January 12, 2005

The Palestinian Elections

Good news from Palestine:

Most of all, everywhere throughout the territories, there were groups that broke out of Fatah, ignoring the movement and the PA, making their own laws. These turned into local branches of Tanzim (the political apparatus), armed groups of Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and local gangs like the Abu Rish gang in Khan Yunis, Zakariya Zubeidi in Jenin, and the Abu Samhanda clan in Rafah. The heads of the Palestinian security forces, all Fatah men, fought among themselves like gangsters: extortion, shootings, murders and kidnappings became the modus operandi. It seemed that Yasser Arafat was the only remaining glue that held together all the factions and groups within Fatah, and that upon his death, the movement would disintegrate entirely.

But as of now, the exact opposite has happened. The Fatah movement has not only not disintegrated, but it appears to have pulled itself together and been strengthened. Its activists, all of them, rallied around the candidacy of Mahmoud Abbas and conducted an orderly and very effective campaign on his behalf.

Marwan Barghouti, the high-profile, popular representative of the younger generation, wanted to run from prison against Abbas, but ultimately he gave in and submitted himself to the will of the movement. Fatah activists organized dozens of gatherings, marches and rallies, with transportation provided. There were sophisticated advertising campaigns - broadcasts, billboards, stickers, shirts, buttons and hats - all in the best tradition of modern electioneering.

It was a total success. The movement looks better now than it has in the last four years. Its activists, at Abbas' instructions, are going to hold a convention in another six months where they will vote for new institutions. This success for the movement is of enormous importance because it is the movement that led the Palestinian public and the PLO to recognize the state of Israel and stick to a "two states for two peoples" strategy.

The failed peace process, and the conflict, created doubt as to whether there were still any Palestinians who believe in that strategy. The impression was created that the alternative - continuing the armed struggle toward the establishment of a single state over all of the land, according to Hamas' formula - was winning more support in the territories.

Abbas and Fatah's election victory can definitely be interpreted as a victory of the strategy of negotiations with Israel and establishing a state alongside it, and not instead of it. Even at the height of the suicide bombings, polls in the territories showed that the majority still believed that a two-state arrangement would be the best - and the elections this week confirm that remains the overwhelmingly prevailing view.

I think Bush has the best chance, given Arafat's passing from the scene, to forge a Middle East peace settlement in a very, very long time. He will delegate it to Condi, and not waste precious Presidential coin as Clinton did (in what too often smelled a legacy hunt)--but Bush will doubtless make himself available at critical junctures. Do I think there will be a Palestinian state in '08? I don't now. But, what I do know is that it's likely no worse than 50/50 odds that one might be in the offing.

Iraq, while so difficult, has not opened up the proverbial gates of hell through the region as doomsayers loudly predicted. Indeed, progress in the larger region is readily apparent to fair observers. Relatively successful elections in Afghanistan took place after the unseating of theocratic fanatics unpopular with the vast majority of that country's populace. Elections in Palestine have empowered a moderate that Sharon can do business with. Iraqi elections, fingers crossed, might prove a pivot point in Iraq's long journey towards democracy (or, alternately, a harbinger of 'incipient' civil war or such--though I still tilt optimistic on Iraq). Iran, while still a massively complex foreign policy challenge, hasn't attempted to brazenly scuttle U.S. objectives in Iraq. Meanwhile, their Hezbollah proxies in southern Lebanon have not acted overly rashly of late. Their nuclear capability, of course, remains a major concern. But disingenuous chit-chat by Iraq war opponents that we are now hampered from doing anything in Iran because of an ill-fated Iraq adventure are full of it. Name me an anti-war Democrat who would have advocated military action in Iran, seriously and convincingly. There are none. Syria, while often frustrating, has certainly not allowed a Ho Chi Minh trail to run from Damascus to Mosul. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a not unserious crackdown on Islamic radicals in their midst (they got more proactive when they belatedly realized that said radicals would not, in the least, hesitate to brazenly attack targets near and dear to the House of Saud). There have been libertine whisps in precincts Cairo. Libya's continues to enter into the international community of nations. Worth mentioning, lest it be taken for granted, Musharraf has survived both the unseating of the Taliban and Saddam (recall the voices that an Islamic bomb would be created by unruly jihadist mobs in Islamabad the moment Bush sent GI's past Basra).

Yes, we've got many problems in the region. I'm concentrating on the good news above, needless to say. But, assuming Iraq doesn't degenerate into utter failure, it is fair to say that there are no evident catastrophes in the offing. Really, if anything, more upside than downside as we look ahead over the next few years. That's good. And not really talked about too much on the evening news...

