Sunday, June 28, 2009

My enemy's enemy is still my enemy.

My enemy's enemy is still my enemy

Just because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thumbs his nose at the US doesn't mean leftists should support his brutal regime

o Ian Williams
o, Thursday 25 June 2009

Allegedly, there are no agnostics in foxholes. Certainly there are few on Fox News, but there are almost as few in the remnants of the hard left. They are all imbued with deep certainty when they take a position, especially on far away countries of which they know little.

In fact, the extremes of both left and right see the world as a spherical Rorschach test, an inkblot in which they can see their primeval hates and desires. It is amazing how symmetrical their views can be.

The Iranian Guardian Council that whittled down the original 400 presidential candidates to four, presumably saw Mir Hossein Mousavi as entirely reliable on nuclear issues, Israel and general disdain for the Great Satan. However here in the US, the right sees him as a potential quisling for the west, and the left see him as a CIA agent.

Despite those shared premises the alternative universes of hard left and right then begin to diverge, since the neocons call for intervention while the left that traditionally approves of anti-imperialist kleptocrats and autocrats thinks intervention is already taking place.

In fact, there is a lot of room for scepticism and agnosticism, not least when you triangulate between those who just "knew" that the replacement of Saddam Hussein would lead to a pro-western Iraq with friendly relations with Israel, and those who admired the murderous Iraqi tyrant's courage, strength and indefatigability.

Ironically, exactly those latter qualities were of course exercised against Iran and their current idol, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with warm applause from Britain and the US.

In reality, it is almost an OJ Simpson moment in Iran. Just as the Los Angeles Police Department framed a guilty man, it is entirely possible that the populist Ahmadinejad stole an election he might have won. I know the prevailing reaction in the US is "But who would vote for such a schmuck?" Well the country that twice elected George Bush might not the best platform from which to launch such a question.

Indeed, if more Iranians had read the Wall Street Journal and saw John Bolton's editorial urging Israel once again to attack Iran just before the election, it could have caused almost as much of a landslide for Ahmadinejad as if Obama followed neocon advice to endorse Mousavi.

And as for the demonstrators, well, if you see a guy in black mask and a big bag skulking away from your house, you can be forgiven for shouting: "Stop thief." When the Guardian Council declares that "Statistics provided by the candidates, who claim more than 100% of those eligible have cast their ballot in 80 to 170 cities are not accurate – the incident has happened in only 50 cities," there is indeed room for suspicion about the results.

Certainly the response of the regime had all the hallmarks of a heist. From the immediate clampdown on electronic communications of all kinds, the assaults on the opposition by the police, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij are not the actions of a group confident in their legitimacy and victory.

Regardless of the actual result, shooting down unarmed demonstrators, charging their bereaved families $3,000 "bullet fees" and arresting the opposition is not going to get my support. More to the point, one hopes that the Iranian electorate, even if they had voted for Ahmadinejad, will question the legitimacy of a regime that uses such tactics, no matter how or whether elected.

While I remain agnostic about the numbers, I was sure about one thing, and pretty much proven right. On the hard left, the ghosts of the Comintern and heirs of WH Auden's necessary murderers reflexively and with few if any qualifications support Ahmadinejad, just as they did Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic's bloody trail across the Balkans, or Hugo Chávez's thuggish tactics against any centres of alternative power, or indeed Fidel Castro's robust ways with dissidents. To be bathed in the blood of the Leninist lamb, all a thuggish kleptocrat has to do is to oppose Uncle Sam.

It is unfairly alleged that there is a Middle Eastern aphorism about my enemy's enemy being my friend. It is in fact the hard left's modern position, made all the worse, because we never hear that agnostic qualifier "but" – as in "He opposes US imperialism, but he has reduced his people to poverty, locked up the opposition, tortured and shot dissidents and censored the media."

Luckily most people are less ideological and accept that if we condemn Bush for violating human rights, the same criticism applies to Milosevic, the butcher of Srebrenica; Chávez, the dissolver of opposition local governments; Castro, the imprisoner of independent journalists; or now the theocrats who shoot down demonstrators on the streets.

