoni was killed just hours after he was kidnapped in Gaza. Initially, Hamas tried to pin his killing on Israel. But now Hamas is acknowledging that an al Qaeda-backed group was responsible for his murder.