El-Ghobashy on Egypt's elections

The wonderful Mona El-Ghobashy has a new lucid essay at MERIP on Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections. It is probably the only thing you need to read about it, and answer to why the opposition parties are not following Mohamed ElBaradei's call for an electoral boycott:

The opposition’s choice to participate is not as odd at it seems, for Egypt’s parliamentary elections, despite their serious limitations, are not mere props or stereotypical autocratic rituals of acclamation. They are rare moments of open, if unequal political competition between parties, whose strategic interaction means that elections are far from trivial.

Of course, it was always strange that movements with no MPs or political parties were calling for a boycott, they clearly had more to lose. There's a lot of great info in there.

Run! Sharia is coming!

Much has been written about the recent Center for Security Policy report, headed by neocon loony Frank Gaffney, about the plot to impose Sharia on America. It fits the current mood of hysteria perfectly, and just shows one other element of the carefully crafted campaign of Islamophobia taking place at the moment. But I particularly liked this response by Joshua Micah Marshall of TPM:

In our investigation into the growth of Sharia Law in the USA we came across some surprising findings. Numerous American cities now have one or more Muslim 'religious courts' in operation where believers go to adjudicate family law disputes, real estate transactions and various other matters according to Sharia Law by binding arbitration. These religious court verdicts can then be enforced by civilian American courts. Various states have also passed laws to codify Muslim dietary laws, though a few of these laws have been struck down. And numerous national corporations now process foods to suit Muslim dietary standards. Finally, one jurisdiction in New York has been settled entirely by devout Muslims; no candidates run for office except those approved by the local imam; road signs in the town are all printed in both English and Arabic; and various local practices have been brought into line with Sharia.

Actually, there's one detail I didn't mention. The law here isn't Sharia; it's Halakhah, Jewish religious law. And all the above are true if you change 'Muslim' to 'Jewish' and 'Arabic' to 'Hebrew'. (Actually, Yiddish written in the Hebrew script, to be specific.)

Marshall goes on to say, who cares if this is happening? Personally, I care: I don't think any religious law should be implemented or honored in the US (or for that matter elsewhere.) But that's a separate debate.

Do read TPM's investigative piece on the origins of Sharia-scare in Amreeka.

Never say no to Panda

A few days ago a friend showed me one of these ads for Panda cheese, which have been a hit in the Arab world. They're very funny, and as Steve Clemons points out, full of geopolitical significance: a menacing Chinese Panda forcing consumption, a metaphor for the way the US likes to force things down Arab throats, etc. But I mostly like that this simple yet extremely funny ad, with instantly recognizable depictions of everyday situations in Egypt, may be the first Arabic TV ad to go viral globally. It's one of the best ad series I've seen since the UK's jingoistic Tango ads of the 1990s.
Credit to the boutique firm that came up with the ad, Elephant Cairo. Here's an interview with their creative director who won a Silver Lion for the Panda ads.

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On yesterday's Egypt protests

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it was back in May that there were two demonstrations in the center of Cairo a few days apart. One, mostly led by trade union activists, took place peacefully without many clashes with riot police. The other — I think held on May 4, Mubarak's birthday — was led by political activists and members of parliament. They were treated much more roughly, because their message was not a general one about wages or government policies, but about who ruled Egypt.

I kept thinking of that after catching to the news of the last few days (I was and still am away from Cairo, so am relying entirely on press reports) and, particularly, the recent anti-Mubarak protest that gathered some 600 activists yesterday in Cairo, and more in Alexandria and other cities. Amidst all the different small protests that have taken place, these seem different. First of all, because it seems that it's been a while since 600 people participated in a specifically anti-Mubarak protest. Secondly, because the way the police handled the demo seems unusually heavy-handed: 

The demonstration was scheduled to take place in front of Abdeen Palace, the former residence of Egypt’s King Farouk, in downtown Cairo, but hundreds of riot police surrounded the area from Mohamed Farid Square to Abdeen Square, closing off all the main routes leading to the palace and preventing many protestors from reaching the location.

The underground metro exits were also blocked by riot police, described by activist Ahmed Samir as “an Egyptian army.”

Many protestors were beaten and detained for hours by riot police to prevent them from reaching the location of the demonstration and several reporters were also prevented from going through.

“The police started surrounding the area at 3:30 pm. The violations and detentions started at 5 pm. Kefaya headquarters, which is near Abdeen Square, was completely surrounded by riot police and a number of activists were detained near Bab El-Louq on their way to the demonstrations,” general coordinator of the Kefaya Movement for Change Abdel Halim Qandil told Daily News Egypt.

