Perspectives on the situation in Gaza

Israeli blogger and former army reserve “AronT”, who blogs at Aron’s Israeli Peace Weblog, claimed that Israelis have long been indoctrinated by three political/military laws which dictate their dealings with Palestinians.

The first is one is: If force doesn’t work, apply more force.

The second law that most Israelis blindly accept is that “in a tough neighborhood, you have to be the toughest, whatever the cost.” This is used to justify any “disproportionate response” to Palestinian attacks.

Finally Aron’s third Israeli political law is: Arab leaders are intractable terrorists out to destroy Israel so there is no one on the other side to talk to.

Aron’s full explanation of his three laws is at this blogpost.

Looking at the situation in Gaza right now, it is hard not to be convinced that these three laws are at play.

Current situation

Let’s have a quick situation report at the time of writing:

Following the end of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Palestinian faction Hamas and Israel in December, Hamas resumed short range rocket attacks on Israeli towns bordering Gaza. This prompted Israel to launch its most blistering and sustained attack on Gaza since the 1967 Six Day War. As it stands now, there are about 470 Palestinians killed and over 2,000 injured. The UN says that about a quarter of the dead Palestinians are civilians. Four Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has just launched a ground offensive into Gaza, with infantry, artillery, engineering and intelligence forces now inside the territory.

On the diplomatic front, the United Nations Security Council has failed to agree on a statement condemning the Israeli attacks, because the US has blocked it, claiming it is unbalanced. The US, Israel’s staunchest ally, is the lone major power in the world overtly supporting Israeli attacks, saying that Israel has a right to defend itself, and that a one-way cease fire that leads to rocket attacks from Hamas is not acceptable.

Meanwhile, the President of the UN General Assembly, who represents all 192 member nations, has called Israeli actions a “monstrosity”.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called the Israeli ground operations “an extremely disturbing development” and said “it can only exacerbate the already grave humanitarian situation”.

Reactions from some Singaporeans

While Singaporeans have understandably not taken to the streets to protest, unlike in other major cities like Sydney, New York and Jakarta, I asked two Singaporeans for their views on the current situation. (Note: These are their personal opinions. I make no claims that they are representative of all Singaporeans.)

On whether Israel’s current response is appropriate, lecturer Dr Syed Alwi questioned whether this attack by Israel is aimed at defending itself or for Israeli public consumption prior to elections.

NUS law student Cynthia Tang had this view:

The ferocity of Israel’s response to Hamas in the Gaza Strip must be understood within the conundrum of Israeli domestic politics. Israel’s general elections will be held on 10 February, where the prospect of a return to power of hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party is not low. Hence, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (from the more moderate Kadima Party who had advocated land for peace) feels the pressure to harden his position on Hamas. There was initially a wave of Israeli sentiments towards land for peace (when Ariel Sharon was prime minister and first pushed for it), however the tide on the ground has changed since Olmert took over and failed to deliver the security benefits which would presumably materialise under the land concession and his government’s weak response in the second Lebanon war (in 2006), where the overwhelming deterrence once enjoyed by the almost invincible Israeli military was severely dented.

Israel‘s response has worsened the situation in Gaza as, in addition to the attacks, they have, more damagingly, locked down the Gaza crossings which have completely crippled the Palestinian economy. Such actions only serve to back Hamas and the Palestinian people into a corner, and make an agreement for a ceasefire difficult.

US support for Israel

On the one-sided US support for Israel, Ms Tang was of the view that “US has to support Israel due to its domestic politics. Outside of the Jewish lobby in Washington, the general public opinion in the USA is still very much for Israel.”

She quoted an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, which stated that “widespread gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) support for Israel is one of the most potent political forces in the U.S foreign policy”. She opined that incoming President Barack Obama will be no exception.

Dr Alwi felt that the US’ response has added to its credibility problem in the Muslim world.

I am personally disappointed at Mr Obama’s silence on this matter. He has stated that he does not want to undermine the outgoing administration’s position. However, I believe it is a cop-out to avoid confronting a political hot potato. I’m sure he knows what is right, but is afraid to say it for fear of losing political capital with conservatives and the Jewish lobby.

In fact, I agree with some analysts that Israel has decided to seize the chance to attack Hamas now before January 20, when Mr Obama — who is much more fair minded on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — takes over as President.

Negotiating with Hamas?

Israel has categorically stated that it will not sit at the negotiating table with Hamas, which it brands a terrorist organisation.

