An Egyptian policeman in front of the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. / Haaretz
In early April 2012, two friends and I visited the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in downtown Cairo to observe the first night of Passover in Egypt. The irony was too obvious to point out, and so we didn’t.
When we arrived, we joined a line that had formed in front of the building, which was guarded by roughly 20 police officers. I glanced around to see if anyone was paying attention, assuming that the sight of people entering a synagogue would cause a stir. Anti-Israel sentiment is widespread in Egypt, and opinions about the government’s relationship with Israel are often suffused with anti-Semitic rhetoric. Two years earlier, a bomb had been thrown at the building. But no one seemed to notice us.
After about ten minutes, we arrived at the front of the line, where a police officer entered our names onto a list. I didn’t like the idea of being on that list, but was pretty sure I wasn’t getting in otherwise. We walked down a corridor that opened into a massive central courtyard, adjoining a high temple wall adorned with Hebrew writing. But we weren’t going in there. Instead, we were ushered into a brightly lit room at the far end of the courtyard.
Seated around the long table in the center of the room were about 15 foreigners, most of whom were likely Jewish; representatives from the U.S. Embassy; Muslim Egyptians; a Moroccan Jewish rabbi who’d flown in from France; and Carmen Weinstein, the head of Egypt’s Jewish community. As far as I could tell, no Israelis were present.
No one welcomed us. We eventually found seats at the end of the long center table, and I waited uncomfortably for the service to begin. I supposed that at this point, in the room filled with Passover celebrants in a Cairo synagogue, I’d finally feel the gravity of the moment. But I mostly felt hungry.
At the start of President Barack Obama’s presidency, he announced a “pivot towards Asia” after years of American military and political resources being bogged down in the Middle East.
Obama’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly shows how clearly the pendulum has swung back. Although he referred to Iran, Syria Israel, and Palestine a combined 71 times, Obama only mentioned China once. He left out other Asian nations such as India, Japan, and North Korea altogether. This imbalance speaks volumes about Obama’s understanding that in the current era it is nearly impossible to avoid the volatile Middle East.
The speech also highlighted his abandonment of democratization and human rights as supreme values, replaced with a Henry Kissinger-style Realpolitik.
When addressing the Syrian crisis, Obama asked rhetorically how the United Nations and United States have handled this delicate affair. His underwhelming response: “We believe that as a starting point the international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons.”
Gone was the rhetoric calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s immediate removal from power. The stated root for this policy is also illuminating, “I did so (supported intervention) because I believe it is in the national security interests of the United States and in the interest of the world.” His main focus is American security interests and global norms.
Obama continued by outlying his doctrine using American military power: if America’s allies in the region are attacked, oil flow disrupted, terrorist bases built, or weapons of mass destruction utilized. The president pointedly avoided promising that the U.S. would will use force to prevent genocide or to end a human rights massacre like in Syria. Translation: Obama is giving free rein to Assad to continue slaughtering his own people. Just don’t use chemical weapons or stop the flow of oil to Chicago or Los Angeles.
The first Egyptian police report described Andrew Driscoll Pochter as an American and a photojournalist.
The 21-year-old student from suburban Maryland was not identified as being Jewish because we Americans, unlike Egyptians, do not carry government IDs that identify our religion. That in itself is a great relief and advantage when living or visiting countries wracked by sectarianism and bigotry like Egypt is today.
The fact that Pochter was taken for a journalist does offer an important clue as to who killed him and why.
He was reportedly killed during an anti-government rally that surged toward the headquarters of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party in the port city of Alexandria.
Over the past few months, Muslim Brotherhood (MB) militants and at times their allies from the Salifi sect have badly beaten up suspected journalists and in particular photojournalists. They have been particularly aggressive in defending various MB headquarters or MB demonstrations backing Morsi from attacks. They have expressed particular hatred for the passionately anti-Morsi privately owned Cairo press as well as a longer history of deep paranoia about the global press corps.
So it is important to note that Pochter was killed as anti-Morsi protesters were trying to storm MB headquarters in Alexandria and were being beaten back by MB militants defending their headquarters. That suggests they might have been involved.
As time passes, this sort of street violence escalates on both sides in Egypt. Clubs replace stones, knives come into play alongside clubs, and in time pistols and shotguns also surface, army steel helmets replace motorcyclist helmets and killing at times trumps beatings.
