Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

May 27, 2010

Is Israel Preparing for Another War with Hezbollah?

Last week Congress authorized an additional $205 million in military aid to Israel to help them build up a short-range missile defense system.   This defense system, Iron Dome, was created following the 2006 war with Hizballah, during which time Hizballah fired somewhere around 4,000 rockets into Israel.  The system was designed to use guided missiles to shoot down mortars and rockets from Southern Lebanon and Gaza.  President Obama proposed the plan last week, asserting his administration’s “unshakeable commitment” to Israel’s security.

But is this missile defense system merely for defensive purposes? A number of scholars and journalists have suggested that Israel may be preparing to wage another war against Hizballah. And in April, King Abdullah of Jordan, addressing Congress, warned that a war between Israel and Hizballah is “imminent”. (more…)

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The Gaza Blockade

Israel claims the borders of Gaza are closed in order to block out violent forces and ensure protection of Israeli citizens.  Why, then, does a Turkish-led convoy of international pro-Palestinian activists and humanitarian supply intimidate Israel?

Israel has said it would block the 9 fleet ship, which is carrying over 20 million Euros worth of supplies, and 700 activists.  If allowed, the supplies would be the largest amount given to the Palestinian territories.

The convoy is spearheaded by the Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) of Istanbul, and the fleet includes ships from Britain, Greece, Algeria, Kuwait, Malaysia and Ireland. The fact that the parties are international and non-political in their advocacy of human rights shows how paranoid Israel is through its decision to block the IHH. (more…)

May 20, 2010

Solidarity with Yemeni Women

Today I attended a discussion about Yemeni women at the Woodrow Wilson Center featuring Sultana Al-Jeham, a public policy scholar at the center and Executive Director and Chairwoman of woman’s affairs’ at the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation (CDF) in Yemen. The  discussion, titled, “Yemeni Women: Challenges and Little Hope,” was indeed a sobering account on the issues affecting Yemeni women.  Yemeni women face problems in the areas of equality, education, health, political participation, poverty and marriage. (more…)

May 18, 2010

Nonviolence: a feasible strategy?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” But can nonviolence be the answer to the contentious issue of occupation in the West Bank?

Over the past few months, a grassroots boycott of settlement-produced goods has gripped Palestinians in the West Bank.  The boycott has recently become more organized, with volunteers (mostly students) campaigning door-to-door, distributing brochures, and burning settlement-products.  So far, the boycott of over one thousand products has resulted in the destruction of $5 million worth of settlement products.  It is estimated that $200 million worth of settlement goods are sold in the West Bank each year, which is a small portion of to Israel’s $200 billion GDP.  Although the economic effects of the boycott have been relatively minimal, it is the social and political effects that are crucial. (more…)

March 18, 2010

Awaking a Sleeping Giant?

Filed under: Arab attitudes,International politics,Iran,Washington's diplomacy — colbyconnelly @ 9:12 pm

In the West, relatively little is heard about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics. Until a Saudi judge hands down a sentence for an offense of Kingdom law which attracts attention from international human rights groups, most American media pay little attention to how the Kingdom operates. On the rare occasion when coverage is given, it is presented from a viewpoint which is perhaps best described as neo-Orientalist, and no attempt at understanding (a word some seem to think has the same connotation as “agreeing”, which is perhaps why it is avoided in so many instances) why the Saudis behave as such is made whatsoever.

It is becoming more apparent that the global balance of power is shifting eastward, with the diplomatic voices of Russia and China bearing ever more authority on the international stage, especially when one gives consideration to the two nations’ influence in the ongoing talks with regard to the Iranian nuclear situation. But what has the House of Saud made of the Iranian predicament? After all, it is but a small body of water whose name no one can agree upon that separates the Kingdom from the Islamic Republic. Thus it should be no surprise that recently, the more and more outspoken Prince Saud al-Faisal has made no shortage of statements regarding the proliferation and presence of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. (more…)

February 11, 2010

Martyr Iconography

Filed under: Arab attitudes,Gaza,Hamas,Iran,Lebanon,Palestinian politics,West Bank — Kimberly Doyle @ 12:52 pm

“Faces on the walls – martyrs freshly emerging from life and the printing presses, a death which is a remake of itself. One martyr replacing the face of another, taking his place on the wall, until displaced by yet another or by rain.” Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, accurately captured the culture of martyrdom and the phenomenon of martyr iconography in his book Memory for Forgetfulness. He understood how these images can create a vicious cycle of violence.