Posted by Gregory at January 12, 2005 06:10 AM

Greg, that's because no news is good news, and thus, good news is not news. It's been this way before the days of red and blue states; it's the way it'll always be. It's only the target of vitriol that changes. C'mon, even when Clinton was in office, the media focused their attention on his pecadilloes instead of the things he did do well, like temporarily saving the Party of Jefferson from obsolesence.

Posted by: Bruce at January 12, 2005 08:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg -- I'm extremely pessimistic about the future of any genuine peace with the Palestinians and Israel.

There's no doubt in my mind that most Israelis and their respective governments have wanted a genuine peace and two state solution for quite some time. This includes even Sharon, who was a formerly hardline Likudnik and supporter of the settlements.

However, Arafat did not want to play Michael Collins, and no one seems willing to accept a two state solution within the Palestinian camp. This includes the Palestinians themselves. You can see and hear the most VILE anti-Semitic propaganda, making stuff like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look like Mary Poppins, daily if not hourly on Palestian TV and radio. The newspapers are full of anti-semitic filth (such as "the jews" steal Palestinian children's organs/eyes for their nefarious organ transplants). This is both a violation of the Oslo Agreements (along with the terrorist attacks) and the sign of a truly sick and disturbed society unwilling to make any genuine peace.

Palestinians cannot exist as a unified society without the scapegoat of the Jews. Until that changes and the people themselves wish a two state solution, there exists no geniune chance for peace, merely a cold and armed truce.

From a Palestinian perspective, it seems that violence and terrorism have actually worked, and the path of Hamas or Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is the successful one. Has not violence and terror driven the Israelis from Lebanon, in total disarray? Has it not made them dismantle the settlements in Gaza? And talk about dismantling more in the West Bank? Will not more violence and terror cause the Jews to flee Palestine entirely? More Kassam rockets the answer to every problem?

The only way sadly I can see peace happening, is through some awful terror attack killing thousands of innocents co-ordinated with a Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian attack that ends up in a total military defeat for those countries and with much of the West Bank emptied of the Palestinians. Unless terror is equated with real downsides (State sponsors lose wars and territory; Palestinians lose territory) there is no incentive for the people or the leaders to compromise on a two state solution.

Michael Collins, the other Sinn Fein leaders, and the Irish people themselves knew they were in a weak position and that the downside to not accepting the British offer was to lose everything. Even so the die-hard rejectionists made things ugly. The Palestinians have not even got that far because they are weak while deluding themselves they are strong (and winning).

Posted by: Jim Rockford at January 12, 2005 09:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm afraid I cannot be so optimistic. Optimism may come if Abbas, without Arafat around, illustrates that he is willing to comprimise with Israel and is genuinely interested in peace. His rhetoric, even as recently as his election campaign has been mixed to say the very least. Congratulations to the Palestinians for carrying out a relatively democratic election. What must follow, what is essential for peace is the following:

a) The rule of law to be established in PA territories, ie the destruction of the rackets and other gang related crime which is still pervasive.

b) Combatting terrorist groups such as Hamas through negotiation or by the gun. Whatever way you look at it, peace is impossible while such groups remain.

c) Acceptance of the Jewish state of Israel as a legitimate nation, and future neighbour. This must be in ARABIC as well as english, and must be the definative position of the PA.

d) The end of vile vilification of Jews within schools, media etc.

e) The rejection of the 'right of return' as an essential pre-requsite to peace. This will never happen and is not morally justified regardless. Instead a right to return to the new Palestinian state (in whatever Geographic form it may take) is a realistic and fair policy.

f) An acceptance that Israel will not give up ALL the West Bank. The much vaunted Un resolution on the matter does not call on Israel to give up all territory seized and there is no reason why Israel should make all the sacrifices for peace. The loss of some of the west bank is a price paid for the Arab defeat in 1967 and should be accepted.

All this is very unlikely to occur anytime soon and it isn't wise to assume things will change much until requirements similar to this are met.

Posted by: Andrew Paterson at January 12, 2005 10:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It really remains to be seen whether Sharon could deliver any meaningful deal re: the West Bank. Withdrawal from Gaza is going to be very traumatic internally. It seems to me that even a Taba deal -- which is less than the Palestinians ought to take -- is politically impossible within Israel.

On Iraq, I guess it's always easy to call something a success, if you only look at the most extreme things any opponents ever said. The mirror image would be to pronounce the entire enterprise a failure solely because a wave of Jeffersonian democracies has not already formed across the Middle East -- the kind of extremely optimistic scenario some proponents were offering. (And what about that pipeline to Haifa??)