We did not think that winning elections gave Bush the right to repress all opposition, and anyone who thinks that Ahmadinejad's dubious triumph gives him a license for brutality is guilty of, to put it mildly, moral inconsistency.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Deadlining for Netanyahu

President Obama Pushes Israel to Halt Settlements While Israeli Leaders Push Back
By Judith Latham
26 June 2009
Voice of America

Israeli Prime Minister Benhamin Netanyahu, left, meets with US President Barack Obama at White House, 19 May 2009 (Israeli Govt handout photo)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama at the White House, 19 May 2009
For years progress toward a two-state solution in the Middle East has been hung up on so-called “final status issues.” Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to agree on borders, Jerusalem, settlements, or refugee return. But U.S. President Barack Obama has recently reframed the struggle for an eventual peace agreement around the issue of halting Israeli settlements on land occupied after the June War of 1967.

An Arab Perspective

Arab journalist Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Center, says a close examination of the history of Israel reveals that it was not right-wing Israeli leaders or the Likud Party that established settlement policy in the occupied territories.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA’s International Press Club, Bilbassy says it was the policy of left-wing governments as well because Israelis believed that, if they continued to annex parts of a future Palestinian state, it would prevent the formation of a viable state.

Palestinian farmer Aisha Jaber, 47, wails in front of her olive grove which was cut by Israeli settlers as Israeli security men stand close to her, 11 June 2006
A Palestinian farmer grieves in her olive grove, which was cut down by Israeli settlers, as Israeli security men stand close by
But, as Palestinians and other Arabs view the current situation, Bilbassy argues, the distinction between so-called “legal” – and “illegal” – settlements is an artificial one. According to Bilbassy, the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “defies logic because every settlement activity is illegal under international law, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and in some cases even under Israeli law.”

Nadia Bilbassy says there are about 450,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That includes the major settlements of Maale Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Gilo. Bilbassy asks, “What are you going to do about these settlers?” She suggests that the emergence of a Palestinian state may need to take a part of these four major settlements into consideration. “There is no illusion that Israel under any kind of peace deal will evict half-a-million people and move them somewhere else entirely,” she adds.

In negotiations, Bilbassy says, neither side – the Palestinians nor the Israelis – can realistically be expected to start with their final position. She says, “There is no way that five million Palestinian refugees can return.” Nonetheless, she poses the question faced by the negotiators, “If you give up their rights, then how will you end up at the end?” Bilbassy notes that even the Arab Peace Plan clearly states that, for the Arab world to have peace and normalized relations with Israel, Israel will have to withdraw to the 1967 borders, which implies evicting all settlers in the West Bank. She suggests it is not going to happen because neither the Arabs nor the Israelis, and neither the Americans nor the Europeans really expect Israel to remove all the settlers.

Nadia Bilbassy says most Arabs believe that, if the Obama administration is unable to move the peace process forward, nobody can. She says, “This is the last realistic chance for peace.” Bilbassy notes that President Obama took a strong stand on halting settlements, but he did not say that all settlers have to be evicted. “The bottom line is that we’re talking about a viable Palestinian state.”

An Israeli Perspective

Israeli police scuffle with young women supporting the Jewish settler movement during the evacuation of a disputed house in the West Bank city of Hebron, Thursday, 04 Dec 2008
Israeli police scuffle with young women supporting the Jewish settler movement during the evacuation of a disputed house in the West Bank city of Hebron
But Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward, says although the Netanyahu government has taken a strong position on the expansion of settlements in the West Bank – namely, that provision needs to made for the “natural growth” of Israeli-government approved settlements - the Israeli media reflect more closely what most Israelis think.

According to Guttman, there are two separate issues. One of them is the settlements, and the other is American pressure on Israel to decrease settlement activity. He says, “There is a consensus, which is reflected in the Israeli press, that there needs to be a stop to settlement activity and that eventually Israel is going toward a two-state solution.” That means outposts and settlements way deep the Palestinian territories will not be able to remain.

