Friday, April 25, 2008

Is the opposition organically anti-state?

Is the opposition organically anti-state?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Let's thank Michel Aoun for informing us that the shooting of two Phalangist sympathizers in Zahleh on Sunday by a hanger-on of parliamentarian Elias Skaff was an "individual act."

That explanation helps us better understand the killing in 2005 of two Lebanese Forces partisans by one Youssef Franjieh, a follower of Suleiman Franjieh, who fled and was never caught. It helps us understand the detention by Hizbullah last week of an Internal Security Forces member registering building code violations in Beirut's southern suburbs; or the freeing by Hizbullah of two youths stopped by the security forces in Qomatieh, also last week; or the attack, last week again, against two couples at Monnot street by youths arriving on motorbikes from the Downtown "tent city" after a verbal altercation; or the murder last year of the two Ziads, whose killers are believed to have sought shelter in the southern suburbs; or the laying down by Hizbullah of kilometers of private telephone lines, in parallel to those of the state.

If a politically motivated crime, like all those other abuses of the law, can be dismissed as an "individual act," then there is really not much left for the Lebanese to discuss. But Aoun's blitheness signaled a deeper dysfunction in that his and the opposition's actions and statements in the past two years have, almost by definition, pitted them against the state and its institutions. Murder has been downplayed as isolated; the security forces have been routinely treated as a threat; and even gunfire directed against the army has been viewed as a tolerable form of protest.

March 14 sympathizers have also at times ignored the state, despite an argument to the contrary from the leader of the Democratic Gathering, Walid Jumblatt, in this week's editorial for the Al-Anbaa newspaper. There are worrisome reports that young men from the Akkar have been brought in as muscle to Beirut in the event of an outbreak of fighting in the capital. But the fact is that the parliamentary majority, whatever its shortcomings, has never drifted into organic hostility to the state - and more particularly to the idea of the state. It has gained from this, in the face of an opposition that, in rejecting the majority and government, has aggressively undercut those national institutions buttressing both.

When Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, last year told the majority, "Establish a state and we will join it," he was engaging in sophistry. Had there been no state, Hizbullah would not have taken Lebanon through an ongoing 14-month political crisis to allegedly gain greater representation in that state. Had there been no state, the opposition would not have had to close down Parliament to thwart the election of a president not of its choosing. Had there been no state, Michel Aoun, who once claimed to personify that state, would not have lost most of his 2005 electorate by being widely regarded today as someone who would destroy Lebanon to be elected at its head.

Writing in 1944, the banker and journalist Michel Chiha, in many ways the preeminent theoretician of the Lebanese system, made an observation that remains grimly relevant today: "The history of modern Lebanon has shown in the most extreme way that every time that Parliament disappeared, every time the principle of representation died a violent death, specifically confessional authority substituted itself for Parliament and automatically one or several Sanhedrins were born."

There have been three prongs in the opposition's strategy since December 2006, when it escalated its actions against the Siniora government: First, resorting to civil disorder, whether through the creation of the "tent city" and its transformation into a closed-off security zone or the blocking of roads in January 2007 and January 2008; second, leveling accusations of treason against members of the parliamentary majority; and third, shutting down Parliament to prevent a presidential election. Each of these steps speaks to the repudiation of the state and of national solidarity.

Chiha was right that multiple Sanhedrins would result from the closing of the legislature, but we can add a detail: Whether the legislature is open or not, Hizbullah will only go along with the state by denying it primacy over the party; and Aoun will do so solely if the state is his.

That's why we can groan at the affected evenhandedness that has sometimes come to define the debate over the current political crisis. Those adopting this approach usually have an argument that goes something like this: The parliamentary majority and opposition are equally to blame for the ambient deadlock; the political leadership on both sides is blameworthy for ruthlessly pursuing its self-interest; what is needed is a third way to light up the path out of our debilitating condition.

