Roger Cohen wrote today in the NY Times about an ordinary Israel, as opposed to an exceptional Israel.

I found this column significant in many ways. It captured something that had been the subtext of almost every international discussion of Israel and its actions beyond its legal borders in the last few years.

 As human beings, we usually have clearly defined perceptions of ourselves. In most cases, we are unaware or choose to be unaware of how we are perceived by the world around us. So unfortunately, we end up interacting with the world on the basis of how we see ourselves or how we wish to be seen. Nations do the same. They have national narratives that are sometimes manufactured for social cohesion, sometimes over-idealized versions of real events, sometimes just plain bogus. And unfortunately any external messages directed at them have to get through the thick fabricated glass windows.

Israel, Roger Cohen says in his piece “does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism”. So it can have nuclear weapons while demanding that the US help prevent Iran from getting them. It can refrain from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while demanding that NPT signatories like Iran live up to their obligations. Basic notions such as fairness do not factor in these types of talks because there is the view of “we are rational, THEY are not!” and therefore it follows that “we can be allowed to do things THEY can never be forgiven for doing.”  Now, Israel unlike many other nations on this earth was born out of a tragedy. A great tragedy. But as Cohen rightfully observes, that does not mean it should refrain from  ”deal[ing] with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.”

As Cohen quotes in the piece, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has often said that the only way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is “for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened .” So what if the US as part of its Iran Strategy tried to convince Israel to go the way of South Africa and get rid of its nuclear weapons as a way of persuading the iranians that their security will not be compromised by not developing a bomb?

The Israelis would never agree to it, of course, but let’s imagine that they did for a second.
Because one important way and I believe the most important way to look at this Iran Nukes conundrum is through the lens of regional control and regional security. Israel has been the “Big Boy” of the Middle-East for the past forty years or so. Egypt reared its head for a bit in the days of Nasser and Sadat. But they were quickly smacked in the Six-Day War and in the Yom Kippur War. They then decided it was best to sign a peace treaty, get a Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat in the bargain and move on. Then Iraq rose slightly with a little help from the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations. They quickly lost their power when Saddam picked a fight with the Ayatollas to start the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war that drained them financially and otherwise. The American invasion of 2003 took care of whatever power was not erased by the UN sanctions that preceded it. The Gulf states (Bahrain, Koweit, Qatar, UAE, Oman) have as much military strength as five African bees.  Yet Israel with a lot of US financial and military help has remained strong.

So now the Iranians look to be on the rise again, paranoid and fearful. They do have valid reasons to be fearful. From Tehran, the Mullahs look to the east and they see NATO troops in Afghanistan (including nuclear armed nations like the US and the UK) and further east, they see Pakistanis with nukes. Indians with nukes. Further west, they see Israelis with nukes. In addition to being in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has a presence in the Gulf States. If you couple this with the constant threats of bombardments as enunciated by both US and Israeli officials, it is no wonder the Iranians want to get nuclear weapons as a way of preventing an externally-imposed regime change.

Some will argue that Iran is not governed by “rational leaders” and therefore cannot be held to the same standard as other nations. I disagree. And I am not alone in this view. Many decades of Iranian peaceful co-existence with its neighbours back me up on this. So does the NY Times’ Roger Cohen in the piece I quoted at the start of this post. “Iran makes rational decisions,” he writes. “Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly [and] understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship.”

So in many ways, the road towards Obama’s nuclear-free world and therefrore a nuclear-free Middle-East, goes through Tehran as much as it goes through Tel Aviv.

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Obama made his long-awaited address to the “Muslim World” today. He made a similar address to the Turkish parliament back in April, but this was THE speech that Obama promised to give even before he got elected. It was supposed to be the speech that launches “the new beginning”, the new relationship between the US and the over 1.5 billion Muslims of the world.

The reactions to the speech so far have been mixed although many have praised the gesture. One could argue that any gesture made after the bluster and belligerant “with us or against us” approach of the Bush administration would have been welcome.

So let’s dissect some of the points of the speech and weigh them against the reality on the ground.

Obama warned Palestinians against the use of violence to fight the occupation and scolded the Israelis about the continuous building of settlements. While both points are valid on their faces, they are merely words in the face of the daily tribulations of both camps in this conflict. After all, what are the Palestinians to do in the face of the daily humiliations of the occupation administered in great part with US-supplied weaponry? Should they simply offer the other cheek and hope that their oppresors will see the light? History shows us that although violence in of itself has never allowed a liberation movement to succeed, it has always been a component of the struggle from colonial Africa to India to the US  to Cuba to South-Africa. Ignoring that fact is simply choosing to float in a Hope cloud.

As for the settlements, just this week, Netanyahu was reiterating that his government will continue building settlements, this after  US Secretary of State Clinton and Obama himself indicated the US government’s disapproval of such acts. Would the Israeli government be sanctioned by having its aid withheld? If not, what will be the actual repercussions of continuing to build on occupied land and thereby establishing what Ariel Sharon used to call “facts on the ground” that will stand in the way of any future peace deal?

Obama spoke of the US leaving Iraq and not wanting “bases or claim on their territory or resources”. So why is the US building what looks very much like permanent bases all over the country (see map) and the most fortified embassy in the region? Will Obama request a repeal of all the oil laws that the Bush administration pushed Iraqis leaders to adopt? Surely economically, given its dependence on Mid-East oil, the US could not afford such a move. So does that not indicate that any exit from Iraq would merely be a departure of troops but a peservation of  some form of control that would guarantee that the Iraqi pumps remain open to US tankers? Would that be “leaving Iraq to the Iraqis?”

