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July 29 2014 5:04 PM

That Obama-Netanyahu Phone Call “Transcript” Seems Really Fake

Israel’s Channel 1 has published what it says is a Hebrew transcript of the phone call between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday, during which the president called for an immediate cease-fire. The Times of Israel provides an English translation:

Barack Obama: I demand that Israel agrees to an immediate, unilateral ceasefire and halt all offensive activities, in particular airstrikes.
Benjamin Netanyahu: And what will Israel receive in exchange for a ceasefire?
BO: I believe that Hamas will cease its rocket fire — silence will be met with silence.
BN: Hamas broke all five previous ceasefires. It’s a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
BO: I repeat and expect Israel to stop all its military activities unilaterally. The pictures of destruction in Gaza distance the world from Israel’s position.
BN: Kerry’s proposal was completely unrealistic and gives Hamas military and diplomatic advantages.
BO: Within a week of the end of Israel’s military activities, Qatar and Turkey will begin negotiations with Hamas based on the 2012 understandings, including Israel’s commitment to removing the siege and restrictions on Gaza.
BN: Qatar and Turkey are the biggest supporters of Hamas. It’s impossible to rely on them to be fair mediators.
BO: I trust Qatar and Turkey. Israel is not in the position that it can choose its mediators.
BN: I protest because Hamas can continue to launch rockets and use tunnels for terror attacks –
BO: (interrupting Netanyahu) The ball’s in Israel’s court, and it must end all its military activities.

The U.S. National Security Council and Netanyahu’s office have both issued denials that the transcript bears “any resemblance to reality,” and it’s already coming in for some mockery online. Channel 1 is standing by its report, saying it was leaked by a "senior American official."

Even assuming that this is an English conversation translated into Hebrew and then back to English, it doesn’t really seem much like how either leader—or anyone, for that matter—talks. Remember, these are two men who speak a common language and, while transparently not very fond of each other, have conversed on many previous occasions and presumably have some basic understanding of each other's views. Obama’s lines in particular seem like non sequitur parodies of his positions: “I trust Qatar and Turkey!”

I can't help imagining some other "conversations" conducted along these lines:

Vladimir Putin: But Mr. President, can't you understand my government's concerns about the overthrow of a democratically elected, pro-Russian government on our borders?

Barack Obama: Pro-Russian governments cannot be tolerated. We will pick off your allies one by one and undermine your government. Surrender now to the forces of American hegemony and the homosexual agenda. 

* * *

Xi Jinping: President Obama, China has long-standing historical claims to those islands. 

Barack Obama: Japan is our greatest ally. We think Japan should get whatever it wants. We feel threatened by your peaceful rise. Free Tibet.

* * *

Ted Cruz: We just think people should have the right to make their own decisions about their medical care. Is that so unreasonable?

Barack Obama: Yes. The government knows what's best for the people. We must seize the means of production.

* * *

Mr. Wilson: Thank you for coming in. I was just hoping we could have a word about Sasha's math scores. We ...

Barack Obama: (interrupting) Sasha says she deserves an A. I trust Sasha. Sasha will receive an A. I expect you to do this. The ball's in your court.

Even if, as seems likely, the transcript is fake, it certainly managed to make the rounds today, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki asked about it at today’s press briefing. Something tells me that it will have a long afterlife online. 

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July 29 2014 1:17 PM

Ebola Politics

The arrival of a man infected with Ebola virus in Lagos, Nigeria—Africa’s largest city—last week was certainly an alarming development, but it’s also in some ways a distraction. Nigeria has far more resources to throw at the problem than Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where it has already killed 672 people. The Nigerian government has already moved quickly to quarantine the hospital where the man was being held.

It’s too soon to say for sure, but Ebola seem relatively unlikely to spiral out of control in Lagos the way it has elsewhere in West Africa. (And despite what some congressmen seem to believe, the likelihood of it spreading widely in the United States is extremely low.)

