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The Nut Graph

June 09
"Defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi aggressively retorted to Imam Sayyed Ali Khamenei’s comments saying he will “butcher the republican aspect of the system” That's just one quote from Hezbollah's television station, Al-Manar, the day after ayatollah Khamenei's fire and brimstone speech against the opposition. If Manar had been wavering before the second intervention of Khamenei, afterward it clearly toes the line. "The defeated candidate also threatened to take riots on the streets to the next level. "If the people's trust is not matched by protecting their votes or if they are not able to defend their rights in a civil peaceful reaction, there will be dangerous ways ahead," said Mousavi." Never mind that Mousavi's quote conveys no threat. But the worst bit of 'reporting' focuses on alleged protester violence while ignoring the role of the polcie and the basij: "Mousavi's supporters also set on fire a building in southern Tehran used by backers of Ahmadinejad, a witness said. Also on Saturday afternoon a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Tehran mausoleum of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, killing himself and wounding three visitors, the official IRNA news agency reported. Some protesters set fire to security forces and Basij members' motorcycles." Poor Basij...

Comparisons are often invidious but in this case they are plain nuts. It's obviously getting tough to come up with new Iran stories all the time but there is just no way to compare Lebanon as a country with Iran. Even geographically in the Middle East they are at opposite ends. Iran has a millenia-long almost uninterrupted history as a centralised state, Lebanon has... nothing. Socially and politically there are just no lessons that can be drawn from this. Sure, Bush bashers can say that it probably helped not to have him around anymore but even that we don't know for sure. To make this about some kind of search for identity as one article did, is to say that every election anywhere is about defining the identity of a country, Islamic or secular, capitalist or socialist, Evangelical or reasonable. The only thing they had in common was that they were held in the Middle East, close together and that they were not real elections and that the outcome either way would not have much of an effect on the real political direction of the countries. If there was anything to say at all about both of them in the same breath, it was done by Michael Young in Lebanon's Daily Star. But even he over-estimates the importance of Lebanon's 'elections'.

May 09
Why does the phrase: 'methinks thou dost protest too much' keeps coming to mind with regard to American foreign policy in the Middle East? Obama will deliver his major speech to Muslims next week in Cairo, repeating for the umpteenth time that the US is not at war with Islam, we bet. In the meantime his administration keeps getting practical policy matters wrong... A familiar gasp went through Lebanon last week when US vice-president Joe Biden, the most senior American politician to visit the country in 5000 years, came to Beirut. "How stupid can the Americans be?" friend and foe wondered. Even if Joe the Mouth was invited by the pro-American, anti-Syrian 14 March camp to give them a boost in the upcoming elections, the supposedly Middle East savvy policy advisers on the Obama team should have realised that the effect would be the opposite. The 14 March forces are not known for their political maturity, so their input on this should equal that of an op-ed piece in the National Enquirer. The Obama Administration keeps getting many things the wrong way around when it comes to the Middle East. Granted they were only just starting but even as president-elect the big O could have made clear to the Israeli voters that Bibi was a no no. But there he kept mum. Instead he pokes his nose in the hornets' nest that is Lebanese politics where American support equals a drop in the vote of some 10-20 per cent. Well done, mabrouk, as they say here. Sure two states blahblahblah. The Democrat's policy still looks like more noise than substance, an impression that is reinforced by another useless speech to Islam that the president is planning. Perceptions are important but the most effective way to change them is through actions, not oochy woochy coochy coo.

