Category Archives: Middle East

Iran sanctions and– Jerusalem

As the Obama administration prepares for next Thursday’s important P5+1 meeting with Iran, the prospects for mounting a successful sanctions campaign against Iran are being seriously undermined by the actions of the Israeli government and government-backed Jewish extremists in Jerusalem.
Today, Israeli police battled Muslim worshippers in the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary; also known as the Temple Mount) after the worshipers tried to block the entrance into the Haram of a Jewish group of unclear intentions.
The situation of the 250,000 Palestinian residents of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem has deteriorated rapidly in recent months, and has for some time been in imminent hazard of exploding.
The latest clash may be a spark that ignites much wider tensions between Israel and Palestinians who have become increasingly frustrated over the complete lack of progress in Obama’s peace effort. One Hamas spokesman responded to the latest incident in Haram by calling on all Arabs and Muslims to “urgently act to save the holy Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem from repeated Zionist attempts to desecrate and control it.”
But even if today’s crisis is contained, the grave and continuing threats faced by the Jerusalem Palestinians, most of whom are Muslims, anyway threaten to undercut the western nations’ ability to enroll into their anti-Iran effort the many Muslim neighbors of Iran whose cooperation is essential to the success of any stepped-up sanctions.
I was recently given that warning, in just about exactly those words, by a senior diplomat from a strongly pro-US Arab nation.
“It is Iran’s neighbors who will have to implement most of the sanctions,” this envoy said. “We can’t do this if we are still arguing about Jerusalem.”
… Yesterday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani stated quite clearly he “did not think” sanctions would work. He was also adamant that, “”Iraq will never permit any country to use Iraqi land or sky in any war and any aggression.” (HT: Paul Woodward.)
Iraq has a very lengthy land border with Iran.
And it’s not just Arab countries. Yesterday, too, prime minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, another Muslim country that shares a land border with Iran, urged caution about stepping up the sanctions on Iran. He said that sanctions “won’t bring about anything good for the people (of Iran). So I think we have to be careful.”
Turkey is currently a member if the Security Council and is emerging as a powerful actor throughout the whole Middle East.
Now, it is true that neither Talabani nor Erdogan expressly mentioned the situation in Jerusalem as contributing to their wariness regarding the anti-Iran campaign.
But if the western nations and the pro-US governments in the region want to make a convincing case for tightening the screws further on Iran then– as the Arab envoy I talked to said quite clearly– their ability to do so is significantly weakened so long as the Israeli governmental and non-governmental bodies continue their attacks on the Palestinian community and the Palestinian Muslims’ sacred places in Jerusalem… And so long as the US government does nothing to rein in or punish Israel for those actions, which are highly prejudicial to the chances of the two-state peace to which Obama has said he is committed.
Information about the assaults that Jewish-extremist settler groups are making on the fabric and viability of Palestinian life in Jerusalem is readily available.
Haaretz’s Nir Hasson tells us today that the settler group Ateret Cohanim recently announced in a brochure that it has six properties in the Old City to sell to 22 Jewish families, “which would bring the number of Jews living in the Arab quarters of the walled city to 1,000.”
In line with the town-planning models in many Islamic cities, Jerusalem’s walled Old City has for centuries had separate “quarters”– almost literally laid out as four quarters– designated for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Armenians. Immediately after Israel conquer East Jerusalem in 1967, it evicted all non-Jews from the traditional Jewish quarter of the Old City, replacing them with Jews.
Now, as Hasson makes clear, the next step for the settler extremists– in the Old City as in the newer (though often centuries-old) neighborhoods around it– has been to implant settlers into the heart of very long-established Palestinian Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.
The Israeli organization Ir Amim (“City of the Peoples”) has a lot of information about the situation of East Jerusalem on its website, and on the blog its supporters contribute to Huffington Post.
In one recent post there, Yizhar Be’er noted that the rightwing Jewish group Elad has been undertaking extremely incendiary excavations– under the guise of “archeology”– in extremely sensitive parts of the city including Silwan and the Old City:

