The Middle East Channel

The Race for the Iraqi Presidency

As post-election maneuvering gets underway in Iraq, commentators have focused on the battle for the Prime Minister’s office.

The discussion circles around which electoral coalition will be tasked with forming the next government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list or a potential anti-Maliki front led by the former prime minister ‘Iyad ‘Allawi and his Iraqiyya list. But before Iraq even gets to that point, a seemingly lesser struggle over the selection of the next president will first have to be resolved. This process will provide important clues as to the post-election cohesiveness of various political blocs and shedding light on the contours of the broader government formation process.   Will the Kurds retain their cohesion and return current President Jalal Talabani to another term, will the Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi stake his claim, or will a surprise candidate emerge in the horse-trading to come?

It is only after a president has been selected that an individual from the leading electoral coalition will be tasked with forming a government. According to article 70 of the constitution, following the selection of the speaker of parliament and his two deputies (itself a consequential parliamentary decision), the parliament must turn to the task of selecting a president. If no candidate for the post is able to secure a two-thirds majority of parliamentarians in the first round of voting, then the two leading vote getters will be forced into a second round of voting that will be decided in a simple run-off.

Within Iraq’s parliamentary structure, the presidency was conceived as a largely ceremonial role, and its clearly-delineated substantive powers were transitory in nature.  With the expiration of the tripartite Presidency Council, which is composed currently of a Kurd, a Shiite and a Sunni, and its legislative veto, the role of the presidency might take on even greater substantive powers due to the murky constitutional guidance on the actual powers of the presidency. With no upper house of parliament in place resulting in an unchecked parliament, the incoming president will almost certainly test the bounds of his power to review and potentially veto legislation. In this sense, it is hard yet to know how significant the new president will be.  

Current president Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and a veteran of the Kurdish struggle against Saddam Hussein, has played the role of elder statesman with aplomb and has often sought the role of mediator on the national stage.  The Kurdish control of the presidency has been an important symbolic victory for the Kurds in signaling their inclusion in a heterogeneous post-Saddam order no longer based on a chauvinistic Arab nationalism.

The Kurds’ privileged role in post-invasion Iraq is a result of their solidarity on the national stage, their close relations with the United States, and early boycotts of the political process by Sunni Arabs. But their favored status has been eroded as Sunni Arabs have turned to the political process more fully and as the discourse of Iraqi nationalism has found its unifying theme in opposition to expansive Kurdish claims for power, resources, and territory. As such, the contest to name the president will be important as a signifier of parliamentary strength and cohesion, as the prospect of political fragmentation of the various electoral lists will shadow the government formation process. The presidential slection could also be an early indication as to the likely path for forming a government.

While Talabani has generally been able to balance the conflicting demands of statesmanship with the narrower concerns of protecting Kurdish interests, it is difficult to imagine any other Kurdish figure filling this role or garnering the necessary Arab support to secure it. For some time Talabani had indicated that he would not seek another term as president, but in recent days he has announced his intent to seek the presidency. His decision raises the stakes of the challenge to the Kurdistani Coalition (the alliance between the PUK and the the Kurdistan Democratic Party) from the upstart Goran movement.

Goran, a recently-established party founded by dissatisfied breakaways from the PUK, indicated previously that it would oppose Talabani’s candidacy. Such brash pronouncements were predicated on the reformist Goran slate’s shocking humiliation of the PUK in the June 2009 Kurdistan Regional Government elections, where it netted approximately 25% of votes and 25 seats. The PUK’s poor showing tested the resiliency of the KDP-PUK alliance, with some in the KDP coming to question the wisdom of the power-sharing agreement between the parties. Much will now depend on how Goran adjusts its goals after what appears to be a less impressive than expected showing in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. If Kurdish cohesion fractures now, the effect of Goran’s first challenge could be to diminish Kurdish power in Baghdad.

Talabani will not lack for rivals. Tareq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president and former leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Tawafuq bloc who signed on to the Iraqiyya list, has made it clear that Iraq’s president should be an Arab—presumably such statements mark the opening foray in his own quest for the post. For Hashemi to succeed he will have to overcome the fragmentation of the Sunni political community and unite the various leaders who have dispersed and joined various electoral alliances. This issue is particularly acute as true cross-sectarian politics has not yet taken full root in Iraq, and the lack of communal solidarity in parliament has played a significant role in further diminishing the Sunni community’s parliamentary weight.

With Iraqiyya trying to fashion itself as a vehicle for Arab nationalist expression that would be the primary political outlet for Sunnis, the contest for the presidency will be a test of the coalition’s ability and, perhaps, more importantly, its willingness to unify behind a Sunni Arab candidate.