The economic crisis is now also hitting the Middle East and Western firms are panicking about the loss of their free lunch there. How do we know? International headhunters are talking up the 'opportunity' of replacing expats with 'skilled local workers' and of finding nuclear specialists for the UAE... Seems that the Arab world is not as immune from the global economic crisis as it was earlier trumpeted to be. Several reports now prophesy dire consequences for some of the economies that had been thought safe havens, particularly some of those in the Gulf. But much worse affected are the western financial and economic powerhouses that had hoped to use the Gulf as an area where they could continue to make outrageous profits to offset some of their losses elsewhere. The latest ridiculous attempt to fleece the sheikhs appears to come from a major international headhunters firm that pitches its services to Gulf clients by saying that the crisis provides the perfect opportunity to replace expat labour with skilled local workers. They even call it "plugging the Arab brain drain". Never mind the question of why skilled local workers didn't do the job in the first place (maybe they don't exist, are not interested or are often too unreliable when hired in their own countries?). This is after all not about serving the local interest but about shoving yet another service down the throats of the oil-rich while they still have some money to spend. A bit like selling them nuclear power. The firm ruefully agrees that in this specialised field it may be hard to find skilled locals and offers to recruit outside expertise. Soon we'll have the minions of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan run the UAE's future nuclear plants. Seems like the real brain drain is taking place inside western firms.

A new attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its implications for the rest of the Middle East is slowly emerging in Europe and the US. It seems that finally, concerted pressure is being brougt to bear on Israel... to preserve the status quo.... The Europeans and the Americans are turning up the rhetoric on Israel's right-wing government to accept the two-state solution, something that the previous government had already done. At the same time, the international community is rumoured to be edging closer to a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will try to move the about to expire peace process ahead on several fronts at once. The quartet, UN, US, EU and euh, Russia, is supposed to unveil this miracle cure before the end of June. Part of this pie-in-the-sky idea is that the Arab states may amend the Saudi-proposed peace plan to reassure Israel on the Palestinian right of return. Not very likely, given that the peace plan has almost been pulled off the table. The regional approach is very much part of the new 'road map' which seems more an effort to tackle Iran and its allies than meant to deal seriously with the conflict. Witness the softly whispered American wish that Israel join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Just another non-starter among all the other non-starters that are being bandied about now and that are being sold as new thinking. All that will be achieved in the end is to make Israel's Netanyahu grudgingly not rule out a Palestinian state. Another empty victory for the status quo.

Fourth week of April 09
The tiny UAE was the top importer of arms in the Middle East from 2004 to 2008, according to a new report. Iran, by comparison, lagged badly behind with just 5 per cent of the total imports. The Swedish think tank involved concludes that obviously the UAE has aggressive intentions and Iran doesn't... Arms sales to the Middle East increased by a whopping 38 per cent in 2004-2008 compared to 1999-2003 and much of it is probably rusting away in the desert. Add to the huge cost of these weapons the money needed for such things as training and maintenance. With any luck most of it is just for show and will never be used. The tiny UAE stand out because it took the lion's share of the arms in the period, according to the report of the Swedish watchdog, SIPRI. It imported 34 per cent of the arms, compared to 22 per cent that went to Israel and 14 per cent to Egypt. Just 5 per cent went to Iran. That does not necessarily mean much, except that the UAE feels threatened, probably by Iran. Both Israel and Iran may have had more weapons in stock than the UAE, which started to arm later. And both countries have large domestic arms programmes, for example producing missiles that put satellites in orbit. There is also the question of what reached Iran outside the reported channels, from North-Korea or even China. Still, SIPRI gave an oddly Iran-coddling interpretation to the report, saying that it should discourage countries from selling to Arab Gulf clients.

Just what Iraq needs: "ideas on how new technologies could help foster transparency, strengthen civil society and generally empower people and local groups by providing the tools for network building." That is what the US State Department says is the purpose of a visit to Baghdad that it has organised for the internet itself. Yes, the internet exists as a real entity and has representatives: big shots from Google, Twitter, YouTube and AT&T to name but a few. That internet penetration is well below 1%, that the mobile phone network is patchy and that even telephone land lines are still hugely problematic seems not to matter. Ridiculous idea of course, first to put in the basic infrastructure and work on education, which is also needed to make proper use of all the web has to offer. Oh wait, that has been tried and it has failed. Billions have been spent and lost in the swamp of Iraqi reconstruction. But billions more lie around, waiting to be disbursed and that's not to be sneezed at during an economic crisis. Web 2.0 and social networking will save Iraq, which American incompetence has turned into a virtual country anyway. One suggestion for the internet bigwigs: Shamefacedbook.

