Cartoon: The journey ahead will be long


Steven Sotloff sounded the unanswered alarm about ISIS


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

“As the international media is fixated on the struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, few reporters are focusing on Syria. But a spate of kidnappings of foreign journalists in Syria has made the country a mini-Iraq that few want to venture into. 'It's dangerous and getting worse by the day,' says a correspondent for a major Western publication. If no one is asking for articles, why should we risk it?” – One of Steven Sotloff's final reports for The Media Line news agency, July 30, 2013. Sotloff was kidnapped in Syria about a week later.

If Steven Sotloff could express his frustrations, no doubt atop the list would be that the world that, post-mortem, is hanging on every word he wrote, failed to read his stories and heed his warnings several years before.

[Related: Steven Sotloff was a hero – and my friend]

As a freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff was in the Middle East by choice rather than by assignment. Driven there by his fascination with the region and affection for its people, Sotloff, who was fluent in Arabic, quickly developed an uncanny sense not only of what was, but what was going to follow as well. He traced the evolution of the jihadi takeover of Syria and Iraq; the spawning by Al-Qa'ida of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State; all while chronicling the early steps toward the carving-out of the ISIS caliphate and the dangers it presented to the Western world. When the media world was focused on Libya, Steve was there, writing about Darna, calling it “the Jihadi capital,” and already admonishing that “the Libyan dilemma will impact the Syrian crisis.” He warned in a personal email that “voices of support for intervention will be drowned out.”

Sotloff first came to The Media Line – an American news agency covering the Middle East – in 2009. His pitch for full-time employment didn't work out because I felt his need to travel throughout the region and not be assigned to a single beat.  But in 2012, Sotloff reached-out again after he had spent time living in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Qatar and Yemen; and became a freelancer for The Media Line, reporting from Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Syria; filing insightful stories that eerily predict today's headlines. 

Sotloff was fearless to the point where he appeared to believe he would not be harmed because potential foes would somehow sense his attachment to the Arab world and its people. In January 2013, in answer to a query regarding women's involvement, Sotloff wrote from Aleppo, “Movement in general is becoming more difficult.   Three Spanish journalists were kidnapped out of the media center. The situation is now hostile to Westerners since our governments are not involving themselves. We are now restricting movement only with fighters we trust. They certainly won't be taking us to any weddings and women's gatherings. Just having an Aleppo byline these days is a luxury. Open to suggestions, though. Imams are do-able.”

In true journalistic fashion, Sotloff eschewed the desk for the street. Syrians returning from Turkey were reporting that the US was prepared to fund anti-Assad rebels, but Sotloff was quoting Syrians who were asserting that, “We don't need food; we need weapons. Where are our weapons?”

In May 2013, Sotloff wrote that, “Syria's peaceful revolution has become a military inferno.” Two months before he went missing, he wrote a story about Syrian activists and their Friday demonstrations. “With the rebel-led Free Syrian Army locked in a stalemate with regime forces, Al-Qa'ida jihadists pouring in from neighboring countries, and lootings and kidnappings prevalent, Syrians are trying to figure out what went wrong with their pristine revolution.” He quoted 28-year old Mazin Al-Masri lamenting, “We had so much hope when we began protesting, but today we feel our peaceful revolution has been hijacked by gangsters and jihadists.”

In one of Sotloff's final stories written for The Media Line, he wrote about a four-day Syrian-American medical conference in Gaziantep, Turkey, where American physicians conducted a workshop for Syrian doctors training them in the use of computerized equipment in trauma cases and cases of limb-loss. He struggled successfully to obtain video, and had difficulty transmitting quality film due to intermittent Internet.

On August 2, Sotloff communicated with me for the last time from the Turkish border-town of Kilis, discussing the dangers of going into Syria. I warned him not to trust his “fixer” (the local making the introductions and guiding his way), but Sotloff insisted that he did. Sotloff said a few journalists were still going in and that it was his hope to return and write a book about his experiences.

Shortly thereafter, Sotloff dropped off the radar. Threatening to go public to whomever might be receiving Steven's emails, I finally heard from an anonymous organization seeking his release who told us of the abduction and that a gag order (of unexplained jurisdiction) was in place. Subsequent conversations with parents Arthur and Shirley Sotloff and others close to the family confirmed the worst of fears even though it is still not known what group originally pulled-off the kidnapping. What is certain is that Sotloff eventually wound up in the hands of ISIS, perfectly-time to be used in its ghastly anti-American demonstration.

For more than one year, our utmost concern beyond Steven's ultimate safety was that it not be discovered that he held dual US-Israeli citizenship. The consequences, all concerned agreed, would be a windfall for his captors that would prove irresistible.

Sotloff grew up in south Florida and after attending University of Central Florida, moved Israel in 2008 where he enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.

Many months were to pass before Art Sotloff confirmed that Steven was still alive. But only two weeks ago, when the world witnessed the horrific spectacle of James Foley's beheading and saw Sotloff displayed as the “next victim” did concern that his Israeli connections become known skyrocket.

Steven Sotloff was a courageous journalist whose insights were clearly “on-the-mark.” His readings of events-at-hand and events-in-the-making constitute a sounding of the alarm that no one answered. Perhaps the mass outpouring over his barbaric slaying will prompt the sort of action that would be worthy of Steven Sotloff's contribution to civil society.


 

Below, please see Steven Sotloff's last article written for The Media Line. Copyright 2014 The Media Line Ltd. Contact felice_friedson@yahoo.com for permission to reprint or quote from above.

Syria’s Rebels Fighting Assad Losing-Out to Jihadists Islamists outmuscle FSA to “seize the revolution”

by Steven Sotloff/The Media Line

August 6, 2013 [Reyhanli, Turkey] — As the bureaucratic red tape in Washington has delayed arming Syrian rebels fighting with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jihadists have slowly taken charge of a revolution that has sunk into chaos.  They now control large swaths of Syria and are gradually marginalizing FSA units who are becoming increasingly demoralized.Analysts note an increasing triangulation that pits opposition forces against each other in addition to fighting regime forces.

Conversations with several FSA brigade leaders reveal a rudderless revolution that is barely managing to stay afloat as foreign Jihadists inundate Syria.  They complain that if the West does not act soon, all that will be left to salvage is the sunken hopes of a people who desperately wanted an end to five decades of oppression at the hands of the Assad family.

Abu Munthir, a bulky man with a Rottweiler glare, is not eager to tell his story.  He hesitates before opening up about his experiences.  “At first we worked with the Jihadists,” says the 28-year old speaking in the Turkish town of Reyhanli.  “They had skills we needed and were good fighters.  But soon they began pushing us out and we were too weak to stop them.”

Abu Munthir relates that the Jihadists group Jabhat Al-Nusra had an arching plan to hijack his revolution.  Created by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Al-Qa’ida’s regional affiliate, Jabhat Al-Nusra was initially tasked with ingratiating itself with the Syrian rebels.  The organization first offered FSA units its bomb making expertise and combat skills.  Once the brigades were won over, joint operations came next.

“It was all a ruse,” Abu Munthir complained.  “They wanted our trust to gain our understanding of the terrain and to pluck off some of our fighters.”  As Jabhat Al-Nusra gained strength, they no longer needed their Syrian allies and began skirmishing with the FSA to protect its turf.

