Saturday, October 31, 2009

When Asking For Water, Careful What You Wish For

The ongoing drought in Israel, and indeed in the wider region, has been of great concern. Water levels in Israels main natural reservoir, the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret) are well below a "comfortable" level and the Israeli government was considering drastic measures.

One of these drastic measures is even proving to be a major political lightning rod. It's a new "drought tax" on water which is intended to both curb water use and waste and to levy funds to help construct desalinization facilities.

Very recently, Israel was his with major rain storms. Rain in the Middle East, or at least in Israel, is big news, especially in a drought. While the rain did raise the water level in the Kinneret a paltry couple of centimeters (but still a significant amount given the recent water levels) it also brought with it considerable hardship. Pictures of some of the flooding the storms caused is quite remarkable while in even more tragic circumstances a tourist in Israel was killed as a result of the storms.

The rain also required memorial services for the cowardly assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Rabin to be postponed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Good News From Jenin

I thought it was important to share this "good news" story from the Gilboa Regional Council in Israel and the Govenorate of Jenin.

The two governments are cooperating with one another to create economic opportunities that will not only be mutually beneficial but that will create an interdependence and opportunity for contact between ordinary Israelis and ordinary Palestinians.

This article deals mostly with a tourism project in Jenin, formerly a name associated with Palestinian suicide bombing (not the site of bombing, but the source of it.) The article describes a tourist visit to the town and makes it sound quite lovely and a great place to visit. Nonetheless, it was clear, Israeli settlers were not welcome.

It also does not really explain how this project benefits the Israeli side, but does touch on other projects, such as a joint industrial zone (Palestinian production Israeli export) and a cultural facility where Palestinians can learn Hebrew and Israelis can learn Arabic.

The point is, however, that this project stands as an example of what can be accomplished when two partners want to work with one another and when a decision is made to pursue cooperation and prosperity. The article is an interesting read and is exactly the kind of story I wanted to talk about when I started this blog.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Canada's Top Soldier in Israel

Canada's top soldier, General Walter J. Natynczyk paid a three day visit to Israel this past week.

The official Canadian Forces news release on the trip makes mention of the General's visits to Canadians serving in the middle east, as well as meetings with top Israeli military and defense officials to foster military relationships and the challenges faced in the region.

Israeli news, however, has given the visit somewhat more coverage, for example it notes the General's visit to Yad Vashem*, the various military sites he visited in Israel and has focused on a few comments the General made regarding the Goldstone report and Israel's war against Hamas.

Specifically, the General acknowledges that he still needs to read the full Goldstone report, but implies that he has had a detailed briefing on the situation and states that he now has an understanding of "...what the Israeli forces have had to counter for quite some time..." The General said that he recognizes a responsibility to protect oneself even if attacked from civilian locations and muses that "I’m not sure if the Israeli standpoint is that much different than the Canadian standpoint, having had the experience in Afghanistan."

Israeli media seem to be interpreting this as a validation of the critique of the Goldstone report which argues that it will apply to all unconventional warfare of the future where the enemy is difficult to distinguish from civilians.

In reality, the General seems to be saying not much more than that he has not yet read the report and so is not prepared to endorse it or attack it. What is interesting, however, is what seems to be some kind of an acknowledgement that the tactics used by the IDF are likely quite similar to what Canadian and other NATO militaries use.

*The first song played in the video on this link is a Hebrew song called "Tomorrow" or "Machar." It sounds strange to hear it performed so martially, but its words and message are really quite beautiful.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ottawa Cemetary Vanadalized

A Jewish cemetery in Ottawa was desecrated by vandals who covered it in antisemitic graffiti with slogans and swastikas.

The Jewish community of Ottawa is naturally disturbed by this affront to their dignity and the sanctity of their dead. Fortunately, however, the police have immediately labelled this act a hate crime and are investigating.

