15:37 pm
Assad's Road to Washington?

My immediate take on the secret Israeli-Syrian negotiations, as reported in today's Haaretz: interesting, useful, but not especially surprising and not very fruitful.
Haaretz's well-connected Akiva Eldar breaks the story with a convincing amount of detail about how the secret discussions got started and what understandings they led to. Basically, the Israeli party agreed to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights over a 15-year period all the way back to the June 4, 1967 border. In return, Israel would maintain control over Lake Tiberius and the Jordan River and Israeli citizens would have unrestricted access to a large part of the Golan that would be designated a "park."
We know from past open Israeli-Syrian negotiations that Israelis are ready to contemplate a withdrawal from the Golan. It is quite possible that in order to make a historic peace deal with Israel, the Syrians would be ready to throw in strategic concessions, like cutting off relations with Iran and some radical groups that Syria sponsors, like Hizballah and Hamas. I'm skeptical, though, that Syria would ever agree to some core compromises Haaretz indicates, like giving full control of the waters to Israel, or accepting infringement of its national sovereignty in the form of the Golan park. The telling detail in Eldar's report may provide the clue to understanding the understandings: the parties in these secret talks never signed anything. The contacts ended when the Israelis rejected a Syrian proposal that the level of talks be elevated to include the participation of the Bush administration. Haaretz quotes Alon Liel, a former Israeli foreign ministry official who was involved in the talks, saying, "There was no official Israeli connection to the content of the talks." In other words, nothing was official.
It is certainly preferable to have Israelis and Syrians secretly talking, instead of openly fighting as they did indirectly during last summer's Israel-Hizballah war in Lebanon. One hopes that the secret talks were something akin to the Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Accord in 2003--an unofficial deal worked out by respective peace camps that can serve as a benchmark when official talks some day resume.
Syria's aims in the secret talks may have included something more than reaching a peace deal: Assad has been seeking to get out of the doghouse with Washington since the Bush folks became enraged with his support of the insurgency at the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Assad has been playing good-cop, bad-cop: extending a diplomatic hand in pleading for talks with Israel, while backing the Iraqi insurgency and other radical forces, including Hizballah and Hamas, to demonstrate Syria's weight in regional affairs. With Washington's gate shut to the Syrians, especially after the Hariri assassination two years ago, Assad may have concluded that the road to the White House went through Jerusalem. [This, indeed, proved to be the road successfully taken by Yasser Arafat in the Oslo peace talks.] Haaretz writes about how the Syrians "asked for help in improving their relations with the United States, and particularly in lifting the American embargo on Syria." Assad may have burned too many bridges to get where he wants to go. Haaretz reports that the secret talks were held only after the Bush folks vetoed the idea of Israel holding proper negotiations with Syria--"The Americans are not prepared to hear about contact with Syria."
That raises the question: If Bush is seeking peace in the Middle East, why not at least test Assad's sincerity, if not follow the Baker-Hamilton recommendation to urgently sponsor Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations?

By Scott MacLeod/Cairo

23:34 pm
Condi vs. Hosni (2)

Though the Egyptian government largely wrote off the Bush administration once the U.S. invaded Iraq, Condi Rice got some kinds words during her meeting with President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit in Luxor today.
Abul Gheit described Rice's talks with Mubarak, who will be 79 in May, as good, productive, positive and even warm--not bad, considering that Mubarak himself is basically boycotting presidential trips to Washington these days. Rice arrived late from her meetings in Jerusalem and gave the Egyptians the news that Israeli PM Olmert and Palestinian Prez Abbas had agreed to hold a three-way summit with her. For the first time in six years, Rice proclaimed, the Israelis and Palestinians had decided to skip past their never-ending security quarrels and discuss, albeit informally, "broader issues" (read core issues, like Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, borders) holding up a future Palestinian state. "Let's be glad that after six years that the parties want to engage in an informal set of discussions about the future between them," she told reporters.
Three cheers for Rice, but the Egyptians, who work closely with Abbas, are not leaping up and down with joy just yet. Abul Gheit agreed there needs to be a stabilization stage, followed very soon by talks "whereby everything is discussed." The "endgame," he stressed, "is very important to Egypt." Abul Gheit said, however, that the limited agreements Olmert and Abbas reached in their very first meeting, last December 23--an apparent reference to releasing Palestinian tax revenues--remain unimplemented.
What tempers Abul Gheit's enthusiasm, no doubt, is a belief that it is too little, too late, and that even if the Olmert-Abbas-Rice summit leads to more serious talks, Bush won't have the political stomach to do what is necessary to reach a final settlement--in the Egyptian view, at least, to pressure Israel into necessary compromises. "They didn't set a date for the summit, so it could be in six months," an Egyptian on the sidelines quipped. "Who knows what the Middle East will look like then?"
Egyptian skepticism stems from a belief that Bush has screwed up just about everything he could in the Middle East--by invading Iraq, Bush uncorked Sunni-Shiite tensions and a possible breakup of the country; by ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he accelerated the disintegration of the peace process and helped get Hamas elected; by pushing the democracy agenda, he undermined Arab allies.
Although Abul Gheit expressed hope that Bush's new Iraq plan will succeed, Egyptians clearly have their doubts. They think that Bush is missing the point by obsessing with the security issue and failing to draw the Sunni opposition into a meaningful role. Inviting Iranian-backed Shiite leader Abdul Aziz Hakim to the White House recently sent the wrong message: that the U.S. is acquiescing in Iran's growing role in Iraq, rather than working hard to build a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish consensus. Sunni Arab disgust with Saddam's hanging is further harming Washington's image in the Arab world so much that Rice found herself, bizarrely, defending Saddam's right to a dignified execution.
Egypt will continue to be vaguely supportive but not enthusiastic about Bush's Middle East agenda. Abul Gheit says Egypt would be happy to host the Olmert-Abbas summit when it happens. But don't expect Mubarak to stick his neck out too far.