Third week of April 09
Is it worse to be executed than to be killed in an air strike or a suicide bombing? It may not matter to the victims but a new report on the ways in which Iraq's people have died since 2003 is bound to make this the subject of much political speculation... The civilian death toll in Iraq since 2003 is a hotly debated topic. Numbers seem so much like facts and they confer a certain authority that mere rhetoric doesn't. Now it's no longer only the exact number of dead civilians that is disputed (the toll lies somewhere between 100.000 and 300.000 depending on whom you ask) also the way in which they died has become debated. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine breaks down the sticky ends to which so many Iraqis have come recently. Supporters of American actions in Iraq could take some comfort from the figures that estimate that 'just' 4 per cent of the victims died in US air raids. On the other hand, such attacks do claim the highest number of casualties per hit, 17 on average. Suicide bombings score only slightly lower, with 16 deaths per blast. But what really brings home the sectarian nature of the very dirty war that is being waged in Iraq, is that executions, often involving torture, were the leading cause of civilian casualties. One third of all victims died this way, against 14 per cent in suicide bombings. The implication is that many of them were targets of sectarian cleansing of whole neighbourhoods. What this says about the war and the responsibility for what's happened is totally unclear, so far. Someone is certain to come up with a partisan explanation soon enough.

Fourth week of March 09
The Israeli army has, once again, investigated itself, and, once again, concluded that it has done nothing wrong. In this case it was over its campaign in Gaza but it has been no different in previous instances of reported and documented abuse against Palestinians elsewhere. Over the years some soldiers have received slaps on the wrists for the most egregious offenses against the Palestinian civilian population. Heavy censure has been reserved disproportionally for the non-Jewish minorities that also serve in the army, such as Bedouin and Druze soldiers, who also serve disproportionally in units that engage directly with the civilian population, such as the notorious Border Police. Accusations of abuse are often complicated to investigate. The propaganda battle that is being waged by both sides does not make it easier to establish the truth. But there is a clear and growing pattern of impunity in the Israeli soldiers' actions vis à vis the Palestinians. This not only causes unjustifiable hardship to innocent people, it also undermines the very foundations of Israel as a state of law.

Third week of March 09
The big withdrawal debate is quickly becoming as shameless as the original Iraq invasion debate or even more so. While it's still not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bush, Cheney et al knew that they were misleading the world about the weapons of mass destruction, the politicians who argued so vehemently for a quick withdrawal must have known that they were selling hot air. Both Obama and al-Maliki seem te be getting away with it, possibly because they inherited the mess and did not create it in the first place. And Obama in the end won the election on the economy rather than on Iraq. But the Iraq saga is not over yet and another descent into chaos is still possible. Let's see then what happens to the remaining US troops.

Second week of March 09
What is it with the Obama administration and the Middle East? Even when the president was still elect, was awaited like the second coming and could do no wrong, he dropped the ball on such small things as Gaza and the Israeli elections. Now his choice for heading the influential National Intelligence Council, Charles Freeman, has withdrawn and virtually blames a Jewish cabal for for the fiasco. Never mind that China buffs and a sizeable chunk of Congress that views his Saudi connections with suspicion also had something to do with it, Freeman's comments disqualify him in retrospect. A pity, because he could have injected some of the heardheadedness into the debate on Israel that is sorely needed but then from someone with more political savvy. As if all this was not enough, the Republicans are getting stuck into Obama's choice for Iraq ambassador, Chris Hill. They are indirectly savaging their own late great leader in the process, saying that Hill under Bush was way too easy on North Korea and its nuclear programme. Oh yes, and he does not have enough Middle East experience. But too much experience is not always a good thing. What were they thinking making Dennis Ross the envoy for the Gulf?