The reality is that the best case scenario from the elections is not really all that good, that the Iraqis are facing a long internal struggle until they reach some kind of stable balance amongst ethnicities and other political shadings, and that the US occupation has been a decidedly mixed blessing, and will remain so for as long as it continues. Less attempt to control the outcome on the US part is good for both the US and Iraq, but not easy for either (defining Iraq as whichever faction gains power while the US is there) to accept.

With respect to Iran, the argument that the invasion of Iraq disables significant military options in Iran doesn't have anything to do with Democrats in the Senate, or opponents of the Iraq war. It's about the capabilities of the US armed forces, and of the social infrastructure that supports them. The easy victory promised in 2003 may still be looking acheivable from more comfortable corners, but to family members of active duty and reserves, it's already been a nearly unbearable strain. And adding another war is a very very difficult proposition. I would say that the US remains fully capable of a Kosovo style intervention -- heavy on the air power, no troops at all -- but this only works where the population's reaction is to turn on their leaders, rather than to stand firm in the face of the Blitz. The best intelligence in the world can't predict the former, absent an already advanced civil war (eg Afghanistan), and there is not, at this point, a Northern Alliance with whom to make common cause in Iran.

That said, Iran still has all the incentive in the world to keep sailing close to the wind with respect to its nuclear program, to keep Europe on board. This would be the case whther the US had invaded Iraq or not.

Another impact of the Iraq war on Iran has to do with one of the justifications. The war in Iraq has not just demonstrated the prowess of the US armed forces to shock and awe -- an oft-stated benefit of the use of American power. It has also demonstrated important weaknesses in the US ability to control enemy territory and fight insugrency. Is the Iranian defense establishment studying every confrontation between US forces and anyone? You bet they are.

I have no idea why you think Iran isn't doing plenty to help shape the result in Iraq to its liking. It may not have to invade to attain the results it wants, and thus its failure to do so means little. And what does Iran want? I think that's answerable along a sliding scale. A friendly and non-threatening state, at a minimum, and this is not unlikely. A state with whom it can make common cause in advancing the rights of Shi'ites in places where they are oppressed by Sunnis (eg Saudi Arabia)? That's likely too -- and again I'm talking about moral support, not military intervention. An ally with respect to Hezbollah and Palestine? Pretty likely again. A client? That's a longer shot, but not absolutely necessary. In sum, I think you'd have to say that every potentially likely result -- short of a complete return of Baathist rule -- is better for Iran that the status quo ante, and most are more in line with Iranian long term objectives than with ours.

On the other hand, it is hard to argue that the US will end up as net winners. The status quo ante had more support for Palestinian violence than the US liked, but I'd bet that moral, if not financial, support won't be any less under whatever regime emerges. The US has made some implacable enemies amongst Iraqis as a consequence, and even if people are ultimately happy about whatever form of a stable equilibrium they can create -- through a long struggle, as we all see -- gratitude towards the US generally will be strongly mitigated by individual and specific grievances based on US conduct towards their families and friends.

The important question with regard to torture (and I appreciate your writings on this subject) is not just how the US treats people who are terrorists, or who are otherwise actively involved in killing innocents. The real test is how the US treats innocent bystanders mistakenly caught up. The mistakes with regard to such people have been horrendous, and are unforgiveable. And they won't be forgiven.

So will the new Iraqi state, whatever it is, be a better friend to the US than the old one was? We'll have traded to minor confrontations over no-fly violations for greater participation by Iraqis in a worldwide jihadi movement. (And no, the lack of a spike up in jihad activity in the next year is not evidence that this long-term threat has not come about). I think it can fairly be said that the risk of harm has shifted from US airmen to US tourists in Indonesia, Egypt, Tunisia, or other such places.

Will Iraqi Shia be better off? This I think is very likely. But as a moral justification for US intervention, that's pretty shaky. I think, for example, that the Palestinians would be better off if the US occupied the West Bank and expelled all Israeli settlers. Catholics in Northern Ireland might ultimately be better off if the US occupied NI and expelled the Ulster Scots. (They could be resettled in the American South, I suppose). Dozens of such scenarios can be spun out. You really want to have a super power that feels it can act this way?

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 12, 2005 06:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You said:

"But disingenuous chit-chat by Iraq war opponents that we are now hampered from doing anything in Iran because of an ill-fated Iraq adventure are full of it. Name me an anti-war Democrat who would have advocated military action in Iran, seriously and convincingly. There are none."

