The Middle East Channel

Is the Israel-Palestine Conflict “ripe” for Obama’s intervention?

In an op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal (04/26/2010), Richard Haass, the President of Council on Foreign Relations, argues that advocates of a more forceful U.S. intervention in the Middle East peace process have exaggerated that conflict's impact on America's interests elsewhere in the region.

I don't know anyone among those who have cited the damage the Israel-Palestine conflict is causing U.S. interests in the region who believes this concern to be anything other than a secondary reason for a more muscular U.S. initiative to bring this conflict to a close. For everyone, the main reason is the human cost to millions of Palestinians who have lived under the boot of a military occupation for over 40 years, and to Israel's citizens who, while living increasingly undisturbed and prosperous lives, nevertheless exist in the shadow of the threat of recurring wars and Qassam rockets.

The second compelling reason for a quick end to the conflict for all those who advocate it is the unrestrained expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, whose undeclared but widely understood goal it is to make impossible the emergence of a Palestinian state. This outcome would leave Israel with the choice of granting Palestinians Israeli citizenship, thus giving up its Jewish identity, or ending its democratic character as it enforces a regime that denies millions of Palestinians their individual and national rights-in effect turning Israel into an apartheid state.

Oddly enough, these concerns find no place in Richard Haass's essay as he warns against exaggerating the bearing of a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on U.S. interests.

Forty plus years into this conflict and into the creeping Israeli annexation of territory in the 22 percent of Palestine left the Palestinians, Haass pleads for patience for the situation to "ripen" before we try to end it by putting forward an American plan. He maintains that what is missing is not ideas, but the will and ability of the parties to compromise. Haass notes that "Palestinian leadership remains weak and divided; the Israeli government is too ideological and fractured; U.S. relations are too strained for Israel to place much faith in American promises."

One would have thought the problem has been placing faith in Israeli promises. But more to the point, it is precisely the ability to compromise that will be the victim of further delay-for it will discredit the moderate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad who will surely not be replaced by greater moderates. Their replacement will be Hamas-if we are lucky-or the more extreme groups in Gaza that are now challenging Hamas for what these groups consider to be Hamas's excessive moderation.

It is true that Palestinian leadership, as Haass states, remains weak and divided. But their weakness and division is the result of Israeli and American failure to reward their moderation. As far as Palestinians are concerned, aside from marginal improvements in the economy, for which the international donor community is largely responsible, it has produced only a hardening of Israeli positions on the core issues.

More to the point, the Palestinian divisions that Haass deplores were deliberately planned and fostered by Israel and the U.S. during the previous U.S. administration. There is something less than honorable in pointing to problems that our own misguided policies created as a reason the victims of our policies are undeserving of our support.

Of course, the U.S. must stand by its commitment to protect Israel's security. Haass must know there was never any reason for Israel to doubt the solidity of U.S. commitments on this score. Indeed, the over-the-top American assurances that there will never be "any daylight" between us and Israel when it comes to security may come to haunt us. For if we heed the advice to delay stronger U.S. intervention in the peace process for future, riper moments, we may find ourselves tied solidly to an Israeli government that-in order to preserve Israel's Jewish identity-imposes an apartheid regime on a Palestinian population under its control that outnumbers its Jewish counterpart.

Most of the political parties that comprise Netanyahu's government, including Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's Foreign Minister, and Shas, have left no doubt that if forced to choose between democracy and the state's Jewish identity, they would opt without the slightest hesitation to end Israel's democracy.

What exactly would an American president do when confronted with such a new reality, which undoubtedly would again produce a spate of full-page advertisements and AIPAC resolutions in the U.S. Congress stressing the Jewish people's biblical attachment to the land and demanding that we stand by our traditional ally? How would a less than forthright U.S. response to such a situation play in the rest of the world? Isn't it in America's national interest-not to speak of the interests of the State of Israel and its people and of the Palestinian people-for an American president to exert every effort to prevent such a likely deterioration that would force our policymakers to make the most agonizing and fateful decisions?