First week of March 09
The West's efforts to re-engage with Syria and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, at least provide some amusing tongue twisters and squirmy moments for the diplomats. The American dynamic duo visiting Syria first had to reassure the Lebanese that the road to Damascus will not be paved, yet again, with the corpse of Lebanon's independence. Then Britain hastened to say that its re-engagement with Hezbollah was merely meant to bring about the disarmament of the group. This shows one of the main problem with such an overt emphasis on engagement: you cannot believe a word that any of the diplomats utter. With containment it's much simpler: we isolate the buggers and maybe talk to them behind your back but you're not supposed to hear about it until it's too late. There is a huge problem with the whole emphasis on talking or not talking. By highlighting isolation, talks become a prize in themselves. On the other hand by stressing engagement, the impression is given that said prize is being given. Although some in the Arab world cheer at any sign of things going their way, the high-profile approach smacks of a propaganda drive from the US and UK to be seen to reach out while the actual effects of all this are unpredictable at best. Syria, at least, has in the past interpreted a let-up in international pressure as a green light to follow its own destructive policies.

Let's tick off the list: Despise America, check. Want the US out of Muslim countries, check. Disagree with Al-Qaeda attacks on civilians, check. Agree with Al-Qaeda attacks on US troops on Muslim soil, check. Agree with all Al-Qaeda ideas, including the introduction of strict Islamic Shari'a law in all Muslim countries, ch... wait a sec. Nothing much surprising in what is one in an endless post-9/11 loop of surveys on attitudes in Muslim countries. The West wants to keep its finger on the Islamic pulse so that we may finally know 'why they hate us'. Turns out it's mainly because 'they' want to live a puritanical Islamic life and despise decadent Western influences in 'their' societies. Funny thing about surveys in at least the Arab part of the Muslim world and maybe also elsewhere: people's words and actions are very, very far apart. Sure, they want Shari'a for the Muslim world but maybe not in their own particular country. If, clearly, the results on the support for Shari'a are inconsistent, then how reliable is the rest? Adjusted for such blips, it seems the Muslim world actually loves the US.

Fourth week of February 09
Rip van Winkle must be running US intelligence in the Middle East. If an article in Haaretz is correct, the National Intelligence Council only recenly found out that Egypt's leadership role in the Arab world has come to an end. I guess they've never heard of the Camp David accords and their aftermath, more than three decades ago, which effectively ended the Egyptian leadership era. More interesting is the emphasis on Saudi Arabia, which it concludes is reluctant to take up the mantle, a view coincidentally? endorsed from Riyadh. But while the NIC notes the ineffectiveness of the Saudis on a whole range of issues in recent years, Lebanon, Hamas-Fatah and Iran, the report from Saudi Arabia itself is more of a 'hold me back or else' kind of warning. It says US indifference and Israeli attacks on Palestinians risk radicalising the kingdom, as if that is possible. It all smacks of people in DC and in Riyadh jockeying for position now that the old Bush-House of Saud connection has left the building.

Welcome to Iraq's groundhog day. Iraqi troops will be in charge, it is emphasised of course, of yet another crackdown on Al-Qaeda in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh. Funny how Mosul was supposed to have been pacified by Gen. Petraeus right after the US invasion of Iraq, in 2003. But if the whole of post-surge Iraq goes the way Mosul went in 2004, then we're in for another rough ride. Another day, another crackdown. Sunni's are now supposed to be more well-disposed to the central government after having swept the provincial council in elections last month. But if the Iraqi troops are in any way similar to the Kurdish and Shia vigilantes who operated there in 2005, any goodwill that the elections have engendered among the population will be short lived. At the time all Sunni Arabs were automatically seen as 'irhabi', terrorists, and could expect a thorough beating at the very least, if the crossed the military's path. That too was American inspired and all for the sake of creating the impression of stability.

Third week of February 09
When it comes to arms, the ambition of the Islamic Republic knows no bounds. Iran's people may be steadily worse off, poverty may remain deeply entrenched but the mullahs shall have their arms. It's not just a matter of protecting the regime, a nuclear programme seems like overkill for that. And it's not only a simple matter of national pride. It's more like a complicated matter of national pride - a competition with the Israelis. Israel has a nuclear programme, launches satellites, is at the forefront of unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) development and in general has a thriving arms industry. OK, Iran may be totally reliant on oil, have no hi-tech industry to speak of and be an oppressive theocracy but nothing says mine is bigger than yours better than having your own rockets and airplanes. Like the nuclear programme, though, most of the new weaponry seem to be copied from Chinese and North-Korean designs. If it's anything like my Chinese washing machine, god knows where those rockets will land. On at least one front though, the shoe is on the other foot. Israel is going all-out to close its theocracy gap with Iran.