Self-righteousness is convenient, since it allows one to say "a pox on both their houses." But that doesn't push matters forward. Many things can be said in condemnation of the parliamentary majority, but it alone has a project that aims at consolidating the state - not turning it into a Syrian protectorate, a depleted subsidiary of an armed militia, or a consolation prize for a man who, on his last stab at power, thrust Lebanon into a two-year nightmare.

We should pay attention to Chiha, who was healthily obsessed with the limitations of the Lebanese system he defended. Lebanon will only be normal again once the opposition is integrated into the political order. But that presumes it actually wishes to be, and will truly accept the authority of the state. For the moment, nothing suggests this is the case. So to equate the parliamentary majority and the opposition, when one side is about the state and the other about its negation, seems boldly tendentious.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Barack's bitter truth: Just forget about the Iraqis

Barack's bitter truth: Just forget about the Iraqis
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Saturday, April 19, 2008

Senator Barack Obama has gotten much heat for suggesting that when people lose faith in Washington, they "end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms [and] gay marriage." How strange then that during his questioning last week of the two most senior American officials in Iraq, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama took a minimalist view of what America could do to help Iraqi citizens regain faith in their government. Instead, the Illinois senator lowered the criterion for American "success" in Iraq, declaring that he could live with "a messy, sloppy status quo" in the country.

Obama's line of questioning was shrewd. With Petraeus he focused on Al-Qaeda, pushing the general to admit that the complete elimination of the group in Iraq was not necessary. Here's how Obama went about it: "Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they're not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside of Iraq. Is that accurate?"

"That is exactly right," Petraeus replied.

Obama then turned to Iran and questioned Crocker, the point man in the America-Iranian dialogue in Baghdad. As with Petraeus, Obama sought to lower the benchmark for what the United States should define as Iraqi "success." However, Crocker was less pliable. When Obama argued that it was unlikely that Iranian influence in Iraq could be terminated, Crocker responded: "[W]e have no problem with a good, constructive relationship between Iran and Iraq. The problem is with the Iranian strategy of backing extremist militia groups and sending in weapons and munitions that are used against Iraqis and against our own forces."

Obama didn't offer a convincing rejoinder to Crocker's protest. Instead, his time almost up, he cut to the crux of the exchange: a summary of his position on the war for an electorate that, he knew, would be listening to his every word. Obama's views were best captured in this passage:

"And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al-Qaeda and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi-sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al-Qaeda base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like."

As Hussain Abdul-Hussain bitingly wrote in this newspaper: "Obama's description of a post-America Iraq looked pretty much like post-1991 Iraq under Saddam Hussein: a country 'struggling along' but that was no 'threat to its neighbors' and was not 'an Al-Qaeda base.'"

Indeed, but Obama was surely right in assuming that many Americans, perhaps a majority, have no problem with this. Saddam's brutality was never something they worried about. If you moved the goalposts a bit, Obama told them, failure would magically become success. The US could head toward the exit in Iraq with its conscience clear.

But the difficulty with Obama's appraisal was not just that it was based on a selective reading of the situation in Iraq, so that his assertion of how the US had to realistically accept continued Iranian influence in the country somehow morphed into tolerance for Iran's systematic undermining of American interests there; the difficulty was not just that Obama over-optimistically assumed that his "messy status quo" could be sustained even if the US removed most of its troops from Iraq (a point Crocker tried to make, before being cut off by Senator Joe Biden); the real difficulty with Obama's case was that it revived an American reading of Iraq that treats Iraqis as secondary characters in their own drama.

For the first two years of the US occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration was guilty of the same behavior. Iraq was about America and American power. Iraq's 2005 elections were the first real sign that Washington understood why the Iraqis mattered. Yet it was the 2007 surge that took this realization to new heights. US commanders grasped that the security of Iraqi cities and civilians had to be the centerpiece of a new counter-insurgency strategy requiring US soldiers to insert themselves more than ever into Iraqi society. Iraq's complex social dynamics were studied and, as effectively as possible depending on location, acted upon. For the first time the discussion in the US seriously addressed what a pullout might mean in terms of Iraqi suffering.

