NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he supported the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed U.S. efforts to negotiate over his country’s ongoing nuclear work.

Editorial: The Year in Review

With 2009 coming to an end, now is a good time to look back at a few of the major events of the past year. While we can’t cover everything important that happened in such a busy 12-month period, there are a handful of moments that cannot be overlooked.

When the year began, Israel was in a battle with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s reason for fighting was simple. In 2008, Hamas fired more than 3,200 rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. After Hamas refused to extend a cease-fire in December, and instead intensified its attacks, Israel struck back in an operation that lasted 22 days. Since that battle ended, less than 300 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel—a reduction of more than 90 percent. Residents of southern Israel today are enjoying an unprecedented period of quiet.

As Israel’s defensive operation came to an end, so too did the eight-year George W. Bush presidency. On January 20, Barack Obama took the oath of office, becoming the 44th president of the United States.

Obama Reaches Out to Iran

In his inaugural address, Obama had a message for the world’s authoritarian regimes: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Obama did not mention Iran by name in that speech, but in his first news conference as commander-in-chief, he said that it was his intention to find a way for the United States to engage in direct talks with the Islamic Republic.

Obama has since tried to reach out to Iran in a number of different ways. On March 19, for example, he extended a message to the Iranian people on Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, calling for better relations and “a new way forward.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was unmoved by Obama’s overtures. Speaking in front of tens of thousands of his followers chanting “Death to America,” Khamenei dismissed Obama’s video greeting as a “slogan.” Iranian leaders continue to dismiss U.S. efforts to negotiate over Iran’s ongoing nuclear program. BACK TO TOP

United States Withdraws from Anti-Israel Conference

In April, the Obama administration had to decide whether or not to attend the Durban Review Conference in Geneva (called “Durban II”). The conference was a follow-up to the 2001 “Durban I” conference held in Durban, South Africa. That summit, advertised as an anti-racism conference, turned into an Israel-bashing forum.

With this history in mind, the Obama administration tried in advance to change the agenda of the Durban II conference, but eventually realized that no further U.S. engagement with the conference planners would achieve anything. The United States rightfully stayed away from Durban II, as did a number of other Western nations. BACK TO TOP

Obama Tells Netanyahu: Talks with Iran Won’t be Excuse for Inaction

In May, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time in their capacities as heads of government. Obama made a number of important comments after the meeting that would set the tone of U.S. policy for the remainder of the year.

On the most urgent agenda item—Iran—Obama said he expected to know by the end of the year whether Tehran was making “a good-faith effort to resolve differences” in talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program. “We’re not going to have talks forever,” Obama said. “We’re not going to create a situation in which the talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear—and deploying a nuclear weapon.”

Most importantly, the president added that the United States is “not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious.” BACK TO TOP

Obama Goes to Egypt; Lebanon, Iran Hold Elections

On June 4, President Obama traveled to Egypt, where he fulfilled his campaign pledge to deliver a speech from a major Muslim capital. Standing in Cairo, a cultural center of the Arab world, Obama emphasized some necessary but unpopular truths. He told his intended audience of Muslims worldwide that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “unbreakable” and is based upon “cultural and historical ties.”

The president also denounced the rampant Holocaust denial in Muslim societies. “Six million Jews were killed—more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today,” Obama said. “Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful.”

Three days later, on June 7, parliamentary elections were held in Lebanon. The results showed that a U.S.-backed alliance led by Saad Hariri would retain control of parliament. However, Hizballah has strengthened its political power over the past year and has gained control of more government ministries. The Lebanese parliament recently approved a “unity” government that endorses Hizballah’s right to keep its weapons—in defiance of U.N. Security Council demands that the terrorist army disarm.

Less than a week after the Lebanese parliamentary elections, Iran held presidential elections. The results were rigged in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Iranian people were not fooled. At great risk to themselves, they took to the streets and confronted the regime’s henchmen, chanting slogans such as “Where is my vote?” and “Death to the dictator!” Despite the regime’s best efforts to quash dissent since last summer, the protests have flared up again as of this writing. BACK TO TOP

Netanyahu Calls for Demilitarized Palestinian State

While much of the world was watching the aftermath of the Iranian elections, back in Israel, Netanyahu gave a major policy address on June 14. The Israeli prime minister said he supported the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. “In my vision of peace in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect,” Netanyahu said.

A White House statement welcomed “the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech.” In sharp contrast, top Palestinian Authority (PA) officials said Netanyahu is “burying the peace process” and threatened renewed violence.

Later in the year, Netanyahu went a step further, declaring a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. Again the United States praised the move, and again the PA said Israel was not doing enough for peace.

As of this writing, the PA’s refusal to resume peace talks with Israel without preconditions—as urged by the Obama administration and strongly supported by Israel—has resulted in a deadlock. We will find out in 2010 if U.S. efforts to persuade the PA to drop its preconditions are successful. BACK TO TOP

The Goldstone Report Condemns Israel

On Sep. 15, the international campaign to discredit Israel intensified. It was on that day that the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) published its “Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” known as the Goldstone Report after its chairman, Richard Goldstone.

The Goldstone Report was biased from the beginning. The HRC resolution that established the fact-finding mission stated, before any investigation began, that Israel was responsible for “massive violations” of human rights in Gaza. The Israeli government understandably refused to cooperate with an investigation that reached its conclusions in advance.

When the Goldstone Report was published, it was even worse than expected. (See the Near East Report editorial from Nov. 12 for more detailed commentary.) The Obama administration quickly condemned the report for its many flaws. However, Goldstone’s 575-page document is not going away any time soon. The HRC has endorsed its findings, as has the U.N. General Assembly; the Security Council will likely revisit the issue in 2010. BACK TO TOP

Iran Presses Ahead With Its Nuclear Program

In late September, the United States exposed a secret Iranian nuclear site on a Revolutionary Guard base near the city of Qom. Iran was embarrassed and under pressure to cooperate with the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany), whose representatives met with Iranian diplomats on Oct 1.

After that meeting, President Obama delivered a statement about the talks. He said that Iran “agreed to cooperate fully and immediately with the International Atomic Energy Agency” and that Tehran “must grant unfettered access to IAEA inspectors within two weeks.”

That has not happened. In addition, Iran has refused to accept a U.N.-backed deal to transfer its low enriched uranium abroad. Tehran’s behavior has been so uncooperative that the IAEA, with Russian and Chinese support, censured Iran for its failure to freeze operations at the Qom facility.

In the meantime, as the year comes to an end, Ahmadinejad has dismissed the Obama administration’s year-end deadline to accept the U.N.-backed deal and said his government is “10 times stronger” than it was one year ago. BACK TO TOP

The Challenges of 2010

2009 was a busy year in the Middle East. Nobody could have predicted in 2008 how this year would turn out; it would be foolish to guess what we’ll be writing here in Dec. 2010 in our next “year in review.”

The challenges facing the United States and Israel in the year ahead are daunting—stopping Iran’s nuclear program, fighting jihadist groups and countering international efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, just to name a few.

A famous Psalm says that “the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” The reason such vigilance is required is because the enemies of Israel do not sleep either.

Stay tuned for another interesting year. BACK TO TOP