The Argument Against New Sanctions on Iran.

I’m now writing once a week for Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that supports advocacy for a nuclear weapon-free future. Naturally one of Ploughshares’ biggest issues is Iran’s nuclear program and the negotiations, which is what I’m writing about (which is cool for me, because I really like Ploughshares and getting to write about Iran!)

Following are the tops of my first two posts — they’re both brief primers for folks who feel like they need a little more background on the issue. You can click through to Ploughshares to read the rest. I hope they’re useful!


Getting the Facts on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Americans of every political stripe are weighing the pros and cons of diplomacy right now, discussing the efforts to achieve a long-term nuclear deal between Iran and the so-called “P5+1” countries – so-called because those countries are the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, Russia, China, and France), plus Germany. Too often though, among all the talk, basic facts don’t get much attention.

From I like Ike to the Islamic Republic

Iran’s path toward nuclear power actually began in 1960 under the “Atoms for Peace” plan, an American program launched by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran was entrenched in a brutal war with Iraq; Iraq used chemical weapons (with American knowledge) as early as 1982, and Iran sought non-conventional means with which to respond. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians were killed in eight years of carnage, a fact that shapes politics in both countries to this day.

For the rest, click here.


The Argument Against New Sanctions on Iran

No negotiation process is easy or smooth, particularly between long-time rivals. Some Westerners are worried that Iran can’t be trusted to negotiate in good faith. Some would like to demand that the country’s entire nuclear infrastructure dismantled, or feel that if earlier sanctions were good, more would be better.

It’s now a little more than a month into the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the six-month agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the US, UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany). TheInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that Iran is complying with the deal, stopping or rolling back critical parts of its nuclear program, and cooperating with IAEA officials who have daily access to the country’s nuclear facilities. In return, the international community has lifted or reduced sanctions imposed as part of a global effort to compel Iran away from a nuclear path.

More is Less

While these concerns and doubts might be understandable, they fail to take into consideration the fact that Iranians have concerns, too – as do the other P5+1 nations.

Imposing new sanctions now would be meeting cooperation with reprisal. Such an approach isn’t likely to build confidence with Tehran, or encourage its government to keep engaging with Western powers.

Furthermore, the JPOA commits the UN, the EU, and the US Administration (“consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress”) to no new sanctions. While Congress could choose to act against the spirit of this agreement, doing so would violate a commitment made not just to Iran, but to our international allies as well.

If, on the other hand, Iran stops keeping its side of the bargain, or tries to push off a long-term agreement, new sanctions could be a useful tool. Indeed, if Tehran chooses to violate the JPOA, it will do so in the knowledge that harsher sanctions await.

For the rest, click here.

In memory of the victims of murderers just sent home.

Morris “Moshe” Eisenstadt was born in Brooklyn in 1914; he immigrated to Israel late in life, and volunteered for many years at a hospital in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Eisenstadt was sitting on a park bench reading a book when Ibrahim Salem Ali al-Rai attacked and killed him with an axe in 1994. He was 79 years old.

Isaac Rotenberg was born in Poland in 1927. In the course of the Holocaust he was sent to the Sobibor death camp, but managed to escape in 1943 when Sobibor’s inmates rose up against the Nazis. Rotenberg ultimately fought the German army with the Partisans and, after arriving in Israel, worked in construction. He was on his knees repairing a floor when Salem Ali Atiyeh Abu-Musa and another assailant attacked and killed him with axes in 1994. He was 67.

Annie Ley came from France as a tourist in 1991; Mohammed Ahmed Khaled Asakreh stabbed her to death in Bethlehem, reportedly as she ate in the restaurant at which he worked. Ley was 64. Her murderer, along with al-Rai, Abu-Musa, and 23 other prisoners were released from prison by Israel earlier this week, as a good will gesture to its Palestinian negotiating partners.

Each of these attacks happened when I lived in Israel, and many others as well. I wasn’t able to fully grasp the horror at the time, and I’m not able to do so now. I don’t understand what it takes to pick up an axe and murder an old man on a park bench, any more than I understand what it takes to wrap oneself in explosives and rip a crowded bus to bloody shreds.

I understand that this is a war. When soldiers are killed, I mourn, but at least I understand the mechanism at hand: We kill their combatants, they kill ours. Parents remember nothing but chubby cheeks and expressions of love; enemies remember nothing but the other side’s willingness to kill me and mine.

I also understand that me and mine have killed a wildly disproportionate number of them and theirs, many of them non-combatants, at least a third of them minors. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish can tell you about the three daughters and a niece he lost when an Israeli tank targeted his Gaza home during Operation Cast Lead; a shell ripped through a wall: “Schoolbooks, dolls, running shoes, and pieces of wood were splintered in a heap…. There was brain matter on the ceiling.” (And don’t tell me those deaths were “unintentional”—look Dr. Abuelaish in the eye, and tell him).

