An Israeli official was listening a few days ago to the familiar critique that Israel doesn’t have any strategy in Gaza, just periodic tactical assaults on Hamas. The official finally exploded: “That is our strategy. Don’t you understand? We don’t have any other choice except to punch our adversary in the face every few years.”
The most depressing aspect about the latest Gaza war is that it dramatizes this “no-exit” aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Wars recur every four or five years, but they never seem to settle anything. The Israelis pound the Palestinians until they accept a cease-fire, but it’s temporary. The emotional state of war continues.
The first time I watched this movie was 1982. Israel invaded Lebanon to stop the rockets that were then harassing northern Israel. The invasion was called “Operation Peace for Galilee,” and the Israeli army rolled all the way to Beirut. With their massive firepower, the Israelis assumed the Palestinians would cut and run, as Arab armies had in previous wars. But the Palestinians stood their ground.
It turned out the Israelis didn’t have a good endgame strategy in that war, any more than in the current one. In 1982, they accepted U.S. mediation that eventually forced the Palestine Liberation Organization to leave south Lebanon and Beirut. But this proved a mixed blessing, to put it charitably: The PLO guerrillas were replaced by more disciplined fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia created by the war.
Now it’s Hezbollah that poses the deadly rocket threat to northern Israel. Hezbollah suicide bombings forced Israel to invade Lebanon again in 1996 (“Operation Grapes of Wrath”), then to withdraw in frustration from Lebanon in 2000, then to attack Hezbollah once more in 2006 (“Operation Change of Direction”).
Gaza has been a similar exercise in frustration, with each cycle of violence buying a few years of quiet, followed by more war. The Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, only to have Hamas fire about 12,000 rockets and mortars at the Jewish state. The Israel Defense Forces invaded in 2008 (“Operation Cast Lead”), and a cease-fire followed. But in the years since, Hamas and other militias in Gaza have fired more than 3,000 rockets and mortars, despite periodic cease-fires.
On Nov. 14, the Israelis got fed up and retaliated (“Operation Pillar of Defense”) They assassinated Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, triggering 1,500 new Hamas rocket attacks, to which Israel responded by bombing more than 1,400 targets. The lopsided death toll (at last count, 130 Palestinians and four Israelis killed) led to some international criticism, which undercut some of the military benefits for Israel.
Is there any escape from this Israeli-Palestinian version of hell? The mark of an Israeli realist is to say, glumly, that this is as good as it gets. Few Israelis imagine that real peace is possible with adversaries who refuse even to accept Israel’s existence. The idealists who embraced the Oslo agreement of 1993 have died, moved away from Israel or given up.
Maybe it’s because of Thanksgiving Day, our national festival of optimism, but the idea that America should simply accept the inevitability of perpetual conflict on Israel’s borders seems like a betrayal of both sides. This kind of war grinds down the character of decent people, so Palestinians can cheer when they hear about rockets targeting the families in Tel Aviv, or Israel supporters can denounce newspapers for running a photograph of a sobbing Palestinian journalist cradling his lost child, or send e-mails headed, “Cue the Dead Baby.”
Acting as peacemaker in this conflict has been a thankless job for the United States. It begets enmity in Israel, which doesn’t want its closest ally to be “evenhanded” in this life-or-death conflict. And it begets cynicism and bitterness among Arabs, who have heard so many American promises, to so little effect, that many have concluded the process is a charade.
But at the beginning of Barack Obama’s final term, he needs to take up this burden once more, as he did when he came into office. He has worked hard to develop relationships with three important backers of Hamas — Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. Even the Israelis think that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government has acted constructively in the crisis, and they’d like to see Egypt have more control of Gaza.
A cease-fire in Gaza would provide a new platform for negotiation — weird, unstable, but worth the effort of trying a few more steps. What’s the risk? Another war? The threat of future missile attacks? That dismal picture is called the status quo.
The drama unfolding in Gaza seems numbingly familiar. This time, however, there’s a big and potentially tragic difference: Not even the actors — Palestinians and Israelis — can possibly know how it will turn out.
How many times must they rehash this tired plot? Resentments build, tensions rise. A disputed border incident provides a spark. Israel reacts with sudden force. Palestinians fire rockets at civilian targets. Israel launches reprisal attacks — first justified, then disproportionate. Anguished women wail at the funerals of dead children. Men swear oaths of vengeance, solemn vows that honor and self-respect will never allow them to break.
The usual ending is a cease-fire and a return to the status quo. But the whole Mideast region is undergoing a process of tumultuous change, and there is no guarantee that the stasis considered “normal” in the occupied territories will ever return.
As President Obama noted, Israel has the absolute right to defend itself against rocket attacks whose sole purpose is to terrorize and kill civilians. Israel does not have a right, in my view, to keep Gaza’s 2 million residents under permanent blockade as punishment for choosing officials of Hamas, the Islamist group, as their leadership.
Hamas, of course, has no right to launch rockets at Israel knowing they may fall on schools, hospitals and playgrounds. But Israel has no right to use this flare-up as an excuse for what some commentators have called “mowing the grass” — assassinating Palestinian leaders who have proved particularly effective, destroying infrastructure for the sake of destruction, chalking up civilian casualties in Gaza as an unfortunate side effect.
