American who escaped from al-Qaida in Syria tells hair-raising stories–about FBI

If anyone but Nancy Youssef of McClatchy News had written this, I’d have thought someone made it up. A hostage who escaped from al-Qaida in Syria tells how he was abused, mentally and physically, by the FBI, starting from the moment he crossed the border into Turkey. It’s an indictment of the US government’s policy toward hostages.

Matt Schrier after his escape

Matt Schrier after his escape

At one point it’s noted that the attention a hostage gets depends on how much noise the family makes. Contrast that to Israel, where a constant string of events and family pressure led to the government’s agreeing to trade more than 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians, many of them convicted on terrorism and murder charges, in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held in Gaza by Hamas-linked militants for five years.

There’s a widespread belief in Israel that the price was much too high, especially since some of the freed prisoners have resumed their militant ways, and some have been re-arrested as a result.

There’s a proper path somewhere between those two approaches. The challenge is converting that concept into reality when families are wailing on the one hand and the government has different goals and issues on the other.

Back channel for Israel-Palestinian peace talks torpedoed by Abbas

The New Republic writes here about the back channel for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began in 2010, reporting that Israeli and Palestinian representatives came to agreements on central issues like borders, only to have Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pull the rug out from under them.

The article is worth reading, even if the claim of exclusivity is a bit overstated–many of us knew about the “secret” talks. What’s interesting is to note why Abbas pulled the plug–what he could not accept under any conditions: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, even if the formula guarantees he rights of all its citizens (both are unnecessary, but that’s another issue), a formula for solving the Palestinian refugee issue, and more. He also said a document that did not refer to Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state would be “political suicide.” No doubt true–but he turned down an Israeli offer that amounted to recognition of that, too, in 2008, the one that the AP banned me from writing about.

Jerusalem stymies talks

Jerusalem stymies talks

What we learn from this, once again, is that further negotiations are pointless. If Abbas cannot agree to any compromises from the traditional maximalist Palestinian positions, then there’s no point in trying. Abbas is the one who would not accept Israel’s 2008 offer of a Palestinian state in the equivalent of all of the West Bank, plus Gaza, a corridor between them, and the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem just as Yasser Arafat turned down a similar offer in 2000.

The New Republic article states that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prepared to consider borders based on the 1967 lines that mark the West Bank, with territorial exchanges–the same concept Israel offered twice before. But when Abbas rejected all the formulas, it says, Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction was to press Netanyahu for further concessions.

So is it any wonder that Israel does not see Kerry as a proper negotiator, or the US as an honest broker?

And in a larger sense–isn’t it even more clear now that some other way of solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict needs to be found? Here’s mine, an imposed solution, based on the actual interests of both sides. I don’t have any illusions that this would be peace, but with two states and recognized borders, perhaps peaceful relations could develop after a time. Or not. For Israel, it would be worthwhile just for the recognized borders and the internationally recognized right to defend itself if attacked by another nation.

UN tackling FGM in Egypt–look at the shocking statistic

The UN is taking on female genital mutilation in Egypt, according to this article in the Egypt Independent newspaper, but you have to read down a bit before you come to this:

“Circumcision rate among women between 15 and 49 years old amounted to 91 percent, according to the Demographic and Health Surveys Program data in 2008.”

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I quoted a rate much lower than that when I wrote my book. Clearly it’s impossible to get an accurate number, but let’s agree that 0.001 percent is also too high. I’m not an advocate of Western powers interceding in Mideastern politics, culture or armed struggles. That said, African societies need to persuade themselves that oppression of women — FGM is part of the bigger picture — harms them immeasurably. The world’s leading societies empower women. The world’s most backward nations oppress them. It’s not a coincidence.

To make it clear — FGM is not an Islamic practice. It’s largely an African custom that harms women of different religions. Alongside all the crises that Africa faces, from AIDS to Ebola, oppression of women is the most widespread, and as in the case of many of the other crises, it can be eradicated through education. Groups are hard at work in Africa to try to make a difference. For once, the West doesn’t feel the need to send in troops. But it needs to give its support to this effort.

