Foreign Correspondent

The complex politics of Myanmar …

I sneaked into Myanmar on a tourist visa because the military junta running the country made it almost impossible to travel as a journalist. So I thought I was the only foreign reporter in the capital of Yangon in July of 1995.

I was relaxing one morning when BBC TV ran a bulletin that famous opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from house arrest. I scrambled into a taxi and went straight to her house in a wealthy neighborhood of Yangon. I envisioned being the first reporter to interview her. I had the scoop of the century!

Myanmar’s leader has done nothing about the massacre of the Muslim minority

When I arrived, however, her front yard was filled with dozens of diplomats and reporters. Most had flown in from Bangkok that morning when the government relaxed visa requirements.

I joined the scrum of reporters asking her questions. Suu Kyi had genuine poplar support as a democracy advocate in this country once called Burma. She stood against the country’s brutal military rulers. She was also a darling of the United States and Britain because of her advocacy of free markets, anti-communism and other pro-western policies.

Most significantly, neither Suu Kyi nor her supporters that I interviewed understood the complexities of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Her father had been a leftist and nationalist leader in the fight against British colonialism. That revolutionary nationalism helped free the country. But nationalism of the Buddhist majority applied against ethnic and religious minorities was to take the country in a repressive direction.

Suu Kyi was jailed and released several times until her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was allowed to field parliamentary candidates in 2015. The NLD won the election and Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader. But she hardly mentioned minority rights.

The generals exercise real power in Myanmar. They claim the Rohingya, who live in the western state of Rakhine, are really Bangladeshis, despite the fact they have lived in Myanmar for centuries. The government denies Rohingyas’ the right to vote or hold elected office, and restricts their access to healthcare, education, and jobs.

Brutal attacks

In 2016 and then again on August 25, 2017 an armed Rohingya militia attacked police and army posts, killing dozens of security personnel. In the following days the military viciously attacked Rohingya civilians, eventually driving hundreds of thousands out of the country. In numerous documented cases, the military beat, raped and murdered civilians.

Right-wing nationalist Buddhist monks, with government cooperation, incited their followers to attack Rohingya villages, killing some civilians and driving out the rest. So much for the concept that Buddhism is somehow immune from the extremism affecting other major religions.

In August this year a UN reportdescribed the military actions as “genocide” and called for an international tribunal to put the generals on trial.

Despite these atrocities, Suu Kyi defends the military’s actions. She also justifies the jailing of two Reuters reporters who exposed the massacres but were convicted on trumped up charges of violating the British colonial era Official Secrets Act. Last month they were sentenced to seven years in prison.

Alice Baillat, research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs now living in Bangladesh, told me Suu Kyi’s political options are constrained by the powerful military. However, “she has not used her moral authority, popularity and power position, however limited, to stem or prevent the unfolding crisis and protect the civilian population.”

Armed attacks

Rohingya politics are complicated as well. For two years an armed group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has been attacking police and military targets in Rakhine state. ARSA’s leader Ata Ullah was born in Pakistan and lived in Saudi Arabia.

The International Crisis Group wrote, “The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics.”

James M. Dorsey, senior fellow S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told me that as a Sunni Muslim group, ARSA has received political support and some relief supplies from militant groups such as Laksha Taiba in Pakistan.

He noted, however, that ARSA is not a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda or ISIS, nor does it seek to create an Islamic caliphate. But, he warned, continued government repression could push some Rohingya in that direction.

“If you’re Rohingya, gravitating to militancy is 1 + 1 = 2,” he said.

Other ethnic groups in Myanmar have their own armed militias, noted Simon Billenness, executive director of the International Campaign for the Rohingya based in Boston.  ARSA, he told me, attacks primarily military targets and doesn’t intentionally kill civilians.

“ARSA has more in common with the ethnic armed forces than it has to any international terrorist group,” he said.

US Policy

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have wrestled unsuccessfully with Myanmar policy. The country has valuable gemstones and sits in a volatile area bordering China, Bangladesh and Thailand. The last few presidents have tried to break Myanmar’s close economic and political ties with China, and bring it into the US sphere of influence.

The Obama administration lifted economic sanctions after the military gave up some power, even as attacks on Rohingya began. The Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on individual generals and threatened more stringent, unilateral sanctions.

In my opinion, unilateral US sanctions are wrong in principle and unhelpful in practice. Who is Trump to denounce human rights violations against Muslims while denying them entry to the United States and keeping them jailed indefinitely in Guantanamo? US unilateral sanctions, while ostensibly defending human rights, in practice aim at replacing hostile regimes with ones friendly to the US.

“If Donald trump comes out swinging with sanctions, he won’t get a lot of Chinese and Russian support,” said analyst Dorsey. “If there was a multilateral effort to improve immediate living conditions with  ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) at the core, it could create a tolerable situation.”

The Trump administration should immediately help fund the UN’s requested $951 million to help the Rohingya living in refugee camps. I don’t expect much positive from the dotard Donald, but at least he can help fund refugee relief.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His bookThe Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy will be published in October. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

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What 15 years of war has brought us: Angry Iraqis

Women and children suffer after a fortune in US military spending. Photo by Reese Erlich

Militant protests continue in the oil rich city of Basra despite a harsh government crackdown. Thousands of Iraqis are demanding jobs, restoration of basic utility services and an end to government corruption. The protests quickly spread to other southern Iraqi cities and Baghdad.

Iraq has faced major electricity shortages since the 2003 US invasion. In Basra salt water flows from faucets because of filtration system breakdowns. Transparency International lists Iraq as  one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Women and children suffer after a fortune in US military spending. Photo by Reese Erlich

In the first two weeks since the protests began July 14, over a dozen protestors died, hundreds were wounded and 750 arrested, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

Angry protestors closed the port of Um Qasr and even shut the Iraq-Kuwait border for a time, according to Yerevan Saeed, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute.

Saeed, a colleague with whom I worked during reporting trips to Iraq, said the protests reflect widespread anger throughout the country.

“Everyone, from Basra to Kurdistan, is frustrated with the current politicians,” he told me. “The political elite are corrupt. That brings everyone together at the moment.”

Iraq has been in turmoil since the 2003 US invasion. Far from bringing democracy and prosperity as promised by US officials, the occupation resulted in rule by a corrupt, wealthy elite. As many as 7000 US troops continue to occupy Iraq, 15 years after the initial invasion. And Iraqis are pissed — as seen in the results of parliamentary elections in May and a recount finalized in August.

A coalition headed by anti-US, nationalist cleric Muqtada al Sadr won a plurality of 54 out of 329 seats in parliament. A pro-Iranian coalition headed by Hadi al Ameri took 48. The US-backed coalition led by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi came in third with 42 seats, a big blow to the Trump administration.

Sadr, a Shia cleric with conservative views on social issues,  formed an alliance with the secular Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). Both agreed to focus on jobs, fighting corruption and combating outside domination of Iraq – whether from the US or Iran.

To some extent, they share a common social base among workers and the poor. For example, voters elected a woman ICP candidate Suhad al-Khateeb, a teacher who organized in the poor neighborhoods of Najaf, an otherwise religious and conservative city. It will be interesting to see if the left can expand its base in the months ahead.

Iraqi politicians now face the difficult task of forming a new government. Although a solid majority voted for parties opposed to US domination, a pro-US candidate could emerge from back room chicanery, according to Saeed.

“I think we’re months away from a new government,” he said.

 

Shock and Awe – the movie

Two recent films about Iraq are worth catching. Shock and Awe dramatizes the struggle of Knight Ridder reporters and an editor to expose the George Bush administration’s lies leading to the 2003 Iraq War. It has an outstanding cast that includes Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson.