I believe that human beings can only make peace with their enemies. I believe that Israelis and Palestinians will have to forgive, or at least look past, terrible acts and tremendous loss if we are ever to stop the cycle of violence. I believe that the release of terrorists who murdered wholly innocent people was the right thing to do, if it will genuinely bring us closer to the possibility of a lasting peace.

Israelis often fail to understand the importance of the issue. The Palestinian prisoner population is massive, and not all are held with as much justification as those who murder Holocaust survivors and French tourists. Israel has long used the collective and individual fates of these men (and a handful of women) as a bargaining chip, and it’s doing so again—not meting out justice, but rather issuing open-ended punishments unless and until the state decides it’s in its own best interest to do something else. Israelis tend to underestimate the resonance of all this for the Palestinian people; it might be worthwhile to consider how much effort we put into returning the bones of fallen soldiers to our borders. Many in the Arab nations see those soldiers in no better light than we see the Palestinians released on Wednesday—one can argue with that perception, but arguing won’t change the fact.

And, for all that—for all that I believe the prisoner release was justifiable and smart—I do not believe that we are free to dismiss what those men did. I do not believe that we are free to ignore any of the humanity that has spilled on the ground as we have fought, and fought, and fought, using each other’s bodies as the tools by which to achieve our various ends.

Morris Eisenstadt, Isaac Rotenberg, and Annie Ley, and all those like them, did not deserve to die in abject terror as murderous hands descended. They deserved to reach the end of their days in peace and comfort, surrounded by love and goodness. No matter what John Kerry achieves, the reality of those deaths cannot be reversed.

It was right to release the prisoners. And it is right to never forget what they cost us.

A note about names and biographical information: Much of the published information regarding the prisoner release is at least slightly inaccurate—many sources have misspelled names, and at least one Israeli outlet identified Morris Eisenstadt as “a soldier.” In an effort to be as accurate as possible, I have leaned on and cross-referenced Israeli governmental sources for event details, Haaretz for the English transliteration of Arabic names, and a variety of English-language sources for the English spelling of victims’ names. I remain unsure as to whether Eisenstadt went by “Morris” or “Moshe,” so I have included both.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

The case for a less-guarded optimism.

John_Kerry_official_Secretary_of_State_portraitWe waited nearly an hour, and then it lasted for all of 16 minutes. John Kerry’s press conference with negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat was very like his shuttle diplomacy—a lot of waiting, a false beginning, and finally, one step forward, with very little information attached.

Here’s what we know: Formal negotiations will begin in the next two weeks, either in Israel or in the Palestinian territories; the parties have agreed that “all final status issues, core issues and other issues” are on the table, with the goal of ending claims against each other; the Arab League has reaffirmed its Peace Initiative, which offers an end to regional conflict in exchange for a two-state peace; the only person authorized to make statements on the process is the Secretary of State; the deadline is nine months from now.

Those last two points should make folks sit up a little straighter. One of the biggest mistakes made in the past has been to establish long, essentially open-ended timelines that allowed spoilers to do their work (whether via political maneuvering, or violence—suicide bombings, assassination, intifada, military incursions, etc), while also allowing Israel to deepen the occupation even as it sat at a go-nowhere negotiating table. One of the other biggest mistakes has been to let anyone and everyone run their mouths about it.

Violence can be carried out at any given time, but those who would maneuver and undermine need information (verifiable or wild rumor, it matters not) to do their work. They need to read tea-leaves, divine the intentions of all and sundry, and work their publics into a froth based on those efforts. By saying that the parties have agreed that he and he alone may be trusted, Kerry has nipped that in the bud. Solutions cannot be floated, threats cannot be implied, ideas cannot be run up flagpoles—and when all of that happens anyway (as all of it inevitably will), each side can point to Kerry and say: “Not us! He’s the one running the Comms office.”

So what Kerry has done is create both less space, and more space. Less space for jerking the process around for domestic consumption, more space for creativity and (dare I say it?) bold decision making. Less space in which terrible things can happen that might drain the peoples’ willingness to accept the process and its outcome, more space for the political cover anyone negotiating an end to decades of violence needs.

Then there’s the little fact that “all final status issues, core issues, and other issues” are on the table. The peace process has a history of front-loading Israel’s immediate needs while back-loading Palestinians’ long-term needs, and what winds up happening is that Israel’s security demands get met (more or less), while Palestinians are allowed to languish. By bringing everything up, right now, Kerry does an end run around that tradition, while also deftly avoiding any specifics. What about (final status issue) Jerusalem? “It’s on the table.” Has Netanyahu (core issue) agreed to ’67 borders? “On the table.” Has Abbas (other issue) agreed to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state? “Have you seen our table?”

