Local Elections Canceled in West Bank

Last month, Palestinians in the West Bank were supposed to vote on a new set of local politicians. To Americans and Europeans, municipal elections aren’t such a big deal. But for people who haven’t had a taste of democracy in years, just the slightest chance of waiting on line to cast a ballot is an exhilarating experience. For Palestinians — a people under persistent occupation, divided between two political factions, and separated in two geographical areas — this exuberance would have been even more fulfilling.

Sadly, the elections were canceled by the Palestinian Authority, which argued that they would have fragmented Palestine’s national identity and diverted attention away from the more pressing problem of Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe.

Little do they know that Palestinian identity hasn’t been unified for quite a long time. Hamas and Fatah have been battling it out for the past four years. 1.5 million Palestinians in the slim coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip are separated from another 2.5 million in the West Bank. And if you want to get mired in technicalities, the Palestinians don’t even have a national identity. The lack of a Palestinian state kicks the “national” right out the door.

Something else is at work here. The cancelation had nothing to do with Gaza, and it certainly had nothing to do with efforts at unity. Instead, fear of who would win and who would lose was most likely the culprit. And in some strange way, the United States is partly to blame for Palestine’s increasingly authoritarian behavior.

Back in 2006, the United States encouraged Palestinians to come out and vote for their next national government. At the time, it was an historic moment; the first elections since the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat and the beginning of a new era in Middle East democracy. But when the elections were over, and the winner was announced (Hamas), encouragement in Washington quickly turned into despair and disappointment.

The right thing for Washington to do was applaud the Palestinians for their trust in democracy — even if the United States didn’t necessarily like the results. Such a positive response could have served as a precedent for further elections into the future.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration took the opposite approach. The same democracy that Washington trumpeted beforehand quickly turned into an embarrassment. Due to Hamas’ place on Washington’s terrorist list, the United States refused to declare the contest legitimate. The administration dug itself deeper by not engaging Hamas at a low level, which would have at least shown Palestinians that America meant what it said about democratic institutions.

Four years later, what we have in the Palestinian territories is a powerless legislative branch, a Palestinian president ruling by decree, and an authority that is divided internally between old-time technocrats and upwardly mobile moderates.

We are still suffering from that disastrous 2006 experience. Just as America was afraid about the results back then, the PA is afraid about what’s on the minds of Palestinian voters today. Canceling the elections gives them more time to delay the inevitable.

Obama’s Numbers in the Arab World

I’m a big fan of Dr Marc Lynch’s work. In addition to being considered a respected professor in a top-tier American university (George Washington University), he is also one of the best versed in Middle Eastern culture and knowledgeable about virtually every issue in the Arab world. So whenever Dr Lynch writes a post about Arab public opinion or has something to say about American-Islamic relations, I tend to read it very quickly.

Such was the case last Thursday, when Lynch devoted a post to the dwindling appeal of President Barack Obama in the eyes of ordinary Muslims. Technically, the Brookings Institution sponsored the poll and conducted the project, but it’s people like Lynch (not to mention Steve Walt and Tom Ricks) that make sense of the data and try to put it into some perspective.

For a full look at Brookings’ results, click here (PDF). I highly recommend that you take a look at the raw figures, because it gives us a sense of what issues still ring true in the hearts of Arabs. But if you just want to get to the nuts-and-bolts, the results can be best described as quantification of America’s declining appeal, even in countries that are considered to be American allies. The poll not only reveals an unfortunate American decline in popularity, but also the deep frustrations that many Arabs hold over America’s inability to meet its promises and commitments. Read more “Obama’s Numbers in the Arab World”

Israel-Lebanon Border Skirmish Not All Bad

The last thing the Middle East needs right now is another shooting war. But when gunfire erupted between Israeli and Lebanese troops along the border this past Tuesday, that is exactly what the Levant experienced for a few brief moments.

The border between Israel and Lebanon has been relatively quiet ever since Israel and Hezbollah decided to stop fighting one another back in August 2006. A mutual ceasefire was signed to damper down hostilities, which called for the deployment of a sizable United Nations peacekeeping force along the green line in order to ensure that a violent incident wouldn’t spark out of control. As of that agreement, the Hezbollah militia has shown restraint along the frontier, even as its weapons supply has increased to an estimated 40,000 rockets. Knowing that another violent confrontation with Hezbollah would be a costly military campaign, Israel too is content with the status quo (although it worries about Hezbollah’s growing arsenal).

But all of that changed in a split second when Lebanese soldiers fired on Israeli commandos when they were trying to trim down a tree along their side of the border. One high level Israeli soldier was shot in the head and killed. Israel responded by firing mortars and machine guns toward the Lebanese, killing two of their soldiers and a journalist.

The incident was the most violent in four years, and many in the region are deeply worried that the situation could quickly spiral into another full fledged armed conflict.

Fighting over a cypress tree is certainly a tragedy for both sides, especially when casualties are involved. But the incident could have been much worse. Hezbollah, with its vast arsenal of missiles, could have used the opportunity to provoke violence toward Israel’s northern frontier in the name of “protecting Lebanese sovereignty.” Thankfully, Hassan Nasrallah chose to stay on the sidelines during the dispute. This shows that Hezbollah is indeed weary of another violent confrontation with Israel, despite its growing military capability in Southern Lebanon.

Both the Israeli and Lebanese governments are meeting with UNIFIL to resolve the incident and to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again. It’s only a start, but the move confirms that both sides would much rather hold a fragile peace together instead of resorting to another round of shooting.

