Archive for the ‘Arabs’ Category

Iranians believe that the mastery of [nuclear] science—rather than any other field of science, a bustling economy, and world-renowned industries and export goods, or a first-class educational system—will pave the way for Iran’s triumphant re-entry into the community of nations. Not a new microchip, or the cure for cancer, but a nuclear bomb—a weapon of mass destruction, meant to kill tens of thousands of people.

Turkey Hawks Bird as Israeli Mossad Spy Beacon, Ruffles Feathers

(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock)

Last week, Turkish authorities released a kestrel after a thorough investigation showed it was not spying for Israel. It’s a good thing the Turks were 100 percent sure because, to hear Israel’s neighbors tell it, the Mossad often employs birds to do its dirty work. One vulture believed to be spying for Israel was detained in Saudi Arabia in 2011, another was apprehended in Sudan in December 2012, and the Turks believed they were also targeted previously, in May 2012, by a European bee-eater.
Like the kestrel, the other birds were all tagged with markers identifying them as research subjects, such as the study of migratory patterns. The very signs then that should have made plain they were part of scientific studies were instead taken as evidence that they had been enchanted by some secret Israeli spell.
The Mossad kestrel is only the latest creature to walk out of the Israeli bestiary, a compendium of God’s creatures lifted from nature and, the story goes, put to work by Jews against Muslims and Arabs. Perhaps the most famous of all Israel’s animal operatives was the shark who attacked German tourists off the coast of Sinai in the winter of 2010, presumably for the purpose of damaging the Egyptian tourism industry—a feat the Egyptians accomplished over the last two and a half years on their own, thanks to the chaos that they’ve unleashed on their now bloody streets, and without any animal collaborators.
If these shaggy dog conspiracy tales are sure to get a laugh from Western readers, it’s worth keeping in mind that magical fantasies seeing Jews as uncanny manipulators of the natural world partake of the same paranoid and sinister narrative structure that authored the blood libel.
There’s nothing funny about it for the Turks, either. Once upon a time, Turkey and Israel enjoyed a strategic relationship. Among other benefits that came from this alliance, Turkey purchased arms from Israel, including drones, of which Israel is the world’s largest exporter. Ankara wanted the unmanned aerial vehicles, among other reasons, to gather intelligence on and then target the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a bloody insurgency against Turkey since 1984. After Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cashiered the alliance as well as the defense contracts with Israel, the Turks turned to their own domestic industry for unmanned aerial vehicles. The problem, however, was that Turkish drones were unable to beat the nasty habit of crashing.
To say that Ankara has failed to master the science of flight is an understatement. The fact that Turkish authorities believed the bird last week was effectively a new kind of Israeli drone and only released it back into the wild after an X-ray showed it was carrying no surveillance equipment suggests that some in Turkey are incapable of distinguishing science from magic.
Of course some commentators reason that, even accounting for the appetite many Arabs and Muslims have for pre-scientific conspiracy theories, Israeli spies really do pull off some fantastic stunts. However, it’s useful to remember that if Israel, for instance, blew up Imad Mughniyeh in the middle of Damascus, the Mossad’s assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was captured on video cameras in Dubai. That is, the Israelis also make mistakes—they’re talented and proficient, but they’re people, not supermen, or warlocks and witches.
Still, hundreds of millions of Middle Eastern, African, and Asian Muslims can only understand the world as a large Harry Potter set in which they will never be among the initiates, the spell-casters. Paradoxically, the reason that this horrifying recognition boils to the surface only occasionally is the stunning success and availability of Western science and technology. It is because cell phones, for instance, are so cheap that even the tens of millions of Egyptians who, without government subsidies and foreign aid, couldn’t afford to put food on their plate can purchase technology designed in Palo Alto and Herzilya. Otherwise, the divide between a society that makes and one that simply consumes would be clear for all to see.
You can say that there is no such thing as Western science and technology, but that’s just a Western perspective based on hard-won Western values, like empiricism—either F=MA or it doesn’t. What is verifiable is true not just for so-called Westerners but is true for all men in all times. But this may not be how the vast majority of the Muslim world understands reality.
The 19th-century Muslim reform movement that arose after Napoleon’s 1798 conquest of Egypt was impressed with Western science—specifically the military technology that allowed French troops to overrun the lands of Islam so easily. The reformers counseled Muslims to make use of the science, medicine, and technology that the Westerners brought—but at all costs to avoid the Western values, like free thought, that had made those technological advances possible. In other words, Muslims were forever condemned to the role of eternal consumer, end-user, and never a producer. Perhaps their consolation is that, like servants, Westerners will make it for them anyway.
Two hundred years later, the United Nations’ 2003 Human Development Report on the Arab World, “Building a Knowledge Society,” delivered the bill. “Despite the presence of significant human capital in the region,” the paper explains, “disabling constraints hamper the acquisition, diffusion, and production of knowledge in Arab societies.”
“Between 1980 and 2000,” writes Hillel Ofek in The New Atlantis, “Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four.”
According to Pakistani physics professor Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, the 57 Organization of Islamic Congress “countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1,000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17 percent of the world’s science literature, whereas 1.66 percent came from India alone and 1.48 percent from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55 percent, compared with 0.89 percent by Israel alone.”
Typically, commentators note that since the Muslim world used to excel in science and technology, there is no reason that it can’t catch up today. The problem is that it’s slipping further behind—and fast. Fifty years ago the gap was costly, but today the price for not understanding science and innovation has increased exponentially. Consider, for instance, the favorite theme of the 19th-century Muslim reformers and rulers—military might. In June 1967, it took Israel six days to defeat the combined Arab armies, including Egypt’s. Despite more than 30 years and many billions of dollars of U.S. military aid, Egypt has fallen further behind the rest of the world, and even its benighted neighbors. Proof can be found in the country’s decision to buy the defective drones that Turkey can’t keep in the air.
Many commentators explain the popular Arab uprisings over the last two and a half years as a consequence of expectations that exceed conditions. This is what happens, Western journalists and analysts reason, when you have millions of college graduates who can only find jobs driving a taxi or pushing a food cart. The reality is that only the rarest of college graduates in Muslim countries is prepared for a Western-style profession.
Cyber-optimists claim that new information technologies will close the gap. Satellite TV, the Internet, Bluetooth will present Muslims with such a clear alternative to their pre-Copernican worldview that they’ll willingly choose to embrace open societies and free markets and become part of the West. But consider some of the ways in which those technologies are used: The Syrian regime used its cell-phone concession to enrich itself. Jihadis set up Internet websites to disseminate propaganda and plan operations. Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar use their satellite networks not to promote alternative views of the world but to advance the narrow interests of the ruling family. In Egypt, tele-preachers parse passages of the Quran previously impenetrable to much of a population that has a literacy rate of 60 percent to explain why infidels should be killed.
That is, the technology gap isn’t a problem just for the Muslim world, for as the gap grows so does resentment. Consider the region’s most famous research project—the Iranian nuclear program. For decades now this oil-rich Persian Gulf power has been determined to go nuclear—to have a bomb, or as it claims, to provide nuclear energy for its people. Without taking any credit away from the Western intelligence services that have waged inventive clandestine operations to delay the program, including the alleged assassination of nuclear scientists, the reality is that if Iran hasn’t yet mastered the technology, there is something deeply wrong with the scientific culture of the Islamic Republic.
More important, there’s this: Iranians believe that the mastery of this particular field of science—rather than any other field of science, a bustling economy, and world-renowned industries and export goods, or a first-class educational system—will pave the way for Iran’s triumphant re-entry into the community of nations. Not a new microchip, or the cure for cancer, but a nuclear bomb—a weapon of mass destruction, meant to kill tens of thousands of people. A wise man once said never judge a man by his mistakes, but rather by his dreams. In the case of the Muslim Middle East, it is hard not to shudder.
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Lee Smith is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

Why Anti-Israeli Conspiracy Theories Keep a Foothold in the Arab Mideast – Tablet Magazine

It is still, on occasion, good to be the king.It is not necessarily good to be the king of a Middle Eastern country that is bereft of oil; nor is it necessarily so wonderful to be the king during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Arab Spring. It is certainly not good to be the king when the mystique that once enveloped your throne is evaporating.

Monarch in the Middle – Jeffrey Goldberg – The Atlantic

It is still, on occasion, good to be the king.
It is not necessarily good to be the king of a Middle Eastern country that is bereft of oil; nor is it necessarily so wonderful to be the king during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Arab Spring. It is certainly not good to be the king when the mystique that once enveloped your throne is evaporating.
But when a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters is reserved for your use, and when you are the type of king who finds release from the pressures of monarchy by piloting those Black Hawks up and down the length of your sand-covered kingdom—then it is still good to be the king.
One morning last fall, Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the fourth Hashemite king of Jordan, rolled up to a helipad situated close to the royal office complex in Al Hummar, on the western edge of the capital, Amman. He stepped out of an armored Mercedes—he drove himself, and drove fast, like he was being chased—and hustled to one of his Black Hawks. The king, who as a young prince served as a commander in the Royal Jordanian special forces, climbed into the pilot’s seat, talked for a moment with his co‑pilot, a trusted member of the Royal Squadron, and lifted off, pointing us in the direction of the rough, unhappy city of Karak, about 80 miles to the south. A second Black Hawk, filled with bodyguards, lifted off a moment later.
The king was flying himself to Karak, which is one of the poorer cities in a distressingly poor country, to have lunch with the leaders of Jordan’s largest tribes, which form the spine of Jordan’s military and political elite. More than half of all Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, with roots on the West Bank of the Jordan River, but the tribal leaders are from the East Bank, and the Hashemite kings have depended on East Bankers to defend the throne since the Hashemites first came to what was then called Transjordan from Mecca almost 100 years ago. This relationship has a coldly transactional quality: in exchange for their support of the royal court, the leaders of the eastern tribes expect the Hashemites to protect their privileges, and to limit the power of the Palestinians. When the Hashemites appear insufficiently attentive, problems inevitably follow.
Earlier that day, in his private office in Al Hummar, which overlooks the wealthy neighborhoods of West Amman, the king had explained to me the reason for the trip to Karak: he was trying, in advance of parliamentary elections in January, to instruct these tribal leaders on the importance of representative democracy. He wanted, he said, to see Jordanians build political parties that would not simply function as patronage mills but would advance ideas from across a broad ideological spectrum, and thus establish for Jordan a mature political culture. He said he would like to see Palestinians more proportionately represented in parliament. And he would like to do all this, he explained, without allowing the Muslim Brotherhood—a “Masonic cult” (as he describes it) that today controls the most formidable political organization in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front—to hijack the cause of democratic reform in the name of Islam. In other words, the king wants to bring political reform to Jordan, and to cede some of his power to the people—but only to the right people.
It was obvious to me that King Abdullah was looking forward to flying his helicopter—but not so much to the meeting that awaited him in Karak. “I’m sitting with the old dinosaurs today,” he told me.
The men he would be meeting—a former prime minister among them—were leaders of the National Current Party, which had the support of many East Bankers of the south, and which would almost certainly control a substantial bloc of seats in the next parliament. What the party stood for, however, beyond patronage and the status quo, was not entirely clear, even to the king. Shortly after the eruption of the Arab Spring, the king told me, he met with Abdul Hadi al-Majali, the leader of the party. “I read your economic and social manifesto, and it scared the crap out of me,” the king said he told Majali. “This makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re going to reach out to the 70 percent of the population that is younger than me, you’ve got to work on this.” The party manifesto, the king told me, “didn’t have anything. It was slogans. There was no program. Nothing.” He went on, “It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe.’ I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”