I’ve lately taken to describing my approach to Kerry’s efforts as one of guarded pessimism. I’ve been on this merry-go-round since 1993, and there’s nothing like two decades of resounding failure to make a person lose her hope—but like Kerry himself, I believe that outright skepticism is a luxury that we can’t afford.

The Secretary of State clearly knows what he’s up against, and as a veteran of the Senate, it seems he also has some skill negotiating delicate matters among folks who loathe each other. Finally, and I know this is a small thing but it speaks volumes to me: Kerry’s actually been to Gaza. Unlike the vast majority of American leaders who bloviate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, John Kerry made the politically unpopular choice to travel across the gin the wake of Israel’s 2008/2009 Gaza War to witness what the conflict has meant, not only for Israelis, but for Palestinians, too.

John Kerry means business, and though their comments were brief, it seems that Livni and Erekat also mean business. Mahmoud Abbas has supported a two-state solution since 1977; Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to make it sound like maybe he’s not as opposed as he used to be. President Obama went out of his way this morning to make it clear that he, too, means business.

Everyone involved has their reasons for being involved, and some of those reasons are petty. The ways in which the whole thing could fall apart are myriad. History gives us very little reason to hope.

But in the wake of this morning’s press conference, my pessimism is less guarded* than it was. Let’s see what you can do, Mr. Secretary. Next April would be a lovely time to re-write the future.

*Many hours after writing this line, I realized that I’d been too clever by half — I am more guarded in my pessimism, because I am less pessimistic. And any line that requires that many mental somersaults has not been well constructed and dang if I don’t wish I’d written it differently! Alas.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Kerry’s talks: Diplomatic snafu or carefully orchestrated mess?

I would also recommend that you read Yousef Munnayer, also at Open Zion, on the same series of events. Indeed, if you only have time to read one post, read his.


John_Kerry_official_Secretary_of_State_portraitYesterday proved to be one of those days that Israel/Palestine watchers alternatively thrive on and dread. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to announce a resumption of talks on Friday! Influential Israeli cabinet member Naftali Bennett says his party won’t remain in the government “for so much as a second” if the Prime Minister agrees! Wait, it may all be moot, because the PLO has deferred its decision about restarting talks until Israel agrees to the terms Kerry is suggesting! And all this before lunch on the East Coast.

The idea that had been floated was the following: Kerry would announce talks based on the June 4, 1967 ceasefire lines and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but the sides would be free to voice their objections to that formula, should they choose—that is: Kerry was to announce the parameters, not Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Palestinian President/PLO chair Abbas, both of whom could feel free to immediately reply with “Not us!” (The Oslo Accords dictate that only the PLO may negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, thus, while Abbas is the President of the Palestinian Authority, it is his role as PLO chair that’s relevant here.) As Haaretz put it this morning:

The Palestinians are entitled to say that they will not accept the principle of Israel as a Jewish state, and the Israelis can say they are not prepared to return to the 1967 lines. Despite any opposition voiced, however, the two sides are expected to return to the negotiating table.

Heretofore, though, the Kerry team has been very, very good at preventing any real information emerging from his shuttle diplomacy, with the apparent understanding that running ideas up flagpoles is an excellent way to get them shot down. It may be of note, then, that the person who told the world this news was a senior Israeli official. I’ve been working under the assumption all along that Kerry has been conducting a very delicate game of Chicken, knowing that neither side wanted to be the first to voice any version of “no”—did someone in the Israeli government want to push the PLO to do just that?

I ask the question not because I know that to be the case, but because in my experience it would make a lot of sense (Palestinians have done the same to Israel in the past; it’s a time-honored tactic). It’s not impossible that Kerry really thought he had an agreement in place, and the PLO upset his applecart.

Or, maybe the game of Chicken continues. Maybe Kerry wanted to push Israel’s right flank into being brutally frank about its position on two-state negotiations, while simultaneously reminding everyone involved that there is genuinely no way forward without the 1967 borders as the starting point. By agreeing to that starting point, the Palestinians concede that Israel won the war, and that they will make do with a bifurcated state in 22 percent of their historic homeland—to try to wring anything more out of the Palestinian leadership would not only be morally and ethically indefensible, it would be political suicide for any Palestinian who agreed.

The 1967 borders also happen to be the starting point of every negotiation process ever attempted heretofore—indeed, the brutal truth is that Kerry’s purported idea represents a step back from the Oslo Accords of twenty years ago: No one ever demanded that the PLO (or Egypt, or Jordan, come to that) recognize Israel as “Jewish.” Furthermore, the Accords between Israel and the PLO were predicated on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which presume, a priori, an Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

In the world of Middle East diplomacy, the lack of the word “the” in the above formulation is of some consequence, because it leaves the question open: All of the territories? Or just some of them? (Choosing to not use the word “the” is something of a tradition in the region—cough*Balfour*cough). Yet 242 and 338 cannot be taken as meaning that the borders aren’t the starting point for withdrawal—that’s what starting point means. You start, and then you talk, and then you reach an agreement.

