Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah display Hezbollah and Iranian flags as they listen to him via a screen during a rally marking the 11th anniversary of the end of Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, in the southern village of Khiam, Lebanon August 13, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Sunday Reads: Trump identity politics; decline in U.S. Jews’ influence on Israel


Perry Bacon Jr. on the Arpaio pardon:

The trio of major announcements made by President Trump’s administration on Friday night — the departure of national security aide Sebastian Gorka, the pardon of former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the release of a formal memo from the president ordering the Pentagon not to accept transgender people as new recruits in the armed forces — illustrate two important things about the president’s governing style. First, one of the defining features of the Trump administration is that he embraces a kind of conservative identity politics, in which he promotes policies supported by groups that he favors and that may have felt marginalized during Barack Obama’s presidency. The second is that Trump’s support for those policies is not contingent on the presence of ousted aides like Gorka and Steve Bannon, who agree with him on these positions.

When the hurricane is over, Trump vs. the GOP will go back to being a significant political story. Politico’s Josh Dawsey reports:

many senators and their aides are flabbergasted by the public criticisms from the leader of their own party. They say Trump hasn’t shown a willingness to understand policy, often has more concern for his own news media coverage than anything else, and has run a White House riven by scandal and turmoil. In one recent meeting with legislators, he interrupted on several occasions to veer off topic, two senior GOP aides said, even as the health care legislation was simultaneously falling apart on Capitol Hill. There is widespread disappointment in Trump’s presidency among the party conference, said three people familiar with their feelings. Many of the senators have long distrusted Trump. The only one to endorse Trump was Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama senator whom Trump made attorney general — and has since publicly trashed.


Sometimes the obvious should be written: Israel has nothing to learn from Europe on terrorism. Read Yaakov Katz:

[O]n Tuesday, in a final briefing to the press before leaving the country after four years as the EU envoy, Faaborg-Andersen said that Israel can learn from Europe how to effectively combat terrorism. “Fighting terrorism,” he said, “is an endeavor that requires the whole tool box of instruments.” One of those tools, he went on to explain, is a “strong security dimension,” which Israel uses effectively. But, he added, there are other aspects involved as well, including “de-radicalization,” working with social services, and education. Now that is an interesting idea considering how many of the terrorist attacks perpetrated in Europe are carried out by citizens, some born and bred in their respective countries. In Israel, a small percentage of the attacks – like the recent one at the Temple Mount – are carried out by Israeli Arabs. Most are perpetrated by Palestinians.

David Ignatius sees opportunity for Israeli-Arab cooperation:

The Trump administration seems to envision an “outside-in” strategy for breaking the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate. The U.S., it’s hoped, could eventually bring together Israelis and leaders of the major Arab states for a peace conference. Trump’s unusually close relations with both Israel and the Gulf Arabs are part of this strategy.

Middle East

Adam Taylor on Trump and Egypt:

The strict punishment of Egypt may be a recognition of how seriously the United States views the North Korean threat. In an email to today’s WorldView, Berger noted that Egypt’s alleged procurement of missile parts from North Korea was “almost as bad as it gets” in terms of sanctions violations… Will Trump’s action finally compel Egypt to break ties with North Korea? Elmenshawy thinks it will work. “What Cairo receives from its strategic relationship with Washington is not replaceable by any other country,” the columnist said.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is going to get a lot of this in his visit to Israel:

US ambassador Nikki Haley sharply criticised the UN peacekeeping commander in Lebanon on Friday, saying he is “blind” to the spread of illegal arms and reiterating a call for the force to do more about it. He says there is no evidence it is actually happening.

Jewish World

I might write more about this article next week, but in the meantime, just read Samuel Freedman:

We have never been further from Israel than we are at this point. And we find ourselves at that distance because, after all the invocations of Jewish peoplehood, after all the salutes to us as a “strategic asset,” we American Jews have never been made to feel less necessary to Israel’s success or survival than we are today.

A JPPI paper that was published last week – by my colleague Dan Feferman and me makes a somewhat similar point:

[T]here seems to be a decline in the collective power of the U.S. Jewish community to influence Israeli decision-making. Once unified around larger organizations, this community has become more diffused in recent years. Politically, the once close-to-monolithic major groups have to compete with foundations and organizations who have their own, sometimes-contradictory agendas. Moreover, due to Israel’s much grown economy the U.S. community has also become less influential in its ability to wield power through massive philanthropy. Add to these facts the rising numbers of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. who will less questioningly support Israel while non-Orthodox Judaism seems, at least from the perspective of many Israelis, to be on the decline (low birthrates, intermarriage, etc.) and you have a weakening of the second arrow in the non-Orthodox movements’ quiver. Moreover, in the eyes of many Israelis, when the U.S. Jewish community does come together to influence Israeli policy, it at times does so in ways that contradict Israel’s interests, at least as defined by the supporters of the current government. There is even some sentiment within the current government that Evangelicals and non-Jewish conservatives are today, perhaps a greater source of support for Israel and especially this government’s policies, than is mainstream Jewish America. 

Ariel Sharon, third from left, meeting with his officers a week before the start of the Six-Day War, May 29, 1967, at their headquarters somewhere in southern Israel. Photo by Micha Han/GPO via Getty Images

‘I have a feeling the war is going to start tomorrow’: Three days in June 1967

Five days before the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967, the American reporter Abraham Rabinovich arrived in Jerusalem. When the war ended, he decided to remain and write an account of Israel’s lightning victory. Over the next two years he interviewed close to 300 soldiers and civilians. 

In this excerpt from the 50th anniversary edition of “The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest,”Rabinovich recounts the days leading up to the war’s start and the decisions of the Israeli politicians and generals on the ground.

(JTA) — The date for war was fixed on Friday, June 2, 1967, the day after Prime Minister Levi Eshkol relinquished the defense portfolio to Israel’s military icon, Moshe Dayan. For two weeks, Eshkol had blocked his generals’ demand for a strike against Egypt, but the signing of a defense pact between Jordan and Egypt had finally convinced him that war was inevitable.

At a meeting with Eshkol and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Dayan said that if the cabinet on Sunday approved a preemptive strike, the air force would carry it out the following morning. He rejected as irrelevant the army’s plans for attacking the Gaza Strip and the coastal guns overlooking the Tiran Straits, which Egypt had closed to Israel-bound shipping.

The army’s primary task, he said, was the destruction of Egypt’s tank divisions, the core of  its army. The brazenness of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in sending his army into Sinai, banishing a U.N. buffer force, and closing the straits meant that he no longer feared Israel. Therefore, Dayan argued, his challenge must be met head-on. The army would bring the Egyptian tank formations to battle and leave the Straits of Tiran and Gaza Strip for later. Rabin said that nothing would be done to provoke the Jordanians in order not to draw forces away from the Egyptian front. Jerusalem’s Old City was on no one’s agenda.

Air Force Commander Motti Hod had never revealed details of the preemptive strike to his colleagues on the general staff. Even now, at a meeting Saturday night, June 3, he revealed only one element: zero hour. The planes would strike at 7:45 a.m. Intelligence knew that the Egyptian air force mounted patrols from first light until 7 a.m. in anticipation of a possible Israeli attack out of the rising sun. At 7:45 the Egyptian pilots would be back at their bases having breakfast. Senior commanders lived off base and arrived about 8 a.m. They would still be in their cars when the planes struck. At zero hour, Israel’s armored divisions would shed camouflage netting and cross into Sinai.

Dayan, in his first press conference as defense minister that Saturday night, declared that the time for a spontaneous response to the closing of the straits had passed. A diplomatic solution, he said, would now be sought. At an English-language newspaper in Jordanian Jerusalem, skeptical journalists joked that they should run Dayan’s soothing remarks under the headline “Israel about to attack.”

Sunday morning, at the crucial cabinet meeting, several ministers asked that a decision be put off, but for the first time Eshkol came out clearly for war. Washington’s objection to an Israeli first-strike, while officially still in place, had softened,  he said, in the wake of the Jordanian-Egyptian pact. Washington had not flashed a green light, “but the light was no longer red.”

Dayan warned that if the Egyptians struck first (“to do to us what we want to do to them”), one of their first targets would be the nuclear reactor at Dimona, which the Egyptians believed was about to come on line. “Our only chance of winning the war is to initiate it and shape it,” he said. The cabinet voted 12-2 for military action.

Gen. Hod summoned his base commanders after the cabinet decision and informed them that the long-mooted attack would be launched in the morning. In the first wave, 160 planes would attack. Only 12 planes would remain behind  to guard Israel’s airspace.

Gen. Uzi Narkiss, commanding the Jordanian front, met Sunday night with his brigade commanders for a final briefing. He had been informed of the cabinet’s decision but gave no hint of it to his officers. On a wall map, an intelligence officer reviewed the Jordanian deployment. Five infantry brigades on the West Bank had been reinforced by an additional brigade, held in reserve 10 miles east of Jerusalem. Troops had been shifted in substantial numbers from rear encampments to the front line and Jordan’s two armored brigades were poised to cross the Jordan River to the West Bank. A large Iraqi force was expected to take up positions threatening  Israel’s narrow waist within a few days.

At Narkiss’ request, his brigade commanders rose in turn to outline their operational plans. The commander of the Jerusalem Brigade, Col. Eliezer Amitai, was restrained. The Jordanian army was considered the best in the Arab world. In the War of Independence, the Israeli army had failed to dislodge it from any  fortified position. The British officers who commanded the Arab Legion, as it was known then, were dismissed by Hussein a decade later and replaced by Jordanian officers but the army’s reputation remained.

Israel’s Jerusalem Brigade had more than twice as many men as the Jordanians opposite them in the city but it was a hometown unit of reservists, many of them over 30. Contingency planning called for an elite regular army unit to break through stout Jordanian defenses to relieve the 120-man garrison on Mount Scopus, a mile behind Jordanian lines, if it was threatened. But it was doubtful whether elite units could be spared for the task in a multi-front war.

At an Israeli position on Mount Zion, adjacent to the Old City, a platoon commander challenged one of his men to chess Sunday evening. There was little conversation as they concentrated on the board. Suddenly the officer looked up and said, “I have a feeling the war is going to start tomorrow.”

At Tel Nof air base, pilots were wakened at 3:45 a.m. on Monday, June 5. Filing into the briefing room, their eyes focused on the terse announcement on the blackboard: “Zero Hour 0745.” When all were seated, the squadron leader said, “Good morning. We go to war with Egypt today.”

In nearby orange groves, Col. Motta Gur’s reserve paratroop brigade had spent the night in anticipation of boarding troop carriers for a jump into Sinai. An officer rose before dawn and looked expectantly towards the air base but could see no sign of unusual activity. The troops were wakened at six, and the orchards were soon bustling. The men were making coffee when a succession of roars erupted from the airbase. As the sound intensified, planes began to rise above the tree line — dozens of them following each other into the sky like children playing tag. Low-slung with bombs and rockets, the aircraft wove themselves into formations of four and headed southwest at treetop level. At the airfield, a mechanic wept as the planes swept past him, wave after wave, glinting in the sky like a sword unsheathed. In the orchards the paratroopers watched in silence, awed by what they were seeing and by what they knew must come. They then drifted off to write postcards home. “We’re seeing the start of the war,” wrote one. “We hope it’s finished soon. We’ll do what we can to finish it soon.”

