The Israeli government followed through on a promise to authorize three illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, in a move designed to mollify Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's settler constituency. It seems certain to make the prospects for meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians recede even further into the distance.
The settler outposts of Rekhelim, Sansana, and Brukhin, which have existed without government authorization on the West Bank since the 1990s, were all given official approval, though they remain illegal under international law. Education Minister Gideon Saar from the prime minister's Likud Party said Netanyahu "gave 1,200 people and the people of Israel a holiday gift," a reference to Israeli independence celebrations this week.
Ben Lynfield wrote about the pending approvals for the Monitor a few weeks ago and said that the decision "would make them among the first new settlements authorized since the early days of the peace process in 1995 and could pave the way for further legalizations among the 96 outposts in the West Bank."
He wrote that the legalizations, along with a government promise to legally challenge court orders to evacuate smaller settlements, "amount to a significant strengthening of Israel's hold in the West Bank, the biblically resonant territory occupied in 1967, which Palestinians claim as the heartland of their future state. For Netanyahu, who heads a right-wing coalition with a strong pro-settler contingent, it was a delicate dance of one small step back and six larger steps forward for settlements."
The government has also this month authorized the construction of 980 more housing units in territory occupied since the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Israeli officials have insisted during recent trips to the US that claims of settlement expansion under Mr. Netanyahu is exaggerated. But the view from Israel and the occupied West Bank tells a different story.
Netanyahu's government is also fighting an Israeli Supreme Court decision calling for the destruction of six government-subsidized apartment buildings in the illegal outpost of Ulpana. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is expected to lodge an appeal of the court decision before next week, when the evacuation of the homes is currently scheduled.
The expanding de facto annexation of the West Bank, has a growing number of influential people both among the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and from Israel, questioning the feasibility of the "two-state" solution to the conflict. Last week Mr. Abbas sent a letter to Netanyahu demanding an end to settlement expansion and an Israeli acceptance of pre-1967 borders as the basis of a settlement as preconditions for peace talks. Those conditions are similar to the position of both the Obama Administration and past US governments.
Israel dismissed the letter, reiterating that talks should have no preconditions attached. Now, the relationship between PA President Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who appears to favor a tougher line, appears to be breaking down. The US State Department has responded to the new settlements as "not helpful."
How moribund is the so-called peace process? Yossi Beilin, an Israeli negotiator who was one of the lead negotiators of the 1993 Oslo Accords that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and of the Geneva Initiative that held so much promise of peace almost nine years ago, appears to have lost faith. In a piece for this paper almost exactly a year ago, Mr. Beilin was still full of hope. His article was titled "The Geneva Accord: a breakthrough model" and he wrote:
With pre-1967 lines (the Green Line) as our starting point, we devised a series of agreed-upon, minor land swaps on a reciprocal, one-to-one basis, according to a formula that would require Israel to evacuate the smallest number of settlements while granting Palestinians the greatest part of the land.The result is a model that would create a Palestinian state on nearly 98 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with the shortfall compensated for by territories inside the Green Line.... The key to our success in reaching a comprehensive agreement was not in the specific solution we offered to each issue – although there was also a lot of creative thinking there, too – but rather in the concurrence of the solutions we offered... My colleagues and I – both Israeli and Palestinian – have pledged to work together and within our respective communities to turn Geneva into reality. We hope that people of goodwill around the world will join us in our pursuit of a just and lasting peace between our two peoples, so that we may live side by side in freedom and security as equal neighbors.
Because there have never been serious negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the last three years, and because you did not want to perpetuate the myth that a meaningful dialogue existed, you have been sorely tempted to declare the death of the "peace process" -- but the American president urged you to maintain the status quo. It is a mistake to agree to Obama's request, and you can rectify this... The Oslo Accords were a tremendous victory for the peace camps on both sides. And this agreement did not fail. It was thwarted. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinian terrorism, and the political victories of the opponents of the agreement -- both on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side -- have turned the agreement into a device that has allowed the parties to block a two-state solution...
Dissolving the Palestinian Authority and returning daily control to Israel would be an action nobody could ignore... Do not hesitate for a moment! Do not accept the request of President Obama, who merely wants to be left undisturbed before election day. Do not let Prime Minister Netanyahu hide behind the fig leaf of the Palestinian Authority -- impose upon him, once again, the responsibility for the fate of 4 million Palestinians. Remain as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which will give you the authority to lead the political negotiations if and when they resume. But for the sake of your own people, and for the sake of peace, you cannot let this farce continue.
The Egyptian Adel Imam is the Arab world's most beloved comic actor. Yet now in his 70s, at the end of a glittering career, he's faced trial for "insulting Islam" in a number of his film roles.
He's now 1 for 2 in court cases against him. An appeals court this week upheld a three-month jail sentence given to Mr. Imam in February 2011, shortly after Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of office, while another court found him and a number of other movie figures not guilty on a separate set of similar charges yesterday. He hasn't appeared at any of the hearings against him, and it's hard to imagine him going to jail while senior regime figures, among them Hosni Mubarak, remain free.
Imam, with his elastic face that can simultaneously seem mournful and ridiculous, has been a bumbling Arab everyman in more than 50 films down the years. Though many of them have been forgettable slapstick romps, a few are considered modern Egyptian classics. Like an Egyptian Bill Murray, he's played more serious roles as he's gotten older, most famously "The Yacoubian Building" in 2006, where he appears as the central character, an aging womanizer in a movie about corruption and the disappointments of Egypt since the 1952 revolution.
The cases against him can in some ways be seen as Islamist versions of nuisance suits. Amnesty International points out that a long-standing article in Egypt's penal code allows charges to be brought against "whoever exploits religion in words or writing or any other methods to promote extremist ideologies, with a view of stirring up sedition, disparaging or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity and social peace.”