A Jewish community spokesperson said that community ostracism of those responsible is the best deterrent against such attacks. Perhaps this is true, but so are tough laws that severely punish intolerance and education programs and community outreach that combat intolerance and hate.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thoughts on a Palestinian Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State

Two prominent peace activists, a Palestinian Aziz Abu Sarah and an Israeli Roi Ben-Yehuda had a public, interesting, though short discussion on whether or not Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Roi argued, as may be expected, that the Palestinians should recognize the Jewish character of Israel so as to allay the Israeli fear that Palestinians wish to exercise their right of return to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. He recognizes that this would not be easy for Palestinians and suggests that Palestinians, if they don't like the idea of a Jewish Israel, should propose an alternative.

The thrust of Aziz's argument is that it's important for there to be mutual recognition of the "other's" narrative and that Israel needs to take responsibility for Palestinian suffering. These are words that he lives by, as per this heartfelt piece he wrote. He also suggested that Palestinians should not be asked to make this recognition before they have a state, nor should they be asked to do something neither Egypt nor Jordan were when they made peace with Israel.

Certainly the discussion was thought provoking, so I decided to draft a short statement of recognition of Israel that the PA could use. Obviously, this is nothing more than the off-the-cuff musings of a guy on his couch, but maybe it's an interesting starting point:

"The Palestinian Authority recognizes an ancient and continuous Jewish connection to the land of Israel. Similarly, the PA recognizes a long and continuous Arab connection to the land and that the land is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The land contains sites central to the culture of these people who continue to inhabit it and who look to it as a source of inspiration from afar. It also contains sites sacred to the world's three Abrahamic, monotheistic religions. The sate of Israel, which legitimately governs its territory as defined by the United Nations, governs people of all these backgrounds and of all these faiths. It also has sovereignty over sites which are culturally, historically and or religiously significant to millions of people in the middle east and around the world.

Israel must guarantee the rights of all non-Jewish minorities in its territory. Israel must ensure that all real or technical barriers to full equality between all its citizens must be removed and eliminated. Israel must recognize that its minorities are its full citizens and have the right to permanently remain in Israel.

Israel must also guarantee that the aforementioned religious, cultural and historic sites in its territory, significant to so many be protected, preserved and accessible to all who wish to visit them.

Since 1948, when Israel established its Independence, the Palestinians have suffered. Palestinians have been hoping for a state and have lived through much adversity and national trauma. Israel must recognize this suffering and acknowledge its role in it.

If Israel can recognize the suffering of the Palestinians, its role in it and the legitimacy of the Palestinian national aspirations, if Israel will guarantee the safety and equality of its minorities and protect the treasures of humankind within its borders, if Israel can recognize that the Palestinians have the same hopes and aspirations for themselves and Israel does for itself, then the Palestinian People can recognize that the state of Israel in the fulfillment of the Jewish national aspiration to a homeland of their own."

"De-Sanctification" of the Holocaust

This article hits the nail on the head when it speaks of how the term "Holocaust" is thrown around so liberally that it cheapens or "de-Sanctifies" (an appropriately eloquent term) the industrialized, institutionalized genocide perpetrated by the Germans and their willing partners in World War Two.

The article is correct to point out how even though many have real concerns with abortions, or animal welfare, or health care these are in no way comparable to the suffering of the Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehovah's Witness, the infirm or any of the other countless millions of undesirables the Nazis tried to wipe out.

The Holocaust was such evil that it has no parallel in human history, and if it did, it would certainly not be abortion, it would more likely be another, actual genocide. Even then, however, no other genocide has seen the level of institutionalization, industrialization or allocation of resources that the Holocaust did.

To compare something to the Holocaust (or for that matter, to Nazis, or to Hitler, etc.) is to attempt to link the target of ones argument to the worst evil in history. In truth, however, such a comparison reflects an intellectual void that either misunderstands the Holocaust, the issue one is trying to link to the Holocaust, or both.

There is evil in the world, and cruelty, and suffering but as much as we may abhor certain aspects of the world we live in, none of it has yet matched the evil of the Holocaust and the Nazis. To suggest otherwise is, as this article points out, a cheapening of the suffering of victims of the Nazis and of those who survived.

The only failure of the article is that is misses this and this, both of which deserve mention.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Drastic Measures to Resolve a Drought

The extreme water shortage in Israel and dire predictions for the future of the country's water resources bring the recent chilling of the relationship between Israel and Turkey into sharper focus.