In the afternoon, Col. Gur was informed that the fast-moving tank divisions in Sinai would overrun the paratroopers’ planned target.  The brigade was being sent instead to Jerusalem to break through to Mount Scopus. No one in authority mentioned the Old City. Some, however, were beginning to think about it.

Abraham Rabinovich is a journalist born and raised in New York City. He is the author of six books, including “The Yom Kippur War,” “The Boats of Cherbourg” and “Jerusalem on Earth.” He lives in Jerusalem.

President Donald Trump, right, reaches to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

What to expect from Trump’s Israel visit

President Donald Trump will be departing on Friday for his first foreign trip overseas with stops in Saudi Arabia, the Vatican, Israel and the West Bank. Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, told Jewish Insider, “What Trump is trying to do is contrast his close closeness to Israel with that of Obama. Obama didn’t go for the first four years and Trump is going in the first four months.”

[This story originally appeared on]

The visit to Israel is part of a long term US strategic investment towards the process, noted Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. “Someone in the White House has learned the lesson from the last administration where it was clearly a mistake not to go to Israel early on. (They) realize that if you are going to get the Israelis to make concessions, it’s probably a good idea to actually go to Israel and show the Israelis some love.”

The White House’s showering of love towards Israel is concerning many in Jerusalem, explains Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel from 2011-2017. “When it comes to President Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, both sides are nervous about what this trip, and events beyond it, could produce. Trump is unpredictable, and his team is inexperienced in Middle East negotiations,” he told Jewish Insider.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may be uncomfortable abiding by Washington’s demands to cut stipends to terrorists’ families, he still likely appreciates the renewed attention. Abbas is “primarily looking at the revival of interest in the Palestinian issue and his own role as chairman of the PLO as an unexpected political bananza. What he is going to try and do is try to get maximal advantage particularly in terms of his own domestic political credibility,” explained Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “As long as the Palestinian issue has been resuscitated — almost brought back from the dead really by Trump —  and he’s standing next to Trump whether in the White House or Ramallah, and there is serious prospects for some benefits on-the-ground, his position which was otherwise very shaky politically becomes really unassailable.”

With Trump’s unpredictable nature and the threats of a Twitter war launched against Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kurtzner emphasized the willingness of both sides to please Trump. “They (Netanyahu and Abbas) are going to try and put on the best face they can: neither one wants the responsibility of failure to be on their doorstep,” he stated. At the same time, Shapiro emphasized the deep underlying challenges preventing any genuine breakthrough between the parties. “Neither Netanyahu or Abbas have any trust in the other, and both face severe domestic political constraints and gaps in their respective positions on the core issues,” he noted.  “So whether they agree to start talks under Trump’s sponsorship, or simply stall for time, they are very likely to fall back into deeply ingrained habits of preparing not for success, but for winning the blame game when failure comes.  That may be the biggest challenge facing Trump’s initiative.”

Yet, for all of the focus on how the trip will impact Israelis and Palestinians on-the-ground, Koplow suggests that the visit may have an additional purpose. “Going abroad and having a high-profile trip where you are seated by leaders in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican it looks good and certainly won’t escape anyone’s notice that it’s coming at a time when things at home are getting dicey and this won’t be the first President to go abroad and try to use good headlines and nice photos from overseas to push away some trouble he is having at home,” he said.

Egyptian Olympian lashes out after Israeli flag photobombing

An Egyptian Olympian who appears in a viral photo featuring an Israeli flag said on Facebook that she was photobombed by “dirty” people and there will “never be peace between me and these people in my life.”

Doaa Elghobashy, 19, a volleyball player, has been harshly criticized on Arab social media since the Israeli Embassy in Cairo shared the photo, which was initially shared by the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs.

In a similar incident this week, the popular Tunisian singer Saber Rebai drew fire for appearing in a photograph with an Arab-Israeli soldier whom Rebai said he did not know was Israeli.

According to Ynet, Elghobashy told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm a-Saba that the photo was “a conspiracy against me to try and discredit my name.”

“It isn’t possible that I would take a picture with an Israeli because between these people and ourselves, it is not possible to have peace,” she said. “The Israeli woman was not with a flag, but when the picture was taken, she hoisted the flag without me knowing. You can see that in the picture.”

Elghobashy failed to medal at the Rio Games, but drew attention for being the first Olympic athlete to play beach volleyball in a hijab, according to The Times of Israel.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord in 1978, but anti-Israel sentiment remains pervasive in Egyptian society.

Egyptian judoka sent home over handshake refusal with Israeli

Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby has been sent home from the Rio Olympics after refusing to shake the hand of Israeli Or Sasson following the end of their bout, the International Olympic Committee said on Monday.

El Shehaby, who was sent home by his own team, lost the fight on Friday and was reprimanded by the IOC for his actions.

The IOC acknowledged that the rules of judo do not oblige players to shake hands but said El Shehaby's behaviour went against the Games' “rules of fair play” and “spirit of friendhsip”.

“The Egyptian Olympic Committee has also strongly condemned the actions of Mr Islam El Shehaby and has sent him home,” the IOC said in a statement. “The President of the National Olympic Committee issued a statement saying they respected all athletes and all nations at the Olympic Games.”

After Sasson defeated El Shehaby and the pair retook their places in front of the referee, the Egyptian backed away when Sasson bowed and approached him to shake hands.

When called back by the referee to bow, El Shehaby gave a quick nod before walking off amid loud boos from the crowd .

“The Disciplinary Commission (DC) considered that his behaviour at the end of the competition was contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values,” the IOC said.

“The DC issued a 'severe reprimand for inappropriate behaviour' to the athlete. It noted….the shaking of hands after a match is not in the competition rules of the International Judo Federation.”

“As well as a severe reprimand, the DC has asked the Egyptian Olympic Committee to ensure in future that all their athletes receive proper education on the Olympic Values before coming to the Olympic Games,” the IOC said.

El Shehaby, 32, had reportedly been pressured by fans on social media not to show up for the match with his Israeli opponent, who went on to win bronze in the +100kg category, because it would shame Islam.

“Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he's not my friend,” El Shehaby said after the bout.

“I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can't ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this State, especially in front of the whole world,” he said. 

Egypt was the first Arab power to make peace with Israel, in 1979, but the treaty remains unpopular among many Egyptians.

Turkey, Egypt, Africa: How ‘hard-liner’ Netanyahu pulled off a diplomacy trifecta

The conventional wisdom has it that earning the sobriquet “the most right-wing government in Israeli history” does not lead to diplomatic successes.

In recent weeks, on the Turkish, Egyptian and African fronts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proving the conventional wisdom wrong.

How is it that the head of a government beating a hasty retreat from the two-state solution scored a triumphant tour of Africa, hosted a convivial summit with an Egyptian foreign minister for the first time in nearly a decade and renewed full ties with Turkey?

Here’s a look at what Netanyahu’s diplomatic successes mean – and their limitations.

Oh, Bibi, Bibi, it’s a wild world

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, talks about retreating from America’s preeminent role in the world. Although he is adamant that he is pro-Israel, Trump has suggested he could charge Israel for the billions in defense assistance it receives.

Similarly Europe, overwhelmed by a refugee crisis, is becoming more insular and, for the first time in decades, faces the prospect of falling apart as a common political force, with Britain’s planned exit from the European Union and other countries contemplating similar actions.

Meantime, calls to target Israel – or its settlements – with boycotts are increasing across the continent.

“In Israel, there’s broad recognition for no substitute for the U.S-Israel alliance. It remains crucial,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank with a focus on the Middle East. “There’s also a recognition that we are going through a turbulent period, and from a diplomatic perspective there are ways to defray some of these challenges.”

Among them: Enhance security ties with Egypt, reinvigorate decades-old ties in Africa and mend ties with Turkey.

The shared Sinai threat

The vastness of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, its strategic positioning between Asia and Africa, and the porous nature of its Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea coasts have been like catnip to terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

That poses a shared challenge to Israel and Egypt, and has helped already friendly ties between the nations; Israel was one of the few countries to celebrate the 2013 coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and brought to power Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

Israel in recent months quietly has allowed Egyptian forces entry back into the peninsula, effectively allowing Egypt to abrogate one of the tenets, demilitarization, of the 1979 Camp David Peace Agreement. Commensurately, Egypt has allowed Israel to target terrorists with drones.

“You have a closely coordinated counterterrorism strategy in the Sinai,” Schanzer said. “You have intelligence sharing, increased numbers of Israelis are operating in the Sinai.”

That helps explain why Sissi was willing to send his foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, to Israel this week for a high-profile visit – effectively warming up a peace that Sissi’s predecessors preferred to keep cool. Keeping the Sinai secure trumped the domestic blowback Sissi knew he would endure for the visit.

Preempting the Palestinians, France and (maybe) the Obama administration

The French are trying to kick-start peace talks with the Palestinians under an international umbrella. The Palestinians hope to advance statehood recognition during the U.N. General Assembly launch in September. And President Barack Obama may deliver his own post-U.S. election surprise, setting out the U.S. parameters for a final-status arrangement.

All are anathema to Netanyahu, who favors direct talks with the Palestinians, where Israel is able to exercise greater leverage. Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, appeared to favor the direct talks track, saying his visit was part of Sissi’s “vision for establishing peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples — bringing this long conflict to an end.”

Bringing Egypt into the configuration increases pressure on the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to return to direct talks, said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Egypt is the P.A.’s lead patron in the Arab world, and Abbas can ill afford to alienate Sissi.

“While the PA president has had no problem rejecting Netanyahu’s call to resume talks amid disbelief that anything concrete will emerge from them, bringing Egypt into the picture raises the cost of any such rejection,” Makovsky wrote on the think tank’s website.

Turkey is more about what Erdogan needs

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, pressed for the rupture with Israel in 2010 after Israel’s deadly raid on a Palestinian convoy aiming to breach Israel’s blockade with Gaza. Now he’s the force behind the reconciliation.

Erdogan is dealing with restive Kurds in the south, the chaos in Syria across his country’s border and the blowback from his decision recently to take tougher measures against the Islamic State. He needs to smooth waters elsewhere.

Reestablishing ties with Israel not only returns an important trade partner to eminence and restores full security ties at a time of crisis, it addresses a longstanding U.S. demand that its two most important allies in the Middle East reconcile.

“Erdogan is starting to realize he’s overstretched; Turkey is dealing with so many problems at once,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “Erdogan is realizing he has to pull back.”

Back to Africa

The last time there was a movement on the rise to isolate Israel — in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the Arab League used oil leverage to pressure third parties to join their boycott — Israel countered by quietly reinforcing ties in Africa.

The ties, established in the 1950s and 1960s, already were a point of pride for Israel, identifying the Jewish state not as a colonial anomaly, as the Arab nations would have it, but as a postcolonial triumph of an indigenous people.

That very much was the point of Netanyahu’s four-nation African tour, said Schanzer.

“One gets the sense we’re revisiting history amid the new boycott movement — and it’s yielding dividends,” he said.

The tour coincided with the 40th anniversary of an Israeli commando raid on Entebbe in Uganda, where terrorists were holding Israeli airplane passengers with the sanction of the country’s then dictator, Idi Amin. Netanyahu’s elder brother, Yoni, was killed leading the rescue effort.

