Friday, June 26, 2009

Netanyahu's speech ends the hope of a Palestinian state

Published in The Daily Star, June 27, 2009

IN the wake of post election disturbances in Iran, an event of great importance was not covered in the international media with the attention that it deserved. In Israel, the rightist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his much awaited speech on Palestine that, before the Iranian upheaval, had been heralded in the media as an event to watch, particularly as it was expected to be Netanyahu's response to the Cairo speech of President Barak Obama on June 4th in which he had made specific and optimistic recommendations for the resolution of the Palestinian problem.

Benjamin Netanyahu made his speech on June 14th at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. He grudgingly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state. But that was about all. By the conditions he gave for accepting the state of Palestine, he took away almost all the elements that make a state. The Israeli Prime Minister's idea of a Palestinian state is one that should be completely demilitarized, which must be guaranteed by the United States and the international community. It would have no right over its airspace. Netanyahu's independent state of Palestine would have no part of Jerusalem as its capital; that would exclusively and totally be the capital of Israel. The refugees would have no right of return and the settlements would remain. The Israeli settlements created on occupied lands would remain and although new settlements would not be created, existing ones would be allowed “natural growth” for “normal life” that would allow limited construction.

The offer of the Israeli Prime Minister has been rejected, quite understandably, by the Palestinians straightaway. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said after the speech: “Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about negotiations, but left us with nothing to negotiate as he systematically took nearly every permanent status issue off the table.” In fact that is exactly what Netanyahu did. He systematically took out of the table all the progress made in years and years of negotiations that had brought the two protagonists close to a deal towards the final days of the Clinton presidency. Netanyahu has also refused to make any reference to the American backed peace plan known as the road map. Likewise the Arab Peace Plan given by then Crown Prince and now King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2002 that had also injected enthusiasm in the past, has also been ignored. This plan offered on behalf of the Arab Nations assurances of normalization of their relations with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territories including East Jerusalem and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian problem. Then Prime Minister Olmert said that the Plan was a step in the right direction as it was “a new way of thinking, the willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact and to debate the conditions of the future solution.”

In conceding on a Palestinian state, Netanyahu has rejected all other Palestinian demands such as withdrawal from occupied territories and dismantling of the settlements; the right of the refugees to return, East Jerusalem as a capital, etc. In fact, he has taken away much more than even the minimum that is required for resolving the Palestinian problem. The Palestinian state that he has proposed would in fact be little better than an autonomous entity furthest removed from even the most casual and childish definition of statehood.

In fact it is not that the Israeli Prime Minister has demolished all foundations the Palestinians consider necessary for their statehood; he has introduced a very dangerous element into the peace process, if it can at all be called a peace process in the context of the conditions set by the Israeli Prime Minister. Netanyahu has demanded from the Palestinians and the Arab nations a clear recognition of Israel as state for the Jewish people. In this demand, he has embedded clearly, if subtly, the concept that non-Jews would have no position in Israel. That just ends the hope of millions of Palestinian refugees of their right to return to the land where their forefathers had lived for thousands of years; it also means that the Jewish state of Israel would have the right to push out the non-Jews from Israel, if they so desire.

Netanyahu has trashed the road map, the Arab Peace Plan and all other past negotiations. The speech was an anti-climax to the hopes among the Arabs that was raised by President Obama's Cairo speech. President Hosne Mubarak said Netanyahu's "call to recognize Israel as a Jewish state complicates things further and scuttles the possibilities for peace." Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader asserted that Netanyahu delivered “a war speech that practically torpedoed and crippled all possibilities for a compromise,” and that “makes the region susceptible to great dangers that might explode in different directions.” Mohammed Sobeih, the Arab League's Undersecretary General for Palestinian Affairs, said that while “extremists in Israel” might like the speech, it was “too far from what peace needs.”

They must not therefore have been very pleased by the reaction of the US President who described the speech as a “forward movement”, adding “we're seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks.” The US President also said that the Palestinians must accept Israel's right to exist and must put “an end to incitement against Israel and an end to violence against Israel.” President Obama has thus set Israel's right to exist and guarantee of her security as core issues for the settlement of the Palestinian problem, expecting the Palestinians to accept these conditions for creation of the Palestinian state even where their rights and demands to be sovereign would be left un-fulfilled. In giving a positive spin to Netanyahu's speech, President Obama has also overlooked the fact that in response to his blunt rejection of “the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” in his Cairo speech, the Israeli Prime Minister has equally forcefully rejected US demand for a complete freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an issue that is critical to the peace process.

