29 April 2007

28 April 2007 - Rob Malley's Mideast roundup

Before I begin, I just want to thank everyone who voted for Guide to the Perplexed in the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards. With about half an hour of voting left to go in the first round, I am tied for second in Group C for Best New Blog, and I am holding onto second in Group B for Best Left-Wing Blog. According to the competition rules, this means the blog should advance to the final. Stay tuned!

This past Thursday, Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs hosted Robert Malley, who is the Middle East and North Africa Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Washington D.C. The topic of his talk was “Israel, Palestine and the U.S.: Moving towards Peace?” Malley gave a detailed report on the state of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to a packed seminar room.

The ICG has done some interesting work on the conflict, and recently launched an initiative designed to create diplomatic momentum towards an ultimate resolution. Its reports and other publications are worth browsing through. However, I must say that much of what they are doing seems rather conventional—and indeed much of what Malley told us last Thursday seemed like old news (at first).

Malley is optimistic about the prospects for peace, and said that despite continuing violence there is a greater convergence of views on both sides about the shape of a final agreement. (This assessment repeated the next day by Sari Nusseibeh, whose presentation at Harvard’s Center for the Humanities will be the subject of my next blog entry). He cited the Saudi peace initiative as an example of this convergence.

Malley also spoke about the prospects for peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, and criticized the United States for telling Israel not to talk to the Assad regime. He claimed that history would remember the Bush administration for being the first to walk away from an Arab leader who was genuinely interested in making peace, and urged the view that talks with Syria offered the best chance for progress.

I agreed with Malley that the U.S. should let Israel pursue the Syrian track, but felt he should have explored the reasons why it might make sense not to—such as the difficulty of getting Syria to separate itself from Iran, or the potential for double-dealing by Assad, or the desire to back Saudi leadership in the region. Malley in fact failed to mention Iran at all until someone asked him a question about it later.

In addition, there were two things Malley said that I had never heard before. One sounded somewhat plausible, the other totally ridiculous. The first was that the Arab League proposal was intended as a framework within which Israel and its immediate Arab neighbors could negotiate a final deal. Its intent, he suggested, was to give political cover to the Palestinians and Syrians to negotiate with Israel.

That’s not how I understood the plan. There is, first of all, the possibility that it is merely a U.S.S.R.-style peace proposal, designed so that all concrete concessions must be made by Israel—designed, in other words, to be rejected, or to achieve some other propaganda purpose (such as showing that the Saudis can cobble together a consensus in the Arab world, though based on the least common denominator).

The Saudis have lent credence to such suspicions by refusing (publicly, at least) to negotiate the terms of the plan until Israel first accepts it in its entirety (bit of a contradiction there). Still, I am willing to believe that it is possible that the initiative is sincere, if only because the Sunni world has a strong interest in getting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict settled so it can face Iran with a unified front.

What I found impossible to believe was Malley’s argument that there is a tactical convergence between Hamas and Israel. How can this be, when Hamas is still trying to kill Israelis and abduct soldiers? I questioned Malley about this and his answer was that both Israel and Hamas want to delay a deal as long as possible—that Hamas’s hudna, or long-term cease-fire, matches Israel’s stalling behavior.

This conclusion is a classic example of false co-equivalence. Israel has a clear and urgent interest in a final peace agreement. It may not be in a rush to conclude one, given the radical concessions demanded by its neighbors, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hear the clock ticking. Hamas, on the other hand, has an ideological and strategic interest in keeping the jihad going. At most, it wants a temporary lull.

Malley goes in for the idea that Hamas has become more moderate since taking power—or that it could become more moderate in future. He believes that Hamas will work with Israel because it needs to consolidate support among Palestinians. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that Hamas may believe its ability to govern depends on its ability to kill Israelis—not to win support, but to win obedience.

I simply cannot understand how Malley can blithely ignore Hamas’s explicit commitment to a strategy of violent confrontation. Yes, there can be progress towards peace even as the two sides are shooting at each other. But Hamas is trying to escalate the conflict, not contain it. It is also ready to go to war against Fatah to protect its hold on power. Seeing this as progress is just wishful thinking.

Malley suggested that the U.S. should follow Europe’s lead and start developing closer contact with Hamas leaders. I think this would be a big mistake, because it would mean that the diplomatic effort to rob terror of its political legitimacy would have failed. Such a move would actually make negotiations harder, because it would strengthen hard-liners, weaken moderates, and remove incentives for non-violence.

I was also highly irritated by Malley’s tendency to play to the crowd—which was two-to-one anti-Israel—by talking about the domestic constraints on U.S. policy—i.e. the “Israel lobby.” He said he had some problems with Walt and Mearsheimer’s thesis, but didn’t quite say what, and in fact led credence to that thesis claiming that few political candidates or diplomats had the courage to stand up to Israel.

He added, in response to an audience member who apparently believed that the Jews in Israel were “Europe’s problem,” that Clinton had allowed himself to be led astray by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Oslo process and had given in to far too many Israeli demands about the secrecy of the talks and goodness knows what else. Barak—who staked and lost his political career for peace!

Malley even recounted a silly story about by getting angry emails from the Zionist Organization of America about a speech he had written for former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. In fact, the more he went on about the “lobby” and the deficiencies of the Bush administration, I felt this former Clinton official was offering little more than political sour grapes of the Jimmy Carter variety.

There are, it seems, three common fallacies among those who follow the Carter line: first, they downplay the effects and intent of Palestinian violence; second, they place sole blame on Bush and/or the “lobby” for the lack of progress; and third, they think the U.S. should defer to Europe, et al., in overseeing negotiations. I sincerely hope this does not suggest the future outline of Democratic policy in the region.

Despite his optimism about the convergence on all sides, Malley offered a rather pessimistic vision of the Middle East ten years from now. I left feeling discouraged. Not about the prospects for peace—I have my own reasons for feeling optimistic—but about the apparent lack of imagination, and the apparent prejudice, of people who are supposed to be at the forefront

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