Friday, December 19, 2014

Drawing lessons, both positive and negative, from Egypt and Jordan

As I sit here in Boston and try to imagine a day when Hamas and their fellow Palestinian terror groups will finally give up their dream of murdering every Israeli civilian, I can't help but also think about how these gains would be supported in the long term. Disarming them would of course be a significant step forward in and of itself,  but unless a certain measure of normalization can be achieved, it's hard to see how peace will be maintained. In order to achieve this the Palestinian leadership would have to demonstrate a willingness to build and strengthen ties not only on security matters but when it comes economic cooperation as well.

Unfortunately, there are not many good examples that I can think of when it comes to comprehensive cooperation between former enemies. If anything, the trend seems to have run in the opposite direction, and often the best we can often hope for is a cold peace.

Israel has this kind of peace now with both Jordan and Egypt. With the former, peace was made and the net result was better cooperation on security, some tourist traffic to Petra and a few bright spots in environmental conservation and education. With the latter, the security of the State of Israel was certainly enhanced, the possibility of improved bilateral relations around natural energy is currently an attractive prospect, and as with Jordan, Israel has seen Egypt go from a looming threat next door , to a somewhat reliable partner. These were important gains and certainly made Israel a safer place for everyone who lives there, but they also did not lead to major breakthroughs in bilateral trade or cultural understanding.

Looking at the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process, perhaps the situations with Jordan and Egypt are instructive. These two examples should demonstrate to the Palestinian leadership that peace with Israel is possible. Yes, there are things about the Palestinian situation which are unique, but nonetheless, if two Arab nations can make peace with the Jewish State, then surely a third, aspiring Palestinian state, should be able to do the same. At the same time, I would guess that a forward-thinking Palestinian leader might want to take advantage of an opportunity missed by both Egypt and Jordan, and seek meaningful economic and cultural ties between a future Palestinian State and Israel.

Crafting a peace process and outcome that will both end the violence and create a meaningful path forward is surely a tall order, but perhaps in this struggle which so many have described as uniquely vexing, a unique solution is just what's needed. 
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In the Middle East, details point to the bigger picture

 With so many ongoing conflicts (both ideological and military) in the Middle East and North Africa, it's no surprise that the bloodiest, most explosive incidents are the ones which get the most intense media coverage. We should not ignore things like terror attacks in Egypt or Israel, or the latest clashes with ISIS, but I do think that for serious observers of the Middle East, the actions, statements and policies that form the basis of political culture and civil society in the region warrant equally close, if not closer, study.

While these less sensational stories may not lead the evening news, they do get media coverage and are often pretty easy to find. One example that caught my attention today was a report that the Turkish President told a gathering of leaders from other Muslim countries that Westerners don't value the lives of Muslims, and are only interested in this part of the world as a source of gold, diamonds and cheap labor. As a piece in The Times of Israel pointed out, this is hardly the first bizarre or offensive thing Erdogan has said, and if he had simply said this during an interview or in off the cuff remarks, I would suggest that this sentiment was intended for an internal audience, essentially a cheap swipe at the West in order to increase domestic political support. However, given that these statements were delivered directly to fellow Muslim leaders at the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, I think they are further evidence that Erdogan has a vision for Turkey (and likely himself) that is less about engagement with the broader world and more about Turkish regional influence and distant dreams of empire.

To understand any part of the world it's always necessary to go beneath the surface, and the Middle East is no different. It is for this reason that I think this story about Erdogan's latest remarks should not be ignored; yes, he says a lot of bizarre things and yes, leaders across the region frequently resort rhetorical pyrotechnics to shore up political support at home, but this doesn't mean we can dismiss stories like this one out of hand. In fact, it is media reports such as this one and countless others which may not grab the world's attention right away, but contain clues to the attitudes, plans and future policy maneuvers of those who wield political and military power in the Middle East and North Africa. And this is clearly something that no serious observer of the region can afford to ignore. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Israel doesn't need another Arafat - and neither do the Palestinians

Although it should come as no surprise that history in the Middle East has a rather nasty way of  repeating itself, I've found the most recent headlines out of the region to be particularly redundant (and depressing) lately. Unfortunately, reports of terror attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well as a lack of serious political leadership on the part of the Palestinians are nothing new. 

Yes, there were some notable periods of calm in the last few years, and the security fence has done a remarkably good job at nearly eliminating the use of suicide bombers inside Israel, but the reality is that Hamas and friends have never taken a break from plotting and attempting to kill Israelis. Furthermore, the peace process has continued to limp along without any real progress, so sadly, the latest setbacks are also nothing new. 

What does bother me greatly, though, are the actions and words of President Abbas, who seems to be caught up in a desperate grab for relevance by channelling the late Yasir Arafat. This is bad for any number of reasons, not least of which that Arafat was unbelievably corrupt and had a singular knack for sabotaging peace talks. The late Palestinian leader was also very comfortable with terrorism and was more than willing to let his own people get killed if some personal political benefit could accrue to him as a result.

Given all of this, why would Abbas embrace Arafat's legacy? Why would he try to evoke a memory of this man, both in his own remarks to the media as well as attempt to draw direct attention to a connection by suggesting that Arafat's grave should be moved to Jerusalem? As I said earlier, I think this is a bid for legitimacy, but it's not one that I think can work. Whether the appeal of Arafat as role model lies in Abas casting about for a figure who was once respected (even revered) by the Palestinian people, or is some sort of last-ditch effort, I believe the results will be the same: disaster. 

