The Middle East Channel

Obama visits holy sites in Israel ahead of trip to Jordan

On his final day in Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama visited holy sites and urged action against racism and anti-Semitism. In his only public remarks on Friday, Obama said we have a collective "obligation not just to bear witness but to act" against racism "and especially anti-Semitism." He visited three of the country's most powerful national sites including the Holocaust memorial as well as the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. On Thursday, Obama addressed Israeli students in a speech in Jerusalem appealing for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He said "the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine." However, Palestinians were largely disappointed with his short visit to the West Bank. Some were put off by Obama's frequent use of Hebrew and stressing the "eternal friendship" between the United States and Israel. Additionally, some Palestinians were troubled by Obama's suggestion that a freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank need not be a prerequisite for peace talks. Obama is traveling to Jordan on Friday, where he is likely to focus discussions with King Abdullah II on the Syrian conflict, and the impact on Jordan. About 436,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the beginning of the conflict two years ago.

Syria

A suicide bombing at the central Damascus Iman mosque killed a top pro-Assad cleric and at least 41 other people on Thursday during evening prayers. The death of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramada al-Bouti is a major blow to the regime -- he was a prominent Sunni supporter of the government. In Bouti's weekly sermons, he frequently called on Syrians to join the fight against the uprising. President Bashar al-Assad issued a statement of condolences to the country promising to destroy "extremism" and cleanse the country. The main opposition armed group, the Free Syrian Army, denied responsibility for the attack, stressing its forces would never have targeted a mosque. Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the assassination. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon authorized an investigation on Thursday into an alleged chemical weapons attack in Aleppo province. The government and opposition forces have traded blame over a missile attack in Khan al-Assal, which they say contained chemical weapons. 

Headlines  

  • Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has pardoned all dissidents who have been imprisoned for defaming him or participating in protests. However, Oman's state news agency did not say how many people would be released.
  • Family members of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi who had sought refugee in Algeria in 2011 left the country "a long time ago" according to Algeria's envoy to Libya.
  • Shiite community leaders in Saudi Arabia have condemned the arrests of 16 Shiite citizens accused of spying and have called for political reform. 

 

Arguments and Analysis

"The U.S. invasion of Iraq cost me my country and my family (Yasir Abbas, The Washington Post)

"When I was a high school sophomore, the United States invaded my country to depose Saddam Hussein. Ten years later, I have lost scores of family members and friends. I am viewed as a traitor by many of my compatriots, and I was forced to leave Iraq - probably for the rest of my life.

Soon after the invasion, Iraqis were forced to choose sides between the new, U.S.-backed government and the insurgency. Many decided to join the militias and insurgents or passively accepted their actions in return for the protection and security they offered. I chose a different path: siding with the people who had invaded my homeland.

My decision to work with the U.S. military as an interpreter was not easy, but for me it was the only choice. When I saw the sectarian violence that rapidly filled the void left by Saddam Hussein's fall, I realized that the U.S. military was the only actor with sufficient resources to resolve the intensifying conflict. Siding with the Americans also spared me from societal pressure to join a militia and take part in the violence.

... Was it worth it to me? I can't deny that my wife and child are healthy or that there is limitless opportunity for me in the United States. But is that worth losing my friends, family and country? Never."

"Nice Speech, Mr. President (Daniel Levy, Foreign Policy)

"Something odd happened during Wednesday's press conference between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked to address the Palestinian issue, the U.S. president on three occasions said that he would have more to say when he spoke directly to the Israeli people. The apparent takeaway is that for Obama, spending (wasting?) too much time trying to make progress with the Israeli prime minister on the Palestinian question is an exercise in futility -- a recognition that the politics would have to change first and that the Israeli public would be key to any political shift.

When Obama finally did get around to addressing that Israeli public in Thursday's speech in Jerusalem, the president made the point unequivocally: "Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see." Some might say Obama was following his own domestic playbook, as he has on issues from taxes to budget cuts to gun control. It's as if he sees Bibi as an obstacle to change on par with the House Republicans or the Tea Party.