Israel has the right to exist in peace. Palestinians have the right to an independent state. Each side insists on having its rights fully acknowledged before the other side’s rights are even considered.
Enough with rights. Someone has to start dealing with new and unfamiliar realities.
Henry Kissinger’s famous observation about Israel’s security was that there could be no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria. For more than three decades, Israel has had a peace treaty with Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous state, and a strictly observed truce with Syria across the Golan Heights. But then came the Arab Spring.
Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak is gone, replaced by an elected government whose leaders are members of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood — an organization that has nurtured and supported Hamas. The new government has pledged to honor the treaty, but it is likely to take the plight of the Palestinians much more seriously than did Mubarak, who saw them not as brothers and sisters but as pawns.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, is fighting for his regime’s survival in a civil war. It is quite possible that the country will fracture — and with it, perhaps, the once-sturdy Golan truce.
Throughout the Arab world, religious parties are demanding — and attaining — new power and influence. There are many reasons for this Islamic ascendance, most of which have nothing to do with Israel. But is the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza a contributing factor? Yes, without a doubt, if only because it represents Arab humiliation and provides a focal point for a host of grievances.
Another factor to take into account is the influence Iran now has in Syria and Gaza. One of Israel’s aims in the current bombing campaign may be to degrade Iran’s ability to retaliate — with rockets fired from Gaza — in case of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. But does anyone really think the regime in Tehran is viewing these events with anything other than smug satisfaction? Perceived Israeli excesses in Gaza — more than 90 people have been killed so far — can only weaken international support for an attack on the nuclear sites.
There are far too many variables for anyone to be confident of what happens next. Perhaps Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have an exquisite sense of how far they can push before things spin out of control. I hope so.
Both leaders say they want a cease-fire. Once the fighting stops, there must be renewed negotiations toward the obvious two-state solution. The Obama administration should use its power and influence to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table, kicking and screaming if necessary.
Given the situation, a peace process is likely to be long, bitter and frustrating. But not undertaking one, as everyone should now realize, is much worse.
Rival Palestinian factions' success brings them closer
Hamas' recent battle with Israel and Fatah's expected victory at the U.N. have resurrected the Palestinian cause and provide the two sides a new chance at unity that has long eluded them.
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
November 23, 2012, 4:31 p.m.
GAZA CITY — The Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah are intense rivals that control different turf and employ contrary strategies against Israel, but they have managed in their separate ways to put the Palestinian drive for statehood back on the international agenda.
The eight-day conflict between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip raised the profile of the Palestinian issue, bringing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a stream of Arab diplomats rushing to the region to help negotiate a cease-fire.
Next week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, appears certain to win approval of a United Nations General Assembly resolution upgrading his group's status from "observer entity" to "nonmember state."
Neither side particularly supports the other's tactics. Hamas, an Islamist group in power in Gaza that emphasizes armed struggle and refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, dismisses diplomacy as a waste of time. Fatah, a secular group that controls the West Bank, disavows violence.
Yet together, they've succeeded — at least for now — in resurrecting the Palestinian cause. The issue had been sidelined by turmoil in Egypt, Libya and Syria and a right-wing Israeli government that has shown little sense of urgency on reaching a peace deal with Palestinians.
Still, it is unclear whether recent developments will drive the rivals closer together or deepen their divisions — or whose approach to pursuing the goal of an independent state might gain strength.
Although Hamas and Fatah leaders have publicly thanked each other for their support in recent days, Hamas sidelined Fatah from truce negotiations and prevented Abbas from gaining politically from the clash with Israel, which most Palestinians in Gaza Strip and the West Bank perceived as a resounding success.
In a sign of their tense relations, Fatah's news agency WAFA reported Thursday that Hamas leaders telephoned Abbas to endorse his upcoming U.N. bid, which they'd previously opposed. Within hours, a Hamas spokesman denied the report, saying the group still opposed the U.N. campaign. On Friday, the position flipped again, when several Hamas leaders offered their blessing.
Senior Fatah official Nabil Shaath, who left Gaza on Friday after a short trip to offer support to Hamas, said the two sides were gradually moving closer together.
"After the war, we have rediscovered each other's agendas," he said. "We are much closer than ever. I have never been as cordially received in Gaza as I just was. There is an opportunity here."
He said that during the clash, Hamas voluntarily kept Fatah officials informed of developments and sought the group's advice.
Hamas official Ahmed Yousef agreed that the two factions had inched closer on several key points, including how to handle the conflict with Israel, how to draw support from the Arab world and the need to court Western nations.
"This will expedite the national reconciliation," said Yousef, an advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. "It feels like a new spirit. We feel more like brothers than rivals."
With Hamas riding high in the eyes of Palestinians for standing up to Israel and Abbas on the verge of diplomatic victory at the U.N., both sides may soon agree on something else: elections.
"There's more interest in forming a power-sharing government and moving to elections because we both believe we are strong enough to get a majority of Palestinian support," Yousef said.
The last national Palestinian election was held in 2006, when Hamas beat Fatah. Their subsequent attempt to forge a unity government failed, and a year later, after a bloody clash, Hamas seized control of Gaza. Repeated reconciliation attempts, including one this year, have failed, despite polls showing Palestinians strongly want the factions to mend their differences.