A Visit to the Banks of Jordan. by the Ed. of ‘The Parting Gift’. by S (Google Affiliate Ad)

The king landed his helicopter on a soccer field on the outskirts of Karak. The tribal leaders, many of whom had served Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein, were lined up to greet the king as his motorcade traveled the short distance from the improvised landing pad to a large meeting hall. There were kisses and handshakes and protestations of loyalty to the throne, followed by a lunch of mansaf, lamb cooked in fermented yogurt. Although mansaf is usually eaten with the right hand, the left hand placed behind the back, forks were distributed in a concession to modernity. Still, the meal was eaten standing up around a long, narrow table, in the Bedouin tradition.
Then the business of the afternoon was conducted. The 30 or so men (and one woman, a daughter of one of the tribal leaders) sat on couches against the walls. Tea was served. The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. Leader after leader—many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old—made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king’s consideration: “In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men.”
I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls’ education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform.
As we were leaving Karak a little while later, I asked him about the men-with-sticks idea. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said, with fatigue in his voice.
We boarded the Black Hawk and took off. I was seated behind the king. He asked me whether I wanted to make a detour: “Have you ever seen Mount Nebo from the air?” He flew northwest, toward the mountain from which, the Bible tells us, God showed Moses the Land of Israel. The Dead Sea shimmered just beyond. I suggested a quick detour to Jerusalem, which was 30 miles away. “The cousins like to have more warning,” one of his aides said with a smirk. “The cousins” are the Israelis.
The king seemed to be in no rush to return to Amman. As we approached Mount Nebo, we passed over the ruins of the ancient fortress of Machaerus, which was built by the Hasmoneans, and then rebuilt and enlarged by King Herod the Great in 30 B.C. Machaerus is where Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, is said to have delivered to Salome the head of John the Baptist.
“That Herod,” Abdullah said. “Quite a character.” I wasn’t clear on which Herod he meant, father or son, but no matter. Each one had his idiosyncrasies. “Not a role model for you?,” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I have different role models.”