That language is wide enough to drive a truck through, and the so-called blasphemy law has been unevenly enforced over the years. Last year, a lawsuit brought against the politically active tycoon Naguib Sawiris, after he posted a picture of Minnie Mouse wearing a Muslim veil on Twitter, was tossed out of court.
In the final decade of Mubarak's rule, there were at least a dozen blasphemy actions, from court cases against religious figures to the banning of books to the withdrawal of publishing licenses from magazines that produced fiction depicting Islam.
So while Egypt's Islamists – generally not fans of free speech when it comes to matters of faith and social mores – are on the rise politically, it's worth keeping in mind that such actions were frequent under the presumably secular Mubarak regime. Still, the fact remains that Islamist political power is going to be increasingly expressed in the years ahead, and that's something for the country's actors and writers to keep an eye on. Egypt's salafists, whose version of Islam is severe and limiting when it comes to free speech and the role of women, have become major political players with about 25 percent of the seats in parliament.
Both cases against Imam were brought by a salafist lawyer from Alexandria and though conviction carries a jail sentence, they're considered misdemeanor crimes under Egyptian law. An Amnesty International researcher following the case said that the lawyer told her he brought two actions simply because he felt that would bring him a better chance of success.
Imam's original sentence, the one that was upheld, was tied to his performances in movies like "Terrorism and Kebab," a 1992 satire about the country's Kafkaesque bureaucracy, in which Imam's character accidentally takes a major government administrative building hostage after losing his temper with incompetent government officials and then demands take-out food. In other films, he depicted an Islamist militant and corrupt regional autocrat.
The "dangerous" Adel Imam orders takeout after taking over a government building in "Terrorism and Kebab."
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The Florida Senator, whose parents immigrated to the US from Cuba in 1956, a few years before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, focused on US foreign policy more broadly, not touching on Cuba. While pundits and watchers of US politics generally deemed Romney's potential running mate as not overly hawkish (here's a roundup of opinion), I see plenty of evidence he favors more military intervention abroad in his speech, at least when I focus on the areas I know best.
His first point was to complain that the US didn't play a "more active role" in the NATO air campaign in Libya that helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi last year. It's true that the Obama Administration stressed that it was part of a broad group of actors in the effort, which involved seven months of sorties in aid of the Libyan uprising against government forces (in deed, if not in word, going far beyond their UN Security Council mandate only to protect civilians).
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But if the unstated goal was regime change, it's hard to imagine more bang for the US buck than Libya. The total cost to the US was under $1 billion. There were no US (or any other foreign) casualties, and the mission wrapped up in less than a year. Could Qaddafi have been toppled a few months faster if the US was more active? Perhaps. Would that have also led to more civilian casualties at the hand of US airpower? Also perhaps. The Iraq war, a much more ambitious undertaking, will ultimately cost the US taxpayer about $4 trillion when replacement of equipment and total medical claims for veterans are factored in.
Senator Rubio would also appear to favor military action against Iran, and perhaps in Syria. "The goal of preventing a dominant Iran is so important that every regional policy we adopt should be crafted with that overriding goal in mind," he said. "The current situation in Syria is an example of such an approach. The fall of Assad would be a significant blow to Iran’s ambitions. On those grounds alone, we should be seeking to help the people of Syria bring him down."
He continues: "But on the Foreign Relations Committee, I’ve noticed that some members are so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they’ve lost sight of the advantages of it. First, Iran would lose its ally and see its influence and ability to cause trouble in the region would be correspondingly reduced, but Hezbollah would lose its most important ally too along with its weapons supplier. And the prospects for a more stable, peaceful, and freer Lebanon would improve."
Well, that's one possibility. But skeptics of arming Syria's rebellion, or of direct US military involvement, are worried about unintended consequences. The sectarian powder in Syria is as dry and ripe for ignition as it was in Iraq. The country has been ruled by the minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shiism) for decades, and there's a history of militant Islamism amongst the country's Sunni Arab majority. Israel is worried about a flood of Alawite and Syrian Christian refugees if Assad falls, as is Lebanon. That country's own troubled sectarian history has been fed by refugee waves in the past, most notably of Palestinians, and Hezbollah remains Lebanon's most dominant military force.
So there's also the chance of a much less stable, peaceful Syria in the wake of Assad's fall. That's just one of the factors that gives many policy makers pause as they weigh the undoubted savagery of Syria's Baathist dictatorship against the question of what comes next.
He also said he's been "relying heavily" on Robert Kagan's book "The World America Made," in arguing "how good a strong and engaged America has been for the world." It's hard to argue that the US had a major, and generally positive influence on world affairs after WWII (the central point of Mr. Kagan's book). But Kagan is a militarist who favors extensive US direct intervention in global affairs. A full-throated supporter of the Iraq war, he continues to insist that war was a good idea. He told Salon in April that the Iraq war "probably" led to the Arab uprisings that began at the start of 2011. "There were repeated free elections in Iraq and that undoubtedly had some effect on how neighboring people views their government. I think Egyptians said. ‘If the Iraqis can have elections, why can’t we have elections?’”
I covered the Iraq war for about half of the time between 2003-2008 and spent the rest of my time living in Egypt. My personal experiences then, conversations with hundreds of people in the region over the years from senior politicians to shopkeepers, and later experience covering the uprisings in Libya and Egypt last spring, convinced me that the Iraq war, if anything, only slowed the inevitable uprisings against those aging authoritarian regimes.
The first major Egyptian protest for years, against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was in many ways the spark of a protest wave that bred the new generation of political activists who formed the core of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak last year. Across the region, there was revulsion at the invasion, the human costs (at least 200,000 Iraqis died in the ensuing war), and disgust for the sectarian civil war that raged from 2005-2008 in Iraq.
