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According to the New York Times, the Israel-Palestine prisoner swap has completed its first stage, in which IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was returned to Israel in exchange for 427 Palestinian prisoners.

The soldier, Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, 25, was taken from Gaza, where he had been held since Palestinian militants abducted him in a cross-border raid in 2006, into Egypt and from there to Israel, where he was given a medical check and declared in good health. Looking pale and thin, he changed into a military uniform and was flown by helicopter to an Israeli military air base where he was reunited with his family and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Today we are all united in joy and in pain,” Mr. Netanyahu said shortly after in a televised address from the base, Tel Nof, south of Tel Aviv.

The article also describes the scene in Gaza, where festive crowds greeted the returned prisoners.  550 more will be returned during the next few months in accordance with the deal.

As for the significance of this exchange, there now are several major questions to answer:

  • Will this exchange help establish the trust necessary for the peace process to make major strides forward?
  • How much are Hamas and Netanyahu strengthened in the realm of domestic politics?
  • Will capturing Israeli soldiers now be a recurring tactic for Israel’s adversaries?
I might be overly optimistic, especially given Netanyahu’s record, but this deal feels to me like it will increase momentum toward peace.

Two woah! stories

Al Jazeera reports that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel has announced that after five years of being held captive, Israel has finally struck a deal with Hamas for a prisoner swap that will free IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.  Shalit has become a sort of symbol in Israel, and while his release is of little tactical or strategic value, it is a huge political win for Netanyahu, in my opinion on the level of Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden.  There is room to question if a swap of a captured IDF soldier for many Palestinian prisoners will only encourage future kidnappings, but for now that does not seem to be a concern.

Then there is this article from the New York Times, which reports that US Federal Authorities broke up a plot of two Iranians, with connections to Iran’s Quds Force, to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US and bomb the Saudi Embassy (I’ve been there!).  The men were supposedly attempting to hire Mexican drug cartels to carry out the operation.  The National Security Council has been on top of this plot since June.

Abdullah Alshamri, a Saudi official in Riyadh, predicted the disclosure would send Iranian-Saudi relations to “their lowest point yet.” Though no government steps had been taken, he suggested that a diplomatic row was inevitable.

“We’re expecting from our government a serious and tough reaction to give a message to the Iranians that enough is enough,” he said by telephone. “If we keep our diplomatic ties with the Iranians, they will think we are weak and they will keep trying to attack us.”

He said this was only the latest Iranian attempt to attack Saudi diplomats.

“This is their hobby,” he said. “Iran has no respect for international law.”

Edit: Professor Rob Prince, a friend of MEDG, blogged about Israel’s rough September.

Tidbits

It was a busy day around the region.

  • Israeli settlers vandalized and burned a mosque, an action that Netanyahu has condemned
  • US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed the US commitment to maintaining a militarily superior Israel, although he questioned Israel’s diplomatic isolation
  • Israel has signaled that it is willing to return to negotiations sponsored by the US, UN, EU, and Russia, although Palestinians are skeptical that any progress can be made
  • In Egypt, the country’s military leadership has agreed to amendments to the election laws, changes called for and endorsed by the country’s anti-Mubarak political elements
  •  Libyan transnational government forces (we’re calling them that instead of rebels now I guess) are pressing in on pro-Gaddafi forces in Sirte, one of a few strongholds of Gaddafi remaining
  • In ongoing upheavals, Bahrain has sentenced participants in protests to lengthy jail terms, Syria has been rounding up thousands of citizens to quell protests, and Yemeni youth don’t just want Saleh out as president, but want criminal charges pressed against him as well
  • There was a terrifying attack in Iraq, in which Sunni insurgents took hostages at a police station.  Several hostages and a police chief were killed before Iraqi forces recaptured the building, killing the militants.  This bit of ties to the piece from Dean Hill from yesterday, as he brought up the matter of Sunni insurgents, whose funding, objectives, and strategy are harder to pin down than their Sunni counterparts
So, there is a lot happening, although I don’t know if any of it can be considered as a major development.  I guess that for me the most interesting thing is Panetta’s statements, and the context of the attack in Iraq.

Ahmadinejad gives a speech

President Mahmood Ahmadinejad of Iran addressed the United Nations in New York ahead of the big Palestinian push for statehood.  Al Jazeera reports that the speech was met with a walkout, as the United States, Israel, and various European Countries left their seats during the speech.  Obviously, Ahmadinejad is upset with the United States’ role in the Israel-Palestine peace process.

