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Light Flickers on Peace….

August 30, 2009 Leave a comment

In June it seemed that Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu had extinguished all hopes for even the pretense of peace. His acceptance of a two-state solution at Bar Ilan University mollified many in the West, but infuriated Palestinian leaders. Netanyahu advocated a state whose military and even political powers would be restrained relative to those of Israel. More than that, Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal demanded a cessation to the settlements in the West Bank–a key issue on which Netanyahu remained silent.

Earlier this month, however, Netanyahu agreed to a partial halt of settlement activity. The move is not a formal moratorium however. According to the AP, Israel has not issued settlement permits in months, and will halt activity until peace talks can proceed.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who has been working to reconcile the Palestinian factions, is not moved by the temporary solution. During his first visit in 5 years to the Oval Office, Mubarak commented,

“This issue has been going on 60 years, and we cannot afford wasting more time because violence will increase,” the 81-year-old Mubarak said, speaking through an interpreter. “We need to move to the final status solution. … The Israelis said talk about a temporary solution. I told them, ‘No, forget about the temporary solution, forget about temporary borders.’ That’s why I came today to talk to President Obama to move forward on this issue.”

Worsening the situation is Israel’s ever more icy relationship with the Obama administration. Israeli-US relations in 2009 have been characterized by harsh words and, to some degree, paranoia. President Obama has taken the hardest-line stance with Israel than any other president to date. The Administration has veered from Israel’s positions on how to deal with the conflict and also on a nuclear Iran, and in doing so,  the Administration has lost favor among the Israeli right. Even his chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel is losing clout with Israeli political actors.

Politico reports,

An observant Jew with deep ties to Israel, Emanuel is viewed as something of a native son, his rise through the ranks of American politics celebrated by Israelis who reveled in details such as his childhood summers spent in Israel and his volunteer stint during the first Gulf War in an Israeli military program for civilians.

… But in a dramatic emotional shift, Israelis have become increasingly disenchanted with Emanuel, and the disappointment is especially intense on the Israeli right, which supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his opposition to Obama’s call for ceasing settlement activity.

As Obama’s most senior Jewish proxy, Emmanuel faces the impact of Israel’s “widespread unhappiness” with the Administration. Both Emmanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod have been called “self-hating Jews” by the Israeli Prime Minister, Haaretz reports. Although Netanyahu’s spokespeople have denied the allegation, the sentiment is widely publicized and shared  in Israel.

While the temporary halt on settlements buys time for all nations involved, a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference may further upset this nebulous state of affairs. President Obama hopes to convene a meeting of heads of state on September 24th to discuss nuclear terrorism and global disarmament, and Israel’s alleged nuclear power program may end up on trail or a target of suspicion and accusation.

Obama also has another summit planned for March 9 and 10, which will stir up animosity among nations. Arab states will undoubtedly use Israel’s alleged nuclear program to counter Obama’s plans for a nuclear-free Middle East, and the Jewish state will crop up national security issues as a reason to remain laconic and mulish on the issue.

Despite the laundry list of conflicts and entanglements, Obama is optimistic about the future of the peace talks and is not worried about lost ground.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

Queen Noor’s Global Zero Call on Obama and Medvedev

Queen Noor has a formidable reputation in Jordan for her humanitarian efforts, and as of late has turned her attention to nuclear non-proliferation. Last month, the Queen and her members of her organization Global Zero presented a plan to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2030. Most recently, she called on presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev to significantly cut their arsenals.

The Associated Press reports,

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April issued a joint statement committing themselves to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. The two leaders are to meet Monday in Moscow for talks that many expect will lead to a framework agreement on new weapons cuts beyond the START-1 treaty that expires this year.

Noor told CNN that a reduction in aramaments will encourage multilateral negotiations with other nuclear countries and deter those aspiring to the zeniths of radioactivity.

