The Middle East Channel

Israel announces new settlement homes and prepares to release 26 Palestinian prisoners

Israel announces new settlement homes and prepares to release 26 Palestinian prisoners

Jerusalem’s municipality approved the construction of 942 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem Tuesday, the day before scheduled direct talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. The move has come after an announcement Sunday of Israel’s approval of 1,200 new homes in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements, which has drawn international criticism and condemnation from Palestinians. Israel has rejected criticism saying the homes would be built in territory it would likely keep in any future peace deal. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said new construction would not likely derail peace talks, mentioning that settlement plans were "to some degree expected." But he maintained, "What this underscores is the importance of getting to the table." Talks are set for Wednesday at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel between Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat, moderated by U.S. envoy Martin Indyk. In a gesture to get talks going, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, and the first 26 detainees have been moved for release early Wednesday. An Israeli court dismissed a petition by victims’ families against the prisoners’ release Tuesday saying the issue is "difficult and sensitive" but that such decisions, particularly during diplomatic negotiations, "are strictly within the jurisdiction of the Israeli government." Meanwhile, Israel’s Iron Dome intercepted a rocket targeting the resort city of Eilat. The rocket was reportedly fired from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The Islamist militant group Majlis Shura Al-Majahedin Fi Aknaf Bayt Al-Maqdis took responsibility for the attack, saying it was in response to the killing of four of its fighters Friday in northern Sinai, which it claims was done by an Israeli drone.

Syria

Syrian rebel fighters have received arms supplies from Sudan, a country under international arms embargoes. Sudan has provided rebel forces with anti-aircraft missiles and small-arms cartridges. While the deals were not publicly acknowledged, Sudan sold Sudanese and Chinese-made arms to Qatar, which delivered the weapons to the rebel fighters through Turkey. Sudanese officials denied sending weapons to Syria. But, if the deals are confirmed, it adds another complicated dimension to the Syrian civil war. Sudan has close economic and diplomatic ties with China and Iran, a strong ally to the Syrian government. Meanwhile, in a bold show of force by the Syrian opposition, head of the Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idriss, has reportedly visited the coastal province of Latakia, Alawite stronghold and home of the family of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition fighters have recently overtaken several villages in the region. Idriss said he was in Latakia to see the "important successes and victories that our revolutionaries have gained on the coastal front." According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 3,000 families have been displaced from an estimated 30 villages around Latakia.

Headlines

Arguments and Analysis

Tunisia and "the Egyptian Model"‘ (Fadil Aliriza, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"Whether Tunisia ultimately follows the Egyptian model will depend to a great extent on the role of the security forces. If they apprehend those responsible for the assassinations and subsequent acts of violence, this will go far towards easing political tensions. If they refrain from employing brutal tactics on demonstrators, this too can help cool the situation.

How opposition leaders and the powerful unions act will be another major factor in shaping Tunisia’s future. Ideological divisions in Tunisia are sharply drawn, just as in Egypt, and Tunisian opposition figures have accused Ennahda of being a local manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood monolith. However, their argument against Ennahda has less weight, as the Tunisian governing party has shown far more willingness to compromise than Egypt’s Islamists. After the elections, Ennahda formed a coalition with two non-Islamist parties, despite holding enough assembly seats to proceed to single-party rule. Subsequently, in drafting the constitution the party backed down from divisive, values-based articles. In the current crisis, Ennahda’s leadership has incrementally conceded more ground with one offer after another. This, despite their fear of ‘coup plans’ and pressure from their political right.

It is possible that these gestures will sway anti-government protesters, who are currently divided on whether they would like to see the assembly dissolved. Many of the protesters accept the argument that the assembly must finish its task of writing the constitution, a goal seemingly within grasp. However one coalition member, Mustapha Ben Jaffar, the speaker of the assembly and the leader of the Ettakatol party, has already made his move. He announced the suspension of the assembly (not within his power, says one constitutional lawyer) and has met with the head of Tunisia’s unions. Events remain in flux, but opposition members may indeed make the political calculation that it is better to avoid compromising with Islamists and instead undercut them with competing governing structures."

Hezbollah’s Refugee Problem‘ (Hugh Eakin, New York Review of Books Blog)

"To outside observers, the notion of Hezbollah districts hosting Syrians who support the opposition — and cooperating with opposition-affiliated donors to distribute aid to them — may seem puzzling. But for the militant Shia movement, which has built a loyal following in poor Lebanese communities through its reputation for charity and its ability to provide social services, taking care of Syrians has important political symbolism. Until now, the weak and deeply divided Lebanese government has largely failed to articulate any long-term strategy for dealing with refugees — not least, because of a disagreement between pro-opposition parties, who call for building refugee camps, and Hezbollah and its allies, who say that camps could provide bases for Sunni extremists fighting against the regime. This has meant that Syrians have instead flooded towns and villages across the country, leaving it up to municipalities, including those run by Hezbollah, to deal with them and to get help from international donors.

Already last fall, Hezbollah leaders in Beirut claimed the group was providing aid to Syrians who had fled to Lebanon, regardless of their sectarian background. Over the past few months, Hezbollah has reportedly asked Shia communities in Lebanon to exercise restraint in celebrating Syrian victories, and in recent statements, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has urged competing Lebanese factions to ‘take any side you want’ in Syria, but keep the conflict out of Lebanon. More dramatically, during the battle of Qusayr, Lebanese media reported that Hezbollah allowed safe passage to several dozen wounded Syrian opposition fighters so they could be delivered to hospitals in the Bekaa."

Breaking the Stalemate: The Military Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War and Options for Limited U.S. Intervention‘ (Kenneth Pollack, Brookings)

"All of the options for limited U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war have the potential to affect the military balance to a greater or lesser extent. However, because of the dynamics of that conflict, none has a high-likelihood of producing an opposition victory independently, and those with the best chance to tip the balance toward the opposition entail the greatest costs and commitments by the United States. Of course, all of these options could be mixed and matched to great effect, and collectively, their impact would be considerably greater than any one employed in isolation. The more that the United States can simultaneously bolster opposition capabilities and degrade the regime’s strength, the greater the likelihood that the U.S. will achieve its objectives.

Yet even embracing all of these options, and employing all of them to the maximum extent imaginable would not guarantee victory, and doing so might not seem very ‘limited’ at all. The one potential exception to this rule is the idea of building a Croat-style conventional opposition army, one with the potential to defeat the regime’s forces and serve as a stabilizing institution for postwar political reconstruction. However, that option — especially if it is accompanied by a U.S. or Western air campaign against Syrian regime forces as in Bosnia — would also be the most expensive and time-consuming of our limited options."

–Mary Casey & Joshua Haber