Once again, Bush nostalgia

Oh, come on Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for God's sake:

When a billboard appeared outside a small Minnesota town early this year showing a picture of George W. Bush and the words "Miss me yet?" the irony was not lost on many in the Arab world. Most Americans may not miss Bush, but a growing number of people in the Middle East do. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain unpopular in the region, but his ardent support for democracy was heartening to Arabs living under stalled autocracies. Reform activists in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and elsewhere felt empowered to press for greater freedoms during the Bush years. Unfortunately, Bush's strong support for democracy contrasts sharply with President Obama's retreat on this critical issue.

I understand Dr. Ibrahim has reasons to be grateful towards George W. Bush, who forcefully pressured the Egyptian government to release him when he was on trial in 2002-03. But he should remember that Bush's support evaporated in January 2006 after Hamas' electoral victory (and the Muslim Brothers' electoral advance in Egypt). What reform activists in Lebanon — surely this should be "March 14 partisans", who for the most part did not seem very interested in democratic reform and are quite committed to Lebanon's twisted sectarian system, even if they rightly opposed Syrian interference in their own affairs. More reform activists in Egypt were anti-Bush. I could go on about "reform activists."

Also, no need to cite elections over 2005-06 as proof of reform. Egypt's were deeply flawed. The CIA funded Fatah's campaign in Palestine. Most of these elections were already scheduled — Bush did not order them to be held! There are other problems with the piece, but I'll stop here on the details. Ibrahim concludes:

Democracy and human rights advocates in the Middle East listened with great anticipation to Obama's speech in Cairo. Today, Egyptians are not just disappointed but stunned by what appears to be outright promotion of autocracy in their country. What is needed now is a loud and clear message from the United States and the global community of democracies that the Egyptian people deserve free, fair and transparent elections. Congress is considering a resolution to that effect for Uganda. Such a resolution for Egypt is critical given the immense U.S. support for Egypt. Just as we hope for a clear U.S. signal on democracy promotion, we must hope that the Obama administration will cease its coddling of dictators.

This is ill thought out. Obama has actually this year taken a few steps towards pressuring Egypt.

1. The US expressed disappointment over the renewal of the Emergency Law in May, which is more than the EU, which unbelievably put out the following crap under French and Italian pressure:

"I note Egypt's decision to limit the new State of Emergency to fighting terrorism and its financing and drug-related crimes. However, I strongly encourage the government to speed up the steps needed for the adoption of an antiterrorism law compliant with international human rights standards as soon as possible, noting the government's commitment to this goal in the EU/Egypt Action plan and in other forums".

"Note"? As in, "I note you're not wearing glasses today"? Pathetic.

2. Vice President Joe Biden raised the UNHCR's Universal Periodic Review of Egypt with Mubarak. At least there's a sign they're talking about it.

3. The State Dept. has called for an investigation into the death of Khaled Said. The day after that, a new investigation was ordered.

Bottom line: there's been a slight improvement since last year, but it could go much further. Rather than aping a Congressional resolution on Uganda Ibrahim could have called for specific measures, such as: the imposition of conditionalities for the disbursement of aid and the negotiation of any endowment for Egypt, sending messages that arms sales are conditional on freer elections after the disaster of the recent Shura Council elections, and holding to the Egyptian government to account on its claim that the Emegency Law will only be used in drug and terrorism cases. 

Ibrahim had a chance at making a much stronger case with specific recommendations. Claims of "Bush nostalgia" won't win friends in the Obama administration — just among the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial board.

Boohoohoohoo

The heart-wrenching psychological trauma of Israeli soldiers — how could the activists trying to break the Gaza blockade be so cruel?

The difficult images of Israeli commandos tied up and bloody on the deck of the Marmara that were published by Turkish newspapers have had significant effects on soldiers who have been away from the battlefield for more than a year.

Ynet learned that at least four Navy combat soldiers have recently contacted the Defense Ministry to report that the media images of the injured soldiers have instigated a worsening in their mental and psychiatric conditions.

