Monday, July 19, 2010

Obama Again Predicts Direct Israel-Palestinian Talks, Is He Wrong Again?

By Barry Rubin*
July 20, 2010

Last September, President Barack Obama said in a major speech in New York, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas standing nearby, that there would be direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations in Washington by November 2009.

It didn't happen.

The media didn't ridicule the Obama Administration or point to this failure. Too bad. That kind of behavior by the media plays a positive role, in this case teaching the president to be more circumspect and skeptical about rapid progress.

Moreover, the president of the United States should never say that something is going to happen unless he knows that it will happen.

Now, in July 2010, the president 
stated that there would soon be direct talks, perhaps even before September:

"And my hope is, is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium [Israeli construction freeze that ends in September] has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success."

But is there any reason that this deadline will be met? No.

Israel is eager for direct talks; the PA keeps finding excuses for opposing them. One of the PA's arguments, made secretly to the United States, is that it fears going to direct negotiations will bring criticism from Arab states. The PA also fears that anything that looks like a concession is going to heighten tensions with Hamas, which will use such a step to portray the PA as traitorously moderate.

Notice that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan don't oppose direct talks. So what the PA is really worried about, inasmuch as these expressions are sincere, are the radical forces: Syria, Hamas, and Iran. What, you might ask, would be most effective in overcoming that barrier. The answer is: a tougher U.S. line toward the radicals and a more credible determination to defend the moderates. But that is lacking in Obama policy even though the administration doesn't even seem to realize that this kind of problem exists.

Here is how the White House sums up Obama's phone conversation of July 9 with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas:

"The President noted the positive momentum generated by the recent improvements on the ground in Gaza and in the West Bank, the restraint shown by both sides in recent months, and progress in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks."

There has been no progress in the "proximity," that is indirect, talks. That's a fact. As for "recent improvements" on the ground in Gaza, the truth is the exact opposite. Events have strengthened Hamas, namely the international intervention to reduce the extent of Israel's embargo and the public support for Hamas. The PA is worse off in its competition with Hamas than it was a few months ago.

It is true there have been improvements in the West Bank and restraint by Israel and the PA. At present, the PA doesn't want violence. West Bank Palestinians are enjoying better conditions, though that doesn't mean this situation will persist.

The PA is also demanding that Israel state its positions on borders and security measures before any talks can start. Yet what would happen if Israel did so? The PA would state that they are excessive and thus refuse to enter direct talks.

Moreover, while the PA at times uses phony claims that it is being flexible--see here--it never actually moves from the line held for many years: all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem; no limits on the sovereignty of the Palestinian state; a right of return for all refugees to live in Israel; and not even an agreement that a peace treaty fully and forever ends the conflict.

As far as direct talks go, Obama doesn't have any secret plan or classified information that you don't know about to make him believe direct talks are going to happen. True, the U.S. government is putting on some pressure to convince the PA to change its stance. Yet this may well not be sufficient. The PA knows that the White House won't go too far in this effort, and will never publicly denounce the PA for its obduracy (whereas it would not hesitate-as we have seen-to criticize Israel). Thus, the PA has ample reason to believe that if it does nothing, nothing will happen to it.

I am certainly not saying that direct talks are impossible, especially because the PA has a back-up plan: talk, give nothing, ensure the talks fail, and watch while Israel gets blamed for the impasse. The PA strategy is:

--Ensure that talks go nowhere,

--Claim on the basis of almost no evidence that it is building a state infrastructure (the economy and public order has improved but there has been no reform in the PA itself or the security forces),

--Declare independence some time in the future and watch as dozens of countries recognize it. How many of them will be from Europe?

The great advantage of this approach is that the PA intends to get a state without compromise or concession to Israel.

Moreover, by such methods, the PA can hope-as has happened numerous times-that Israel is blamed for the lack of progress and the U.S. government will pressure Israel.

These expectations may well be wrong-no unilateral independence declaration might ever happen-but this approach perfectly suits the needs of the PA leaders, letting them avoid internal anger at concessions, closing their options for total victory in future, and Western criticism or punishment.

The likelihood, then, is that Obama's prediction might fail. Will the media remember that he went out once again on a limb and sawed it off?

