The Middle East Channel

Iran agrees to talks after announcing nuclear breakthrough

Iran has claimed a nuclear breakthrough, reporting the production of its own nuclear reactor fuel plates and the building of new uranium enrichment centrifuges. State media broadcasted footage of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inserting what they referred to as the first Iranian produced fuel rod to a test reactor in Tehran. Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jabbari notes that "this is a huge achievement...because these fuel rods are actually produced domestically." Additionally, Ahmadinejad said Iran has built 3,000 centrifuges to add to the 6,000 that are currently working.  The announcement has meanwhile been met with skepticism by the United States. Chief State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said  "This is not big news; in fact, it seems to have been hyped." She continued that according to Iran's own schedule, the program is actually behind, and the announcement was made merely for a domestic audience as pressure mounts from increased isolation and recently heightened sanctions. U.S. officials and some analysts see the statement as part of a recent wave of aggressive and desperate gestures, including this week's assassination attempts on Israeli diplomats in several countries. For his part Ahmadinejad asserted that "the era of bullying nations has passed," but top Iranian officials have also said they are willing to participate in negotiations, responding positively to an invitation from the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili wrote, "I propose to resume our talks in order to take fundamental steps for sustainable cooperation in the earliest possibility in a mutually agreed venue and time."

Headlines  

  • China is sending an envoy to Syria to discuss a "peaceful resolution" to violence. Meanwhile, Syrian forces attacked Deraa in an intensified crackdown on the opposition.
  • After the assassination of an al Qaeda leader by his half-brother, 17 people were killed in gunfights in what was called a "family dispute" one week ahead of Yemen's presidential elections.
  • In a report to come out on the anniversary of the Libyan revolution, Amnesty International reports that militias are increasing insecurity and at least 12 detainees have been tortured to death.
  • At least nine Palestinian children and one adult were killed and many were injured when a school bus collided with a truck driven by an Arab-Israeli in the West Bank north of Jerusalem.

Arguments & Analysis

Egyptian NGOs letter against crackdown on foreign organizations (pdf)

"The undersigned organizations strongly condemn the ongoing slandering and intimidation of civil society organizations, particularly human rights groups, and note that the referral of 43 Egyptian and foreign nationals to a criminal court is politically motivated. The affected institutions have been operating for several years without being asked to suspend their activities and without their offices being shut down... In a sudden disregard of these facts, the raiding the offices of these and other Egyptian organizations with armed forces and their referral to trial raise numerous questions. Indeed, it makes one question whether this development is in fact based on considerations for "the rule of law" and "judicial independence," as senior government officials claim.""

'Tunisia works to halt a downward economic spiral' (Amine Ghali, The Daily Star)

"Recently, the Central Bank announced a growth rate of zero for 2011 (down from an average of about 4 percent in recent years), more than 80 international companies have left the country and investment has declined significantly. These big-picture economic realities have translated into unprecedented unemployment figures, affecting 1 million individuals - around 20 percent of those eligible to work. This has resulted in greater numbers of Tunisians living in poverty. As a consequence of these developments, several demonstrations have been organized by the unemployed, especially university graduates. These protests have sometimes resulted in the closing of factories, which has led to shortages in certain products. Employment was thus placed at the forefront of the debate during the Tunisian election campaign, with every candidate putting forth proposals to tackle the country's economic downturn."

'Acceptable national authority creates cohesion' (Omar Rahman, Bitter Lemons)

"One may question whether the strength of tribal identity in the Middle East is historically unique and resistant to the formation of a national identity, but this is simply a matter of the strength and success of the nationalization process. It is not as if Libya and the entire Middle East have been stuck permanently in a static social system. In the end, the outcome of the "Arab spring" will have much more to do with the economy and the ability of the state to offer a system that all its citizens wish to join, than tribalism per se. Only through this process do people begin to transform their identities and affiliations, not beforehand. National cohesion will depend on the success of the state to offer its people good governance and a growing economy that provides jobs."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

The Quartet's continued path to irrelevance

Yet another deadline passed late last month in the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process," this time over the initial exchange of proposals on border and security issues. Palestinian negotiators were (and remain) under pressure on a number of fronts. The Quartet still holds to a resumption of talks under the current guise and a recent visit from Ban Ki-Moon called for "a gesture of goodwill by both sides" in order to create a positive atmosphere for continuing negotiations.

Instead, many Palestinians are urging the PLO to end negotiations altogether until Israel halts all settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Palestinian frustration with the international community and the hollow negotiation process was embodied by the slippers and sticks that showered the Secretary-General's convoy upon entry to the Gaza Strip two weeks ago. 

It is true that the international community has begun to use stronger language in recent weeks, condemning Israel's settlement expansion as "deliberate vandalism" of peace negotiations. But in an atmosphere where talk of ongoing negotiations and deadlines continues still, a number of critical points are being overlooked. In particular, the demand for mutual land swaps and the call for proposals on "borders and security first" are extremely problematic from both a political and a legal point of view.