The Knight Ridder wire, which provided news to 31 dailies, was one of the few mainstream outlets to challenge the assertion that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The film uses video from speeches and press conferences to skewer Bush, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. It’s great to hear the editor character played by Rob Reiner declaim that “We will not be stenographers for the Bush Administration.”

Of course the left media and the massive anti-war movement had a far better analysis than anything in the Knight Ridder articles. But Knight Ridder was certainly the best of the US mainstream media.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Shock and Aweis good cinema. The good guys remain good throughout and the bad guys stay evil. So there’s little dramatic tension. It got rotten reviews and stopped playing in theaters soon after release. Nevertheless I would recommend streaming it as a refresher on the close collaboration of the US ruling elite and the mainstream media.

 

Nowhere to Hide

The documentary film Nowhere to Hide, which will air on PBS, has the opposite problem. It’s compelling cinema but without a clear political focus.

Norwegian-Kurdish filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed gave a small camera to Nori Sharif, a hospital medic, and told him to film his life for the next three years. Nori lived in Jawala, a mostly Sunni area of central Iraq known as the Triangle of Death.

The documentary opens with Nori expressing his joy that the American troops are finally pulling out of Iraq at the end of 2011. He’s happy the US is leaving and optimistic about an independent Iraq, not a view often seen in US media.

First we meet his family, a lively bunch of dancing kids, a wife and in laws. We get a hint of things to come when Nori interviews a crane operator who was kidnapped twice by Al Qaeda and has been disabled as a result.

We later experience the ISIS onslaught through Nori’s eyes. “Who creates this violence and why?” he asked plaintively. “No one understands, not even me.” Another time he told the camera, “I don’t understand this war. It tears you to pieces.”

And that’s the film’s biggest weakness. The documentary maker could have included other sources to explain the big picture: the US desire to control oil, establish military bases and dominate the region. Instead, we’re left with the impression that Sunnis, Shia, Yazidis and others are just doomed to fight one another.

The film does powerfully portray, however, what the war looks like from the perspective of an ordinary Iraqi. We see the brutality of the US-sponsored police, the sudden arrival of ISIS and how Nori’s family flees Jawala with only a few hours notice.

One of the children asks how long will they be away? Her mom answers, “Only a few days.” We know this isn’t true, and we feel as helpless as the family. Despite the hardships, however, the family manages to express some optimism.

“Right now we cannot tell when or how the war will end,” Nori said. “In the end the will to build will win over the forces of destruction. Because life must go on.”

PBS airs Nowhere to Hideas part of its POV series on August 27.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His bookThe Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Trump in Afghanistan

Afghan girl who lost her arm in a bombing and fled with her family to Kabul. Photo by Reese Erlich

President Donald Trump is back on the stump, trumpeting his alleged triumphs since the 2016 elections. Somehow, he never mentions Afghanistan.

For years, Trump has denounced endless foreign wars, including Afghanistan. He tweeted in 2012, for example, that Afghanistan is “a complete waste….Time to come home!”

Once in power, however, Trump filled top advisor and cabinet positions with generals and neocons who advocate permanent occupation of Afghanistan. He suddenly became interested in the country’s estimated $1 trillion in rare earth minerals vital to manufacturing high tech products such as cell phones.  

Afghan girl who lost her arm in a bombing and fled with her family to Kabul

Then one year ago Trump announced plans to send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan. At the time, I and many other commentators said a few thousand more troops couldn’t possibly shift the tide of war when 100,000 failed under Obama.

And, sure enough, the military situation has gotten worse for the US and its corrupt allies in Kabul. The US intensified its air war. The Taliban retaliated with devastating attacks on Kabul and other major cities. On August 10, in only the latest example, the Taliban attacked and held the key city of Ghazni for several days.

To date 2,372 US troops have died and more than 20,000 have been wounded.

An estimated total of 110,000 Afghans have died in the conflict.

US taxpayers have spent over a trillion dollars on the war so far, not counting the billions in future veteran’s benefits.

Kathy Kelly — co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Non Violence, which supports humanitarian work in Afghanistan — told me her group has long advocated that all US and allied troops should pull out, and the US should pay reparations for its war of destruction.

“This is a failed war, as are all wars,” she said.

Life in Kabul

During my first reporting trips to Afghanistan in the aughts, I stayed in inexpensive guest houses, walked to interviews when practical, and visited sources in their homes. Those days are long gone.

Dr. Hakim Young, a physician originally from Singapore, has seen dramatic changes during his 14 years of humanitarian work in Afghanistan. Today any government building could be attacked by insurgents, even the military and intelligence headquarters in Kabul.

“We avoid government, political and religious buildings,” he told me from Kabul. “We vary daily movements and schedules.”

Even talking or walking with a westerner can put local Afghans in danger because of popular anger at foreign occupation.

So they try not to be noticed by dressing in local clothes.

“It helps that I look like an Afghan,” said Dr. Hakim, “and speak their language.”

He said among Afghans in general, “the mood is one of stress, trauma, uncertainty, insecurity, frustration, anger, distrust and hopelessness. This mood is reflected in the continual outflow of Afghans seeking asylum elsewhere.”

Warlords in and out of government

Afghans don’t support the Taliban or the Islamic State, the two main insurgent groups. But it’s not like the United States has provided a viable alternative. The United States is allied with brutal, drug dealing warlords.

Recently General Abdul Rashid Dostum was back in the news. He’s a warlord with a long history of human-rights abuses, and was accused of beating and raping a rival. Oh, did I mention, he’s also Afghanistan’s first vice president.

Last year, he fled to Turkey in the middle of the night. Dostum’s supporters among the Uzbek ethnic minority have recently engaged in violent demonstrations against the government. In a surprise move, Dostum returned to Kabul in July and was greeted by major government leaders including President Ashraf Ghani. It seems unlikely that Dostum will face trial for the rape, let alone for decades of human rights abuses.

“There are multiple warlords in Afghanistan and the Taliban is just one of them,” Kelly said. “There is no functioning government right now. It’s a failed narco state.”

It’s little wonder that the people of Afghanistan want the US and its corrupt government partners to leave.

Grassroots Peace Movement

The Helmand Peace Convoy, now called the People’s Peace Movement, presents a few rays of hope these days. In March, unknown bombers killed 17 civilians and wounded 55 in the southern province of Helmand. So a group of elders, relatives of injured civilians, and civil society activists set up a peace tent in protest.

They called for a ceasefire between warring factions, opposing the policies of the US, the Taliban, and the Afghan government. Encouraged by the positive response from the public, they marched 400 miles to the capital of Kabul.

Dr. Hakim said people are generally supportive of the protestors. “The Movement has shifted the mood a little,” he said.

“We need to remain optimistic in taking tiny positive actions. The alternative would allow the exploitative, violent actors to worsen the multiple crises gripping Afghanistan.”

When the marchers reached Kabul, among other actions, they held a sit-in at the US embassy.

“If the US can topple a regime in 15 days,” the movement wrote in a statement, “then why has it not been able to bring peace in the past 17 years?”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears in 48Hills every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Why Trump will lose the trade war with China

When I first reported from China in 1980, bicycles outnumbered cars on Beijing’s major streets, and the tallest building in town was a 25-story hotel. I visited a small village that had one black and white TV, which everyone watched at night.

Today China’s major cities are jammed with modern factories, skyscrapers, and large public transportation networks. The Chinese government’s “socialist market economy” led to unprecedented prosperity, as well as massive corruption and intensified class divisions. China now has the second largest economy in the world after the United States.

