Focal Points Blog

Israeli Parliamentarians Respond to Bid for Statehood by Calling for Annexation of West Bank

The Land of Israel caucus — a parliamentary group established in 2010 by members of Likud and other nationalist parties (Shas, National Union and Jewish Home) — is calling on the Israeli government to respond to the Palestinian Authority’s “unilateral” actions at the UN this past week by formally annexing all Israeli settlements in the West Bank (which the caucus members usually refer to as “Judea and Samaria”). Shortly after this, Knesset Deputy Speaker Danny Danon (Likud) announced that his bill to scrap “all obligations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority as established by international agreements” (including the Oslo Accords) and permit “full Israeli annexation of the West Bank” will be voted on in the Knesset at the end of October.

In a letter to PM Netanyahu (which preceded Danon’s announcement), the Land of Israel caucus members also urged the government to increase settlement expansion, suspend financial assistance to the PA, and halt all Palestinian construction projects in “Area C” of the West Bank.

Area C is administered by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) authorities, who “retain authority over law enforcement and control over the building and planning sphere,” according to the UN (Area A consists of Israeli settlements, and Area B is administered by the PA). The area is the least densely populated part of the West Bank and is believed to hold 150,000 Palestinian residents. Due to underdevelopment, it is considered the most marginal part of the West Bank, despite accounting for almost 2/3 of the West Bank’s total land area.

The UN considers the eventual establishment of Palestinian Authority control over Area C under the terms of the Oslo Accords “vital”:

In addition to its importance to those residing within its confines, Area C contains the land reserves critical for the sustainability of a future Palestinian state. Area C holds the only available space necessary for the expansion of Palestinian population centers as well as the bulk of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land. Because it is the only contiguous territorial block in the West Bank, large-scale infrastructure projects including national roads, water and electricity networks usually pass through it.

The Palestinian Authority has demanded a halt to Israel expansion in the area in return for renewing negotiations. The Land of Israel caucus, though, claims that the area is an integral part of “Greater Israel.” Religious figures in the caucus said at the caucus’s founding that “One of the goals of the lobby is to promote legislation to strengthen settlement – legislation that already exists in the Bible.”

Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who has been at the forefront of the caucus’s efforts since its establishment, asserted in 2010 that:

We face many challenges and we have many problems, but still and all, the rate of growth in Judea and Samaria is the largest in the country. As with the Jews in ancient Egypt, the more they oppress us, the more we grow . . . . We are all united to strengthen the Land of Israel and develop Judea and Samaria.

Danon, among others on the Israeli right, have suggested that in the event of annexation, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs would have to either swear loyalty to “the Jewish state,” or migrate to Jordan and Egypt. Supporters of Danon’s plans often allude to Jordan as “the Palestinian homeland.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has announced the construction of 1,100 new homes in East Jerusalem beyond the “Green Line.” The caucus has urged the government to maintain the pace of settlement expansion, and PM Netanyahu has indicated that if the PA wishes to resume talks with Israel following the UN bid, Tel Aviv will not agree to “preconditions,” which, among other things, would include a temporary halt settlement construction. Israeli settlement construction has increased this past summer, partly in response to massive social protests that originally began in response to rising costs of living and housing shortages (the caucus actually urged an increase in settlement construction in response to the protests). The issue of halting Israeli settlement construction has proven to be a major stumbling block in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and a source of humiliation for the Obama Administration.

Some have suggested that the latest Israeli moves are a response to comments by a PLO official towards the separation of Jews from Palestinians in a future Palestinian state, though top Israeli officials have also been explicitly advocating population transfers in Israel and the West Bank targeted at non-Jewish individuals as part of a future peace settlement.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Kaddish for Oslo

Kaddish for Oslo(First in a series.)

Although not quite over, September 2011 is one that Israelis are likely not soon to forget. It’s not that their whole world has been shattered, but many of the political threads that have held Israeli regional policy together for decades seem to have simultaneously broken leaving the Israeli “ship of state” floating aimlessly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Worse, it seems to have been hit with a political tsunami for which it – as well as its main supporters in Washington – was ill prepared.

Five years after Israel’s abortive invasion of Lebanon that left 20,000 Lebanese dead and the country’s infrastructure in ruins as a result of massive Israeli bombing, three years after Israel’s unconscionable military assault on Gaza, and one year after Israeli special forces stormed the Mari-Marmara Turkish aid ship to Gaza, killing 9 (8 Turks and one U.S. citizen) Israel finds itself more and more isolated both within the Middle East and in the world as a whole, its image tarnished, its credibility at a low point.

