Here you have it, gang. This is why most people choose to simply leave any and all discussion of Israel and the Palestinians to the extremists and crazies. Because if I were to mention "Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic," the first thing to pop into your head would be "Soros Bolshevik Kapo asshole," right? Or perhaps simply "self-loathing Jew?" Both, you say?
Any young scholar who wants to do policy-relevant work on Israel or the Palestinians needs their head examined. In the discourse, at least, you're either a gun-toting, jack-booted Zionist pig or an Islamist suicide-bombing anti-Semite. And sometimes both at the same time. No thanks.
I'm off to a wedding this weekend, but here's some stuff to start a few discussions in the comments while I am gone.
1. Doug Ollivant knows more about counterinsurgency than almost anyone I know and also knows quite a bit about eastern Afghanistan. So when he says we've gotten ourselves into a mess by taking sides in a war we should have stayed out of, listen. If you've ever heard me lecture on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, you will hear me make the kind of point that a MacDonald of Glencoe whose family settled in the East Tennessee Mountains understands intuitively: people live in the mountains because they want to be left the bleep alone.
2. I was in the meeting spoken of in the first few paragraphs of this article and am not surprised to see this particular detail leak, such was the number of journalists in the room. But this article follows closely on the heels of several articles the day of the president's Middle East speech in which Dennis Ross was already being set up as the bogeyman, and I'm not sure I'm buying it. Yes, I know Dennis Ross has always been runner-up to only Ariel Sharon as the bête noire of the Palestinian cause, but it sure seems to me as if everyone in the administration is more or less singing from the same hymnal this week. I got the chance to ask some pointed questions of Ross as well as some other administration officials a few hours after the Middle East speech, and I did not sense there to be much disagreement. I have always really liked and admired Ross myself, even when I have been inclined to disagree with him on a policy issue, so maybe I am not the best person to weigh in here. But in the end, I think I am most likely to agree with Aaron David Miller, who provides a needed reality check for the king of Jordan and others when he notes:
Dennis is viewed as the éminence grise, a sort of Rasputin who casts a spell over secretaries of state and presidents. But in the end, it’s the president who makes the ultimate decisions.
Reading through the Washington Post on the bus this morning, these paragraphs jumped out at me:
“This is not classic combat, where you see people advancing and you shoot them,” [Amos] Gilad said. “Because you achieve the opposite results, and it’s not fitting for a country like ours.”
The Israeli military has experience in confronting unarmed protests. The first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in the late 1980s, pitted youthful stone-throwers against Israeli combat troops, who had to adjust their tactics and weapons, shifting from the battlefield to riot control.
Yet despite years of experience and acquisition of riot gear, the army remains fundamentally unaccustomed to confronting civilian demonstrators, and the prospect that such protests might increase has become a subject of Israeli concern.
Now this is ironic, since only five years ago people were saying the IDF lost in southern Lebanon because they had spent too much time preparing for stabilization-type operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and not enough time training for conventional combat. Now we're saying, apparently, that the IDF is too focused on conventional combat and cannot respond non-lethally to unarmed protests. Here's Yossi Peled, speaking to the Associated Press:
Ex-general Yossi Peled, who commanded Israeli troops on the Lebanese and Syrian borders, said border breaches will likely be attempted again and must be stopped at any cost — regardless of the political fallout — because they pose a direct challenge to Israel's sovereignty.
"Yesterday's promo leaves us little time to draw the conclusions and come up with a new method of warfare where Israel will confront unarmed civilians, children and women," he said.
We can argue with Gen. Peled about whether or not "war" is the appropriate lens through which to view these kinds of unarmed demonstrations. (Was rock-throwing what Clausewitz had in mind when he defined war?) But I think Gilad and the rest of the IDF understand two things: (1) that shooting unarmed protesters, even when they are throwing rocks at you, has a negative strategic effect and (2) that the IDF will continue to be expected to deal with these kinds of demonstrations.
The IDF, in other words, will continue to be expected to be able to respond to every contingency in the book from police operations to high-intensity combat until there is a viable political settlement that allows the IDF to primarily focus on the kinds of high-intensity contingencies for which militaries normally prepare. How the IDF copes in the meantime, with a conscript army and limited time and money for training, will be fascinating to observe for anyone out there trying to identify future spending and training priorities for their own military.