. . .

According to Ramy Raoof, a volunteer with the Front for the Defense of Egypt's Protestors, 14 were arrested in Cairo, 29 in Alexandria and 10 in Port Said. Protestors from Cairo and Port Said were all released before 2 am Wednesday morning. Although Raoof said he expected that all activists were released he couldn’t confirm the same happened to those arrested in Alexandria.

Qandil had earlier estimated that 30 activists were arrested on Tuesday.

Some were later released on the desert road between Cairo and Ain Sokhna, others in Al Moqattam and on the Cairo-Ismailia road.

I would venture that these protests are taking a slightly different significance for both participants and the security services in the current political context. For activists, they are the first major protests since the launch of the poster campaign for Gamal Mubarak last month, and may represent a revival of the trend of frequent large protests that we saw in 2005 in the run-up to the presidential elections. In this charged political atmosphere, it makes sense that activists will redouble their efforts and that more people might be drawn into participating in these protests: there is something more tangible to protest against today, since a Gamal Mubarak campaign now exists in public.

For the police, this might indicate new instructions to send a strong message to participants that such protests (not long ago largely tolerated and kept under control) will be handled more firmly from now on. The dumping of people on the desert highway is quite unnecessarily petty, for instance, and the rough handling of MPs unusual (although it also happened last May.)

This brings to mind something that I've been thinking about for a while: what if, in the run-up to the succession many expect to happen in the next year, Egypt sees a considerable tightening of political space? After all, in recent years, even as elections were rigged the regime could always claim to have considerably more political space than many other Arab countries. It tolerated a lot of protests, direct public criticism of the president, and many other things unthinkable in, say, Tunisia or Libya or Syria. What if it tightens the noose now? What if the recent troubles the Orbit satellite channel is said to be having, the purchase of al-Destour by the Wafd's al-Sayed al-Badawy, its editor Ibrahim Eissa's rumored booting from his talk show on Naguib Sawiris' ON TV, and many other measures point to the limited space that exists in Egypt being reduced further?

It's worth keeping this in mind, because we're not in 2005: Egypt's domestic politics are not a major part of US foreign policy, the world is not watching.

[Michael Dunn has some thoughts on the recent protests too.]

Responding to Tarek Masoud

Yesterday my latest column in Masri al-Youm was put up: the case against the case for Gamal Mubarak. It's in response to Tarek Masoud's recent article in Foreign Policy suggesting that Gamal Mubarak's is Egypt's best hope for democracy. I don't know Masoud, but have read some of his work on the Muslim Brothers and elections and found it richly detailed. I think he's approached this issue from a provocative angle, and what the basic premise he raises — that Gamal as president could have unexpected consequences — may be worth considering. Nonetheless, the arguments he puts forward are pretty weak. But make up your own mind.

Column: The Rabble-rousers

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm is up, on funding of the anti-Park51 movement by extremist elements of the US pro-Israel lobby.

The connection between the core of the Park51 movement — the people who have provided leadership, organization and funding to the campaign — is simply too big to ignore. So is the increasing overlap of a segment of the "professional" pro-Israel lobby in America, from think tanks to magazines, and the incitement of Islamophobia. This is bad news for Americans of all persuasions, bad news for Jews, bad news for Muslims, and bad news for the Middle East. It needs to be stopped before it gets too far, and the first step is to call out the likes of David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and Pamela Geller (and their far-flung associates) for what they are. 

Egypt number one!

That's what al-Ahram thinks, apparently, since it cannot bear to see Mubarak not be the first on the red carpet at the recent Washington Middle East peace meeting. Blogger WaELK uncovered the photoshop job carried out by the al-Ahram editors, which has making the rounds on the internets:

The originalThe photoshopped version that rightly makes Mubarak the leader of the event.Of course we recently posted that original picture asking users to come up with captions. They were a lot of good entries. I liked the quote from the Reservoir Dogs song, "Jokers to the left of me, clowns to the right, here I am trapped in the middle with you...". But more timely was "The Expendables."

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Alexandria, back in vogue?

Alexandria seems to be enjoying a mild vogue. This summer it was Mediterranean culture capital, although I haven't heard much about the activities that took place there. 

In its last issue, the magazine Saudi Aramco World has an interesting article about Alexandria's medieval history (although as always the oil company-sponsored-magazine treads carefully and vaunts the city as a peaceful meeting ground of cultures and religions). 