The U.S. Congress can vote for lop-sided pro-Israeli resolutions until it is blue in the face. The fact remains that over the past five years Israel’s international status has plummeted. Almost universally outside of the U.S. and a few of its closest allies, Israel is characterized as a rogue state and threat to peace. The comparisons between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is more and more compared to South Africa’s treatment of blacks under the apartheid system. Indeed, Israeli isolation is probably more total today than South Africa’s in the last days of apartheid. Its cynical strategy that the rest of the world can go to hell as long as it has the support of Washington is coming apart at the seams.

Among the recent slew of developments:

  • Two strategic regional allies upon which Israel heavily relied to help extinguish anti-Israeli fires now appear far less willing to play their designated role – Turkey and Egypt.
  • Turkish-Israeli relations are at an all-time low. The Mari-Marmara incident did not blow over; a significant political and military parting of the ways seems to be occurring as Turkey, essentially spurned in its attempt at European Union membership, turns east.
  • Perhaps even more serious, is the decline in Israeli-Egyptian relations. The much touted 1979 Camp David Accord has not collapsed, but Egypt has called for its re-negotiation. Egypt’s unwillingness to support the Israeli sealing of Gaza and the partial re-opening of the Egyptian-Palestinian border crossing has somewhat defused the humanitarian crisis there.
  • Egypt’s post-Mubarak posture – pressed by mass opposition in Egypt to the Israeli-Egyptian relationship – has also given momentum to new dialogue and possible cooperation between the main long-feuding Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.
  • Regardless of the U.S. vete’s Palestinian UN membership or not, the momentum to support the principle of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations has been a great diplomatic setback for Israel that should not be under-estimated.
  • And while Barack Obama – in perhaps his worst performance on the world stage – “stood by” Israel at the United Nations, U.S.-Israeli relations have become strained as the voices within the United States – both within circles of power and on the street – question whether the U.S.-Israeli relationship benefits or undermines the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East.
  • As Israel finds itself more and more isolated in the Middle East, it’s turning even more so than in the past to what might be called the meshugener Christian fundamentalist fringe (John Hagee, Christians United For Israel) here in the USA that has always supported (politically and financially) settlement building and opposed negotiations with the Palestinians.

The fact of the matter is that the spectacular collapse of Israel’s strategic position is the result of trends that have been brewing for decades and is not simply the result of recently events. What has happened recently is that its near-eternal violation of international law and its contempt for UN resolutions excepting those serving its interests has caught up with Israel. It turns out that there is a limit to how long a country can ignore international law – even the United States or Israel – before the boomerang of the world’s conscience hits in the back of the neck.

A few months after Israeli Foreign Secretary Tzipi Livni suggested that Israel was facing nothing less than a crisis in legitimacy; things continue to fall apart for the Netanyahu government. Put all together, these threads and others tell yet another tale: the utter failure of what was called the Oslo Peace Process and with it, a dramatic failure in U.S. Middle East policy as well. Oslo is dead in the water and has been for a long while. It is only now finally after yet another unsuccessful attempt to raise it from the dead, that both Obama and Netanyahu understand that it is gone, history.

Long lauded as a path to peace, 18 years after its signing, it has turned out to be anything but. Oslo was important in that it provided Israel with a cover of global legitimacy that it has now lost with Washington’s encouragement and connivance from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Israel tried to string the process along for as long as possible. It was a two pronged strategy: talk peace while building settlements (and then a separation wall) that would make a two-state settlement that much more difficult to achieve.

From the outset, more than skeptical about Oslo’s chances of delivering an Israeli-Palestinian peace based upon political realism and justice, we do not mourn – but welcome – its collapse. It produced nothing but settlements and suffering. A new framework is needed; the time is now.

Ibrahim Kazerooni is completing a joint PhD program at the Iliff School for Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. Rob Prince is a lecturer in International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies; for the past seven years he has published a blog, The Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Escaping Haqqanistan

Haqqanis, father and son

Haqqanis, father and son

Brutal Haqqani Crime Clan Bedevils U.S. in Afghanistan is the unusually colorful title of a New York Times article by Mark Mazzetti, Scott Shane, and Alissa J. Rubin. They write that the Haqqani network — separate from, but affiliated with, the Taliban — is “the most deadly insurgent group in Afghanistan” according to “American intelligence and military officials.” It’s effectively a crime syndicate — “the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war” according to Mazzetti, et al. Yet it’s as brutal as a serial killer: this year alone, for instance, the Haqqanis are responsible for the attacks in Kabul on the Intercontinental Hotel and the U.S. embassy.

The authors write: “They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.” In fact, “Over the past five years … the Haqqanis have run what is in effect a protection racket for construction firms — meaning that American taxpayers are helping to finance the enemy network.”

Humiliating, to say the least. To some American officials, though, failing to deal with the Haqqanis constitutes “a missed opportunity with haunting consequences. … American military officers … express anger that the Obama administration has still not put the group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations out of concern that such a move would scuttle any chances that the group might make peace with Afghanistan’s government.”