[Note: There is a vocal segment of this blog's readership that gets all bent out of shape when I dispassionately write about the IDF in the same way I would any other military organization. (Because, you know, "Don't Forget Palestine!" etc.) There is another segment of this readership that gets bent out of shape when I dispassionately write about Hizballah or Hamas in the same way I would any other military organization. (Because, you know, Islam! 9/11! Terror! etc.) All of you need to chill. Trying to analyze and write about the performance of military organizations in as value-neutral a way as possible is part of my job.]
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) got a pretty nice love letter in the mail from Walter Pincus today. All I will say is that getting this kind of public approval from such an experienced and wise observer of intelligence affairs says a lot. Rep. Rogers seems like exactly the kind of person you would want in his job.
Sticking up for your friends, especially when those friends are reviled by everyone else, is admirable. Implying that your friend deserves different treatment in the eyes of the law because he is powerful, though, is repugnant. So too is a lack of empathy for victims of alleged sexual assaults. So too is single-handedly convincing your country to start an open-ended war in Libya that shows no sign of -- oh wait, that's another issue that should be dealt with separately. Let me conclude with a reminder to Bernard-Henri Lévy: aux États-Unis, Dominique Strauss-Kahn est un justiciable comme un autre. Deal with it.
My friend Sean takes issue with what I wrote yesterday. Sean is obviously partisan on this issue (and I do not use that word "partisan" pejoratively), but read his account of events from the Lebanese side of the border anyway. Another great witness account was posted in the comments. This is from an American student studying at the American University of Beirut.*
I was there yesterday at the Lebanese border, not protesting or remembering but watching what happened (I'm an american student of European descent, with more ties to the Jewish community than to any arab community). There was a clear effort by Hezbollah to make their presence known at the event, but only as "traffic cops". They were all clearly visible in their yellow hats with green writing, and green lanyards, but NONE of them were openly armed. even on the drive down, there was a distinct lack of weaponry on anyone except for Lebanese Army/Police forces. Hell, they were even checking bags to make sure that no one was bringing in weapons of any sort. On top of that, they were helping to transport the dead/injured out of the zone as fast as possible, by either bringing them out of the valley or helping clear a way through the crowds for the ambulances. They wanted to make it clear that NO ONE from Hezbollah was instigating anything, and that this was only a Palestinian movement (even if for it to happen, it did take government acquiescence). So from what I could see and hear about the other remembrances, it was very much the same. None of the anti-Israel groups wanted to give them a reason to start anything, and to keep it as much of a Palestinian event as possible.
At #1: as I was leaving the event after getting a little spooked at seeing dead bodies getting rushed up the hill, the current kill count was four, and that was at 3PM local time. I heard estimates of up to 16 dead, but 10 seems much more likely from the amount of ambulances I saw going in and out, and the stretchers being rushed up and down the hill. Also, as far as from what I could tell and from what I heard (although this is still probably subject to some more scrutiny), was that the IDF fired on the crowd before they even started throwing rocks, and fired on people at the fence vandalizing (aka hanging Palestinian flags on) the LEBANESE fence and chanting, which in turn spurred the rock throwing. From my vantage point and from the pictures I took, the area where the Palestinians mobbed the fence was near for the most part open farm land, with about a maybe a 10 yard stretch of trees between the Israeli fence and the farmland, with IDF soldiers right on the edge of the trees near the fence. If the Israelis were worried about anyone crossing the border, they could have sat out of range of the stones, and just watched. Not to mention the surveillance along that area of the border includes CCTV cameras (from what a friend who had visited the border the weekend before, the number of cameras had grown by a bunch that week) that could have easily told them if someone was attempting to cross the fence. Not to mention that there were two Merkavas, an observation post, a Humvee and a couple of civilian looking SUV's nearby that were all watching the border and could have easily run down or taken out any Palestinians crossing the border.
For me, this was really really disconcerting, because I've always thought of the IDF as a professional force, one of the best in the world and one that knew how to exercise restraint (especially after reading accounts of the Al-Aqsa intifada), but what I saw left me with the exact opposite impression. You would think that the IDF would remove themselves from a situation where they would be forced to use any sort of force, but what I saw really dictates otherwise. Even if they did return fire for stone throwing, they were waiting for it to happen. The soldiers didn't have to be within range of the stones, it seemed like they wanted to be there. From what I could discern from my pictures (taken from long range with a good zoom lens), the IDF soldiers were in full battle garb, not even riot control. I hate to insinuate that they wanted to kill Palestinians, but that's what seemed like. what made that even more stark was watching a man being brought up the side of the hill with most of his right leg missing. Now, I heard no explosions, but I did hear gunshots (I know my ear's not discerning enough to tell the difference between calibers), so that makes me wonder how he lost his leg, and a logical conclusion would be that it was shot off, and from my limited knowledge of weapons, it seems like it would have had to have been a large caliber weapon, or one with a high rate of fire. Why would any force on crowd control fire either something with that much of a rate of fire into a crowd, or a caliber that large?
