Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Educating Obama

A front page article in today’s NY Times argues that it would be practically impossible to verify that Syria had destroyed or removed all of its chemical weapons, even supposing that it agreed to do so. Assuming that this is correct, it is entirely irrelevant. If there is any legitimate purpose for the U.S. threat to attack Syria, it could only be to deter future chemical attacks, not to force the removal of weapons that have been there for decades.

Let’s hope that the Obama administration, despite its astounding incompetence on the Syria issue, can at least figure this out—and steer clear of threatening military action if a Syrian agreement to dismantle its chemical weapons can't be verified.   The issue is—or should be so regarded—the use of chemical weapons, not their existence. Thus, so long as the weapons are not actually used again, Obama can declare victory and dig the U.S. out of the trap he gratuitously created.

The next—and far more important step—is to start educating Obama on the folly of his refusal to adopt a policy of containment and deterrence of Iran, should it develop and deploy nuclear weapons in the future--as opposed to his present and oft-reiterated threat to attack Iran to prevent if from going nuclear in the first place.   If he doesn’t start walking back from that threat, there is the possibility that he could face the same problem with Iran that he now has with Syria: no matter how foolish and reckless the threat of “preventive” war, no matter how dire the probable consequences, should Iran ignore the threat and proceed to deploy nuclear weapons, U.S. or maybe just Obama’s “credibility” would be at stake.

And in such circumstances, Obama might just plunge the country into a far more dangerous war than would be likely to result from a limited attack on Syria.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Words Fail Me (and also John Kerry)

It is hard to find words to describe John Kerry’s performance on the Syrian issue. Incompetent, certainly, but that hardly seems sufficient. On the one hand, the usual Munich analogy: the Syrian use of chemical weapons poses as much of a challenge to the world as did Nazi Germany. On the other hand, our response should be and will be “unbelievably small.” This is the equivalent of squaring the circle: a statement with two diametrically opposed propositions, each of which cancels out the other, but at the same time both are absurd.

Words fail: but “unbelievably incompetent” is at least a start.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Is the Palestinian "Right of Return" an Insuperable Obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement?

In an otherwise compelling analysis of why negotiations for a compromise two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have repeatedly failed ("What Future for Israel?" New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013), Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, argues that the standard compromise proposals would “almost certainly not achieve an end of conflict.”

The Palestinians, Thrall writes,  “believe the core of the conflict is Zionist settlement in Palestine and the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 war that established the Israeli state,” and for this reason “the belief of American and Israeli negotiators that solving the problems of 1967 will close the door on those of 1948” is mistaken: “the root of the conflict is not east of the Green Line but in the more than century-old project of Zionist settlement itself.”

Evidently then, Thrall accepts the common but mistaken view that even moderate Palestinian leaders continue to insist that any settlement of the conflict must include a literal “right of return”—meaning the return of millions of Palestinian refugees and/or their descendants to their former lands, homes, and villages in pre-1948 Palestine, before they fled or were driven out by Israel.

The evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, most Palestinian leaders have long understood that the right of return demand is unrealistic: the leading non-Hamas Palestinian officials, from Yasser Arafat’s PLO through Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, have repeatedly—and not merely privately--made it clear to the Israeli and U.S. governments that they would not allow the refugee issue to block an otherwise acceptable two-state settlement.

As early as 1990, Abu Iyad, the leading PLO official after Arafat, openly stated as much in the prominent journal Foreign Policy: “We accept that a total return is not possible….we recognize that Israel would not want to accept large numbers of Palestinian returnees who would tip the demographic balance against the Jewish population.... Nonetheless, we believe it is essential that Israel accept the principle of the right of return or compensation with the details of such a return to be left open for negotiation....We shall for our part remain flexible regarding its implementation.” [emphases added] [1]

Shortly afterward, Arafat himself privately confirmed the real Palestinian position. In December 2000 Arafat wrote to Clinton that the Palestinians were “prepared to think flexibly and creatively about the mechanism for implanting the right of return.”[2] Then, in a widely-noted 2002 New York Times op-ed, Arafat publicly repeated that there would have to be “creative solutions” to the issue: “we understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return…must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.”[3] Two years later, in a Haaretz interview—this time speaking directly to the Israelis-- Arafat reiterated that it was “clear and obvious” that the refugee problem would have to be solved in a manner that “would not change the Jewish character of the state.”[4]

Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, made it clear both in the unofficial but highly influential Geneva Accords of 2003 and in his 2008 negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he was prepared to effectively drop the right of return. The full record of those secret negotiations has not been released, but there have been a number of analyses, based on detailed interviews with Abbas and Olmert, that have concluded that “both leaders agreed on the principle that a certain number of Palestinians should return, but that the governing question should be how to limit that number in a way that preserves Israel’s distinction as a state with a Jewish majority but that does not prejudice the rights of the Arab minority.”[5]

