The big con about Iran

Despite all the skepticism, the United States and Israel do have a military option in Iran: pre-emptive nuclear annihilation.
The United States and Israel, or the United States by itself, or maybe even Israel by itself, can destroy Iran and its 69 million people, probably in a matter of hours or even less, and then nobody in the world will have to worry about those crazy maniacs getting the bomb. Things would be sort of weird afterward, it’s hard to say what the consequences might be, but the Iranian threat would be behind us.
Other than that, though, there is no military option in Iran. If we didn’t learn this from the Americans’ ongoing experience in Iraq, we should have learned it from Israel’s recent experience in Lebanon.
Many people think it’s possible to wipe out Iran’s nuclear facilities, or at least cripple them, from the air. But did Israel manage to wipe out or cripple Hezbollah’s weapons from the air? Incidentally, Iran is about 150 times the size of Lebanon. And Hezbollah’s underground military bunkers were built by the Iranians; imagine what they’ve built for themselves at home.
But I don’t want to misrepresent the case for an air attack on Iran’s nuclear works; those in favor allow that it might well require commandos and maybe small infantry units to ferret out the nukes and make sure they’re destroyed.
When I hear this, I think of American soldiers roaming around Iraq looking futilely for weapons of mass destruction, then I remember that Iran is four times bigger than Iraq, with more than twice the population, and a military that dwarfs what Iraq had when the United States invaded in 2003.
I think, also, of how small units of Israeli infantry went into south Lebanon at the start of this summer’s war, and how everyone soon realized that those soldiers wouldn’t be enough — which happened at about the same time everyone realized the Air Force wouldn’t be enough, either — and that instead, a massive ground invasion would be necessary.
And all that was just for tiny little Hezbollah and south Lebanon. How many troops and how big a war effort would be needed to take on Iran?
No one knows. How long would the soldiers have to stay in Iran before the nuclear threat were removed, if it could be removed? How would Iran fight back? Would it fire missiles at Israel? Would it use chemical and biological weapons? How far beyond Iran would the war spread? How many soldiers and civilians would die?
Again, nobody knows. And on the basis of what we’ve seen in Iraq and Lebanon, nobody can even make a decent guess, least of all the calm, confident generals and politicians who are so good at promising “victory.”
But I think people know by now that before a country goes to war, it has to be prepared to weather the worst possibilities, not just the most blissful ones. I don’t think anybody will believe the same sort of pie-in-the-sky predictions about fighting a war in Iran that they believed about fighting one in Iraq and in Lebanon. And I suspect the non-believers include George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert, no matter what they say publicly.
I figure they know that trying to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities by conventional means requires a huge military commitment and huge risks with no guarantee of success. It means being prepared for a much bigger war than the United States has been fighting in Iraq for the last three and a half years, and counting.
America won’t do it. No way on earth. With the United States so hopelessly out of its depth in Iraq, the American people will as soon let Bush start a war in Iran as they’d let him bring back the draft, which would be necessary to fight such a war. So forget it. America might be up for a quick little in-and-out operation, something like it did in Granada or Panama, but that’s not a military option with the likes of Iran.
And what is Israel going to do? It would be nice to have maps and satellite photos of a big, vulnerable Iranian nuclear reactor sitting out there on the ground in plain sight, so a few jets could fly over, bomb it to hell and fly back in time for dinner, just like they did in Iraq in 1981. But that isn’t an option this time, either. Iran’s nuclear facilities, wherever they all might be, are spread out, underground, thickly defended — and the element of surprise is long gone.
So with no quick, painless solution available, is Israel willing to start the kind of war necessary to even have a chance of getting rid of Iran’s nuclear potential — to start the kind of war America clearly won’t?
No, Israel isn’t willing. For a war of choice, this is too big and dangerous, and that’s what it would be — a war of choice. Israelis may have convinced themselves that Iran will nuke us once they get the chance, but while this is a possibility — a remote one, I think — it is by no means an inevitability, and to treat it as such is hysterical, which is what Israelis, inevitably, have become over Iran.
I’m not saying Iran, especially a nuclear Iran, is nothing to worry about. Iran is plenty to worry about, but as for what to do about Iran, how to stop it from getting nuclear weapons, neither the United States nor Israel nor anyone else has a conventional military way to go about it.
There are all sorts of diplomatic pressures that can be applied to Iran and its arms suppliers, but if Iran gets the bomb, which I think is likely, we are going to have to learn to live with it like we lived with Stalin and Mao having the bomb. They weren’t any less fanatical than the Iranians, and when it comes to genocide and conquest, the Iranians talk about it, but Stalin and Mao did it. So there’s good reason for worry, but not for hysteria.

Israel Presses for Halt on Iran A-Bomb

After months of keeping a low profile on Iran’s nuclear program, Israel has launched an intensive diplomatic campaign to convince the international community to pressure Tehran to drop its efforts to produce a nuclear bomb.

Israeli officials say the campaign, involving the United States, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is focusing on a September IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna. That body has the power to refer the "Iranian nuclear dossier" to the U.N. Security Council, where international sanctions could be imposed.

The Israeli diplomatic move has been accompanied by a veiled threat of attack on Iranian nuclear facilities if the international community fails to stop Tehran’s nuclear weapons drive. However, the Iranians, undeterred, are continuing to pursue an ambivalent and potentially military nuclear program.

Like Israel, the United States is seeking stiffer international action. The EU position has been less decisive, however, and it is not clear whether the union will back a U.S. demand for sanctions. Europe’s position could be crucial.

Israel stopped its public criticism of Tehran after Iran and Libya intimated a readiness late last year to cooperate with the international community in dismantling their nuclear weapons programs.

At the time, Israeli experts said Libya was serious, but they didn’t trust Iran. Still, given the new situation and not wanting to draw attention to its own alleged nuclear capabilities, Israel decided to adopt a low profile on Iran and let the United States and Europe take the lead in pressuring Tehran to drop its nuclear weapons drive.

Now, Israel feels the international community has not been firm enough and has allowed Iran to get away with a pretense of cooperation, while clandestinely furthering its nuclear ambitions.

In late June, Israeli leaders decided to change tack. As a first step, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom initiated a July 2 meeting in Washington on the Iranian issue with Condoleezza Rice, U.S. national security adviser. Afterward, Shalom declared that the international community "cannot allow the Iranians to move forward in their efforts to develop nuclear weapons."

Less than a week later, Mohammed El- Baradei, IAEA director general, visited Israel, where all his interlocutors, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, stressed the danger to world peace of nuclear weapons in Iranian hands.