I too find it extremely weird that the IDF was caught "unaware" of the coming protests, and in many ways find it too convenient, especially after being told that the gatherings were well publicized via facebook and other forms of social media, and you'd think someone in Israel would have picked up on it. One other bit of food for thought, normally that valley contains a large UN presence (an English friend had been the weekend before and told me as such), but they were starkly absent, minus one overflight of a UN helicopter, which then summarily disappeared.
*These two accounts are from Americans living in Lebanon. A summary of events from a truly Lebanese perspective (and one sympathetic to the Palestinians) can be found via the Leftist newspaper al-Akhbar.
So the events of yesterday do not, thankfully, seem to have kicked off a regional war, though continue to knock on wood. As predicted, though, the violence along Israel's borders (Page A1, today's Washington Post, above the fold, with a color photograph) has drowned out coverage of Bashar al-Asad's continuing war against his own people (Page A9, today's Washington Post). A few more observations to either add to or amend ones I made yesterday:
1. I promised there would be room to criticize the tactics and operations of the IDF going forward, though I also noted that as critical as I have been of the IDF in the past, I am sympathetic toward any military organization simply trying to protect the integrity of its territories. That having been said, the only place where there seems to have been an actual breach of the border was along the Syrian border. (And again, the Golan Heights are occupied territory that we assume will someday transfer back to Syria as part of a broader peace agreement, so we're not so much talking of an international border here as we are a line of control. The readers who pointed this out yesterday are, of course, correct on this point.) Yet the IDF killed how many along the Lebanese border? Let me just say that a) there was no excuse not to have been better prepared for this kind of mass protest on Nakba Day and b) that the IDF has demonstrated in the West Bank that it has the means to use non-lethal means to counter protests. So one question I would have going forward concerns how the IDF units along the border with Lebanon were prepared to respond to the protests along the Lebanese border in terms of escalation of force. What non-lethal means did they have to respond to protesters and rock-throwers? Because although a solider has the right to defend himself, Israel as much as any other nation understands that the kind of international condemnation you receive from shooting protesters carries with it strategic effects.
2. There was a lot of conversation in the Twitter-sphere concerning tactics of both violence and non-violence in support of the Palestinian cause. Much of this is poorly uninformed, and some are simply trying to crudely portray all Palestinians as violent savages while others are defending Palestinian tactics over the years without any kind of critical reflection on their appropriateness or effectiveness. Let me just say this: before anyone opens his or her mouth about strategies and tactics of the Palestinian national movement over the years, he or she should first check this book out from a library and read it.
3. As I said yesterday, the events along Israel's borders should be a wake-up call for the Israeli political class. Although the easy thing to do here will be to claim that Israel has no partner in peace, it is foolish to think the kind of non-violent protests that proved so effective in Egypt and Tunisia will not migrate to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In the eyes of the world, Israel will look like Ben Ali or Mubarak in the face of a non-violent movement for the creation of a Palestinian state. Is Israel prepared for that? When I was in Israel 18 months ago doing some research, some security analysts I talked to spoke of the West Bank and the Palestinians as a problem to be managed: sure, there would be an uprising every now and then, but it was nothing Israel could not handle through force. I'm not sure that is any longer the case, if indeed it ever was, which is part of the reason why I believe Western, Arab and Israeli policy-makers should start setting the conditions for a Palestinian state (.pdf) now rather than wait.
4. Have I mentioned before how much I hate writing about issues relating to Israel and Palestine? I think I have, so I usually avoid it and only made an exception in this case because of the Lebanon and Syria angle. Don't expect this, then, to be the new normal here on the blog. I will go back to my usual coverage of everything-but-Israel-and-the-Palestinians soon enough.
By now, you have read the news that protesters who attempted to march into Israel and Israeli-controlled territory* (here I am referring to the Golan Heights, which are disputed) were shot at by the Israel Defense Force (IDF). More than a dozen have been reported killed.