Water reservoir supplies in Israel are now so low, that experts are saying weather will only determine the severity of the water crisis. If this winter is better than the last, arid one, than the situation will remain critical, but potentially manageable. If this winter is the same or worse than last year's than drastic measures including water imports and expensive portable desalinization machines will be needed.

One of the drastic solutions proposed, and one that underscores the importance of good relations between Israel and Turkey is the possibility of bulk water transfers from Turkey to Israel. The idea is not new but previous governments never went through with it because other methods of accessing more freshwater (like desalination) were found to be less expensive. The difference is that this time, the situation may be grave enough as to merit this costly step.

Water transfers are problematic for so many reasons. They can cause real damage to the ecosystem they are taken from, they are sometimes problematic to transport and distribute, there is the risk that water becomes treated as a commodity, which could have broader impacts at international law and they risk instilling a false sense of security in the importer which may have the consequence of reducing or relaxing conservation efforts.

In the Israeli case, certainly in an emergency where the water levels are near the point of an environmental, economic or human disaster something would have to be done to prevent a crisis and perhaps in this case, a bulk water import would be merited. What should really be the outcome of this is a deep introspection and domestic discussion in Israel of how to build a country in a desert. The Israeli dream has always been making the desert bloom and the idea of encouraging Jews to move to Israel to "return home" encourages population growth in places where there should perhaps be little or no population at all. Israel needs to re-examine the labour Zionist dream of working the land in the form of cultivation and whether more of the population should somehow be shifted or encouraged to shift into other sectors that are less water intensive.

The Israeli Water Authority is satisfied with the results of their various water conservation efforts which reduced consumption to 89 cubic meters of water consumed per Israeli per year (see this slightly out of date chart for an idea of how that compares to other developed countries) but obviously, these efforts were not enough.

Something will need to change in the way Israel uses and conserves water, or scenes likes this one, a water tanker off-loading in the port of Barcelona, will become common scenes in Israel and the ecological consequences and dependency on imports will have wide ranging impacts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Green Power in the West Bank

YNet reports that a group of Israelis from Comet-ME has set up a completley sustainable power source for the West Bank village of Susya which had, until recently, no electricity at all, other than a diesel generator.

This story of Israelis helping a severly underserviced West Bank village is significant on many levels. First, the village was not connected to any power grid, even though wires serving settlements passed right over them. This is a clear representation of the disparity between Palestinians and the settlements in the West Bank. While the West Bank economy is, in general, growing, there are still villages that are forgotten. A situation that must change.

Secondly, this effort in itself is a step towards improving the West Bank economy. As the article itself indicates, this will do a great deal for the ability of this village to generate wealth for themselves. The better things are for the people of this village, the less likley it will be to generate hate, resentment and extremism.

Finally, this is a story of ordinary Israelis meeting ordinary Palestinians and offering a helping hand. It is personal connections like these, and grass roots connections that will set the foundations for real, lasting peace.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Turkey's Relations With Israel

There has been a noticeable cooling in what were normally mutually beneficial relations between Turkey and Israel in recent months mostly as a result of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israels war against Hamas in early 2009.

This time, the cooling of relations has manifested itself in Turkey's rescheduling of NATO military maneuvers so that Israel would not be able to participate. To add insult to Israel's injury at being left out of these maneuvers, Turkey agreed to hold further aerial (ground maneuvers had already taken place) exercises with Syria, a state officially at war with Israel.

While the US "gently" criticized Turkey for the move suggesting that it's never appropriate for any country to be excluded from an event like the NATO maneuvers at the last minute. Turkish officials have apparently sent messages to Israel suggesting that despite the Turkish Prime Minister's harsh rhetoric, Israel should just let things blow over. Israel seems slightly more concerned though and seems to want to nip these tensions in the bud. This may be inferred from statements that Israel will not enter a war of words with Turkey through the media suggesting that any talks should be done directly between the states. Indeed, some Israeli officials have explicitly expressed their concern that ties between Israel and Turkey may have been seriously damaged because of the war against Hamas.