Though overshadowed during the Gaza conflict, Abbas will have his turn in the spotlight next week. And in an indirect way, Hamas' confrontation with Israel could help his U.N. bid by providing momentum and making it harder for Israel to punish the Palestinian Authority.
Israel insists that negotiations should be the only route to statehood. Before the clash in Gaza, it vowed to retaliate against Abbas if he pursued his U.N. campaign by expanding settlement construction in the West Bank, stopping the transfer of much-needed Palestinian tax revenues or canceling the Oslo peace accords.
Although the upcoming U.N. bid is largely symbolic, Palestinians hope it will enable them to join bodies such as the International Criminal Court, where they could bring a complaint against Israel for its construction of West Bank settlements.
The vote in the General Assembly will be far easier for Palestinians to win than last year's attempt to gain full U.N. membership, which had to be approved by the Security Council. It was derailed by a U.S. veto.
After the clash with Hamas, Israel is under pressure from the United States and others to refrain from weakening Abbas further or triggering a financial collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Regarded as a moderate who disavows violence, Abbas should be strengthened instead, they say, particularly at a time when there is growing concern about the rise of Islamist governments in the region.
Critics say Israel has played a role in emboldening Hamas and burnishing its reputation over the years. For starters, Israel helped support the organization in its infancy in the 1980s, when it regarded Hamas as a tool to splinter the Palestinian movement and weaken Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza handed another victory to Hamas. Since Israel withdrew unilaterally and not through negotiations with the PLO, public opinion polls found that most Palestinians credited Hamas' armed tactics for driving out Israeli soldiers and settlers.
The deal to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 was interpreted as another vindication of violence over diplomacy.
Some worry that it may be too late to repair the damage inflicted on Palestinians' faith in peace talks, which after 20 years have failed to bring statehood.
"The secular national movement is dying because it's not playing its cards right," said Diana Buttu, a lawyer in the West Bank town of Ramallah and a former Palestinian Authority advisor.
She said the latest Hamas conflict pressures Abbas to become more aggressive, including filing complaints with the International Criminal Court, seeking international sanctions against Israel, organizing boycotts of Israel and permitting nonviolent demonstrations.
"He's going to need to completely change gears and move away from just relying on peace talks," she said. "He needs to do something that will energize the Palestinians."
Middle East shifts may weaken Iran's influence with Palestinians
Iran, which has for years supplied Hamas with weapons, is up against the new Egypt for the militant group's loyalty. Changes in Syria could also weaken Iran.
By Jeffrey Fleishman and Ramin Mostaghim, Los Angeles Times
November 22, 2012, 7:29 p.m.
CAIRO — Iran for years has supplied Hamas with weapons as part of its own struggle against Israel, but the conflict in the Gaza Strip reveals a shift in regional dynamics that may diminish Tehran's influence with Palestinian militant groups and strengthen the hand of Egypt.
The longer-range missiles fired by Hamas over the last week — believed to be modifications of Iran's Fajr 5 missiles — startled Israel by landing near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A front-page story in Iran's conservative daily, Kayhan, boasted: "The missiles of resistance worked." Tehran would not confirm the weapons' origin, except to say it sent rocket "technology" to Hamas.
Instead, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters: "What is important is that the people of Palestine must be equipped to defend themselves, and it is the responsibility of all countries to defend the rights of the people of Palestine."
But the Gaza fighting erupted during a new era in the Middle East brought about by the rise of Islamist governments, notably in Egypt, that have replaced pro-Western autocrats. The political catharsis has spurred anti-Americanism, which Iran relishes, but it also has upset Tehran's regional designs.
In Syria — which along with the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah has been Iran's proxy opposing Israel — a revolt inspired by the "Arab Spring" could force President Bashar Assad from power and bring in a government less friendly to Tehran. Hamas angered Iran by opposing Tehran's continued support of Assad and siding with the Syrian rebels, who are mostly fellow Sunni Muslims.
Iran's immediate concern in Gaza is keeping Hamas from strengthening its ties to Arab capitals. This may be difficult, as evidenced by the fact that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which inspired the founding of Hamas and now is in charge of the Egyptian government, played a key role in brokering the cease-fire announced Wednesday.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is likely to press the militant group not to further agitate the region — and Egypt's many domestic problems — with sustained violence against Israel. But Egypt has been criticized for tacitly arming Hamas by not tightening its border with Gaza to stop weapons smugglers from Libya and Sudan.
"The Iranians [had] better understand the paradigm is shifting in the Middle East," said Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. and founding dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo. "Hamas needs Cairo tremendously. It really has no other interlocutor to deal with Israel."
But he added that the region is so fluid and unsettled that it is too early to predict winners and losers: "If there are peaceful resolutions, this will lead to a reduced Iranian role. If, on the other hand, you have an increased use of violence," he said, "then ultimately any player that has been supportive of a more aggressive posture will gain ground."
Iran characterized Hamas' rocket fire on Israel as part of an effort to keep the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu off balance. Netanyahu has threatened to attack Iran's nuclear program, and some suggest the airstrikes on Gaza have been a warm-up exercise. Tehran viewed the Gaza conflict as a means to distract Israel and further inflame anti-Jewish sentiment in a region tipping increasingly toward Islamists.