1. This will shock all some none of you, but Arab regimes have often cynically used the Palestinian cause to shift the focus away from their own failures and abuses. The clashes today are the best of news for Bashar al-Asad, and only the Lord knows how many brave Syrians will now be gunned down or thrown into prison in Homs, Douma, Hama, Baniyas, etc. while everyone's eyes are on the Lebanese, Syrian and Gazan borders with Israel. Just yesterday, we were all talking about terrified Syrians fleeing into northern Lebanon. Now Syria and its allies have either engineered or have been presented with the mother of all distractions from their own wretched and criminal behavior.
2. The Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Palestinians and Israeli peoples are all getting played right now. If you're a Palestinian marking the Nakba on the border with Israel right now, that's all fine and well, but you should be aware of those actors for whom this distraction is most welcome and who have every interest in using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and your own suffering for their own cynical purposes right now. If you're Lebanese, meanwhile, and you're watching Hizballah mobilize, ask yourself this: is Hizballah mobilizing to protect Lebanon and its people or because escalation benefits Hizballah's allies in Damascus?
3. This kind of non-violent march into Israeli-controlled territory is not without precedent. Some brave Lebanese did this very thing in the year leading up to Israel's 2000 withdrawal from their security zone in southern Lebanon. There is a huge difference, obviously, between Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon and Israel proper, but the point here is that this is not really a first, and as far as Israeli-controlled territory like Majdal Shams is concerned, you can forgive the protesters killed there for wondering what the difference is between there and, say, Jezzine or Marjayoun a decade ago. From the Israeli perspective, the difference is a great one, but that might not be the case for the witnesses to the non-violent marches into Israeli-occupied Lebanese territories in 1999 and 2000.
4. The IDF almost always seems to do the strategically stupid thing in these situations, either using force more than is necessary or using force indiscriminately, but I will not judge the decisions or actions of the IDF just yet and, as tough as I have been on the IDF in cases, I have some sympathy for them here. What were they supposed to do in the face of a breach of the border? And what did the protesters think would happen? (I know what Syria and some particularly cynical actors in Gaza and Lebanon probably hoped would happen: exactly what did happen.) But you can't really fault a military for protecting the territorial integrity of its state by force.
5. Israel has been kidding itself if it had imagined itself immune from the non-violent, peaceful protests that have been sweeping the Arabic-speaking world. You can dismiss today's events in northern Israel as a plot engineered by the Syrians, Iranians and their proxies. But the Palestinian cause is a real and enduring one. What happens when the Palestinians in the West Bank start demanding statehood not through violence but through peaceful protests? How will Israel respond? One option they do not have is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend like the call for Palestinian statehood will go away. And good luck whenever some clever Palestinian leader starts organizing peaceful marches on some crazy hilltop settlements in the West Bank, counting on provoking the kind of response that the media in Israel and abroad will eat up.
6. Finally, remember the one rule I follow with respect to Levantine politics: just be cynical about the motives and actions of everyone, and you will never go wrong.
*Just to clarify, the only actual breach of which I know took place on the Syrian border. I look forward to hearing accounts from witnesses regarding what happened on the Lebanese border.
Americans have what the Irish scholar Theo Farrell has called a technology fetish in our strategic culture. As someone who has spent most of my life fighting in and studying low-intensity conflict, by contrast, I like to poke holes in this particular fetish, noting the way in which poorly equipped rebels have given technologically superior Western militaries fits in the nuclear age.
I thus very rarely trumpet the news of the advent of a piece of technology as any kind of bid deal. That having been said, the big news out of Israel and the Palestinian Territories today is the successful interception of a short-range rocket by Israel's "Iron Dome" system.
In the 2006 war (.pdf), Hizballah fired an average of somewhere between 150 and 180 short-range rockets into Israel each day. (They managed to fire 250 rockets, in fact, on the very last day of the conflict.) Violent non-state actors in the region have used low-tech, short-range rockets to achieve a kind of deterrent effect with Israel. "As the bombardment of civilians is tiresome for our people," noted Hassan Nasrallah in an interview with as-Safir in 1993, "it is tiresome for others as well, and they can‘t handle it as well as we can."
If Israel can take away the ability of violent non-state actors to harrass and intimidate its populace through these rockets, though, that has the potential to be a strategic game-changer in the region. I'll be watching events in Israel with interest -- though not with as much interest, I would guess, as the boys in the Dahiyeh.