Turkey's increasing distance from Israel ought to be of real concern to Israel. Much of it has to do with domestic Turkish issues, a leader more interested in ties with the Muslim world than with the West, a government more interested in siding with Hamas than with the EU--which it nonetheless wants to join. To Israel, this may make Ankara appear to be an unreliable partner, but in fact, it probably places Turkey in a position to be an important catalyst for peace and as a power able to exert real pressure on both Israel and Hamas.

To Hamas, Turkey is one of the few states openly supporting Gaza and vocally criticizing Israel. This makes Turkey, in many ways a friend of Hamas and a country they may be uninclined to alienate, especially given Turkey's good relations with the west, as opposed to other Hamas supporters like Syria and Iran which are not in the good books of powers like the EU and US.

To Israel, however, Turkey in important on many levels. First, there is the intangible benefit to Israel of having beneficial relations with a Muslim country in the region. Though Turkey is not an Arab country, as Muslims having relations with Israel, they sent a message that relations with Israel were beneficial and possible for other Muslim countries.

On a more tangible level Turkey was an important client of the Israeli arms industry which is now reportedly suffering as a result of the new Turkish attitude. Similarly, Turkey was to be a potential solution to Israel's water shortfalls. These are real benefits to Israel that are now being lost and it's hard to know exactly what Israel would do to reverse its losses.

Israel can hit back at Turkey. They can point out Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish population, or officially recognize the Armenian genocide (which they should do, on principle) but both of these are unlikely as they would further isolate a country that Israel needs good relations with.

The US may be Israel's closest ally and the one least likely to mount serious pressure on the Israeli government but Turkey can mount pressure because it is important to Israel, but its ties are less secure. Turkey can be an important player in making peace in the middle east. Hopefully, they recognize this power and will wield it wisely.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lawfare in Quebec

In September, a judge of the Quebec Superior Court dismissed a motion by a Palestinian village Bil'in to find that two Quebec companies: Green Park International Inc. and Green Mount International Inc. had acted illegally and in violation of Quebec and international law for having built condominiums in a settlement in the West Bank and therefore for having been agents of the Israeli government. An article written about the case before it went to trial is here.

The case (Bil'In (Village Council) c. Ahmed Issa Yassin, 2009 QCCS 4151) is based on the idea that international law prohibits settlements because of the prohibition of transferring civilians into occupied territory. Therefore, Israel should be considered in violation of International law and the commission of a war crime and that the defendants (the companies) should be considered as agents of the Israeli government for having built settlements on their behalf.

The Quebec Superior Court Judge the Honorable Louis-Paul Cullen examines the Plaintiff's claims that the Israeli High Court of Justice which had heard similar claims from the same Plaintiffs had not fully resolved the matter, the Quebec court agreed.

The Defendants argued that the object of the Plaintiff's case was Res Judicata, something that has already been the subject of a judgement, because the same parties had been impleaded by the Israeli courts. In response to the Plaintiff's counter argument that the parties in the Israeli court's decision were not the same as those impleaded in the Quebec Superior Court, the judge referred to this claim as "disingenuous."

The judge also questioned the jurisdiction of the Quebec Superior Court over the matter and applied the criteria for jurisdiction which includes and examination of whether it would be better for another court in another jurisdiction to examine the case. The judge also pointed out that the Plaintiffs did not challenge the competency or authority of the Israeli courts and pointed out that they implicitly recognized its jurisdiction and reliability by applying to it in the first place. The Quebec court also wrote at para 325 that "having closely examined all of the HCJ judgements filed in the record, this Court is convinced that an informed person, viewing the matter realistically and practically would not perceive the situation otherwise." In other words, Israeli courts are fair and impartial in their judgements.

The Quebec Superior Court concluded that the case brought by the Plaintiffs, which in part demanded the removal of the construction of the Defendants, was a violation of principles of natural justice as it did not implead the people actually living in the homes constructed and that since the solution sought would see their homes removed, it would be unfair to issue any such order in their absence.

