Seymour Hersh hopes for peace in the Middle East…

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, dated 6 April, Seymour Hersh writes:
“Obama’s Middle East strategy is still under review in the State Department and the National Security Council. The Administration has been distracted by the economic crisis, and impeded by the large number of key foreign- and domestic-policy positions yet to be filled. Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East diplomacy, on January 22nd, won widespread praise, but Mitchell has yet to visit Syria. Diplomatic contacts with Damascus were expanded in late February, and informal exchanges with Syria have already taken place. According to involved diplomats, the Administration’s tone was one of dialogue and respect—and not a series of demands. For negotiations to begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful resolution of Hamas’s ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was reëvaluating the extent of Syria’s control over Hezbollah. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)

“A senior White House official confirmed that the Obama transition team had been informed in advance of Carter’s trip to Syria, and that Carter met with Obama shortly before the Inauguration. The two men—Obama was accompanied only by David Axelrod, the President’s senior adviser, who helped arrange the meeting; and Carter by his wife, Rosalynn—discussed the Middle East for an hour. Carter declined to discuss his meeting with Obama, but he did write in an e-mail that he hoped the new President “would pursue a wide-ranging dialogue as soon as possible with the Assad government.” An understanding between Washington and Damascus, he said, “could set the stage for successful Israeli-Syrian talks.”

“The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who has access to sensitive information, ‘Cheney began getting messages from the Israelis about pressure from Obama’ when he was President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a ‘pro-Palestinian’, who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would ‘never make it in the major leagues’). But the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other high-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel. “It was Jones”—retired Marine General James Jones, at the time designated to be the President’s national-security adviser—’who came up with the solution and told Obama, “You just can’t tell the Israelis to get out”.’ (General Jones said that he could not verify this account; Cheney’s office declined to comment.)

“One issue that may be a casualty of an Obama rapprochement with Syria is human rights. Syrians are still being jailed for speaking out against the policies of their government. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said that Assad ‘has been offering fig leafs to the Americans for a long time and thinks if he makes nice in Lebanon and with Hamas and Hezbollah he will no longer be an outcast. We believe that no amount of diplomatic success will solve his internal problems’. The authorities, Whitson said, are ‘going after ordinary Syrians—like people chatting in cafés. Everyone is looking over their shoulder’.”

“Assad, in his interview with me, acknowledged, ‘We do not say that we are a democratic country. We do not say that we are perfect, but we are moving forward’. And he focussed on what he had to offer. He said that he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. The Bush White House, he said, had viewed the fundamentalists as groups ‘that you should go and chase, and then you will accomplish your mission, as Bush says. It is not that simple. How do you deal with a state of mind? You can deal with it in many different ways—except for the army’. Speaking of Obama, he said in his e-mail, ‘We are happy that he has said that diplomacy—and not war—is the means of conducting international policy’.

“Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called ‘moderate’ Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coördinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.

“ ‘Of course, the Iranians are nervous about the talks, because they don’t fully trust the Syrians’, Itamar Rabinovich said. ‘But the Assad family does not believe in taking chances—they’re very hard bargainers. They will try to get what they want without breaking fully from Iran, and they will tell us and Washington, “It’s to your advantage not to isolate Iran”.’ Rabinovich added, ‘Both Israel and the United States will insist on a change in Syria’s relationship with Iran. This can only be worked out—or not—in head-to-head talks’.

“The White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country—and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and intelligent diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses”.
This Seymour Hersh article can be read in full in The New Yorker here.

Hilary Clinton: the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace is "never-ending". Bernard Kouchner: France is "very anxious about the situation of the people of Gaza".

Here are excerpts from remarks made by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner after their meeting in Washington on Thursday 5 February

Clinton: “We will continue to coordinate closely in the Middle East and cooperate on Gaza, humanitarian aid, and the never-ending pursuit of a just and secure peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians”.

Kouchner: the talks were “mainly on Middle East”

Then Kouchner (but not Clinton), mentioned Gaza:
“[W]e are really very anxious about the situation of the people of Gaza, and we were in agreement together with Madame Secretary of State to make pressure on both side to open the crossing. The Gaza people, they need so-called humanitarian assistance. And we’ll do it together another time, even if this is difficult, because we are facing – all of us – the electoral process in Israel and the idea – very important idea of Abu Mazen, the president of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, to set up – to try to set up a government of national unity. And we are, of course, supporting Abu Mazen, and we must strengthen him, but it will take some time. Meanwhile, we must access to the people – we must accede to the people – sorry. For the rest, we were at complete agreement to support the Egyptian initiative, and you know that some talks are now – have been developed in Cairo in between the Hamas delegation, the PLO delegation, and we are waiting for the result of that with a very great support to the Egyptian. And there is a meeting in the – I think the – yes, the 2nd [n.b. I think he must have said 22nd] day of February [or maybe he meant the 2nd of March?], yes, in Cairo, and I hope we’ll get better support to Gaza people before this date