One of the soldiers, who was released from the military just last summer after serving in one of the Navy's secret units, recently contacted the Defense Ministry rehabilitation department with a request that the depositions on his condition be updated after the images of the clashes on the Marmara flooded him once again with the difficult images he was confronted with during his service.

This same young man enlisted to the IDF with no medical or psychological conditions. However, due to the nature of his service, he was persistently exposed to threat. In the deposition on his condition, he reported that he did not receive any training on how to deal with such situations and their repercussions, one of which is that he has a hard time falling asleep at night.

His condition then worsened, and he suffered from nightmares, prompting his mental health officer to hospitalize him in a psychiatric ward.

I had wondered what psychological trauma was endured by the families of the nine people who died on that boat. But thank you Yediot Ahronot for pointing me to the real tragedy.

Cordesman on Afghanistan and more

The latest by Anthony Cordesman weighs whether the Afghan war is worth it. Pretty strong stuff from this establisment commentator:

The current situation is the product of more than eight years of chronic under-resourcing, under-reaction, spin, self-delusion and neglect. It is the result of one of the worst examples of wartime leadership in American history.

Although he ends up doing what every serious expert on Afghanistan seems to have done so far: say that it's "too close to call" to decide to pull out. That kind of hedging seems dangerous, purely from the strategic standpoint either there has to be full commitment or a pullout, halfway measures have been a big part of the problem. I am very troubled by his conclusion that accepts that the US should be some kind of global nation-builder:

This is not likely to be a century of confrontations between Western powers fighting conventional wars on their own territory. It is almost certain to be a century where the US must learn to fight irregular wars and exercises in armed nation building whether it likes it or not. If nothing else, the case for the war in Afghanistan may be that it is the prelude to an almost inevitable future. 

More maintaining of empire where such things could be more easily handled by the region's own powers. Has the US not wasted enough money yet on neoconservative pipe dreams? I'd rather repair bridges in Minneapolis and increase funding to California's state universities.

The report also has this intringuing line touching on the Arab world:

Moreover, it is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades –regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan. Moreover, the trade-offs involved do raise serious questions abouthether the same – or a much lower – investment in helping key allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco would do far more to provide overall security.

I must say that, aside from not being sure what "failed secularism" is, I am a bit troubled by this view of these countries at strategic bulwarks of stability in a troubled region — especially considering what Western-backed stability has meant for these countries in the last few decades.

Also my doubts about Cordesman have grown since reading Norman Finkelstein's takedown of his reporting on the Gaza War in This Time We Went Too Far. Still, this is an interesting — and alarming — establishment point of view.

The murder of Khaled Said

Egypt is abuzz with outrage after the death of Khaled Said, allegedly at the hands of the police. Here is a brief backgrounder:

“On Sunday, Khaled was at cyber café at around 11:30 in the evening. Two policemen asked him for money and when he said he didn’t have, they beat him,” Muhammad Abdel Aziz, lawyer with el-Nadeem, told al-Masry al-Youm. “As he was beaten up, his head hit a marble table and he started bleeding.”

According to Abdel Aziz, the policemen took Said out of the cyber café and continued to beat him. “He screamed at them saying ‘I am dying, leave me’, and he fell on the floor.” Abdel Aziz added that witnesses saw a yellow liquid coming out of Said’s mouth when he fell on the floor, after which there was bleeding. A pharmacist and a medic passing by confirmed he was shortly dead after they checked his tension.

Witnesses said a police car picked Said up. His family was later contacted and told he is in the morgue of Kom el-Dekka, to which they were denied access. At the prosecutor’s office, security told Said’s mother and brother that he swallowed a bag of drugs and that there were witnesses to the incident who confirmed seeing the bag. Ahmad Badawy, an activist in Alexandria with al-Ghad Party went on 11 June to the cyber café where the incident happened and said witnesses told him the drugs bag belonged to the two policemen who beat him up as he was shooting a video of them while making a deal.

