Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama’s Mideast Team – Who’s In, Who’s Not In (Yet), Who’s Probably Out

N.B. The following post is based on conversations I have had in the last few days with folks who are close to Obama's inner circle, as well as folks who have played a role in the peace process in the past. But I am responsible for its contents.

Who's In

If the main theme of the Obama campaign was "change," then the main question to be posed to the nascent Obama administration is, "Are we going going back to the Clinton era?" In recent days, Obama camp aides have floated in the media some old names as trial balloons. We should expect some of those baloons to pop. (Does anybody have a needle for the Larry Summers' balloon?)

Two prominent members of the Clinton Mideast team – Dennis Ross and Dan Kurtzer – still have seats aboard the Obama train, according to my sources. I don't know whether they have been offered specific positions, since without a Secretary of State or a National Security Advisor we are in the embryonic phase of the administration. So perhaps I should say that as things stand now, they are in. No surprise there, of course; both Kurtzer and Ross were active as Obama advisors during the campaign, although Ross was more visible, especially towards the end.

At first glance, Ross is, or should be, a persona non grata for Jewish progressives, not so much for his liberal Zionist bias, but for his petulant and tendentious criticisms of Arafat and the Palestinians after the demise of the Peace Process, and for his willingness to serve on the board of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute of the Elders of Zionism, oops, sorry, the Jewish Agency. (By the way, that's how an old family friend and former head of the Agency, Chuck Hoffberger, called it). To put a partisan Zionist like Dennis Ross in charge of the US Peace Process would make little sense, as Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar recently implied. Still, Ross's expertise, not to mention political savvy, qualifies him for occupying the liberal Zionist seat at the Obama Mideast table – provided that the seat is not located at the head of the table.

What ensures that Ross will not be running the show is the presence of Dan Kurtzer, former Ambassador to Egypt and to Israel. Kurtzer recently withdrew from being considered for the position of the Director of the new Gildenhorn Center for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland which suggested that he had bigger fish to fry, a suggestion that has been confirmed. But Kurtzer will probably not consent to serve under Dennis Ross, who, according to Aaron Miller, cut him out of the Peace Process. Kurtzer's positions are more nuanced and balanced than Ross's, though they are on the left-wing of American Zionism. Ross likes to see himself as "centrist" between the Palestinians and the hardliner Zionists, but he accepts the liberal Zionist narrative and is a fan of Ben-Gurion.

It is more likely that Ross will expand his sights to include the entire Middle East, especially Iran. That would be an even bigger pity, since Ross wants to isolate Iran in the region, though he is not entirely opposed to US carrots. Will Ross become a Super Envoy to the Middle East? Hopefully not, since that sort of diplomacy hasn't been successful in recent years. And, of course, Ross's level would almost be that of the Secretary of State. What Secretary of State would be willing to have somebody of Ross's stature around?

Indeed, the problem that Ross has, and Kurtzer doesn't, is that there are not so many positions available to him. If he isn't Secretary of State or National Security Advisor (the latter is more probable than the former), then what can he do? Kurtzer, unlike Ross, hasn't risen beyond the level of Ambassador. He certainly could be in line for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.

Who's Not In Yet

Rob Malley, the bugbear of rightwingers like Ed Laskey, not to mention some really slimey bloggers, has served in the past as an advisor to Barack Obama, and co-wrote the definitive analysis of the Camp David debacle in the New York Review of Books (The article isn't free). Malley is neither in nor out, according to my sources. Even though his name seems forever linked to Obama and Hamas, according to the rightwing rumor mongers, he did not contact Hamas recently on behalf of Obama campaign (the contacts, reported in Haaretz, were subsequently denied by Hamas) nor was he sent to Egypt and Syria on a mission from Obama, despite a bogus news release to that effect by the Middle East News Line. Apparently, the name "Malley" has become a synonym for "Haman" in some quarters; upon hearing it one mindlessly makes noise, no matter what the context or the truth of the story.

Who's Probably Out

Count out Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel, currently of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute. Indyk has completed an interesting book on the Peace Process which will be published soon, and whose conclusions may surprise those expecting more conventional finger-pointing in the conclusion. Indyk, unlike many liberal pro-Israel voices, does not want to advance Middle East peace tracks in order to isolate Iran, but rather wants to get Iran to buy in (or at least to think that she is buying in) to the process. Indyk's thinking has evolved positively over the years, in contrast to Ross's, which has essentially remained the same.