Noor noted that the world’s 40 countries with nuclear capabilities can produce an additional 100,000 bombs which could fall into the hands of terrorists. Non-proliferation, she said, is also essential to securing long-term peace in the region.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10
Categories: General Policy

Exclusive Interview: Marda on the Middle East

June 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Marda Dunsky, the author of the recently published book Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,  by Columbia University Press recently gave two presentations on media reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the Muslim world in general. Following one of these presentations, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Mrs. Dunsky and discuss her thoughts.

It goes without saying that media shapes public opinion and policy. In her new book, Mrs. Dunsky criticizes American broadcast media for its failure to place events “in context” or to admit an administration’s defiance  of international laws or consensus.

Even in the most seemingly balanced story on Israeli settlement, there is no reference to what international law and consensus has to say about the issue, she said.

In another illustration, Dunsky quoted Senator Dick Durbin who said that when the mainstream media irresponsibly followed the Bush Administration’s assertion of WMDs, it created a climate of incredible pressure. Under such pressure, “the only safe vote was the vote for the war.” Otherwise senators would fall prey to their constituencies.

Dumskey also touched on President Obama.

Obama’s been in office for more than a month. What he’s done immediately is to recognize that this is a very pressing issue. On the second day he was in office, he had a big meeting at the state department where he introduced his two special envoys: Holbrook and Sen. George Mitchell as his envoys to the Middle East. Obama right out of the gate is telling the world, ‘We think this is really a pressing issue and we’re going to get back involved right away.’

Starting with his interview on Al-Arabiya (which can be found in an earlier post here), Obama showed that he is intent on improving relations in the region and showing that the issues in the area are a priority for America.

Dunsky cautioned, though, that it is still mostly rhetoric at this stage and that concrete policies are required.

On the campaign trail Obama visited Sderot in southern Israel and expressed his sympathies for living under constant rocket fire. This was where he said the famous phrase “if my daughters were sleeping and someone was shooting rockets at them, I would do anything I could to protect them.” So while he sympathized with Sderot and kept with the standard American policy of unflinching support for Israeli security, as Dunsky pointed out, Obama neglected to travel the two miles into Gaza and show that he empathized with the average Gazan who was living under siege with little access to food or medical supplies–which in itself does not mark a change in American policy.

I would like to encourage all to take heed Mrs. Dunsky’s advice and to scrutinize the mainstream media. By doing so, the viewer can be much more informed and gain a better understanding of the truth.

Marda Dunsky is a professor at DePaul University and a former journalist at the Jerusalem Post.

This interview took place March 2009.

Open letter to Obama

March 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Turkey’s Today’s Zaman carries a letter to the president in Monday’s paper from a group of intellectuals. The letter, in essence, calls for a sea-change in how the U.S. conducts foreign policy:

Improving relations between the United States and Middle Eastern nations is not simply a matter of changing some policies here and there. For too long, US policy toward the Middle East has been fundamentally misguided. The United States, for half a century, has frequently supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticize them and prevent their citizens from participation in peaceful civic and political activities. US support for Arab autocrats was supposed to serve US national interests and regional stability. In reality, it produced a region increasingly tormented by rampant corruption, extremism and instability.

This has, in fact, been a critique of U.S. policy across the globe for most of the second half of the twentieth century. The letter goes on to explore the consequences of supporting those Arab autocrats, and calls for Obama to help force them from power by cutting off their lifelines. One of the central points the signers raise is the importance of working with democratically-minded reformers, regardless of their other convictions. It’s a call that rings especially true in Turkey, where a moderately Islamist party has driven a push toward rule of law, reforms, and EU membership:

In many countries, including Turkey, Indonesia and Morocco, the right to participate in reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms. We may not agree with what they have to say, but if we wish to both preach and practice democracy, it is simply impossible to exclude the largest opposition groups in the region from the democratic process.

There has not been such a moderation in the case of, say, Hamas–something the writers unfortunately do not address, although one that’s perhaps too complicated for the medium.
The list of signers is interesting. It includes intellectuals from Egypt and Turkey; Seth Green of Americans for Informed Democracy; Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Liberal Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia also appears, but is interestingly near to Professor Francis Fukuyama, whose gradual slide leftwards is perhaps continuing. Maybe history isn’t over after all, huh?