That's why Obama's comments were so off-putting. He effectively told the Iraqis once again that they weren't worth anything to America. If violence and corruption were controllable, if Al-Qaeda was still around but was limited to Iraq proper, if Washington could stomach the Iranian manipulation of Iraqis, then it made little difference what the deeper aspirations of Iraqis in general were. Iraq could be a suppurating wound at the heart of the Middle East - a suppurating wound, Obama has tirelessly reminded us, which the US helped create - but that counted for little when faced with the American urge to get out as soon as possible.

In his own defense, Obama might remind us that he's accountable only to his countrymen, not to Iraqis; that the "good government" he has talked about in his campaign applies to embittered Americans, not to Iraqis embittered by the prospect of a precipitous US departure. He might even be elected on that basis. But this would show that Obama, who has sold himself as a man of vision at home, is selfishly unimaginative abroad. Worse, because it is unlikely he will be able to greatly alter US policy in Iraq, since Iran will not cede much more to the next administration than it did to this one, Obama's promises are potentially deceitful.

For as long as American leaders don't treat Iraqis as important in their own right, the Iraqis will have no incentive to tie their long-term interests to America's wagon. Should that matter? Both realists and idealists would probably answer in the affirmative. But where does Barack Obama stand? It's hard to imagine that Iraqis see in him change they can believe in.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Jimmy Carter : a fool on a fool's errand

Jimmy Carter : a fool on a fool's errand
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Say what you will about Jimmy Carter, he has a way of transforming moments of plodding gravitas into uproarious comedy. Remember that moment during the 1980 Democratic convention when Carter stood up, and in a phrase paying tribute to Hubert Humphrey, instead praised "Hubert Horatio Hornblower," confusing the late vice president with the character from the C.S. Forester novels?

As Carter prepares to meet with a senior Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus, the former American president again risks attempting to say one thing, only to blunder into another. Carter's declared goal is to affirm that no one can avoid talking to Hamas. As he put it last week, "I'm not a negotiator. I'm someone who might provide some communication. I'm going to try to make [Meshaal] agree to a peaceful resolution, both with Israel and with Hamas' Palestinian rivals."

The debate over whether the United States, Israel and others should talk to Hamas has become tiresome, largely because those supporting dialogue invariably limit their reasoning to a narrow syllogism: Hamas is a central actor in the Palestinian conflict; to resolve the conflict you need to talk to central actors; therefore talk to Hamas. To many engagers the problem is mainly one of communication. If only everyone could just sit around a table and talk, things would work out. Khaled Meshaal hasn't yet been shown the prospective gains from a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; he hasn't been talked to. But because he's a pragmatic man, a sincere dialogue would allow him to deploy some of that pragmatism to the benefit of reaching a peaceful regional equilibrium.

You can almost hear Khaled Meshaal gasping at the naivete of such sweeping positivism, as he prepares to score points off his solemn American visitor. Meshaal knows what talks with Hamas would really imply, and he knows the snag is hardly one of miscommunication.

For one thing, negotiating with Hamas would effectively undermine the authority and credibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization - together, the paramount representatives of the Palestinian people. If the engagers' riposte is that Abbas is already discredited, that only confirms their intention to replace Abbas with Hamas as Israel's chief interlocutor. Still, senior members of the Fatah movement would disagree with the grim assessment of Abbas. They believe Hamas is increasingly squeezed in Gaza, its credibility on the wane as it has brought only hardship to the strip's inhabitants. That is why, they point out, the movement is so desperate to break out of the Israeli blockade. As for the West Bank, Hamas has lost ground there as well, they insist, despite claims that the movement could seize control of the area were it not for the presence of the Israeli Army.