Also count out Aaron David Miller, whose memoir of the peace process is one of the most perceptive, and certainly the most entertaining and well-written. (It's a pity that it came out after Ross's book; whole forests could have been saved.) Miller is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Public Policy. I think that he has eaten too many rubber chickens and taken too many helicopter rides to be nostalgiac for the glamourous life of a Peace Process advisor.

A Washington think tank may not be as sexy as shuttle diplomacy, but it sure is better for one's social and family life.

Who's Really Out

Nowhere near Obama's Mideast team, as far as I know, is anybody who can not just understand intellectually but empathize with the struggles and suffering of the Palestinian people, say, a Palestinian American or a Palestinian academic. Look, I have the highest respect and admiration for Dan Kurtzer – frankly, he is one of the first modern orthodox Jews who make me proud to be a member of that subgroup. But he remains a modern orthodox Jew and a liberal Zionist. Why is it so "out-of-the-box" to have a "modern orthodox" Palestinian advising President Obama? In a country where "Arab" and "Palestinian" are used as ethnic slurs, wouldn't it be nice for somebody like an Abunimeh or a Khalidi, maybe somebody with foreign policy credentials, to be part of that team?

Now that would be nice – for a real change

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

You just blew this post when you proposed Ali Abunimah. He is for the dismantlement of Israel--has a book advocating the one-state "solution." Know your Palestinians before you tout them.

Jerry Haber said...

I know the book, and I know the man, and if someone like Abunimeh bought into a US brokered peace process, than I would say she-heyanu to that! But obviously there are more likely choices. I mentioned him because he is intelligent and prominent.

A one-state solution has more chances of survival than a so-called "two-state" solution in which there is only one real state -- Israel. And, by the way, it would be better for the Jews, too.

Anonymous said...

If the US ever walks away from the two-state solution, it will do one of two things: (1) Move toward the Jordanian (and Egyptian) option (i.e., complete return to pre-'67 status of Palestinians), which is not nearly as utopian as the "one state" (ask Abunimah--he is a Jordanian national, his father was a Jordanian diplomat). (2) City-states solution for the Palestinians. The Palestinians already have two separate political entities in historic Palestine--i.e., they cannot even hold together in one entity just comprised of themselves. The result will be a sort of Palestinian version of the United Arab Emirates. These two outcomes are both far more likely than the "one state." If thinking people want to avoid them, they should shun the Abunimahs of this world and make the present process work.

Anonymous said...

If the US ever walks away from the two-state solution, it will do one of two things: (1) Move toward the Jordanian (and Egyptian) option (i.e., complete return to pre-'67 status of Palestinians), which is not nearly as utopian as the "one state" (ask Abunimah--he is a Jordanian national, his father was a Jordanian diplomat). (2) City-states solution for the Palestinians. The Palestinians already have two separate political entities in historic Palestine--i.e., they cannot even hold together in one entity just comprised of themselves. The result will be a sort of Palestinian version of the United Arab Emirates. These two outcomes are both more likely than the "one state." If thinking people want to avoid them, they should shun the Abunimahs of this world and make the present process work.

Jerry Haber said...

You forgot a third option, move all the Jews and/or Palestinians out of Palestine. That is about as likely as your options 1 and 2, a.k.a. the wet dreams of the ultra-rightwing Zionists. Shared by nobody else in the world, I might add.

The most likely scenario is more of the same. More settlements, more Palestinian suffering, more fundamentalism, more yeridah of secular Jews and Palestinians, more mess, with occasional upturns and downturns.

I, for one, think that the two-state solution is dead, but if somebody wants to take it seriously, be-vakasha. Provided that the Palestinian state is just that...a state, and not a quasi-state.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, shun the Abunimahs of the world--always non-Palestinians get to tell Palestinians who is allowed to tell their side of the story.

Not that I recommend the one-state solution either--it's the just and fair solution, but not a very plausible one at the moment.

Donald

Anonymous said...

I agree, the more likely option is more of the same--and under the same, Israel somehow seems to flourish anyway. ("Yeridah of secular Jews"? Where did that come from?) So who should be most motivated to change the status quo?

According to the CIA, there are 266 nations, dependent areas, and other entities in the world, of which 192 are UN members. Anyone who thinks they all fit one sovereign model hasn't been paying attention. A few of them look even more "quasi-" than the Palestinian Authority today. So to all the one-staters out there: don't kid yourselves--and don't delude the people you patronize. It's irresponsible.