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As the veteran foreign correspondent Howard French noted recently, there are “few sub-regions more prone to contagious epidemic than Liberia, SL and Guinea.” The main reason the death toll hasn’t been even higher is, paradoxically, due to the virulence of the disease: Ebola kills too many of its carriers and too quickly for it to spread very widely.

As political scientist Kim Yi Dionne notes, a number of factors have combined to make this the most deadly Ebola outbreak in history, and most of them are political rather than biological.

For one thing, none of these countries has experienced an outbreak of the disease before, so knowledge of it is low. For another, the fact that it’s spread to multiple countries makes a coordinated response more difficult. (Liberia has now shut almost all of its borders.)

As Dionne notes, all three countries have poor health infrastructure, due in part to years of civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia has just .014 doctors per 1,000 people, and a common joke is that JFK Medical Center, Monrovia’s main hospital, has long had the unflattering nickname “Just For Killing.”

Then there’s the enormous public distrust of both government authorities and international medical workers. The New York Times reported recently that in Guinea, “workers and officials, blamed by panicked populations for spreading the virus, have been threatened with knives, stones and machetes, their vehicles sometimes surrounded by hostile mobs.”

These attitudes aren’t exactly helped by the governments’ threats of prosecution against those harboring Ebola cases.

It’s never going to be an easy task to ask families to allow authorities to take their loved ones away for quarantine and likely death. The task is even harder in countries where the last three decades have given people very good reason to be mistrustful of authorities.

As writer and public health expert Laurie Garrett explains,

The nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have a shared, brutal history of civil wars that since 1989 have left more than 400,000 people dead, displaced half a million people from their traditional homes, seen rape used as a weapon against tens of thousands of girls and women, and put Liberia's former President behind bars as a war criminal. … In these three nations, few families have not experienced murders, rapes, torture, maiming, loss of homes and death.

An effective response to a problem like Ebola requires public trust of authorities in the midst of a terrifying situation. Despite some notable political and economic improvements since the war years, the authorities—including international agencies—still need to earn that trust.

July 28 2014 4:09 PM

Are We About to See a Final Showdown Between Ukraine and the Rebels?

At the same time that investigators are struggling to reach the site where Flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian troops appear to be making serious headway against separatist rebels in the area. Ukrainian troops have launched an operation to retake the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and there was apparently fighting in half a dozen towns nearby yesterday. Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, has apparently left the city for Russia.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials say Russia appears to be “preparing to arm the rebels with more high-powered weaponry than it has previously supplied, including tanks, armored vehicles, and powerful Tornado multiple rocket launchers.” The State Department has released images that it says show rocket fire from Russia into Ukraine.

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Though the economic damage absorbed by Russia due to the Ukraine crisis has been severe and there are rumors of splits emerging within the country’s economic elite, the Russian government doesn’t appear to be cutting back its support for the rebels. If Ukrainian troops continue advancing on the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, while the rebels continue to be supplied with advanced weaponry, it seems likely that we could soon see increasingly deadly clashes.

The U.N. warned recently that “[a] total breakdown of law and order and a reign of fear and terror have been inflicted by armed groups on the population of eastern Ukraine.” That was before the shoot-down of MH17 and before the recent offensive.

It’s possible that the conflict is nearing a final resolution, but it seems likely to get worse before it gets better.

July 28 2014 12:49 PM

Can a War End With a Whimper, Not a Cease-Fire?

It’s a little hard to square headlines like “Gaza fighting abates” and “lull in Gaza fighting” with continued reports of Israeli shelling in Gaza and rocket attacks in Israel, but by the very low standards of this conflict, the violence does appear to have been less intense today after a weekend of intermittent cease-fires.

That does not, however, mean that the sides appear any closer to a cease-fire deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected cease-fire calls from Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.N. Security Council. Hamas rejected a temporary cease-fire extension yesterday.

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According to the New York Times, with a permanent cease-fire seemingly out of reach for the moment, Kerry’s new thinking is that “by stringing together enough temporary periods of quiet … there might yet be a way for the Israelis and the Palestinians to begin talks on a long-term solution.”

