Opinion

The Great Debate

Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet

“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.

Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?

Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid down the gauntlet two months ago, when talking about Iran to the United Nations General Assembly. “At this late hour,” Netanyahu declared, as he held up a rough drawing of a bomb dissected by a red line, “there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs. That’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

President Barack Obama had put down his Syrian red line one month earlier.  “We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” Obama declared, “but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

A battleground for weapons of the future

More than a week after a U.S.-Egyptian brokered ceasefire brought a fragile peace to Gaza, military analysts are busily assessing the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Their goal: Apply lessons from the eight-day battle to weaponry still in development.

Israel’s frequent conflicts with its Arab neighbors have historically been proving grounds for the latest in battlefield technology. Arab-Israeli wars inspired the first operational aerial drones, radar-evading stealth warplanes and projectile-defeating armor. All are now staples of the world’s leading militaries.

Analysts now say this recent fighting could spur the proliferation of highly accurate, fast-firing defenses against rocket barrages, a threat that has long flummoxed military planners. The solution could be inspired by Israel’s now-famous Iron Dome, a rocket-intercepting missile system that shot down hundreds of Hamas’ rockets before they could strike Israeli settlements.

Mideast’s dynamic opportunity for peace

The Arab world may be in turmoil, but its leaders actually need an enduring peace—now in Gaza and long-term with Israel—because regimes across the region are vulnerable as never before.

Whether they like it or not, that’s true for newly elected Islamists. And old-order autocrats need resolution to prevent protests at home from turning against them.

The challenge for Washington is taking advantage of the vulnerability to work with the new political roster — including players it doesn’t know all that well. The tectonic political shift over the past two years offers a dynamic opportunity.

Romney’s big chance with Jewish voters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Monday foreign policy debate, should play to the Jewish TV audience like he was the star of a Borscht Belt revue.

Romney has a tempting assortment of issues he can tap to frame President Barack Obama as a leader whose policies are perilous for Israel. He can use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Egypt and even Syria to make a case that Obama’s policies are wrong for the Jewish state.

Given the tenuous state of relations between Israel and the United States, it’s surprising that, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish opinion, 61 percent approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, while 39 percent disapprove. Those are numbers Romney needs to change Monday night.

from Ian Bremmer:

The truth about Israel’s rumored strike on Iran

At a time when President Obama has moved troops out of Iraq and is moving them out of Afghanistan, it’s looking increasingly like our worries in the Middle East are far from over. Maybe it’s not unprecedented, but it’s highly unusual for a sitting secretary of defense to worry in print (to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) that Israel could launch a strike against Iran as early as this spring. The point of the Israeli attack, according to Ignatius and Panetta, would be to stop Iran before it begins building a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is saying that it would find such a move foolhardy, and yet also reassuring both the Israeli and American publics that it is committed to Israel’s security.

But it’s probably not Israel’s true intention to strike Iran anyway.

According to Ignatius and many others, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe that waiting for the U.S. to strike Iran is an unwise stance. That’s because the U.S.'s threshold for sufficient proof of a nearly finished or completed Iranian nuclear weapon is likely much higher than that of Israel. If such proof came to light, only the U.S. at that point would have the capacity to take out the leadership in Tehran singlehandedly. But such an operation would create a leadership vacuum and leave whoever was running Iran with the bomb. Right now, Israel feels that it can make a dent with its own operation, heading off Iran’s bomb-making before it becomes an issue only the U.S. can deal with. But the window for that option is rapidly closing.

Despite Panetta’s public warnings, and despite Israel’s sudden silence (which many are taking as a sign that it’s gearing up internally for such a mission as this one), an attack on Iran isn’t as likely to occur in the spring as Washington or Tel Aviv would have us believe. That’s because even though new U.S. sanctions on the country went into effect this week, the real test of Iran’s economic fortitude will come around July 1, when the European Union's gradual introduction of a ban on oil from the country takes full effect. Unfortunately, even those sanctions are unlikely to do much to deter Iran, as India, China and African nations will likely continue to buy much of Iran’s oil production, and they will gain some concessions on price due to the artificially limited market. Nevertheless, Israel will presumably wait to see what happens.

The UNESCO meltdown

By Alan Elsner
The opinions expressed are his own.

On Monday, unless the Palestinians can be persuaded to back down, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will vote to accept Palestine as a full member state, triggering an automatic cutoff of U.S. funding and wreaking havoc with many of the agency’s programs.

Under legislation adopted by Congress over 15 years ago, the United States is mandated to withdraw from any U.N. agency that accepts Palestine as a full member state in the absence of a peace treaty with Israel.

The U.S.’s withdrawal means that it would no longer fund about 22 percent of the UNESCO budget – around $70 million a year. According to the website of the U.S. mission to UNESCO, some of the programs it funds that presumably will be affected include:

Young Israelis, Palestinians converge on entrepreneurship

By Ted Grossman
The opinions expressed are his own.