The King’s Palace in Al Hummar is not Herodian in scale, but it is still sizable, expensively decorated, and well shielded from the noise of the city below. The complex is attached to the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, which can hold 5,500 worshippers. (Abdullah commissioned the mosque to honor his father.) Hummar is guarded by machine guns mounted on jeeps, and by members of the Jordanian Armed Forces Security and Protection Unit of the Supreme Commander. Inside the palace, Circassian guards, who wear black astrakhans and carry silver swords, stand watch outside his office.
Men in Bedouin dress carrying smoking incense burners move quietly from room to room. The many waiting rooms are decorated elegantly, adorned with photographs of the ruins of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, and with portraits of the past kings of Jordan.
The palace complex is under the unforgiving control of the chief of royal protocol, whose staff works assiduously to maintain an atmosphere of silence and reverence. But the atmosphere inside the king’s private office, where I spent many hours talking with him in recent months, is one of unstudied informality. Abdullah has, in some ways, grown accustomed to the trappings of the throne—when I first met him, not long after he took office more than 14 years ago, he told me that being addressed as “Your Majesty” made him queasy; he seems to have, over the years, adjusted to this aspect of kingship—but he still dislikes ceremony and prefers blunt talk to politesse.
He seems in many ways to be a contradiction—an Arab king who happens to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, evangelizing for liberal, secular, democratic rule. But Abdullah, now nearly a decade and a half into his reign, is, in his own conception, a political and economic reformer. He says he understands that the Hashemite throne, and perhaps Jordan itself, will not survive the coming decades if he does not move his country briskly toward modernity.
It is a small miracle, of course, that he is still in power at all. He has survived the first wave of the Arab Spring revolutions, which have so far claimed the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and will almost inevitably claim the Syrian president as well. But he has been roughed up in the process.
Geography has cursed Jordan. To Abdullah’s north is the charnel house of Syria, a failed state in the making. To his east is Iraq’s bloody Anbar province. Saudi Arabia, ruled by the superannuated princes of the House of Saud, the ancient rivals of the Hashemites, sits to his southeast. To his west are the obstreperous Israelis, as well as the disputatious Palestinians. Al‑Qaeda wants to kill him. The Iranian regime doesn’t like him very much either, especially since he denounced, in 2004, what he saw as a rising, Iranian-led “Shia crescent” looming over the Middle East. His country is broke, dependent on the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and haughty gulf Arabs to cover its budget. (The IMF recently forced fuel-price hikes that have intensified the domestic resentment directed at the throne.)
Demonstrations in Jordan’s main cities have been modest compared with those that led to regime change in Cairo and Tunis, but they have nevertheless been vociferous. Protesters have denounced the king as “Ali Baba,” and his family as the 40 thieves. They have made a special target of his wife, the stunning—and stunningly modern—Queen Rania, who is considered an icon of fashion and women’s empowerment in the West but is vilified at home. They have, on occasion, touted one of the king’s younger half brothers, Prince Hamzah, as an alternative to Abdullah. At the outset of his rule, Abdullah and Rania were broadly venerated. Not anymore.
Abdullah is a semi-absolute monarch—the country has a prime minister, and an elected lower house of parliament, but he can dismiss the prime minister and dissolve the parliament if he sees fit. Hiring and firing prime ministers has eaten up a lot of his time recently—he’s gone through six in the past five years—and he says he would like to remove himself from the process. “My blood pressure goes highest—my wife knows this—when we have to change governments,” he told me. “Whenever we go through that cycle, nobody is going to be happy.”
Abdullah kept repeating that he wanted to devolve power to an elected parliament, so I finally asked him whether he wanted a purely ceremonial role: “You don’t want to be Queen Elizabeth, do you?”
“Well, where are monarchies in 50 years?” he said. He clearly understands that monarchy is not a growth industry. But does his extended family understand this? The Hashemites are a small family, at least compared with the Saudi family. Still, he has 11 siblings and half siblings, as well as many aunts and uncles and cousins, each one a royal.
“No, members of my family don’t get it,” he said. “They’re not involved day-to-day. The further away you’re removed from this chair, the more of a prince or a princess you are. That happens in all royal families, I think. The further you are from this chair, the more you believe in absolute monarchy. That’s the best way of describing it. And that just doesn’t work.”
When I met King Abdullah, in 1999, shortly after the death of his father, he was new to the throne and filled with reformist zeal. Privatization, modernization, and political liberalization were all high on the agenda. He told me then, with a confidence born of inexperience, “Our country has a lot of challenges, but I think they are all manageable.”
He was already straining against protocol, and he told me that he loathed sycophancy and hated isolation. Early in his reign, he would occasionally dress as a peasant and mix with common people, to learn their desires and frustrations. I accompanied him on one such foray, to Zarqa, a city of disaffected Palestinians and perpetually enraged Islamists situated northeast of Amman.
We visited the local office of the finance ministry, as well as the city’s public hospital, neither of which appeared to be providing anything approaching quality service. The king watched as bloodless bureaucrats ignored reasonable requests by his browbeaten subjects. Eventually, his presence was discovered (the lurking American reporter in khakis made it hard for the king to hide his identity), and a crowd quickly gathered, filled with old women shouting blessings at him. We made a frantic dash to a nearby paratrooper base. I asked him to describe what he thought officials in Zarqa should be feeling at that moment. “Panic,” he said, with a half-smile. He would, he said, be writing a report.
Though he was distressed by what he saw, he seemed buoyed by the visit. In those early days, he imagined that the people of Jordan were ready to be his partners in lifting the country out of its archaic ways. Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, was a shrewd ruler, a skilled survivor, and a heroic peacemaker—but he was not a modern manager, and he bequeathed to his son a sclerotic economy and a political system built on wasta, or favoritism, and the exploitation of tribal rivalries. Abdullah believed he would fix all that.
But the future was lying in ambush. The Palestinian uprising; September 11; the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—all of this was ahead. Within a few years, Zarqa would become best known as the birthplace of Abu Musab al‑Zarqawi, the master terrorist.
The intervening years have taken their toll. The king has gone decisively gray, and his forehead is lined. I noticed, on a couple of recent occasions, a heaviness about him, and I told him so.
“You know,” the king said, “when I reached my 10-year anniversary, I remember sitting down with members of my family and my close friends and saying, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ ”
“You can’t just quit,” I said.
“That’s what they said,” he responded.
King Abdullah is not only a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad; he is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Hashemite kings, and he is the great-great-grandson of the last sharif of Mecca. Abdication is not a realistic option. And yet, here he was, admitting that the thought had crossed his mind. “I just said that I was so depressed because of all the forces I was dealing with on the inside,” the king said. “It wasn’t the outside—the outside, I understood. It was inside.”
He had complained before about “inside” political forces, but only elliptically, and I had assumed he was referring to the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian branch. But now he identified a different foe.
“Institutions I had trusted were just not on board,” he said. “It was the mukhabarat”—the secret police—“and the others, and the old guard.” The mukhabarat, which is known in English as the General Intelligence Department, or GID, is devoted, in principle, to the protection of the Hashemite crown. Its foreboding headquarters could be mistaken for a shrine to the Hashemites. Oversize portraits of Abdullah and his family, and of the previous kings of Jordan, adorn many of its meeting rooms. The GID is the most respected Arab intelligence service; its agents are known for their ability to penetrate al‑Qaeda and other Islamist groups. (It has also been known to use torture: its headquarters was for a while known in Western diplomatic and intelligence circles as “the fingernail factory.”)
American officials, and political dissidents inside the kingdom, believe that GID officials have inserted themselves into Jordanian politics, for personal financial gain and to advance the agendas of East Bank Jordanians who wish to marginalize both Islamists and Palestinians. The king believes that each time he has tried to make a noteworthy reform—redrawing parliamentary districts to allow Palestinians a greater presence in the lower house of parliament, for instance—the GID, along with reactionaries in the political elite, have subverted his attempts. “I didn’t realize the extent to which the conservative elements had [penetrated] institutions like the GID,” he said. “It became apparent in later years how they were embedded in certain institutions. Two steps forward, one step back.”
GID troublemaking “was something that I inherited from my father,” the king told me. In the 1980s, riots broke out in the southern city of Ma’an, and he said his father suspected that either the Saudis or GID agents were fomenting them. “The GID was always problematic.” The king said one reason his difficulties with the GID have festered so long is his own gullibility. “I was naive enough to think—coming from the army, since in the army they said ‘Yes, sir’—the GID would say ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
Today, he says, he is making progress in reforming the agency. Two recent GID chiefs have gone to jail for corruption. A third died in disgrace. The current head is trying to depoliticize the agency, officials in Jordan say, aided by management advice from the CIA.
Jordan has always been beleaguered by corruption. In the old days, King Hussein was somewhat obvious about it, giving duty-free Mercedeses to loyalists and cronies. Critics say the situation hasn’t much improved since then. King Abdullah, in his early years, tried to bring more transparency to government budgeting, but his reputation for clean living has been damaged by allegations that family members have profited from the sale of government lands, and by charges that various family members and friends have otherwise benefited from their connections to the palace. Walid al‑Kurdi, the husband of Princess Basma, the late King Hussein’s sister, recently fled to London rather than face charges that he embezzled millions from the country’s phosphate industry. The king himself has been subjected to rumors that he is an overenthusiastic gambler.
Abdullah is defensive about charges that his family reaches for special privileges. In our conversations, he lashed out against relatives whose behavior he sees as a liability to Hashemite rule. “Look at some of my brothers. They believe that they’re princes, but my cousins are more princes than my brothers, and their in‑laws are like—oh my God,” he said. “I’m always having to stop members of my family from putting lights on their guard cars. I arrest members of my family and take their cars away from them and cut off their fuel rations and make them stop at traffic lights. I’m trying to be that example.”
Family sensitivities, he went on, “become irrelevant. If you catch my son being corrupt, take him to court. I’ve said that quite clearly from day one. What I’m trying to say is that everybody else is expendable in the royal family. Does that make sense? That’s the reality of the Arab Spring that hit me.” Abdullah does not want corrupt family members or courtiers—or anyone else—to be able to sink him, the way the petty (and grand) corruptions of the Mubaraks, and other ruling families, sunk those leaders.
When I passed along the king’s harsh commentary to a family member, that family member—who did not want to be named—gave an Alice in Wonderland–esque response: “His Majesty is His Majesty, and if His Majesty believes this to be an issue, then His Majesty is correct.”
His Majesty’s wife, the elegant and forthright Rania, has largely been hidden from the international press since the onset of the Arab Spring. Ever since the royal court staged an elaborate birthday party for her in 2010 in Wadi Rum, in the desert of southern Jordan, the woman Oprah Winfrey once described as an “international fashion icon” has been viewed with contempt by many Jordanians. (When she is photographed at all these days, it tends to be in schools and hospitals.)
Vicious gossip, the king says, is part of the capital’s terrain. Take the rumors about his gambling habit. “Look, the issue of gambling came out from West Amman,” he said, referring to the neighborhood that is home to the country’s political and financial elite. “I don’t even play cards, and the reason why I don’t gamble is probably that I just can’t count. When I see a seven, it looks like an eight. I had an American guy come and say, ‘There’s a concern about gambling.’ But with your government and your CIA and everybody, where could a king [with an international] profile go and gamble?”
He went on, “West Amman came out with stories that my son was deaf, my daughter was blind, all of this. They did this with my dad, too. There was a story that my father and I were going out with a stewardess and we killed her and buried her.”
In a conversation I had with the queen—a conversation carefully regulated by royal-court functionaries—she explained the current mood in Jordan this way: “In good times, people are more generous with giving you the benefit of the doubt. In difficult times, you know that people are going to cast doubt even when you are saying the truth. People are not generous. They don’t give you the benefit of the doubt.”
The king says that his inexperience—with governance, with the way he managed perceptions—explains why he hasn’t been more successful in pushing through modernizing political reforms. In the eyes of his critics among Jordanian liberals—including many of the men who worked for him in the first, hopeful years of his reign—he allowed himself to be outmaneuvered. Some of the changes he is trying to make today—building political parties, rewriting the country’s election laws to make parliament more representative—were on the agenda several years ago. In 2005, as pressure mounted on the king to open up society in accordance with his public promises, he appointed Marwan Muasher, one of his reformist aides, to formulate a comprehensive reform program.
The National Agenda, as it came to be known, was an ambitious plan for systemic change in many sectors of national life. One of the agenda items was to increase the number of seats in parliament reserved for candidates affiliated with national parties. Previously, the vast majority of parliamentarians had been elected by district, a system that encouraged voting based on patronage and tribal loyalty. The National Agenda was going to change all that. But before it could, the conservatives rose up and went to the king. According to several people familiar with the fateful meeting, a leading senator said to Abdullah: “This is a leap into the unknown.” The National Agenda was not implemented.