280 turbine wind farm in western China produces electricity, part of China’s ambitious green energy program. Photo by Reese Erlich

The Trump administration, and many high-ranking Democrats as well, see China as a vicious competitor. They claim the Chinese government unfairly subsidizes its domestic industries and steals U.S. intellectual property. So Trump launched a massive trade war.

I think he’s going to lose.

The administration imposed $34 billion in tariffs on Chinese products, and threatened to order a total of $500 billion. China responded tit for tat, imposing its own tariffs aimed at regions full of Trump supporters. Agribusiness corporations from Trump country in the Midwest are taking big hits, with a 15% drop in soybean futures and another 14 percent in pork.

Trump has now proposed to pay $12 billion in government subsidies to farmers and ranchers negatively impacted by the trade war. But soy bean losses this year alone are nearly $12 billion, according to Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska).

Many farm-state Republicans criticized the subsidies. Senator Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee) said, “You have a terrible policy that sends farmers to the poorhouse, and then you put them on welfare… It’s hard to believe that there isn’t an outright revolt right now in Congress.”

A Trump supporter

But Trump supporters say they are willing to wait out the trade war if ultimately the United States can export more. Jim Weston is co-owner of a small Los Angeles company buying and selling poultry, which was founded by my father in 1942. We’ve remained friends over the years, and I was surprised to learn that Jim supports Trump’s policies.

“I thought we needed a businessman who will disrupt things,” Jim told me. US chicken imports were banned in China after the Obama administration slapped tariffs on Chinese steel pipe imports. The Trump administration is now pressing China to allow poultry imports once again.

Jim noted that China’s stock market and currency have gone down since the trade war began. “We’re all hoping China will back down. If it doesn’t back down, it doesn’t matter. We’ve done without them for 100 years.”

There’s a distinct possibility, however, that China won’t back down and the trade wars with China, Mexico, Canada and Europe will contribute to a major recession. Trump has introduced uncertainty and instability into the US economy, according to David Kotz, an old friend, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism.

“US businesses are having a hard time figuring out the effect of the trade wars on them,” he told me. “Uncertainty can lead to postponing investments, which could plunge the economy into recession.”

Who controls economic development?

During my first visit in 1980, China was an isolated country with few outside visitors and almost no foreign investment. Dozens of people would stop on the street to stare at me and the other westerners. Even in a big city like Beijing, people hadn’t seen foreigners before.

Chinese officials realized the country would need outside help to modernize. US, European and Japanese companies tried to impose the traditional third world model on China. They wanted to bring in machinery and technology, and have Chinese workers assemble the parts. Then the foreign corporations would sell the products and rake in the profits.

US administrations demanded “free trade.” But that meant freedom for US corporations to sell to the Chinese market. In a rare admission of guilt, a New York Times analysis article explained, “The system of global free trade … was set up as a kind of permanent win for the United States. Openness exploits the sheer size and development of the American economy so that its goods and services can dominate internationally.”

But China didn’t play by the old rules and took steps to protect its sovereignty. Foreign investors had to partner with Chinese companies and share their technology. Until a few months ago, foreigners could own no more than 49 percent of a company, making sure China controlled important economic decisions. Foreign corporations were never happy with the arrangement, but they acceded in order to have access to the vast Chinese market.

“Unlike in most developing countries, the US government cannot exert its will over the Chinese government to allow US business to do whatever it wants,” noted Kotz.

Initially, China focused on low cost, low-tech industries. It manufactured shirts and plastic toys. Over time, however, it created vibrant automobile, computer, electronics, cell phone, and many other modern industries.

In 2008 I visited a huge wind farm located in a vast desert of western China. Low mountains loomed in the distance and wind picked up considerable speed. A Chinese company had manufactured and installed 280 modern wind turbines. China has developed a green power industry at a time when the US government denies the existence of manmade climate change.

China’s critics say it has succeeded because the government subsidized selected industries. So what? U.S. agribusiness receives billions in government subsidies. Many modern U.S. high-tech industries—from satellites to the Internet—were originally developed by the U.S. government and then handed over to private enterprise for free. U.S. manufacturers regularly receive massive tax breaks to locate to a particular state.

I don’t care whether a government subsidizes certain industries. I want to know who benefits from the subsidies: corporate fat cats or ordinary people.

Stealing jobs?

In recent decades many US corporations have moved production to China, Indonesia and other third world countries. They seek greater profits by paying lower wages and having access to local markets. Kotz said US jobs in garment and textiles, for example, aren’t moving back to the United States because “US wages won’t go down to third world levels.”

But the US government can promote policies that will provide good paying blue and white collar jobs. Kotz proposes four components:

  • * government jobs programs to hire workers at a living wage
  • * promotion of a green economy using renewable energy, efficient mass transit and energy efficient buildings.
  • * well-funded worker retraining and education for those displaced by jobs moving overseas.
  • * increase the minimum wage to the level of a living wage.

Such policies have little chance of adoption anytime soon. It will take a lot of grassroots pressure, not to mention the defeat of Republicans in November. But one thing is certain: waging trade wars with China, the EU, Canada, and Mexico will only make conditions worse for everybody.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy will be published in October. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Netanyahu, Putin, and Trump — jockeying for power in Syria

President Bashar al Assad (Photo by Reese Erlich)

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT Russian bombs rained down on towns of southern Syria as an estimated 320,000 civilians fled for their lives. Over the past several weeks tens of thousands walked to the Jordanian and Israeli borders hoping to escape the onslaught.

Rula Amin, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, based in Jordan, told me the displaced people left their homes with few belongings and are sleeping in the desert. “They need shelter, food, drinking water — and mostly, they need protection.”

President Bashar al Assad (Photo by Reese Erlich)

“We appeal for an immediate cessation in hostilities and for a safe, unimpeded access to the displaced population that desperately needs assistance,” she said.

The crisis began in June when Syrian President Bashar al Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, sought to recapture southern Syria, which has been under rebel control for five years. Russia negotiated the surrender of some rebel groups in early July. It’s not yet clear, according to the UNHCR, whether significant number of civilians can return to their homes.

Five countries are currently fighting in Syria. Russia, Iran, the United States, and Turkey have stationed troops. Israel regularly drops bombs and fires missiles.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss Syria at their Helsinki summit July 16. The Trump administration is pressuring Russia to reduce the Iranian role in Syria, but will not likely succeed, according to Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Iran is there to stay,” he told me. “Russia is not going to kick Iran out.”

A visit to Daraa

To understand the current crisis, let’s go back to 2011 when I reported from the southern Syrian city of Daraa. I tagged along with some Ukrainian TV journalists on an official tour of the city where the uprising had begun. Government minders claimed the Syrian people supported Assad and that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States had instigated the rebellion.

We visited an elementary school where adorable children recited their lessons in unison. Then, seeing the foreign reporters, many began chanting, “Freedom, Freedom,” the slogan of the anti-Assad opposition. Teachers led other students in chanting “Syria, Syria,” to show support for Assad.

The Assad officials blanched as the civil war divisions were on full display for foreign reporters. “The political chasm has reached the schools,” my government translator said. “First graders are now politically motivated.”

For roughly that first year, the Syrian government faced a popular uprising from a broad spectrum of religious and political opposition, part of the Arab Spring. Foreign powers did not create the rebellion, but they were very happy to take advantage of the regime’s lack of popularity to push their own agendas.

CIA steps in

By 2012 the CIA coordinated with Jordanian, gulf states, and Israeli intelligence to fund rebel groups known collectively as  the Free Syrian Army. The United States set up the secret Military Operations Command in Amman, Jordan, and by 2013 was providing an array of arms, ammunition and supplies to the FSA.

