28 May 2012

Why Melenchon Takes on Le Pen?

On June 10th the first round of legislative elections will take place in France. A run off election is scheduled the following Sunday, the 17th.

Since French Assemblée Nationale is a shadow of its former self in the Fourth Republic, under normal circumstances not many people would pay attention to these elections and the composition of the assembly. But the Presidential elections that resulted in Nicolas Sarkozy's ignominious exit after one term in office triggered an interesting dynamic.

Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate who unexpectedly received 18 percent of the presidential vote decided not to throw her support behind Sarkozy for the second round, hoping that his defeat would seriously weaken his party, UMP. In other words, she was hoping for a polarized parliament where her party the National Front (FN) could be the leading conservative entity.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon the charismatic leader of Front de Gauche (FDG) was expected to do well during the presidential elections but ended up receiving only 11 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, as his unequivocal support of François Hollande for the second round was instrumental in in Hollande's victory, everyone expected him to negotiate a prominent role for himself, perhaps even a ministerial portfolio. He dismissed such notions, declaring that his support was a matter of principle and should not become a bargaining chip.

27 May 2012

Presidential Elections in Egypt

After the first round, it looks like the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate and the last PM of the Mubarak regime are in a statistical deadheat.

Muhammed Mursi of the Brotherhood got 25.3 percent and Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general received 24.9 percent of the vote. Number three was Hamdin Sabahi, the candidate most closely associated with Tahrir Square with 21.5 percent, followed by a former Muslim Brother, Aboul Fotouh with 19 percent.

The Brotherhood immediately went on the offensive on two fronts. Domestically, they started warning all factions about the danger of going back to Mubarak regime and calling upon them to support the Brotherhood candidate.
The Brotherhood was reportedly seeking a meeting with rivals on Saturday afternoon, though it was not initially clear who might attend.
"We call on all sincere political and national forces to unite to protect the revolution and to achieve the pledges we took before our great nation," the Brotherhood said.
While it is likely that Aboul Fotouh will throw his support behind Mursi, the official Bortherhood candidate, whether left wing and liberal forces like Sabahi will follow suit is an open question.

15 May 2012

The Syrian Knot and the Kurds

Despite a few gentle nudges from friends, I have not been commenting on Syria.

There is a good reason for my silence.

There is both too much and too little information about what is taking place in Syria. Most of the information we get is centered around the grim daily casualties report and there is almost no decent analysis of what the future holds. Most observers seem convinced that a protracted civil war is what we will get for the foreseeable future.

I disagree with that conclusion, as I believe this conflict will come to an end sometime this year and the final solution will be in line with a larger plan to stabilize the Middle East. I also think the key constituency in all this will be the Kurds.

Let me start by quickly summarizing the main points that guide my thinking.

08 May 2012

Israel on My First Anniversary

Today marks the first year of this humble soap box.

I might not have been able to persevere, had it not been for the encouraging, nudging and gently chastising words of my tiny readership. They do not like to leave comments here but they do contact me to tell me what they think. And I am grateful.

For this solemn occasion, which I turned into an award ceremony speech, I wanted to mention briefly the news from Israel. Bibi Netanyahu just announced that he is forming a new coalition government with Kadima, the official opposition and currently the biggest party in the Knesset.
Mr Netanyahu said their new coalition wanted a "responsible" peace process with the Palestinians and "serious" talks about Iran's nuclear programme.
Recently I suggested that Netanyahu was going to call snap elections this summer it order to get himself a sizable majority and to get rid of his difficult appendages like Avigdor Lieberman of Ysrael Beiteinu and Eli Yishai of Shas. And he was going to announce historic peace negotiations with Palestinians.

What he did was better and less risky. He convinced Kadima to join him now. Kadima had their reasons to do so (everyone expected Kadima to lose a lot of seats) but this is faster and involves no acrimonious electoral process.

My prediction was based on my running hypothesis that the current situation in the Middle East is a play put in motion to achieve some sort of peace and stability for a decade or so and the first leg it it would be the Palestinian statehood. This presumed coalition (albeit post elections) was one of the markers for my hypothesis and I am delighted that it came to pass on the first anniversary of this blog.

One more thing: Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima is a former IDF Chief of Staff with solid national security credentials. He is no fool. He was also born in Teheran (though his parents are Isfahan Jews) and he opposes unilateral attacks on Iran.

Do you think he would have joined this coalition if Netanyahu was serious about striking Iran?

I took the news as a contrarian affirmation.

French Elections: the Aftermath

I was wrong about the results and in this, case, I am happy to be worng.

