July 25th, 2013
09:21 AM ET

Israel’s troubling asylum seeker treatment

By Gerry Simpson, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Gerry Simpson is Human Rights Watch’s senior refugee researcher and advocate. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Your government forces you into its army, whose conscripts spend years or decades on starvation wages in barracks and construction sites policed by corrupt and abusive superiors. You escape, creeping at night past border guards with shoot-to-kill orders. You reach a neglected refugee camp in a remote desert region of a neighboring country.

You are kidnapped and sold to traffickers in another country. They brutally torture you to extort thousands of dollars from your relatives, forced to hear your screams on a cell phone. You are released and evade more trigger-happy border guards to cross into another country, where soldiers take you to prison. You ask for asylum but it takes months to register your claim. And then a prison official says, “Write here that you want to go home and sign, or this prison is your new home.”

You wake up.

But for the 1,400 Eritrean asylum seekers detained in Israel’s Negev desert who could tell this story, this is no dream. They are living the nightmare. Having fled Eritrea for Sudan’s refugee camps, most will have faced months of torture and abuse by traffickers in Sudan and Egypt’s Sinai region, and now face a grim “choice” between prolonged detention in Israel or return to Eritrea.  Israel calls it the “procedure for documenting the free will of infiltrators.”

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Topics: Africa • Israel
July 25th, 2013
09:01 AM ET

A fool's errand worth pursuing

By Fareed Zakaria

If you were to ask me what international problem is least likely to be resolved in the next few years, I would probably say the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It takes no special insight to be skeptical on this; no one has ever lost money betting against the Middle East peace process. And yet I find myself cheering on Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to revive talks between the two sides.

The case for realism is obvious. The Palestinians are dysfunctional and divided, with Hamas controlling Gaza and still unwilling to make any kind of deal with Israel. For its part, the Israeli public has largely given up on peace, and new political groups–like those led by Naftali Bennett–flatly oppose a two-state solution.

But the situation on the ground is not quite as stuck as it at first seems.

Read the full column in TIME

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Topics: Israel • Middle East • Palestinian Authority • Time
Why Obama needs to act in Syria
May 22nd, 2013
09:39 AM ET

Why Obama needs to act in Syria

By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mark N. Katz is professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, and the author of ‘Leaving without Losing:  The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan.’ The views expressed are his own.

The ongoing civil war that is devastating Syria is increasingly threatening to spill over and engulf neighboring countries. Indeed, all the ingredients are there for what would be a disastrous region-wide Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Just look at what has been going on. Turkey is hard pressed to deal with the growing number of Syrian refugees flooding into its territory, while tiny Jordan may soon be overwhelmed by them. In addition, the conflict between Syria’s Alawite minority regime and its Sunni majority opposition is spilling over and re-invigorating Sunni-Shiite conflict both in Iraq to the east and Lebanon to the west. Meanwhile, Shiite-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq, as well as the radical Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, are all actively assisting Syria’s Alawite regime, while Sunni-dominated governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan are helping the Sunni opposition.

And what has been the Obama administration’s response to all this? Surprising – and troubling – restraint.

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Topics: Islam • Israel • Middle East • Syria • Turkey
Why Russia won't cut Syria loose
May 17th, 2013
12:15 PM ET

Why Russia won't cut Syria loose

By Peter Fragiskatos, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Peter Fragiskatos teaches at Western University in London, Canada. You can follow him @pfragiskatos. The views expressed are his own.

Amidst the horror that continues to plague Syria, a glimmer of hope emerged last week as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced they will try to bring together the Syrian state and its opponents by convening an international peace conference.

In principle, negotiations are the right way to go. Had talks taken place earlier, the bloodshed, which has now claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, could have been vastly reduced. The only way it can be stopped is if there are some compromises, and this will only happen when the warring sides start talking in earnest. Yet reports that Russia is sending advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria are a reminder that Moscow's commitment to the process remains an unpredictable wild card.

In preparing for the discussions, a division of labor appears to have been set – the Americans are trying to persuade the rebels to take part, while Russia is pressing the al-Assad regime. And there are some promising signs on both fronts. According to Kerry, Salim Idriss – chief of staff for the main opposition Free Syrian Army – has expressed strong interest in negotiations, while reports suggest Lavrov has received a list of negotiators from the Syrian government.

