A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 27, 2009

Ambassador Chas Freeman and the NIC

There's been a brief flap over the past few days over the appointment of Ambassador Charles W. (Chas) Freeman as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council; supporters of Israel have denounced him as too pro-Arab and pro-Saudi. From what I've seen, the debate has been full of misinformation and possibly downright disinformation.

First of all, I need to note that I have some biases of my own here: I'm on the Advisory Board of the Middle East Policy Council (unpaid, before you ask), and, while some consider their journal Middle East Policy as a rival of The Middle East Journal, I've always felt they have independent identities, filling separate niches, and have myself published a number of times in Middle East Policy. I know Ambassador Freeman and have worked with him, and served on panels he chaired, though I haven't known him as well as I knew his predecessor, George McGovern. Here's his biography at the MEPC website. As you'll see, he's also an old China hand, and a combination of China and the Middle East would seem useful qualifications for the Chairman of the NIC these days, I would think. His opponents are using his China views against him as well, but I think the real complaint is his links to the Arab world.

Ambassador Freeman did serve as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), but the idea that the Middle East Policy Council is somehow a Saudi creation is simply untrue. In fact it was McGovern who changed the name of the journal from American-Arab Affairs to Middle East Policy to give it more balance. Similar allegations have been made about the Middle East Institute, even when our President was a former Ambassador to Israel, Ned Walker. They're par for the course in Washington, I suppose, but that doesn't make them true. (I get just as many complaints that we have too many Israeli authors in the Journal as that we're too pro-Arab. If both sides think you're biased, you're probably doing something right. If we're bought and owned by the Saudis, I'm not getting my fair share.)

This is not a Washington inside-the-Beltway type of blog that's going to spend a lot of time talking about Washington personalities and issues that don't matter anywhere but here, but some of the stuff I've seen on the Internet about Chas Freeman just isn't true. After all, Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is a clearly pro-Israeli organization, has also been called back by this Administration. There were some complaints about that in Arab circles, of course, but Ross' history of diplomacy in the region justifies his appointment (and his new beat is SW Asia and the Gulf, mostly meaning Iran). And so does Ambassador Freeman's. And George Mitchell's. I'd rather we suspend judgment until we see what they do, but I'm still convinced that the critique of Chas Freeman is undeserved.

And as always, the Middle East Institute does not take positions on policy issues; the opinions here are my own.

UPDATED: The Saturday Washington Post has this piece by Jon Chait of The New Republic on its op-ed page. No surprise, since Martin Peretz at The New Republic had already led the charge on Chas Freeman. None of this changes anything I've said, but gives you an idea of the drumroll that has been building up. There are actually a lot worse attacks from sites I'd rather not link to, and that are far to the right of The New Republic. Have any of these people actually met Chas Freeman? Chait at least presents him as an ultra-realist, while Peretz outright calls him a bigot. I suppose this is where we are now in Middle Eastern policy polemic, but I wanted to raise my still rather unread voice to say that it is misguided.

Early Thoughts on the Iraq Drawdown

President Obama's announcement of details of the Iraq drawdown at Camp Lejeune today didn't add much to what had already leaked during the week, but a few comments may be in order:
  • First, a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000, remaining in the country from August of 2010 until the deadline spelled out in the status of forces agreement, the end of 2011, keeps a significant force in Iraq for more than an additional year: up to a third of the total in Iraq at its peak.
  • The Administration insists these are not combat troops but will be there in a training and advisory capacity. Those of us of a certain age remember the casualties our advisors took in Vietnam before we sent the first combat troops in; as General Petraeus at CENTCOM is well aware (having literally written the book, or rather the Field Manual, on Counterinsurgency), and as General Odierno, designer of the surge, is also well aware, in a counterinsurgency there are no front lines. In the age of the IED, everyone is a combat soldier. Our advisors will presumably include some assigned to Iraqi combat units. So what we are really looking at is a drawdown of deployed forces by two-thirds between now and next August, and reports indicate only about two brigades will be withdrawn before the end of this year.
  • I think it is pretty well understood in Washington that Gates has wanted to draw down in Iraq since early in his term at the Pentagon; and let's remember that it was the Bush Administration that negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement setting a 2011 date for full departure, so the drawdown is really not a very radical one. But it does make it clear that the US plans to leave, and that may help defuse some of the fury in the Arab world about the US as an occupying power.

The Gaza Negotiations Mess

Haaretz' Akiva Eldar hears Egyptian complaints about Israel's sudden linkage of a ceasefire to the Gilad Shalit exchange. I noted earlier that this sudden shift, combined with suspending chief negotiator Amos Gilad for criticizing it, jeopardized the whole negotitations. (And to complicate things further, Gen. Gilad is now reappointed to his job.)

Now the Egyptians are complaining, and if Eldar is right in this article, Netanyahu may be prepared to carry through on the exchange deal that Olmert seems to have backed off from.

I think it's already fairly clear that Ehud Olmert isn't going to be remembered as Israel's greatest Prime Minister, but this negotiation foulup almost makes it look as if he's trying to salvage a legacy as Israel's most incompetent. The relationship with Egypt, rocky as it often is, is still the fact upon which the entire peace process has been laboriously constructed over 30 years. Egypt has been providing its good offices as a go-between with Hamas (which is hardly Egypt's preferred Palestinian interlocutor anyway) and had what looked like a workable deal in place, only to see Olmert shift the terms at the last minute. (Technically I gather it was the security cabinet that changed the deal, but Olmert is going to get the blame.)

The Shalit exchange, at least as portrayed by press reports, was going to be a prisoner exchange contemporary with but independent of the ceasefire. By linking the release of Shalit to the ceasefire instead of to the release of Palestinian prisoners, the whole thing is much more explicitly a defeat for Hamas, and Egypt's role as intermediary is undercut.

Since it looks increasingly like Netanyahu will form a narrow government on the right, prospects for progress are slim enough; but what could have been a last triumph for Olmert seems to have been squandered.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Few Short Notices

I'm pretty busy with the Journal today, but a few short comments and links on the news of the day:

More later if I get creative.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Egypt: A Small, Freelance Group?

The Egyptian authorities are now saying that the bomb on Sunday was a nail bomb, apparently made with black powder, presumably planted by a small Islamist cell. Assuming this proves to be true, it would be another indication that the major challenge for counterterror operations in the future may not be well-organized networks like al-Qa'ida, but rather small, freelance operations of a handful of people with unsophisticated technologies. A black powder nail bomb may be limited in its lethality, but by striking at the crucial tourist sector, it can have a decidedly asymmetric impact.

Of course, since so far as public announcements indicate the actual perpetrators remain unknown, one assumes these conclusions (which Al-Ahram attributes to "security agencies") are based on the nature of the bomb rather than actually knowing the identities of the bombmakers.

More here, suggesting someone could identify the pereptrators.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More on Egyptian Bombing

There's still not much clear about the people behind the Egyptian bombing. The first three people arrested have now been released; apparently two of them were women wearing hijab, which makes one wonder if that was the reason they were hauled in. Certainly men in beards have been rounded up in the past with little more evidence of wrongdoing than that they dress like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now 11 -- or is it 14? -- others are in custody but it isn't clear whether they're suspects or material witnesses. Al-'Arabiyya has reported that among thse being questioned are an Iranian and three Pakistanis; this follows a Member of Parliament's suggestion that Iran was behind the bombing.

I doubt that very much. Iran knows more about bombmaking than whoever put together the makeshift device that detonated at al-Hussein, and no Shi'ite is likely to plant a bomb outside the shrine of the Prophet's grandson Hussein, who is the fourth imam to the Shi'a. (The original foundation of the Hussein mosque was in Fatimid times, when Egypt itself was under Isma'ili Sh'i rule.) Iran and Egypt have had a very public feud going on for some time, and trading insults was common, but I'd wager this bombing will prove to be home-grown.

Jordanian Cabinet Reshuffle

Jordan has reshuffled its Cabinet, bringing in a new Foreign Minister. Nasir Joudeh, among other changes. Marc Lynch has a very good assessment of the changes, so unless I think of something to add, I'll simply refer you to his analysis.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hizbullah Strongly Denies Rocket Firings: So Who?

Is some freelance group firing Katyushas at Israel? Hizbullah seemed particularly insistent that it didn't fire two rockets at northern Israel on Saturday. One landed in Maalot, the other fell within Lebanon. Clearly Hizbullah isn't eager to come under Israeli retaliatory fire (and Israel seems to have carried out some kind of minor operation along the Shebaa Farms occupation line), but this raises the question of who, if not Hizbullah, can fire Katyushas from somewhere south of Tyre.

Several answers spring to mind. In Lebanon's Wild South a rogue Hizbullah commander, some stray Palestinian radicals, or any of several splinter groups might be responsible. But it's the same problem we face in Gaza: even if the main resistance group (Hizbullah or Hamas) is standing down its rockets, anybody with a rocket launcher can disrupt a truce and bring down retribution, especially given Israel's rather quick retributive trigger finger. "Anybody with a rocket launcher" may seem a limited universe in many countries, but not in southern Lebanon.

