Thursday, October 30, 2008

McCain-Palin and the Slander of Rashid Khalidi

What McCain and Palin are doing here is disgusting; character assassination; and slander of one of this country's leading scholars of Palestinian history. I admire and respect immensely the work of Rashid Khalidi. He is a historian of the first rank, as well as a passionate advocate for the rights of Palestinians in the face of a long history of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That McCain and Palin would try to trash him as some kind of terrorist says more about them - and their need to grasp at straws as their hopes of election sink - than it says about Professor Khalidi, who will be researching, writing, teaching, and standing up for the rights and humanity of the Palestinian Arabs long after Sarah Palin becomes a footnote in the increasingly tawdry annals of the Republican Party's submergence in the wallow of its own mud.

McCain Again Points to Obama's Associates

Republican Cites Tape of Rival Praising Palestinian, Alleges Ayers Was Present

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008; A05

MIAMI, Oct. 29 -- Sen. John McCain compared the director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute to a "neo-Nazi" and called on the Los Angeles Times to release a video of a 2003 banquet at which Sen. Barack Obama talked about the professor, Rashid Khalidi, a leading Palestinian American scholar and friend of Obama's from Chicago.

"What if there was a tape with John McCain with a neo-Nazi outfit being held by some media outlet?" McCain asked in one of several interviews with Cuban American radio stations Wednesday morning. "I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different."

McCain also alleged that Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers had been at the banquet -- something that has not been reported by the Times -- adding to a growing flap over the release of the videotape, which the Times said had been provided by a source on the condition that the paper not air it.

"We should know about their relationship," the Republican presidential candidate said, referring to Ayers. "Including, apparently, information that is held by the Los Angeles Times concerning an event that Mr. Ayers attended with a PLO spokesman. The Los Angeles Times refuses to make that videotape public."

McCain's advisers said the tape would reveal his opponent's reactions to banquet speeches mentioned in a Times article about the event that was published in April. The article said that "a young Palestinian American recited a poem accusing the Israeli government of terrorism" and that another "likened 'Zionist settlers on the West Bank' to Osama bin Laden, saying both had been 'blinded by ideology.' " A spokeswoman for McCain said the senator based his allegation about Ayers on another newspaper article -- a New York Sun report in 2005. The Sun, however, reported only that Ayers had contributed to a commemorative testimonial book for Khalidi.

By raising questions about the banquet, McCain's advisers are hoping to hit a trifecta: linking Obama to a person who might worry Jewish voters in Florida and elsewhere about his commitment to Israel, reintroducing Ayers into the discussion with only a week left, and once again challenging Obama's honesty when it comes to his personal associations.

Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Obama, called the issue "just another recycled, manufactured controversy" and rejected the implication that Obama should be tarnished by his association with Khalidi.

"Barack Obama has been clear and consistent on his support for Israel, and has been clear that Rashid Khalidi is not an adviser to him or his campaign and that he does not share Khalidi's views," Sevugan said. He noted that a nonprofit group that McCain chaired once helped fund a polling organization founded by Khalidi.

The International Republican Institute, which McCain has chaired since 1993, awarded a grant of $448,873 in 1998 to the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, which was co-founded by Khalidi, according to IRI documents.

Reached by e-mail, Khalidi declined to comment.

In May, Obama acknowledged knowing Khalidi, with whom he taught at the University of Chicago. Obama called him a "respected scholar" but said that Khalidi does not reflect his views on Israel and that he is "not one of my advisers."

McCain has spent weeks trying to make Obama's relationship with Ayers an issue, saying that Obama has not been truthful with the American people about how close the two are. But in recent days, he and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had stopped publicly questioning the Democrat's associations.

That changed Wednesday morning. In a second interview, McCain said: "Apparently, this is a tape with a dinner that Mr. Ayers, the former and now still unrepentant terrorist, was at and also one of the leading spokespersons for the PLO. Now, why that should not be made public is beyond me."

And campaigning in Ohio, Palin told a large crowd, "It seems that there's yet another radical professor from the neighborhood who spent a lot of time with Barack Obama going back several years."

Palin openly mocked the Los Angeles Times for what she said was pandering to Obama. "It must be nice for a candidate to have major news organizations looking out for their best interests like that," she said, as the audience cheered her on.

The Times wrote in April about the banquet as part of a broader story examining Obama's relationship with the Palestinian community in Chicago. The paper issued a statement yesterday saying that its source asked it not to release the video.

Jamie Gold, the newspaper's readers' representative, said in a statement: "More than six months ago the Los Angeles Times published a detailed account of the events shown on the videotape. The Times is not suppressing anything. Just the opposite -- the L.A. Times brought the matter to light."

The original story reported that Obama praised Khalidi at the dinner, saying that his many talks with him had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases."

In their comments Wednesday, McCain and Palin called Khalidi a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, apparently an effort to portray Obama as anti-Israel. The New York-born Khalidi has denied being a spokesman for the PLO.

Since 1993, the PLO has been recognized by the United States and Israel as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meet regularly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

As an Oxford-educated Middle East scholar who holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia, Khalidi has been highly critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also of the dysfunction within the Palestinian national movement led for decades by Yasser Arafat.

Khalidi has questioned the plausibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the position favored by the Bush administration and McCain. But he has also described the more controversial bi-national solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the creation of one state where Arabs and Jews would live together and all have the right to vote -- as problematic.

Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, traveling with Palin, and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On the US Raid into Syria

Mr. Levy has provided us a well-researched piece that pulls together many different threads of reasoning behind the US attack into Syria - and concludes that the Bush administration has once again undermined American standing in the world.