Nathan Guttman says, “There is also a consensus there needs to be a solution that includes large Jewish settlement blocs as part of the state of Israel with some kind of land swap.” However, when it comes to the question of pressuring Israel, that’s where there is a split in the Israeli public. “People who support the Netanyahu government – even those who agree that there should be a two-state solution – would not like to see it as the result of external pressure, Guttman explains.

A British Perspective

British journalist Ian Williams, who reports from the United Nations in New York, says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has told a succession of visiting Israeli ministers over the past few weeks that all settlements are illegal under international law. That was also the view the U.S. State Department held when the settlement program began, Williams says.

“The signatories to the Geneva Convention agreed that the occupied territories were occupied in violation of the Geneva Convention,” Ian Williams adds. However, the White House has changed its view on settlements over the years, he notes. “The settlements moved from being illegal to being an obstacle to peace to being unhelpful,” Williams observes.

According to Ian Williams, President Netanyahu is not citing the United Nations, but previous Israeli understandings with Washington. “As part of the Oslo accords, there was an agreement there should be no attempt to alter facts on the ground,” Williams says. Nonetheless, since Oslo, the number of settlers has doubled, he notes.

Furthermore, the Israelis agreed under the terms of the so-called “road map” there would be no expansion of existing settlements. “But what happened during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations was that this Israeli government commitment was winked at,” Williams says, “and the United States agreed not to make any fuss about it.”

According to Ian Williams, settlements represent a key issue for the Obama administration, and in fact the President’s credibility hangs on it. “Behind him he has international law, but most effective in dealing with domestic pressure inside the United States, he also has the Israeli government’s own commitment that they will not expand settlements as part of the road map,” Williams notes.

British journalist Ian Williams says that, because Israel and the Middle East represent such a “hot-button issue,” the Obama administration needs to move very carefully. “By holding Israel to its own commitments,” he adds, “it weakens the position of domestic opponents in Congress.”

Current Dilemma

However, this week, reports said the Israeli government had authorized the construction of 300 homes at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, defying U.S. calls for a halt to settlement growth. Officials said 60 houses in the Talmon settlement have already been built, but they denied that approval was given for the other 240 houses.

A meeting between Prime Minister Netanayu and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, originally scheduled to take in Paris on Thursday was postponed, but Mr. Mitchell will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak next week in Washington. Israeli officials have denied media reports that the original meeting was called off because of a disagreement over Israeli settlement activity.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Uyghurs - cowardice confronts PRC chauvinism

Resettling Uyghurs no easy task
By Ian Williams

Asia Times June 17

The plight of the Uyghurs has had more publicity than ever before because of the United States Congress's reticence and Beijing's bluster. The 22 prisoners have served their people well, if unwillingly and unwittingly, although resettling these victims of Guantanamo has not brought out the best in people or countries elsewhere.

Almost forgotten in the recent acceptance of some of them by Bermuda and Palau is Albania stepping up to the plate to take five of them four years ago. Albania, the only Muslim-majority United Nations member in Europe, was doubtless sentimentally inclined to accept their co-religionists from the other end of the Turkic sphere of influence, but one rather suspects that the George W Bush administration offered cash and or big diplomatic favors in

return. Under Enver Hoxha, Albania had cocked a snook at China when it was its only friend in the world. It could well afford to risk the displeasure that Beijing is displaying so prominently.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the UN Security Council was setting up its anti-terrorism committee, China's ambassador kept trying to add "and secessionist activities", to its remit. The other members were politely overlooking him until he persisted and demanded to know why he was being ignored and the British ambassador, looking over his shoulder at Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties back home, told him firmly, "Because secessionist activities are not against international law, or the domestic law of many members."

Certainly nothing could have provoked Uyghur secessionist sentiment more than Beijing's chauvinistic policies there, insouciantly swamping the allegedly autonomous region with Hans and marginalizing the Turkic Uyghurs. Even their close brethren in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not going to risk relations with China over their treatment, although many ordinary citizens are unhappy about it.