    In several places, digs are being run just dozens of meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Handing over the administrative keys to one of the most sensitive and volatile sites in the entire country, and possibly the world, to a political, extremist organization [like Elad] is akin to deciding to hand over the keys of the nuclear base in Dimona to Ahmedinejad and friends.
    … Thousands of Jews identify with the movement to rebuild the Temple. They gather around Succoth in the national convention center and swear to “remove the abomination” (i.e. the holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem and one of the holiest sites of all of Islam) from the premises.

I see that yesterday, Hillary Clinton urged Arab states to “provide political backing for the Palestinians to begin peace talks with Israel even if a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank is not in place.”
She held a meeting in New York yesterday with high-level representatives from the six GCC countries, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told reporters afterwards, “We don’t want to have the perfect be the enemy of the good… We’re not going to wait for the perfect package before we start negotiations.”
Nobody’s asking for perfection! But people everywhere who yearn for a decent and viable end to the Israel-Palestine conflict do want to see a modicum of fairness and even-handedness in the positions adopted by the US, which still aspires to the role of lead mediator of this tragic conflict.
Clinton reportedly told Reuters that the meeting with the nine Arab state reps had been “positive and productive.”
Maybe she hadn’t been listening to Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, when he said in his address to the General Assembly,

    Unfortunately, no real results or notable signs of progress have been achieved in spite of the commendable endeavors of the United States of America (and) the evident personal desire of President Barack Obama and his team to further the peace process…
    If all of this international concern, all this international consensus and all these international endeavors have so far failed to induce Israel to honor the commitments to which it previously bound itself under the Road Map, how can we be optimistic?

Earth to Clinton and Obama: We need to see action to stop the settler-driven destruction of East Jerusalem… and we need to see it now!

Ramadan t.v. offerings, 2009

Another Ramadan, another set of soap operas in the Arab world (along with new seasons of old-established favorites like “Bab al-Hara.”)
From Beirut, the “Land and People” blog’s Zayd gives us a quick critique of this year’s crop of soap operas, that he gathered in that center of Lebanese urban life, the local greengrocer:

    Much discussion is given to the current crop of soap operas; Beit ij-Jidde and Bab al-Harra are watched by most; Nabi Yusuf not by anyone. Many complain about the portrayal of Yusuf by an actor. Imm S. adamantly sticks by her Turkish soaps. When I joke with her that on the Turkish soap operas everyone is always crying, she replies, “ay, bass kwayyess ktiir” [Yes, but that’s very good.]
    The difference between Turkish and Syrian soap operas comes down to food. There is no food in Turkish soap operas; whereas no matter what is going on in a Syrian soap opera–siege of the town by the French; fights in the street; death, mayhem, amshakal–there is always food being bought, sold, prepared, cooked, or eaten. Always. The theory in the mahal [the greengrocer] is this is the real reason everyone in Turkey is crying; they’ve given up their alphabet as well as their food culture…

In supplementary research, I learned that in Lebanon, at least, and perhaps elsewhere,

    The most popular musalsal [Ramadan soap opera] of 2009 is the Syrian-produced “Bab al-Hara.”
    The soap opera, whose name means “The Neighborhood’s Gate,” has seen almost unprecedented success since its debut run in 2006. Set in Damascus during the inter-war period of French colonial occupation, the program depicts the last moments of a society yearning for independence.
    In East Jerusalem, giant screens have been erected for fans and it even has a Syrian restaurant in Nottingham, England named after it. Syrian President Bashar Assad is reported to be a huge fan and the program has – perhaps inevitably in the 21st century – already spawned a video game.
    … There are 157 original series being aired during Ramadan, representing three quarters of the Arab world’s annual televisual output. All this extra programming means Ramadan is now big business for advertisers.