In fact, Alexandria has been both a meeting ground and a battle ground, a true melting pot that at times has boiled over. Sectarian tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians continue to run high there. 

But the period of Alexandria's history that seems to be of the most interest these days is the pre-Islamic one. Youssef Zeidan's "controversial" novel Azazeel is party set in Alexandria in the fifth century B.C., at a time when the city is transitioning from pagan to Christian worship.

The recent movie Agora also deals with this period, and with the famous female mathematician Hypatia (of which little is known besides the fact that she was killed by a Christian mob).

The movie isn't very good. Not because, as one American reviewer wrote: "the film serves as a startlingly shrill attack on Christianity, positioned here largely as a breeding ground for hypocritical sadists who stand in direct opposition to reason and science" (I think rather the review reveals a startlingly naive view of Christianity's history). But because all the characters are one-dimensional. The reconstructions of ancient Alexandria, on the other hand, are quite exciting.  

A movie I'm looking forward to is the next from Ahmad Abdalla (the director of Heliopolis), which was shot in Alexandria and features local musicians and street artists. The movie should be released soon.  

Moroccan human rights activist arrested for buying alcohol

The well-known Moroccan activist Abdullah Zaazaa was arrested last night in his Casablanca neighborhood of Bouchentou, for buying alcohol during Ramadan. Alcohol sales in Morocco resumed legally today, after being banned during the month of Ramadan and the Eid. However, Mr. Zaazaa and other men in his neighborhood were arrested during a raid on a house where alcohol was being sold. 

I reported earlier this month on the movement in Morocco (and Algeria, where several people were arrested this month, in one case while eating during the day inside a closed restaurant, and where the human rights groups SOS Algeria issued a communiqué defending the right not to fast) to decriminalize breaking the fast in public. Mr. Zaazaa had been supportive of that effort. 

Mr. Zaazaa has been a left-wing activist since the 1970s. He spent 14 years in jail under Hassan II. Today, he heads a community association that helps educate the residents of the two Casablanca neighborhoods in which it is based on their human, civic and political rights, and to mobilize around communal projects and demands. 

As Mr. Zaazaa's wife told me over the phone tonight, it is hardly unusual for alcohol to be available in their neighborhood during the Eid. This raid and these arrests may be part of an increasingly aggressive enforcement of public religiosity -- and may be partly catalyzed by the very demands for greater individual freedom in choosing whether to observe Ramadan. 


Links September 8-12 2010

The black helicopters are coming...

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Tony Blair and the Wataniya scandal

Yesterday the Daily Mail put out a whopper of a story, alleging that Tony Blair used his position as Middle East envoy for the benefit of one his employers:

Tony Blair mounted an intense political lobbying campaign to rescue a struggling mobile-phone business owned by a client of the bank that pays him a £2 million annual salary. 

The firm, Wataniya, had already built a brand-new network in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank.

But it almost collapsed before launching its service, jeopardising a £450 million investment, because Israel’s government was refusing to let it use the frequencies it needed to operate.

Acting in his capacity as the international Middle East peace envoy, Mr Blair helped to save the company by spending months putting pressure on Israel’s prime minister and his colleagues in a bid to change their minds.

An investigation by The Mail on Sunday has revealed:

  • Mr Blair spoke of the need to get Wataniya up and running in order to boost the Palestinian economy. However JP Morgan, the American investment bank that employs him as a consultant, has a financial stake in Wataniya through Wataniya’s owner, the Qatari firm Qtel, which is an important client of JP Morgan.
  • Financial documents show that back in 2007, JP Morgan had been one of four ‘mandated lead arrangers’ of a $2 billion loan with which Qtel bought Wataniya from its original Kuwaiti owners. Last year, the bank joined a syndicate that lent Qtel a further $500 million, and became a ‘lead arranger’ for a Qtel bond issue which raised yet another $1.5 billion.

In these deals, JP Morgan would have been paid many millions of pounds in fees, and if the loans had gone bad, could have been exposed to substantial losses. ‘Its original exposure was probably around $200 million,’ one Wall Street expert said yesterday.

The article also has plenty about the longstanding issue around Wataniya, one of the biggest examples of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. The amazing thing is that Wataniya has been a priority not only for Blair and the Palestinian leadership, but also for the US. Reuters reported last year that US aid had been redirected towards the company:

RAMALLAH, West Bank, April 24 (Reuters) - U.S. aid in the form of loan guarantees meant for Palestinian farmers and other small to mid-sized businesses has been given to a mobile phone firm backed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Gulf investors.