America’s Military Attack in Syria—Possible Reasons and Likely Costs

Details are finally emerging of the American military operation inside Syria in Abu Kamal on Sunday afternoon. While there still has been no official on-record briefing from the Pentagon, unnamed DoD sources have filled in some of the gaps and reports on the operation appear in today's press. The target was apparently "Abu al-Ghadiyah" (Badran al-Mazidi), described alternatively as a high-ranking AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) operative or facilitator of smugglings and infiltration networks from Syria into Iraq, and vice versa. While it appears that there have been instances of cross-border "hot pursuit" by U.S. forces across Syrian borders before, today's Washington Post makes the assertion that this is "the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria." Syrian and Arab T.V. have been full of pictures of the area of the raid and its aftermath, interviews with the civilian wounded in hospitals, and now images of thousands attending the funerals of the 8 civilians who it is claimed also fell victim to this attack (there are claims that American forces nabbed two AQI operatives--these are as yet unconfirmed--there might still be a DoD briefing today).

Condemnations have been prevalent in the Arab media, with the headline of the UAE daily al-Khaleej being typical: "U.S. Aggression Against Syria". And criticism has not only come from the obvious places--Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world--but also from Russia, Europe and beyond. There have also been some interesting exceptions to this trend within the Arab world--notably Saudi Arabia, leading some to speculate that the Saudis encouraged or were even complicit in this operation. But even as the details are emerging many are still baffled as to why this raid took place, and especially why now. As ever when it comes to the Middle East, and especially where Syria is concerned, tantalizing and mischievous theories proliferate. Here is an attempt, then, to make sense of why this happened, and what the implications might be.

The most obvious explanation, the one seemingly offered by the Pentagon, and the least complicated, is of this being a target of opportunity that was simply too good to resist. Juan Cole is as usual the best source for the low-down on the apparent target, Badran al-Mazidi. Here's what Cole says on his blog:

"Abu al-Ghadiyah" (Badran al-Mazidi) of Mosul, a member of the fundamentalist vigilante group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (originally called "Monotheism and Holy War" but more recently "The Islamic State of Iraq"). Al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006. US intelligence fingered al-Mazidi as a major facilitator for networks of fundamentalist vigilantes who were infiltrating into Iraq from Syria. The administration allegation is that it struck when it did because it got especially good information on al-Mazidi's exact whereabouts.

But Cole then goes on to assert that as with so many decapitation exercises that we are familiar with--whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine, "Washington also tends to over-estimate the importance of individual leaders such Mostly they are fairly easily replaced." But even if al-Mazidi was a particularly cherished prize, it is hard to believe that this is the first time that America has had actionable intelligence regarding such a target's whereabouts inside Syria (after all, the Americans themselves have recognized that compared to the previous years of the Iraq War, there are less border infiltrations from Syria today--so there must have been more such targets in the past). Yet in the past, for the first five and a half years of the Iraq War, America did not carry out such missions inside of Syria. So it really begs the question of why now. In the less than 48 hours since the raid, there has been no shortage of attempts to answer that question, although none seem particularly authoritative.

The favorite for conspiracy theorists is to see this as the mini-version of the long awaited "October Surprise". The raid was designed at a minimum to push the American election agenda back to national security issues, thereby supposedly favoring McCain, or even better, it triggers a wider military escalation and a week of McCain looking commander-in-chief-like, towering over the inexperienced punk Obama (Ilan Goldenberg makes a great argument on Obama-McCain and who is more responsible on this Syria attack issue). I don't buy that for one moment. This is not a situation that looks likely to escalate, Obama justifiably has closed the gap on national security, and those characterizations never really gained traction and rightly so.

Human error is always a possibility, but that seems equally unlikely. As is the notion of this being a rogue operation that was not cleared at the highest decision-making levels (even if "going rogue" is the vogue phrase of this week).

It is hard not to see this as a huge going away present for the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration. They have had Syria in their crosshairs since day 1, or long before actually. Syria, for the neocons, was due to be next in line after the Iraq "cakewalk", and they have grown increasingly frustrated as the clock runs out on Bush-driven regime change in Damascus. Ian Black, writing in the Guardian, called it a "final vengeful lunge against a country that others are now wooing but which still attracts profound hostility in Washington." And today's Washington Post editorial page, so often a neocon echo chamber when it comes to the Middle East, appears to bemoan that this kind of attack on Syria did not happen sooner. Assuming that Syria would not respond given the Assad regime's expectations of better relations with the next U.S. Administration, this was something of a freebie whack at the Syrians--something that Josh Landis mentions on his informative blog, 'Syria Comment'.

This all has a nice internal logic to it and no doubt the neocons are clucking and delighted to have established this new precedent, and yet it suggests a last gasp reclaiming of neocon ownership on the Syria file for which there is little evidence. American policy has been drifting away from confrontation with Damascus, not towards it. Secretary Rice recently met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, which all suggests that there is probably more to this than a 9th inning neocon walk-off homerun.

Then there is the diametrically opposite explanation (there always is with Syria): namely, that the entire thing was preplanned and coordinated between America and Syria as part of an ongoing effort and shared interest to undermine al-Qaeda, and that was actually a prelude to warmer bilateral relations.