But in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has toppled autocracies around the region, Abdullah has finally managed to engineer a new election system that resembles, in a modest way, the vision of the National Agenda. Twenty-seven of the 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, which was itself expanded, were filled through national voting. Queen Rania told me that her husband was finally able to achieve the electoral reforms because the pressure of the Arab Spring had concentrated the attention of Jordan’s elites. “In a sense, I think the political upheaval of the last two years, it was a different kind of challenge—it brought about an atmosphere of open criticism,” she said. “What’s nice about that is it allowed him”—King Abdullah—“to reciprocate the frankness, to really go out and say what he believes in … I think that’s why, on several occasions, he will say that he saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity. The Arab Spring gave him the opportunity really to go out very candidly and express it in a very open way, and it gave us all the opportunity to really see him for who he is.”
But the Arab Spring may also mean that the king is running out of time. “The luxury of infinite time is no more,” Marwan Muasher told me, “because things have gone to the streets. The level of frustration is elevated to the point where the original slow pace is not adequate. I believe in gradual reform, but I think it must also be sustained with a clear time line. It’s not that the king doesn’t want it, but I believe he must lead a process that would accelerate the current pace. Otherwise it’s going to be 30 years before we reach a parliament that is able to exercise true authority.”
The pace of reform has King Abdullah’s friends, particularly in America, worried that he is going too slow to keep ahead of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the Arab Spring. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed the view, in sometimes withering fashion, that King Abdullah was moving at too leisurely a tempo, and that Jordanians were more capable of building idea-driven political parties than he gave them credit for. (The king argues, not unconvincingly, that holding elections without the necessary preparatory work is counterproductive.) The new secretary of state, John Kerry, is more supportive. Just after taking the reins at the State Department, Kerry said he remembered the king visiting him in 1999 in Boston, where he connected Abdullah with local businesses and universities. “He was forward-looking and economically focused at a time when so many Middle East leaders were moving in a different direction.” Kerry also said that Abdullah “represents the people of the region with dignity and intelligence.”Th
The stability of Jordan, and the king’s continued good health, are, of course, of great importance to the United States. Abdullah is a prime partner (and subcontractor) in the fight against Islamist terror, and he is the ruler of one of the rare more or less stable, pro-Western countries in an unhinged region. Senator John McCain, one of the king’s closest allies in Congress, told me, “This king and his father have done enormous things for us. Other countries have helped us—but none the way Jordan has.” (When I asked McCain whether he thought Abdullah was in danger of being overthrown like other rulers in the region have been, he said no, but then added: “On the other hand, I didn’t think a lot of those guys were in trouble.”)
To the Israelis, and to the gulf Arabs, he is indispensable as well. The gulf Arabs see him as a bellwether; no monarch has yet fallen in the Arab Spring. If King Abdullah can manage a way through, there is hope for the regimes of the Persian Gulf. “We need to be saying to the Obama administration and the West that if you don’t support Abdullah, you are undermining moderates across the region and you will create a region of extremists,” one gulf-state official told me.
Israel, in some ways, is Jordan’s most important ally. As the guarantor of quiet on Israel’s eastern front, and as the defender of the peace treaty that King Hussein forged with Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, Abdullah’s Jordan is essential to the Israelis. Jordan and Israel are also working together to prevent the chaos of Syria from spilling into their countries. The king would not talk about joint Jordanian-Israeli operations, but several sources in Amman and Tel Aviv told me that Israeli drones are monitoring the Jordan-Syria border on Jordan’s behalf, and that military and intelligence officials from the two countries are in constant contact, planning for post–Bashar al‑Assad chaos.
Even as Abdullah envisions ceding more of his power, he draws one red line: “I don’t want a government to come in and say, ‘We repudiate the peace treaty with Israel.’ ” He is cautious when speaking about the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he is reportedly in regular communication. He would say only that his relationship with Netanyahu is “very strong. Our discussions have really improved.”
Though he acknowledges the role Netanyahu plays in maintaining Jordanian stability, he is not optimistic about Israel’s future. King Abdullah is known as an advocate of two states for two peoples—Israel secure in its pre-1967 borders, Palestine to be established in Gaza and the West Bank—but when I asked him in January how much time he thought was left to implement this idea, his answer surprised me. “It could be too late already for the two-state solution,” he said. “I don’t know. Part of me is worried that is already past us.”
If it were too late, what would that mean?
He responded with a single word: “Isratine.” That’s a neologism popularized by the late Muammar Qaddafi to describe his vision of a joint Arab-Jewish state. If Israel doesn’t agree to a Palestinian state quickly, Abdullah said, “apartheid or democracy” will be its choice. “The practical question is, can Israel exert permanent control over Palestinians who are disenfranchised ad infinitum, or does it eventually become a South Africa, which couldn’t survive as a pariah state?”
There are some Israelis, I said, who value Israel more as a Jewish state than as a democratic state. “The only way you’re going to have a Jewish part is if you have a two-state solution. That’s the Jewish part,” he said.
I asked him whether he believed President Obama wants to work on Middle East peace. “That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. He added that John Kerry clearly does. “We have a second-term president,” Abdullah said, suggesting that only a president in his second term has the maneuverability, and the experience, to oversee an effective peace process. “This is the last moment. Can it be achieved in four years? Are we too late? After four years, it’s over.”
While uncertainty persists across Jordan’s western border, chaos and bloodletting reign across its northern one, in Syria. As we were discussing the situation there, I asked Abdullah this question: If 250,000 Jordanians were to surge into the streets, demanding his downfall, would he order his security services to shoot? Or would he abdicate?
“My character is, I won’t shoot,” the king said. “I don’t think we as Hashemites shoot. If you, as a monarch, have created a situation in which half the population rises up and wants you out, then you’ve done something wrong.” Of course, I hadn’t asked what would happen if half the country rose up (Jordan’s population is 6.5 million), but I took his point.
It is not unfathomable that one day a demonstration of 250,000 could occur in Jordan. Demonstrations have erupted with some regularity there since the opening months of the Arab Spring. Many of the demonstrators are drawn from the Palestinian-dominated Muslim Brotherhood, but many are affiliated with the so-called herak, or “movement,” an amorphous collection of protest groups composed mainly of disaffected East Bankers.
The king insists that he has handled these demonstrations with gentle diplomacy. Queen Rania, he says, suggested he take a lenient approach with the protesters. “I said to take the weapons away. I was coordinating with all the commanders about how the first demonstrations should be handled, and Rania said, ‘You know what you should do? Hand out water and juice to all the demonstrators—have the police hand them water.’ That was a good idea, and I called them and said, ‘Rania’s idea is to do this.’ And the police did it. That was the flavor of the demonstrations.”
Of course, the confrontations between demonstrators and regime defenders were not always as benign as they may have seemed from the palace: security forces—along with mysterious bands of self-described royalists—have confronted demonstrators with beatings and tear gas from time to time. Still, Amman is most definitely not Damascus.
The king noted that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, had, along with his loyalists, quite obviously made the decision to open fire against demonstrators and rebels. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in the uprising against Assad’s rule; forces under his command have committed unspeakable crimes against their countrymen. The danger for the entire region is acute. Jordan is working quietly with Israel and the United States to monitor the whereabouts of Assad’s chemical weapons. And Jordan is already being overrun by Syrian refugees—almost 400,000 as of late February. “The minute you get a Syrian coming across, there’s no way you can turn them back and say our border is closed,” the king told me. So far he has kept his word, maintaining a northern border open to fleeing Syrians.
He has also invited Assad’s family to Jordan, promising them protection. “I had offered a couple of times to get his wife out,” he told me, “and they said, ‘Thank you very much, but why don’t you worry about your country more than you worry about us?’ ”
Not all that long ago, Assad was seen, along with King Abdullah and King Mohammed VI of Morocco, as part of a trio of young, charismatic, and putatively progressive Arab leaders. In October 2000, shortly after the eruption of the second Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, I attended a meeting of Arab leaders who had gathered in Cairo to ritually excoriate Israel, and to stand publicly (if impotently) with their Palestinian brethren. The meeting was stultifying. (Qaddafi had boycotted the session, so a great source of perverse entertainment was missing.) But the presence of three newly ascended Arab rulers lent interest to the proceedings: Abdullah had inherited the Hashemite throne the year before, after the death of his father, King Hussein; Mohammed had recently been crowned king of Morocco, after the death of his father, King Hassan; and Assad had a few months earlier inherited the presidency of Syria from his father, Hafez al‑Assad, in much the same way the Arab royals had inherited their thrones.
When I asked King Abdullah whether he could unravel the enigma of Bashar al‑Assad for me, he replied with an anecdote about the conference in Cairo. At the time, Assad was already controversial; the Syrian parliament had, upon Hafez al‑Assad’s death, voted to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34—Bashar’s age at the time. Even by the standards of Levantine power grabs, this was considered to be a gauche act. In Syria, murmurs of discontent about the Assad family’s despotic inclinations had become audible. Abdullah says he took it upon himself to try to coach the new Syrian president in the ways of international statecraft. Even before the Arab League Summit, Abdullah says, he had devised a program to help Assad elevate his reputation. “I went to visit him and I said, ‘There’s the opening of the United Nations in September, please come—I can set up lunches and dinners,” the king recounted. “The World Economic Forum was doing something, and I said, ‘You’ll be the belle of the ball: everyone wants to meet you, you’re the new guy, you can have some interviews.’
“And he was like, ‘There’s no need—I have Syrian businessmen who can go on my behalf and get the contracts and investments.’ And I was like, ‘No, when you show up at the UN, everybody will come because you’re the flavor of the month.’ But he said he wouldn’t go.”
So, I asked, Bashar was a bit of a provincial? The king smiled, and told me about a conversation he had at the Arab Summit. “There was a dinner with me and him and the king of Morocco, at the king’s residence in Cairo. And so Bashar at dinner turns to us and says, ‘Can you guys explain to me what jet lag is?’ ”
The king arched an eyebrow at me. “He never heard of jet lag.”
Of course, provincialism alone can’t explain Assad’s behavior. After all, he’s not really that provincial: he’s a physician who trained in London. “He’s a smart guy, he’s married to someone who lived in the West,” the king conceded. But then he contrasted Assad’s upbringing with his own. “The fathers are two very different people,” he said. “The way his father ruled Syria, and the way my father ruled this country, and the relationship between the people and the ruler, were just very different.”
King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, did not always rule with a weightless touch—he used crushing force to put down the 1970 Palestinian revolt that came to be known as Black September—but he was generally known, especially by the standards of Middle Eastern royalty, for large-heartedness, and for a readiness to forgive.
No one would ever accuse an Assad of benevolence. Comparing the ways the Assads and the Hashemites have wrestled with two surpassingly important challenges to Arab leaders—the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and the existence of Israel, on the other—hints at the chasm of difference between the two families.
The Hashemites have sometimes used the General Intelligence Department to create dissension in the ranks of the Brotherhood; they have bought off some of the group’s leaders; and they have made the case to Jordanians, with intermittent success, that the Muslim Brothers are more interested in imposing the rule of fundamentalist sharia law than in making the country more democratic. The Assads, in contrast, have traditionally taken a more direct approach, killing Muslim Brothers in large numbers when they felt it necessary. In the most notorious instance, in 1982, Hafez al‑Assad’s forces killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people in a successful attempt to put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama.
Which is not to say that the Hashemites don’t harbor visceral dislike for the Brotherhood. Abdullah expounds on that dislike to many of the Western visitors he receives—in part because he believes his Western allies are naive about the Brotherhood’s intentions. “When you go to the State Department and talk about this, they’re like, ‘This is just the liberals talking, this is the monarch saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is deep-rooted and sinister.’ ” Some of his Western interlocutors, he told me, argue that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.” His job, he says, is to point out that the Brotherhood is run by “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and wants to impose its retrograde vision of society and its anti-Western politics on the Muslim Middle East. This, he said, is “our major fight”—to prevent the Muslim Brothers from conniving their way into power across the region.