Those who killed Pochter , whoever they were, would not have known he was Jewish, even if they realized he was an American. In the Cairo street, particularly, the average demonstrator on either side of the fence would not jump to the conclusion that an American tourist could be Jewish. Quite the contrary, they would tend to associate the Jew with the hooked nose, and payus and long beard that they have likely come across in anti-Semitic screeds that circulate widely here.
In the first few days after the Boston bombings, liberal pundits (like David Sirota, Cenk Uygur and Michael Shure) were hoping aloud that the perpetrators would turn out to be “white” rather than Muslim or Middle Eastern, so that the incident wouldn’t further inflame grass-roots anti-Muslim passions. Well, it looks like this was a twofer — perpetrators who turn out to be both Muslim and white, ethnic Chechens from the Caucasus region of South Russia. You can’t get much more Caucasian than that.
There’s much we still don’t know about the Tsarnaev brothers, including whether or not they actually were responsible for the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon. Given the volume of evidence visible so far, though, it’s not too soon to start drawing some lessons. In fact, we might as well start right away, because this incident just might force us to reconsider a lot of what we think we know about jihad terrorism and the larger questions of radical “Islamism” and politicized religion in general.
The fact that the brothers are ethnic Chechens is critical. It’s probably important, too, that they spent most of their lives growing up outside the boundaries of Chechnya. It seems pretty clear that the brothers were raised to value their Chechen identity as central to their sense of self. And yet they were strangers to Chechnya. Even before they came to America in 2003, they lived mostly in nearby Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan, both of them Muslim-majority ex-Soviet republics, where the Tsarnaevs were part of an outsider ethnic-Chechen minority. So while the brothers reportedly felt like outsiders in America—claimed they didn’t have American friends, didn’t “understand Americans,” even after living here a full decade—they were also outsiders to Chechnya. They belonged to both, and yet neither.
Now look at the map. Chechnya is a rough Muslim region in the Caucasus Mountains, wedged between Christian Georgia to its south and Christian Russia to its north, with fellow-Muslim regions of Ingushetia to the west and Dagestan to the east. It’s been at war with its Russian overlords on and off for close to two centuries, but the wars of the last two decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been particularly bloody. The core of the conflict is independence. It had little to do with religion, other than the fact that religion — mostly the moderate Sufi version of Islam — is a big part of what defines Chechen ethnicity. Radical Salafi preachers with a loose connection to Al Qaeda started showing up only in the last decade or so, accompanying foreign Muslim volunteers who came to join the fight.
Just about everybody who follows Israeli affairs with any seriousness these days agrees that the peace process is dead, that the two sides are too far apart for any deal and besides there’s nobody to talk to. The one big exception is the Israeli intelligence and defense establishment, which remains a stronghold of optimism that a deal can be reached in the near term. Which is weird, because they’re the ones who presumably know the inner workings and thinking of the two sides better than anyone.
When you bring this up to people who care about Israel, the usual response begins something like, “But don’t they realize that Israel’s minimum security needs require…” or “… that the Palestinians are dedicated to…” And you’re left wondering: What does this person know that Israeli intelligence doesn’t? And: Can’t you hear what you sound like?
Still, it’s understandable that the concerned observer would wonder how a peace process is supposed to square with Hamas’s refusal to accept Israel and the growing turmoil in the broader Arab world. Conveniently enough, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy (appointed by Bibi Netanyahu, 1998; succeeded by Meir Dagan, 2002) answers those questions and sketches the broad contours of a possible peace process in an important piece posted today at The New Republic, “The (Very) Quiet Peace Talks Between Israel and Hamas: The Middle East’s storm clouds have a silver lining.” His bottom line: Given enough pragmatism on both sides, the confluence of Hamas’s interest in stability, Egypt’s quiet mediation and the still-alive Saudi/Arab Peace Initiative make for “a very promising moment to forge durable agreements between Israel and Palestine.” Not a permanent end of conflict, but a viable modus vivendi.
“As Obama prepares to travel to the region,” Halevy writes, “one can fairly hope that he recognizes the value of the cards in his possession. He may not have any aces up his sleeve, but kings and queens should suffice for the moment.”
The insulting remarks about Jews made by Mohamed Morsi in 2010 have been replayed enough that they don’t need to be repeated here. Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood then, and probably never thought he’d become president of Egypt in just a few years. That may explain his remarks. It doesn’t excuse them.
Beyond lamentation and condemnation, how else should good people respond?
When asking myself that question, I thought back to the Forward’s January 9 meeting with Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Most of our discussion was off-the-record (his request, not ours), but I thought it was interesting that at only one point during the hour-long talk did he specifically say we could quote him. Oren is a very adept diplomat, an articulate, American-born historian with a command of language and nuance. He knows how to talk to the press. He wouldn’t go on-the-record unless he meant to.
