Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Give Indyk a break!

US peace envoy Martin Indyk, while deserving of criticism for his past failures, will not make or break negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Since being tapped last week as John Kerry’s special envoy for Middle East peace, Martin Indyk, the long-time Middle East analyst, former US ambassador to Israel, and former peace process negotiator has been the target of a barrage of criticism.

Steve Walt chimed in early against Indyk, tweeting, “Appointing Indyk as IP mediator is like hiring [Bernie] Madoff to run your pension. He had 8 years to do a deal in the 90s and failed.”

Philip Weiss seriously questioned Indyk’s fairness, noting that Indyk previously worked for AIPAC, helped launch WINEP (which Weiss calls an AIPAC-aligned think-tank), and the suspicion he aroused over his commitment to Israeli settlements during his last stint as US peace mediator.

AP correspondent Matt Lee grilled State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki about Indyk’s appointment. Lee asked why, given Indyk’s more than a decade of peace process failures and the importance of reaching a deal, the administration chose a tired,  washed-up guy like Indyk instead of going with some “new blood,” as Lee called it.

Indyk has not exactly inspired confidence in the negotiations, tweeting “this is not the end…not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

It’s not that the criticism of Indyk isn’t fair – it certainly all is, especially questions about his impartiality to mediate a dispute between Israel and Palestine. The real question that keeps arising in my mind as I read yet another blog post or article full of criticism for Indyk is, “Does it actually matter?”

No, it doesn’t. Indyk did indeed fail for 8 years to achieve a peace agreement in the 90s, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu have failed to achieve peace for far longer than 8 years. Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat have been involved in abysmal peace process failures for the better part of a decade as well. It’s just a simple fact that everyone involved, especially those appointed by the parties themselves, are grizzled veterans pushing handcarts of baggage into the negotiating room. The US choosing a spritely, passionate “new blood” mediator is not going to make or break these talks.

President Obama appointed George Mitchell in advance of the 2009 peace talks. Mitchell was widely hailed as a strong choice for mediator and had found significant success mediating negotiations in Northern Ireland, but a good envoy was unable to save those negotiations from the lack of vision set forth by the Obama administration (and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). The settlement freeze became the sole issue to litigate, the Israelis dug in without external pressure, Palestinian confidence bottomed out, and the entire process fell apart. Serious planning problems and a lack of pressure to make a deal canceled out entirely a good envoy nomination.

The lack of a final status vision from the Americans is again apparent in the new round of talks sponsored by John Kerry. A deal will be reached if the Palestinians have confidence in the viability of the state they’re going to be offered and the Israelis sense great enough international pressure on the settlements and have real concerns about Israel’s continued character as both Jewish and democratic.

Martin Indyk simply cannot provide or hinder what the parties need to reach a deal. It’s time to give the man a break.

Netanyahu and Abbas alone will determine if the two-state solution will be reached through negotiations.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mark your calendar for May 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a 9-month timetable for the resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict. The two sides have also agreed to not make any public statements about the progress of talks and that "every issue is on the table."

No updates until May 2014, when Kerry and Obama announce an agreement.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Talks about talks to start tomorrow (Monday)

The US State Department has announced that preliminary discussions about the format and issues to be discussed in upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will begin tomorrow. MK Tzipi Livni will act as lead negotiator for the Israelis, with Saeb Erekat representing the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet also approved the release of 100 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good faith. The prisoners will be released in stages as talks between the two sides continue.

Tying continued peace talks to prisoner releases seems like a win for Netanyahu, who will be able to use the incremental nature of the releases to keep the Palestinians in talks. During the peace talks in 2009, the Palestinians insisted upon a settlement freeze to continue talks, but it's highly unlikely a settlement freeze would be tied to this round of talks.

While prisoner releases will gain Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas some popularity among Palestinians, a settlement freeze likely provides greater benefits to the Palestinians as a whole and keeps focus on continued Israeli settlement building and the consequences of that on a viable peace agreement.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Palestinians have one thing left to give

M.J. Rosenberg has a very good post up discussing his skepticism of the possible Kerry peace talks, and he makes several salient points - none as interesting as this one:

What are they supposed to compromise on? They have nothing to give to Israel except an enhanced version of the security guarantees they already implement. Netanyahu likes to say that he will not sacrifice Israel’s security for any peace agreement. But he knows that he will never be asked to. Every significant proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace contains extensive security guarantees for Israel . Notably,the Palestinians, who are infinitely weaker than Israel, don’t demand security guarantees, just their territory.