None of these concerns seem to find a place in Haass's calculations of a "ripeness" that should motivate an American president to move expeditiously to help put an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  He is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress.  

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iran, gender discrimination, and the UN's Women's Commission

The Iranian regime must have a real sense of humor. In a year when their human rights abuses reached ever lower depths with an exponential rise in political prisoners, prison rapes, torture and executions, the regime tried to get a prime spot on the UN Human Rights Council. Their bid failed. But the jokers had another trick up their sleeves.

Last week just as a senior Iranian cleric declared that women's un-Islamic garb - meaning a wisp of hair showing - is the root of men's immorality and the cause of earthquakes, the regime moved to secure a seat on the UN's Commission for the Status of Women (CSW). The CSW, comprising 45 countries, voted in by regional blocks, is the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to the advancement of women. Its mandate is "to evaluate progress, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide."

The Iranian government by contrast has taken every conceivable step to deter women's progress and institute a regressive regime against gender equality. In the past year, it has arrested and jailed mothers of peaceful civil rights protesters. It has charged women who were seeking equality in the social sphere - as wives, daughters and mothers - with threatening national security, subjecting many to hours of harrowing interrogation. Its prison guards have beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted and raped female and male civil rights protesters

The Ahmadinejad government has also initiated systematic discriminatory action against women in every other sphere. In universities where women have represented over 60 percent of the student body, the government is now banning women from key areas of study. Childcare centers are being shut down to hamper women's ability to work outside their homes. Healthcare and reproductive care services provided to men and women, that had turned Iran into a global success story for family planning, are being withdrawn. Women's publications that addressed gender equality have been shut down. The regime is attempting to erase decades of struggle and progress.

This is not a government that supports equality. It is one of the only governments in the world that continues to shun the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and to treat women as second-class citizens with half the value or legal rights of men. Even on seemingly minor issues, such as the equal right to selecting their clothing, the Iranian government stands against its own female citizens. The morality police and chastity guard are on patrol every day.

Iran does not deserve a spot on the commission; it should earn it by providing Iranian women their basic human rights. Yet on Wednesday, Iran is likely to ascend to the CSW because it agreed to pull out of running for the Human Rights Council in exchange for securing an uncontested seat for the CSW. That it can do so, with such ease, is a denigration of the very principles for which the CSW and UN stand.

It is also indicative of the ways in which women's rights are continually sold down the river in exchange for political favors and horse trading on other issues at the UN. This is so commonplace among member states that its rarely remarked upon. But the implications are profound.

First, Iran will claim the win as a major diplomatic victory and indication of an international community that supports and respects it. Second, as a member of the CSW Iran will be well placed to shape the agenda for discussion and the recommendations made. It will bring the same regressive attitudes and cynicism towards women that it enacts in Iran to the global community. No doubt it will have cheerleaders among other nations that prefer to see women as second class citizens.

Finally, as a CSW member, Iran will be well placed to block the participation of independent women's human rights groups from UN forums, while easing the way for its many counterfeit or ‘government-led non-governmental organizations' (GONGOs) to participate at the UN as if they are legitimate independent civil society and human rights defenders.

Iran is attempting to control every venue and avenue through which its own citizens reach the world with real news. It is bringing its cynicism and misogyny to the international community. Instead of being challenged and blocked, Iran is making good progress thanks to the inertia of other member states. In Tehran they must be pleased with the likely turn of events. But in New York, this should be a wake up call. If we are to take the UN's entities seriously, they must demonstrate a seriousness of purpose. Membership in the CSW as with the Human Rights Council must come with minimum conditions. 

Iranian women have fought this regime non-violently and resolutely for 30 years. Its young women have been shot and killed on the streets of the Tehran, for the simple crime of being young and female. To have Iran join the CSW will be the ultimate sign of disrespect to them and women worldwide.

S.B. Anderlini is the Executive Director of International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN). Hadi Ghaemi is the Executive Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Dokhi Fassihian is the Executive Director of Democracy Coalition Project.

AFP/Getty Images