I’ve met Muslim Brotherhood members in Jordan who speak of Abdullah as something of an infidel—in part because his wife keeps her hair uncovered, wears pants, and speaks in public—but the king bridles at the idea that he is not a believer. I once asked him what it felt like to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. “It gives you a sense of calm,” he said. “Obviously there’s a tremendous sense of responsibility. It makes you feel very sure of yourself. I’m very comfortable in myself. I inherited this from my father, and he inherited it from his father. I pray five times a day—but I don’t have to keep telling everybody that I pray five times a day.” He then made a derisive reference to the zabiba, or “raisin,” the dark spot on the foreheads of some devout Muslim men, created over time by pressing the head firmly into the ground during prayer. “You see that black mark on the forehead—to show off that you pray five times a day?” he asked. “Why do that? That’s complete nonsense. I feel like having a black magic marker just to annoy people, to put a mark on my head.”
He became serious again. “My view of Christians and Jews, because of my father’s teachings and the family teachings—I was always brought up to believe that they are part of the larger family. Does that make sense? I don’t have that extremism.”
Though most of the gulf monarchs remain his allies—because they, too, fear the Muslim Brotherhood—the king’s expansive, moderate understanding of Islam has served to isolate him from the Arab world’s rising rulers. Tunisia is now ruled by Islamists. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Jordanian ally, has been replaced by Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader. The king argues that a new, radical alliance is emerging—one that both complements and rivals the Iranian-led Shia crescent. “I see a Muslim Brotherhood crescent developing in Egypt and Turkey,” he told me. “The Arab Spring highlighted a new crescent in the process of development.”
Abdullah is wary of Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, whose Justice and Development Party is, he believes, merely promoting a softer-edged version of Islamism. (“Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride,” Abdullah reports. “ ‘Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.’ ”) He sees Erdogan as a more restrained and more savvy version of Mohamed Morsi, who set back Muslim Brotherhood’s cause in Egypt by making a premature play for absolute power. “Instead of the Turkish model, taking six or seven years—being an Erdogan—Morsi wanted to do it overnight,” the king said.
If the king is wary of Erdogan, he is decidedly unimpressed with Morsi, whom he recently met in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The two men were discussing the role of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch. “There is no depth there,” Abdullah told me. “I was trying to explain to him how to deal with Hamas, how to get the peace process moving, and he was like, ‘The Israelis will not move.’ I said, ‘Listen, whether the Israelis move or don’t move, it’s how we get Fatah and Hamas”—the two rival Palestinian factions—“together.” When Morsi remained fixated on the Israelis (“He’s like, ‘The Israelis, the Israelis’ ”), Abdullah said, he tried to reiterate the importance of sorting out “the mess” on the Palestinian side.
“There’s no depth to the guy,” he repeated.
Constrained by morality, disposition, and political reality, the king cannot simply jail or murder the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he has done a creditable job of marginalizing them. Both the Hashemites and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front understood early on that the Arab Spring would pose a sharp challenge to the continuity of Hashemite rule. In the spring of 2011, as the Arab revolutions were beginning to unfold, I met with leaders of the Islamic Action Front at their headquarters in Amman. They were militant—though necessarily somewhat oblique—in their remarks about the future of the monarchy.
Zaki Bani Rashid, the chief of the IAF’s politburo, told me that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions resembled the French revolution in its viral qualities. “The French revolution caused the end of regimes all through Europe,” he said. “The Arab-world revolutions will have the same effect through our region.” I asked him whether this meant he was calling for the overthrow of the Hashemites. He said, “The regime must understand that we need more democracy and more representative rule. We want a better country.” He said this while seated underneath a portrait of King Abdullah. Hamza Mansour, the IAF’s secretary general, said that if reform did not come quickly, the possibility of “social violence” would grow.
The king, for his part, is certain that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to see him gone. The GID has told him that the Brotherhood high command in Cairo is actively fomenting unrest in Jordan. According to multiple sources, the GID claims to have intercepted communications from Brotherhood leaders in Egypt to their Jordanian affiliates, encouraging them to boycott elections and destabilize the country. Abdullah told me that “behind closed doors, the Muslim Brotherhood here wants to overthrow” the government. I noted that the Brotherhood has his portrait on the walls of their offices. “They don’t believe in the constitution of Jordan,” he replied. “They won’t swear on the constitution. They will only swear on the constitution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their allegiance is to the murshid,” the supreme guide, or leader, of the Brotherhood, who is based in Cairo. Abdullah said that when Brothers win election to parliament, and swear to follow the text of the Jordanian constitution, they get a fatwa—a religious ruling—stating that “you can put your hand on the Koran but what you swear on the Koran is nonbinding” when you’re declaring fealty to a secular document.
He noted that while he won’t let anyone kiss his hand (“we don’t believe anyone should kiss my hand, we’re all human beings”), “when you see Hamza Mansour, you see that after a speech, they all come kiss his hand.”
Two months after the Arab Spring erupted, the king received the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian branch in his office. “They were the first people I saw in the Arab Spring,” he told me. “They were the loudest voice, so I brought them in, and they said, ‘Our loyalty is to the Hashemites, and we stood with you in the ’40s and ’50s and ’70s,’ and I said, ‘That is the biggest load of crap I have ever heard.’ And they were like, ‘Aaaargh’—they were shocked.” He recounted that he said to them, “ ‘My father told me that you guys watched the way things were going, and when you saw that my father was winning, you went with him.’ I said, ‘This is complete and utter bullshit, and if we’re going to sit here and bullshit each other, then we might as well have a cup of tea and then say goodbye. If you want to have a serious conversation’—we Arabs like to ass-kiss each other for the first half hour of conversation—‘if you want to have a serious conversation, here’s where we start.’ ”
The king said he outlined for the Brotherhood leaders some areas of common interest, and then told them, “I think you’re part of the Jordanian system, and I think you should be part of the process.” He said he told them, “I think we all leave this meeting feeling really good, but—I’ll be honest with you—there’s 10 percent distrust from me, and 10 percent distrust from you, I’m sure. But we have good vibes here.”
Those Brotherhood leaders went to Cairo to ask the supreme guide and other Brotherhood leaders whether they should participate in the king’s newly established national-dialogue committee, meant to frame a broad civic discussion about political reform. Abdullah said he had told Hamza Mansour and two other Brotherhood leaders that he wanted an answer within a few days. “They were in Cairo to see the murshid, and they saw Tahrir Square and the Muslim Brotherhood. We asked Mansour, ‘Who are the three names you’re going to put on the national-dialogue committee?’ ” No names were ventured. “I think they thought the revolution was going to happen in Jordan, and they didn’t need to be part of the national committee,” the king said. “They thought they’d won. They had decided that they had won.”
The Islamic Action Front has boycotted the political-reform process for the past two years, but the boycott has not worked. In January’s parliamentary elections, voter turnout was comparatively high, and Islamists not affiliated with the Brotherhood won several seats. Political analysts in Amman generally agree that the Brotherhood is, at least for the moment, a more marginal movement than it otherwise would have been. “They’ve shot themselves in the foot a bit,” one of these analysts told me. “The rest of Jordan is moving on.”
King Abdullah is, emotionally and dispositionally, the most pro-American ruler in the Arab world. He and his wife and children—two sons and two daughters—enjoy watching Modern Family together; once, as prince, he made a cameo appearance on Star Trek: Voyager. In my experience, he is happiest when talking about his years in Massachusetts, at Deerfield Academy, the elite boarding school where he studied for several years in the 1970s. Abdullah’s core instincts may or may not be egalitarian, but he did seem to learn something about democracy and political equality at Deerfield, where deference to royalty was generally lacking. Though it was known on campus that he was a prince, he was on the wrestling team, everyone called him “Ab,” and he bused dining-hall tables like every other student.
One of Abdullah’s proudest achievements is the establishment of King’s Academy, a Deerfield-style prep school outside Amman. The school comprises 33 buildings, a nondenominational chapel, vast lawns (it’s the greenest place in Jordan), and a faculty imported mainly from the West. As he flew us from Karak to Amman in his helicopter, we passed near the campus. “It’s a wonderful school,” he said. “Merit-based.”
While Abdullah resists the urge to spend more time than is seemly in the United States, many summers he and a small group of friends (and a detachment of bodyguards) take an unpublicized motorcycle trip along some remote stretch of American highway. Last summer, he and his friends tracked the trans-Alaska pipeline as it winds its way south from Prudhoe Bay. No one at highway truck stops recognized him, of course, which made him happy. When David Petraeus, who was then the director of the CIA, visited him this past fall, King Abdullah mentioned the Alaska trip in order to have some fun at the expense of the American national-security apparatus. “I said, ‘I don’t know who’s the head of Homeland Security, but I have some real concerns for you. There was a whole bunch of AY-rabs’ ”—he stressed the first syllable in the stereotypically redneck way—“ ‘running around your pipeline, and no one stopped us. Nobody asked us any questions at all. Who’s protecting your border?’ ”
Perhaps Abdullah is so taken with the American system that, if anything, he overstates its virtues. In his proselytizing for political reform, he holds up the United States as the Platonic ideal. The paralysis and pettiness of Washington does not seem to have made an impression on him. In January, I talked with him the day after he met with a group of Jordanian “youth activists” at the palace. He explained the message he had given them. “I said, ‘You guys have no concept of left, right, and center. In the American concept, I’m a leftist, or a Democrat, when it comes to health, education, and taxes. I’m a Republican when it comes to … defense, okay? That’s me as Abdullah. How does that fit into the framework of a Jordanian mentality? I want you guys thinking like that. I don’t want you to agree with me. If you agree with me, fantastic, that’s fine.’ In our culture, if you don’t agree with me, you start shooting each other, or at least throwing our shoes at each other.”
Abdullah’s stated mission—when judged not against an ideal but against the pitiless realities of his neighborhood—is of course noble. Cynics argue that he is merely masquerading as a reformer, trying to preserve the monarchy by providing his people with only the facsimile of change. Radicals call him conservative; conservatives call him radical. The truth is that he is both. He is also something else: a Don Quixote. Meritocracy and democratic pluralism are not ideas that his country is prepared to accept. This may be because the culture of Jordan is not so plastic as he would like it to be—but it may also be that the nobility of his intentions is not matched by the quality of his abilities.
Abdullah seems to genuinely want his people to be richer, happier, and more politically empowered than they are now. But he also recognizes that only if Jordanians are content will they readily agree to the perpetuation of Hashemite rule. On visits to Amman in recent months, I noticed something new: photographs of his 18-year-old son, Crown Prince Hussein, have proliferated in the public rooms of the palace, as they have on billboards throughout the kingdom. As the elder of Abdullah’s two sons, Hussein is meant to inherit the throne from his father. Over the course of our conversations, it became obvious to me that King Abdullah has been preoccupied with ensuring a smooth transition to his son’s rule. Abdullah is only 51, but he is not unaware, two people close to him told me, that his father died at the age of 63.
Abdullah has dispatched Hussein to Washington, to be certain that he is thinking about politics in the American manner. After several years of American-style education at King’s Academy, Prince Hussein is now a freshman at Georgetown University.
The king told me he regrets having made Hussein crown prince so early in his life. “When I made him crown prince, I don’t think he was very happy,” the king said. “He was 15, and I don’t think he was happy with me at all.” But in naming Hussein crown prince early, Abdullah had hoped to avoid the confusion and anxiety in the kingdom that marked his father’s last days.
Abdullah himself was made crown prince with very little notice, just two weeks before his father’s death from cancer. Until then, Hussein’s hapless brother, Hassan, had been crown prince, and Abdullah had led a largely anonymous life in the military. “Looking back at my life, I was Forrest Gump,” he told me. “I was with my father in all the crises, but I didn’t have the spotlight on me. I was watching and learning without having the pressures on me.” Knowing the pressure that he imposed on his son by naming him successor to the throne produced “huge turmoil” in Abdullah. The queen, too, says she wasn’t particularly happy about Hussein’s elevation. “It’s a struggle for me,” she told me, “because as a mother, you want your children to have a normal life to the extent possible, an anonymous life that is free from struggle, and we know for sure that is not what we are giving him.”
“I didn’t want to do this to a young boy,” the king said. “He’s matured a lot over the past couple of years. He understands the responsibility. He won’t have the life I had … As a teenager, as a young officer, nobody was looking at me. They didn’t care who I was. I had the ability to develop, and make friends, and see the world without having … people taking pictures of [me] left, right, and center. The title is going to follow him around. So I didn’t do him any favors.”
The biggest favor he could do for his son now, he says, is to de-emphasize the power of the throne. “The monarchy is going to change. When my son becomes of age and becomes king, the system will be stabilized and … it will be a Western democracy with a constitutional monarchy.” But, he says, “even with all the changes I’m doing here, there is still going to be a monarchy.” Abdullah would like to see his son become a symbol of national unification, and a source of moral guidance. He also hopes his son “is not going to have to work his butt off for the rest of his life. I hope he works hard, but not with the same pressures.”
What Abdullah does not want is for his son to take the throne in a situation where he’s “in the position of Bashar today.” Rather, he wants Hussein to become king of a Jordan where “the people are happy, and they love the monarchy, just like you saw with the outpouring toward Queen Elizabeth in England.”