It's also the problem that occurs when political weakness coincides with a proliferation of arms. You start down the spectrum that eventually leads to Somalia, to every man his own militia. I remember an old Lebanese hand telling me back during the civil war how he was driving on a road on Mount Lebanon one day and found himself behind an M-113 armored personnel carrier. APCs were pretty ubiquitous in those days (most of them stolen from the Lebanese Army), but they generally had the emblem of one of the militias on them. This one was unmarked. A private APC? Maybe there are private Katyusha launchers too though that particular anecdote dates from the civil war years.

So far, Israel's response to the rocket fire has been restrained. Hizbullah's quick disavowal is also rather interesting, since it comes at a time when (in a Lebanese political context) Hizbullah has been rather assertive. I think they want to do well in the upcoming elections, not provoke Israel and a new retaliation.

Can a Fallen Government Come Apart?

Israelis sometimes joke that if there were only two Israelis, there would be three Israeli political parties. At the moment, Ehud Olmert's caretaker government, which technically fell last year and is now just serving ad interim until Netanyahu forms a government, is managing to come apart in a feud between Olmert and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak over Olmert's firing of General Amos Gilad, a Barak ally who was the chief negotiator on Gaza and who criticized Olmert for unnecessarily insulting Egypt.

Olmert seems to have had valid reasons for the firing, but this probably puts a prisoner exchange deal on hold for at least the moment, which means a ceasefire is also still on hold, which means that (depending on how long Netanyahu takes) the whole process might have to be revisited. It seems like another case of one-step-forward, two-steps-back.

UPDATE: One of the two people replacing Gilad as negotiator is Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet (General Security Service, the internal security agency). Maybe I'm bring pessimistic (there have been worse Shin Bet heads than Diskin, for certain), but I'm not sure that's going to facilitate things for a lame duck government.

Abu Dhabi Bailing Out Dubai?

Dubai has been struggling due to the international real estate bubble's bursting, and from the sound of this Wall Street Journal article, it's been thrown a line by its rival Abu Dhabi. (When the WSJ headline says that the "UAE" is bailing out Dubai, it effectively means Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi has usually held the balance of power in the federation but Dubai has always managed to maintain its own autonomous policies (even its own defense forces) and has, of course, lately been the boom town of the Gulf. If Dubai becomes more beholden to its neighbor and rival for its economic survival, it will be interesting to see if there is a shift in the overall political relationships within the federation as well. I'll leave commentary on the bailout details to those who have been following the specifics of Dubai's problems, but thought I would note the political aspects of the rescue.

Update: Iran Hopes to Persuade Bahrain to Continue Gas Talks

It sounds as if Iran is trying hard to persuade Bahrain to come back to the table over the big natural gas deal that was put on hold over Ayatollah 'Ali Nateq-Nuri's remarks about Bahrain being a province of Iran. Certainly Iran needs the money from the gas deal, and the Foreign Ministry has done its best to calm the troubled waters created by the remarks. The fact that pretty much the same thing happened two years ago -- that time, the Iranian President actually visited Bahrain to patch things up -- suggests the level of suspicion about Iran's intentions that lies just below the surface in the Gulf.

Further Thoughts on the Cairo Bombing

A day after the Hussein bombing we don't know much more: three people have been arrested, but this may be a reflexive "round up the usual suspects" reaction; there is still some confusion about whether the explosive was thrown or planted, and some reports suggest it might have been a hand grenade or other small explosive.

Although there were quite a few wounded, the fact that there was only one fatality suggests this was a small explosive; the photos I've seen show little damage to structures. This may have been, like the 2005 bombing in the Khan al-Khalili, a fairly unsophisticated, even amateurish, operation, perhaps a one or two person operation. It definitely sounds like it was aimed at hurting tourism. But it's a much more limited attack than the Sinai bombings in 2005 and 2006, closer to the 2005 attacks near the Egyptian museum and in the Khan.

I noted yesterday that I don't give credence to the conspiracy theorists' idea that the government might have done this to gain support for the anti-terrorism bill, which is supposed to replace the state of emergency. I still don't, in part because the Egyptian Parliament will pass the bill easily anyway and hardly needs to rally support given its overwhelming majority for the ruling party, but we can probably count on the government to use the bombing as a reason for institutionalizing broad counterterrorist powers.

More as things develop -- unless, as sometimes happens in these cases, the whole thing goes down the memory hole and we never hear any details of the three people supposedly arrested.

UPDATE: Juan Cole's commentary on the bombings, including his reverie on old times in the Khan al-Khalili. Certainly all of us who lived in Cairo have memories of the locale of this bombing; as a young medieval historian back in the 1970s I spent a lot of time in the medieval buildings that may still be found along the winding streets of the area.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Cairo Bombing

I keep trying not to blog on weekends, but the Middle East doesn't respect my calendar. The bombing outside the Sayyidna Hussein Mosque in Cairo is the first in the city since 2005, I think, and there will be a lot of speculation about who is responsible and why it occurred now. The information is still a bit spotty; first reports said the bombs were thrown from a roof; now that they were planted under a seat. The wonders of cell-phone cameras and the Internet means there's already a Flickr photostream of photos from the scene.

The Gama'at Islamiyya, the radical group responsible for most of the violence in the 1990s, has declared a truce; certainly there are still hostile elements, would-be jihadis, sympathizers of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, freelance do-it-yourselfers, and so on out there.

Hussein's mosque is one of Cairo's great shrine mosques, a center for many events, but I think I'd go along with the assumption the press is making that the targets here were tourists, not the mosque worshippers. The Khan al-Khalili bazaar is adjacent, and there are coffeehouses and shops around the mosque's plaza. This is also the heart of the old walled Fatimid city of Cairo, and a warren of narrow, winding streets can facilitate escape and impede law enforcement. The fact that the casualties were foreign tourists makes it likely they were the target.

Of course, this being the Middle East, some opponents of the regime are already suggesting that, since Parliament is due to take up new anti-terrorist legislation to replace the Emergency Law imminently, this could even be a police provocation. That strikes me as a bit much: however much the government may use the attack to justify its authority, I don't think they're ready to start killing tourists.

More as the situation clarifies.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Backgrounder: Reflections on the Diversity of Christian Minorities in the Middle East

While browsing around for blogging subjects I came across this account of the installation of the new Syrian Catholic Patriarch in Beirut earlier this week, and it started me reflecting, first, on just how varied and complex the Christian churches in the Middle East are, and, secondly, how little known they are to Westerners, even those who spend a lot of time deploring the fate of Christians in some Middle Eastern countries. I'm pretty sure that most Catholics in the West aren't even aware there is a Syrian Catholic Church, let alone who the Patriarch is (though this one is the former Syrian Catholic Archbishop of North America). (And as a footnote, the Church's name in English is now officially the Syriac Catholic Church, though this Lebanese report uses the earlier form, which was common till just the past few years. I think the church wanted to play down the equation of "Syrian" with the modern state of that name, though they only changed the English, not the Arabic or Syriac names.)

Christianity, of course, is not a Western faith by origin, but a Middle Eastern one. Palestinian Christians often joke about being asked by well-meaning Western Christians, "which missionary group converted your people?" (to which the answer is, of course, Jesus and the 12 Apostles). Middle Eastern Christian populations are in decline, as I think is well known; the hardships of the West Bank and the hostility of political Islamists have led many Palestinian Christians to emigrate; towns like Bethlehem, which had been Christian since, rather literally, the beginning are now majority Muslim. Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Iraq have also been fleeing in the face of violence. But while there are certainly pressures coming from radical Islamist movements in some countries, the sheer diversity of the Christian communities in the Middle East, and the real if not always visible role Christians play in a number of countries is often unappreciated by Westerners.

I'm reminded of a story that a former chief Arabic translator for the US Department of State liked to tell back in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a Syrian Assyrian -- a Syrian national by origin and a member of the Assyrian Church of the East from the Dayr al-Zor area -- and since he traveled with the Secretary of State when going to the region, he was well known to reporters traveling along. When Western news media were trying to get up to speed on the factions in Lebanon and the Sunni-Shi'a split during the Iranian Revolution and after, they would ask, "are you Sunni or Shi'a?" and he'd say, "neither, I'm a Christian," The Lebanese war being in high gear at the time the reporters would often follow with, "so you're a Maronite?", and when informed that no, he was an Assyrian, the teaching moment would arrive . . .

As an example of this diversity: Wikipedia says that there are currently five churches whose heads use the title Patriarch of Antioch. (Three are based in Damascus, one in Beirut and one in Bkerke, Lebanon: in other words, none of them in ancient Antioch, current Antakya in Turkey.) The Patriarchs of Antioch represent the Eastern (Antiochene) Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox (sometimes called "Jacobite"), Maronite, Melkite, and Syriac Catholic Churches. The last three are all in union with Rome, the Antiochenes are "Eastern Orthodox" in communion with Constantinople, and the Syriac Orthodox are Oriental Orthodox in loose communion with the Copts and Armenians. There are at least three Patriarchs of Alexandria (Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic). Nor do these exhaust all the Christian communities of the Middle East: Iraq has the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholics; Lebanon, Palestine and other areas with an Armenian diaspora have the Armenian Apostolic Church (two main branches) and the Armenian Catholics, and there are significant indigenous Protestant communities in Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere. The leading historian of modern Lebanon, Kamal Salibi, is a Presbyterian.

