Thursday, January 26, 2006

HAMAS wins

According to unofficial election returns, the Islamic movement Hamas (an acronym for حركة المقاومة الاسلامية, "the Islamic Resistance Movement," and the acronym means “zeal” - note: if you can't see the Arabic characters, it means you need to install the Arabic language set on your computer) has garnered somewhere between 75-80 seats out of the 132 seats making up the Palestinian legislative council, in an election that had over 77% turnout. Already, the current Prime Minister, (who is not of Hamas, but an old guard leader of Fatah – [a reverse acronym of حركة التحرير الوطني الفلسطيني, the "Movement of Liberation for the Palestinian Nation”, meaning “conquest” or “victory”] and formed in 1958 and the largest party in the PLO) has resigned, and it is possible that the President, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), may also resign. Early reports in the world press presume that Hamas might turn to Salim Fayyad, the squeaky-clean and relatively independent Finanace Minister, to lead a Hamas-led government, possibly in a "national unity" government with Fatah in which Hamas takes over all the domestic and economic posts, and leaves Fatah to handle international affairs. Given the official Israeli, American and EU ban on working with Hamas, this sounds like a pragmatic option - but it may be simply a matter of wishful "group-think."

A quick backgrounder, slammed out in 1 hour, and based on two useful books at hand: The Palestinian Hamas by Shaul Mishal & Avraham Sela (two very good political scientists from TAU and HU, respectively; Columbia U. Press, 2000); and Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza by Ziad Abu-Amr (a political scientist and now PNA legislator – I do not know if he was re-elected or even if he ran; Indiana University Press, 1994):

Hamas was formed officially in the Gaza Strip in 1988, but its roots go back to 1928, with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood Association (MBA) in Egypt. By the early 30’s, branches of MBA were in existence in Palestine in the form of the Young Muslim Men’s Association. One particularly early proponent of MBA in Palestine was the religious leader from Haifa Shaykh `Izz al-din al-Qassam, who took up arms against the British and the Zionists, and was killed by British troops in 1935 (supposedly with a rifle in his hands). Under separate British, then Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian rule, the MBA associations were declared illegal. In particular, after a 1965 coup attempt in Egypt, the MBA leadership was jailed and killed in Egypt (amongst them the leader and ideologue Sayyid Qutb), and amongst those arrested was a Gazan Shaykh named Ahmad Yassin, later released. (Egyptian rulers have engaged in a utilitarian love-hate relationship with the MBA, even to as recently as the last parliamentary elections.)

In the overpopulated slums of occupied Gaza of the late-70s, a group of impeccably uncorrupt religious leaders formed a social support organization (al-Mujamma` al-Islami – المجمع الاسلامي) to promote Islam along MBA lines (da`wah) amongst the youth. The leader was Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, a blind paraplegic religious figure who operated the movement out of his home. With Israeli acquiescence, Islam was allowed to flourish in Gaza (as a counter weight to PLO), and the MBA movements for their part refrained from direct action against Israel. A main center of activity became the Islamic University in Gaza, established in 1978, and seized by MBA in 1983.

In December 1987, when the 1st Intifada started, the leaders of this revivalist movement surged into action, and by January issued a leaflet declaring their intention to join the struggle against the Jews (HAMAS sees the struggle as first a religious duty, and only secondarily political). Initially, HAMAS ran attacks against Israeli targets in Gaza and West Bank, but then moved out into Israel – using methods developed by the Lebanese Hizbollah, especially suicide bombings.

Hamas was then declared outlaw by the Israeli government and military occupation, and an attempt to break it then occurred. Yassin was arrested and convicted to life imprisonment by the Israelis in 1989. Though there always was the claim that military ops (“martyrdom operations” of the `Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades) were separate from political leadership, Israel turned to the leadership for accountability.

Hamas opposed the 1993 Oslo peace process with maximalist intensity, and under the gudiance of legendary operative Yahya Ayyash (aka “the engineer”), ran a series of deadly attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians (both inside and outside the green line). In Jan. 1996, in a controversial decision by then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Ayyash was killed by the Israeli General Security Service, and this resulted in a spring 1996 terror campaign that swung the Israeli elections to Benjamin Netanyahu. There has consistently been a relationship between Islamic terror and the Israeli electorate turning to the right. And if I were Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, I would be a very happy candidate for Prime Minister.