In defining Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu has re-written the basic pre-conditions that create an independent state. He has taken away the right of the future state of Palestine to defend herself against external aggression, a pre-condition that denies sovereignty to the future state of Palestine and would give that state a status comparable to a colony in the days of colonialism. It is hard to see how and why the Palestinians would be negotiating for their rights under these pre-conditions. The very logic of having a power armed to the teeth with both nuclear and conventional weapons existing side by side with a totally demilitarized one is perhaps the most incomprehensible explanation of peaceful coexistence.

During the trip of Barak Obama to Israel when he was a Presidential candidate, he had met Netanyahu who was not yet the prime minister. The two had an intimate exchange where Obama described himself as a leftist moving towards the centre and Netanyahu as a rightist, moving in the same direction suggesting that if they assumed office in their respective countries, there would be a middle course for resolution of the Palestinian problem. Netanyahu liked the comment. He therefore had asked the US President to watch his speech. The comments of President Obama about the prime minister's speech suggest that there has been a movement in the direction but in only one of the two. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not moved anywhere from his extreme right position; he has instead been able to encourage the US President to move towards his direction.

In retrospect, Netanyahu's speech was no surprise for he is well known for his extremist position and he has remained steadfast to it. It is Obama's reaction to this speech that has come as a surprise for, after raising so much hope for peace in the Middle East, he has backed a speech that is going to push back the peace process many steps back.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Obama's Cairo speech and a new world order

The Daily Star , Saturday 13th June, 2009
Serajul Islam

A joke from the Bush-Blair era went like this: on the sidelines of a G8 Summit, the two buddies were laughing over a joke when Condoleezza Rice walked in and asked them what they were laughing about. Bush replied that they were discussing the Third World War that would kill a billion Muslims and a dentist. A surprised Rice asked “why one dentist?” An amused Bush turned to Blair and said, “See I told you no one cares about the Muslims.”

President Barak Obama's epoch-making speech at Cairo University on June 4th was significant for many of the things he said but it was most significant because he was able to convey to the Muslims that he cared for them. He dug into history of the monolithic religions; into his own past and from these he brought out substance intended to rebuild the bridges with the Muslim world that his predecessor had so insensitively tried to destroy. He said that the three monolithic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam reject the killing of innocent men, women and children and concluded that the fight against extremism and violence should be a common cause of the followers of these three great faiths. He has rationally tried to bind the followers of these three religions against terror and violence worldwide, sidetracking Bush's War on Terror that, in a moment of candor, he had called a Crusade.

Obama was at his eloquent best, a model of composure and sincerity, as he delivered his speech from the podium of Cairo University with the world eagerly watching him with very high expectations. Although the speech was heralded as one intended to reach out to the Muslims, it had in it almost all the issues that divide nations in the contemporary world. He placed extremism and violence as the first of these divisive issues and then proceeded with the Palestinian problem; the rights and responsibilities of nuclear states; challenges to democracy; religious freedom in the contemporary world; women's rights and concluded with economic development and opportunity. Quite understandably, he did not reach into much depth with these issues as those looking into these would have liked. Perhaps this was also not intended for he wanted the world, particularly the Muslim world, to understand that what his predecessor represented in foreign affairs was a minority view in his country and that he was appearing before the Muslim world with a view of the majority of US citizens. He drew a parallel with Al Qaeda and Islam, concluding that Al Qaeda likewise does not represent the majority view of the Muslim world and that the two vast majorities together should be bonded by history and religion in the common pursuit for peace.

Within these parameters, he has set very clear directions for his administration's change of course in foreign policy. He said that US troops from Iraq would be home by 2012. In Afghanistan, the US is not seeking a base and that US will lead a coalition of 46 countries there to complete the objective that his predecessor had started. He clearly identified the Al Qaeda as evil as forcefully as his predecessor but refrained from calling them Islamic terrorist. He acknowledged the ability of Al Qaeda for terrorism and violence worldwide but concluded that the best way to deal with them is to isolate them from the rest of the Muslim world, acknowledging Islam as a religion of peace. He identified Afghanistan and Pakistan as the new frontier for fighting Al Qaeda but asserted that the way to end Al Qaeda and their supporters the Taliban would be to strengthen the governments and the conditions of the people there to help them in turn to defeat the forces of terror.

President Obama clearly understood the importance of the Palestinian issue as a key one of discontent in the Muslim worlds that both Al Qaeda and absolute monarchs and dictators have exploited. He said that the Palestinian issue should be resolved by the two-state policy where an independent Israel and an independent Palestine would be able to co-exist. He called on Hamas to end their violence against Israel while asking Israel unequivocally to end settlements that is a major element of Palestinian discontent. He called US-Israel relations as “unbreakable.” In acknowledging the need to settle the Palestinian problem, he has also sought to neutralize a fertile recruitment ground for Al Qaeda.