To be sure, President Obama has also professed admiration for Kagan's book, as have many other policy makers on both sides of the aisle. But his pronouncements and recommendations on the Iraq war over the years have been consistently wrong. In 2004, he and Bill Kristol pronounced the new Iraqi Constitution would guarantee the rights of women and minorities in that country (in practice, the position of Christians and women in Iraq have worsened as a consequence of the war), and wrote that "while no sensible person would claim that Iraqis are safely and irrevocably on a course to liberal democracy, the honest and rather remarkable truth is that they have made remarkable strides in that direction."
They went on to complain the "perpetually sour American media focus on the tensions between Shiites and Kurds" but that "the difficult negotiations leading up to the signing, and the continuing debates over the terms of a final constitution, have in fact demonstrated something remarkable in Iraq: a willingness on the part of the diverse ethnic and religious groups to disagree – peacefully – and then to compromise." Even then the country was sliding into pit of sectarian warfare.
Today? The Kurds complain the Constitution has been ignored by the central government and some of their politicians are muttering about independence; the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is in exile, hiding from a politically motivated arrest warrant. And Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to accrue more power, frightening his ethnic and confessional opponents.
As someone who lived the Iraq war, I find high praise for Kagan's wisdom in foreign affairs troubling.
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It's springtime and a young man's fancy turns, yet again, toward thoughts of war with Iran.
But the normally reticent boss of the Israel Defense Forces has just poured cold water on this eventuality. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Israeli newspaper Haaretz in an interview marking that nation's independence day that he doubts Iran is currently seeking a nuclear weapon or that they will eventually decide to pursue one.
To be sure, he insists that a theoretical nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran would be disastrous to Israel and its regional standing, and said he was preparing a credible military option, which he says is crucial for Israel's security.
But he appears to talk the threat of war down from the boiling point, contradicting the rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gantz, who has considerable sway over national policy, proposes that Iran's nuclear program, which the Islamic Republic insists is for peaceful purposes only, is designed to improve the nation's know-how and materials to the point where it could theoretically build a bomb, if it so chooses.
Iran "is going step-by-step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile," he said.
He suggests that won't happen soon, particularly since in his estimation Iran's program remains vulnerable to external attack."The program is too vulnerable, in Iran's view," he told Haaretz. "If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."
To summarize: Gantz is very worried, the mere possession of an Iranian "break out" capacity is alarming to Israel, and a ruling elite could some day rise in Iran that wouldn't act as rationally as he judges the current leadership core to be. But with an Israeli attack certain to close all diplomatic roads, and with a lack of certainty that such a move would succeed, it appears it wouldn't be wise for Israel to attack any time soon.
Reading the tea leaves, Gantz does not seem as enthusiastic for war as Mr. Netanyahu. "His language is far from the dramatic rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and is usually free of the Holocaust comparisons of which Israeli politicians are so fond," writes Amos Harel, in his writeup of Gantz's comments.
His view of the Iranian regime as "rational" echoes comments by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey this March, in which he likewise described the Iran as a "rational actor," which drew howls of complaint from some American hawks. Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, for instance, said, "I can't imagine why [Dempsey] would say that," framing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth."
This statement is frequently attributed to Ahmadinejad in the West, but scholars say it stems from a mistranslation and exaggeration of the president's words.
Gantz also told Haaretz that Israel faces a new array of military threats, as a consequence of regional upheaval:
"I don't know what will happen in Syria, but presumably the Golan Heights won't be as quiet as before. I cannot remove Syria from the military equation, nor Lebanon. I assume that if there are terror threats from the Golan or Lebanon I'll have to take action. I cannot do everything by 'stand-off' [remote]. The enemy's fire capabilities have developed at every distance, four or five times what they were in the Second Lebanon War and four or five times compared to the Gaza Strip before Operation Cast Lead, not to mention the new ground-to-air missile in Syria."
I personally have long been skeptical that Israel will attack Iran unilaterally, mostly because it would be a risky operation at great distance, against an array of widely dispersed targets, that could possibly lead to missile barrages on the home front from the likes of Hezbollah. Others, many with far more military and regional expertise than I, have worried that an attack is more likely, particularly judging by the alarmist rhetoric of Netanyahu and some of those around him.
Gantz's comments are the latest indications that senior Israeli military officers, who wield great sway over national policy, are not as sanguine about war as Netanyahu is. Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli political analyst and author of "The Nuclear Sphynx of Tehran," a biography of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, writes on Twitter that the general's statement that he doubts Iran will seek the bomb "clearly contradicts and undermines" Netanyahu.
Still, some predictors of war soldier on. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in late 2010 that there was a 50 percent chance that Israel would attack Iran by July of 2011. This March, Mr. Goldberg allowed that perhaps all the tough talk from Israel (tough talk he's transmitted as fact, relying on unidentified sources) was a form of posturing by Netanyahu's government. Then a few weeks he ago, he upped the DEFCON level again, suggesting June 2012 is a "possible" time when Israel will unilaterally attack Iran.
Not, it seems, if Benny Gantz has any say in the matter.
This article was edited after first posting to correct the spelling of Gen. Gantz' name.
Instead of a global event highlighting its qualities as rapidly advancing economy, Bahrain received a storm of attention over its use of tear-gas, birdshot, and torture against democracy protesters.
The Sunni monarchy, with a Shiite-majority population, ended the weekend with a fresh black eye. Sure, the event went on, but only after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, the daughter of human rights activist Abdel Hadi al-Khawaja was arrested as she protested against her father's indefinite detention, and motor-sport journalists were forced to to tackle politics and oppression, rather than tactics and technology, in their columns. (Ahead of the race, F1 correspondent Kevin Eason of The Times wrote, "whatever happens in Bahrain this weekend, F1 has underlined its unenviable image as amoral and greedy.)
Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy, had this take on events:
"This week's Formula One-driven media scrutiny has ripped away Bahrain's carefully constructed external facade. It has exposed the failure of Bahrain's regime to take advantage of the breathing space it bought through last year's crackdown or the lifeline thrown to it by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. That failure to engage in serious reform will likely further radicalize its opponents and undermine hopes for its future political stability."
Bahrain has plenty of international supporters. Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to Manama to help in the crackdown against protesters last year. And Bahrain is crucial to the United States's regional-security strategy, playing home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet (a key component in any future military showdown with Iran), which is no doubt a big reason why the Obama administration has treated with kid gloves the country's recent human rights record.
But Bahrain faces an increasingly sectarian opposition at home. So what's the embattled monarchy to do? Apparently, appoint Samira Rajab as its new minister of information to help improve its global image. She has long been opposed to the US agenda in the Middle East and has a track record of stirring up sectarian tensions.
"The Bahrainis spend an enormous amount of energy and money to control their image ... but they're clearly losing the narrative war," says Toby Craig Jones, a Rutgers historian who studies the Gulf. "They're not winning the message and then they do stuff like this. It's very strange."
How strange? The public-image manager for a key US ally is a fan of Saddam Hussein, who was deposed by US troops and executed by the Iraqi government in 2006, and has frequently attacked the US role in the region.
How much of a fan? Ms. Rajab wrote after Hussein's execution that he was a "martyr" and a "freedom fighter" who had defied "Anglo-American arrogance." She characterized the US war in Iraq as the work of "crusaders" and praised Hussein's past efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.
In May 2007, then US Ambassador to Bahrain William Monroe, wrote in a confidential cable released by Wikileaks that Rajab was the "driving force" behind a three-day conference in the Bahraini capital that had ended up focusing on the grievances of Sunni Arab and Baathist Iraqis.
What was meant to be a pan-Arab nationalist conference ended up focusing on figures then resisting the rise of the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, and the sectarian overtones of the talk created a minor local controversy.
Among the speakers at the conference was Harith al-Dari, a Sunni Iraqi preacher who called for greater coordination between that country's then raging insurgency and Al Qaeda. A film was played that portrayed Iraqi Sunnis as the principal victims of violence in the country (the raging sectarian civil war at the time in fact claimed tens of thousands of both Sunni and Shiite lives).
"These incidents led to a great deal of criticism, including inside the conference itself, and local columnists condemned those using the event to incite sectarianism," the ambassador wrote. "Conference participants told the [deputy chief of the US mission] that Shura [Consultative] Council member and pro-Saddam Baathist columnist Samira Rajab was the driving force behind the event, saying she had put together the list of attendees opposed to the new Iraq - 'mostly rejectionists and pro-Baathists, not Arab nationalists.' Local activists complained about the extremism voiced at the conference and attempts to 'widen our differences.'"
Ambassador Monroe wrote that he raised concerns about "Rajab's role in pushing a sectarian agenda" at the conference with Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, a member of the royal family. "Shaikh Khalid said the event was a 'gathering of relics' and he would not meet with any of the delegates. They should not have allowed a sectarian film to be shown. He noted that the conference opened on Saddam Hussein's birthday, April 28, which he did not think was a coincidence."
Mr. Monroe concluded that "through her speech and decisions about delegates, speakers, and activities, [Rajab] was able to spread her virulent views in favor of the armed insurgency and against the United States, Iraqi government, and those supporting it."
In an interview in 2010, she said the 9/11 attacks on the US were a "fabricated operation" designed to advance political interests inside the US to "create a new ghost to replace the ghost of communism." And in 2005, she attacked Iraq's Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sistani, that country's most revered religious figure, as an American stooge. That column infuriated Bahrain's Shiite community, which complained she was feeding sectarian conflict. Sistani, who wields enormous influence in Iraq, largely stayed aloof of the US occupation.
Rajab, a former journalist and member of Bahrain's consultative council, is a reminder of the strange-bedfellows being made by increasingly fractured regional politics, with countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia calling for the fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syrian (an Iranian ally, after all) while jealously protecting their own positions at home, with the acquiescence of the US.
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Though Egyptian officials and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insist the decision wasn't political, it's hard to see annulling the largest ever contract between the two countries as anything but.
What comes next?
Egypt Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga suggested yesterday that her cash-strapped government has adopted what amounts to a negotiating position. If Israel and the private Egyptian and Israeli investors who served as the middlemen in the original agreement agree to pay more, the gas might flow again, she said.
But the Israeli Finance Ministry has it about right: Egypt's decision could set “a dangerous precedent that casts clouds over ... the atmosphere of peace between Egypt and Israel," the ministry said in a statement.
Egypt in many ways now seems rudderless. It has a government nominally run by a military junta, a frustrated Muslim Brotherhood that has won parliamentary elections but so far been unable to exercise any real power, and a Mubarak-era bureaucracy that is trundling along and largely left to its own devices. But one clear, consistent trend is evident across the country's many competing power centers: Xenophobia is in, the old ways of doing business with Israel and the US are on the way out.
Gas sales to Israel are just an indicator, albeit a serious one, raising questions regarding how long the peace treaty reached between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin in 1979 can hold. The Egyptian population never took to the treaty, and views Israel as a regional menace. While the country is a long way from being a functional democracy, public attitudes will influence Egyptian affairs far more than they have for decades.
The former president's Carter Center was one of eight foreign civil society organizations that the Egyptian government announced yesterday were barred from working in Egypt because they're deemed a threat to Egypt's sovereignty. The Carter Center specializes in election monitoring, and has monitored Egyptian elections in the past.
