Should Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank?
January 24th, 2014
02:25 PM ET

Should Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter@FridaGhitis. The views expressed are her own.

What will happen if the current round of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians ends in failure? If the two sides cannot come to an agreement is there another option for solving the conflict?

As the talks continue with scant visible evidence of progress, a few prominent Israelis have started reviving talk of a third way: unilateral withdrawal of Israel from most of the West Bank – even without a peace deal.

The notion that Israelis could voluntarily withdraw from territories claimed by Palestinians without securing an agreement is nothing new. In fact, the term “unilateral disengagement” was coined by the recently-deceased former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who removed all Jewish settlers and military forces from Gaza in 2005. He ordered the withdrawal after saying he had concluded that peace with Palestinians was not possible, but that he also believed Israel should not rule over millions of Palestinians.

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Topics: Israel • Middle East
January 17th, 2014
10:11 AM ET

Gulf states have complicated relationship with Iran

By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. You can follow him @DavidAWeinberg. The views expressed are his own.

In a controversial interview aired this week, Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called for sanctions on Iran to be dropped. His proposal for prematurely unwinding the sanctions regime represents the most tangible success thus far for Iran’s efforts to weaken the Saudi-led consensus in the Gulf against Tehran.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, those actors most amenable to Iranian overtures have been Gulf leaders with a political or financial stake in engaging the Islamic Republic.

Shortly after Iran reached a short-term nuclear accord in November, its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, embarked on a regional tour of the Gulf, initially setting out to visit Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.  At the end of his tour, Zarif also tacked on an unexpected trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Qatar and Oman each share energy resources with Iran, Kuwait has an influential Shiite minority, and Dubai has long served as an illicit hub of trade and investment for Iran.

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Topics: Middle East
January 16th, 2014
10:12 PM ET

Making things worse in the Middle East

By Fareed Zakaria

Over the past few months, the Middle East has become an even more violent place than usual. Iraq is now once again home to one of the most bloody civil wars in the world, after Syria of course, which is the worst. Watching these horrors unfold, many in the United States are convinced that this is Washington’s fault or that, at the very least, the Obama administration’s “passive” approach toward the region has allowed instability to build. In fact, the last thing the region needs is more U.S. intervention.

The Middle East is in the midst of a sectarian struggle, like those between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the age of the Reformation. These tensions are rooted in history and politics and will not easily go away.

Read the Washington Post column

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Topics: Middle East
January 11th, 2014
08:00 AM ET

Why Iraq is in turmoil

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

Here's a startling statistic: more than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in violent attacks in 2013. That makes it the second most violent country in the world, after its neighbor Syria.

As violence has spread and militants have gained ground in several Middle Eastern countries, people have been wondering how much this has to do with the Obama administration and its lack of an active intervention in the region. The Wall Street Journal and a Commentary magazine opinion piece have both argued this past week that the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq is directly responsible for the renewed violence in that country. They and others have also argued that because it has stayed out of Syria, things there have spiraled downward.

Let me suggest that the single greatest burden for the violence and tensions across the Arab world lies with a president – though not President Obama – and it lies with an American foreign policy that was not too passive but rather too active and interventionist in the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq triggered what has become a regional religious war in the Middle East. Let me explain how, specifically.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • Iraq • Middle East • Religion
Russia's growing Middle East influence
January 8th, 2014
10:15 AM ET

Russia's growing Middle East influence

By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. The views expressed are her own.

Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved perhaps his most desired goal in 2013: He successfully positioned Russia as indispensable to resolving key international problems. And nowhere has his success been more visible than in the Syrian conflict and Iranian nuclear negotiations. The Moscow-brokered deal to put Syria’s chemical arsenal under control of international inspectors helped avoid military strikes against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Russia also emerged as a strong voice in the P5+1 group, allowing Iran to avoid tougher sanction against its nuclear program upon reaching an interim deal in Geneva in December 2013.

But behind the scenes, Russia is playing an even more significant role, and is an increasingly assertive player throughout the broader Middle East. It’s a trend the West cannot ignore.