Second week of February 09
Saudi Arabia's octogenarian king, Abdullah, is regarded by many s a moderate, a reformer even. He allowed the first ever elections in the Kingdom, for local councils, a couple of years ago and he introduced reform of the judiciary system to make a small part of it it less subject to the religious authority. But the pace of the change is glacial, or even undetectable. The elections had no follow up, the judiciary is still much the same as is the rest of the country. Now Abdullah has fired two senior hard line religious figures, the head of the religious police and a chief justice who last year issued a fatwa allowing the murder of owners of satellite Tv stations that show immoral content. Bravo, this is progress. And for good measure a woman is now allowed to be in charge of girls' education, because that's not very important anyway.

Israelis went to the polls and delivered their verdict, or did they? The Kadima party led by Tsipi Livni appears to have won most seats but the right wing bloc led by Benjamin, Bibib, Netanyahu commands a majority. Complex, huh? If only things were this simple. Kadima, even though called 'centrist', was founded by ultra-right winger Ariel Sharon and could swing any which way. Then there's the biggest winner of them all, Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman and YB have used ugly racist rehtoric and have some extremely right wing ideas. But he refuses to sit in a coalition with the right wing-religious party Shas. The most logical deal would include both Kadima and Likud. They're mostly the same anyway. One thing is clear: there are no victors and the whole region is the loser.

First week of February 09
See if you can detect the difference: "we'll be nice to you but if you don't play ball we can be nasty" and "we'll be nasty unless you play ball". This is the extent of the change that team Obama is bringing to its approach of at least Iran. Vice-president Joe Biden's speech at the security conference in Munich was hailed as a departure from the old, unilateral, Bush line. It was, but only because Biden knew how to pronounce the names of all the countries that he was talking about. If Bush's approach was bluster, Obama's is huckster - he's selling the same old product under a different name. To be fair, there's very little wriggle room here but maybe that's something this new administration should be 'transparent' about. Instead it hopes that nobody back in the US understands the meaning of c'est le ton qui fait la musique. Because there's an English answer to that: cut the crap.

OK, brace yourselves, this is gonna get complicated. It starts with Palestinian groups petitioning the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes during the recent Gaza fighting. BUT the ICC only has jurisdiction over states that have signed the treaty that underpins it. Israel has not and Gaza is not a state. Wait a minute, say the Palestinians, Israel itself argues that it's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 means that it is no longer in charge there. So who is? Formally the Palestinian Authority, although in fact it is Hamas. Confused? Well, at the very least an ICC decision on whether the PA is de facto a state or not will clear up some thing. If it is, that's a historic achievement: The Palestinian state formally exists. If not, it confirms Israel's responsibility for Gaza, meaning that it is still accountable for the humanitarian situation in the Strip and not Hamas or the PA. Both sides may get more than they bargained for.

January 09
As if the war, deaths and destruction were not enough, now the people of Gaza are confronted with a number of cat fights within the donor community. As always, Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to outdo each other in order to help their respective proxies, just as after the 2006 Lebanon war. What complicates things is that Israel and Egypt are still in control of the crossings, meaning that Iranian aid may have a hard time getting through. So good luck with the Parliament building they pledged to rebuild. Then there's Hamas, which is still very much in control of Gaza, which in turn complicates the aid effort because many still don't want to deal with it. To add insult to injury, the EU's humanitarian supremo, Louis Michel, asserted that the people of Europe are getting "sick" of shelling out hundreds of millions of Euro's every year, just to see it destroyed in Israeli military actions. That just seems wrong: most people in the EU have no idea that they give so much money to the Palestinians.