Among the other targets was Seeds of Peace, a group that sponsors Arab and Israeli youths to attend a summer camp in Maine every year, and a Coptic Christian organization that focuses on helping Egyptian orphans. The Egyptian government said yesterday the group's applications for licenses to operate in Egypt were rejected, though an official at one of the barred groups says that the last time his organization sought approval to run programs in Egypt was nearly a decade ago.
That Egyptian move came on the same day that Interpol refused an Egyptian government request to issue arrest warrants for 15 foreigners – 12 of them Americans – who had worked with NGOs in Egypt. Ms. Naga has been a leading voice in Egypt for shutting down foreign NGOs, and she has been embroiled in ongoing efforts to prosecute a group of democracy NGOs, among them the US government funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.
The attempts to prosecute the American groups that focus on democracy promotion, saw a number of their officials, among them the son of Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, hole up in the US embassy to avoid arrest. It almost led to the cancellation of Egypt's $1 billion annual military subsidy from the US (another artifact of Camp David).
While the younger Mr. LaHood and other foreigners were eventually allowed to leave the country, Egypt has insisted in pursuing prosecution of them and former Egyptian co-workers, who now face jail time.
The deal to let them leave was struck in February, saving Egypt's military aid. But now it appears Egypt wants to bring them back for prosecution. Interpol, a coordinating body for international law enforcement, denied the Egyptian request, citing regulations that strictly forbid "the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.’ This prohibition is taken extremely seriously by INTERPOL."
Yes, we're back to politics again. Politics in the case of the prosecutions of the foreign NGOs, politics in the case of the cancelled gas sales contract with Israel, and politics in deeming Jimmy Carter a threat to Israel's sovereignty. When it comes to international relations, it seems the politics of the new Egypt promise stormier seas ahead.
The unraveling of a multibillion-dollar contract to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel has been a long time in coming. The dissolution was virtually assured at the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
But to judge by some of the reactions today, Egypt's cancellation of a contract to supply natural gas to the private East Mediterranean Gas Co., which in turn delivered to customers in Israel, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a bolt from the blue.
Shaul Mofaz, a legislator and leader of Israel's opposition Kadima party, described Egypt's decision as a "clear violation" of the peace treaty (in this, Mr. Mofaz is mistaken – the treaty makes no mention of this or any other gas deal and only calls for "normal economic relations" between the states).
Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz captions a story on Egypt's decision that it "may also constitute economic suicide." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, sought to paint the matter as divorced from politics. "This is actually a business dispute between the Israeli company and the Egyptian company," he said today.
Mr. Netanyahu is also mistaken. The chaotic politics of post-Mubarak Egypt practically required this step be taken.
Like most Egyptian decisions lately it isn't clear how it was made – on orders of the ruling miltary junta? On the initiative of a senior official at the Energy ministry? But this is a move that has long been supported by practically every political corner of Egypt. The average Egyptian saw the deal as natural-resource theft to the benefit of the Jewish state. As an easy applause line, Egyptian politicians have been attacking the gas deal at campaign stops.
While Egyptian officials, like Netanyahu, have insisted this is simply a business matter, such statements should be taken with metric tons of salt. Politics touch all dealings between the two states, and in this deal even more than usual.
The deal involved cronies close to the deposed Hosni Mubarak. The involvement of Israel was always going to make it an object of scrutiny. And the pipeline that ships the gas to Israel has been attacked by angry locals on the Sinai peninsula at least 10 times since Mubarak fell from power.
The gas deal was imagined by its political architects (the US and Israel had been pushing for a pipeline across Sinai as far back as the early 1990s) as something that would bring Egypt closer to Israel. But in fact its failure now is a reminder that the cold peace forged at Camp David never became anything more. Some business has been done and money made, another war remains unlikely, but the fact remains that the gas deal is a political liability in a changing Egypt where popular sentiment has far more force than it did under Sadat or Mubarak.
Eastern Mediteranean Gas (EMG) is a business partnership that shows the benefits of having friends in high places. Hussein Salem, a wealthy Egyptian who was widely viewed in Cairo circles as a bag man for Mubarak and his family, is one shareholder. Mr. Salem fled his homeland soon after Mubarak fell and has since been fighting extradition attempts on corruption charges connected to the gas deal.
Yossi Meiman, an Israeli businessman with close ties to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is another. Mr. Maiman managed to cash out a direct 12.5 percent stake in EMG in 2008 – by having Ampal American-Israeli Corporation, a company he controls, issue about $230 million in bonds to buy him out. Those bonds are now set to default. Jewish-American billionaire and philanthropist Sam Zell is another partner.
Aside from political risks, EMG had a sweet deal. A guaranteed supply of gas at a fixed price at one hand, with a guaranteed buyer at a 50 percent markup, at the other. The size of that markup, negotiated as it was between a company partially controlled by a close business associate of Hosni Mubarak and the state oil company, had led to whispers of corruption in Egypt from the moment the deal was signed in 2005. With the uprising against Mubarak last year, the whispers have become shouts.
Egypt's leading presidential candidates have all attacked the deal. Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League who was popular regionally for his fiery anti-Israel rhetoric, praised the cancellation, saying the gas deal was obviously tainted with corruption.
Going forward, it's conceivable but not likely that gas sales will resume. Israel, always leery of counting on a neighbor like Egypt, has major gas developments of its own under construction, and the country is confident it will soon be able to replace lost supply. Egypt has substantial demand for subsidized fuel at home, and resource nationalism is a potent issue at a time of economic crisis.
Vodafone. Allianz. Reebok. Microsoft. Tag-Heur. All among the leaders in their respective fields. And these and dozens of other companies have, in effect, put their seal of approval on the actions of the monarchy in Bahrain.
The Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place this weekend amid tens of thousands of protesters in Manama braving tear gas and birdshot as they demand political change in the tiny monarchy. Ferrari, Mercedes, and the other glamour teams are practicing today, will run in the qualifying round tomorrow, and will zoom off in the official race scheduled for Sunday, with an expected global TV audience of at least 100 million.
Some of the globe's best-known brands will have their logos spread across the barriers, the promotional literature, the broadcasts, and the cars themselves. That they're not concerned this amounts to a vote of confidence in a monarchy that has been accused of jailing and torturing peaceful demonstrators, with the aid of its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, is an indication that in the realm of international public opinion, the ruling Khalifa family is winning.
IN PICTURES: Formula One Grand Prix
Take this from Allianz, one of the largest insurers in the world, on its involvement with the sport: "The partnership between Allianz and Formula One is a trusted alliance designed to highlight the importance of risk management and road safety as well as build the Allianz brand globally."
Brand building must go on.
Major corporations spend a lot of money worrying about their brands, and their research has told them that there's more money to be made than lost by carrying on with this weekend's event. Consumers either aren't aware of what's been going on in Bahrain, or don't care.
The Business and Human Rights Information Center says it contacted all of the sponsors of F1 teams, the organization, and the race itself. Only about half issued responses. The ones that did were generally bland and non-specific. Microsoft was fairly typical, writing. "We recognize the important responsibilities we have to respect human rights and work every day to meet our responsibilities. We invite dialogue with stakeholders and look forward to engaging in thoughtful discussions.”
Vodafone responded in a similar vein: "We are monitoring developments very closely and are aware of international concerns. However, the decision whether or not to proceed with the event is a matter for the teams and Formula 1."
Reebok, which has a sponsorship agreement with the Sahara Force India team, was a little more direct, writing "we will reach out to this team to understand their position on participation... given the ongoing civil unrest and evidence of human rights violations."
Bernie Ecclestone, whose financial control of F1 has made him a billionaire, struck a defiant tone with reporters today when they asked about the departure of two members of the Sahara Force India team, who flew home after seeing a burning car in Manama.
"You guys want a story and it's a good story and if there isn't a story you make it up like usual, Nothing changes," Mr. Ecclestone said. "The political thing is going in so many countries. These things happen. We are not here to get involved in politics. There are many more countries higher up the priority list that you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things because it is more important there."
Ecclestone can say as much as he likes that F1 isn't involved in politics, but it doesn't make it so.
The claim that "politics and sport should never mix" is often trotted out, as if sport is some pure sacrament untainted by the concerns of the profane work-a-day world. This is absurd. Major global sporting organizations like F1, FIFA, or the International Olympic Committee have confronted scandal after scandal through the decades, usually centered around the nexus of money, power and political influence they represent.
The decision to bring the F1 circus to town, or to award the World Cup to a host nation, is a political one as much as a business one. These events are enormous shop windows for tourism, lend prestige to the governments that host them, and amount to approval of the way they run their affairs.
What is the "political thing" in Bahrain at the moment? Human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja remains in jail and on hunger strike. Human Rights Watch says hundreds of others remain in jail for their political activism. At the end of March, the group wrote, "it seems that no high-ranking officials have been investigated for their roles in rampant torture or unlawful killing."
To be sure, the regime has its supporters. Among the most prominent in the US is Ed Husain, a fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Husain appears to view Bahrain's protesters as largely in league with Iran (Bahrain is a Sunni monarchy, but the majority of its citizens are Shiite), judging by a recent series of tweets from him. "If Bahrain is good enough for the US Fifth Fleet, it's good enough for F1... Back away Iran's molotov hurlers," he wrote today.
IN PICTURES: Formula One Grand Prix
The US, which has close military ties with Manama and runs the Fifth Fleet out of the kingdom, has indeed been muted in its criticism of the country.
Though motor sport journalists have poured into the country, a number of political reporters seeking to cover the protests there this weekend have been denied visas.
The race could still be called off if security deteriorates. It was security concerns, amid the crackdown on protesters, that led to the cancellation of the race last year, and if today's protests devolve into something uglier, it's possible that security could be the reason again.
But for now, it's full steam ahead. And F1 and its sponsors have sent the message that they don't have a problem with how the government is treating its own people.
Julian Assange's new talk show debuted yesterday on the Kremlin satellite channel Russia Today with a whale of a "get:" Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's politically and militarily dominant Hezbollah.
It's been years since Mr. Nasrallah has given an interview to a foreigner. The conversation took place in late February and there should have been plenty to talk about. There's the awkward position that Hezbollah, which styles itself a lion of Arab resistance to Israel, now finds itself in. The group is a client of Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has spent the past year using his army to flatten his domestic political opponents, and of Iran, which has been helping Mr. Assad and recently crushed an opposition movement of its own.
Questions about the UN tribunal which indicted members of Hezbollah last year in connection with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would not have gone amiss. More general and obvious questions could have been about Lebanese politics, and under what conditions Hezbollah might be willing to give up its private army. Perhaps some challenges on whether Hezbollah is a threat to Lebanon's fragile democracy, or the risks of the sectarian fighting in Syria spilling over the border.
But while Mr. Assange touched on Hezbollah's ties to Syria, his highly deferential and general interview of Nasrallah didn't press him very hard (this was no Mike Wallace vs. Ayatollah Khomenei). Six years ago, Hezbollah's image was soaring in the region as a direct opponent of Israel and of the US. Today's environment is far more complex, with a clamoring for democratic change and Hezbollah closely linked to two of its greatest regional opponents. The word "Iran" wasn't mentioned at all. And the choice of questions, the apparent lack of background knowledge, and Assange's typically flat and robotic delivery, were all reminders that he isn't a professional journalist.