For all the problems that Christian minorities face, ironically one reason for this diversity is that Islam not only tolerated Christianity but did not tolerate the internal Christian feuding which elsewhere tended to eliminate dissident sects: as Rome and Constantinople consolidated their religious authority, Catholicism and Orthodoxy became uniform in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and their successor states, but in the Islamic world the old "heresies" (in the eyes of Rome and Constantinople) endured. The Copts, Armenians, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian/Eritrean churches are the heirs of what the Western world called "Monophysite" churches (though they reject that term themselves), and are often referred to today as "Oriental Orthodox" in distinction from "Eastern Orthodox," those in communion with Constantinople; the Church of the East and the Malankara Church of India are those once dismissed in the West as "Nestorians," another term rejected by those to whom it is applied by others, the Church of the old Persian Empire that once evangelized as far afield as India and China. Some offshoots of many of these churches have split and given their allegiance to Rome, though they retain their Eastern Orthodox or "Oriental Orthodox" liturgies and married priesthoods; they are the Eastern Catholics, or the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. (The Maronites of Lebanon are the one Eastern Catholic rite that has no Orthodox or Oriental analogue.) There are Eastern Orthodox churches in communion with Constantinople (the city may be Istanbul but the Ecumenical Patriarch is still "of Constantinople") in most Middle Eastern countries as well.

Some of the Christian minorities of the Middle East are waning fast, due to the conflicts in Palestine and Iraq, but the Maronites remain a major force in Lebanon (the President and Army Commander must both be Maronites, and I've already noted the political clout of the Patriarch). The Copts are a significant population in Egypt, though the exact percentage is itself a matter of controversy, and have produced some well-known figures, Boutros Boutros-Ghali most prominent among them.

In the more nationalist/secularist states and movements, Christians have been prominent, often seeing Arab nationalism as a way to find a role for Christians in a majority-Islamic polity. For years one of the highest-ranking Christians in the Middle East was Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a Chaldean by upbringing though not, I somehow suspect, a devout churchgoer. One of the co-founders of the Ba'ath Party, Michel Aflaq, was Greek Orthodox, as were such other radical nationalist leaders as Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) founder Antoun Saada and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leaders George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. (Saada certainly and Aflaq arguably were virtual fascists and Habash and Hawatmeh Marxists, so the common ground is secular radicalism, not ideology.)

Sometimes prominent Middle Eastern Christians deliberately conceal their origins to succeed in a Muslim environment. Tariq Aziz was born Mikhail Yuhanna. The actor Omar Sharif was born Michel Chalhoub of Maronite parents from Egypt's then-prominent Lebanese community (though he did convert to Islam when he married). For many years I was a friend -- I thought a pretty good friend -- of the late Hamdi Fuad, Washington Bureau Chief for Egypt's Al-Ahram for a great many years. Yet it was not until his obituary appeared that I learned his real name was Ramses something, born a Copt; his funeral was in the same Washington church in which I was married. None of these men chose an unambiguously Muslim name like Muhammad Ahmad; they were not so much hiding their Christian roots as obscuring them a bit for professional reasons. I know of one or two other cases like this, but they involve people still working and I see no reason to "out" them: their friends know their backgrounds anyway.

Often we only hear of Middle Eastern Christians when there are clashes with their Muslim neighbors or when some outrage occurs; I thought it worth noting the diversity and antiquity of these ancient churches because they are in fact a real presence in the region. And there is more interaction than one might think: in some localities local Muslims come out for certain Christian saints' days and Christians may occasionally venerate the tomb of a Sufi sheikh; at the level of popular practice there is often less division than at the level of official ideology.

Netanyahu Gets the Nod

So, as expected, Netanyahu gets the nod to try to form a government. He's called for a broad unity government, and will meet Sunday with Livni, so there might still be a chance of a broader unity government. A government based on Likud and Lieberman, on the other hand, is going to be hard for a lot of countries to work with.

More this afternoon.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Backgrounder: Iran-Bahrain Flap Threatens Gas Deal

Iran is trying to defuse a sudden storm in the Arab Gulf states over a prominent Iranian cleric's remarks implying Bahrain had been Iranian territory, after Bahrain put a major natural gas deal on hold over the issue. Ayatollah 'Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri reportedly made remarks referring to Bahrain as having formerly been Iran's 14th province, seemingly reviving long-latent claims to the island.

Such assertions are made from time to time by Iranian nationalists; in 2007 an editorial in the newspaper Kayhan made the claim and provoked demonstrations in Bahrain. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a visit to Bahrain later that year and the gas deal the Bahrainis have now put on hold was the result of that rapprochement; now it may be a victim of a renewed Iranian provocation. This time the remarks were attributed to Nateq-Nuri, former Speaker of Parliament, former Presidential candidate (defeated by Mohammad Khatami), and current member of the powerful Expediency Council. Nateq-Nuri is a senior figure from the conservative wing of the clerical establishment; Bahrain has won support from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the present dispute.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has reasserted that Iran has no territorial claims on its neighbors and recognizes Bahraini sovereignty; it claimed Nateq-Nuri's remarks had been misrepresented and he was not talking about Bahrain, though as quoted he certainly seemed to be.

Various accounts of the flap are here, here, here and here. It is perhaps worth filling in the background a bit, since as noted, this is not the first eruption of Iranian claims against Bahrain.

Bahrain has had human settlement since prehistoric times and was probably the Dilmun referred to in Sumerian texts; in short the islands have been at the center of trade and politics since earliest times and, not surprisingly, at one time or another Bahrain has been ruled by many different hands, including the Portugese, Omanis, and British. During the 17th and 18th centuries the islands were generally under Iranian suzerainty, often ruled indirectly through Hormuz or Bushire. Bahrainis generally trace their throwing off Iranian rule to 1783. In the 19th century the islands, already ruled by the Al Khalifa who are still the ruling family, came under British protection.

Bahrain has a Persian-speaking merchant minority, but the majority of the population speak Arabic; the majority are, however, Shi'ite, though the ruling family is Sunni. Iranian nationalists sometimes use the Shi'ite majority as a reason to claim that the Bahrainis are really Iranians, despite their Arabic speech.

In 1970, as Bahrain approached independence with the withdrawal of Britain from east of Suez by 1971, the late Shah of Iran asserted a claim to Bahrain and to other islands in the Gulf, including Abu Musa and the Tunbs, also claimed by Sharja (Abu Musa) and Ras al-Khaima (the Tunbs), two of the later constituents of the UAE. In complex negotiations Iran cut a deal with the British over Abu Musa and the Tunbs and promised it would "not pursue" its claims to Bahrain. In a referendum, Bahrain chose independence and has asserted its Arab identity through membership in pan-Arab organiztions.

After 1971 the Shah dropped his "pursuit" of the claim, but since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has alternated between expressing a claim and recognizing Bahrain's sovereignty. Ahmadinejad's 2007 visit to Bahrain was seen as a means of burying the hatchet and assuaging hurt feelings from the Kayhan editorial that same year. But the old wound has been reopened with Nateq-Nuri's attributed remarks.

The Foreign Ministry's scramble to defuse the situation -- Iran's current economy cannot afford scuttling the natural gas deal -- suggests that this will prove a momentary diversion rather than lead to a new crisis, but it also shows how sensitive the Arab Gulf states are towards Iranian power at the moment, in the shadow of Iran's nuclear program.

The Gulf is riddled with latent territorial disputes, a handful of which have been resolved in recent years (the Hawar Islands dispute between Qatar and Bahrain by the World Court; the Saudi-Yemeni border by bilateral negotiation) but others still linger, including the aforementioned Abu Musa and the Tunbs, occupied by Iran but claimed by the UAE. Iraq's intermittent claims to all of Kuwait, of course, led to the invasion of 1990 and the war of 1991.

The Vote on Manas

Despite reports suggesting the issue might be delayed, the Kyrgyzstan Parliament has voted 78-1 to close the Manas Air Base. The US will have six months to withdraw under the terms of the basing agreement.

The US is understood to be exploring possible agreements with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for logistial support for the Afghan War. The US withdrew previous facilities in Uzbekistan to protest an internal Uzbek crackdown. Russia is perceived as having pressured Kyrgyzstan to close the base, despite Russian concerns about radical Islamic movements on its southern borders.

Expect a lot of maneuvering in the wake of this move: there are already complaints in the US about prospects for renewed cooperation with the Uzbek regime.

More on Ayman Nour

Now that he has been released from prison, Ayman Nour is treading somewhat cautiously, giving interviews and holding press conferences in which he talks about rebuilding the Al-Ghad Party and indicating he will not resume his role as head of the party, a position held by a successor since his jailing.

Some of this is no doubt just natural caution. He is barred from public office unless a court overturns his conviction or (and this would be a real stretch) President Mubarak pardons him. On the other hand, Nour is a lawyer and Egypt's civil court system is still rather independent (which is why the government uses security courts for so many offenses). He will presumably seek a judicial ruling at some point.

It will be interesting to see what public opinion makes of him after all this. By some accounts, his imprisonment increased his popularity since it was seen as vindictive and trumped up. But the widespread US criticism of his jailing has led the government to broadly hint that Nour is some kind of American agent, or at least the Americans' favored politician. In the prsent environment that label could prove fatal to future political ambitions.

