The timing of yesterday’s event moderated by Steve Clemons was perfect, coinciding with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first visit to the Middle East as Secretary of State. The topic: What’s next for peace in the Middle East? Guests included Farah Stockman of The Boston Globe, Amjad Atallah of the New America Foundation, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, and Abderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera. It was held at the City Club of Washington.
First, some quick hits on Clinton’s trip, as she begins the work President Obama hopes will step away from the failed non-engagement of the Bush-Cheney years.
Clinton speaking after Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt conference, where almost $1 billion in U.S. aid for Gaza was announced. As an aside, Martin Peretz strikes again, saying no aid should get through, exhibit A why a little tough love to Israel is required regarding Gaza.
Coverage via the Guardian:
“We have worked with the Palestinian Authority to install safeguards that will ensure our funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up in the wrong hands,” she said. “It is time to break the cycle of rejection and resistance, to cut the strings pulled by those who exploit the suffering of innocent people.”
Clinton made no reference to the closure of the Gaza crossings, or to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are a prime concern for the Palestinians.
There’s also much being made about Clinton’s comments regarding Iran and their nuclear ambitions, as she downplays Iranian reaction to serious diplomacy, undoubtedly meant to lower expectations, while putting pressure on Iran. From Egypt:
“We’re under no illusions,” the official quoted Clinton as telling al Nahyan. “Our eyes are wide open on Iran.”
To add, Clemons has a piece up on Israel, Iran and the U.S. that is a must read. It also proves my point about Netanyahu.
Honest broker moments were revealed though they fell short of dealing with anything controversial such as the choke points and settlements.
It was a brief but significant gesture: in the hubbub of the Gaza donor’s conference in Egypt, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, shook hands and exchanged a few words yesterday with Walid Mouallem, her Syrian counterpart. …
As for what’s next on Middle East peace as the Obama administration begins the tough slog post Bush, several things stood out from the forum. First was Steve Clemons use of the word “equilibrium” over trying to achieve peace. I’ve been wondering how we take advantage of the shift and get to peace under President Obama, especially since I don’t believe peace is a real option. Lurching cease-fires interrupted by violence will never bring peace.
Secondly, the consensus of the panelists was that Iran is a bigger issue for Israelis than the Palestinians. I’ve heard it before, but it still sounds like an excuse, something that is sure to roil politics here in the U.S. and maybe that’s the point?
Much talk was about the question of whether a two state solution is possible anymore, even as some imagine one state is what may manifest. That Palestinians actually want that; juxtaposed against it would really be better for Israelis. I don’t see how anything works in the long term without two states, no matter how much I study and read on the subject. The U.S. and leaders in the region must put pressure on the parties to move forward with some plan for a sustained equilibrium. That can only happen if our gov. puts a value on U.S. interests first, beyond what will only benefit Israel, but cause us problems in the region with Arab nations. Nations with which Obama must make inroads on new engagement.
Optimism seemed to be the prevailing sentiment of the panelists.
Listening to experts you can never discount what is said, but I’m not feeling the same. M.J. Rosenberg’s optimism is in part due to President Obama himself. Israel’s current state of politics in that country are not encouraging, especially with Netanyahu up front, someone who has never appreciated the horrific cost of settlements, which was a constant theme from Al Jazeera’s Abderrahim Foukara. Then again, maybe only Bibi can do it. Doubts remain.
I also keep wondering how we get from political philosophy and intent to manifesting something concrete. Seriously, how long can we continue to talk about “peace,” without drawing up a plan that provides “equilibrium” to a region that never seems to want to step forward. We need to, as Clemons says, change the game.
Below are notes I took during the forum. Any misunderstanding of what’s written is on me, not the person to which the idea or quote is attributed. You can only take notes so fast. Any comments I have appear in italics after quote or basic idea of what was said by the panelist or the moderator.
Clemons on Clinton: “Impressive realist stripes” in Asia. (That’s what has enraged the Jewish community recently. They never saw Clinton’s internationalist tendencies, which are realist and pragmatic to their core.)