George Mitchell, President Obama's Middle East Envoy, has a bit of a reputation as a problem solver. He cleaned up professional baseball in the US and exposed steroid use by some of the most famous players. Crucially, and we expect to see more of this, he blamed both management and players for the problem. That's the kind of evenhandedness that he'll need in the Middle East. As for his other achievements, brokering the Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland and publishing the Mitchell report on the intifadah in 2001, these may be less relevant. Really, the Middle East is nothing like Northern Ireland. Try getting a pint in Gaza. And Mitchell's 2001 report led to the road map, which is nowadays synonymous with feckless peacemaking. No, this is a conflict on steroids, not as far as the number of people killed but in the hardened attitudes of both sides.

Maybe the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultra-secret peace talks. Indeed, talks so secret that nobody will have an inkling about what has been agreed on for the next couple of generations. If reports about Israeli Prime Minister Olmert agreeing in secret to the division of Jerusalem are true, they may point the way: Just hand East Jerusalem over to the Palestinian but don't tell anybody about it! In a similar way many other issues could be solved. Both sides could agree to the Palestinian right of return, as long as the Palestinians are not told about it. Even seemingly thorny topics such as settlements and borders could be, uhm, settled. Nobody in Israel will miss a couple of hundred thousand settlers, they don't have any friends anyway. So send them on an all expenses-paid continuous cruise in the Caribbean. Borders are not a problem either, leave the Israeli army in control, just disguise them as Scandinavian peacekeepers.

The Lebanese would rather have bombs going off in their streets than have their car nicked. That at least is the implication of a survey of attitudes in Lebanon carried out by the University of Michigan. Unlike almost anyone else, except the Iranians in the Middle East, more Lebanese regarded theft immoral than violence, 48 per cent against 31 per cent. By comparison, in the researcher's own class, 90 per cent of students regarded violence the worse evil. Other remarkable tidbits: 28 per cent of the population is planning not to vote in next year's election and guess what? They are among the most liberal and open-minded people in the country, i.e. they know that Lebanon's politicians are all hopeless. Less remarkably, the research found that Lebanon's Muslims are more liberal and secular than other Muslims in the Middle East. For example, just six per cent of Hezbollah voters were in favour of a theocracy. On the other hand, Lebanon as a whole, Christian and Muslim, is not as open-minded as it may like to think. In the evil stakes, 21 per cent of the respondents said that pre-marital sex was more immoral than either theft or violence.

Role plays may help bring together two sides that do not understand each other. So, bravo Israel for deciding to abandon democracy altogether and ban Arab parties in the upcoming elections. It is a valiant attempt to reciprocate the Palestinians' move toward more democracy. Now, try bombing your own infrastructure and undermining all state institutions to make it even more realistic. More likely the decision is not inspired by a wish to know how the other half lives. The Arab parties supposedly deny Israel's right to exist. But if you do, exist, then why worry about what anybody says about your right to, exist? And if you don't exist, then who cares? Sometimes Israel just sounds like a country that needs to get laid.

• Is Obama's vaunted transition team struggling to keep planned secret talks with Hamas secret by denying that they are planned? How come the Middle East is so damn difficult? Praised into the sky on most other issues, the incoming president's aides fluff the Middle East questions... See what all that talk about talking can get you into? And if something is a secret, don't mention it to a journalist. Obama's aides are urging the incoming president to pursue unofficial or even "clandestine" talks with the militant Palestinian Hamas organisation that is being viewed by many in the West as a terrorist group. Could be a good idea but how come that the Obama camp is so incompetent in handling this? The most remarkable statement to the Guardian by an expert close to Obama's Middle East advisors was, "It is highly unlikely that they will be public about it." Meanwhile the paper spoke to three of his aides who said just that. Have I been too long in the Middle East? Because I smell a conspiracy where the Obama people try to regain some Arab sympathy by making noises about talking to Hamas but pre-empt their so-called plan by leaking it?

• One state, two states, three states ahahahah... John Bolton, the former American UN ambassador, should take arithmetic lessons from the Count of Sesame Street (watch this clip). He has joined opponents of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and now advocates a zero Palestinian state solution, which he calls the three state solution. Confused?... Many opponents of the two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, one Palestinian and one Israeli that is, must be squirming now that John Bolton, the none-too-subtle former UN-ambassador for the US has joined their ranks. Bolton says he has a 3-state solution: give Gaza to Egypt, the West Bank to Jordan and leave Israel where it is, presumably. So now we have the one staters, two-staters and three-staters. What about the no-state solution, just one big happy world government? "Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace, You may say that I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one..."