Read the Article online here:
Monarch in the Middle – Jeffrey Goldberg – The Atlantic


Thursday, Sep. 02, 2010

Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace

Heli and Eli sell condos on Exodus Street, a name that evokes a certain historical hardship in a neighborhood that suggests none at all, the ingathering of the Jews having entered a whole new realm here. The talk in the little office is of interest rates and panoramic sea views from handsomely appointed properties selling on the Ashdod waterfront for half what people are asked to pay in Tel Aviv, 18 miles (29 km) to the north. And sell they do, hand over fist — never mind the rockets that fly out of Gaza, 14 miles (22.5 km) to the south. “Even when the Qassams fell, we continued to sell!” says Heli Itach, slapping a palm on the office desk. The skull on her designer shirt is made of sequins spelling out “Love Kills Slowly.” “What the people see on the TV there is not true here,” she says. “I sold, this week, 12 apartments. You’re not client, I tell you the truth.”
The truth? In the week that three Presidents, a King and their own Prime Minister gather at the White House to begin a fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the truth is, Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter. They’re otherwise engaged; they’re making money; they’re enjoying the rays of late summer. A watching world may still define their country by the blood feud with the Arabs whose families used to live on this land and whether that conflict can be negotiated away, but Israelis say they have moved on. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)
Now observing 2½ years without a single suicide bombing on their territory, with the economy robust and with souls a trifle weary of having to handle big elemental thoughts, the Israeli public prefers to explore such satisfactions as might be available from the private sphere, in a land first imagined as a utopia. “Listen to me,” says Eli Bengozi, born in Soviet Georgia and for 40 years an Israeli. “Peace? Forget about it. They’ll never have peace. Remember Clinton gave 99% to Arafat, and instead of them fighting for 1%, what? Intifadeh.” (See TIME’s photo-essay “Palestinian ‘Day of Rage.’ “)
But wait. Deep down (you can almost hear the outside world ask), don’t Israelis know that finding peace with the Palestinians is the only way to guarantee their happiness and prosperity? Well, not exactly. Asked in a March poll to name the “most urgent problem” facing Israel, just 8% of Israeli Jews cited the conflict with Palestinians, putting it fifth behind education, crime, national security and poverty. Israeli Arabs placed peace first, but among Jews here, the issue that President Obama calls “critical for the world” just doesn’t seem — critical.
Another whack for the desk. “The people,” Heli says, “don’t believe.” Eli searches for a word. “People in Israel are indifferent,” he decides. “They don’t care if there’s going to be war. They don’t care if there’s going to be peace. They don’t care. They live in the day.”
See a story on Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Is the U.S. pursuing the wrong Middle East peace process?

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the Sept. 13, 2010, print and iPad editions of TIME magazine.

Find this article at:

Why Israelis Don’t Care About Peace with Palestinians — Printout — TIME

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An excellent intelligence assessment from Stratfor. 

I completely agree: If the world – and notably the Middle Eastern countries – wants to contain Iran, this is the way to go forward.

Rethinking American Options on Iran

August 31, 2010 | 0856 GMT

By George Friedman

 Public discussion of potential attacks on Iran’s nuclear development sites is surging again. This has happened before. On several occasions, leaks about potential airstrikes have created an atmosphere of impending war. These leaks normally coincided with diplomatic initiatives and were designed to intimidate the Iranians and facilitate a settlement favorable to the United States and Israel. These initiatives have failed in the past. It is therefore reasonable to associate the current avalanche of reports with the imposition of sanctions and view it as an attempt to increase the pressure on Iran and either force a policy shift or take advantage of divisions within the regime.

My first instinct is to dismiss the war talk as simply another round of psychological warfare against Iran, this time originating with Israel. Most of the reports indicate that Israel is on the verge of attacking Iran. From a psychological-warfare standpoint, this sets up the good-cop/bad-cop routine. The Israelis play the mad dog barely restrained by the more sober Americans, who urge the Iranians through intermediaries to make concessions and head off a war. As I said, we have been here before several times, and this hasn’t worked.

The worst sin of intelligence is complacency, the belief that simply because something has happened (or has not happened) several times before it is not going to happen this time. But each episode must be considered carefully in its own light and preconceptions from previous episodes must be banished. Indeed, the previous episodes might well have been intended to lull the Iranians into complacency themselves. Paradoxically, the very existence of another round of war talk could be intended to convince the Iranians that war is distant while covert war preparations take place. An attack may be in the offing, but the public displays neither confirm nor deny that possibility.

The Evolving Iranian Assessment
STRATFOR has gone through three phases in its evaluation of the possibility of war. The first, which was in place until July 2009, held that while Iran was working toward a nuclear weapon, its progress could not be judged by its accumulation of enriched uranium. While that would give you an underground explosion, the creation of a weapon required sophisticated technologies for ruggedizing and miniaturizing the device, along with a very reliable delivery system. In our view, Iran might be nearing a testable device but it was far from a deliverable weapon <> . Therefore, we dismissed war talk and argued that there was no meaningful pressure for an attack on Iran.

We modified this view somewhat in July 2009, after the Iranian elections and the demonstrations. While we dismissed the significance of the demonstrations, we noted close collaboration developing between Russia and Iran. That meant there could be no effective sanctions against Iran, so stalling for time in order for sanctions to work had no value. Therefore, the possibility of a strike increased.

But then Russian support stalled as well, and we turned back to our analysis, adding to it an evaluation of potential Iranian responses to any air attack. We noted three potential counters: activating Shiite militant groups (most notably Hezbollah), creating chaos in Iraq and blocking the Strait of Hormuz <> , through which 45 percent of global oil exports travel. Of the three Iranian counters, the last was the real “nuclear option.” Interfering with the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf would raise oil prices stunningly and would certainly abort the tepid global economic recovery. Iran would have the option of plunging the world into a global recession or worse.

There has been debate over whether Iran would choose to do the latter or whether the U.S. Navy could rapidly clear mines <> . It is hard to imagine how an Iranian government could survive air attacks without countering them in some way. It is also a painful lesson of history that the confidence of any military force cannot be a guide to its performance. At the very least, there is a possibility that the Iranians could block the Strait of Hormuz, and that means the possibility of devastating global economic consequences. That is a massive risk for the United States to take, against an unknown probability of successful Iranian action. In our mind, it was not a risk that the United States could take, especially when added to the other Iranian counters. Therefore, we did not think the United States would strike.

Certainly, we did not believe that the Israelis would strike Iran alone. First, the Israelis are much less likely to succeed than the Americans would be, given the size of their force and their distance from Iran (not to mention the fact that they would have to traverse either Turkish, Iraqi or Saudi airspace). More important, Israel lacks the ability to mitigate any consequences. Any Israeli attack would have to be coordinated with the United States so that the United States could alert and deploy its counter-mine, anti-submarine and missile-suppression assets. For Israel to act without giving the United States time to mitigate the Hormuz option would put Israel in the position of triggering a global economic crisis. The political consequences of that would not be manageable by Israel. Therefore, we found an Israeli strike against Iran without U.S. involvement difficult to imagine.

The Current Evaluation
Our current view is that the accumulation of enough enriched uranium to build a weapon does not mean that the Iranians are anywhere close to having a weapon. Moreover, the risks inherent in an airstrike on its nuclear facilities outstrip the benefits (and even that assumes that the entire nuclear industry is destroyed in one fell swoop — an unsure outcome at best). It also assumes the absence of other necessary technologies. Assumptions of U.S. prowess against mines might be faulty, and so, too, could my assumption about weapon development. The calculus becomes murky, and one would expect all governments involved to be waffling.

There is, of course, a massive additional issue. Apart from the direct actions that Iran might make, there is the fact that the destruction of its nuclear capability would not solve the underlying strategic challenge that Iran poses. It has the largest military force in the Persian Gulf, absent the United States. The United States is in the process of withdrawing from Iraq, which would further diminish the ability of the United States to contain Iran. Therefore, a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear capability combined with the continuing withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would create a profound strategic crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The country most concerned about Iran is not Israel, but Saudi Arabia. The Saudis recall the result of the last strategic imbalance in the region, when Iraq, following its armistice with Iran, proceeded to invade Kuwait, opening the possibility that its next intention was to seize the northeastern oil fields of Saudi Arabia. In that case, the United States intervened. Given that the United States is now withdrawing from Iraq, intervention following withdrawal would be politically difficult unless the threat to the United States was clear. More important, the Iranians might not give the Saudis the present Saddam Hussein gave them by seizing Kuwait and then halting. They might continue. They certainly have the military capacity to try.

In a real sense, the Iranians would not have to execute such a military operation in order to gain the benefits. The simple imbalance of forces would compel the Saudis and others in the Persian Gulf to seek a political accommodation with the Iranians. Strategic domination of the Persian Gulf does not necessarily require military occupation — as the Americans have abundantly demonstrated over the past 40 years. It merely requires the ability to carry out those operations.