On July 22, when the EU’s foreign policy boss, Javier Solana, visited Israel, his hosts made sure his itinerary included a meeting with Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, who provided Israeli intelligence material purporting to show Iran’s nuclear duplicity.

The day before, Maj. Gen. Aharon (Farkash) Ze’evi, head of Israeli military intelligence, briefed the Cabinet, delivering an assessment — immediately made public — that unless Iran was stopped, it would go nuclear by 2007 or 2008.

Hawkish legislators Ephraim Sneh of the Labor Party and Ehud Yatom of Likud took their cue.

"If the international community continues to show ineffectiveness, Israel will have to consider its next steps — and fast," Sneh said.

Yatom was more explicit, saying, "Israel must destroy the Iranian nuclear facility just as we did the Iraqi reactor in 1981."

Earlier, there had been what appeared to be a calculated leak to the press. On July 18, the London-based Sunday Times reported that the Israeli air force had completed military preparations for a preemptive strike at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility and would attack if Russia supplied Iran with fuel rods for enriching uranium.

An Israeli defense source, who confirmed that military rehearsals had taken place, was quoted as telling the paper, "Israel will on no account permit the Iranian reactors — especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help — to go critical."

By breaking its silence on Iran, Israel was indicating that it does not take the Iranian threat lightly — and neither should the West. Beside the obvious warning to Iran, the subtext of the Israeli message seemed to be directed at the international community: Act to stop Iran going nuclear, or Israel may feel it must take preemptive military action, with all the potentially destabilizing consequences.

Then, on July 29, Israel conducted a successful test off the California coast of its Arrow 2 anti-missile system. Some observers saw the test as yet another message to Iran: In a conflict situation, Israel would have the overwhelming strategic advantage of being able to intercept and destroy incoming missiles, another reason for Iran to reconsider its nuclear program.

The Iranians, however, are showing no signs of backing down. On July 25, Seyed Masood Jazayeri, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, warned that if Israel attacks, "it will be wiped off the face of the earth."

A week later, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi confirmed that Iran had resumed building centrifuges that can produce weapons-grade uranium. His statement followed a meeting in Paris in which Britain, France and Germany failed to persuade Iran to stop making the centrifuges and allow spot inspections of its nuclear facilities as promised.

The Europeans had offered to close the Iranian nuclear dossier if Iran cooperated with spot inspections and stopped all production of weapons-grade uranium. But Iran has been delaying the inspections, and — though it repeatedly has insisted that it was not making weapons-grade uranium — it acknowledged that it was continuing to make centrifuges that could be used for uranium enrichment. It also has said nothing will stop it from joining the world’s nuclear club.

Like Israel, the United States maintains that Iran is dissembling, pretending to run a civilian-use nuclear program while clandestinely conducting a full-scale nuclear weapons drive. With huge oil reserves, U.S. officials note, Iran hardly needs nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

Israeli officials say much will depend now on how the Europeans respond to the latest Iranian rebuff in Paris and what line they take at the September IAEA board meeting. If they back the American position, the result could well be a U.N. Security Council debate on a joint resolution threatening Iran with sanctions.

That would be a new phase in the international community’s efforts to stop Iran from getting the bomb. And if that happens, Israel may feel that its new more aggressive campaign had something to do with it.

Sharon Wins Big With Bush

One historic concession deserves another. Just four months after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — the father of the settlement movement — stunned Israelis by pledging to evacuate some settlements, he got his payback from President Bush, who reversed decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Israel’s claim to parts of the West Bank.

It was compensation, with interest: Sharon had scored perhaps the most stunning diplomatic triumph in the U.S.-Israeli alliance in a generation.

"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949," Bush said Wednesday at a White House appearance with Sharon after the two leaders met. "It is realistic to expect that any final-status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."

The statement, reiterated in a letter to Sharon, represents the first time the U.S. government has provided a formal commitment to Israel’s claim on parts of the West Bank.

Bush’s commitment came without any mention of land from Israel and was widely seen as a significant shift in U.S. policy in the region. It was a soaring historical moment fraught with grinding political realities.

Bush needs a Middle East success to bolster a reputation as a bold foreign policy leader that flags with each U.S. casualty in Iraq.

For his part, Sharon needs to show Israelis that his leadership through some of the nation’s most traumatic years is resulting in a diplomatic breakthrough.

In addition, Sharon faces a May 2 Likud Party referendum on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and other Likud figures have vowed to challenge any uprooting of settlements.

When talks on the dimensions of a withdrawal began in February, the Americans rejected out of hand any recognition of Israeli claims in the West Bank. Subsequently, U.S. officials said they would consider such a recognition depending on the breadth of the withdrawal.

According to a senior Israeli official, the disengagement plan Sharon presented to Bush calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all of the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank.

The settlements, encompassing 500 settlers, include Ganim, Homesh, Kadim and Sanur, all in the northern West Bank. The withdrawal from these settlements would provide contiguity for the Palestinians between Jenin and Nablus, a major Palestinian concern.

The official said any future withdrawal would depend on how the Palestinians respond to this proposal and whether they live up to their commitments.

No one expected Bush to so explicitly bury years of U.S. policy, which traditionally said all the land Israel captured in 1967 was up for negotiation.

At best, Bush was expected to recognize vague "demographic realities." Instead, he said it was "unrealistic" to expect Israel to return to its pre-1967 lines.

Bush moreover threw in an endorsement of Israel’s controversial security barrier as it is now routed.

"The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of that security effort should, as your government has stated, be a security rather than political barrier," he said.

Finally, Bush expressed his most emphatic rejection to date of the Palestinian demand that Arab refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to land in Israel that they left in 1948.

"It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final-status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there rather than Israel," he said.

Sharon gave very little in return. Against Bush’s repeated assurances that the Gaza withdrawal would spur forward the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan and its goal of a Palestinian state, Sharon referred only obliquely to "your vision" in his public remarks Wednesday.

The biggest political loser Wednesday appeared to be the Palestinians, who were paying the price for a leadership that refused to stop terrorism and never successfully engaged Bush.

"He is the first president who has legitimized the settlements in the Palestinian territories when he said that there will be no return to the borders of 1967," Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei was quoted as saying by Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper.

Qurei’s outlook was bleak.

"We as Palestinians reject that, we cannot accept that, we reject and refuse it," he said.

Senior Bush administration officials, however, said the Palestinians should view the letters as an opportunity.