Even the numbers issue was essentially resolved in subsequent secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In January 2011 the British newspaper Guardian published the “Palestinian Papers,” based on the Wikileaks documents, which revealed that during the negotiations with Olmert in 2009, the Palestinian leaders “gave up the fight over refugees…Palestinian negotiators privately agreed that only 10,000 refugees and their families….could return to Israel as part of a peace settlement….PLO leaders also accepted Israel’s demand to define itself as an explicitly Jewish state, in sharp contrast to their public position.”[6]

Thus, it has become increasingly clear that the true demand of most Palestinian leaders is a symbolic one, that the Israelis acknowledge their responsibilities for the expulsion or flight of the Palestinians during and following the 1948 and 1967 wars, but that in practice the rights of the Palestinian refugees can only be realized by some combination of a small-scale family reunification return to Israel, a right of return to the Palestinian state of most of the refugees and their descendants, or voluntary resettlement elsewhere, accompanied by major international economic compensation and assistance.

Aside from the Palestinians, the Arab world as a whole has made it clear that the right of return issue will not be allowed to block an overall Arab-Israeli settlement: in 2007 the twenty-two states of the Arab League unanimously approved a peace plan that does not mention a Palestinian “right of return” but rather states that “a just resolution of the refugee problem” should be “agreed upon.” This carefully chosen language, like the Geneva Accord and the Abbas-Olmert negotiations, effectively grants Israel a veto on the issue.

None of this is to challenge Thrall’s pessimism about the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, but if the territorial and other issues were to be settled, it is not likely that the right of return would be an insuperable obstacle to a negotiated settlement.

[1] Abu Iyad, “Lowering the Sword,” Foreign Policy 78 (Spring 1990), p. 103.

[2]Jane Perlez, “Expectations Low As Clinton Pushes Plan with Arafat,” New York Times, January 3, 2001.

[3] Arafat, “The Palestinian Vision of Peace,” New York Times, February 3, 2002.

[4] “A Jewish State? Definitely,” Haaretz, June 18, 2004.

[5] The quote is from Bernard Avishai, “A Plan for Peace That Still Could Be,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, February 7, 2011.

[6] Guardian, “Palestine Papers: Palestinians agreed only 10,000 refugees could return to Israel,” 24 January, 2011.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syria, Credibility, and Armchair Isolationism

Who is this imposter who has the gall to call himself “John Kerry?” The real John Kerry is an intelligent liberal, indeed something of a hero for having the courage to not only vigorously oppose the Vietnam War—the last U.S. war fought in the name of “credibility”-- but to openly charge that the U.S. was committing “war crimes” there. Surely this can’t be the same fellow who is not only leading the charge for the U.S. to plunge into yet another unnecessary and unwise war, but whose rhetoric is increasingly bizarre.

Fear that if we don’t go to war in Syria, we will lose our “credibility?“ Credibility to do what: stupidly intervene in yet another civil war in a country of trivial importance, in which we not only do not have “vital interests” at stake, but in which, if we had, we wouldn’t know which side to support, and in which we have no idea whether our intervention will save innocent lives or put them still further into danger?

If that wasn’t bad enough, now “John Kerry” accuses opponents of an attack on Syria as advocating “armchair isolationism.” What? First of all, to oppose the war in Syria does not make one “isolationist,” or even “anti-war,” as opposed to opposing this specific war. The opposite of “isolationism” usually is defined as “internationalism.” By such reasoning, then, this must mean that “internationalists” favor going to war with everyone.

Moreover, in fact the United States would greatly benefit by a healthy dose of isolationism to at least partly balance what ought to be called “mindless interventionism.” After all, the problem with U.S. foreign policy since the end of WWII, and even more so since the end of the Cold War, has not exactly been a refusal to get into foreign wars.

Finally, the very concept of an “armchair isolationist” is incoherent. Apparently Kerry has confused the term with that of the common one, “armchair warrior.” That is a coherent and, indeed, powerful concept—it refers, of course, to someone who wants other people to go to war while he sits safely at home. Now try making sense of “armchair isolationism.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

"Analysis: Obama seeking Western legitimacy, but Arabs perceive him as weak"


Writing in this morning's Haaretz, Amos Harel (the paper's military analyst), asserts that "it is important to see how [Obama's] conduct is perceived in the Arab world, and this is not so hard to guess.  Obama is seen as weak, hesitant and vacillating."

This passes for "analysis?"  Who are "the Arab world?"  The governments?  All of them?  Some of them?  The Arab "peoples?"   Which?  Harel doesn't say.  And what is the evidence for any of it?  None--not a shred--is provided.  Translation: Harel wants Obama to attack Syria and is willing to say anything that might help bring that about.

Of course, similar ideology--masquerading as serious journalism or analysis--can be found throughout the American media.  Still, why would Haaretz, Israel's most important and only serious newspaper, publish such drivel?   Partly, no doubt, because Haaretz regularly seeks to "balance" its general liberalism with rightwing commentary.  But my own sense is that the problem is even deeper: the general poverty and corruption of serious political discourse and analysis--with many honorable exceptions, of course--in Israel.