I doubt I’m the only one who noticed the irony of Defense Secretary Hagel affirming Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons, touching off a clamor among congressional hawks and the now familiar gaggle of neocons and liberal interventionists for American intervention in the civil war there, on the very day that President Obama was in Texas dedicating the George W. Bush presidential library. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
The irony is only compounded by the fact that the library officially opens to the public on May 1, 10 years to the day after Bush’s misbegotten “Mission Accomplished” speech on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, declaring that the war in Iraq had ended in victory. Of course, it wasn’t over, and by the time we pulled out eight years later, it was pretty clear that America hadn’t won. Saddam Hussein was gone but the country had descended into years of horrific, violent chaos, and it ain’t over. And for what? Saddam was never shown to have anything to do with 9/11 or Osama bin Laden. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was toothless.
But it was much worse than pointless. Removing Saddam eliminated neighboring Iran’s worst enemy, allowing the Islamic Republic to emerge as the regional superpower. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Iran was the biggest winner from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to U.S. News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, one of the invasion’s most outspoken boosters. Here he is in October 2002, in one of his many get-Saddam editorials in the run-up to the invasion: “We are in a war against terrorism, and we must fight that war in a time and a place of our choosing. The war’s next phase, clearly, is Iraq.” Now, here he is four years later, in December 2006: “Question: What’s the most dangerous geopolitical development in the 21st century? Answer: Iran’s emergence as the Middle East regional superpower.” And here he is again in April 2007: “Ironically, Iran has been the great beneficiary of the war in Iraq.”
In other words, the Iraq invasion, which Zuckerman spent months demanding, resulted in “the most dangerous geopolitical development in the 21st century.” So what’s he up to now? Well, last week, even before the chemical weapons bombshell, he was calling the administration’s cautious approach “feeble” and urging some sort of stepped up involvement—either military engagement or full-scale arming of the rebels.
All this doesn’t make Zuckerman a bad man. But it does make him and his neoconservative allies extremely unreliable guides to the uncertain politics of the Middle East. The crowd that pushed us into Iraq created a disaster. And now they’re calling for firm action in Syria.
We know what they didn’t understand about Iraq. So what are they getting wrong about Syria?
Israelis awoke this morning to hear that four Palestinian rockets were launched towards Israel from Gaza and two had slammed in to the town of Sderot, without causing injuries. After months of quiet on the border following Israel’s Gaza operation in November, the Gaza militants who launched the rockets clearly intended to send a strong message to Obama.
It goes something like this. You may arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, talk at length with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the American-Israeli security partnership, and inspect the Iron Dome missile defense system that you have funded. But it can’t completely seal the Israeli south from attacks – you can’t ignore us.
There’s more. The second part of the message refers to internal Palestinian politics, and goes like this. You’re going to Ramallah today to talk to the Palestinian Authority. Don’t imagine that you can reach an agreement with the PA and ignore us and our opposition – we’re here, and ready and willing to unleash violence.
The rockets followed demonstrations against the visit in Gaza, which involved the burning of photographs of Obama and American flags. “We are out here today to say enough to the ongoing pressure on the Palestinian people and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority seeking to impose a unilateral settlement, and US preconditions forcing the PA to make more concessions,” declared Khalid al-Batsh, an Islamic Jihad leader. Hamas voiced similar views.
With news of the rocket attack, Obama began the second day of his trip. After a day yesterday of back patting and banter with Bibi, and competition with his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres to see which president could be more complimentary to the other, he ventured in to stormy Palestinian politics. (First he visited the Israel Museum INSERT LINK). The demonstrations that awaited him yesterday in Jerusalem were relatively sedate affairs calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard, who is in a US prison as punishment for spying for Israel. But in the West Bank, more than 100 Palestinians dug in their heels at a camp in E1, a 4.6-square-mile piece of the West Bank just outside Jerusalem where Netanyahu wants to build, protesting the occupation and Israeli policies.
There was also anger in Hebron, where around two-dozen minors were arrested by the Israeli military. Palestinians alleged that some were under the minimum age for detention, 12, and said that the arrests were unjustified. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said in a statement that the arrests were unjustified. However, Israeli military spokesman Eytan Buchman told the Forward: “There was rioting in the area and they were involved in rioting.”
In central Ramallah, as Obama arrived, around 250 people protested against his visit and push towards peace with Israel. Some held shoes, a sign that they wanted him to leave Palestinian territory. Slogans included the claim that the U.S. “voted for occupation” when it opposed the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations in November.