He also attacked the US for its history of slavery, causing two world wars, using a nuclear bomb against “defenseless people,” and imposing and supporting military dictatorships and totalitarian regimes on Asian, African and Latin American nations.

Ahmadinejad, who has called into question the Holocaust, raises extreme points that are generally ignored.  Still, there are people who assume similar positions regarding international affairs as Ahmadinejad, so his points must be heard and understood.  The general view of US policymakers is that Ahmadinejad is an interloper with devious, self-serving intentions, and so no effort is made to engage him.  Is this the best practice, or should the United States be more interested in creating a dialogue with the Ahmadinejad types?  The US doesn’t have any diplomatic relations with Iran.  Is that good policy?

Obama speaks on Palestine

The upcoming UN vote regarding Palestinian statehood, which the US is set to veto, prompted President Obama to head the UN and explain the US position.  Essentially, his argument is that for a meaningful peace deal to be struck between Israel and Palestine, it has to come through the channel of direct negotiation between the two parties.  In his view, the Palestinians are taking a short cut that could gain a political win but will not be helpful in the long term for creating a peaceful settlement.  Al Jazeera has a nice article covering the story and its tangential aspects (plus an fantastic photograph at the top).  Were it not for the US veto, this proposal would probably pass with overwhelming support at the UN, which begs the question, why are we (the US) doing what we’re doing.  What US interests exactly does it serve?

Diplomatic developments

Yemen has seen a large outbreak in violence.  This Al Jazeera link includes video.

With this post I want to link two articles relating to diplomatic developments.  First is an Al Jazeera report on the upcoming Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.  The other is a New York Times article on the growing relationship between Turkey and Egypt.  For those interested in the politics of the Middle East, the story is a must read.  Here is an interesting excerpt:

The portrait was described by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey in an hourlong interview before he was to leave for the United Nations, where a contentious debate was expected this week over a Palestinian bid for recognition as a state. Viewed by many as the architect of a foreign policy that has made Turkey one of the most relevant players in the Muslim world, Mr. Davutoglu pointed to that issue and others to describe a region in the midst of a transformation. Turkey, he said, was “right at the center of everything.”

He declared that Israel was solely responsible for the near collapse in relations with Turkey, once an ally, and he accused Syria’s president of lying to him after Turkish officials offered the government there a “last chance” to salvage power by halting its brutal crackdown on dissent.

Strikingly, he predicted a partnership between Turkey and Egypt, two of the region’s militarily strongest and most populous and influential countries, which he said could create a new axis of power at a time when American influence in the Middle East seems to be diminishing.

9-11, and What should Israel do?

It should be said that a lot of people in this group had their interest in the Middle East sparked by a desire to understand what happened on September 11th.  The whys.  Deepening our understanding is the biggest goal of MEDG.

That said, here are there are two articles in the New York Times today that are worth reading through.  The first discusses the current frustration that many Pakistanis and Afghans feel as America continues its war effort in those places.

The second looks at Israel’s current issues.  Their two biggest regional partners, Turkey and Egypt, aren’t exactly great allies at the moment.  Now, with the physical manifestation of destruction at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Israeli diplomats are very alarmed, and asking for additional US support.  The last four paragraphs are outstanding, so I’m going to post them here:

Initial Israeli fears about the Arab Spring uprisings have begun to materialize in concrete ways. When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt at the start of the year, little attention was directed toward Israel because so much focus was on throwing off dictatorial rule and creating a new political order.

Traditionally, many Arab leaders have used Israel as a convenient scapegoat, turning public wrath against it and blaming it for their problems. The faint hope here was that a freer Middle East might move away from such anti-Israel hostility because the overthrow of dictators would open up debate.

But as the months of Arab Spring have turned autumnal, Israel has increasingly become a target of public outrage. Some here say Israel is again being made a scapegoat, this time for unfulfilled revolutionary promises.

But there is another interpretation, and it is the predominant one abroad — Muslims, Arabs and indeed many around the globe believe Israel is unjustly occupying Palestinian territories, and they are furious at Israel for it. And although some Israelis pointed fingers at Islamicization as the cause of the violence, Egyptians noted Saturday that Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, distanced themselves from Friday’s protests and did not attend, while legions of secular-minded soccer fans were at the forefront of the embassy attacks.

So the question is, what should Israel do?  Standing firm is an option.  So is aggressively seeking to create a peaceful Palestinian state.  A middle route might be to take diplomatic steps to ease tensions with Turkey and Egypt, on the governmental level.

My only thought is that I hope the United States tries to act proactively, rather than wait for Israel to choose its course and support that decision wholesale.