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From upstart nation to ‘Start-Up Nation’

A scary interview with the lead author

Warren BorosonCover Story
Published: 11 December 2009

Dan Senor, lead author of “Start-Up Nation,” is worried about Iran and Afghanistan. He was interviewed by telephone on Monday, from Boca Raton, Fla.

JS: What are you predicting for the next 25 years in the Middle East?

Senor: I’ll tell you about the next 25 months. The year 2010 will be traumatic. Iran will have a breakout in its nuclear program, and sanctions won’t work. The United States or Israel might go to war against Iran.

In Iraq, [if one sect gets the upper hand,] there might be a flood of refugees into Jordan, which would destabilize the region and have consequences for Israel. In Afghanistan, despite the [U.S.] president, the summer of 2010 will be worse than the summer of 2009. The impact of the increased troops won’t have made an effect.

JS: Getting back to your book, what has been the response to your talks around the country?

Senor: Very positive. The book has appealed to a wide range of audiences. American Jews find it exciting, but it appeals to people not just concerned about Israel. Businessmen and the military are intrigued by the Israeli model.

In this country, there’s a divide between the military and business, and it should be bridged. In Israel, an employer wants to know what unit a former soldier served in. In the United States, a corporate recruiter hears someone talk about his military experience, then asks, have you ever had a real job?

In the United States, business doesn’t value the importance of military training, of service in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Israel, a man of 25 has both military and college experience. He has better leadership ability and greater maturity.

JS: Israelis have sold many of their start-ups, often to American companies like Cisco. Was that a good idea?

Senor: That’s being debated in Israel now. They ask, why don’t we have a Nokia? Nokia has defined Finland.

The answer is, first, that Israel does have a Nokia — Teva, the pharmaceutical company. And, second, Finland may have Nokia, but it doesn’t have many start-ups. Maybe the Israeli situation — selling some start-ups, keeping others — is ideal.

JS: Why doesn’t Israel have a higher standard of living, considering its economic success?

Senor: Its standard of living is higher than it was before. The challenge for the government is to lift regulations against non-technological companies. Israel’s nontech sector is overregulated, and the regulations should be lifted.

JS: What will your next book be about?

Senor: My next book? I’m just recovering from this one! It’s taken one pound of flesh from not just me, but from my family.

 
 

Israeli-Palestinian preview

Who’s coming to dinner at the White House?

WASHINGTON – The White House dinner on Sept. 1, prior to the official launch of renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks, will be key to outlining the contours of the negotiations.

“The dinner will help to restore trust,” Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s top Iran policy official, said in a conference call last Friday with Jewish organizational leaders.

Unless, that is, it turns into a food fight.

Until the dinner, the exact issues to be negotiated will remain unknown. What we do know is who will be there and where they’re coming from. Here’s a preview.

Benjamin Netanyahu – Israeli prime minister

The proposed talks will mark the second time that the 60-year-old Netanyahu has engaged in negotiations with a Palestinian partner under U.S. pressure. Last time, in 1997, while facing then-President Bill Clinton and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu ceded a degree of control around Hebron to the Palestinians. He has since suggested that he regrets the concession: He was recorded as telling a grieving settler family in 2001 that his agreement was little more than a ruse to keep a hostile administration at bay. Also, his revered father, Benzion Netanyahu, was known not to be happy with the concession.

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Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyau, right, seen here with U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in Jerusalem on Aug. 11, welcomed Mitchell’s announcement of new direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Moshe Milner/GPO

Having completed a slow climb back to the premiership after his plunge in popularity following his first term, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu reportedly sees himself in a much stronger position vis-à-vis Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama than he was with Arafat and Clinton.

Netanyahu wants to get security issues out of the way before he talks final-status issues like Jerusalem, borders, and refugees. Making sure that he has a plan to protect Israelis will be key in the effort to pitch concessions to an Israeli public still wary of the pounding Israel took after it withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

The immediate question for Netanyahu is whether or not he’ll extend the self-imposed, partial, 10-month settlement construction freeze that is set to expire in late September. If he doesn’t, Abbas has said he’ll quit the talks.