"Hamas' ties with Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's current government are different from its ties with Iran," said Nader Karimi, a journalist and political analyst in Tehran. "In peace, when diplomacy is needed, Hamas is closer to Egypt at the expense of Iran. But when it's at war with Israel, Hamas' relations with Iran are more important."
Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' political chief, acknowledged as much after the cease-fire was announced Wednesday. "Iran played a role in this achievement as well," he said. "We have differed with Iran on the Syrian issue, but we agree against the oppression and occupation of Zionists."
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt "let down Hamas in the current war," said Hamid Reza Taraghi, a conservative Iranian analyst who criticized Cairo for not opening Egypt's border with Gaza to supply Hamas with arms. "Hamas now realizes that Iran is the genuine supporter of the Palestinian cause."
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was suspicious of both Hamas and Iran. Mubarak, a close U.S. ally, had no formal ties with Iran for decades. Morsi visited Tehran last summer and indicated a change in tenor, even as he has angered Iran by condemning Assad's mass killings of Syrians.
But Egypt's domestic problems, including economic turmoil, the battle over a new constitution and gas and water shortages, are his steepest challenges. Morsi also is attempting to stem increasing instability in the Sinai Peninsula, where resurgent militant groups, some believed to be aided by Hamas, have killed Egyptian security forces and launched attacks at Israel.
Trouble in the Sinai jeopardizes Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel but plays into Iran's efforts. Analysts suggest that Cairo will work to rein in Hamas, and other rivals of Iran including Sunni Muslim Persian Gulf nations such as Qatar will also be more deeply involved. The emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, visited Gaza in October and promised $400 million in aid.
Egypt, however, poses the biggest obstacle to Iran's plans in Gaza. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood regard Cairo as the unquestioned regional mediator between the Palestinians and Israel.
"Egypt has historic, geographic and religious ties with Palestine and Gaza. These ties cannot be bought," said Sadegh Hosseini, an expert on Iranian politics. "Gaza is the backyard of Egypt. In recent years, we have seen that ideologically Hamas is another branch of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Its deterrence policy in Gaza only feeds the cycle of violence.
By Daoud Kuttab
November 20, 2012
JERUSALEM — For years, Israelis have embraced a theory of "deterrence" with respect to the Gaza Strip. The idea is that if Gazans feel enough pain, they will refrain from attacking Israel. But this kind of strategic deterrence simply doesn't work. Instead, Gazans react to the huge suffering and pain inflicted by Israel with a greater determination to inflict pain on their attackers. Furthermore, deterrence without any possibility of a political settlement ensures that this madness will go on indefinitely.
In explaining the Israeli theory, Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon, Israel's minister of strategic affairs, said last week that "if the terror organizations do not cease their fire, we will be prepared to toughen our response as much as necessary, until they say 'enough!'" Interior Minister Eli Yishai proclaimed, "We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages."
It's not hard to believe that's what the Israelis have in mind. Using their strategic military advantage, they have bombarded Gaza during the last week from the air, ground and sea and seem to be planning to launch a ground offensive in the coming days. The majority of the more than 100 Palestinians killed so far have been noncombatants, including children. At least nine Palestinians representing three generations of the Dalu family were wiped out when Israel shelled their Gaza City home.
PHOTOS: Israel-Gaza violence
Israel has said its goal is to attack those who are launching missile attacks. But its actions seem almost certain to produce a new crop of militants eager to launch a new round of attacks.
Some security strategists and "just war" theorists argue that deterrence can be morally acceptable in cases in which it doesn't directly affect the lives and welfare of the civilian population. But when deterrence becomes indistinguishable from collective punishment, it is far harder to justify, and far less likely to achieve its intended result.
Palestinians say that their rocket attacks are acts of self-defense against the punishing land and naval blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2007. The killing of civilians by either side can't be condoned, and it's true that Gazan missile attacks have killed several Israeli civilians. But Israel's recent military actions have been shockingly disproportionate, aimed at densely populated areas in which besieged Gazan civilians have no place to escape the overwhelming and exaggerated Israeli firepower.
The spiraling violence on the part of Israel and of Gazan militants (whose rockets have reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) indicates that deterrence is failing, or that, at best, its effectiveness is deteriorating. At the same time, the cost in terms of both human lives and deepening hatred continues to escalate.
What makes Israel's "strategic deterrence" approach most unworkable is that it is being employed without a comprehensive plan that includes a political component. By refusing to politically deal with those in power in Gaza, Israel is seeking a solely military solution to what is mostly a political conflict.
Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, who successfully delivered on a 2011 prisoner exchange with Israel, was assassinated last week along with his son after a 24-hour lull in the conflict that was based on an unwritten understanding. Immediately before his assassination, Jabari was said to have been preparing a reply to an Israeli offer for a long-term cease-fire. Many have seen his killing as a sign that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps with the upcoming Israeli elections in mind, is not interested at the moment in de-escalating the conflict.
The absence of a political horizon removes any incentive for the Palestinians in Gaza to stop their attacks. The Israeli military operation is taking place just before the United Nations General Assembly will be asked to recognize Palestine as a nonmember state that lives alongside Israel. In 1947, the Jews of Palestine and Tel Aviv celebrated a similar resolution recognizing their own statehood, but today's Israeli leaders seem bent on denying Palestinians the right to have their own independent state.