Update: Noah Pollak points out that Iron Dome knocks down $100 rockets at a cost of $50,000 a shot. He says this is unsustainable, but he probably doesn't want to know how much money we Americans have spent trying to counter low-tech IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Anthony Shadid is reporting from Lebanon for the New York Times and observes that Hizballah is now the most powerful force not just in Lebanon but in the Lebanese government:
A prime minister chosen byand its allies won enough support on Monday to form ’s government, unleashing angry protests, realigning politics and culminating the generation-long ascent of the Shiite Muslim movement from shadowy militant group to the country’s pre-eminent political and military force.
To a degree, this is all democracy in action. Hizballah and its allies control the most seats in the Lebanese parliament, so they have the constitutional right to nominate whoever the hell they like to be the prime minister.* In that way, Najib Miqati is as or more legitimate a choice to be the prime minister as/than any of the prime ministers during the 30-year Syrian occupation. And after spending Lebanon's first 50 or so years as its most underrepresented and ignored major sect, the fact that the Shia are now exercising political power in line with their demographic strength is not in and of itself a bad thing.
But that's it for what passes for the good news.
Moving on, I do not think I need to highlight the number of ways this could go wrong, starting with the fact that the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and Miqati is not by any means the consensus choice of that community. Hence the protests in Tripoli and elsewhere.
I want, though, to focus on how this plays into the way another war between Hizballah and Israel might look. Israel, since the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War, has always held the government of Lebanon responsible for the actions of Hizballah. In the 1993's 'Operation Accountability," for example, Israel said it was bombing southern Lebanon in part to coerce the governments of Syria and Lebanon to rein in Hizballah. (Why the Israelis thought Hafez al-Asad cared about people dying in southern Lebanon, Dear Reader, is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.) In 1996's "Operation Grapes of Wrath," meanwhile, Israel actually gave us a foretaste of the 2006 war by targeting Beirut and Lebanese infrastructure (such as power stations), again in an effort to get the government of Lebanon to crack down on Hizballah.
Obviously, this whole "getting the government of Lebanon to crack down on Hizballah" strategy was a bit crazy and did not work since Hizballah was so strong and the government of Lebanon so weak. But it was politically more viable than attacking the people that actually might have stood a chance at cracking down on Hizballah -- namely, Syria and Iran.
But Israel's habit of hitting Beirut gets a little less crazy each year. In 1993 and 1996, it made no sense to target the government of Lebanon. By 2006, though, Hizballah was in the government of Lebanon -- or was at least holding seats in parliament. And now, Hizballah has formed its first government in Lebanon, which -- and Paul Salem is right here -- probably makes the organization a little nervous. There are huge risks associated with this. In another war, for example, Israel will be able to claim -- for the first time, really -- that Hizballah is Lebanon, and Lebanon is Hizballah. Since Hizballah controls the government, any attack on the institutions of the state -- to include the US-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces -- will be legitimate. And even people like me, who genuinely love Lebanon and its people and do not like to see either bombed, will not have much of an argument for why Israel should not. (Other than my constant refrain that another war would not serve the interests of the people of either Lebanon or Israel and would only bring more unneeded suffering on each.)
The same applies to those aforementioned Lebanese Armed Forces. The one constant in U.S. governmental policy toward Lebanon has been -- and this dates back to the Civil War years -- our train-and-equip mission for the Lebanese Armed Forces. We have provided $720 million in aid to Lebanon's security services since 2006 alone. But if a member of the U.S. Congress asks me why we should continue to give money to the security forces of Lebanon when the institutions of the state are now controlled by a coaltion led by Hizballah ... well, I honestly have no good answer. I mean, U.S. aid to Lebanon and strengthening the institutions of the state makes sense in the abstract, but providing millions of dollars in aid and development money to a government controlled by a party our own government labels a terrorist organization? No. (On the bright side, hey U.S. tax-payers, you just saved $100 million annually!**)
This is the new era into which Lebanon has entered. The big winner in all of this, of course, is the government of Israel, which has long claimed that Lebanon is Hizballah (and visa versa) and can now credibly make that claim on the international stage in the event of another war.
The big loser in all of this? Everyone north of the Blue Line.