Five minutes from now is too long to wait.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aren’t the answer, either

People looking for ways to stop the wave of violence plaguing Jerusalem, especially the Palestinian terror attacks, are trotting out all the old formulas. Destroy houses, bring the army into Jerusalem, arrest thousands of Palestinians, and so on. And it took less than 36 hours before this appeared: an article headlined, “Negotiate, before it’s too late.” You can read it of you want–it’s a circular, illogical argument that says if nothing else works, then only negotiations can stop the violence.

If only it were that simple.

Sometimes when negotiations begin, there is a drop in the level of violence. But when they end in failure, there is an inevitable surge. Israelis blame Palestinian incitement, and to be fair, the article in question acknowledges that but mostly absolves Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of responsibility for it, despite his frequent and incendiary statements, even equating the butchering of four Jews in their house of worship with imagined, false “changes” in the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, which have always favored the Muslims and still do. Palestinians blame Israel for all kinds of other reasons, mostly the fact of the occupation.

Here’s what’s wrong with the “negotiations will stop the violence” argument.

First of all, the only calls for negotiations are coming from Israeli writers like this one, backed, of course, by the diplomats of the EU and John Kerry–part of a formula that includes calling for restraint on both sides after a Palestinian terror attack. There is no such call for talks from the Palestinians. Apparently they don’t really feel all that threatened by the violence.

The main problem, though, is that negotiations always fail. Israel offered the Palestinians a viable state in 2000. Yasser Arafat responded by walking out and slamming the door. President Bill Clinton amplified on that offer in late 2000, just before leaving office. Israel accepted his plan, but the Palestinians rejected it.

In 2008, Israel once again offered the Palestinians a state in the equivalent of all of the West Bank, the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, plus a corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. Here is good representation of that offer.

Israel's 2008 offer

Israel’s 2008 offer

It’s worthwhile noting that such a corridor is not part of the now “holy” 1967 “border,” which is neither holy nor a border. In any event, this time Abbas was the one who refused to sign the map he was offered, turned around, walked out and ended the negotiations. You might not know about that– AP banned me from writing about it when I discovered the offer in early 2009.

So what’s the point of restarting negotiations, or worse, pinning such high hopes on them, when peace talks have reached their conclusion twice, but haven’t brought peace? I don’t want to call anyone any names here, but you know how they define a person who repeats the same mistake over and over again, but expects different results.

Is the conclusion, then, that there is no solution to the wave of Palestinian violence? No, there is a solution, but there is no way to implement it now. It’s separation–a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, with a closed and carefully guarded border between them, sealed for as long as it takes for the Palestinians to realize what Egypt and Jordan realized long ago–it’s in their interest to have cooperation with Israel, even if you don’t like Israel.

Clearly, that can’t be done now. There is no one to do it. So Israel may be forced to take interim measures, like crackdowns and fortifications, to bring this violence under control. So would any other country.

The ‘long view’ sequel — it still hurts

“It’s arthritis,” grinned the evil hand specialist, releasing my wrist. He was nice enough to wait until I scraped myself off the ceiling, after he twisted my hand in just the right way to send a bolt of pain shooting through it.

This has to do with Syria, Obamacare, Iran, and spying, as well as my hand. We’ve been here before.

A year ago I wrote an article called “The long view of personal and political issues.” It was about how an extensive operation on my left hand had left me less ambidextrous than before, in a lot of pain, and wallowing in self-pity.

My hand a year ago

My hand a year ago

Then, bravely, I looked ahead a year to now, and predicted where those issues would stand, and how my hand would be functioning.