Whatever Arafat may have been able to get away with when he was in power, much of it was achieved through a well-entrenched culture of corruption, graft and strong-arm tactics, none of which, I should note, advanced the cause of peace or Palestinian statehood. Arafat "got away" with these things based on his personality and the clout he had both internally and internationally. Abbas has none of these things at the moment (except maybe a problem with corruption, but how he would turn that to his advantage is hard to imagine) and yet he seems intent on conjuring the ghost of Arafat - praising violence against Israeli civilians, undermining peace talks and doing practically nothing of substance to bolster Palestinian civil society, let alone statehood. All we can hope is that Abbas sees the folly of this path before he does any more damage - the last thing the world needs is another failed Palestinian leader, let alone another Arafat.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Looking forward to a robust, centrist conversation on Israel at the JFNA General Assembly

This morning I find myself sitting in Boston's Logan Airport, waiting for a flight to Washington, D.C. where I'll be attending the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federation of North America. Last year the GA was held in Jerusalem, and not surprisingly much of the focus  was on Israel, with Prime Minister Netanyahu among the speakers. It's not surprising that Israel will be a prominent topic of discussion this year too, especially given the war with Hamas this past summer. 

The connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities is an important, complicated and ever-evolving relationship, and for this reason I imagine that Israel will remain an important topic of discussion at events like the GA. For some within the Diaspora community Israel is a second home, both spiritually and physically, while others feel completely disconnected from the country. There are those on the far left who are automatically and intensely critical of every single thing the Israeli government does, and others on the far right who are unwilling to consider anything that happens in Israel with a critical eye. 

These extremes represent polar opposites, but I would guess that the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle. It is for this reason that I'm looking forward to this gathering in Maryland, where I hope to have the opportunity to hear and participate in conversations about Israel and the ways that we in the Diaspora can strengthen our connection to the Jewish state in a meaningful and positive way. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

While Israel uses Iron Dome to save lives, Hamas uses anything it can to kill

This week I had the chance to hear journalist Ari Shavit speak at a synagogue in the Boston area at an event organized by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The author, who has become well known for his book My Promised Land, spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and praised, in particular, those who had made the anti-missile Iron Dome system possible, including the engineers who designed it, as well as President Obama and the U.S. Congress for helping up fund it. 

What struck me about his comments on this particular topic was his emphasis on the way that this defensive military technology had not only saved the lives of Israelis, but of Palestinians as well.  I was not surprised to hear this sentiment expressed, but I did think, as I listened to him, that it's probably a feeling that many of us who care about Israel experienced this past summer, and should probably share more often. 

In my opinion Mr. Shavit was not only espousing a moral viewpoint, but offering a realistic assessment - when he said that as terrible as the war with Hamas was, that by virtue of the presence of Iron Dome further escalation was prevented, this is a clear-eyed assessment. Each time this system successfully intercepted a rocket or missile and prevented Israeli casualties, pressure on Israel to launch a full scale invasion of Gaza was probably reduced a little. This may yet be the best example of the fact that when it comes to security, Israel would always rather protect its citizens by defensive, rather than offensive, measures.

By contrast, Hamas and Fatah have proven lately that they prefer the opposite tack, targeting Israeli civilians in order to score points with their own constituents and in the process not only committing horrible crimes but demonstrating a commitment to violence over peace. In fact, just this morning there were media reports of an attack in Jerusalem carried out by a man with longstanding ties to Hamas, which has apparently killed one person and severely injured several others. This brutal assault follows another similar terrorist attack carried out in Jerusalem on October 22nd of this year which killed two people, including a 3-month old baby. 

On days like today, peace seems perhaps an ever more distant dream. What can we say or do about a conflict in which one side devotes its resources to a defensive technology designed to save the lives of all civilians caught in the crossfire, while the other fires rockets at kindergartens, digs tunnels designed to infiltrate people's homes and applauds those who mercilessly ram their cars into crowds of people standing by the side of the road?

I think for the moment, all we can do is to stand in shocked silence once again, hoping and praying that those of us who care about a peaceful two-state solution, can stave off the weariness that breeds cynicism just a little longer.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

When it comes to premature recognition of a Palestinian state, it's not enough to oppose, we must also ask why

There's been considerable media attention lately surrounding efforts by Palestinian leaders to circumvent the peace process with Israel as they seek unilateral recognition from individual nation states and attempt to gain de facto legitimacy by acquiring the imprimatur of various international bodies. I, along with many others, have written in opposition to this effort, identifying it, I believe quite accurately, as a cynical ploy by Palestinian leaders to further their own agenda by increasing pressure on Israel in the international community, without advancing the actual cause of peace or Palestinian statehood.

I will not rehash the arguments against this quixotic approach again, but as I've been watching the media coverage of President Abbas I find myself wondering more and more what the motivation is for these nation-states and NGO's to acquiesce to his demands.

The short and easy answer, that these groups and countries have never liked Israel and this yet another way to express this sentiment, seems too simple to me. In a similar vein, the idea that countries like Sweden have done so only out of the moral conviction that the Palestinians deserve their own country, seems naive. Modern nation states, as ripe as they may sometimes be for criticism when it comes to their conduct of international relations, do not typically formulate foreign policy or conduct diplomacy merely out of spite or, conversely, act only in the service of morality. These things may be factors, and they may have contributed to Sweden's decision in this particular instance, but I doubt they were the only, or even the main, factors, driving this decision.

