News Round Up (8 April 2009)

The Nexus of Economy, Diplomacy, and Reform
Joshua Landis April, 2009
Arab Reform Bulletin – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The winds of change coming out of Washington have rekindled talk of liberalization and reform in Damascus. The Obama administration’s abandonment of a regime change approach to Syria has emboldened officials in Damascus to speak out about economic vulnerabilities—and the impact of U.S. sanctions—with refreshing candor. Long delayed economic reforms,  particularly the launching of Damascus’s stock exchange, have been pushed through. President Assad has also promised to put political liberalization back on his agenda because he no longer believes Western powers seek to destabilize Syria.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, who coordinates economic planning in Syria, broke with the government’s party line on the economy in a recent interview with Reuters. Rather than repeating bromides about how Syria’s economy would not be affected by the world downturn, he warned Syrians that they would indeed face tough times. He explained that “Syria’s foreign trade makes up 70 per cent of GDP and this means that the country’s dependence on external factors is very large.” Mohammed al-Hussein, Syria’s finance minister, took Dardari’s warnings one step further, saying that 2009 would be a “difficult” year. The country’s banks were secure, but the industrial, transport and tourism sectors would suffer, he predicted.

Projections of an economic downturn are loaded with political significance in Syria. During the Bush administration, Syrian officials kept up a brave front in order to counter thinking in Washington that economic pressures would enable Israel and the United States to drive a better bargain on the Golan. U.S. sanctions were unimportant and ineffective, Syrian officials scoffed. Abdullah Dardari began to promise in 2005 that by 2010 he would have Syria’s economy purring along at 7 percent growth, the magic rate at which most economists believe Syria will begin to dry up its growing pool of unemployed laborers and youth. Damascus could afford to wait out Washington without abandoning its precious regional assets or “cards” that, if played wisely, it believed would win back the Golan and allow Syria to project its influence in the larger Middle Eastern arena.

So when Dardari admitted that Syria would fall far short of 7 percent growth, foreign analysts took note. More importantly, Dardari as much as confessed that U.S. sanctions were taking a toll on Syria. In a shot across the bow of Syria’s foreign ministry, he demanded that “the U.S. should lift its economic sanctions on Syria before relations improve between the two sides.” “The lifting of sanctions will likely have a positive effect on increased foreign investment,” he explained and would “remove a psychological barrier” to companies that now hesitate to put money in Syria. Only $700 million in foreign direct investment came to Syria last year; 2009 is likely to see even less.

According to Dardari, Syria’s infrastructure must undergo massive improvements on the order of $50 billion over the next ten years in order to grease the wheels of commerce and keep its main industries (textiles, cotton spinning, plastics, cement and canning) from being done in by cheap imports. Syria’s manufacturing sector has been battling on a number of fronts for the past few years, well before the current global crisis. For decades, it avoided competition from imports thanks to a program called “national protection.” High tariffs on imports gave local producers a false sense of security as they sold inferior products at high prices. But recent economic reforms have opened Syria’s doors to a wide array of new imports; tariffs between Arab states have been eradicated altogether, forcing Syrian manufacturers to compete with inexpensive imports for the first time.

Among notable recent developments was the launching of Syria’s stock exchange, which opened on March 10 after years of delays. Six companies were listed but only one traded a total of 15 shares on the first day. Volume was disappointing throughout the first weeks because fewer than 100 accounts have been registered with the five approved financial brokers. More importantly, cumbersome restrictions have been placed on the exchange to prevent “speculation” and promote “investment.” Securities cannot be sold on the same day of purchase and a 2 percent daily price movement limit has been imposed on stocks in an overzealous attempt to protect investors. These are some of the kinks that must be worked out, but Syrians were enthusiastic about having a working bourse after fifty years of socialism.

President Bashar al-Assad assured Syrians in March that the pace of reform would pick up now that Syria is “less affected by difficult international circumstances.” What is more, he suggested that reforms would not only be economic, but also political. When asked to elaborate, Assad responded: “For example by expanding political participation, creating another chamber in addition to the parliament, such as a freely elected senate with a legislative role to give more space to the opposition, by further liberalizing the political media and the Internet to promote dialogue, and finally by enacting a law regulating political parties. But all that will come about gradually, at our own pace.” Most Syrians may not hold their breath for political change, but they are gratified by the new climate of engagement with the United States, hoping that it will have important economic repercussions and perhaps bring some relaxation of the political atmosphere.

addendum: The following paragraph was cut from the original version for space, but I add it here because it may be of interest to SC readers.

Syria’s economic woes as explained by Abdullah Dardari were music to the ears of analysts at some think thanks. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy published an article entitled, “Global Economic Crisis Boosts Utility of U.S. Sanctions on Syria,” recommending that the US recalibrate sanctions to get the most out of their “powerful negative impact on the Syrian economy.” President Assad is unlikely to be swayed by bad economic times, however. In an interview published on March 9 he explained how he had learned not to “overreact to events” from his father. In particular he mentioned being impressed by how his father remained calm during the economic crisis of 1987, when “the economy was on the verge of collapse.” “Calmness and patience,” and “not being rushed in expecting results” are the “key to everything else,” he maintained.

Syria’s 100 richest businessmen via All4Sryia.info

Ambassador Imad Moustapha

Ambassador Imad Moustapha

U.S. alters course on Syria
Eli Lake in the Wash-Times, via Friday Lunch Club

“…The Obama administration has signaled a sea change in U.S. policy in its early talks with Syria, seeking Damascus’ help in bringing Hamas into negotiations with Israel as well as an agreement enlisting Syrian forces to help seal Iraq’s western border from al Qaeda, the Syrian ambassador to Washington said Monday.

In another change from the policies of the Bush administration, the Obama team has not insisted that Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal be expelled from Damascus, Ambassador Imad Moustapha told reporters and editors of The Washington Times….Mr. Moustapha said relations between the two countries have warmed enough that Syrian officials participated in a regional meeting Monday with Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg

Mr. Moustapha said U.S. officials,…They “are telling us, ‘we will never ask you to kick Khalid Mashaal out from Syria,’ ” the ambassador said, referring to the political leader of Hamas who has been based in Damascus since Israel tried and failed to assassinate him in Jordan in 1997. …
Mr. Moustapha said U.S.-Syria talks are still in an “exploratory” phase but that the two sides are close to agreement on Iraq. Any such agreement, he added, must prohibit American forces from conducting raids inside Syrian territory.