This is a difficult task because of the diffuse nature of Sunni representation, which could lend itself to co-optation and deal-making in the coming weeks and months, particularly as al-Maliki attempts to woo individuals and sub-lists with the prize of patronage.

Talabani’s chances to retain the post remain strong as long as the Kurds provide a united national front in Baghdad. He will be further aided by the Kurds’ continuing centrality to the process of forming a government. Al-Maliki would be unwise to try to unseat Talabani at such an early stage, pushing the Kurds toward an anti-Maliki coalition. By the same token, ‘Allawi might very well choose to exercise his own influence judiciously with a strategic end goal of the premiership in mind, eschewing the expenditure of political capital on the contest for the presidency. Despite his Sunni Arab allies’ wishes, he might be particularly wary of alienating the Kurds and sabotaging his own chance of becoming prime minister—but such a course will risk his own fragile electoral coalition. In this light, ‘Allawi’s opening decision on filling the presidency will offer an important clue as to his chosen path for attempting to assemble a parliamentary majority.

In short, while making predictions on Iraqi politics is often treacherous terrain, the procedural road to forming a government will aid Mam Jalal’s prospects for retaining his post and notching an early victory for the Kurds.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation.

The Middle East Channel

Biden, Netanyahu, and papering over the Grand Canyon

It took a little over 24 hours, but in the end a version of events was agreed on that allowed for the resumption of something resembling business as usual in Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu had not known about the planning approval of 1600 housing units in Occupied East Jerusalem - this was all terribly embarrassing, Israel was sincerely sorry for the unpleasantness caused, and the minister directly responsible displayed appropriate contrition. You see, the relevant district planning committee in Jerusalem had its timing wrong, completing the approval process would anyway take several more months, and actual building on the ground would only happen some time in the distant future.

A technical solution was even invented for preventing such shenanigans from happening again - from now on, the Israeli prime minister himself would oversee sensitive planning and building authorizations and announcements. It's just the kind of pragmatic and sensible solution that America could expect from that reasonable oasis of democracy in the region, Israel. Phew. The deepening chasm that separates the interests of Israel and America's governments could be papered over once again.

The Middle East, like anywhere, loves a good conspiracy theory - and conspiracies there often contain a degree of veracity lacking in the American truther/birther variation. There were at least four competing conspiratorial versions of the events that unfolded in the last 48 hours: (1) This was all about domestic Israeli political turf battles - one-upmanship within the leadership of the orthodox Shas party, between Shas and other parties, and the ubiquitous settler presence in bureaucracy setting down another marker. (2) Look broader to the regional big picture - this has everything to do with Iran and setting priorities. Israel has created an equation whereby the U.S. is so concerned about Israel going rogue on Iran in irresponsible ways that the U.S. would not open a second serious front of confrontation with Netanyahu's government over settlements - hence the administration's climb-down from its call for a comprehensive settlement freeze last year and the acceptance of a weak compromise, especially on east Jerusalem which paved the way for this week's debacle.

(3) We were witnessing American domestic politics being played out in Jerusalem. The links between Likud/settler Israel and the American right have become particularly tight over the last decade or more. This episode therefore was an attempt by some within the pro-GOP wing of Israeli officialdom to embarrass the VP and Obama administration. After all, there has been a concerted and often coordinated anti-Obama campaign inside Israel and within the American Jewish community from day one.  (4) Finally, perhaps this has everything to do with Benjamin Netanyahu's personal history with U.S. presidents. During his first term of office in the late 1990's, Netanyahu lost his coalition and his job after clashing with then President Clinton and being cornered into signing the Wye River Memorandum in late 1998. Understandably, Netanyahu is keen to avoid a repeat performance. One option would be to make nice with President Obama by demonstrating real flexibility on the peace front, but that is both tricky in domestic coalition terms and perhaps not in Netanyahu's own political DNA. So the other alternative is to ensure that the Obama administration never has sufficient trust or traction within Israel to speak over the prime minister's head directly to his public (after all, Obama is a new and unknown quantity and his middle name is Hussein, while Bill Clinton already had great credibility and ratings with Israelis by the time Netanyahu entered office in 1996). The goal in this context would be to turn Biden's visit from a love-fest into a pissing match, neutralizing Administration efforts to start afresh with Israel's public.

Any or all of the above could have a plausible connection to this week's developments, but the official explanation that ultimately carried the day-the unfortunate bureaucratic hiccup one-is probably closest to the truth. It may be less sexy than what the conspiratorial menu had to offer, but this explanation is almost certainly the most damning of all in its implications for U.S.-Israeli relations and policies.

America and Israel are largely talking past each other, and either the U.S. just doesn't get it and fails to understand the dynamics at work in Israel or it has convinced itself that for its own political reasons it is unable to act in anything approaching a decisive manner. Both may be correct. Neither bode well for the future.