And so he clearly wanted to get across a message about Morsi.
More than 100 American business executives descended on Cairo to discuss new investments in Egypt’s beleaguered economy. The four-day mission, hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and the U.S.-Egypt Business Council, contains representatives from some of the United States’ largest corporations, including Boeing, Citigroup, ExxonMobil, and Microsoft, along with officials from the Obama administration.
On Sunday, delegates met with Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and more meetings are scheduled with members of Morsi’s cabinet, leaders of Egyptian political parties, and Egyptian business executives.
Talks have centered on reviving an Egyptian economy left moribund by last winter’s revolution and the ensuing political turmoil. Foreign currency reserves have dwindled to less than half of their pre-revolution levels, and the country’s critical tourism industry has shrunk by at least a third.
Nevertheless, leaders of the delegation sounded an optimistic tone. According to economic analysts, Morsi’s assumption of office after over 16 months of military rule has restored a measure of stability to the Egyptian financial landscape.
Is Egypt Palestine?
It is a tired (and discredited) claim that Jordan is Palestine. But now there is a new one: that Egypt is.
I inadvertently pushed a button I didn’t mean to push earlier this week in a conversation in Gaza City with a group of Islamists, mostly Hamas officials and their supporters. I asked if their frustration with the peace process and unification talks would lead them to look toward Egypt instead of the West Bank, from which it is so isolated. They said such idea was treason.
My question did not come out of the blue. I had come to Gaza as a journalist — on my third trip — at the invitation of a Hamas official, but with no restrictions on my movement or who I could talk to, and had spoken the previous day to a few young enterprising Gazans for whom the West Bank is terra incognito. One, a 25-year old blogger, Jehan Al Farr, had never been to the West Bank until a few weeks before when she went to the American Consulate in East Jerusalem for a visa. She went by official bus and was not allowed off the bus except to go into the consulate and then quickly re-board the bus back to Gaza. She and her friends worry about this. (Israeli amuta Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement—www.gisha.org—reports on the impediments to travel between Gaza and the West Bank.) In a recent “tweet-up,” Jihan and her friends hotly discussed “Rafah” (shorthand for looking towards Egypt for solutions) versus “Erez,” looking towards the West Bank. Many of her friends, she said, call themselves Gazans and not Palestinians, and that too is a subject for debate. (This sweet-faced young woman told me that the party that most closely reflects her political views is Islamic Jihad.)
Israeli media, quoting government sources in Jerusalem, say the controversial cancellation of the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas agreement is not diplomatic in nature, but rather has to do with a commercial dispute between private companies and the Egyptian state energy company that is currently before the courts. Globes, the authoritative Israeli business journal, reports (in Hebrew) that a senior Egyptian military source told an Egyptian television station “that the deal was not canceled but suspended because of unpaid funds.”
Globes also quotes a report from “Arab media” in which Hani Dahi, chairman of the Egyptian National Gas Company:
made clear that the decision has no diplomatic background or impact – but was taken solely for economic and commercial considerations. “The Israeli gas companies have not upheld their financial commitments for months,” he told Egyptian media.
“We have asked Israel more than once to pay the money in arrears, and it has not done so,” Dahi clarified. “Neither the military council nor the government had any part in this decision.” Likewise Muhammad Shu’eib, the chairman of the Egyptian gas company EGAS, announced this evening that it was Israel that had not met its commitments in the gas agreement between the countries.
Newt Gingrich’s December 9 Declaration of Palestinian Inventedness (“we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs”) caused a bit of a stir at the Saturday night GOP debate.
Both Mitt Romney and Ron Paul condemned the remark as, in Paul’s words, “just stirrin’ up trouble.” Interestingly, though, both agreed that Gingrich’s point was historically accurate. No one on stage disagreed.
Responding to the charge of troublemaking, Newt doubled down, adding some historical detail to show that the “Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story.”
Somebody ought to have the courage to go all the way back to the 1921 League of Nations mandate for a Jewish homeland, point out the context in which Israel came into existence, and ‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977.