It's hard to overstate just how important this is to understand for anyone following the peace process. This certainly wasn't true in 1994 after the Oslo Accords were signed and it wasn't true in 2001. In the past Israel's security in the West Bank (where the settlements are and which borders Jerusalem and is close to Tel Aviv) was certainly not ensured in the past. With Palestinian Authority security cooperation (including the PA's routing of Hamas from the West Bank), Israel's security is about a ensured as one could possibly expect an occupied force to be in a hostile territory. Violence now is almost entirely contained within a gang war of sorts between small segments of the Palestinian population and belligerent Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

The old formula for peace talks, "Land for Peace," is obsolete. Israel has the land it has long coveted for the most part, and it has a stable, largely peaceful security situation in the West Bank. The PA cooperates with Israel on security, the EU and other international donors provide aid to the Palestinians, and Israel is relieved of many of the burdens of occupying the territory.

M.J. Rosenberg's point is that the Palestinians have nothing to give in talks except "an enhanced version of the security guarantees they already implement." I don't think that's quite right. The only real reason for Israel to pursue peace talks with Palestine is to gain unquestioned international legitimacy for the settlement enterprise. This, rather than enhanced security is the only thing the Palestinians could possibly give the Israelis in return for Israeli approval and recognition of the State of Palestine.

Without Palestine signing a peace agreement formally relinquishing their claims to the land upon which settlements are built, Israel still faces international pressure for their settlement policies. While this has rarely manifested as a punitive measure taken to correct Israeli actions, the EU did recently issue a directive banning all grants and awards to settlement organizations. Israeli leaders are deeply troubled by the possibility of more measures like this being adopted.

In short, the peace talks serve one purpose: Israel seeks Palestinian recognition of their West Bank settlements, while Palestine asks for Israeli recognition of their state in the remainder of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Washington Post sheds light on "Price Tag" attacks and lack of arrests

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Washington Post running an article on "Price Tag" attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank. The article also mentions the lack of arrests, and the semantic and legal debate about how to prosecute the crimes and whether they might be considered terrorism.

It's great to see an article like this, especially on the homepage of the Post's website. My only criticism is the author's failure to quantify how common such attacks are, how few suspects have been arrested (let alone convicted), and the fact that violent attacks (especially beatings) occur in addition to vandalism and property damage. It would have been nice to have a paragraph explaining how damaging burning and cutting down olive groves can be to a family's economic situation, as well.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Casual Friday: The Best Albums of far

As the first half of 2013 has come to a close, I present to you my summary of the best albums to be released so far this year for today's Casual Friday post:

John Fogerty - Wrote a Song for Everyone

John Fogerty (former lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival) both embraces and re-imagines the music that first brought the singer acclaim over 50 years ago on his new collaboration album, "Wrote a Song for Everyone." While including a few solid originals ("Train of Fools", "Mystic Highway", and the title track), the larger part of the album is made up of collaborations of ubiquitous CCR fare with a wide variety of artists. The Foo Fighters, Keith Urban, My Morning Jacket, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Jennifer Hudson, and Bob Seger all make appearances on the album. Despite the diversity of the supporting cast, the album retains a strong, focused center of twangy, sometimes swampy, southern blues rock. Fogerty appears to be a master of collaborations, as he never overshadows his guests or allows then to overshadow him. Every song on the album comes across as a terrific meld of two artists' visions. Bob Seger and John Fogerty's duet version of "Who'll Stop the Rain" is a mesmerizing update to an old classic.

The album certainly won't include many surprises for listeners familiar with Fogerty's musical past. However, I was caught off guard by how strong the nearly 70-year-old singer/songwriter's voice still is and how good he can make Kid Rock sound on "Born on the Bayou."

Top Songs: "Who'll Stop the Rain (with Bob Seger)", "Train of Fools", "Bad Moon Rising (with Zac Brown Band)"

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

Anyone who says it isn't challenging to write about the the music of The National is simply lying. With that said, "Trouble Will Find Me" is really good. It's mellow and morose at times, and that's not a detraction. In terms of comparative discography, it's better than "High Violet" but lacks the fullness of "Aligator." The sound on "Trouble Will Find Me" is mature, with a good number of surprising sequences of musical tension. That's pretty much all I could possibly type out about the album (as ham-fisted as this paragraph has been). Just listen.