The CIA spent $1 billion per year arming rebels in southern Syria. The Pentagon spent another $500 million per year in northern Syria. Washington claimed to be training only “moderate rebels.” But the US-backed militias had no popular support. In several incidents US-trained rebels turned their weapons over to al Qaeda affiliated insurgents.

Nabil al Sharif, a former Jordanian media affairs minister, told me, “This whole program of aiding moderates has failed miserably.”

Israel’s role

As darkness fell one night in 2014, I drove along a dirt road and stopped at a spot in Israel overlooking the Syrian border fence in the Golan. Israel had seized the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and illegally annexed it in 1981.

On the night of my visit, artillery and machine gun tracer fire illuminated the fighting among three opposing armed groups: the Syrian Army, the FSA and the Al Qaeda affiliate known as al Nusra. At that point Israel was backing the FSA against the other two forces.

Israel always claimed it was neutral in the Syrian civil war; it only provided humanitarian aid and treated wounded Syrian civilians. In reality Tel Aviv backs rebels who can be used to help Israel keep permanent control of the Golan.

Rainfall from the Golan area is critical to replenishing the Jordan River and supplies one-third of Israel’s drinking water. “The Golan is key for Israel’s water supply,” noted Professor Landis.

Building on the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Israeli leaders now want the United States to formally recognize its annexation of the Golan, which is seen as illegal by other countries.

“This is a moment of tremendous weakness for Syria and Israel wants to take full advantage,” said Landis.

Initially Israeli leaders backed the FSA to keep Assad from coming back to power. When the military tide turned in Assad’s favor in 2015, Tel Aviv sought to prevent Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah from establishing a military presence close to the occupied Golan.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Research Fellow at the Israeli think tank The Forum for Regional Thinking, wrote “Israeli policy-makers would be content with a Syrian regime takeover of southern Syria, as long as Iranian proxies are kept from the border fence.”

Backroom deals

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met three times over the past six months with Putin to work out a deal on Syria. So far the Israelis have continued to bomb Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, and the Russians have not responded militarily. I think that’s angered the Iranians.

The Iranian military sees its presence in Syria as a deterrent against a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It continues to arm Hezbollah with Iranian made missiles.

”This is part of Iran’s homeland security,” said Landis.

Of course civilians in Syria don’t care much about Iran’s internal security, nor that any of the other intervening powers. Nobody has clean hands in Syria. The outside powers push their own interests to the detriment of the Syrian people.

We’ll see if anything significant about Syria comes out of the Putin-Trump summit. But don’t hold your breath. While foreign powers continue their squabbles, Syrian civilians pay the price.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.

Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: A political landslide in Mexico

AMLO has drawn huge crowds to CDMX's Zócalo, like this one in 2014. Now, he's secured the presidency.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT When I was writing an article about street vendors in Mexico City, I saw firsthand how the country’s ruling party operated. Vendors eke out a living selling trinkets and food on street corners. A group in one part of Mexico City had held a series of militant demonstrations opposing a violent police crackdown aimed at driving them out of that neighborhood.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gave a few of the movement’s leaders government jobs, had them call off the demonstrations, and then quietly displaced the vendors as originally planned. Since 1929 the PRI has honed the art of repression and cooptation. The PRI, along with the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), had hoped to use those tactics during Mexico’s July 1 presidential elections. It didn’t work.

On Sunday democratic socialist Andrés Manuel López Obrador received a stunning 53 percent of the presidential vote, compared to 22 percent for PAN’s Ricardo Anaya  and 15 percent for PRI’s Jose Antonio Meade. A leftist coalition, led by Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), won a blowout 300 of 500 seats in the House of Deputies and between 56-70 in the 128-seat Senate.

Lopez Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, presented a  progressive alternative to the corrupt leadership of the past. He drew support from blue collar workers, peasant farmers, small business people, a sector of the intelligentsia, and some big business people alienated from the major political parties.

AMLO called for free education, pensions for seniors, and improving the country’s petroleum infrastructure. He also called for a massive tree planting project that he said would create 400,000 jobs.

“AMLO focused on a few key programs aimed at increasing Mexican economic independence from the US and generating jobs,” Bruce Hobson told me. Hobson is an American political activist and analyst who has lived for decades Guanajuato, Mexico.

Lopez Obrador also benefited from widespread voter anger at the establishment political parties.

Student Eugenia Gonzalez, said “In truth, I don’t think any of them are worth much, but it’s better (to pick Lopez Obrador), who is a useful vote against the PRI.”

To Have and Have Not

AMLO’s election represents a victory of the have nots over the haves. A wealthy elite in Mexico enjoy extravagant lifestyles in homes surrounded by high walls. Yet, of the country’s 127.5 million people, a staggering 46 percent live below the poverty line

Drug cartels control swaths of major cities with the cooperation of government officials. The last two presidents, PAN’s Felipe Calderon and PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, promised to end the narco violence, only to see it increase. Since 2006, over 200,000 people were killed in the drug wars and some 30,000 disappeared.

The most infamous case remains officially unsolved, the 2014 disappearance and murder of 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero. An international human rights report implicated federal officials in the disappearances and subsequent cover up.

AMLO put forward a great slogan: “bicarios si, sicarios no,” which means “scholarship students yes, contract killers, no.”

Move to the center

During the campaign AMLO downplayed his socialist politics and moved towards the center in an effort to pick up alienated PAN and PRI voters. He promised to appoint wealthy capitalist Alfonso Romo as his chief of staff and Harvard-educated economist Graciela Márquez as his economy minister.

AMLO also formed an electoral alliance with the far right, evangelical Social Encounter Party (PES), which on first view, seems an odd alliance. PES opposes abortion, gay marriage and homosexuality. But AMLO comes from a Catholic background and didn’t campaign on women’s rights issues. The coalition with PES may have given AMLO a few extra percentage points in the presidential race and in the legislative elections.

NAFTA

In 1993 I appeared on a Mexico City radio station to discuss NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. A pro-NAFTA businessman assured the audience that jobs would increase and the economy would improve overall. In reality, inflation shot up, and since implementation of NAFTA in 1994, poverty grew  exponentially.

Farmers were driven off the land because of cheaper imports from the United States. Some U.S. and Canadian companies opened factories along the border, but the new jobs never replaced those lost to cheap U.S. imports.

“NAFTA devastated countless Mexican lives,” said activist Hobson.

Nevertheless, the new Lopez Obrador administration will face a belligerent Trump, the continent’s 800 pound gorilla. “AMLO has clearly expressed that he wants better economic and political relations with the United States based on equal partnership and respect,” said Hobson. “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Trump and AMLO can agree on some NAFTA changes, albeit for different reasons. Trump wants to raise hourly wages for auto workers in Mexico to $16/hour in order to encourage U.S. companies to keep more jobs at home. AMLO supports wage increase for Mexican auto workers.

However, NAFTA negotiations and Trump’s absurd demand that Mexico pay for a border wall will remain major areas of conflict.

New president’s future

On election night AMLO announced efforts to develop a peace plan, in consultation with UN human rights and religious organizations, that would help lessen drug cartel violence.

Javier Bravo, a history professor and MORENA activist, told me it won’t be easy.

“Corruption is very deeply rooted in our political system,” he said. “AMLO doesn’t have a magic wand to change everything at once. It will be a long process.”

Hobson said the rank and file will have to keep up the pressure for democratic and socialist policies within MORENA. Lopez Obrador exhibits some of the traits of a Latin American caudillo, or all powerful leader, he said.