The court also noted that states have immunity before the courts and that the Superior Court of Quebec would not be able to judge Israel as a state. It noted that even though the state of Israel was not impleaded as a party, "...the Plaintiffs indirectly seek the essential finding that it is committing a war crime, thereby effectively by-passing Israel's absolute immunity to any judicial proceedings." (Para 317).

The Judge also criticizes the Plaintiff's for 'jurisdiction shopping' and for choosing Quebec as a jurisdiction to which their claims have only the slightest connection.

The decision is a bit of a long read, but is clearly written and accessible to anyone interested. It is also a case of lawfare. As the judge pointed out, the Plaintiffs in this case were jurisdiction shopping, had recognized the jurisdiction of Israeli courts and picked a place with dubious connection to the case to seek judgement. It was an attempt to have a Quebec court decide a principle of international law and do indirectly what was not allowed directly.

Justice should not be denied, but seeking judgements in the courts of foreign jurisdictions for actions having no relation to the country where the court sits certainly gives the appearance of a political stunt to use the justice system to accomplish what other courts have not allowed.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Simon and Garfunkel Tribute in Tel Aviv

A Simon and Garfunkel tribute concert is to be performed in Tel Aviv by two Israeli musicians.

This is really barely newsworthy, but kind of cool for me on a personal level given that I grew up listening to Simon and Garfunkel and was lucky enough to see them in concert twice.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to US President Barak Obama "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

A hearty congratulations to the president.

Still though, as much I like Obama and would have voted for him if I could, has he really done enough to merit this prize? He has not been in office for a year yet and for all his well intended words, what has he accomplished?

It's true he has spoken of nuclear disarmament, he has reached out to the Arab world, he's appointed a Middle East Peace envoy, but in all this, his country is fighting two wars which do not seem to be drawing to a close, the Middle East remains as bellicose as ever, and for all his multi-lateralism, places like Cuba remain sealed off from much of the world by a US embargo, Chavez rages in Venezuela and those indicted for genocide in Darfur remain free.

As much as I hate to admit it, I actually agree with Hamas on this one with their comment: "Obama has a long way to go still and lots of work to do before he can deserve a reward...Obama only made promises and did not contribute any substance to world peace."

Obama has made steps in the right direction, but accomplished precious little. Indeed, the Nobel committee is praising Obama for creating a new international climate: of of multi-lateralism and dialogue. This is no great achievement, however, coming after a president like Bush. It's not so much that Obama has brought about a new climate, he's restored an old one that we had not seen for the past 9 years.

Still, congratulations to the President and here's to hoping that the burden of being a winner of this prize will drive him to work even harder for peace and will lend him and his country even greater credibility in its efforts to broker agreements and speak with influence around the world.
For my part, however, I would still have preferred someone like this.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Directions In Israeli Foreign Policy

A so-called "secret" document outlining recommendations for a major overhaul of Israeli foreign policy was leaked to the JPost on October 7, 2009. The document, which seems to have been written in the last few weeks, begins with the premise that the entire Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs is centered around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It outlines three major areas of change 1) a realignment of Israels relations to include a larger variety of countries and regions so as to decrease dependence on the US. 2) A decrease in expectations for peace with Palestinians and 3) a firm, unapologetic confrontation of all incidents of antisemitism.

On the first point, the document does not suggest that Israel break of or lessen relations with the US which is described as Israel's best friend in the world. Instead, it suggests that Israel has ignored major portions of the world, in particular Latin America and Africa and that diplomatic and economic relations with these regions needed to be (re)established. The paper makes the point that this slight realignment may even have the effect of strengthening the influence of the US in the middle east because it's relationship with Israel could remain warm, but still somewhat more distant, improving the US's appearances of neutrality.

Naturally, this type of strategy is good for any state. Indeed, in many ways, an analogy may be drawn with Canada which has a very unique relationship with the US and has, as a result, seen its influence in other parts of the world wane. The strategy suggested by this report is similar to ones Canada has adopted. Undoubtedly, the more friends a country has in the world, the more influence, security and prosperity it can count on. Israeli efforts to establish economic relationships in these "neglected" parts of the world can see a change in the current situation where nearly one third of all Israeli exports, a middle eastern country, go to the US and not to markets closer to home in Africa, Asia and Europe.