Top Songs: "Don't Swallow the Cap", "Graceless", "Demons"

Bombino - Nomad

Nigerien desert rock is a bit more than a stone's throw away from the radar of most American listeners, but that's a serious shame. Bombino, who learned and honed his top-notch guitar skills while moving between Tuareg encampments in the Nigerien, Algerian, and Libyan deserts, has released a follow-up album to 2011's incredible "Agadez." That album, showing off Bombino's mixture of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page-like mastery of solo guitar work, could have been more aptly named "Intro to Tuareg Desert Rock."

2013's "Nomad" is different. It's edgier, angrier, more aggressive, and most of all fuzzier. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced, and it's apparent. Bombino's "Agadez" sound is distantly there, but I couldn't help thinking Auerbach had colonized the Tuareg's sound a bit too much. The guitar work, crystal clear on "Agadez," has been replaced by the lo-fi sound ubiquitous on a Black Keys album.

The tracks are still terrific, and Bombino is an exceptional songwriter and guitarist - probably one of the best with a guitar in the world. Despite the differences from "Agadez", the edgier, angrier, rawer songs such as "Amidinine" and "Azamane Tiliade" are the best on the album. "Nomad" alone is a great album and aptly named, conveying the travels and influences Bombino has allowed to seep into his work. The album smartly mixed with "Agadez" is where Bombino truly shines.

Top Songs: "Her Tenere", "Amidinine", "Azamane Tiliade"

Erin McKeown - Manifestra

Erin McKeown, a singer/songwriter/activist who has flown largely under the pop-indie radar despite performing a slew of great originals, has released her most overtly political album to date in "Manifestra." Themes of economic justice, social equality, and popular protest abound in the lyrics, while her punchy guitar work carries her vastly under-appreciated songwriting. The largely spoken word title track "Manifestra" is a catchy, bluesy song and the high point of a solid album. The 10 tracks on "Manifestra" offer a more mature sound that McKeown's earlier albums, but fit perfectly into the whole of her discography.

Top Songs: "Manifestra", "Histories", "The Politician"

Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends

After listening to just the first few songs on "Evil Friends" I was convinced that Portugal. The Man's newest album be an early front runner for Best of 2013. The band scrapped a nearly complete album worth of studio work for the opportunity to have Danger Mouse take over production. The album, 12 tracks deep, doesn't have a weak song to be found. The psychedelic rock sounds from the band's past albums (including 2011's "In the Mountain In the Cloud," which was a top album of that year for me) are back, but even better. There's a track for almost every musical need: the piano and brass-driven "Creep in a T-Shirt; the simple "Sea of Air" shows off some great lyrics and crescendos into a chorus of voices; and the psych-rocker tracks of "Atomic Man" and "Purple Yellow Red and Blue." There's richness in every way on "Evil Friends." From the thoughtful, catchy lyrics (especially on "Modern Jesus") often delivered in PTM's characteristic falsetto or with a full chorus from the band to the dynamic, surreal sound of the album's diverse selection, the album is a seminar of what contemporary popular music can and should be.

Top Songs: "Hip Hop Kids", "Sea of Air", "Someday Believers"

Honorable Mentions:

Radiation City - Animals in the Median
Laura Marling - Like an Eagle
Phoenix - Bankrupt!

Friday, June 7, 2013

The UN is right to withdraw troops from the Golan, Israel is wrong to bluster about it

UNDOF forces patrol the demilitarized zone
Austria's decision to withdraw 380 peacekeepers from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights should be no cause for Israel to claim it has been "betrayed" by the UN's nearly 40-year-long presence at the border.

Fighting between disparate Syrian rebel groups and Syrian government forces reinforced with Hezbollah militia fighters from Lebanon finally reached the border with Israel in force when a significant battle was fought for the Syrian border city of Quneitra (or Al-Qunaytirah according to Arabic media) this week. Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad claimed victory, though continued skirmishes north of the city have been reported.

A Filipino member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) deployed in the demilitarized zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was injured yesterday when errant artillery and mortar fire from the fighting near Quneitra exploded within an UNDOF compound.