The video refered to is here: Mohamed Abdelfattah مُحَمَّد عَبْدالفَتَّاحْ: Khaled was 'assassinated' because of this video

Further confirmation of his beating by the café owner: The Associated Press: Egypt cafe owner describes police beating death

CAIRO — The owner of an Egyptian Internet cafe says he witnessed police beating a young man to death and described the killing that has outraged rights activists.

Hassan Mosbah, in a filmed interview posted online Sunday, says two police officers came into his cafe in the city of Alexandria, dragged Khaled Said out into the street and beat him to death there. Pictures of Said's shattered face appeared on social networking sites after his death on June 6.

More details:
The most damning evidence is the picture of Khaled Said's face taken at the morgue, which shows clear signs of skull and jaw fracture (warning - graphic):
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Afghanistan: super-rentier state

I suppose one should be happy that a poor country like Afghanistan discovers vast mineral wealth that could drag it out of under-development and help solve some of its problems. Except it seems to rarely happen that way for mineral-rich states with weak central governments (just look at Congo):

WASHINGTON — The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

 

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Wikileaks: 260,000 embassy cables in the wild

Oh please let this be true:

Adrian Lamo, a former US hacker turned journalist who had been conversing with Manning online and later gave up his name to the authorities, said he also claimed to have handed 260,000 classified US embassy messages to Wikileaks.

According to Mr Lamo, Manning said the documents showed "almost-criminal political back dealings" made by US embassies in the Middle East which, if true, would cause enormous embarrassment to key allies in a notoriously volatile area of the world. Mr Lamo claims Manning said that "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public".

If Wikileaks publish this, I promise to spend the summer combing through these documents and getting other analysts to do likewise!

The EU, Egypt and the IP conflict

Recently a bunch of EU country ambassadors were summoned by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and urged not to waver and engage Hamas, because "all of this is their fault." As some of the European powers try to find a solution to the Gaza blockade, it's not only Israel scuttling solutions — the Egyptians are doing it to in order to preserve their monopoly on talking to Hamas, stay relevant, and make sure they're not short-changed in any future deal:

Kouchner has said the EU could defuse tensions around Gaza by checking the cargo on ships bound for the tiny Palestinian coastal enclave as well as the Rafah border crossing from Egypt into the Hamas-controlled territory.

Providing further details of the proposal made last week, the French diplomatic chief said the checks could take place in Cyprus, which, unlike Gaza, has a deepwater port. Cargo could also be unloaded in the Israeli port of Ashdod.

"This would simplify the checks," he added, though acknowledging the plan "is not a success for now."

According to Kouchner, there would also be a list of banned products, but not a blanket ban on merchandise delivered to the Palestinians.

He expressed pessimism for the Rafah proposal, saying "it's not certain this would work because our Egyptian friends do not want us to speak directly with Hamas."

I wonder if Kouchner expressing this publicly is meant to embarrass the Egyptians and signal that they might just ignore them (and their American protectors). More details on possible deals over Rafah here.

This is coming at a time when there are voices within the EU rising to act more effectively on Middle East issues, as well as more independently from the US. For the last few decades, despite being a full members of the Quartet and the major donor to the Palestinians (as well as an important trade partner to the Israelis), the EU has played second fiddle to hopelessly biased and ineffective US administrations.

Chris Patten writes in the Guardian:

Today's miserable standoff in the Middle East requires new initiatives. The short-term failure of Israeli policies has concentrated global attention on their blockade of Gaza rather than on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. The long-term failure has rendered increasingly difficult a two-state solution as Palestine is broken up into barriered Bantustans.

As President Obama's military commanders have told him, the absence of anything resembling a peace process in the Middle East, and the identification of Washington with a very rightwing Israeli government, has made it more difficult for the US to deal with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and others.

If politics does not succeed, then humanitarian aid will continue to be necessary. Yet we should never depend on the provision of humanitarian relief as an excuse for diplomatic drift and the failure to confront intransigence. Organisations such as Medical Aid for Palestinians do not exist so that others can duck their moral and political responsibilities.

. . .