It is certainly the case that Syria has been plagued recently by the actions of Salafist Jihadi groups, some emanating from Lebanon, and some from Iraq. There is also evidence that Syria and the U.S. have cooperated in the past in pushing back al-Qaeda activities. Juan Cole speculated on this yesterday, and Israeli intelligence analyst at the leading Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, Ronen Bergman, takes the claim several steps further today, and states, sourcing two unnamed American officials, that "the American commando attack in Syrian territory on the Iraqi border was coordinated in advance with Syrian military intelligence (translated from the Hebrew-DL)." Bergman sites as evidence that no anti-aircraft guns were used on the American helicopters, nor did local Syrian military units engage, although this occurred in broad daylight and in a police state where the presence of security service personnel is ubiquitous. Bergman is a respected commentator in Israel. He also of course is reliant on sources that may be using him as a mouthpiece for their own psyche-ops and propaganda. In this scenario, the shrill response of Syrian officials to the raid, which Baath party number two Mohammed Saeed Bkheitan called an "act of piracy" and "state terrorism", becomes part of the game.

Some Syria analysts do see a struggle going on in Damascus right now within the Assad regime, in broad terms between a modernizing, open up to the West approach of Bashar Assad, and a 'hunker down, stick with our trusted allies, don't rock the boat' demand led by some in the military and intelligence community. The recent suicide bombing in Damascus which killed 17 is sometimes explained in this context. So might this be part of the reality of a split and shaky regime? Could Assad be using an American raid to send a signal to some of his own military? While nothing can be ruled out, this sounds to me like a serious stretch.

Perhaps the reality lies somewhere in between the two more extreme explanations of collision or collusion. Here are some things we do know. The Pentagon sees Syrian efforts to seal the border with Iraq as having been a mixed bag, and they would certainly want further improvements. General Petraeus has acknowledged these improvements and carries with him a PowerPoint presentation that includes a box entitled "Improved Relations and Coordination with Syria". The Pentagon would also have noted that shortly after an Israeli air raid against a suspected nascent Syrian nuclear program, the Israelis and Syrians were actually conducting peace talks via Turkish mediation (the Israeli press has made much of this analogy--the storm before the calm). So this might be a calculated American move that sends a message to Syria that "we are not bullshitting, we are ready to use force, but we would much prefer that you respond to our diplomatic asks and overtures."

And perhaps Syria was not the main intended recipient of the message sent by this operation at all. A number of other possible addresses come to mind. Most obviously there is Iran. If the U.S. can conduct cross border raids in Pakistan and in Syria with impunity, then surely Iran is not off the agenda, as Kaveh Afrasiabi discusses in this Asia Times online piece, 'U.S. Raid in Syria Spooks Iran'. Then there is Russia, which has been increasing its Syrian cooperation lately, is upping its sales of arms to Damascus and which hosted President Assad in Moscow just days after the Georgia crisis. This might in part be a shot across the Russian bow. Given the timing of the attack--it coincides with Syrian FM Moallem's high profile visit to London--one cannot exclude that America was sending a message of displeasure to the Europeans regarding their increasing openness to the Assad regime (although it seems to me that in this instance, the timing was coincidental and more a case of "who cares if we insult and embarrass our closest European allies").

So how do we pull this all together, and what are the implications? In U.S. terms, there may well have been a convergence of interests at work--a kind of internal U.S. win-win. The Administration hawks would always be happy to poke Assad in the eye, while the pro-engagement folks may have been convinced that this would do no harm and might even elicit a more positive Syrian response, with the Pentagon eager to further extend the principle of the violability of sovereign borders when it comes to pursuing those that harm Americans and hoping that Syria might be nudged toward greater cooperation. To take this last point a step further, a more general effort seems to be afoot, now extended from the Afghan-Pakistan border region to the Iraq-Syria border with regard to U.S. military freedom of action in cross border missions, with today's New York Times quoting several "senior administration officials" expressing hope that this rationale "would be embraced by the next President as well." That begins to sound like a problematic attempt to box-in a new Administration. Even if such an internal win-win might exist, it is far from certain that a similar calculation applies to the external consequences of this action.

Most immediate may be the effect on American efforts to negotiate the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with Iraq, which already faces significant obstacles. One issue of contention has been the guarantee that American troops would not use Iraq as the staging point for attacks on neighbors. Iran, for one, is likely to push its Iraqi allies even further on this point after the Syria action. Kaveh Afrasiabi argues that "unintended consequences of the US's raid into Syria may turn out to be more ammunition not only in the hands of Iranians but also the forces of Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and others who have categorically opposed the security agreement as anti-Iraqi." Afrasiabi even suggests that the Pentagon may be intentionally sabotaging the SOFA, the terms of which are increasingly disliked.

Beyond the SOFA, the cooperation that America will need from Iraq's neighbors as it withdraws is unlikely to be well served by this latest development. Syria has made several constructive gestures over the last period, helping to broker a standoff to the Lebanese political crisis and finally establishing diplomatic relations with that country, resuming peace talks with Israel, opening an embassy in Baghdad, and drawing closer to Europe. Unless the attack was an elaborate U.S-Syrian collaboration, it endangers setting back this more constructive Syrian role, and the decision by Syria today to close an American school and cultural center in Damascus is hardly a good sign. In particular, the Israeli-Syrian peace talks are in need of American support to be both sustainable and make progress.

Another by-product would be to again fuel anger in the Arab world at a seeming indifference to the cost in civilian casualties of American military actions and disrespect for the sovereignty of Arab and Muslim countries. In that sense, Syria joins a long list, including not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also of course Pakistan and even Somalia, Yemen, and other locales. And this is likely to just further fuel anti-Americanism. As if all that wasn't bad enough, it really is a head-scratcher that this is happening while the Syrian Foreign Minister is visiting London. A joint press conference with British FM David Miliband had to be called off to avoid embarrassing questions. French President Sarkozy, who has invested much in getting Syria to be more constructive via diplomatic engagement, must also feel slighted (he was quick to condemn the attack).