Maan News gives us this account of an amusing episode on a new Palestinian-produced soap-opera called “Homeland on a Thread”:

    Secretary of the PLO Executive Committee Yasser Abed Rabbo made a guest appearance on the satirical Ramadan soap opera … Saturday night.
    The show, which receives increasing local and international acclaim, is critical of both Palestinian society and its governments, tacking myriad issues in each 15-minute episode. Despite its regular criticism of the government, source say the show is supported by Abed Rabbo.
    The official played himself the episode “Obama in Ramallah,” which saw him excuse US President Barack Obama who apologized for being 60 minutes late for a meeting “because of the checkpoints,” an often heard excuse from the tardy.
    Replying to Obama, Abed Rabbo says, “Sir, you are 60 years late in understanding our suffering under these checkpoints.”
    “But [PLO Chief Negotiator] Dr Sa’eb Erekat did not tell us about the suffering of these barriers,” Obama explained.
    Trying to console the US president’s ignorance, Abed Rabbo replied “[Don’t worry] Erekat doesn’t tell us what happens with him in the negotiations.”

Rollicking stuff (especially if you know some of the personalities involved.)
Qatar seems to have produced at least one soap opera with a biting social edge.
In Kuwait, the Ministry of Information felt that at least one soap opera, “Sotik Wasal” [“Your voice carried”; maybe “I already heard you”] had gone too far in its political commentary, and banned it.
The birthplace of the Arabic t.v. soap opera was originally Egypt. But Amira Howeidy tells us that now, the biggest productions there during Ramadan are not soap operas, but talk shows; and numerous talk show hosts have gained sizeable mass followings.
She writes this,

    Al-Qahira Al-Yom ‘s [Amr] Adib… spoke about the role he plays and the price he pays for it. “If it wasn’t for the protection of President Hosni Mubarak I would be in trouble,” he said, alluding to his own political influence and the “enemies” he has made as a result of expressing his views on air. Adib does not shy away from making grand political statements: “This is a country that has been silent for too long and now is the time to speak up,” is typical of his utterances. When Khalifa suggested during the course of the interview that influential presenters “mobilise and toy with the masses” Adib’s response was: “On the contrary, the masses are impacting me.”
    Adib may well come across as an independent, influential voice, but there are critics who take issue with his agenda. Ayman El-Sayyad, editor of the monthly cultural magazine Weghat Nazar, argues that the Adib-Khalifa episode covertly promoted Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal. “The message was clear, all that talk about change and the talk about how the president protected Adib,” El-Sayyad told Al-Ahram Weekly. A segment of the episode, where Adib predicts that Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father, was censored.
    Al-Qahira Al-Yom has aired live 250 days a year for a decade now. Until 2004 — the year the anti- Mubarak dissent movement Kifaya took to the streets triggering a wave of protests across Egypt — it was mainly a celebrity gossip show. Then came the shift, and for a while at least Adib was the only Egyptian discussing political developments as millions watched. Other talk shows… soon followed. Presenters vied for the loyalty of the audiences. Once they succeeded in securing it they enjoyed an influence that, arguably, no politician or official has ever enjoyed.
    In a country where political groups are denied the right to form parties (the government has denied over a dozen requests to form political parties in the last two years), and where political stagnation leaves no room for change, talk shows and their presenters have unwittingly filled the gap.
    Advertising companies were quick to notice the popularity of such shows among viewers…

And finally, Sumayyah Meehan of Muslim Media News struck a more moralistic note about the Ramadan soap operas:

    Before, most Muslims in the Middle East would gather in the nights of Ramadan to worship or to discuss matters related to the deen [religion]. After all, the region is the cradle of Islam and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (s). However, these days many Muslims gather to watch soap operas together, gossip about what happened in the current installment or speculate what will happen in the one to come.
    It is encouraging to note that not all Middle Eastern countries streamline a barrage of juicy soap operas during the Holy Month. In Turkey, the television programming is geared towards Islamic history, living the deen of Islam and Q&A shows where callers can call in to have their questions about Islam answered live on air by a reputable sheikh. Locally produced and aired music channels in Turkey also pull their programming during Ramadan in favor of airing Islamic nasheeds [devotional songs].
    Storytelling is an age-old tradition. However, Ramadan is a golden gift that should be seized by every Muslim that is willing and able to receive the blessings that come with it. Being glued to the TV and rapturously eating up all the human folly portrayed there definitely tarnishes the reality of what Ramadan is all about.