China has been demanding their repatriation, not least since they cannot tell the difference between secessionism and terrorism. Perhaps the only way the US comes out of this with a modicum of respectability is that, after kidnapping and incarcerating these Uyghur refugees, it has refused to hand them over to Beijing. Otherwise, it is shameful on grounds of equity and humanity that the US has not offered asylum to its victims, who have been cleared of any crime. In its traditional invertebrate mode, Congress, having done nothing to stop their illegal incarceration, now refuses to allow President Barack Obama to resettle them in the US.

That marginally excuses all the other nations who have refused to accept them. After all, how do you explain to your own voters that these people are harmless victims if the last country to victimize them won't allow them in?

Ironically, both countries that had the courage of their humanitarian convictions and a weather eye to as yet unspecified profit, Palau and Bermuda, are studies in how far autonomy will go.

Bermuda is still technically a British territory and London is responsible for its security and foreign policy. The island government, for unspecified returns but almost certainly more substantial than mere gratitude, is treating this as an immigration issue, although London wants to talk. It is likely that British umbrage is more with Washington's insouciance to its titular sovereignty over Bermuda than with the island government.

However, if New Labour wanted to abase itself to China by making a constitutional issue of it, it would meet outrage at home. While there may not be much enthusiasm for taking in Washington's dirty laundry, the civil rights issues would emerge noisily. In Bermuda, heavy-handed interference from London could strengthen the independence movement and possibly provoke prompt recognition of Taiwan.

Palau battled Washington for decades about the American insistence that it remove its nuclear-free clauses from its constitution before the US would accept the Compact of Free Association that eventually allowed its membership of the United Nations. By that compact, the US is totally in charge of the archipelago's defense, and effectively pays its budget. Indeed, in the Trusteeship Council at the time, yet another British diplomat mused on the record about whether Palau and its sister former UN Strategic Trust territories met traditional definitions of sovereignty. Ever-obliging Palau was one of the first of the "willing" to join the coalition of the same, although no outrigger canoes were seen paddling up the Gulf as a result. It also helps that Palau recognizes Taiwan, so Beijing's pressure would be even more ineffectual.

Indeed, one wonders why Taiwan did not step up to the plate, but then the Kuomintang has only recently accepted Mongolian sovereignty, let alone Xinjiang's. It would have been interesting if the Democratic Progressive Party, itself a secessionist organization, were still in power.

More Bucks. More Bangs

More bucks, more bangs

America's runaway military spending is threatening its economic security and failing to make the country safer

Ian Williams

o, Friday 12 June 2009 17.00 BST

Osama bin Laden must be crowing in his cave. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released its latest figures last week showing that the US spent $607bn on the military in 2008 – almost as much as the rest of the world put together. And even that figure might be an understatement, according to some analysts. Indeed, the White House itself puts spending on "national defence" at over $675bn for this year.

Within weeks of the gruesomely low tech 9/11 massacres, the Bush administration rushed, successfully, to get every defence contractor's boondoggle through the budget in the same way they railroaded the Patriot Act through unread. It was treachery to quibble.

This may be al-Qaida's biggest triumph. By feeding congressional paranoia and arming the US defence industries' lobbyists, Bin Laden has been helping to bring about the economic collapse of the US, the bankruptcy of the federal government and the eventual loss of the dollar's position as the world's reserve currency. Not to mention maintaining a steady supply of weaponry for the Taliban to replace all those Stingers we used to send them.

It has certainly caused more economic damage than the destruction of the World Trade Center, and may, if you totalled up the cost of the misdirected resources away from health, education and other discretionary items, have led to more loss of life.

Somehow, when members of Congress call for tightening belts and complain about runaway federal spending, it is always about the Social Security or Medicare "entitlements" of people who have worked all their lives, rather than the entitlement of aerospace contractors to slurp at the federal trough, foisting off unsuitable and frequently unworkable military systems on Pentagon officers who look forward to post-retirement careers with their vendors.