In fact, even though they’re responsible “for hundreds of American deaths, the Haqqanis probably will outlast the United States troops in Afghanistan and command large swaths of territory there once the shooting stops.”

Why postpone the inevitable then? Leave Afghanistan to the Haqqanis, as well as the Taliban. Without Western aid, it won’t be long before they come down with a severe case of “watch out what you wish for.” One reason this is unlikely to soon occur is that the United States is no doubt reluctant to relinquish its original purpose for attacking and invading Afghanistan — to not only defeat al Qaeda, but drive it out of Afghanistan.

See, according to a report in July by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (as summed up by Washington Post) the Haqqani network “has been more important to the development and sustainment of al-Qa’ida and the global jihad than any other single actor or group.”

After bin Laden relocated to Afghanistan and began making provocative statements against the West … Haqqani allowed the al-Qaeda leader to use its territory in eastern Afghanistan to organize calls for global jihad. … [Recent] events may have brought al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network closer together, their ambitions more in line. With drone strikes on the network’s base in North Waziristan, it likely has a sense of shared suffering with senior al-Qaeda leaders. In part because of that shared affinity, the CTC study finds, it would be a mistake for U.S. policymakers to underestimate the impact of Haqqani network beyond Afghanistan’s borders.”

Them’s certainly intervention-extending words. In fact, the CTC concludes that

U.S. efforts to disrupt and degrade [the Haqqani network] today … are just as much about dismantling [al-Qaeda] as they are about degrading the Haqqani network.

Still, who’s to say that the Haqqanis aren’t open to throwing over al Qaeda for the right price? Let’s sit down with them and see.

“Anti-Price Tag Patrol” Yet More Fuel for Israeli Right’s Fire

"Price tag" in Hebrew on wall of mosque.

“Price tag” in Hebrew on wall of mosque.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

In response to expected clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians over the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, the Palestinian Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and the Israel group Anarchists Against The Wall are launching their own patrol efforts around Palestinian villages. Meanwhile, in response to the deaths of two Israelis in a car crash whose cause is now attributed to Palestinian stone throwers, Israeli settlers are demanding that the IDF take action, or they will. The controversial Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the Kiryat Arva settlement, Dov Lior, has told Israeli news outlets that “We have murderous rioters surrounding us, according to the Torah, there is room for collective punishment and the IDF must carry out the punishment against the rioters. There are no innocents in a war.”

The anti-price tagging story, first reported by the Christian Science Monitor, outlines the actions of the Palestinian-Israeli groups, who are running car patrols around Palestinian villages and lands to keep an eye out for price-taggers, Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians and IDF property in retaliation for any removal of Israeli settlers from the West Bank. The CSM notes the recalcitrance of the Israeli settlers towards these actions, quoting the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Itmar as saying “This is our home, Israel. It’s in the Bible. It belongs to the Jewish nation.”

Israeli settlers are already coordinating their own patrols and protests through their community organizations, while the IDF, Israeli Border Police and Palestinian Authority are nominally working together to prevent outbreaks of violence. At least 5 Israeli settlements have also brought in members of the far-right French JDL to prevent “Arab infiltration.”

The CSM also quotes Palestinians involved in the anti-price tagging patrols as being unsupportive of the UN effort and willing to engage in a non-violent campaign to resolve the settlements’ question. This course of action has also been suggested by outside commentators, such as Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat.

The story about the Palestinian and Israeli anti-price tag patrols as reported by the pro-Israel, Jewish-American weekly The Algemeiner, though, focuses on charges of how these groups are delegitimizing Israel and enabling the deaths of settlers through their (in)action towards Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli motorists (two Israelis were reportedly killed in a car crash caused by Palestinian stone throwers on Friday):

Among the settlement leaders who have expressed their concerns is David Ha’ivri, the spokesman for the Samaria Liaison Office, the public relations branch of the Samaria Regional Council.

Ha’ivri alleged that the patrol initiative was “another effort by the extremist left wing and Anarchist activists in Israel to cause friction between Jewish and Arab residents.”

Commentary magazine, referring the stone throwers, asserts that “Arabs” are the main source of all West Bank violence and that the “rare” instances of Israeli retaliation are often done in self-defense.

Israeli settlers have reacted strongly to the deaths. A public funeral for the dead was disrupted by protests that forced the IDF to intervene. A settler leader told Ynet:

The hurling of stones must be stopped. If the IDF can’t do it, then we’ll do it and we know how. We shall deploy our men along the line. Anyone with a licensed weapon will arrive and we’ll equip others with batons and protective gear.

So far, according to Israeli media, protests and counter-protests in the West Bank have remained “relatively” calm, though deaths and injuries among both Israelis and Palestinians have been reported since Friday, when the PA formally presented its statehood bid at the UN in New York.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Obama and Netanyahu Left in the Dust, Overtaken by the Arab Spring and Bid for Palestinian Statehood

Tony Blair got one thing absolutely right.