Even as Obama was meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after being greeted by a Palestinian guard of honor, Hamas was trying to grab the Palestinian headlines. Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of the Hamas regime in Gaza, declared: “We believe American policies perpetuate the Israeli occupation and settlements in Palestine under a slogan of peace,” adding: “The PA must realize that they have to abide by national principles and reconciliation.”
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.”
Zvi Barel, Haaretz’s impeccably cautious Middle East commentator, reports (might be paywall; here is the Hebrew original) that Hamas secretary general Khaled Meshaal has agreed to accept a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel based on the 1967 borders. This follows talks in Amman this week between Meshaal King Abdullah of Jordan. Barel cites a Saudi newspaper, A-Sharq, which in turn cited “Jordanian sources.”
He said Meshaal had authorized Abdullah to pass the new Hamas position along to President Obama.
The report continues:
The meeting is also said to have covered Palestinian reconciliation and relations with Jordan. So far neither Hamas nor Jordan has officially verified the Saudi report, but Meshal’s public statement after the meeting, in which he said, “Jordan is Jordan, and Palestine is Palestine, and any talks about relations between a Palestinian state and Jordan will only be held after the establishment of a Palestinian state,” more than hint at an essential change in Hamas’ position.
To date, Hamas has rejected the two-state solution, although it welcomed the Arab peace initiative whose core was the existence of two states based on the 1967 borders. In the past, however, Meshal has stressed that the 1967 borders are only a first step in the ultimate liberation of all of Palestine. This change in position is an extension of a previous shift in orientation in which Hamas, after fierce opposition, decided to support Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to gain international acceptance of Palestine as a non-member observer nation in the United Nations.
No official confirmation from Jordan or Hamas, but Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator with Israel, seems to take the report very seriously:
Hours after Operation Pillar of Defense came to an end last month, here at the Forward we published an article suggesting that the campaign could boost Hamas. It was early days, but new polling seems to indicate that this scenario is panning out.
The independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) has just published a survey conducted in the West Bank and Gaza which shows a “dramatic change in public attitude favoring Hamas.”
The more moderate Fatah party, the dominant faction in the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, normally leads in polls, but this one shows that if elections were held now in the West Bank and Gaza, voters would be pretty much evenly split between Fatah and Hamas.
The most remarkable finding of the poll is that if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Fatah) went up against Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Hamas regime in Gaza, Haniyeh would win. He would get 48% compared to Abbas’ 45%. Haniyeh would also win if jailed Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti, long considered the most popular person in Palestinian politics, entered the race.
Interestingly, even though it doesn’t translate to support for Abbas, satisfaction with his performance has increased following the successful bid at the United Nations. Three months ago satisfaction with Abbas stood at 46%; it now stands at 54%. What does this show? That while the Palestinian public has been impressed by the UN bid, the perceived victory in Operation Pillar of Defense has impacted political consciousness more.
Like many Jewish leaders, I have devoted the majority of my professional life to advocating on behalf of my denomination. Sometimes the need is concrete, other times ideological. From supporting the worldwide network of the 600-plus Conservative kehillot to agitating on behalf of a Judaism that is pluralistic, intellectually compelling and rooted in tradition, my religious identity is often inextricable from my personal Jewish “brand.”
Much of this is unavoidable. Not a month goes by without an invitation to speak about a topic of endless fascination to the Jewish public: the current state of Conservative Judaism. Whether joining together with the heads of my sister organizations to construct a wide lens view or honing on a particular geography — I will be moderating a panel discussion on the renaissance of Conservative Judaism on Manhattan’s East Side in December — I declare myself, time and again, a spokesperson for Conservative Judaism.
But I was reminded of the limits of denominationalism this past week in the course of my hastily arranged Solidarity Tour to Israel on Day 7 of Operation Pillar of Defense. Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, I joined with a group of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.
Together, we visited the mayors of the cities most affected by Hamas missiles, the injured civilians and soldiers, the damaged property, the brave Israeli citizens under threat of extinction every single day. Together we met with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Together we boarded buses from Ashkelon to Beer Sheva to Jerusalem, united as Jews, representatives of our denominations, yes, but stripped of the agendas that occupy us back in our offices in North America.
There’s nothing funny about war. So it’s unsurprising that a trending Twitter hashtag #HamasBumperStickers is being met with equal parts horror and glee.
“What’s the martyr with you?”, “I don’t break for Jews,” and “My other car is also a mass of blackened, twisted metal” are just a few of the Tweets cascading out today under the #HamasBumperStickers hashtag.