The shift in U.S. taxpayer support to Wataniya Palestine, a joint venture between a Kuwaiti and Qatari telecoms group and a holding company for public assets, the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF), has dismayed sponsors of small private enterprise. 

Its supporters counter that help for Wataniya Palestine is good for jobs and free markets at a time when Washington is throwing its weight, and money, behind Abbas as a bulwark against Hamas Islamists in Gaza and as a partner in efforts to relaunch peace negotiations with Israel.

Among the firm's advocates is Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who pressed Israel to grant Wataniya Palestine radio frequencies so the company can challenge a monopoly long held by PalTel.

Mohammad Mustafa, Abbas's chief economic adviser and chairman of both the PIF and Wataniya Palestine, said the $16 million in loan guarantees for Wataniya were justified by the global credit crunch and the company's potential to bolster the Palestinian economy. He said plenty of guarantees remained to boost smaller businesses, as intended by programme sponsors.

But former PIF board members and advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, challenged the justification for granting U.S. loan guarantees when Wataniya Palestine's financial backers were highly profitable.

"They don't need to provide them a guarantee. They are not the targeted beneficiary," said Samir Barghouthi, general manager of the Arab Centre for Agricultural Development, which helps small businesses. "This is not acceptable."

In Gaza, people have been imprisoned for several years and prevented from reconstructing after being used as target practice, with no possibility to defend themselves, by the IDF. In the West Bank Palestinians continue to have their lives micro-managed by Israelis and to be bullied and stolen from by settlers. In the meantime, we have a Quartet envoy who uses his position to do business and a US agenda driven by corporate welfare and filling the pockets of Mahmoud Abbas, his family and his friends. And people wonder why there is no confidence in the peace process or the PA?

Update: An alert reader points out that Blair also consults for the Kuwaiti government, which used to own about 24% of Wataniya:

Tony Blair Associates has as a client Kuwait, and by implication its royal family, while Blair has met with the finance minister of Kuwait while representing JPMorgan Chase. Wataniya Palestine is substantially (57%) owned by investors from Qatar and... Kuwait. For the former, it's Qatar Telecom. But for the later, it's the Kuwait Investment Authority, which operates on behalf of the State of Kuwait -- Tony Blair Associates' client.  So when Blair lobbies for Wataniya, who is he representing?

Maybe Tony Blair should just give up either the Quartet envoy position or his consultancy. Or is it that the unpaid Quartet gig is just too lucrative for his consultancy?

[Thanks, J.]

Arabist in NYT on Egypt's military

Thanassis Cambanis, who has been temporarily covering Egypt for the NYT (it's in-between correspondents in Cairo at the moment), has a story on the Egyptian military's role in the whole Mubarak succession business in which your truly is quoted, as well as many Egyptian analysts and retired military officers.

Military officials have expressed reservations in interviews and in the Egyptian news media about Gamal Mubarak, one of the most frequently mentioned potential successors of the president. Retired officers and other analysts said the military would not support his candidacy without ironclad guarantees that it would retain its pre-eminent position in the nation’s affairs. Retired officers circulated an open letter criticizing Gamal Mubarak’s candidacy last month, and several retired Egyptian officers said in interviews that they were skeptical of hereditary succession.

The military has much to lose in the transition, these officers and analysts say. Over the years, one-man rule eviscerated Egypt’s civilian institutions, creating a vacuum at the highest levels of government that the military willingly filled. “There aren’t any civilian institutions to fall back on,” said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about the Egyptian military. “It’s an open question how much power the military has, and they might not even know themselves.”

It's as good an occasion as any to discuss the Egyptian military and the possibility of an intervention against Gamal Mubarak's succession, which many in the Egyptian opposition have fervently hoped for. This situation, in a sense, is ideal for the military, confirming its central role and placing senior military officers — since we are probably talking about that rather than the army as a corporate entity — of winning either way: they will be wooed by Gamal (or any other successor) to support him and, if they decide not to, would easily garner popular support for their own candidate. Should they decide to support Gamal Mubarak, they need do nothing but sit back and allow the process concocted for his "legitimate" election to take place. If they decide against it, it will be most likely a decision taken behind the scenes rather than publicly, with the selection of the candidate taking place in collusion with elements of the ruling party rather than, as some have said, by tanks descending into the streets. A soft coup, if you will, if only because the regime as a whole in Egypt has an interest in preserving the myth of constitutional legitimacy — they would bend the rules, rather than break them altogether.