In some places such as Aleppo, the FSA can still hold its ground.  But in eastern cities such as Raqqa, the Jihadists have completely taken over.  “We can’t do anything there anymore,” laments 31-year old FSA leader Abu Hamza in the Turkish town of Killis.  “They are too strong.”

Raqqa is controlled by Al-Qa’ida affiliate ISI.  After Jabhat Al-Nusra’s leader pledged allegiance to Al-Qa’ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ISI moved its own cadres into Syria.  It feared a direct link between Al-Qa’ida and Jabhat Al-Nusra would marginalize it.  The ISI however is much more ruthless than its offspring and rarely cooperates with the FSA.  Instead, it views the organization as an adversary to be battled like the Syrian regime. 
“They won’t let us move through their checkpoints and if we do, they might shoot at us,” explains Abu Hamza.  We have fighting with them sometimes.”

In the coastal province of Latakia which constitutes the regime’s stronghold, tensions exploded in July after the ISI killed senior FSA leader Kamal Hamami, known to his fighters as Abu Basir Al-Ladkani.  “They set up a trap for Abu Basir and ambushed him,” explained 28-year old FSA fighter Khalid Bustani in a Skype call from the province.  The FSA declared an all-out war against the ISI, but in its weakened state could not do much more than engage in verbal saber rattling.  “We are too weak to fight them,” Bustani says. We don’t even have ammunition.”

In June, Washington pledged to supply the FSA with bullets and the weapons to shoot them.  But political infighting between the White House and Congress has held up delivery of the arms. Congressmen are wary of providing weapons that could fall into the hands of Jihadists from Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISI.  Radicals have benefited from previous weapons deliveries from Qatar and there is little reason to believe they will be shut out of any future bonanza.

Washington’s turf wars are of little concern to Abu Munthir though.  He just wants to be able to push the Jihadists out of Syria.  “Give me the weapons and I will fight them every day until they are gone,” he says.  But until the United States does, there is little he can do but curse the Jihadists who have seized his revolution.

Facing Islamist threats, Arab nations tilt toward Israel


Between the war in Gaza and gains by Islamic militants in Iraq, Syria and Libya, there’s plenty of cause these days for pessimism about the Middle East.

But amid all the fighting, there’s also some good news for Israel.

If it wasn’t obvious before, the conflagrations have driven home just how much the old paradigms of the Middle East have faded in an era when the threat of Islamic extremists has become the overarching concern in the Arab world. In this fight against Islamic militancy, many Arab governments find themselves on the same side as Israel.

A generation ago, much of the Middle East was viewed through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then, during the Iraq War era of the 2000s, the focus shifted to the Sunni-Shiite divide and the sectarian fighting it spurred. By early 2011, the Arab Spring movement had become the template for the region, generating excitement that repressive autocratic governments might be replaced with fledgling democracies.

Instead, the Arab Spring ushered in bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya, providing openings for violent Islamists. Egypt’s experiment in democracy resulted in an Islamist-led government, prompting a backlash and coup a year ago and the restoration of the old guard.

After witnessing the outcomes of the Arab Spring, the old Arab order appears more determined than ever to keep its grip on power and beat back any challenges, particularly by potent Islamist adversaries.

The confluence of events over the summer demonstrates just how menacingly Arab regimes view militant Islam. A newly declared radical Islamic State, known by the acronym ISIS, made rapid territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, brutally executing opponents and capturing Iraq’s second-largest city. In Libya, Islamic militants overran the Tripoli airport while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against them.

Concerning Gaza, Arab governments (with one notable exception) have been loath to offer support for the Islamists who lead Hamas.

Let’s consider the players.

Egypt

Having briefly experienced a form of Islamist rule with the election and yearlong reign of President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pendulum has swung back the other way in Egypt.

The Egypt of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who seized power from Morsi, is far more hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood than Hosni Mubarak’s was before the coup that toppled him from the presidency in 2011. Sisi’s Egypt has outlawed the Brotherhood, arrested its leaders and sentenced hundreds of Brotherhood members to death.

The Brotherhood’s pain has been Israel’s gain. During the Morsi era, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula became a staging ground for attacks against Israel and a conduit for funneling arms to Hamas, a Brotherhood affiliate. But after Sisi took charge, he all but shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, clamped down on lawlessness in the Sinai, and ended the discord that had taken hold between Cairo and Jerusalem.

When Hamas and Israel went to war this summer, there was no question about where Cairo stood. For weeks, Egyptian mediators refused to countenance Hamas’ cease-fire demands, presenting only Israel’s proposals. On Egyptian TV, commentators lambasted and mocked Hamas leaders.

With its clandestine airstrikes in Libya over the last few days, Egypt has shown that it is willing to go beyond its borders to fight Islamic militants.

Saudi Arabia

It may be many years before Israel reaches a formal peace agreement with the Arab monarchy that is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, but in practice the interests of the Saudis and Israelis have aligned for years – particularly when it comes to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Saudi and Israeli leaders are equally concerned about Iran — both are pressing the U.S. administration to take a harder line against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. With Iran’s Shiite leaders the natural rivals of Saudi’s Sunni rulers, the kingdom is concerned that the growing power of Iran threatens Saudi Arabia’s political, economic and religious clout in the region.

Saudi antipathy toward Iran and Shiite hegemony accounts for the kingdom’s hostility toward Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group that serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. After Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack that sparked a war with Israel in 2006, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal blamed Hezbollah for the conflict.

Hezbollah’s actions are “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible,” Saud said at the time. “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we simply cannot accept them.”

More surprising, perhaps, was Saudi criticism this summer of Hamas, a fellow Sunni group. While former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al Faisal condemned Israel’s “barbaric assault on innocent civilians,” he also blamed Hamas for the conflict overall.

“Hamas is responsible for the slaughter in the Gaza Strip following its bad decisions in the past, and the haughtiness it shows by firing useless rockets at Israel, which contribute nothing to the Palestinian interest,” Saud told the London-based pan-Arab newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Saudi rulers oppose Hamas because they view it as an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they believe wants to topple Arab governments. Likewise, when ISIS declared earlier this summer that it had established an Islamic caliphate, al-Faisal called ISIS “a danger to the whole area and, I think, to the rest of the world.”

The Wahabbis who rule Saudi Arabia may be religiously conservative, but they’re not so extreme as to promote overtly the violent export of their fundamentalist brand of Islam through war, jihad and terrorism.

Of course, just because their interests are aligned doesn’t mean the Saudis love Israel. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Nawaf Al-Saud, wrote during the Gaza war that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will answer for his crimes before a higher authority than here on earth.”

But common foes increasingly are bringing Saudi and Israeli interests together.

Qatar

At first glance, Qatar may seem like a benign, oil-rich emirate of 2 million people living in relative peace, spending heavily on its media network, Al Jazeera, and planning to wow the world with construction for the 2022 World Cup.

But Qatar is also a major sponsor of Islamic extremism and terrorism. The country funnels money and weapons to Hamas, to Islamic militants in Libya and, according to Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, to groups in Syria affiliated with al-Qaida.

In an Op-Ed column in Monday’s New York Times, Prosor disparaged Qatar, which is home to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and serves as a base for Taliban leaders, as a “Club Med for Terrorists.”

