As the first direct talks in three years between Israelis and Palestinians get underway in Jerusalem on Wednesday, hardliners on both sides are ramping up their opposition to re-engagement. For the maximalists, many of the proposals under consideration represent a form of betrayal. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who have both taken steps to re-launch the peace talks, the hardliners represent a major headache.
To many Israeli settlers, Abbas is an unworthy negotiating partner and any forfeiture of land to the Palestinians is unacceptable. "As far as we're concerned, the Israeli government does not have a mandate to force us out of our homes," David Ha'ivri, a director at the Shomron Liaison Office, a group that advocates for Jewish West Bank settlers, told The Cable. "So if the Netanyahu government does decide to pull out, we're saying to the Israeli government: ‘Sorry, you don't have a mandate to force us out.'"
To Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, the peace talks will only serve to benefit the Israelis. "We renew our rejection of these futile talks, and consider them purely a means for the occupation (Israel) to look good to the international community," senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told reporters on Monday. "We call on the Palestinian people to unite in confronting the crime that is the peace talks."
Across the Middle East, there's skepticism that the negotiations will accomplish much -- and concern that if and when talks collapse, the results could be disastrous.
"My concern is what happens when the negotiations reach a dead end," Dani Dayan, the Yesha Council's chief foreign envoy, told The Cable. "There are two options: They can implode causing no collateral damage or they could explode causing a lot of debris and violence as what happened in the year 2000," a reference to the Second Intifada, which followed the collapse of peace talks led by the Clinton administration.
Wednesday's talks, of course, will differ from face-to-face negotiations conducted by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the past. Absent from the talks will be Netanyahu, Abbas, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry. The protocol this time around starts with a meeting between the two appointed negotiators and neither having the power to cut a deal. It brings together Israeli negotiators Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli Foreign Minister, and Isaac Molcho, a prime ministerial aide, and Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat, a longtime negotiator, and Muhammed Shtayyeh, a Fatah official. The American envoys for the meeting include Martin Indyk and his deputy Frank Lowenstein.
The State Department has made clear that the negotiations will be draped in secrecy as to ensure trust between the two sides. But while that may help the negotiating process, it leaves the hardliners on both sides to toss bombs at the leaders working for peace. "Secretary Kerry convinced the Israelis to release the prisoners which is a stain on American democracy," said Dayan. "A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist."
"It's not helpful coming in as a superpower and declaring a deadline," added Ha'ivri. "Things take time in the Middle East. The culture here is different. The people here are different."
While Americans celebrate the annual Valentine's Day ritual of flowers and chocolate, in Bahrain, Feb. 14 marks the two-year anniversary of the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms against the regime -- and blood has already been shed.
It was two years ago today, on Feb. 14, 2011, that protesters encamped in the Pearl Roundabout in Manama and began the Bahraini version of the Arab Spring. Three days later, the authorities conducted a night raid on those protesters in what became known locally as "Bloody Thursday," and the violence and tension continues to this day.
"Today is the anniversary of the uprising," Jalila Al-Salman, the vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Society, told The Cable today in an interview. "There is a real strike in Bahrain today as a peaceful objection of to what's going on there."
Early in the morning, around 2 a.m., protesters in villages all over Bahrain barricaded the entrances of their neighborhoods as part of a plan to hold a nationwide strike, she said. The police came through around 4 AM to remove the barricades but new ones were set up by around 6 a.m., and shops and restaurants inside the villages did not open. After morning prayers, the villagers started protesting.
"There are rallies all over Bahrain right now and the riot police are spread all over Bahrain to face that. We are expecting injuries all over Bahrain today," she said. "This is just one part of what's happening in Bahrain. It's not a new thing, it's a continuation of what's been going on in Bahrain for two years on a daily basis."
As of Thursday morning , there was already one death as a result of police clashes with protesters. Hussain Al-Jaziri, 16, was killed by a police officer using a shotgun in the village of Daih, according to Mohammed Al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, who also sat down Thursday for an interview with The Cable.
"I just spoke with his father by phone," Al-Maskati said as he displayed gruesome photos of the boy's gunshot ridden body. The police prevented the boy's friends from taking him to the hospital and he died while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he said. "The ambulance driver said it was already too late."
At last December's Manama Security Dialogue, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa told an international audience that the tension and violence in Bahrain had largely subsided.
"You are aware we had our own experience with the so called ‘Arab Spring' last year," he said. "While relative calm has returned to the kingdom, there are many wounds to be healed on all sides."
"I don't know how they can say that, of course it continues," said Al-Salman. "There are marches every day all over the country."
The government initiated the latest in a series of dialogues with the opposition two weeks ago that was encouraged by the Obama administration.
"The United States welcomes the start of Bahrain's National Dialogue. We're encouraged by the broad participation of Bahraini political groups in the dialogue," outgoing State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Feb. 11. "We view the dialogue as a positive step in a broader process that can result in meaningful reform that meets the aspirations of all of Bahrain's citizens. We believe that efforts to promote engagement and reconciliation among Bahrainis are necessary to long-term stability."
But Al-Salman and Al-Maskati said the dialogue is not a fair process because participation is weighted heavily toward civil-society representatives that are connected to the government. Also, government and police action against peaceful protesters have continued despite the dialogue.
"After the dialogue was announced, the government arrested 45 protesters in one march," Al-Maskati claimed. "And this week, the security services raided several villages to track down and arrest leaders of the protest movement." (This information could not be independently confirmed.)
Al-Salman, Al-Maskati, and Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, are in Washington this week to ask the Obama administration to stand up for human rights in Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is serving a three-year jail sentence for insulting the regime.
President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, called for respect for human rights in all countries affected by the Arab Spring.
"In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can -- and will -- insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people," Obama said.
Al-Salman and Al-Maskati said the U.S. government is not acting on Obama's promise with respect to Bahrain.
"The basic thing we need from the U.S. is to change their foreign policy toward Bahrain. They haven't gained anything from the policy over the last two years," said Al-Salman. "They have to push for a solution to the crisis ... if they really care we have to see that in practice."
The activists noted that Secretary of State John Kerry is new in office and this presents an opportunity for new measures to pressure the Bahraini regime, perhaps through targeted sanctions against human rights violators. Kerry has yet to mention Bahrain since taking office.
"It's a good time to tell John Kerry that you need to change your foreign policy toward Bahrain. Words without actions aren't effective anymore," said Al-Maskati.
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent an observer mission to Syria this week -- pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials insist that they are moving cautiously to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
The administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. Bashar al-Assad's regime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. Now, the administration is ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue after several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis. The National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee, Deputies Committee, or Principals Committee meetings, the officials said. (Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.)
The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials -- one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally careful out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Assad to step aside and emphasizing the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve either result. "The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn't let the Arab League monitors do their work. "If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The SNC, the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, "Safe Area for Syria," edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact," the paper stated.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime -- a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
For now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad's human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn't flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
"This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time," said one administration official.
"[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre," said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. "We're intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing."
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught offguard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration's message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
"We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections," he said. "But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn't happen."
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military's role in cracking down on the protesters.
"It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission," said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative."
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
"Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors," he said. "It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus."
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
"The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That's another feature of this administration," said Katulis. "And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
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