"What we want is a situation where Palestinian leaders, committed to democracy and fighting terror, have a chance to take control of that territory as a down payment on the way toward a Palestinian state," one said. "And we propose to engage very vigorously with the Palestinian Authority to try and create the institutions that will allow them to do that."

Sharon’s Plans for Peace Draw Fire

After several years in office that have been characterized by ongoing violence and diplomatic stalemate, Ariel Sharon says he is determined to press ahead with new peace moves that could include "painful concessions" to the Palestinians.

The prime minister’s remarks last week elicited scathing criticism from within his own Likud Party. But opposition leaders and senior Israeli pundits remain skeptical. Sharon has made similar bombastic announcements before, they say, but never delivered.

Sharon confidants have been dropping broad hints that the prime minister’s grand plan includes dismantling some Jewish settlements to pave the way for the establishment of a mini-Palestinian state by next summer. Even if peace talks with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s new government fail, aides say that Sharon — for profound strategic reasons — intends to carry out a unilateral withdrawal from some Palestinian territories to create a clear line of separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

The National Religious Party and the far-right National Union bloc are threatening to bolt the coalition if Sharon goes ahead. Leaders of the opposition Labor Party, though, say that if Sharon is serious, they’ll be ready to join his government.

It all started with one enigmatic sentence. "I don’t rule out unilateral steps," Sharon declared emphatically — but without elaboration — at an exporters’ conference in Tel Aviv on Nov. 20.

The remark sparked a flurry of exegesis. One explanation was that the prime minister meant Israeli gestures to help bolster Qurei’s position on the Palestinian street; another was the more radical notion of unilateral withdrawal if negotiations with Qurei failed.

Both ideas stung Likud politicians, who called a Knesset party meeting Monday and demanded that Sharon explain himself. However, the prime minister declined to retract his hints or spell out in any detail what he meant.

Sharon refused to deny reports that he intended to evacuate some settlements and said he had spoken about "painful concessions" so that "people wouldn’t wake up one day and say they didn’t know."

"It is obvious," Sharon continued, "that ultimately we will not be in all the places we are in now."

As for the unilateral steps, Sharon said he meant steps in "our favor" — in other words, "moves in which the Palestinians would get less than they could have got through negotiation." Sharon warned the Palestinians that Israeli patience was not endless, and that if the Palestinians did not work seriously toward a peace deal now, they should not expect to find the same offers still on the table in the future.

Critics within the Likud Party charged that unilateral moves meant giving in to terror, contradicting the party’s official policy. Despite the vehemence of the Likud clash, pundits remained unconvinced.

Ha’aretz’s Yossi Verter argued that the party simply was playing the role assigned to it by Sharon’s spin doctors, making Sharon look like a moderate.

It was, Verter wrote, a "shop-worn ritual" in which "Sharon goes to the Likud Knesset faction, which is comprised mainly of rightists, some ideological, some opportunistic. They jump all over him. He bangs on the table and reminds them that they owe their jobs to him, and once again earns the media’s plaudits. And all without saying a single word in his own voice that would commit him to evacuating settlements."

But others say three factors are spurring Sharon to try to break the current impasse: U.S. pressure, grass-roots peace initiatives that are invigorating the Israeli opposition and the so-called demographic problem — the fact that, within a few years, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.

Now that Qurei is in place, the United States is stepping up pressure on Sharon. Bush’s top Middle East adviser met with Sharon last week in Rome to discuss U.S.-Israel differences over the route of the planned security barrier and the dismantling of settlement outposts. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, picked up the same themes in discussions Tuesday in Washington with Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s top adviser.

In addition, William Burns, the top U.S. envoy to the region, will meet with leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah this weekend — his first visit since August — showing Bush’s renewed commitment to peace making there.

So what does Sharon really have in mind? Is it all spin or does Sharon really mean to act?

According to his aides, who insist that Sharon is serious, the prime minister has a two-tiered plan. The overall aim is to reach a clear division between Israel and a mini-Palestinian state by the summer.

Plan A would do so through negotiations based on the "road map" peace plan. Plan B would do so unilaterally if the road map negotiations fail.

Analysts say the demographic bogeyman should not be underestimated, because Jews soon could constitute a minority in the area including Israel and the Palestinian territories. Then, instead of a two-state solution in which the states of Israel and Palestine coexist side by side, the Arabs may well demand a single "Greater Palestine" comprised of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — with an Arab majority. That would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

To preempt this situation, people close to Sharon for the first time are talking in terms of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In mid-November interviews with Ha’aretz and Israel Radio, Deputy Prime Minster Ehud Olmert gave the first inkling of the new thinking.

Olmert, one of the ministers closest to Sharon, declared that if the road map negotiations fail — as he expects — "Israel will have the right to take unilateral actions to separate from the Palestinians through a fence or other measures."

To counter the demographic problem, he said, the line between Israel and the Palestinian areas should be drawn in such a way as to include the maximum number of Jews and a minimum number of Palestinians.

Sharon, too, apparently is concerned that failure to reach a two-state solution could expose Israel to demands for a binational state. That, his aides say, is partly why he is so intent on separating from the Palestinians, with or without agreement, by next summer.

All this, too, could be spin. But if Sharon really is serious and if negotiations with the Palestinians fail, the big question will be where Sharon draws the dividing line between the two peoples.

Will it be a line that entails dismantling settlements and keeps open future chances for a two-state deal, as many on the right fear? Or does Sharon plan to leave the Palestinians with 50 percent or less of the West Bank, undermining prospects for a future agreement, as many on the left fear?

The pundits suggest a third option, that Sharon is merely playing for time, using feints and dodges to impress the Americans and the Israeli public, with no intention of making meaningful political moves.

As usual in the Middle East, what the future holds is anyone’s guess.

But Officer, It’s Yontif!

Worried about getting a parking ticket while you’re praying for your soul? Don’t fret. You can take as long as you want in synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, because Los Angeles’ normally overzealous traffic cops will be off your back.

City Councilman Jack Weiss has used his diplomatic muscle to have all parking restrictions in the 5th District relaxed over the high holidays to accommodate synagogue-goers. The relaxed parking laws will be in effect from 4 p.m, Friday, Sept. 26 to 11 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28; from 4 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 5 through to midnight, Tuesday, Oct. 7; from 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 10 through to 11 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 12; and from 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 17 through to 2 a.m., Monday, Oct. 20.

For more information or to check whether your synagogue’s street is in the 5th District, you can call Field Deputy Adeena Bleich on (310) 289-0353.

Sharon’s Elections Gambit

Early elections may not have been Ariel Sharon’s first choice, but his decision to go to the polls as soon as possible enables the savvy Israeli prime minister to make a number of political and diplomatic gains.