“We will not allow the so-called hot pursuit into Syria,” Mr. Moustapha said.

In October, U.S. Special Forces raided the Syrian village of Sukkariyeh, just over the Iraqi border, in an effort to apprehend a senior al Qaeda financier named Abu-Ghadiya. The Syrian government said that the raid killed defenseless villagers, including 11 women and children.

“They killed them Rambo-style from their helicopters,” Mr. Moustapha said. He said there have been other U.S. incursions from Iraq. “Time and again, the Americans did infiltrate into Syria,” Mr. Moustapha said. …

The ambassador said he is confident that with the change in administrations, an agreement is close regarding Iraq. Syria is ready to make such a pact “operational,” he said.

“We will cooperate with the United States,” he said. “It is in our interest.”

……Another State Department official said, however, that the U.S. government, in talks with Syrian officials, also has explored ways in which Syria could moderate Hamas’ behavior…”

Obama Gradually Changes Course
By Rami Khouri,
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Arab Media Watch and Daily Star: Analysis

President Barack Obama’s speech to the Turkish Parliament on Monday, April 6, was another milestone in what appears to be his continuing attempt to steer the American ship of foreign policy in new directions. He made some important new statements and changes in style, while repeating some silly old bad habits and simplistic insults. If he intended to address the Islamic world and signal a more humble, realistic policy towards majority-Islamic countries, he gets high marks for intent and execution, and medium marks for substance…..

O’S AMATEUR HOUR
By RALPH PETERS, Fox News’ strategic analyst and the author of “Looking for Trouble.”
April 8, 2009 —
New York Post

…Obama’s embrace of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now orchestrating show trials of his opponents) was one step short of going to Tehran and smooching President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. ….

Lebanon’s Mikati Will Only Accept Premiership With Consensus
By Massoud A. Derhally

April 8 (Bloomberg) — Former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a likely candidate for the premiership after elections in June, will only accept the position if there is consensus on his candidacy.

“If I am not nominated by the Sunni majority then I will not agree to be prime minister,” the Sunni Muslim Mikati said in a telephone interview from Beirut today. “I will not accept the candidacy unless there is consensus regarding my candidacy by all the Lebanese.”

Lebanon’s June 7 elections will determine whether the pro- Western March 14 coalition rules the country for the next four years or if the March 8 alliance that includes the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and its allies takes over.

A poll of about 4,000 people by the Beirut Center for Research and Information gave Hezbollah and an allied Christian party led by Michel Aoun a victory of two or three seats in the 128-seat Majlis al Nuwab, or Assembly of Representatives. The poll was conducted between February and April.

Parliamentary seats are distributed equally between Christians and Muslims under an agreement negotiated in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990. Elections are held every four years. ….

Qifa Nabki has this to say about whether Mikati will be the next PM:

I recently spoke with a Hizbullah ex-minister and asked him whom he thought the opposition would nominate as premier if it won the election.

“Difficult to say,” he replied.”But it will have to be a consensus candidate.”

“What about Najib Miqati? He seems to be fairly neutral.”

(Indeed, Miqati is one of the most talk-about potential PM candidates these days).

The minister leaned back in his chair and was silent for a moment.

“I’ll give you my own personal opinion. This is not the official position of the Hizb. It’s just what I think.”

“Ok.”

Another pause. Then he leaned forward and said softly:

“If Hariri turns it down, Miqati will be the PM. If Hariri accepts it, Miqati won’t be the PM.”

Translation: if the opposition wins the election, they may try to use the offer of the premiership to prevent Hariri from staying out of the government. Then again, Hariri probably knows this, which may be why he is playing hard to get. Yes, it’s byzantine and highly cynical, but this is Lebanon.

syria: ‘Economy grew 6.5% in 2007-08’
08 April 2009

The Syrian economy grew 6.5 percent in 2007 and 2008, showing that the government’s policies were effective, newspapers quoted Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri as saying.

“Certain economic indicators reflect the correctness of our plans. GDP registered 6.5-percent growth in 2007 and 2008. These figures inspire optimism and show we are on the right track”, he reportedly told a meeting of engineers, without giving a breakdown of the figure.

Syria is suffering less than other countries from the global economic crisis, although it will lead to a fall in exports and in remittances home from expatriate workers, he said.

Otri said banks operating in Syria had assets of 700 billion dollars and the government was looking at ways of investing the money in major development projects.

“We are going to confront the global financial crisis by doing more construction”, he said.

The premier pledged to support the public sector and deal with its problems.

“No public sector worker will be dismissed”, Otri pledged, noting: “200,000 new workers join the labor market each year” and population growth was accelerating.

Major investment projects to be launched early next year included the creation of 180 hectares of farmland at Hassake in the Northeast and a project to transfer water from the Euphrates to Central Syria to enable the creation of petrochemical industries, he explained.

An Economy Ministry study published in February forecast that the credit crunch would cause a 30-percent drop in foreign investment in Syria this year and a fall in remittances from Syrians working abroad, worth 850 million dollars in 2008.

Syria has launched a major reform policy granting the private sector a bigger role in the economy including setting up a stock exchange, where dealing began last month.

Still Waiting for Change
Words Obaida Hamad & John Dagge, Photos Phil Sands
Syria Today

… Most seasoned Syria observers, however, remain highly cautious. Despite the apparent volte-face in US policy towards Damascus, they question what has fundamentally changed in the country’s long, complicated relationship with America.

“The Obama administration is not planning any revolutionary change in US policy toward the Middle East,” Joshua Landis, co-director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, said. “Rather, it appears to have set its sights on preserving the status quo and seeking to attenuate radicalisation through engagement and the proffering of small carrots, such as repaired diplomatic relations with Syria and the incremental lifting of sanctions.”…

…Syrian analysts, both inside and outside the country, play down the likelihood of any major breakthroughs in the points of difference dividing Damascus and Washington.

Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at Chatham Ho
use in London, said the choice of President Obama’s last two envoys indicates “he is more willing to play by George W. Bush’s rules than to turn over a new page”….

“There are some files between the two sides that will not be easily solved, areas in which neither side wants to surrender its position,” Hamidi Abdullah, a Syrian political analyst based in Damascus, said. “America’s position regarding the national resistance of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories will not change. America has been supportive of Israel since its creation and that is not going to change.”…

“It seems probable that the US is predicating the return of a US ambassador to Damascus on a favourable outcome to the June 7 elections in Lebanon,” Landis said….

arwan Kabalan, a Syrian political scientist who teaches media and international relations at Damascus University, said US attention on Syria is a means to an end; Obama’s real concern is Iran, rather than a better relationship with Syria in itself, or a settlement of the Arab-Israel dispute.

“The Americans have never been serious about peace,” Kabalan said. “They were always satisfied with conflict management. They have never wanted to think of it in terms of conflict resolution.”

Kabalan said US interests in the modern Middle East have moved away from the Levant and now are centred in the Gulf.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict has been going on for the past 60 years and it can go on for another 60 years,” he said. “US interests are no longer in this area of the Middle East, they have moved to the Gulf, to a nuclear Iran, to oil, Iraq and Pakistan.”….

The Syria Accountability Act (SAA) of May 2004 is the most comprehensive sanction. It prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10 percent US-manufactured components to Syria. In order to remove this sanction, the president must certify before Congress that Syria has made significant progress:

* towards the peaceful development of stable relations with Lebanon
* towards a peace treaty with Israel
* to stop arming Hezbollah
* to stop providing sanctuary to Hamas
* to renounce weapons of mass destruction….

Syria and Lebanon – Thy neighbor’s trade
Executive Magazine (April 2008 No.117)
Cross-border commerce a product of history and geography
By Brooke Anderson

The economies of Syria and Lebanon have been closely intertwined since before they achieved independence from France in the 1940s. Now, with the two countries having recently opened embassies in one another’s capitals for the first time, an increasingly open and private-sector economy in Syria and a period of relative regional stability, there is now more potential than ever to take advantage of trade opportunities. These include not just goods, but services, expertise and labor – aHistorical economic tiesll of which illustrate Syria and Lebanon’s interdependent relationship.

Lebanon began its trade relationship with Syria in 1926 when it became an independent republic under French control. That same year, the Port of Beirut opened and Lebanon became Syria’s gateway to the world.
When Lebanon and Syria achieved independence from France in 1943 and 1946 respectively, the two countries continued a mutually beneficial economic relationship wherein Syria took advantage of Lebanon’s services, technical expertise and modern banking system, and Lebanon was able to make use of Syria’s labor force.

This complementary relationship was reinforced further in 1958. That year, Egypt and Syria merged to form the United Arab Republic, which led to the nationalization of Syria’s economy, leading many Syrian entrepreneurs to relocate to – or at least deposit their money in – Lebanon.

Lebanon’s civil war, from 1975 to 1990, marked the end of an era for the small eastern Mediterranean country’s reputation as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” so-called because of its renowned top-quality banks in a stable climate. Still, during this time Syrians continued to use Lebanon’s banks because of their reliable services and secrecy policies.

Following the end of the war in 1990, Lebanon’s need for help with its reconstruction created a boom in need for Syrian labor. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were as many as a million Syrian laborers in Lebanon in any given period. At the same time, while wealthier Syrians waited for economic reform in their country, they used Lebanon’s renowned financial services and shopped at Beirut’s high-end retail stores to purchase items not available in Syria.

That all changed in February 2005 when Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated. Syria was implicated in the assassination, but denies any involvement. Violent attacks on Syrian workers caused most of them to flee Lebanon, Syrians withdrew billions of dollars from Lebanese banks and Syrian shoppers abandoned their weekend trips to Beirut during a period of nationwide anti-Syrian sentiment.

The following years saw a thaw in Syrian-Lebanese political relations. Business has returned, but not at the same rate as before. Today, there are an estimated 300,000 Syrian workers in Lebanon, less than half of the pre-2005 level. Syrians who brought their business back home in 2005 have kept it there for the most part, mainly because luxury retailers and private banks in Syria have improved their quality and services to a level comparable to that of Lebanon.

With Syria’s ongoing economic opening and Lebanon beginning to warm-up politically to its next door neighbor, it appears that the two countries are in a good position to return to their traditionally mutually beneficial economic relationship.

“Even during the most difficult of times, trade relations slowed down, but then improved. This cannot stop. After… 2005, the only way left to go is up,” says Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed.

Politics and geography of trade

When it comes to trade between the two countries, Syria is at a definite political and geographic advantage. With a 375 km border with Syria that constitutes the only route for overland trade — the 79 km border to the south has been closed since 1948, when Israel became a state — Lebanon is dependent on Syria for its trade with most of the world. Transit through Syria represents 60 percent of Lebanon’s trade.

“Syria has traditionally resorted to trade pressure, whenever relations were [tense] between the two countries, to affect the political flow between Syria and Lebanon,” says Moubayed. “There are no other outlets from Lebanon, except the sea, or Israel, for ground trade. When pressure of this sort is applied, it certainly affects political events, always in Syria’s favor, however.”

In 1950, for example, Prime Minister Khaled al-Azm would shut the border, to pressure Lebanon into changing political dialogue, or positions, knowing that if the borders with Syria were sealed, its trade with the outside world would suffer.

More recently, in 2005 and 2006, Syria shut its borders with Lebanon, again to put political pressure on its smaller neighbor. Still, goods usually reach their intended recipient somehow, regardless of political pressure.

“It’s a myth that the Syrian-Lebanese border is or can be closed to goods from the other side of the border,” says Samer Abboud, assistant professor in the department of political science at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. “The border is quite porous and will remain so even if there is full trade liberalization and improved transportation networks.”

Nevertheless, currently there is some hope that better political relations will open the door for joint development projects.

“While private investment continues to grow in Syria, what’s missing are bilateral projects,” says Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Damascus-based economic bulletin, the Syria Report. “It’s not enough to open the borders if you don’t have strong government commitments. At the government level, there’s little coordination. Even in the West, there’s government involvement in bilateral projects. For big projects, private business can’t do much.”