This misses the point on several levels. First of all, your argument would only have merit if viewed through partisan lenses and not in terms of what is ultimately the truth of the current scenario. In other words, some of the people who say our options in Iran are limited might not have supported any action in Iran in the first place, but they might be right nonetheless regarding our military efforts are now hampered.

The important thing is whether or not Iran believes this, not whether the people who say it would have hypothetically endorsed a military excursion. Further, the point of maintaining credible military threats vis a vis Iran and other hostile nations is so that we can actually avoid military action altogether.

An Iran that fears the US military is an Iran more likely to accept diplomatic solutions. An Iran that perceives the US military as bogged down in Iraq, strained, and incapable of establishing stability in its somewhat smaller neighbor, is an Iran more likely to disregard bellicose threats and posturing by the US, pursuing its own agenda with an expectation of impunity.

Posted by: Eric Martin at January 12, 2005 08:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Further, the point of maintaining credible military threats vis a vis Iran and other hostile nations is so that we can actually avoid military action altogether."

Yes. The highest victory is that which is obtained without ever having fought.

Posted by: avedis at January 12, 2005 11:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Agreed Avedis; but that requires that the use of force be credible, something lacking from both parties since 1979.

Iraq is at least a net plus for the US than when Saddam was in power. Was the regime itself (as far as internal control) "stable."

Unquestionably yes, and Saddam killed probably hundreds of thousands each year to keep it that way. However, for all the vaunted internal stability, we were totally at the mercy of Saddam (and later, one of Uday or Qusay) as to what the regime would DO.

Invade Kuwait again, or Saudi Arabia? Ally with Iran to make that happen? Saddam himself was totally unpredictable and without a superpower leash (unlike say Kim Jong Il who has a Chinese leash).

Posted by: Jim Rockford at January 13, 2005 03:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I can't prove that Iraq would not have invaded Kuwait, or SA, eventually. I can't prove that Germany isn't going to invade Belgium next year. Ally with Iran? Maybe Iraq would have allied with Canada! If this is what you've got -- hell he might have done something, even though his previous efforts had cost him dearly, and he showed clear signs of understanding that at least -- well I guess we all have our own thresholds for causing the deaths of thousands.

"Totally unpredictable" is more than a bit of an overstatement. I think each of the major foreign policy moves of SH's career is readily understandable, on its own logic, including the invasion of Kuwait.

With respect to the brutality of the regime, there are two points to make. First, one should not assume that all those corpses in mass graves were the result of a steady rate of state murder. If you were to subtract out those who were killed as a result of the Shia uprising in 1991, and the crackdown (designed to prevent a Shia uprising, iirc) in the late nineties, the picture looks pretty different. I do not in any way condone either crackdown, or the general brutality of the regime, but you can't ignore the fact that this happened, and pretend that Saddam would have ordered mass deaths, out of the blue, in 2003-04, had the US not invaded. I think, for example, that there is no reasonable basis to suggest that left alone Saddam would have killed as many Iraqis in 2004 as Sudanese have been killed in 2004. (Or even as many as the US has killed in '03-04 . . .) This comes to the next point: the roving commission of the US to attack countries that are engaging in internal human rights abuses short of genocide. The US Army is going to be very busy if this is going to be its mission, and it will find that, unfortunately, there is no limit to human depravity.

You say we 'were totally at the mercy of Saddam.' We are now no less at the mercy of what some disgruntled Iraqi will do. My point above is that the threat to the US from Iraq is now more diffuse, less controllable (or predictable), and more direct to civilians. The "victory" achieved so far (and forseeably still achievable) is good news if you're following the war like some kind of grand football match, but in the real world, it's far from clear to me that the US is really going to be any better off. I don't see in your response any refutation.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 13, 2005 05:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The US is better off in Afghanistan, with a democracy. Better off in Ukraine, with a more functioning democracy. It will be better of in Iraq, with a Free Speech oriented democracy.

In Ukraine, there was big control over the main media for the first two elections. After the Orange revolution, the media acted more freely.

The free speech ability to disagree, in public, with the current gov't power is the most important freedom. It's actually more important than the vote, but very closely related.

Iraq already has it.

Palestine doesn't. That's why it was barely a free election. The Pali PA / Fatah thugs do NOT allow free speech criticism of the PA in the Pali media. N. Sharansky mentions this as one of 4 points. I claim it is the SINGLE most important point, and Sharon, Bush, the UN, the EU, should all be talking about how the PA is afraid of honest disagreement.

There won't be peace with Israel without free speech inside of Palestine.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at January 14, 2005 10:09 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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