The Saudis, therefore, have been far quieter — and far more urgent — than the Israelis in asking the United States to do something about the Iranians. The Saudis certainly do not want the United States to leave Iraq. They want the Americans there as a blocking force protecting Saudi Arabia but not positioned on Saudi soil. They obviously are not happy about Iran’s nuclear efforts, but the Saudis see the conventional and nuclear threat as a single entity. The collapse of the Iran-Iraq balance of power has left the Arabian Peninsula in a precarious position.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did an interesting thing a few weeks ago. He visited Lebanon personally and in the company of the president of Syria. The Syrian and Saudi regimes are not normally friendly, given different ideologies, Syria’s close relationship with Iran and their divergent interests in Lebanon. But there they were together, meeting with the Lebanese government and giving not very subtle warnings to Hezbollah <> . Saudi influence and money and the threat of Iran jeopardizing the Saudi regime by excessive adventurism seems to have created an anti-Hezbollah dynamic in Lebanon. Hezbollah is suddenly finding many of its supposed allies cooperating with some of its certain enemies. The threat of a Hezbollah response to an airstrike on Iran seems to be mitigated somewhat.

Eliminating Iranian Leverage In Hormuz
I said that there were three counters. One was Hezbollah, which is the least potent of the three from the American perspective. The other two are Iraq and Hormuz. If the Iraqis were able to form a government that boxed in pro-Iranian factions in a manner similar to how Hezbollah is being tentatively contained, then the second Iranian counter would be weakened. That would “just” leave the major issue — Hormuz.

The problem with Hormuz is that the United States cannot tolerate any risk there. The only way to control that risk is to destroy Iranian naval capability before airstrikes on nuclear targets take place. Since many of the Iranian mine layers would be small boats, this would mean an extensive air campaign and special operations forces raids against Iranian ports designed to destroy anything that could lay mines, along with any and all potential mine-storage facilities, anti-ship missile emplacements, submarines and aircraft. Put simply, any piece of infrastructure within a few miles of any port would need to be eliminated. The risk to Hormuz cannot be eliminated after the attack on nuclear sites. It must be eliminated before an attack on the nuclear sites. And the damage must be overwhelming.

There are two benefits to this strategy. First, the nuclear facilities aren’t going anywhere. It is the facilities that are producing the enriched uranium and other parts of the weapon that must be destroyed more than any uranium that has already been enriched. And the vast bulk of those facilities will remain where they are even if there is an attack on Iran’s maritime capabilities. Key personnel would undoubtedly escape, but considering that within minutes of the first American strike anywhere in Iran a mass evacuation of key scientists would be under way anyway, there is little appreciable difference between a first strike against nuclear sites and a first strike against maritime targets. (U.S. air assets are good, but even the United States cannot strike 100-plus targets simultaneously.)

Second, the counter-nuclear strategy wouldn’t deal with the more fundamental problem of Iran’s conventional military power. This opening gambit would necessarily attack Iran’s command-and-control, air-defense and offensive air capabilities as well as maritime capabilities. This would sequence with an attack on the nuclear capabilities and could be extended into a prolonged air campaign targeting Iran’s ground forces.

The United States is very good at gaining command of the air and attacking conventional military capabilities (see Yugoslavia in 1999). Its strategic air capability is massive and, unlike most of the U.S. military, underutilized. The United States also has substantial air forces deployed around Iran, along with special operations forces teams trained in penetration, evasion and targeting, and satellite surveillance. Far from the less-than-rewarding task of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, going after Iran would be the kind of war the United States excels at fighting. No conventional land invasion, no boots-on-the-ground occupation, just a very thorough bombing campaign. If regime change happens as a consequence, great, but that is not the primary goal. Defanging the Iranian state is.

It is also the only type of operation that could destroy the nuclear capabilities (and then some) while preventing an Iranian response. It would devastate Iran’s conventional military forces, eliminating the near-term threat to the Arabian Peninsula. Such an attack, properly executed, would be the worst-case scenario for Iran and, in my view, the only way an extended air campaign against nuclear facilities could be safely executed.

Just as Iran’s domination of the Persian Gulf rests on its ability to conduct military operations, not on its actually conducting the operations, the reverse is also true. It is the capacity and apparent will to conduct broadened military operations against Iran that can shape Iranian calculations and decision-making. So long as the only threat is to Iran’s nuclear facilities, its conventional forces remain intact and its counter options remain viable, Iran will not shift its strategy. Once its counter options are shut down and its conventional forces are put at risk, Iran must draw up another calculus.

In this scenario, Israel is a marginal player. The United States is the only significant actor, and it might not strike Iran simply over the nuclear issue. That’s not a major U.S. problem. But the continuing withdrawal from Iraq and Iran’s conventional forces are very much an American problem. Destroying Iran’s nuclear capability is merely an added benefit.

Given the Saudi intervention in Lebanese politics, this scenario now requires a radical change in Iraq, one in which a government would be quickly formed and Iranian influence quickly curtailed. Interestingly, we have heard recent comments by administration officials asserting that Iranian influence has, in fact, been dramatically reduced. At present, such a reduction is not obvious to us, but the first step of shifting perceptions tends to be propaganda. If such a reduction became real, then the two lesser Iranian counter moves would be blocked and the U.S. offensive option would become more viable.

Internal Tension in Tehran
At this point, we would expect to see the Iranians recalculating their position, with some of the clerical leadership using the shifting sands of Lebanon against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, there have been many indications of internal stress, not between the mythical democratic masses and the elite, but within the elite itself. This past weekend the Iranian speaker of the house attacked Ahmadinejad’s handling of special emissaries. For what purpose we don’t yet know, but the internal tension is growing.

The Iranians are not concerned about the sanctions. The destruction of their nuclear capacity would, from their point of view, be a pity. But the destruction of large amounts of their conventional forces would threaten not only their goals in the wider Islamic world but also their stability at home. That would be unacceptable and would require a shift in their general strategy.

From the Iranian point of view — and from ours — Washington’s intentions are opaque. But when we consider the Obama administration’s stated need to withdraw from Iraq, Saudi pressure on the United States not to withdraw while Iran remains a threat, Saudi moves against Hezbollah to split Syria from Iran and Israeli pressure on the United States to deal with nuclear weapons, the pieces for a new American strategy are emerging from the mist. Certainly the Iranians appear to be nervous. And the threat of a new strategy might just be enough to move the Iranians off dead center. If they don’t, logic would dictate the consideration of a broader treatment of the military problem posed by Iran.

Rethinking American Options on Iran  is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”

<> The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

The Last Jews of Essaouira

Jun. 25, 2009

Josef Sebag says he has a fine life in his native Essaouira, though he has
no friends here. This retail-artisan heaven for tourists on Morocco’s
southern Atlantic coast is a town unique in the Arab world for its history
of Jewish-Muslim relations.

He is often in his casbah antiques and book store, just off the large main
square and next to the hippest night spot in town. Sebag does not hang out
in the rooftop Taros Café, but does spend a good amount of time in London,
Paris and New York. Something about living in Western cultural capitals
suits him. He has friends there.

Visitors come to see him, from France, Canada and Israel, but most tourists
are not insiders in Essaouira, known as “Souira” to the locals. The Moroccan
Arabs call him “el yahoudi” (the Jew) but Sebag says it is never meant
nastily. He is as Moroccan and Souiri as they are, and they know it. His
family has been in Morocco since fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

His store is a must for British, Australian, American and French tourists,
as well as for surfers from all over and for increasing numbers of Israelis,
especially the ones born in Morocco who don’t come as part of organized tour

Most Moroccan and foreign Arabs do not come to his store, though it has
nothing to do with Sebag’s being a Jew. An exception is certain Arab authors
who leave their poetry and prose with him, a sign of respect, as they know
he carries few Arabic-language books.

“I know everyone born and raised here but have few friends,” he begins in
French. “What can we talk about – art, literature? No, we can’t. The local
people are more concerned about making money in their stores and restaurants
than reading. Some do very well here in Souira, but many have never been out
of Morocco.”

Sebag is one of some 4,000 Jews still living in Morocco, mostly in
Casablanca, but that is another story. He and his ailing mother are two of
perhaps four – or seven or eight, depending on whom you ask – Jewish
Essaouira natives left from a community that has lived here since 1760.

ESSAOUIRA USED to be an example of a small Arab town in which Muslims and
Jews lived side by side in both rich and poor districts, working together
but socially segregated – and in peace. It was unique because there were
almost as many Jews as there were Muslims, so the term “minority” did not
really apply, as it did in every other town and city in Morocco and
everywhere in the Arab world.

Aside from ownership of the land in and around the town, which always
remained in the hands of the caids and makhsen – local landed gentry and
royal family clans – most urban-style import-export business was dominated
by Jewish families.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to
the vast forests around the town. But as an example, from the very beginning
of royal trading in the 18th century, the Corcos family dominated the import
of tea leaves from Britain, which originated from its Far East colonies, and
was thus responsible for making tea the traditional morning beverage in

Essaouira’s last Jews began to leave following the Six Day War. Many of the
working-class families left the mellah, the Jewish district in Arab cities,
for Israel. The casbah’s well-off business leaders headed mostly to France
and Canada. But thousands of Jews remain here, buried in two cemeteries on
the edge of town, including Rabbi Haim Pinto, whose tomb thousands of Jews
from abroad visit every September in a hiloula, a pilgrimage.

Today, real estate and tourism are booming in Essaouira, but the boom has
little to do with the Jewish world, other than a few very active key
players. The same is true for the music festivals, including the Gnawa
Festival in June that draws up to 400,000 mostly Western visitors.

“There are leading Moroccan Arab families here making a lot of money with
French firms in construction and tourism-linked activities in general, and
that is grand for them and for the town,” Sebag says, “but let’s say that
aside from the music festivals, culture is limited. Jews here were always a
bridge between small-town Muslim society and the Western world. There were
very few tourists here. Now the opposite is true. The Jews are gone, but
Souira is a tourist center.”

The walled city is home to hundreds of boutiques, some of which are attached
to small workshops, often with two stories of apartments above. Restaurants
and cafés are everywhere. Visitors check out the ramparts, the port and
historical sites, walking for kilometers along the beaches in the wind that
blows 20 hours a day. They drive to the surrounding villages, or surf, also
a big attraction here.

