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.