So why do it then? Why do countries like Sweden and bodies like the UN bend to the wishes of Palestinian leaders and their allies when it comes to ignoring the existing peace process and granting recognition to a country which does not yet exist? 

One possibility is that the people who lead these organizations and nations are chasing what could be characterized as the ultimate prize in modern peacemaking: finally bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end. From this perspective, it makes sense for those who have either failed at this in the past (the UN) or are not currently part of the peace process in a substantive way, to want to somehow link their names with good news about the conflict, even if that good news is made out of whole cloth. In this scenario, those recognizing an existing Palestine have likely given up on the established peace process, and consciously or not, are sending this signal to the rest of the world, including Palestinian and Israeli leaders. 

Another possibility is that those recognizing "Palestine" see Israeli leaders as the ones hindering and delaying peace, and they think that recognition of a Palestinian state outside the bounds of negotiations will put more pressure on Israel to make greater concessions. This scenario might be slightly more optimistic than the one outlined above, but it is no less unrealistic. 

Whatever the reason for Sweden's premature recognition of a Palestinian state and the apparent willingness of France (and others) to consider the same, I believe there is damage being done to the peace process as a result. What these international actors may intend as a show of support for the Palestinians in their negotiations, may very well have the reverse effect instead, intensifying a sense of isolation on the part of Israel, thus serving to further delay the realization of peace. 

Like many others who are ardently pro Israel and also believe in the importance of an equitable, lasting, two-state solution, I've been disappointed to see this trend toward unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. But being disappointed is not enough, and while speaking out against this movement is important, it's not enough on its own to adequately address this challenge. 

If we really want to move both sides back toward viable negotiations, we must also ask why Sweden and others have been willing to embrace the ideas that Palestinian leaders have been peddling in the world marketplace  - once we do this, perhaps we can have a meaningful conversation about the things that are really getting in the way of progress and turn the world's energy and attention away from the fantasies of President Abbas and back toward the real, if difficult, process of making peace.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Remarks by King Hussein may reflect tough political realities within Jordan

Much is often made of the "special " relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but the ties between Israel and Jordan are also important and in some ways unique in the region. Although Israel has, historically, had various degrees of success in partnering with other neighbors, including Egypt and even Iran at one time, perhaps solely by virtue of geography the partnership with Jordan has stood out as different from the others. It may not always be the warmest peace in the world, but it has been one of the most stable for Israel, with Jordan's friendship with the U.S. as well as the internal political realities facing its ruling family, providing significant incentives to avoid further armed conflict with Israel.

Although Israel and Jordan established a decent working relationship in Jerusalem following the end of the Six Day War, and peace between the two was formalized by treaty in 1994, there have been a few incidents in the last few decades which have, at times, cased strain between the rulers of Jordan and Israeli leaders. This past week we saw one such issue arise which has the potential to not only create friction between leaders in the two countries, but provoke reactions by other regional powers.

This most recent point of disagreement centers around access to a particular area of the Old City of Jerusalem which Jews hold as holy because it is the site where the Temple once stood, while Muslims revere the site as a place where the Prophet Mohammed visited on a mystical journey and an important mosque was subsequently built. Anyone who has ever visited this place knows that it is beautiful but also fraught with tension and highly contested.

As The New York Times reported last Thursday, King Hussein II of Jordan has been less than pleased with restrictions placed on access to the site and has lately been noticeably more vocal in expressing his views on how he sees Israel treating the Palestinians, even going so far as to draw what I would call a rather ludicrous comparison between Islamic Fundamentalism and "Zionist extremism." Zionist extremists do exist, and when they commit crimes they are arrested, prosecuted and jailed by Israel - this is a vastly different response than that of Arab or Muslim authorities in the region who often set aside the rule of law to kill extremists when convenient, or look away or support them, when it's even more so. A crime is a crime - but for King Hussein to compare these two strains of extremism and ignore the broader context, especially how each society responds to political violence differently, leaves a big hole in the conversation.

All of this begs the question as to why King Hussein II has decided to speak out now, and whether or not his expressions of concern will impact his country's relationship with Israel. There is some reason to be optimistic here that his remarks will not harm ties between Israel and Jordan - after all,by most accounts, the two countries work well together when it comes to matters of security and intelligence, and there are other initiatives, such as the Arava Institute which have proven successful in bringing Jordanians and Israelis together to tackle issues of common concern around the environment. At the same time, there may be some cause for concern that these pronouncements are reflective of growing pressure within Jordan, which is home to a significant Palestinian population as well as Islamic fundamentalist elements. The real worry here may not be that the Hashemite Kingdom is upset with Israel, but that it's rulers are facing increasing pressure from within to criticize Israel.