Another point to consider: Given that the UN have now confirmed that Lebanon instigated the shootout, will this force the United States to reevaluate its partnership with the Lebanese Defense Forces? Last year, Washington donated $162 million to the Lebanese Army, hoping that the money would be used to counter Hezbollah’s own military gains. Now that a violent spat has occurred, President Barack Obama may have to consider whether this policy can be sustained without strong opposition from Congress. Thanks to Daniel Levy of the Middle East Task Force for bringing this up, because it would have sailed over my head had it not been for his piece at Foreign Policy.

A Chance for US to Build Trust in Pakistan

Pakistan cannot catch a break. As if daily killings from sectarian and terrorist groups were not enough to inflict mass casualties on innocent Pakistanis, tremendous rains have caused huge floods that continue to plague the country’s western frontier (that’s right, the same border where the Pakistani military and American drones are hammering extremist strongholds).

Pakistani officials estimate that as of now, close to 1,200 people have died, with thousands more displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of houses in the tribal areas have either been damaged or swept away in the wreckage, which is prompting the Islamabad government to label this flood the worst in the country’s history.

But it’s not all bad. Donations from a number of countries are pouring into Pakistan while humanitarian organizations have dispatched workers on the ground to deal with the swelling numbers of refugees that are making their way to displacement camps. For its part, the United States have given Pakistani authorities $10 million, over 11,000 pounds of supplies, over 200,000 meals and some kind words from Secretary Hillary Clinton herself.

The aid sounds like a lot, but Washington could be doing much better.

In fact, the floods should be perceived by the White House — and Congress — as a ripe opportunity to bridge the gaps between the millions of Pakistanis who view America as a hostile force and an American government whose dependence on Pakistan is growing by the day.

If recent opinion polls are any indication, America needs all the help it can get to improve its image in the eyes of Pakistanis. According to the Pew Research Center (PDF), only 17 percent of Pakistanis are actually supportive of the United States, with 11 percent regarding America as a partner. Compare this with the 18 percent of Pakistanis who view Al Qaeda in a favorable light, or the 25 percent who support Lashkar e-Taiba (the group most famous for its 2008 attack in Mumbai).

To put it mildly, the United States are not doing so hot in Pakistan — even among educated Pakistanis in urban areas. Pledging more than $10 million to the flood relief effort is a good start, but a concerted effort to put some American boots on the ground would add a human touch. Pakistanis need to witness Americans doing something for the Pakistani people rather than for the Pakistani government.

It’s not going to solve all of America’s PR problems in that corner of the world, but it sure won’t hurt. Sometimes compassion can be a lot more effective than a monetary contribution. If Pakistan is as much of a strategic ally as Washington says it is, perhaps the United States should start acting accordingly.

Republican Resolution on Iran May Just Be Political

My colleague Nick Ottens already touched upon this story yesterday, but because of the issue’s tremendous importance to the United States and the Middle East at large, I thought it would be appropriate to toss a few things into the debate.

In case you happened to miss Nick’s report, a substantial portion of the Republican Party (mostly Tea Party members) in the House decided to introduce a resolution supporting a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Close to one third of House Republicans have already signed onto the resolution (PDF), which is a substantial number considering that the United States Congress has never in its history adopted a stamp of approval for preemptive force (and no, authorization for the invasion of Iraq doesn’t count).

All of this comes at a time when the Iranian leadership continues to thwart its international obligations under both the UN and the IAEA. It comes only a few weeks after the United States, the UN Security Council, and the European Union passed through the strongest economic sanctions on Iran to date. And coincidently, this comes at a time when President Barack Obama is trying to get his “nuclear zero” policy off the ground.

Yet despite the “impending doom” of an Iranian weapon, the resolution says more about the American political season than it does about a genuine support of Israel, or a real worry about Iran’s nuclear capability. In short, by creating this resolution (code named HR 1553), Republicans and the White House’s other political opponents are attempting to capitalize on the president’s stalemated Iran policy.

The November congressional elections are fast approaching. Opponents of the president are trying to find any foreign issue — any at all — that could draw the support of American voters who are either ambivalent about foreign policy or who are weary of where America is going. And Iran could be the big ticket issue.

Granted, there are other foreign policy priorities that Republicans can try to exploit. They could boast about Obama’s July 2011 timeline for Afghanistan, but those concerns already resonate with some in the president’s own party. Republicans could talk about Obama’s failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but this would most likely spark a harsh retaliation from Democrats who would be quick to point out Bush’s own failure to solve the conflict. Bringing China into the mix is also a possibility, but a far-fetched one at that; most Americans really aren’t concerned about China surpassing the United States anytime soon.

For Republican challengers — and Tea Party members running for Congress — Iran is the one issue that they can hammer the White House on. They can argue that the United States has alienated many of their allies (Turkey, Brazil, Israel, Russia) for a sanctions resolution whose effectiveness is in doubt. Some will probably argue that Tehran is actually in a stronger position than a year ago, thanks to Brazil’s and Turkey’s willingness to pick a fight with Washington over the pressure track. And as all politicians have done, Republicans can highlight Obama’s indecisiveness over his approval and then rejection of a nuclear fuel swap deal.

Some of this is justified. Some of this isn’t. But you can be sure that all of it will be brought up during the campaign. The House maneuver is the official start of the midterm elections.