Ever since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Israel has demanded that the PNA “uproot terrorist organizations” in its midst. Occasionally the PNA has complied, particularly under American pressure, but a “revolving door” to Palestinian prisons allowed arrestees to go free.

Under Netanyahu, in Sept. 1997, Israeli spies botched an assassination attempt on Hamas’ #2 man, Khaled Meshal, in Amman, Jordan (watch for Meshal to emerge as the new leader of the Hamas-led PNA). As a result, Yassin and 70 other activists/terrorists were released from prison, and Yassin was met in Gaza with great fanfare. Even Arafat (who was threatened by Yassin's popularity) turned out for his welcome home.

Under American pressure, Hamas was banished from Jordan, and now its foreign department is situated in Damascus, Syria.

The 1st Intifada died out, but in Sept. 2000 a second intifada broke out – and in this Hamas was the leading player, now permitting female martyrs, and even developing a short-range missile to lob into neighboring Israeli settlements from Gaza.

Even Yassin however talked of a staged conquest of sacred Palestine, and there has been a vague undertone of possible compromise with the Zionist/Jewish enemy, including temporary cease fires occasionally. Nevertheless, Hamas and the smaller organization Islamic Jihad began another major terror campaign, though in recent months (for reasons to be stated), Hamas has taken a lesser role.

Amongst Israeli responses to this new wave of terror has been “targeted killings” of selected terrorist leaders & the controversial “security fence,” which together have proven to be quite effective in stemming – though not eliminating - terror attacks in Israel.

The most prominent of the targeted killings came on 22 March, 2004, when Yassin was killed in an air attack and a month later his unrelenting #2, `Abd al-`Aziz al-Rantisi, was also killed. Fatah was seen as ineffective and corrupt, and when President Arafat died in Nov. 2004 to be replaced by an elder if bumbling Fatah veteran (it was the replacement, Abu Mazen, who called these elections which are leading to his political demise), the stage was set for this Hamas victory. So without the charismatic father-figure of Arafat, Fatah started to resemble a cult-personality cum political party that had lost its sole purpose (a parallel to Sharon's Kadima?), and with very little to show for its 40 years of rule (and in particular the last 10 years of corrupt ineptitude), Fatah melted away before the robust Hamas. Sure, there might be a civil war in the PNA if the militant gangleaders of Fatah decide to put up a challenge, but as of this morning, the democracy that is Palestine is struggling with the transition peacefully.

In a later blog, I will try to provide some analysis, but as of 9 am this morning, there is very little useful analysis I can muster, with the news of this Hamas victory only hours old.

This much can be said: just as Israeli political turmoil and policies effect Palestinian politics, this surprising Hamas victory in the polls (something not foreseen by even Israeli military intelligence, which usually conjures up worst-case scenarios) will have an enormous impact on the upcoming Israeli vote, now just 2 months away. Unless a new kind of Hamas emerges in the coming weeks, expect the undecideds in Israeli electorate to turn sharply to the right.

Friday, January 20, 2006

New Israeli Poll Results

The latest round of weekly polls have been issued by Israeli pollsters, and they indicate a post-primary bounce for the Labor list. The three major polls put Kadima at between 37-43 mandates, Labor between 18-21 mandates, and Likud between 12-16 mandates. But the new polls also reveal that 1/3 of likely voters have not made up their minds yet. It will be this sizable “undecided” bloc that will determine the outcome of the upcoming Israeli election.

The polls also confirm the demise of Shinui. One happy note: the Yediot Ahronot poll indicates that my personal favorite of the small parties, Aley Yaroq (“Green Leaves”; essentially a single-issue party devoted to legalizing marijuana), which almost received a mandate in the last elections, is currently tracking at 2 mandates.