I doubt that this was an intentional snub to the Brits or Europeans, rather another example of the kind of indifference and condescension towards allies and their needs that has characterized the Bush Administration. As today's Guardian editorial suggested, the attack was another sign of a U.S. Administration which "shoots first and thinks later."

In this respect, the Bush Administration has probably managed to yet further complicate the work of its successor in the Middle East with this latest act. And at this stage that really takes some doing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bad News for Middle East Peace Prospects

While Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have stolen most of the media attention, some worrisome developments today remind us that, closer to the Mediterranean, tensions are simmering and may easily be brought to a boil.

For reasons that pundits are trying mightily to fathom, Mr. Bush authorized (it's unimaginable that this operation could have gone forward otherwise) a US Special Forces operation 5 miles inside the Syrian border with Iraq, attacking a village, killing as many as nine and wounding several others (including a mother who lost several members of her family in the attack). The US military claims that they were going after al-Qaeda operatives. That, of course, has been the cover for any operation of this type in Iraq or elsewhere (like Pakistan). The Syrians, predictably, are furious, but there may not be a whole lot they reasonably can do about it.

We have to wonder, why now? Mr. Sarkozy of France has been making nice of late with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; Condi Rice was making nice with the Syrian foreign minister at the UN only a few days ago. Is this some kind of parting shot from Bush, perhaps throwing a bone to the long-disgraced neocons? Is Bush perhaps hoping to stir up a little sense of crisis in order to rally some votes for that old foreign-policy hand John McCain, and maybe distract voters from the economy just a bit? Or, as at least one report has queried, did Mr. Assad secretly ask the US to do this in order to dampen down hard-line Islamists who have long opposed the Assad family's Alawi-backed regime? (Note that Syria has recently sent thousands of troops to its border with Lebanon, quite possibly to deter possible incursions from increasingly stronger salafi groups there who are creating problems in Tripoli and threatening the Alawis there.)

Meanwhile, we now hear that Israeli prime-minister-in-waiting Tzipi Livni has given up on assembling a political coalition that would allow her to step in as replacement for the disgraced Ehud Olmert. Evidently she couldn't bring herself to make the concessions that Shas (an Ultra-Orthodox, pro-settler movement religious party) was demanding as the price of its participation. Livni has asked Israeli president Shimon Peres to call for new elections as soon as possible, which means that she will run as the Kadima party's candidate vs. the hard-line Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu (himself a former prime minister who, like Olmert, was drummed out in disgrace for corruption - a problem that has afflicted quite a few Israeli pols in recent years). Most opinion polls put Netanyahu ahead of Livni. A Likud victory would likely ring down the curtain on the "peace process" - not that there's really been much of a peace process since Mr. Bush became president. That, in turn, might provoke Hamas elements in Gaza (and the West Bank) to terminate what's been a fairly lengthy cease-fire.

If a new intifada were to erupt in the Gaza and the West Bank, the repercussions could easily spread well beyond Israel-Palestine . . .

Livni Abandons Effort to Form Israeli Coalition
Foreign Minister Urges 2009 Elections

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 27, 2008; A09

JERUSALEM, Oct. 26 -- Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday gave up trying to form a coalition government, paving the way for new elections in early 2009. Palestinian officials worried that her decision could also mean the end of the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which resumed just under a year ago and had been a priority of the Bush administration.

Livni met with President Shimon Peres on Sunday and told him that despite five weeks of consultations, she was unable to put together a government. Peres can either ask another parliament member to try to cobble together a majority coalition, or he can announce that Israel will hold general elections. Analysts agreed that the latter is the more likely scenario, and Livni urged Peres to call elections as quickly as possible.

Peres had tasked Livni with forming a new government last month, after she won a primary to lead the centrist Kadima party. The former leader of Kadima, Ehud Olmert, resigned as prime minister amid a corruption probe but remains head of a caretaker government until a new coalition can be formed.

If Israel holds elections, most polls forecast a highly competitive race between Livni and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party and a sharp critic of peace talks with the Palestinians. Livni has been a proponent of those talks.

In a statement to the media after her meeting with Peres, Livni, wearing a somber black pantsuit and looking grim, said she was not willing to sell out her principles to form a government.

"I was willing to pay a price to form a government, but I was never willing to risk the political and economic future of Israel," she said, her comments carried live on Israeli TV and radio. "But in the past few days it has become clear to me that the current system has led future coalition partners to make unreasonable economic and political demands. . . . If someone is willing to sell out his principles for the job, he is not worthy of it."

The statement was a sharp attack on the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which in exchange for joining the coalition had been demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in government assistance for its constituents, as well as a promise that Livni would not make any concessions on the future of Jerusalem. Palestinians say East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed, must be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Shas, with its 12 parliament members, had been part of the government led by Olmert, and had been expected to join a new Livni-led coalition. But on Friday, Shas's 88-year-old spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, decided that the party would not join the coalition unless its demands were met.

"We were not willing to divide Jerusalem," Shas political leader Eli Yishai told Israel TV. "Jerusalem is not for sale."

Israeli analysts said Livni's inability to form a government could make her election campaign more difficult.

"Going to elections was her last choice. But she realized she couldn't put together a government," said Joseph Alpher, the former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "This is going to hurt her image. It would have been much better for her if she could have gone into the elections with even a few months as prime minister."

Palestinians said they worried that the Israeli election campaign would put the peace process on hold. Following a seven-year hiatus, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed last fall with the Annapolis peace conference.