In general, honest representatives and senators risk forfeiting defence industry campaign money, and even worse, having that money going to opponents who habitually challenge the patriotism of anyone who questions a military project, no matter how palpably useless. And then there is the indirect pressure of local employment in the industries. Of course, this too has its economic effects. While Toyota was making the Land Cruiser, the US was making the Hummer – the most vulnerable military vehicle in world.

A prime example of how the defence budget blows back is the B1 long-range bomber, which the US is using against villages in Afghanistan despite the protests of the government in Kabul. Designed as strategic nuclear bombers and of questionable use even on the drawing board, 10 years ago when they were bought, they cost $283m each.

Reportedly, to back up the lobbying efforts to keep their programme in the air, the Jack D Rippers of the US air force spread the procurement around as many congressional districts as they could to get more leverage in the representatives. The planes' main military effect when used in the totally inappropriate way for anti-insurgency operations seems to be enhancing support for the Taliban and cutting the feet from under our ally, Karzai.

But there are also more direct reasons for bin Laden to applaud the US defence budget. There is so much equipment knocking around, we could be arming enterprising terrorists worldwide the same way we inadvertently provide small arms for Mexican narco-gangs. As Gregory Kutz of the Government Accountability Office told a congressional panel:

"The lack of legal restrictions over domestic sales of these items, combined with the difficulties associated with inspecting packages and individuals leaving the United States, results in a weak control environment that does not effectively prevent terrorists and agents of foreign governments from obtaining these sensitive items."

Obama has threatened to look carefully at the defence budget. But the resistance to his attempts to pare back the biggest boondoggle of all, the Star Wars missile defence system that has cost over $100bn so far, shows the difficulties he faces. So far, the money has produced the equivalent of a system that can hit a flounder nailed to the bottom of a barrel – if it is covered in luminous paint. But he will face opposition from Democrats as well as the likes of Sarah Palin.

Of course, there are some brave souls, like congressman Barney Frank, prepared to risk accusations of treachery by calling for taking a battleaxe to the sacred cow of the Pentagon budget. With the courage one would expect from the first American politician to come out of the closet, he is also one of the few prepared to come out of the bunker. As he said, it should be easy to persuade Americans "that their well-being is far more endangered by a proposal for substantial reductions in Medicare, Social Security or other important domestic areas than it would be by cancelling weapons systems that have no justification from any threat we are likely to face."

We need more representatives like him to stop playing into Bin Laden's hands. Cut all that pork from the Pentagon budget, and there might be enough left to pay the troops better as well as to fund healthcare.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Width and quality of Barack Obama’s peace commitments

Ian Williams: Tribune
June 8, 2009 12:00

Reversing Bill Clinton’s election dictum, Barack Obama shows an admirable attention span. “It’s not just the economy, stupid.” No one can accuse him of neglecting the economy, but one of the lessons being reinforced is that he needs to pull the political process with him. This is particularly important when the Democratic Party in Congress has a vociferous and disloyal group of rightists who will vote with the Republicans at the drop of a hat in the name of moderation.

That is one of the explanations for Obama’s incremental strategy on the Middle East. Faced with the most obtuse and self-centred set of Israeli leaders, he has to cover his rear carefully and so far the Likud-led coalition of zealots is playing into his hands.

Readers of a certain age may remember David Kossof on television playing a Jewish tailor whose watchword was “Never mind the quality – feel the width.” He seems to have written the script for recent Israeli diplomacy, which has been predicated on talking to politicians who truly and sincerely want the wool pulled over their eyes.

Things have changed. Binyamin Netanyahu came to see Obama and wanted a quick deadline for an attack on Iran. Despite his crowing, he got a promise of open-ended negotiations with Tehran and a warning that the Americans thought that settlement building was a more urgent problem. He and Ehud Barak came to the United States and talked fiercely about how they were going to close a few dozen “illegal outposts” by hook or by crook in the hope that the continuing settlement building would go unremarked.

Obama and his inner circle, well aware that some of these “illegal” outposts had been “closed” repeatedly and that in any case were provided with water, roads, electricity and security by the various government departments, were less impressed. They all sang from the same hymn sheet: no building in the Occupied Territories.