“Qatar has spared no cost to dress up its country as a liberal, progressive society, yet at its core, the micro monarchy is aggressively financing radical Islamist movements,” Prosor wrote. “Qatar is not a part of the solution but a significant part of the problem.”

Syria

When the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad began, champions of democracy cheered the revolution as yet another positive sign of the Arab Spring. It took a while, but the Obama administration eventually joined the chorus calling for the end of the Assad regime.

In Israel, officials were more circumspect, fretting about what might come next in a country that despite its hostility had kept its border with Israel quiet for nearly four decades.

Three years on, the conflict in Syria is no longer seen as one of freedom fighters vs. a ruthless tyrant. Assad’s opponents include an array of groups, the most powerful among them Islamic militants who have carved out pieces of Syrian territory to create their Islamic State.

Now the Obama administration is considering airstrikes to limit the Islamists’ gains — and trying to figure out if there’s a way to do so without strengthening Assad’s hand.

For Israel, which has stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, the prospect of a weakened but still breathing Assad regime seems a better alternative than a failed state with ISIS on the march.

Iran

Where is the Islamic Republic in all this? Compared to the newest bad boy on the block, this one-time member of the “axis of evil” looks downright moderate.

Iran is negotiating with the United States over its nuclear program, and both view ISIS as a foe and threat to the Iraqi government (which Iran backs as a Shiite ally).

Last week, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf indicated that the United States may be open to cooperation with Iran in the fight against ISIS, which is also known by the acronym ISIL.

“If they are interested in playing a constructive role in helping to degrade ISIL’s capabilities, then I’m sure we can have that conversation then,” Harf said.

Whether working with Iran is good or bad for Israel depends on one’s view of the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

If you think the talks have a realistic chance of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran diplomatically, the convergence of U.S.-Iran interests may ultimately serve the goal of addressing this existential threat to Israel. If you think Iran is merely using the negotiations as a stalling tactic to exploit eased sanctions while it continues to build its nuclear project, then Iran-U.S. detente may distract from the larger issue.

Where all this turmoil will leave the region is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, as made clear by the U.S. decision to intervene against ISIS: Ignoring what’s happening in the Middle East is not an option.

In the new Middle East, an embarrassment of evils


One of the crazy things about following the Middle East is trying to keep track of all the bad guys. Remember when Iran was the big bad Islamic wolf? Or al-Qaida? Or Hezbollah? Or the Muslim Brotherhood? Or Hamas?

Now, as if in a flash, along comes ISIS to become the evil flavor of the month. Seriously, how much evil can one region generate?

A screenwriter couldn’t make up such a cocktail of hatred. Just for starters, you have Shias against Sunnis, Persians against Arabs, Arabs against Turks, Turks against Persians, Iraqis against insurgents, Syrians against insurgents, insurgents against insurgents, Lebanese against Syrians, Egyptians against Qataris, Saudis against Iran — and everyone against the Jews.

I’ll leave it to the scholars to explain how each shade of evil differs from the next. I know that a lot of people these days are into the “Who’s worse? Hamas or ISIS?” game, but from where I sit, whether you chop people’s heads off or hide behind children to murder other children, evil is evil.

Even that old standby, “the enemy of your enemy is my friend,” doesn’t really hold up anymore. Just look at ISIS and Syria.

One of the sworn enemies of ISIS just happens to be … yeah, the biggest murderer of the new century, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who’s responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 of his own people.

I know ISIS is the height of evil, but can I really cheer for that Syrian butcher against anybody?

Same with the Jew-hating Holocaust deniers in Iran – they also hate ISIS. Aside from the fact that we belong to the same species, do I really want to have anything in common with the nuclear mullahs of Persia—even if it’s a common enemy?

It’s hard to fathom that one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel – Hezbollah – could now be fighting in Syria against one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel—ISIS.

Consider also Saudi Arabia, presumably in the “moderate” camp of the Mideast jungle. We’re now supposed to be buddy-buddies with the Saudi royalty because they’re the enemies of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But wait. Guess who for years has been funding the most violent strains of Islam in the region? That’s right, the Ferrari-driving House of Saud.

Those turkeys are surely coming home to roost.

The craziness is everywhere. Remember when the Muslim Brotherhood was running the show in Egypt and helping smuggle lethal weaponry to their Hamas brothers in Gaza? Well, the Brotherhood became so hated in Egypt that most of them are now in jail. So, guess who’s now Egypt’s sworn enemy? That’s right, Hamas, the sworn enemy of Israel.

Of course, the Egyptian people are not exactly crowding into Tahrir Square to cheer on the Zionist army as it fights Hamas. But cheering privately? Highly likely.

We saw another example of the new Middle East craziness a few weeks ago when Egypt first tried to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

On one side you had Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and (yes!) Israel—all sworn enemies of Hamas– and on the other side you had Turkey, Qatar and (yes!) the United States. Why would the U.S. be on the “wrong” side?

The best analysis I’ve read is that President Obama is obsessed with closing a nuclear deal with Iran, and since the Egyptian-led coalition is strongly opposed to Iran, Obama was reluctant to poke Iran in the eye by empowering the anti-Iran coalition on any issue.

In any event, now that ISIS has crossed the line by beheading an American journalist, Obama is facing some serious cognitive dissonance: Should he align with the evil mullahs of Iran or the butcher of Damascus against the evil killers of ISIS, at least covertly? Good luck with that one.

I knew things were getting hairy when I asked my daughter in Tel Aviv how she was holding up with all the latest Hamas rockets, and she replied: “We’re worried about ISIS now.”

This is what the new Middle East has come down to– an embarrassment of evils. ISIS may be a new brand of evil, but when I look at longtime murderous entities like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran or Syria, all I can think is: Pick your poison, folks.

If a sinister game designer wanted to create a new video game to capture what’s going on right now in the Middle East jungle, that’s a good name right there: “Pick your poison.”

There wouldn’t be any good guys in this game– just an orgy of bad guys. The whole fun would be in deciding who the baddest guy is at any moment, and knocking down as many of these guys as possible.

The ultimate goal would be to take down the baddest “bad guy” of them all, the one the whole world really hates: Israel.

Egypt urges U.S. restraint over Missouri unrest


Egypt on Tuesday urged U.S. authorities to exercise restraint in dealing with racially charged demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri – echoing language Washington used to caution Egypt as it cracked down on Islamist protesters last year.

U.S. foes Iran and Syria also lambasted the United States, but while they are frequent critics of Washington, it is unusual for Egypt to criticize such a major donor. It was not immediately clear why Egypt would issue such a statement.

Ties between Washington and Cairo were strained after Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters following the army's ousting of freely elected President Mohamed Mursi in July 2013.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry's statement on the unrest in Ferguson read similarly to one issued by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration in July 2013, when the White House “urged security forces to exercise maximum restraint and caution” in dealing with demonstrations by Mursi supporters.

The ministry added it was “closely following the escalation of protests” in Ferguson, unleashed by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman on Aug. 9.

Human Rights Watch said in a report last week Egyptian security forces systematically used excessive force against Islamist protesters after Mursi was ousted. Egypt said the report was “characterized by negativity and bias”.

In a second day of Twitter messages about the disturbances in Ferguson, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the United States as “egotistical and unreliable”.

He also sought to link the unrest to Washington's support of Israel, sworn foe of Tehran.