Livni headed Israel's negotiating team, and in the past few months, both sides had reported progress. Security cooperation has increased, and 550 U.S.-trained Palestinian police deployed in Hebron this weekend, following deployments in Nablus and Jenin.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have also discussed the "core issues" in the conflict, such as final borders, Jewish settlements, the return of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem.

President Bush had called for at least an outline of an agreement by the end of the year, but both sides had said that was not likely. Olmert had been scheduled to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, but that meeting has now been postponed.

"We don't want to interfere in Israel's domestic concerns, but early elections means the peace process will be put on hold," said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Previous experience has taught us that before elections in Israel, everyone is focused on the elections and not on the peace process."

Some dovish activists fear that if Netanyahu wins the election, the peace process could be suspended indefinitely.

"This is a disaster for the peace process," said Gershon Baskin, the co-chief executive of a joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank. "If Netanyahu wins, I think we should begin preparing for another round of violence. Livni should have given Shas whatever it asked for and gone ahead with the peace process."

There is little enthusiasm among Israelis for a new round of expensive elections. Estimates are that elections will cost about $150 million. Even before Sunday's events, Israelis had been growing disgusted with their fractious political system, which encourages small parties to make large demands in exchange for support.

If elections are called as expected, Livni will face a challenge from both Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, also a former prime minister. Recent polls have shown Netanyahu and Livni leading, well ahead of Barak.

Alpher said the results of the U.S. election could play a role in the Israeli election.

"The Israeli public wants a prime minister who gets along with the U.S. president," he said. "If Obama wins, and goes ahead with his plan to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria, that could help Livni. If McCain wins, that might help Netanyahu."

Livni had hoped to be the first female Israeli prime minister in more than three decades, and only the second in the country's history. In contrast to Olmert, she projected herself as being above corruption. A lawyer, she began her career in the Israeli foreign intelligence service, and entered politics a decade ago.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Looming crisis in Israeli politics

Let's hope that PM-elect Tzipi Livni can make a deal with Shas to form a coalition. I'm no fan of Shas, given their hard-line views on keeping the West Bank settlements and outposts, but new elections will likely bring - as this Guardian piece notes - Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud back to power.


Israel election looms as religious party backs out of coalition talks

Ultra-Orthodox party Shas will only join Tzipi Livni's coalition if its key demands are met

Israel moved closer to an early general election today when a key ultra-Orthodox party refused to join a new coalition government that the prime minister designate, Tzipi Livni, has spent weeks trying to put together.

The decision by Shas, a rightwing party that represents religious Jews from non-European backgrounds, means Livni faces the prospect of either forming a slim, weak coalition or failing outright, which would mean an election early next year. Livni said a decision would be reached by Sunday.

Livni, the foreign minister, narrowly won the leadership of her ruling party, Kadima, in an internal vote in mid-September. She was given six weeks to persuade others to join her in a coalition that needed at least 61 votes of approval in the 120-seat Knesset. She has secured the support of the Labour party, giving her a combined 48 seats, and can expect the support of at least one other small party, but had still hoped for the 12 crucial seats of Shas to form a clear majority.

The negotiations were difficult from the start. Shas, as expected, made two key demands: a substantial increase in child allowances, which would benefit its supporters who tend to have larger, poorer families, and a promise that in any peace negotiations with the Palestinians the Israeli government would not agree to divide Jerusalem. Shas had reportedly asked for a 1bon shekels (£160m) in child allowances. Livni offered less money but proposed extending the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts in the hope of winning the party's favour.

The party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, met with his advisers and decided to pull out of the coalition talks.

"Throughout the entire coalition negotiations, Shas did not ask for treats, titles or any political upgrade," the party said in a statement. "Shas asked for real aid for the Israeli society's disadvantaged population and sought to protect Jerusalem. We cannot ignore the difficulties and hardship these days, when Israel has reached the first place in poverty among the developed countries."

The Shas decision at first appeared to be final, but Eli Yishai, the party leader, went on Israel Radio and hinted a deal could still be done. He said it was in Kadima's hands. "If they don't meet our demands, we won't be able to join," he said.

A spokesman for Livni said she was sticking to her deadline of Sunday to conclude an agreement. The autumn session of the Knesset begins on Monday and she had hoped to address the parliament as prime minister and head of a new coalition.

If the Shas decision is final, Livni could still form a coalition with other smaller parties, including the leftwing Meretz party, which has five seats, the Pensioners party, with four seats, or United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party with six seats.

Most political observers now say that at best she can hope for a slim coalition of 60 seats, which would put her at the head of a weak government. To win Knesset approval she would have to persuade other MPs to vote for the coalition without joining it.

If she fails, the president, Shimon Peres, will probably call an election for early next year. Livni had hoped to avoid an early vote with opinion polls still forecasting a win for Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition Likud party.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Racism, Xenophobia, and Fear-mongering in the McCain-Palin campaign

The Washington Post today published what is at least its second piece from right-wing conservative columnist Kathleen Parker highly critical of Sarah Palin. (I've pasted it below.) But even more noteworthy is her mention of the rising stink of racism and xenophobia - and an implied threat of violence - at some of the Republican campaign stops.

A couple of days ago, MSNBC showed some very disturbing video and audio footage from McCain's New Mexico campaign stop and one of Palin's stop in Florida. When McCain asked the crowd, after a long lead-in to the question, "Who really is Barack Obama?", a Cro-Magnonish masculine voice yelled, "He's a terrorist!" The same day, when Palin insinuated that there was a sinister terrorist link between Barack Obama and former Weatherman William Ayers, another thuggish masculine voice yelled from the throng, "Kill him!"