On the issue of Iran and nuclear weapons, Obama said that “no nation should pick and choose which nations have nuclear weapons” and he reiterated the standard US position demanding that Iran “comply with its responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”. The unspoken part of this argument of course is that Israel has nuclear weapons, but is not a signatory to the NPT. Neither is Pakistan which also has nuclear weapons and is a US ally. So the sin of Iran seems to be that it chose to sign a treaty under which it can now be scolded for doing what other nations do and get rewarded for with US military aid.

On women’s rights,  religious tolerance and human rights, Obama merely repeated platitutes that cannot be taken seriously given the continuous US support for the regimes of the Middle East that deny those very rights to their citizens. What’s the value of hopeful words about freedom spoken by a US president in a place like Egypt where Hosni Mubarak has been waging war against hopeful freedom advocates for almost 30 years with US support? What’s the value of hopeful words when the Saudi monarchs have been stifling the hopes of women in their kingdom for generations with the complete acquiescence of US presidents? Why talk when the US president has so many levers he can pull to force action?

Obama can be praised for making the trip, appearing concilliatory and more importantly acknowledging some facts that although  known for years by all, were never publicly accepted by a sitting US president; namely the US involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected former president of Iran Mohammed Mossadegh. But to use that very American expression, “where’s the beef?”

Obama spoke eloquently and forcefully in Cairo as Obama almost always does. However, Obama the presidential candidate has to quickly morph into Obama the leader of the so-called “Free World”  and resist the use of speeches as substitutes for tangible policy changes.

Many news outlets including ABC and CNN are reporting that Obama sat for an interview with the Arab channel Al Arabiya earlier today. His Middle-East Special Envoy George Mitchell is also heading to the region to begin talk with the Israelis and Palestinians.

This is good politics for Obama. I think this is part of his charm offensive that started last Tuesday to show a clear break from the Bush administration that essentially gave carte blanche to Israel and did not engage the so-called “Arab or Muslim Street” at all. Whether this translates into anything  substantial in the short term is anybody’s guess.  As CBS’s 60 Minutes reported last night, both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict are working hard to establish what George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon once called “facts on the ground” that would essentially kill the two-state solution. For Israelis, that means VIP roads, settlements, more settlements and the separation wall in the West Bank (called a “fence” by some political-correctness advocates). For Palestinians, that means procreation. Because having more children per family would generate what has been dubbed the “demographic advantage”, essentially destroying the notion of a Jewish State. Even Lybia’s Muammar Qaddafi was proposing a one-state solution in an op-ed in the NY Times on the week-end albeit with a complete right of return for the Palestinian refugees.

Some have wondered why Obama would want to meddle in this conflict right now when he has the US economy on the ropes and he needs some victories in congress  for some of his proposals. I say if there is a chance of a solution at all, it better be proposed now or the parties have to start working on it now. Any solution will be a difficult one, full of compromises on both sides. In addition, it will take time to be accepted and local leaders, Israelis and Palestinians will have to sell it to their constituencies and eventually implement it. So it is better to start now when Obama’s approval rating is high across the globe.

In addition to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is the matter of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; there is the Mubarak dictatorhip in Egypt that lingers and fails to provide any support in any of the issues of the region when it could do so much; there is Iran flexing its muscles. And there is Syria, always an unavoidable piece because of its control of Lebanon and its support for other groups including Hamas.

Obama has his hands full. But goodwill, the kind Obama enjoys at the moment can go a long way towards opening even the most stubborn of hearts.

Boy, how  things just tend to happen when nobody is paying attention, huh!

Let’s see, since most of North America took a break to open presents, eat too much, drink too much and generally stay away from anything of importance, the following important things happened:

1- Israel & Hamas decided to start another mini-war

2-Rod Blagojevich gave the finger to the whole Democratic party by nominating Roland Burris to the US Senate

3-Bill Richardson withdrew as Obama’s Commerce Secretary because of corruption investigations

4-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid more or less reiterated his belief that George W. Bush is the worst President the United States ever had.

5-Obama proposed a ginormous stimulus package with a mix of personal and business tax cuts as well as job creating infrastructure programs.

 6-Roland Burris went to the US Senate and was refused a seat

7-Leon Panetta was mentionned as Obama’s pick for CIA chief much to the chagrin of many including Senate Inteligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein

8-Sanjay Gupta (of CNN fame) was floated as a possible Surgeon General of the United States

9-Al Franken almost won a senate seat in Minnesota

What to say about any of these? Well, maybe one word here and there would do for now. We all just got back,right?

On the Burris issue, I would say either way the Democrats play this, they’re in for a lengthy legal battle unless either Burris chooses to withdraw or is somehow “bought out”. But it seems that by all legal accounts,  as the still governor of Illinois,Rod Blagojevic was fully entitled to make the nomination. How this plays politically though,… well,…

On Richardson withdrawing, it is truly sad, because I would have liked him as Secretary of State instead of Clinton. But in politics, illusions tend to be reality more so than in other environments.  And as such, even talk of an investigation was enough to prevent Richardson from coming back to Washington. Too bad. Hopefully Obama gets a second term and he could serve then.

On Israel and Hamas, I have nothing to add other than this is just another battle in a long war that will never end unless a President of the United States is willing to stake his presidency on resolving the conflict.

Let’s hope Obama is thatPresident.