If this is indeed the case, then these comments might point to fears and anxieties surrounding the ability of the Royal Family to maintain control of their country. In this scenario, both Israel and the U.S. should be worried, not that Jordan is going to damage its relationship with the Jewish State or with the West, but rather that these remarks are a sign that the political landscape may be shifting within the borders of state which has been a stalwart ally - if so, this is something that could have an impact well beyond the Middle East with long-lasting repercussions.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

It's time for better media coverage of Palestinian politics

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the result of years of complicated, multifaceted, and often unproductive friction and conflict between the two sides. I do not intend to rehash the back and forth narrative of this conflict here, but I would suggest that although wars and diplomatic maneuvering are important to take into account when trying to gain a better understanding of what fuels this conflict, that there is an argument to be made that people who really want to understand why peace seems an unattainable goal should spend some time learning about the domestic political landscape on both sides of this issue.

Clearly, it is easier for those of us in the English speaking world to learn about Israeli politics and civil society - we may not always agree with how Israeli leaders act or speak, but their words and actions are at least somewhat visible and accessible: First of all there are many English-language sources of news on Israeli politics and second of all, the Israeli press is hardly shy when it comes to exposing the perceived foibles and failings of their elected officials. Having this combination of transparency and easy access allows a window into Israeli society, providing an opportunity for the world to see what Israelis are saying and thinking about a whole range of issue, including the conflict.

In contrast, when it comes to trying to get a clear picture of what's happening in Palestinian politics, things are significantly more challenging. Both Israeli and mainstream international outlets report on some of the activities of the Palestinian Authority and its nominal leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, but I've yet to find a reliable, independent, trustworthy source of Palestinian political coverage coming out of the West Bank (maybe it exists, and if so, I would love to check it out) or from Gaza. In fact, as we saw during the war this past summer between Hamas and Israel, the former actively threatens and seeks to control journalists, and I would be willing to wager that this manipulative attitude toward the media was not unique to this particular war, but an extension of the normal policies of Hamas when it comes to the press.

Having a reliable, independent news source reporting on the internal politics of the Palestinian governing class would make a difference, and might go a long way toward providing insight and context for better understanding how and why the Palestinian Authority takes the actions it does.The activities and motivations of Hamas, on the other hand, are not particularly difficult to understand, but if there were a way, for example, for families in Gaza whose homes have been demolished by Hamas to build mosques, to have their voices heard, I think a different picture of life under this terrorist regime would emerge. Would those of us who support Israel like everything we heard through such a channel ? Likely not, but it would begin to let a little sunlight in to some places that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have been trying to keep out of the public eye for years.

I think that a large part of what fuels the vitriolic reaction in Europe and the US to events like the war this past summer arise not entirely out of the events themselves, but are fueled by the kind of media  coverage they attract. Let me be clear, I'm not laying all of the blame at the doorstep of the media, and I'm not saying that there were not things that happened that people have a right to be outraged about - rather, I am suggesting that if the world were not solely dependent on correspondents from major media outlets, who were themselves dependent upon the goodwill of Hamas to be able to not only report from Gaza, but do so safely, to find out what was happening in Gaza, perhaps the intense anger which led to street riots and anti-Semitic attacks would not have boiled over quite so violently.

Perhaps if a credible press outlet in Gaza could have shown the world the ways that Hamas was using civilian infrastructure for not only command and control centers, but to launch actual attacks, maybe there would have been a little more sympathy for what Israel was facing. Similarly, if there were independent reporting from inside the Palestinian Authority and community today, maybe it would be clear that one major obstacle to peace is the level of corruption and dysfunction found throughout the Palestinian leadership structure.

I realize this is asking a lot - in a complicated part of the world where the media is often manipulated and journalists coerced, Israel stands out at as an exception to this norm. Maybe it is time, though, for the Palestinian people to look not to the treatment of the press in places like Egypt and Syria for guidance on the role of the media in a healthy civil society, but instead to the country with which they must one day come to terms and create peace, which is, of course, Israel. Such a move will not instantly cause peace to break out or Hamas to abandon its murderous ways, but it just might move Palestinian society a little closer to taking an honest look in the mirror, and help present a better, more accurate picture to the broader world.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

An unsettled Sinai poses a threat to regional stability

For many years I had friends who either lived in or visited Israel who would occasionally make a trip to the Sinai, often because they wanted to visit Egypt without the expense of flying to Cairo. Fortunately, everyone I know who made the trip into the southern sands of this region returned unharmed, but this was not a guaranteed outcome. This has been a violent, lawless area of the Middle East in recent years, and the brutal murder of more than 30 Egyptian soldiers by terrorists operating in the Sinai over the weekend was a stark reminder of this reality.

Internal instability in Egypt has no doubt helped to fuel the spread and enthusiasm of Islamic fundamentalist terror groups in the area. The period following the so-called "Arab spring" has seen a series of events which have made the political landscape in Egypt particularly hard to read, with the balance of power shifting back and forth, sometimes violently, between the army and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Terrorist groups have clearly taken advantage of this disequilibrium both strategically and tactically, with devastating consequences. Their targets have included both Israeli and Egyptian forces, demonstrating that their goal is to sow chaos and create more space (literally and figuratively) in which to operate. 

In the wake of this most recent assault, the terrorist who carried it out may have also scored a victory by provoking the government of Egypt into declaring a 3 month state of emergency across a large section of the peninsula. This move on the part of the Egyptian government is not surprising, and in the face of such a bold and bloody attack a robust response is surely warranted, but the declaration of a state of emergency also plays neatly into the terrorist narrative about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian state.