As though to prove a commitment to this type of outreach, in early September Lieberman himself visited 5 African countries. Though one of the purposes of the trip was to encourage African countries to help 'moderate' the attitudes of their Arab friends, it also resulted in the signing of economic agreements with the promise from Africans that more can come if peace does too. Later in September, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister met with his South African counterpart as well.

The second point--reducing expectations for peace--suggests that there should be a shift away from efforts for an immediate peace agreement and rather more focus on calming tension on the ground.

Here the paper has things only half right. Efforts should certainly be made to calm the situation on the ground. Extreme settlers should be reined in, settlement expansion should stop, as many checkpoints as possible should be removed without endangering peace, efforts to share water resources should be increased, and trade and investment should be encouraged through regulatory and practical security measures. In other words, people should feel more at ease, less restricted, safer, happier, more prosperous. This being said, the drive for peace should not be dismissed as overly enthusiastic or optimistic. On the contrary, both ordinary citizens and leaders should be excited about peace, should talk about it non-stop, speak of how good things could be and drive the process forward, deliberately, courageously and steadfastly. Reducing expectations is the wrong move, Israel should of course remain realistic, but enthusiasm for peace is sorely lacking.

Taking this analysis to a colder level, it is to Israel's advantage from a PR point of view to speak of peace with enthusiasm. This way, if talks are not successful, Israel can always point to its enthusiasm for peace. Certainly, a party to a peace agreement that continually says "don't get excited, we're going nowhere fast" will not come out looking good should their self fulfilling prophesy come to be. Of course, such a PR victory can only be achieved if Israel doesn't say one thing and then do quite the opposite.

The third point is an unapologetic confrontation of antisemitism wherever it appears. The paper states that it seeks to not only fight classical antisemitism, but also "...boycotts of Israeli goods and academic institutions, and...political-legal suits against Israeli leaders and military personnel visiting Europe." In other words, what can be considered antisemitic is more than a world leader or group saying 'I hate Jews', it also includes examples of the Swedish Ambassador being the only EU Ambassador to attend the swearing in of Iran's Holocaust denying President.

Here a very fine line is being walked. Yes, Israel calls itself the Jewish State. It is the world's only Jewish nation state, and naturally, the state itself and much of its population and leaders would probably take personal offence to antisemitism. This being said, it's dubious that Israel speaks for all Jews all over the world. In confronting antisemitism, Israel is speaking for more than just itself, it is purporting to speak for all Jews.

It's also going to be difficult to draw the line at what antisemitism is without "watering down" the term or sounding hysterical. No doubt, hate must be confronted wherever it is found. It must be rooted out and cut down. Period. What is this hate though? Certainly it would be legitimate to criticize Israel, it's policies on a number of issues, its government, it's track record on human rights. It would not be legitimate to suggest that Israel should not exist, that it is illegitimate, or that it should not be allowed to defend itself. What of boycotts though? This almost requires a case by case analysis. If the behaviours in Israel which is encouraging people to want to boycott Israel exists in other countries, and those countries are not boycotted, then certainly their is an appearance of a double standard. If Israel is being singled out for doing what all other states do, then it is certainly legitimate for Israel to at least ask the question, "how come you're only picking on me?"

The policy paper walks along a very slippery slope on the antisemitism question and while hate must be confronted, there comes a time when battles must be chosen...

It will be interesting to see, in the coming months if the trend of the Africa visits continues and Israel continues along the path outlined in this paper. Some of it is quite good, but much of it (at least from the way it sounds in the JPost) could use some more work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

US's Big Guns to Get Peace Talks Moving

US Peace envoy Mitchell will be arriving in the middle east on Wednesday, October 7, 2009 and it's expected he's going to bring out the big guns to ensure that peace talks start again. It should be said, this time those guns really do seem pretty big.

According to sources in Jerusalem, it is expected that since the US lobbied so hard to make the potentially damaging Goldstone report on the war against Hamas disappear, they're expecting that Israel now owes them something. That something, will be to listen-up, do as the US suggests and get peace talks back on track.