Nearly a month ago, four Filipino peacekeepers were taken hostage and subsequently released by Syrian rebels operating near the border. The Filipino foreign ministry then declared its intention to withdraw its 350 troops from the area, citing an intolerable security environment due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Yesterday's events prompted the Austrian government to announce its intention to withdraw its nearly 400-strong contingent supporting UNDOF's mission of observing and monitoring the border, citing "an uncontrollable and direct threat, which has increased to an unacceptable level." The withdrawal of the combined 700-man Filipino and Austrian contingents of UNDOF, which numbers 1000 total troops, would raise serious questions over the ability of force to maintain a presence along the 50 mile border between Syria and the Golan Heights. India provides the vast majority of the remainder of the peacekeeping troops and has not yet stated its intentions.

The Guardian's article has several rather petulant quotes from unnamed senior Israeli officials, but I'll focus exclusively on the Israeli government's official statements, which I find to both demonstrate an unreasonable expectation of the UNDOF soldiers deployed on it's de facto border with Syria and hypocrisy over the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry released a statement indicating regret at the Austrian decision to withdraw forces from UNDOF and noted it, "expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974)"

The Israeli browbeating of the UNDOF mission in the Golan Heights is callous and disregards the important fact that the UN and participating nations have been providing an uninterrupted security, observation, and monitoring presence for nearly 40 years. UNSC Resolution 350 was passed in 1974 for a period of 6 months, but has been extended since then. Certainly the UN never expected to be monitoring Israeli and Syrian "disengagement" for four decades. Furthermore, the role of UNDOF is not to protect Israel from the fighting stemming from the Syrian Civil War. UNDOF has no mandate to engage the Syrian army or rebel groups outside of the demilitarized zone, and with rolling battles across the country and border area, there's simply nothing other than hunkering down in their tents that UNDOF forces can do when an artillery and mortar battle rages on a half mile down the road. UNDOF's role has long been to monitor Israeli and Syrian army positions on either side of the border and provide fact-finding and peacekeeping from a third party to prevent escalations between Israel and Syria due to small-scale skirmishing or border misunderstandings. UNDOF has provided this important service for 40 years, while losing 42 peacekeepers. The Austrian and Filipino foreign ministries are correct. The current situation stemming from the Syrian Civil War is far outside the mandate of UNDOF and does indeed pose an uncontrollable threat. UNDOF simply has no mandate to prevent fighting near the border zone. Doing so would require the UN to choose a side in the Syrian Civil War and empower forces under its command to attack enemy forces - a decision that is unlikely to happen, and to which India, Austria, and the Philippines have not consented the use of their troops to. UNDOF forces should be able to pull back to secure, hardened bases in the Golan Heights to prevent unnecessary casualties to a force largely unable to defend itself from errant artillery and mortar fire. Israel's border of the occupied Golan Heights (referred to as Line A by the UNDOF mission) is mined and secured with fences and electronic surveillance to deter and prevent infiltrators from Syria.

Secondly, I'm sure more than a few officials at the UN let out an exasperated sigh after reading Israel's statement imploring the UN to uphold its commitment under UNSC 350, given Israel's refusal to work in good faith toward implementing UNSC 242 requiring Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza Strip. Israel has never shown a willingness to withdraw from the Golan, announced de facto annexation of the territory in 1981, and most recently under Netanyahu implored Syria to relinquish its claim to the Golan Heights.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force has had a thankless job patrolling and monitoring the border between the Israeli-held Golan Heights and Syria. With the current unstable situation, a civil war the UNDOF is ill-prepared for and in which is has not mandate governing it's participation, UNDOF should temporarily withdraw to hardened positions in the Golan Heights (or withdraw entirely). As the extension of UNDOF's mission is facing a vote soon, UN nations should work to clarify UNDOF's role and mission now that the role it has served for 40 years has dramatically changed due to civil war in Syria.


As I was publishing this post, the Guardian published a report that Russia has offered to provide soldiers to reinforce the UNDOF mission, effectively replacing Austrian troops. The article also includes information indicating that Filipino troops may not necessarily withdraw as the military chief supports his soldier's presence.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

This is apparently John Kerry's "delighted" face.

The Guardian has an article about Secretary of State John Kerry's West Bank trip today that includes this great picture of John Kerry:

Inline image 1

...with the following (un)intentionally hilarious caption:

"John Kerry shows delight at his shawarma sandwich in Ramallah."

Here's the link.