But the tour was more than symbolic, participants said. Netanyahu traveled with 80 men and women representing some 50 businesses, and was well prepared to assist them, according to Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem-based solar energy and social development enterprise.

Abramowitz said he shook hands on $1 billion worth of deals during the four-nation tour.

“A fully coordinated government initiative brilliantly executed in every country by the Prime Minister’s Office, the embassies and the Israel Export Institute, it was clockwork,” he said.

Egypt’s foreign minister visiting Israel, first time in a decade

The foreign minister of Egypt is in Israel to discuss his country’s recommendations for peace between Israel and the Palestinians with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sunday’s visit by Sameh Shoukry is the first by an Egyptian foreign minister since 2007, according to Netanyahu.

Speaking at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said the visit “teaches about the change that has come over Israel-Egypt relations, including President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sissi’s important call to advance the peace process with both the Palestinians and Arab countries.”


“The Egyptian foreign minister is coming on behalf of the president of Egypt; we welcome him.”

Shoukry, who has been foreign minister for two years, visited Ramallah for the first time two weeks ago to talk about Egypt’s peace plans with Palestinian leaders, Haaretz reported.

Netanyahu and Shoukry are scheduled to meet in the afternoon and evening.

They also reportedly will discuss coordination between their two countries over the search for wreckage of the EgyptAir flight that crashed in May after some was recovered off the coast of Netanya on Thursday. The flight from Paris to Cairo crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing the 66 passengers and crew on board.

Egyptian peace plan looks to engage ‘most extreme elements in Israel’

Last year’s Egyptian television series for Ramadan “Harat al Yehud” (Jewish Quarter) displayed nuance and nostalgia toward Egypt’s mid-century “Israelites.”

This holiday season’s “Alqayasar” (The Kingpin) reveals a full-frontal hardening of attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinians of Gaza.

“Alqayasar” portrays the evil deeds and shady alliances of a terror cell leader who uses tunnels near Rafa to commute between his hideouts in the Nile Delta and the Gaza headquarters of Islamist groups, where he also meets up with Palestinian mafia dons and hatches a series of plots against the Egyptian homeland.

Much of the action takes place in the North Sinai, where Egyptian forces are in the third phase of a struggle against the local branch of ISIS, dubbed Operation Martyr’s Right by the army chiefs in Cairo. 

Both the Ramadan holiday and the “Alqayasar” series have several more weeks to go, but it’s a foregone conclusion that the show’s virtuous and now digitally savvy Egyptian army will ensnare the fictional kingpin by the time the country celebrates Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the month of fasting.

Less certain, however, is the outcome of efforts by real-life Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, commonly known as Sisi, to quell a Sinai insurgency and motivate the Israelis to conclude a statehood deal with the Palestinians.

Both items are linked in Egyptian strategic thinking. 

One year ago, Sisi told a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Committee that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute “will eliminate one of the most important reasons relied upon by terrorists to attract people to join their cause.”

Last month, the Egyptian president said his country is willing to exert all possible efforts to make a final peace deal work between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sisi made a direct appeal on Israeli TV channels pledging that, once an agreement is reached, both peoples will be able to overcome the layers of animosity currently separating them, “just as the Egyptians and Israelis have.”

While Cairo and Jerusalem now enjoy unprecedented levels of security cooperation, neither the Egyptian military nor its diplomats have ever reconciled themselves with Israel’s 2004 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. 

At the time, the army expressed fears of the consolidation of a Hamas-controlled entity on the edge of the Sinai and fretted over the possibility that an Islamist Gaza would militarize the Muslim Brotherhood.

The political echelon saw the move as a deviation from the Bush roadmap, which in part reflected the 2002 Saudi Arab Peace initiative. 

As far as Cairo is concerned, events since the withdrawal have proven these pessimistic forecasts accurate. 

Saeed Okasha, in-house Israeli affairs analyst for the quasi-governmental Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Sisi’s new initiative is connected to the rise of ISIS militancy — the radical Islamist group claimed responsibility for the October explosion of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai and is believed by many Egyptians to be the likely culprit behind the downing of the EgyptAir flight from Paris in May — and, as importantly, the emergent threats posed by Iran to the Sunni Arab states.

“The IS presence in the Sinai, the provision of weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood from Gaza and the lack of a breakthrough on Palestinian statehood are related problems for us,” Okasha said in an interview with the Journal. 

“But now we are facing [a] new reality where both the Arabs and Israelis don’t trust the Americans to coordinate a peace effort, and the Saudis have joined us in an effort find to a solution that frees us to confront Iran.”

A poll released by the by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC Herzliya on the eve of its annual conference seems to demonstrate that public opinion in Egypt and the Gulf is aligned with Sisi and Saudi King Salman.  

More Saudis (41.6 percent) and Egyptians (32.1 percent) think the next U.S. president should get behind a regional agreement, rather than force direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, which garnered only 18.9 percent approval in the Saudi kingdom and 25.5 percent from Egyptians. 

Both Egypt’s and Jordan’s ambassadors to Israel participated in this year’s Herzliya conference.

“It’s time to activate the Arab Peace Initiative,” said Egypt’s ambassador, Hazem Khairat, referring to the regional framework conceived by the Saudis under the rubric of all Arab states fully recognizing Israel, in return for an independent Palestinian territory resembling something close to the 1967 borders.

“The two-state solution is the only way to end this conflict. There is not much time left, and there is no other alternative,” Khairat said.

Eran Lerman, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center, thinks regional realities in 2016 have generated positive changes in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship. 

“Both face the same threats to their security — Iran, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood — even if the Egyptian order of priorities is the reverse of the Israeli.”

The Al-Ahram Center’s Okasha says Egypt won’t even let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s Defense Minister deter efforts to broker a deal. 

“We think Israeli public opinion will be more convinced by an agreement backed by someone like Lieberman. If you want real peace, you have to do it with the most extreme elements in Israel,” Okasha said.

“And that is what [Anwar] Sadat achieved with Menachem Begin.” 

Shavuot: a holiday unmarked by date, without ritual, unconfined by space

The literal translation of Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks” because of the holiday’s connection with Passover. In Rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkoth. However, unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated only seven weeks after Passover. Even so, these two holidays have one and the same meaning: summing up and emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.

Passover’s meaning is simple and straightforward: it is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence and focuses – especially in the context of the Exodus – on the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. But even without shackles, an existence without purpose is meaningless. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means inner will and aspirations.

When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but still did not have a will of their own More than that, in their first weeks of desert wandering, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: they experienced hunger and thirst, and they also learned that not all of their wishes can be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full Divine protection, they had only very little awareness. The People of Israel were just like an infant, aware only of its most basic feelings.

At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot not only marks the end of this primal, childish era: it is a transition into a totally different stage. An Exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, an end to slavery but without freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus but to Jewish life in general. This moment sets up the great framework, towards which the entire Jewish nation is moving.

Our Sages point out that Shavuot is the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us – but it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah comes through our individual and collective understanding of its contents, aspirations and goals. We receive the Torah when we accept it within ourselves, as part of our thinking, experiences and desires.

This is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen simultaneously for everyone.  The Jewish people encompassing all generations – both as individuals and as a nation — is still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy: some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience. Many feel the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are in it.

that is why Shavuot has a unique status among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. In Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; in Sukkoth, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. On Shavuot, however – which is the only pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day – there are no special rites, either food- or lodging-wise. This is because Shavuot is, itself, the opening to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems.

Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place – an indistinct point in the desert – and at a time which is not a time – because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not even state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah!

This festival expresses, then, how the Torah – which is not confined or limited by time or space – is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world; and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it. This is no simple feat; and indeed, both as individuals and as a nation we have been tackling for millennia with this question: how can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests” that is God's “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy?

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.

Egypt reportedly pushing for Netanyahu-Abbas summit

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi reportedly is coaxing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet face to face.

Sissi, according to Ynet News, is hoping to organize an Egypt-led peace summit in Cairo where the two leaders, who haven’t met formally since 2010, would negotiate directly. Sissi’s efforts come as France is organizing an international Israeli-Palestinian peace summit to take place in the fall.

Sissi has been advocating a fresh round of talks recently and has made contact with both sides regarding his initiative; neither has declined. He could be in a unique position to influence both leaders, according to Ynet, because of Egypt’s strong diplomatic ties to the P.A. and close security cooperation with Israel.

“There is a real opportunity for peace even if in the short term there is no real basis given the conditions in the region,” Sissi said on Egyptian television, according to Ynet.

U.S. reviewing Sinai peacekeeper mission, looks at automating jobs

The U.S. military said on Tuesday it has formally notified Egypt and Israel that it is reviewing multinational peacekeeping operations in the insurgency-wracked Sinai, including ways to use technology to do the job of some U.S. troops there.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said using remote surveillance technology could eventually allow the United States to withdraw hundreds of its roughly 700 peacekeeping troops.

Installed to monitor the demilitarization of the Sinai under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission has come under increased scrutiny over the past year after six peacekeepers were wounded by a roadside bomb. Four U.S. soldiers were among them.

The United States believes that the structure of the more than three-decade old operation may be outdated.

“I don't think anyone's talking about a (complete) withdrawal,” said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, declining to enter into specifics about any potential troop reduction.

“I think we're just going to look at the number of people we have there and see if there are functions that can be automated or done through remote monitoring.”

Changing the MFO mission could be a sensitive proposition to both Israel and Egypt.

Cairo sees the MFO as part of a relationship with Israel that, while unpopular with many Egyptians, brings it $1.3 billion in annual U.S. defense aid, sweetening the foreign-enforced demilitarization of their sovereign Sinai territory.

For the Israelis, the MFO offers strategic reassurance, especially following Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's toppling two years ago of an elected Islamist regime hostile to the Jewish-majority state next door.

Among the options being considered are use of remote sensors or surveillance to do some of the work in the Sinai, the peninsula that lies between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.

“What we are looking at is, this has been in existence for 30 years and the mission has remained largely unchanged,” Davis said.

“What we want to be able to do is look at the core things that that mission provides and see how we can leverage modern technologies, remote surveillance capabilities, etc., to be able to carry out that mission.”

Egyptian security efforts in the Sinai have suffered major setbacks, including the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian airliner and Friday's bombing of two armored personnel carriers that killed seven.

Islamic State insurgents claimed responsibility for both incidents.

Israel promised acess to Straits of Tiran after Saudi-Egypt deal, says defense chief

Israel was guaranteed in writing free passage through the Straits of Tiran after Saudi Arabia’s planned takeover of two strategic Red Sea islands, Israel’s defense minister told reporters Tuesday.

Egypt agreed to hand over the islands, which it has controlled for more than 60 years, as part of a deal to build a bridge over the sea between the two countries that was announced during a weekend visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

The deal had raised questions about Israel’s continued access to the passage, the revocation of which was a casus belli of the 1976 Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors. But Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel was consulted early in talks over the deal and gave its consent.

“An appeal was made to us – and it needed our agreement, the Americans who were involved in the peace agreement and of the MFO,” Yaalon said, referring to the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping forces at the Israeli-Egyptian border. “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”

In the document given to Israel, Saudi Arabia, which does not have formal relations with Israel, pledges to abide by the principles that have governed Israeli-Egyptian relations since their 1979 peace treaty, Haaretz reported. According to the treaty, the Straits of Tiran and the entire Gulf of Aqaba are international waterways open to free passage by Israel and overseen by the international observers.

The islands being relinquished to Saudi Arabia, Tiran and Sanafir, stand sentry at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israeli city of Eilat and the Jordanian city of Aqaba are located at the northern tip of the gulf. The Saudi-Egyptian deal has faced public criticism in Egypt as a blow to national pride.

Israel reportedly to raise Egypt border fence to block African migrants

Israel reportedly plans to increase the height of its fence on the Egyptian border in an effort to keep out African migrants.

Defense officials said Tuesday the fence will be raised by 20 feet in response to an uptick in the numbers of Africans making it over, some using ladders, Haaretz reported.

The fence along the Egyptian border was built between 2010 and 2015. Just 14 people illegally crossed the border in 2014, compared with 12,000 in 2010, but the number has risen to 200 in the past year, according to Haaretz.

Last year, Israeli soldiers fired on Africans who approached the fence, wounding three. An investigation by military police found the shooting was unwarranted.

The Defense Ministry is seeking contractors to raise the fence, Haaretz reported, and the army says other measures to reduce border crossings are planned.

Egypt sees Israel’s (non-existent) hand behind troubling dam

A vote by Egypt’s parliament to oust a maverick media mogul because he hosted the Israeli ambassador at his home in late February laid bare the limitations of the Cairo-Jerusalem alliance and served as the second notice this week that President Abel Fatah el Sisi and his administration will assert full control over the country’s foreign policy.

Tawfik Okasha, who has been dubbed Cairo’s Glenn Beck, was voted out of Egypt’s newly elected parliament Wednesday after a three hour meeting with Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren in which the legislator asked for Jerusalem’s intervention to modify Ethiopia’s construction of a huge dam in the headwaters of the Nile.

“They (Israel) are the ones building the Renaissance Dam,” Okasha  said. “Are we fooling ourselves?”

Okasha has veered between lionizing the Israelis as “real men” and positing a “Zionist- American conspiracy to divide Egypt into 3 or 4 small and weak countries” during broadcasts on his Al-Faraeen “The Pharaohs” TV channel.

In 2014, even the strongest supporters of the Camp David peace accords with Israel winced when Okasha called on the Egyptian army to join the IDF in striking Hamas targets in Gaza.

He’s also been ridiculed for forging a PhD. diploma from a non–existent Florida university.

The week also witnessed the ousting of Egypt’s most senior diplomat, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby after he veered off script on Israeli –Palestinian matters.

As the most populous member state, Egypt traditionally nominates the Arab League’s chief executive and the organization is headquartered directly adjacent to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The surprise announcement by 8o year old Al-Araby that he would not seek another term came just days after he told the daily al-Hayat newspaper that Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades “are not terrorists and have a legitimate right to defend their people.”

In public, Al Araby’s “decision” was handled with diplomatic grace as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed “deep appreciation for the Secretary General’s contributions to support the unity of Arab ranks and protect Arab interests.”

“Al Araby has been deeply unpopular and divisive,” said a Foreign Ministry official on background.

“We are in dialogue with Hamas’ political leadership over Palestinian issues but the Secretary General made a mistake in contradicting our position on terrorism.”

There was no subtlety however in the parliament’s response to Okasha’s freelance diplomacy.

“This is what a traitor deserves,” shouted Nasserist MP Kamal Ahmed as he hit Okasha with his shoe.

While a group of MPs moved to diffuse the brawl on the floor of the Council of Deputies   and described Ahmed’s assault as “vulgar”, momentum gathered quickly to out Okasha for meeting the ambassador without seeking approval from the Foreign Ministry.

Egypt’s constitution stipulates that the legislature will respect all international agreements, but extending current security cooperation with Israel to broadened economic and cultural ties is linked in the minds of the public, and it’s newly elected politicians with a resolution of the Palestinian dispute.

“Okasha’s request for Israeli mediation to solve the problem of Ethiopia’s Grand Nile Renaissance Dam in exchange for providing them with one billion cubic meters of Egypt’s water is a national security violation,” said MP Mustafa Barkri, a fierce opponent of normalization of relations with the Jewish State.

The dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility and anxiety is growing here that the reservoir behind it will divert billions of cubic meters at the source of 97 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water. Conspiracy theorists in the popular press insist Israel is behind it.

A representative example can be found in an opinion piece this month by columnist Haider Mahmoud in the Cairo daily El Badil.

“There is current information about Israel's involvement in the financing of the dam for the purpose of restricting Egypt’s water, but there are no documents to confirm this involvement,” wrote Mahmoud without irony.

“Our last option is military intervention against the dam.”

Now the parliamentarian Okasha seems to have few career options in Cairo- he’s lost his seat in the legislature, been forced to put Al-Faraeen TV up for sale, and reportedly is seeking political asylum either in the United States or Germany.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli security analyst who served the Mossad in Africa, says that while the Egyptian conspiracy theories are baseless, the concerns about the dam are understandable.

“Egyptian decision makers are quite aware that it’s an Italian firm building the dam and they know that we have no connection to the planning, financing, or design of it,” said Alpher, the author of the book “Periphery” which examines Israel’s attempts to forge strategic alliances with Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia as well as with the South Sudanese and the Kurds.

“We could offer the Egyptians water recycling technology and use our access to the Ethiopians to bridge the issues, but effective mediation efforts need to be conducted discreetly,” Alpher said.

Israel finishes prisoner swap with Egypt for accused Bedouin-Israeli spy

Israel released four Egyptian prisoners jailed for drug trafficking, bringing to six the number of Egyptians freed in exchange for a suspected spy who was returned to Israel.

The latest four were released on Monday, following the two other prisoners set free on Thursday — the same day that Bedouin-Israeli Ouda Tarabin was sent back to Israel after serving a 15-year prison sentence on charges of spying for Israel.

Three of the six released Egyptian prisoners had completed their sentences; the others had up to six years remaining.

“I am happy that Ouda is back with us again,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Cabinet meeting on Sunday. “The State of Israel takes care of all its citizens without exception.”

Netanyahu noted that he worked with three Egyptian presidents – Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi and the current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – to request his release.

“I gave my word that he was not a spy for Israel,” the Israeli leader said.

In a meeting with the prime minister on Thursday, Tarabin thanked Netanyahu for Israel’s efforts to secure his release, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

Tarabin’s family in July accused Netanyahu of not helping him because he is not Jewish.

Israel and Egypt had negotiated in the past for Tarabin’s release. The issue came to the fore during negotiations in 2011 to secure the release of Israeli-American law student Ilan Grapel, who was held for five months in an Egyptian prison on charges of spying for Israel.

Egypt frees Israeli held for spying in prisoner swap

Egypt has freed an Israeli-Arab held in its jails for 15 years on espionage charges in exchange for the release of two Egyptians held in Israel, Egyptian and Israeli officials said on Thursday.

Uda Tarrabin, originally from a tribe in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on the border with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, had been convicted of spying for Israel and had completed his term, Egyptian security sources and state television said.

The Israeli government said Tarrabin was already back in Israel.

“At the same time, Israel released two Egyptian prisoners who were held in Israel and had finished serving their sentences,” it said in a statement.

Neither Israeli nor Egyptian officials would comment on the identity of the Egyptian prisoners.

An Egyptian-American view on Israel

As the commencement speaker for Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) graduating class on Aug. 13, I invited my classmates to take a moment to reflect about the beginning of their adventure in Israel. Did they remember receiving their acceptance letter? When they did, they were probably excited to come to Tel Aviv until they actually started telling people they were coming to Israel.

Almost everybody in that room had a friend or a family member who warned him or her not to come to Israel. 

“There’s war there!”

“Aren’t you afraid of being blown up?”

“Do they even have water there?”

But if my classmates thought that they heard a million reasons why not to come to Israel, I heard a million and a half. Growing up in Egypt, all my countrymen had opinions about Israel, none of them positive. All we knew was that our country and theirs had fought bloody wars, and that they were not like us. 

Other than these opinions, my only exposure to Israel came through music and television. On the radio, there were anthems about the destruction Israel had caused. In our movies, Israelis were spies and thieves. In spite of the fact that our countries struck a famous peace accord in 1979, the Israelis, I was told, were our eternal enemies. 

A recent Egyptian box-office hit titled “Cousins” told the story of an Israeli spy who marries an Egyptian woman. They have a family together, but the spy ultimately kidnaps his wife and children and brings them to Israel. When I told my mom I was coming to study in Israel, she was understandably terrified that I would find a girlfriend. 

So I arrived in Israel knowing nothing about the country except what I had learned in the movies and media. When the security official at Ben Gurion Airport asked why I decided to come here, I said, “I always heard the Jews are bad people, and I came to see this for myself.”

I had expected to find that people in Israel were unfriendly and especially unhappy to meet Egyptians, but I was pleasantly surprised by the exact opposite reaction. I was invited everywhere, from Shabbat dinners to Ramadan iftar meals, to plays and even political gatherings. And the diversity I found here was as surprising as the warmth of the people.

On my first day here at the university, I saw men in kippahs and women in headscarfs and hijabs. I saw soldiers walking peacefully among crowds of lively students. I learned there were people of every kind on campus, and that the university had a space for all of them — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins and even international students.

I discovered that the diversity of the TAU campus was reflected in Tel Aviv as well.

How fascinating is it to be in a country where you can to go a beach in central Tel Aviv and see a Muslim woman, a gay couple kissing and a Chasidic Jew sharing the same small space? Where else can you find a Christian Arab whose apartment is decorated with posters of Mao and Lenin? Where else can you see a Bedouin Israel Defense Forces soldier reading the Quran on the train during Ramadan? Where else can you see Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews arguing about whether Ashkenazi families had kidnapped Yemenite babies in the 1950s?

To be sure, my experience here has been defined by the unexpected. While traveling beyond Tel Aviv, one cannot help but notice the proximity of kibbutzim to Arab villages and the easy relationship they seem to share with each other.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of my stay was that in spite of all the conflicting histories and identities, people are still able to live their daily lives in a spirit of cooperation.

One particular instance stands out for me when I think of the paradox that plays out in Israel on a day-to-day basis. In my first weeks here, I had a conversation with a congenial Arab-Israeli student, during which she lectured me on the importance of Arab nations boycotting Israel. As our conversation came to a close, a Jewish boy who was about 8 years old skipped over to us, excited to see this woman — his teacher. She gave him a big hug and a kiss on his cheek. Their affection looked like an exchange between brother and sister. I could see how much she truly loved the boy, and how that boy returned her affection. No matter how deeply rooted the conflicts, this human side always manages to prevail.

I often reflect on the strangeness of coming to this country, where the people I was taught to think of as enemies were transformed into my teachers, classmates, vendors, doctors and guidance counselors. When Israelis ask me, “How does it feel for you to be in this country?” I have to be honest. I tell them, “Before I knew you, I didn’t like you.” But I never considered that my “enemies” would accept me into their school, to their country and moreover, into their society.