For example, Yazigi suggests, “With daily power outages in Lebanon and Syria, we need more power plants.” Or, “Maybe the two countries could find a way to share water better.” He believes, “The two countries need to debate publicly.”

“Despite the obstacles – transport, financing, long border crossings – inter-Arab trade represents almost 20 percent of total Arab trade, when oil is factored out,” noted Abboud. “This is a very high figure and speaks to the already existing trade between countries that need to be supported through infrastructural and institutional developments.”

Getting goods across the border

At any time of the day or night, cars and trucks can be seen lined up at the official Syrian-Lebanese overland border crossings and in the Bekaa Valley, flare lights signal communication between smugglers.
No matter how cumbersome the process of trade between Lebanon and Syria, the two countries continue to meet the demand for one another’s products – be it at one of the three official border crossings, using the unofficial crossings or catering to the niche markets on either side of the border.

For Lebanese consumers, that often means clothing, agriculture, oil and other products that are less expensive in Syria.

But in the past several weeks this has been changing, with oil and some agriculture prices in Syria surpassing those of

Volume of official Syrian-Lebanese bilateral trade

1997: $77 million

2000: $190 million

2003: $277 million

2006: $354 million

Source: World Bank.

Lebanon – a sign of the times for both countries.

“Some prices of goods in Syria are higher than in Lebanon. The situation is completely different after 2000. Usually, Lebanon is the free market and Syria is the closed market. Now that is changing,” says Syrian economist Samir Aita.

Syrians are buying Lebanese goods, including everything from Portland cement, Lebanon’s biggest export to Syria, to Western products that can’t be found in Syria. There is a thriving black market of American products that are illegal due to the United States’ sanctions imposed on Syria.

Most of these items tend to be electronics, such as computer parts, which can be “re-exported” from Lebanon at an extra fee. “We (the Lebanese) don’t do this for free,” says Beirut-based Hussein Zeaiter, assistant professor of business and economics at the Lebanese American University.

“Illegal trade is probably higher than official trade,” estimates Abboud. “Illegal trade patterns have always existed between the two countries. While there is a host of trade in illegal goods – drugs and weapons – most of the actual trade is in basic products that are just taken across the border on a daily basis in cars and taxis and goes unreported or under-reported by officials. Export receipts are also a huge problem on the border.”

He adds that, “there have been few attempts to regulate it because the illegal trade functions almost as its own economy with powerful networks controlling large swaths of trade, or, on the micro-level, border officials being bribed to look the other way.”

Swapping labor for expertise
Throughout their history, Lebanon and Syria have been able to use the other’s workforce to their mutual advantage. Lebanon has benefited from Syria’s cheap laborers, who have been willing to do jobs that most Lebanese refuse to do, which in turn eases Syria’s high unemployment rate. At the same time, Syria has benefited from Lebanon’s well-educated entrepreneurs and bankers who have helped Syrian private investors before and during the country’s economic opening.

“Lebanon has been an important place for services to Syrians,” notes Aita. “But in the last three to four years, Syria has been working to capacity.” As for Lebanon’s traditional role as Syria’s banker, he sees Syria beginning to hold its own in that sector.

“A lot of top management bankers have been coming from Lebanon to Syria,” Aita says. “But this is diminishing. Now, there is a lot of Syrians working at Lebanese banks.” Syria’s unprecedented growth rate last year of 6.5 percent and its own construction boom, combined with Lebanon’s continued anti-Syrian sentiment and a trend toward favoring Egyptian workers, has meant a continued steady decline in Syrian laborers in Lebanon.

“Mistakes on both sides meant that Syrians are no longer going to Beirut for shopping and services the way they did in the past,” Aita says. “And now there’s less need for Syrians to go to Lebanon.”

It does indeed seem that Syria is no longer closed economically. However slowly, the dynamic is changing. Aita concludes by saying, “Lebanon’s role as Syria’s banking hub will disappear in three to four years. Both countries will have to rethink their roles toward themselves and each other.”
[end]

US Treasury: Treasury Designates Iranian Proliferation Network 2009-04-07

Syria Unlikely to Resume Nuclear-Weapon Program, Expert Says
Tuesday, April 7, 2009, By Chris Schneidmiller, Global Security Newswire

The new most popular destination in Aleppo is the “Zmerud”, a restaurant with a karoake bar. It is extremely popular and financed by a San Francisco based Syrian expat who runs a hugely successful printing business, Lahlouh.

Comments (24)


1. Atassi said:

It’s great to read the Ambassador optimistic views and feel his joyful stance on the improved American administration’s policies with respect to the Syrian government, we would love to hear him debating the regime position with respect to any intended policy changes for improving the internal political conditions and other outstanding human rights issues..

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April 8th, 2009, 6:21 pm

 

2. Chris said:

Prof. Landis,

The economic news is at odds with what has been published by others, namely the Economist and the IMF. The article you posted reports,”The Syrian economy grew 6.5 percent in 2007 and 2008, showing that the government’s policies were effective, newspapers quoted Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri as saying.” Unless that 6.5% GDP growth figure is for the combined two-year period, averaging 3.25% per year, it appears that someone in the regime has altered the data and that the figures have found their way onto your site.

The IMF believes, according early figures published in a February 2009 report, that GDP growth in 2008 was 5.2%. The GDP growth figure in the same report for 2007 was 4.2%.
( http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2009/cr0955.pdf )

The Economist, in its March 2009 country report, also gave figures differing from those touted by the Syrian regime. According to the Economist, Syria registered 4.8% GDP growth in 2008. However, in 2007, their numbers are closer to those of the regime, although again lower, at 6.3%.

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April 8th, 2009, 7:05 pm

 

3. majid said:

AP,

I did provide answers to your comments in a previous thread:

http://joshualandis.com/blog/?p=2610&cp=all#comments

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April 8th, 2009, 7:31 pm

 

4. Akbar Palace said:

Majid,

Thank you for pointing out your previous responses. They were very well thought out and quite interesting for me to read.

I wish I had enough time to address all your thoughts, but a couple sentences stuck out for me:

1.) “dhimmi” status. I agree that this term is out-dated and used as a “weapon” against Arabs. No one can disagree that for the most part, Jews living in Arab countries faired much better than Jews in Europe. One great rabbi, Maimonades was a full-fledged Egyptian.

