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!