Today’s terrorist blast in the old central bus station area of Tel Aviv is Ehud Olmert’s first major test as Acting PM. While serious casualties were few (it appears that the Islamic Jihad suicide bomber either detonated his charge prematurely, or else the force of the blast was luckily directed away from customers in the shwarma shop), the specter of an election cycle peppered with terrorism is exactly the scenario which catapulted Benjamin Netanyahu to victory in 1996. To stave off a challenge from the right, Olmert will have to respond severely to this incident. Whatever latitude Ariel Sharon might have had in such situations (with his reputation for being a security hawk), Olmert has no similar room for restraint, lest he be labeled “soft on security.” Expect therefore a strong response (i.e., a “targeted killing” operation) from the IDF.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

An evening with the Azazma

One of the more amazing moments on my recent trip to Israel was a visit on January 8 to the tribal settlement of the Azazma Bedouin tribe in the central Negev. I have my friend and colleague Clinton Bailey to thank for this remarkable evening. Clinton, one of the world's foremost experts on the Negev Bedouin (see his book A Culture of Desert Survival : Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev), invited me and my cousin Fred to accompany him to a feast on the eve of `Id al-Adha, a feast called `Id al-amwat, devoted to marking the end of a day's fasting to commemorate the death of persons who have died over the past year, in this case the matriarch of our host family.

When Fred and I first got word of the invitation, we were sitting in a wi-fi equipped Aroma cafe at a gas station just outside Kafr Qara' in the lower Gallilee. As I was checking e-mail on my laptop, I found Clinton's invitation issued the night before. After a few phone calls, we agreed to meet up at Latrun, and then proceed together to the Negev in Clinton's SUV. We had very little time to meet up with Clinton - he was leaving Jerusalem and we were in the lower Gallilee. Were it not for the new number 6 toll-road, we never would have made it, but we actually beat Clinton to Latrun, making the trip from Kafr Qara' to Latrun in just under 40 minutes. Two and a half hours later, we turned off the main north-south 40 highway south of Sde Boqer and began the slow and treacherous approach to the Azazma encampment.

The Azazma are a widely dispersed tribe of Bedouin, and this particular clan of the Azazma are currently under government order to move into one of 7 new towns being contemplated by the Israeli government to relocate and "modernize" the Bedouin. Naturally, the clan is opposed to this forced hijra, and their case is being handled by human rights lawyers. The encampment is off the national electrical grid and has absolutely no sanitary services of any kind. Most of the shanty homes have electric generators, and many of the visitors came by pick-up truck of 4-wheel drive. Not a camel to be seen. Nor for that matter, a woman.

We were going to attend the feast in a winter "tent" which is what the Bedouin use to avoid the little rain which falls in the winter. The tent in this case was an open corrugated aluminum shack over a concrete floor, able to hold the more than 50 Bedouin men who had come to honor the clan. Clinton told us the proper Arab greeting for this event: "Kul am, wa-intum be-khayr" and we then entered the tent and slowly made our way through the room, shaking each person's hand from right to left with the appropriate greeting. Lots of ahlan wa-sahlan were spoken. Then we were seated between pillows on rugs on the outer edge of the concrete floor, while too pungent bush fires were lit in the center to keep the celebrants warm in the cool desert night.

My passive knowledge of literary Arabic was unusable in this situation, though I could tell from Clinton's boisterous conversations with clan dignitaries that this was one of the purest forms of Arabic I had ever heard spoken. We sat and were served sweet tea and freshly roasted Turkish coffee (at least three times for each drink), and twice during the late afternoon and night most - but not all - of the men exited the tent to perform their salat. When finally the platters of food came out, we were treated to freshly slaughtered lamb on-the-bone on a bed of soft, chewy flatbread. With our right hand, we digged into the flesh and bread, making little balls of suculent Bedouin meatballs. To my surprise (and please, the advertising folks in Atlanta should take note), 1.5 liter bottles of Coca-Cola suddenly appeared.

The older men sat quietly, some smoking cigarettes, some simply staring into the fire. The younger men played with their cell phones. When I offered a cigarette to a young man next to me, he answered in Hebrew "No, I quit." Makes me wonder...if a Bedouin can quit, then surely so can I.