Obama made his appeal to the Israeli public in an interesting way. He hit all the buttons in endorsing Israel's own narrative -- as one would expect from a visit that has resembled a schmooze-a-thon -- but he added a surprising twist. Obama essentially offered Israelis a blank check while attaching a health warning: "Use with Caution.""

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/Uriel Sinai

The Middle East Channel

President Obama meets with Palestinians as rockets are launched from Gaza

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank, to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The talks are likely to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but expectations are low for the meeting. The U.S. President was met in Ramallah by about 150 Palestinian demonstrators protesting his visit, accusing him of sidelining the Palestinian quest for statehood. However, he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict saying "We seek an independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel so that the two sides enjoy prosperity and peace." In a news conference on Wednesday, Obama said "I will consider this a success if, when I go back on Friday, I am able to say to myself I have a better understanding of what the constraints are." Obama spent much of Wednesday in meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during which they discussed concerns about the conflict in Syria and seemed to have come to a consensus on Iran's nuclear development program. Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip on Thursday morning, hitting the southern Israeli town of Sderot. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks and police said there were no injuries or damage reported. Up to three other rockets were also fired.

Syria

The Syrian government and opposition forces have called for an international probe into an attack that may have involved chemical weapons. The Syrian government asked the United Nations for an "independent" investigation into a strike on Tuesday on Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province which it blames on opposition forces. Opposition fighters have accused the regime of staging the attack as well as blaming it for another attack allegedly using chemical weapons in Atayba near Damascus. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said that the request for an inquiry is being studied. U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered his own investigation. Speaking from Israel, Obama said, "Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer." Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported opposition forces have overtaken several towns along Syria's ceasefire line with Israel near the Golan Heights.

Headlines

  • Imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan has declared a "historic" ceasefire to the 29-year-long conflict with Turkey which has killed an estimated 45,000 people.
  • Kuwait's Parliament passed a bill which would grant citizenship to "4,000 foreigners," or stateless people, locally know as Bidoon who have long fought for elevated standards and rights

Arguments and Analysis

Why the Left Must Oppose Negotiation Renewal (Mikhael Manekin, MOLAD)

"For the last twenty years, the Israeli Left has reflexively supported direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This was always considered the preferred route, or perhaps the only route, that would put an end to the conflict. Time after time and without exception, the Left camp has legitimized a Right-led peace process in the eyes of the Israeli public and the international community without considering the earnestness of right-wing leaders and the destructive consequences that come with a failed process.

When it comes to negotiations, the Left has repeatedly aided and abetted the Right -much as cheerleader from the sidelines might. The pattern is as follows: the Right opens negotiations, the Left lends them support, demonstrating their enthusiasm, the process fails, and then -without fail - the Left pays the price, even though they merely stood aside. Even worse, when negotiations lack all potential for success and are presented by propagandists from the Right, their failure has real destructive consequences for the two state solution.


The automatic backing given to every round of hollow or forced negotiations for the last two decades demands that the Left renew its line of thinking: Might it be that we've turned talks into ends and not means? Have we thereby abandoned our original goal - a political agreement with the Palestinians? Have we not strengthened the right with our own hands, a right which isn't at all interested in an agreement? Have we thereby participated in hemorrhaging processes whose sole purpose has been to stall for time?"

Jordan's Unfinished Journey: Parliamentary Elections and the State of Reform (Curtis R. Ryan, POMED)

"Despite efforts on the part of the Jordanian government to favorably portray its commitment to reform, a perception gap regarding the process and pace of transition to a constitutional monarchy persists. Recent parliamentary elections, heralded by the monarchy as a significant step in a broader reform initiative have been cast by the Kingdom's critics as an insignificant response to popular demand for greater participation in the democratic process. That response has included certain efforts to combat electoral fraud - foremost among which was the creation of an Independent Electoral Commission - but the extremely unequal distribution of seats, combined with boycotts by major opposition parties, has meant that the new parliament largely resembles its predecessors, with similar loyalties and little authority. In every aspect of its engagement with Jordan, the U.S. government should increase its focus on domestic political reform, articulating in clear and consistent terms the importance of empowering parliament, rectifying imbalances in the electoral system, fostering free speech and ensuring that political representation more accurately reflects Jordan's electorate."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/MANDEL NGAN