By calling the shots, Sharon comes across as a powerful leader still setting the national agenda. By calling elections for late January, he makes it difficult for the Labor Party, which left his government only last week, to establish itself as a credible opposition force.

In addition, by rejecting the idea of a narrow government with the far-right National Union-Israel Our Home bloc, Sharon avoids a potential showdown with Washington and retains the consensual, middle-of-the-road image that has made him so popular in Israel.

The Sharon government’s last order of business will be to pass, as soon as possible and without amendments, the 2003 budget over which Labor ostensibly left the coalition last week.

All other major policy issues likely will be on hold until after the elections. In the run-up to an expected American attack on Iraq, Sharon is unlikely to undertake any military moves against the Palestinians that might upset Washington.

For the same reason, he is unlikely to move on the American "road map" for peace with the Palestinians, arguing that such major policy issues should be left to the post-election government.

What the early election gambit fails to do is catch Sharon’s rival for Likud Party leadership, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unprepared.

In fact, Sharon’s announcement Tuesday that he would go to elections within 90 days followed a weekend of dramatic maneuvering between Sharon and Netanyahu, two political masters.

Sharon had hoped to trap Netanyahu by offering him the Foreign Ministry: Either he would accept and tie his fate to Sharon’s government, or he would refuse and appear more interested in his own political destiny than in the national welfare.

The move seemed to backfire, however, when Netanyahu outflanked Sharon by accepting the post — on the condition that Sharon move for early elections. On Monday, the prime minister rejected the condition, calling it "irresponsible."

The very next day, however, Sharon notified President Moshe Katsav of his intention to go to elections — making the decision his own, rather than the product of pressure from Netanyahu.

For good measure, Sharon blamed the decision on political blackmail by the far-right parties, displaying the centrist tack he will take in his re-election campaign against challengers he will portray as too extreme from both the right and the left.

Netanyahu then accepted the Foreign Ministry offer, arguing that Sharon had met his main condition.

For Netanyahu, too, it’s not a bad development. As foreign minister, he would approach the election for party leader — which will be held before the national elections — from the best possible position, political analyst Sima Kadmon wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot: "Holding a senior, made-to-measure post, with the backing of the government of Israel to go round the world expressing his views, after having successfully fixed an agreed date for the end of Sharon’s current tenure."

Netanyahu has been working intensely on his political comeback since leaving politics after his landslide loss to Ehud Barak in May 1999. In the recent Likud membership drive, which brought in a total of 305,000 members, he seemed to have the edge over Sharon.

Polls of Likud members, who will elect the party’s leader and candidate for prime minister, give Netanyahu a slight lead.

Sharon had hoped to keep his government going, one way or another, for a few months longer. Displaying steady leadership during a time of crisis, such as the expected American attack on Iraq, would allow him to open a sizable lead over Netanyahu, Sharon believed.

But Sharon soon realized the scenario wasn’t possible, at least on his own terms. Trying to cobble together a new government after Labor’s defection last week, the prime minister found himself caught in a tangle of political and diplomatic contradictions: If he moved to the right, he ran the risk of confrontation with Washington. But unless he moved to the right, his chances of forming a stable coalition were small.

His determination to avoid antagonizing Washington made it almost impossible for Sharon to satisfy the demands of potential right-wing coalition partners. Early on in the government crisis, Sharon assured the Bush administration that he would not change the government guidelines worked out with the Labor Party in March 2001 or retract his support for the Bush vision of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But that is precisely what the National Union-Israel Our Home faction was demanding. And there was another, even more difficult hurdle to an agreement: The leader of National Union-Israel Our Home, Avigdor Lieberman, insisted that Sharon promise to set up another narrow right-wing government after the next elections.

"If we are only there to help the Likud through a rainy day, why should we bother?" Lieberman snapped in a radio interview on Monday. Later that day, he added: "We are not the Likud’s gum, to be chewed and then discarded."

Sharon’s answer was swift. Rejecting Lieberman’s condition, he said he preferred another national unity government with Labor after elections. That was the signal for early elections.

In the government’s remaining 90 days, Netanyahu and the new defense minister, the former army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, might try to coerce Sharon into expelling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a move all three ostensibly favor.

As America prepares an anticipated attack on Iraq, however, Sharon is unlikely to do anything to antagonize Washington or inflame the Arab world. The Americans’ road map is also likely to be left for the next government.

The composition of the next government is therefore crucial. Will it be led by the Likud — and if so, by Sharon or by Netanyahu?

Or will it be led by Labor — and if so, by the current, centrist party leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, or by more left-wing politicians such as Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna or Knesset member Haim Ramon?

Leadership primaries are due in Labor on Nov. 19. Likud primaries probably will be held soon afterward.

Recent polls show Likud likely to rise from its current 19 Knesset seats to almost 30, while Labor would fall from 24 to around 20.

However, those polls were taken when Labor was still in the Likud-led government, with no undisputed leader and no clear political identity of its own. As a fighting opposition under a leader with a clear mandate, Labor’s support could rise, even though there is not much time until elections.

Sharon has indicated that he will campaign as the experienced, responsible unifier of the nation, dismissing his opponents as divisive and inexperienced.

For all their substantive policy differences, both Netanyahu and Labor argue that, unlike Sharon, they can actually solve the nation’s problems.

Whoever wins the Labor primary is expected to target the settlers, arguing that Likud is beholden to the settlers and thus can’t make peace with the Palestinians and solve the nation’s acute security and socioeconomic problems.

Ironically, the early elections could turn out to have been very nicely timed: A post-Iraq America and a post-election Israel could get down to serious business on the basis of the American plan for peace with the Palestinians.

Waking Up to the Right

Be honest: ever wake up in a cold sweat these days after dreaming that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman had indeed been elected, after all? Ever look around, while driving to
or from work, to see if anyone can tell you’re listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio — and loving what he says about Israel? Ever given any thought, however fleeting, to voting for Alan Keyes, the vigorously pro-Israel Fox TV host, next time he runs for president?

They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but the sudden discovery, and embrace (however hesitant), of outspoken conservative Republicans by lifelong liberal Democrats has been extraordinary. As Israel finds itself increasingly isolated in diplomatic and political circles around the world, we are starting to realize that not only do we supporters of the Jewish state have few friends, but that many of the ones we have are the very ones we ignored, feared and/or disliked until yesterday, it seems.