He'd be probably respond that he wouldn't have it any other way. After all, he's repeatedly lambasted the traditional press as an aider and abetter of perfidy. For instance last year he said: "The media in general are so bad we have to question we'd be better without them all together. They're so distortive to how the world actually is that the result is that we see wars and corrupt governments continue on... nearly every war that has started in the past 50 years has been the result of media lies."
At the risk of being branded as hypocrite defender of the "mainstream media" to which I (sort of) belong, to lay responsibility for Vietnam, the scores of wars in post-colonial Africa and the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan at the feet of "media lies" may be a bit of simplification.
But his own avowed disdain for propaganda and branding of himself as a tireless seeker of the truth makes the station he's tied up with all the more interesting. RT is a Kremlin propaganda channel, and its reporting on the Middle East (the area of its coverage I'm most familiar with) isn't merely slanted by the interests of the Russian government. It's often outrageously biased to the point of making things up out of whole cloth. For instance, a string of reports by the station from Tripoli, Libya in July and August of last year made obviously false claims about advances for Muammar Qaddafi's army.
Even as Tripoli was falling, and throngs of celebrating rebels filled the capital's main square (with footage carried live around the world) RT, insisted it wasn't happening. The station's main on the ground reporter Lizzie Phelan made her own biases clear as day on her blog: "While the journalists suffering from cabin fever in Tripoli’s Rixos hotel, publish their dreams that imperialism’s lackies (the rebels/rats) have taken Zawiya, Ghuriyan and Sorman, they are ignoring a decisive moment in the crisis. That is the liberation of the hitherto rebel-held area of Misratah." (No, Misurata was never retaken by Qaddafi's forces).
Assange anticipated complaints about his work with RT. "There’s Julian Assange, enemy combatant, traitor, getting into bed with the Kremlin and interviewing terrible radicals from around the world," Assange told RT, describing what he said would be the line of attack against him. "But I think it’s a pretty trivial kind of attack on character. If they actually look at how the show is made: we make it, we have complete editorial control, we believe that all media organizations have an angle, all media organizations have an issue. RT is a voice of Russia, so it looks at things from the Russian agenda. The BBC is a voice of the British government. Voice of America is a voice of the American government. It is the clashing of these voices together that reveals the truth about the world as a whole."
No. The BBC, which has many flaws, has an independent board. The Voice of America, far more directly an arm of the US government than the BBC is for the UK, aint perfect, but has demonstrated far more faithfulness to basic facts over the years than RT. These things are simply not equivalent, nor is the Russian state analogous to the democracies of the UK and US, their warts aside.
Assange should know this. A US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks summarized the comments of Jose "Pepe" Grinda Gonzales, a Spanish prosecutor who concentrates on organized crime, this way: "Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual "mafia states" and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and (organized crime) groups."
Assange, still under house arrest in England fighting extradition to Sweden where he's wanted for questioning over sexual assault allegations, is clearly hoping his new show will be a hit. His organization is struggling for relevance after its dramatic score of a huge archive of US diplomatic cables. Wikileaks hasn't had a secure "drop box," the heart of its enterprise as initially conceived, since the middle of 2010.
Though its collaboration with Anonymous, an amorphous group of hackers, led to the theft and publishing of internal emails from the private intelligence and security company Stratfor earlier this year, that was a bit of dud from the relevance standpoint. Stratfor, though it likes to hype itself as a major player in international intelligence, mostly repackages open-source information for paying clients. Beyond embarrassment for them, there wasn't much there there.
Assange says he has an advantage over traditional interviewers. He told RT his interviews "revealed sides of very interesting and important people that are not normally revealed because they are not dealing with a standard interviewer, they are dealing with someone who is under house arrest, who has gone through political problems that they can sympathize with."
This advantage wasn't obvious in his discussion with Nasrallah, though there was on bit of news. Asked "why have you supported the Arab spring in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and other countries but not in Syria” Nasrallah responded:
"I personally found that President Assad was willing to carry out radical and important reforms. … we contacted even elements of the opposition, to encourage them and to facilitate the process of dialogue with the regime, but these parties rejected dialogue and right from the beginning we’ve had a regime willing to undergo reforms and on the other side you have an opposition that is not prepared for dialogue… what it wants to do is bring down the regime.”
That was the first time Nasrallah has said in public that he's been in contact with the opposition, and encouraged them (as has Russia) to compromise with Mr. Assad. But the moment slipped away. Which opposition groups? How frequent have the contacts been? What's your view of the level of disunity among Assad's opponents? These obvious follows were not pursued.
Assange, to his credit, referred to civilian casualties in Syria, and asked if Hezbollah has a "red line," a specific number of casualties, at which point it might withdraw support from Assad. Nasrallah responded that Al Qaeda, a Sunni group and ideological opponent of the Shiite Hezbollah, has sent fighters to Syria and complained that while "Certain Arab countries are prepared to have a political dialogue (with Israel) for ten years non-stop, they won't give one or two years or even a few months for a political solution in Syria."
The interviewer then turned to the question of Al Manar, Hezbollah's television network, which has been blocked in the US since 2004 because the group is on the State Department's designated terrorist list. Asks Assange: "The United States is blocking Al Manar from broadcasting ino the US at the same time the United States claims that it is a bastion of free speech. Why do you think the US government is so scared of Al Manar?" Nasrallah answers that "they want to tell people that Hezbollah are terrorists (and) we don’t have the very basic right to defend ourselves.”
Assange follows that up with this hard-hitting question: "As a leader in war, how did you manage to keep your people together in the face of enemy fire?” This generated the predictable and usual generalities.
His final question was, in many ways, the most intriguing -- and certainly not one that a working journalist would ever think to ask a politician whose organization is called "The Party of God." It says a lot about how Assange sees the world.