2.) On the other hand, Israel looked at Lebanon as a threat because it provides a model of coexistence among various ethnic groups as opposed to the exclusively Jewish nature of Israel.

Majid,

I don’t think it is that complicated. I don’t think Israeli military planners look at the “coexistence among the various ethnic groups”. I think the GOI is more interested in the arms build-up in Southern Lebanon. This is what got Arafat in trouble back in the early ’80s and this is what got Lebanon in trouble 2.5 years ago.

I think Israel is looking at the quantity and quality of the arms along its Northern border, and responding solely on this issue.

3.)After all the Israelis have to prove that they belong to the region and they are not an outpost for outdated colonialism.

I keep seeing comments like this, and I have a hard time understanding it. The best proof Israel has proving they “belong” is self-preservation. I don’t think you or anyone else can quantify when this “proof” is fulfilled. And I can’t believe this requires Israeli Jews to all of a sudden don a kaffiye, pray 5x/day and smoke from a nargilah;)

Anyway, time for me to get home so we can retell the story of why those evil ancient Egyptians would not “let us go”.

Thanks again,

AP

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April 8th, 2009, 9:39 pm

 

5. Amir in Tel Aviv said:

Landis wrote:
“…In particular he ( Bashar ) mentioned being impressed by how his father remained calm during the economic crisis of 1987, when “the economy was on the verge of collapse.” “Calmness and patience,” and “not being rushed in expecting results” are the “key to everything else,” he maintained.”

Believe it or not, I really like Bashar Asad.
I don’t mind him being a dictator and an oppressor tyrant… let the
Syrians mind about that… I’m not Syrian.

But on the personal side, I truly like him alot.
He’s so sexy with his long slim and athletic body, large palm and marine-deep
blue eyes. And it’s rare to see an Arab dictator smiles, or even laughs.

In Israeli media, they refer to him as “amateurish” , “young and clueless”
“hasty”, “lacks experience”, and “not strong as his father used to be”…
Looks likes he’s more cleaver and more smooth than his father ever was.
His nerves are made of steel… they just bombed his nuclear reactor
and what he does? Nothing..!!!
I’m not cynical here… doing nothing after a humiliation like this
is ( in my eyes ) a sign of matureness, self-restraint and wisdom.

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April 8th, 2009, 9:53 pm

 

6. Nour said:

MIDEAST: It Will Take the World to Save These Homes
By Nora Barrows-Friedman

EAST JERUSALEM, Apr 7 (IPS) – Orthodox Israeli settlers, backed by soldiers and police, attacked Palestinian residents of the Sa’diyya neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem Sunday evening, four days after the settler group invaded the home of the Jabir family and extra-judicially evicted them.

The settlers claim ownership of the Jabir home and several others in Sa’diyya, even after an Israeli court had decided to examine an appeal filed by Palestinian families contesting the legitimacy of the settlers’ claims. Three Palestinians were injured and several were beaten and arrested by Israeli police when residents of the neighbourhood attempted to protect the Jabir home and restrain the settlers and Israeli forces.

At the same time, near Sa’diyya Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood are also facing expanding settler attacks, evictions and court battles that threaten their homes.

Maher Hanoun sits on the veranda of his modest but classic Jerusalem house. Green clematis vines crawl along the outside stone wall; children play a game of football in the alleyway across the street. Hanoun’s quiet home finds itself in the direct crosshairs of what he calls the latest round of Israeli colonisation in this area. On Sunday, his family lost a final appeal in the Israeli High Court to save it. Israel has since announced that it plans to demolish the house, and those of other families in Sheikh Jarrah.

“Until now, the (Israeli) court doesn’t believe that we are the owners of this home,” Hanoun tells IPS. “We have documents that this home was given to us by the Jordanian government before the 1967 occupation…We are refugees. I don’t want to live in a tent again.”

After Palestinians were expelled and dispossessed from their villages and towns in 1948, the United Nations’ Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) cooperated with the Jordanian government in 1956 to build housing units for refugees in Sheikh Jarrah, within an agreement that would trade UNRWA refugee benefits for permanent housing for these relocated Palestinian families.

In 1972, however, Israeli settler groups began what would be a lengthy process of filing legal suits over land titles, claiming ownership of the property and pursuing subsequent eviction of the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. Forged documents of land ownership were submitted by the settler group, resulting in a court order that forced the Palestinian families to pay rent.

In 2006, when the documents were proved fraudulent, the Israeli court ruled the settlers’ claim void but did not re-instate the Palestinian families’ ownership to their land. However, it was too late, and in 2008, the settler group “sold” the land in Sheikh Jarrah to an Israeli investment company which currently plans to demolish Sheikh Jarrah and build 200 housing units for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers.

After these plans were made, settlers began invading and occupying Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah. One family in particular has received some attention from reporters and international human rights groups. After the Israeli court ruled in favour of settlers to evict them, the Al-Kurd family were thrown out of their home in November 2008 and have since lived in a canvas tent below their house in a former trash dump as the settlers move freely in and around the Al-Kurd property. The court based the eviction on the Al-Kurd family’s refusal to pay rent to the settlers.

Nasser Al-Ghawei tells IPS from inside the Al-Kurd tent in Sheikh Jarrah that earlier this year Palestinian families felt relief when the Turkish government, dismayed at Israel’s brutal actions in Gaza, decided to release documents from the Ottoman-era archives that prove Palestinian-Arab ownership of the land. “We took these papers back to the court to prove that this is Arab land,” Al-Ghawei says. “And the decision was negative.”

An Israeli lawyer representing the settler group offered Al-Ghawei and his 16 other family members 17 million dollars to leave their home. “Seventeen million dollars cannot pay for my memories. I was born in this house…This is my identity,” Al-Ghawei says.

The European Union describes Israel’s military and court actions in occupied East Jerusalem as discriminatory, and recognises a “clear Israeli intention to turn the annexation of East Jerusalem into a concrete fact.” A more subdued response to Israel’s continued occupation and colonisation of East Jerusalem has come from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently called Israel’s house demolition orders there “unhelpful, and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the ‘road map’.”