My cousin and I sat transfixed, while Clinton held court. Eventually, the feast broke up, and we were on our way back out of the desert. One of the truly memorable experiences of my visit.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Peretz Stumbles

Now that all the major (and not so major) Israeli political parties – except for front-running Kadima and lesser-light Labor – have held their primaries, the stage is almost set for the upcoming March 28 elections to Israel’s 17th Kenesset. With PM Ariel Sharon’s coma unrelenting, the entire political field has come to terms with the gaping absence of the one-man cult following. A campaign government can now be assembled by acting PM Ehud Olmert, who because of Likud-ministerial resignations and a ruling by the Israeli Attorney General now holds a whopping 15 ministerial positions.

One outcome of last week's primaries is the pathetic dissolution of the once promising Shinui party. Shinui ("Change"), which came into existence as a centrist anti-religious party in 1999 under the leader ship of the Ross Perot wannabe Tomi Lapid, has all but collapsed. Another surprise was when Likud party members chose a list of candidates that stunned even Benjamin Netanyahu for its unmarketability. Netanyahu, the former PM and successful Likud standard-bearer in 1996, knows something about winning a campaign against what looks like impossible odds - back in the Spring of 1996 he narrowly beat Shimon Peres in an election called by Peres in the wake of the Rabin assassination, when initially the pollls presaged an easy Peres victory. This time, however, Netanyahu leads a denuded Likud, and in the absence of a full-blown terrorist campaign by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the coming 2 months, it is hard to imagine Netanyahu surging ahead as he did in 1996.

But the biggest surprise of all last week was the apparent collapse of Labor, under the leadership of Amir Peretz, who initiated this entire improbable electoral scenario when he narrowly beat Shimon Peres for chairmanship of the Labor Party two months ago, and then immediately demanded that Labor withdraw from the Sharon government.

The latest poll published by Haaretz has Labor collapsing to a historic low of 14-16 seats in the 120-seat Kenesset. This is a drop of more than 10 seats from the polls taken just after the formation of Kadima. The disarray is palpable – Peretz has dismissed two campaign directors in as many weeks, and complaints abound over the initial public advertising campaign intended to introduce Peretz to the Israeli electorate. But the real issue concerning the Peretz slump is what the media calls the “race demon” which hangs over this Morrocan immigrant’s campaign. More than one Israeli mentioned to me the fact that Peretz cannot speak a word of English – which is code in Israeli politics for “uneducated” and “lower class” (see: Levy, David). As one senior Labor operative on behalf of Peretz said to me: “People are afraid he will not be able to talk to Bush except through an interpreter. But the truth is, Bush can’t speak English all that well either.” Even Labor optimists understand that Peretz will not be tapped by President Moshe Katzav to form the next Israeli government – at most the optimists cling to the hope that 25 seats for Labor is within striking distance – if Labor reverses course and mounts an effective campaign. For all the drama of a campaign, it is hard to imagine Peretz receiving anything more for all his efforts than to come begging to Kadima for the Ministry of Education. If Labor is offered one or two of the big three ministries – Foreign Affairs, Treasury, or Defense – it is certain that Peretz will personally not fill any of those crucial posts. More and more, I am convinced that Olmert will offer defense to his old friend Ehud Barak, and that will be the best that Labor can expect. And if the two big parties cannot make it to the mandated 61-seat majority necessary to form a government, either other secular parties or some religious parties will need to be offered ministerial party favors in order to form a coalition. Old-fashioned Israeli rug-trading will then be in full swing.

So here is my prediction: the new government will be made up of Olmert as PM, Zipi Livni (Kadima) as Foreign Secretary (this Olmert has already promised), Ehud Barak (Labor) as Defense Minister, and Avishai Braverman (a new Labor figure; economist and former President of Ben Gurion University) as Treasury Minister, Peretz (Labor) as Education Minister. Shimon Peres (Kadima) will be a Minister-at-Large.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Olmert Era

(note: beginning with this post, I will adopt the spelling "Olmert" as used by The New York Times)

It is time now to write my last blog from Tel Aviv, for tomorrow night I return to the US. It has been a particularly amazing time to be here. Let me try to sum up at least my impressions of the political situation.