Of course, just getting direct talks is no big deal-they existed between 1992 and 2000! If Obama had not come up with his demand for a construction freeze on all settlements--thus prompting the PA to harden its line--there would probably have been direct talks in 2009. Obama's coddling of the PA has made things worse.

Now we are once again going to go through the old pattern in Israel-Palestinian relations.

The Washington Post editorial 
states the issue clearly:

"By reaffirming U.S. support for Israel and pressing for direct talks, Mr. Obama has created an opportunity to put both Palestinian leaders and Mr. Netanyahu to the test and to discover who is serious and who is not about a two-state settlement."

Yet we've been through this numerous times before. What happens when Netanyahu proves he is for a two-state solution and Abbas shows he is against it in practice? Will the West put heavy pressure on the PA? Will it swing to a strong pro-Israel policy?

Of course not. And that will help guarantee that no progress is made toward peace.

Gloria Center  depends on your contributions. To make a tax-deductible donation through PayPal or credit card, click the Donate button in the upper-right hand corner of this page. To donate via check, make it out to "American Friends of IDC," with "for GLORIA Center" in the memo line. Mail to: American Friends of IDC, 116 East 16th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10003.
This article is an updated and revised version of a piece by me published in Pajamas Media. Please credit and link to them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kings, Emirs, and Shaykhs: The Survival of Traditional Regimes in the Persian Gulf

During the early 1980s I was asked to give a briefing for the head of the Toyota auto company and other enterprises. It was just after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and during the height of the Iran-Iraq war, so regional instability was much on the mind of everyone.

After I finished my talk, Mr. Toyota asked a question in Japanese which was quickly translated. "This is all very interesting," he responded, "but what we really want to know is the date on which the Saudi monarchy will fall."

Before I could answer, the head of the delegation said, "We know the date and are willing to tell you but first we would like to renegotiate our fees." I think he was joking, though it was not the most tactful thing to say.

When I did answer, I explained that the Saudi monarchy was very strong and likely to survive for a long time to come. Almost 30 years later, I see no reason to change that assessment.

If you had told experts in the mid-1960s that a half-century later every king and emir then ruling in the Persian Gulf would still be there, most would have been astonished. After all, these regimes seemed representative of a bygone, even medieval, era. Surely, modernity would sweep them away. Certainly, militant Arab nationalists-backed up generally by the regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq-were eager to do so. After 1979, the radical Islamists in Iran and their local sympathizers worked hard to foment revolution.

Yet all these regimes are still in power, in Bahrain and Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, in broad terms, these regimes are flourishing and none of them faces the threat of imminent overthrow. They have joined together in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) so it is possible to refer to these six countries collectively as the GCC states.

It would be easy to say, of course, that this political stability is due to wealth from petroleum and natural gas, a treasure even more precious when one compares the large amount of income to the relatively small population of these states. But that is misleading.

First, this very wealth has made these countries the target for blackmail, direct assault, and internal subversion. After all, they have weathered the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian attacks on tanker traffic, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the U.S.-led overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the challenge from al-Qaida, and much more. No region of the world has been through more upheavals than this one.

Second, wealth does not merely promote stability; it also undermines tradition and the status quo. This is especially true when vast amounts of money, material goods, as well as modern ideas and methods pour into these countries. Nothing could be more destabilizing to such conservative, religious, and traditionalist societies than an extremely intense dose of modernization, probably stronger and more intensive than that faced by any other countries in history.

Third, at times oil prices dipped far lower thus turning the GCC states' surpluses into deficits when their high internal spending is taken into account. Not all has been rosy economically for them by any means.

Thus, these regimes deserve high marks for managing their situations well and, of course, these rulers know their societies far better than foreign observers who would advise them to do things differently. The price, certainly, has been an absence of democracy, a failure to expand rights, and the continuation of women's status as second-class citizens generally. In exchange, the citizens of the GCC states have gained much higher living standards, though that doesn't mean that poverty has been altogether banished, especially in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to all this, the GCC states have to handle a difficult diversity in their populations. This is of two types. On the one hand, each of these countries has a very large proportion of non-citizen foreigners living on their territory as "guest workers." This sector is kept docile by rotation, sending out longer-term residents and bringing in new ones; of course by the rich financial rewards in comparison to what they'd be earning at home, and repression.

