Middle East

Minority Report

On October 19 of last year, the op-ed page of The New York Times contained a bombshell: a piece by Robert Bernstein, the founder and former chairman of Human Rights Watch (HRW), attacking his own organization. HRW, Bernstein wrote, was “helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” The allegation was certainly not new: HRW had been under assault for years by American Jews and other supporters of Israel, who argued that it was biased against the Jewish state. And these attacks had intensified in recent months, with a number of unflattering revelations about the organization.

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There is broad consensus on the board of Human Rights Watch in support of its Middle East work in general and its Israel-Palestine work in particular, contrary to the suggestion of "a civil war" over Israel ("Minority Report," May 13, 2010). As the co-chair of HRW's advisory committee on the Middle East and North Africa and long-time (now emerita) member of the board, I have been a part of virtually all conversations about our work in the region in the last twenty years.

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Frankly, I do not think that Barack Obama ever really believed that an accommodation with Iran over its nuclear designs was possible. What follows is that he prevaricated about this promising turn in diplomacy and that one, all the while knowing he was going straight down a dead-end street. And going down that street in a quite cavalier fashion so as to keep his critics at bay. Some Americans were even persuaded by the seemingly confident president that he must have something up his sleeve.

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Amid all the talk of U.S. trade recently, The Economist just published a series on the importance of exports. A piece entitled “Export or Die” described how a New York-based architecture firm barely avoided massive layoffs by finding projects in China, Korea, and the Middle East, where demand has not faltered as sharply over the last two years. In other words, service exports prevented unemployment. One wonders: Is this just an anecdote, or is it representative of an important trend? As it turns out, it is a trend.

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Kaboom!

The words most often used by the heads of oil companies to describe the boom are “revolution” and “game changer.” Industry historian Daniel Yergin calls it “the shale gale.” Admittedly, serious questions remain as to whether shale gas will pass the ecological test—critics say it can’t be extracted safely in proximity to groundwater, and the EPA is engaged in a two-year study of extraction techniques.

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James Risen, a Washington-based writer, and Yossi Klein Halevi, a Jerusalem-based writer, have been friends since they both crashed the Nazi Party headquarters in Chicago as student reporters 30 years ago. They have been joking and arguing about news and politics ever since, especially when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.  This e-mail exchange began in the shadow of the dispute between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.

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Almost before the celebrants at Barack Obama’s inauguration had gotten over their hangovers some 15 months ago, the president designated George Mitchell as his special envoy in the Middle East. I wrote then and several times since that he would be a flop, poor man. After all, it’s not the case that he had been a great success in any of his other high-minded missions, including the investigation into steroid use by baseball heroes.

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So the Obama administration seems to believe. It has not, at least in my memory, been struck by anything the P.A. has done or said that is inimical to negotiations and to peace. While it commands this and then that from Israel just to get the Palestinians to sit down and talk, the talking will not be between the parties at all but a three-way process with George Mitchell shuttling between Ramallah and Jerusalem and back.

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Killing in the Name

The following is adapted from a talk delivered at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 2010. One of the greatest ironies of the past decade's debates over political Islam has been that, on the whole, the most passionate and emphatic rejections of radical Islamism in this country came from President Bush and his supporters—that is, conservatives. This is peculiar because the various forms of radical Islamism represent the third major form of totalitarian ideology and politics in modern world history.

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The Party Line

Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present By Yevgeny Primakov Translated by Paul Gould (Basic Books, 418 pp., $29.95) Over the decades, many people in the West, and certainly most Israelis, came to view the Soviet Union and then Russia as a force for ill, if not evil, in the Middle East, and perhaps farther afield as well.

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