Kerry visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today to discuss a potential reopening of peace talks between Israel and Palestine. He took a break from the meetings to enjoy some classic Palestinian food: shawarma, knafeh, and Arabic coffee at a local spot in Al-Bireh (near Ramallah).

Here's a shot of him diving into a sticky bite of knafeh:

Inline image 2

(Is it possible to look dignified while standing, eating, and holding the plate?)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Scratch that last post

A scant two days after Israel's under-the-radar halt on new settlement construction approvals was revealed in newspaper around the globe, the freeze has apparently thawed as Israel announced the approval of 296 housing units to be built in the West Bank settlement of Beit El.

Beit El, with a population just over 5500, overlooks the Palestinian de facto capital of Ramallah and sits above the Jalazone refugee camp.

The Civil Administration, Israel's governing body for many issues related to Israeli settlers and settlement in the West Bank, confirmed that the nearly 300 units approved in Beit El are related to the promised compensation for 30 settler families who were evacuated from the tiny Ulpana outpost nine months ago.

The Ulpana outpost was built by Jewish settler's without the Israeli government's permission, one of several dozen outposts Israel considers "illegal" (though all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered illegal by the UN and under international law). The Ulpana outpost was justified by its founders in an Israeli court by a land deed that ended up being a blatant forgery - even indicating that the land was purchased from a seven year-old Palestinian child.

An Israeli court ordered the homes in Ulpana demolished because they were built on Palestinian-owned land. After delay, the order that was carried out in the summer of 2012. The 30 families living in Ulpana at the time of the order were promised resettlement in the larger Beit El settlement, which Peace Now and the 2006 Sasson Report found was itself built primarily on seized private Palestinian lands.

The sudden end to the new approval freeze indicates how politically untenable Netanyahu views angering the settlers or their allies is, especially given the upcoming reformation in the Knesset following January's elections - a supposed rebuke of Netanyahu.

Update: Looking back at a Guardian article from around the time Ulpana was evacuated, it appears Netanyahu actually promised these 300 units in Beit El in July 2012. The approvals for the specific buildings have just now cleared the Civil Administration.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Israel hasn't approved new settlement construction since Obama's March visit

Settlement approvals have been halted, but construction
on the ground continues.

Peace Now reports an interesting and positive fact today: since President Obama's visit to Israel in March, Israel has not announced any new settlement construction. While previously approved construction continues unabated in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, this new restraint may be indicative of Israeli support for Secretary of State John Kerry's recent push to initiate a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Peace Now does caution that construction on the ground continues at the same pace as prior to Obama's visit and the Israeli parliamentary elections in January due to a "ramping up" of approvals prior to the election.

This news, coupled with the recent announcement by the Arab League that they'd accept land swaps as part of the Arab Peace Initiative, indicate that background work is being done, most likely by Kerry and U.S. State Department Staff, to set the groundwork for new direct negotiations. China's apparent interest in becoming more involved in peace negotiations may be providing the impulse for the Obama administration and Secretary Kerry to get both Israel and the Palestinians, as well as other regional and international stakeholders, to agree to a U.S.-led framework for new negotiations. It's unlikely U.S. diplomats and negotiators are keen on China asserting a greater role in the peace process.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Google "Recognizes" Palestine

The big peace process news today is that Google has officially made the decision to "recognize" Palestine, replacing their references to Palestinian Territories with the UN-approved "Palestine" label.

The world's largest online advertising company addressed the change with a statement:

"We're changing the name 'Palestinian Territories' to 'Palestine' across our products. We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries."

A Google spokesman went on to say that the company uses the UN and several other international organizations when making decisions on country names, indicating that the UN General Assembly's vote to.recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state played no small role in the decision.

I don't see this as a major turning point in the peace process or in international recognition of a Palestinian state, and Google's decision certainly doesn't bring any pressure to bear on Israel to work more seriously towards decolonizing the West Bank. However, Google is a monstrous and highly influential company. Formally recognizing Palestine from a business standpoint is likely to have a positive effect in normalizing the Palestinian people as members of the community of nations. These small efforts to normalize Palestine and Palestinians should not be underestimated. Small victories such as this one will help to build the slow social, cultural, and perhaps political acceptance of the need for a Palestinian state and improve how Americans view the Palestinian people.

With so little positive news coming out of the conflict, it's nice to have a small story such as this one to start the weekend.