Leftists within MORENA want the party “to undergo a cultural change so that leadership should be more collective,” he said.

Hobson wants MORENA involved not just in electoral politics but to become rooted in the movements of indigenous people, women, gay/lesbian/trans, labor, counter-culture youth, and environmentalists.

Imagine for a moment if Bernie Sanders had won the 2016 presidential election. That would have been a tremendous step forward for the country, but only a first step towards fundamental change.

That’s the admirable position now faced by the left in Mexico.

The North Korea summit: We have been here before

Beyond the images, this summit isn't likely to lead to peace on the Korean Peninsula Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Police wearing Darth Vader helmets and carrying shotguns mounted with tear gas launchers lined up ready for battle. Fifty yards away, tens of thousands students and workers placed iron bars and Molotov cocktails on the street preparing for battle. At the appointed hour both sides charged, with police clubbing and firing tear gas barrages.

Beyond the images, this summit isn’t likely to lead to peace on the Korean Peninsula Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

It was 1991 in Seoul, and I was on assignment for The Christian Science Monitornewspaper covering the widespread protests against the authoritarian South Korean government. Demonstrators protested increasing poverty and the continued US troop presence in their country. Many Koreans saw those troops as an occupying force.

Twenty-seven years later those issues have not gone away. During the June 12 US-North Koran summit, President Donald Trump even called for the withdrawal of the 30,000 US troops at some undetermined time.

“I want to bring our soldiers back home,” he said. “But that’s not part of the equation right now. I hope it will be eventually.”

Far from being a defensive force, the U.S. troops project US power in the region aimed at challenging China and making sure pro-US regional governments stay in power, according to Christine Ahn, co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute.

“The bases insure US political, military and economic interests,” she told me. “There’s always the threat of a US military incursion to advance corporate interests.”

The withdrawal of troops is just one of many contentious issues that must be resolved in negotiations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The summit didn’t resolve that or any other issues, although the two sides took a small step forward by simply holding the meeting.

A joint United States-DPRK statement declared, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

But neither side defined what those commitments mean. And the Democratic and Republican hawks in Washington are already trying to make sure there’s no meaningful peace accord. After all, that’s what happened with every previous peace effort.

Over the past 30 years, the United States and DPRK have held numerous talks and agreed to denuclearization several times. But all ultimately failed because Washington hasn’t been interested in guaranteeing DPRK’s security. The North Koreans want to keep some nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a US attack or attempt at regime change. Unfortunately, a very strong faction in Washington doesn’t support any peace agreement and instead seeks to overthrow the DPRK government.  

In the 1990s North Korea had not yet developed nuclear weapons. In 1994 President Bill Clinton negotiated the “Agreed Framework” that guaranteed the DPRK would not build nuclear weapons and, in return, the United States would help North Korea develop nuclear generated electric power.

The DPRK agreed to stay within the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits the development of nuclear weapons. North Korea shut its Yongbyon reactor as verified by international inspectors. The United States agreed to facilitate building two light water nuclear reactors, which could generate nuclear fuel for power generation but not weapons. The United States agreed to lift economic sanctions and provide heavy fuel oil to operate the DPRK’s electric power grid.

But Republican and Democratic hawks in Congress thought the president made too many concessions and wanted to sabotage the Agreed Framework. They refused to fund the fuel oil. The Clinton administration also slow-walked the lifting of sanctions.

When the George W. Bush administration took office in 2001, hardliners such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and Under Secretary of State John Bolton opposed the deal. By 2002, the Agreed Framework was dead.

That year Bush declared North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil,” which also included Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Korea feared it could be the next target for regime change. The DPRK withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and began a sprint towards developing a nuclear weapon.

In the mid 2000s, negotiations resumed, dubbed the Six Party Talks. Participants included both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. In September 2005 the parties agreed that DPRK would “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”

But the following month, the Bush administration accused Banco Delta in Macau of money laundering, which froze $25 million in DPRK funds. US hardliners saw this as a pressure tactic; North Korea saw it as another example of U.S. bullying.

“The US policy led to North Korea withdrawal from the talks,” said analyst Ahn. The DPRK held its first atomic test in 2006.

Today Trump faces a similar problem because leaders of the opposition party oppose a peace agreement with the DPRK

Seven Democratic Party hawks, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer and Senator Dianne Feinstein, indicated they would vote against any agreement unless the DPRK eliminates all nuclear and biological weapons, dismantles all ballistic missiles, and allows intrusive inspections anywhere in the country.

The DPRK is not going to accept such demands and the Democratic leadership position guarantees no agreement will be reached, noted Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute.

“I am very concerned partisanship undermines our national security,” he told me. “It’s a toxic approach. They should favor diminished tensions and bringing North Korea into the family of nations.”

Today the DPRK has an estimated 15-60 nuclear bombs. It has short and long range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Asia and the continental United States. It’s not clearif North Korea has been able to fit nuclear warheads on the missiles.

In my view, the United States should guarantee the DPRK’s security by signing a peace treaty ending the Korean War, establishing normal diplomatic relations and accepting a limited number of North Korean nukes with guarantees that no more will be produced. We should get busy pulling all US troops out of Seoul.

Official Washington would ask: How can we trust a brutal dictatorship that oppresses its own people and failed to live up to past commitments?

“The government of North Korea is tyrannical,” said Global Security Institute’s Granoff. “But should we be in a state of war with all tyrants?”

Signing agreements with the DPRK “won’t make them a progressive state.” But it will help set the conditions for progress. Political change and eventual reunification of North and South Korea can’t be imposed from the outside, he said. “The process must be led by the Korean people themselves.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy will be published in October. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: The politics behind the Gaza protests

Everything gets recycled and repaired in Gaza. Photo by Reese Erlich

On my most recent reporting trip to Gaza, I stayed with a family living just a short walk from the Israeli border. At dusk we could see a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean and forget the ongoing conflict for just a few minutes.

Living conditions for the family have gotten much worse since my visit. They have electricity four hours a day, medicine is in short supply, and they have to get all their water delivered by truck. Overall unemployment in Gaza is 27% with youth unemployment at a staggering 60%, according to the World Bank.

The Israeli military imposes a stringent economic blockade of Gaza, which limits cars, trucks and gasoline. Gazans turn to more traditional forms of transport.
Photo by Reese Erlich

That high unemployment presents the biggest problem, said family member Jihad Mosalami, a university English professor. “People can’t survive,” he told me in a phone interview.

Many of Mosalami’s students were among the tens of thousands who demonstrated at the fence separating Gaza and Israel. “A few went to the fence to throw stones,” he said. “Others went to the fence to pray.”

It didn’t matter to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers if the demonstrators were peaceful or not. They shot tear gas and live ammunition.

“It was like hell,” said Mosalami.

From March 30 to May 15, Israeli security forces killed over 100 Palestinians and wounded more than 10,000, according to the Palestinian health officials. No Israeli soldiers were killed or even seriously injured.

Palestinians organized the “Great March of Return,” to protest the Israeli military blockade of Gaza. Israeli soldiers control all food, medicine, building supplies and other goods that enter or exit Gaza. The IDF frequently holds up essential goods to pressure Hamas, which rules the Palestinian enclave.

Everything gets recycled and repaired in Gaza. Photo by Reese Erlich

Israeli authorities claimed they were protecting their border from hordes of Palestinians, some armed, intent on crashing through the fence. In reality, no one got though the double fence and large no man’s land created by Israel. The IDF shot civilians to intimidate them–not out of self defense.