Under international law, the military occupation, settlement construction and accelerated annexation of Palestinian neighbourhoods and villages in East Jerusalem is illegal.

Jimmy Johnson, international coordinator with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, tells IPS that the only recourse that remains to end this battle in Sheikh Jarrah for the Palestinian residents is international pressure. “Most effective in the short term is trying to raise international pressure, especially on the United States. As long as the U.S. is backing Israel, relatively unconditionally, it doesn’t matter so much if Sweden or Brazil or India wants to pressure Israel directly. But if you can get the U.S. to switch its policies, especially in response to international pressure, that’s when we can begin to see some change here.

“Inside the Israeli bureaucracy, there is no more recourse left,” Johnson says. “International pressure is the only way that the Hanoun family and other families won’t be evicted from their houses.”

Johnson gives IPS his assessment of the expanded settlement activity in East Jerusalem. “The bigger question in East Jerusalem is the large settlements,” he says. “You can look at it on a map. You can see that (Israeli settlers) are trying to surround the old city of Jerusalem with a sufficiently dense Jewish population to prejudice the status of the land in any future negotiations.”

In the meantime, Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem prepare to continue their fight against settler attacks, eviction and ongoing forced displacement based on Israel’s institutionalised discrimination against Palestinians.

“There is a big fraud taking place here,” Hanoun tells IPS. “We need diplomatic pressure to stop this from happening. We need more time. And now, we are just waiting. I don’t know what will happen to us, maybe they will come for us today and evict us. There are no more courts to appeal to.” (END/2009)

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April 9th, 2009, 3:52 am

 

7. majid said:

AP said, “I keep seeing comments like this, and I have a hard time understanding it. The best proof Israel has proving they “belong” is self-preservation. I don’t think you or anyone else can quantify when this “proof” is fulfilled. And I can’t believe this requires Israeli Jews to all of a sudden don a kaffiye, pray 5x/day and smoke from a nargilah;)”

I think traditional means of self preservation that Israel has been used to are becoming outdated and they may soon become extinct I fear say. Donning or not donning the kafiyya (as simplified as you liked to make it sound) may not be an option. Please see this article.

http://yalibnan.com/site/archives/2009/04/israelhezbollah.php

I hope you mention to your family (particularly if you have kids) on this occasion that Maimonides (or Musa ibn Maymoon) was also tutored by Arabs like Ibn Rushd. May be he can appreciate that the two foes can also cooperate to produce one of the greatest Jewish minds of all times thus reinforcing each others cultures instead of annihilating it.

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April 9th, 2009, 6:08 am

 

8. Akbar Palace said:

Majid,

Your response did not really answer my question regarding your statement:

After all the Israelis have to prove that they belong to the region and they are not an outpost for outdated colonialism.

I saw the article about the “lessons learned” from the 2006 war. It seems that Israel has always been a testing ground for defending against the latest technology and weapons systems. This has been going on since the 1960s.

I hope you mention to your family (particularly if you have kids) on this occasion that Maimonides (or Musa ibn Maymoon) was also tutored by Arabs like Ibn Rushd.

I will make sure of it.

May be he can appreciate that the two foes can also cooperate to produce one of the greatest Jewish minds of all times thus reinforcing each others cultures instead of annihilating it.

“Inshallah”, I think, would be the appropriate response.

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April 9th, 2009, 10:58 am

 

9. majid said:

AP said, “Majid,

Your response did not really answer my question regarding your statement:

After all the Israelis have to prove that they belong to the region and they are not an outpost for outdated colonialism.”

AP, you answered yourself in the same comment: Israel has been the testing ground of weapons and technology etc…

As long as Israel is behaving in a way that makes it look like a forward outpost of other powers, it will be considered not to belong. May be the US (or any other major power) should take a proactive approach to the issue and realize that they can best serve Israel’s interests (and the region) by detaching themselves from supporting Israel (militarily and/or financially) – something like a parent telling his kid you’re grown up now and you’re on your own to deal with your problems.

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April 9th, 2009, 12:45 pm

 

10. Akbar Palace said:

As long as Israel is behaving in a way that makes it look like a forward outpost of other powers, it will be considered not to belong.

Majid,

I don’t know what to say here. I’m afraid that no matter how Israel “behaves”, she will always be scorned by those who can’t bring themselves to recognize her and who simply wish she’d go away.

Is Syria an “outpost” of Iran? Is Lebanon an “outpost” of Syria? Is Jordan an “outpost” of the US? This word has little meaning to me. Every country in the neighborhood has a leadership who is supposed to be responsible to their citizenry.

Anyway, here’s some good news, which is always in short supply:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090409/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_iraq_new_car_craze_3

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April 9th, 2009, 8:01 pm

 

11. SimoHurtta said:

Day’s quiz Akbar.

When did Peres say this: “I believe that in four years, they (Iran) may reach nuclear weapons.” Peres further expresses his surprise at Egypt’s criticism on Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. He says that since Egypt is unable to prevent Iran from acquiring and threatening Israel with weapons of mass destruction, there should be no question of Israel’s defensive weapons.

Well I know your handicap in finding out facts Akbar so I give you the answer.

29 April 1996. 🙂

http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Iran/1825_1873.html

Hmmmmm now 13 years later Israel is not nuked by Iran. And Iran is still “making” those nukes Peres promised will be ready in the year 2000. Israel has not managed to get USA in a war against Iran. Iran has not invaded the whole Middle East. Israel must have a terrible level of intelligence or Israeli politicians are telling pure propaganda to the western leaders, media and public (and naturally to their own people – the Israeli Jews). I suppose the second option is more true.

By the way Akbar Peres’ explanation why Israel has Dimona and “defensive nukes” was and still is hilarious.

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April 9th, 2009, 10:55 pm

 
 

13. Akbar Palace said:

Sim’s favorite word:

“Hmmmmm”

Iran has not invaded the whole Middle East.

Sim,

You failed to mention that Iran has threatened Israel’s existence several times. You also failed to mention that the Gulf states are just as concerned with Iran as the Israelis, considering Iran’s penchant for arming terrorist organizations with whatever weapons they want.