“Brutal treatment of black people isn’t indeed the only anti-human rights act by U.S. govt; look at US’s green light to #Israel’s crimes,” he wrote on Monday, adding Washington was the world's “biggest violator” of human rights.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Takht Ravanchi on Monday accused Washington of “racist behavior and oppression”, the Fars News Agency said.

In Syria, another U.S. adversary, a bulletin from state news agency SANA accused police in Ferguson of “racist and oppressive practices”.

Pro-government media in Turkey, where the authorities came under U.S. criticism for a heavy-handed clampdown on weeks of protests around Istanbul's Gezi Park last year, also took a swipe.

“You were sounding off when Gezi was happening … You crook with double standards,” wrote Ahmet Sagirli, a columnist in the Turkiye newspaper.

Reporting by Maggie Fick in Cairo, Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Michelle Moghtader in Dubai, Selin Bucak in Istanbul; Editing by Alison Williams

Securing Syrian refugees’ future tied to Israel’s security


I have visited Israel many times in my life, but my most recent trip will remain seared into my memory forever. On a two-week trip to Israel and the West Bank, I saw many incredible sights. In Israel, the triumphs of the “startup nation” are miraculous and ever-present, while on the Palestinian side of the Green Line the new city of Rawabi is literally rising out of the desert hills.

But what shocked me most was the nightmare occurring just miles over the border. It was in Jordan, in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones and United Nations Refugee Agency/United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative Andrew Harper, where we caught a glimpse into the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis. After that visit, I knew I had no choice but to cry out about the refugees’ plight and urge our community and government to act, if not out of concern for the refugees themselves, then at least because anything that destabilizes Jordan could have grave repercussions for Israel.

In Amman, we visited a UNHCR registration services site. The monumental task of registering the refugees and ensuring their safety and health falls largely to the UNHCR, working in coordination with the Jordanian government. The UNHCR ensures that refugees are properly registered, have access to protection, legal assistance, shelter, food, potable water, medical care, education and psychosocial support. Watching innocent children playing on a crowded climbing tower and swing set while their mothers were being interviewed and arranging for services was, simply put, heartbreaking.

As of June 8, 2014, there were more than 597,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. More than half are under the age of 17. And, new refugees are currently crossing the border from Syria into northeast Jordan at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per day. Imagine the United States suddenly absorbing 31 million people over a three-year period and you might begin to understand the scope of this crisis. And, there are dozens of challenges that extend beyond the need to provide food and shelter to the refugees.

Jordanian schools are struggling to integrate thousands of children despite vast cultural differences. Refugees living within and outside of refugee camps strain the Jordanian economy, inflating prices and depressing wages. As these problems grow, so does resentment of refugees among Jordanian citizens.

The list of global humanitarian tragedies is long, but the Syrian crisis ranks right up there at the top. And for those who care about Israel’s security, the situation in Jordan looks especially dire. Israel already has to worry about civil war and chemical weapons use by Syria, and political upheaval and uncertainty in Egypt. The last thing Israel needs is its one stable neighbor collapsing under the weight of this refugee crisis.  

Given that the civil war in Syria is not likely to end any time soon, we who love and support Israel owe it to ourselves to do something — and, fortunately, there are a number of steps we can take in our communities that can help make a difference. We can encourage philanthropists who support Israel to dig deeply into their pockets to offer direct assistance to UNHCR in Jordan. We can ask manufacturers here in the U.S. to donate playground equipment and small toys to the Syrians living in Jordan’s refugee camps. And, we can urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to strengthen aid and support to the Jordanian government.

We know from our tradition, in Talmud Sanhedrin 37a, “Whoever saves a life, it’s considered as if you saved the whole world.”

This teaching was essentially the message we got from UNHCR’s Harper who said that even a small act like helping to provide families with toiletry kits containing soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste could make a significant difference to public health in the camps. Let’s empower him with the resources he needs to do his job and impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. That humanitarian aid could be crucial to ensuring Israel’s security, as well.


Janet Halbert is a Los Angeles-area CPA who specializes in providing practical problem-solving services to midsized companies and nonprofit organizations. A member of J Street’s national leadership circle, she participated in J Street’s congressional and leadership mission to the region in May.

Obama does nothing while Middle East and Europe in chaos


Under President Barack Obama, the world is becoming unglued. Iraq is being overrun by Islamist terrorists, and the United States is now evacuating its Baghdad embassy. The Arab Spring has led to either civil war and mass slaughter, as in Syria, or new Arab dictators, as in Egypt. Libya is degenerating into a den of terrorists who have already murdered the American ambassador. Vladimir Putin is sending tanks into Ukraine and the thuggish Russian strongman bestrides the world like a colossus, unchecked by American will.

These facts are undeniable. The only question is whether President Obama is responsible.

Obama’s argument, as laid out in his 2014 West Point commencement, is that his first rule of foreign policy is, “Don’t do anything stupid.” Military action should be reserved only for the most extreme circumstances. Americans are war-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan. Our president believes in a minimalist approach.

The shallowness of this argument, however, lies in this simple fact. Yes, Americans are weary of entering foreign conflicts. The president is correct that we don’t want our boys dying to fight on behalf of Iraqi cowards who shed their uniforms at the first sound of gunfire. But we are even more wary of another 9/11 attack. And by allowing Iraq and Syria to degenerate into Afghanistan, we are all but guaranteeing another hit on the United States. A lawless world cannot possibly keep America safe.

I have contempt for Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Increasingly autocratic, he is even more guilty of gross ingratitude. Rather than show America any kind of thanks for all that we sacrificed to give his nation its freedom, he treats America with disdain. Who wants to help a man who is becoming a despot, hates democratic Israel and reaches out to America only when he fears being strung up by jihadists?

But, this isn’t about al-Maliki; it’s about America. If Iraq goes under, the chaos that will ensue will directly impact the security of the United States. An evacuation of Baghdad would be much worse than the shame of Saigon, because at least the North Vietnamese communists did not deploy a global army of terrorists who fly planes into buildings.
Al-Qaida does.

I visited West Point this week with my family, for the summer concert series. It was the 239th birthday of the Army, and the West Point Band put on a stirring and patriotic performance. President Obama had spoken at the cadets’ commencement just two weeks earlier. Ask yourself: How did these cadets feel when President Obama got up at their graduation and told them there is increasingly no substantive role for them to play in the world? Here were young warriors, trained to fight and protect the United States, being told that the use of force has little to no application. No wonder there was such tepid applause and a cold response. These bright young men and women must have been wondering why they don’t just land jobs in the State Department instead.

No one wants to see American troops die in foreign wars. Of course, our soldiers should never be sent needlessly into harm’s way. But the threat of American force must always be present, even if it’s not deployed. People must fear the United States. What President Obama is doing by not doing and by giving so many unnecessary speeches defending his belief in doing nothing is removing the deterrent of a credible threat. The world believes that the United States under President Obama has no stomach for a fight. And we’re watching the effects all around us. The inmates are running the asylum.

The Islamic world, especially, is in a deteriorating spiral that’s positively tragic to watch. Turkey, once a proud democracy, now boasts a prime minister in Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose own political aides violently attack peaceful protesters. Erdogan doesn’t even shy from harassing and shoving CNN reporters while they are live on the air. He no longer shows even the pretense of freedom. When I was in Istanbul, I was amazed to experience firsthand how YouTube is permanently blocked and Twitter was restored just two days before I arrived. The Turks were once a free people. How are they allowing this?