Perhaps the worst part of this deterrence strategy is that it places no importance on the long-term relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors. After being forced from their land in 1948 and again in 1967, and pushed into a mere 22% of the original boundaries of Palestine as established by the British, Palestinians are intent on not retreating further. This means that Israelis and Palestinians will need to find a formula to live side by side going forward.
A relentless and aggressive policy that harms innocent people doesn't serve the long-term good and should not be condoned by the international community, including the United States.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former professor of journalism at Princeton
When Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas rather than a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, he surely knew that his opposition would taunt him with these words from 2009: “We must smash the Hamas power in Gaza,” he said then. “The next government will have no choice but to finish the job and uproot . . . the Iranian terror base.”
That Netanyahu held back from doing so is testimony to not only his prudence or the influence of Barack Obama. It is ratification of the most important outcome of the latest Gaza crisis, which is the consolidation of a new Islamist front as Israel’s principal Arab counterpart, adversary and potential interlocutor. It comprises not just Hamas but the allied, Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt, with Turkey and Qatar as supporting partners.
As a simple, pragmatic matter, “smashing” or “uprooting” Hamas is no longer an option. Not only does Hamas have the support of the region’s richest and most powerful governments, but it is preferable to the most obvious Gazan alternative, which is jihadist movements even more closely tied to Iran.
This may sound like terrible news, especially to supporters of the conventional Mideast “peace process,” who have been hoping that Obama’s reelection would open the way to yet another push to negotiate Palestinian statehood. But for hawkish Israelis such as Netanyahu — and maybe even for the doves — there is reason for some quiet celebration.
First, the new Islamic front is far weaker than the post-truce celebrations in Gaza suggest. Though it survived the assassination of its military chief and managed to bombard Israel with 1,500 rockets and mortar rounds, Hamas once again demonstrated that it lacks the means to do more than frighten or inconvenience Israelis. On the contrary: The success of the U.S.-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system suggests that missiles will be a decreasingly credible threat.
Meanwhile, both Gaza and Egypt continue to face major domestic problems. Much of Hamas’s governing infrastructure has been destroyed, including tunnels that supply Gaza’s economy as well as weapons. In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi, lionized on Wednesday for brokering the cease-fire, was facing on Friday a violent domestic backlash against his attempt to further concentrate power. Having just signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to prop up the teetering Egyptian economy, Morsi literally cannot afford to challenge Israel or the West anytime soon. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is similarly tied down by the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Though the Middle East is more unpredictable than ever, it’s reasonable to forecast that the Islamists will grow still weaker in the next several years. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will be no more able to sustain an autocracy than was Hosni Mubarak, and it will be blamed for its inevitable failure to meet post-revolutionary expectations. Iran’s ability to supply Gaza militants with rockets likely will wane because of economic sanctions and the crumbling of the allied Syrian regime.
At the same time, this Gaza episode may finally finish off the stubbornly persistent notion that Israel should negotiate a peace settlement with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority without Hamas’s involvement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Western-backed security forces are still relevant, as Abbas will probably demonstrate this week by winning a U.N. General Assembly vote recognizing Palestinian statehood. But Abbas has less standing than ever to speak on behalf of Palestinians — and in any case has repeatedly shown himself unwilling to negotiate with Netanyahu or commit to the concessions a peace deal would require.
Rather than watch another sterile round of diplomatic maneuvering among Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama, Egypt seems bent on overseeing another attempt to broker a reconciliation between the Palestinian factions. In the short run this would prevent peace negotiations, to the satisfaction of hard-liners on both sides. But in the long run it might make a deal more possible. Palestinian elections — a likely part of any internal accord — could bring in new and stronger leaders. Meanwhile Morsi’s government will have to choose between pushing the Palestinians toward an accord with Israel or tolerating growing instability on Egypt’s border.
Even if no comprehensive peace is possible, the new regional alignment may allow Israel and Hamas to work out a modus vivendi that benefits both sides. In exchange for more open borders and an opportunity to develop economically with backing from its new Arab allies, Hamas could agree to a more thorough and reliable truce that leaves southern Israel in peace. That’s a long way from real peace — but it’s better for both sides than going to war every couple of years.
In Egypt, president’s power grab unites those who once battled over Mubarak
By Michael Birnbaum
Nov 26, 2012 12:49 AM EST
The Washington Post Updated: Monday, November 26, 8:49 AM
CAIRO — Supporters of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and the human rights advocates who dedicated themselves to toppling the longtime autocrat never dreamed they would find themselves chanting the same slogans.
But with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s decision on Thursday to assume near-absolute power over his country, at least for now, secularists of all stripes have mobilized in ways unimaginable just a week ago. With Islamists largely backing Morsi, a battle is quickly taking shape over the degree to which religion will play a role in post-revolutionary Egypt’s government.
On Sunday, despite a nascent rebellion among the judiciary, Morsi’s office said he would hold firm to his decisions. He also flexed his newly expanded powers for the first time, changing several labor laws by fiat. In a sign of fear about instability to come, Egypt’s main stock index plunged by almost 10 percent on the first trading day since Morsi’s announcement. It was the steepest drop since the turbulent days immediately after the revolution.