Ramadan Kareem, everyone.

IPS post on Nabucco project and the Middle East

My piece on this is here. Also archived here.
This piece was a quick out-take, if you like, from some of the research I dd for my presentation at the MEPC mini-conference Thursday.
Actually, I had wanted to write for IPS this week either on Hamas or on some of the broad regional implications of the US troop drawdown in Iraq. But my friend Jim Lobe, the editor who decides these things, said he had news stories coming in on both those topics so I should do my analysis on something else.
Ah well, I try to be flexible. (And as longtime JWN readers know, I have a long-lived interest in matters of logistics and their effect on geopolitics.)
More Hamas for them later, I’m sure. Also, more Iraq. I don’t think either of those stories is going to go away any time soon.

Big days ahead for the Middle East…

Tomorrow, Pres. Obama will give his much-awaited address “to the Muslim world” in Cairo. On Sunday, Lebanon holds parliamentary elections– and Iran holds its elections June 12.
I’m in Damascus this week. Officials and non-officials here are very eager for improved relations with the US, and express some concern that despite all his rhetoric of “change”, Obama has so far done precious little to implement that promise.
The WaPo’s Glenn Kessler reported this morning that Sec. of State Clinton spoke with her Syrian counterpart by phone Sunday, and made plans for both Israeli-Arab peace envoy George Mitchell and a US military team to visit Syria later this month.
The military delegation will be discussing coordination in combatting insurgent forces in Iraq. That is something the Syrian government has an interest in. But it has an even stronger interest in not having this be the only level at which relations improve. Having a political delegation visit is seen as even more important here…
However, Obama still has not returned to Damascus the ambassador who was peevishly withdrawn by Bush some years ago. (A high-ranking official in the Bush White House recently told me that the US was in a state of “quasi-war” with Syria in those years. What the heck does that term mean? A state of war is a clear category in international relations, that imposes certain responsibilities on both sides. And often, indeed, even in a state of war, the sides still have ambassadorial-level representation in each other’s capitals… But ‘quasi-war’???)
Obama has also done, or failed to do, a number of other things that could have started to improve relations with Syria.
One of my concerns is that unless he and his people (including Mitchell) pay serious and sustained attention to any issue– including Syria, but including other key issues in the region, too– then the bureaucrats in the State Department will just continue on the same kind of auto-pilot course they became habituated to adopting throughout eight years of GWB– and prior to that, eight years of the also strongly pro-Israel Pres. Clinton.
Remember that throughout those 16 years, any State Department employees who– like Ann Wright and a few brave others– strongly disagreed on grounds of principle with the course US policy was taking in the region resigned their posts. And those not courageous enough to resign who still dared to raise different views within the department rapidly found their careers sidelined.
Turning that great ship of the State Department’s bureaucracy around until it is seamlessly and effectively following the lead of the country’s recently elected new “Captain” will take some sustained attention and energy.
(Another question: Is Hillary Clinton the right person to actually do this inside the department that she heads?)
Anyway, what I’ve been hearing for many weeks now, in Washington DC and elsewhere, is that Washington has been waiting to adopt some kind of a new, more inclusive policy toward Syria after the Lebanese elections.
Okay, that’s next week.
George Mitchell will be in the region next week– he already has plans to visit Israel and Ramallah then.
It would make excellent sense if he also visits Damascus then, for the first time in his role as peace envoy.
He needs to hear the views and concerns of the government here, which has a lot to contribute to the peacemaking venture– especially if, as I strongly hope, Obama and Mitchell are aiming at securing a serious, sustainable, and comprehensive agreement that will end all outstanding portions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
My judgment is that there is now very little likelihood at all that a viable peace agreement can be concluded only on the Palestinian track– which is all that Obama and Co. have talked about, as of yet.
We need to hear him say out loud that a “comprehensive” Arab-Israeli peace is in the US national interest– not just a “Palestinian-Israeli” peace.
… Anyway, I don’t have time to write much here. But regarding the prospects around the Lebanese elections, the best commentary so far is still this piece by the astute Lebanese blogger Qifa Nabki.