But IDF tactics backfired. Palestinians won the political battle by gaining renewed sympathy for their struggle around the world.

The young generation of Palestinians discovered they “can make a difference, not least of which in bringing global attention to their cause,” Brian Barber told me. He’s professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington DC. The protests gave young Palestinians “their first taste of vibrant collective action … as their parents had with the first intifada.”

Why would young people risk their lives to protest the occupation? Let’s take a look at some of the underlying political issues.

What’s the Right of Return?

Sixty-eight percent of people living in Gaza are registered with the UN as refugees who were expelled from Israel in 1948 or their descendants. I’ve interviewed Palestinians who still have the keys to their 1948 houses. Under international law these refugees have the right to return to their towns and villages, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

There are 5 million Palestinians worldwide. As a practical matter, many would not want to return to Israel. Their homes and villages may no longer exist. And many Palestinians “don’t want to live as a minority in Israel,” Zogby told me.

If Israel recognizes a fully independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state, many refugees would return there. Years ago the Palestine Liberation Organization proposed that a limited number of Palestinians should be allowed to return to their villages in Israel while the vast majority would have the right to return to the newly independent Palestinian state.

But Palestinians won’t make any compromises on such a critical issue except in the context of an overall peace settlement. And as of press time, neither the United States nor Israel have shown any interest in peace talks.

One State or Two?

For many years the left and progressives supported the concept of one state in which all Palestinians would be free to return to Israel as equal citizens. The democratic state would champion one person, one vote with no discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.

Eighty-one percent of Israeli Jews reject a one-state solution, according to a 2017 poll, because the return of millions of Palestinians would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. The one state plan has little support even among progressive Israelis opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

By the 1980s, the PLO began to propose a two-state solution in which the Palestinians and Israelis would have their own states living in peace. Negotiations would determine borders based on Israel’s pre-1967 territory. Different parts of Jerusalem could serve as capitals of both countries. The two state solution served as the basis for the 1993 Oslo peace accord.

Successive Israeli governments never implemented the Oslo agreement, however. They continued to build Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and unilaterally built a wall dividing Israel and the West Bank that doesn’t follow the 1967 border line.

In March a Palestinian poll showed 48% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported two states and 50% opposed. But only 28% supported one state.

“I’m not an activist or politician,” said my friend Mosalami, “but I do believe the majority of Palestinians will accept two states. It’s the practical solution.”

But doesn’t Hamas reject two states?

Actually, Hamas is willing to accept the two-state solution. Soon after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections, its leaders faced reality. Having one state was not possible and most Palestinians favored two states.

“We accepted that our state should be on the 1967 borders, but Israel rejected that,” then top Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told me. He confirmed that position with former President Jimmy Carter. I re-confirmed that view with two different Hamas ministers during a 2011 trip to Gaza.

Hamas doesn’t emphasize that position because there are no peace talks on the horizon. Hamas leaders want Israel or the United States to put forward a viable two-state option, and then it will respond.

But isn’t Hamas a terrorist organization? How could Israel trust them in negotiations?

Hamas is a political party with an armed militia that functions as Gaza’s security force. It considers itself a national liberation movement fighting occupation forces through armed struggle. But Hamas has also intentionally killed civilians, including bombing buses and restaurants. Using terrorist tactics, however, doesn’t make one a terrorist organization.

Jewish militias fighting the British and Arabs in 1948-49 used terrorist tactics. They murdered and tortured Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin, forcing residents to flee. They blew up the KIng David Hotel, killing more than 90 Jews, Arabs, and British soldiers.

Some of the Jewish militia tactics parallel recent events in Gaza. Yuri Avnery, today one of the Israel’s major peace movement leaders, described how he participated in a 1948 Tel Aviv march organized by the Irgun, a militia later incorporated into the IDF.

Civilian Irgun youth marched down a street “where the offices of the British administration were located,” Avnery wrote. “There we sang the national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’, while some adult members set fire to the offices.”

I oppose the use of terrorism whatever the justification. But Hamas is fundamentally different from Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, who use terror to ethnically cleanse groups they oppose–Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, and others. They refuse to participate in elections and use religion as the excuse to give themselves absolute power.

Hamas promotes a conservative religious agenda but is not the Islamic State. I would not vote for Hamas if I lived in Palestine. But Hamas is a legitimate party whose views are part of the Middle East political reality.

Labeling Hamas a terrorist organization gives Israel and the United States an excuse to never hold peace talks. The Israeli government labelled he Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists until Israel agreed to the Oslo peace talks. Then the PLO became peace partners.

Earlier this month Hamas offered Israel a “hudna” or ceasefire. Hamas sources told the website Al Monitor if Israel lifted the siege of Gaza, Hamas would enter negotiations with Israel for a long term ceasefire.

Should Israeli leaders trust Hamas? No. And Palestinian leaders shouldn’t trust the Israeli government. But there is a common need to begin serious discussions to establish a viable Palestinian state. Each side can advance partial measures and verify their implementation before moving ahead.

My Gaza friend Jihad Mosalami said, “They have to negotiate and reach a deal. People in Gaza want a decent life.”

He acknowledged that the current leadership in Washington and Tel Aviv won’t start talks anytime soon.

“We won’t have war forever,” he said with just a hint of optimism. “The war will end and there can be peace.”

On my most recent reporting trip to Gaza, I stayed with a family living just a short walk from the Israeli border. At dusk we could see a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean and forget the ongoing conflict for just a few minutes.

Living conditions for the family have gotten much worse since my visit. They have electricity four hours a day, medicine is in short supply, and they have to get all their water delivered by truck. Overall unemployment in Gaza is 27% with youth unemployment at a staggering 60%, according to the World Bank.

That high unemployment presents the biggest problem, said family member Jihad Mosalami, a university English professor. “People can’t survive,” he told me in a phone interview.

Many of Mosalami’s students were among the tens of thousands who demonstrated at the fence separating Gaza and Israel. “A few went to the fence to throw stones,” he said. “Others went to the fence to pray.”

It didn’t matter to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers if the demonstrators were peaceful or not. They shot tear gas and live ammunition.

“It was like hell,” said Mosalami.

From March 30 to May 15, Israeli security forceskilled over 100 Palestiniansand wounded more than 10,000, according to the Palestinian health officials. No Israeli soldiers were killed or even seriously injured.

Palestinians organized the “Great March of Return,” to protest the Israeli military blockade of Gaza. Israeli soldiers control all food, medicine, building supplies and other goods that enter or exit Gaza. The IDF frequently holds up essential goods to pressure Hamas, which rules the Palestinian enclave.

Israeli authorities claimed they were protecting their border from hordes of Palestinians, some armed, intent on crashing through the fence. In reality, no one got though the double fence and large no man’s land created by Israel. The IDF shot civilians to intimidate them–not out of self defense.

But IDF tactics backfired. Palestinians won the political battle by gaining renewed sympathy for their struggle around the world.

The young generation of Palestinians discovered they “can make a difference, not least of which in bringing global attention to their cause,” Brian Barber told me. He’s professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studiesin Washington DC. The protests gave young Palestinians “their first taste of vibrant collective action … as their parents had with the first intifada.”

Why would young people risk their lives to protest the occupation? Let’s take a look at some of the underlying political issues.

What’s the Right of Return?

Sixty-eight percent of people living in Gaza areregistered with the UNas refugees who were expelled from Israel in 1948 or their descendants. I’ve interviewed Palestinians who still have the keys to their 1948 houses. Under international law these refugees have the right to return to their towns and villages, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

There are 5 million Palestinians worldwide. As a practical matter, many would not want to return to Israel. Their homes and villages may no longer exist. And many Palestinians “don’t want to live as a minority in Israel,” Zogby told me.