William Burns said...

The fact that the Palestinians can't hold together the two entities they have now might have something to do with the fact that they are geographically separated by a hostile power.

Antoun said...

I was having a discussion with a Syrian friend the other day.

"Why are people like Rahm Emanuel in the Obama administration?"

"Why are pro-Israel Jewish hawks always in positions of power?"

The simple answer is because they're available. The success of the pro-Israel Jewish-right lobby, which leads to constant US administration appointments, stems from their success as individuals.

They're good at what they do, they have solid work ethics, and strive to rise to the highest positions albeit with an end desire to serve Israel.

The Arabs just aren't up there and the majority who do pocket billions are more interested in their personal leisure than the Arab cause.

Sure you can pick out a few Palestinian or Arab American academics who could fit the position, but they do not have the vast network of support from similar individuals and donors that pro-Israel Jewish hawks do.

That's why no Arab is ever appointed to such a position. We don't, as a community, work hard enough for it. The right-wing Jewish community does, and they get it every time.

Shaun said...

Great blog.

From what you are saying - Kurtzer and Ross could be replacing the neo-conservative Elliot Abrams and David Welch as the go-betweens between US and Israel.

What ever happened to the Arab interpreter/diplomat who was in the Clinton administration - Gamal I think?

Is there anyone outside of the old Clinton "peace process" team that could be included?

Y. Ben-David said...

Everyone is asking "what will happen in the event no Israeli/Palestinian agreement can be reached"?
I'll tell you. Judea/Samaria will become an unofficial Israeli-Jordan/Palestinian condominium. Jews living there will be Israeli citizens, Israeli law will apply to them. Arabs will be Jordanian/Palestinian citizens (it is up to them to determine the nature of the Jordanian/Palestinian state or confederation, either a continuation of the Hashemite monarchy, or something else). Overall security will be in the hands of Israel.
Now, you will say "No Arab could ever agree to this". Correct. We will not ask them to formally agree to this.
The question is "when could this ever be implemented?". It is being slowly implemented right now. However, the most important ingredient for its success does not exist at the moment, and that is for Islamist extremism to be seen to be a failure and on the wane. Of course, today, it is seen to be in the ascendancy, so that will retard the condomonium plan. The extremists seem to be winning in their eyes, the election of Obama is perceived by them (either rightly or wrongly) as another triumph. In order to change this, first Israel has to install a government that refuses to make any more territorial concessions, under any circumstances. Secondly, the Islamic extremist states have to be seen as failures, economically and socially. Actually Iran is party filling the bill today, but their nuclear program covers up for the many failures of the country (e.g. an oil rich country that doesn't have oil refineries and must import refined gasoline). One blow that would really set back the Islamic extremists would be a serious energy policy in the US and Europe that finally reduces the need for Middle Eastern oil.

Obviously, these processes will take years, so the evolution of the condominium will move slowly, but it is inevitable, because it is the best deal the Arabs are going to get. Eventually, as the security situation improves, the Israeli security presence will be drawn down, roadblocks removed, the cursed "security fence" dismantled and a true Palestinian econonomy can get off the ground.

You will protest that this is hallucinatory, but it is you "progressives" with your endless, empty "peace process" who are hallucinatory. The Arabs will not agree to real peace with Israel, it is an unbearable humiliation for them. In any event , they are waiting for Iran to get "the bomb" so that they figure Israel, out of panic, will give them everything they want without any concessions on their part, so they have no reason to really want to reach an agreement at this time. The late Sheikh Yassin of Gaza gave us 20 years. Olmert's recent babblings makes them think that we are on schedule for dissolution. When they see that they are wrong, they will have to become more realistic, as strange as that may seem today. Even Obama is eventually going to get to understand this, if he doesn't already (he told David Horowitz in the Jerusalem Post during his visit here that he can not impose a settlement). So there you have it.

Jerry Haber said...

Y ben david, as usual your analysis is a mixture of sensible observation (really) and ideological blindness. By the latter, I mean the inability to see how real players shape processes. I don't see how anybody alive during the Shamir administration could have foreseen the support Rabin would give to the Oslo process and to Arafat. My point is that none of us really know what people will do -- especially if we think that they are acting against what we would like them to do.