Regardless of whether this is true, it makes no sense today to damage Abbas by opening a channel to Hamas, which has never endorsed the agreements reached with Israel during the Oslo years. In fact, to bring Hamas into negotiations would only grant legitimacy to the movement's rejection of those agreements, and of the entire Oslo process. This, in turn, would only further constrict Abbas' slim margin of maneuver.

A second consequence of talking to Hamas, Meshaal knows, is that it would insert Iran and Syria squarely into the Palestinian track. There are differences between Meshaal in Damascus and Mahmoud Zahhar and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, but it's hard to imagine that an open channel to the movement would not enhance Meshaal's standing, and that of his backers. Meshaal is more accessible and can call on substantial Iranian funding, even if the Muslim Brotherhood's financial networks benefit all factions. Whoever ends up speaking on Hamas' behalf, Tehran and Damascus could only gain from a dialogue with the movement. Yasser Arafat's singular achievement for three decades was to safeguard the "independence of the Palestinian decision," particularly from Syria. Talking to Meshaal could well mean reversing that accomplishment.

There is also a valid case to be made that Hamas is not interested in a peace treaty with Israel, because its ultimate ambition is to liberate the whole of Palestine. Certainly, that's what the movement demonstrates day in and day out. Meshaal has declared that Hamas would accept a deal on the basis of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but has added a key caveat that this must also include a right of return for the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to their places of origin. For Israel this is a non-starter on demographic grounds, and Meshaal knows it. However, it does allow supporters of dialogue with Hamas to conveniently slot the movement into the Oslo consensus, even if the reality is different.

Whatever Hamas' true intentions, the contention that states should not talk to the movement on principle is difficult to sustain, if only because politics abhors a vacuum and the impulse to do something different can become overwhelming. That's why the onus should be placed on defenders of engagement to substantiate their proposals. Talking should not be an end in itself. First the engagers should clarify what Hamas will agree to talk about. The movement says it is willing to negotiate a long-term truce with Israel, a notion once championed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well. If both parties agree, fine. But the outcome won't be peace. Israel will use the interregnum to consolidate its hold on strategic parts of the West Bank, while Hamas will use it to marginalize its Palestinians foes, rearm, and prepare for a showdown with Israel.

On the other hand, if Hamas is willing to discuss peace, then the movement has to first demonstrate this before anyone seriously considers overhauling the Palestinian-Israeli track. That shouldn't be difficult, even if nothing shows that Hamas is contemplating peace with Israel, while everything about the movement's behavior and rhetoric says the contrary.

That's why Jimmy Carter is on a fool's errand, complicating an already complicated situation. It's often said that Carter has been a better ex-president than president. That's no compliment, so ghastly was his tenancy of the White House - the Camp David accords notwithstanding. Peace may be a long way away between Palestinians and Israelis, but Carter won't speed things up any by turning into Meshaal's patsy.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The facts of the Syrian-Israeli flirtation

The facts of the Syrian-Israeli flirtation
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Amid rumors that the political furniture is being moved around in Damascus, perhaps the strangest thing is how Syria has organically lodged itself between Iran and Israel, states that are otherwise mortal foes. The Iranian connection is well known, but less understood are the dynamics of the Syrian-Israeli relationship, and where they might lead.

Rarely a day goes by without someone in the Israeli press advocating a revival of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The arguments are familiar: Syria has a "secular regime," therefore is worthy of Israel's attention; now is Israel's best chance to "break Syria off from Iran"; Syria alone can control Hizbullah; and so on. That each of these arguments has been explicitly contradicted by Syrian actions or statements is generally ignored. The fetish of "talking" is too strong for anyone to punch through the myths.

And yet the rationale for Syrian-Israeli peace talks rests on a bed of myths. Syria's regime may be secular, but it has built long-term alliances mainly with Islamist regimes and groups, such as Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. When possible, as in the case of Fatah al-Islam, Syria has created or overseen militant Islamist groups, while Al-Qaeda operatives caught in Iraq will routinely describe their training and passage through Syria, usually via networks linked to the country's intelligence services. Given all this, the Assad regime's "secularism" seems irrelevant.