The fact that Saadeddin Ibrahim, the other best-known Egyptian critic of the regime, was released from prison but then charged again and is now living in the US in effective exile, must also be in Nour's mind as he ponders his future. It is only two and a half years until Mubarak's term is up, and if the intention is to have Gamal Mubarak succeed, there will probably be efforts made to give an impression of competitiveness to the elections. That could mean Nour might find himself able to run, though frankly he is not likely to have much more of a chance of winning than he had in 2005. But then, there are still many uncertainties about the succession and how it will come about.

A Narrow Government on the Right?

With some 65 members of the Knesset endorsing Binyamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni is saying that Kadima will go into opposition. Unless this is more maneuvering, this would indicate that Netanyahu is likely to form a narrow, rightist government based on Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties, despite his protestation that he prefers a unity government. If that happens, the Obama Administration and Israel may be on a collision course. Former US Ambassador Daniel Kurzer just said the other day that a narrow all-right-wing government would not be a good thing, and now it looks as if it may transpire.

Peres will meet tomorrow with Netanyahu and Livni, but with a majority of the Knesset urging that Netanyahu be given the mandate, it is starting to seem inevitable. There may be pressure on Kadima, though, to join the government and create a broader unity front rather than let the right govern with no balancing center.

And it was Avigdor Lieberman's decision to recommend Netanyahu that tilted the balance, so he is indeed the kingmaker. Now the question is what post he will get. Lieberman has said that he wants a broad government, and so has Netanyahu, but whether they can cajole Livni is another matter. Remember that once Netanyahu has the mandate, he has four weeks, and then may ask for another two, for a total of 42 days. So what Livni says today could change over time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Multiple Arab Diplomatic Offensives

Marc Lynch blogged recently about the multi-faceted efforts at Arab reconciliation diplomacy we've been witnessing lately. His post provides an excellent overview and by following his links one can fill in much of the background, but I thought I'd add a few comments of my own.

On the Hamas-Israel front, a snag seems to have emerged in the past day or two. Many press reports had suggested that today (Wednesday) would be the day a prisoner exchange/ceasefire deal was announced. So far as one can tell from press reports, the Egyptians thought they had a deal in place, but the Israeli security cabinet was insisting on some linkages that weren't part of the deal as negotiated. It is of course clear that Hamas' primary goal is a ceasefire to stop continuing Israeli air strikes, and a lifting of the siege of Gaza; it's just as clear that Israel's goal is an enforeceable end to the rocket fire and the release of Gilad Shalit. But these deals are often hostage to last-minute conditions, and for whatever reason the Israelis seem to want to avoid linking the prisoner exchange with lifting the siege. Of course, there's the obvious fact that Israel is in political limbo; the incumbent Olmert government is negotiating the deal; the Foreign Minister is one of the candidates for Prime Minister; the opposition wants to lead the next government; and the Defense Minister has just seen his party drop to fourth place. Not an ideal moment for critical compromises. The fact that the Israelis are negotiating with Hamas (via Egypt) while everyone insists they are not negotiating with Hamas adds an Alice-through-the-looking-glass aspect to it as well.

On the other key Palestinian issue the Egyptians are trying to broker, some sort of deal between Hamas and Fatah seems more necessary than ever, since any remediation of Gaza's predicament would seem to need an interlocutor with which the outside world is willing to deal, and that means Fatah, though given Hamas' popular strength, a unity government that includes Hamas is necessary. There are still a lot of obstacles to this and, like the Hamas-Israel deal, it can easily come unraveled.

This, I think, is where the Saudi and Arab League openings to Syria are key. Syria's alignment with Iran has been a theme running through so many regional issues: Hamas versus Fatah, the Lebanese political situation, Saudi and Egyptian geopolitical concerns about Iran's nuclear program and regional meddling. Syria, which historically boasted of being "the beating heart of Arabism," has been aligned with Iran against much of the Arab world, but that has in part been because it was excluded by its fellow Arabs.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two big Arab players, both have shrewd diplomats with geopolitical savvy, and they seem to be committed to bringing Syria back into the Arab fold. And for all the uncertain signals coming out of the Obama Administration so far, the opening to Syria seems to be the least unambiguous. John Kerry is going to Damascus and Bashar al-Asad is sending very positive signals. Not only has Asad continued to express a willingness to cut a peace deal with Israel (albeit on terms the Israeli right may reject), but he continued to express such willingness right through the Gaza campaign, when much of the rest of the Arab world was expressing outrage. How's that for an unclenched fist?

A whole lot can go wrong with all this. The Hariri assassination commission starts meeting in the Hague March 1, and Syria could find itself being asked to hand over senior officials and find itself ostracized again just as it is trying to build bridges. Any real progress on an Israel-Syria deal will be hard if Netanyahu forms a hard-right government. The fact that the Shalit-ceasefire exchange deal seems to be hanging fire is a reminder that breakthroughs are not easy in such a longstanding and complex conflict. But a lot does seem to be happening,m a sort of diplomatic offensive tous azimuts, and thus perhaps a moment of opportunity, not to concentrate on a comprehensive peace but to move towards amerlioration of the situation on the ground in Gaza and a ceasefire that might hold for a finite time.

Ayman Nour is Out of Jail

Ayman Nour, head of Egypt's al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party and former Presidential candidate, has been released from prison, ostensibly for medical reasons. Nour's imprisonment soun after he lost the first direct Presidential elections to Husni Mubarak had been a subject of tension between Washington and Cairo, and therefore there is naturally speculation about what message his release at this time is meant to convey. The Arabist suggests that it is not just a gesture to Barack Obama, but perhaps also a message that Mubarak will do things on his own timetable and US pressure does ot work. I think that may be a credible interpretation.

Nour's imprisonment damaged US-Egyptian relations, as had the earlier imprisonment of Saadeddin Ibrahim, and one question that emerges is why the government was so intent on silencing Nour. Part of it may be that as a somewhat populist member of the younger generation (he is now 44), Nour might pose a challenge to the (presumed) succession of Gamal Mubarak. (In fact, at one time Gamal formed a "Future" movement which some thought might evolve into a party; Nour formed a party named "Tomorrow." Coincidence?)

Nour also did not play by the rather restrictive rules under which Egypt's legal opposition parties operated. He rose in the old-guard Wafd Party, but split with the Wafd to form Ghad. In the 2005 elections he ran as a Presidential candidate although the opposition candidate the government had in position, Wafd leader Nu'man Gomaa, was the "official" opposition challenger. (Gomaa was of the older generation and from Mubarak's home province.) Nour ran second, and Gomaa third, which was not the preferred script for the results since it gave Nour a claim to be the leading opposition figure.

Nour was imprisoned for alleged forgery of signatures (powers of attorney) for the petitions founding the party; the arrest thus challenged the legality of the party as well as put him in jail. It seemed pretty clear that this was a pretext for arresting someone the government had already decided needed to be taken off the political stage. Though now released, unless Nour's conviction is overturned in court, his record will bar him from running for political office again,

As for the release's timing, it can be interpreted as a gesture to the new US Administration if Washington wishes, while also showing, as The Arabist noted, that Mubarak did not yield to Bush Administration pressure. And it allows for a claim of humanitarian concern, since Nour was suffering from diabetes in prison, and health concerns seem to be the ostensible reason for his rdelease at this time.

And meanwhile, presumably Nour has learned the message that the government tends to send opposition figures from time to time: there are limits to what will be tolerated.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Maghreb Politics Review: A Much-Needed English Site on the Maghreb

I just learned (thanks to the always readable and valuable Egypt-based blog The Arabist) of a new (about a month old) blog, Maghreb Politics Review, a group blog led by (or at least including) Kal from The Moor Next Door, which I've cited before for being kind enough to both note this blog's existence and expand my understanding of the events in Berriane.

The group blog, which seems to have started just a bit before this one did, has a mix of posts so far, but including one rather scholarly one on Mauritania, which is always the forgotten Maghreb country.

I'm not a Maghrebist, as the Algerian commenters on this blog have realized, but I've always had an interest going back to my old grad school advisor John D. Ruedy, an Algerian specialist. Yet I've never even set foot in Algeria; Tunisia I know pretty well, and Morocco a bit, and one thing that has always bothered me is the fact that virtually all the literature on the Maghreb is, for obvious historical reasons, in French. I only rarely get articles for The Middle East Journal on the Maghreb. (There'll be one on Algeria in the next issue, and it is in English, but it's by Jean-Pierre Filiu from Sciences-Po in Paris, which underscores the point.) Some articles may be going to John Entelis' Journal of North African Studies, but I suspect most are appearing in French.

Which reminds me of a story . . . Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I was flying to Tunis and, for some reason, I was routed by whoever made the reservations (don't remember who was paying for this particular trip, but it wasn't I) via Frankfurt and Munich to Tunis. The airport clerk checking me in and checking my passport and visas said to me, "let's see, Frankfurt, Munich, Tunis . . . is that in Germany, too?"

That stuck in my mind at the moment, but was really underscored some hours later when, leaving Carthage-Tunis airport in a taxi which took the northerly route to the city rather than the causeway, we passed a sign for the "US Military Cemetery," and I reflected on how many Americans had died at Kasserine Pass, El Guettar, and elsewhere in Tunisia in the liberation of North Africa in 1942, yet today airline clerks wonder if it's in Germany. Well, we were fighting Germans there.