If Israel recognizes a fully independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state, many refugees would return there. Years ago the Palestine Liberation Organization proposed that a limited number of Palestinians should be allowed to return to their villages in Israel while the vast majority would have the right to return to the newly independent Palestinian state.

But Palestinians won’t make any compromises on such a critical issue except in the context of an overall peace settlement. And as of press time, neither the United States nor Israel have shown any interest in peace talks.

One State or Two?

For many years the left and progressives supported the concept of one state in which all Palestinians would be free to return to Israel as equal citizens. The democratic state would champion one person, one vote with no discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.

Eighty-one percent of Israeli Jews reject a one-state solution, according to a 2017 poll, because the return of millions of Palestinians would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. The one state plan has little support even among progressive Israelis opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

By the 1980s, the PLO began to propose a two-state solution in which the Palestinians and Israelis would have their own states living in peace. Negotiations would determine borders based on Israel’s pre-1967 territory. Different parts of Jerusalem could serve as capitals of both countries. The two state solution served as the basis for the 1993 Oslo peace accord.

Successive Israeli governments never implemented the Oslo agreement, however. They continued to build Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and unilaterally built a wall dividing Israel and the West Bank that doesn’t follow the 1967 border line.

In March a Palestinian pollshowed 48% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported two states and 50% opposed. But only 28% supported one state.

“I’m not an activist or politician,” said my friend Mosalami, “but I do believe the majority of Palestinians will accept two states. It’s the practical solution.”

But doesn’t Hamas reject two states?

Actually, Hamas is willing to accept the two-state solution. Soon after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections, its leaders faced reality. Having one state was not possible and most Palestinians favored two states.

“We accepted that our state should be on the 1967 borders, but Israel rejected that,” then top Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told me. He confirmed that position with former President Jimmy Carter. I re-confirmed that view with two different Hamas ministers during a 2011 trip to Gaza.

Hamas doesn’t emphasize that position because there are no peace talks on the horizon. Hamas leaders want Israel or the United States to put forward a viable two-state option, and then it will respond.

But isn’t Hamas a terrorist organization? How could Israel trust them in negotiations?

Hamas is a political party with an armed militia that functions as Gaza’s security force. It considers itself a national liberation movement fighting occupation forces through armed struggle. But Hamas has also intentionally killed civilians, including bombing buses and restaurants. Using terrorist tactics, however, doesn’t make one a terrorist organization.

Jewish militias fighting the British and Arabs in 1948-49 used terrorist tactics. They murdered and tortured Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin, forcing residents to flee. They blew up the KIng David Hotel, killing more than 90 Jews, Arabs, and British soldiers.

Some of the Jewish militia tactics parallel recent events in Gaza. Yuri Avnery, today one of the Israel’s major peace movement leaders, described how he participated in a 1948 Tel Aviv march organized by the Irgun, a militia later incorporated into the IDF.

Civilian Irgun youth marched down a street “where the offices of the British administration were located,” Avnery wrote. “There we sang the national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’, while some adult members set fire to the offices.    

I oppose the use of terrorism whatever the justification. But Hamas is fundamentally different from Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, who use terror to ethnically cleanse groups they oppose–Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, and others. They refuse to participate in elections and use religion as the excuse to give themselves absolute power.

Hamas promotes a conservative religious agenda but is not the Islamic State. I would not vote for Hamas if I lived in Palestine. But Hamas is a legitimate party whose views are part of the Middle East political reality.

Labeling Hamas a terrorist organization gives Israel and the United States an excuse to never hold peace talks. The Israeli government labelled he Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists until Israel agreed to the Oslo peace talks. Then the PLO became peace partners.

Earlier this month Hamas offered Israel a “hudna” or ceasefire. Hamas sources told the website Al Monitor if Israel lifted the siege of Gaza, Hamas would enter negotiations with Israel for a long term ceasefire.

Should Israeli leaders trust Hamas? No. And Palestinian leaders shouldn’t trust the Israeli government. But there is a common need to begin serious discussions to establish a viable Palestinian state. Each side can advance partial measures and verify their implementation before moving ahead.

My Gaza friend Jihad Mosalami said, “They have to negotiate and reach a deal. People in Gaza want a decent life.”

He acknowledged that the current leadership in Washington and Tel Aviv won’t start talks anytime soon.

“We won’t have war forever,” he said with just a hint of optimism. “The war will end and there can be peace.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He has reported on the Israel-Palestine conflict since 1986. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign correspondent: What will Iran do now?

Hardliners attending Friday Prayers in Tehran want to see Iran pull out of the nuclear deal and kick out weapons inspectors. Photo: by Reese Erlich

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT President Donald Trump announced that the US is pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord–and Iranians are really pissed.

Thousands of Iranians demonstrated in Tehran chanting “Death to America.” Thousands more attended Friday prayers in Tehran to hear hardline leaders denounce Trump’s actions.

Hardliners attending Friday Prayers in Tehran want to see Iran pull out of the nuclear deal and kick out weapons inspectors. Photo: by Reese Erlich

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, an influential Friday prayer leader in Tehran, warned against making deals with the west “since they cannot be trusted.”

While Iran’s hardliners spearheaded those protests, Iranians of all political views united against Trump. Interviewed at the Tehran Bazaar during a recent trip, Massoud Nashebegi anticipated Trump’s action. US animosity towards Iran “is getting worse,” he told me. “It’s because we in Iran stood up to the Americans.”

Foad Izadi, an assistant professor at the University of Tehran, told me in a phone interview that Iranians are angry at imposition of new sanctions despite Iran living up to terms of the nuclear accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iranian officials are meeting with European leaders in hopes they will defy Trump’s sanctions. But so far European corporations have started cancelling their investments rather than risk American ire.

“If the Europeans are not able or not willing to oppose Trump,” Izadi said, “then Iran will leave the JCPOA sooner or later.”

In 2015 seven countries signed the JCPOA in which Iran agreed to intrusive inspections of its nuclear power facilities in return for lifting of economic sanctions. The US, Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China reached the accord after years of difficult negotiations. The JCPOA was codified into international law by a unanimous vote of the UN Security Council.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration renounced the JCPOA  and announced unilateral resumption of harsh economic sanctions in 90-180 days, setting the stage for a major confrontation with Iran.

Trump’s actions have rallied Iranians around their government. An Iran Poll survey conducted in April showed that 67% of Iranians want their government to retaliate against the US in response to any cancellation of the agreement. They want Iran to restart portions of the country’s nuclear program suspended since the accord took effect.

And Iran’s leaders are preparing to do just that, although they differ sharply on how.

Some hardliners want to withdraw from both the JCPOA and the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT prohibits signatories from developing nuclear weapons. Once out of the NPT, Tehran could block all international inspectors from entering the country . The US  would then have a much harder time determining if Iran was developing a nuclear weapon.

Izadi said Iran is also considering how to stay within the NPT and JCPOA while sending a sharp message to Washington.

  • Iran may step up the training of nuclear scientists. University level programs have lapsed in recent years, according to Izadi. By encouraging graduate studies in nuclear engineering, future personnel could go to work in Iran’s nuclear power industry, but also be ready to research nuclear weapons technology. Such academic research carried out before 2003 was a contentious issue in the JCPOA negotiations. Iran maintained that academic research didn’t violate the NPT while the US and Israel argued that it was part of a nuclear weapons program.
  • Iran could enrich uranium to 20%, which is well above the 4% level needed for nuclear power but far less than that needed for a bomb. Under terms of the JCPOA, Iran can enrich up to 20% for medical research. Iran had enriched to 20% during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
  • Iran could even enrich well above the 20% level to have fuel for nuclear submarines.