Take the Evangelicals, from Jerry Falwell to Pat Robertson, who are singing from the same hymn book (you should excuse the expression) as Ariel Sharon. Conservative Christian support has been strong, vocal and sincere. Its motivation is not politically calculated as much as ideologically and religiously inspired. So does that make me nervous, knowing that millions of American Evangelicals are praying for Israel as a phase in the fulfillment of a scriptural belief that speaks of the conversion of the Jews, the final return of Jesus and the end of days?

Yes, but not as nervous as knowing that millions of mainline Protestants are, at best, remaining neutral on the Mideast conflict or more likely following their church leaders and supporting the Palestinian cause — a twisted moral compass, given that the Palestinians threaten and abuse Christians and their holy places in the Mideast while Israel has upheld every commitment to maintaining religious freedom.

But you don’t see the pope or most other Christian leaders pointing out the deeply sinful behavior of the Palestinians, who preach pure hatred of the Jews, encourage and praise their young people for homicide bombings of Israeli women and children, and sanctify death over life. These religious leaders wear moral blinders, speaking of their concern for Christian holy sites while remaining mum when Palestinians seize, desecrate or attack Jewish sacred places like Joseph’s Tomb and Rachel’s Tomb.

Where was the outcry against Palestinian gunmen for violating the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, using it as sanctuary while holding innocents hostage, and where was praise for Israel for showing great military restraint and religious sensitivity throughout the crisis?

Without the luxury of choosing my friends, I have become far more pragmatic over the last few months, recognizing and appreciating those with the moral courage to speak out in behalf of a beleaguered Israel, and caring less about their views on less pressing issues. According to several experts I spoke with, I’m not alone.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says he recently spotted Christian conservative Gary Bauer in Washington and went over to thank him for his support for Israel. “I told him we will continue to disagree on other issues but I appreciate his voice on Israel,” Foxman related, adding that “we [Jews] are not giving up our values on issues like social justice, but we need to adjust to reality. First we adjusted to the need for larger U.S. military budgets, recognizing that if America isn’t strong it can’t support and defend Israel. Now we realize we need all the friends we can get,” including those in the Christian right community.

The ADL’s reprinting in large newspaper ads of an opinion column by Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, on “why people of faith support Israel,” raised plenty of eyebrows in the Jewish community. But Foxman says it’s important to get the message out and show appreciation for those who take a stand for the Jewish state.

Martin Raffel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs notes that “there is always tension for American Jews” in assessing their relationship with Evangelical Christians. “Our community is still queasy” about the vision of America as a Christian country, he says. “But this crisis has pulled down some of the walls that existed between us, and many welcome their suppzort for Israel, while insisting there is no quid pro quo for us.”

Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee says Jews are putting their own self-interests first now, and that’s fine. Perhaps that will translate into our being less predictably liberal in the voting booth in future elections, but that will depend on whether Israel — our priority issue — is in crisis. Bayme sees “a sober realism setting in” among American Jews that will not go away anytime soon.

For me, that realism is tinged with plenty of irony as I try to focus on feelings of sincere gratitude for the Mideast views of my newly discovered allies on the political and Christian right (not that they haven’t been supportive all along) while trying not to think about where they stand on a range of domestic issues. I guess that makes me either a skittish friend or a political pragmatist. Either way, I’m learning to seek out, appreciate and support Israel’s friends, near and far — sometimes very far.

Just recently, while speaking at a Hadassah conference, I was asked by a woman where she and her husband should go on vacation. It was more a query about politics than travel, though, because she said that while she wanted to go to Israel, her husband was fearful, so he bought tickets to Paris — but she refuses to support the French economy. So where should they go, she asked.

“Micronesia,” I suggested, mostly in jest, since even those of us who appreciate the tiny country’s support for Israel in the United Nations don’t quite know where it is. (Last month, in another shameful U.N. vote, Israel was condemned for its April incursion into the West Bank — with no mention made of the Palestinian terrorism that precipitated the military move. The vote was 74-4, with 54 abstentions, and the only countries voting “no” were the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands and its speck of a Pacific neighbor, Micronesia.)

All of which reminds us to show hakarat ha’tov, gratitude and honor, to those few friends — all too few — willing to step up for Israel in its time of need.

Helpers Harm

It’s one of the oddities of world affairs that the worse things get in the Middle East, the more various countries, international bodies and individuals want a piece of the diplomatic action. The region could use some help, but sadly, recent offers by a number of hopeful mediators are likely only to confuse matters and make U.S. diplomacy more difficult.

The Europeans, the United Nations, even Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan all want to lend a hand.

But part of the problem in the region is that they all may want to be involved for reasons having nothing to do with a desire for a fair peace or with the survival of the Jewish state. And for all their handwringing over the Palestinians, there’s little real interest in easing their plight, either.

Here’s a brief guide to the mediator wannabes:


Europe wants Israel to just go away. OK, they don’t actually come out and say this, but that’s the gist of the double standard they apply to the region: The Palestinians can do no wrong. The Europeans show a sympathy for them that is absent in their feelings about the rest of the world, where self-absorbed apathy is the rule, not compassion. And Israel can do no right. Even when Israel was poised to give up almost all of the land taken in 1967, the Europeans found ample reasons to carp and complain.

This imbalance is the result of a pungent stew of factors, including their dependence on Arab oil and concern about their own burgeoning Muslim minorities. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s also a strong thread of anti-Semitism, something with which the Europeans have lots of cultural experience. There is opposition to current Israeli policies around the world, but Europe is the only non-Islamic region where anti-Semitic violence is surging.

Islamic States

Islamic States want the 54-year Arab-Israel conflict to go on forever. Many talk a good talk when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians. But none of these nations has been willing to actually help suffering Palestinians. None has lent a hand to peacemakers in the region or offered significant economic aid.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt would rather keep the Arab-Israeli conflict at a low boil than help solve it — largely because whipping up anti-Israel animus helps deflect their own people from rebelling after generations of political and economic oppression.

The recent Saudi peace proposal seemed like a signal that some prominent Muslim countries were ready to help, not hinder the search for peace. Washington reacted hopefully — but changes in the plan may render that hope premature.

The United Nations

The United Nations is churning out the usual blizzard of indignant resolutions on the region, but the one-sided outpouring guarantees that once again, the international body has disqualified itself from playing a useful role. The United Nations partition plan in 1947 was the pivotal event in the creation of Israel, and U.N. bodies have acted ever since as if it was a big blunder.

Some of that is a proxy for rampant hostility to the United States, Israel’s only friend. Some of it has to do with Palestinians’ success in portraying Israel as the last colonial power, a charge that still resonates powerfully in the Third World, helped along by European guilt.