What about Syria's purported willingness to break off from Iran? Syrian officials have repeatedly affirmed that Iran is more than an ally; it is a strategic partner. However, optimists on Syrian-Israeli negotiations write this off as a Syrian bargaining step, a case of upping the ante before an eventual divorce from Tehran. In fact nothing suggests Syria is lying. Assad is wagering heavily that Iran will emerge as the regional superpower, which is precisely why he has been so willing to risk his Arab relationships lately in Tehran's favor. Logic, too, indicates a Syrian-Iranian split is not in the cards. Its close ties with Iran are what make Syria sought-after. If those ties disappear, Syria's sway would markedly decline.

Which brings us to the third issue: control over Hizbullah. A sudden downgrading of the Syrian-Iranian relationship would indeed leave Damascus with little regional sway, except if one thing happens: Syria returns its soldiers to Lebanon, taking the clock back to where it was before 2005. Israel would have no problems with this, and was never enthusiastic about the so-called Cedar Revolution. The only thing is, the Israelis forget that Hizbullah built up its vast weapons arsenal under Syria's approving eye. Far from imposing its writ on Hizbullah in order to eventually disarm the group, Syria has every incentive to keep the Hizbullah threat alive as leverage so that it remains indispensible.

That leads us to an obvious but seldom considered truth. Syria will not engage in serious negotiations with Israel unless it first manages to reimpose its hegemony in Lebanon. Without Lebanon in hand, Damascus has no real cards to play when haggling with the Israeli government, which has already demanded as a precondition for peace talks that Syria end its affiliation with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah. And without cards to play, how could Bashar Assad conceivably get what he actually wants out of negotiations, which is only what his father was on the verge of getting in 2000: a return to Syria of the entire area of the Golan Heights, as well as international recognition of Syria's long-term domination of Lebanon?

So what we are bound to see in the coming months, and probably beyond, is the foreplay of Syrian-Israeli contacts, without the real thing. Indirect exchanges are already taking place through the Turkish authorities. Other channels have been mentioned in the media. A recent report in Kuwait's daily Al-Jarida, citing sources in Jerusalem, went so far as to announce that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would visit Qatar on April 14 to "complete" secret talks with Syria. If that odd story is somehow true, the fact that it found its way into a newspaper could be an effort to torpedo the initiative. But such acts seem unnecessary. Israel has no impetus to give up the Golan without assurances that Syria will make major concessions in return; and the Syrians will not make major concessions before Israel assures them that it will hand back all of the Golan and look the other way on, even assist, a Syrian restoration in Lebanon.

One item receiving publicity last year was news of the unofficial channel the Syrian and Israeli governments allowed between a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Alon Liel, and a Syrian-American businessman, Ibrahim Suleiman. It lasted from September 2004 to July 2006, and a main objective of the Syrian regime was to use those contacts to start a dialogue with the United States. That endeavor failed, but Liel has tirelessly sought to revive the relationship, even visiting Washington a few months ago to lobby American officials. He apparently came away empty-handed, because the Bush administration refuses to approve of a Syrian-Israeli track that, it knows, would make it considerably more difficult to contain Syria and check its efforts to undermine Lebanese sovereignty.

During his Washington trip, Liel had some captivating things to say about his discussions with the Syrians. For example, those Lebanese who get so lathered about the settlement of Palestinians in their country might consider what he said at the Middle East Institute on the issue: "Part of our talks with the Syrians included the [400,000] Palestinian refugees in Syria and they indicated [a] willingness to consider nationalizing them. This will then ... likely make it easier to promote the same in Lebanon."

