Gaza campaign shows cautious regional unity

There are no coincidences in the Middle East. Not between the Israelis and the Palestinians, not between Fatah and Hamas and certainly not between the international community and Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

What there are, this time around, are startling confluences in planning and policy that have driven a wedge in Arab unity, while providing unprecedented illustrations of cooperation between Israel and some of its neighbors. Operation Cast Lead, as the Israelis call it, foreshadows far more than another temporary period of relative quiet along a border.

At work is a fascinating scenario in which Israel “does the deed” — toppling Hamas — which arguably benefits the Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis and other Arab states as much as it does Israel. Jordan faces a special dynamic. But there’s more: In doing so, are the Israelis in effect clearing the way for an agreement with the Palestinians (road map for peace plan) and with the entire Arab world (Arab — nee Saudi — initiative)?

For months there has been speculation as to who will invade Gaza: Could Mahmoud Abbas and his American-trained cadre of fighters do the job, or must it be the Israelis who clearly wanted to avoid taking the plunge and risking the ever-present quagmire?

As Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit admonished Hamas at a Cairo news conference after the Israeli campaign began, it could not fire 300 rockets into Israel between the Dec. 19 end of the “calm agreement” and the Dec. 27 response without forcing Israel’s hand. Israeli military planners, meanwhile, never doubted the Hamas obstinacy and certain course to conflict.

It was a lesson about which Jerusalem and Cairo were very much in synch. Egypt went to the well twice and came up empty: in its attempt to negotiate a rapprochement among Palestinian factions and in its attempt to negotiate an extension to the Israel-Hamas “calm agreement.”

With a presumed good measure of prodding from the White House and vigorous nodding from the U.S. administration-elect, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took the decision not to allow U.S. largesse to crumble at the self-defeating hands of Hamas.

Once he took the plunge, Mubarak never vacillated, showing courage in feeding Hamas the disinformation that flushed its leadership out of hiding in time for the first Israeli assault, fighting back the surge of Gazans trying to enter Egypt and allowing Al-Gheit to cast the blame for the Israeli onslaught on Hamas itself — courage helped along by a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and the allure of continuing American aid.

Abbas, meanwhile, emerges as the primary beneficiary of this extraordinary convergence of interests. Gingerly testing the waters from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and from Cairo — anywhere but Ramallah — he provided an important piece to the puzzle. When Saudi King Abdullah phoned President Bush to demand that Israel be reined-in, Abbas himself was still in the city, the two leaders having just met. No coincidence here, either. Clearly the Americans, Saudis and Palestinians were all on the same page as the Egyptians and Israelis.

And Iran? Not much in the way of sabre-rattling this time around. Tehran fights Israel through proxies: the Syrians, Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border and Hamas down south.

Syria continues to weigh the long-term benefits of patching up things with Washington; Hamas is being left with little but rhetoric, and some military wonks believe Hassan Nasrallah is savvy enough to realize he bit the bullet in 2006 and should not be quick to bite the apple again. Accordingly, it is noteworthy that Nasrallah inveighed against Cairo, not Jerusalem, when Operation Cast Lead began.

In all, while remaining mindful that not without reason generations of peacemaking in the Middle East has failed miserably and that courses chartered through the region are rarely completed, the participants appear to have put on an impressive demonstration of coordinated international gamesmanship that, in its first stage, was carried out with precision planning and cooperation that extended across ancient fault lines.

Whether the planners will achieve their respective goals in subsequent stages will depend on their ability to remain focused on the benefits of their cooperation and eschew impulses to push beyond agreed limits.

Felice Friedson is president and CEO of The Media Line News Agency, a U.S. organization specializing in Middle East coverage, and founder of the Mideast Press Club. She can be reached at

VIDEO: Archaeologists excavate 2100-year-old wall in Jerusalem

A 2,100-year-old section of the wall surrounding Jerusalem, dating from Hasmonean times, has been unearthed on Mount Zion, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. The excavations have revealed part of the expanded southern city wall, from the Second Temple period, when ancient Jerusalem was at its largest.


Questioning Authority

All of us question authority at times. We do it for any number of reasons. Sometimes our ego motivates us. Sometimes the motivation stems out of a true desire to bring about a needed change. Whatever the reason, and no matter the era, authority is constantly being challenged, leadership questioned. This week’s Torah portion, Korach, highlights an unprecedented yet serious challenge to the Israelite leadership. It begins with a handful of dissenters, rapidly escalating into a substantial rebellion. Led by Korach and two others, Datan and Abiram, Moses’ authority as God’s chosen leader is suddenly at stake.

In a remark that so neatly fits the mindset of the Israelites, Korach and his supporters announce to Moses, and for all to hear: “Is it not enough that you took us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness?” (Num. 16:13) That the Israelites would romanticize their past in Egypt is understandable. As horrid as the conditions were, they were predictable and constant. Traveling through the desert was uncertain and frightening.

But that a self-proclaimed leader would falsely recreate his people’s history likening their living conditions in Egypt to a land “flowing with milk and honey,” does nothing more than reveal his true intentions: love of power and the fulfillment of his own selfish goals. Is it no wonder the rabbis of the Talmud wrote: “Every gathering whose purpose is to serve God will in the end be established; but every gathering whose purpose is not for God’s sake, in the end will not be established.” (Pirkei Avot 4:14) Significantly, Korach’s efforts to topple Moses failed.

Throughout the Torah, the Israelites complained to Moses, constantly voicing a desire to return to Egypt. Even after having witnessed the most incredible miracles imagined, they expressed a desire to return to the wretched life they had as slaves. To his credit, Korach knew his audience; he understood their vulnerabilities. He told them what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear.

Korach told them that a life of slavery was better than a life of freedom. Essentially, he told them that life under Pharaoh’s rule was preferable to life under God’s rule. He validated their parochial beliefs, further building onto the slave mentality that was driven into their souls, the culmination of hundreds of years of repression and subservience.

Psychologically, Korach understood it was easier to destroy something or, in the case of Moses’ leadership and reputation, to destroy someone, than it was to build and improve on it. He knew that the verbal attack he leveled against Moses, no matter the intensity, gave him leverage. Verbally, he could discredit Moses with a few damaging accusations, while Moses would require paragraphs of explanation to defend his good name and record. Korach knew it was easier to complain and point out weaknesses in Moses’ leadership than it was to focus on the immeasurable good Moses achieved throughout his life.

No one would doubt there are appropriate times to question authority, times for a legitimate change in leadership to occur. But on a spiritual level, perhaps Moses’ entanglement with Korach teaches us that leadership is not limited to an elite handful. When developed, leadership can be found in all walks of life. It can be found in one’s home, at one’s place of work. It can be found every time a person struggles to do what is right. Legitimate, responsible leadership is found every time a necessary word is spoken, every time pain is removed from the world.

So let the story of Korach’s failed rebellion serve as a lesson to us all. Next time you complain and challenge authority, ask yourself what the motive behind doing so truly is. Ask yourself how you can further improve your own leadership skills in order to better elevate all aspects of your personal behavior. Ask yourself if you are motivated by a desire to build or to topple, to serve God or to serve yourself. Finally, ask yourself if your style of leadership is more akin to Korach or to Moses.