The special envoy to the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the U.S., the EU, and Russia) did not get much sleep at the UN meeting in New York last week. In an environment made frenetic because of the Palestinian bid for full recognition as a UN state, Blair seems to be alone in a deep understanding that the most auspicious time for diplomatic negotiations is when everyone who matters is bumping into everyone else who matters in the same space. His insistence on using the chaos to the fullest allows him to be especially resilient in the face of Palestinian anger at the suggestion that negotiations replace the Palestinian application. No problem. Blair is now affirming Prime Minister Abbas’s strategy to make a bid for full UN membership. In this period after the vote, negotiations are certain to be even more frenetic. It was never an either/or situation: either negotiations for a two-state solution, or application for statehood at the U.N.

If scientists and mathematicians were on the scene they would no doubt have a theoretical interest in the diplomatic scurrying for some kind of behind-the-scenes results. “Aha!” they might say. “Here we have a collection of ‘agents” interacting with one another in pursuit of a seemingly simple result, and what might emerge is something much more complicated that cannot be predicted on the basis of the collective action.” This ambiguity, the hallmark of what theorists call nonlinear systems (what goes in is not necessarily what comes out), is what makes everyone crazy and often unable to find solutions to a complex problem. Like Tony Blair, scientists find the chaos challenging and seductive, knowing that this is a terrific opportunity for changing the game.

Unlike President Obama, stuck in the legend of present-day Israel read to him by the American Jewish right, Blair seems able to scan a larger library, maneuvering deftly through the stacks for an answer at the edge of chaos. He is comfortable in not knowing which book off the shelf might suggest the happy ending he is searching for. Where Blair is diplomatically nimble and adaptive, Obama is disappointedly rigid and adamant.

Complex systems science is often called “the science of surprise,” or the “science of emergence.” In order to assist difficult negotiations in today’s world, the mediator must give up the need to control the outcome of a very nonlinear, very chaotic, quite unpredictable process. Otherwise, there are no surprises and no breakthroughs, just the same old tired outcomes. Because Netanyahu and Obama are wedged in the old and increasingly discredited paradigm of command and control, they are failing as leaders facing a much more complex world. This failure of leadership disrupts, and ultimately disables, what little respect is left for U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.

In his speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly, Obama spoke in generalities with little sense of urgency. Reading from a text that could have been written for him by the pro-Israel lobby, he held his position that the U.S. would veto the Palestinian call for statehood, even after delivering speech after speech previously affirming the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own. “Peace is hard” he said and must be won in negotiations.

Obama knows what’s at stake politically–conservative Jewish and evangelical Christian money and votes–and is allowing his election agenda to overtake his international responsibilities. Those include respecting the “Arab Spring”, a fight for democracy in a sea of autocratic rule. Obama is once again choosing not to do the right thing on one of the issues that matters most to the freedom fighters: ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine and welcoming a Palestinian state into the family of nations. Our unconditional support for Israel sadly leaves the U.S. at the bottom of the arc of the surprising, emerging new Middle East. Because of the absence of the U.S. as the champion of democratic reform, we can be almost certain that this sea change will be more chaotic. Let’s hope we don’t tumble over the edge into the swirling waters.

Merle Lefkoff, Ph.D. is President of Ars Publica, applying the science of Complexity to the art of diplomacy.

Palestinian Christians Given Short Shrift by U.S. Christian Zionists

Christian ZionismTexas Governor and aspiring Republican Presidential nominee Rick Perry has repeatedly attracted attention with a series of pronouncements on foreign policy pertaining to Israel. This behavior stems from Perry’s affinity for Christian Zionism, a highly influential strain of thought within large swaths of the conservative Protestant population in the United States. They see Israel as fulfilling crucial elements of the end-times scenario as depicted in the Biblical book of Revelations. Christian Zionism has steadily gained the support of many influential members of the clergy, who donate large amounts of money and other efforts to support the Zionist cause, and perhaps more importantly, place political pressure on the U.S. government to support the agenda of right-wing elements within Israel. Perry in particular is known to be close to pastor John Hagee, who rose to prominence primarily due to his Zionist activism.

Christian Zionism has a great many critics, but rarely does anyone point out the cognitive dissonance the Christian Zionists are ignoring, namely that Zionism kills, injures, and displaces Christians. Though their communities have dwindled in size, tens of thousands of Christians live in the Palestinian territories. When Israel’s “security barrier” seizes Palestinian land, and Israeli settlers divert water supplies for their own use, this harms Christian well-being. When Israeli authorities prevent Palestinians from travelling, Christians cannot go to work, school, or religious sites. When Israel launches air strikes into the Gaza Strip, this kills, maims, and impoverishes Christians. Unsurprisingly, in December of 2009 leaders of the Palestinian Christian community issued a statement known as the “Kairos Palestine Document,” in which they called Israel’s policies a “sin against God,” and asked for an international boycott of Israel.