Martyrs exist throughout the world, but their images are increasingly used in places of crisis, and especially in the Middle East, to reflect social changes, shape society, and prolong violence. In the West Bank, Gaza, and the refugee camps in Lebanon the walls and streets are plastered with the faces of martyrs killed in the struggle against Israel. Posters, billboards, signs, and hand-painted murals with the images or names of martyrs are constant visual reminders of the struggle. On television, videos of martyrs pronouncing their last words fill the airspace. And in houses, pictures of heroic martyrs line the walls and children collect cards with the stats of martyrs, like baseball cards. Martyr iconography in these areas symbolizes the resistance struggle and the opposition to the current situation.

In Iran martyrs are national icons, symbolizing the struggles of the Islamic Revolution. On a wall near Tehran University there is a painting of a twelve-year-old boy, Hussein Fahmideh, who blew himself up in front of an Iraqi tank during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. And this image, according to a former professor of mine, was plastered on billboards and inscribed into history books throughout the nation. Fahmideh became a symbol of the new Islamic Republic and was immortalized as a hero. His struggle was emblematic of the greater struggle of the new Iranian government and his death was a sacrifice for this cause. In Iran martyrs are not symbolic of resistance or opposition, but of the hardships faced by the Islamic Republic. (more…)

January 13, 2010

Rami Khouri on Obama’s first year

Filed under: Arab attitudes,Washington's diplomacy — Helena Cobban @ 10:06 pm

It is nearly one year since Pres. Obama’s historic inauguration. But veteran Palestinian-Jordanian journalist Rami Khouri captured a sentiment that’s very common in the Middle East when he told our radio show “CNI: Jerusalem Calling” on January 7 that,

A year after his inauguration he hasn’t made much difference yet.

He has certainly changed the rhetoric of the United States. He has made a few policy moves that are different than what George Bush was doing.  But beyond the realm of rhetoric and a few limited moves he really hasn’t gotten into the substantive changes that one would have expected from what he was saying during the campaign and in the first couple of months of his presidency, when he was pushing very hard on the theme of change and a new way of diplomacy, etcetera.

But a year later, it seems that it’s more talk than action.

He continued,

There is still a little sense of ambiguity as to whether it is going to stay like this and what we see is what we get, or whether he’s holding back because he’s more preoccupied with other things. We really don’t know that yet…

There really is disappointment [in the Middle East], because he really raised expectations… He made moves that were substantive though narrow in their scope. But they were substantive, and they were from the first moment…

So he raised expectations really high. We have to assume that he was sincere. This is not a man who goes around just whimsically saying things. He must have been sincere…

Why he changed course, it’s not entirely clear. But we can tell some things. The Israelis, obviously, put their foot down, and he couldn’t budge them because of the pro-Israeli forces in the U.S. that threatened to make him into a one-term president if he goes too far.  He couldn’t get anything out of the Arabs, either.

Khouri noted that Obama had a lot of different things on his plate, including health care, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He concluded that,

There are a lot of different things on his plate. The reason why he didn’t push further [on Middle East peacemaking] we really don’t know yet. I think this is an issue that is still in the making, I don’t think we’ve seen the full Obama Mideast policy.

(more…)

November 24, 2009

Pity the U.S. diplomat posted to the Middle East

On its biannual Political Pilgrimages to the Middle East, the CNI Foundation tries to get as complete a picture as possible of what is  happening “on the ground” in the region. We try to meet those in power, as well as those in the opposition; those parties and figures deemed “pro-American” and those dubbed “anti-American”, too.