Well, the year is up, and so it’s time to give me some grades:

  • A year ago, Syria had agreed to give up its chemical weapons. I said that by this time, the weapons would be mostly gone, and Syria would have no means to produce more.
  • Obamacare had experienced a disastrous rollout, its website crashing and frustration mounting. I predicted that would all be forgotten, as the health insurance reform (as opposed to the health care reform that was needed–seethis article from 2008) would be chugging along, enrolling millions of Americans who had not had health insurance, and Obamacare would be off the political agenda.
  • Iran was the trickiest, since talks over its nuclear program were in progress a year ago. I noted that already then, it was impossible to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and the emphasis should be on diplomacy to keep it involved in the world instead of isolated.
  • A spying scandal rocked US-European relations a year ago, and I predicted it was going to blow over, since everyone knows that everyone spies on everyone else.

So how did I do? That depends on your grading methods.

If you take the narrow view, I’m pretty good. There’s no evidence that Syria has much in the way of chemical weapons, Obamacare has achieved its initial, modest goals, Iran is still negotiating, and the spying scandal is rarely mentioned.

But we’re taking the long view here, and what we learn from that is that issues like this rarely develop in a linear way. They go off on all kinds of tangents.

Israel is warning that the deal being finalized between the West and Iran will put nuclear weapons into the hands of a terrorist state. In other words, not much has changed in the past year, but it might, and soon, either in the direction of Iran’s becoming a rogue nuclear power or a monitored member of the world community.

No one is talking about Syria’s chemical weapons these days because the focus on the civil war there has completely shifted. Now the world’s attention is on the role of Islamist extremists like al-Qaida and ISIS, leaving the tyrannical Assad regime, improbably, as one of the good guys.

Obamacare might be working, but it continues to be a political issue, kept alive by its opponents, who regularly pass measures to repeal it. It’s a sign that in 21st-century America, nothing actually gets resolved.

The spying scandal is mostly over, but US-Europe relations are complicated in new ways, including by the ISIS issue.

All this didn’t stop me from making another prediction in September. I even did it on the radio. I challenged my listeners to make a calendar entry for September 2015 that says, “What was ISIS again?” I expected it to be off the Western agenda.

ISIS is an internal Arab problem, ISIS does not seriously challenge the US or Europe, and certainly Israel can handle it if necessary. ISIS is likely to take over parts of the Arab world, and then it will probably break up into many squabbling factions and lose whatever limited effectiveness it had in the first place.

What I didn’t take into account was the total misreading of the situation by the West, especially the US. Washington reacted to the beheading of two of its citizens as a credible threat, instead of understanding it as a horrific, barbaric and detestable publicity stunt meant to draw the US into the conflict as a “common enemy” to unite the people behind ISIS.

So the US started its bombing, and then it started sending in “advisers,” and we have a new Iraq war on its hands, possibly spreading into Syria.

That means that next September, I am going to have to write another article, making fun of myself for naively believing that the geniuses in the State Department would understand the ISIS threat in the context of regional realities. And this after I wrote a whole book, “Broken Spring,” explaining how and why the West consistently gets everything wrong in the Mideast.

And finally, my left hand, the one that suffered through that operation. I got that mostly correct. The pain is gone, some strength has returned, my index finger still does what it wants to on the keyboard, not what I want it to. Just as I predicted.

But as another proof that politics, international relations and life are not all that predictable — that arthritis that the specialist so painfully diagnosed? It’s in my other hand.

This article is a year old — sequel to follow…

“Good Lord! Look at the size of that tumor!”

Not what I was hoping to hear from my hand surgeon as she looked at the MRI of my left hand.

my poor, poor hand

My hand, a year ago

So the operation to remove the benign growth that was taking over my palm was extensive, painful and damaging. It’s been nearly three months, and my poor hand is nowhere near back to normal. It will never be.

There are two ways to deal with this.

One way is to get frustrated over the pain and the limitations. Typing, something I’ve been doing since I was 14, is a minefield of missed keys, errors and misspellings in every line. Even opening jars is a challenge. Using a screwdriver is a right-handed chore now—I used to be ambidextrous. The pain is still pretty constant. So day to day, it’s no fun.

The other way is the long view.