However, the EU has too often since taken the view that only Washington really drives things forward. Yet what should the EU do when American policy is going nowhere? Not surprisingly, the secretary-general of the Arab League called the so-called quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia), which supervised the non-implementation of the road map for peace, "the quartet sans trois".

. . .

Today, the EU should not only call for an immediate end to the Gaza blockade but should work harder to promote reconciliation between the splintered Palestinian body-politic. The UN should be tasked with preventing the flow of weapons while the EU should take the initiative with Turkey and the Arab League to re-establish a government of national unity involving Fatah and Hamas for the whole of the Palestinian territory. In due course, the EU should monitor free elections there. You cannot favour democracy everywhere except in Palestine.

Without Hamas there will not be a peace settlement. What we should require from Hamas is simple – a ceasefire, acceptance of the outcome of a peace process provided it is endorsed in a Palestinian referendum, and help in securing the release of Corporal Shalit. To insist that they accept all past agreements is bizarre when no such requirement is made of Israel. Look, for example, at settlement building.

We should go further. There has been speculation the US may consider unilaterally tabling an agreement with a timetable for achieving it. Opponents of this proposal have questioned whether it would be wise for the US to thus risk its prestige. The EU could work with Turkey and the Arab League to draft proposals for an agreement to be tabled in the UN security council. This may not be immediately acceptable to the US but would at least bring some momentum.

Go for it!

Fleeting flotilla thoughts and links for June 6-10 2010

I was away in Beirut for the last few days and kept pretty busy by a conference and enjoying all the delicious food (I think I could win a manaqeesh eating competition), so I have not kept up with last week's blogging on the flotilla. As the issue has started to dissipate, one can only note with horror and consternation the direction debate has taken in the US, where the whole approach to Israel/Palestine is so lop-sided that you'd think Helen Thomas' insensitive comments are a greater offense then an illegal assault that resulted in the death of nine civilians, some of whom may have been killed execution-style.

So here are a few notes on the remains of the flotilla story, especially Egyptian angles:

Interesting letter from the Egyptian Consult to the NYT:

Egypt has not enforced a blockade on Gaza since 2007. Instead, Egypt has operated its border crossing with Gaza in a transparent manner to avoid a chaotic situation that could have resulted after the hasty, unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli forces. The Israeli border authorities did not even consult with their Egyptian counterparts on the future operation of the Rafah crossing.

After the European Union suspension of its participation in staffing the Rafah crossing, and being aware of the possible ensuing blame game, Egypt restricted the movement of goods across Rafah to humanitarian needs. During the Gaza war, more than 80 percent of the humanitarian aid to Gaza entered through the Rafah crossing, which was initially intended for the crossing of people and not goods.

Hussein Mubarak
Consul General of Egypt
New York, June 7, 2010

A lot of this is a lie, of course. It is true that the Israelis (specifically, Ariel Sharon) distrusted the Egyptians so much that when they withdrew from the Rafah border in 2005 they didn't bother to let them know exactly when they were doing. The result was chaos as the border was under-manned. This is an Egyptian-Israeli matter, of course. 

I love the reference to a "blame game", and the rest is simply not true: Egypt has allowed occasional humanitarian aid in, but generally has routed it through Israel and is doing so again right now. This deserves more coverage. By the way, does anybody know if Mr. Mubarak is one of those Mubaraks?

Hamas on reconciliation talks in their latest visit to Cairo:

PLC Vice-Chariman Ahmad Bahr said that Hamas was not against a reconciliation agreement. He added, however, that, "We want a reconciliation agreement that gives the Palestinians their dignity back, which rules out the Quartet conditions and those stipulated by the US."

They also appease the Egyptians by stressing "there is no alternative to Egyptian mediation". Reconciliation should really be everyone's top priority, without preconditions. It's better to have a suspended peace process and Palestinian reconciliation that could lead to a credible interlocutor later on than the current situation, which is a simulation of a peace process intended to prevent reconciliation. Just don't tell that to the Egyptians.

✩ As I predicted in my recent FP piece on Egypt's approach to the Gaza blockade, the Egyptians are endorsing lifting the blockade but shifting all the attention back to Israel, not their own role. We see this in some of the recent news stories:

 

 

Also take a look at Biden's statement which focuses on keeping Israel-Palestinian talks alive, calls the current situation in Gaza unsustainable (but with no details) and does make a mention of Egyptian domestic issues.

Mouin Rabbani:

The likelihood of current diplomatic initiatives resulting in a meaningful two-state settlement is for all intents and purposes non-existent, argues Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor Mouin Rabbani, due to Israel’s determination to permanently control East Jerusalem and large swaths of the West Bank, and the lack of political will in the U.S. and Europe to reverse Israel’s expansionist momentum. He foresees an unwelcome future of further ghettoization and fragmentation of Palestinians in the occupied territories and within Israel, greater marginalization and atomization of the Diaspora, and an increasingly regionalized and existential conflict in which the initiative will lie with non-state actors operating beyond the confines of Israel/Palestine. Thus, rather than relying on continued diplomacy and alternative peace scenarios in the forlorn hope that the dominant American-Israeli framework will be modified, advocates of Palestinian self-determination should focus their efforts on arresting and where possible reversing realities on the ground, and undertake global campaigns to challenge Israeli impunity and promote the concept of Israeli accountability for its actions toward the Palestinian people. This, Rabbani concludes, presents the only realistic option for preserving Palestinian rights and, perhaps in the longer run, establishing meaningful diplomatic options.

 Read the whole thing.

Paul Woodward has a nice take on the Helen Thomas affair. It's sad to see her end her career in this way, especially considering the hypocrisy over her admittedly insensitive statement. Plenty of people in America have advocated moving the Palestinians out of Palestine and never get rebuked, even a dovish/progressive blogger/journalist like Matt Yglesias (not a position he holds now, at least, but more here). The whole episode shows how deeply ingrained the Zionist narrative is: you can't contest that it wasn't Jewish land to start with, that the Jewish historical claim to the land is pretty weak, or that most of the Israelis are either born elsewhere or descendants of people who were born elsewhere only a few generations ago. I call this acknowledging the "original sin" of Israel: that it was a settler project no different than the French one in Algeria. This doesn't mean — for me anyway — that Israelis need to pack up and "go home", but it means that either you have to give the same rights to both peoples who live there now or you have reach a solution whereby Israel's borders are fixed, the state stop expanding, and the settlements are dismantled. Along with Mouin Rabbani's argument above, it shows that either you need to roll back much of the settlement expansion of the past two decades and impose a two-state solution, or that solution dies and you're talking about either major conflict and ethnic cleansing or, eventually, a one-state solution. The first option, as difficult as it seems, still seems the best one to me.

More blogging to come tomorrow, I hope. For now, here are recent links:

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Night moves

The novelist Gamal Al Ghitany is the editor of the literary magazine Akhbar Al Adab and of a government-published literary series called "Treasures." As such, in April, Al Ghitany put out an edition of the Thousand and One Nights. It was a copy of the 1835 Bulaq edition of the Nights, the first printed edition in Arabic. A group of conservative lawyers calling themselves محامون بلا قيود  ("Lawyers Without Restrictions") sued Al Ghitany for publishing "obscene" material. 

Issandr is actually the long-time Nights obsessive in the Arabist household, and it's thanks to him that I had lots of material for the piece I just wrote in the Review at the National on the place and influence of the Nights in Arabic and European literature. Here's an excerpt:

Borges called the Nights –affectionately –the “pulp fiction of the 13th century”. Even if that was all it was, it would make the stories a precious socio-historical document. But the Nights is so much more than the sum of its (multitudinous) parts. 

The Nights grew organically from the imaginative accretions of 10 centuries, the collective fantasies of continents. It’s small wonder there’s sex in the Nights – there’s everything in it. It has the depth, complexity, contradictions, surprises, repetitions, lulls, lack of logic, symmetries and accidental poetry of life. Scheherazade and many other characters in the Nights tell stories to stave off death, and it was a common superstition in Arab countries that anyone who finished reading the book would die. The Nights makes storytelling the engine and the essence of life, and also reminds us that our stories are our lives, both of which (no matter how many rambling detours they take) must one day come to an end.

Links for June 2-5 2010

There will be no more blogging today, and I am traveling tomorrow... but in the meantime here are the links.

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More on the flotilla fallout for Egypt

I stayed away from blogging today because of family obligations and looming deadlines. But here's my new piece for Foreign Policy, looking at the fallout of the flotilla raid for Egypt.

The silver lining in the tragedy of Israel's brutal raid on the Free Gaza flotilla is a new urgency about lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the territory's humanitarian crisis. Calls for the blockade to be lifted have been made in the Arab world, in Europe and even, albeit more timidly, by the Obama administration. But Israel's siege is not the only thing that has been highlighted: the role of Egypt, Tel Aviv's silent partner in the blockade, has also been brought to the fore. This is an uncomfortable development for Egypt, which denies playing any role in the blockade even as it closed its border with Gaza at Rafah since the June, 2007 Hamas takeover. Even now, after quietly opening the Rafah border crossing to avoid popular outrage, the Egyptians are preventing an aid convoy led by the Alexandria Pharmacists Association from reaching the crossing. The renewed uproar over Rafah has the potential to destabilize Egypt, exponentially raising the cost of its participation in the Israeli-led, Quartet-endorsed blockade -- an outcome that the Egyptians will seek to avoid but is also a concern for their Arab allies, Israel and the Obama administration.

The Egyptians have for the past three years offered an elaborate explanation to deflect blame for their enforcing of the blockade -- despite the fact that the border, with a few exceptions for a few medical cases and hajj pilgrims, has remained closed since June 9, 2007.  Whatever the legal merits of Egypt's position, domestically and regionally it lost the moral and political argument: there has been widespread outrage at what is essentially seen as Egyptian collaboration with Israel to punish Gazans for Hamas' actions. Its intentions have also been made clear by acts that can be best described as petty and vindictive, such as the treatment of last December's Viva Palestina convoy, which arrived at the southern Sinai port of Nuweiba only to be told to it could not disembark: it was forced to go to the northern Sinai port of al-Arish by heading back to Jordan, driving up to Syria, and then chartering a boat to al-Arish.  Its reported intention of building an imposing wall across the border has been the subject of intense debate.

Why has Egypt taken such an unpopular hard line towards the Rafah crossing into Gaza?  What will it do now?

Read the rest here.

More Israeli propaganda failures

Max Blumenthal shows that the IDF is quietly redacting its own press releases to remove allegations of links between the IHH members of the flotilla and al-Qaeda:

Not content to believe that night vision goggles signal membership in Al Qaeda, Israel-based freelance reporter Lia Tarachansky and I called the IDF press office to ask for more conclusive evidence. Tarachansky reached the IDF’s Israel desk, interviewing a spokesperson in Hebrew; I spoke with the North America desk, using English. We both received the same reply from Army spokespeople: “We don’t have any evidence. The press release was based on information from the [Israeli] National Security Council.” (The Israeli National Security Council is Netanyahu’s kitchen cabinet of advisors).

Today, the Israeli Army’s press office changed the headline of its press release (see below), basically retracting its claim about the flotilla’s Al Qaeda links.

We debunked the basis of previous al-Qaeda links here.

Egypt's Shura Council elections, and its future

No one really cared about them in the middle of the worldwide hubbub over the flotilla murders, but I feel one should note that Egypt just held one of its very flawed elections. I wrote an article about them for Middle East International last week, which I am fully reproducing below.

Basically things happened as expected:

  • There were multiple indications of fraud, including police preventing people from voting in certain areas, pre-filled ballots, faked voting cards and vote-buying.
  • There were violent clashes, a sign of the competition these elections engender.
  • The Muslim Brothers were not allowed to campaign freely.
  • NGOs and monitors have already compiled a long list of grievances.
  • The new Higher Electoral Commission appears to be, for now, completely ineffective (or perhaps that's its purpose.)
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Where is Obama?

GC at the The Majlis points out Obama's thundering silence:

As a journalist covering this story, it's been striking to see Washington's irrelevance over the last 72 hours. We've heard almost nothing from Obama or other US officials -- one 20-second sound bite from Hillary Clinton, that's it -- compared with (literally) hours of material from Turkish, Israeli, Arab and European leaders. The White House has gone out of its way to avoid taking a high-profile stance on the flotilla attack.

But here's the thing: Nobody in the Muslim world seems surprised! After the US ran interference for Israel at the United Nations, there wasn't much anger in the Arabic press. Instead there was mostly a sense of cynicism, like nobody expected America to behave differently.

We've seen a few anti-American protests over the last few days -- there was a small demonstration outside the US consulate in Adana, for example -- but overall there's been very little vitriol directed at the United States.

It's not for lack of interest in the flotilla attack, which has been covered almost non-stop on Arabic news networks for three days. But you get the sense nobody had higher expectations for the White House.

So when Gibbs says Obama's weak response won't affect his outreach to the Muslim world, maybe he's right. Obama's outreach has been stalling for months, particularly in the Arab world. He increasingly looks like just another American president: The promises of his Cairo speech are fading, he refuses to take strong public stands against Israel, and he's carrying on many of the Bush administration's most inflammatory policies (stepping up drone strikes, failing to close Guantanamo Bay, etc.).

The flotilla attack was a golden opportunity for Obama to reverse that trend, to demonstrate that he's serious about shifting US policy in the region. He passed on that opportunity -- and, in doing so, merely confirmed what many people in the region already suspected about his presidency.

While the US is now backing some relief for the Gaza blockade, no real change of approach is being seriously considered, apparently. They want to relieve the blockade, not really end it and restore Palestinian economic integrity.

Joe Biden says the problem is Hamas, Laura Rozen points out:

The Vice President also said Hamas shares blame for Palestinian suffering and said Hamas should join a Palestinian reconciliation government with its political rival, Fatah.

"So the problem is this would end tomorrow if Hamas agreed to form a government with the Palestinian Authority on the conditions the international community has set up," Biden said.

Except the "international conditions" are ridiculous and designed to prevent a national unity government while going ahead with a West Bank First policy. Rozen cites Biden's interview with Charlie Rose:

Joe Biden: Yes, we know that, but they could have easily brought it in here and we'd get it through. And so now the question is what do we do? Well, we had made it clear, the President of the United States has spoken three times, yesterday with Bibi, or the day before yesterday, he's spoken once yesterday with a guy that I have spent a fair amount of time with, with Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey; the Turks, we passed a resolution in the U.N. saying we need a transparent and open investigation of what happened. It looks like things are -- 

Charlie Rose: International investigation -- 

Joe Biden: Well, an investigation run by the Israelis, but we're open to international participation, just like the investigation run on the sunken sub in — off the coast of Korea. That was run by South Korea, but the international community joined in that investigation. And so that is very possible here as well. I might add by the way for all those who say the Israelis, you know, you know, you can't trust them, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled today that every one of the people on those ships had to be released immediately, immediately.

So in the Korean case, the victim gets to do the investigation, whereas in the flotilla case, it's the aggressor? Of course, no surprise to see this: AIPAC embraces Biden statement.

The Obama administration has no moral ground to stand on in this case, so it's either spinning by keeping focus on the investigation rather than ending the blockade or keeping silent. Shameful. The US needs a clean break in its relationship with the Israeli regime, a radical departure. Will we ever get it?

Because the other alternative will become, over time, at the region's stronger states solving the problem by excluding the United States, rather than calling for it to play a greater role. Right now, the net balance points towards Washington being a liability for regional peace — in Iraq, in its attitude towards Iran, and of course in its defense of Israel no matter what.

The Israelis can't even get propaganda right anymore

My friend Ibn Kafka has a wonderful post catching Israel in a propaganda f**k-up. The Israeli Ministry Foreign Affairs posted on its Flickr account pictures of the terrifying weapons they found on the IHH ship. You know, things like bulletproof vests for emergency services, pepper spray, kitchen knives, bits of wood and other weapons of mass destruction. Except that they did not realize that Flickr displays EXIF data, which is the information that cameras record when they take pictures: aperture, shutter speed, flash status... and the time the picture was taken.

Which, as Flickr commenters quickly pointed out, was sometime in 2006. 

So the Israeli MFA quickly changed the EXIF date, but not before I was able to take snapshots of before and after:

I don't know what's most ridiculous: calling these objects weapons or messing up your propaganda.

Flotilla fallout: strategize and disentangle

I want to get this quick thought down amidst tons of work and much distraction from Twitter and the flotilla fallout.

There are three issues that have been raised at the heart of international debate as a result of the flotilla murders:

  1. The need for an investigation into the incident;
  2. The need to lift the Gaza blockade;
  3. The longer-term need for a breakthrough in the deadlock in the Middle East peace process caused in part by Israel's intransigeant and aggressive behavior, from settlement expansion to landgrabs to assistance to attacks by settlers to its lack of desire for a permanent resolution that is in anyway reasonable (or indeed, its lack of interest in a viable two-state solution)

These must be disentangled from one another and prioritized. The international response so far, at the UN, has put the focus on the investigation. It should instead be moved to lifting the Gaza blockade. Several governments have explicitly come out in favor of this, as well as many opinion leaders around the world.

The investigation process is underway, and there will inevitably be battles over what direction it takes. There is a principle in parts of international law that countries get to conduct investigations on their own actions themselves, and that things go to an international investigation only after the country in question is shown to be incapable of conducting a fair investigation. This is certainly the case with Israel — the precedent of the military investigation into the Gaza war, which was inadequate and led to the Goldstone report suggests that. There may also be a legal argument that Turkey should be conducting the investigation, although that's up to Turkey. I say let that process take place and be debated, but do not allow it to take center stage.

Gaza is the crux of the matter. An international effort towards lifting the blockade must be inventive and propose a solution to a complicated problem quickly. They should be focused on lifting the restrictions Israel imposes on goods coming into Gaza and ensure that reconstruction materials are allowed in. They must also tackle the security demands that Israel will make to prevent weapons going into Gaza. International institutions like the UN will almost certainly have to play a role, and perhaps also the European Union as monitors (as has been suggested before.) This is costly both politically and financially, support needs to be rallied around the idea. But an immediate aim must be allowing aid and reconstruction material, and secondly relinking the Gazan economy to that of the West Bank, i.e. restoring Palestine's economic integrity. 

This brings us to reviving an admittedly discredited peace process.

Update: to clarify (see Helena Cobban's comment below) I think focus peace process and what follows from here should take place after the blockade on Gaza is lifted.

Fully normalizing Gaza's status has to mean abandoning the "West Bank First" strategy implemented by the Bush administration in 2006, endorsed by the Quartet and continued by the Obama administration. It has to mean working towards Palestinian reconciliation leading to new elections and a legitimate Palestinian representation (neither the PA nor the Hamas government are currently legitimate, since their electoral terms have expired), and turning the proximity talks into preliminary talks while that can happen. It means renewed efforts at stopping potential spoiler states (Iran, Syria, Egypt and the United States) and spoiler factions (parts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Dahlan Gang, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and others). And it may mean abandoning some of the legal infrastructure of the Oslo process and the Quartet process and bringing a fresh approach. I'm not optimistic, but as I see it this might be necessary. There is a great risk that various parties involved in this conflict will choose to grandstand and temporize — the Arab states with their threats of reneging the Arab Initiative, the US by continuing a policy based entirely on shielding Israel from hard decisions and sensible behavior. Now is the time to push, not retreat.

Out of chaos and tragedy, a breakthrough is possible — but only with intensive and continuous effort.

Update: Along the same lines do read Helena Cobban, who has much deeper knowledge of the intricacies of the Middle East peace process than I do: How to end the siege of Gaza and How to end the siege of Gaza, addendum.