Similarly, Christian Zionists unfailingly endorse Israel’s wars, despite the damage to the sizable Christian communities in Israel’s opponents. Christians were participants on both sides of the Lebanese Civil War, in which Israel intervened by invading in 1982. In the 2006 war, Lebanon’s Christians suffered heavy casualties due to Israeli attacks. The Christian communities of Jordan and Syria are well-integrated into their societies, and while Egypt’s Christians are in a precarious position with the Muslim majority, the fact remains that any conflict with these countries would likely cause serious harm to their Christian populations, as has happened before.

Furthermore, Israel’s own Christians, numbering over 100,000, are essentially second-class citizens. While they may be better off in some ways than the Arabs of neighboring countries, the fact remains that they are treated worse than Israeli Jews in matters of education, the rule of law, immigration, housing, and other elements of civil rights. Surveys indicate a toxic environment of racist attitudes, manifesting itself in substantially worse economic indicators for Israel’s Arab citizens, Christian and Muslim alike.

The same question arose when evangelical American Christians were the staunchest supporters of the invasion of Iraq, a war which dealt severe, possibly catastrophic, damage to that country’s Christian community: Why do so many American Christians support, for religious reasons, policies that are devastating to the Christians of the Middle East?

Scott Charney is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Abbas and His Missing People at the Edge of Chaos

With passion and eloquence, holding his outrage in check and exhorting the nations of the world if they have “a shred of conscience” to support Palestinian statehood, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, submitted an application to the U.N. Security Council on September 23 for full membership in the United Nations.

In a speech to the General Assembly marked by frequent applause, Abbas urged quick approval of full nation status so that “the missing people” could join the alliance of nations “free in a sovereign and independent homeland.” Reminding those assembled that the Israeli Occupation of Palestine was continuing to bring pain and suffering to his people, he stated firmly that “the time has come for the Palestinian Spring,” a resumption of “normal lives,” where children could be assured of returning home from school, and where parents could sleep peacefully at night without fear of Israeli army raids.

In frantic last-minute meetings behind the scenes at the U.N. the Americans and some European diplomats tried to stop Abbas from presenting his submission, worried about destabilizing further the possibility for a negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine. Acknowledging the push to re-open perennially failed negotiations, Abbas suggested strongly that recognition of the Palestinian state would enhance, not hold back, a renewed peace process. The application to the Security Council will take long months of work before possible acceptance, and most diplomats agree that in the wake of the request for statehood negotiations will be fresh and lively during this period.

So why the intransigent position of the U.S.? The administration’s veto in the Security Council is good domestic politics, even if unprincipled international policy. President Obama’s team no doubt has seen the latest non-partisan Pew Research Center’s poll on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Sadly, Americans don’t know much about the issue. “In the new poll” reports Pew, fully 51% of respondents say they’ve heard ‘nothing at all’ about the planned United Nations debate over the Palestinian Authority’s statehood status. In the September interviews, only 10 % said they’ve heard a lot about it.” American Jews and a few others pay attention to this issue, and more than 50% are against Palestinian statehood. So the President gets a pass on his U.N. veto, playing it safe with Jewish voters.

Negotiations are difficult in the best of circumstances and generally fail when there is what experts call “asymmetric power”, a power imbalance at the negotiating table. The Israeli Occupation, paid for with billions of dollars in American and European aid to Israel, along with the historic failure of past negotiations, has kept the Palestinians in an impossible bargaining position, unable to accept what has mythically been sold to the public as golden opportunities for peace. Requesting full recognition as a Palestinian state is a strategy that immediately redresses some of the imbalance present in prior diplomacy. When “the missing people” are welcomed as full partners with enhanced status at the negotiating table, there might be a much better chance for a peaceful resolution of this most intractable of global conflicts.

We are at “the edge of chaos” in our relations with the Arab world. The good news is that this metaphor, used by scientists applying the new science of Complexity to global affairs, describes conditions more ripe for breakthrough than ever before. In that space between chaos and order, while some feel nothing can be done, everything is possible. Complexity scientists also tell us that like all natural systems, social systems need diversity to survive, and human beings need diversity to solve hard problems. With Abbas’s bold and courageous move, Palestinians will no longer be “the missing people” at the bargaining table. Instead, they will be newly empowered with status that signals balance and a renewed chance for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Merle Lefkoff, Ph.D. is President of Ars Publica, applying the science of Complexity to the art of diplomacy.

U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan Accomplishes Little More Than Pushing China’s Buttons

TaiwanF-16The recent decision by the Obama Administration to sell $5.8 billion in arms to Taiwan is a bit of a head scratcher, rather like the hunter who goes into the woods with one bullet. Seeing a deer to his left and a turkey to his right, he shoots in the middle. It will annoy Taipei, irritate Beijing, stir up the China bashers in the U.S., and increase tensions in a region of the world that is already pretty tense.

So what’s the point here?

The plan would upgrade Taiwan’s 140 U.S.-made F-16 A/B jet fighters, plus supply Taipei with Blackhawk helicopters and anti-ballistic missiles. The Obama administration has more than doubled the Bush administration’s arms sales to Taiwan, and this sale would bring that figure to slightly more than $12 billion.

Taipei had asked to buy 66 new F-16 C/Ds, but the White House turned that down, annoying the Taiwanese. “These years, China is showing stronger and stronger reaction to U.S.-Taiwan arms sales,” complained Taipei’s deputy defense minister Andrew Yang, and that has turned Americans “more wary with arms sales.”

While PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing “firmly opposes the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” China’s reaction was generally low key, certainly more so than when a similar arms sales went through in 2008. Then Beijing canceled joint military consultation with the U.S. and put capital-to-capital relations into a deep freeze for many months. After a similar arms sale in 2010, Chinese military leaders went as far as to suggest that China cash in some of American’s $1.1 trillion debt to Beijing.

While the White House can’t get bi-partisan agreement on the budget, it brought Republicans and Democrats together on this issue. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx) have joined hands to introduce legislation demanding that the administration sell the new F-16s to Taiwan. The Taiwan Air Modernization Act cites the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for providing defensive weapons to Taipei and resisting any effort by the PRC to forcibly reunite Taiwan with the mainland.

Cornyn thundered that the decision to upgrade rather than sell was “capitulation to Communist China” and a “slap in the face to a strong ally and a long-time friend.” In language straight out of the Cold War, a Cornyn-Menendez letter to Obama—signed by 13 Democrats and 23 Republicans—warned that a failure to sell the new fighter aircraft means “Taiwan will be dangerously exposed to Chinese military threats, aggression and provocation, which pose significant security implications for the United States.”

A similar letter, signed by 181 House members, also demanded that Washington approve the sales of new F-16s.

Tucked in amidst the “red dragon” scare rhetoric is pork: “We are deeply concerned that further delay of the decision to sell F-16s to Taiwan could result in closure of the F-16 production line,” the letter argues. Lockheed Martin, maker of the aircraft, has a plant in Cornyn’s Texas, and the company employs 750 workers in Menendez’s New Jersey. The company is the largest arms manufacturer in the world and has a formidable lobbying presence in Washington.

In many ways the whole matter seems mired in the past, particularly the letter’s warning that Taiwan risked losing its “qualitative advantage in defensive arms.” Taipei has not had a “qualitative advantage” over the PRC in any category for the past two decades. Even the Taipei Times writes that “Taiwan would have at most only a few days to hold off China and get help from the outside, most likely the U.S., if they were going to stand any chance.”

According to the Pentagon, the PRC’s fighter aircraft fleet outnumbers Taiwan’s 1,680 to 388, and many of the latter’s planes are obsolete. Besides the 140 F-16 A/Bs, Taipei’s forces include 1960s vintage F-5s (its day is long past), 60 aging French Mirage 2000s (vintage 1982), and 130 domestically produced, but underpowered, Indigenous Defensive Fighter, the “Ching-Kuo.”

The PRC’s fleet features Sukhoi-27 and Sukhoi-30—the latter a match for the U.S.’s premier fighter, the F-15—and China’s domestic fighter, the J-10. A J-20 stealth fighter is in the testing phase but will not be deployed until 2017. Upgrading the F-16s, or even selling Taiwan new ones, will not alter this balance.

The PRC maintains that Taiwan is part of China (and virtually no country in the world, including the U.S., disagrees) and reserves the right to use military force if Taipei tries to establish independence. But “reserves the right” is very different than ramping up the landing craft. Indeed, China has carefully lowered nationalist rhetoric around Taiwan and cross-straits ties are warmer than they were three years ago.

Current Chinese President Hu Jintao has pushed rapprochement with Taipei, but as the Financial Times points out, “his approach to Taiwan is not uncontested within the Chinese Communist Party,” and it notes that “the Party is also preparing to elect a new generation of leaders next year.” That new generation tends to be more nationalistic than the older generation.

The PRC’s armed forces mirror currents in the Communist Party, with a wing that advocates a more assertive role—at least in local waters like the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea—and a more cautious wing that wants to avoid a confrontation with the U.S.

Similar currents exist within the U.S. military establishment, although the Pentagon’s “caution” wing has recently gone silent because of all the talk about cutting military spending. Much of the recent “China threat” talk is aimed at derailing efforts to cut the huge military budget, and, to that end, generals and admirals have closed ranks behind “the dragon is coming, the dragon is coming” gang. One suspects the American hawks have counterparts among the Chinese chiefs of staff.

The arms deal will make President’s Hu’s job more difficult, although he will probably portray the F-16 upgrade as a compromise. Of course, all bets are off if Congress throws a monkey wrench into the deal and insists on new aircraft that won’t change the military balance, but will worsen an already charged diplomatic atmosphere.

The White House is nervous about January elections in Taiwan, which will pit the nationalist Kuomintang Party against the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP’s leader, Tsai Ing-Wen, apparently had a recent falling out with Obama administration officials over the independence issue. One U.S. official told the Financial Times, “that while she [Tsai] understood the need ‘to avoid gratuitous provocations’ of China, it was ‘far from clear…that she and her advisors fully appreciate the depth of [Chinese] mistrust of her motives and DPP aspirations.’”

DPP leader Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s president from 2000 to 2008 pushed for formal independence and cut off formal negotiations with Beijing during his administration.

If this all seems like a terrible muddle, that’s because it is.

On one hand Washington insists on a robust military presence on China’s doorstep, and continues to supply arms to Taiwan. These are not minor matters. If there is a confrontation between Taiwan and the PRC, and it pulls in the Americans, it will pit two nuclear powers against one another.

The growth of the Chinese navy—Beijing got its first aircraft carrier this year, albeit one half the size of a U.S. flat top—is being portrayed in Washington as a threat to U.S. naval power in the Pacific and Indian oceans. But the PRC’s buildup is about protecting its oil and gas supplies—80 percent travel by sea—and recent history.

The PRC is still smarting over having to back down when the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits in 1995 during a particularly tense standoff between Taipei and Beijing. The increase in China’s military spending dates from that confrontation, although Beijing’s budget is still only about one eighth of what the Americans spend.

On the other hand, the White House is leaning on the DPP not to push independence and watering down the arms package to Taipei.

Bi-polar diplomacy anyone?

It is clear that Washington and Beijing are of two minds about their relationship. Both are riding conflicting internal political currents, and over the next decade, threading a path between cooperation and competition promises to be tricky. Arms sales accomplish little more than pushing China’s nationalist button. The jobs they create in the U.S. are marginal (and the same amount spent on civilian projects produce more employment), and the tensions they create are real.

It is time to revisit the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, a piece of legislation that reflects a very different world than the one we live in now.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

Is It a Mistake to Draw Solace From the Iran Bomb’s Long Gestation Period?

At Arms Control NOW, the Arms Control Association blog, Greg Theilman writes that since “we have every reason to believe that an Iranian bomb is neither imminent nor inevitable. … alarmist estimates provided earlier this month require a response regarding timelines.”

Thielman quotes Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of Nonproliferation and Disarmament at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London to the effect that Iran “‘won’t have [a nuclear weapon] tomorrow or next week or next month or a year from now.’ To predict otherwise, he added, ‘borders on the irresponsible.'”

Among the “worst case assumptions” Thielman quotes Fitzpatrick as singling out are:

That Iran would be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium before the IAEA inspectors would catch onto it. … there’s a built-in assumption that somehow Iran would be able to game the IAEA. It would be a big gamble.

… That Iran would be so foolish as to go for broke to produce just one weapon. … But what country in [its] right mind would just go for one weapon, take all of the risks of being bombed … They’d need a handful … the way North Korea did.

Thielman also cites David Albright (no friend to Iran), et al, at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which “found no reason to change its earlier breakout estimate of six months at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. The ISIS analysis included a reminder that the U.S. Governments breakout projection is even longer (as is Fitzpatrick’s)” because of the process the United States assumes Iran would use.

As for whether or not Iran would actually build nuclear weapons, Thielman reminds us:

As recently as February of this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assessed that Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. … The ultimate outcome is a question of Iranian political will, not technical capacity.

Whether six months or a year or more, the timeline divests those who believe the worst about Iran of little ammunition in their calls for an airstrike. Furthermore, it makes disarmament advocates look like they’ve jammed their heads in the sand, even if they’re committed to the path Thielman prescribes:

With continued enforcement of targeted sanctions, a willingness to forego making military threats, and increased readiness to exploit opportunities for opening up a diplomatic pathway, there is ample time to solve the Iranian nuclear challenge.

Sanctions aside, paths two and three haven’t necessarily been tried in earnest. But, if we disarmament advocates wish to salvage any credibility with the bomb-Iran crowed, we need to assume the worst too. Left as well as right needs to acknowledge that Iran seems content in its reluctance to disabuse the world of the notion that it might be close to developing nuclear weapons.