For those unfamiliar with Twitter, a hashtag is a way of marking — with a # — a keyword or topic that other people can follow and post to. The People’s Cube, a satirical, conservative website, claimed credit for launching #HamasBumperStickers at 10pm on November 14. By Novembers 15, as Israeli and Palestinian Twitter feeds did virtual battle, #HamasBumperStickers was among the hottest trending topics on Twitter worldwide.
But not everyone was amused. “So disgusted that something like #HamasBumperStickers is trending,” wrote Malak. “It’s easier than ever now to identify racists and advocates of child murder on twitter,” wrote Patrick Galey. “Just follow #HamasBumperStickers.”
When both sides are done flinging insults at each other, they might want to head over to Cafe Press, which offers a wide selection of pro- and anti- Hamas and Israel bumper stickers, from a Hamas flag rectangle decal ($5.20) to a “JIHAD THIS” bumper sticker ($5).
Contact Paul Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pdberger.
REFRESH TO SEE THE LATEST #HamasBumperStickers TWEETS
Center-right commentator Shalom Yerushalmi at Maariv argues that the rockets from Gaza seem likely to turn the upcoming Israeli elections once again into a referendum on who has bigger guns, meaning a Likud reelection. Sadly, he says, that would again bury the election that seemed to be shaping up, the one that Israel deserves, the one that’s typical in normal democracies, over the country’s intolerable social and economic inequities.
This assumes, at least in part, that Israel launches a serious attack into Gaza to stop the rockets, in some sort of reprise of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. Military correspondents Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff at Haaretz think that’s unlikely and will have to settle for less aggressive action, like resuming aerial targeted assassinations of Hamas leadership. They say Bibi’s freedom of action is limited because
…the diplomatic reality now is far different than it was when that offensive was launched in 2008: Israel fears a direct confrontation with the new regime in Egypt and it knows that neither the United States nor Europe will be as tolerant of a large-scale military operation this time around.
Here’s my question: Is it possible that Hamas has heated up the border, after close to three years of relative quiet (broken mainly by jihadi groups) because it wants the Likud to win – that it fears a possible victory by an Olmert- or Livni-led center-left leading to renewed negotiations with Abu Mazen? Is this Hamas’s bid to ward off a two-state solution and keep Palestine indivisible? I’m just saying …
The brother of Yitzhak Rabin’s killer has said that the assassin gets along fine with jailed Hamas terrorists and sees “no difference” between himself and the sworn enemies of Israel.
Hagai Amir made the comment in his first interview since his release in May. His brother Yigal Amir, Rabin’s killer, is still in prison.
For Hagai Amir, being in the same bracket as terrorists isn’t troubling. Asked if he feels remorse for the killing, which was intended to derail the Oslo peace process and is widely thought to have succeeded, he replied: “Of course not. It didn’t just happen out of the blue. We thought about it for two years, we acted according to the Jewish halacha, and one must not regret doing a mitzvah.”
He and his brother “did the only single act that could have been done at that particular point in time and in the conditions that were present.” He insisted: “We did not do it for us but for the Jewish people, simple as that, and behind the act was a good intention. At the end of the day, a good intention does not go to waste and it will bear fruits.” Asked is he is proud of his brother he replied “of course.”
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.)
In certain circles, the very name, Human Rights Watch, has become a profanity. There are those convinced that this is an organization set on attacking Israel unmercifully and disproportionately. Among these people is even Bob Bernstein who founded the group in the 1970s and recently left in protest to start Advancing Human Rights, which he says is a corrective to an organization that has lost its moral compass.
I won’t go in to the few mistakes HRW has made to bring this criticism down on its own head (remember the Nazi memorabilia collector who was working in their Middle East division?), but suffice it to say they have sometimes not made the job of their defenders easy.
Still, it does surprise me how compartmentalized the minds of their critics can be, such that they find it impossible to commend or acknowledge HRW when they do something evenhanded or that upsets the caricature of them as blindly pro-Palestinian.
Today, for example, the group issued a strongly worded press release directed at Hamas and the Palestinian Authority calling on them to investigate attacks against two Palestinian human rights workers. Here’s a summary of the two cases as presented by HRW:
If you’ve been following the news in the American and international press, you’ve probably heard that the unity talks between Fatah and Hamas have reached a new and alarming phase. According to an Associated Press report that’s been widely reproduced, Hamas has agreed to join the Fatah-dominated umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, the body that has been negotiating with Israel for the past 20 years, which “could have deep repercussions. Hamas has opposed the peace talks and rejects Israel’s right to exist. A strong Hamas voice in the group would further complicate the already troubled Mideast diplomatic process.” Not surprisingly, “Israeli officials reacted with alarm to the emerging agreement.”
