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Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Middle East Peace: The Man in the Way

I went to a discussion last night with David Trimble and Jonathan Powell on the lessons the Good Friday Agreement may have for Middle Eastern Peace. Whilst there were many interesting debates, which you will soon be able to find here, there was one comment about Dennis Ross that got me thinking.

Dennis Ross has been advising the US government on Middle Eastern Policy for years. His advice on the wording of negotiation, and the details of concessions has been central to US policy since Reagan. Last night, Lord Trimble said that Obama should have listened more closely to Ross before he made the ‘unwise’ decision to announce his support for the 67 borders. Trimble is an inspiration for many many reasons, but he is totally wrong on this one.

No administration since Reagan has made much headway on finding a solution to the Palestinian issue, and Ross has been the common denominator in every single one. He has been able to weave his way through successive Democratic and Republican administrations, by being himself a Democrat who appeals to libertarian sentiment in the Republican camp. But make no mistake, he is very definitely a pro-Israeli Conservative – with a big C – when it comes to the Middle East, as his work with AIPAC and PNAC shows. This is a man who signed a letter supporting war in Iraq with men like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. He ensured the Palestinians were the ones to make every concession at Camp David and now he doesn’t want the President to say what we all know is true. How can his judgement be counted upon?

The ultimate proof that this man is standing in the way of peace is George J Mitchell’s resignation. Mitchell is one of the most inspirational men in US politics and was pivotal to the brokering of peace in Northern Ireland. He resigned last week as Mid East Envoy – it is widely assumed – because of Dennis Ross. Political appointments in every country are made to appease certain factions, and Ross’ constant presence in all these administrations is the product of a very powerful Jewish Lobby. Mitchell was a wonderful appointment, but his effective deputy undermined everything he did.

‘There is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just that there’s no tunnel.’

This is what Shimon Peres said when asked about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. It was quoted last night. Everyone knows the 67 borders is that light. But we all know too that there needs to be the political willpower and leadership to build the tunnel. Palestine’s divided leadership has made that impossible, as has Israel’s intransigence since 2009. It was right that Obama used his own instincts when writing that speech, because the President’s words – rather than those of an envoy or secretary of state – lend a lot more weight to an argument most people on earth know is right, but for a certain powerful few. Ross should have resigned, not Mitchell.

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Filed under: Middle East

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Territories

The story of the Palestinian living in Syria who hitchhiked across Israel to find his home is sure to have Hollywood buzzing. A romantic comedy maybe? The Palestinian could be in the image of Shirley ‘finding-herself-in-the-Mediterranean’ Valentine: buses trundling along panoramic coastline roads, sunsets over rolling hills, a plucky local discovering the world, talking with strangers and over-coming personal hardships, all to the theme of obscure indie folk music and local pan piped melodies. He could even make friends with a stray dog? Or it could be an action film. Part of the Bourne series, perhaps? It would certainly give a new meaning to The Bourne Identity. Or maybe a new one. Bourne: The Right to Return. I could go on….

But this incredible story of a man who made his way over 130km from his Syrian refugee camp to a Tel Aviv neighbourhood, is inspiring for many reasons.
And in the context of the recent uprisings, two distinct elements come to mind. Firstly on a practical level, it is indicative of the remarkable breakdown in security in Syria, as the regime focuses on clamping down on continuing dissent within its own parameters. The regime has long meddled in the affairs of its neighbours, seeking to destabilise and corrupt their domestic situations. Now the attention is on its own security, and it must now worry about its own leaky borders, as operatives seem now to be able to come and go with increasing frequency.
But more importantly, this man’s journey reflects a change in the state of mind of not just Palestinians, but Arabs all over the region. As the legitimacy of their leaders is questioned, so too is the legitimacy of the already contested borders that separate their countries. As questions of legitimacy and freedom abound, this man’s hike demonstrates how desperation, misery and dispossession have finally come to outweigh fear of reprisals from the authorities.
In one respect, with calls for freedom and democracy in his ears, this was one man’s own private protest. With no Tahrir to call his own, he made his way back ‘home’ as an act of defiance and self-determination, claiming his identity just as millions of Cairenes and Tunisians were able to do. Just as the Tunisian grocer’s self immolation was his own private, singular act of despair, what followed was a very public, mass display of emotion, communal solidarity and hope. This man’s trek will not trigger a mass infitada against Israel as some have indicated, but it should provoke a similar compassionate response by all those who recognize his cause.
This man’s journey demonstrates the real awakening going on in the Middle East. Maybe by the time Hollywood gets round to making this film, it might have a happy ending too.

Jordan: 2,004,795; Lebanon: 427,057; Syria: 477,700; West Bank: 788,108; Gaza Strip: 1,122,569. That’s 4,820,229 registered Palestinian refugees living in 58 refugee camps

Filed under: Middle East

They Knew He Was There

Is it just me, or is it blindingly obvious that Pakistan knew where Osama was? In case you’re reading this President Zardari – HE WAS IN THE MASSIVE HOUSE NEAR THE ARMY BASE! You know the one, with the huge orchard outside and loads of scary looking men running in and out at night?

If not the highest-ranking officials, then middle to low ranking agents in the ISI knew very well. Recruited from towns and villages along the famously porous AfPak borders, ISI operatives and Pakistani officials come from the very same region from which the Taliban started recruiting 40 years ago. These links are old, filial, and strong – much stronger than any sense of loyalty to the ISI. As a result, the organisation has been undermining US operations in Afghanistan for years, feeding information to the Taliban about coalition forces, and sending the latter on wild goose chases. And why have senior officials done nothing to plug the leak?

Pakistan needs to keep the simmering threat of terror alive. For three reasons:

First, the Saudi – Afghan – Pakistani Sunni triangle is an allegiance that goes back to the Soviet Afghan war of the 70s. When Reagan called the Mujahedeen ‘the equivalent to our founding fathers,’ and when the threat of the Cold War and Shi’a Iran were omnipresent. That latter threat is still there, and as present as ever. The Sunni pact – so strong that the Saudis paid for a literal ‘wall’ of Sunni mosques along the Pakistan border with Iran – remains to this day, and whilst American funding for the Taliban has long since dried up ($500m a year at one point), these three keep the money flowing.

Second: Pakistan has its own domestic and regional issues with India, in which it is one of a number of players provoking tensions between Hindus and Muslims no end. Kashmir is another region set in its Islamic sights. Tapping into the resources and tactical know-how of these shady characters serves Pakistan well.

The third and perhaps most important reason – to keep the US in the region. As long as the shadow of terror remains, US money, investment and aid will pour in, not to mention turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, and its brutal domestic security policies.

Whilst the government looks to the US for support, it can conveniently plead innocence whilst individuals lower down can stoke the very fires the US is paying to put out. The head doesn’t know what the feet are doing, and it has suited them so far.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the full details of what went on in this remarkably convenient and swift execution. Obama it seems has lost the innocence and piousness that he brought with him to office, choosing a clandestine operation to murder a man, rather than bring him to the real ‘justice’ he used to lecture about at Chicago Law School. It’s amazing how an election changes a man. But whatever the truth of his end, Bin Laden’s discovery just clears up what we all knew for so long about our ‘ally’ in Pakistan. Maybe now something might change.

Filed under: Middle East

Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo