Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saud al-Faisal

Lebanon: Too Quiet?

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

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Spinning Obama’s Foreign-Policy Flops

Earlier this month, Jackson Diehl detailed Obama’s lack of success in forging productive relationships with foreign leaders. Now Obama’s dutiful flacks and media handmaidens take to the front page of Diehl’s paper to explain Obama was merely making use of his “charisma.” Now he is getting around to those relationships. There is this jaw-dropping bit of spin:

The change from a year ago is stark. In his widely broadcast address in Cairo last June, Obama called Israeli settlements in the occupied territories “illegitimate.” By contrast, he met last week at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for two hours, urging him privately to freeze Jewish settlement construction.

What relationship is Obama making use of there? If this is Obama’s idea of a forging bonds with foreign leaders (condemning his country, reading the prime minister the riot act, twice snubbing Netanyahu during his White House visits), our foreign-policy apparatus surely is guilty of gross malfeasance. Then the blind quotes are trotted out to — surprise, surprise — ding George W. Bush and explain how Obama’s newfound personal diplomacy is vastly superior to his predecessor’s:

“Obama is not the sort of guy who looks for a best buddy, and that’s very different than Bush,” said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about perceptions of U.S. leaders abroad. “Sometimes being too personal is not a good thing. You can make mistakes.”

No, Obama is the sort of guy who returns the Winston Churchill bust, gives Gordon Brown and the Queen of England cheap-o gifts, bows to dictators, and slams the elected prime minister of Israel. Completely different. But even the Washington Post must concede that Obama has not forged really any productive relationships with world leaders:

Obama, who was an Illinois state senator just four years before he was elected president, knew few world leaders upon taking office. Since then, he has developed mostly arm’s-length relationships with fellow heads of state, including many from developing countries that previous presidents largely ignored or shunned to protect U.S. relationships with more traditional allies.

Let’s get real — Obama has not really used his charisma to promote anything but himself:

Republican critics say the approach has unsettled the United States’ best friends, and failed more than succeeded in promoting American interests on some of the most far-reaching foreign policy challenges of the day.

Obama’s direct appeal to the people of China and Iran[ Did we miss this? Was he championing democracy at some point?], for example, has produced little change in the attitude of their governments, showing the limits of a bottom-up approach when it comes to dealing with authoritarian countries. Middle East peace talks remain moribund after the administration’s so-far-unsuccessful attempts to end Israeli settlement construction or to persuade Arab governments to make even token diplomatic gestures toward the Jewish state.

As Simon Serfaty of theCenter for Strategic and International Studies notes, “He is beginning to face a crisis of efficacy.” In other words, despite all the reverential treatment by liberal elites, Obama has yet to develop effective ties with allies or used public diplomacy to further American interests. His infatuation with dictatorial regimes, his embrace of multilateralism, and his willingness to kick allies (e.g., Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, Britain, Honduras) in the shins have left America more isolated and rogue states more emboldened than ever before. An assessment from Der Spiegel put it this way, recalling Obama’s Cairo speech (which the Obami still laud as an achievement of some sort):

The applause for Obama’s Cairo speech died away in the vast expanses of the Arabian Desert long ago. “He says all the right things, but implementation is exactly the way it has always been,” says Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Obama’s failure in the Middle East is but one example of his weakness, though a particularly drastic and vivid one. The president, widely celebrated when he took office, cannot claim to have achieved sweeping successes in any area. When he began his term more than a year ago, he came across as an ambitious developer who had every intention of completing multiple projects at once. But after a year, none of those projects has even progressed beyond the early construction phase. And in some cases, the sites are nothing but deep excavations. … Obama can hardly count on gaining the support of allies, partly because he doesn’t pay much attention to them. The American president doesn’t have a single strong ally among European heads of state

Perhaps less time spent crafting stories for the Post and more time working on a viable foreign policy built on American interests rather than Obama’s ego would be in order.

Earlier this month, Jackson Diehl detailed Obama’s lack of success in forging productive relationships with foreign leaders. Now Obama’s dutiful flacks and media handmaidens take to the front page of Diehl’s paper to explain Obama was merely making use of his “charisma.” Now he is getting around to those relationships. There is this jaw-dropping bit of spin:

The change from a year ago is stark. In his widely broadcast address in Cairo last June, Obama called Israeli settlements in the occupied territories “illegitimate.” By contrast, he met last week at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for two hours, urging him privately to freeze Jewish settlement construction.

What relationship is Obama making use of there? If this is Obama’s idea of a forging bonds with foreign leaders (condemning his country, reading the prime minister the riot act, twice snubbing Netanyahu during his White House visits), our foreign-policy apparatus surely is guilty of gross malfeasance. Then the blind quotes are trotted out to — surprise, surprise — ding George W. Bush and explain how Obama’s newfound personal diplomacy is vastly superior to his predecessor’s:

“Obama is not the sort of guy who looks for a best buddy, and that’s very different than Bush,” said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about perceptions of U.S. leaders abroad. “Sometimes being too personal is not a good thing. You can make mistakes.”

No, Obama is the sort of guy who returns the Winston Churchill bust, gives Gordon Brown and the Queen of England cheap-o gifts, bows to dictators, and slams the elected prime minister of Israel. Completely different. But even the Washington Post must concede that Obama has not forged really any productive relationships with world leaders:

Obama, who was an Illinois state senator just four years before he was elected president, knew few world leaders upon taking office. Since then, he has developed mostly arm’s-length relationships with fellow heads of state, including many from developing countries that previous presidents largely ignored or shunned to protect U.S. relationships with more traditional allies.

Let’s get real — Obama has not really used his charisma to promote anything but himself:

Republican critics say the approach has unsettled the United States’ best friends, and failed more than succeeded in promoting American interests on some of the most far-reaching foreign policy challenges of the day.

Obama’s direct appeal to the people of China and Iran[ Did we miss this? Was he championing democracy at some point?], for example, has produced little change in the attitude of their governments, showing the limits of a bottom-up approach when it comes to dealing with authoritarian countries. Middle East peace talks remain moribund after the administration’s so-far-unsuccessful attempts to end Israeli settlement construction or to persuade Arab governments to make even token diplomatic gestures toward the Jewish state.

As Simon Serfaty of theCenter for Strategic and International Studies notes, “He is beginning to face a crisis of efficacy.” In other words, despite all the reverential treatment by liberal elites, Obama has yet to develop effective ties with allies or used public diplomacy to further American interests. His infatuation with dictatorial regimes, his embrace of multilateralism, and his willingness to kick allies (e.g., Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, Britain, Honduras) in the shins have left America more isolated and rogue states more emboldened than ever before. An assessment from Der Spiegel put it this way, recalling Obama’s Cairo speech (which the Obami still laud as an achievement of some sort):

The applause for Obama’s Cairo speech died away in the vast expanses of the Arabian Desert long ago. “He says all the right things, but implementation is exactly the way it has always been,” says Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Obama’s failure in the Middle East is but one example of his weakness, though a particularly drastic and vivid one. The president, widely celebrated when he took office, cannot claim to have achieved sweeping successes in any area. When he began his term more than a year ago, he came across as an ambitious developer who had every intention of completing multiple projects at once. But after a year, none of those projects has even progressed beyond the early construction phase. And in some cases, the sites are nothing but deep excavations. … Obama can hardly count on gaining the support of allies, partly because he doesn’t pay much attention to them. The American president doesn’t have a single strong ally among European heads of state

Perhaps less time spent crafting stories for the Post and more time working on a viable foreign policy built on American interests rather than Obama’s ego would be in order.

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Dowd Goes Around the Bend

Goodness knows whether Maureen Dowd’s latest column — a noxious propaganda brew on behalf of the Kingdom of Saud and its foreign minister’s ludicrous moral relativism – was born of abject ignorance or whether she was sent trolling for Saudi money to help her employer’s bottom line. Or maybe she’s trying to out-Friedman her colleague when it comes to ingratiating herself with despotic abusers of human rights. Doesn’t really matter. From Dowd we hear unfiltered this argument:

The Middle Eastern foreign minister was talking about enlightened “liberal” trends in his country, contrasting that with the benighted “extreme” conservative religious movement in a neighboring state.

But the wild thing was that the minister was Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia — an absolute Muslim monarchy ruling over one of the most religiously and socially intolerant places on earth — and the country he deemed too “religiously determined” and regressive was the democracy of Israel.

“We are breaking away from the shackles of the past,” the prince said, sitting in his sprawling, glinting ranch house with its stable of Arabian horses and one oversized white bunny. “We are moving in the direction of a liberal society. What is happening in Israel is the opposite; you are moving into a more religiously oriented culture and into a more religiously determined politics and to a very extreme sense of nationhood,” which was coming “to a boiling point.”

She gets in her swipe at Israel, sniffing that it is “growing less secular with religious militants and the chief rabbinate that would like to impose a harsh and exclusive interpretation of Judaism upon the entire society” and hissing that in “Orthodox synagogues, some men still say a morning prayer thanking God for not making them a woman.” And then she proceeds to assure us that while Gloria Steinem wouldn’t applaud Saudi Arabia as a feminist paradise, “I can confirm that, at their own galactically glacial pace, they are chipping away at gender apartheid and cultural repression.”

Oh really? Perhaps she had not heard about or was not permitted a peak at the real Saudi Arabia. From a more discerning eye, another perspective is in order:

Saudi Arabia, modern-day: A man finds his daughter exchanging messages with a male friend on Facebook and murders her. A young woman caught sitting in a car with a man who is not her relative gets gang-raped, is then sentenced to 90 lashes (or 200, depending on which news report you read) for having appeared thus in public, and is later beaten by her brother for bringing shame on the family.

Same place, same time: The marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a 48-year-old man is upheld by a judge despite her mother’s attempts to have the marriage annulled. A death-row inmate sells his 15-year-old daughter in marriage to a fellow prisoner to pay off some debts. The marriage is consummated. “It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger,” says Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti. “A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”

Dowd’s hosts seem not to have given her the full story. There was much more to learn if she had strayed from her handlers or picked up a news account or two. She might then have asked:

Who, exactly, is it the misogyny-frenzied brutes in charge of administering “justice” to the Saudi distaff side are protecting—and from what?  When they condemn a woman who’s been gang-raped to 200 lashes for “having sex outside marriage,” or give a destitute 75-year-old widow 40 lashes for engaging in “prohibited mingling” by receiving charity from two young male relatives, or, in the most recent (known) instance, sentence a 13-year-old girl to 90 lashes—to be delivered in front of her classmates—for bringing a cell phone to school—what do they believe they are doing?

Any of that going on in Israel? Which is the “regressive” locale — the nation with women political leaders and a functioning court system that protects women and girls from abuse or the land of child brides and lashings? It boggles the mind that Dowd would entertain and abet the attempt to equate the two. But then again, Dowd was never one to get bogged down in facts or let reality interfere with a column or, for that matter, a swank sojourn on someone else’s dime.

Goodness knows whether Maureen Dowd’s latest column — a noxious propaganda brew on behalf of the Kingdom of Saud and its foreign minister’s ludicrous moral relativism – was born of abject ignorance or whether she was sent trolling for Saudi money to help her employer’s bottom line. Or maybe she’s trying to out-Friedman her colleague when it comes to ingratiating herself with despotic abusers of human rights. Doesn’t really matter. From Dowd we hear unfiltered this argument:

The Middle Eastern foreign minister was talking about enlightened “liberal” trends in his country, contrasting that with the benighted “extreme” conservative religious movement in a neighboring state.

But the wild thing was that the minister was Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia — an absolute Muslim monarchy ruling over one of the most religiously and socially intolerant places on earth — and the country he deemed too “religiously determined” and regressive was the democracy of Israel.

“We are breaking away from the shackles of the past,” the prince said, sitting in his sprawling, glinting ranch house with its stable of Arabian horses and one oversized white bunny. “We are moving in the direction of a liberal society. What is happening in Israel is the opposite; you are moving into a more religiously oriented culture and into a more religiously determined politics and to a very extreme sense of nationhood,” which was coming “to a boiling point.”

She gets in her swipe at Israel, sniffing that it is “growing less secular with religious militants and the chief rabbinate that would like to impose a harsh and exclusive interpretation of Judaism upon the entire society” and hissing that in “Orthodox synagogues, some men still say a morning prayer thanking God for not making them a woman.” And then she proceeds to assure us that while Gloria Steinem wouldn’t applaud Saudi Arabia as a feminist paradise, “I can confirm that, at their own galactically glacial pace, they are chipping away at gender apartheid and cultural repression.”

Oh really? Perhaps she had not heard about or was not permitted a peak at the real Saudi Arabia. From a more discerning eye, another perspective is in order:

Saudi Arabia, modern-day: A man finds his daughter exchanging messages with a male friend on Facebook and murders her. A young woman caught sitting in a car with a man who is not her relative gets gang-raped, is then sentenced to 90 lashes (or 200, depending on which news report you read) for having appeared thus in public, and is later beaten by her brother for bringing shame on the family.

Same place, same time: The marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a 48-year-old man is upheld by a judge despite her mother’s attempts to have the marriage annulled. A death-row inmate sells his 15-year-old daughter in marriage to a fellow prisoner to pay off some debts. The marriage is consummated. “It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger,” says Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti. “A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”

Dowd’s hosts seem not to have given her the full story. There was much more to learn if she had strayed from her handlers or picked up a news account or two. She might then have asked:

Who, exactly, is it the misogyny-frenzied brutes in charge of administering “justice” to the Saudi distaff side are protecting—and from what?  When they condemn a woman who’s been gang-raped to 200 lashes for “having sex outside marriage,” or give a destitute 75-year-old widow 40 lashes for engaging in “prohibited mingling” by receiving charity from two young male relatives, or, in the most recent (known) instance, sentence a 13-year-old girl to 90 lashes—to be delivered in front of her classmates—for bringing a cell phone to school—what do they believe they are doing?

Any of that going on in Israel? Which is the “regressive” locale — the nation with women political leaders and a functioning court system that protects women and girls from abuse or the land of child brides and lashings? It boggles the mind that Dowd would entertain and abet the attempt to equate the two. But then again, Dowd was never one to get bogged down in facts or let reality interfere with a column or, for that matter, a swank sojourn on someone else’s dime.

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Talking to Enemies, Losing Friends

My friend Lee Smith has a terrific piece in the Weekly Standard about what the peace process is doing to the democracy movement in Lebanon:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has recused herself from every other issue in the region, including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As for Syria and Lebanon, she contracted this out to France, whose new president Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner butchered the affair, with some assistance from Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who has looked to placate Syria since the Hariri murder. Secretary Rice says nice things about Lebanese democracy, but the fact is that nothing matters to her half as much as the peace process. This myopia is what led Rice to make room for Syria in her three-ring circus on the Chesapeake Bay. Since Israeli-Palestinian comity warrants all of the time and prestige of the Secretary of State, and since Damascus’s friends in Hamas can make things very tough for peace processing, they must be rewarded for their blackmail and invited to Annapolis.

Consciously or not, Rice signaled where America’s real priorities lie — not with protecting a fledgling democracy in Beirut from the terrorist state next door, but in trying to reward a society that breeds terrorism within its own state.

Lee predicts that the peace process will imperil the Hariri tribunal and deliver Lebanon back to Syria and Hezbollah. Read the whole thing.

My friend Lee Smith has a terrific piece in the Weekly Standard about what the peace process is doing to the democracy movement in Lebanon:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has recused herself from every other issue in the region, including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As for Syria and Lebanon, she contracted this out to France, whose new president Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner butchered the affair, with some assistance from Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who has looked to placate Syria since the Hariri murder. Secretary Rice says nice things about Lebanese democracy, but the fact is that nothing matters to her half as much as the peace process. This myopia is what led Rice to make room for Syria in her three-ring circus on the Chesapeake Bay. Since Israeli-Palestinian comity warrants all of the time and prestige of the Secretary of State, and since Damascus’s friends in Hamas can make things very tough for peace processing, they must be rewarded for their blackmail and invited to Annapolis.

Consciously or not, Rice signaled where America’s real priorities lie — not with protecting a fledgling democracy in Beirut from the terrorist state next door, but in trying to reward a society that breeds terrorism within its own state.

Lee predicts that the peace process will imperil the Hariri tribunal and deliver Lebanon back to Syria and Hezbollah. Read the whole thing.

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ANNAPOLIS: Oh, How Wonderful to Have the Saudis There

One of the reasons the commentariat is growing giggly with excitement about the Annapolis peace conference taking place over the next three days is the presence of Arab nations who are sworn enemies of Israel, Saudi Arabia in particular. It will be represented by Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, who has given a somewhat revelatory interview to Time Magazine. He says he will refuse to shake Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s hand, even though he is a seeker after peace. He never says there will be peace with Israel, only “normalization,” and that this will only occur after Israel does every single thing he wants it to — and will not say there will be an exchange of ambassadors if that happens. He says that, despite the oft-stated line that a deal between Israel and the Palestinians is necessary to help create the conditions for a bulwark against Iran, “Peace with Israel has its own conditions and elements that are not connected with Iran.” And he asserts, despite the fact that Palestinians now maintain control over Gaza and most of the West Bank, that “Israelis are acquiring more land.” Truly, a partner for peace.

One of the reasons the commentariat is growing giggly with excitement about the Annapolis peace conference taking place over the next three days is the presence of Arab nations who are sworn enemies of Israel, Saudi Arabia in particular. It will be represented by Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, who has given a somewhat revelatory interview to Time Magazine. He says he will refuse to shake Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s hand, even though he is a seeker after peace. He never says there will be peace with Israel, only “normalization,” and that this will only occur after Israel does every single thing he wants it to — and will not say there will be an exchange of ambassadors if that happens. He says that, despite the oft-stated line that a deal between Israel and the Palestinians is necessary to help create the conditions for a bulwark against Iran, “Peace with Israel has its own conditions and elements that are not connected with Iran.” And he asserts, despite the fact that Palestinians now maintain control over Gaza and most of the West Bank, that “Israelis are acquiring more land.” Truly, a partner for peace.

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ANNAPOLIS: There Has to Be Something to It, Right?

Over the past few weeks, consensus has continually held that little should be expected from the Annapolis conference, which opens tomorrow. Op-ed after op-ed and poll after poll have dictated that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too weak, if not too far apart in their positions, for any meaningful progress towards peace to take place.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the notion that Annapolis is little more than an impressive photo op with the serious diplomatic capital that Arab states have invested in it. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced that it would send Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, marking the first time that the Saudis are participating in talks with Israelis present. Representatives of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen will also participate. Indeed, the Annapolis conference has achieved such profound legitimacy that Syria—believing that it risked regional isolation by not attending—announced that it would send its deputy foreign minister.

How can we explain this broad participation in a conference doomed to failure? Below, I weigh the compelling and insufficient aspects of three possibilities that have been tossed around in recent weeks:

1. It’s all about Iran. As David Brooks argued a few weeks ago, the Israeli-Palestinian focus of this conference is a proxy for creating a regional consensus for confronting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Compelling because of the broad (Sunni) Arab participation in the conference. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a “Shiite Crescent” of regional Iranian influence, running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (Hizballah), and the Palestinian Authority (Hamas); Sunni unity—sponsored by a U.S.-led peace effort—provides a possible diplomatic antidote. Meanwhile, Israel has embraced strong Arab participation, even though this will increase pressure for concessions. This implies that Israel’s priorities lie with countering Iran, perhaps at the expense of other cards it holds.

Insufficient because a conference that cannot actually deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot create regional consensus around Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is necessary to foster and support any long-term regional strategy against Iran. Moreover, is Syria so desperate for the return of the Golan Heights that it would spurn its historic ties with Iran—particularly at the moment that Iran is most regionally ascendant?

2. It’s aimed at achieving broad consensus on Israeli-Palestinian peace to legitimize final status negotiations. The International Crisis Group, one of the few think tanks to take a mildly optimistic view of Annapolis, has argued that Annapolis should be a platform for deliberation on final status issues, with Arab engagement exchanged for Israeli concessions.

Compelling because the Bush administration emphasized the discussion of final status issues in its successful effort to lure Arab states to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have called for a final settlement before the expiration of Bush’s term. Furthermore, broad Arab consensus for such a settlement might undermine Hamas’s rejection of peace efforts.

Insufficient because Arab political unity has had little bearing on Arab public opinion in recent years: contrast Arab governments’ condemnation of Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon war with the popularization that followed throughout the region of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Moreover, public opinion has hardly constrained Hamas, which seized control in Gaza this past June with little Palestinian public support. If Hamas responds to (the highly unlikely) Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with another takeover, as Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas recently announced, Arab unity will prove impotent once again.

3. The Bush administration is using the Annapolis conference to shore up its legacy. Numerous American dailies attribute the Bush administration’s pursuit of the Annapolis conference to the “legacy” issue, while Dov Weissglas, former senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, believes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is “led by the desire to get a Nobel Prize.”

Compelling because the Bush administration arguably has dedicated more attention to the Middle East than any previous presidency, with few concrete successes. Democratization efforts have stalled or failed in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority; Iraq is improving but remains unstable; Iran is ascendant; and American popularity in the Middle East is at an all time low. Israeli-Palestinian peace might provide one last chance at securing a favorable legacy in foreign affairs.

Insufficient because psychoanalysis is no substitute for policy analysis.

Over the past few weeks, consensus has continually held that little should be expected from the Annapolis conference, which opens tomorrow. Op-ed after op-ed and poll after poll have dictated that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too weak, if not too far apart in their positions, for any meaningful progress towards peace to take place.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the notion that Annapolis is little more than an impressive photo op with the serious diplomatic capital that Arab states have invested in it. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced that it would send Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, marking the first time that the Saudis are participating in talks with Israelis present. Representatives of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen will also participate. Indeed, the Annapolis conference has achieved such profound legitimacy that Syria—believing that it risked regional isolation by not attending—announced that it would send its deputy foreign minister.

How can we explain this broad participation in a conference doomed to failure? Below, I weigh the compelling and insufficient aspects of three possibilities that have been tossed around in recent weeks:

1. It’s all about Iran. As David Brooks argued a few weeks ago, the Israeli-Palestinian focus of this conference is a proxy for creating a regional consensus for confronting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Compelling because of the broad (Sunni) Arab participation in the conference. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a “Shiite Crescent” of regional Iranian influence, running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (Hizballah), and the Palestinian Authority (Hamas); Sunni unity—sponsored by a U.S.-led peace effort—provides a possible diplomatic antidote. Meanwhile, Israel has embraced strong Arab participation, even though this will increase pressure for concessions. This implies that Israel’s priorities lie with countering Iran, perhaps at the expense of other cards it holds.

Insufficient because a conference that cannot actually deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot create regional consensus around Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is necessary to foster and support any long-term regional strategy against Iran. Moreover, is Syria so desperate for the return of the Golan Heights that it would spurn its historic ties with Iran—particularly at the moment that Iran is most regionally ascendant?

2. It’s aimed at achieving broad consensus on Israeli-Palestinian peace to legitimize final status negotiations. The International Crisis Group, one of the few think tanks to take a mildly optimistic view of Annapolis, has argued that Annapolis should be a platform for deliberation on final status issues, with Arab engagement exchanged for Israeli concessions.

Compelling because the Bush administration emphasized the discussion of final status issues in its successful effort to lure Arab states to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have called for a final settlement before the expiration of Bush’s term. Furthermore, broad Arab consensus for such a settlement might undermine Hamas’s rejection of peace efforts.

Insufficient because Arab political unity has had little bearing on Arab public opinion in recent years: contrast Arab governments’ condemnation of Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon war with the popularization that followed throughout the region of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Moreover, public opinion has hardly constrained Hamas, which seized control in Gaza this past June with little Palestinian public support. If Hamas responds to (the highly unlikely) Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with another takeover, as Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas recently announced, Arab unity will prove impotent once again.

3. The Bush administration is using the Annapolis conference to shore up its legacy. Numerous American dailies attribute the Bush administration’s pursuit of the Annapolis conference to the “legacy” issue, while Dov Weissglas, former senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, believes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is “led by the desire to get a Nobel Prize.”

Compelling because the Bush administration arguably has dedicated more attention to the Middle East than any previous presidency, with few concrete successes. Democratization efforts have stalled or failed in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority; Iraq is improving but remains unstable; Iran is ascendant; and American popularity in the Middle East is at an all time low. Israeli-Palestinian peace might provide one last chance at securing a favorable legacy in foreign affairs.

Insufficient because psychoanalysis is no substitute for policy analysis.

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