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Fatah parley raises questions about Palestinian intentions, Obama’s strategy

WASHINGTON – The fiery rhetoric at last week’s Fatah meeting in Bethlehem has renewed concerns that the Obama administration is not doing enough to pressure the Palestinians.

At the first Fatah General Assembly in 20 years, participants refused to renounce violence and passed confrontational resolutions, like one blaming Yasser Arafat’s death on Israel.

Even as Jewish organizational leaders condemned the assembly, many of them acknowledged that Fatah leaders would remain Israel’s chief Palestinian interlocutors for peace talks. But they urged the Obama administration to issue a condemnation of the harsh talk at the west bank parley.

“We would like to see this administration express some disappointment on some of the rhetoric coming out” of the conference, said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman. “It’s not in line with the American initiative to bring the parties closer together.”

But other Middle East observers, including some who have supported the Obama administration’s calls for an Israeli settlement freeze, cautioned against such an approach. While some of the language used at the Fatah meeting may have been troubling, they said, the White House might be better off if it stayed focused on the broader picture and not necessarily respond to specific rhetoric.

Thus far, the Obama administration has said nothing, with the State Department passing up a chance to make a statement. State Department spokesman Robert Wood was asked at Monday’s media briefing about the party platform Fatah adopted at the assembly, including the position that the group “maintains the right of resistance by all means possible.”

“I haven’t seen the plan” Wood said, and simply reiterated “the importance of both parties” implementing “the ‘road map’ obligations, not taking any steps that in any way prejudge the outcome of future negotiations.”

Some corners are viewing the administration’s lack of response to the conference rhetoric as another example of what some Jewish leaders have charged is an imbalance in the pressure being applied by the administration on Israel compared to the Palestinians and Arab states.

President Obama has told Jewish leaders that pressure is being placed as well on the Palestinians and Arab governments, and suggested that perceptions of an imbalance are largely created by the media. But while the administration has made repeated public demands on Israel for a settlement freeze, it has said little publicly about the necessary steps that the other side must take, though Obama has issued general calls on Palestinians to stop incitement.

Several Middle East observers said they had read only media accounts of the Fatah party platform and had not seen the full document. According to the reports, the platform reportedly reiterates “the Palestinian people’s right to resistance to occupation in all its forms in line with international law.” Fatah leaders asserted in statements that they reserved the right to “armed struggle.”

In his speech to the conference, though, newly re-elected Fatah chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did stress that the Palestinians would focus on “nonviolent” resistance.

Some Israeli officials and officials at U.S. Jewish groups also criticized what they viewed as unreasonable demands made by Fatah at the assembly, such as proclaiming it would not negotiate with Israel until the Palestinians were given all of Jerusalem. Others downplayed such positions, saying that both sides usually posture by making maximalist demands before a negotiation begins.

Another complaint: Some who have engaged in violence and terrorism were honored and spoke at the parley.

Israeli government officials have been weighing in on the congress. Before the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “The rhetoric coming from Fatah and the positions being expressed are grave and unacceptable to us.” The next day, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a group of visiting Democratic U.S. Congress members that the Fatah platform, along with unrest in the west bank and Gaza Strip, “has buried any chance of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians in the next few years.”

The American Jewish Committee called the assembly “a slap in the face” to those interested in peace. Jason Isaacson, the group’s director of government and international affairs, specifically pointed to the resolution charging Israel with the death of Arafat as “a signal of the lack of seriousness” of Fatah.

“How is that acceptable in a political movement trying to operate on the world stage?” he asked, also criticizing the “wink and nod about the return to armed struggle.”

“We naturally hope the administration” would view the conference “with the same sense of concern that we have expressed in our statements, unless the bar of expectations is set so low that a disappointing conference isn’t worth commenting on,” he said.

One Middle East insider who declined to be identified was more blunt about the administration’s need to respond.

“This silence is what creates the impression of the imbalance,” the insider said. “Where is the condemnation for this kind of behavior?”

“This rhetoric impacts the street,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We’ve learned you can’t dismiss the issue of incitement.”

But other observers suggested that the administration should be more cautious about condemnation.

Nathan Brown, a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University and an expert in Palestinian reform, had not seen the full Fatah platform. Still, he said, it should be viewed as akin to a U.S. political party platform that might contain some “red meat language” to satisfy the political factions in a “large and diverse movement” like Fatah but isn’t necessarily followed by the party leaders.

Brown said what was more important was whether the Fatah leaders elected at the assembly would form a “coherent” organization dedicated to a diplomatic solution and whether they continue to “do what the Israelis want them to be doing” on security and other issues, something that won’t be known for a few months.

Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir, whose organization has been supportive of Obama’s approach, said that while some of the “hyperbole” from the Fatah congress was “troubling,” he didn’t think “micromanagement” of inflammatory statements by Palestinians or Israelis would be helpful to peace efforts. Nir also put a positive spin on the excerpts of the party platform he had read, noting that while they were still holding out violence as an option, the platform “adheres to the peace option.”

No matter their interpretation of the Fatah assembly, there was general consensus that Fatah is still the only game in town when it comes to a peace partner for Israel — which is why the group’s actions should be taken seriously.

Not everyone agreed with that assessment, though.