Mahmoud Abbas – Palestinian Authority president

Abbas, 75, is a successor to Arafat who has been far less problematic for his Western allies but far less esteemed by the Palestinian people. His nadir came when Hamas militants drove the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in a bloody coup in 2007. Since then, Abbas has endeavored to reestablish his Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority as the inevitable repository of Palestinian ambitions for statehood.

Negotiations are the only way for Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy trumps violence as a means to statehood. Abbas insists that Israel agree to a permanent settlement freeze, and he wants to make sure the talks get to the final-status issues as soon as possible so he can show his constituents that he is reaping the benefits of cooperation.

Barack Obama – president of the United States

It is tempting to cast the haste with which President Obama, 49, has organized these talks for early September as a sign of his panic at the prospect of November congressional elections that seem likely to result in losses for the Democratic party.

However, such an analysis would ignore the fact that Obama was pressing hard for talks months ago, when his approval ratings were much higher; it would also disregard America’s broader foreign policy strategy in the region. For the United States, having the talks now gives Netanyahu a reason to extend his settlement moratorium and thereby sustain Arab support for U.S. policies elsewhere in the Middle East. This support is seen as key while Obama attempts to juggle other crises in the region, including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and the simmering concern over Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions.

A peace treaty also would signal U.S. strength in the region; a Palestinian state would allow Arab governments some leeway in explaining to their populace why they are aligning with a U.S. effort to isolate the Iranian theocracy.

The U.S. posture has been to insist that these are direct talks, but Obama has not been shy about threatening direct intervention if there are stumbles.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II

The United States sees both these figures as critical to making the talks — and, eventually, Palestinian statehood — work.

Egypt maintains some sway over Hamas, and controls access to a major entry into Gaza. Jordan has been deeply involved in helping to train the P.A. police force, and would be a natural outlet for a resurgent Palestinian economy. Both countries are Israel’s only neighbors officially at peace with the Jewish state.

Mubarak, 82, is known to be ill and eager to transfer power smoothly to his son, Gamal Mubarak; containing the Gaza problem and playing a role in birthing a Palestinian state would provide a much-needed boost to Mubarak rule.

Abdullah, 48, is also eager to contain Islamist extremism and has in recent years positioned his regime as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. The emergence of a Palestinian state in the west bank would also help to quell the notion that Abdullah’s kingdom, where the majority of the population is Palestinian, should be the Palestinian state.

Hillary Clinton – U.S. Secretary of State

Clinton, 62, is set to play the role of the primary broker at the peace talks. Beginning Sept. 2, she will host the first substantive talks Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have had since 2000. That is a sign of Obama’s increasing confidence in his one-time bitter rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton aides have leaked to the press their frustration with the perceived limits on her role, saying she has been kept out of the big games. That is changing, as evidenced not only by her newly central role in these talks, but also in her recent front-line exposure as she urged her former Senate colleagues to support new arms treaties with Russia. Israelis have been hoping for Clinton’s return, despite her role in March in dressing down Netanyahu over Israel’s announcement, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, of a large housing start in eastern Jerusalem. Clinton long has been seen as having strong emotional ties to Israel — ties that Israelis feel Obama lacks.

It probably doesn’t hurt that she spent part of her daughter Chelsea’s wedding this summer carried aloft in a chair during the dancing of the hora.

JTA

 
 

Which Mideast autocracy will be next?

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Algerian protesters face off against riot police in the capital city of Algiers on Monday. magharebia/Creative Commons

With popular uprisings having toppled two Arab dictators in the space of just a few weeks and unrest reverberating across the Middle East, are other regimes likely to fall, too?

Nearly everywhere in the region, autocratic leaders seem to be on the defensive. Using carrots or sticks, and sometimes both, they’re struggling to curb growing protest movements.

In Jordan two weeks ago, amid spreading protests, King Abdullah II dismissed his prime minister and cabinet, promising reforms. In the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, police countered protesters’ “Day of Rage” this week with rubber bullets and tear gas, while the king tried to defuse opposition by promising a $2,650 payment of “appreciation” to every Bahraini family. In Kuwait, too, the ruling emir announced cash grants to every citizen.

In Iran this week, government forces used violence to block demonstrators from massing in main squares, despite Tehran’s rhetorical support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Yemen and Algeria, protesters and police battled in the streets. In the west bank, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would hold long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections by September, and this week the PA prime minister dismissed his cabinet.