IPS piece on linkage between Iran and Israel-Palestine

… is here, also here.
What I didn’t have room to explore there was the whole idea of positive linkage: that is, the idea that if the US can regularize its relationship with Iran to any significant degree then that might have considerable good effects on the Palestinian-Israeli, Syrian-Israeli, and Lebanon-Israeli peacemaking. It is not a trivial concept.

Transit systems, Turkey

I’m writing– and also, crucially, posting– this while traveling on a Nilufer long-distance bus from Istanbul to Bursa. We were promised wireless on the bus; and yes, here it is. The uniformed attendant just came along the aisle. In addition to giving me the wireless password he was doling out tea, cake, and freshen-up towelettes to all passengers.
Definitely superior service!
Superior by far to dear, grungy old Greyhound, back home in the US. Superior, too, to the service on US domestic airlines (grudging ‘service’, no wi-fi, minimal or no snacks.)
Nilufer seems to be a Bursa-based private company. The friend who booked our tickets told us the bus will at some point board a ferry to take us some of the way across, rather than round, the Black Sea. The company may or may not be one of the many that have been successfully run by piously Islamic families here over the course of several decades. At the company’s terminal in Istanbul, there was a small room designated as “Mascid”.
From what we saw during six days in Istanbul, the city’s own municipal transit systems are fabulous. Earlier this week we took the city tram (sleek, clean, very frequent) from near to our hotel down to the Eminonu stop on the southern bank of the Golden Horn, then took a ferry across to Uskudar on the other (Asian) side of the Bosphorus.
The ferry network that still forms the main arteries of the city’s circulation system is amazing! At any one time, scores of rather large ferries, for both passengers and cars, are at work either determinedly stitching their criss-crossing paths across the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, or very efficiently loading and unloading their passengers at one of the city’s numerous well-run ferry terminals. I didn’t see a single hitch in the in the system: no mechanical breakdowns, no accidents, no glitches…
(While I’ve been writing the bus attendant has come around again twice: once with sealed plastic containers of drinking water, once to pick up our trash. He also brought a hygienically wrapped blanket to the woman across the aisle from us.)
Yesterday we took part in a small conference in the amazing Sabanci Towers complex in an area called 4-Levent. We took the tram from the hotel to the end of the line in Kabatas; then the “Funiculer” that runs up to Taksim; then the metro from there to 4-Levent. The interchanges were pleasant and well-marked. The vehicles frequent, clean, and well-maintained. Each part of the trip cost about $1 (US)– probably a lot for most city residents, but cheap and efficient for us.
I mention all this not only because I’m a real mass transit junkie, but also because the state of the city’s transit systems– along with the well-planned, well-kept, and clean state of the streets, parks, historic buildings, and other public facilities is a real testament to the effectiveness of Turkey’s moderately Islamist AKP ruling party.
Before current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his colleagues in the AKP won their first national election in 2002, he had made his name as a very successful mayor of Istanbul. I believe the party still dominates city politics, though I am not sure. Anyway, the kinds of policies that make this city of around 12 million people such a pleasant and well-run place today must have been put in place a number of years ago.
Erdogan, his party, and his intriguing new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu– who previously worked as a special adviser to the PM on foreign affairs– all deserve a lot more consideration. But just for now, the legacy the party has given to the amazing city of Istanbul is certainly worth noting.
I’ve been reading Orhan Pamuk’s book of memoirs about his childhood in the city, growing up there in the 1950s. He makes a big deal about the “huzun” (melancholy) with which he judged the city to be extremely deeply imbued at the time.
Pamuk attributed that huzun to a sense of post-imperial loss and shame. Interesting. If I have the time I’d love to compare that with my sense– as someone who was also, like Pamuk, born in 1952– of growing up in an empire that was actively disintegrating even as I was racking up the inches of childhood growth.
But today, Istanbul has very little discernible air of huzun at all. It seems optimistic, self-confident, clean, purposeful– and also, extremely pleasant.