Syria is a giant killing zone, with President Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons being repeatedly violated without consequence. Iran sports the second-most brutal and vile government on Earth, after North Korea, and thinks nothing of stoning women, hanging gays from cranes and assassinating peaceful protesters in cold blood. Worse, they fund the bloodiest terrorists around the world. But that does not stop our president from negotiating with them and leaving them within a few months of nuclear weapons. Egypt is back to presidents who win elections with 95 percent of the vote. Nigeria’s Boko Haram is the filthiest terror group in the entire world, murdering children in large numbers and bragging about selling young girls into sexual slavery.

And who pays the biggest price for this lawlessness? Why Israel, of course, with three teenagers now kidnapped by what appears to be Hamas, an organization that the United States officially labels as terrorists, but whose joint government with Mahmoud Abbas we now recognize.

Through all this, Barack Obama drifts along, meditating on his mantra of,“Don’t do anything stupid.” But I have long believed that the true sins we are guilty of in life are not the sins of commission, the mistakes we make, but rather the sins of omission, the good things we fail to do.

Sometimes the dumbest thing is to fail to act because of the fear of doing dumb things.

Barack Obama is fiddling while the world is burning. Israel is already smoldering under its heat, and it won’t be long before America, too, is cindered.

Henry Waxman: Governed by tikkun olam


The rain during Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. The Torah was given to Moses during a 40-day stay at the top of Mount Sinai. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert.

And so it seems fitting that Rep. Henry Waxman (D – Beverly Hills), who announced last week that he will retire from Congress when his term ends this year, will have served exactly 40 years in the people’s chamber. 

“People are shocked that I could ever leave,” Waxman said on Jan. 31, the day after he made his announcement. “Then they hear that I’ve been here for 40 years and are shocked at how old I am.”

Waxman turns 75 in September. During his 20 terms in the House of Representatives, he has authored some of the most ambitious pieces of legislation passed by Congress during that time, including laws making pharmaceutical products more affordable, improving air and water quality and expanding access to affordable health care. He presided over hearings confronting the tobacco industry’s claim that smoking would not harm people, the use of steroids in baseball and the regulation of conditions in America’s nursing homes. 

With a record like that, it’s not surprising that Waxman, the “dean of the Jewish caucus,” describes his political philosophy as an outgrowth of the principle of tikkun olam, trying to perfect the world. 

“We shouldn’t expect to complete it — even after 40 years — we shouldn’t try,” Waxman said. “But we should always remember the stranger and the disadvantaged, the people who need help; that’s in our tradition, [in] so many different places, and it’s a reminder that we’ve got to try to be a more just and fair society.”

But even as he took a rare moment to look back on his career, others are moving forward: With just a few months until California holds its now-nonpartisan primary elections, and immediately following Waxman’s announcement, a scrum of Democrats and independents immediately began clamoring to take Waxman’s place (see sidebar). Furthermore, at some point during the coming year, Waxman will likely identify what he’ll do with the next chapter of his career. For now, he’s said he’d like to continue working on issues he’s dealt with in Congress, and, as he told the Journal, he wants to continue to divide his time between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, the latter being the place where he was born, grew up and still calls home. 

“The wealthy and the powerful always have strong advocates in Washington”

Born in Boyle Heights, Waxman grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where his family owned a grocery store on Compton Avenue. His father had to quit high school when the Great Depression hit, but he instilled in Henry an appreciation for education as the key to success. 

“I was able to go to public schools, all the way through law school,” said Waxman, who earned both undergraduate and law degrees from UCLA. That instilled in him a lifelong commitment to public education. 

Similarly, Waxman’s involvement in politics began at an early age. 

“In 1952, we got on a bus from Democratic headquarters and we went to a rally for Adlai Stevenson at Gilmore field,” said Sandy Weiner, who first met Waxman in the 7th grade at Thomas Alva Edison Junior High School. Later, Waxman, who had co-founded (with future Congressman Howard Berman) the UCLA chapter of Young Democrats, encouraged Weiner to set up another chapter at Claremont College. 

The Young Democrats’ movement, Weiner said, helped Waxman advance to his first political office, a seat in the California State Assembly, which he won in 1968, by defeating 28-year veteran Assemblyman Lester McMillan in the Democratic primary. 

“It was really a major grassroots effort,” Weiner said, describing a campaign that succeeded thanks to volunteers walking precincts and making phone calls as well as to political consultant Michael Berman’s then-new practice of sending carefully calibrated mailers to specific subsets of the electorate. “A lot of the dollars were from friends and family, and it was an exciting campaign,” Weiner recalled. 

Waxman moved from Sacramento to Washington six years later, where he remained committed to speaking up for society’s most marginalized members. 

“The wealthy and the powerful always have strong advocates in Washington, but my job was to stand up for the poor, the sick the elderly, for those people who had nobody else to speak for them,” Waxman said. “If I hadn’t held hearings on the AIDS epidemic, before we even knew the word AIDS — we had an administration where President Reagan didn’t even want to say the word ‘AIDS’; they were just shunted aside.”

Waxman’s upbringing clearly helped form his orientation toward crafting legislation to help the poor and disadvantaged, as did his strong Jewish identity. 

South Central was not home to many Jewish families, so Waxman’s family attended the synagogue closest to their home, the Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation, a community that has since dissolved. Though he attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah in his youth, Waxman has said that he only truly began to investigate Jewish religious practice as an adult. 

“Ethics is at Judaism’s core,” Waxman said in a speech at USC in 2006. God’s primary concern is not that we mindlessly follow ritual, but act decently. Ritual is to help us do that.”

“All those years, it didn’t make any difference.”

Although Waxman remained primarily focused on domestic policy matters, particularly relating to health, the environment and consumer telecommunications, he also worked throughout his career to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“I’ve been to Israel so many times, I’ve lost count,” Waxman, whose daughter lives in Israel, said, although when he was first elected to Congress in 1975, he had never visited the Jewish state. Just one month after taking office, Waxman joined a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, an itinerary that included Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. To obtain a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, Waxman had to first identify his religion and then provide evidence that he was, in fact, Jewish. Waxman obtained a letter from Adas Israel Congregation, the Conservative synagogue in D.C. where he is a member, and sent it to the Saudis, at which point his visa application was denied as a matter of policy. 

It took some work by the State Department, but Waxman made it into Saudi Arabia along with the other representatives. There, he met King Faisal. 

“I asked him two questions,” Waxman recalled. “Did he ever foresee living with Israel in the Middle East, if the territorial issues could be resolved? And why did he bar Jews?”

Faisal, Waxman recalled, said he had no quarrel with Jews; he was, however, anti-Zionist. 

“He said, ‘No, there can’t be an Israel; it has to be Palestine. It can’t be a Jewish country; Jews can live there, but it’s got to be an Arab country,’ ” Waxman said. “It was remarkable for the members on the committee to hear that.” 

At that point, Faisal wanted to turn away, but Waxman — a dogged questioner even as a new Congressman — insisted the king explain Saudi Arabia’s “No Jews Allowed” policy. 