We ought not be surprised, I suppose. Consider the new report that FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, the national media watchdog group) released today (and I quote from the press release):

profiling 12 of the leading Islamophobic pundits and media figures and examining the ways they've negatively influenced media coverage in the U.S. The report, "Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation," describes a loose network of right-wing, anti-Muslim partisans who regularly use innuendo, questionable sources of information and even lies to smear, and effectively marginalize, Muslims in the media.

And now we have the Republican candidates and their media clones trying so very hard to get the American public to connect the dots: Obama the man of mystery; Obama the closet Muslim, Obama the friend of terrorists; Obama the black racist (don't forget that nasty Rev. Wright!); but still, Obama the Princeton/Harvard East Coast liberal intellectual elitist. So completely the "Other." Most assuredly not one of US (or, for that matter, of U.S.). An insidious threat to the Republic, to American values, to our way of life. And even worse, in the eyes of all too many on the Christian evangelical Right, the Anti-Christ! Evil incarnate! He must be stopped!

What's an American patriot to do?

Kathleen Parker began her column thus: When Sarah Palin said she was taking off the gloves, she wasn't just whistling "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Or was she?

Consider that in the context of another especially surprising, scary development reported a few days ago by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now :

In a barely noticed development last week, the Army stationed an active unit inside the United States. The Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Team is back from Iraq, now training for domestic operations under the control of US Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command. The unit will serve as an on-call federal response for large-scale emergencies and disasters. It’s being called the Consequence Management Response Force, CCMRF, or “sea-smurf” for short.

It’s the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to USNORTHCOM, which was itself formed in October 2002 to “provide command and control of Department of Defense homeland defense efforts.” [my emphasis]

An initial news report in the Army Times newspaper last month noted, in addition to emergency response, the force “may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control.” The Army Times has since appended a clarification, and a September 30th press release from the Northern Command states: “This response force will not be called upon to help with law enforcement, civil disturbance or crowd control."

A public affairs officer for NORTHCOM said the force would have weapons stored in containers on site, as well as access to tanks, but the decision to use weapons would be made at a far higher level, perhaps by Secretary of Defense, SECDEF.

Progressive magazine editor Matthew Rothschild, a commentator on Goodman's show, noted that:

This is the 3rd Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat unit that has spent three of the last five years in Iraq in counterinsurgency. It’s a war-fighting unit, was one of the first units to Baghdad. It was involved in the battle of Fallujah. And, you know, that’s what they’ve been trained to do. And now they’re bringing that training here?

On top of that, one of the commanders of this unit was boasting in the Army Times about this new package of non-lethal weapons that has been designed, and this unit itself is going be able to use, according to that original article. And in fact, the commander was saying he had even tasered himself and was boasting about tasering himself. So, why is a Pentagon unit that’s going to be possibly patrolling the streets of the United States involved in using tasers?

The Army representative that Goodman brought onto the show countered, predictably, that these well-trained soldiers and their commanders can be trusted to do the right thing. But Goodman and Rothschild between them did an excellent job of showing how the line between civilian and military has lately been badly blurred, in ways of which the mostly non-reading American public knows little and understands less. (For instance, they note how NORTHCOM was also sharing intelligence with local police during the Republican convention in St. Paul.)

So, put all the pieces together, mes amis.

  • a bitter election season - perhaps the most bitterly contentious of my lifetime (and that includes the Vietnam era)
  • chauvinist, racism-and-religion-tinged patriotism and fear-mongering being spurred to the point of near-violence.
  • a financial crisis of monumental proportions and no end in sight, hundreds of thousands of jobs and homes lost, and public anger, frustration, and fear mounting by the day
  • gasoline costs astronomically high - and the costs of fuel for heating also high as we approach what some are predicting to be an unusually cold winter), at a time when incomes are being lost and people may not be able to afford filling their gas tanks (not to mention their stomachs) or pay their heating bills
  • fingers of blame being pointed at allegedly malingering blacks who ought not have gotten those mortgages in the first place, and at those shifty Jewish financiers on Wall Street whose "historically attested" penchant for greed once again threatens the lives of good Christian white people.
  • a combat-seasoned unit of the US army being made ready to deal with civil insurrection
Our president has repeatedly harped on the "goodness of the American people" - that we are a beacon of hope and opportunity to the world, a symbol of righteousness and harmony.

All of that may now be put to the ultimate test.

Call Off the Pit Bull

By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, October 8, 2008; 12:00 AM

When Sarah Palin said she was taking off the gloves, she wasn't just whistling "Onward, Christian Soldiers."

Or was she?

In the wake of the vice presidential debate, Palin has trained her moose-hunting sights on bigger trophies -- Barack Obama and the media.

In Colorado a few days ago, she told fans that Obama pals around with terrorists. Later in Clearwater, Fla., resplendent in white against a backdrop of red, white and blue, she said, "This is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America, as the greatest source for good in this world. I'm afraid this is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who had targeted his own country."


On Monday, Bill Kristol wrote in his column that Palin thinks Obama's association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright needs to be discussed more.

Because hardly anyone ever mentioned it?

Palin also took the opportunity in Clearwater to deflect criticism of her interview with Katie Couric. First she joked that she was only working for Tina Fey's job security. Then she said the reason she did so poorly in the interview was that she was annoyed.

We are to infer that the reason Palin gave answers that ranged from ridiculous to nonsensical was that she was merely withholding her insights to demonstrate her pique? Right.

Nevertheless, "Yaaaaaaaaaaaay."

The real Sarah Palin is free at last. She's not just a hockey mom after all. She's Palin the Impaler. Pit bulls beware.

No one who watched the vice presidential debate should be surprised.

Palin's performance, notwithstanding her adorable dodges of questions she didn't like, was essentially a cri de coeur to America's non-elite.