Dr Alwi pointed out:

The problem with the word “terrorist”, is that one man’s terrorism is another man’s freedom-fighter. But I do agree that Hamas used to target civilians and this works against her image. Yes, I think Israel has to sit at the negotiating table because just about every other Arab Muslim group has had “terror” in its repertoire. If you do not deal with Hamas then who are you going to deal with? Once again is this because of altruistic moral reasons or is this refusal to deal with Hamas just for the consumption of the Israeli conservative lobby?

Hamas is a poor Muslim response to an organised militant Israel. You are not dealing with sophisticated ideas here. Its a raw response that plays on the Arab Muslim aspirations. Part demagoguery and part Rambo — but mostly poverty! These are people who feed on a sense of hopelessness, American double standards and Islamic rhetoric. I do not like Hamas, but then, the rest are no better.

Ms Tang added:

I have no doubt that Hamas is a terrorist organisation today. At present, the organisation routinely and systematically perpetrates acts of terror against Israel and had vowed itself against the very existence of Israel. However, that does not mean that there is no room for Hamas to gain legitimacy down the road as a political entity.

When Fatah was first founded and led by Yasser Arafat and other members of the Palestinian Diaspora in the 1960s and 1970s, it was one of the chief terrorist groups conducting terrorist attacks against Israel and also provided training to other Islamic militant groups. However, it gained legitimacy in 1993 when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) renounced terrorism and signed an agreement of mutual recognition with Israel. This is not to say the Fatah re-entered into the mainstream out of the goodness of their heart, but because all political entities are pragmatic and will do the necessary to stay in power. In this case, Fatah did so to become the de facto government in the Palestinian Territories. If Fatah, the original armed nationalist group, could gain legitimacy and re-enter into the mainstream along the way, who is to say that Hamas can’t or will not? Hence, are they a terrorist group now? Yes. But it is an unknown if they will continue to be a terrorist group indefinitely. The key question is how do we incentivise Hamas to see it in their interest to enter into the mainstream, quite akin to Gaddafi’s Libya.

I agree that eventually Israel will need to negotiate with Hamas if it is to find a political solution, as distasteful as it might seem to them. The reality is that Hamas won the popular vote of the Palestinians (partly due to a fatal miscalculation by the US and Fatah).

And not just the PLO, but other political movements which started out with violence took the peaceful, responsible path after coming to power. South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) is another example (although the violence committed by the ANC pales in comparison with that committed by the PLO and Hamas).

It should be pointed out that Hamas, along with all other Arab countries, actually supported the Arab Peace Initiative proposed in 2002 by Saudi Arabia. The Arab Peace Initiative among other things, considers the Arab-Israeli conflict ended and establishes normal relations with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967.

This is not to defend Hamas, which has, like the IDF, committed dastardly deeds against civilians. But one thing is for sure: Continued eye-for-an-eye violence is not going to bring peace — at least not in this conflict.

The East Asian twist in the Middle East nuclear crisis

There’s never a dull moment in Middle East politics. But Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbours has taken a much more intriguing twist in recent months.

On Sept 6 last year, Israeli F-15 and F-16 warplanes secretly bombed a mysterious target in northeastern Syria. It was not until weeks later that the world got to know about this bombing, and Israel remained mum about it more than 10 days after the news broke.

Initial speculation was that the target was either (1) a cache of arms bound for Hezbollah, a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel; (2) a practice run for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities; or (3) a joint North Korean-Syrian nuclear reactor project.

Syria’s feeble response after its Jewish neighbour’s audacious invasion of its airspace and attack within its borders only increased suspicion that the third scenario — a nuclear facility — was actually in the works. Even Syria’s Arab neighbours were deafeningly silent on the bombing, when one would expect them to be outraged over this attack on their Arab brethren. Judging from the nature of inter-Arab politics, they — Saudi Arabia and Egypt in particular — must have been secretly pleased that Israel removed this threat from their backyard.

The issue was revived again in last Thursday when the US openly accused Syria of building a secret nuclear reactor with North Korea’s help. Some have accused the US of using this as a negotiating ploy with North Korea. Predictably, Syrian diplomats angrily refuted the American claims. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also expressed much unhappiness that the US and Israel did not share their intelligence with it, in order for them to send weapons inspectors to Syria to check out the facility themselves.

I feel the IAEA has the right to feel upset that it was totally sidelined and made irrelevant in this issue. But what else did they expect from Israel?

I am not a diehard supporter of the State of Israel, but I think that the action that Israel took was appropriate and necessary in this case. It already has a disaster waiting to happen with its other neighbour, Iran, and their alleged nuclear programme. It was a good move for them to have nipped Syria’s nuclear programme in the bud, before it opened up another nuclear front for them on their northeast border.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this situation pans out in the coming weeks.