Israel is unlikely to soon surrender anything serious to the Syrian regime, and the contrary is equally true. But the Israelis do prefer Assad to the unknown, which has bought the Syrian leader a good deal of breathing space in the face of Arab and American animosity. You have to wonder how long that can last. Once a new administration takes office in the United States, it may soon find that the situation in Iraq, relations with Iran, and Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians allow little room for maneuver. Syria may materialize as the one place where the Americans can effect a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. Could Assad's Israeli friends remain as complaisant in that context?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Don't expect a Bush miracle in the Promised Land

Don't expect a Bush miracle in the Promised Land
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Saturday, April 05, 2008

A determined refrain heard among those thinking about or dealing with the Middle East is that the Gordian knot of the region is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cut it and conflict will recede everywhere, because the frustrations engendered by Arab-Israeli animosity will evaporate.

Maybe. The Bush administration partly adopted this logic several months ago when it sponsored a regional peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. President George W. Bush MBA-Presidents Sep-07 has promised that a final agreement will be signed between Israelis and Palestinians before he leaves office in January. Some don't buy into that deadline; many accuse Washington of being insincere in its efforts; but the real question is whether the United States can actually do anything when it comes to altering the outcomes.

The Palestinians complain that the Bush administration leans too heavily in Israel's favor, so is not a credible mediator. Most egregiously, the US is allowing Israel to create facts on the ground in Jerusalem and the West Bank, complicating prospects for peace. As Rami Khouri has written in this newspaper: "There is now only one real test of progress, or criterion of political seriousness, in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the short term: Can the United States make Israel stop expanding its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories? If not, talk of peace is a cruel hoax that will only raise and then dash expectations, leading to unknown consequences when the backlash occurs."

The Israeli argument is that the Palestinians, divided between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, pose a persistent security threat to Israel. Unless there is a Palestinian interlocutor who can guarantee a positive outcome in negotiations, there is little need to offer vital concessions at present. The Palestinians respond that such an attitude only strengthens Hamas by discrediting the Palestinian Authority, which supports a peace deal with Israel, making a resolution even less probable. The Israelis come back that if the Palestinian Authority is so frail, then Israel has even less of an incentive to sell the house. And on and on the exchange goes, descending into proliferating circles of disputation, all of it very logical, all of it tightening the Gordian knot further.

But what can the United States do? The reality is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so replete with minefields that even a concerted American push would almost certainly fail in the end.

Yet no one can deny that there is a need to break out of the sterile cycle of rhetoric afflicting Palestinians and Israelis alike. Israel's obtuseness in dealing with the Palestinians, its uninterrupted expansion of settlements, and its reluctance to dismantle even those settler outposts successive governments have declared illegal, has strengthened its most dedicated enemies. Yet no Israeli government today is likely to survive the kind of concessions needed to revive the Palestinian Authority. At the first sign of dramatic change, the right-wing parties, perhaps even cabinet ministers, would oppose major concessions; this would likely lead to early elections that could bring about the victory of Likud, which is even less enthusiastic about giving up land. We would soon be back to where we started from. But then even the ruling Kadima and Labor parties don't believe in the Palestinian Authority enough to conduct serious business with it.

On the Palestinian side the situation is even more dysfunctional. The Palestinian leadership is divided between two rival governments, one dominated by Fatah, the other by Hamas, each claiming legitimacy. The president, Mahmoud Abbas, refuses to speak to Hamas unless the Islamist movement first reverses its takeover of Gaza last summer. Yet Abbas' control over armed Palestinian groups, even those opposed to Hamas, is tenuous. The international community, particularly the United States, supports the Palestinian Authority, but all that does is discredit Abbas in the eyes of his own people, because such support has not even allowed him to end Israel's physical and economic strangulation of Gaza. Everyone regards Abbas as weak, so that now even Western pundits, former officials, and think-tank mavens are increasingly calling on Israel and the international community to talk to Hamas - a step that would all but destroy what remains of the Palestinian Authority

The thing is, Abbas happens to be the one Palestinian partner willing to give up land to achieve a mutually acceptable peace pact with Israel. Hamas has no such intention and has never committed publicly to the idea. However, this hasn't prevented Israel from taking measures that, intentionally or not, have somehow facilitated the emergence of an Islamist mini-state in Gaza, headed by a movement that considers armed struggle against Israel a quasi-religious duty. In fact, Hamas' charter tells us "that the land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf [religious endowment] consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day."