But Morsi also announced he would meet with the Egypt’s judges group on Monday, laying the possibility for concessions.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies and his opposition plan to hold dueling demonstrations across the country on Tuesday in a bid to rally support, pro and con, in the biggest test yet of the power of each side to mobilize. With a new constitution set to be approved in the coming months, Tahrir Square — the heart of the revolution that toppled Mubarak — has in recent days become a rallying place for both liberal secularists and those who have scorned them as naive.
Members of the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, have been marshalling themselves in front of the very institutions once used against them. With many judges and prosecutors threatening a strike, Egypt has quickly been embroiled in a crisis that may threaten the democratic ideals of the revolution more than any other development in the tumultuous 21 months since Mubarak was deposed.
In a measure of the topsy-turvy nature of the developing anti-Morsi coalition, idealistic liberal groups find themselves fighting the sidelining of a judiciary that in recent months has let many Mubarak-era officials walk away unpunished from charges of corruption and abuses. Meanwhile, law-and-order supporters of Egypt’s military and police force find themselves dodging tear gas, shouting the same anti-government lines once used against Mubarak.
The shifting lines were already on display in the June presidential elections, when Morsi narrowly beat Ahmed Shafiq, an emblem of the old guard, with just 52 percent of the vote. This time the common cause has new urgency, with Morsi removing the final check on his power by saying that courts do not have the right to review his decisions. The legislature was dissolved before he took office.
Few among the opposition expect the coalition to be durable. Whether it will be enough to get Morsi to back down has yet to be seen.
“New people who’ve never been to Tahrir, they went on Friday,” said Hatem Farrag, 42, a businessman and charity operator who said his only other protest since the revolution had been last month to object to Morsi’s first attempt to sack the Mubarak-appointed prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud. Liberals and Islamists alike have complained that Mahmoud was perverting justice to protect the old Mubarak elite and demanded his ouster. But when Mahmoud lost his job for good as part of the presidential announcement last week, liberal groups joined with protesters such as Farrag to object to the manner in which the prosecutor was pushed out.
The decree “gives Morsi absolute power that Mubarak never dreamed of having,” Farrag said. “In a very short time, he united all the people who you could never believe would give the same statement.”
The military council that ran Egypt until Morsi came to power held to its promises, Farrag said, but not the Muslim Brotherhood. He said he had been part of a moderate political movement before the revolution and joined in the first protests in Tahrir on Jan. 25, 2011, expecting to see reforms, not regime change.
Many liberal politicians and activists, who have until now been plagued by infighting, said their main aim was to redeem the democratic advances they had made since the end of Mubarak’s rule. The Obama administration has also expressed its concern.
The “essential goal is to overthrow the illegitimate constitutional declaration,” said a statement from the National Salvation Front, an alliance of liberal groups and politicians formed Saturday to fight the decrees. The alliance ranges from youthful, well-
educated elites to politicians such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa — a former Mubarak official whom many in the youth movement view with suspicion.
“It’s hard for us to compromise on something in the middle,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which has collaborated with other rights groups in protesting the measures. He said that Mubarak sympathizers, liberal politicians and human rights organizations “seem to share some common ideas,” even if they held starkly different visions for the country.
“There is positive energy in that people didn’t lose hope,” Abdel Tawab said. But he said that he and others were suspicious that a deal might be reached between those who miss the old autocracy and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies.
Compromise to preserve power “is something that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been very good at,” he said.
Morsi’s office on Sunday said that he would meet with the judges’ main administrative body on Monday to explain his decision but that he would not back down. In a statement, his office repeated that the move was temporary and said that he wanted dialogue with all political forces in the country.
“This declaration is deemed necessary in order to hold accountable those responsible for corruption as well as other crimes during the previous regime and the transitional period,” the statement said.
Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.
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Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a monthly columnist for The Post, is most recently the author of “The World America Made.”
ABU DHABI ___
The recurrent theme at the Sir Bani Yas Forum, hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Chatham House here last weekend, was, Where is the United States? As the conference opened, Israel had just begun launching strikes in Gaza in response to the missile attacks from Hamas; Syria’s civil war raged with no end in sight; answers to the growing challenge of Iran remained elusive; and the course of Egypt’s political evolution had many concerned.
No one was suggesting the United States could or ought to have all the answers, but among this gathering of Arab, North African, South Asian and European diplomats and international civil servants, the overwhelming consensus was that the superpower is AWOL. The only question was whether the absence is temporary or permanent.
It was impressive to see how much desire there is for a more active U.S. role in the Middle East. There was little talk here of America’s decline as the world’s preeminent power. No one is preparing for a Chinese, Indian or Turkish ascendancy. Not even the Europeans claim that the European Union has the will or capacity to take on a bigger role in the region. The United States remains by far the most important player.
What has people concerned and despairing is not American decline but America’s declining interest — the sense that the Obama administration, and the American people, have about washed their hands of the Middle East.
President Obama was setting off on the first trip after his reelection, and it was to Southeast Asia, a fitting symbol of his proclaimed “pivot.” No one begrudges the United States paying more attention to Asia, but in the Middle East the pivot is seen as an attempt to turn away from this region’s difficult problems. People here believe Obama got burned on the Middle East peace process three years ago and is reluctant to engage again. They see how reticent the United States is to do anything in Syria. Veteran America-watchers complain that neither the White House nor the State Department has a Middle East hand with real clout focusing full-time on the region.