See also:
Shock waves from Syria (Washington Post editorial)
IAEA chief hits out at US, Israel over Syrian reactor claims (CNA)

Free Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan!

I just read in the Straits Times today that Saudi Arabia’s most prominent blogger, Fouad Al-Farhan, was arrested on Dec 23 by the Saudi authorities for allegedly violating “non-security laws”. You can read the report in the New York Times.

In a letter sent to his friends just before he was picked up by the authorities, Fouad wrote:

I was told that there is an official order from a high-ranking official in the Ministry of the Interior to investigate me. They will pick me up anytime in the next 2 weeks.

The issue that caused all of this is because I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia and they think I’m running a online campaign promoting their issue. All what I did is wrote some pieces and put side banners and asked other bloggers to do the same.

He asked me to comply with him and sign an apology. I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that. An apology for what? Apologizing because I said the government is liar when they accused those guys to be supporting terrorism?

To expect the worst which is to be jailed for 3 days till we write good feedback about you and let u go.

There may be no jail and only apologizing letter. But, if it’s more than three days, it should be out. I don’t want to be forgotten in jail.”

I know this is Saudi Arabia, not exactly a bastion of democracy in the Middle East. The Kingdom is an absolute monarchy, and does not allow political parties, civil rights groups or public gatherings. Nevertheless, this news is still upsetting and repulsive to me.

Unlike most other Saudi bloggers, Fouad uses his real name and features his picture on his blog. In a post in December, he listed his 10 least favourite Saudi personalities, including a businessman prince, a prominent cleric, a minister, a mayor and the head of the judiciary.

One of Fouad’s fellow Saudi bloggers, Ahmad al-Omran, was quoted as saying, “It’s really sad that a blogger who is writing about important issues out in the open would get arrested, while there are extremists who call for violence and hate, and the government is not doing much.”

I lend my tiny voice to a global call for the immediate release of Fouad Al-Farhan and urge fellow Singaporean bloggers to do likewise.


US ambassador says "US will fight" if China invades Taiwan

If the People’s Republic of China decides to take Taiwan by force, the US will fight on behalf of Taiwan against the Mainland, said a former US ambassador.

Chase Untermeyer, who just completed his tour as ambassador to Qatar and is on his way back to the US, made these personal comments on 28 Aug at a public lecture on “US policy in the Middle East” at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which was attended by about 80 government officials, foreign diplomats, academics and students.

The ambassador used the Cross Strait example to illustrate the importance the US government — in his opinion — places on the principles of democracy and freedom in making its foreign policy decisions. He pointed out that successive US administrations had made decisions to enter military conflicts not simply out of national interests or detailed calculations of the costs and benefits of entering the wars, but based on deep seated principles that are “as old as the US itself”.

Untermeyer cautioned that many countries would be mistaken if they think the US conducted its foreign affairs solely on hard-nosed pragmatism, like securing oil supplies. In the case of an invasion of Taiwan by China, Untermeyer believed that the US will fight China not because of treaty obligations or even out of national interest, but based on its principles to defend its democratic allies against aggression. (The US’ Taiwan Relations Act obliges the US to supply Taiwan with the military capability to defend itself.) Untermeyer assessed that even if a war with China is detrimental to US economic interests, the US will still aid Taiwan if the Chinese invasion goes against the will of the Taiwanese people.

Attempting to debunk the common perception that the US is interested in the Middle East only for its oil and enriching its own oil companies, Untermeyer argued that if that were so, the US would have never created the State of Israel, knowing the unpopularity of that move in a region dominated by Arab countries. The US depends on the Middle East for a quarter of its oil supplies. He said that the European Union is much more dependent on Arab oil and therefore sees the Middle East through the prism of energy security much more than the US does.

On the powerful Jewish lobby in the US influencing foreign policy in the Middle East, Untermeyer explained that Jews made up only five per cent of the US population, and that Jews alone would not be able to influence US policy that much. In fact, he said, the pro-Israel lobby in the US is powerful not just because of Jewish support, but because it fights for a “broadly popular cause” subscribed to by a wide spectrum of American citizens, including conservative Christians.

On Iraq, Untermeyer predicted a gradual reduction in troop numbers over the next year following a much anticipated report to Congress next month by the US ambassador to Iraq, but that it would not go “down to zero”.

Touching on Iran, he was convinced that Islamic republic is in the process of developing a nuclear bomb and the capability to deliver it on missiles. By removing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the US had unfortunately removed the a heavy counterweight to Iran, which is a far more threatening member of the “Axis of Evil” than Iraq was.