Long a mostly impotent force in Arab politics, the Arab street suddenly has discovered its power, and it’s ushering in change from Tunis to Amman — not to mention fraying nerves in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Activists in other countries are trying to use the example of Egypt and Tunisia to mobilize large numbers of people to the streets,” said David Siddhartha Patel, a political scientist at Cornell University.

Despite the spreading protests, experts cautioned against predicting the collapse of additional regimes. While the Arab street has drawn lessons from Egypt and Tunisia, so have their autocratic rulers.

“Will people demonstrate and protest? Yes,” said Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s program of Global Research in International Affairs. “Will people overthrow governments? I think the answer is no.”

In Israel, the sudden change in Egypt has ignited a sharp debate along partisan lines about lessons to be learned and the efficacy of peacemaking with the Arab world.

“The right wing says you cannot really negotiate agreements with Arabs because the agreements will not be kept because their states are not stable,” said retired Israeli Brig.-Gen Shlomo Brom, an expert on Arab politics at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The left will say, the lesson is that because of the instability of the Middle East, we should be interested in minimizing friction between us and the Arab world by having ongoing negotiations for peace.”

The calculus for every country is different, and the elements that made for the success of Egypt’s uprising were a uniquely combustible combination that may not transfer elsewhere.

High unemployment, a yawning rich-poor gap, widespread government corruption, and deteriorating quality-of-life metrics made Hosni Mubarak almost universally despised in his country, uniting Islamists and secularists in opposition. Egypt faced a looming succession crisis that undermined the legitimacy of the 82-year-old president, who wanted to hand over power to his son, Gamal.

Once the protests began in earnest, Egypt’s government, which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, was subject to American pressure on how to confront the demonstrators. Perhaps most significant, the Egyptian army opted to side with the protesters over the regime, declining to use violence against the people and essentially turning what had begun as a popular uprising into a military coup.

That stands in stark contrast to Iran, which put down mass protests a year and a half ago following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The key state security forces did the government’s bidding at the time, and with gusto: They beat and shot demonstrators, jailed dissenters, and executed organizers.

This time, the regime is making sure that mass protests never materialize by choking off main arteries leading to central squares, deploying hundreds of riot officers, and banning marches in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Already pariahs in the West, Tehran’s rulers have little to hold them back from unleashing the full might of their security apparatus to stay in power.

Syria and Iran have another card to play when it comes to staunching opposition.

“Their anti-U.S. and anti-Israel posture lends them the claim that whoever rises against them are agents of the U.S. and Israel,” Dorraj said. “This was not available to Mubarak.”

Jordan, the only Arab country besides Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel, is seen to be in a more vulnerable position. Its ruler hails from a minority group in a country whose population is mostly Palestinian. In recent weeks, even the native Jordanian tribes in the minority that compose the king’s traditional power base went public with charges of corruption against Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania. Also, the painful domestic effects of the global economic crisis have increased popular discontent in Jordan.

As protests — a recurring presence in the kingdom — gained steam following the unrest in Egypt, Abdullah moved quickly to announce political reforms, firing his government and installing a new, conservative cabinet designed to placate Jordan’s powerful tribes. The moves, and the king’s relative popularity compared with Mubarak in Egypt, weigh in Abdullah’s favor.

“Here we see a difference between Jordan on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other: Jordan made some concessions, where the governments of Iran and Syria will not give an inch,” Rubin observed.

“In Jordan, it’s different from Egypt and Tunisia — everybody likes the king,” Faisal Al-Rfouh, a former Jordanian culture minister and now a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, told JTA in an interview from Amman.

Perhaps the Middle Eastern country most vulnerable to revolution is Yemen, which like Mubarak’s Egypt is plagued by high poverty, unemployment, discontent with the regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Long ravaged by internal conflicts, Yemen is seen as a key front in the war against al-Qaeda and terrorism. If Saleh goes, it’s not clear that Yemen’s government will remain allied with the West against Islamic extremism.

“There is one lesson we can learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian cases,” Brom said. “That is that nobody is immune and there are strong limitations to our ability to make forecasts.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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