When people are anywhere inside the walls, the impulse to buy and buy again
in the casbah and medina is overwhelming. Visitors walk up and down the
car-free streets and allies, purchasing fantastically colored rugs and
scarves. They buy blue Gnawa cotton robes and head pieces, more clothing,
bed linen in gorgeous muted colors, paintings, silver jewelry, leather
footwear, metal lamps and objects and intricate wooden boxes and ornate

Essaouira was known as Mogador until the end of French colonial rule in the
early 1960s. Portuguese occupiers built the wall and ramparts, known as
Castello Real, in 1505 before Mogador was much of a town, but the
inhabitants of the Arab Chiadma region to the north and the Berber Haha to
the south gave them no peace, and by 1512 the Portuguese were pulling out
and sacking much of the region.

Mogador, cité sous les alizées or “Mogador, a town in the wind” was written
by Hamza Ben Driss Ottmani, a French grande-école graduate and public-sector
research director in Rabat born of a well-known family in Essaouira. Ottmani
offers accounts of all the local villages, written in 1516 by celebrated
traveler and author known as Leon the African. Born El Hassan Ben Muhammad
el-Ouazzan el-Gharnati in Grenada, Spain in 1483, he moved with his family
to Fez in Morocco when Grenada was taken by the Catholic kings in 1492.

IN THE southern Berber Haha region, in prosperous and long-gone villages
with names like Tednest, Hadecchis and Eitdeuet, Berber Jews were a majority
or close to it, in a totally Muslim world.

Very little is known about these tens of thousands of people who lived in
relative comfort in this tiny isolated corner of Jewish and Moroccan
history. The Berber Jews are thought to have been there since the
destruction of the Temple. And it is believed that hundreds of thousands of
other people in southern Morocco are Islamic converts of Jewish origin.

Long before Leon the African, this area produced the royal purple color of
the Roman Empire from mollusks on the coast that was busy with trading
ships. Even earlier, the Phoenicians bought argan oil here; 2,500 years
later, argan oil is still made here and only here. Argan, used sometimes as
salad oil but mostly as a skin product rich in vitamin E, is a growing
organic rage in France and Europe – very expensive and not without a certain

Essaouira’s real beginning as a import-export center came in 1760 when the
sultan of Morocco appointed families from Casablanca, Marrakech and other
northern cities to settle here and become official royal traders. Many if
not most were Jewish. The town grew. According to Ottmani, seven of the
town’s leading families in the 19th century were Muslim, while 25 were
Jewish, with names such as Corcos, Afriat, Bensaoud, Cohen Solal, Belisha,
Ohana, Pinto and El-Maleh.

In the beginning, these families conducted trade by ship mostly with
Britain, but also handled local trade and the camel caravans coming from
Timbuktu across the desert, with links to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo and
Mecca. In modern times the caravans disappeared, but international trade
focused on Europe became highly competitive.

The railroad built by the French in 1912 on did not reach Essaouira from
Marrakech, today a two-hour bus ride away. Casablanca and Tangiers were
deemed much more important, and the glory and prosperity of the town in the
wind slowly began to fade.

Its leading citizens were still Muslim, Jewish and European, but there also
were thousands of working-class Muslims and Jews. Essaouira was known for
its artisan work, using wood from the close-by thuya and argania trees to
make ornate, silver and stone-inlaid tables and mirrors. This was an
exclusively Muslim sector.

The silver jewelry work was famous for the much sought-after filogram
design, the Dag Ed Essaouiri – thin lines converge on a circular center as
meticulous radii, a design that was instantly recognizable as native to
Essaouira. The master silversmiths were all Jewish, as were many of the
workers, who lived mostly in the mellah. Today, the remaining silver
designers are Berbers, many of whom worked with the local Jews until they
left. The local Arab jewelers all work in gold.

SUDDENLY, AN Israeli couple enters Sebag’s bookstore, and there are smiles
and greetings in French, Maghrebi Arabic and Hebrew. Isaac Azencot was born
and raised in the mellah and at 16 left with his parents for Israel. His
father was a cantor in one of the 30 local synagogues, none of which exists

“My parents were Zionists,” he says, “so we left. But they remained
Moroccans their entire lives, and I’ve done the same. I’m proud to be a

His Hebrew is obviously fluent, with a Moroccan accent; his French is good,
if rusty; his English very good, and his Maghrebi Arabic is native and still
fluent, with a good Arab accent.

“Sbahelchir, la besse halik,” he says, meaning, “good morning, everything is

His brother, a professor, directs all research on Essaouira at the
University of Haifa, near their hometown of Kiryat Ata, complete with
original documents transferred from Morocco.

“It feels good to see old Muslim friends here in Souira,” Azencot says
sincerely, in English. “We all lived modestly and respectfully back then,
and we boys in the mellah had Muslim friends.” But, he adds, they lived
differently. He mentions the Alliance Française school right away.

“We were 28 Jewish boys and girls in the class, but there was only one
Muslim boy,” he says. “It wasn’t the money. Working-class Muslims simply
didn’t learn to read and write back then. And then we all left, except for
Josef and his mother.” He laughs. Continue Reading »



What Obama must tell Bibi

Only a dramatic break from previous US policy on Israel can end the Middle East deadlock

The toughest meeting of Barack Obama’s young presidency is approaching. In the next few weeks, he will have to sit down with Israel’s ­Binyamin Netanyahu. The difficulty is not just that the prime minister refuses to accept the right of a Palestinian state to exist and thereby shows the Palestinians have no partner for peace.

Far more burdensome are the ghosts of US policies past. If Obama is sincere in wanting to break the stalemate of the Middle East’s core conflict, he will have to launch the US relationship with Israel on to radically new lines. Israel must be treated as a normal country. It cannot enjoy permanent licence to escape ­criticism for practising policies that would be condemned if carried out by any other country’s government. Even if Israelis, through their complex coalition arrangements, had anointed a more progressive and enlightened leader, this would be necessary. It is doubly essential now that Israel has chosen a man of aggressive and narrow vision.

The day of the blank cheque must be over. The day of the huge cheque must be over, too. Why should a country with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes receive around $3bn annually, or roughly a third of the US foreign aid budget (not including extra support from the Pentagon)? Why should it not have to account for its purchases like every other recipient country – a conscious lack of oversight that allows Washington to turn a blind eye to the fact that US tax dollars are financing ­illegal settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank and helping to build the ­so-called apartheid wall?

Unless Obama ends America’s special relationship with Israel, this omission will be the achilles heel of his foreign policy. America’s standing in the Middle East, its influence in the Gulf, its image in the Muslim world, its relationship with Iran, and even its support in Europe are all linked to the way it treats Israel.

Obama’s fulsome comments about Israel before his election already ­suggested that this was likely to be his most dangerous weakness. His first 100 days in power have done nothing to negate that. His speeches in Turkey, which were directed at Muslim ­audiences, showed no recognition of the fact that most Turks, Arabs and Iranians see US policy towards Israel as unfair and partisan.

His resounding appeal in Prague for a nuclear-free world contained no reference to Israel’s nuclear arsenal or the need for all nuclear countries (including India and Pakistan) to join the non-­proliferation treaty. If Iran, a signatory of the NPT, is rightly pressed to adhere to the requirement for transparency, it is hypocrisy not to press the non-signatories to be as honest. To argue that countries which have not signed up are exempt from the rules may be legally right, but is politically absurd. Obama’s admirable wish to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpile cannot stop at the gates of Dimona and the sites where Israel’s nuclear warheads are kept.

Israel’s decades of indulgence from US presidents and a largely supine Congress have produced a culture where it virtually dictates what US policy should be. Israel helped to empower Hamas as a way of undermining its then bugbear, Yasser Arafat. Now that Hamas is independent, strong and popular, Israel sees it as the new target. The Obama administration should not go along with that. As David Gardner argues in his excellent book, Last Chance, “boycotting Hamas has been self-defeating. There is no legal or moral reason why Hamas – or anyone else – should recognise a state that refuses to define its boundaries, which are being expanded daily on ­Palestinian land.”

Seeking to destroy Hamas after it won the Palestinian elections was, apart from the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s biggest ­foreign policy blunder, and one that the European Union foolishly supported. Some European governments would like to change. They have held indirect talks with Hamas and may move to direct ones. Obama should do the same.

If Washington can talk to North Korea and Iran, it has no reason to boycott the people who won the last Palestinian elections and are likely to win the next one. Far from defeating Hamas, Israel’s war on Gaza has made it stronger while further rein­forcing Israel’s image as a bully. By the same token, the US needs to talk to ­Hezbollah in ­Lebanon. Israel’s war on Hezbollah in 2006 was as brutal as its war on Gaza this year, nothing more than the old strategy, taken to a ­grotesque level, of demolishing homes as a collective punishment.

Now Netanyahu is seeking to link Iran even more closely to Israeli policy than the former prime minister Ehud Olmert did. Without moves to stop Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear bomb and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, there can be no chance of Israel agreeing to peace talks, his officials are saying.

The most important thing that Obama should tell Netanyahu is that Washington rejects such linkage. The main source of tension in the ­Middle East and the Gulf is not Iran, but Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. An old issue cannot be hidden by a new one. Until Israel pulls back to the 1967 borders, give or take some land swaps, under international ­agreement, Palestinian resistance will continue – and other states will be ­entitled to support it.

As for an attack on Iran’s nuclear ­facilities, Obama must reject it openly. When Olmert raised the issue last year, as the Guardian reported in September, even Bush told him it was unacceptable because an attack would be seen as ­having US support, since ­Israel’s ­bombers would have to fly across US-controlled airspace in Iraq.

Bush saw that his last hopes of retaining credibility in the Muslim world would collapse, but his message to the then Israeli prime minister was made privately. Obama should not only tell Netanyahu the same thing. He should give his message loud and clear. He should also declare that any US attack on Iran is off the table. What Washington rightly warns Israel not to do, it ­cannot reserve the right to do itself.

Obama’s third point should be that he does not stand behind the letter that Bush wrote to Ariel Sharon in 2004, accepting Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as “new realities” that need not be abandoned. The document was not a treaty or even a bilateral government agreement. It should be overridden by a new letter stating that the US considers every post-1967 settlement illegal. Only by making a dramatic break from previous American policy can Obama prepare the ground for a lasting agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Mediation cannot succeed when the mediator treats one side as special. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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