That may not be germane to what Maghreb Politics Review is trying to do, but note that their URL is "maghrebinenglish.wordpress.com." I welcome any informed material on the Maghreb in English, since there has been so little for so long. For too many Anglophones (which the comments on my Berriane posts suggest is now a pejorative), the Maghreb is French-speaking territory and we aren't invited to comment. That's too bad, since the Arab west is a vital part of the Arab world, which even too many Arabs in the Mashriq (the east) don't appreciate.

Backgrounder: Israel and Electoral Reform

Since during the elections I commented several times on the Israeli electoral system and its distorted results, I thought this commentary in Haaretz made some of the points I have made. The problem is it is easy to editorialize on the need for a change in the system -- in the past Labor and Likud, and today Likud and Kadima, both say they want change, because of course the big parties want to be less beholden to the extortion of the small parties when it comes to coalition building.

But expressing the desirability of reform is one thing. How do you implement it? And here the answer seems to be, you can't get there from here. The author of the linked piece, Nehemia Shtrasler, notes that even David Ben-Gurion himself, by the time he realized the problems in the system, couldn't bring about change. And no one since Ben-Gurion has had his clout, and of course, in the end, even Ben-Gurion found himself at odds with the system and retreating, De Gaulle-like, to his farm. The problem remains that since any party that wins 2% of the vote can win seats in the Knesset, the incentive is there to create small, special-interest parties like the Green Leaf Graduates/Holocaust Survivors Party in this election, though that marijuana legalization/holocaust survivor rights party did not make the 2% cutoff. And from the beginning, the Orthodox religious parties have been a bloc sufficiently large to demand a seat in coalitions and thus to protect their own interests.

Later this week, the political parties will inform President Peres of their recommendations for who should be entrusted with the first chance to form a coalition. While Netanyahu is still clearly in the stronger position, Livni is stubbornly insisting she won, and seems to be trying to cajole Lieberman with promises of civil marriage and other issues. But Labor is saying that if Kadima makes a deal with Lieberman, it won't endorse Livni -- but then Ehud Barak already said Labor intended to rebuild from opposition, not from within the coalition.

The dealing and demands that have taken place over the past week reinforce the problems inherent in the electoral system. Such a fragmented system may work in, say, Belgium or the Netherlands, where small parties and broad coaltiions are traditional, but it doesn't work very well in a country as polarized, and as much in perpetual confrontation with its neighbors, as Israel.

Israel's strongest supporters always claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. I hafve to wonder if about now, Tzipi Livni is wondering, is this supposed to be a good thing?

A few years ago, you may recall, Israel went to direct election of the Prime Minister. This was supposed to be an attempt to create something more like a US-style directly-elected executive. But the directly-elected Prime Minister still had to create a Cabinet within a certain amount of time, and rejection of his or her cabinet would amount to a vote of no-confidence. So, while the choice of Prime Minister was directly made by voters, he/she still had to cut deals, and was still subject to extortionate demands, with the various parties and factions.

The direct election system worked for Netanyahu, who won the 1996 elections in something of a surprise. In 1999, Ehud Barak beat him in the second direct election, but his Labor-led three-party bloc (called One Israel) won only 26 seats, at that time the lowest number ever won by a winning party, suggesting that the result of direct elections was actually to further fragment the Knesset. Apparently, voters who were now free to vote separately for Prime Minister (one of the two big parties) did not have to vote for Likud or Labor to vote for Netanyahu or Barak, so now they voted for even more fissiparous special-interest parties.

In 2001, after the failure of Camp David II and the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, for the first time elections were held only for Prime Minister, with no Knesset elections. Ariel Sharon beat Barak comfortably, but since Labor outnumbered Likud in the Knesset, he had to form a national unity government. Clearly, the direct election experiment had backfired in several ways, and one of them was that increased, rather than decreased, the factional fragmentation of the Knesset. The major parties voted to return to the earlier system, and the 2003 elections returned to the pre-1996 system, with a few minor tweaks.

So Israel's one major experiment with electoral reform in recent years suggests that the law of unintended consequences still applies: the results were the opposite of those intended. So long as the smaller parties still have an effective veto over government formation, the system is hard to reform. And so long as they have that veto, they are unlikely to give it up.,

Egypt's Continuing Labor Issues

The latest group to strike in Egypt is the pharmacists' syndicate (shorter English version here). With so many big international, war-and-peace issues in the Middle East, internal domestic problems tend to get little coverage in the international press, but in recent years, and particularly for the past two years, labor-related and pay-related issues have provoked a wave of strikes, demonsrations, and protests across Egypt. While some demonstrations, such as those in support of the people of Gaza, do get some coverage due to their international political content, many of the strikes go unreported or barely remarked upon.

For well over a year now Egypt's big industrial city in the Delta, Al-Mahalla al-Kubra, center of the Egyptian textile industry, has been wracked by labor actions; during intense periods of trouble there, the government has barred reporters from traveling from Cairo to Mahalla. Farmers across the country have protested low agricultural prices and incomes for some time, and there have been occasional reports of violence related to the farmers' protests. Most trade unions and professional syndicates have grievances; the doctors have protested in the past and now, as noted, it's the pharmacists' turn.

The troubles do not seem to pose a major threat to the government in the short term, but they are clearly a symptom of the international economic situation and Egypt's own economic troubles. With Husni Mubarak now past 80, they may also reflect a growing sense of fin du regime and a staking of claims against his successor, combined with the sense that the government is doing little to ameliorate the economic situation. The government has pursued its traditional approach of reactively appeasing demands by important groups and ignoring those it feels it can.

Egypt is certainly not the only country where major labor unrest has occurred, but as the biggest and most industrialized of the Arab countries, with some of the best organized and long-established professional syndicates, the growing unrest seems worthy of note.

While the unrest probably deserves more attention than it has been accorded in the West, none of this means that Egypt is in some sort of pre-revolutionary situation. Egyptians have long had a stoic acceptance of their government's inability to improve life (and Egypt has a much higher standard of living than it did a generation ago). But with political succession in the offing -- in 2011 assuming Mubarak lives out his term -- the turmoil deserves a certain amount of attention.

The Saudi Reshuffle

It seems as if the major development in the region over what was a three-day weekend in the US was the Saudi reshuffle. In the US media most of the attention has been given to the fact that the King (in his capacity as Prime Minister) named the Kingdom's first woman deputy minister, as Deputy Minister of Education for Womeh's Education. But I think this BBC account I linked to gets the emphasis right: the replacement of both the head of the Supreme Judicial Council and the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice: these are key positions, critical to the country's justice system. The latter post is in charge of the mutawa'in, the religious police, and the former has been blocking the King's efforts at judicial reform.

Saudi rehuffles are rare. Usually ministers are replaced one at a time, when death or clearcut misconduct makes it necessary; a tenure lasting decades is not unusual. Clearly King 'Abdullah is sending some messages in this reshuffle.

Lately the Kingdom has been embarrassed internationally by a number of judicial decisions, and the educational system has long been criticized for the content of textbooks: by going after the education and justice systems the King seems to be addressing both issues, while also naming new figures to the Shura Council and the Council of 'Ulama.

This is no great revolution -- the Kingdom is not revolutionary -- but it is a major reform, and it suggests 'Abdullah is tired of foot-dragging in key areas, particularly the judiciary. It is also a direct attack on the most conservative parts of the religious establishment: the judciary, the schools, and the mutawa'in.

Again, the real thing to emphasize here is the rarity of significant shake-ups in the Saudi Cabinet and other administrative apparatus. This one affected several major power centers at once, and that is almost unheard of. While the appointment of a woman at sub-ministerial level is unprecedented, it may in the long run be less important than the shake-up in the courts and the religious police.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Probably Not Much Over the Weekend

I'll be away over the three-day President's Day weekend, and while I'll have a laptop if anything major breaks, I probably won't be posting much, if at all.

Oh, and an update on the language question. While there are only 10 votes in, all but one favored foreign language links, so I'll keep doing it, but still leave the poll open till March 31 since my readership is still tiny.

The Manas Story Continues to Develop

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the Manas Air Base (earlier postings here) gets another twist: a Kyrgyz politician not only says that the US may well stay at Manas, but adds that the issue will be worked out between Washington and Moscow, not Washington and Bishkek.

Ah, the Great Game's afoot again. Lord Curzon would be impressed. Russia seems to have shown its power here by pressuring Kyrgyzstan, but then perhaps realized that undercutting US operations in Afghanistan is not exactly in Russia's long-term interest if it helps the Taliban, so now Russia is going to deal directly, as the regional great power, with the US. At least that's one possible reading. As I've noted before, Manas is a critical logistical support base for the Afghan operation, especially with growing pressures on the land supply routes through Pakistan. The message is clear: if you want to play in Russia's back yard, work it out with Russia directly. At least that's what this story seems to suggest.

Could this Explain Erdogan's Outburst?

An interesting article in Haaretz, citing a "Turkish official," says that during Ehud Olmert's visit to Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Bashar al-Asad while Olmert was in an adjoining room, and arranged for the Israelis and Syrians to agree to a direct meeting of their delegations. But a week before the joint announcement was to take place, Israel invaded Gaza.

According to the story, Erdogan felt that Israel had "stabbed him in the back" by involving him in mediating the breakthrough and not warning him of the Gaza operation.

If this is true, it could be an explanation for Erdogan's outburst against Israel and Shimon Peres at the Davos Economic Summit, which has soured Turkish-Israeli relations.

Is a Hamas Deal Near?