Untermeyer was sceptical that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will resolve all the problems the US is having in the region, although he emphasised that the US should help “solve it for its own sake”. Cautioning that since any final settlement will involve large compromises by both sides (the Israelis and the Palestinians), he expected that right wing and jihadist groups would still seize upon any compromises that did not favour the Palestinian side to whip up sentiment against the US.

Voicing his personal disagreement with the policies of the current US administration, Untermeyer said that he did not “see anything wrong with dealing with Syria” rather than isolating them, which is the current Administration’s policy. He pointed out that isolation and sanctions have never been effective ways to change undemocratic regimes — Cuba being the most prominent example.

During the question and answer session, a student from China, referring to Untermeyer’s statement about defending Taiwan, pointed out that the island has been an integral part of China for far longer than the US has been nation. He asked Untermeyer what the US would do if one of its own states broke away. Untermeyer refused to be drawn into the Chinese student’s analogy, instead repeating that the US will fight based on its own principles of defending democracy, rather than historic precedent or economic interest.

An Indian student then queried how the US could spring to democratic Taiwan’s defence, yet cosy up with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew a democratically elected government. Untermeyer acknowledged that Pakistan presented a whole slew of policy difficulties for the US, but that the US saw Musharraf as “our man” for now in no small part because of the threat of Al Qaeda.

Untermeyer admitted that there were many examples of US actions that contradicted this assessment. However, he pointed out that even pragmatists like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger conceded that the principled, values-based approach to foreign policy will in the long run prevail over an approach based purely on hard nosed pragmatism and selfish national interests.


This article first appeared in

Colin Powell’s interview on NBC’s Meet the Press

NBC’s Tim Russert interviewed former US Secretary of State Colin Powell on NBC’s Meet the Press on 10 June 2007. The full transcript is available here. Powell — whom I have huge respect for and have seen in person when he spoke at my uni — covered a wide range of issues, including the Iraq war, Iran, Gitmo and the next US presidential elections. Many thanks to pseudonymity for highlighting this interview in his blog. The following are some extracts which I found quite eye-opening.

On the Iraq War

Powell: I didn’t think the war was a mistake at the time we entered into it. It was a war that I would have preferred to avoid, and I said to the president in August of 2002, “Let’s take this to the UN and try to solve it, because there are consequences, both unintended and intended, associated with entering into a conflict with Iraq that are going to be difficult. We break it, we’re going to own it. We’re going to be liberators, we’re also going to be occupiers.” And the president did that, he took it to the UN. But he did not get a satisfactory solution from the UN, and he made a decision to use military force, and I supported him in that. But I think we have handled the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad in, in a very ineffective way.

Russert: Knowing what you know today, would you do the same thing all over again?

Powell: If we knew today—or knew then what we know today, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, I would’ve had nothing to take to the United Nations…. I think it is doubtful that without the weapons of mass destruction case, the president and Congress and the United Nations and those who joined us in the conflict—the British, the Italians, the Spanish, the Australians—would’ve found a persuasive enough case to support a decision to go to war.

But let’s go back to around 10 April of 2003. Saddam Hussein’s statue fell on the 9th, and from the 10th of April, for a month or two, everybody in the United States thought this was a terrific outcome. And it looked like it was going to work, just as the administration has said it was going to work. We were liberators for a moment, and then we simply did not handle the aftermath. We didn’t realize we were in an insurgency when we were in an insurgency, and we watched as the ministries that we were counting on, the government ministries we were counting on to help us take over, were being burned and looted. And we didn’t respond. And we didn’t have enough troops in the ground.

Because once the government fell, the whole structure of government collapsed. Once the government in Baghdad came down, everything came down. And it was our responsibility then, under international law as the occupying authority as well as the liberators, to be responsible for restoring order, and we didn’t have enough troops there to restore that order nor did we have the political understanding of our obligation to restore that order.

I spent five days out at the CIA going over every single piece of information that was going to be in my presentation (to the UNSC on 5 February 2003). There were a lot of other pieces of information that different people would have wanted me to use and it was all rejected. Everything in that statement was blessed by the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet; his deputy, John McLaughlin; and all of their senior officials. They believed it, too. George has said he believed it. And so I went to the UN having dumped a lot of stuff on the side of the road because it wasn’t multiple source. It might have been right, but it wasn’t multiple source and I wouldn’t use it. And the reason you see Director Tenet sitting behind me is because I wanted to make sure and he wanted to make sure that people understood I was not making a political statement. I was making a statement of the facts as we knew them.

And we all believed it. Our military believed it going into battle. Other governments believed it. The reality is they did not have those stockpiles. We were wrong.