I thought the fear factor was such that at the last moment a slight majority of French voters were going to hold their noses and vote for Nicolas Sarkozy despite their deep hatred for the man.

A retired French ambassador once told me that when it comes to politics, French people seem stupid individually but collectively, they make very astute choices. And this outcome makes me agree with him.

Good on them.

This is especially remarkable since, in the short run this is likely to be not very good for France. Markets reacted predictably to Hollande's election. It is quite possible (though by no means certain) that France's borrowing cost could go up and it could get its debt downgraded by one of those bankster-financed rating agencies.

But Hollande's victory will almost certainly be good news for Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Greece as it is likely to break the decision making monopoly of the two largest economies in Europe, namely Germany and France. Without the Merkozy consensus, it would be difficult for Merkel to continue to argue that austerity is the only way out of the current crisis.

06 May 2012

D Day in French Elections

The second round of French presidential elections are underway as I write this.

The last opinion polls conducted before the legal deadline found that the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy might lose and his challenger François Hollande could be president tomorrow morning.

If you are a regular reader of this humble soap box, you already know that I am not as certain about Sarkozy's early demise. In the last few days the gap between the two candidates narrowed considerably and I am guessing by now (no polls were conducted since Thursday) it could be within the statistical error margin.

As you can imagine, I am not interested in the horse race aspect of this. What is of importance to me is the different ripple effects the election of these two candidates would generate.

Currently, the defenders of austerity (also known as the confidence fairy people) have a monopoly on the economic discussion. They claim that the most important thing is to reduce debt through austerity measures because that is the only way a country could restore the confidence of bond markets.

01 May 2012

Iran and Israel: A Brief and Optimistic Update

Remember how a couple of months ago everyone was talking about an imminent Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities? And how the Obama administration was trying very hard to placate Israeli PM Netanyahu?

If you missed the hoopla surrounding this issue here is a summary of all the hard rhetoric. At the time, I reasoned that despite all that bluster, Israel had no intention to undertake such a risky move (especially one with so little payoff) and surmised that there were probably other goals behind this campaign.

Then there was a lull in the sound and fury. It coincided with a meeting on 14 April between Iran and the so called P5+1 (5 permanent Security Council member + Germany) in Istanbul. I am guessing that the location was a subtle signal to Iran. On the positive side, it meant that a regional issue was handled within the region and Iran was not "summoned" to one of the Western capitals as it used to be the case. The host country was a Muslim neighbor and probably the only Sunni entity without an ax to grind against Shiites. On the negative side, it was a reminder to Iran that Turkey was an ascending regional power and its interests were more aligned with the US than with the Islamic Republic.

During the negotiations the Turkish FM Davutoglu (the architect of the now defunct "zero problems with our neighbors" policy) proved to be a skilled intermediary and managed to mollify both sides behind closed doors. But, on the face of it, these talks were hardly a resounding success story, as the two sides simply agreed to continue to talk. This month they will meet again in Iraq.

Fast forward to two days ago, when Yuval Diskin the former head of Shin Bet (Israel's version of MI5 or FBI or CSIS) issued a blunt warning that the Netanyahu government was misleading the Israeli public about the positive effects of an air strike.
He said:
“They tell the public that if Israel acts, Iran won't have a nuclear bomb,” he explained. “This is misleading. Actually, many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race."
Not unexpectedly, this lead to an avalanche of criticism from Netanyahu cabinet members and officials. Even without any knowledge of Israeli politics you could rightly guess that such harsh words from former intelligence chiefs are very rare.

I was curious about what triggered his intervention. Especially since a few days earlier IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Haaretz newpaper that he did not believe that Iran will decide to build nuclear weapons. While Gen. Gantz' tone is much more measured than the Diskin outburst, his statement directly contradicted both his Defense Minister and his Prime Minister.

Yesterday, the New York Times had a front page piece entitled "Experts Believe Iran Conflict Is Less Likely." Despite the less than stellar results of the Istanbul round, the administration officials played it as a turning point:
The talks two weeks ago in Istanbul between Iran and the United States and other world powers were something of a turning point in the current American thinking about Iran. In the days leading up to the talks, there had been little optimism in Washington, but Iranian negotiators appeared more flexible and open to resolving the crisis than expected, even though no agreement was reached other than to talk again, in Baghdad next month. 
The paper of record, as they would like to call themselves, argued that this new shift away from conflict was due to changing circumstances in both countries:
The threat of tighter economic sanctions has prompted the Iranians to try more flexible tactics in their dealings with the United States and other powers, while the revival of direct negotiations has tempered the most inflammatory talk on all sides.
A growing divide in Israel between political leaders and military and intelligence officials over the wisdom of attacking Iran has begun to surface.