I don’t think Israel will wait for an attack from Iran. I believe it will be like in 1967, where Israel will preemptively attack Iran before Iran attacks Israel.

Just my guess, unless, of course, the world community can get Iran to “behave”.

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April 10th, 2009, 1:44 am

 

14. TwoSpot said:

Any word on who this Maryam kallis is and why they took her?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/10/syria-human-rights

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April 10th, 2009, 5:19 pm

 

15. Chris said:

AP,

Maimonides is an interesting case and gives us a glimpse into what was going on. While he was able to flee to Egpyt and serve as a physician in the court, his family had been forced out of Muslim ruled Spain. In the introduction to my copy of the Guide to the Perplexed there are some correspondence between him and the Jewish community in Yemen, also ruled by Muslims, who were facing harsh persecution. So, I don’t think Maimonides’ story tells us that Dhimmi status in the Muslim world was good for the jews. On the contrary, in Spain and Yemen, Jews as Dhimmis were actively persecuted.

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April 11th, 2009, 12:06 am

 

16. Majid said:

Chris said, “In the introduction to my copy of the Guide to the Perplexed there are some correspondence between him and the Jewish community in Yemen, also ruled by Muslims, who were facing harsh persecution”

Since you seem to have so much insight and knowledge about this epoch of history, could you Chris provide us with a list of Jews who lived in Europe, in countries ruled by Christians, at the time and enjoyed a similar status to the Maimonides? I’ll make it easy for you. Just provide few Jewish names who lived in Europe and who have enjoyed only 25% of a similar status. Thanks.

Another one. When Spain fell back to the Christians and the Inquisition was in full force, where did the Jews choose to live when they were given the choice to die or to convert to Christianity? Isn’t today’s Jewish community of Morocco a testimony to the choice made by the Jewish community of the Andalusia era at the time of the Inquisition? I thought the Pope already made an apology about this dark Christian period? Or am I wrong? Thanks again.

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April 11th, 2009, 2:47 am

 

17. Majid said:

This is also for you Chris. I believe you’re fluent in Arabic. It could provide some research material for a study on some modern version of the Guide. Enjoy it.

لوموند تقابل أول حارس أميركي بغوانتانامو يعتنق الإسلام

لقد رأيت بهذا السجن أناسا يعيشون أسوأ الظروف الممكنة بأسوأ الأماكن الممكنة لا يزعزع ذلك إيمانهم ولا أملهم في المستقبل (رويترز-أرشيف)

“ليست هناك قواعد تحدد كيفية التعرف على الله”, عبارة بدأ بها مراسل صحيفة لوموند الفرنسية رمي أوردان تقريرا له عن الجندي الأميركي تري هولد بروكس الذي قال إنه وجد حلاوة الإيمان في غوانتانامو عندما نطق بالشهادتين، بعد جدل طويل مع السجين 590 فتغيرت حياته.

“عندما نظرت إلى الساعة وقت نطقي بالشهادتين كانت عقاربها تشير إلى الساعة صفر وتسع وأربعين دقيقة, ورغم أنني أتذكر الوقت فإنني لا أتذكر اليوم بالتحديد وإن كان في شهر ديسمبر/كانون الأول عام 2003″، هكذا وصف هولد بروكس اللحظات الأولى لدخوله الإسلام.

ويضيف أنه في تلك الليلة قرر بعد نقاشات لا تحصى حول الدين الإسلامي مع السجين المغربي أحمد الراشدي أن ينطق بـ”لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله”.

أوردان الذي يعمل الآن مراسلا خاصا للصحيفة في ولاية أريزونا التقى بهولد بروكس الذي قال إنه كان أول حارس بغوانتانامو يدخل الإسلام.

ووصف الحارس حفل دخوله المدهش للإسلام حيث حضر عدد من المعتقلين وقرروا إطلاق اسم “مصطفى” على صديقهم الجديد، غير أن هولد بروكس أضاف لاحقا اسم “عبد الله” لمصطفى ليصبح الآن “مصطفى عبد الله”.

ويتذكر عبد الله مشاعره عندما تقرر إرساله إلى هذا المعتقل وكيف كانت الفرحة تغمره لتوقه إلى خوض مغامرة جديدة, إذ لم ير قط سجنا قبل ذلك.

الولايات المتحدة تنفق أموالا كثيرة لترتيب الإجراءات الأمنية بغوانتانامو (رويترز-أرشيف)
لكن كم كانت صدمته شديدة حتى قبل أن يدخل المعتقل, إذ أحس بأن البيئة المؤدية إليه كانت مخيفة للغاية لا تصلح إلا للصبار والعظايات, وعند وصوله المعتقل بدأ يتساءل “هل فعلا من هم وراء هذه القضبان خطيرون لدرجة أنهم يستحقون كل هذه الإجراءات المكلفة للغاية؟”.

ويرجع الحارس السابق سبب اهتمامه بالإسلام إلى استماعه لما كان يدور بين السجناء من أحاديث حول تاريخ الشرق الأوسط وأفغانستان وفلسطين والإسلام, فكان يقضي الليل كله أمام زنزاناتهم يستمع إليهم.

ومع مرور الأيام يقول عبد الله إنه تولد بينه وبينهم نوع من الاحترام المتبادل, خاصة مع شعورهم جميعا بأنهم مجبرون على العيش معا.

وعن سبب اختياره للاستماع إلى المعتقلين بدل اللهو مع زملائه يبرز عبد الله كيف أن النشاطات الوحيدة لحراس غوانتانامو بالليل كانت مشاهدة الأفلام الخليعة ولعب كرة الطاولة, “ويستحيل أن تجري مع أي منهم حوارا مفيدا, على عكس السجناء أو على الأقل من منهم يتحدثون اللغة الإنجليزية”، على حد تعبيره.

ويضيف “لقد رأيت في هذا السجن أناسا يعيشون في أسوأ الظروف الممكنة في أسوأ الأماكن الممكنة، لا يزعزع ذلك إيمانهم ولا أملهم في المستقبل”.

ويستطرد قائلا “لم أكن أؤمن بالله قبل غوانتانامو… ومع الإسلام وجدت حلاوة الإيمان فهو دين خالص, فأنا من الآن فصاعدا عبد أخدم الله, والإسلام هو الحق الكامل”.