Was this whole mess carefully orchestrated? Was it a diplomatic snafu? Will it ultimately mean anything? I honestly don’t know.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a skeptic of the type called out so eloquently by Jeremy Ben Ami the other day—I would never, ever say “there’s no point to this exercise, stop trying.” I believe that the future of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples depend on a successful negotiation of a two-state resolution.

And yet I don’t really know any more if it’ll ever work, if only because these kinds of days are what pass for diplomacy at this point: A bunch of high-level fussing and squabbling over whether or not people will even sit at the same table, all while my Israeli government maneuvers to consistently make the terms less tenable for our interlocutors by (among other things) building on their land.

I don’t doubt John Kerry’s sincerity, but when it comes to this conflict, I’ve ridden the merry-go-round too many times to be the dewy-eyed peacenik I once was. Today’s mess is a powerful indication of what the Secretary of State is up against. My only hope is that he really, really knows what he’s doing.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Dear WaPo: Abbas did not ‘reject’ Olmert’s offer.

This appeared last week at Open Zion, and I forgot to post it here! Imagine.

olmert abbas shakeYesterday my editor Ali Gharib took the Washington Post to task for its ill-conceived weekend editorial concerning John Kerry’s recent push to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Let me start by saying that I agree with everything Ali wrote—except that he skipped something.

There’s a little moment, a single line, not even an entire sentence, buried deep in the editorial which serves as a kind of emblem of all that is wrong with so much of the discourse surrounding the conflict, including the contribution made by the very piece of writing in question.

“In 2008 Mr. Abbas rejected an offer from Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor [Ehud Olmert],” the Post’s board writes, and then carries on its merry way to dismiss Kerry’s diplomatic efforts out-of-hand. The only problem being: It’s not true.

As Bernard Avishai reported in the New York Times in February 2011:

“We were very close,” Olmert told me, “more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians.” Abbas said the talks produced more “creative ideas” than any in the past. He took pains to assure me that he had been most flexible on Israel’s security demands. Olmert, in retrospect, agrees, saying that Abbas “had never said no.”

Was a deal struck during Olmert’s premiership? No, it was not. In that sense, then, I suppose it could be argued that Abbas “rejected” an offer from Olmert—but surely only in the same sense that Olmert “rejected” an offer from Abbas.

Thus, the Post did the very thing that a long list of Americans and Israelis have always done: Create an imaginary Palestinian, and then talk about that fictitious creature as if it were composed of flesh and blood rather than straw and propaganda.

Did Abbas reject Olmert’s offer? No. Is Abbas congenitally not-a-partner for peace?Nope. Did Yasser Arafat walk away from a “generous offer” at Camp David? No. Are the Palestinians likely to “back down” from a shared Jerusalem if Israelis don’t “blink”? Not likely. Is Palestinian culture to blame for the moribund state of the Palestinian economy? No (no, really: no). Are the Palestinians “an invented people”?No more than any other people. Are they, or were they ever, the equivalent of “cockroaches in a bottle”? Uhhh—no.

Some of the fictions hawked over nearly five decades of occupation skate near the truth—we can’t let Arafat entirely off the hook for Camp David any more than we can blame him exclusively—while others peddle in dehumanizing xenophobia, but all serve a narrative that few in positions of power care to question: That of the Israeli hero, standing against the odds and the barbarous hordes in the name of Democracy and Chicken Soup.

If, on the other hand, Olmert and Abbas were “very close” to an agreement; if Abbas has (in fact) been advocating for a two-state solution since 1977; if Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton share the blame for the failure of Camp David; if the Palestinians really mean it when they say that Jerusalem is their one and only capital; if Israel is the main force behind the shattered Palestinian economy; if, in fact, Israel shares the blame for all of its current troubles, from the waging of wars to the absence of peace, and Palestinians are as human as anyone else—then we may need to take them into consideration. We may need to give up our maximalist dreams (whether they be of a Greater Israel, or, in the case of America’s neocons, American global hegemony), and we may need to feel our way, however haltingly, toward mutually respectful accommodation.

But as Ali pointed out, mutually respectful accommodation is not now nor has it ever been on the Washington Post’s menu of options, so its editorial board needs to keep spinning a tale that doesn’t merely scoff at Kerry’s efforts to end decades of bloodshed (as in: actual people, actually dead), but (because it’s the Post) serves to effectively undermine those efforts.

It’s bad enough to casually print factual inaccuracies, but those who advocate for a continued state of managed-conflict in Israel/Palestine are arguing that millions of people should continue to pay the price of ideology in blood, bone, and grief. The folks at the Washington Post may not have skin in this game, but I do, and that’s a truth I can’t be quiet about.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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