There has never been a single instance in which this large population has threatened the host country's political stability. Perhaps the closest was when the large Palestinian minority in Kuwait was accused of collaborating with the Iraqi occupation army and was almost totally deported with little trouble. Palestinians have never been allowed into Saudi Arabia in very large numbers, presumably to forestall trouble from radicals among them.

On the other hand, and more problematic, has been the different groups among the local citizen population. Bahrain has a Sunni ruling group and a much larger Shia majority, which has led to friction in the past. Kuwait boasts both Sunni and Shia communities which have gotten along in relative peace.

The Saudis, whose Wahabi faith is austerely Sunni and explicitly hostile to Shiism, have a Shia minority of about 15 percent, concentrated in the strategic Eastern Province. There have been attempts to appeal to this group by Tehran-connected Islamist radicals, featuring the fact that Iran is a country where Shias rule.

While the other GCC states have seen only sporadic terrorism-Oman defeated a Marxist revolutionary war back in the 1970s-Saudi Arabia defeated a serious threat from al-Qaida. That group, it should be remembered, was created by Usama bin Ladin for the purpose of overthrowing the monarchy. At times, Saudi counterterrorist forces have evidenced considerable incompetence but overall they performed effectively and stamped out the attempted insurgency.

Since 2003, the GCC states have had to deal with a new set of problems. The overthrow of the Iraqi regime removed the old Iraqi threat but also augmented the Iranian one, made even worse by Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. In addition, the sight of another Shia-led state next door worried the Sunni-dominated states lest revolt spread or Iraq would become an Iranian client.

How did the monarchies deal with this situation? Most immediately, they exported some of their own extremism to Iraq, encouraging young men to go there to fight against the Shias. This got rid of potentially troublesome Islamist-oriented youth while also undermining the Shia power which seemed to them to be so dangerous. Ironically, of course, this put the GCC states on the same side as Iran's ally, Syria, providing funds and fighters to kill American soldiers in Iraq, not to mention Iraqi Shia civilians. From their own standpoint, however, it worked rather well.

Another way of exporting terrorism, albeit less deliberate, was the decision of Saudi terrorists to attack Western targets, most symbolically demonstrated by the fact that almost all the September 11, 2001, terrorists were Saudis. Al-Qaida, as mentioned above, was originally an organization designed to foment revolution within Saudi Arabia but which has directed almost all its energy elsewhere.

Finally, Saudi doctrine has encouraged the idea that terrorism against Muslims is bad but terrorism against non-Muslims is quite acceptable, almost recommended. These stratagems may have done a bit of damage to the kingdom's international image but have not had any significant costs.

Regarding their own security, GCC states have pursued a balanced approach. Here, it is useful to recall the history of how the kingdoms have maintained their security. Gulf regional politics functioned as a triangle in which two powerful states-Iraq and Iran-confronted the half-dozen weak ones.

Before the Iranian revolution, when the Shah was in power and a radical Arab nationalist Iraq wanted to overthrow the Arab kingdoms, Iran was their protector. Once the Islamist revolution happened in Iran in 1979, Iraq became their protector against that country and doctrine, most obviously during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Increasingly, since the 1970s, the United States increasingly entered the picture as an external protector.

Once Saddam decided to attack Kuwait in 1990, it was clear that neither Tehran nor Baghdad could be counted on and the United States became even more important. True, there were negatives to dependence on a non-Muslim state whose policies often made it unpopular, but the GCC states did not hesitate when their survival was in question, as seen in the 1990-1991 Kuwait crisis.

In theory, during the post-Saddam era, the United States, with European help, should have been a satisfactory pillar whose power could balance off the continued Iranian threat. The GCC states also opposed Iranian ambitions to a degree which, given their usual caution, was relatively high. The willingness of Saudi Arabia to confront Iran's ally Syria, over Lebanon, was notable. It might be noted that Syrian and Iranian backing for Hizballah was seen in Riyadh as another example of Shia expansionism.