*As my buddy Sean pointed out, though, you don't have to work hard to imagine what Hizballah would have done if the March 14th coalition, employing the same logic as Hizballah and its allies now, had decided to choose someone other than Nabih Berri to serve as the speaker of parliament. It's kind of charming, in a perverse way, that Hizballah is behaving like any other participant in a democratic system, demanding rights when in opposition that it seeks to deny others when in the majority. It's less charming, of course, when you realize that Hizballah has a massive arsenal with which it can back up its own grievances.
**I would like to think our wise government will take this $100 million and use it to pay down the interest on our debt, but our Congress will probably blow it all on booze and Cheetos for its Super Bowl party.
UPDATE: Some smart comments from the readership. I will try to respond to them as the day goes on. I have responded to three such comments thus far but have just turned off al-Jazeera and am closing up the laptop so I can get ready for work. Sadly, I am speaking at the Middle East Institute today ... on Afghanistan. But I may call an audible at the line of scrimmage and open the discussion up to the events in Lebanon after we exhaust Afghanistan as a topic of conversation, so if you are around and want to harass me in person for anything I have written here, drop by.
UPDATE II: Man, the comments thread is smoking. Some great stuff. Let me point you all, though, toward some really good political analysis by Elias and Sean. Unlike me, Sean is in Beirut. And Elias is one of the smartest political analysts I know when it comes to Lebanon. Both dudes are great. One thing I want to stress is that I think war would be tragic for both the peoples of Lebanon and Israel. I think it would be a really, really bad idea and would not advance anyone's interests. Okay? That having been said, in previous engagements, the United States and others have asked the Israelis to distinguish between Hizballah and the government of Lebanon, while Israel has insisted the two were best considered one and the same. I realize that Hizballah has allies in its coalition, but there can be little debate about who the senior partner in the coalition is, right? In addition, you guys can all see how it will be tougher to claim the government of Lebanon and Hizballah are not one and the same when Israel starts bombing infrastructure in the next war, right? That's all I am trying to say. I am not saying bombing Lebanese infrastructure in the event of another war makes strategic or even tactical sense because I do not think that war itself makes much sense.
As many of you know, I really try to avoid working on issues related to the Israelis and Palestinians. The whole mess reminds me of the Western Front, with both sides entrenched in their fighting positions and lobbing round after round of heavy artillery at the other side. I mean, on the one hand, I have spent a lot of time in the Arabic-speaking world, have traveled widely through Israel and the Palestinian Territories, speak one of the relevant languages, and genuinely like visiting Israel and its neighbors (where I have many friends). So I really should take an active interest in the issues. On the other hand, though, I have instead chosen to spend my days trying to think of ways to win a counterinsurgency campaign in a landlocked mountainous state in Central Asia in part because it's a lot more "do-able" than brokering peace in the Levant, and no one is going to call me ugly names if I suggest, to pick one example, talking with our violent Islamist adversaries.
That having been said, I know enough about the issues to know that the release of the so-called "Palestine Papers" is kind of a big deal. So if you have any interest whatsoever in the Middle East "Peace Process" and are not otherwise busy breaking down Green Bay's blitz packages or pondering what President Obama will say in tomorrow's State of the Union Address, you'll want to follow their release, which you can do here, as well as the commentary, which you can do here.
Have fun with that. Let me know how everything turns out.
Riding the bus en route to work this morning, I read Elliott Abrams' op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the aborted peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The gist of Abrams' argument is that the Obama Administration is spending too much time wringing its hands over Israeli settlements when it could be paying attention to the good news coming out of the West Bank: at the same time in which the economy in the West Bank is growing at 8%, Palestinian security forces are making real gains as well. The Obama Administration, in other words, needs to stop fretting about Israeli settlements. And the suspension of peace talks? Who cares? "The sky," Abrams writes, "is not falling."
The problem with Abrams' op-ed is in his sourcing. He writes:
The World Bank reported this month that "If the Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future." The West Bank's economy will grow 8% this year, said the bank. Meanwhile, tax revenues are 15% above target and 50% higher than in the same period last year.