But the Hebrew press is telling a different story. Both Haaretz and Ynet report—in their Hebrew versions only—that Hamas has agreed, as a condition of joining the PLO, to discontinue “armed struggle” against Israel and apparently has agreed to accept Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders, alongside Israel.
The Ynet report quotes Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas directly, from an interview he gave to a Belgian television network a month ago, stating flatly that Hamas political secretary Khaled Meshaal had accepted both those conditions. The article appears in English translation on the Ynetnew.com website in a truncated version with the paragraph on Hamas peace concessions excised. Here’s what the original Hebrew version says:
I just returned from a few weeks in Israel, and was there during the dramatic denouement of the Gilad Shalit story. The trip reminded me why it’s important for those of us who observe and comment and tear our hair out over Israel to actually experience the country as a place — as opposed to an abstract concept — every once in a while.
The reality is always so much more nuanced and challenging than the neat categories we project onto Israel from over here. The Shalit swap was a perfect example. From what I could tell, nearly the entire country was opposed and supportive of the deal at the same time. You could call this schizophrenia, but the extreme mixed feelings were just a function of Israeli reality. There is the emotional reaction — Gilad is everyone’s son — and the strategic one — releasing so many sworn killers is pure folly. And no one seemed to be bothered that these two reactions jostled together in their heads. They just did. And it made a joke of our attempts here to come to one conclusion about what Israelis actually think.
The other news that shocked me in the wake of the Shalit deal was a poll I saw cited on Israeli television that put 65 percent of Israelis in favor of continuing to negotiate with Hamas over a cease-fire. This number is consistent with a Haaretz poll from three years ago. I imagined going back to the States and explaining this to American Jews on the extreme right, like Rachel Abrams, wife of the neoconservative Elliot Abrams, who recently described Palestinians in a blog post as subhuman, “devils’ spawn” and “unmanned animals” who should be thrown to the sharks. How to break it to her that most Israelis see the logic of negotiating with these enemies?
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.
“It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas, which constitutes the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote.
It’s unclear if Hitchens, by “in reasonably close harmony,” meant to suggest that the flotilla activists are in actual collaboration with the Islamist organization that governs Gaza, or just that they are self-consciously in sympathy with it. Whichever it is, the claim is large, and unsubstantiated. Worse, it distracts from a more important truth.
Whether those aboard the flotilla are working with, or have had any communication with Hamas, doesn’t matter. Whether they believe in Hamas’s Islamist ideology and declared mission to destroy Israel, doesn’t matter. Either way, their actions support Hamas.
Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, has a few questions about the Free Gaza flotilla that he wishes the journalists on the scene would find time to ask.
Most of the speculation so far has been to do with methods and intentions, allowing for many avowals about peaceful tactics and so forth, but this is soft-centered coverage. I would like to know a little more about the political ambitions and implications of the enterprise.
For starters, “It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas, which constitutes the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood” and would likely be the main beneficiary of any success the flotilla meets. The movement’s military wing is based in Damascus, “where the regime of Bashar Assad is currently at war with increasingly large sections of the long-oppressed Syrian population.” Where do they stand on the uprising against the Baath regime? Do they have a position on the policies of Iran, the main backer of Hamas? How about its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah? Any of those freedom activists have a comment on the murder of Rafik Hariri?
Only a few weeks ago, the Hamas regime in Gaza became the only governing authority in the world — by my count — to express outrage and sympathy at the death of Osama Bin Laden. As the wavelets lap in the Greek harbors, and the sunshine beats down, doesn’t any journalist want to know whether the “activists” have discussed this element in their partners’ world outlook? Does Alice Walker seriously have no comment?
And what about …
the official programmatic adoption, by Hamas, of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice. It seems extraordinary to me that any “activist” claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material. But I have never seen any of them invited to comment on this matter, either.
The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn’t seem too adorable. The intended beneficiary of the stunt is a ruling group with close ties to two of the most retrograde dictatorships in the Middle East, each of which has recently been up to its elbows in the blood of its own civilians. The same group also manages to maintain warm relations with, or at the very least to make cordial remarks about, both Hezbollah and al-Qaida. Meanwhile, a document that was once accurately described as a “warrant for genocide” forms part of the declared political platform of the aforesaid group. There is something about this that fails to pass a smell test. I wonder whether any reporter on the scene will now take me up on this.
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