Let’s take the professor at his word and go back to the League of Nations mandate. What do we find? First, that it’s from 1922, not 1921. Second, it’s not a “mandate for a Jewish homeland.” It is titled “Mandate for Palestine.” The difference is critical. The purpose of a mandate, as defined in the 1919 Covenant of the League of Nations, Article 22, was to govern territories formerly controlled by other states (mainly meaning the losers in World War I) and prepare them for independence. One of the conditions of the Palestine mandate was to help prepare a Jewish national home in Palestine (nothing about Palestine as a whole being a Jewish home). The mandate defines “all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion,” as “citizens” (the mandate’s language) of Palestine, which in turn is defined in the league covenant as a state-in-the-making. In other words, from August 12, 1922, Palestine was a political entity in international law, not just a geographic one, and its inhabitants were legally defined — and universally described—as “Palestinians.” Some were known as Palestinian Jews, some as Palestinian Arabs. The term was in general use long before 1977.
After seeing, hearing and reading the flood of anguish and outrage that’s followed Israel’s decision to free 1,027 terrorists in return for one captured soldier, you might be astonished to learn that Israelis approve of the deal by a nearly 6-to-1 margin, according to a poll published in the Jerusalem Post October 18. The Dahaf poll showed 79% for the swap and just 14% opposed. The margin among women was 86% to 5%. The same article reported another poll, by the Midgam organization, showing a narrower but still hefty 69%-to-26% approval.
I learned about this from the October 18 edition of the Daily Alert, the news digest emailed to tens of thousands of American Jewish mailboxes every morning from Israel on behalf of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Since the Daily Alert is supposed to be a pretty comprehensive round-up of Israel-related news and analysis, I looked for an article that would explain what it was that Israelis liked about the deal. I couldn’t find one. The closest thing I found was a bit of backhanded praise by Elliott Abrams from the Weekly Standard giving all the reasons why it was a Hamas victory, but then gushing over Israel’s oh-so-Jewish concerns for its children’s lives.
Everything else in today’s Daily Alert was an open or veiled attack on the decision to deal with Hamas, with headlines like “Israel’s Deals With the Devils” (Robert Mnookin, Wall Street Journal) “Why (Almost) Everyone Loses in the Prisoner Swap” (Benny Morris, National Interest), “Turkey’s Acceptance of Terrorists Reveals Hamas Ties” (Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post), and a news piece from Haaretz about Mahmoud Abbas hailing the freed Palestinians as “freedom fighters.” The two previous Daily Alert editions, October 17 and October 14, were even more strident in savaging the Netanyahu government’s decision. And people wonder why American Jews are so much more hawkish than Israelis.
Yes, Virginia, there was a logic behind Israel’s decision, and not merely a soft-headed willingness to throw prudence to the wind in response to a mother’s tears. The Daily Alert must have accidentally overlooked that stuff. Or maybe they wanted to shield us from leftist propaganda. For example, this Jerusalem Post article by former Netanyahu bureau chief Ari Harow.
You know what they say: One is an anomaly, two is a coincidence, three is a trend. What about four? That’s how many leading commentators have weighed in over the past week with astonishingly gloomy prognoses about Israel’s future. They come from both left and right. The consensus is that the Jewish state is on the brink of a precipice.
The rightists seem to think there’s nothing Israel could do about it. The leftists say Israel could adjust its policies to respond to the changing realities in its region, but they don’t think Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to do it and they don’t see a more flexible, pragmatic government getting elected any time soon.
The titles include “Can Israel Survive?,” by neoconservative strategic affairs analyst Victor Davis Hanson, in the September 22 National Review Online; “Is Israel Over?” by Israeli dove-turned-hawk historian Benny Morris, in the September 11 Daily Beast; “Israel: Adrift at Sea Alone” by Thomas Friedman in the September 17 New York Times, and “Digging in, the essence of Netanyahu’s foreign policy” by Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn, which was published in his paper’s September 16 weekend edition and has since been quoted, analyzed, dissected and massaged in dozens of journals around the globe.
The make a variety of arguments, but Benn’s opening paragraph tells you most of what they’re all getting at:
The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy in Cairo has an interesting take on the storming of the Israeli embassy last Friday. It’s not exactly optimistic — he thinks that the Egyptian military was slow to restore order at least partly because it wants to be more attentive to public opinion than the Mubarak regime was, and “with a growing number of Egyptians finding their voice in the public sphere, business as usual with Israel seems highly unlikely, at least in the medium term.”
The implication here is that the Egyptian people really don’t like Israel, and that the more democratic the country becomes, the more hostile it will be toward Israel. But Murphy doesn’t follow that train of thought. In fact, he says the attackers weren’t really motivated by anti-Israel rage. They weren’t a brigade of Muslim fundamentalists or other anti-Israel radicals. They were overheated soccer fans venting their anger at the police, and the police were letting them vent.