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Topics: Israel • Russia • Syria
65 years after 'catastrophe,' Palestinians have little to cheer about
May 14th, 2013
11:45 AM ET

65 years after 'catastrophe,' Palestinians have little to cheer about

By Ibrahim Sharqieh, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ibrahim Sharqieh is deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. You can follow him @sharqieh. The views expressed are his own.

On May 15, the Palestinians will commemorate 65 years of their “Nakba” – “the Catastrophe.” This is how they describe 1948, which saw the destruction of Palestinian society, 750,000 Palestinians forced from their homes, and over 450 Palestinian towns wiped off the map. Today, there are over 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations’ UNRWA. But while 1948 was a terrible trauma for the collective Palestinian memory, the reality is that it was only the beginning of a long journey of displacement, dispossession, and exile. The real Nakba is ongoing, and the Palestinian people live it on a daily basis both inside and outside the Palestinian territories. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry throws himself into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, we have to ask: Will his efforts bring this human tragedy a step closer to the end? Or only make it worse?

On a recent trip to Lebanon, I made sure to visit the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. While under control of the Israeli army that occupied Beirut in 1982, approximately 800 to 3,500 Palestinian refugees were massacred at the hands of Christian militias. In the camps today, the bitter reality of the Palestinian refugees’ life in exile is on full display: an enormous mass grave in the camps’ center holds the victims of 1982 massacre. It is a daily reminder to the refugees of their continuing human tragedy.

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March 27th, 2013
08:39 PM ET

Obama appeals to Israel's conscience

By Fareed Zakaria

In a sense, both hard-line supporters of Israel and advocates of peace have clung to the notion of the Jewish state as deeply vulnerable. For Likudniks, this demonstrated that Israel was at risk and needed constant support. For peaceniks, it proved that peace was a vital necessity.

But Israel’s strength and security are changing the country’s outlook. Don’t look only at the tough talk coming from the new right. As columnist and author Ari Shavit notes, the country has turned its attention from survival to social, political and economic justice. (January’s election results confirmed this trend.) And while these seem, at first, domestic affairs, they will ultimately lead to a concern for justice in a broader sense and for the rights of Palestinians.

Read the full column at the Washington Post

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Topics: Israel
Last chance for Obama in Middle East
March 20th, 2013
07:55 AM ET

Last chance for Obama in Middle East

By Mohammed Ayoob, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mohammed Ayoob is a distinguished professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed are his own.

President Barack Obama is just beginning his first visit to Israel and the West Bank since he assumed the presidency, but skeptics have already been suggesting that those expecting much more than a photo-op are destined for disappointment. Indeed, the reality is that even if there is a desire within the Obama administration to cajole the two sides into resuming an active search for peace, this visit is unlikely to bring the results the president may be hoping for.

Why? The most obvious reason is the inability of President Obama to persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop building settlements on occupied Palestinian lands, making it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the negotiating table while preserving credibility among an already highly skeptical constituency. It is ironic that despite U.S. aid to Israel running at about $3 billion a year, Israeli influence in Washington far outstrips American influence in West Jerusalem.

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Topics: Israel • Middle East
Obama’s golden outreach opportunity
March 19th, 2013
09:53 AM ET

Obama’s golden outreach opportunity

By Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig are Middle East policy analysts whose work has appeared in CNN, Foreign Policy, Forbes, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views expressed in this piece are their own.

Since the White House announced last month that President Obama would be headed to Israel, analysts have floated numerous flawed theories suggesting that the president’s trip is motivated primarily by either a desire to enhance cooperation on various security issues or to thaw the frosty relationship between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Advocates of the first theory overlook the fact that, while security issues will be addressed, this trip to Israel is not necessary for the two countries to enhance their already unprecedented security relationship – the president could accomplish the same without leaving Washington. Meanwhile, proponents of the second overestimate the impact of one more face-to-face meeting between a president and prime minister who have already met in person a number of times over the previous four years.