“He said, ‘Friends of our enemies are our enemies,’ ” Waxman said, laughing at how quickly the king’s distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism fell apart. “So that was a good introduction.”

Even after 40 years, Waxman views the Arab leaders of Middle Eastern nations as being as unwilling as ever to accept the presence of a Jewish state in their midst. Not too long after Bashar al-Assad assumed the Syrian presidency in 2000, Waxman once again asked about Israel and the Jews. 

“He got angry and said, ‘No, we are not anti-Semitic; we have Jews here, we like our Jews here, but it can’t be a Jewish country,’ ” Waxman recalled. “So all those years, it didn’t make any difference. It just re-emphasized for me that the basic problem for Israel is the unwillingness of a large part of the Arab population to live with a Jewish country, the State of Israel.”

Waxman said he believes the United States needs to continue to maintain and project its military strength. 

“There’s a tremendous reluctance by President Obama to be involved — and I certainly share it — in Egypt and Syria and other areas that are undergoing dramatic changes, and civil wars even,” Waxman said. “But we’ve got to figure out ways where we can be helpful and not expect that things are going to get resolved without our being part of solutions.”

As for Israel’s continued security, Waxman said the most urgent matter is to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. He believes the present agreement — which freezes Iranian nuclear enrichment for six months until a permanent agreement can be reached — does not go far enough, and that the purpose of international sanctions has always been to prevent Iran from having even the capability of developing a nuclear bomb. 

“I am afraid the [Obama] administration has already signaled that they will live with Iran not having a bomb, but still allow enrichment of uranium, which can make a bomb possible,” Waxman said.

“I fear such an agreement is naive,” he added. 

“You couldn’t do that stuff today” 

For all that hasn’t changed over the last 40 years, some aspects of the U.S. political landscape are radically different from what they were in 1975, or even 2005. Waxman said he is “exasperated by the extremism of the Tea Party Republicans,” although he expressed some hope that more moderate Republicans might be elected and regain control of the GOP. 

And though Waxman said he has continued to have some opportunities recently to craft legislation, even as a member of the minority, the reach of that bipartisanship seems to pale in comparison to the landscape in 1984, when Waxman and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R – Utah) passed legislation easing restrictions on generic drugs in the U.S. market — thereby saving families $1 trillion over just the last decade. 

“Henry was the go-to member of Congress on health care and on the environment,” said Mel Levine, who served as a congressman from 1983 to ’93, working closely with Waxman. “He was highly respected across the board, on both sides of the aisle, in both the House and the Senate. He was just uniquely capable of accomplishing big things, in a very kind of low-key manner, ironically.” 


Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., left, gestures towards Committee on House Oversight chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., during a committee hearing in 1998. The committee voted 24-19 along party lines, which is short of the two-thirds required, to grant immunity to four potential witnesses in exchange for testimony about 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising practices.  Photo via Newscom

At key points in his career, however, Waxman flouted the status quo and broke with the accepted rules — and got results. By raising large sums of money and distributing it to colleagues, Waxman was able to advance to ever more powerful posts in Congress. At the beginning of his third term, in 1978, he was able to take on leadership of the Health and Environment Subcommittee, the position that allowed him to achieve the far-reaching amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990. In 2008, Waxman again bucked the seniority system and ousted Rep. John Dingell (D – Mich.) to become chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Many in Congress have since followed this and other practices pioneered by Waxman, as have many aspiring to public office. The targeted mail techniques developed by political consultant Michael Berman — Howard Berman’s brother, whose creative reapportionment helped bolster the power of the so-called Waxman-Berman machine — have been adopted and improved upon in recent decades. 

But for longtime friend Weiner, the way Waxman first got elected to the Assembly back in 1968 — relying mostly on volunteers, running a campaign on a shoestring and shoe leather — is a relic from a time long gone. 

“You couldn’t do that stuff today. Look what Henry was up against two years ago — a guy who put up $7.5 or $8 million dollars,” Weiner said, referring to opponent Bill Bloomfield, an independent and former Republican who came within eight points of Waxman in 2012. “And also, the club movement is basically dead. So whom do you get? Either private wealth or someone who was an aide.” 

“I hope that I can be a model for others”

For the next 10 months, voters in the 33rd district will be represented by Waxman, who’ll be filling a role that some had thought he’d never occupy — that of lame duck. 

“I was numb,” Howard Welinsky, president of the Los Angeles chapter of Democrats for Israel, said, describing his reaction to Waxman’s announcement. “I expected him to stay in Congress for a long time to come. I was numb, and then I was virtually in tears.”

Waxman, for his part, said he’s content to leave now, and explained his decision as driven by concerns that are as much biological as political. 

“If I stayed longer, it would be, do we get the House back? Maybe not — then we’re still in the minority,” Waxman said. “Then I’d wait until the presidential election in 2016, with the hopes that we get the majority back and still have a Democratic president to get things done. And my biological clock is ticking, so I would be here forever, to the end. And that’s not what I wanted.” 

As Waxman watches the growing crowd of Democrats put their names in the hopper for the coastal district he represents, the 74-year-old will be considering his legacy. Some of that will be in the form of his public policy contributions — which he said are driven by essentially Jewish values of protecting the stranger and coming to the aid of the disadvantaged. 

But at other times, Waxman may be thinking about his own accomplishments as a different kind of Jewish, or American value: the kind embodied by one individual, the kind that gets passed down in stories from generation to generation. 

One of Waxman’s Jewish role models was in his own family. His uncle, Al Waxman, published two (now-defunct) Los Angeles newspapers, the East Side Journal and the L.A. Reporter. During World War II, Waxman said Al was “the only editor or publisher in the country that fought against the relocation camps for Japanese-Americans.”

“I think you have to follow examples that have been set by others, that you can admire,” Waxman said. “And I hope that I can be a model for others who would chart their careers in public office.”

Israel, others urged to join chemical arms treaty


Israel, Egypt and North Korea should renounce chemical weapons, especially after Syria joined the convention banning them and three other nations plan to do so, the chief of an international watchdog said on Tuesday.

Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said Angola, Myanmar and South Sudan were preparing to join the pact.

“Now since Syria has become a member country, I think (Israel) can reconsider,” Uzumcu told Reuters in Oslo, where he accepted the 2013 Nobel award for the OPCW.

Israel, which has observer status at the OPCW, signed the convention in 1993, but has never ratified it.

As with its presumed nuclear arsenal, Israel has never publicly admitted having chemical weapons. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in September that Israel would be ready to discuss the issue when there was peace in the Middle East.

“I don't see any excuse for not joining the convention,” Uzumcu said. “Three (nations) are very close to membership and I hope the others will reconsider their positions.”

The OPCW's mission gained critical importance this year after a sarin gas attack outside Damascus in August killed hundreds of people, exacerbating a 2-1/2-year-old conflict in Syria in which more than 100,000 have died.

Syria then agreed under a deal arranged by the United States and Russia to destroy all of its 1,300 metric tons of sarin, mustard gas and other lethal agents, averting U.S. missile strikes.

“The only consolation is that those attacks led to renewed efforts by the international community to eliminate them,” Uzumcu said, referring to chemical weapons around the world.

CHALLENGES

Work is Syria is hampered by security challenges and needs more money but the Syrian government is doing its best to cooperate and OPCW expects soon to secure a port where the deadliest chemicals can be neutralized offshore, he said.