There have been some press reports, starting with Al-Hayat and echoed in Israel, suggesting that Hamas might be close to a truce deal that would release Gilad Shalit. Such stories have circulated before and always led nowhere, but if Hamas is going to make any conciliatory gestures to a new, likely harder-line Israeli leadership, now might the time to do it.

Bouteflika Makes it Official

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has officially announced that he is running for a third term. Since all the major opposition candidates had already announced they were sitting out a race they considered had a foregone conclusion, this is hardly a surprise, though as I noted in an earlier posting, there are still some questions about Bouteflika's health.

At this point the other announced candidates are from fringe parties or independent nonentities; no major political figures are challenging Bouteflika in the April vote, which will therefore likely be even more one-sided than the 2004 elections, when he at least had a serious challenger in the person of former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, but still won by 85%.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Poll on Languages for Links

A poll: I'd like to know if the readers of this blog want links to sites in other languages (mostly French and Arabic, since my Hebrew and Farsi are rudimentary and my Turkish nonexistent; maybe the rare other European language). I've put a polling box there on the right sidebar, right under the picture of the Journal, with an end date of March 31. I'd appreciate it if you'd vote there rather than in the comments box. I'm no HTML expert so this is pretty much the Google gadget unrefined: our IT folks at MEI are very busy getting a new and much-improved website ready, so I'm winging the tech side of this blog, and I'm a bit of a greybeard for this sort of thing.

And since we're on languages, let me note that in my early postings I referred to Avigdor Lieberman's party as "Yisrael Beitenu," since that seemed to this non-fluent-Hebrew-speaker the best transliteration of ישראל ביתנו, but given the fact that the party itself spells it "Yisrael Beiteinu" (despite the fact there is no second yod in the written form) I'll be adopting that. I'm not certain if Arabic/Hebrew characters will show up on your screen if you don't have the proper settings on your browser

Lebanese Can Omit Confessional Category from IDs

An interesting little item worth noting: the Lebanese Interior Ministry has ruled that Lebanese have the right to omit their confessional affililiation from their ID cards. While the ruling asserts it is only enforcing a constitutional provision, the fact that most state posts in Lebanon are carefully allocated according to confessional identity (the President a Maronite, Prime Minister a Sunni, Speaker a Shi'i, and so on right down to the seats in Parliament and senior security posts, etc.) make this something of an innovation. On the other hand, anyone choosing to leave their confessional affiliation off their ID might find it hard to rise in politics, which is so confessionally-based.

I think many Westerners are often surprised when they travel to the Middle East to sometimes be asked their religious affiliation before they are asked what country they are from, but it is a deeply-rooted characteristic of the region, though nowhere more profoundly than in Lebanon.

Thoughts on Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home)'s rapid rise is causing a great deal of comment in the West and the Arab world, but also in Israel itself. I already commented a bit on my election night roundup, and will do so some more here, but I suspect that everybody dealing with the region will be discussing him for some time to come. Lieberman is already facing some possible scandals that could impede his political career and a popular TV anchor has called him "[Meir] Kahane's successor" -- he's not the only one to make the link with the late Jewish Defense League organizer whose Kach Party was barred from the Knesset for racism -- so it isn't just Westerners and Arabs who are upset by Lieberman's rise. (Admittedly both articles just linked to appeared in Haaretz, a paper with a dovish Laborite leaning that was once mainstream but may increasingly be left-of-center for the emerging Israeli majority.)

He's certainly a polarizing figure, and seems to enjoy the role. His Wikipedia biography seems relatively fair -- some Wikipedia entries give me real problems, but this one is neither hagiography nor hatchet-job, and will serve as an introduction. Though he does have something of a kingmaker role to play, it's safe to say he will not get the Defense or Foreign Ministries, I think. Netanyahu has explicitly ruled him out for Defense, though he used to run Netanyahu's office, and the Foreign Ministry would seem to be a ludicrous position for so nativist a politician. He's served in Cabinets before, under both Sharon and Olmert, without disastrous results. If they keep him away from posts directly affecting relations with Palestinians (or Israeli Arabs, a fifth of the population, whom he has taunted and suggested they are disloyal), some of the alarm might be assuaged. But where exactly you can put him without difficulty is less clear: the shadow of financial scandals linked to above make the Finance Ministry unlikely as well, but then there are few big Cabinet posts to offer. (And if Netanyahu is the PM, which seems increasingly probable, he'll want to avoid the financial scandals that have plagued Kadima and ended Olmert's Prime Ministership.)

Then again, no one with such polarizing views as Lieberman's has won so many seats in the Knesset before, though the 15 he won gives him less clout than the up to 20 seats some polls suggested he might win. The Kahane comparisons above, though coming from the left, are not all that outrageous: some Israelis on the right (and on the left as well) have always said Kach was banned because it posed a danger of winning too much support.

The historian in me notes that the rapid rise of polarizing radical figures of the right or left in a democracy is usually a sign of fundamental stresses in that society. Lieberman was doing better in some polls several months ago than he did in the elections, and I suspect one reason may be that the establishment parties were largely discredited after the Lebanon War in 2006, but have regained some credibility with the Israeli public since the Gaza operation, though the rest of the world has not shared their assessment of the latter. Livni's late surge in the polls may be due in part to Gaza.

Some have suggested Lieberman's most outrageous and seeming racially-based statements are being exaggerated or misinterpreted. Maybe. But I also remember, in 1979, plenty of Iran-watchers saying that "Ayatollah Khomeini doesn't really want the clerics to control the government." It turned out he meant every word. Other demagogues have been underestimated in terms of meaning what they say.

Similarly, the fact that despite his calls for disenfranchising Israeli Arabs he has been willing to give up the "Triangle" and Wadi Ara Arab areas of Israel in exchange for settlement areas, in a sort of territorial/population exchange, he himself lives in the settlement of Nokdim deep inside the West Bank, which his vaguely defined territorial exchange would be unlikely to include. At some point we need to address the whole "is the two-state solution dead?" question which is so topical right now, but it is complex and needs more time than I can give it at the moment. Suffice it to say that if Lieberman really is looking for a two-state solution that isn't just camouflaged apartheid bantustans, Nokdim won't be included on the Israeli side of the line. (Nokdim is administratively under Gush Etzion, which is a pre-1948 Israeli settlement east of the Green Line, but it is nowhere near Gush Etzion, and shouldn't be confused with it.)

So while I won't express huge alarm at the emergence of Lieberman -- he has 15 votes out of 120 in the Knesset, after all -- I won't dismiss him as a passing fancy either.

There is an easy tendency to dismiss him for his proletarian background: the number of newspaper articles, blogposts and the like I've seen noting that he was a "former nightclub bouncer from Moldova" reminds one of how easy it is to dismiss a short Corsican corporal or a Bavarian corporal who paints, or, this being the 200th anniversary of a great man's birth, a rail-splitter from Kentucky because of their former employment. And no, I'm not suggesting Lieberman is Napoleon or Hitler or (God help me) Lincoln, or that these men have anything in common except obscure or peripheral origins (Bonaparte was semi-noble but provincial), just noting that one's former employment doesn't tell you much. But it does mean that you shouldn't dismiss their potential for greater power, for good or ill.

I also particularly want to try to avoid the obvious and tempting comparisons of a man like Lieberman to, say, the situation in Germany in 1933. The quick tendency of many in the Arab world to compare Israel to Nazi Germany is not only excessive (there are no death camps, no Wehrmacht rolling over the region) but also profoundly offensive to Israelis given the reality and living memory of the Holocaust. But countries under profound economic and political stress can produce demagogues. And demagogues are not good for democracies, whether they are Corsican officers, Bavarian corporals, Italian newspaper editors with military ambitions, Spanish colonial officers or Louisiana politicians with a flair for oratory.

I think I know Israel well enough to say that I personally believe that Lieberman is still a minority taste, but I also recognize that, like most good demagogues, he combines his more disturbing sides (the attitude towards Israeli Arab citizens) with some populist notions (his support for civil marriage and a reduction of the power of the religious parties, for example) which are widely approved in secular Israeli society. (He has apparently gone so far as to say that, just as he feels Israeli Arabs should prove their loyalty or lose their citizenship, that the haredi or ultra-Orthodox who also do not serve in the military should also lose their citizenship if they do not support the state. The idea of an all-right-wing government is hard to realize because Lieberman and the religious parties do not play well together at all.)

In this sense I think if I had to find a parallel he would be less Hitler or Mussolini or Franco, but, perhaps, American populist/demagogic politicians like Huey Long or George Wallace (links provided for those who may not know these regional American politicians of the 20th century). The first was a real populist with some elements of authoritarianism, the second a man with a racial agenda hiding under a populist rhetoric. (And as always opinions expressed here are mine, not those of the Middle East Institute or The Middle East Journal.)

An odd note: Lieberman, for all his toughness, is nicknamed "Yvette" -- Israelis love nicknames for political figures, and his original Russian name was Evet (Эвет) before he became Avigdor -- but I don't think the seemingly feminine nickname has done much to soften his image.

I suspect we will be hearing a lot about "Yvette" Lieberman in days to come.

Rosen on the Obama Administration

Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC Policy Director who resigned due to espionage charges, has an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on the Obama Administration's Middle East appointments. It strikes me as fairly balanced: Rosen is a controversial figure these days, but he does know Washington well. It's worth a read even if one disagrees with some of the conclusions.