Meanwhile, the criticism of the secretary of state from Israel has been withering. Haaretz’s Ari Shavit writes that the conflict had been headed for a resolution before Kerry “ruined everything” by promoting a cease-fire plan crafted with input from Qatar and Turkey that was seen in Israel as emboldening Hamas rather than an Egyptian-backed initiative. “The man of peace from Massachusetts intercepted with his own hands the reasonable cease-fire that was within reach, and pushed both the Palestinians and Israelis toward an escalation that most of them did not want,” Shavit writes.

Avi Issacharof of the Times of Israel Israel writes that Kerry’s efforts “led to an extraordinary phone call taking place between a senior Palestinian Authority official and an Israeli counterpart, during which the two mocked the senior diplomat’s naivete and his failure to understand the regional reality.”

The AP diplomatic correspondent Matthew Lee tweeted ruefully that it now “Looks like phase one of new US Mideast peace strategy to piss everyone off so much they stop fighting each other & turn on Kerry is working.”

I suspect that some of the anger being directed at Kerry is just deflecting attention from the fact that the two sides have what still seem to be irreconcilable demands. Kerry’s dialogue with Qatar and Turkey began only after Hamas rejected an earlier, Egypt-backed proposal. If Kerry had stuck with pushing the Egypt plan, he might have avoided becoming a punching bag in the Israeli media over the weekend, but it likely would have been equally useless in terms of the goal of stopping the bloodshed.  

The only good news is that even without much chance of a permanent cease-fire, the two sides do seem to be putting out signals about de-escalating the conflict, though they haven't been on the same page about the timing and terms. As Reuters reports:

Gaza's dominant Hamas Islamists had called for a pause to the hostilities ahead of Monday's festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. But Israel balked, having abandoned its own offer to extend a 12-hour truce from Saturday as Palestinian rockets kept flying.

With more than 1,000 people killed in Gaza—the vast majority of them civilians—as well as 43 Israeli troops and three Israeli civilians, there seems to be some hope now that the airstrikes and rockets will gradually wind down over the next few days even without a formal cease-fire deal in place. But we don’t really seem much closer to a formal end to the fighting than we were before last weekend.

July 25 2014 4:57 PM

The Senate’s Ambassador Backlog Is Getting Ridiculous

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reports that Sen. Ted Cruz is holding up all State Department appointees “until he has answers about the Federal Aviation Administration’s ban on U.S. carriers flying to Tel Aviv in the midst of the Gaza war, a ban that has since been lifted.”

This includes John Tefft, who was nominated as ambassador to Russia last month.* The U.S. had not had a permanent ambassador to Russia since Michael McFaul stepped down in February, and for obvious reasons, this is a time when there would ideally be an American representative in Moscow.

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But even before Cruz’s move, the ambassador backlog was becoming a problem.

More than 40 ambassador nominees are awaiting action by the Senate. These postings also include Qatar, one of the key countries in Middle East peace negotiations. The U.S. has also not had a representative on the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization during the last few brutal days for international air travel.

The slow confirmation process has been an issue for years now, but it’s been more acute since November when Democrats changed senate rules to require a simple majority vote for nominees. The Wall Street Journal explains:

Irate over the change, Republicans have largely stopped allowing the Senate to take procedural shortcuts that had enabled the chamber to breeze through blocs of nominees. Forced to move more slowly, Democrats focused first on the president's judicial nominees, in an effort lighten a burden on the court system.

In the meantime, the ambassadors languished.

John Kerry says the delay means that “we’re going without our strongest voice on the ground every day in more than 25 percent of the world.”

To be fair, the administration’s ability to take the moral high ground on this issue is somewhat undermined by its habit of appointing political backers to these posts, including an ambassador to Norway with seemingly no knowledge of the country’s political system and an ambassador to Hungary best known for producing The Bold and the Beautiful.

I mean no disrespect to Norway, but it’s safe to say that it’s not the end of the world if Ted Cruz holds up the campaign bundler appointed to our man in Oslo in order to make a political point.

Moscow and Doha, on the other hand …

*Correction, July 25, 2014: This post originally misspelled John Tefft’s last name.