If such entities are allowed to proliferate and gain influence unchecked they could continue to stymy the emergence of a stable (let alone democratic) government in Cairo, in part by providing an excuse for the continuation of de facto rule by the army. Furthermore, any gains they may make in controlling more territory in Sinai provides them with a safe haven from which to launch attacks against both Israel and Egypt. Their ambitions are not limited to murdering Israeli or Egyptian forces in the Sinai - in the long run these groups pose a threat to the national security of the United States and Europe as well. For these reasons, and many more, I suspect that the impact of this recent attack will ripple well beyond the Sinai. Exactly how, when and where we see the effects is hard to know, but one way or another it's not hard to imagine that the deaths of these Egyptian soldiers will not influence Egyptian, and possibly regional, policies when it comes to pushing back against Islamist terror groups.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A moral blizzard at the height of the Cold War

The revelation by the media that the United States had employed hundreds of former Nazis in efforts to procure intelligence on the Soviet Union reveals a disturbing chapter in American history. As the New York Times reported  today with an excerpt from author Eric Lichtblau's forthcoming book,The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men, the US government went to extraordinary lengths to recruit and protect former Nazis, at one time even stymieing a request from within the Justice Department for information on  individuals with ties to Nazi Germany who were being protected by the FBI.

During the Cold War leaders in the West were justifiably afraid of the Soviet Union and what it might do as it attempted to spread its ideology and influence across the globe. The brutality of the Soviet military was no secret and it was clear that Soviet leaders were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to exercise control in Eastern Europe. It also appeared to many in the American political and military establishment at the time that there existed a credible threat of nuclear conflict, not to mention the chance of another land war in Europe. Taking into account, as well, the fear that Communism was spreading into Latin America and the perception that the ideology might be gaining adherents within the United States, it is not surprising that leaders in the American military and law enforcement would seek to use whatever (and whomever) they could to keep the country safe.

Despite this, the idea that the US would not only seek to employ former Nazis, but to protect them from capture and prosecution, is morally repugnant. I realize that in the world of national security ethical considerations are sometimes set aside in the name of protecting innocent lives. At the same time, for the United States, not merely another western democratic nation, but one that has consistently held itself up as a beacon of liberty and respect for human dignity, to have prevented these men from facing justice, is deeply disturbing.

I have not yet read Mr. Lichblau's book, but he has done the world a great service in exploring this sensitive issue. The leaders who gave these repugnant wretches the opportunity to reinvent themselves as heroes of the Cold War may have been misguided, but those they protected were inhuman. Many of them may have evaded justice in their own lifetimes, but they will not escape the judgment of history or those who read this new book - Mr. Lichtblau has seen to that, and for this alone the world owes him a significant debt of gratitutde.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

In "World Order," Henry Kissinger describes a world divided

A review of World Order by Dr. Henry Kissinger 

Readers of Henry Kissinger’s new book, World Order, will find a volume that is both descriptive and prescriptive, as they follow the author along on his exploration of the regional dynamics and cultural forces which have shaped the political development of individual countries and the relations between them, across a broad swath of the globe. Delving into the origins of the Westphalian system, the author provides an engaging explanation of how and why this particular system of diplomacy and political development was well-suited to Europe in the period following the Dark Ages, embraced by a world in which the desire to expand and control territory was countered by the fear of one’s own neighbors attempting the same. As the author notes, the importance of the Treaty of Westphalia can be found in the fact that, "The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European Order. The concept of state sovereignty."

This key idea - the view of the state as its own, independent body, not subject to the whims or dictates of a larger power - comes up repeatedly throughout this book, and serves as a foil against which the author looks at other international systems and concepts of the nation state. Structurally, it's a useful starting point for English-speaking readers in the West who are likely to come to this volume with a greater degree of familiarity with the main ideas underpinning this system, in practice if not in name.

As the author goes on to explore other concepts of political self-identity and points of friction between various nations and empires, having this explanation of Westphalian ideals as a reference point is very useful. This is certainly the case as he looks at the rise of China, Iran and Russian as individual states and of the Ottoman Empire as the embodiment of a distinct, religiously-inspired enterprise, possessed of an intensely monolithic worldview.

In light of this I think his analysis of the evolution of these political entities is useful in at least two ways: it reminds us that conflicting world views have pretty much always existed between different groups, and that inevitably, cultural misunderstandings will occur when one or more such group comes into conflict. Furthermore, given the tension that exists today between the U.S. and Russia (as well as Iran and China) knowing a little more about how the leaders of these countries see the world and their place in it, can only be a good thing.

That being said, I could not help get the feeling as I read the book that the author has essentially divided nations into two camps, the first composed of those which have traditionally seen themselves as one nation among many, part of a larger system that benefits individual countries by placing the long-term stability of the collective body ahead of parochial interest. Such nations, as the author sees them, have sought to maintain a regional balance of power by checking the aggression of neighbors and attempting to avoid conflicts that threaten to fundamentally alter the system so as to provide one nation the chance to dominate all the others. The other camp is the province of nations or empires who are unfailingly convinced of their own superiority in virtually every sphere of life, and act accordingly on the world stage. Although wars are certainly fought between nations in the first group, the goal is not the complete destruction of the enemy;  for nations in the second category, nothing short of ceaseless expansion, influence and control will satisfy.