It has been assumed for several years that in any final agreement, Israel would retain the major settlement areas in the West Bank, including those in East Jerusalem, in exchange for unpopulated land adjacent to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, predominantly territory in the Negev Desert.

However, as a direct consequence of the state of occupation, the two parties involved are far from being on an equal footing. This is further evidenced by Israel's obstinate refusal to discuss Jerusalem and its insistence on retaining most of the settlement blocs and their associated infrastructure. This asymmetry is envisaged by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects the interests of the occupied population. It does so by expressly prohibiting agreements in which the imbalance of power created by a military occupation would coerce the occupied authorities to conclude agreements that undermine the rights of the occupied population.

Rather than facilitate the exercise of self-determination and Palestinian sovereignty over their natural resources, land swap agreements concluded under occupation constitute a deliberate violation of international law in favor of a purely political solution. Such agreements would also reward Israel's illegal policy of dispossession and land appropriation for the purposes of settlement construction and expansion.

Instead of fulfilling their obligations under international law to discourage the continuation of the ongoing breaches of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the international community -- in the guise of the Quartet -- has now reduced itself to advocating for the formalization of such violations in the name of political expediency. Furthermore, it is condoning an existing illegal situation by calling for an agreement based on the unlawful exchange of territory while the occupation is still ongoing. While international rhetoric may have developed a harsher tone, it has nonetheless allowed the occupying power to frame and fragment the negotiations as it sees fit. The practice of overlooking international law for political reasons is particularly damning when viewed in light of the raison d'être of the U.N., which advocates for the maintenance of international peace and security in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.

That there is so much discussion surrounding the issue of land swaps is part of the problem. The current negotiations are in response to a request from the Quartet for proposals on borders and security arrangements in a future two-state solution. However, this seems to ignore the fact that the conflict is not simply one of borders, but revolves around a multitude of interrelated issues, including Jerusalem, the rights of refugees, water, and prisoners, which need to be addressed in an equitable manner to bring about a just and durable solution to the conflict. By resolving the issues that Israel wants negotiated first, Palestinian representatives will be stripped of any leverage they have to negotiate other important questions, resulting in a stalled peace process and continued occupation.

Israel has repeatedly demanded that Palestinian representatives come to the negotiating table without preconditions. It should be clear to all involved that international law cannot be dismissed as a simple precondition. Rather, it is the foundation upon which constructive and well-balanced negotiations must be based and as such it must be upheld and respected by all parties involved. 

The Quartet's greatest strength lies in the power of a unified, authoritative voice. At the same time, it is handicapped by the divergence of its members, who have had genuine disagreements in the ten years since its inception. For this reason, that single voice is more often than not weakened by the need to reflect the lowest common denominator -- which has typically embodied the U.S. position. In reality, then, participation in the Quartet serves only to dilute the power of both the U.N and the EU in comparison to the Quartet, especially when the aim first and foremost seems to be consensus. While its unity should have played a powerful role in the peace process, this harmony was often illusory and, in papering over the cracks, turned out to be a serious defect in the make-up of the mechanism. Indeed, it has been suggested that disunity might just lead to legitimate debate and generate new opportunities instead of allowing for the continuation of the status quo.

The Quartet mission, as currently conceived, represents the latest embodiment of the existing political mechanism that has perpetuated the conflict and granted extended license to Israel's violations. While it did succeed in securing U.S. involvement in the peace process, this involvement developed to the point that theirs was the single most definitive voice, draining legitimacy from the other participants. At present, therefore, there is precious little to be gained from Palestinian engagement with the Quartet. Similarly, any argument for continued participation in the latest bout of negotiations is quickly fading given Israel's insistence on settlement expansion and the creation of more facts on the ground. As Khaled Elgindy has noted, the Quartet, much like the peace process itself, is obsolete, aimless, and without any viable strategic purpose -- and it has been reduced to calling for gestures of goodwill.

Regrettably, it has been suggested in certain circles that a return to the provisions of the Geneva Accord might provide some direction to the flailing process. However, the Geneva Accord, in its conception, ignored many of the lessons that should have been drawn from previous peace initiatives. Like the current negotiations, that accord blatantly disregards international law as a framework for resolving the conflict. A return to such a mechanism would constitute a very large step backwards and would offer little by way of difference from the current negotiations.

Unless the Quartet changes its modus operandi then it will surely be disbanded on account of its failure. Any new initiative must be truly multilateral, rather than offering a pretense of such, and could take the form of an international peace conference under the stewardship of the U.N. Crucially, it must also recognize the importance of accountability, justice, and the rule of law. If it fails to do so, then it too will disappear into the night and no amount of positive "gestures" can save it.

Shawan Jabarin is General Director of Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian non-governmental human rights organization based in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Established in 1979, the organization has special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

AFP/Getty images