Opinion

The Great Debate

from David Rohde:

Tech, prosperity and peace on West Bank

Secretary of State John Kerry (C) shakes hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting at the Dead Sea, May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young 

RAMALLAH, West Bank – At first glance, it is a tech utopian’s dream. For the last two years, several dozen Palestinian entrepreneurs have been getting training from Israeli high tech experts courtesy of the American firm Cisco Systems.

The sessions feature no talk of politics. Instead, Israelis coach Palestinians on the latest trends in software development processes, best practices and branding.

“From my own perspective, it was a very successful training,” said Saeed Zeidan, chief executive officer of a small Palestinian startup. “We managed to improve our services.”

The training sessions are an example of privately funded economic initiatives that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have praised in recent trips here.

Learning the wrong lessons from Israel’s intervention in Syria

Israel’s recent attacks on military targets in Syria have made clear the widening regional dimensions of Syria’s civil war. They have also fueled debate about whether the United States should intervene. Look, some say, Israel acts when it sets red lines, and Syria’s air defenses are easy to breach. Israel’s involvement has energized those, like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who argue for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately, the interventionists are drawing the wrong lessons from the Israeli actions.

The first misconception is that the Israeli strikes showed how Israel stands by its red lines in ways that bolster its credibility – a sharp contrast to the perceived equivocation of President Barack Obama’s stated red line that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.”

Israel has stated that it views any transfer of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Hezbollah as unacceptable. So its targeting of missile arsenals believed to be capable of delivering such weapons appears to be making good on the threat. But while such Israeli action against Hezbollah within Syria is an escalation, it is not new. Israel targeted such missiles earlier in the year and has been targeting Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon for years. It also fought a costly war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 largely to degrade (unsuccessfully, it turns out) the group’s missile capabilities. Israel was thus not acting in Syria to maintain the credibility of its red lines, but acting on specific perceived threats to its national security.

Helping Iran safeguard its nuclear stockpile

Diplomats from six world powers  are due back in Kazakhstan on Friday for talks with Iran about its controversial nuclear program. From the hawkish “bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran” crowd to the “jaw-jaw-not-war-war” folks, there is no shortage of ideas about how to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Lost in the din is the prospect that the United Nations agency charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities could settle the most pressing issue – by helping Iran convert its enriched uranium gas stockpile to safer metal form. If only the world powers will encourage it to do its job.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not only monitors member states’ nuclear programs to make sure they are in compliance with required safeguards obligations, but it also provides technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

Can Obama inspire youth vote in Israel?

President Barack Obama’s message to Israel last week was both powerful and urgent: You can’t go on like this. The status quo is not a viable option.

That is a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who acts like Israel can go on like this for the foreseeable future. Many Israelis are strongly tempted to believe, with Netanyahu, that the threat of terrorism and the occupation of the West Bank are manageable problems.

“It can be tempting,” Obama said when addressing an audience of Israeli students in Jerusalem, “to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers [and] there are so many other pressing issues that demand your attention.”

How close is Iran to nuclear weapons?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed last week that new second-generation centrifuges, which Iran plans to start up at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, could cut by a third the time needed to create a nuclear bomb – underlining his deadline of this summer to take military action against Iran.

Netanyahu’s prediction, however, appears to be based on some unsubstantiated assumptions regarding Iranian intentions and capabilities. Yet it can provide ammunition to the hawks in Washington and Jerusalem, who could rush us into another needless and counterproductive war in the Middle East. Netanyahu’s assertions do not stand up to technical scrutiny.

Critically, he does not mention that Iran has been converting part of its 20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride gaseous stockpile into metallic form, for use as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the “enrichable” gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. It is not something that a nation hell-bent on weaponization would do.

from David Rohde:

Make allies, not kill lists

Viewers of Thursday’s  confirmation hearing of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel can be forgiven for thinking they were watching a years-old C-SPAN rerun. The importance of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles dominated initial questioning. Then the war in Iraq was debated. In the end, the issue that most concerned senators from both parties was Hagel’s loyalty to Israel.

During an eight-hour hearing, the difficult decisions that the U.S. military now faces received scant attention. Vast budget cuts loom. Suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder rates are appallingly high. Diverse security threats ranging from Iran to cyber-attacks to al Qaeda in North Africa must be countered.

Overall, a more nimble, modern and smaller American military is needed, but you heard little of that in Thursday’s marathon hearing.

The limits of U.S. influence in Israel

A victory in Tuesday’s Israeli elections by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Yisrael Beiteinu alliance and the ascent of even more extreme parties are indications of Israelis’ continued move to the right.

It is also an indication of the limits and the challenges faced by the Obama administration in its relationship with Israel. Despite Netanyahu’s obvious preference for President Barack Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in the U.S. presidential elections — and a sense that he was intervening through proxies — Obama’s ability to influence the outcome of the Israeli elections has been negligible.

The Obama administration’s situation underscores the need for a quick decision about its policy toward whatever type of governing coalition emerges in Israel after the election. If Netanyahu forges a government with parties to his right, the White House should drop the pretense of possible peace negotiations and formulate policy accordingly: It can either produce a detailed peace plan or fall back on highlighting international law and human rights and the obligations of the parties that they entail.

Will this be the year that Israel goes to war with Iran?

Israel did not bomb Iran last year. Why should it happen this year?

Because it did not happen last year. The Iranians are proceeding apace with their nuclear program. The Americans are determined to stop them. Sanctions are biting, but the diplomatic process produced nothing visible in 2012. Knowledgeable observers believe there is no “zone of possible agreement.” Both the United States and Iran may believe that they have viable alternatives to a negotiated agreement.

While Israel has signaled that its “red line” (no nuclear weapons capability) won’t be reached before mid-2013, it seems likely it will be reached before the end of the year. President Barack Obama has refused to specify his red line, but he has made it amply clear that he prefers intensified sanctions and eventual military action to a nuclear Iran that needs to be contained and provides incentives for other countries to go nuclear. If and when he takes the decision for war, there is little doubt about a bipartisan majority in Congress supporting the effort.

Still, attitudes on the subject have shifted in the past year. Some have concluded that the consequences of war with Iran are so bad and uncertain that every attempt should be made to avoid it. Most have also concluded that Israel could do relatively little damage to the Iranian nuclear program. It might even be counter-productive, as the Iranians would redouble their efforts. The military responsibility lies with President Obama.

A two-state Middle East solution hangs in the balance as Obama waits

President Barack Obama may have believed he had at least until his inauguration next month to renew efforts to forge a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but events since he won re-election have put fresh demands on the president.

Since the U.S. election, we have witnessed another mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza; the upgrading of the status of the Palestinians to a non-member state at the United Nations General Assembly; and most recently a series of retaliatory moves by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These included a decision to build thousands of housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and holding back some tax receipts that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Some of Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Senate tried to weigh in this week with a draft resolution that punishes the Palestinians by closing their office in Washington, D.C. The draft was one of 20 amendments submitted to the Defense Authorization Act of 2012– but it was mysteriously withdrawn on Wednesday before coming to a vote.

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

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