And at the end of my experience at TAU, the most extraordinary event came not from Israel, but from Egypt. Each year during Ramadan, there is a special series of soap operas which families all over the Arab world gather to watch after breaking the fast. One of this year’s top soap operas was called “Haret el-Yahoud” — “The Jewish Quarter.” It told the story of Egyptian Jews in the wake of Israel’s establishment. The series dealt seriously and thoughtfully with questions of identity and politics, featuring a cast of Jewish and Muslim characters — there is even an interreligious love affair.

As a student of history, I can’t say that the series was perfectly historically accurate. Nevertheless, for the first time in many decades, this series presented a depiction of Jews in Egyptian media as true human beings with a love of family and country, rather than mortal enemies. This Egyptian show is nothing short of extraordinary. And although Egypt has a way to go before accepting Israel as a friend, perhaps this series will inspire more Egyptians to at least wonder about and perhaps rethink their perceptions of “the enemy.”

After a year of countless surprises, I came to realize that there is a lesson in all of this, one that I think we call can use. I think it is something Tel Aviv master’s students, who strive to understand things precisely and without generalizations, uniquely understand: We must always question our assumptions. Being here in Israel has taught me that life is full of paradoxes and complexities — that nothing is straightforward, and that things are often not as they are made to seem. No matter how much education and life experience we acquire, we must always dig deeper. 

So, today, as I celebrate the end of a great year with my classmates, let’s also remember to go forward with a sense of renewed curiosity, knowing the only thing one should truly expect in life is for life to defy your expectations.

Haisam Hassanein is an Egyptian-American student currently pursuing his master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. This column first appeared in Fikra Forum. Reprinted with permission.

Islamic State says it launched rocket attack on Egypt navy vessel

Egypt's Islamic State affiliate said on Thursday it fired a rocket at an Egyptian naval vessel in the Mediterranean Sea near the coast of Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The militant group Sinai Province has focused mainly on attacking Egyptian soldiers and police in the Sinai peninsula, killing hundreds since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.

Photographs distributed online by the group appeared to show a rocket heading towards a ship and setting it ablaze on impact. Reuters could not verify the militants' version of events.

The Egyptian military said in a statement that a coastguard launch had exchanged shots with “terrorist elements”, causing the vessel to catch fire. It said there was no loss of life.

Such incidents at sea are rare, though Egypt is battling an increasingly brazen Islamist insurgency in the Sinai that lies between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said militancy poses an existential threat to Egypt, the most populous Arab country.

As army chief, Sisi overthrew Mursi and then launched a crackdown on Islamists, which has weakened his foes in the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood movement but failed to neutralize Sinai-based militants.

Sinai Province, the most lethal militant group in Egypt, last year pledged loyalty to Islamic State, which controls large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq and has a presence in Egypt's neighbor Libya.

It has recently carried out high profile attacks, which prompted the drafting of a sweeping counter-terrorism law.

On July 1, 100 militants and at least 17 members of the security forces were killed in a single day of clashes and attacks claimed by Sinai Province, authorities said.

The car bomb assassination of Egypt's top prosecutor in Cairo last month has also raised concerns that the insurgency is spreading.

A Reuters witness in Gaza saw a plume of dark grey smoke rising from a boat off the coast. Other witnesses in the Palestinian enclave said they heard explosions and gunfire.

Military sources said the suspected militants had fled after firing on the vessel.

Later in the day a small bomb exploded in a residential area of the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis, wounding a police officer, security sources said.

State television, meanwhile, announced the resignation of the Cairo police chief. It did not elaborate.

Hamas still firmly in control of Gaza

This story orginally appeared on The Media Line.

One year after the heavy fighting between the Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip and Israel, Hamas remains firmly in control of Gaza and reconstruction of the 12,000 uninhabitable homes in Gaza has barely begun. Senior Israeli army officials are recommending that Israel open more border crossings between Gaza and Israel to enable more goods to enter Gaza and more Palestinians to leave.

“Since 2000, the number of people coming to UNRWA (the UN agency that handles Palestinian refugees) has gone from 80,000 to 860,000,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told The Media Line. “The Israeli blockade which is a form of collective punishment must be lifted soon and that includes exports. At the moment there have been no meaningful exports at all.”

The UN says that of the 2262 Palestinians killed in the fighting, 1500 were civilians, among them 551 children and 305 women. Israel disputes the figures saying more than half of those killed were Hamas fighters. Seventy-one Israelis, most of them soldiers, also died in the fighting.

Israeli airstrikes caused widespread devastation in parts of Gaza, which Israel says were used as launching pads for rocket strikes on Israel or as hiding places for Hamas weapons. Gunness said 12,000 homes in Gaza are uninhabitable after being totally or almost totally destroyed. While large amounts of ruble have been removed, reconstruction has barely started. Qatar has offered to build hundreds of new homes there.

In recent weeks, there has been speculation that Israel and Hamas are engaged in indirect negotiations over a long-term cease-fire. Israel has not responded to several rockets fired from Gaza in the past few weeks, which were apparently fired not by Hamas but by Salafi elements who are challenging Hamas.

Some Israeli analysts say that accepting a long-term truce with Hamas would be a mistake.

“All we would be doing is giving them the time they need to rehabilitate their capability,” General Yakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told The Media Line. “We will then have to face them when they are strong enough. There is no logic in such an argument.”

He said Hamas lost almost two-thirds of its rocket capabilities during the fighting with Israel, half of which was destroyed in Israeli air strikes, and half was fired. Other military analysts say Hamas has restored its short-term rockets although not the longer-term missiles which can hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

While that may be true, Amidror counters, Israel’s Iron Dome proved effective at stopping the rockets, meaning that Israel has established a position of deterrence vis a vis Hamas.

“What Hamas needs is something different than what it had a year ago because nothing worked for Hamas,” he said. “Its RPGs were destroyed, Iron Dome coped with the missiles and the rockets and the tunnels were not a great success. The question is does Hamas have something new that we don’t know about.”

Hamas is facing a challenge from Islamic State, he said, which has established a strong presence in neighboring Sinai and is challenging Egypt. But in Gaza at least Hamas remains firmly in control.

Israeli press reports say that the army is recommending that Israel ease freedom of movement from Gaza. Egypt has also kept a tight hold on its Rafah crossing, afraid of being inundated with Palestinians who want to escape life in Gaza. For example, the officers said, Israel could allow thousands of Palestinians to travel via the Erez crossing through Israel to Jordan, where they could fly abroad. Israel could also reopen the Karni crossing for goods into and out of Gaza.

Chris Gunness of UNRWA agrees that could make a difference in people’s lives.

“It would make a huge difference,” he said. “Freedom of movement for civilians would be a very welcome thing.”

Israel says Islamic State’s Sinai assault aimed to help Hamas get arms

Israel accused Hamas on Tuesday of supporting last week's assaults by Islamic State affiliates on Egyptian forces in the Sinai in hope of freeing up arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip.

The remarks followed Israeli allegations that Hamas members provided training and medical treatment for the Sinai insurgents – charges dismissed by the Palestinian Islamist group as a bid to further fray its troubled ties with Cairo.

Egypt said more than 100 insurgents and 17 of its soldiers were killed in Wednesday's simultaneous assaults, carried out against military checkpoints around the North Sinai towns of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. Islamic State's Egypt affiliate, Sinai Province, took credit for the attacks.

Rafah straddles the border between Egypt and Gaza and had long seen smuggling to the Hamas-controlled enclave. But Cairo has been cracking down on such activity and deems Hamas a threat to Egyptian interests.

An Israeli intelligence colonel responsible for monitoring the borders with Egypt and Gaza said on Tuesday that Hamas, short of weaponry after its war against Israel last year, supported the Sinai assaults with the “objective of opening up a conduit” for renewed smuggling.

“Why was it is so very important for them (Hamas) to develop the connection with Sinai Province? Because they need the raw materials that would enable the military build-up in Gaza,” the colonel said in remarks aired by Israel Radio.

“To carry out high-quality smuggling required a special operation,” added the colonel, whose name was not published.

Hamas said Israel was conducting “a systematic incitement campaign”.

“The Egyptian side understands that Hamas had no connection to what happened in Sinai and also realizes the efforts Hamas is making to keep Gaza away from what happens there,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Palestinian movement.

Egyptian officials were not immediately available to respond to the Israeli colonel's allegations.

On Friday, Egyptian military sources said there was evidence that individuals from Hamas had participated in the Sinai battles but not of any wider organizational links.

Though they share hostility to Israel, Hamas and Islamic State have been at odds within Gaza. The insurgents threatened last week to extend their self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq to Gaza by toppling Hamas, which they described as insufficiently stringent about religious rule.

That strife ends at the Sinai border, Israel argues.

“Hamas is fighting ISIS (Islamic State) in the Strip, but on the other side there is cooperation between Hamas elements from Gaza and ISIS in Sinai,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement on Tuesday.

Israel OKs larger Egyptian force to fight jihadis

Israel has reportedly given Egypt the green light to use advanced military force against Islamic militants in the Sinai and has closed a southern Israeli highway as a precaution.

Militants in the Sinai Peninsula affiliated with the Islamic State mounted coordinated attacks on Wednesday that left dozens of Egyptian soldiers dead, Egyptian media reported. Though the peace accord between Israel and Egypt limits the type of weaponry allowed into the Sinai, Israel has continued to waive those limitations to give Egyptian forces a free hand in fighting back against the jihadis, according to an anonymous Israeli official quoted in the Times of Israel.

Egypt has used F-16 warplanes and helicopters.

Israeli Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai told Al Jazeera that Hamas is supporting the militants in the Sinai.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Forces announced Thursday that Route 12, a highway near the Israeli-Egyptian border, would be closed temporarily beginning Friday morning.

Fighting in the Sinai continues between Egyptian forces and the militants, with more than 100 militants reported killed since Wednesday, according to Egyptian media.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his condolences Thursday to “the Egyptian government and the families of those who were killed in battle with the cruel terror.”

He said, “We see in front of our eyes ISIS acting with extraordinary cruelty both in our northern border and at our southern border.”

Islamic State attack in Egypt’s North Sinai kills 50

UPDATED 10:11am/PST: Initial reports said 50 dead in attacks

Islamic State insurgents attacked several military checkpoints in Egypt's North Sinai on Wednesday in a co-ordinated assault in which at least 70 combatants and civilians were killed — one of the biggest militant attacks in Egypt's modern history.

The action marked a significant escalation in violence in the Sinai Peninsula, located between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.

It also raised questions about the government's ability to contain an insurgency that has already killed hundreds of police and soldiers.

Islamic State's Egyptian affiliate, Sinai Province, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The army said five checkpoints were hit by about 70 militants and the fighting raged for more than eight hours.

One security source put the number of militants at about 300, armed with heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry.

Security sources said the militants had planned to lay siege to Sheikh Zuweid town, where most of the fighting has been concentrated, by hitting all army checkpoints simultaneously.

“But we have dealt with them and broke the siege on Sheikh Zuweid,” one source said.

Army F-16 jets and Apache helicopters strafed the region. Soldiers had destroyed three landcruisers fitted with anti-aircraft guns, the army said.

The insurgency, which is seeking to topple the Cairo government, has intensified since 2013, when then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood after mass protests against his rule.

Sisi, who regards the Brotherhood as a threat to national security, has since overseen a harsh crackdown on Islamists.