And much of it has to do with inept leaders, including Secretary General Kofi Annan and outgoing Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, who has legitimately criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians — but who, by posing this as one of the worst human rights abuses in the world, has displayed an absence of perspective that would be funny, if it wasn’t so destructive to any helpful U.N. role.

Media Stars

Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan shouldn’t really be lumped together — Jackson may not be an anti-Semite, while Farrakhan leaves little room for doubt — but they both seem motivated by the same thing: a lust for attention. Does Jackson, a longtime Yasser Arafat ally, somehow dream that Israel can see him as an impartial mediator? Forget about Farrakhan.

The Middle East is the world’s greatest international stage, and it’s hardly surprising that people who long for the spotlight — including washed-up politicians and religious leaders — want to be front and center, even when there’s no conceivable possibility they could help, and a lot of opportunity for them to hurt.

Christian Groups

Mainstream Protestant groups in this country don’t support terrorists, but they end up encouraging the suicide bombers when they ooze sympathy for the man who gave them the green light. Treating Arafat like a misunderstood pacifist and Ariel Sharon like a war criminal suggests motives and biases that have little to do with a fair, stable peace, and it encourages Arafat to continue believing he can speak peace to gullible outsiders, while preaching war to his own people.

Red-Carpet Treatment

It’s after Labor Day, which means kids are back to school, the football season has kicked off and the presidential race is heating up.

With much less fanfare, the Jewish diplomatic season is also under way.

The three-day U.N. Millennium Summit last week presented American Jewish leaders with a unique opportunity: about 150 presidents, kings and prime ministers, gathered together to discuss the lofty goals of global peace, prosperity and an end to infectious diseases.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the summit, Jewish leaders scrambled to meet with dozens of these rulers. Regardless of the summit, this is typically peak season, with the United Nations set to resume its annual sessions.

Leading the way was the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), followed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Also networking were groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Why U.S. Jews want to meet with world leaders is clear and well known: The focal point of most of these meetings is Israel and how the Jewish state can foster stronger alliances around the world.

Why world leaders would want to meet with Jewish groups is more interesting, less publicized, and to some Jews, a bit discomfiting: These leaders believe in Jewish power.

In past years, such discussions between Jewish leaders and various heads of state centered on the Middle East peace process and soothing the hostile treatment toward Israel at the United Nations. Now, though, American Jewish leaders detect a shift in international opinion toward the Jewish state.

This shift, they say, is due to the fact that Israel is seen as making greater efforts in the peace process, has fully withdrawn from Lebanon, and now has more or less equal status at the United Nations. During the summer, Israel was finally accepted into the Western European grouping of the world body.

This year, the peace process was certainly a popular topic, as was how to apply international pressure on Iran to release 10 Iranian Jews the Jewish world believes were unjustly convicted in July on espionage charges.

In some cases, talks between American Jewish leaders and their counterparts across the table are a question of deepening relations with Israel. In other cases, there may be a state interested in establishing relations with Israel but under pressure from other countries not to have formal ties. Such meetings are often confidential, said Jason Isaacson, the AJCommittee’s director of government and international affairs.”There are instances where tentative feelers are being put out, where we can assist and be an important interlocutor,” Isaacson said.

“But if even the discussion of modalities can be highly controversial, it serves no good purpose to publicize those meetings,” he continued. “If our interest is to encourage a more formal relationship, the best way may be to act discreetly and diplomatically and not in the public view.”

In its publicized meetings, the AJCommittee met with, for example, President Ahmet Sezer of Turkey, which has a growing military alliance with Israel; President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world; and President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, which is the economic and military powerhouse on the African continent.

The Presidents Conference met with Sezer as well, but also with less prominent states like the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. These meetings went beyond Israel and the fate of the local Jewish community; they also included discussion of global issues such as nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

It’s hard to imagine any other religious or ethnic community in America with as active or ambitious an agenda as U.S. Jews. This outward-looking world view, Jewish leaders say, is rooted in Jewish history and the Jewish people having lived for thousands of years in the Diaspora.

“We are an internationalist community,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

“We have a much broader perspective, not bound by the borders of this country. Foreign affairs is not exactly a burning passion of most Americans. But we pursue it far more than others do.”

More interesting, perhaps, is why these foreign heads of state are willing – in many cases, in fact, eager – to meet with American Jewish leaders. Though they were generally in town for 24, 48 or 72 hours, with jam-packed itineraries, many made American Jewry a priority. One Jewish leader was even surprised when a foreign dignitary called and apologized profusely for having to cancel his planned meeting.

In fact, Jewish leaders nowadays receive mostly red-carpet treatment.

They have access to the corridors of power in most capitals around the world. A slew of foreign embassies in Washington have diplomats assigned to the “Jewish portfolio,” said Isaacson, from the Chinese and Japanese to the Germans and Poles, to the Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans and Tunisians and to the Argentinians and Australians.

At Passover, they and others turn out in droves for diplomatic seders held in Washington and New York.American Jewish leaders explain all this buttering up in euphemistic terms, suggesting that foreigners have a “fascination” with or “appreciation” for American Jews.

When pressed, Jewish leaders admit the true driving force behind this attention is the lingering belief that Jews are capable of making or breaking relations with the United States and capable of wreaking havoc on the world’s financial markets.

This belief is derived from the century-old hoax “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” It is never articulated, say Jewish leaders, except for the rare gaffe by a less sophisticated diplomat. But the message is loud and clear when dignitary after dignitary says his country views the American Jewish community as a “central address” for improving relations with the world’s lone superpower.

Several Jewish leaders say they used to try to disabuse various rulers of their perception of “Jewish power” in light of the misery this myth has caused Jews, to no avail. Then they realized how it could also work in their favor.

On the flip side, they admit that on occasion, a Jewish activist here or there is guilty of fanning this mythology to advance his own agenda. He’ll intimate to a stubborn head of state that the road to closer ties with Washington runs through American Jewry, presenting, in effect, an offer the leader cannot refuse.”We don’t traffic in that fear or suspicion or exaggerate our depiction of the community’s position,” Isaacson said.

But, he added, “I’ve been around politics for 20 years, and I’ve come to realize that perception is reality. If there’s a perception of Jewish power, then that’s the reality, and you have to deal with that reality. What we do is we judiciously and with great care make use of that reality for noble ends.”