It is a measure of how much Israeli governments have got away with that this one is indignant about US “diktats”, when one of the Israeli commitments in the famous road map is a halt to settlement building.

Netanyahu and his government wanted to talk about alleged Palestinian failures to follow road map commitments. Obama’s officials keep reminding them that the US supports the two-state solution. Netanyahu and most of his cabinet have consistently opposed a Palestinian state, which somewhat devalues their complaints about Palestinian reluctance to admit it was a good thing they were thrown out of their homes. Obama even had the chutzpah to remind Israel of its repeated promises to open the gates to Gaza.

Equally, on the quality versus width dimension, Israeli complaints about the potential for Iran to become a nuclear power are disingenuous. Iran does not have nuclear weapons while Israel has several hundred of them and refuses to sign the NPT. Imagine the shock when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – of all people – suggested that they should sign up.
In all of this, Israeli indignation is necessarily forced and strained. All they are being asked to do is to abide by their own promises, let alone by international law.

Obama’s cautious and non-confrontational strategy of attrition is also paying off domestically. Netanyahu spoke to the AIPAC conference, but the Israel lobby’s traditional posture went into reverse. In times past, its guiding principle was to follow whatever policy the Israeli government wanted. Now the lobby endorsed the two-state solution that the Israeli Prime Minister abhors and, after many years of swinging rightwards, thinks a liberal Democrat Congress and White House may be a good excuse for a change of tack.

One factor in this may be that there is now an alternative Israel lobby. J-Street, only recently founded, has made great inroads. Despite the lack of funding from conservative Zionists and Christian evangelists, it actually represents the much more nuanced, progressive and peace-tending views of most American Jews, whose support for Obama among ethnic groups is only matched by Arabs and blacks.

Administration sources are even suggesting it may be possible that, the next time the United Nations Security Council considers Israeli behaviour, Netanyahu will lose the protection of the automatic American veto that Israel has enjoyed for four presidential terms.

Such a course of action would send a message to the Israeli electorate that there are serious consequences to having a racist government. With a few exceptions, Israelis know their country’s existence, and their living standards have depended on American financial and military support.

With bills in the Knesset from cabinet members threatening to disenfranchise non-Jews, Netanyahu’s guaranteed combative statements, Congressional support for Likud will fade.
And the economic crisis even offers opportunity. If Obama, more in sorrow than in anger, is forced to threaten cuts in US aid to Israel, he simply has to ask embattled voters whether they really want to send taxpayers’ money to an ungrateful nation that refuses to live up to its commitments and flies in the face of accepted US and international policies. Never mind the quantity, just watch the width of the gap.

Friday, June 05, 2009

40 years on

Ian pundits on VOA

The U.S.-Muslim Divide: Little Change in 40 Years Since Six-Day War
By Judith Latham

05 June 2009

[insert caption here]
The Six-Day War of June 5-10, 1967 was a war between the Israeli army and the armies of the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria
The Six-Day War had many antecedents, but it was sparked by an order from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelling the U.N. Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula, where it had been stationed since a British, French, and Israeli invasion ten years earlier. After the U.N. peacekeepers withdrew, Egypt amassed its tanks and soldiers on the Israeli border and closed the Straits of Tiran to all ships flying Israeli flags.

Israeli responded with a similar mobilization and on June 5th launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt’s Air Force. The strike brought Jordan and Syria into the conflict on Egypt’s side, and they were joined by troops and arms from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. By the war’s end, Israel had won a decisive victory, gaining control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The conflict helped to create a geo-political reality that has existed ever since.

A Western Perspective

Misconceptions and foolhardy actions invited the conflict, according to British journalist Ian Williams. “The 1967 war cemented the idea of Israel as the David facing the Goliath of the Arab world,” said Williams, who now reports from the United Nations. His comments were heard on VOA’s International Press Club with host Judith Latham. “Israeli historians now admit there was no real threat from the Egyptians who were in no position to mount an attack,” Williams adds. “The bluster and bravado of Egyptian President Nasser gave the Israelis an opportunity for a preemptive strike.”