"You have fought against a hegemony of the United States," says Assange. "Isn’t Allah, or the notion of a god, the ultimate super-power, and shouldn’t you as a freedom fighter also seek to liberate people from the totalitarian concept of a monotheistic god?”
Nasrallah's answer, in summary, is that he believes in a benevolent God, that his struggle against the "hegemony" of the US is a moral one that God would support.
The simple fact was that Kabul was hit by a coordinated attack, probably by the Haqqani Network (though the Taliban were happy to take credit) on Sunday. The attacks in Kabul and in Nangarhar, Paktia, and Logar provinces ended in defeat for the assailants. Of 37 attackers in Kabul, 36 were killed and one captured, at the cost of 11 Afghan soldiers' deaths and four civilians.
What it means is another thing.
On balance, the answer is "not much." Sure, there was overheated handwringing in some quarters. A Reuters report speculated that the day-long attack might have the same effect on US public opinion as the months-long Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968, which saw assaults on dozens of cities and the bloodiest year of the war for US troops, with over 10,000 killed by June (no Americans died in Sunday's attack).
On the other side was Gen. John Allen, commander of international troops in Afghanistan, who spun the attack as evidence of insurgent weakness. "The very fact that the enemy chose these particular targets speaks volumes about where we are in this campaign and the degree to which we have advanced the very things the enemy fears the most – a sovereign Afghanistan responsive to its people and an enduring commitment by the international community. Each attack was meant to send a message: that legitimate governance and Afghan sovereignty are in peril. The ANSF response itself is proof enough of that folly."
The gap between these points of view is a reminder that the war in Afghanistan is a war of perceptions now.
For US officers and supporters of the war, the task is to send a message of steady progress that just a little more commitment can cement. For the Taliban and other insurgent groups, it's to send a message of unhindered ability to strike. On both sides, the arguments over the insurgency's strength or weakness also feeds directly into proposed peace talks with the Taliban. The stronger they are, or can at least make themselves to look, the better their bargaining position (the talks are currently on hold).
But the reality is that we know very little today that we didn't know last week. Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, with President Hamid Karzai, the man installed as Afghanistan's leader by international forces, still a very uncertain call. President Karzai called the Kabul attack an "intelligence failure for us and especially NATO."
Max Boot, a conservative commentator who can be relied on to insist the Afghan war (or any US war, really) is going well, maintained his record with a piece for Commentary magazine in which he portrays the attacks as good news.
"For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible," he writes. "I visited the capital two weeks ago and found, as I have previously noted, that the streets are thronged with people: hardly the sign of a city under siege. I remember Baghdad in the dark days of 2006-2007 when entire neighborhoods were ghost towns. There is nothing like that going on in Kabul..... If this is the best the Haqqanis could do for a comeback, their efforts are indicative of the growing weakness of the insurgency and the growing strength of the security forces."
He goes on to caveat his position by saying: "that is not to say that a positive outcome in Afghanistan is inevitable–it is anything but. However, it does indicate that if we lose, it will be because of our ardent desire to pull out–not because the Taliban have the capacity to evict us or to defeat our Afghan allies."
Well, I lived in Baghdad during the "dark days" and while my experience of Afghanistan is far more limited (a one-month visit in 2010) what I can say is that the two should not be compared. Baghdad was then in the grips of a vicious sectarian civil war that burned in the presence of tens of thousands of US troops. The flames eventually cooled, with whole neighborhoods stripped of their Sunni inhabitants, or vice-versa. I remember the frequent statements from the US government and military that individual insurgent attacks were signs of "desperation" on the part of the attackers.
The Afghan conflict is very different, the Afghan people very different from the Iraqis. Kabul has generally been an oasis throughout 10 years of war. One reason the city's population has swelled (it's tripled since 2001, to about 5 million now) is because it's far safer than much of the rest of Afghanistan. So what the attacks demonstrated was that one of the safest places in the country, where billions have been spent on economic development and training of Afghan security forces, can still be touched.
Most analysts of Afghanistan are most worried about the future and whether the center around Karzai will hold in the face of the inevitable drawdown of US forces. Their concerns don't focus on a successful Taliban march on a capital filled with people who recall the Taliban reign with horror, but on the chances that the military could splinter along the ethnic lines that drove the Taliban civil war after the Soviet Union's departure, with warlords running their own enclaves.
The Kabul-based blogger at "It's Always Sunni in Kabul," has an informed take that occupies the sensible middle ground. Yes, Afghan forces performed well (good news). But no, this was not ANSF's success alone: US Blackhawks fired on some of the attackers in the capital, and ISAF advisers were there with Afghan forces almost every step of the way, "advising." This doesn't mean Afghan troops aren't getting better, just that this performance isn't a meaningful data point on how they'd do on their own.
He agrees with Mr. Boot (and most everyone else) that this was not a tactical success for the attackers by any stretch. They were quickly pinned down and surrounded and all eventually killed or captured.
But the Afghan war is one of perceptions. The Taliban (and Haqqani) strategy, such as it is, is to keep reminding everyone that they're still capable of inflicting damage after 10 years of being hunted by the most capable military on the globe. That's heartening to their supporters, and something to frighten Afghans who don't support them about their future. As the blogger writes:
Kabul is supposed to be the most secure city in Afghanistan, and once again, some insurgent group managed to stockpile weapons and supplies in a half-constructed building at the edge of the diplomatic area here in Kabul and light the city up for hours at a time. If the message is: “We can get you anywhere,” message sent. Just, once they get there, they don’t tend to accomplish much. This speaks to increasing levels of proficiency by the ANSF in their response to the situation, but also to the lack of quality intel/planning to make sure these kinds of events do not happen again. If the playbook had changed dramatically from the events of September of 2011, then those things happen, but in this case it’s almost identical. So someone’s making it very clear that the government of Afghanistan really can’t stop them from doing what they want to do.
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