It now appears that the dark mood of the media those first 4 days of Ariel Sharon's cerebral hemorrhage has given way to guarded optimism about his chances for surviving, though still there is no reason to believe he will ever be able to return to public life. There is much discussion concerning the abominably bad medical treatment he received from his doctors since the time of his first stroke, and the finger-pointing will continue as a matter of a conspiratorial debate for a long time to come. Another weird aspect of the media coverage is the unwarranted glorification of Sharon into a kind of semi-divine political entity. It is as if the first 75 years of his militaristic life have been wiped away clean by a single unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a brain hemorrhage. In just the last year, as the Gaza disengagement played itself out, a "security fence" was lengthened, Jewish settlements were expanded on the West Bank, and thousands of acres of land in the West Bank were seized by the government. Whatever the media annointment now, Sharon was never a "peacenik" in the mold of Barak, or even Rabin. This fact should not be lost in the media glorification now in full swing.

A week into this crisis, and the political elite remains petrified (in both senses of the word) by the enormity of the changes brought on by the Sharon hemorrhage. But just as Sharon is slowly being roused out of his medically induced coma, the Israeli body politic is awakening from its own related trauma. For the moment, transitional continuity has been provided by the stable image being projected by Interim PM Ehud Olmert, and it now seems that none of the major players will bolt the newly-created Kadima party for their former political homes. For one news cycle, Shimon Peres toyed with the idea of leaving Kadima, but by last night his ego had been sufficiently stroked by Olmert and all was well on the Peres front.

With more than 2 months to go before the election, the speculation on how ministerial positions in an Olmert-led coalition will be parceled out has begun. The big three slots are always Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Treasury -- those are the 3 biggest bureaucracies and the most coveted chairs. Olmert has apparently committed Foreign Affairs to the very able but relatively inexperienced Zipi Livni, a former Likud politician (widely touted as a potential PM) who made the switch to Kadima right at the get-go. But now what to do with Defense and Treasury? The Israeli electorate has no great confidence in either Olmert or Labor Party leader Amir Peretz on security issues, Sharon's forte. Olmert scores 40% and Peretz a meager 9% on the question: who can best deal with security issues? So Olmert cannot offer to Peretz the Defense portfolio.

What will Olmert have to give to Labor in order to seal a coalitional deal? Will Olmert offer to the near-certain junior partner Labor party the Defense Ministry, possibly turning to his old friend (and former PM, and former IDF Chief of Staff) Ehud Barak? How will this placate the substantial political desires of Peretz? Will Olmert offer Peretz (former head of the Israeli labor federation Histadrut, and not an English-language speaker) the Treasury, since Peretz is running on a domestic socio-economic agenda? Such a move would send shock waves through the business community. The truth is, there are many coalition partners which Olmert will need to induce into a partnership (and by the way, all these speculations would have applied equally to a Sharon-led Kadima). There are only so many plum-ministries, and there are so many hungry politicians. Even if Olmert wins a super-plurality on March 28, 2006, the logistics of building a coalition government will be daunting. The unpleasant haggling over ministerial seats (which is a fact of life in Israeli politics) will be in full swing on March 29. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine a Kadima-Labor-Shinui(-Meretz?) government somewhere down the road. But then the question remains: what will such a "moderate" coalition do to bring to an end the ugly conflict with the Palestinians? Since Sharon never laid out his plans for his next incumbency, and Olmert has for different reasons not expressed his intentions, there arises the strange situation in which the electorate will go to the polls without knowing what it is voting for.

Just who is Ehud Olmert? He like Sharon is a former hawk turned realpolitik pragmatist. Born into a Revisionist household (his father served as MK in the 3rd and 4th Kenesset), he is married to a strong leftist-leaning wife. Elected to the Kenesset at the tender age of 28 in 1973, he was a nondescript back-bencher who made a name for himself fighting corruption in the national soccer league (he is a devoted Betar-Jerusalem fan, and only now at the insistence of Shabak will he refrain from going to Saturday afternoon games). He was opposed to the Camp David accords, and while mayor of Jerusalem he was responsible for decisions which exacerbated intercommunal tensions, like the opening of the controversial tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1996. After leaving the Jerusalem municipality he tried running in 1999 against Sharon for the leadership of Likud and was trounced. It was a few years later that Olmert began his move towards championing the concept of unilateral withdrawal, particularly in Gaza. He fell under Sharon's command, and ever since the two have been in sync-lock. An early indication that pragmatism will prevail in an Olmert era is the convoluted arrangement that has been hammered out today to allow East Jerusalemites to vote in the upcoming Palestinian legislative elections.