… The breach was spearheaded by a group of protesters that seemed largely drawn from Cairo’s “ultras,” the organized and often thuggish supporters of local soccer teams like Ahli and Zamalek.
He was there, and his read on the crowd is absolutely something to be taken seriously. His take on the role of the security forces is also worth noting:
There were at least 20 armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers on scene and witnesses there said while the crowd was large and unruly that they should have been able to contain the crowd.
Simple incompetence? Possible. Reluctance to use force at a time when Egypt’s military rulers are fighting public perceptions that they’re Egypt’s new oppressors? That would be understandable. The ultras said one of their own was killed by a policemen after a football match last week, and their presence at the Israeli embassy was a way of channeling their fury at Egypt’s security forces. …
But Murphy thinks there was a subtler, more Machiavellian purpose behind the security forces’ permissiveness:
Some days it’s just not worth getting out of bed. Here are some top headlines from today’s Haaretz.com. After the jump, some top headlines from Ynet-Yediot.
Turkish officials tell Hurriyet Daily News that Turkish navy will strengthen presence in eastern Mediterranean Sea to stop Israeli ‘bullying’.
Israeli passengers authorities at Istanbul airport humiliated them and made them undress to their underwear; Officials in Ankara say Turkish tourists subjected to same treatment evening before at Israel airport.
Dozens of Israelis say they were humiliated at Istanbul airport, forced to strip to their underwear on Monday; Foreign Ministry officials say humiliation of Turkish citizens happens on regular basis in Israel.
Although official denies wall is to protect Israeli mission, move follows repeated angry protests outside embassy.
Previous media reports said that Egypt had begun operations to close smuggling tunnels under its border with the Gaza Strip.
Benjamin Netanyahu urges attendees of weekly government meeting to ‘maintain balance between social sensitivity and economic responsibility’; says Trajtenberg Committee recommendations to be published within two weeks.
In a video address to the Israel 2021 Conference on Sunday, Netanyahu warned that the government must maintain economic discipline, lest Israel deteriorate to the level seen in other countries, which have let the reins go.
WATCH LIVE: International confab aims to boost Israel’s cooperation with Arab world; Bank of Israel chief: Cut in trade with Turkey will be ‘expensive’; Peres: Relations are more important than borders.
After it emerges that Shin Bet and MI were ordered to keep mum on certain pieces of intelligence pertaining to the escalation in south, MK Shaul Mofaz accuses PM, Defense Minister of being a danger to the functioning of Israel’s security organizations.
… Sources in the committee pointed out Netanyahu and Barak’s decision to allow Egyptian military units in to Sinai without the Knesset’s approval – and the recent row between Netanyahu and Mofaz over Israel’s unpreparedness for the Palestinian independence bid – as further examples to the breakdown of relations between the Israeli security apparatus and the committee that is charged with its oversight.
Next: Headlines from today’s Ynetnews.com:
With political and social upheaval sweeping the Middle East, Israel is threatened by a tsunami of hand-wringing, angst-ridden warnings of impending doom. New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner summed up the situation in this news analysis over the weekend. Here is Reuters’ Crispian Balmer on the issues a week earlier, and here’s Haaretz’s Amir Oren the day before that.
There are basically four main worries: Bronner sums them up neatly:
As angry rallies by Egyptians outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this week have shown, Israel’s relationship with Egypt is fraying. A deadly exchange of rockets fired at southern Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza this week showed the risk of escalation there. Damaged ties with Turkey are not improving. Cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank seems headed for trouble.
Possible solutions all carry their own down-sides. Turkey insists its ties with Israel won’t improve unless and until Israel apologizes for the deaths of the nine Turks killed in the storming of the Mavi Marmara last year, but Jerusalem doesn’t want to because it feels it has nothing to apologize for. Security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority depends on restoring diplomatic momentum toward a peace agreement, but the Palestinians are headed down a dangerous unilateral road via the U.N., and they say they won’t come back to the table unless Israel either halts settlement construction or agrees to base future borders on the pre-1967 armistice lines. Israel was committed to do both in the 2003 Road Map but the government finds both unpalatable.
And then there’s this: As Bronner reports,
Last weekend, officials were contemplating a major military assault on Gaza. But that plan was shelved by the crisis that emerged with Egypt, by the realization that Hamas itself was uninvolved in the terrorist attack and by the worry about how such an assault would affect other countries’ views during the United Nations debate of a Palestinian resolution in September.
It’s all very awkward. And complicated.