The strategic problem for the GCC states, however, is that the United States has shown itself to be weak, both in general and in confronting Iranian-Syrian influence, especially under the administration of President Barack Obama. The president spent his first year seeking engagement with Tehran which, whatever its other implications signaled to the GCC states that they were partly on their own. They adjusted their strategy to include a larger measure of getting along with Iran and appeasing it. After all, Iran was much closer to America and much more willing to use violence. If Iran was going to emerge as the leading-and nuclear-power in the Persian Gulf they would have to adjust to that situation to ensure their own survival.

Thus, on one hand, the GCC states would be delighted to see the United States block Iran from getting nuclear weapons or even to see Israel attack and destroy such facilities, but they will keep a low profile publicly to avoid trouble. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, the Saudis might try to get some of their own though the likelihood of a serious Saudi effort to buy such weapons is often exaggerated.

Consequently, given all these problems, the question of how these regimes have survived with such apparent ease a modern world and regional atmosphere that is so hostile to them should be one of the most-studied issue in contemporary political analysis. The foundation of this success is their considerable traditional legitimacy and their massive financial assets. But that's not all.

Internationally, as has been noted above, the use of a balance of power has been central. They have sought a protector against the most threatening force while also employing appeasement of the most dangerous local power in order to reduce the size of the threat. What is most notable about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in this regard is that it came in the face of strenuous GCC, especially Kuwaiti but also Saudi Arabia, efforts to keep Baghdad happy. This factor made the attack all the more enraging for the GCC countries, and most of all the Saudis.

What is the secret of the kings and emirs in terms of domestic survival? The use of money to satisfy and co-opt people plus the calculated use of repression have been mentioned. In addition, however, a very important choice has been to slow rather than accelerate reform. A conventional analysis by Western observers would be to urge more rights, change, and democracy in the belief that these would be stabilizing forces.

But the contrary is true. To go too fast-to go even at a moderate speed-would antagonize the powerful conservative forces in these societies, most notably Islamic clerics who mostly support the regimes but who would switch to the revolutionary Islamist side if they thought their rulers to be impious.

Going too fast would have been the main domestic danger to these regimes and even though their rejection of reform entails more oppression, from a regime interests' standpoint they have been clever to do so. (One might have an interesting discussion on whether they learned from the Iranian shah's eagerness to bring social change to his country as a cause of the revolution there.)

Hand in hand with that approach was the continuation of the traditional foundation of the regimes' power. Of course the Saudi and other royal families have often provided an example of corruption and dissolution that runs quite contrary to their desired image of piety and traditional tribal virtue, yet enough family members have behaved properly-or at least have kept their vices fairly secret-to avoid undermining their prestige irreparably.

It should also be emphasized that none of these are "one-man" dictatorships, in contrast to many nominally left-oriented dictatorships in the Third World. The royal families are large, members are distributed as watchdogs to many key posts (including in the military), and enough commoners are brought into the power elite (albeit in subordinate roles) to provide a lot of safeguards against a coup or revolution.

Some of these royals are very capable people and so while it certainly happens that incompetents are put in place due to their lineage, this problem is kept limited. Similarly, the family has some autonomy in choosing the monarch, allowing for the most feeble or incompetent to be discarded despite their seniority.

The regimes have also made good use of both repression and corruption. As Machiavelli taught, these tools can be well or badly used.

Repression, to be most effective, must focus on real threats rather than a generalized intimidation which increases social resentment to the point of revolt. (This is another mistake made by the shah.) Moreover, oppositionists must be given an escape valve that allows them to change sides, an action which is a most profitable one in the GCC states. At the same time, though, punishment must be severe enough to intimidate any but the most determined revolutionaries prepared to sacrifice their lives. The GCC states have been very effective in adjusting their blend of repressive and cooptive policies.

A similar point can be made regarding corruption. If corruption is used to the benefit of too narrow a group, it provokes tremendous resentment. But if it is spread widely, then it will be a positive force for stability, not only buying off key elements yet also giving many others the hope that if they support the regime and behave such riches could come to them also. It should also be noted that business is largely tied to the ruling family while intellectuals and professionals are largely tied to the state bureaucracy, limiting the growth of a completely independent class which sees its interest in conflict with that of the rulers.