“There are some contacts which are under way and we may be informed within a week to 10 days,” Uzumcu said, without identifying the port. “The Syrian government has been quite cooperative, constructive and transparent so far.”

The United States is donating a naval ship and equipment to destroy Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons but securing a port has proven especially difficult and the OPCW is at risk of missing its December 31 deadline to remove these weapons from Syria.

Getting rid of the less dangerous weapons is also a challenge, unless more funds are forthcoming, Uzumcu said.

“The financial contributions have been encouraging but we expect more because we have built a trust fund for the second category of chemical substances, which will have to be destroyed at commercial plants,” he said.

“The United States will cover all the costs for the priority-one chemical weapons. For the second category of weapons, we estimate 35 to 40 million euros,” Uzumcu said.

The OPCW hopes to remove all chemical weapons from Syria by February 5 and to destroy them by June 30. The most dangerous of the chemicals, about 500 metric tons, will be processed by the United States and stored at an undetermined location.

The U.S. ship cannot sail into a Syrian port so current plans call for Danish and Norwegian merchant ships to get the chemicals out, some to be transferred to the U.S. vessel and the less lethal ones to commercial chemical plants for incineration.

Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Polio virus strain in Syria confirmed as being from Pakistan, WHO says


Polio that has crippled at least 13 children in Syria has been confirmed as being caused by a strain of the virus that originated in Pakistan and is spreading across the Middle East, the World Health Organisation said.

Genetic sequencing shows the strain found in Syrian children in Deir al-Zor, where an outbreak was detected last month, is linked to the strain of Pakistani origin found in sewage in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories in the past year.

“Genetic sequencing indicates that the isolated viruses are most closely linked to virus detected in environmental samples in Egypt in December 2012 (which in turn had been linked to wild poliovirus circulating in Pakistan),” the United Nations agency said in a statement on Monday.

Closely-related strains of the wild poliovirus of Pakistani origin have also been detected in sewage samples in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip since February 2013, it said.

Polio virus has been confirmed in 13 of 22 children who became paralysed in the northern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor. Investigations continue into the other 9 cases. It is Syria's first polio outbreak since 1999.

No children in Egypt, Israel or the Palestinian territories have been hit by polio thanks to high immunisation rates and a strong response to the alert, WHO spokeswoman Sona Bari said.

Polio virus is endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria despite a 25-year-old campaign to eradicate the disease, which can paralyse a child in hours.

IMMUNISATION RATES

Islamist fighters from countries including Pakistan are among groups battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad, leading to speculation that they brought the virus into the country.

The WHO says it is unlikely that adults, who generally have higher immunity, carried the virus into Syria and that its mode of transmission will probably never be known.

Syria's immunisation rates have plummeted from more than 90 percent before the conflict to around 68 percent. Polio mainly affects children under five and cannot be cured, only prevented.

“All the children (paralysed) are under two years old, so they were all born after immunisation services fell apart,” Bari told Reuters. “No doubt the outbreak will be large.”

Children living in unsanitary conditions are especially vulnerable to the virus, which spreads via faecal-oral transmission and contaminated food and water.

More than 20 million children, including 1.6 million in Syria, are to be vaccinated in Syria and neighbouring countries over the next six months, U.N. agencies said last week.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche

Israel Estate: Specializing in hot markets


The Western Wall in Israel

Muslims, stop blaming Israel


Whenever calamities befall Muslim-majority nations, there is always a country to blame: Israel. Is there a revolution against a tyrant? Zionists are responsible. Who else could be at fault if there is a clash between Sunni and Shia groups? The Jews. Did a bomb explode on the other side of the world, or is there a problem with the economy? No need look any further than Israel. And where else would the control center for destabilizing the Arab world be? In Tel Aviv, of course!

The late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi blamed Israel for the violence and unrest in Africa. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said that the turmoil in the Arab world is a pro-Zionist conspiracy. Saudi cleric Sheikh Ismae’il al-Hafoufi blamed Israel for the desecration of Islamic holy sites in Syria. Sheik Abd al-Jalil al-Karouri, a Sudanese cleric, pointed to Israel for the Boston and Texas bombings. And then there’s the belief that Zionists planned the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, to demonize Arabs and Muslims in the eyes of the world.

This madness of putting the blame on Zionists — and Israel in general — is a knee-jerk reaction with no basis in logic. The most surprising part is that so many people believe this without question and continue to disseminate such rumors far and wide.

Syria, Egypt, Iran and Lebanon all aggressively hold the “Zionist regime” responsible for their woes. While Bashar Assad accuses Israel of trying to destabilize Syria, the Syrian opposition blames Israel for assisting the Assad regime by giving them diplomatic cover. Both sides see Israel as responsible for all the bloodshed and unrest going on in Syria. Now with the possibility of an international intervention in Syria, Iranian legislators and commanders are issuing blunt warnings, saying any military strike from the United States on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel. Israel’s staying out of the equation, it seems, is simply not possible. Even though Israeli politicians refrain from taking sides in the regional conflicts, all sides point toward Israel anyhow.

On the other hand, we have the Egyptian coup d’état, where we see both sides ascribe blame to Israel. Interestingly, the Egyptian grass-roots protest movement Tamarod blames Israel but urges the Egyptian government not to renege on the Camp David accords. If Israel condemns the violence committed against the anti-coup alliance, she is labeled as an enemy of Egypt and accused of collaborating to destroy the Egyptian army. Even the state-allied newspaper al-Ahram claimed that Israel is in an alliance to demolish the Egyptian army and to balkanize the country. Furthermore, in 2010, an Egyptian government official blamed Israel intelligence for a fatal shark attack off Egypt’s shores.

It must sound like a bizarre joke for some, but this tragicomic situation is quite serious for many in the Middle East. We are no longer surprised to hear Israel’s being the scapegoat for every single evil in the world, but Iran’s blaming the Zionist entity for the deadly earthquake in Iran was pushing the limits of credulity. This, despite the fact that Jews are a handful of people, a tiny population when compared to the overall population of the world.

Now let’s look at what is really going on in the Islamic-Arab world. There is a continuous and unending stream of hate — hate of the Shia, hate of the Wahabbi, hate of the Sunni, hate of the Alawi, hate of the Christians, hate of the Jews and so on. We also see slogans such as: “May God Destroy Israel,” “Down With the United States,” “Damn the West.” Hatred is deeply ingrained in their tradition, in their culture and in their own education. This fierce, venomous style is what is tearing the Islamic world apart; this is exactly what is happening in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan and others — Muslims killing Muslims.

This outcome is the result of intense efforts by some Muslim clerics who encourage hatred of the “other.” Muslims kill each other and then both sides blame the Jews. Wahabbi scholars say that all Sunnis are unbelievers and should be destroyed. Sunni scholars say Shias are unbelievers and their death is obligatory. Shias say that it is obligatory to kill Sunnis, as they are enemies. These are Muslim clerics who are promoting the most violent brand of sectarianism, preaching hatred and calling upon their followers to commit massacres. How do Jews make Muslims kill other Muslims?

When Muslim followers heed these clerical calls for violence, these same clerics turn around and promptly blame the Jews. What about calls for Muslims to not kill each other? What about Muslims unifying to solve their own problems without resorting to violence? What about the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with its 57 member states, or the League of Arab States, with its 22 states, both which seem utterly helpless to bring about any solutions?