Good news, right? Absolutely. But Abrams left out one of the other major findings of the report (.pdf) -- the one that undermines his entire op-ed:
Sustainable economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza, however, remains absent. Significant changes in the policy environment are still required for increased private investment particularly in the productive sectors, enabling the PA to significantly reduce its dependence on donor aid.
h. The obstacles facing private investment in the West Bank are manifold and myriad, as many important GoI restrictions remain in place: (a) access to the majority of the territory’s land and water (Area C) is severely curtailed; (b) East Jerusalem -- a lucrative market -- is beyond reach; (c) the ability of investors to enter into Israel and the West Bank is unpredictable; and (d) many raw materials critical to the productive sectors are classified by the GoI as “dual-use” (civilian and military) and their import entails the navigation of complex procedures, generating delays and significantly increasing costs. ... Unless action is taken in the near future to address the remaining obstacles to private sector development and sustainable growth, the PA will remain donor dependent and its institutions, no matter how robust, will not be able to underpin a viable state.
The point of the whole friggin' World Bank report was that the very real economic gains we have witnessed in the West Bank over the past few years will turn out to be ephemeral if they are not followed by a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That political settlement doesn't necessarily have to lead to the immediate creation of a Palestinian state, but it has to address the areas of concern highlighted in the above paragraph. And that bit about "access to the majority of the territory’s land and water" being severely curtailed? Any guesses from the readership what the World Bank research staff thinks is doing the curtailing?
Regarding security, cooperation between Israeli and PA forces has never been better. This month the International Crisis Group acknowledged that "In the past few years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) largely has restored order and a sense of personal safety in the West Bank, something unthinkable during the second intifada. Militias no longer roam streets, uniformed security forces are back, Palestinians seem mostly pleased; even Israel -- with reason to be skeptical and despite recent attacks on West Bank settlers -- is encouraged."
Again, nothing wrong with that paragraph, and you can read that report as well. But again, Abrams doesn't mention a key finding of that report:
The undeniable success of the reform agenda has been built in part on popular fatigue and despair – the sense that the situation had so deteriorated that Palestinians are prepared to swallow quite a bit for the sake of stability, including deepened security cooperation with their foe. Yet, as the situation normalises over time, they could show less indulgence. Should Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapse – and, with them, any remaining hope for an agreement – Palestinian security forces might find it difficult to keep up their existing posture. ... Without a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process or their own genuine reconciliation process, Palestinians will be stuck in their long and tenuous attempt to square the circle: to build a state while still under occupation; to deepen cooperation with the occupier in the security realm even as they seek to confront it elsewhere; and to reach an understanding with their historic foe even as they prove unable to reach an understanding among themselves.
The Crisis Group report that Abrams cites, like the World Bank report, only supports the thesis of Abrams' op-ed if you very selectively cut and paste from the reports. Otherwise, the reports he cites actually undermine the central argument of his op-ed. (And it goes without saying that Abrams did not similarly endorse this Crisis Group report. Or cite the 2009 address by Keith Dayton to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (.pdf) in which Dayton similarly warned that security gains in the West Bank were ephemeral absent political progress.)
Abrams has to know this. I mean, even assuming Abrams did not himself read the entire Crisis Group report, that bit above was from the executive summary. And again, let's assume Abrams did not read the entirety of that World Bank report either. No matter: here is a representative example of the way that World Bank report was greeted by the mainstream media upon its release last week:
JERUSALEM — The World Bank warned on Thursday that the Palestinians will be unable to build a viable state unless Israel lifts its restrictions that stymie private investment in the Palestinian territories.
The economy of the West Bank and Gaza is expected to grow eight percent this year, but largely thanks to foreign aid, the Bank wrote in a report.
The report's release coincided with the conclusion of two days of Middle East peace talks which a Palestinian official said "made no progress."
"Unless action is taken in the near future to address the remaining obstacles to private sector development and sustainable growth, the PA (Palestinian Authority) will remain donor dependent and its institutions, no matter how robust, will not be able to underpin a viable state," the report said.
(That last bit from the AFP, but for the sake of balance, here is another example from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Different news service, same slant.)
I have heard from many people I admire and trust that Abrams is one of the most brilliant people in Washington. But this is the kind of stuff that gives think tank researchers a bad name. I simply cannot believe that Abrams was not aware of the conclusions of the reports he cites when he cited them. Not mentioning those conclusions in his op-ed, then, is worse than disingenuous.
You guys know how much I hate talking about and writing about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And the point of this post is not to counter Abrams' argument. The point of this post is that unlike most readers of the Wall Street Journal, those paid to study security issues in the Middle East for a living (and are thus familiar with the sources Abrams cites) know when an author is selectively sourcing his argument and deliberately avoiding evidence or conclusions that might weaken his thesis. Again, this is worse than disingenuous. This is dishonest.