The Islamists believe history is on their side, and see a region shaping up in their favor. In Egypt, the government faces a potent and rising challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood, as does the monarchy in Jordan. In Lebanon, Hizbullah is deployed along Israel's northern border with tens of thousands of rockets in its arsenal. Hamas, observing the heightening of contradictions all around, but also sensing that it may be close to overwhelming its rivals within Palestinian society, feels it can wait Israel out and one day push for victory in collaboration with its allies elsewhere. The movement's charter also outlines steps toward this end by asking "Arab countries surrounding Israel ... to open their borders to the fighters from among the Arab and Islamic nations so that they could consolidate their efforts with those of their Muslim brethren in Palestine."

Faced with this mess, the Bush administration has few ways to succeed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is today a perfect storm of unfeasible diplomacy. No one wants to give up the fight, because a vacuum may be far worse than keeping up some kind of dialogue, whatever the results; but no one has much of a clue about how to reach the endgame either.

When in a stalemate, the theory goes, try something new, anything. Take the idea of talking to Hamas, now all the rage. No one has defined what Israel or the international community should talk to Hamas about, let alone what Hamas would agree to discuss, given that the movement refuses to even recognize Israel's right to exist. So, the prevailing outlook is that Israel and Hamas should avoid the matter of recognition now and agree to a long-term truce, allowing a revived peace process to kick in. But giving precedence to the gesture of talking over the substance of recognizing the other party means that Hamas has everything to gain from continuing to deny recognition. The signs are that it hopes to do just that while imposing a cease-fire during which it could rout its Palestinian foes and rearm for a final showdown with Israel in future decades.

How can the US address all this? Trying to stifle Hamas isn't working. Talking to the movement will go nowhere, but will kill Abbas politically. Forcing Israel to make serious land concessions would bring down the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - to be replaced by one bound to be even more intransigent. And expecting the Palestinian Authority to impose its will on all Palestinian factions is laughable. So the short answer is that the US has little to offer any of the parties. Blame Bush for many things; blame him for acting too late on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But don't seriously expect him to produce a miracle.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The slow boat to the Hariri tribunal

The slow boat to the Hariri tribunal
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 03, 2008

When Syria's foreign minister and one of its Lebanese marionettes both mention the Hariri tribunal in the space of two days, you know the topic is gaining ground in the Syrian attention span. In an interview with the ANB television station the foreign minister, Walid Moallem, stated that Syria had been offered "deals" by "friends of the tribunal and others," in exchange for facilitating a presidential election in Lebanon. Moallem specified that the offers ranged from "killing the tribunal and freezing it for several years to not participating in its financing." He insisted Syria had rejected all options, because it "has no connection to the crisis in Lebanon or the tribunal."

On Tuesday former Minister Wiam Wahab, one of Syria's licensed spokesmen, released a statement saying that Muhammad Zuheir al-Siddiq, who is both a key witness and suspect in the Hariri murder and who now resides in France, had vanished and "may have been kidnapped and liquidated." Nothing suggested the story was correct.

Moallem's comments were interesting because he protested too much. His insistence that Syria had nothing to do with the crisis in Lebanon and Hariri's murder affirmed that it did. That was the point. The fact is that Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeatedly brought up the tribunal with his Arab interlocutors, including Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. Moussa's statement on the matter to an Arab foreign ministers' gathering several weeks ago was leaked to the Kuwaiti Al-Qabas daily. He told the ministers that when he had traveled to Damascus to ask for help in resolving the stalemate in Beirut, Assad showed no interest in Lebanon, instead inquiring about the tribunal. Assad's message was clear, as was Moallem's in his interview: As long as the tribunal question remains unresolved to Syria's satisfaction, the deadlock in Lebanon will persist.