ويحكي عبد الله كيف كان في بداية أمره يخفي دينه عن زملائه, وكيف عامله الضباط بقسوة عندما اكتشفوا حقيقته واتهموه بالإرهاب وبخيانة أميركا قبل أن يعاد إلى قاعدته ويسرح من الجيش قبل نهاية عقده بسنتين.

ورغم أن عبد الله يعترف بحدوث انقطاع في التزامه وارتكابه لبعض الذنوب، فإنه يؤكد نيته الإقلاع عنها، كما أنه بدأ في مراسلة صديقه الراشدي الذي تم ترحيله إلى المغرب, قائلا إنه يعطيه “الإلهام”.

وقد وقع عبد الله عقودا مع وكيل وناشر, ويقوم حاليا بتحرير كتاب بمساعدة أحد الكتاب حول تجربته, ويقول إنه يود أن يجمع من خلال ذلك بعض المال ليساعده على “تغيير حياته” وترك وظيفته الإدارية الحالية في جامعة فونيكس ليتفرغ “لمساعدة أسر معتقلي غوانتانامو”, خاتما كلامه بعبارة “الإسلام دين كامل”.

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April 11th, 2009, 3:15 am

 

18. Majid said:

This is for AP. US diplomacy with Iran ridiculed as comical by a known Iranian (anti regime/and very pro right) writer:

http://aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=2&id=16343

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April 11th, 2009, 5:52 am

 

19. Chris said:

Majid,

You wrote:
“Since you seem to have so much insight and knowledge about this epoch of history, could you Chris provide us with a list of Jews who lived in Europe, in countries ruled by Christians, at the time and enjoyed a similar status to the Maimonides?”

I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the medieval period of Europe. My knowledge of Medieval Europe is pretty cursory in fact. However, during that period, the 12th century, Europe in general was languishing. That was the Europe for both jews and gentiles. So, I don’t think the number of historically significant people is really going to tell us much about how jews were treated. More importantly though, I don’t doubt that jews were treated harshly during this period, the crusades, of European history, but if you’re going to compare the treatment of Jews in Europe to the treatment of Jews in Muslim ruled areas you will be setting the bar quite low for yourself. Jews may have left Spain for Muslim ruled areas, however, that doesn’t mean their treatment in Muslim ruled areas was generally hospitable. It only means that they couldn’t stay where they were and they were able to find a better place to live. It doesn’t say much about the state of muslim rule generally. I just want to highlight though, that saying that a minority group was treated better in some region than jews were treated in Europe during the crusades really doesn’t say much.

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April 11th, 2009, 8:09 am

 

20. Majid said:

Chris, Are you saying in your last comment that the Muslims should feel bad about their history for not having organized a systematic persecution of the Jews who lived among them like Europe did? After all, this systematic persecution of the European Jews was the justification for the Nazis to do what they did just less than a century ago. You don’t need encyclopedic knowledge for that little insight! Muslims cannot be accused of such holocaust. Perhaps you should have thought before you made such comment about Zhimmism, that AP and I slready pointed out that it was not perfect and is no longer valid. But that was the best that could be achieved in such circumstances and a far better state than elsewhere.

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April 11th, 2009, 2:07 pm

 

21. Akbar Palace said:

On the contrary, in Spain and Yemen, Jews as Dhimmis were actively persecuted.

Chris, Majid,

You’re right. It’s always an question of the lesser of 2 evils. However, European Jewry was obviously worse than Arab Jewry in terms of death and destruction.

In any case, we shouldn’t debate whether one geographical area was “better for the Jews than another”. What’s done is done. We should focus on the present.

Throughout history, each region has its good times and its bad times.

Majid,

Amir Taheri writes:

Appeasing Iran as a revolution would only delay the return of Iran as a nation-state, and thus postpone prospects of peace.

Mr. Taheri is further proof that “neocon” doesn’t mean “Jewish”.

Anyway, this is why I miss Bush, Cheney, Bolton and David Wurmser.

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April 11th, 2009, 3:18 pm

 

22. Off the Wall said:

AP
You say
Anyway, this is why I miss Bush, Cheney, Bolton and David Wurmser

Many of us say
Good riddance, and hopefully never to return to any position of power.

These are a bunch of islamophobes, who have carried the mantle of Isalamophobia and anti-arab sentiments into new heights. I believe that history will credit them one day for the rise of a new form of anti-semetism. This time, against the other semetic poeple. The first root of western antisemitism has been fear, and the neocons were masters at eliciting fear. The second root is lible, and they are masters at that as well. Once you start us vs them, and do it in such braod brush way as these rascal criminals did, there is no return from racism. I have nothing at all positive to say about these criminals. Their place is the trashbin of history. Like Ayn Rand, their answer to the complex world we live in was nothing but a hyper simplified, self centered notion of heroism.

You may be more stiff necked than I am, but on this issue, i have a neck of Steel. Off course neocon does not mean Jewish, Jewdaism is innocent of such criminality. but it means a new bread of calluous, intellectually handicapped extremists, and above all opportunists. Just look at the ideological origin of their most prominent membership, you will find each and everyone of them starting from the extreme edge of whatever political ideology they once held. I think it was Lenin (oddly enough) who once said “the far left serves the far right”.

Their narrow view of the clash of civilization fell a part the moment it started. Their economic vision is now falling apart, and their intellectual shallowness shows up everytime one of them is challanged to the slightest. Recently one of their water carriers (Frank Gaffney) has been showing up on the talk show circuit, and with every showing he is proving himself and his gang as nothing but contemptuous, and rather contempible bunch of fear mongers.

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April 11th, 2009, 6:02 pm

 

23. Shai said:

OTW,

The hundreds of thousands of dead and injured, and the millions of refugees and homeless (America included), also miss Bush & Cheney. And where are these two now? Helping Ghadry along I’m sure…

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April 11th, 2009, 7:04 pm

 

24. Shai said:

I guess if Obama is being compared to Fascists, you can understand why Bush is missed so dearly.

http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/politics/2009/04/10/costello.obama.fascist.claims.cnn

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April 11th, 2009, 7:33 pm

 

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