Israel’s consul for public affairs in New York, Gil Lainer, has offered a spirited reply to my June 10 column, “How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War In Gaza.” As a devout Zionist, I’m glad to see a strong, cogent defense of the state of Israel. Unfortunately, as Groucho Marx once put it, this wasn’t it.
Much of the consul’s riposte seems to be based, strangely, on the assumption that facts need not follow one from the other in order to constitute an argument as long as they sound similar. Thus the undisputed fact that Hamas favors conflict with Israel must somehow prove that Hamas wanted this conflict this month. The fact that Islam-motivated terrorist organizations fired rockets from Hamas-ruled territory can somehow mean that Hamas as good as fired those rockets. The fact that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal praised the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students after the fact must mean that Hamas ordered the crime. Sorry, but things don’t work that way.
Prime Minister Netanyahu promised early on to show proof that Hamas was responsible for the kidnappings, but the proof never came and the promise was quickly forgotten. Instead we have Meshaal’s ravings. Well, Meshaal did indeed praise the kidnapping afterward, but he also said he had no information about it. Other Hamas leaders, including Sami Abu Zuhri and Osama Hamdan, stated flatly that Hamas had not ordered it. Hamas is never shy about acknowledging its actions. Why are we so eager to believe every damning word that comes out of their mouths but to dismiss as lies anything that might be deemed exculpatory?
Other assertions are even stranger. Supposedly I claimed that “Hamas does not desire conflict with Israel” (which I didn’t — I said it didn’t desire this conflict right now) because I’m “unaware of who has been launching rockets at Israel for years.” The consul then proceeds to identify who’s been doing it: the very groups that I blamed. I called them “smaller jihadi groups.” He calls them “Islamic terror groups that, whether they call themselves Hamas or not, espouse the same hatred and are committed to the destruction of the State of Israel.” That is, not Hamas, but they might as well be because they sound the same.
French police have arrested four people suspected of recruiting would-be jihadist fighters in Paris and southern France, apparently for training and combat in the Syrian civil war, the British edition of the International Business Times reported today.
The arrests were announced by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. They come a day after the announcement on Sunday that French police had arrested a suspect in the May 24 terrorist shootings at the Jewish Museum of Brussels in Belgium.
The suspect in the Brussels attack, a French-born Muslim named Mehdi Nemmouche, is alleged to have received training and combat experience in Syria with a militant anti-Assad insurgent force, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Nemmouche’s arrest has touched off fears among European, American and Israeli security officials that the Syrian civil war might be breeding a new generation of young Islamist radicals with Western roots — and Western citizenship — who could return home prepared to carry out new terrorist attacks. Intelligence sources told Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel that an estimated 1,200 European and North American Muslims are fighting with militant groups in Syria at any given time.
Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mahmoud Abbas in 2010/Getty Images
Israel’s decision today to suspend peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in response to yesterday’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, is really three distinct decisions. One is sensible. The second is understandable if questionable. The third is inexcusable.
The first decision is the actual suspension of talks, pending formation of the new Palestinian Authority government. The second is to suspend transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, in retaliation for Palestinian actions. The third is to launch an international media campaign to “blacken the name” of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas in international public opinion.
The first, suspending talks, sensibly reflects the gravity of the Palestinian step and the delicacy of Israeli domestic politics. Israel isn’t alone in viewing Hamas as a rejectionist, irridentist and terrorist organization; that’s the assessment of the international community.
The Middle East Quartet — the diplomatic partnership of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — laid out three conditions back in 2006 for Hamas participation in the diplomatic process: recognizing Israel, swearing off terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. To date it has met none of them. There have been unofficial trial balloons, never formally confirmed, about Hamas possibly accepting peaceful coexistence on some basis. And Hamas has largely observed a cease-fire across the Gaza border since taking a whipping in Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. But it has flatly refused to give up terror in principle, and the only thing preventing Hamas attacks in the West Bank, where no cease-fire exists, has been Israeli-PLO security cooperation.
Under the circumstances, then, it’s reasonable for Israel to suspend negotiations until it sees whether the new Palestinian unity government meets minimal international norms — in effect, whether unity means Hamas following Fatah toward coexistence or Fatah following Hamas toward endless war. It’s not merely reasonable — it’s the least Jerusalem can do to show its voting public that it’s doing its job.