According to Russian press reports, the Kremlin struck a $2 billion weapons agreement with Egypt last month, the culmination of years of quiet Kremlin efforts to revive Russia’s Cold War relationships in the region.

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Topics: Middle East • Russia
How Lebanon can turn things around
December 2nd, 2013
10:33 AM ET

How Lebanon can turn things around

By Georges Pierre Sassine, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Georges Pierre Sassine is a political activist who writes about Lebanon’s public policy issues at www.georgessassine.com. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Lebanese may have enjoyed celebrating 70 years of independence last week. But they will also have been fully aware of something much less welcome – nine months of political gridlock. Since March, Lebanon has been unable to form a new government, parliamentary elections held in June were postponed for 18 months, and the current caretaker government has no decision-making powers. As the gridlock persists, Lebanon is slowly losing its ability to manage the spillover from Syria’s war – and a cynical Lebanese society is debating three responses to tackle the country’s malaise.

The first response is simply a “wait and see” policy, rooted in a firm belief that geopolitics supersedes domestic politics. To succeed, this approach requires a resolution of the crisis in Syria. The second response is more inward looking, a belief that the gridlock can be overcome through constitutional reforms and a rethink of Lebanon’s political system. The third, more cynical, response calls for the complete partition of the country.

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Topics: Middle East
November 26th, 2013
05:25 PM ET

Despite frustrations, Saudis unlikely to break with U.S.

By Becca Wasser, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Becca Wasser is a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. You can follow her @IISSBecca. The views expressed are her own.

Saudi Arabia’s careful silence in the immediate aftermath of the deal struck with Iran on its nuclear program at the weekend should have come as no surprise. From disagreements over how to handle Syria and Egypt, to its rejection of a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the Kingdom has been clear about its displeasure with Washington’s strategy in the Middle East.  

The current head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, met recently with European diplomats in Riyadh to notify them of a “major shift” in U.S.-Saudi relations, while former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki has for his part given several interviews suggesting that the Gulf States will become more independent.

Saudi Arabia’s public displeasure is largely a reaction to the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, perceived U.S. inaction over the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, differences over Egypt’s future, and a lack of support for Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies. The U.S.-Iran rapprochement in particular has shaken Saudi trust in the United States, and Saudi Arabia is not alone among the Gulf States in fearing that warming of U.S.-Iran ties risk coming at the expense of their own relationship. And while Saudi Arabia has been publicly quiet over the Iran deal, a senior advisor to the Saudi royal family has reportedly said the Kingdom is willing to steer a more proactive foreign policy course in future.

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Topics: Middle East • Saudi Arabia
Time ripe to rid Middle East of chemical weapons
November 20th, 2013
09:29 AM ET

Time ripe to rid Middle East of chemical weapons

By Barry M. Blechman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Barry M. Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are his own.

The world will be a safer place if the surprising agreement that led to the promised destruction of Syria’s stockpile of deadly chemical weapons can pave the way for the banning of such weapons from the entire Middle East and eventually the world.

The next move is up to Israel and Egypt.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad surprised the world in September when he agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention barring the use of such weapons and to permit the supervised destruction of all his chemical weapon stocks. The move was designed to halt an expected U.S. bombing campaign against his country after al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in the Syrian civil war.

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Topics: Conflict • Egypt • Israel • Middle East • Syria
Saudi-U.S. friendship under pressure
November 7th, 2013
11:47 AM ET

Saudi-U.S. friendship under pressure

By Ellen Laipson, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are her own.

Following recent meetings in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Our relationship is strategic, it is enduring and it covers a wide range.” But his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, politely acknowledged differences with the United States, stating that “a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness.”