Indeed, American Jews are viewed as vigilant and vocal, denouncing regimes that persecute Jews and other minorities, like Iran, and pressuring Congress, not always successfully, not to do business with rogue states. Likewise, Jewish groups praise leaders and states that respect human rights, and sometimes put in a good word for them on Capitol Hill. In the case of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, the trio pins their hopes for the future on ties to the West, not with Russia. These countries seem to believe that chummy relations with American Jews and Israel will help secure a beachhead into the United States. So they wanted advice and assistance on how to boost their image in Washington and urged foreign investment, Jewish and otherwise, said Hoenlein. “We reach out to them,” he said, “and they reach out to us.”

Israel Speaks Up

Israel this week came out of its shell and launched a public campaign against the trial of 13 Iranian Jews charged in Isfahan with spying for Israel and the United States.

After one of the defendants, Danny Tefilin, was paraded on Iranian television to confess his “guilt,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman stated in Jerusalem on Monday: “The attempt to present the Jewish detainees as spies is outrageous and cruel. Israel reiterates that the detainees are innocent and should be released immediately.”

The minister for Diaspora affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior, announced a day later that he and the Sephardi chief rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, would lead a prayer meeting on the Iranians’ behalf at the Western Wall on Thursday. He called on synagogues across Israel and the world to join them in prayer.

This represents a calculated raising of Israel’s profile. Although it had already denied that the 13 were spies, Ehud Barak’s government preferred to mobilize international diplomatic support. It feared that too strident an Israeli campaign would rebound on the prisoners, but this reticence seems to have failed, while the Jews are trapped in a power struggle between liberal and conservative forces in Teheran.

Oded Granot, Ma’ariv’s Middle East analyst, commented: “The ‘confession’ forced on Tefilin, just like the tendentious leaks published in Arab newspapers that several of the arrested Jews tried to gather information on Iran’s atomic reactor, means that Iran does not intend to retract under the pressure which the Americans and Jewish sources throughout the world are applying for the release of the 13 Jews.”

In addition, Granot detected signs that Islamic conservatives, who controlled the courts, wanted to use the Jews’ trial as a weapon against the moderate President Hatami, who was accused of being soft on civil rights and looking for an opening toward the West. The radicals had earlier flexed their muscles by closing 15 pro-Hatami newspapers and jailing dozens of civil rights activists.

On Winning the Terror War

Readers’ Quiz No. 2: Test your knowledge of Middle East terrorism. Simply identify the following incident:

It was one of America’s most controversial “victories” against international terrorism: a negotiated settlement with a gang of Arabic-speaking hijackers who were holding American hostages. After military action proved ineffective, a U.S. diplomat in the region decided — apparently without authorization — to pay off the hijackers. The hostages were released, but, in the ensuing furor, the diplomat, a Jew, lost his job.

Pencils ready? Name the year, the place, the terrorists and the diplomat, for five points each. For extra credit, explain the lessons for future terrorist confrontations.

Time’s up. Figured it out?

Answers: The year was 1815, the place Tunis. The hijackers were seagoing bandits known as the Barbary pirates. The diplomat was Mordecai Manuel Noah, U.S. consul in Tunis and the first Jew ever to head an American diplomatic mission abroad.

Extra credit: If you said nothing much ever changes in the Middle East, add five points. If you said things have a way of changing without seeming to, add 10 points. Fifty points if you said nothing is as it appears in the looking-glass war of terrorism.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Noah went to Tunis. America’s relations with the Moslem world have risen and fallen many times over. Jews have moved from center stage to the margins and back. America has become a world power. The Middle East has gone through independence, Arab nationalism, Islamic revolution and the discovery of oil. Yet here we are again, caught in another looking-glass war against shadowy Middle Eastern thugs who play by their own rules, or no rules. And, as always, Washington and the West are divided over how to respond.

The tactical dilemmas vary from case to case, but they boil down to one basic question. Should the fight against terrorism follow the niceties of civil society, or the cruder rules of the battlefield? Put differently, is terrorism a matter of statecraft or simple law enforcement? Are terrorists an international enemy, or common criminals?

It’s not clear-cut. Criminals enjoy elaborate protections from the moment of arrest, while battlefield foes are shot on sight. But enemies can sit down after the fighting and negotiate for their position. Criminals don’t get to have a position.

The United States today is fighting the shadow war on a half-dozen fronts, from interdicting terror at home, to chasing the Saudi-born terrormaster Osama Bin Laden, to making Libya give up the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Critics say the war lacks a clear vision. “The Clinton administration and, to some extent, the Bush administration basically look at terrorism as a law enforcement problem, but it doesn’t really work,” says Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of anti-terrorism operations at the CIA. “On the other hand, the sporadic attempts at some kind of military response don’t really work either. You’re not going to destroy a terrorist infrastructure by bombing their barracks.”

Still, there have been victories. Just last week, the U.N. Security Council rejected a bid to lift the sanctions imposed on Libya after the Pan Am bombing. Some Europeans wanted the decade-old sanctions lifted because Libya has agreed in principle to surrender the suspects under a compromise deal. Washington wanted the sanctions kept in place until the suspects are actually delivered. The council backed Washington.

It was the second victory inside a week. Two days earlier, the Supreme Court upheld the Justice Department’s 12-year struggle to deport eight members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, detained in Los Angeles in 1987 for fund-raising for the terror group. The eight claimed that they were singled out for deportation because of their beliefs, violating their First Amendment rights. The administration replied that since they were in America illegally, they had no First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled for the administration.

Victories like these send a firm message to terrorists and their supporters: You can run, and maybe you can hide, but the long arm of American justice will eventually reach you, if you don’t die of old age first.

The problem is that terrorism doesn’t really fit either a military or police mold. Military strikes are too blunt a weapon. Traditional police work is too polite and too slow. Terrorists slip across borders, kill with abandon and don’t mind dying. What’s needed is a third way.

Some experts say the answer is to rescind the mid-1970s executive order that bans assassination by U.S. agents. “We’re caught in this ridiculous position,” says conservative scholar Michael Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute. “If somebody kills an American and runs away, you have a choice of bombing them or asking Interpol to arrest them. What you can’t do is go out and shoot them.”

Washington hasn’t returned to assassinations, but it has moved toward finding that third way. The solution: unconventional legal doctrines. One is extraterritorial jurisdiction, the startling notion that the United States can punish crimes committed on others’ soil. Another is the 1996 Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act, which limits the rights of terror suspects to lodge appeals, view the evidence against them, even talk to lawyers. Civil libertarians howl about the erosion of democratic rights. So far, the courts haven’t agreed.