The second Israeli decision, to suspend the monthly transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, is a longstanding tactic for retaliating over Palestinian provocations. It does seem to be useful as a political safety valve, to let the Israeli public know that their government is on its toes and not giving away the store. Like Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel, it’s a way to pressure (read: beat up on) the other side without actual bloodshed. Like those boycotts, its usefulness in encouraging Palestinian good-faith adherence is a lot less clear. Still more unclear is whether or not it’s legal under Israel’s signed agreements.
America is reportedly stepping up its commitment to the Syrian rebels with new injections of money, upgraded weapons and intelligence coordination, according to several respected Arab news sources, the Abu Dhabi-based The National and the Jordanian-based Ammon News.
The moves are said to include supply of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which Saudi Arabia has been eager to supply but Washington has opposed. Ammon News reported Tuesday that the shoulder missiles will come from Jordan and Turkey and that Washington continues to oppose the supply.
According to The National, a secret operations command center has been set up at Jordanian intelligence headquarters in Amman to work with the rebels, staffed by military officials—military intelligence officers, according to Maariv—from 14 countries including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and various European states. Jordan denied that the center exists. But Washington Post foreign affairs pundit David Ignatius reported this week that intelligence officials from most of the countries named by The National met in Washington a week ago to discuss Syria strategy.
Israel is watching the shifts nervously, Maariv reported, partly because of a decision by the moderate Free Syrian Army to shift its main forces from northern Syria, where they face stiff competition from jihadi militias, to the south, close to Israel. The shift southward, it’s feared, could tempt jihadi forces to move southward following the fighting, putting Israel in danger from Al Qaeda-linked terrorism.
‘Arguably treasonous’? Former Israeli intelligence chiefs Meir Dagan of Mossad (left) and Yuval Diskin of Shin Bet / Wikimedia Commons
There seems be a growing realization on the pro-Israel right — in some corners of it, at least — that its notions of Israel’s security needs don’t have much support among Israel’s security professionals.
What the right calls standing firm on Israel’s bottom line, the generals call sabotaging the peace process. What the generals call basic Israeli security doctrine, the right calls left-wing, pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Reactions from the right to this realization have been pretty much what you’d expect from any self-respecting right-wing ideologue these days: indignant protests that the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. In recent months a growing roster of conservative commentators in both Israel and America have accused the defense establishment as a group or its most prominent members of ignorance, stupidity, disloyalty and even “arguably treasonous” behavior.
This is a new and disturbing development. It’s enough to recall the response in September 2009 to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, which accused Israeli troops of war crimes, to remember the onetime intensity of the taboo against questioning the integrity of Israel’s defense establishment. But that was before the political leadership of the Netanyahu era began spinning an ideologically-driven security agenda that was radically at odds with the longstanding doctrines of the defense and intelligence establishment, and the politicians discovered that they couldn’t get the generals and spymasters to tailor their assessments to fit the political winds.
The security establishment—former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, military intelligence and the IDF general staff—began aggressively speaking out around three years ago, some two years into the Netanyahu administration, once they began suspecting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline policies on Iran and the Palestinians weren’t tough bargaining positions so much as ideologically-driven recklessness.
In the first half of 2011, Netanyahu swept out the heads of all the main security branches, including the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the IDF and the national security council, all apparently because the incumbents had refused during internal deliberations to endorse an Israeli military strike against Iran. The months that followed saw a steady stream of public statements from ex-service heads, in speeches, interviews and op-eds, laying out their views on what Israel does and doesn’t need to be safe. Some were directly critical of the government’s policies; others criticized only by implication.
Hamas police on the Gaza-Egypt border, September 2013 / Getty Images
Ideology continues to trump security in the Netanyahu government’s approach to combating terrorism. As Hamas struggles to maintain its November 2012 cease-fire with Israel in the face of increasing rocket fire, mostly by al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihad factions, Israel responds by bombing Hamas facilities.