Williams remembers an Egyptian general he interviewed in Cairo. The general recounted his experience of being in charge of a post near the Suez Canal. “I was sitting in my office listening to radio reports about our great victory when I saw all these people running towards us,” the general told Williams. “When we went out to meet them, they were our victorious soldiers running like hell from the battle front.”

Williams questions President Nasser judgment that U.N. forces be removed from the ceasefire line between Sinai and Gaza and Israel. “Nasser had every right to do so, but it was a very stupid thing to do because it meant there was not the slightest impediment to the Israeli attack,” he says. “Once Israeli forces took out the Egyptian Air Force on the ground,” he said, “there was never any real opportunity for Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and their Arab allies to recover from Israel’s presumptive strike.”

An Israeli Perspective

To this day Arabs and many Muslim communities around the world view the consequences of the Six-Day War as catastrophic. But according to Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward, most Israelis view the event with less emotion. “They were born into a Greater Israel,” Guttman observes. For many, he says, the war seems to be a matter of “fact.” Guttman says the Israeli public is more concerned with how to solve the current dilemma than with what led up to it.

The construction site of Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim in the West Bank, near Jerusalem, 28 May 2009
The construction site of Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim in the West Bank, near Jerusalem, 28 May 2009
One policy that developed after the war – and one that increasingly divides all sides – is Israel’s settlement activity in the occupied territories. At least 250,000 Jews live in settlement blocs and smaller outposts built on land captured by Israel in the 1967 war. More than 50 outposts have been erected since March 2001 and more than 100 are currently in existence. Much of the international community – including the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice – view the settlements as illegal.

President Barack Obama delivers much-anticipated message to Muslim world from auditorium at Cairo University campus, 04 Jun 2009
President Obama, in his address at Cairo University, implored Americans and Muslims to abandon their mutual suspicions and do more to confront violent extremism, 04 June 2009
President Obama has made it clear he wants settlement activity to stop. He’s not the first American president to make that demand. George W. Bush won a pledge from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to dismantle the illegal outposts in 2003. But that promise has never materialized. Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, will only hint at the possibility of a compromise on the issue – but only on the subject of new settlement activity. He insists those settlements established in the aftermath of the Six-Day War should have the right to exist and grow.

As Nathan Guttman points out, “When we talk about illegal outposts, we should remember that previous Israeli governments agreed to remove them because they are illegal under Israeli law.” That is, he explains, they were put up without any building permits.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s actions need to be viewed in terms of the political climate. “When he assumed power about two months ago,” says Guttman, “Israeli leaders from both Labor and Kadima camps accepted the idea of a two-state solution.” “However, Mr. Netanyahu’s position is more complicated,” he says. “It needs to be seen against the backdrop of a very difficult right-wing coalition he is trying to manage."

A Palestinian Perspective

For the Palestinians, Israel’s occupation of the territories won in the Six-Day War is a complete disaster, according to Arab journalist Nadia Bilbassy of the Middle East Broadcasting Center. “It wasn’t just the displacement of the Palestinian people from 1948 onward but also losing new territory – the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Sinai,” says Bilbassy. “People became refugees for a second time.”

The creation of a Palestinian state would go a long way to easing those memories. It’s something President Obama lobbied Prime Minister Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visited Washington in May. And statehood, as he re-emphasized on Thursday in Cairo, is not only in America’s national interest but also in Israel’s long-term national interest as well.

“Mr. Obama’s support for Palestinian statehood necessarily requires an end to settlement-building,” says Nadia Bilbassy. She calls progress on the settlements issue the “easy part of a final status solution.” Much more difficult, she says, will be the issues of Jerusalem, refugee return, water rights, security, and cooperation between Fatah and Hamas.

The Challenge Ahead

Some Middle East analysts suggest that eventually the solution proposed by Saudi King Abdullah will serve as a basis for resolving the current impasse. “That would mean the 1967 boundaries would become international boundaries with room for swapping land here and there,” says British journalist Ian Williams.

