The Middle East Channel

How much do they hate Maliki?


Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's electoral list narrowly edged the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Maliki's State of Law alliance in the official (but uncertified) results of the March 7 elections announced today. The horse-trading and deal-making which will produce a new government will now accelerate. But to a very large extent, a little-noticed Federal Supreme Court decision yesterday drained the drama from today's announcement. Despite Allawi's winning two more seats than his rival, he may not get the chance to form a government. Allawi's chances of becoming Iraq's Prime minister will hinge largely on the question of how much Maliki's Shiite rivals really hate him... and how loyal his political allies will be if their Shiite co-religionists make his exit a condition to forming a government.

The performance of Allawi and his Iraqiyya list's performance represent a major, even stunning political realignment. But the Iraqi Supreme Court's ruling yesterday means that contrary to general belief, he is not guaranteed the first opportunity to form a government. The ruling hinges on the interpretation of Article 76 of the Iraqi constitution, which mandates that the new president authorize a prime minister-designate representing the largest parliamentary bloc to attempt to form a government. There has been some controversy over what this meant in practice. The Federal Supreme Court interpreted the clause broadly and decided that "largest parliamentary bloc" referred to any parliamentary bloc in existence at the time when the president makes his designation -- not to the lists which contested the election. If the court had ruled narrowly, then the razor-thin difference in seats would have had profound effects. As it stands, Maliki and Allawi now enter this next phase of horse-trading basically even.

While Maliki continues to complain of electoral fraud with ever angrier language, a recount does not appear likely based on the public pronouncements of the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq. This view is supported by the most recent comments of Ad Melkert, the United Nations' Special Representative for Iraq, who has indicated repeatedly that he has not been presented with credible evidence of serious electoral fraud. The electoral results will be finalized following Federal Supreme Court ratification once all complaints have been considered. At that point, the current president, Jalal Talabani, will call upon the new parliament to convene within 15 days of the ratification. Instead of Allawi's winning coalition having an automatic first shot at forming a government, however, any new coalition with more seats which can be cobbled together before the parliament is seated will gain that advantage.

With the process therefore wide-open despite Allawi's victory, the core contradictions of Iraqi politics will be on display as a government is cobbled together. No Iraqi governing coalition will be a natural ideological fit. In fact, any feasible coalition will produce mind-bending alliances of convenience that defy easy categorization, particularly with respect to the decisions of the Sadrists and the Kurds, who will constitute key targets for Allawi and Maliki.

The Sadrists have bitter memories of both men as prime minister. Allawi supported the August, 2004 U.S. assault on the Mahdi Army in Najaf, and Maliki launched a wide-ranging and highly-successful military campaign against these Shiite militias beginning in March, 2008 in Basra, Baghdad, and other areas of the south. Of course, it is almost breathtaking to imagine the Sadrists reasserting their nationalist credentials in an Allawi government that represents many of the same Sunnis that the Mahdi Army had only recently ethnically cleansed from Baghdad. When discussing Allawi in the summer of 2004, Sadr famously said that referring to him as a Shiite was like calling Saddam Hussein a Muslim. But the Sadrists have expressed a particularly pointed antipathy toward Maliki, and their decision on whether to recreate a post-election Shiite super-list will go a long way toward elucidating the possible paths of government formation. Their distaste for the prime minister was expressed when their nominal leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, recently referred derisively to Maliki's State of Law alliance as the "State of Terror."   

The Kurds, on the other hand, have gone some way to mending fences with the prime minister following a period of increasing tensions. As Maliki sought to portray himself as an Iraqi nationalist in recent years, he has often chosen to express this posture through his increasingly vocal stance against far-reaching Kurdish aspirations. While this approach curried cross-sectarian favor with many of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who likewise have taken a dim view of Kurdish positions on power, resources, and territory, it initiated an escalation that culminated in several tense military standoffs between the Kurdish "peshmerga" and national forces directed by Maliki. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and Maliki reportedly would not speak to each other for months. But recent moves indicate a rapprochement of sorts, perhaps as a preemptive move to block Allawi from the premiership. Allawi's inclusion of the fiercely anti-Kurdish al-Hadba party in his al-Iraqiya list, along with his general appeal to the Sunni constituency, worries Kurds who fear that Baghdad might turn sharply against their interests and prerogatives. While Allawi has already begun wooing the Kurds, it is hard to conceive of a possible political deal that could assuage Kurdish demands without destroying his own far-reaching alliance with Sunni leaders.

Of course, there are also a host of smaller parties such as the humbled Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Tawaffuq list, which had once laid claim to leadership among Iraq's Sunnis. ISCI has become a junior partner to the Sadrists within the Iraqi National Alliance under which both parties ran in the elections, as the open list electoral system allowed voters to choose Sadrist over ISCI figures. Maliki will no doubt seek to offer them inducements to break away and find a greater degree of prominence within a new government.  

