How the UN vote on the Goldstone Report could help Israeli-Palestinian peace

 The UN Human Rights Council has passed by a large majority (25-6) a resolution endorsing the findings of the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war. It plans to send its recommendations to the General Assembly and to ask the Security Council to monitor the recommended independent probes of the report's allegations.  While the U.S. and five others voted no, it was extremely striking that several major powers -- including the UK and France -- refrained from voting.  Pakistan, our crucial ally in the Afghanistan mission, voted in favor along with Egypt and 23 others. The Israeli government is outraged, and the level of rhetoric is hotter than ever.

 That rhetoric has always been out of balance with the actual stakes.  The Security Council is highly unlikely to do anything with it, since the United States will surely veto any move to act upon it.  But the passage of the resolution is significant nonetheless, primarily because the stakes had been raised by the bizarrely intense Israeli lobbying effort against it and by the disastrous decision by Mahmoud Abbas to initially ask for it to be shelved.   Contrary to the apocalyptic talk coming out about the decision, it could actually help moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace in at least three ways. 

 First, the vote shows that Israel is paying a price for its short-sighted diplomatic strategy of confrontation with the Obama administration. Israel's Ambassador tried to rally support by saying "Do you support the importance of the promotion of peace between Israel and Palestinians? If you do ... you must reject today's proposal." The general response to the Israeli threat that the passage of the report would doom Israel's participation in peace talks has been disbelief and even mockery.  What peace talks?

Netanyahu has spent many long months doing everything in his power to subvert Obama's peace initiatives, defying the demand to freeze settlements and inciting American and Israeli public opinion against the President and against peace. Where Obama rallied near-universal international support for his vision of rapid progress towards a real two state solution and genuine Israeli-Arab peace, Netanyahu dug in his heels and fought every step of the way.  The world notices.  If Netanyahu decided to walk away from peace talks, how would anyone be able to tell the difference?  

 Second, the passage of the report may slightly increase the odds of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement under Egyptian auspices.  The Palestinian Authority, badly hurt by the crisis generated by Abu Mazen's decision to ask for its deferral, responded by accepting the Egyptian proposal and challenging Hamas to do the same.  Hamas, suspicious of Egyptian mediation, internally divided, and uneasy about throwing the PA a lifeline, has stalled and requested more time to decide. With the Goldstone issue somewhat defused, an agreement may now be slightly more possible (even if the U.S. reportedly remains opposed). Given that the Egyptians are talking about holding two seperate signing ceremonies so that Hamas and Fatah don't have to be in the same room with each other, I doubt that any deal signed soon will amount to actual reconciliation -- but perhaps it could be a starting point. 

 Third, the U.S. will almost certainly veto any move in the Security Council to act on the report.  But given how much importance the Israeli government has given to the Goldstone Report, this veto might actually be used as a form of leverage.   Obama's push for peace is at the brink of collapse almost entirely because of Netanyahu's intransigence.  But the administration has thus far seemed highly reluctant to actually put any serious pressure on the Israeli government -- which has only emboldened Netanyahu and his enablers to dig in their heels further.   The use of the veto to protect Israel from Goldstone should not be free.   

 I don't think the passage of the resolution is all that significant in and of itself.  I've found the level and heat of rhetoric surrounding the report to be bafflingly over the top.  But there's still a slim chance to turn these developments into something positive -- if it even marginally leads Israel to rethink the costs of refusing to engage in serious peace talks and of openly confronting the Obama administration at every turn, leads Hamas and Fatah to finally strike a deal which politically reunifies the West Bank and Gaza while paving the way to elections, and increases U.S. leverage over Israel.   None especially likely, but at least worth thinking about.  

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.