Michael J Totten is a journalist who post 911 decided to spend a lot of time on the ground in the Middle East. He started in Lebanon in the wake of the Cedar Revolution and wrote an excellent book, The Road To Fatima Gate, laying out the complexities of Lebanese factionalism and explaining how the revolution failed and how Hezbollah became the dominant faction in the country. And also about the street tussle he and Christopher Hitchens got into with some thugs in Beirut.
His strength is that he spends time with a wide variety of people in the countries he visits, not just the usual politicians and sources. His blog has had a lot of interesting reporting recently from Libya and Tunisia.
I think the best combined international and domestic policy blog is Via Meadia, run by Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College. I've previously recommended it because of its domestic policy posts (see End Of The Blue Social Model) but he also covers a wide variety of international issues, including recent Middle East events (see The Day The Roof Fell In)
On a related note, last night I attended a talk at Yale (ah, the advantages of living close to a University Town) by Einat Wilf, a member of the Israeli Knesset. At one time she was a foreign policy advisor to Shimon Peres and in 2009 was elected to Parliament as a member of the Labour Party. She is now part of a small faction, led by Ehud Barak the former Prime Minister, that last year split from Labour to form the Independence Party and became part of the Netanyahu governing coalition.
Her topic was Israel and The Arab Spring. Below are some of the highlights of her talk and Q&A. It is important to note that as a member of the Government she was clearly being very cautious and careful in her speech and in how she answered questions. I'll try to refrain from editorializing and just report her comments.
- The Arab Spring is about sweeping away the post WWI order in which many of the states were established out of the rubble of the Ottoman Empire. In the short term it is not about democracy. She is hopeful that will come but it will be a 10-20 year process.
- Israel should try to be like Switzerland in this period. Neutral and not dragged into the turmoil as the Arab states sort out their future. She said this is the current government's policy and they are trying to be low key even on issues like the increased violence on the Sinai border.
- During this period while the rhetoric may get worse from some of the Arab states, things are likely to remain peaceful with Israel while those states work out their staggering domestic problems.
- Right now there is no prospect for resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Her point is that the Palestinians will never go against the tide of Arab history and at a time when Egypt is moving from a "cold peace" to merely "non-war" and when Jordan is becoming more hostile to Israel there is simply no way forward on peace talks.
- Wilf believes two indicators of progress to follow in each Arab country are the treatment of women and Christian minorities.
- She mentioned the need for Westerners to understand the region better. She spoke of being in a meeting with Sen John Kerry a couple of years ago after one of his visits to Syria. Kerry was a believer in the theory that Bashir Assad was a moderate reformer, primarily because he was a "secularist" which had certain favorable connotations in the West. He apparently didn't understand that because Assad is an Alawite, a member of what is considered a heretical sect by Sunni Islam that his only choice was to be a secularist, but not for the reasons we in the West expect. In any event, we know how that turned out.
- She also said there is very little the West can do to impact events in Syria and many of the other states.
- In response to a question about Iran she made some interesting comments. She believes the regime of the Mullahs will eventually fall and when it does the transition to true democracy in Iran will be faster than in the Arab world because of the higher educational level of the Iranian population. For Israel the critical question is the pace of the "Regime change clock" versus the "Nuclear clock". Israel's policy is to buy time until hopefully the regime change clock alarm rings.
- In response to a question about how the Obama Administration's attitude is viewed in Israel she made two statements. At the working security/defense/intelligence level she said the relationship is closer than it has ever been. She said at the top level the difference is that Obama believes that goodwill gestures will be reciprocated while Netanyahu thinks this is a fundamental misunderstanding about the regimes they are dealing with and that Obama's gestures are seen as signs of weakness (see, for instance, Obama's Cairo Speech in 2009 - that's not Wilf, that's me editorializing - sorry, couldn't resist).