“This conference made it crystal clear,” said Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein, that “peace is not possible with Hamas or Fatah.”

JTA

 
 

Can Iran’s democracy clock outpace its nuclear clock?

WASHINGTON – Iran watchers keep two clocks: One counts down to a nuclear Iran, the other counts down to a democratic Iran.

Neither clock is guaranteed to keep ticking all the way down.

News Analysis

The international community hopes to thwart Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. And despite the upheaval in Iran last summer, no one is sure that the autocratic regime in Tehran is on its way out — or whether it will be replaced by a true democracy.

Still, recent developments on the ground — the rise last June and subsequent repression of Iran’s democracy movement, and Tehran’s apparent nuclear gains — have altered assessments about the two countdowns and whether they are influencing each other.

Some hard-liners such as John Bolton, the Bush administration’s pugnacious U.N. ambassador, say getting tougher on Iran would empower its democracy movement. Others, like Shoshana Bryen, the senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, counter that the democracy movement has essentially been snuffed out — providing another reason for the West to get tougher.

table class="caption">imageIran watchers in Washington and Israel wonder what will come first: an Iranian nuclear bomb or the turning out of the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shown addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2009. UN Photo/Marco Castro

Bryen says the nuclear clock is ticking faster — earlier this month, Iran announced plans to build 10 new nuclear fuel plants — and the regime in Tehran has figured out how to gum up the democracy clock.

“I think we are now not able to wait for the overthrow,” Bryen said, arguing that mass imprisonments and executions have intimidated Iran’s opposition.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak delivered the same message last week in meetings with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran.

“We see that the grip of the regime on its own people and even the cohesion of the leading group of ayatollahs are both being cracked and probably the countdown, historic countdown, toward the collapse has already started, but I don’t know of any serious observer who can tell us whether it will take two years, four years, six years, or 10,” Barak said in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And it’s clear to me that the clock toward the collapse of this regime works much slower than the clock which ticks toward Iran becoming a nuclear military power.”

A similar split is taking hold among those who oppose harsh sanctions. Many in this camp, spearheaded by the National Iranian American Council, say that the successes of the Iranian opposition movement bolster the argument for holding back on tough measures.

Others, however, heeding “realists” such as former George W. Bush administration officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, say sanctions are futile precisely because the Iranian government is here to stay, so it’s better to talk to the current regime.

The Obama administration appears to be shifting toward a dual track of investment in the democracy movement and tougher sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is accelerating talks with major powers toward a new sanctions package and said last month that Iran’s government is assuming the trappings of a junta.

A report last month by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for the first time cited as “credible” reports from Western intelligence agencies that say Iran is actively working toward a bomb. The report is helping the United States make the case for sanctions to holdouts in the U.N. Security Council.

P.J. Crowley, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Feb. 22 that the Obama administration is still focused on outreach — specifically an offer to get Iran to give up its low-enriched uranium in exchange for uranium enriched to medical research levels. He said an international, multilateral sanctions regime was close — underscoring the Obama administration’s focus on pressing for U.N. sanctions targeting the regime’s leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that protect it.

Crowley also would not count out unilateral congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector — the approach being pushed by many pro-Israel groups.

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now — the only major pro-Israel group opposing the congressional sanctions described as “crippling” by their sponsors — says Iran needs active diplomatic engagement precisely because of the nuclear threat and the futility of sanctions, which he warned could backfire.

Nir says the prospect that the regime in Tehran would give way to democracy is too ephemeral right now to count on as policy.

A group of foreign policy realists for months has been advising the administration that investment in the Iranian opposition movement is futile.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett derided Obama’s outreach to Iran as half-hearted and said engagement with the real power — the Iranian regime — made better sense than staking anything on the democracy movement.

Not everyone is ready to count out the democracy movement.

David Cvach, until recently the second counselor at the French Embassy in Iran and now the Middle East specialist at the French Embassy in Washington, says he believes the fissures in Iran reach deep into the power structure.

“The system has lost its amazing capacity to bring everyone together,” he said of the regime in a Feb. 5 talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Cvach says the successes of the opposition coupled with the Obama administration’s attempts at outreach to Iran lay the groundwork for sanctions that would target the regime’s elites.

“We should now focus on pressure on the regime,” Cvach said. “We don’t need to know whether it has nuclear weapons or how deep the fissures are — what we know is enough to raise the pressure.”

Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, says that sanctions could be counterproductive unless they are narrowly targeted.

“Sanctions that truly target the Revolutionary Guards but spare the population will likely not damage the Green movement,” Parsi said. “But blind, indiscriminate sanctions that hurt the population have in the past and will likely in the future make the struggle for democracy more difficult.”

Meir Javendanfar, a respected Iranian-born Israeli analyst who believes the post-June unrest has wounded the Iranian regime, favors the sanctions targeting the Guard’s banking and business interests — for now.

Broader sanctions, he says, are risky, but the prospect of a nuclear theocracy is riskier.

“Not imposing sanctions will be the worst option,” he said. “It will send a signal to Khameini,” the supreme ruler of Iran, “that the West is weak.”

JTA

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‘The Spider-man syndrome’  (turn off the dark)

 
 
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