Unfortunately, the two options have long seemed the only choice in Egypt (as for the military ushering in a transition to democracy, the very notion is ridiculous, since the military has never been pro-democracy in the past). A third alternative, for now still distant, would be for a political disturbance such as a popular uprising or massive demonstrations to force a military intervention. This could force the regime to adapt to a new situation, making the possibility of a (slow, uncertain) transition more likely, since there would be a force to held accountable to: the public. This is what the likes of Mohamed ElBaradei and Tareq al-Bishri have called for, either as a huge march for real reform or as a campaign of civil disobedience. It still seems distant, especially in the absence of a united opposition (just look at their divisions on the subject of electoral boycotts) and a social elite that, a few figures aside, has decidedly lacked courage and leadership. 

As such, the question of succession is partly about securing strong negotiating positions for elements of the regime, from the security services to the military to political apparatchiks and businessmen. The battle may be less about who's president than what the influence of institutions, clientelist networks and individuals would be in the coming set-up. Such battles play out very slowly, as we have seen in other leadership successions in the Arab world. When Bashar al-Assad came in, many thought him weak. But today he is seen as strong and a new ruling elite has formed, getting rid of some old figures. In Morocco, the immediate victim of King Muhammad VI's ascension to the throne was Interior Minister Driss Basri and some of his acolytes, but the military and gendarmerie largely were untouched, while an older generation of technocrats was untouched. Autocracies — like pure dictatorships, like Saddam Hussein's Iraq — are complex, living systems composed of moving elements. Sometimes these are institutions, but more often they are individuals. It might be individual ambitions that will be the most interesting thing to watch — unfortunately, when it comes to Arab militaries, that's generally a very difficult thing to do.

Review: The Black Nile

My review of Dan Morrison's The Black Nile came out a few days ago in The National. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn about South Sudan in particular, it's wonderfully written and provides some insight most of us rarely hear about and will never get to. It's also a lot of fun.

Update: Speaking of the Nile, Jeffrey Fleischman of the LAT has a nice piece looking at the debate over the river's use from two places, Egypt and Ethiopia. We're familiar with the Egyptian alarmism over the Nile, so here's an excerpt that looks at what dam projects are bringing to the Ethiopians:

Ethiopia's new Tana-Beles hydroelectric plant on the banks of Lake Tana was built without Egypt's approval. But Meles has insisted that his country, where blackouts are common and half the children younger than 5 are malnourished, will build whatever it pleases along the river and tributaries. His government has enticed investors to the newly irrigated farmland with dirt-cheap leases.

That's what drew Addis Belay, a wealthy businessman from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, who leased 1,060 acres irrigated by the Tana-Beles project. This spring he planted his first crop of rice, sesame seeds, soy and corn, food he hopes one day to export to neighboring Sudan. Belay's stone-crushing factory in Addis Ababa is also profiting from cheaper electricity generated by the new $520-million hydroelectric plant.

Belay's sister-in-law, Liyou Feleke, said Egypt has profited from the Nile while Ethiopia has languished in poverty. In 2008 the per capita gross national income in Egypt was $1,800, according to the World Bank. In Ethiopia it was just $280.

"The Egyptians have been using it for generations," she said. "The Ethiopians, we have never used a bit. But it's time."

A good argument for getting away from the zero-sum view publicly favored by Egypt.


From a piece in Le Devoir, a French Quebecois opinion magazine, a brilliantly succinct description of the Palestinian predicament in the current talks:

Au sommet de l'asymétrie

La conférence de Washington va occulter momentanément ce contexte par la mise en scène d'une fausse symétrie médiatique, diplomatique, protocolaire. Dirigeants israéliens et palestiniens ne sont pas deux partenaires sur un pied d'égalité, mais un patron et un employé dans une relation de dépendance discrétionnaire.

Pour se rendre à Washington, Mahmoud Abbas devra obtenir l'autorisation de l'armée israélienne pour sortir de Ramallah, franchir les différents points de contrôle et prendre l'avion. Sa survie politique, économique et physique est entièrement dans les mains du gouvernement israélien et dépend donc de sa capacité à ne pas trop déplaire à Israël. Cette image est difficilement admissible: pour les dirigeants israéliens, par refus de se voir accoler l'image de l'oppresseur; pour les dirigeants palestiniens, par déni ou refus d'admettre leurs échecs et leur impuissance au terme d'une lutte nationale épuisée. 