Democrats and other critics distracted by her winks may have missed the message, but Palin's target audience heard it loud and clear. She is like the high-pitched whistle only dogs can hear. While Democrats heard non-answers, superfluous segues and cartoon words -- shout-out, I'll betcha, doggone, extra credit -- Republicans heard God, patriotism, courage, victory.

It's called code, and Republicans are fluent.

It isn't just the "maverick" word, which we now may consign to the Cliche Crematorium. Sprinkled throughout Palin's remarks were phrases that set the free associative mind in motion.

  • "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again" was Ronald Reagan all over again.
  • "I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and God bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?" Every evangelical Christian heard her rallying cry -- Onward, Soldiers!
  • "Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war." Did anybody hear flip-flop?

    A television audience won't remember facts -- and most won't race to -- but they'll remember impressions. Palin successfully conveyed to those she was targeting that she is a Ronald Reagan-ish outsider who puts God and country first. And The Other is just like that elitist, flip-flopping John Kerry.

    That's a plateful of imagery and a buffet of touchstones familiar to those who distrust "elitists" and who recognize in Palin a kindred regularness.

    Time magazine examined voting habits and concluded that most people do not vote for issues, but rather for the candidates. Specifically, they vote for people who are most like themselves. Which is why McCain and Palin have amped up their rhetoric of difference.

    Neither McCain nor Palin would dare mention Obama's middle name, Hussein, but they can play up Obama's past associations and let others connect the dots. Terrorist. Muslim. Dangerous. Other.

    It is legitimate to question character and dubious associations -- and William Ayers is certifiably dubious. The truth is, Obama should have avoided Ayers, and his denouncement of Wright was tardy. But this is a dangerous game.

    The McCain campaign knows that Obama isn't a Muslim or a terrorist, but they're willing to help a certain kind of voter think he is. Just the way certain South Carolinians in 2000 were allowed to think that McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh was his illegitimate black child.

    But words can have more serious consequences than lost votes and we've already had a glimpse of the Palin effect.

    The Post's Dana Milbank reported that media representatives in Clearwater were greeted with taunts, thunder sticks and profanity. One Palin supporter shouted an epithet at an African-American soundman and said, "Sit down, boy."

    McCain may want to call off his pit bull before this war escalates.

  • http://

    The US military's ongoing "collateral damage"

    Note that during the recent debates and on the stump, both McCain and Palin have blasted Obama for mentioning that US forced have air-raided villages and killed civilians.

    Now, as the NY Times reports, the US military is owning up to it - and anyone who can read ought to have known by now that we've been "collateral damaging" Afghans - not to mention Iraqis and Pakistanis (and through our complicity in Israel's oppressive policies, Palestinians and Lebanese) for years.

    October 8, 2008

    30 Civilians Died in Afghan Raid, U.S. Inquiry Finds

    WASHINGTON — An investigation by the military has concluded that American airstrikes on Aug. 22 in a village in western Afghanistan killed far more civilians than American commanders there have acknowledged, according to two American military officials.

    The military investigator’s report found that more than 30 civilians — not 5 to 7 as the military has long insisted — died in the airstrikes against a suspected Taliban compound in Azizabad.

    The investigator, Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan of the Air Force, concluded that many more civilians, including women and children, had been buried in the rubble than the military had asserted, one of the military officials said.

    The airstrikes have been the focus of sharp tensions between the Afghan government, which has said that 90 civilians died in the raid, and the American military, under Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, which has repeatedly insisted that only a handful of civilians were killed.

    The report was requested by General McKiernan on Sept. 7, more than two weeks after the airstrikes, in response to what he said at the time was “emerging evidence” about the raids. While American commanders in Afghanistan have contended that 30 to 35 militants were killed in the raid, the new report concludes that many among that group were in fact civilians, the military officials said.

    According to the new report, fewer than 20 militants died in the raid, which was conducted jointly by American and Afghan forces, and in subsequent airstrikes carried out by an AC-130 gunship in support of the allied ground forces.

    The revised American estimate for civilian deaths in the operation remains far below the 90 that Afghan and United Nations officials have claimed, a figure that the Afghan government and the United Nations said was supported by cellphone photos, freshly dug grave sites and the accounts of witnesses who saw the dead bodies.

    But General Callan’s findings ran counter to those of the earlier American investigations. American Special Operations forces conducted an initial battlefield review, including a building by building search, and four days later, military investigators traveled to the vicinity of the raid. General Callan found that the people who conducted those investigations did not or could not do what was necessary to establish the full extent of the civilian killings, the military officials said.

    In contrast, military officials said, General Callan was able to review the scene of the airstrikes more extensively. They said his team interviewed villagers, which the other military units had not done before, and examined new evidence, like cellphone videos and other images showing the bodies of women and children that were not available previously.

    The report sticks to the military’s assertion that the compound was a legitimate target, a finding that is likely to rekindle tensions with the government of President Hamid Karzai. As a result of that finding, the report does not single out any individual for blame or recommend that any American troops be punished.

    The report’s general findings were described by two American military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report has not yet been made public, and Afghan officials have not yet been briefed on the matter.

    In recent days, both General McKiernan and Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the acting commander of the military’s Central Command, who appointed General Callan on Sept. 9 to investigate the episode, have received briefings on the report’s findings.

    The New York Times on Sept. 8 described freshly dug graves, lists of the dead, and cellphone videos and other images showing bodies of women and children in the village mosque seen on a visit to Azizabad. Cellphone images a Times reporter saw showed at least 11 dead children, some apparently with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the mosque.