We disarmament advocates cling to the belief that disarmament leadership on the part of the United States might help dissuade Iran and other states that aspire to develop nuclear weapons from actually proliferating. (Though with the United States committing at least $80 billion — subject to the cost-cutting whims of the Republicans these days — over the next decade, true disarmament leadership on the part of the United States looks like a non-starter.) In fact, while demonstrating disarmament leadership has the advantage of being the only honest response, especially since it’s called for by the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, conservatives may be correct in assuming that such initiatives would have little impact on states such as Iran.

On the other hand, it’s conceivable that Israel owning up to its nuclear program and subjecting it to monitoring and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency would have some impact on the proliferation plans of Iran. Of course, Israel is even less likely to take substantive disarmament measures than the United States. As the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Global Security Newswire reports:

Any Middle Eastern nuclear weapon-free zone must be preceded by robust nonproliferation measures and an enduring absence of armed conflict from the area, Israel told the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference on Tuesday. . . . The Israeli official faulted Syria and Iran over lingering international concerns that they might have pursued atomic activities with military implications.

An “enduring absence of armed conflict from the area” more or less much guarantees that Israel won’t be soon acknowledging its nuclear weapons program soon and thus helping to make of the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone.

How Exactly Does Palestinian Statehood Sabotage the Peace Process?

Netanyahu CongressOn the face of it, statehood is an odd request to reject. But, writes Gershom Gorenberg at the Daily Beast: “The official argument is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has turned to the United Nations because he wants to evade making peace with Israe.l As Israeli Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar phrased it at a recent political rally … ‘The Palestinians have been serial rejectionists of peace—ever since the U.N. decision of 1947.'”

It’s tough to understand how the process of becoming a state could sabotage the peace process. Intuitively the opposite should be true: becoming a state suggests a readiness to assume the responsibility of global citizenship. Nevertheless, in a speech yesterday (September 20) before the UN Security Council, President Obama spelled out the unconventional wisdom on why Palestine should be denied statehood. Instead, he said

… the international community should continue to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks on the four intractable “final status” issues that have vexed peace negotiations since 1979: the borders of a Palestinian state, security for Israel, the status of Palestinian refugees who left or were forced to leave their homes in Israel, and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim for their capital.

Turns out Abbas is willing to comprise and delay statehood until more talks are held. The Guardian reports:

International efforts to forestall a showdown in the UN security council over the declaration of a Palestinian state are solidifying around a plan for the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to submit a request for recognition but for a vote on the issue to be put on hold while a new round of peace talks is launched.

In the interim, Washington couldn’t wait to show Israel how alarmed it was by Palestine’s pursuit of statehood. James Traub at Foreign Policy:

With barely a week to go before the Palestinian Authority (PA) seeks a vote on statehood at the United Nations, members of U.S. Congress have begun to stage a lively competition for the most elaborately punitive legislative response. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has prepared a bill that would withhold funds “from any UN agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission,” … Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, did her one better with a measure that would eliminate bilateral military assistance for any country that voted for statehood … But Rep. Joe Walsh, a right-wing Republican from Illinois, took the cake with a resolution endorsing Israel’s right to annex the West Bank should the PA go ahead with the vote.

At New York Magazine, John Heilemann chronicles Washington’s groveling during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit in May of this year.

The next day, Netanyahu delivered his on-camera lecture to Obama. … But Netanyahu knew he could get away with it—so staunch and absolute is the bipartisan support he commands in the U.S. Garishly illuminating the point, on the night before his speech to Congress, the prime minister attended the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, where he was the headline speaker at the event’s gala banquet. Before he took the stage, three announcers, amid flashing spotlights and in the style of the introductions at an NBA All-Star game, read the names of every prominent person in the room, including 67 senators, 286 House members, and dozens of administration and Israeli officials, foreign dignitaries, and student leaders. … thunderous waves of applause … poured over Netanyahu.

The next day came his speech to Congress, in which he spelled out demands that were maximal by any measure: recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for negotiations, a refusal to talk if Hamas is part of the Palestinian side, an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and absolutely no right of return for Palestinian refugees.

More on Netanyahu’s speech by Gideon Levy at Haaretz.

It was an address with no destination, filled with lies on top of lies and illusions heaped on illusions. … The fact that the Congress rose to its feet multiple times to applaud him says more about the ignorance of its members than the quality of their guest’s speech.

Back to Heilemann:

Taken as a whole, his whirlwind Washington visit provided a strong dose of clarity. … So much pandering, so little time!

Here’s an idea: when Netanyahu completes his term as prime minister, he should move back to the United States, where he lived for six years as a youth, graduating from an American high school. Cabinet members are free from birth requirements like the president of the United States. To make it that much easier for Capitol Hill to pay deference to Netanyahu and Israel, create a Department of Israeli Affairs, and appoint Netanyahu, like a Supreme Court justice, as its head for life.

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