This comes amidst warning from the President of Egypt that the region cannot 'afford' failed peace talks and that it was silly to resume talks anywhere other than where they left off under the Olmert government. These days, however, Netanyahu is saying that he's not bound by what Olmert did during his time as Prime Minister or, in other words, that he's not bound by Annapolis. Mr. Mubarak has this one right. Israel should pick up where it left off with any adjustments necessary to reflect any new realities that may exist. Beginning at square one when much has already been agreed upon is a waste of time and energies. In Egypt's view, the next step along the path is for Israel to freeze all settlement building.

Meanwhile, Abbas, who has elected not to pursue the Goldstone report with the UN has also cautioned Israel to start meaningful peace talks or risk having the report revived. This really translates to: "freeze settlements or we'll take Goldstone's report to the UN." This is because the Palestinians have predicated new peace talks on a full Israeli freeze of all settlement activity. Assuming there has not been a change of heart by Abbas, it means that Israel is about to face crushing pressure from the US to do what it takes to restart peace talks and the PA may find themselves holding all the cards, able to dictate to Israel the preconditions for peace talks.

Meanwhile, in other, not obviously related news, Fatah and Hamas are about to reconcile their differences and US Secretary of State Clinton is pressuring Arab government to normalize ties with Israel. If Clinton is successful and if Hamas and Fatah really create a function unified Palestinian government, Israel will find itself very short on excuses for stalling, if that was what it had in mind.

Perhaps the circumstances have come together in just the right mix to encourage meaningful talks to begin.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Joranian Initiative on Red Sea to Dead Sea Canal

The Jordanian government has decided to move ahead with plans to build the Red Sea to Dead Sea water carrier on its own in the face of slow decision making within Israel and amongst Palestinians. Jordan apparently is so parched that the plan, which calls for water to be transferred from the Red Sea--some of it desalinated for human consumption, some of it sent to the Dead Sea to refill the latter and all of it to generate hydroelectricity--simply cannot wait any longer. There have been no objections to Jordan's initiative by either Israel or Palestinians.

This project is not a new idea and has its critics which have pointed out that the plan could be an ecological disaster and leaves many important questions unanswered. Some concerns relate to chemical imbalances that may be created in the Dead Sea, the impact this will have on the land and flora and fauna and the almost obvious question, what happens when the Dead Sea is full?

As early as 2002 Israeli government studies reported favorably on such a project. It is clear that something must be done to protect the Dead Sea, which is both an economic (tourism, chemical works) resource and an ecological gem recognized by its candidacy to be a natural wonder of the world. Other than the hydroelectric advantages it offers, would it not make more sense to heed the advice of environmental groups and look at easing pressure on the Jordan river to save the Dead Sea rather than creating new, salt-water rivers? Certainly, if water from the Red Sea can be desalinated, could it not be distributed throughout Jordan (and Israel and the West Bank) to ease the pressure upstream on the Red Sea?

The answer to this question would likely require far more technical expertise than is available on this blog, but environmental groups, and other bloggers, such as "Green Prophet" seem to be asking the same question.

Forgetting the environment for just a moment, however, stories like this are always encouraging reminders of the ability of states, including those with relatively new peace treaties and those between whom peace is not even yet secured, to cooperate when they must. Yes, Jordan is working alone here, but that is not to say the other governments involved will not play their role as soon as they can and it is significant that this decision which will impact three countries is meeting no objection. Once again, water proves to be a tie that binds and encourages cooperation rather than a divisive one.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gulf States, the Peace Process and the Pax Americana

This interesting article by Yoel Guzansky, a researcher at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) examines the role gulf states could play in the Palestinian Israeli peace process.

The article points out a few interesting points, such as the reluctance of smaller gulf states to adopt foreign policy totally independent from Saudi Arabia's and the latter country's recent willingness to tolerate such Independence from its neighbours. This new independence may make it easy for these states to reopen the Israeli trade missions that once existed in Oman and Qatar and were closed in solidarity with Palestinians during times of violence.

The article explains that Israels interests in good relations with the gulf is to bolster moderates in the region and to entrench support from these countries against increasing Iranian influence.