The new law plays a key role in Washington’s current hunt for the Bin Laden gang. Indictments were drawn up last fall against 11 members, including Bin Laden himself. Six are in custody so far. Over the last three months, they’ve filed countless pretrial motions, claiming infringement of their rights in jail. The courts haven’t agreed.

The bottom line, then, is that for all the screaming headlines, we’re not losing the terrorism war. The Palestinians have largely abandoned terror in favor of negotiations. As for Libya, “it hasn’t directed terrorist actions against the United States in recent times, because the sanctions are working,” says Cannistraro. “The answer is a coherent, integrated approach that combines diplomacy and politics. You can’t let law enforcement drive the train.”

As for the remaining terror, get used to it. “Terrorism is a chronic phenomenon,” Cannistraro says. “But it’s not a serious threat to our national security. Someone like Bin Laden kills people, but he’s not going to cause the destruction of the United States.”

Cannistraro’s sanguine view, common among professionals, isn’t popular with politicians or the public. “The problem is that everyone wants to treat the symptoms and not the causes,” he says. “It’s a common problem in terrorism-expert circles.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

Oh, What a Tangled Web…

The botched assassination attempt on a Hamas official in Amman onSept. 25 has turned into a security, as well as a diplomatic,disaster for Israel. Commentators are calling for the resignations ofboth Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and chief of the Mossadexternal security service, Gen. Danny Yatom.

Ze’ev Schiff, the dean of Israeli defense writers, branded theattack on Khaled Meshal, the head of the Palestinian fundamentalists’political bureau in Jordan, “one of the worst operational failures inthe history of Israel’s intelligence services.” It had, he contendedin the heavyweight Ha’aretz, “caused the country serious strategicdamage.”

Another veteran military analyst, Ya’acov Erez, in the tabloidMa’ariv, called for a commission under a Supreme Court judge toinvestigate “not only the debacle itself but the calculations bywhich Jordan was selected as an arena of activity.”

After a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Cabinet Secretary Danny Navehaccused the local media of “irresponsible attacks on the primeminister, which derive, in large part, from unacceptable partisanpolitical motives.” Yet Schiff and Erez are no knee-jerk leftists,hell-bent on bringing down the elected government at any price.

Nor is Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu’s predecessor as Likud leader,who said that he had long ceased to be surprised by anything theprime minister did. The Amman mission, added Shamir, himself a formersenior Mossad operative, had complicated relations with both Jordanand Canada (the assassins were carrying forged Canadian passports).”I can only see that trouble has come from this.”

The depth of Israel’s humiliation became more apparent with everypassing day. The operation, for which Netanyahu acknowledgedresponsibility as the Mossad’s political supremo, was designed toavenge two suicide bombings in Jerusalem that killed 21 Israelicivilians and the shooting of two guards at the Israeli Embassy inAmman. Israel was showing that the men behind the bombers and thegunmen would pay a price, wherever they might be.

In fact, the mayhem outside the Hamas office has had the oppositeeffect. Because the mission failed, and because members of the hitsquad were caught and identified, it has damaged Israel’s capacity towage war on Islamist terror and to recruit the Jordanian andPalestinian secret services as essential allies.

The undisputed winner is Hamas, whose founder and spiritualleader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, has returned in triumph to Gaza afterserving eight years of an Israeli life sentence for planning terrorstrikes, including the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers.The 61-year-old Moslem preacher, feted like an equal by King Husseinand Yasser Arafat, was released without giving any assurances abouthis future conduct.

It will also be infinitely harder for the king to restrict theactivities of the Hamas political office in Amman — and for anybodyto touch the new hero of Islam, Khaled Meshal — even if, as Israelclaims, the politicos call the shots for the terrorists.

Netanyahu seems to have been so determined to show his muscle thathe did not pause to weigh what would happen if anything went wrong.As a former Mossad commander, Nahum Admoni, put it this week, theline between success and failure in such undercover operations isnever more than a hair’s breadth.

The current Mossad chief, Yatom, denied reports that he hadresisted pressure from Netanyahu to go for the assassination. In itsconvoluted statement, admitting yet not admitting Israeliinvolvement, the Cabinet confirmed that standard procedure had beenfollowed.

“Israel’s decision-making process is such,” the communiquésaid, “that the relevant security and intelligence branches bringtheir recommendations to a forum consisting of the heads of thesebranches, and afterward to the prime minister for authorization.Under no circumstances is the process forcibly reversed.”

Senior officers of the Shin Bet internal security service and ofmilitary intelligence hastened, however, to tell their media friendsthat they had not been consulted on the specifics of the operationand had certainly not endorsed it. As several commentators noted,success has many fathers; failure is an orphan. And the Hebrew wordfor “orphan” just happens to be “yatom.”

Since Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, KingHussein has been Israel’s only consistent friend among Arab rulers.Unlike Egypt, which made a distinctly cool peace two decades ago,Jordan maintains a warm relationship with its western neighbor. Whena Jordanian soldier shot dead seven Israeli schoolgirls last winter,the king not only paid condolence calls on their families but ensuredthat the killer was tried and sentenced.

He was sticking his neck out, defying the strong anti-Israelsentiment that prevails among Jordan’s educated elite — lawyers,doctors, engineers — and among the 60 percent of his subjects, whoseroots are across the river in Palestine.

Hussein was understandably furious that the Mossad invaded histerritory, especially since Jordanians go to the polls next month andthe assassination attempt could boost the Islamist opposition. “A manopens his house to a foreign guest,” the king complained to theLondon-based Arabic paper, Al Hayyat, “but when the host turns hisback for a moment, the guest rapes his daughter.”

His venomous reaction was not just pique. He cannot afford to besmeared as an Israeli collaborator. As a schoolboy prince in 1951, hewitnessed how such charges cost his grandfather, King Abdullah, hislife.

So King Hussein, the supreme survivor, is imposing his own termsfor maintaining relations, which he knows are as much his long-terminterest as they are Israel’s. He accepted the credentials, presentedas scheduled last Sunday by the new ambassador, Oded Eran, butexacted maximum restitution for the Mossad’s insult and credit forhimself.

First, he forced Netanyahu to send an Israeli doctor with anantidote to the poison injected into Meshal’s ear. Then he insistedon the release of Sheikh Yassin. And as part of a deal for therepatriation of two Mossad agents captured after the Meshal attack,Israel had to free more Palestinian prisoners.

If past prisoner exchanges are any guide, many of them will returnimmediately to the struggle. And if Netanyahu is setting a badexample by releasing terrorists, how will he look Arafat in the eyeand order the Palestinian Authority president to keep hundreds oftheir comrades behind bars?

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