Fourth point I’d like to make. Suppose that the UN sanctions had subsequently broken down. We didn’t go into a war with Iraq and Saddam Hussein was free of all UN constraints because of the collapse of the Oil for Food program. Would you believe, would anybody believe, that with the capability and with the intent he would not then go back to trying to build up those stockpiles? That’s the chance the president did not want to take, that’s the risk he did not want to take.

We went to war on the basis that we have a terrible regime and what makes—it’s been terrible forever. What makes it so terrible now, in the aftermath of 9/11, is that they had demonstrated that they will use these weapons.

I’m glad the regime is gone. I’m glad Saddam Hussein is gone. But the case that we took to the world and the case that we took to the American people rested not just in his human rights abuses or his cheating on the Oil for Food program, it rested on the real and present danger of weapons of mass destruction that he could use against his neighbors, or terrorists could use against us. That was the precipitating issue in my judgment, and it turned out those weapons were not there.

…when we decided to take it to the UN, I worked for seven weeks to get a UN resolution, a unanimous resolution. as it turned out, 1441, and that resolution had a get out of jail card for Saddam Hussein. It gave him, I think it was 30 or 60 days, to come forward and answer all the questions that are outstanding about your capability and your stockpiles and what you’ve done with it. And, instead of seriously trying to answer that question, he just dumped a whole bunch of stuff on us that really wasn’t credible or believable. And it was at that point that he set us on the road to war. He had a chance to stop this. And when I briefed the president in August of 2002 about the potential consequences of the war, and he said, “What do we do?” I said, “I recommend we go to the UN.” He accepted that recommendation, we went to the UN. But I said to the president at that time, you know, “He could satisfy us, and if he satisfies us, if he makes it clear that here is it—here it all is, then you have to be prepared to accept that, and there may not be a war, and we may have a changed regime but not a regime change.”

Russert: What did the president say?

Powell: He said yes, he understood that.

I would’ve preferred no war because I couldn’t see clearly the unintended consequences. But we tried to avoid that war with the UN sanctions and putting increasing diplomatic and international pressure on Saddam Hussein. But when I took it to the president and said, “This is a war we ought to see if we can avoid,” I also said and made it clear to him, “If, at the end of the day, it is a war that we cannot avoid, I’ll be with you all the way.” That’s, that’s part of being part of a team. And therefore I couldn’t have any other outcome, and I had no reservations about supporting the president in war. And I think things could’ve turned out differently after the middle of April if we had responded in a different way.

On Iran and Syria

I believe we should be talking to all of Iraq’s neighbors. I think we should be talking to Iran, we should be talking to Syria. Not to solve a particular problem or crisis of the moment or the day, but just to have dialogue with people who are involved in this region in so many ways. And so I think it is shortsighted not to talk to Syria and Iran and everybody else in the region, and not just for the purpose of making a demand on them “and I’ll only talk to you if you meet the demand that I want to talk to you about.” That’s not the way to have a dialogue in my judgement.

On Guantanamo Bay

Guantanamo has become a major, major problem for America’s perception as it’s seen, the way the world perceives America. And if it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo not tomorrow, but this afternoon. I’d close it. And I would not let any of those people go. I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our federal legal system.

America, unfortunately, has two million people in jail all of whom had lawyers and access to writs of habeas corpus. And so we can handle bad people in our system. And so I would get rid of Guantanamo and I’d get rid of the military commission system and use established procedures in federal law or in the manual for courts-martial. I would do that because I think it’s a more equitable way to do it and it’s more understandable in constitutional terms. I would always—I would also do it because every morning I pick up a paper and some authoritarian figure, some person somewhere is using Guantanamo to hide their own misdeeds. And so, essentially, we have shaken the belief that the world had in America’s justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like the military commission. We don’t need it, and it’s causing us far damage than any good we get for it. But, remember what I started in this discussion saying, “Don’t let any of them go.” Put them into a different system, a system that is experienced, that knows how to handle people like this.

On the next Presidential elections

I’ve met with Senator (Barack) Obama twice. I’ve been around this town a long time, and I know everybody who is running for office, and I make myself available to talk about foreign policy matters and military matters with whoever wishes to chat with me.

Russert: Would you ever come back in the government?

Powell: I would not rule it out. I’m not at all interested in political life, if you mean elected political life. That is unchanged. But I always keep my, my eyes open and my ears open to requests for service.

Russert: Any endorsements?

Powell: Oh, not yet. It’s too early.

Russert: But you’ll support the Republican?

Powell: It’s too early.

Russert: Would you support an independent?

Powell: I’m going to support, I’m going to support the best person that I can find who will lead this country for the eight years beginning in January 2009.

Russert: Of any party?

Powell: The best person I can find.