Although Prime Minister Netanyahu currently refuses to discuss such a solution, there is a precedent. Ian Williams and Nadia Bilbassy point out it was a Likud prime minister who agreed to give up Sinai in return for peace with Egypt 30 years ago.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Libya's UN circus

The choice of Libya to provide the next president of the general assembly does little for the reputation of the United Nations

o Ian Williams
o, Tuesday 2 June 2009 21.00 BST

In international affairs, Libya's Colonel Gaddafi makes Don Quixote seem like a Machiavellian intriguer, so at first sight, the almost certain impending "election" of Libya to provide the president of the UN general assembly for 2009-10 could be the occasion for some wry humour. In fact, it is a bad thing.

According to protocol, the president of the GA counts as a head of state, while the humble scribe who is the secretary general only ranks with foreign ministers. Officially, the Libyan nominee for the position is Ali Triki, an engaging former envoy to the UN. But there have been precedents for capitals supplanting their nominee before, as in the early 90s when the Maltese ambassador had it in the bag only to be bounced in a memorable double cross by his foreign minister, who then spent his term flying round the world getting 21-gun salutes in all the member states. It does raise the intriguing possibility of Muammar Gaddafi pitching his tent on the UN lawn and bringing his corps of Amazonian bodyguards so that he can take advantage of one of the world's most prominent pulpits – the podium of the general assembly.

Of course, since SG's tend to hang around while the presidency changes every year, there is no doubt who pulls the strings. Some previous presidents, such as the former Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan, were bluntly instructed to do as they were told by the secretariat. It may have been counterproductive to tell that to a stubborn former dissident such as Kavan, but it usually works, although the current occupant, Nicaraguan Miguel D'Escoto, has bucked the trend with forthright statements on the Middle East that contrasted sharply with the more anodyne line from the secretariat.

Most envoys want the job for the five minutes of glory, and go to great lengths to get the position, which rotates around the regional groups. This year it is the Africans' turn and they have decided to nominate Libya. It is possible that there was some vigorous canvassing. Certainly when Saudi Arabia won a contested election some years ago, many of the hands that were raised in its favour seemed to have gold Rolexes discernible on the wrists. It is exactly this type of value-blind "voting" that bedevils both the security council's temporary membership elections and the human rights council.

Interestingly, since Gaddafi paid blood money for Lockerbie, helped shop the IRA, renounced nuclear weapons, quietened down about Israel, and opened up the oil wells even more to western involvement, Washington and London seem to have overcome the visceral horror that once had them fighting to keep Libya off the security council. It is arguable that Libya got a raw deal over the Lockerbie bombing, albeit not as raw as its citizen Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrah who is dying of cancer in a Scottish prison while his appeal against a 27-year sentence is heard. The case against him and Libya was circumstantial and politically motivated.

London and Washington may have been attacking Libya for the wrong reasons in the past – but there were plenty of substantial reasons for holding the regime up for scrutiny and despite its more accommodating foreign policy, little has changed inside the country. Admittedly, the position of women in the colonel's idiosyncratic version of Islam is much better than staunch western ally Saudi Arabia, but there are serious grounds to question whether Libya should get a free ride into such a position in an organisation pledged to global human rights.

For a start, there is the democracy thing. Dissident Fathi al-Jahmi has just died after years of imprisonment for trying to put truth in the rumours about Libyan democracy. There are many more who have disappeared without trace into the regime's prisons, although there were substantial reports that 1,200 of them were killed in one incident in a prison. And of course the standard pseudo-left apology for dictatorial regimes is "look at the health service". Indeed. It took immense pressure, and effectively ransom money, to get Bulgarian and Palestinian medical staff out of Libyan dungeons where they had been locked up on spurious charges of spreading AIDS. But on the rule of law front, the killer of London WPC Yvonne Fletcher, shot from the Libyan embassy, which she was protecting against demonstrators, is still at large.

It does make sense to engage with Libya. Negotiations have produced some international satisfactory results – such as the colonel's realisation that he did not have the capability to produce nuclear weapons. But whether Triki or Gaddafi, the "election" of Libya will do little for the reputation of either Africa or the United Nations.