The courts have sentenced hundreds of alleged Brotherhood supporters to death in recent months. Mursi himself, and other senior Brotherhood figures, also face the death penalty.

Sisi's government does not distinguish between the now-outlawed Brotherhood – which says it is committed to peaceful activism – and other militants.

Wednesday's assault was the second high-profile attack in Egypt this week. On Monday, the prosecutor-general was killed in a car bombing in Cairo.


The exact breakdown of identities of those killed was not immediately clear. Security and medical sources said at least 70 people, including soldiers and civilians, were killed.

The sources said 38 militants were also killed. The army has acknowledged deaths among soldiers and militants.

Security sources said militants had surrounded a police station in Sheikh Zuweid and had planted bombs around it to prevent forces from leaving.

The militants also planted bombs along a road between Sheikh Zuweid and al-Zuhour army camp to prevent the movement of any army supplies or reinforcements. They also seized two armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition, the sources said.

“We are not allowed to leave our homes. Clashes are ongoing. A short while ago I saw five Landcruisers with masked gunmen waving black flags,” said Suleiman al-Sayed, a 49-year-old Sheikh Zuweid resident.

Ambulance medic Yousef Abdelsalam said he was at the entrance to Sheikh Zuweid but could not enter because of warnings that the road was rigged with bombs.

Witnesses and security sources also reported hearing two explosions in the nearby town of Rafah, which borders Gaza. The sources said all roads leading to Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid were shut down. The interior ministry in the Gaza Strip, run by the Islamist Hamas group, reinforced its forces along the borders with Egypt.

Sinai Province said in Wednesday's statement that it had attacked more than 15 security sites and carried out three suicide bombings.

“It is a sharp reminder that despite the intensive counter

terrorism military campaign in the Sinai over the past 6 months, the IS ranks are not decreasing – if anything they are increasing in numbers as well as sophistication, training and daring,” Aimen Dean, a former al Qaeda insider who now runs a Gulf-based security consultancy, said in a note.


In Cairo, security forces stormed an apartment in a western suburb and killed nine men whom they said were armed, security sources said.

The sources said authorities received information the group was planning to carry out an attack. Among those dead was Nasser al-Hafi, a prominent lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood and a former lawmaker. The Brotherhood denied the group was armed.

Islamic State had urged its followers to escalate attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan which started in mid-June, though it did not specify Egypt as a target. In April, the army extended by three months a state of emergency imposed in parts of Sinai.

The army has taken several measures to crush the insurgency. Besides bombardments in the region, they have destroyed tunnels into the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip and created a security buffer zone in northern Sinai. The army is also digging a trench along the border with Gaza in an effort to prevent smuggling.

Under the terms of Egypt's 1979 peace accord with Israel, the Sinai is largely demilitarized. But Israel has regularly agreed to Egypt bringing in reinforcements to tackle the Sinai insurgency, and one Israeli official signaled there could be further such deployments following Wednesday's attacks.

“This incident is a game-changer,” an official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The Israeli border with the Sinai and Gaza has been closed, including the Nitzana border crossing with Sinai and the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza.

(Additional information from JTA)

France’s Orange plans to end brand licensing deal in Israel

Israel protested to France on Thursday after the head of partly state-owned French telecom giant Orange said it intended to end a brand licensing deal with an Israeli firm, drawing accusations it was bending to a pro-Palestinian boycott movement.

Commenting on remarks in Cairo on Wednesday by Orange CEO Stephane Richard, the French company said in Paris that terminating the arrangement with Israel's Partner Communications was a business decision, not a political one.

Richard was quoted by media reports as saying at a news conference in the Egyptian capital that he was willing to withdraw the Orange brand from Israel “tomorrow morning” but moving too quickly would expose his company to legal risks and possible financial penalties.

“I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt … We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries,” he was quoted as saying.

The remarks struck a nerve in Israel, which fears diplomatic and economic isolation because of the stagnation of talks on founding a Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded France “publicly renounce the distressing statement and action” taken by Orange. The French government holds a 25 percent stake in the company.

In public remarks, Netanyahu also urged Israel's allies “to state loudly, clearly and unconditionally that they oppose every form of boycott against the Jewish state”.

In a statement in Paris a day after Richard's comments, Orange said that in line with its licensing policy, it does not want to keep its brand presence in countries where it is not an operator.

“Within this framework, and while strictly respecting existing accords, Orange would like to put an end to this brand licencing,” the statement said.

In a letter released to the media, Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Hotovely voiced deep concern” at “the possibility of a future withdrawal of the Orange brand from Israel”.

She urged Richard to refrain from being “party to the industry of lies which unfairly targets Israel”. Orange said his comments had been taken out of context.

Israel has said the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, sponsored by pro-Palestinian intellectuals and bloggers, is motivated by anti-Semitism and a desire to paint Israel as illegitimate.

The movement accuses Israel of denying basic human rights to Palestinians.

France's Foreign Ministry declined to comment specifically on Richard's comments. But it reaffirmed that France is against any boycott of Israel, while viewing as illegal the settlements it has built in the West Bank, where Partner and other Israeli phone companies also operate.

In a statement, Partner scrambled to head off any public backlash in Israel over Orange's decision, saying “the sole connection between us and France Telecom is the brand”, used by the Israeli company since 1998.

Israeli officials swiftly took to social media to emphasise that Orange has no holding in Partner, which is owned by Saban Capital Group. Partner employees draped a blue-and-white Israeli flag over the Orange logo on the front of company headquarters.

Beyond Shylock: How Jews are portrayed in Egyptian cinema

Images of a seductive Jewish belly dancer move across the screen. After spending her evening entertaining rich tribal sheiks, Sarah returns home to her father, who complains she didn’t bring home enough money.

“Did the blood of your people escape from your veins?”

“I spent the money inciting men against Muhammad!”

The scene is from the 1960s Egyptian film “Immigration of the Prophet.” Although the story takes place in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, no references to such a scene can be found in traditional Islamic sources, said Sariel Birnbaum, a visiting Israeli scholar at San Diego State University. Birnbaum, who translated the film’s Arabic passages into English, spoke May 3 about the depiction of Jews in Egyptian cinema at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach as a guest of the California State University Long Beach Speaker Series, hosted by the Alpert JCC. 

The film’s story is purely fictional, Birnbuam said.

As early as 1926, Egyptian filmmakers have wanted to depict the Prophet Muhammad, but Sunni clerics wouldn’t allow it. Stories of his female companions, contemporaries and the first four caliphs were also off limits.

Egyptian filmmakers developed a formula that would allow them to depict the time of the prophet without offending Sunni clerics: They decided to show the rise of Islam from the perspective of enemies of the faith — the Jews.

“When they want to tell the story of the beginning of Islam, they go to the big European repertoire of anti-Semitism and take what they want,” Birnbaum said. In this case, it was the connection between Jews and money.

In another example taken from the 1953 film “Belal Moaazen El Rasoul,” the freed Muslim slave Belal borrows money from a Jew on the condition that if he cannot repay, he will become a slave again. This depiction of the Jew as usurer has obvious links to the Shylock character in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” The Jew in this film has a hook nose, a shrill voice and, of course, a bagful of money. Even his hat looks like Shylock’s. 

Other Egyptian films showed Jews involved in espionage and intrigue.

“A Crime in the Quiet Neighborhood,” another Egyptian film from the 1960s, takes a slightly different approach: The film distorts historical accounts of the Stern Gang, the underground Jewish Zionist group that assassinated British resident minister Lord Moyne in 1944. At the time, Egyptians demonstrated in support of the Zionists’ actions because the country was still under the yoke of British colonialism, Birnbaum said. 

The gang in the film kidnaps the daughter of an Egyptian police officer charged with investigating the assassination. The female architect of the kidnapping is another dancer; in addition to being a kidnapper and a murderer, she’s shown lacking sexual morality.

In the decades that followed, European anti-Semitic depictions became less common in Egyptian cinema, Birnbaum said. 

The 1979 film “Alexandria … Why?” features a Jewish family fleeing the port city before the Nazis arrive. When the family arrives in Palestine, they encounter fighting. Although devoid of the sort of European anti-Semitism found in films from decades before, “Alexandria … Why?” propagates the idea espoused by the Palestine Liberation Organization during that time that the Jewish state is illegitimate, Birnbaum said.

Later films have shown Israelis as Egyptian adversaries.

For example, the 1993 film “The Day of Glory” depicts the sinking of the Israeli ship Eilat at the conclusion of the Six-Day War. The film points to the arrogance of Israeli naval officers, who casually smoke cigars and disobey orders. Although the portrayal is negative, it is nonetheless based on historical accounts, Birnbaum said, including the commander’s own memoirs.

Fast forward to 2005 and the narrative becomes more complex.

In “The Embassy in the Building,” protagonist Sherif finds himself in a predicament when he returns to Egypt from working abroad: The Israeli Embassy has moved into his building. Comedy ensues as Sherif encounters various individuals — an opinionated prostitute, a Marxist woman and Islamic terrorists — all of whom harbor some form of anti-Israeli sentiments and object to his living in the same building as the embassy. 

When Sherif gets kidnapped by the terrorists, he professes his allegiance only to Allah (as opposed to Egyptian authorities). The terrorists strap a bomb belt around his waist and tell him he has a special destiny. Birnbaum provided a translation: “So, you will stay down here and I will go up?” The terrorist nods and points heavenward, indicating Sherif will enter paradise with other martyrs. Sherif is chagrined.

“The Islamists and those that really want to explode the embassy are the bad guys here,” Birnbaum said. “Of course, they were also the ideological enemies of the regime of that time.”

Sherif does not explode the bomb but later befriends the Israelis. Then a Palestinian boy he knows dies in the intifada, and he throws the Israelis out of his building.

Birnbaum concluded that anti-Semitism largely has disappeared from mainstream Egyptian cinema in the last couple of decades. The trope of the Jewish seductress is a popular one, however, and remains in the Egyptian consciousness to this day.

Maybe Obama knows what he’s doing

At our seder this year, one guest, an Israeli of Iraqi origin, told me her family has a very different way of recounting the Ten Plagues God sent to Egypt.

Instead of spilling a little wine at the mention of each plague — blood, boils, hail, frogs, the likeher father would pour some wine from a glass and say, “Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini,” as well as the names of other plagues on the Jewish people. Then he’d walk outside and shatter the empty glass against a rock — those Mizrahim don’t fool around.

“Of course, I don’t want to tell you who else we name now,” she said, her eyes challenging me to guess.

“Obama,” I guessed.

“He’s plagues five through 10.”

She imitated the motion of a spilling a bit of wine. “Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama.”

Then she threw her imaginary glass against a rock.

For her and many, if not most, Israelis, it’s very simple: Obama’s just-announced agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons threatens Israel’s very existence. The guest, like many Israelis, said there are only two ways of looking at Obama vis à vis this deal: Either he’s a sap who was out-negotiated by the Iranians or he’s an anti-Semite out to see Israel destroyed. 

But there is a third possibility: Maybe Obama will go down in history as the man who finally saved Israel from the Iranian nuke.

I know this is a radical thought within some Jewish circles these days, but please bear with me. 

In late 2006, I first heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compare that moment in time to 1938, declaring, “Iran is Germany.” 