The author also divides nations into another dyad, separating those for whom practical interest of the country come first, from those which place values and ideals at the center of their own foreign policy. It is the second group which Kissinger seems most critical of, outlining the evolution of American diplomacy in the early twentieth century and portraying President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to achieve a new world order based on the idea that all future armed conflicts might be prevented through dialogue as na├»ve. One of the flaws that the author sees in this way of looking at the world is that it produces its own kind of absolutism, requiring every other nation (even those with a decidedly imperial outlook, in this case Germany) to completely embrace this new model.Kissinger points to this attitude on the part of Wilson as particularly damaging,  suggesting that it inadvertently led to an extension of hostilities in WWI as the American president held out for the complete surrender of the Kaiser before he would seriously engage in a peace process with Germany. Kissinger is even more critical of the long-term impact of Wilson’s diplomatic idealism, writing: 

“The concept of transcending war by giving each nation a state, similarly admirable as a general concept, faced analogous difficulties in practice. Ironically, the redrawing of Europe’s map on the new principle of linguistically based national self-determination, largely at Wilson’s behest, enhanced Germany’s geopolitical prospects.” 

Given this, and many other examples one could draw from reading World Order,  it’s hard not to get the impression that Kissinger sees foreign policy which acts solely on the basis of ideology, and without concern for history or context, to be quite damaging. I am inclined to agree that these other two elements should be considered, but I do take issue with the idea that we cannot let our better angels serve as signposts, if not guides, in how we conduct ourselves in the world.

This friction can be seen today in many places, but one spot on the globe where this tension between systems has persisted at a structural level is the Middle East. Kissinger describes the imposition of the Westphalian system on this region as particularly insidious. I am inclined to agree that some of the problems which have persisted in the last 100 years in this area can be traced back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and to the European instinct to construct new states, sometimes based on historical claims and often out of whole cloth, following the end of World War I.

These events set up a major tension between the idea of secular states and the previously dominant notion of a vast world-wide caliphate, or Islamic state, previously under the guidance and protection of the Ottomans. Furthermore, the introduction of this system flew in the face of political norms the Ottomans had established in their own relations with Europe, which had emphasized the subordination of European rulers, including royalty, to the Sultan. Kissinger sees this conflict playing out today between Israel and its neighbors, writing:

 “The conflict of two concepts of world order is embedded in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Israel is by definition a Westphalian state, founded as such in 1947(sic); the United States, its principal ally, has been a steward and key defender of the Westphalian international order. But the core countries and factions in the Middle East view international order to a greater or lesser extent through an Islamic consciousness.” 

This is an astute observation, but it begs the question as to how this view can help advance the cause of peace. This is not Kissinger's question, per se, but it is one of mine – explication has value to be sure, but is there a useful or positive takeaway from seeing the conflict through this lens? After all, the idea that Israel, a technologically advanced democracy which maintains good relations with the West, embraced a different founding ethos than other states in the Middle East, is not all that surprising. Later Kissinger writes:

 “…the issue comes down to the possibility of coexistence between two concepts of world order – through two states – Israel and Palestine – in the relatively narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

 This idea fits neatly with the overarching theme of the book, and Kissinger has identified one root cause of this conflict and its apparent intractability, but it also leaves out any mention of the complex and often violent history between Israel and Palestinian terror groups over the past 60-odd years, not to mention the constraints that leaders have faced on both sides, imposed by their respective peoples. True, Kissinger has not set out to provide a lengthy treatise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but differing worldviews are not, in my opinion, the one key obstacle to peace. The divide between how Israelis and Palestinians see the world is worth considering, but there are far more significant factors preventing peace, including continued attacks orchestrated by Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention an extraordinary level of dysfunction within the Palestinian political leadership.

One place where I think Kissinger could have done more was in his exploration of the influence of non-state actors on both individual societies and international relations. He does not ignore their presence or their role, but as a reader I would have liked to have had a more thorough examination of how these groups are interacting with the other political systems he describes in the book. Kissinger plays around the margins of this topic, noting the role that Afghanistan played as a safe-haven for Al-Queda and mentions the growing influence of ISIS and the broader threat is poses, but does not offer substantive suggestions as to how this threat can or should be addressed.

Overall, Kissinger has written a useful, interesting book that looks at different ways nation-states and empires have developed over time.  By devoting pages to India, China, Russia, the US and Europe, he presents an overview of the main actors on the world stage at the moment, and provides a succinct summary of the evolution of political thought within each of them. Ultimately the picture that emerges from his prose is one of a world divided, where the principle entities are tightly bound by occasionally misguided, if well-intentioned, ideas about their own identity and role to play in the world. It is in these miscalculations that folly (or worse) lies, Kissinger would have us believe, and I think he is at least partly correct. It is not hard to see how inherently different worldviews contributed to friction between the Ottoman Empire and Europe from the Great Britain in the 17th century onward, between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War or between America and Iran today – the question I had after reading this book, though, was how terrorist groups and other movements may influence such ideological conflicts today in ways that could have a very real outcome in this young century. Each nation and alliance of nations will surely continue to make foreign policy in ways that furthers their own interests, but more and more these non-state actors may influence that decision making. But perhaps that is a topic better addressed in Kissinger’s next book. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Will natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean contribute to peace, or fuel conflict?

This past week I attended an event at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University on the potential impact of the discovery of new natural energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Entitled, "Energy, Peace and Conflict in the Eastern Subterranean," the panel included Sir Michael Leigh of the German marhsall Fund, Dr. Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and
Dr. Brenda Shaffer of the University of Haifa, and was moderated by Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou and Dr. Payam Mohseni of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. 