Say, for example, that a Palestinian leader emerges who changes the discourse from Palestinian quasi-puppet-rule (with Israel pulling the strings, as now) to Israeli direct rule. I know that it is unlikely -- right now it is an empty threat -- but enough Palestinians may under certain circumstances simply wish to abolish the PA. Since the PA exists as a subcontractor for Israel, Palestinians will say, "Look, it has failed -- we prefer direct rule." Israel will not want this, but will have little to say about it. Egypt and Jordan are simply out of the picture. You can forget about them; they simply don't want the people or the territory. So the Palestinians will always be Israel's headache.

Now, you may say -- and you may be right -- I prefer this headache to other headaches. But the problem will not be going away.

As for the peace process -- Y. ben david, you fail to get that the peace process is what allows Israel to retain control over the territories. The peace process, frankly, is the best thing for the settlers living in Ofra and Hebron -- and for the heads of the PA. Because as long as the peace process is more process than peace, there is no pressure on anybody to make concessions.

Evacuating the settlers in Gaza -- something that nobody shed a tear over in Israel, as you know -- will be much harder to repeat on the West Bank.

That is why many Palestinians, and not a few Jews, realize that the Oslo process shafted first and foremost the Palestinians, while it was of tremendous benefit to Israel and the settlers. So when you talk about progressives and the peace process, you may want to count me out.

Israel will never take down the wall, no matter how well the Palestinians behave. You can forget about that wishful thought.

Anonymous said...

"nor was he sent to Egypt and Syria on a mission from Obama, despite a bogus news release to that effect by the Middle East News Line."

Wrong! The Bulletin (Phila.):In First Mideast Policy Initiative, Obama Sends Adviser To Egypt, Syria

(was confirmed)

http://www.thebulletin.us/site/index.cfm?newsid=20191256&BRD=2737&PAG=461&dept_id=576361&rfi=8

William Burns said...

Y. Ben-David,

In all of your fantasizing over the "Israel-Jordanian" condominium, have you ever addressed the question of why the Jordanians would possibly agree to this? Essentially, they would get to be the cops, and be blamed by Israel for everything that goes wrong? Whatever else you can say about the Jordanians, the regime has a keen sense of its own survival, and being caught between restive Palestinians and angry and well-armed Israelis is not conducive to survival.

Jerry Haber said...

Ha, ha, anonymous!

Your "confirmation" of the Malley story was a repetition of the discredited Middle East News Line by...David Bedein, an ultra-right winger who likes to talk to other ultra-right-wing Anglos in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

By the way, the "Bulletin" that Bedein writes for is a conservative rag that publishes glatt kosher cr-p from the bathroom of Jerome Corsi, e.g., the Obama birth certificate stuff.

Our man won big time, anonymous -- get over it.

Judy said...

If there were an Arab-American involved in the team, it would be someone like Hussein Ibish, who faithfully tows the 2-states line.

sean said...

I've always wondered the same thing, that is to say, why it seems normal for an administration to pack itself full of Zionist Jews but not really ever have any Arabs or Muslims. (Despite Malley's recent, and to my mind comforting, remark recently here in Beirut that he was a Jewish-Arab-American.)

But the follow-up to that is who would be chosen? Abunimah is a non-starter. I read his book, which was interesting and not bad, but seeing him speak here in person, I was not impressed. He's an activist, not a statesman. He's simply not à la hauteur.

So who does that leave? Khalidi is interesting, but being an academic doesn't guarantee one the skill sets necessary for working in government. I may be wrong, but I don't think Hussein Agha is American, so he's out.

So who is there? There have got to be many more qualified Arab Americans, but I'm just not familiar with them. Are they there but just not prominent? I know there have got to be some smart Arab Americans in Foggy Bottom. Why don't we ever hear about these people?

sean said...

I've always wondered the same thing, that is to say, why it seems normal for an administration to pack itself full of Zionist Jews but not really ever have any Arabs or Muslims. (Despite Malley's recent, and to my mind comforting, remark recently here in Beirut that he was a Jewish-Arab-American.)

But the follow-up to that is who would be chosen? Abunimah is a non-starter. I read his book, which was interesting and not bad, but seeing him speak here in person, I was not impressed. He's an activist, not a statesman. He's simply not à la hauteur.

So who does that leave? Khalidi is interesting, but being an academic doesn't guarantee one the skill sets necessary for working in government. I may be wrong, but I don't think Hussein Agha is American, so he's out.

So who is there? There have got to be many more qualified Arab Americans, but I'm just not familiar with them. Are they there but just not prominent? I know there have got to be some smart Arab Americans in Foggy Bottom. Why don't we ever hear about these people?