“When someone tells you he is going to exterminate you, believe him and stop him,” Netanyahu urged a crowd of 5,000 at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in Los Angeles.

Yet, afterward, neither Netanyahu nor then-President George W. Bush did anything definitive to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.  In fact, as Iran’s nuclear weapons development proceeded, and Bush sowed the seeds of chaos in Iraq, the options to thwart Iran became less and less ideal. 

Obama, by contrast, was able to bring Iran to the negotiating table as a result of a broad and tough international sanctions regime. The framework resulting from those negotiations — announced last week and not yet definitive — are now entering their final stage.

Because Iran’s nuclear development has festered for so long, the deal as it looks now is less than ideal. Iran’s knowledge, infrastructure and expertise has grown to the point that it cannot be bombed away. As Obama acknowledged in an NPR interview April 7, when the terms of the current deal expire in 10 to 15 years, Iran will be able, if it chooses, to quickly develop a nuclear weapon.

The assumption the president is making is that, over the course of the next decade of engagement, inspections and evolution, either the U.S., Israel and/or Iran’s other opponents will invent and develop new means to thwart Iran’s ambitions, or Iran itself will make the choice to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Is that pure fantasy? From the point of view of Obama’s critics, who keep reminding us that Iran is nothing but a deceptive, monolithic evil empire eager to destroy Israel, the U.S. and, of course, itself, well, yes — any such assessment looks like fantasy.

Because Iran’s nuclear development has festered for so long, the deal as it looks now is less than ideal. Iran’s knowledge, infrastructure and expertise has grown to the point that it cannot be bombed away.

But there also is evidence that Iranian insiders are eager to find a way to abandon the long and costly push for nuclear weapons without admitting as much to the Iranian people — who have paid an enormous price for such folly.

In other words, the Iranian regime is indeed lying — but to its own people. The mullahs want them to think this potential agreement will be a victory for Iran, when, in fact, it is the beginning of the end of a delusional and expensive attempt to become another Mideast nuclear power.

“The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a one-sided agreement,” former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr said in a revealing Huffington Post interview with Nathan Gardels. “While Iran has committed to carry out its responsibilities, the P5+1 countries and the European Union have committed only to suspend, not end, their sanctions. Even just this pledge to suspend sanctions is conditioned on Iran submitting for the next 20 years to highly intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. They will call the shots while Iran will be controlled by the threat of sanctions remaining over its head. To hide these facts, the Iranian regime’s media have manipulated the translation of the agreement to frame it as a victory.”

The regime, he said, is looking for a way out without losing face.

“The best way to have ended this crisis and move on would have been to appeal directly to Iranians with the truth about why nuclear activities began in the first place,” Bani-Sadr said.

If that’s true, then Obama’s calculated risk begins to look smarter and less risky.

“I think what we’re buying in this agreement is basically a delay in management of Iran’s nuclear threat for 10 to 15 years,” Gary Samore, one of the few true experts on Iranian nukes, said on NPR last week. “And, of course, at that point, nobody can anticipate what the situation would be, who will be in power in Iran, what U.S.-Iranian relations are like. Nobody can know that. So this agreement is basically a way to delay and manage the threat.”

That’s not to say Israel and Congress shouldn’t work to improve upon the deal. One major step they can take is to surround the deal with mutual defense pacts among the U.S., NATO, Israel and the Arab world.

If Congress really were concerned more about Iranian nukes than about depriving Obama of a diplomatic victory, and if Bibi would finally help steer the train rather than throw himself on the tracks, a June deal could happen that would keep the Iranians nuke-free for the next 10 to15 years and beyond.

If not, a plague on all our houses.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

American Jewish former diplomat speaks in Cairo

Daniel Kurtzer, the former diplomat, continues to be soft-spoken, and his outlook envisions opportunities for conflict resolution. But his assessment for future prospects for a Mideast peace settlement concentrate on Washington’s failure to hold Israel accountable for actions he believes endanger implementation of a meaningful agreement. 

Kurtzer, 66, served as United States Ambassador to Egypt from 1999 to 2001 and to Israel from 2001–2005.  

He is also an Orthodox Jew whose appointment to the senior posting in Cairo during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak elicited hostile responses in Egypt’s popular media, including anti-Semitic caricatures.

“I’ve chosen to talk in Cairo about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, because here it is possible to have a discussion about it,” Kurtzer said during a recent speech at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

“Unfortunately, in Washington, much of that conversation has been stifled over the years by a kind of consensus that runs the gambit from, ‘Its impossible to achieve’ [to] ‘It’s too dangerous to even try.’ ” Kurtzer said. 

“A third Intifada is inevitable without some progress toward resolution of the conflict,” Kurtzer warned his audience.

“Status quos are not static in this region, and at some the point pressure builds up — you either relieve that pressure by showing people there is an avenue to reach agreement, or the situation explodes.

Kurtzer now serves on the board of trustees at AUC, the institution commonly considered to be the premier center of private higher education in Egypt. 

The former ambassador identified Washington’s muted response to continued Israeli settlement activity as the major factor impeding a two-state breakthrough.

“You can’t aspire to a territorial outcome while at the same time settling the territory on which the other side is eventually going to exercise sovereignty … it makes no sense. It sends exactly the wrong signal to the other side, that negotiations are a sham,” said Kurtzer, who believes the administration could jolt Israeli complacency on the issue by excluding goods produced in the West Bank settlements from the benefits of the free-trade agreement with the United States.

Kurtzer was part of George H.W. Bush’s policy team that obtained concessions from former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from using American loan guarantees to build housing for newly arriving Russian immigrants in the West Bank.

“If the president of the United States came along and simply wondered out loud about why we are providing free trade benefits to the settlements, and all of a sudden the question were raised, that would probably be enough to move the numbers,” Kurtzer asserted.

Egyptian novelist and diplomat Ezzedine Fishere expressed admiration for Kurtzer’s persistent pursuit of a negotiated outcome, even as he articulated a widely shared Arab view that the forces in Israel opposed to compromise are too firmly entrenched to move on the core issues.

“At what point are you ready to declare that the two-state solution is dead?” asked Fishere, who spent a year in Tel Aviv as Egypt’s political attaché and is currently a member of the Liberal Arts faculty at AUC. 

Kurtzer responded that it was too early to give up attempts at working out an agreement because, in his view, the U.S. still has not mustered all its negotiation efforts to “get the diplomacy right.”

“John Kerry started out quite positively in his diplomacy because he didn’t just try to get the two sides back to the negotiating table; he tried to create a kind of infrastructure as a safety net for the talks,” Kurtzer said.

Kerry’s “architecture” included getting foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to come to Washington to reiterate the Arab Peace Initiative and appointing Gen. John Allen to pinpoint security issues and propose solutions. 

“[Allen] was there to provide answers when Israel [said], ‘We need defensible borders,’ ” Kurtzer said.

“But at the critical moment, when the two sides had proved unable to reach an agreement on terms of reference, the United States walked away rather than using that moment to put forth an American idea — or, even better, to bring in the international community and put forward a security council resolution,” Kurtzer said in describing the collapse of the Kerry initiative. 

Despite his focus on American and Israeli shortcomings in returning the two-state framework to viability, Kurtzer challenged some common assumptions voiced by AUC graduate students during the audience question period.  

“This summer’s war in Gaza was not an Israeli attempt to regain control of territory or of Palestinian gas resources in the Mediterranean,” Kurtzer said.

“In the past, the United States and Egypt may have had different views of Hamas; we don’t have those differences anymore,” he noted.

“Hamas is now seen by a growing segment of opinion here as a terrorist organization, and not just as an organization that is threatening Israel, but also the security and stability of Egypt, as well. “

The former ambassador also questioned the effectiveness of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, if the intended outcome is meant to change Israeli thinking.

“If you are going to try and punish, you might also think about incentivizing — maybe there are carrots here, even if you are contemplating using sticks.“At the risk of rankling some people in the audience, I believe that if there were more participation in civil society initiatives bringing Arabs and Israelis together even before final status issues were resolved, it would be a lot easier for negotiators to win political support for their efforts.”

Egypt to deepen buffer zone with Gaza after finding longer tunnels

Egypt will double the depth of a security buffer zone it is clearing on its border with the Gaza Strip to 0.62 miles after some of the worst anti-state violence since President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown last year.

Egypt declared a state of emergency in the border area after at least 33 security personnel were killed last month in two attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, a remote but strategic region bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal.

It also accelerated plans to create a 500-metre deep buffer strip along the border by clearing houses and trees and destroying subterranean tunnels it says are used to smuggle arms from Gaza to militants in Sinai.

“A decision was taken to increase the buffer zone along the border in Rafah to one kilometre. The decision … came after the discovery of underground tunnels with a total length of 800 to 1,000 metres,” the state MENA news agency said.

Residents of Sinai, who complain they have long been neglected by the state, say they rely on smuggling trade through the tunnels for their living and the creation of the buffer zone has stoked resentment. Egyptian authorities see them as a threat and regularly destroy them.

Militant violence in Sinai has surged since the army ousted Morsi, a Brotherhood official in July 2013. Egypt has launched a crackdown on the group, jailing thousands of its members and labeling it a terrorist organisation.

The Brotherhood says it is peaceful and condemned last month's attacks.

But Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a militant group that has sworn allegiance to Islamic State, has stepped up attacks on police and soldiers in Sinai and released a video this month in which it purported to claim that it was behind the Oct. 24 attack.

Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad, editing by Lin Noueihed

Sinai attack reverberates around Israel, Middle East

This article originally appeared on

The deadliest attack on Egyptian soldiers since the new government of Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi took office is affecting not only Egypt, but Israel and the Palestinians as well. After an attacker drove a car rigged with explosives into a military checkpoint in the Sinai desert, killing at least 33 soldiers, Al-Sisi has vowed to crack down on Jihadi groups to prevent further attacks.

The Sinai Peninsula, which borders both Israel and the Gaza Strip, has long been a center for weapons and drug smuggling. After the most recently attack, Sisi closed the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt. Sisi blamed Palestinians in Gaza for helping the extremists behind the attack and announced that Egyptian-brokered talks on a more permanent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, that were supposed to have started this week, have been postponed. A seven-week war between the two ended with a temporary cease-fire in August, and talks on a more permanent deal have yet to commence.

Some in Egypt say the extremists are gaining ground, and there could be more attacks in Sinai or elsewhere in Egypt.

“The barbarian actions against the state and the region being disguised under Islam mistakenly produce more misunderstanding and raise the Islamophobia inside the Islamic countries itself,” Moataz Abd Elkarim, a professor at Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology told The Media Line.

He says that despite the mixture of anger and frustration following the attack, he believes “the security is getting better.” However, Egypt’s defense plan can always do better to protect its citizens, he adds.

The attack, viewed as a setback for Cairo’s efforts to crack down on Muslim extremists, has prompted the Egyptian National Defense Council (NDC) to discuss setting up a wide buffer zone in the peninsula.

Speaking to a Turkish News Agency, a former senior military official Alaa Ezziddin said that the NDC met to accelerate the ratification of a terrorism law which “includes all the necessary measures on how to deal with security issues, including sentence verdicts for anyone who owns unlicensed weapons, as well as prosecuting anyone who carries weapons and explosives before a military court.”