July 25 2014 2:06 PM

West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak Is Spiraling Out of Control

West Africa’s ongoing Ebola outbreak, the first to occur significantly in major cities, has already infected more than 1,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, nearly half the number killed by the disease in the last three decades. And this week has brought more disturbing news.

On Wednesday it was reported that Sierra Leon’s top Ebola doctor was himself infected with the disease. Ebola can have mortality rates of up to 90 percent but it’s closer to 60 for this particular outbreak.

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Today, a Liberian man tested positive for the disease after arriving in Lagos, the largest city in Africa. Meanwhile, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the first known resident of the city with the virus is on the run after her family forcibly removed her from a hospital. The country’s overstretched health authorities believe that dozens of people who have tested positive for the disease may now be unaccounted for.

Despite its gruesome symptoms and high death tolls, Ebola shouldn’t be the kind of disease that turns into a pandemic. It’s relatively difficult to transfer from person to person and previous outbreaks—which have typically occurred in remote rural areas—have been contained.

This is a different scenario entirely, with the disease apparently reaching urban areas and many of the people at risk skeptical or suspicious of health workers. Hopefully the Lagos case is an isolated incident, but if steps aren’t taken to contain this quickly, it seems inevitable that more countries will be at risk.

July 25 2014 12:28 PM

Stateless in the Middle East

Deborah Amos of NPR reports on an overlooked aspect of Syria’s refugee crisis. Thousands of the  children born to the roughly 2.5 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries may have no citizenship:

 A recent report by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, suggests that 75 percent of Syrians born in Lebanon since 2011 have not been properly registered. Many families don't have any identification documents, which were destroyed in the fighting or left behind in a panicked escape.

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The numbers are even harder to come by in Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are unregistered. They slipped across the border for safety, but their babies born in Turkey have no official status.

There are about 12 million stateless people in the world today, many as the result of the breakup of states in the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, or because of ethnic discrimination. Stateless people often have difficulty in gaining access to legal protection, social services, or education, and have difficulties traveling—one reason why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a “right to a nationality.”

In the case of Syrian refugees, many parents still haven’t formally registered in the countries where they are living, for fear of the information getting back to the Syrian authorities, leaving themselves and their children in legal limbo.

So in addition to the future of the Middle East’s borders being very much in doubt, it seems there’s going to be a sizable future population with no nationality at all.  

July 24 2014 5:56 PM

Why Getting a Gaza Cease-Fire Will Be Much Harder This Time Around

The primary obstacle to reaching a cease-fire in Gaza, of course, is that neither Hamas nor the Israeli government seems particularly interested in one.

The last cease-fire the Israeli government agreed to didn’t stop the rockets, and now public opinion seems dead-set against any cease-fire deal short of complete destruction of Hamas’ tunnels and an end to rocket fire.

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Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal—currently in Qatar, far from the carnage—says he won’t agree to any cease-fire without an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, an opening of the Egyptian border, and the release of Hamas prisoners.

Previous outbreaks of war in Gaza—in 2008 and 2012—have ended with both sides being able to find some cause to declare “victory,” even if most underlying issues remained unaddressed. Given the conditions both sides have established for victory this time, that seems like it will be more difficult to achieve.

Plus, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi points out, recent political shifts in the Middle East make things much more difficult this time around.* In 2012 Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was there to mediate. But Egypt’s current leaders, having destroyed the Strip’s smuggling tunnels and kept the border tightly closed throughout this crisis, have little credibility with Hamas. Hamas’ strategy, this time around, may be aimed as much at securing concessions from Egypt as from Israel.

Diplomatically ambitious Qatar, meanwhile, has a lot more credibility with Hamas, as does Turkey, but Israel has made clear it’s only interested in mediation from Egypt.

And thanks to tensions left over from the Arab Spring, Egypt’s government is not on great terms with what Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri called the “Hamas-Qatar-Turkey axis.”

So as John Kerry shuttles around a region where nobody appears particularly interested in talking with him, it’s beginning to seem like getting all these potential mediators on the same page may be necessary before there’s any chance of getting the two sides actually fighting to back off.

