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​What They Are Saying, Oct. 16, 2008

October 16, 2008
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Sharansky's Right: Back Palestinian Democracy, Not Mahmoud Abbas

Columnist Jackson Diehl writes in The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com) on Sept. 22 that changing Palestinian society should be the priority, not vainly pursuing a peace agreement:

"Amid the din of the financial crisis and the presidential campaign, the Bush administration's attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace has quietly expired. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 16 trips to the region over the past 21 months; last year's Annapolis conference; months of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams -- all have sunk under the weight of the corruption charges against departing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the crises in Georgia to Pakistan.

"The Palestinians are still split between Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And if the presidential campaign is any indication, promoting a Middle East peace won't be high on the next administration's list of priorities. How could it? With Wall Street's meltdown, the Afghan war, the growing U.S. engagement in Pakistan, and Russia's neo-imperialist eruption -- not to mention Iran and North Korea -- the headache of the West Bank and Gaza, where violence is at a relative low point, can barely be felt in Washington.

"This isn't an argument for the next administration to write off Middle East diplomacy, as George W. Bush did when he took office. But it is grounds for a President Obama or McCain to try a different approach to problems, one that focuses on building a foundation for peace from the ground up, rather than pushing leaders to dictate a settlement from above. The timeline for success would be measured in years, not months. The goal would not be a document that Livni and Abbas could sign but constructing a vibrant Palestinian civil society -- that is, independent media, courts, political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

"The former refusenik and Israeli political gadfly Natan Sharansky has been proposing this course for years -- mostly to the irritation of peace-process supporters in both Jerusalem and Washington. Some blame him for talking Bush into a fleeting policy of supporting Palestinian democracy that led to the victory of Hamas in legislative elections.

"But Sharansky's ideas look pretty good compared with whipping the dead horse left behind by Olmert and Rice. Last week, he turned up in Washington with a persuasive Palestinian partner: Bassam Eid, a veteran human-rights activist who has spent the past dozen years trying to act as an independent monitor of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces.

"It's a lonely, if badly needed, function: By the count of Eid's Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by Palestinians in the past eight years, but not one suspected killer has been charged or brought to trial. In August, it says, one Palestinian was killed by Israel and 36 by other Palestinians.

"Eid notes that while Western governments, including the United States, are committed in theory to building free Palestinian institutions, in practice they route all funding through Abbas and his Fatah party cronies -- who deny it to independent groups. He heads a coalition of 10 NGOs that have been blackballed by Abbas, including groups that advocate for women's rights and fight drug abuse.

"Sharansky argues that if the United States were to focus on building Palestinian civil society rather than backing Abbas -- who now is being encouraged to remain in office despite the imminent expiration of his legal term -- 'in three years, we'd have an absolutely different Palestinian authority. Those leaders ... would be people [who] could discuss issues like the future of Jerusalem and refugees.'

" 'People say we don't have three years,' Sharansky said. 'But that same idea caused them to favor Arafat over reform' -- and that was 15 years ago. The same idea continues all the time: "We must back the Palestinian leader over building civil society." And the result is always the same.'

"On that broken record, at least, Sharansky is right."

Talking With the Iranians Will Bring Peril as Well as Certain Promise

Historian Michael B. Oren writes in The Wall Street Journal (www.opinionjournal.com) on Sept. 29 that talk isn't cheap with Iran:

"Any attempt to talk with Iran must take into account its previous negotiations with the international community. These began in 2003 in talks between Iran and Britain, France and Germany. The most recent round took place in Geneva last July. It included the chief European Union negotiator Javier Solana and William Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs.

"In exchange for opening their nuclear plants to inspection, the Iranians were offered immunity from sanctions, membership in the World Trade Organization and an energy partnership with Europe to modernize its oil industry. In addition, Iran would have received a fully fueled nuclear reactor to service its agricultural and medical needs.

It would have been welcomed into a Persian Gulf security forum and enlisted in efforts to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction. Iran could have continued to enrich uranium for verifiably peaceful purposes. The response to these concessions was categorically 'no.'

"In addition to nuclear issues, American interlocutors, should they undertake talks, must also address the question of Iranian expansionism. Through its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies, Iran has gained dominance over Lebanon and Gaza, and through its Baathist and Mahdist allies, has extended its influence through Syria and Iraq. An Iranian threat looms over the Persian Gulf financial centers and beyond, to the European cities within Iranian missile range. No attempt has yet been made to induce Iran to roll back or even curtail the export of its violent revolution, nor have the global powers seriously considered such a package.

"Clearly, any U.S.-Iranian dialogue must exceed previous efforts and produce a unique array of concessions and incentives. None of these gestures, however, are likely to alter Iranian policies. Nor are the Iranians apt to respond dramatically to any easing of the sanctions that have so far failed to persuade them to moderate. Moreover, recognizing Iranian ascendancy means legitimizing Hamas and Hezbollah while weakening America's allies in Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

"Radical Shi'ite militias would also be empowered, eroding America's gains in Iraq and impelling Sunni states to procure their own -- possibly nuclear -- means of defense.

"Rather than improving U.S.-Iranian relations and enhancing Middle East stability, any American offer to talk with Iran is liable to be interpreted as a sign of American weakness, and not only in Tehran. Public opinion throughout the area will conclude that America has at last surrendered to the reality of Iranian rule. The damage to America's regional, if not global, influence may prove irreversible.

"Yet dialoguing with Iran presents the even graver danger that Iran will use it as camouflage to complete its nuclear ambitions. Even if Iran agreed to halt the enrichment process, it might replicate the North Korean model: Negotiate with the United States, agree to suspend nuclear activities, then renew them at the first opportunity.

"The United States can communicate with Iran, but as a power, not a supplicant, with leverage as well as words." 

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