In response to a question about Hamas from a journalist:
Kouchner: “Hmm. (Laughter.) Okay. Well, Hamas, you know, we said several times we have no official talk with Hamas. It is, for the time being, impossible. Why? Of course, we have indirect talk in supporting the Egyptian initiative. We were obliged to go through – I mean, the Turks, and the Norwegian people, the Russian, et cetera. And of course, the Egyptian, mainly the Egyptian, because they are talking to Hamas. Why aren’t we talking officially to Hamas? Because they are not part of the peace process. And we’ll certainly talk to them when they would start to talk to the Palestinian themself, to PLO, and certainly, when they would accept the peace process, the signatures of PLO on the Israeli-Palestinian documents and mainly the Arab initiative of peace. That’s the answer. But certainly, this is part — and Tony Blair was right in saying so. In Gaza, if you are not setting up a sort of common task force to get access to the people or this government of national unity, it will be difficult, I know – we know that.

Clinton: “And I would only add that our conditions respecting Hamas are very clear: We will not in any way negotiate with or recognize Hamas until they renounce violence, recognize Israel, and agree to abide by, as the foreign minister said, the prior agreements entered into by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority” …

Gideon Levy: the U.S. and Europe aren't real friends

Gideon Levy, who writes brilliantly on the occupation for Haaretz, wrote this today: “Who hasn’t come to visit lately? From the German chancellor to the leading frontrunner for the American presidency. And the secretary-general of the United Nations is on his way. A visit to Israel has become de rigueur for foreign pols. If you haven’t been here, you’re nowhere. 

“The visitors are taken, of course, to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the Western Wall and now to Sderot as well – the new national pilgrimage site.

“A few also pay a perfunctory visit to Ramallah; no one goes to the Gaza Strip, and they all have nothing but praise for Israel. Not a word of criticism on the occupation, on Israel’s violent operations in the territories, on the siege and the starving – with the exception of a few vague remarks on the need for a solution. Israel squeezes the Sderot ‘informational’ lemon for all it’s worth.

“The mix of Sderot and the Holocaust, international Islamophobia and Hamas rule in Gaza do the trick. Israel hasn’t scored this kind of foreign-policy success since the days of the Oslo Accords. To judge by the declarations of our foreign guests and our hosts abroad, no other state in the world is more loved than we. A state that imposes a siege that is almost unprecedented in the world today in terms of its cruelty, that adopts an official policy of assassination, is embraced by the family of nations, if we are to judge by the words of the many statesmen who cross our doorstep” …

Levy says that this is an illusion, and that public opinion in the countries of these politicians and statesman is running in decidedly the opposite direction.  And, he continues:  “The world sees images from Gaza on television – in comparison, Sderot looks like a resort – and it draws its own conclusions. The natural sense of justice that dictates support for the freedom struggles of oppressed people such as the Tibetan dictates natural support for the Palestinian struggle for liberation. The fact that it is a struggle between a Palestinian David and an Israeli Goliath only adds to the story. With the exception of the U.S., the world is indeed against us, apart from its statesmen. Therefore, we must not give in to the illusion: The current bout of official support for us is not genuine.  Also not genuine is the idea that blind, unconditional friendship is friendship. The support for Israel as a just enterprise that is extended by most of the West does not mean accepting all of its caprices.  A true friend of Israel, one that is sincerely concerned for its fate, is only that friend who dares to express sharp criticism of its policy of occupation, which poses the most serious risk to its future, and who also takes practical to steps to end it.  Most of the ‘friendly’ statesmen do not understand this“.  [emphasis added]

Levy writes that he believes Europe is even worse than the U.S. in these respects: “Saccharine visits and sweet speeches in fact express a deep disrespect for Israel – and for European public opinion.  This blind friendship enables Israel to do whatever it wants. The days have passed in which every mobile home erected in the territories and every targeted assassination were carefully considered out of fear of international criticism. That time no longer exists. Israel has a carte blanche to kill, destroy and settle. The U.S. long ago gave up the role of honest broker, and Europe is now following in its footsteps. How depressing: With friends like these, Israel almost doesn’t need enemies”.

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/967055.html