And it’s hard to deny: Many in the United States, not just inside the Obama administration, seem to think American policy needs to be “rebalanced.” The strategic importance of the Middle East is declining, they argue, as the United States grows independent of the region’s oil supply. Obama does little to push back against a growing public perception that there is nothing but trouble for the United States brewing in the Middle East.
When the Arab revolutions first erupted, the Obama White House promised to focus great attention and resources on these world-transforming events. That enthusiasm faded long ago. The administration used to trumpet its success in Libya. But lack of attention and follow-through has damaged even that once-bright spot. The Obama campaign boasted about getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. Beyond that, however, administration officials have little to say about one of the most important nations in the Middle East, still engaged in a historic struggle for democratic change.
The irony, of course, is that every time the Obama administration tries to turn toward Asia, the Middle East drags it back — literally, in the case of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It’s an illusion to think we will not continue to be drawn into Middle East affairs. The world is no longer neatly divided by distinct regions, if it ever was. Events in the Middle East affect the world, just as events in Asia do. Wherever the United States gets its oil, global energy prices are affected by whether oil flows freely from the Middle East, and U.S. allies in Europe and Asia still depend on that as a main source. If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, it will affect not just the Middle East but the global non-proliferation regime. The success or failure of the experiment to marry Islamism and democracy that is playing out in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere will affect politics across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan to Southeast Asia as well as in Europe. And if Syria collapses, the chances are high that well-armed terrorist groups will gain a foothold in a nation with the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles.
The present world order is seamless, and so is the global strategy necessary to sustain it. As one prominent statesman expressed the general puzzlement here, “Can’t the United States walk and chew gum at the same time?” For decades the United States has been able to provide security and remain engaged in three major theaters at once: Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Today those theaters are more interconnected, economically and strategically, than ever.
So let’s by all means give Asia the attention it deserves. But the world won’t afford us the luxury of downgrading the importance of the other two regions. That’s what it means to be a global superpower: We can pivot, but we can’t leave.
Seventeen months ago, President Obama said that the 30,000 American troops deployed to Afghanistan for the “surge” would be home by this September, and he made good on that promise. He also said troop reductions would continue at a “steady pace” until the remaining 66,000 were out by the end of 2014.
"I thought we went to Afghanistan to get Bin Laden. Well, he is gone and we should be also."
Sally DeCapite, Cleveland, OH.
A “steady pace” should mean withdrawing all combat forces on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. That should start now and should not take more than a year. We strongly supported the war in Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but after more than a decade of fighting and a cost upward of $500 billion it is time for a safe and orderly departure. If there was ever a serious chance of building a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, it was lost when President George W. Bush abandoned that challenge to pursue his pointless war in Iraq.
It’s unclear how Mr. Obama defines “steady pace.” He said that his senior commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, would provide him with a formal recommendation on the pace of withdrawals after the November election. But the White House has still not asked General Allen for his assessment, nor has the Pentagon begun considering specific troop levels for 2013 and into 2014.
Michael R. Gordon of The Times reported this week that military commanders are pressing to keep most of the remaining 66,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of the 2013 fighting season in the fall and then withdrawing them in the year after that. But this slow withdrawal would do nothing to ensure that the Taliban does not regain territory or that Afghanistan’s politics stabilize. And any hope of ridding the government of corruption seems less and less likely. What is certain is that the longer troops remain in the battlefield, the more that deaths and injuries will be sustained.
The White House is already beginning to deal with another important decision: whether to leave a residual force after 2014 when the Afghan Army and police forces have full responsibility for the country’s security. American and NATO military planners are drawing up the broad outlines of such a deployment. One option calls for about 10,000 Americans and several thousand non-American NATO troops, including a counterterrorism force of about 1,000 and other units to advise Afghan security forces.
White House officials say Mr. Obama will consider options for the residual force soon, because that will affect negotiations already under way between Washington and Kabul on specific terms of their future security relationship. So far, President Obama has failed to make a case to the American people for a residual force of any size.
The negotiations, which could take months, should not be an excuse to drag out a decision on the pace of withdrawing the remaining combat troops. More than 2,000 American military personnel have died in this war, and many thousands more have been maimed. There is no reason to delay the troops’ return home by another year.
Time Slipping, U.S. Ponders Afghan Role After 2014
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
Published: November 25, 2012
WASHINGTON — American and allied military planners are drawing up the broad outlines of a force that would remain in Afghanistan following the handover to Afghan security after 2014, including a small counterterrorism force with an eye toward Al Qaeda, senior officials say.
Under the emerging plan, the American counterterrorism force might number less than 1,000, one military official said. In a parallel effort, NATO forces would advise Afghan forces at major regional military and police headquarters but most likely have a minimal battlefield role, with the exception of some special operations advisers.
Final decisions on the size of the American and NATO presence after 2014 and its precise configuration have not been made by the United States or its allies. But one option calls for about 10,000 American and several thousand non-American NATO troops.