Maliki's most natural path for government formation is also fraught with some danger in that he will be faced with a more potent and unified opposition fuelled by Sunni support for Allawi. This could also be destabilizing if a government is perceived as reconstructing governments of old that were often seen as marginalizing Sunnis. As such, Maliki will try to lure smaller Sunni parties such as Tawaffuq into a government. He will plausibly argue that their role within the Sunni community, now diminished at the ballot box, could be partially restored with a place within the machinery of government and access to the networks of patronage.

While the scenarios for formation are endless, the key factor in almost all these decisions will be attitudes toward the prime minister, as opposed to a desire to join an Allawi government. Maliki has made many political enemies over the years, even within his own "natural" constituency. Maliki's electoral disappointment could mean that the most natural path to a government will require that Maliki step aside. Whether he is willing to do so is very much the question on Baghdad's mind tonight. 

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

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The Middle East Channel

America's settlement folly

[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the last in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. The series also includes pieces by Gideon Lichfield and Leon Hadar.]

Reactions to the recent diplomatic squabble between the U.S. and Israel over building in East Jerusalem display a startling lack of historical memory. More than 30 years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted on building beyond the green line, and President Jimmy Carter proved unable to stop him. President Barack Obama risks a repeat performance. With the Netanyahu government's announcement to build 1,600 more housing units in Ramat Shlomo, the consequences of U.S. inaction will prove even more damaging than in Carter's time. Given a shift in American priorities, Obama can't afford to stand down.

Back in 1977, Carter recognized that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was central to broader regional peace. He got to work immediately upon taking office. Yet two days after his initial meeting with Begin, Carter was astonished to hear that the Israeli prime minister had returned home and legalized three West Bank settlements, declaring them "permanent." These settlements had existed before Begin's victory, but the declaration of permanence secured government subsidies and attempted to assert Israeli claims across the green line. Begin cast this bid to expand Israel's territory in religious and nationalist terms, receiving critical support from then Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon. Together they established a matrix of control in the West Bank that gnawed away at the foundation of a viable future Palestinian state.

Ultimately, Carter failed to prevent Begin's expansionist excesses. Several days after the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978, Begin proclaimed on U.S. television that Israel would remain in the West Bank indefinitely and continue its settlement program. This declaration flew in the face of the full settlement moratorium that Carter believed Israel had agreed on at Camp David. Begin denied he had ever accepted more than a three-month freeze for the duration of the Egyptian-Israeli talks.

What did Carter do? He bowed out of a confrontation, declaring the controversy "just an honest difference of opinion." Privately, he felt misled by Begin's evasive maneuvers on the settlement issue and the wider devaluing of autonomy talks to address the Palestinian question. Two weeks later, Carter weakly chastised Israel, saying the settlements in occupied territory were "illegal" and an "obstacle to peace," but it was too little too late. Looming 1980 elections, an alienating confrontation with American Jewish leaders, and a host of other complicated foreign policy challenges forced the administration's hand. Since Carter's clash with Begin, settlements have only grown in number and size, undermining the very possibility of a two-state solution to end the conflict.

Today, a number of Israel's supporters on Capitol Hill are voicing dismay at an increasingly vocal confrontation between two close allies over the issue. Sen. Joseph Lieberman called Obama's angry reaction to the East Jerusalem plans "unnecessary" and "destructive of our shared national interest."

But these objections seem anachronistic at best. Lieberman may not recognize a new reality on the ground, but President Obama certainly does. Changes in the international context mean that the United States must reorder its priorities in the Middle East. With two wars being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan and a difficult confrontation brewing over Iran, America is committed to the region in ways it never has been before. The U.S. can no longer afford to stand by as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict jeopardizes broader regional concerns.

As Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee shortly after Vice President Biden's visit, tensions over Israel-Palestine have "an enormous effect on the strategic context in which we operate." So while Netanyahu seems to be borrowing a page from Begin's 1970s playbook, the reality is entirely different in 2010.

Domestically, things have changed as well, making it easier for Obama to voice his principled opposition. The American Jewish community's reluctant but ultimately steadfast support for Begin's position triumphed over internal criticism of settlements in the 1970s. But such unity belongs to the past. American Jews increasingly recognize that the free hand George W. Bush extended to Israel was counterproductive to reaching peace. In particular, there has been a generational shift among younger American Jews. Voices of dissent against the expansion of Israeli settlements are now firmly in the mainstream- as evidenced by a rise of vocal, dovish pro-Israel groups like J Street.

When asked about the recent U.S.-Israel flare-up, President Obama remarked that "friends are going to disagree sometimes." It sounded awfully similar to Carter's "difference of opinion" line.

Given the damaging history of settlement construction and previous American failures to stop it, this is a disagreement that needs to be addressed. There must be a concerted effort to halt Israel's unsustainable policy of continued building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This construction poisons the climate in which proximity talks can be held and pre-judges a final status agreement. If the last three decades should have taught American policymakers one thing, it's this: standing idly by as settlement building continues apace doesn't advance the possibility of peace. It only undermines it.

Seth Anziska is a doctoral candidate in international history at Columbia University and a Wexner Foundation Graduate Fellow in Jewish Studies. 

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