Rather, the greatest impact that this trip could have is not between leaders or governments, but between President Obama and the Israeli public. By using this trip to speak directly to the Israeli people and to reassure them of America’s commitment to Israel’s security, President Obama can begin to forge the kind of trust with the Israeli public that has so far eluded him, in part due to his previous requests for Israeli concessions on territory and settlements that some perceived as insensitive to Israel’s precarious security situation. In building this good faith, Obama can begin to “reset” his relationship with Israelis who may not trust today that the president will “have Israel’s back,” and can use that newly built trust to help achieve longstanding American foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

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Topics: Barack Obama • Israel • Middle East
March 18th, 2013
12:43 PM ET

Nonviolent resistance key to Middle East breakthrough

By Ibrahim Sharqieh, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ibrahim Sharqieh is deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. The views expressed are his own.

Almost twenty years of negotiations “brought us nothing but more Israeli settlement. Palestinians have had enough of negotiations,” one senior Palestinian official said at a conference I attended recently. And yet, ahead of his first visit to the Middle East as secretary of state this month, John Kerry appeared to be suggesting more of the same.

“My prayer is that perhaps this can be a moment where we can renew some kind of effort to get the parties into a discussion,” he reportedly said. Such platitudes bode poorly for President Obama’s planned visit to the region this week. Indeed, it seems as if it will be business as usual on Palestinian-Israeli policy during the president’s second term, with yet more fruitless talks and an ever-increasing disconnect between U.S. diplomacy and developments on the ground.

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The winners and losers from the Syria conflict
January 31st, 2013
09:42 AM ET

The winners and losers from the Syria conflict

By William Young, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: William Young is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He was formerly a senior officer with the Central Intelligence Agency with extensive experience in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.

All roads lead to Damascus…and back out again. Financial and military aid flowing into Syria from Iran, Russia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and other Arabian Gulf states aims to influence the outcome of the conflict between a loose confederation of rebel factions and the Bashar al-Assad regime. But this outside support could merely perpetuate the existing civil war and ignite larger regional hostilities between Sunni and Shia areas, reshaping the political geography of the Middle East.

In many ways, this is a continuation of the historical struggle between Sunni against Shia for dominance in the Islamic world, with Israel as another nearby target. Historical hatred between extremists on both sides of the conflict has already begun to spread fear and influence political sentiment north and east into Turkey and Iraq, west into Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, and south into Jordan and the Arab Gulf. To understand these trends, it is important to ask: Who benefits from the conflict in Syria, and who loses?

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Topics: Israel • Middle East • Syria • Terrorism
Israel faces reset moment
January 29th, 2013
10:47 AM ET

Israel faces reset moment

By Jane Harman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jane Harman is director, president and chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was a nine-term congresswoman from California and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006. The views expressed are her own.

Israel’s surprising election result gives its wing-clipped prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, an opportunity to shift to the center. This option was available to him four years ago when he outmaneuvered Tzipi Livni to form a majority in the Knesset. But he chose instead to move to the right.

Now comes a reset moment. Israel’s economy is fragile, with housing prices soaring and the middle class squeezed. A majority of the mostly secular Jewish population also resents special deals cut with the ultra-Orthodox to shield them from compulsory service in the military and to provide them with benefits not available to others.

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Time for U.S. to stop shielding Israel
January 23rd, 2013
08:22 PM ET

Time for U.S. to stop shielding Israel

By Ibrahim Sharqieh, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ibrahim Sharqieh is deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

We are now set for a third term for Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. And, although Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition seems to have underperformed expectations, a plurality of the vote will allow him to once again lead Israel’s government.

But even a somewhat moderated Netanyahu government will continue to advance radical positions that put regional and global security in danger. The question, then, is how the United States can best push another right-wing administration to behave in accordance with the principles of the international security system – and its own national interests.

Over the past two Netanyahu terms, the international community, and the United States in particular, adopted an approach based on accommodation when dealing with the Netanyahu government. The hope was that this approach would contain the risks this extremist government posed to international security. Yet just as that strategy did not work then, it will not work now. The United States must therefore now take a harder line with Israel’s coming government – it must switch from a strategy of accommodation to one of confrontation, and it should start by letting fall its diplomatic shield.

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