The Saudi foreign minister tried to tamp down talk of a major rift, based on recent pronouncements by senior Saudi officials that conveyed a deep frustration in Riyadh about international cooperation on the key issues facing the Middle East: the Syrian crisis, the Palestine question and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Saudis have staked out positions on each issue that do not align with major world capitals, highlighting the limits of the kingdom’s efforts to shape the regional environment and project Saudi power and influence. And, as the kingdom expands its global role and seeks recognition as a more independent actor, its reliance on the United States is understandably under stress.

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Topics: Middle East • Saudi Arabia
Obama has demoted liberty
October 3rd, 2013
08:56 AM ET

Obama has demoted liberty

By Will Marshall, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.

President Barack Obama has demoted liberty and democracy as primary U.S. foreign policy goals, at least where the Middle East is concerned.  So the president informed the world in his address to the United Nations last week.

Obama said four “core interests” would henceforth guide U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa: protecting our allies, ensuring the flow of oil, fighting anti-American terrorists, and preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction. While he said U.S. efforts to “promote democracy, human rights, and open markets” will continue, they are now relegated explicitly to the second tier of U.S. interests.

Not so fast Mr. President. Shouldn’t Democrats at least be questioning Obama’s logic, if not raising objections?  After all, the president’s embrace of realpolitik is at odds with the party’s liberal internationalist outlook, which on balance has served America and the world well for seven decades. And it collides with America’s strategic interest in banking the fires of political violence and extremism in the world’s most turbulent region.

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Topics: Barack Obama • Middle East
Israel must be wary of those lining up to give advice
October 1st, 2013
12:27 PM ET

Israel must be wary of those lining up to give advice

By Danny Danon, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Danny Danon is Israel’s deputy defense minister and the author of Israel: The Will to Prevail.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States this week has provided yet another reminder of how our country’s “volunteer advisers,” pundits and columnists are always quick to lavish their counsel upon us. Often forgotten once these thoughts of the day are neglected in favor of new topics is how much of this advice is proven by history to be dead wrong.

The Golan Heights and Israel is one such topic worth examining. International focus on Syria today centers on the heinous chemical attacks and its war-torn urban landscapes replete with rubble, bombs and bodies. These are heart wrenching scenes, and in Israel, as everywhere, we pray for a speedy end to this conflict and its wanton destruction. But simmering beneath these tragic headlines has been another key issue that sheds much light on the “value” of the advice Israel’s government receives – the Golan Heights, that slender tract of land along the Israel-Syria border.

The al-Assad regime has withdrawn thousands of its troops from the Syrian side of the Golan, mobilizing them for the defense of Damascus. This has created a power vacuum in the south of the country as the most significant troop redeployment of its kind in 40 years took place from the buffer zone.

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Topics: Israel • Middle East • Syria
Why the 'Netanyahu Doctrine' makes sense
October 1st, 2013
12:18 PM ET

Why the 'Netanyahu Doctrine' makes sense

By Einat Wilf, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Einat Wilf is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and sat on its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from his meeting Monday with President Barack Obama, he may have recognized in the president a fellow proponent of the Netanyahu Doctrine: to avoid the use of force, be ready to use it. After all, Obama had just reiterated that he won't take any options off the table on Iran, “including military.”

Of course, the Netanyahu Doctrine is nothing new – the ancient Romans described it as si vis pacem para bellum, “he who wants peace must prepare for war.” Hebrew wisdom extolled self-restraint as the highest form of heroism, and such ancient wisdom has also guided Netanyahu's policies, and not only on Iran. But while this doctrine did not originate with Netanyahu, the prime minister has become closely associated with its application in the region, despite facing significant criticism.

The doctrine is simple to formulate, yet nearly impossible to successfully implement because to be a success, three components must be in place: the capability to use force, projection of a true willingness to use it, and a deep desire to avoid doing so. No one, including the leader, knows what will actually happen at the critical moment of decision regarding the use of force, but the other side should be sufficiently concerned and unsure to consider the threat credible. When done right, the doctrine is a masterful tightrope walk over the twin abyss of Vietnam and Munich: Prepare for war too much and you risk instigating the very war you wish to avoid; prepare too little and you risk encouraging aggression through weakness and appeasement.

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