By Scott MacLeod/Luxor

18:49 pm
Why Condi Won't Be Coming to Lebanon

When Condoleezza Rice was in Lebanon early last year, she told the country's Speaker of Parliament that she would love to come back to Lebanon to go skiing. Now it just so happens that her latest trip to the Middle East -- to promote the White House 'surge' plan for Iraq -- has coincided with the opening of ski season here. And yet, not only won't Rice be hitting the slopes, she won't be coming to Lebanon at all.

The fact that Lebanon isn't on Rice's itinerary is significant because supporting the pro-American government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is one of the Bush administration's most important stated objectives in the Middle East. Ever since the Syrian occupation of Lebanon ended in 2005, after a series of demonstrations that the Sate Department dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," the American government has touted Lebanon as an example of the success of its freedom and democracy agenda in the region.

Moreover the Siniora government, which came to power in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, would seem to need American help more than ever. Syria's power is once again on the rise in Lebanon, as a coalition of pro-Syrian political parties, led by Hizballah, have vowed to shut down the government through a series of mass protests until Siniora steps down.

But a visit by Rice to Lebanon right now would probably play into the hands of the pro-Syrian opposition. Rice is one of the most recognizable and most regularly caricatured world leaders in the Lebanese press. Nothing short of a visit by President Bush himself would do more to rally the opposition protests, which for the moment seem to be flagging.

Rice became a controversial -- indeed a hated -- figure in much of Lebanon after she worked to delay an international push for an immediate cease-fire during this summer's war with Israel, saying the conflict represented "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." Her comment -- which came as Lebanese civilians, especially children, were bearing the brunt of the conflict -- will haunt American policy in Lebanon at least until the end of this administration.

Indeed, the opposition demonstrations that have clogged central Beirut for the last several weeks are in large part a reaction against the government's relationship with the US, as personified by Rice (who last visited Lebanon in July when the war broke out.) In interview after interview with the largely Shi'ite Muslim protesters -- many of whom came from the towns in southern Lebanon or neighborhoods in southern Beirut hit hardest during the war -- I heard variations of a similar complaint against the government: While we were getting hit by American-made bombs dropped by the Israelis, the government was up at the American embassy meeting Condoleezza Rice.

Rice's last planned trip to Lebanon -- scheduled for this past August --didn't work out so well. A day before she was to arrive on her way back from Israel, Israeli bombs destroyed a building sheltering Lebanese civilians in Qana, killing at least 28 people, 16 of whom were children. The Lebanese trip was cancelled by mutual agreement between the American and Lebanese governments. Not long afterwards, a huge poster appeared on a highway overpass in central Beirut depicting Rice with vampire fangs dripping with the blood of Lebanese children.

Rice hasn't abandoned Siniora. She may meet with members of the Lebanese government at a Paris donor conference to raise money for Lebanon's postwar reconstruction later this month. But she won't be skiing with them anytime soon.