He also moved away from his predecessor in explaining that while the US foreign policy supports democratic changes worldwide, such changes can come only by internal efforts and not through regime change with outside assistance. He thus gave not just Iran a clear signal that US has no intention of interfering with their internal affairs; it has also resonated likewise in other Muslim countries, particularly in the Arab world. To Iran, Obama also reaffirmed a long standing US policy that all countries have the right to peaceful nuclear power if it complies with responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Reaction to the speech in the Arab world has been positive. Newspapers and TV channels welcomed the speech for the positive tone on Islam. Al Jazeera on its website covered the speech with caption reading “America is not at odds with Islam.” The Palestinian Authority called it a “new beginning.” Elsewhere, Muslims felt that in 55 minutes Obama has wiped out 8 years of Bush that would bring US closer to them. Hamas, in contrast, considered the speech a “palpable” change and added that it has many contradictions.

Not surprisingly, the speech has been criticized the most by neo-conservatives of the Republican Party and the Israeli lobby in the United States. They took the line that it has been improper for a US President to criticize his predecessor on foreign soil and to make an “apology speech” to the Muslims. They would have liked President Obama to criticize the dictators and monarchs and their un-democratic ways to take the heat off Israel. One influential Republican, Senator Lugar, also a member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, termed the speech as a “signal achievement” and dismissed it as too apologetic. However, he doubted how much impact the speech would have on the ME peace process or hasten the creation of a Palestinian state.

The road ahead for Obama's pursuit for peace will be a tough one. In Israel, a right wing Prime Minister is in power and President Obama can only push him to a point and not beyond. He must work with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other parties in Israel to convince them that unless they give the Palestinians their rights, they cannot achieve the peace they are seeking. It is however encouraging that President Obama has focused on the Palestinian issue at the beginning of his first term while his two predecessors did so towards the end of their respective tenure. Time would thus be on his side in working for a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian issue.

Obama will also have a tough time in the days ahead balancing US's relations with the different and contrasting governments in the Middle East where there are conservative monarchies (Saudi Arabia and others); military leader (Egypt); clerical regime (Iran), and secular one (Syria). Equally difficult for him will be dealing with rise of political Islam in the Muslim countries. Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al Qaeda and Taliban are resurgent again, will also test his skills to the fullest.

The tough road ahead notwithstanding, the merit of the Cairo speech does not need to be overemphasized if one just forgets Obama for a brief moment and goes back to the days of the Bush presidency. The Bush-Blair joke about the Muslims and the dentist had a dangerous underpinning; the two friends had set the world on course towards a Third World War; a war that Muslims, Christians and Jews all believe could have been doomsday. That prospect has been put into the cold storage of history with a bonus to boot; President Obama has given everyone the hope of a new world order and he has the power, well-earned respect and time to push for it.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, Dhaka.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Will "alter-egos" serve our interests better?

M. Serajul Islam
The Daily Star, June 5th, 2009

AN air of despondency is prevailing among our professional diplomats because of the way this Government is appointing ambassadors and high commissioners. All these appointments have not yet been announced because the respective governments have not yet given the agreements. But then secrecy has never been a strong point in our governance and hence most of these appointments have found their way to the press. In fact, a member of the parliament, who is also a former career diplomat, has responded to these appointments in the media as if they have been announced already.

These appointments have been made in a sharp departure from the past. Under the existing system, the majority of appointments of ambassadors/high commissioners are made from the professional cadre who are also posted to most of the important missions, if not all. The system also allows a number of ambassadors to be appointed from the other services - the armed forces - to less important stations on a 70% career and 30% non-career quotas. In the days of President Ershad, who held the career diplomats in contempt, many from the armed forces were given key missions much to the disgust and agony of the career diplomats.

Once elected government returned in 1991, rationality was restored to the system of appointment of ambassadors and high commissioner with minor deviations. A foreign secretary was again posted to one of the key stations: to Washington or to New York. Career diplomats were sent to head our missions in London, New Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo, Geneva, and Brussels. The logic and rationale behind sending career diplomats to key stations evolves from the fact that diplomacy is a specialized profession where the more experience one acquires, the better he/she serves his/her country. This is why all countries have a cadre of professional diplomats who eventually serve their countries at the Ambassadorial level.

Bangladesh has been served well over the years by its professional diplomats. In the early years of our independence, the Foreign Ministry was at the centre of governance as Bangladesh started its journey as an independent country. In those days, the Foreign Ministry was consulted by the Prime Minister's Office or Bangabhavan and its senior officers were often called to Bangabhavan to brief Bangobandhu. Over the years, MFA gradually got detached from the centre of power, a detachment to which the civil service had a great deal to contribute but they kept their professionalism and their ability to represent Bangladesh's interests abroad successfully.