In addition to jihadis, the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has been responsible for a small proportion of the rocket fire. The front fired several rockets at the Negev from Gaza earlier in January, including two fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral January 13. Israel retaliated January 22 by assassinating a PFLP leader identified as responsible for the rockets, Ahmed Al-Za’anin.
The latest incident began late Thursday, when an unknown group fired a rocket that landed in field outside the Negev town of Netivot. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Friday morning, as he has done repeatedly over the past year, that Israel considers Hamas responsible for all such attacks. The Israeli military retaliated later on Friday by bombing two terrorist installations, a rocket factory in the northern Gaza Strip and a weapons storage facility in the southern strip, that the army later confirmed were both Hamas facilities.
Hamas responded Saturday by withdrawing its rocket prevention units from the field. Initial Israeli responses interpreted the action as Hamas “giving a green light” to stepped up rocket attacks. But by Saturday night, as there had been no further rocket fire, Israeli sources began suggesting that the Hamas troop withdrawal was intended as a message to Israel to direct its fire toward those responsible, rather than punishing Hamas for actions it has been trying to prevent.
During the month of January some 20 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, equal the total for the entire preceding 11 months.
The developments come on the heels of a disturbing January 26 report that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been shaking up the hiring and promoting practices at the Shin Bet internal security service in order to create an agency that produces the intelligence he wants. The report, by Haaretz military analyst Amir Oren, says that as a result of the effort, the Shin Bet now has “three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.”
Oren claims that the shakeup follows Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t get the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (or MI) to produce the intelligence he needs to fend off Secretary of State John Kerry and justify an attack on Iran. Military Intelligence, like the rest of the military, insists on strict professionalism both in its assessments and in its personnel decisions, unlike the Shin Bet, which is under the prime minister’s personal supervision. Oren writes:
Nearly half the rebels fighting in Syria are jihadists linked to Al Qaeda or hardline Islamists fighting for a strict Islamic state, according to a study that’s about to be published by IHS Jane’s, the respected British defense consultancy.
Advance word of the study appears in Monday’s edition of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The Jane’s study is said to be due out later this week.
The study reportedly claims there are about 100,000 fighters in the Syrian insurgency, divided into about 1,000 independent and often hostile units. About 10,000 belong to “powerful factions” of jihadists linked to Al Qaeda. These groups are fighting for an Islamic state within a larger Middle East caliphate.
Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists whose philosophy is similar to the jihadists, but are focused purely on Syria rather than an international revolution. In addition, according the Telegraph, there are “at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character.”
The remainder, some 25,000 to 30,000, belong to secular groups with a democratic or nationalist orientation. In other words, between 25% and 30% of the total rebel force consists of groups considered friendly to the West, according to the British study.
According to the Telegraph, the assessment
accords with the view of Western diplomats [who] estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.
A week after the dramatic terror alert that shut down 19 U.S. embassies, experts are starting to weigh in on what it means, and specifically what it tells us about the state of Al Qaeda. If I can sum up the answer in two words, it would be: not much.
Here’s what Fareed Zakaria has to say in this week’s Time magazine:
On the broader question of the state of al-Qaeda, there’s room for debate. Al-Qaeda Central, the organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is battered and broke. But the idea of al-Qaeda remains vibrant in other places … in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and northern Nigeria.
Now look at this new analysis by Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel, who headed the Middle East desk at the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush:
In case anyone needed reminding, the recent global terror alert illustrates that, 15 years after its first attacks on America, Al Qaeda is thriving. … Failed revolutions and failing states are like incubators for the jihadists, a sort of Pandora’s Box of hostility and alienation.
Riedel points to the “rapid growth of these franchises—associated cells and sympathetic movements from Algeria to Aden”—as the newest element in the Al Qaeda puzzle. He recalls the tensions within Al Qaeda that hurt the movement in 2005, when “the CIA revealed [Osama bin Laden’s then-deputy Ayman al-] Zawahiri’s communication with “Jordanian terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.”
But the Forward’s Marc Perelman was reporting a full year earlier, in March 2004, that Zarqawi was operating an Al Qaeda franchise—apparently the first—in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Even if Zakaria and Riedel can’t agree on whether the fragmenting of Al Qaeda into many loosely-linked cells means it’s “thriving” or “battered and broke,” they do agree that the regional branches are doing well. The Yemen chapter is strong. The Syria branch is on the rise. And everyone agrees that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the African branch active in Mali and elsewhere, is a star player. Except the ones who think it’s falling apart.