By Andrew Lee Butters/Beirut

14:17 pm
Condi vs. Hosni

Now that President Bush has admitted serious setbacks in Iraq, Condi Rice's mission to the Middle East includes some begging for help from America's Arab allies, especially Mubarak of Egypt and Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This is the same Rice who was in Cairo delivering her landmark lecture on Arab democracy and America's determination to promote it. On a visit to Egypt last October, the friction the speech generated was still palpable. "I've spoken about [jailed opposition leader] Ayman Nour each time that I meet with my Egyptian counterparts," she said in a dig at Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, who retorted, "You didn't raise it today!" Condi had to have the last word, though: "I will Ahmed. I'm certain. You can be certain I will."
Ás I write, Rice is on the way to my hotel, the famed Winter Palace on the River Nile in Luxor, for lunch with Abul Gheit in a chandeliered dining room, before she holds talks with Mubarak that will cover all the problems of the region. But the Bush people seem to have decided that getting Mubarak's help in the region is more important than badgering him about democracy. Bush's enthusiasm for elections in the Arab world started to dim a year ago, when the Muslim Brotherhood won one-fifth of the seats in Egypt's parliament and Hamas took over the Palestinian assembly. Mubarak has been cracking down by arresting the Brotherhood's leaders, with hardly a complaint from Washington.
Democratization in Egypt remains a crucial factor for progress in the Middle East, but nonetheless it's hard to argue that it is more important than urgently addressing the multiple crises in the region where Egypt can and does play a constructive role. Mubarak could smugly tell Rice that if Bush had only listened to his advice before, when he said the invasion of Iraq would open a Pandora's Box, then the U.S. wouldn't be facing such a disaster in Iraq as it is now.
Arguably, Mubarak, quietly, has done more than any other single international figure in recent years to promote stablity in the region. He tried to keep peace talks going after Bush and Sharon walked away from Arafat in 2001. After Hamas's victory last year, he kept up a dialogue with the group, which the U.S. refuses to deal with. Egypt has worked tirelessly for the release of the Israeli solder whose capture near Gaza by Hamas last year led to renewed Israeli-Palestnian fighting. Mubarak did everything to prevent last summer's war in Lebanon that initially had Rice almost joyously proclaiming the birth of a new Middle East. After Hizballah captured two Israeli soldiers, Mubarak within hours dispatched Abul Gheit to Damascus to ask Assad to intervene with Hizballah and free the soldiers before Israel reacted. Mubarak stuck his neck out, even though the subsequent Israeli onslaught on Lebanon made Hizballah immensely popular in Egypt and further eroded Mubarak's standing on his own street.
The Bush administration may be disinclined to listen to the Middle East advice of a bipartisan panel of Americans, but if she wants to avoid further disasters Rice will do well to hear well what America's Arab allies are saying. They may have their own problems and work to do, but they know the region better than Bush does.

By Scott MacLeod/Luxor

20:18 pm
Ski Season in Lebanon


The life of a Middle East correspondent isn't all bombs and riots. In fact, (though I may regret letting my editors in on the secret) when there isn't a war, the living in Lebanon is pretty darn easy.

Today was one of the first sunny days of ski season in the Mount Lebanon region. Here's a photograph from Faraya Mazar, the country's most developed ski resort, which is about an hour north of Beirut by car. The short distance means you can attend a dinner party in town on Saturday night, get your full eight hours of sleep, and still be on the slopes by around 10 o'clock the next morning. And since Lebanese social circles are -- like the country itself -- pretty small, chances are you'll see your pals from Saturday night on the mountain too.

Skiing is possible in Lebanon because the swift rise of the coastal mountain range, coming after the broad flat expanse of the open sea, creates updrafts that keep the high country cold even when it might be sixty degrees on the shore. While the old cliche -- that in Lebanon you can go alpine skiing in the morning and water skiing in the afternoon -- might be technically true, I don't know anyone who's tried. Even in March and early April (which is as long as the ski season lasts) the Mediterranean is too cold for much more than a quick dip. But it's exhilarating enough just sliding off a chair-lift with the Mediterranean on one side, and biblical Mt. Hermon on the other. Pinch yourself: the Arabian peninsula is that-a-way.


In this photograph, you can see how rapidly snow disappears as the mountains roll down to the sea. And just in case you weren't sure which religious group is the majority in these here parts, the owners of the ski resort have turned steel ski-lift girders into crosses on several of the high ridge-lines.

As cars head back down from the hills to the coast on Sunday afternoon, many of them will have a strange new white hood ornaments. Snowmen are a winter status symbol that tell everyone in your home village that you've been up in the mountains for the weekend. The fact that the snowmen often block windshield visibility doesn't seem to bother anyone. As my skiing buddy, Alex, who is himself Lebanese, said today when an errant snowboarder went crashing through the plastic orange protective webbing separating skiers and the lunchtime crowd sunning themselves at a base lodge: "They ski like they drive."


By Andrew Lee Butters/Faraya


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