A deal acceptable to Hamas would presumably have to include some compromise from Egypt on the border and an aid package from its allies in the region. Whether Israel would agree to such a deal is probably contingent on when Israel feels it can declare its “tunnels project” completed. In any event, there’s a long way to go and despite the grim scenes today, both Israel and Hamas seem content to keep this going for a few more days.

Back in 2012, when a deal was finally reached ending eight days of violence and, in that instance, forestalling an Israeli ground invasion, the New York Times noted that “neither Israel nor Hamas was represented in the final talks or the announcement, leaving it in the hands of a singular partnership between their proxies, the United States and Egypt.”

This time around, when the bloodshed does eventually end, I won’t be surprised if it’s representatives of Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey we see shaking hands, with John Kerry somewhere in the background, and Israel and Hamas nowhere to be seen.

*Correction, July 25, 2014: This post originally misidentified Christian Science Monitor reporter Howard LaFranchi as Christian LaFranchi.

July 24 2014 2:36 PM

Europe’s Refugee Crisis Is a Lot Like America’s, but Much Worse

Reading my colleague Emily Bazelon’s much-needed excoriation of the Democratic governors who have refused to provide help in sheltering the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have recently arrived in the United States, I was struck by some of the parallels between the crisis at America’s southern border and Europe’s Mediterranean migrant crisis. More than 39,000 migrants have already arrived in Italy this year, nearly equal to the total for all of last year.

There, too, governments to the north have been far too reluctant to provide help to the southern states bearing the brunt of the crisis.

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In both cases, the recent uptick in arrivals has been driven by political instability—in the U.S., rising crime in Central America; in Europe, political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East.

In both cases, the arrivals have often provoked an ugly xenophobic backlash.

In both cases, migrants are transported by traffickers in dangerous and often deadly conditions.

In both cases, the high-profile refugee crises are distracting from the fact that these wealthy countries are not, in fact, being overrun by foreigners: The EU has seen a significant decline in arrivals from outside Europe in recent years, and overall illegal immigration to the United States is at near-historic lows.

The are, of course, significant differences. The main one may be that as dangerous as the deserts of the American Southwest may be, the Mediterranean is nearly 10 times deadlier.  

While neither place is really being overhwelmed—certainly not on the scale of a place like Jordan—both migrant crises will likely continue to get more acute as long as the violence and instability driving them persist. In both cases, the current strategies don't seem to be working.  

July 24 2014 12:34 PM

Is ISIS Showing Signs of Strain?

Just a few weeks ago,  the Sunni militant group ISIS seemed nearly invincible, sweeping across Iraqi territory and crushing the resistance of a divided and demoralized Iraqi military.

Now, however, some cracks are starting to appear in the façade. The alliance of convenience between ISIS and the Sunni and ex-Baathist groups that have aided its march toward Baghdad is showing some signs of fracturing, and some residents may be getting fed up with life under the group's draconian rule.

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NPR reports that “some residents in Mosul now say the brutality of the group is beginning to show. Some Sunni towns have even risen up against the fighters with fatal consequences for the residents.”

Jacob Siegel writes in the Daily Beast, “ISIS really is as brutal as it claims to be, though not yet half as strong. Its fighters had impressive military victories in their first rush of advances, but now, even as they talk about conquering Rome, they’re struggling to take Tikrit.”

ISIS hasn’t made that much progress lately in conquering new territory and seems to be bogged down by fighting with its allies.

This might be the sort of situation that Iraq’s government and its allies could take advantage of. Except Iraqi leaders appear unable to agree on the sort of political reconciliation that would be necessary in order to do so.

Also, ISIS’s control of territory in Syria seems to be extensive and in some areas very well-consolidated. Plus, it has a new source of income from the oil fields it seized on its sweep across Iraq last month.   

ISIS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon—even if pushed out the towns it took over in Iraq, it could regroup across the border in Syria—but it’s not quite the unstoppable force it seemed to be last month. 

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