But Moallem's statement, like Wahhab's implied threat, could signal something else as well. As the tribunal goes forward, the Syrian regime may find that it has to clean house in preparation for an accusation. By underlining again that Syria was not involved in the Hariri killing, was the foreign minister laying the groundwork for a time when such involvement cannot be proven because all suspects will have by then disappeared?

Certainly the former Syrian vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, was playing on that theme when speaking to an Italian news agency. He noted that a prime suspect in the Hariri assassination, the head of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shawqat, had also gone missing and would, Khaddam predicted, meet the same fate as the late interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, who either committed suicide or received help in doing so. This could have been Khaddam just throwing a firecracker into the chambers of the paranoid Syrian leadership; or it could have been a preventive measure to avoid Shawqat's elimination. Whichever it was, the old serpent knows the tribunal is beginning to hit home in Damascus.

Not that there was much in the most recent report of Daniel Bellemare, the latest United Nations commissioner investigating the Hariri assassination, to either alarm or reassure the Syrians. The document was destined more to avoid providing information than the contrary, and showed that one could be even more taciturn than Serge Brammertz.

Bellemare insulted our intelligence by telling us more than two years after the UN investigation began that the "Commission can now confirm, on the basis of available evidence, that a network of individuals acted in concert to carry out the assassination of Rafik Hariri and that this criminal network - the "Hariri Network" - or parts thereof are linked to some of the other cases within the Commission's mandate."

What's new here? This obvious conclusion was consistently confirmed in all previous reports, including those written by Brammertz. And why did Bellemare use the awkward term "criminal network," suggesting a mafia hit, when he implicitly endorsed the view of Brammertz (and his predecessor Detlev Mehlis) that Hariri's murder was political, if only by virtue of being linked to other crimes in Lebanon that were plainly political?

But most remarkable was Bellemare's informing us that the "priority is now to gather more evidence about the Hariri network." Well what on earth was the priority in 2006 and 2007? That phrase should have belonged to an earlier report on the investigation, not one put out three months from the investigation deadline set by the UN Security Council.

But even in Bellemare's catalogue of elision, revealing titbits did come through. For example, when he wrote that the commission had "accelerated the pace of its operations" by increasing its Requests for Assistance (RFA) sent to Lebanon and other states from 123 to 256, you again had to wonder what Brammertz was doing while commissioner. This increase could partly be explained by the so-called "new practices" Bellemare has introduced, but for him to more than double RFAs after just three months in office suggested there was a delay to be overcome.

And in the event we didn't get that gathering speed had become a main concern, the commissioner told us that he had increased the number of laboratories his team would have access to, and had put in place a system "offering a new approach to cooperation" beyond issuing specific RFAs, whereby states have been informed of "generic areas of assistance that could match their capabilities and the Commissions requirements." It was not apparent what a "generic area of assistance" was, but it sounded suspiciously like Bellemare was widening his net of inquiry, introducing flexibility in how states responded to his needs, to get whatever more he could on the case. That would have been reasonable in 2005, but not in 2008.

Bellemare also told us, without really telling us, that his deadline for putting together a recommendation for an accusation may not come as soon as many would like. Already, in his meetings with foreign representatives, the commissioner has said that if he needs to extend his deadline beyond June to tighten his prosecution case, he will do so. The report suggested that he is quite likely to act on that basis.

What is one to make of the UN report? The most charitable thing one might say about it is that Bellemare did his best to conceal the fact that Brammertz had worked too slowly. But we won't know how true that interpretation is before the new commissioner puts together an indictment. However, if the Syrians start cleaning the decks to neutralize a legal accusation against the regime, then Bellemare had better hurry up.