Talking Points Memo on Friday ran an Associated Press story out of Timbuktu, Mali, reporting on a bundle of letters from Yemen AQ leader Nasser al-Wahishi (sometimes spelled Wuhayshi) to Algerian AQIM boss Abdelmalek Droukdel, full of chatty tips on how to govern once you’ve captured territory. The letters are part of a trove of documents the AP found in Timbuktu after AQIM was driven out of the city in January by French troops (you know, the ones that are afraid to fight wars):
Boy, President Obama is really taking it on the chin over the latest Al Qaeda threat and the closing of those 19 embassies.
On the right, he’s getting hammered by the likes of The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, Long Island Republican Rep. Peter King and even the distinguished Bard College international relations scholar Walter Russell Mead, an Obama supporter, all accusing him of underestimating Al Qaeda’s resilience, foolishly dialing back the war on terror and trying to stop the bad guys by dialogue—all of which have brought us to this sorry juncture.
From the left comes Obama’s own campaign counter-terrorism adviser, La Salle University political scientist Michael Boyle, accusing him in the Guardian of foolishly continuing and even escalating the failed Bush administration policies that have simply made things worse and—brought us to this juncture.
Which is it? Did Obama recklessly take his foot off the gas in the war on terror, or did he recklessly floor it? Leave it to the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to point out the essential point, which is that the wheels fell off this clunker a long time ago. It was the war-on-terror strategy that created the current crisis.
The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped to create the decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike.
Robinson offers the perfect metaphor to illustrate the practical effect of the war on terror that we’ve been fighting against Al Qaeda for the past decade:
Al-Qaeda turns out to be like a pool of mercury. Hit it with a hammer and you end up with 10 little blobs instead of one big one.
Taliban and Al Qaeda members are fleeing northern Afghanistan in disarray, amid a “collapse of morale” following the death of bin Laden, Juan Cole reports on his “Informed Comment blog.
It appears that the Taliban were still linked to, and perhaps taking direction from, al-Qaeda, more than most analysts had suspected. It also appears that Bin Laden had more of an operational, strategizing role than we had thought.
If it is true that radicals are fleeing Qunduz, and indeed other provinces as well, and heading for safe havens in places like North Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, it is likely primarily because they had direct contact with Usama Bin Laden and now fear that information about them is in American hands, since the SEALS captured his hard drives and thumb drives.
Speaking of disarray, there are more and more signs of alarm within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment regarding the cliff toward which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is resolutely leading the country.
Meir Dagan, the long-serving former Mossad director who was a close ally of Ariel Sharon, told a conference at Hebrew University on Friday that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear project, an option cherished by Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak, is “the stupidest idea I ever heard.”
Dagan was immediately lambasted by Barak and finance minister Yuval Steinitz, a frequent Netanyahu surrogate. Both said he should have kept his mouth shut. But a string of top security honchos sprang to his defense, including former Mossad directors Danny Yatom and Ephraim Halevy. So did Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee chairman Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and Ariel Sharon’s defense minister.
Dagan has been in this movie before. The day after he stepped down as Mossad chief in January, he testified before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee and said Iran could not acquire a nuclear bomb before 2015 at the earliest. He said that Western sanctions and various accidents plaguing the Iranian project were continually pushing the date further and further into the future. (Here is the latest Iranian public acknowledgment of the serious threat that last year’s Stuxnet virus posed to the computer guidance of their centrifuges. They say it’s mostly under control, but it’s not. Here’s the head of the Iranian miltary’s cyber-defense unit in the Iranian army describing yet another virus they found in their nuke computers just two weeks ago.)
That drove Bibi ballistic, according to numerous press reports (including this piece by Ari Shavit in Haaretz, who agreed with Bibi that Dagan was irresponsible.
Dagan sheepishly backpedaled a week later, allowing as how maybe Iran could have a bomb sooner than 2015. It seemed clear at the time that he had been bludgeoned into recanting. Now it’s obvious.