Abd Elkarim says the frustration only grows because of “the repeated scenarios of the terroristic attacks in Sinai within the same region and the lessons we didn’t learn.”

Palestinians in Gaza expressed frustration that yet again, their interests are being pushed aside by extremist groups in Egypt.

“Egyptian army failures can't routinely be blamed on others, on outside forces and on Hamas,” Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist for Al-Monitor told The Media Line from Jordan.

Following the first visit to Gaza by the new Palestinian National Consensus Government, the plan was to have the Palestinian Authority replace Hamas forces, an agreement which has yet to materialize. Israel, Egypt and the United States have all said that having PA troops running the Rafah border crossing is a condition for allowing large amounts of reconstruction aid into Gaza. Israel worries the cement and iron could be used for weapons or tunnels instead of rebuilding homes.

Palestinians say the Egyptian tendency to blame them for these attacks makes it harder for Egypt to be an honest broker in talks between Hamas and Israel.

“Egypt is creating an atmosphere that is not conducive for meetings, when something happens, they (Egypt) blame Gaza,” West Bank political science professor Abdelsattar Qassem told The Media Line. He expects the attacks to continue, citing the lack of strength among Egyptian security. “In failing to prevent what happened in Sinai, it shows a weakness in the Egyptian intelligence” the political analyst, who teaches at An Najah University in Nablus, said.

While he could not elaborate on the security coordination between Israel and Egypt, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said that the two countries did see eye to eye on the same objective – fighting terrorism. Calling it a “dreadful terrorist attack,” he said that Israel was concerned and was behind Egypt in its fight against terror. “We are in constant dialogue,” he told The Media Line.

The United States has condemned the attack with the State Department saying that “a prosperous and dynamic Egypt requires an environment of security and stability.”

In a surprising move, the Muslim Brotherhood has also condemned the Sinai attack.

“I think the state should open the dialogue with the youth more to reproduce their anger in a peaceful attitude instead of using the ultimate power like what happened in Egypt’s universities in the last couple weeks,” Moataz Abd Elkarim said. Recently, university students, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood damaged buildings in an attempt to provoke a response, but Egypt’s security forces showed restraint.  

The Palestinian President’s top adviser on international affairs Majdi Al Khaldi says Mahmoud Abbas spoke with his Egyptian counterpart Al-Sisi on Sunday and gave him assurances that the Palestinian people “stand firm with Egypt in this war against terrorism.”

As for the buffer zone, Khaldi says “the President and the leadership supports the measures that will be taken in Sinai.”

Khaldi says if Egypt is too busy tending to prevention of attacks, it will be hard to play a key role in ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“We want Egypt to stand with us on this issue so we have to support Egypt to fight terrorism,” he told The Media Line.

Israel’s anti-rocket hit ‘Iron Dome’ a slow sell abroad

Normally, an advanced new weapon system with a battle-proven success rate of 90 percent would have global defense procurement agencies on the phone in minutes. But Israel's Iron Dome rocket interceptor is yet to prove a hit with buyers abroad.

In terms of operational achievement, tested on the Gaza, Lebanese and Egyptian Sinai fronts, Iron Dome is unrivalled in the arms market. However its uniqueness – developed for a particular threat in a particular place – also limits its appeal to countries dealing with more conventional military adversaries.

And Israel further curbs its potential client pool by not selling to countries with which it has no diplomatic ties – ruling out Gulf Arabs who, given their standoff with Iran, are looking into missile defense.

“It is arguable that Iron Dome is tailored to deal with the specific Israeli challenge of combating short-range rocket and missile threats by non-state actors,” said Avnish Patel of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), who runs the British think-tank's annual ballistic missile defense conference.

So far the system – its effectiveness against Palestinian rocket fire demonstrated beyond doubt since 2011 – has been bought by just one foreign country. Its identity is being kept secret by both sides.

Iron Dome's manufacturer, state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., would have been content to keep it on home turf and avoid the risk of classified technology leaks, said Yosi Druker, vice president of the company.

But with exports a critical prop for Israel's embattled defense budget – the country sells abroad about 80 percent of the weaponry it develops, earning $6.5 billion a year – finding foreign customers for Iron Dome was seen as a natural next step.

“Rafael invested a great many millions of shekels in developing this system,” Druker, a senior member of the Iron Dome project, told Reuters. “It could not afford to have done this without selling abroad.”


Iron Dome was rushed through development after northern Israel was heavily shelled by Hezbollah guerillas in the 2006 Lebanon War.

The Israelis were banking on its export prospects from early on, says one person who was present when the system aced its first live trial, in 2009, and told Reuters that two officers from a foreign country that regularly buys Israeli defense products were among observers at the desert test range.

Another country closely involved with the project, the United States, provided a substantial outlay to enable Israel to deploy the system – more than $1 billion – but declined to buy it for its own forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Among the Pentagon's misgivings was the $100,000 price of Iron Dome radar-guided interceptor missiles and their perceived unsuitability for insurgents' low-trajectory mortars, said Riki Ellison, president of the U.S. Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

“The Iron Dome does not do mortar protection that close, and the cost of engagement is not applicable,” said Ellison.

Israelis are also mindful of the mortar threat, having lost 15 soldiers and civilians to such salvoes in the July-August Gaza war, while rockets from Gaza killed two people. Rafael is now developing Iron Beam, a system that would use lasers to incinerate mortar shells mid-air.

Yet Druker insists Iron Dome's anti-mortar capabilities are sound, but were underused in the recent war was because it was often deployed far from Gaza's border. The price of its interceptor missiles could be cut by eventual mass-production and joint manufacturing deals with U.S. firm Raytheon Co..

But the roughly $50 million price tag for an Iron Dome battery – radar, command room and two missile launchers – is unlikely to drop significantly.

“From the outset, we built this with an extreme view of design-to-cost. There wasn't one screw that we incorporated without first checking if there was a cheaper version available,” Druker said.


Also on the roster of countries to which Israel will not offer Iron Dome are those whose military build-up is watched warily by Washington, Druker said – a likely allusion to China and Russia.

But Rafael does acknowledge promoting Iron Dome to South Korea and India. The former is menaced by North Korea and the latter is Israel's biggest defense client – a relationship expected to flourish under India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is especially friendly toward the Jewish state.

Neither Asian power has yet suggested it will buy.

“South Korea would need to spend heavily to buy numerous systems to deter the far more expansive threat of a state actor such as North Korea,” said RUSI's Patel, explaining Seoul's hesitation.

Meanwhile India is unlikely to want Iron Dome for its population centres, which are not threatened by rockets, says Jeremy Binnie, Middle East Editor for Jane's Defense Weekly. But it might be interested in localised protection for strategic sites, he adds.

“You have got that massive (Jamnagar) refinery on the west coast of India. I know the Israelis have already done a lot of security measures around that. It's massive. It's possible India might be interested in getting a few (Iron Dome) batteries to defend targets such as these,” Binnie said.

In a nod to a coastal defense role, Druker said Iron Dome “can defeat anything fired from the sea and which might endanger energy platforms”.

Despite initial concerns about technology leaks, Rafael says Israeli national security would not be impaired if this were to happen. The Israeli military is using the fourth-generation model of Iron Dome, leaving Rafael the option of selling only earlier versions abroad and protecting those deployed at home.

“Any interceptor missile that falls in Gaza might potentially find its way to the best Iranian labs. You live with it,” Druker said.

Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi; Editing by Sophie Walker

End of Gaza war doesn’t translate into peace

A week after the guns fell silent in the Gaza war, Israel and the Palestinians seem to have little appetite or incentive for a return to U.S.-sponsored peace and statehood talks that collapsed five months ago.

With conflicts raging in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria – and the future of the Gaza Strip largely uncharted by a broadbrush Egyptian-mediated ceasefire deal – world powers also are not rushing headlong into the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

The parties themselves, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bickering governing coalition and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are on a collision course over threatened Palestinian unilateral moves toward statehood and exploration of war crimes prosecution against Israel in the absence of direct talks.

Israel drew Palestinian and international criticism on Sunday by announcing a major appropriation of occupied land in the West Bank, the most significant such move in 30 years.

As head of a governing coalition divided over trading territory for peace, Netanyahu is now speaking, in amorphous terms, of an alternative route towards ending decades of conflict – a “new horizon” – or possible regional alliance with moderate Arab countries alarmed, like Israel, by radical Islam.

Closer to home and with the Gaza situation still in flux, there is nothing on the immediate horizon as far as peacemaking with Abbas is concerned, Israeli government sources said.

Under the Egyptian-brokered truce agreement, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to address complex issues such as Hamas's demands for a Gaza seaport and the release of Palestinian prisoners via indirect talks starting within a month.

With the start of those negotiations still up in the air, Netanyahu wants to see whether Abbas takes over responsibility from Hamas for administering Gaza's borders and that measures are taken to prevent the group from smuggling in weaponry.

Netanyahu, who appears to be weathering an approval rating plunge after the Gaza war ended without a clear victor, took a swipe at Abbas last week, summing up a conflict which the Palestinian leader persistently tried to bring to an end.

“Abu Mazen has to choose which side he is on,” Netanyahu told a news conference, using Abbas's nickname.

The comment harked back to Israel's decision in April to cut off peace talks with Abbas after he clinched a unity deal with Hamas, a bitter rival that had seized the Gaza Strip from his Fatah forces in 2007.

Those negotiations, on creating a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, were already going nowhere, with Palestinians pointing to expanding Israeli settlement on land they claim as their own and balking at Israel's demand to recognize it as the Jewish homeland.


In an editorial laden with scepticism, Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper questioned whether “as in the past” Netanyahu's remarks on casting a regional peace net, “are only empty slogans”.

Some of his cabinet ministers are also pressing Netanyahu to get moving on a wider track.

“We cannot and will not allow a situation whereby this ceasefire is the beginning of the countdown to the next round of fire. If we don’t take the diplomatic initiative, this is exactly what will happen,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid said.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator in now-dormant talks with the Palestinians, said: “(Netanyahu) has to be put to the test on this.”

Livni, speaking on Israel Radio, said Israel should “create a front with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – those countries threatened by all of those beheaders running around the region”.

But, she said, “they can cooperate with us only if there is a basic minimum of a peace process – dialogue with the moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority”.

In the past, Netanyahu has expressed little interest in embracing a regional peace plan, such as the 2002 Arab initiative that offered normalized ties with Israel if it withdrew fully from territory captured in a 1967 war.

But last year, he signaled in a speech to parliament a readiness to consider the proposal, raised at an Arab League summit 12 years ago, as long as it did not contain “edicts”.

Any land-for-peace moves would elicit even more dissent from right-wingers in his government who have been vocal over Netanyahu's reluctance to heed their calls during the Gaza war for a full-scale invasion to crush Hamas.

For now, he appears to be in little danger of seeing his political partnerships unravel.

About a month into the war, 77 percent of Israelis surveyed in a Haaretz-Dialog poll described Netanyahu's performance during the conflict as either good or excellent. That figure dropped to around 50 percent after the ceasefire was announced.

But the snap poll taken a day after the truce went into effect showed that despite his flagging popularity, he continued to top, by a wide margin, the list of politicians whom Israelis believed were most suited to lead them as prime minister.

The second-place pick was “Don't know.”

Editing by Alison Williams