–David Graham, Trinity ’09 and Editor

Obama going to Turkey; speech site still unclear

March 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Turkey will be a stop on President Obama’s forthcoming European tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in Ankara on Sunday. The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson has the story here.

Obama’s stop in Turkey… partly fulfills Obama’s pledge to engage the Muslim world in a substantive way within his first 100 days in office.

But Turkey will not the site of the major speech he promised in a Muslim country. Speculation has swirled on where that speech might be held since he made the promise, prior to the election. Some have guessed Indonesia, on the basis of his background there; others have suggested that he might like to make it closer to the Middle East. In any case, aides will apparently take longer to sharpen the speech for the time being:

As past administrations have found, Turkey is a useful partner because of its placement and politics:

As a non-Arab Muslim nation, Turkey is well-placed to serve as a key administration ally on those issues. Governed by a moderate Islamist party, Turkey has managed to accommodate religious and secular values in its democratic system, something other governments in the Arab Middle East have been unable to achieve with the same success.

The other interesting angle here, and one that the Post buries, is the symbolic importance of the American president visiting Turkey as part of a European tour. The nation’s EU bid remains stuck in limbo, stalled by EU requirements and staunch French opposition to Turkey joining the union. By making this visit now and not as part of a Middle Eastern or Central Asian tour, Obama is surely sending a message, consciously or not.

–David Graham, Trinity ’09 and Editor

Already losing steam in the Arab world?

February 10, 2009 Leave a comment

In Sunday’s New York Times, Egyptian novelist Alaa al Aswany writes that by failing to speak up on the situation in Gaza is causing attrition to President Obama’s political capital in the Middle East.

While the Western media–and perhaps this venue included–were labeling Obama’s bold intiative in reaching out to Arabs and Muslims by speaking with Al Arabiya, Aswany says the reaction in Cairo was… well, muted at best:

But while most of my Egyptian friends knew about the interview, by then they were so frustrated by Mr. Obama’s silence that they weren’t particularly interested in watching it. I didn’t see it myself, but I went back and read the transcript. Again, his elegant words did not challenge America’s support of Israel, right or wrong, or its alliances with Arab dictators in the interest of pragmatism.

Read more…

WaPo’s Patel on Obama, Presidential Prayer Service

February 1, 2009 Leave a comment

Fellow Duke Islamic Studies Center denizen Jonathan  Cross called my attention to this item by Eboo Patel. It’s from On Faith, a site jointly run by the Washington Post and Newsweek, which is generally a great resource for thougthful and occasionally provocative stories on religion.

Patel writes about the excitement of American Muslims for the new presidency:

Many prominent Muslims were present for the prayer service at the National Cathedral, all of them elated about the promise of this new President. One of them – Ingrid Mattson, the President of the Islamic Society of North America – was on stage offering a prayer for the nation with a dozen other diverse American religious leaders. The preacher – hand-picked by Obama – spoke of the importance of building interfaith cooperation with the Muslim world, and cited a letter called “A Common Word Between Us and You” sent by Muslim scholars to the Christian community.

It was all of one piece with the theme of Obama’s inaugural address: America being America again, to its own citizens, and the rest of the world.

Perhaps we should expect that American Muslims would be more confident about President Obama than Muslims elsewhere. After all, there are fewer domestic policy questions that affect Muslims as such, and Obama’s power to change the rhetoric within the U.S. seems considerable.

But the real test, for Muslims, for me and for this blog, is what he actually does in the arena of foreign policy. It is there that Obama will face real challenges if seeks to really change the conditions of engagement between Americans and Muslims: he will face internal opposition, wary potential partners, the inability to act unilaterally, and the burden of history–particularly historical U.S. policy.

Check out this rather more pessimistic Susan Jacoby essay also.

–David Graham, Trinity ’09 and editor