The Arab World Looks Apprehensively at Lieberman

No one expects the Arab media to applaud an Israeli election, but the results of this one are being met with more apprehension than usual, comparable to the election of Ariel Sharon. Even the moderate, level-headed Beirut Daily Star headlines "Fanatic Emerges as Kingmaker After Razor-Thin Israeli Election," the web story illustrated by a particularly unflattering picture of Avigdor Lieberman. If you read Arabic, Al-Sharq al-Awsat is still holding out the possibility of a rotation agreement among "five scenarios," Some, like al-Ahram, play the news of the results pretty straight, though I haven't read all the editorial comments.

Meanwhile, the Israeli manuvering is continuing. Early reports suggest the soldier's vote will not alter the final totals; if true, the dilemma remains that Kadima won the most seats but Likud is likelier to be able to form a government.

Reading today's Israeli press I get the sense that most of the parties other than Kadima are maneuvering as if Netanyahu will have the first go at forming a government. Shas and United Torah Judaism seem to be trying to put together an Orthodox religious bloc that would have more seats than the (aggressively secularist) Lieberman. That might give them better posts than Yisrael Beiteinu gets. But Lieberman himself is still playing coy, with reports that Livni has offered him support for civil marriage alongside religious marriages, a key demand of Lieberman and anathema to the religious parties.

The dilemmas Livni faces are real, since it is hard to picture Labor and Meretz joining a Kadima-led Cabinet if Lieberman had a prominent position. The math is just a lot harder for Livni than for Netanyahu, but if Livni will not join a unity government unless she leads it, the possibilities of an all-rightist government are greater.

The key will be what various parties recommend to the President as to who is most likely to form a government. And that should emerge over the coming days.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Manas Air Base: Is the Suq Open for Business?

Hmm...It seems the Kyrgyz Parliament may not vote on kicking the US out of Manas Air Base until April. That suggests to me that the suq is open for bargaining, and the US may be able to raise the bidding.

For earlier background on the threatened base closing, see this post.

Israel the Day After

The maneuvering is already under way even though the soldiers' vote won't be in until tomorrow (as well as a complex system whereby votes cast for parties that did not meet the 2% threshold are allocated to those who did). While it's still early in the coalition-building, I have a few observations on this first day of wheeling and dealing:
  • Tzipi Livni was quick to suggest a rotation system like that agreed by Likud and Labor in 1984, to which I alluded last night. Likud has rejected this, at least at this stage.
  • Continuing to look at how localities voted, Sderot, the town on the Gaza border most frequently hit by Qassam rockets from Gaza, voted heavily for Likud and Yisrael Beitenu. The right also did well in Ashkelon, also within occasional range. Thus Hamas seems to have helped the Israeli right. Elsewhere in the south, Kadima did a little better in Beer Sheva, but the right still did better.
  • Only 12 parties made it over the 2% threshold. That suggests that the really minuscule special-interest parties were ignored while the more visible major parties drew the voters.
  • Likud's comeback was impressive, even if it did not do quite as well as polls during the campaign suggested. Some wrote it off after its big losses in 2006. Clearly it's back.
  • The left was hit hard. Labor is now the fourth largest party. Meretz, the dovish party to Labor's left, fell from five seats to three. Ehud Barak has indicated that Labor will not join a coalition, but will try to rebuild from oppsition.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Counterintuitive Observation

Last late-night observation: I've only been blogging for two weeks. How's this for something counterintuitive: according to my archive list over there on the right, there have been 34 posts (this is number 35, so that's what it will read when I post this). What do you think the most frequent category (tag) under which they were filed was?

This: 11 of those 34 posts carried the tag, " elections."

Admittedly Israel accounted for many of those, but so did Iraq, Iran, Algeria and Lebanon. Five countries. Maybe something is catching on in the region after all. Except for Algeria, all those elections are arguably competitive if not truly free. And Algeria is actually arguable, though I won't try to argue it since I've already learned that anything I write about Algeria gets detailed exegesis from people who know more than I do, and it's bedtime.

Math Problem: Now What?

Math Quiz!

Okay, let's use Haaretz' figures with 100% of the vote tabulated. (These may not be the final, official, certified results, but should be pretty close.) I've taken the liberty of sorting the parties by bloc, which is a subjective thing but I hope properly informed (the characterizations are my own):

The 18th Knesset

Secular Right

(Netanyahu) 27
Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) 15
National Union (hard right of even of the two above) 4

Total secular right: 46

Religious Right:

(Sephardic religious) 11
United Torah Judaism (religious with Hasidic affiliations) 5
Jewish Home
(new name, but essentially the National Religious Party and allies, Ashkenazi religious) 3

Total religious right: 19


(Tzipi Livni) 28

Total Center: 28

Zionist Left

(Ehud Barak): 13
(to left of Labor) 3

Total Zionist Left: 16

Non-Zionist Left (traditionally only allowed in coalition if the coalition has a Zionist majority without them)

(Communist; Joint Jewish/Arab Party) 4
United Arab List (front of Arab parties) 4
Balad (Arab party; most radical of the three: its leader is in exile) 3

Total Non-Zionist Left: 11

Total: 120

Your mission, if you choose to accept it: come up with a 61-seat coalition that can govern.

Good luck with that.

A narrow left/center coalition does not seem possible unless one could include enough religious parties to form a majority, and history shows that Shas and Meretz, for example, do not play well together.

A narrow right coalition could govern, but if it included both Lieberman and National Union (a really hardline party) it would be something of a pariah with a lot of the outside world. Netantahu says he wants a unity government, but the secular and religious right together have enough seats to govern. But -- and this is a major but -- Likud and Yisrael Beitenu would still need at least two and preferably all three of the religious parties to form a rightist majority, and Lieberman, who's a secularist with some positions that are anathema to the orthodox, would probably encounter incompatibility problems with Shas in particular. A narrow right coalition is mathematically obvious, but politically would be vulnerable to feuds between the religious and the (largely secular) Yisrael Beitenu folks.

The logical solution is a unity government based on Likud and Kadima, but I already outlined the problems in getting there from here: with only a seat dividing Kadima from Likud, the first battle will be over who gets the first mandate to try to form a coalition. Both claim they want a coalition with the other, but of course with their own leader as PM.

Labor's Ehud Barak has made some remarks today suggesting Labor may stay out of a coalition led by either Kadima or Likud: the logic seems to be that Labor, if it is ever to recover its support base, needs to do so from the opposition benches. (I know, the Knesset sits in chairs; "benches" is a Britishism, but it gets the idea across.)

Go ahead and play with the math. Livni and Netanyahu certainly are. It's hard to avoid thinking of the case I already referred to, when Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir split the difference, one serving as PM while the other served as Foreign Minister, then exchanging positions. I'm not sure Netanyahu and Livni would go that route, because each is starting from a smaller electoral base than Peres/Shamir in 1984-1988.

Off the cuff predictions:

1) The most stable coalition would be one that includes Likud and Kadima: it's hard to get there from here, but once the maneuvering is over something like the 1984-88 rotation system might happen.

2) The Israeli left (meaning basically Labor and Meretz) are being marginalized. Barak's remarks suggesting their real role may lie in opposition is probably well-advised: Likud looked to be moribund in 2006, but has more than doubled its seats this time, from 12 at the election (others have defected to it since) to 27 this time. Labor, in opposition, might be able to similarly improve its visibility and underscore its identity.

3) This 18th Knesset will not serve out its term. It's too fragmented not to be vulnerable to partisan pressure and coercion. Unity governments are fragile because they c an do very little; narrow governments are fragile for the obvious reasons: one tiny party can bring it all down. Whatever coalition is formed will fall when some party pulls out over a (possibly peripheral) issue. I recall one time a government almost fell over the issue of daylight savings time (the religious parties were opposed). About the only hope for a real government would be if Kadima (most of whose members have roots in Likud) and Likud could somehow come back together. But that moves Kadima to the right and undercuts Livni's emerging identity.

4) A bit farther afield prediction: whether Tzipi Livni or Binyamin Netanyahu becomes PM, the next round of elections will see new faces at the heads of the three major parties, if Kadima even survives. Netanyahu and Barak are old faces who have already served as PM; Livni is as yet unproven. (This is the one I could be wrong about: Livni hasn't shown herself able to take command of the party yet, but then Ehud Olmert was still in office; she could prove to be a stronger leader than she has given the impression of being so far. She has had to remain in the shadow of Olmert so long as he was still Interim PM. Some of her critics have come pretty close to sexism in suggesting she may not be a strong enough wartime leader. Two words: Golda Meir.)

5) Lieberman is going to be a flash in the pan. This may be more wishful thinking on my part than prophecy, but divisive figures -- and fairly or not, he is dividing Israeli opinion, infuriating political opponents, scaring Israeli Arabs and confirming to many outside Arabs their worst stereotypes about Israel -- don't tend to prosper in democracies. On the flip side, though, difficult economic times can allow divisive figures to rise to power (Italy 1922, Germany 1933, Russia 1917, Huey Long in the US depression, etc.), and Israelis are feeling beleaguered again. (And a note here: I know the Israeli left calls Lieberman a fascist and he denies it vehemently: my references to Italy and Germany do not imply that he is a fascist, one of the most abused epithets in the language, only that difficult times bring out radical leaders. And I don't want to be overly neutral here -- objectivity is not neutrality -- but in my personal opinion Lieberman is at the very least a demagogue stirring up ethnic/racial resentments.) I think, or at least hope, that Israel isn't going down that road. On the other hand, Ariel Sharon (I almost said "the late" Ariel Sharon, though he is still medically alive) said and wrote many things almost as outrageous as Lieberman's worst: and yet Sharon pulled every settlement out of Gaza. There are some signs that Lieberman might even be willing to give up Israeli territory (Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm and the "Arab Triangle") to create a separate Palestinian state.