One of the points that emerged from the panelists comments was that while there has been speculation about the ways in which these sources of energy might bring opportunities for better relations between countries in the region, in the short term the opposite is actually more likely to happen. In fact, several of the speakers highlighted the potential for conflict over access to natural gas reserves, and not only between Israel and its neighbors, which has received some attention in the media, but in the waters surrounding Cypress, which Turkey apparently claims as part of its own exclusive economic zone, a position which does not sit particularly well with many Greek Cypriots.

This part of the world is no stranger to conflicts over territory or access to resources, and if history is any guide, I am inclined to agree with these experts that providing another potential point of conflict is not likely to help usher in a new era of peace and cooperation any time soon. In the long run, as Dr. Shaffer notes in a policy brief she authored in 2012, there is the potential that closer economic ties might help reinforce gains made in the political arena between Israel and its neighbors. But this seems a long way off, and even if economic cooperation could help bolster successful diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, there is the Sisyphean task of achieving success in the peace process itself.

That being said, I do believe strongly that the establishment of a real and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require not just a cessation of hostilities, but an attempt at normalization of relations, including around issues of trade and economic development. In this sense, I agree with Dr. Shaffer's analysis that in the long-run, the discovery of these natural gas fields could contribute to the maintenance and stability of peace.

As for possible disputes between Israel and Lebanon (or Israel and Egypt, for that matter) or Turkey and Cypress about who has the right to explore and extract natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean. it's hard to imagine that either side in any of these situations, will budge. Perhaps the best we can hope for in the short term is that the extraction of natural gas in this area will proceed with minimal conflict between the countries involved - this in and of itself would be a significant achievement and perhaps set the stage for better relations between regional neighbors down the road.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Can Jewish life return to Beirut?

For anyone truly familiar with the history of the Middle East it is no surprise to hear that Jewish communities once flourished across the region from Jerusalem to Aleppo and Baghdad to Tehran. It's not a story that gets much attention in the mainstream press, but the loss of Jewish communities in so many places in the Middle East and North Africa where they had flourished, in some cases, for more than a thousand years cannot be ignored.

Given that this narrative is not often in the headlines, I took note when I saw a piece published on the Foreign Affairs website by Adam Rasmi, entitled "Lebanon's Jewish Renaissance." In this article, Mr. Rasmi sounds an optimistic note about a possible revival of Jewish life in the country. I like his optimism, and while there was a time when Lebanon was a relatively cosmopolitan, tolerant country, those days seem long gone now.

As the author notes in his article, the Jewish community did not do all that well during the turbulent latter half of the twentieth century in Lebanon, and today there is an excellent argument to be made that the country is essentially a failed started, with large sections of its territory under control of Hezbollah. Anyone who doubts the influence of this terror organization need only go to northern Israel, as I have done several times, and look over the border to see the flag of Hezbollah - not that of the government of Lebanon - flying on village rooftops. Even though there are people mentioned in his piece who want to draw a distinction between hatred for Israel and Anti-Semitism, the idea that Hezbollah believes the same is ridiculous. In fact, it is quite clear that Hezbollah has no problem targeting Jews or Israeli civilians - given this, I can't imagine anyone who is Jewish would be eager to live in a country partly controlled by  this terrorist organization.

In his article Mr. Rasmi makes a good point that investing in the Jewish community and reopening of the synagogue in Beirut has important symbolic value, especially at a time when ethnic and religious minorities in the region are under threat, including Kurds, Christians and others. It also serves to remind the world that Jews have an ancient and continuous connection to the Middle East, something which is all too easily and often forgotten.

That being said, Mr. Rasmi notes that fewer than 200 Jews call Lebanon home today, and I've seen estimates that there may be fewer than thirty. I think that from a practical perspective we are also unlikely to see Lebanese Jews returning en masse from abroad to Beirut and other former communities. There are many reasons for this - for one thing, from the outside, Lebanon hardly strikes me as the sort of place where many people would want to live as a member of a very small minority community.  Furthermore, with tension always at a low boil between Israel and Lebanon, I frankly doubt it would take much for Hezbollah and other troublemakers to incite violence against Lebanese Jews when and if there is another war with Israel.

I'm personally glad to see that there are a few people thinking about the Jews of Lebanon in a current context, and Mr. Rasmi deserves kudos for drawing attention to their noble efforts, but I can't help feeling that the rebuilt synagogue is likely to become a museum at best, and a target for those who hate Jews and Israel, at worst.

Perhaps in a more tolerant environment the renovation of the synagogue could serve as a rallying point for understanding, but it's hard to imagine such a scenario any time soon.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A bipartisan conversation on foreign aid and national security

Earlier today I had the opportunity to attend a program entitled "Americas Global Leadership: Impact on New Hampshire," featuring Senator Kelly Ayotte (R- New Hampshire) and former Secretary of Homeland Security and Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Ridge.  The event, which was organized by the US Global Leadership Coalition and co-sponsored by a variety of local partners, including the New Hampshire Institute on Politics at St. Anselm University, The New England Council and the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire, drew a diverse crowd of elected officials and military veterans, as well as civic and religious leaders.