The planning for a post-2014 mission has emerged as an early test for President Obama in his new term as he tries to flesh out the strategy for transferring the responsibility for security to the Afghans. But it is not the only challenge: After the White House decides what sort of military presence to propose to the Afghan government for after 2014, it must turn to the question of how quickly to reduce its troop force before then.
As one of his last acts as senior American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen is expected to submit a formal recommendation for how quickly to begin withdrawing the United States’ 66,000 troops. Two American officials who are involved in Afghan issues said that General Allen wants to keep a significant military capability through the fighting season ending in fall 2013, which could translate to a force of more than 60,000 troops until the end of that period.
Afghan forces are to assume the lead role for the war next year, and a military officer said that such a troop level would enable the United States to better support them, maintain the initiative and control critical terrain.
But such an approach may entail a heavier military involvement than the White House, which appears weary of the war, might like.
The White House is expected to ask General Allen to submit a range of options for drawing down forces next year, including some involving substantial reductions in troop levels.
“The White House has not yet asked General Allen for his assessment, nor have we begun considering any specific recommendations for troop numbers in 2013 and 2014,” said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman. “What is true is that in June 2011 the president made clear that our forces would continue to come home at a steady pace as we transition to an Afghan lead for security. That it still the case.”
The issue is already a politically contentious one. Some leading Democratic lawmakers have signaled that they would like to see steady troop reductions next year while Republicans have argued that speedy withdrawals would jeopardize hard-won gains.
There are also questions about General Allen’s future: his e-mails to a woman linked to the F.B.I. inquiry that disclosed David H. Petraeus’s affair are being investigated by the Pentagon inspector general.
But General Allen has resumed his duties in Kabul, and Mr. Obama has said that he thinks highly of his military performance. The Marine general who has been nominated to replace him, Joseph F. Dunford Jr., is not scheduled to take up the post until early February and recently told Congress that he had not been part of the planning process.
The planning for a post-2014 force is the Obama administration’s first order of business on Afghanistan for several reasons. The United States has opened talks with the Afghans on a security agreement that would authorize an American troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. So American officials need to define what role American and NATO forces might play then.
In addition, NATO’s political arm has authorized the alliance’s military planners to develop a concept for how to carry out the post-2014 mission, which is to be approved by the alliance’s defense ministers early next year.
The planning for after 2014 turns on troubling questions on how to guard against the expansion of terrorist groups and advise an Afghan military that has little airpower, poor logistics and difficulties evacuating and treating its own wounded. But it will also depend heavily on the willingness of allied nations to contribute troops and funds.
One question is the scope of the mission for the American counterterrorism force. The targets of the counterterrorism force would include Al Qaeda and possibly Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group linked to Al Qaeda that was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and which is found in small numbers in northeast Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might also make the list.
But it was unclear whether the Pakistani-based Haqqani network, which American commandos have focused on for the past two years, would also be a potential target of the American force. Officials say that does not appear to be contemplated by the White House.
An important question for the NATO mission after 2014 is what level of the Afghan military hierarchy they would advise. It is generally expected that they would advise seven regional Afghan Army corps and several regional Afghan police headquarters. The arrangement would largely insulate the NATO advisers from the battlefield, though officials said advisers might accompany Afghan brigades on major operations.
It is unlikely that NATO officers would advise Afghan battalions on the battlefield. That would require many more advisers than the alliance is likely to muster and would entail more risk than most nations seem prepared to assume, though some American experts believe it would make the Afghan military more effective. Still, NATO special operations advisers would be likely to accompany Afghan Army commandos and police SWAT-type units on the battlefield, under the emerging plan.
A major challenge is that Afghanistan will not have an effective air force before 2017, if then. American officials said that NATO airpower would remain in Afghanistan after 2014 but will likely only be used on behalf of NATO and American troops and perhaps Afghan units that are accompanied by NATO advisers. NATO forces rely heavily on airpower for airstrikes, supply and medical evacuation since Afghanistan’s roads are poor and often seeded with bombs.
To compensate for Afghanistan’s limited airpower, American officials are working on a number of fixes, including providing Afghan forces with armored vehicles that would be equipped with mortars and assault guns. The United States is also looking into expanding the purchase of turboprop planes for the Afghans and is trying to help Afghan pilots learn to fly at night.
Equally troubling is the problem of medical evacuations. After 2014, the Afghans will almost certainly need to rely on a system that depends more on ground transportation than helicopters. The Americans want to help them develop more field hospitals.
Senior Afghan military officials are well aware of their deficiencies and are counting on American support.
“Until 2017, we will have American pilots and engineers flying with us,” said Gen. Abdul Wahab Wardak, the Afghan Air Force Commander. “They will start the handover of the air force at the beginning of 2017 and at the end of the year it will be complete.”
General Wardak also noted that the Afghan military needed NATO help to provide “close air support and medevac.” And he ticked off a long list of equipment he hoped to receive from the United States, including transport airplanes and parts.
Still, in the broader sense, a senior American military officer acknowledged that the United States faced formidable difficulties in getting the Afghans ready to operate on their own.
The challenge, the officer said, is “building the back end” of the army and the police: “We’ve been focused on their fighting ability. Now it’s the time we need to focus on getting them the ability to get what they need so they can fight.”
Reporting was contributed by Matthew Rosenberg and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Eric Schmitt and Wesley S. Morgan from Washington.