The bottom line, then, has been that the GCC rulers have shown a strong sense of survival and maneuverability which has allowed them to survive well into the twenty-first century. There is no strong reason to believe that they will not continue to do so in decades to come.

*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to  You can read and subscribe to his blog at

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Friday, July 2, 2010

King Abdallah Compliments President Obama, Sort Of?

By Barry Rubin

According to the press pool reporter for the meeting between King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and President Barack H. Obama of the United States, who wrote it just after stepping out of the meeting room, the king:

"Began his remarks saying he wanted to tell Obama what was spoken of him around the world: 'That you are an honorable and good man.'"

Is it just me or is there a gigantic unspoken, "But..." at the end of that sentence? It is true that Obama clearly relished this compliment. After all, popularity is everything to him. Presumably, it is the kind of thing his supporters think proves he has been successful.

Yet imagine two Middle East leaders or other rulers meeting: "Hey, ___, you're a really honorable and good man!" Does that indicate the compliment-giver respects or fears or will do what the subject of that phrase wants him to do? No, quite the opposite.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad said that it was better to be feared than loved. Usama bin Ladin said people prefer the strong horse in a race. He didn't say anything about the honorable and good horse. I can't think of anyone in Arab politics in the last 80 years who could be described as "honorable and good." Maybe, King Hussein of Jordan, but he had to appear nice since he ruled the weakest country in the region. And even he had an iron fist, as he demonstrated in crushing the PLO in September 1970.

And so, knowing something of how King Abdallah thinks, I can't help but hear some possible implied endings in his statement to the president:

You are an honorable and good man, but so weak that even the camels laugh at you.

You are an honorable and good man, and you know what they say, "Honorable and good men finish last."

You are an honorable and good man. Unfortunately, your enemies aren't!

You are an honorable and good man. But I want someone who is tough, mean, and cleverly devious to protect me.

You are an honorable and good man. So give me all your money now. You see, my father was the president of the Bank of Nigeria who just died after stealing all the bank's money. So if I have all your savings I can sneak his money out of the country and give you a 1000 percent profit! Here's the PO Box where you should send the money....

You are an honorable and good man, so give me Israel bound hand and foot to prove it. [Which reminds me of what a very smart and experienced Middle East hand told me he heard from a Saudi official not long ago. The Saudi said: From our standpoint, America and Israel are like members of the same family. So if you treat them like you're doing how can we expect you to treat us?]

Anyway, "Complete King Abdallah's Sentence" would make a good parlor game with many possible responses. (Send me yours and if it fits I'll add it in here.)

The king's remark also reminds of Mark Antony's speech in William Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar," which I'll bet the king hasn't read. While repeatedly calling Brutus an "honorable man" to his face, Antony systematically destroys him by letting the watching crowd hear the sneer in his voice. By the time Antony's speech is finished, the mob is chasing Brutus out of town and burning down his house. So how credible is the king whose government claims that none of its citizens were involved in the September 11 attacks?

Abdullah also said that the citizens of America are considered friends of the Muslim and Arab worlds alike, as well as friends to humanity. Idle curiosity: Did the king say this to George W. Bush also?

Funny, you wouldn't know that as the way people thought from the Saudi state-controlled media, mosque sermons, and just about everything else said within the kingdom or in most other Arab and Muslim-majority countries. 
Public opinion polls also show that this is the exact opposite to be true. Neither Obama nor the United States is held in high regard.

Only in the United States (or should I say, certain parts of the United States) are people still unaware of this reality.

Indeed, after reading this article, an Arabic-speaking friend wrote: "It's one of the most serious articles you've written. It basically means he's been disrespected to his face by one of his closest allies, and they regard him as a liability. While at the same time Iran is acquiring nukes. The implications of this situation couldn't be more serious."

I responded: "Do you realize that almost nobody in the United States will understand this? They will just think their president has received a nice compliment."

The Gloria Center depends on your contributions. To make a tax-deductible donation through PayPal or credit card, click the Donate button in the upper-right hand corner of this page. To donate via check, make it out to "American Friends of IDC," with "for GLORIA Center" in the memo line. Mail to: American Friends of IDC, 116 East 16th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10003.

The Chomsky Hoax

The Chomsky Hoax
Exposing the Dishonesty of Noam Chomsky