Personally, I don't trust that. Most Israelis I know don't either, but it looks as if 12% of Israeli voters are willing to see what he really means. And as I suggested in an earlier post, I think part of it is that a lot of people on the Israeli right just don't like Netanyahu personally. Somebody in the US negotiating world (and I think it might have been Dennis Ross, generally sympathetic to Israel) referred to Netanyahu as "insufferable," and a lot of Israelis seem to agree. He's abrasive. (So was Yitzhak Rabin, though, whom I met a few times. Gruff, tough, abrasive, chain smoker, like the traditional Israeli definition of the sabra or native born Israeli: like the prickly pear cactus for which they are named, "thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside." Except I'm not so sure Rabin was sweet on the inside, either. I don't think I've ever met Netanyahu.)

Peace process? Well, there isn't much of a peace process right now and it's not about to be jump started. A unity government will be fairly unwilling to do much because it will be covering all bases; a rightist government starts with a reluctance to deal; a centrist government will have to deal too much with the religious and other parties to make serious concessions. A leftist government doesn't seem to be numerically possible.

That's it for now. A mix of analysis and blather. (Dictionary definition of blogging?) I don't intend to blog at 11:30 at night except on election nights, and the meaningful ones in the Middle East are rare enough that I won't lose much sleep.

Results by City

As the official results come in, Haaretz now has a neat table which, in addition to showing the totals by party, has a selector that allows you to see the results "By City" or "By Sector" (size of town, etc.) For those of you who know Israel, toggle around in it a bit; it's interesting to see the regional contrasts: Tel Aviv going heavily for Kadima; Jerusalem for the religious parties and Likud; Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm (the two biggest Arab cities) going solidly for Hadash (Communists) and the Arab parties but Bedouin communities going United Arab List instead of Hadash. Ariel (big settlement in the West Bank) is going for the rightist parties, no surprise there. A quick impression is that while the results are predictable, they emphasize the remarkable geographical/political diversity of Israeli opinion. Or perhaps the right word isn't diversity: it's geographically pretty polarized. Tel Aviv doesn't think like Jerusalem; the coastal plain doesn't think like the settlements. Of course, we knew that already. In Eilat there are topless beaches; in Mea Shearim you might be stoned for wearing shorts or driving on the Sabbath. Nothing too surprising in the results, but it's a fun table to play with.

And with 98% of the vote in, Kadima 28 seats, Likud 27. This is about as close as it gets. Clearly, with the two parties so close, Netanyahu will push to be given the first try, since the right overall has done better than the center/left overall. But Livni has tradition on her side: the party with the most seats historically gets first try. See my Backgrounder from earlier this evening for the process.

Better Luck Next Time

Maybe even in Israel a party can become too narrow in its special interest platform. It appears that the Green Leaf Graduates and Holocaust Survivors' Party, despite combining marijuana legalization and protecting Holocaust Suvivors' pensions as its combined raison d'etre, will not win any seats in the 18th Knesset. Perhaps the fact that there were two marijuana legalization parties running (the original Green Leaf Party being the one the Green Leaf Graduates split off from) diluted the vote.

Backgrounder: Playing the Numbers Game

I'm doing what I suspect most Israelis are doing right now, playing with the preliminary numbers and trying to figure out what a coalition would look like. Bearing in mind that the prelminary results are from exit polling and that since military encampments aren't exit-polled, the soldiers' vote might alter the trends slightly, let's assume for argument's sake that these exit poll numbers hold more or less true.

One of the pleasures of editing The Middle East Journal has been working working with Don Peretz, who has been analyzing Israeli elections for us since the 1950s and is the author of the classic The Government and Politics of Israel. Don is retired now and doesn't use E-mail much, so I haven't had a chance to talk to him about these results. But maybe reading Don's work all these years has rubbed off on me a little, and I did used to analyze Israeli politics in my newsletter, The Estimate.

The first observation is that the body politic is increasingly fragmented. This has been the trend for some time. Labor no longer dominates the left-center (or much of anything else) and Likud no longer has a monopoly on the secular right. Kadima has managed to hold a narrow lead as the largest party, but Kadima is something of a hybrid itself, made up of ex-Likud and ex-Labor figures, some quite far to the right. While it is seeking to be the long-predicted, but very slow to emerge, centrist party in Israel, it was really created as a vehicle for Ariel Sharon, and with Sharon in a coma the past three years, the party is still struggling for an identity.

The emergence of Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) has raised alarm, especially on the left and among Israeli Arabs. Partly this is due to the sometimes outrageous comments made by its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, a Moldova-born immigrant who has called Israeli Arabs a fifth column. It started as a party for immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union, but its appeal has grown. I suspect one reason for Yisrael Beitenu's strength as well may be that many Israelis on the right would vote Likud but just don't like Binyamin Netanyahu. He has a reputation for abrasiveness.

As I noted, Lieberman's party started out as a party of ex-Soviet immigrants. Israel's electoral system favors the emergence of small parties with highly specialized agendas, such as a party of pensioners or, my personal favorite this time, a party of proponents of marijuana legalization and Holocaust survivors. (Don't believe me? Follow the link.) This list of Israeli parties at Wikipedia gives a sense of the chaotic scene.

The reason for the proliferation of small parties, by the way, is that the threshold to enter the Knesset is only 2% of the vote, which I believe may be the lowest of any democracy of any reasonable size. I think maybe the Netherlands has a similar threshold, but 5% or more is more common in proportional-representation systems. When I was first getting acquainted with Israel back in the 1980s, I naively asked an Israeli colleague, a Laborite who complained about the power of the religious parties, why they didn't just raise the threshold and thus have fewer fringe parties. He was appropriately bemused by the question. The answer, of course, is that the fringe parties control the swing votes necessary to change the electoral law, and they like things just as they are, thank you very much. All the major parties criticize the present system from time to time, especially because the smaller parties and the religious bloc in particular bargain hard and make many demands before joining a coalition. Both Livni and her Kadima ally, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, have called for reforming the political system just today. Don't hold your breath: the little parties will be presenting their demands in the next days and weeks.

So, back to the numbers game. Both Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu have said they would like to form a unity government or at least a centrist coalition including Likud, Labor, Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu, though in the latter case there is the question of what post Lieberman could hold without international alarm: Netanyahu has already promised not to to make Lieberman Defense Minister. It's difficult to imagine such an undiplomatic figure in the Foreign Ministry. But he heads the third biggest party, and if it joins the coalition he's going to want a major job.

The first question is who will be given the first chance to form a government. In an earlier post today I linked to a Jerusalem Post article on the dilemma facing Israeli President Shimon Peres. The post of President of Israel is mostly a ceremonial one, but it does have one major prerogative: entrusting a potential Prime Minister to form a goverment. Traditionally, the head of the party that wins the most seats gets the first chance. But the President is supposed to consult with the various parties in the Knesset and then entrust the task to the person with the likeliest chance of forming a coalition, and Likud is already insisting that Netanyahu has the math on his side.

It is indeed much easier to put together a 61-seat majority on the right-hand side of the ledger rather than the left. (And complicating matters on the left is a traditional taboo, violated only rarely and for short periods, on having a coalition dependent on the votes of "non-Zionist" parties, meaning the Communists and the Arab parties.)

For example, a hard right coalition of Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, National Union (which is even farther to the right) and the religious parties would come close to the total even without Kadima or Labor. It's much harder for Livni to form a coalition without including Likud, which she has said she would like to include. But if Peres offers Livni the first chance to form a government, all Likud has to do is decline to join and she probably will fail to get a majority -- which is what happened last year after Ehud Olmert stepped aside.

Whoever is given the first chance to try -- and Livni and Netanyahu are loudly insisting that it must be she/he -- the designee will have 28 days to put together a coalition. The President may extend this an additional 14 days, but if after 42 days the designee hasn't put together a coalition, the President will designate someone else, who gets 28 days. So even if Livni gets the designation, because she won the most seats, all Likud would have to do to stymie her would be to decline to join, and in effect run out the clock. (For a backgrounder on the rather baroque electoral system try this page at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.)

The obvious answer would seem to be a unity government including both Likud and Kadima, which would come within three or four votes of a majority and perhaps need only one other party to form a coalition. But with the numbers so close, it becomes difficult since if Livni is to be PM, Netanyahu may well balk at joining, and vice versa.

Something analagous happened back in the 1980s, when Labor had a narrow lead. Shimon Peres agreed to a rotation system in coalition with Likud; from 1984-86 Peres was Prime Minister and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir was Foreign Minister; then from 1986-88 they traded places. That was a different era and the two parties were much stronger then; putting something similar together now might be hard.

When the numbers of seats have hardened a bit more we'll do the math again, but it looks like a lot of wheeling and dealing is in store.