In a wide-ranging conversation Senator Ayotte and Governor Ridge made the point that there are both practical and moral reasons for the U.S. to help other nations in their time of need, especially when it comes to providing support for vital infrastructure and strengthening civil society. Along these lines, I though Governor Ridge made an excellent point when he suggested that if a member of Congress had raised the idea of sending aid to bolster public health infrastructure in West Africa a few years ago, they might very well have drawn the ire and scorn of critics - and yet today, he said, that person might be regarded instead as farsighted in light of the ongoing Ebola crisis, a disaster in which weak public health systems abroad now pose an indirect threat to the United States.

Given the very real challenges the U.S. and its allies face today, from ISIS to Ebola to how to approach Russian aggression in the Ukraine, I was somewhat heartened to hear from these two leaders, who chose to come to Manchester and address serious questions of how America acts and is perceived in the world, and to see them do so under the banner of a nonpartisan organization. Perhaps if more people were willing to engage in discussions like the one I heard today, discussions that focus on the issues themselves, instead of engaging in hyper-partisan shouting matches, we might be able to get more done, both in this country and beyond.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nonprofits are vital to the health of any civil society

Earlier this week I was at a dinner in Boston where the American Jewish Committee was honoring a local philanthropist and among the speakers was Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence, who noted in his remarks the important role that nonprofit organizations play in bolstering civil society. It was just one sentence, but immediately it struck me that this is not only true, but an important idea that is often overlooked.

When the public turns its attention to societal ills, the media focuses in on the issue at stake and it's usually elected officials who feel the heat. If we are lucky, and our better angels prevail, we can muster bipartisan support for a thoughtful, thorough solution, and in the best cases, elected officials work in partnership with the public to address the problem at hand. Often though, it takes more than just media attention or political leadership to solve deeply rooted problems.

To maintain a healthy civil society, any nation needs certain things, among them a free press, accountable government and respect for the rule of law. In the evolution of our own democracy in the U.S., nonprofit organizations (and the informal groups that proceeded the creation of non-profit status) have also played a pivotal role in nearly every important movement that helped to shape American society as we know it today, from the fight to end slavery to the battle over women's suffrage, environmental preservation, and the civil rights movement.

Around the world today there are plenty of places where leaders are struggling with difficult problems, including much of the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these challenges revolve around human rights, security and economic development, which, at the macro level, require action by governments and international bodies. At the same time it's hard to imagine that these places might not also benefit from greater activity by non-governmental organizations which could help build institutions and set positive norms, without having to woo an electorate. Such an effort would not be without danger - history has shown that community leaders can be just as vulnerable to danger as elected officials - but in a political environment that is either too repressive or too chaotic to allow ideas about human rights or democracy to find a place in government, sometimes it's the nonprofit organizations and the people who lead them who can make a difference.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Senators lead the way in Middle East security as a bipartisan issue

At this moment media coverage of the Middle East is largely focused on the very real threat posed by ISIS and the massive humanitarian crisis taking place in Syria. With a significant increase in Western involvement in Iraq and Syria, as well as Turkey's decision to play a role in combating the terror group, it’s not surprising that these stories are the focus of attention, but there are other serious issues in the region which also need to be addressed, including the aftermath of this summer’s war between Israel andHamas. 

For this reason I was glad to see that Senator Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire and Senator Robert P. Casey Jr. (D) of Pennsylvania co-authored a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, highlighting 3 key areas relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which need to be addressed, and demonstrating that the security of the United States and its allies in the Middle East is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but clearly bipartisan.

One of the things I really liked about this letter is that it acknowledges the difficult, yet vital, balance which needs to be struck between providing humanitarian aid to Gaza and maintaining the security of the State of Israel. This is an important idea, and one which is not given voice often enough, in my opinion. I don’t think there is anyone who could look at Gaza today and say that there is not a desperate need for assistance, yet at the same time, it would be utterly foolish to expect that Hamas is the solution to this problem. 

As the Senators adroitly note in their letter, “Ultimately, we must seek Gaza’s demilitarization.”
They go on to write that it is the Palestinian Authority which should lead the way in both the West Bank and Gaza – it’s the right idea, but a difficult one to imagine happening any time soon, given that Hamas ran the PA out of Gaza by employing considerable violence not that long ago. Nonetheless, I agree that ultimately it would be to the benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians if Gaza were not under the control of Hamas.

Finally, the Senators address efforts by the Palestinian Authority to circumvent the established peace process by going directly to several international bodies, such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, to seek some form of de facto recognition from the international community.

This is not a new tactic, but it is one that I think has the potential to do great harm to the prospects of peace in at least two ways, first of all it demonstrates a lack of confidence in the peace process itself, which I think sends a terrible signal not only to Israeli negotiators, but to the many nation states which have put considerable time and effort into trying to keep this process alive. Secondly, this kind of activity draws energy, attention and resources away from the actual peace process itself.

History has taught us again and again that there are no simple or easy solutions in the Middle East – centuries worth of competing ideological, religious and political claims all often conspire to thwart even the most clever and altruistic attempts at bringing peace – but a crucial step in working toward this goal lies in clearly identifying the particular challenges we face at this moment. By focusing on the importance of encouraging good governance in Gaza, the need to limit Palestinian Authority efforts to circumnavigate the established peace process, and highlighting the threat a resurgent, rearmed Hamas poses to Israel, I believe that Senators Ayotte and Casey, along with 86 of their Senate colleagues have helped to do just this.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.