During BNP's second stint in office, Washington and London were given to non-career diplomats but the cadre officers were still at the other key posts like New York, Geneva, Berlin, Beijing, Brussels, Moscow; New Delhi, Riyadh and Tokyo. At present only New York, Beijing and Tokyo are with cadre officers. In case of the last two stations, the career diplomats there will retire within the next few months. In the trend being set, career diplomats cannot be confident that these posts will be given to them.

Quite naturally Foreign Service cadre officers and former diplomats are concerned at the trend of sidelining the career diplomats. In support of this trend, the former career diplomat and now a Member of Parliament and some Ambassadors close to the Government have said that receiving countries give importance to Ambassadors who are close to “top government leaders.” The Member of Parliament went a step forward in upholding the trend, mentioning to the media: "Our ambassadors and high commissioners must act as alter egos of the head of the government. Those people (persons made heads of missions) must reflect the state policy and programme to get better access to their designated destinations." While I have problem with both the views, I am at a loss for words on the opinion of the Member of Parliament. He is propagating a new theory in diplomacy although in the historical context, this theory is an old one that has become obsolete many centuries ago. His theory of Ambassadors as “alter egos” of the Head of State/Government resonates in diplomacy of all ancient civilizations, most of all in ancient India in Kautiliya who described the duties of an envoy as: “sending information to his king, ensuring maintenance of the terms of a treaty, upholding his king's honour, …. suborning the kinsmen of the enemy to his own king's side, acquiring clandestinely gems and other valuable material for his own king…”etc, etc. For retired career Ambassadors who have not been “alter egos” while serving as a head of mission, the concept raises a basic question. Have we, the career Ambassadors, then have been unsuccessful Ambassadors?

One country that appoints a large number of non-career Ambassadors as an exception is the United States of America where President Bush appointed 36% of Ambassadors from non-career background compared to 29% under President Clinton. The US system will of course not be a good example to discuss the subject for two reasons. First, the US system uses Ambassadorial appointments for distribution of spoils where the President gives such appointments to financial contributors to the party, to friends, to persons of special abilities, etc. Second, the US Department of State runs a cadre of professional diplomats who are the best in the profession. The system can thus afford a non-career Ambassador as he/she can count on highly capable career diplomats to support him/her. Traditionally, the US sent non-career Ambassadors to the United Kingdom. In fact, in the long list of US Ambassadors to the United Kingdom starting with Joseph Kennedy during the Second World War till Ambassador Robert Tuttle (2005-09), almost all were non-career ambassadors. In the same period, almost all British Ambassadors to Washington were career diplomats. If one is looking for a reason here, it is in the way US political parties distribute benefits as “spoils” on winning the White House; there is no issue of “alter ego” here.

In Japan, India and in most countries, Ambassadors are drawn largely from career diplomats; non-career Ambassadors are appointed only in exceptional cases. As for the expectation that non-career Bangladeshi Ambassadors will be treated better by receiving countries on the assumption they are close to top leaders, I am afraid this is utterly misplaced. As a Director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the Ershad era, I heard an Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister bluntly tell the Foreign Secretary to stop sending non-career Ambassadors to Egypt if Bangladesh wanted to improve bilateral relations. During this period, Japan too expressed dissatisfaction with our policy of sending “alter egos” of the President as Ambassadors to Tokyo.

In the present context, I would not disagree with the Government sending a few close to the Prime Minister to some important stations. The choice of a former diplomat for New Delhi is a good one. He is close to the Prime Minister and an excellent diplomat with past experience in New Delhi. At a time when we can make a major breakthrough in Bangladesh-India relations, it is indeed a wise choice. The same can be said of one or two others. But to suggest that this should be the pattern for all the key stations is both illogical and irrational for a number of reasons. First, it rejects that diplomacy is a profession that needs training, skill and experience. Second, it suggests that non-diplomats are better Ambassadors than career diplomats. Third, it will serve as a death blow to the diplomatic cadre in Bangladesh by totally destroying its morale. There is also another issue with these appointments. A number of these individuals are dual nationals and have settled abroad. Ambassadors are not ordinary individuals and whether one with dual allegiance can be an Ambassador or not is a serious matter.

I feel sorry that some former diplomats have spoken on this subject the way they have. It is sad that logic and reason apart, they have not cared to consider the legitimate hopes and aspirations of those they have left to lead the Ministry. From what one hears, there is no place for even the Foreign Secretary to go to a key station in this “new system”! As a retired career diplomat, I am sad beyond words and would just hope and pray that those taking the decisions would review this policy.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.