Olmert is criticized for his lavish tastes (like Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert likes cigars) and his close association with rich businessmen. There is a hint of corruption surrounding his family's financial dealings (see Olmert, Yosi). But everyone seems to agree that he is a seasoned leader who was groomed by the master to be in the right place at the right time.

Big shoes to fill, but so far Olmert has been up to the task.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sharon's 2nd Stroke

I've just tonight finished up with a 2-day academic conference at Bar-Ilan University, and left the hotel just 2 hours ago to return to my friend's house in a north-Tel Aviv suburb. I turned on the TV here at my friend's house to relax and watch a European Texas No Limit championship broadcast, when I saw the news bulletin that Sharon was again being rushed to the hospital. This time (we're now here about 90 minutes into the public announcement of this new health crisis), Israeli TV is reporting a significant stroke and serious complications, and governmental responsibilities have been handed over to Vice Premier Ehud Olmert (I explained in a previous post Olmert's importance from here on out). Israel channel One is reporting that Sharon is "fighting for his life." This 2nd stroke in 3 weeks, on the eve of Sharon's scheduled bypass operation, is obviously very serious, and throws many political plans into disarray. Newly crowned Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered all the lingering Likud ministers to resign by Sunday in preparation for the campaign (now 82 days off), but early speculation now has those resignations on possible hold.

At the academic conference Monday we were all subjected to a 20-minute campaign speech by Likud-diehard and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (who reluctantly accepted Netanyahu's demand that he resign by Sunday). In an ironic twist, Shalom spoke of the political "instability" of many neighboring Arab countries -- this as headlines reported that very morning that he and 4 other governmental ministers were being cajoled into resigning for political considerations, thus creating gigantic ministerial vacuums in key Israeli governmental posts. Whether a fragile democracy (Israel) or a military junta (Syria), political instability is a key ingredient in the A-I conflict, and does not bode well for either side. Especially tonight.

I plan to stay up an extra hour or so tonight beyond my usual bedtime (I'm exhausted from the conference) because I've got a bad feeling about all of this. I've been in Israel before for the sudden and unexpected death of a ruling Prime Minister (I was present at the rally in Tel Aviv 10 years ago when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated), and it is something I do not want to see repeated. Keep your fingers crossed....but as of 0030 Israel time, it does not look good.

Update at 0940, Jan. 5:

Sharon has now emerged from a 7-1/2 hour surgical procedure and is now in critical post-op care. The Israeli Stock Exchange opened this morning with a nearly 8% drop, the point at which some automatic brakes are placed on trading. It is clear that the Sharon era is over. It is as if the country was given a 2-1/2 week warning in order to prepare for this scenario, and no one paid attention to the signs. For the moment, all political machinations are on hold, and Olmert held a quick meeting of the government at 9 am. Emerging from the early moments as new possible leaders of Kadima (if it holds together) are of course Ulmert, and then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and finally Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Update at 1600, Jan. 5:

Everyone asks each other on the street about Sharon's condition, but everyone continues to conduct normal business. This is a day for psychologically letting go of this historic elder leader, for it is now widely believed that Sharon has ceased to be a force in Israeli politics. As one young man said on a Tel Aviv talk radio station: "It is somewhat like the day after Rabin's assassination -- once again we had found a leader who might have brought us peace, and then he is gone -- I feel so bad, but that is the way life goes, it seems." Israelis had convinced themselves that only Papa Arik would be able to bring the long-sought after peace, but now they feel bereft and leaderless, and the sense that there was out there some magical solution in Sharon's little black book -- itself a preposterous fiction -- has now given way to a dreary future .