My quick translation:

At the summit of asymmetry

The Washington summit will momentarily eclipse the context [of the Occupation] by the staging of a false media, diplomatic, and protocolar symmetry. Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not equal partners, but a boss and an employee in a relationship of discretionary dependency.

To go to Washington, Mahmoud Abbas had to obtain the permission of the Israeli army to leave Ramallah, cross various checkpoints and take a plane. His political, economic and physical survival is entirely in the hands of the Israeli government and thus depends entirely on his ability of not altogether displeasing Israel. This image is hardly admissible: for Israeli leaders, by their denial of being labelled as oppressors; for Palestinian leaders, because of their denial or refusal to admit their failures and powerlessness after of an exhausted national struggle.

It's pretty much all I have to say (along with the post below) about the start of those Washington talks, really.

[Thanks, VR].

Lexington and Hamas

I am a fan of the Lexington blog, by the United States editor of the The Economist, who also pens a column in the magazine. He recently had a fine call to build that mosque in reaction to the Park51 controversy. But I have to disagree with a recent post on Hamas, which endorsed the Middle East Quartet's position that Hamas must accept pre-conditions to enter negotiations:

I was delighted at the beginning of this week's Middle East peace summit in Washington to hear George Mitchell, America's peace envoy, nail the much-quoted argument that Hamas should be invited into the peace process in Palestine, just like the IRA was in Northern Ireland. This is what he said:

“Let me say they’re very different… And while we should learn what we can from other processes, each is unique... But on the central point, the reality is that in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, the political party that is affiliated with the IRA, did not enter the negotiations until after 15 months had elapsed in the negotiations, and only then because they met two central conditions that had been established. The first was a ceasefire, and the second was a publicly stated commitment to what came to be known as the Mitchell Principles because I was the chairman of the commission that established them.”

Exactly. Of course there will be no final deal on Palestine without the acquiescence of Hamas, which represents at least half of the Palestinian movement and controls the Gaza Strip. Of course it should be at the table at some point. But Hamas has so far locked itself out of the talks by its refusal to accept the three conditions laid down by the international community: a ceasefire, recognising Israel and abiding by previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians. I understand why agreeing to these conditions is difficult for a movement with Hamas's history. But, please, no more IRA comparisons. 

This is disingenuous. First of all, the Mitchell Principles were a pre-condition for all participants in the talks, not just one.  This is important because the biggest feature of the Israel-Palestinian dynamic is imbalance between the two sides, compounded by imbalance in the way the "international community" (really only the United States) deals with them.

Secondly, they did not include any condition that entailed a specific outcome to negotiations, such as a recognition of the state of Israel. Especially when Israel does not recognize any of its own borders — it has never set them! What is Hamas supposed to recognize when it recognizes Israel? The 1967 line (not acceptable to any Israeli government so far)? Eretz Israel, between the Nile and Euphrates, that some still hold dear? The 1948 UN partition plan? You tell me. The whole point of the negotiations is to decide on borders. Or is Hamas supposed to recognize "Israel's right to exist" — in which case, where is the reciprocity when you have an Israeli government that is non-committal about the two-state solution.

Thirdly, both Lexington and Mitchell are forgetting that the Mitchell Principles were a) commitments to going towards certain goals (rejection of violence, disarmament of paramilitary factions, abiding by the terms of all-party negotiations, etc.) and b) not applied immediately, since there were still violent factions as negotiations went on. Clearly they are meant as guidelines to work towards, not prerequisites.

Beyond this, there has been absolutely no effort to woo Hamas into joining talks, or achieving Palestinian reconciliation so that more representative Palestinian negotiating team can come to the negotiations. Quite the opposite: the negotiating team that went to Washington is increasingly seen as unrepresentative of the Palestinians. Since both Fatah and Hamas officials (executive and legislative) have outstayed their electoral terms, neither can be said to be representative. Half of them even less. The lesson is that healing the Palestinian house should be a more important first step, especially when no one really has much faith in the current negotiations.

Lexington could have raised other, much more crucial issues about Hamas. Most notably, he could have asked whether it is truly interested in a negotiated settlement (there have been encouraging signs, but overall ambiguity remains) and is able to withstand pressure from allies that have their own interests to pursue (i.e. Iran and Syria). He could have also asked whether the current Israeli government should also be imposed conditions and pressures, most notably an immediate freeze of settlements, and an acceptance of past negotiations and UN resolutions (again here we find ambiguity, to say the least). It's a shame he didn't.   

Update: Here Henry Siegman says US Hamas policy blocks Middle East peace.