“I don’t believe in peace. I believe in equilibrium, equilibria.” – Clemons
“Iran was not the elephant in the room that it is now.” – Farah Stockman
“More and more Jewish voices” speaking out for something beyond the status qou. – Abderrahim Foukara. Also says it’s the Iran issue that’s paramount. “The whole thing harkens back to the issue of democracy.” It’s about settlements. “I doubt if Barack Obama will be able to make them do that one thing.” The West talks about Israel being a great democracy, but in the shadow of what the Palestinians are enduring how great a democracy can it be? Not a popular sentiment in the U.S. to offer, a gamble to utter it. (Mr. Foukara’s point was a plea of sorts, made continually throughout the forum.)
MJ Rosenberg – “In general I’m optimistic.” Mitchell’s call last week that included Jewish peace groups is one reason, he said. “We weren’t even invited to a Chanukah celebration” in the Bush years. “The status quo lobby,” as he called it, meaning AIPAC. Some in town “are very worried about George Mitchell, very worried.” Chas freeman, referred by some as that “vile creature,” made it worse. (I linked to MJ’s article on the Chas Freeman battle recently. This appointment is heartening to many peace movement Jews, quite a few in attendance yesterday.)
Amjad Atallah – We either pursue Arab – Israeli peace because Israel wants it, so we adopted that position. Or we have a larger interest that is regional. Mentioned Ann Lewis saying we support whatever gov. the Israelis elect, which is where we are today.
Clemons – Saudi Arabia very uncomfortable with Hamas, “discomfort,” is the appropriate word. (Saudi Arabia helped sponsor this event.)
MJ re Hamas: “I don’t favor engagement with Hamas.” Deal with Hamas only to the extent that it stops the violence. “I don’t see anything wrong with Egypt’s position.” MJ said what Clinton said today was like the Bush admin.
As an aside, here’s what Fox News offered: Lawmakers Worry Whether U.S. Can Keep Gaza Aid Away From Hamas.
Clemons – “The too much, too late strategy” re Clinton.
Farah Stockman – Re Clinton, “wishful thinking”. Even if you don’t say Hamas in your speech they’re still in control of Gaza. (Now you see why I offered a few quick hit links on Clinton’s trip so far. Diplomacy isn’t journalism.)
Is the Hamas issue going to be a civil war inside the Obama admin?, asked Clemons. Yes, said Farah Stockman. “I happened to know that Hamas members have met with Sein Fein” – Farah Stockman. You have to get your armed guys to sign on. (The reality of having George Mitchell in the mix is not a coincidence.)
Abderrahim Foukara – Egypt thinks Hamas is an extension of the Muslim brotherhood. But who would have thought Egypt would be a partner of any sort with Israel. (Acknowledging reality doesn’t mean no progress exists.)
Farah Stockman – “The populations are not the same as their governments.”
Was the election in Palestine a mistake? – Clemons
Abderrahim Foukara – Yes, because Bush put it in terms that democracy was all that was at stake. If we’re not careful parties will “subcontract” their battles to the U.S. “Like Ahmed Chalabi did with us on Iraq.” (American interests must be our prime focus.)
Clemons – “Silo” state issues away from the larger regional issues. (Another way to say it is that people conveniently compartmentalize issues so you don’t have to think of the whole.)
Iran is “paranoid” about their security for many reasons – Clemons
Farah Stockman – Bush made a two-state solution popular. (This infuriated me, because it didn’t matter considering Bush-Cheney had no policy except to aid the Israelis. See Lebanon, which didn’t do the Israelis or the U.S. any good in the region.)
Clemons – Road blocks (brought to Israel by Ehud Barak) are a huge issue. Choke points and aid into Gaza. (I’ve never understood why this isn’t a huge issue with progressives, especially. The choke points and road blocks are a despicable tactic by the Israelis.)
MJ: “Colossaly stupid” to keep food away. “The Israelis are doing everything they can to make these people hate them.”
Abderrahim Foukara – Settlements continued, regardless of Bush’s two state solution rhetoric. (A comment to Ms. Stockman’s point about Bush and two state solution.)
Amjad Atallah – “Punitive” in the hopes that it will make “the Arabs” change. The Israelis seem to believe they can brutalize Arabs into changing. (Again, who can argue that the Israel’s actions are often not only punitive but counterproductive? All that’s happening is radicalization.)
Taking risks in first term will keep Obama from having a second term; so can Obama actually have a dialogue with Hamas? (How can we ignore Hamas’ stature? They run Gaza, whether it’s viable or not seems beside the point.)
Clemons: Give us Netanyahu, please; “What makes sense is game changing moves.” (We cannot afford anything less.)