“Having a nuclear powered submarine is not a violation of the nuclear agreement,” Izadi noted. He admitted that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear submarine program. But implementing high levels of enrichment sends “a sign to the other side that Iran is not happy with all these sanctions.”

Most Iranians believe the nuclear issue is only an excuse to attack Iran. Izadi said even if Iran completely stopped its nuclear power program entirely, the US would invent a new excuse, such as Iranian support for “terrorism.” All these assertions are a cover for the US to expand its hegemony in the Middle East, he said.

“One of the primary objectives that the US has in this part of the world is to make sure that the oil that exists here is directly or indirectly controlled by the United States,” he said.

American companies once dominated Iran’s oil production. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, U.S. oil companies lost a major source of profits. Izadi said “the US wants to restore economic, political and military control over Iran as it tried to do in Iraq.”

The Trump administration is pursuing two-track military policy towards Iran. If Iran attacks Israel, the US and Israel would launch a large-scale military attack. Otherwise, Trump will use harsh sanctions to worsen economic conditions for ordinary Iranians in hopes they would overthrow their government and install a US friendly regime.

The Securities Study Group (SSG), a right wing think tank close to National Security Advisor John Bolton, is circulating an Iran position paper to Trump’s national security team calling for regime change.

“The Trump administration has no desire to roll tanks in an effort to directly topple the Iranian regime,” said SSG PResident Jim Hanson. “But they would be much happier dealing with a post-Mullah government.”

Republican neocons tried such policies during President George W. Bush’s first term, and it failed miserably, noted William Beeman, an anthropology professor at the University of Minnesota and an Iran expert.

“The Trump administration is only the latest Republican administration to advocate regime change,” Beeman told me. “Accusations that Iran was developing nuclear weapons was promulgated to convince the American public that this was desirable.”

Republican neoconservatives now play a prominent role in Trump’s cabinet as seen by the appointment of Bolton and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.

“The idea that creating harsh conditions would cause the population of that country to rise up and overthrow their rulers is a longstanding act of faith on the part of the US government,” Beeman said. “Iran is only the latest nation to which this bankrupt strategy has been applied.”

Military conflict with Iran has already begun. Earlier this month Israel accused Iran of firing missiles into the Golan Heights, andIsrael bombedwhat it said were Iranian military facilities in Syria. The decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has sent a signal to the region. The prospects for military conflict have increased — whether in Syria, Lebanon or Iran itself.

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich has reported from Iran since 2000. His nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis (Routledge Books) will be published this Fall. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Natalie Portman boycotts Israeli prize; right wing goes ballistic

Residents of Ramallah in the West Bank remain angry at the Netanyahou government for expanding Israeli settlements and refusing to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Photo by Reese Erlich

Actress Natalie Portman, a strong supporter of Israel, has come under vicious attack for criticizing that country’s leadership. She now joins the club of scholars, journalists, and political leaders who are vilified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his right-wing cohorts.

Portman was born in Jerusalem, and although her family left Israel when she was only three, she became fluent in Hebrew. She is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States.

While studying at Harvard, she became a research assistant for right-wing Zionist Alan Dershowitz. She directed and starred in a feature film presenting the Jewish side of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state.

So Portman is an unlikely candidate for vilification by conservative Jews. Here’s what happened.

Last November officials of the Genesis award, often referred to as Israel’s Nobel, announced that Portman had won this year’s prize. The award is partially funded by the prime minister’s office. In response Portman said, “I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage. They are crucial parts of who I am.”

Then in late April she refused to attend the Genesis award ceremony in Jerusalem. In an Instagram post, Portman wrote, “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu is a ultra right-winger who has ended all peace talks with Palestinians, overseen vicious attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, threatened war against Iran, and is facing numerous corruption investigations.

Portman’s boycott of the ceremony caught a lot of people off guard. “She was a strong supporter of Israel,” Rebecca Vilcomerson told me. “Her action really came as a surprise.” Vilcomerson is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a progressive organization with 15,000 dues paying members and 250,000 supporters. Vilcomerson applauded Portman’s principled stand.

The Jewish right wing, however, immediately began hyperventilating. Oren Hazan, a member of parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, advocated stripping Portman of her Israeli citizenship. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said her refusal to accept the award “has elements of anti-Semitism.” (He did not explain how Natalie Portman, a proud Jew, could be anti-Semitic.)

Ronny Perlman, a peace and human rights activist whom I contacted in Jerusalem, said such attacks have become commonplace in Israel’s increasingly conservative political atmosphere. “Every time someone criticizes the occupation [of Palestinian territory], they are accused of treason and some idiots demand stripping them of citizenship.”

Portman’s stand caused a furor, in part, because Israeli government policies are being sharply criticized in the United States and around the world.

Residents of Ramallah in the West Bank remain angry at the Netanyahou government for expanding Israeli settlements and refusing to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Photo by Reese Erlich

Since late March, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza demonstrated on the border with Israel. Israeli soldiers fired at unarmed protesters, killing 45 and wounding 5500, according to UN sources. No Israelis were killed.

In early April right-wingers in Likud  scuttled a plan that would have given legal status to some of the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers now living in Israel. Israeli right-wingers, like their U.S. counterparts, want to expel all undocumented workers living within their borders.

In her Instagram statement, Portman seemed to indirectly criticize those Israeli policies. “The mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”

Right-wing Jews also accused Portman of supporting the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). That movement calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, full equality for Palestinians living in Israel and the right of exiled Palestinians to return to their land.

It’s a decentralized movement and tactics vary. Students supporting BDS have called for universities to sell off stocks of companies investing in Israel. Other activists have organized boycotts of Israeli products.

The BDS movement is extremely controversial in Israel and in the American Jewish community because it has picked up support, particularly on college campuses. Critics charge that the BDS movement ignores Palestinian failures to seek peace, among other issues.

For example, the Reform Jewish Movement, which describes itself as favoring Israel living in peace with its neighbors, writes, “We deeply deplore efforts that blame Israel for the failure of the peace process or that seek to use economic actions against Israel, including singling out for divestment companies working in or doing business with Israel. These efforts are more likely to hinder rather than advance the peace process.”

Portman made clear she did not support BDS. “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation.”

Jewish Voice for Peace does support BDS, explained Vilcomerson, because it’s an effective, non-violent means to pressure the Israeli government. An international boycott helped get rid of the apartheid government in South Africa, for example.

“It’s a time-honored tactic used by social justice movements,” Vilcomerson said. “We would welcome Portman to be part of it.”

Objectively, Portman’s actions encouraged others to selectively boycott Israel. “The BDS movement created the atmosphere in which her action took place,” said Vilcomerson. “She did something very brave.”

I have a question to those who oppose BDS. Exactly what methods should critics of Israel use, given that both liberal and conservative governments have expanded settlements and failed to set conditions for a Palestinian state?

You can’t engage in armed struggle because that’s terrorism. You can’t throw rocks during demonstrations because that’s violent. You can’t hold peaceful demonstrations because that’s a cover for violence. You can’t boycott and divest because that’s an attack on all Jews. You can’t even refuse to accept an award because that’s anti-Semitic.

In reality, Netanyahu and many other Israeli politicians, don’t want to see any effective opposition that might end the Israeli occupation. That’s why Portman’s protest is so important.

My hat’s off to you, Natalie. Keep up the good work.

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Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.