Today at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will speak for their peoples on the world stage in front of the General Assembly. Several hundred miles farther south on Capitol Hill, House Republicans have introduced legislation requiring the UN to adopt a voluntary budget model ending funding for Palestinian refugees, allowing Congress to control and allot the distribution of funds to Palestine, and cutting contributions to peacekeeping operations until management changes are made. And six thousand miles – half a world – beyond that, 44 Palestinian and Israeli students are working as business partners in the Middle East to run two entrepreneurial ventures. This summer, I witnessed an example of their cooperative spirit when the group – 20 Palestinians, 17 Israeli Jews, and 7 Israeli Arabs – came together at Babson College in Wellesley, MA for an intensive program in entrepreneurship.

The revolutions sparked during the Arab Spring show that social and political change can take root with just a handful of people.  Here at Babson this summer, I have been overwhelmed by the commitment of both Palestinian and Israeli students to do what previous generations have failed to do: bring about peace in their homelands.

Despite the violence and hateful rhetoric they have endured and the deep political and cultural divides that permeate their daily existence, these 44 undergraduates agreed to participate in a seven-week program focused on developing an entrepreneurial mindset and the business skills necessary to cooperatively launch two new businesses under challenging circumstances. Studying together, learning together and living together, they initially found it challenging to establish trust and overcome apprehensions.  But in a matter of days, these students were so busy with market research, supply chain dilemmas and writing business plans that they had little choice but to move beyond their emotions.

from Ian Bremmer:

Turkey ascendant, Palestine in tow. Whither Israel and the U.S.?

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

If President Obama thinks he's having a tough month, he's got nothing on Israel's Bibi Netanyahu. In Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting the cost of living. In New York, the Palestinians are readying a statehood resolution at the United Nations. In Ankara, the Turkish government has expelled the Israeli ambassador from the country. And in Cairo, an Egyptian crowd is taking the job on themselves, attacking the Israeli embassy.

Of all of these events, though, Turkey is the biggest worry. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has steadily escalated an anti-Israel tack for over a year now, most recently by accusing Israel of behaving like a "spoiled child." More directly, Erdogan has also proclaimed that the Turkish navy will stop the planned start of gas drilling explorations off the Cyprus coast by an Israel-Cypriot consortium. That's tantamount to threatening armed conflict. Why is Turkey so ascendant in Middle East politics, to Israel’s dismay? There are three very good reasons:

1. The U.S. is playing less of a role in the Middle East.

Under President Obama, the U.S. has become a “taker” not a “maker” of foreign policy there. Simply put, this Administration has spent less time on the Middle East peace question than any other since the creation of the Israeli state. With all the issues facing Obama at home -- joblessness, a tanking economy and his own re-election, to name a few -- and all the more pressing international issues, like winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and dealing with the euro zone and China -- Israel has taken a political backseat. As NATO allies like Turkey fill the void and create their own regional strategies, Israel, being in the most unnatural geopolitical position there, has had the hardest time establishing its own power center.

from MacroScope:

Emerging markets: Soft patch or recession?

Could the dreaded R word come back to haunt the developing world? A study by Goldman Sachs shows how differently financial markets and surveys are assessing the possibility of a recession in emerging markets.
One part of the Goldman study comprising survey-based leading indicators saw the probability of recession as very low across central and eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa. These give a picture of where each economy currently stands in the cycle. This model found risks to be highest in Turkey and South Africa, with a 38-40 percent possibility of recession in these countries.
On the other hand, financial markets, which have sold off sharply over the past month, signalled a more pessimistic outcome. Goldman says these indicators forecast a 67 percent probability of recession in the Czech Republic and 58 percent in Israel, followed by Poland and Turkey. Unlike the survey, financial data were more positive on South Africa than the others, seeing a relatively low 32 percent recession risk.
Goldman analysts say the recession probabilities signalled by the survey-based indicator jell with its own forecasts of a soft patch followed by a broad sustained recovery for CEEMEA economies.
"The slowdown signalled by the financial indicators appears to go beyond the ‘soft patch’ that we are currently forecasting," Goldman says, adding: "The key question now is whether or not the market has gone too far in pricing in a more serious economic downturn."

from Ian Bremmer:

The coming Palestinian statehood

By Ian Bremmer
The opinons expressed are his own.

 

As violent protests rock the Arab world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government has tried to keep a low profile. It has largely succeeded. That’s about to change.

This year’s upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East is not quite finished. As President Saleh recovers from injuries suffered during an attack on Yemen’s presidential palace, the country remains plagued with protests and crackdowns. Libya’s Qaddafi clings to power, Syria’s Assad copes with surges of public anger, and Egypt’s zigzag path toward democracy reminds us how hard it is to fill the hole left behind by a castoff autocrat.

Israelis have watched closely from the sidelines to better understand what all this turmoil means for their future. As the dust begins to settle, it has become clear that they have plenty to worry about. Populism is taking root in the Middle East, a region where ordinary people have been forced for years to scream in unison to make themselves heard. Now they find that they have the power to bring about change. In response, Arab leaders—the newly elevated, those clinging to power, and even those simply facing a more uncertain future—are now listening to public opinion much more closely.

  •