Big political moves in the Mideast this week

Netanyahu is expected to name his new cabinet tomorrow. That announcement should include the publishing of the ruling coalition’s formal policy platform.
Netanyahu possibly previewed the foreign-policy aspects of it with this speech today.
Guess what. He says he’s pro- “peace.”
Meantime, the Arab League summit has already convened in Doha, Qatar. So far, Pres. Bashir of Sudan has turned up and been treated with all normal respect, confounding Darfur-rights activists who hoped his recent (and imho extremely foolish) indictment by the ICC would lead to his diplomatic isolation… Pres. Asad of Syria has opened the proceedings. And Pres. Qadhafi of Libya has thrown a hissy fit.
All in all, though, it looks as though the Arab rulers– except for Egypt’s Mubarak, who has his own huge problems these days– are quite happy to defy the attempts of many westerners to split them up into two sharply defined “you’re with us or against us” boxes on the question of Iran, and to mobilize the “with us” crowd into a strong coalition against Iran.
So, I think I’ll have plenty to write about by the time my IPS deadline rolls around Friday.

“National Security Mom” – Gina Bennett

For too long, Americans have been intimidated by TV “experts” who tell them why being “tough” is the only way to defeat terrorism. Gina M. Bennett begs to differ in a splendid little book, entitled National Security Mom: Why “Going Soft” Will Make America Strong.
With Professor Richard Kohn’s forward, I agree that “this is a book every citizen should read, and every government official ponder….” If only.
The deceptively simple premise of the book is that “everything I ever needed to know about securing our nation I learned as a child and practiced in parenting my own children.” The companion educational poster for the book is quite accessible even to elementary children.
Yet this is not mere lipstick from a pit-bull “hockey mom.” To the contrary, Gina Bennett doubles as a multi-tasking mother of five children and a distinguished government analyst of terrorism. As far back as 1993, Bennett was presciently warning of a growing threat from Osama Bin Laden.
More recently, she was the principal author of the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the U.S.” The boldness of that report is matched by the delightful wisdom found in this slender volume.
I also am happy to note that Gina Bennett is a University of Virginia graduate, and we share the same mentor, in R.K. Ramazani, who helped instill in both of us a devotion to the principles of the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson and the Professor will both be impressed.
So too is Oprah. Gina was recently featured as a model “superwoman” on the Oprah Winfrey show, a much deserved accolade.
Bennett writes first to fellow parents, offering hope, encouragement, and courage to believe that the key to national security is within them. She finds much national security wisdom in the guidance good parents give to their children, such as:

“clean up your own mess,” (e.g. Iraq)
“tell the truth,” (no, really!)
“actions speak louder than words,” (think Abu Ghuyraib, Guantanmo, torture, renditions, etc.)
“don’t give in to a bully,” (To defeat him, ignore him)
“choose your friends wisely,” (you’ll be judged by their actions… “Think for yourself.”)
“learn from your mistakes,” (e.g., surrendering our own values)
“think before you speak.” (or don’t speak at all…. )

Bennett encourages us “to think about our nation’s security in very different terms from the way it is typically depicted,” by de-mystifying the issues in a jargon-free manner.

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