A year from now, most of this will be behind me. OK, so my boxing career is over, but seriously, the limitations won’t be so awful. The pain will be gone. Whatever strength and feeling I have will be what there is. I am, after all, lucky to be able to use my right hand for everything that used to come naturally left-handed. My typing was never that good to begin with, and these days, I don’t need hand strength to pound an old, black upright typewriter. I can correct all the mistakes without using white-out, and no one’s the wiser.

I admit that taking the long view is a bit of a challenge sometimes, but it’s the right way.

That applies to practically everything.

Take Syria, spying, Obamacare and Iran, for example.

President Barack Obama is taking heat for failures in all four areas. He failed to attack Syria over its use of chemical weapons. He failed to prevent spying on US allies. He failed to ensure a smooth implementation of his health insurance reform. And most recently, he failed to hold the line against Iran’s dangerous nuclear program.

A learned friend wrote recently that he supported Obama, but now he’s losing patience over his “chronic inability to get in front of issues, as opposed to respond to them.”

It’s a widely expressed criticism, a widely felt frustration.

So let’s do the “long view” test on those issues.

The problem with Syria, according to the critics, is that Obama drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons, threatened a military strike, watched Syria cross the red line but did nothing. This obliterates the US deterrent power, goes the argument.

The fact is, US policy was surprisingly successful, considering that any American military move would have been counter-productive, uniting all parties in Syria against the American imperialist aggressor. Since the Iraq fiasco, hate of America has reached heights in this region that guarantee that wherever the US leads, movement will be in the opposite direction.

So look what Obama accomplished. Not only did he manage to frighten the Syrians, he frightened the Russians enough to get them to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Wasn’t that the object, unattainable through military force alone? It’s said that the most effective military operation is the one that proves unnecessary. That’s what this was.

So a year from now, Syria will be without all or most of its chemical weapons and without the means to produce new ones.

The scandal over the revelation that the US has been spying on its allies is puzzling. It should be common knowledge by now that everyone spies on everyone. There’s only one rule, violated in this case—don’t get caught.

A diplomat and I often discuss sensitive matters. When we get into those areas, he moves his cell phone out of earshot. He assumes, rightly no doubt, that someone is listening, even if it’s switched off. Western intelligence agencies trade clandestine information—but clearly not everything, so each country has to make up the differences for itself. It’s been that way since time immemorial.

So a year from now, this artificial spying scandal will be forgotten, and perhaps the most famous spy in custody, Jonathan Pollard, will finally be free.

The rollout of Obamacare was, is, a disaster. The health care website crashed, misdirected, mistransferred, mis-everything. There’s a danger that the fiasco might deter young, healthy people from enrolling, skewing the premiums and sinking the system.

A year from now, the rocky start, while regrettable, will be forgotten. Millions of Americans who were uninsured before will be covered. If the deal is good, young people will sign up. Just as Social Security and Medicare were contentious at the beginning and are now considered bedrock of American policy, so Obamacare will become part of the landscape, and people will wonder what the fuss was about.

Iran is the trickiest of these, because it’s still in flux, and it’s hard to mark where the one-year “long view” test should start. Critics, especially in Israel, worry that just when Iran was feeling the pinch of the sanctions, the West is going to let up without dismantling Iran’s nuclear program.

The counter-argument is that it’s better to bring Iran into the international fold and regulate what it’s doing than to isolate Iran and aim for the unattainable goal of razing all its nuclear facilities to the ground.

Also, some scholars have noted that since 1945, no one has actually used a nuclear weapon, and that lends strength to their contention that possession of nuclear weapons imposes a sensible foreign policy rather than the opposite. That applies to the US and its Western allies, of course, but it’s worthwhile noting that nuclear powers include un-Western and unstable Pakistan, which has also kept its nuclear weapons in the garage.

Of course there are limits to this long view method. It looks into the future, and nothing out there is certain. A year from now, though I consider it unlikely, Syria could produce a full arsenal of chemical weapons from a hiding place, Western nations could retaliate against the US for its spying, Obamacare could crash and burn and Iran could test its first atomic bomb.

My brother illustrated the limits of the long view approach when I observed that if this operation on my hand is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I’ll be just fine.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It won’t be.”