Biden's decision to stick to the existing charm offensive script in his Tel Aviv speech while adding a small dose of home truths about the need for peace was probably a wise choice on this occasion. His rhetorical criticism of the settlement announcement was not significantly different from statements by the many senior U.S. officials embarrassed during Israel visits by settlement misbehavior in the past. The last time an American president declared settlements illegal was under President Carter, and the last time consequences were created for settlement misdemeanors was under President George H.W. Bush. Those happened about thirty and twenty years ago, respectively.

Understanding the Israeli reality is crucial to charting a smart policy as Sen. Mitchell seeks to advance peace negotiations. The Obama administration would hardly be alone in failing to appreciate the deep and structural dynamics that are in play in Israel. Many very smart Israeli analysts, commentators, and practitioners are in denial themselves (for example, Amos Harel here, putting this latest spat down to incompetence). It is all too easy to blame the Shas minister directly responsible, Eli Yishai, or Netanyahu's poor management, or coalition intrigues.

Of all the words Israeli officials have uttered in walking back this episode, one has been conspicuously missing - that it was "wrong".  Netanyahu is reported to have said the following in yesterday's cabinet meeting, "Approving that plan when the vice president of the United States is visiting here is first-rate insensitivity... We will continue to build in Jerusalem." Aye, there's the rub.

Today's Israeli press is full of stories of future settlement expansion in East Jerusalem - 7000 units according to Yedioth, 50,000 if the (probably exaggerated) Ha'aretz numbers are to be believed. Israel does not view East Jerusalem as occupied or any different from Tel Aviv, and it does not view West Bank settlements as illegal or illegitimate (the Obama administration has used the latter word, and in line with all previous administrations since '67 and in line with the rest of the world does not recognize Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem).

Under the U.N. partition plan of 1947, a Jewish national home was to be accorded 55% of Mandatory Palestine. After its war of independence, Israel was in possession of 78% of that territory. Many in Israel apparently see no reason why 78% cannot become 80% or 85% or 100%. The pragmatic, state-building and solidifying variety of Zionism is now in a life or death struggle with its maximalist, expansionist and sometimes messianic twin brother, and the latter is winning almost without breaking sweat.

After nearly 40 years of occupation and settlements beyond the green line, settler Zionism and its sympathizers are deeply embedded across all the relevant bureaucracies of the government and security establishments. That is what's made the existence of 500,000 Israelis living over the '67 lines possible and that's what was behind this new episode. If the U.S. looks at this week's events and sees an essentially rational ship of state having indulged in a little ill-timed irrational exuberance - sloppy management, understandable coalition politics - then it is fundamentally misreading the situation. There is a powerful, structural logic to what happened this week and one that will not be reversed until the 1967 occupation has ended by creating a Palestinian state and an Israeli-Palestinian border demarcation whereby pragmatic Zionism finally confronts settler Zionism.

Some would argue that Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005 proves the opposite - that pragmatic Zionism has the upper hand and that left to its own devices, rational Israel can still make the right choice. But even when they were at loggerheads, Sharon allowed the settler movement to further entrench itself in the West Bank, and in the five years that have elapsed since disengagement, the overriding lesson seems to be that there will be no repeat of Gaza in Judea and Samaria. It was too costly, the results unedifying (perhaps by design), settlements proceed apace and even the separation barrier has failed to create a new de-occupation momentum.

Perhaps the Obama administration does get it. Biden did say in his Tel Aviv speech today, "...quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth."

Perhaps America will present Israel with a real choice and with consequences for recalcitrance. Thus far, that has not been the case. The U.S. backed down (again) over settlements last year and the suspicion of course exists that domestic political considerations continue to constrain an American president's freedom of action when it comes to securing an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Israel is unlikely to make a choice until the U.S. makes its own choice, and this week demonstrated that papering over the chasm now existing between U.S. and Israeli positions is an ever-more transparently flawed exercise. America may only be paying attention when the vice president is in town, but the Arab and Muslim world views America as the enabler-in-chief of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and of the indignities being visited on Gaza's civilian population, every single day.

In the absence of decisive American leadership, Israel is likely to dig itself deeper into a hole, burying the last vestiges of hope for pragmatic Zionism. And America too will not emerge unscathed. The president can give any number of Cairo speeches and appoint Sen. Mitchell as special peace envoy, Sec. Clinton can appoint Farah Pandit as representative to Muslim communities and Rashad Hussain as envoy to the O.I.C., but these officials had all better be given the cellphone number of the Israeli interior ministry, Jerusalem district planning and building department, because that office and others in Israel's bureaucracy still have the deciding vote in framing America's image in the region.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel.

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