Glass half empty department: Israel admitted that its forecast of the number of rockets that Hamas would fire during the current offensive was exaggerated. But instead of thanking the group for the rockets it didn't fire, people keep mentioning the ones that were. Come on, it could start a trend. Both sides could thank each other for the people they haven't killed, the bombs they didn't drop, the attacks they didn't carry out, the settlements they didn't build etc. The whole tone of the conflict could be transformed. Nothing else would change, of course. Oh, they could thank each other for the agreements they didn't break, if there are any.

Christmas and end of 2008:
Hardly new but it must be mentioned, Israel keeps redefining the meaning of 'disproportionate'. Of course it cannot ignore the rocket fire and other attacks from Gaza. But the score after a day of heavy attacks is over 300-2. Sure, that will teach them, or will it? In the short term Hamas is almost certain to be strengthened by the onslaught. This looks more like Livni and Barak trying to burnish their tough guy credentials ahead of the Israeli elections. Such gambits have a tendency to backfire.

Hamas observed a one-day cease-fire, one day! Come on guys, you had six months to decide whether to keep a truce or restart the fighting. Then, after a couple of days of intensifying violence, you decide to hold back for just 24 hours? What was that about? It seems to me that both Hamas and Israel employ a “hold me back, or else…” approach, a balance of bluff. While I can see the propaganda advantage to both sides of all the bluster, especially to the Israelis during their election campaign, I cannot see the use in another inconclusive round of tit-for-tat attacks. Find a modus vivendi until Obama rides in to bring peace! Israel should let basic supplies, especially food, medicine and fuel, into Gaza and Hamas should stop poking the bear.

OK, it’s just too easy to put Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmedinajed in this category and normally I wouldn’t. But in this case his bon mot is so perfectly in tune with the seasonal spirit that I make an exception. Jesus would have opposed "bullying ... expansionist powers," i.e. the United States of America, he said in his Christmas speech that was aired on Britain’s Channel 4 TV. I suppose he has not reached  the part in the new testament yet where Jesus talks of turning the other cheek. Talking of Ahmedinejad and messiahs, by the way, the Iranian leader is a fiery follower of the messianic Imam al Mahdi movement in Shi’ism. Maybe he confused Jesus with the hidden Imam who will unite the world under the banner of Islam.

Top American generals handed the incoming administration a time-table for the departure of US troops from Iraq that did not meet Obama’s stated targets. Hmm, what did anyone expect? We are hearing less and less about Iraq now that the election is over. Instead there is a proliferation of shady scenario’s under which US combat troops could stay on, as tourists? None of this means anything yet of course, because the new decider-in-chief has so far offered no specifics. Even so, the whole Iraq withdrawal debate is rapidly turning out to have been little more than partisan sniping during election time.

Israel and Syria indicated that they are considering direct peace talks. Great! This will give both sides what they want… diplomatic cover for a continuation a range of dodgy policies. It’s dangerous to prophesy in the Middle East but I’m putting my money on never-ending talks between the two enemies. Syria’s regime has no interest in achieving a peace deal that will in all likelihood threaten its survival. And Israel’s weak coalitions are in no position to give up the Golan. But both are interested in talks. For Syria the negotiations themselves are the ticket that it seeks out of international isolation. Israel uses the ‘Syrian track’ mainly to divert attention from the Palestinians.

Lebanon’s Christian leader Michel Aoun accuses his rivals of merely proposing national defence blueprints as an excuse to disarm Hezbollah, duh! Also, Aoun was reported to have criticized majority bloc leader Saad Hariri’s help in getting Russia to promise 10 MiG 29 combat aircraft to Lebanon’s army. Remarkable, if true, because Aoun as a former army commander usually favours a strengthening of the armed forces. The criticism reeks again of being Hezbollah-inspired, even though he is right about the MiG’s and the inability of Lebanon’s conventional army to match Israel

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