For example, in Lebanon our delegations attempt to meet with members of the March 14th alliance (Hariri, Siniora) and the March 8th alliance (Aoun, Hezbollah) — as well as those who oscillate in between (Joumblatt). Lebanon is fortunate (or, is that unfortunate?) to have such a wide political spectrum. One hopes that hearing from so many voices helps the visitor obtain a clearer sense of how things actually are.

In this spirit, our delegations also try to arrange briefings at each of the U.S. embassies and consulates in the countries we visit. It may seem ironic that we, as American citizens, feel it necessary to visit a U.S. embassy to get a different point of view. But in several of these countries, and on a host of issues, the U.S. point of view stands distinctly in the minority. It is a minority view with the weight of the sole superpower behind it, however, so we listen carefully.

Also, these diplomats represent us, and are paid for by our tax dollars. So of course we want to see what they’re doing!

(more…)

November 2, 2009

Beirut: the Sunni shift (and Jumblatt)

Filed under: Arab attitudes,Helena's travels,Lebanon — Helena Cobban @ 9:24 pm

Today, we had good meetings with a pair of young diplomats in the US Embassy here in Lebanon, with Free Patriotic Movement head Michael Aoun, with PM-designate Saad al-Hariri, Druze/socialist leader Walid Jumblatt, and caretaker PM Fouad Siniora. My goodness, it felt like a lot of meetings.  Tomorrow we’re meeting President Michel Suleiman fairly early, then proceeding to Damascus.

One of my main takeaways from today’s meetings is the degree to which attitudes among leaders of Lebanon’s Sunni community have changed over the past year or so.  This time last year, you could still regularly see some pretty strongly anti-Syrian statements coming from many Lebanese Sunni leaders.  Today, both Saad al-Hariri and Fouad Siniora made a point of saying that Lebanon needs to find a way to work constructively with Syria.

Both also laid huge stress in what they told us on the great importance to Lebanon of the US securing a speedy resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Siniora, who talked at greater length, also argued for working with Hizbullah rather than against it, and warned that any US or Israeli attack against Iran would be catastrophic for the whole region.

These are two Lebanese Sunni figures, remember, who were at the heart of the “moderate, pro-US Sunni” project that the Bush administration, the neocons, and the pro-AIPAC crowd hyped so loudly during the years 2005-08.  Within that frame, the Bushists and their supporters tried to argue that the “moderate Sunnis” in Lebanon and elsewhere throughout the Arab world were “fed up with the Palestinians, Hizbullah, and the Iranians”; that they feared the rise of “Shiite power”; and that they were actively rooting for the US or Israel to “take out” Iranian power before it submerged the whole region.

So what’s changed in the past year?

I’d say, three things:

  1. The Israeli assault on Gaza;
  2. The near-complete dashing of the hopes many Arabs earlier had that Pres. Obama would effect real change in the US’s policy on Palestinian- and Arab-Israeli issues; and
  3. The Saudi-Syrian reconciliation that was epitomized by King Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz’s recent visit to Damascus.

The change in position that I found from these two was fascinating, and almost certainly represented a shift in the thinking of many other Sunni Arab leaders who are– as these two are– very strongly pro-American.

Our meeting with Walid Jumblatt was also fascinating. Walid is an extremely mercurial political figure.  In October 2007, he was actually urging participants in the annual conference organized by the strongly pro-Israeli US think-tank WINEP to consider sending “car-bombs to Damascus” and saying “It was not a mistake in the absolute to remove Saddam Hussein… ”

Then, about three months ago he shifted very abruptly away from the neocons’ anti-Iranian, anti-Syrian position, at about the same time that he started bad-mouthing his allies in Lebanon’s US-backed “March 14” movement.

Today, he told us,

We in Lebanon need the weapons of Hizbullah, for our own protection– not least because we continually fear another Israeli attack and the US Congress won’t let the Lebanese army have the arms it needs to defend the country.

He also said,

I used to be among the hawks against Syria. Thank God the Bush administration didn’t listen to me! It would have been a complete disaster, like Iraq…  The alliance I had with the Falangists and Hariri [that is, March 14] against Syria was ‘against history’.

Anyway, more later. Sorry we still have no pics up…

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