These states, however have an interest in Israel for certain technological reasons but above all, because close ties with Israel are a way to improve relations with the US.

These states are also likely needed for a final peace solution, not only, as Guzansky, argues to host conferences and the like, but also because their financial clout could help to pay the compensation for Palestinian refugees which will likely be needed in a peace deal which will no doubt contain some payment to those refugees who will not be resettled in Israel, if any of them are settled there at all.

The article seems to be suggesting that the primary reason for Israel to engage with these states is to help counter Iran's growing influence in the region. To do re-establish, these ties however, in the words of the Prime Minister of Oman, Israel would have to end the reasons for closing down the mission or somehow "...mitigate the suffering of our brothers in Palestine." As mentioned previously, however, this may have been done in the current government's recent attitude towards settlements. On the other hand, however, it is in the interests of these states to contain Iranian influence in the Gulf region anyway, with or without Israeli support. Therefore, this begs the question, if Israel's primary gain from relations with these states is something that these states are going to do anyway, why bother making any concessions?

The answer to the above question should be obvious. Closer ties are desirable in all circumstances, and as the article points out, if relations with these states yield positive results, the breaking of the taboo of Gulf-state relations with Israel could lead to a domino effect, making it easier and more acceptable for other Arab states to have positive relations. It also makes these states more inclined to want to see a peaceful solution for the region and to not remain at arms length from the issue.

They key to all this, however, is the US. The Gulf State's main interest is to improve ties with the US just as the US is the only country Israel would really heed when push came to shove. The case of the Gulf states, in particular, seems to highlight the importance of the US's involvement in the peace process and the good it can do.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Prisoner Exchange for a Video of Schalit

The Israeli government has approved the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners for a video that will confirm the status of Gilad Schalit, held in captivity by Hamas for over 3 years.

I first came across this story here, but upon further investigation, there's more to it than CNN says.

For one, this is not an exchange for 20 prisoners in order to get the video in addition to other prisoners who will be released in exchange for Schalit. The reality is that the 20 will be subtracted from the final number agreed upon in exchange for Gilad. Also, Gilad will receive a book of psalms delivered to him via the President of Egypt himself.

It is also worth pointing out that normally, around Ramadan (this time of year) Israel traditionally releases some prisoners. This year, for some reason, they did not. These prisoners then, are not so much a "bonus" as they may be seen as the traditional Ramadan release.

This first major accomplishment for the negotiating team put in place by Netanyahu's government received the reactions that one may expect from each side. Hamas celebrated this exchange as a great victory and praised the Hamas military wing for such a successful operation. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders merely said that though the decision is hard, they just want Gilad brought home. While the Schalit family is on board, some right wing groups are saying that Israel is giving up too much. One Israeli should be worth one Palestinian they argue, no more no less. This is of course a position that is not particularly helpful as clearly, it would lead nowhere.

The list of Palestinians to be released is available here, but only in Hebrew. Their names are on the right and the reason for their detention is on the left. While I don't have specific details on what exactly each of them did, in the offences section, many have attempted murder next to their name. Others have illegal carrying of weapons and "violence against a soldier." Also, by examining the list it appears that many of them were scheduled for release within the next two years or so. The official statement regarding their release is also available here in English.

Some in Israel think that this video release is not a real sign of anything, and that it may just be a stalling tactic by Hamas, or a means for Hamas to show goodwill towards Egypt to help in the reconciliation talks with Fatah.

I think there's a bit more behind this though. First, consider the enormous pressure the Israeli government is under. Gilad's family has been working hard to keep his plight in the public eye and many Israelis support their desire to see him freed at almost any cost.

Second, consider that--stemming from this first point--historically, Israel has gone to extreme lengths to protect its citizens and especially its soldiers (see this as just one relatively recent example.) This video the Israelis hope for is more than proof of life. It's comfort for Gilad's family, friends and a nation that is deeply concerned about his welfare.

On the other hand, if Hamas is particularly cruel or crafty, they could release a video showing Gilad to be alive, but in horrific conditions which would do little to comfort the family and have the effect of increasing domestic pressure on the Israeli government to redeem this captive and ease his suffering without further delay.