    Afghan and United Nations officials backed this accounting of a higher civilian death toll, putting them in direct conflict with the American military’s version of events. In that account, American Special Forces troops and Afghan commandos called in airstrikes after they came under attack while approaching a compound in Azizabad, a village in the Shindand district of Herat Province. Among the militants killed, the military said at the time, was a Taliban leader, Mullah Sadiq.

    By the next day, Afghan officials complained of significant civilian casualties and President Karzai strongly condemned the airstrikes. American military officials rejected the claim, saying that extremists who entered the village after the bombardment encouraged villagers to change their stories and inflate the number of dead.

    The initial investigating officer, an Army Special Forces major, visited the village after the airstrikes. Guided by aerial photographs, he visited six burial sites within a six-mile range of the attack, a military spokesman said; only one had any freshly dug graves, about 18 to 20. Afghan villagers said there were other burial sites that the Americans did not visit.

    One of the military officials who agreed to discuss the new report said the Special Forces troops who had called in the strikes could conduct only a limited assessment of the damage and casualties afterward because they were forced to leave the village soon after the strikes, fearing retaliation from the villagers.

    “We were wrong on the number of civilian casualties partly because the initial review was operating under real limitations,” said one of the military officials, who said of the Special Forces soldiers, “They were definitely not welcome there.”

    Even before he requested the more senior investigator, General McKiernan issued orders on Sept. 2 tightening the rules about when NATO troops in Afghanistan were authorized to use lethal force. The new rules emphasized putting Afghan forces out front in searches of homes and requiring multiple sources of information before attacking targets.

    General McKiernan told reporters in Washington last week that one of his “top challenges” was “to try to make sure we have the right measures in place to minimize the possibility of civilian casualties.”

    He said the American military was trying to work with the Afghan authorities to ensure that further allegations involving civilian casualties would be investigated jointly rather than separately.

    Monday, October 6, 2008

    On that flow of global wealth eastward

    I noted in my preceding post that global wealth was moving eastward, especially to the oil-producing states. The LA Times today runs a story on that very theme. And as the author points out, we're no longer talking about oil-rich playboys buying shiny new toys.

    Iraqi detainees and the US's need for good will

    I note this story in today's Washington Post. It brings to mind the fact that thousands of such men - the vast majority of them innocent of any wrongdoing (or, as the Bush administration might phrase it - if it's indeed speaking up about anything anymore - "evildoing") continue to languish at places like Camp Bucca, and that their families continue to suffer in their absence. These men traditionally are the protectors and breadwinners of their families, who have had to do without that protection and sustenance, usually for years given the snail's pace of American justice when's it come to detainees. They've also had to endure incarceration and countless humiliations at the hands of US troops. All in all, I think it's safe to say that the hearts and minds of them and their families have hardly been won over by their experience at the hands of the USA. And you can bet that Arabs across the Middle East and beyond have been taking note.

    The Dow-Jones has fallen this morning by another 600 points, and the day's trading is not done. The US economy is at the precipice, and may well drag down most of the global economy with it. The US is massively in debt, people are losing their homes and their livelihoods, while global wealth (what's left of it) has been shifting eastward.

    You have to wonder how much, in the years ahead, the USA will need to reach out its hand to the newly emerging economies - many of them in the oil-producing states of the Middle East. You also have to wonder how hard many across the world will want to smack that hand, now that the US's policies and actions over the past eight years (indeed, much longer than that; the blame extends deeply into our history) have squandered, not only our pretensions to leadership, but whatever moral and ethical capital the USA might once have possessed.

    A Joyful Welcome Home for Detainees

    By Andrea Bruce
    Washington Post Staff Photographer
    Monday, October 6, 2008; A10

    Flipping back a canvas tarp, 12 men squint at the dusty sun and jump, one by one, off the bed of a U.S. military transport truck, dropping to their knees in prayer. They are free.

    Before their arrival at the Iraqi police headquarters in Baghdad, they were transported, hands tied, from the U.S. detention facility Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq -- a full day's drive from here. Their ironed pants and stiff new shoes were donated for their homecoming, replacing the orange jumpsuits from Bucca.

    Slowly, they pull each other up, their tears falling, uncontrollable after years of waiting.

    And then they are forced to wait a little more. Temporarily in Iraqi police custody, the men wade through an hour of bureaucracy while their families mill about just outside the compound. For security reasons, they are then transported in Iraqi police vehicles to another neighborhood.

    The trip becomes a parade. Horns blare. Kids cheer. Women pelt the police pickups with hard candy. The detainees stand and wave in the truck beds, crying as they pass old men drinking tea and selling vegetables on the streets. One family follows behind in a rusted car, yelling, driving haphazardly, eyes on their loved ones and barely on the road.

    Haqi Ismaeel Awad was detained more than two years ago because, he says, the U.S. military suspected his brother of participating in the insurgency. Now he has been cleared of involvement.

    Awad, eyes closed, faces into the wind, feeling its force on his face as the smells and sounds of Baghdad become a reality.

    When the truck pulls into a neighborhood park, Awad's parents run alongside it with their arms open. The truck's rear gate is not opened fast enough. The men jump over it and down to the road, into the embraces of mothers, wives, brothers and fathers.

    Weeping, Awad's wife grabs him, holding his face in her hands, kissing one cheek, then the other.

    "You look old," she says, but she smiles.

    He scans the crowd past her.

    Their two children are waiting for them at home, she tells him, bringing his eyes down to hers. It is still too dangerous for them to be out on the streets.

    Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce is documenting the lives of people in Iraq in a feature, Unseen Iraq, appearing regularly in the World pages. For a photo gallery and previous columns, visit


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