Some religious scholars have led many ignorant people astray with their false teachings, which plant seeds of hate. They implement a faith they have largely invented under the name of Islam — a faith that includes hatred, violence, darkness, which attaches no value to human life. They espouse bloodshed in the name of Islam, spreading hatred toward Christians, Jews and even other Muslims. These loveless, misguided people are most definitely not Muslims, but bigots and radicals.

As Muslims, let’s stop pointing the finger at others for our problems. It is time for the Muslim world to take responsibility and to ponder what has gone so horribly wrong with the Muslim world. Why is there so much bloodshed? Superstitions, innovations, localized traditions and bigotry have replaced the Quran in some Islamic countries, and their religiosity is a deeply artificial one. This hatred has to stop and Muslims must embrace the true spirit of the Quran, which is love, compassion and brotherhood for all.


Sinem Tezyapar is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV network.

5773 in Israel: Conclusion? Transition!


Nothing truly ends with Rosh Hashanah except for the arbitrary calendar of the Jewish year. It is a cycle that is in our minds, with no detectable bearing on reality. Proof No. 1: I’m writing this column even as events in Syria are still unfolding. The Syrian war will not end before Rosh Hashanah. Proof No. 2: I’m writing this as the debate about the Western Wall still rages. It isn’t likely to end before Rosh Hashanah. Proof No. 3: Well, there’s really no need for more examples. Point taken: Rosh Hashanah is a time of looking back, because sometimes it is good to reflect. And there’s a certain melancholic quality to it. Fall is soon coming, pinching one’s heart, as a famous Israeli song contends. Atonement is upon us, igniting its engine of fear and trembling.  

So how was 5773? Looking through the narrow lenses of my binoculars, it was a year of unresolved issues. Nothing ended, nothing was brought to conclusion, nothing stood still. The promise, for example, that this would be “the year of decision” on Iran’s nuclear program once again proved empty. During September 2012, almost a year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a “red line” beyond which Iran cannot be stopped — and asked the international community to draw a “red line” as well for Iran, beyond which action would be taken to halt its nuclear program. His red line pointed to summer 2013 as the time for decision, experts assumed at the time of the speech. Well, summer is gone. Netanyahu, just weeks ago, said that Iran is “weeks away” from the line. “They haven’t yet reached it, but they’re getting closer to it, and they have to be stopped,” he said. If it happens two days after Rosh Hashanah, should we still count it as a promise well kept?

And even as it was assumed that the passing Jewish year would be the year of decision, it is also assumed that the still-ongoing secular year 2013 is the year of decision, too. The incompatibility of two calendars is a nuisance and a blessing for those wanting second chances at keeping promises alive. Like President Barack Obama, who declared a long time ago that Syria’s Bashar Assad should get off the world stage without delivering the means to achieve such a goal. Obama also promised to provide Syrian rebels with weapons and didn’t quite deliver — for reasons not to be discounted. And his secretary of state, John Kerry, promised to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and made good on his word. However, Kerry’s promise to have an agreement between the two parties within nine months is a leading candidate to be the top unresolved issue of 5774.

This year, Israeli elections catapulted to power a man who promised to be a contender for prime minister — Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party. Of course, it is much too early to eulogize the young, healthy and talented Lapid, but many Israelis would tell you, as they are telling the pollsters, that he is the broken promise of the year. And very few of them would tell you that he can become prime minister of Israel. In early August, 82 percent of the Israeli public told Panels Politics that Lapid isn’t fit for the top job. So yes, he might become a comeback kid, but this would require a major comeback. The promise of Yesh Atid was fulfilled in one way only — keeping Israel’s Charedi parties out of the coalition and beginning the process of stripping away some of their special government benefits. But the promise to draft Charedim into the military will have to wait. There have been some steps forward: There is a plan; there is a timetable; but all that could easily change before it is implemented three or four years down the road.

I’ve made a habit of looking back on Erev Rosh Hashanah at the articles I wrote throughout the year. It takes a long time to do (meaning, I probably write too much), but it is always revealing. Last September, I wrote about the approaching 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war and the lessons of history. A year later, I find myself very busy this week attending launch parties for the five books on the war I have been involved with in recent months. Attending them, listening to the old soldiers and generals talk about the battles of the southern front on the Egyptian border, one can’t escape comparisons between then and now, between Sadat’s Egypt and Sisi’s Egypt. 

Promises broken this year? Democracy in Egypt is a contender for the most blatant one. Last year, not long before Rosh Hashanah, President Obama congratulated the newly elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. “Millions of Egyptians voted in the election, and President-elect Morsi and the new Egyptian government have both the legitimacy and responsibility of representing a diverse and courageous citizenry,” the White House said. But from summer 2012 to summer 2013, the Obama administration apparently changed its mind. Hopes for next year’s Egypt are quite different from hopes for last year’s Egypt. 

A year ago, I wrote a lot about the Jewish vote in the coming November presidential election. In fact, I published a short book about the Jewish vote in the 2012 elections. This seems a long time ago. Another broken promise? I never really believed the hyped Republican claim that 2012 would be much different than previous elections, but those who did can count another disappointment. And, yes, the passing year for me was a lot about elections. Until November, it was the American race, after which began the Israeli race. Netanyahu and his political buddy, Israel Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, promised to have a party of 47 Knesset seats. They ended up with 31.   

In December, I laid out a proposal for solving the controversial issue of Women of the Wall – one quite similar (if not as detailed) to the Natan Sharansky plan. Make your own Kotel, I suggested: “You don’t have to call it Robinson’s Arch. Call it the Kotel. Take the part of the Wall you can get, and this will be your Kotel. Make it lively and welcoming, make it better than the ‘other’ Kotel, make it cool and fashionable, make people want to go there, make it a place that is no less important and busy and symbolic to Jews around the world.” The Sharansky plan is a promise that isn’t yet broken. But those hoping to see its fast completion will also have to wait at least another year. 

The Talmud (Megillah 31) teaches us that Ezra the scribe established the reading of Parashat Ki Tavo — a parasha filled with godly curses that we read last week — on the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. “Why is that? In order that the past year finish along with all of the curses associated with it.”

5773 was not a year of many great curses for Israel or for the Jewish people. We have a problem, though, with things that are not yet a curse or a blessing — those things that cannot end just because a year has gone by. We have a problem with summing up a year that was a year of transition — but transition toward what is still unclear. 

Shanah Tovah.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

Daniel Pearl Fellows: Reshaping hate


On the evening of Aug. 22, I had a public conversation with three Muslim journalists, two from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh, at the Los Angeles Press Club. All three were in the United States as Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellows, a program to introduce Muslim journalists to American practices, sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation and Alfred Friendly Press Partners. Here are the three most chilling things they said:

1. The majority of Pakistanis hate America.

2. The vast majority of Pakistanis believe the United States and Israel, not al-Qaeda, were behind the 9/11 attacks. Their “proof”: 3,000 Jews who work in the World Trade Center didn’t show up for work that day.

3. Most Pakistanis agree that the chaos in Syria and Egypt is the result of manipulation by Jews, Israel and/or the United States.

And keep in mind, Pakistan is officially our ally.

Not only have our two countries cooperated to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States has given Pakistan more than $21 billion in foreign aid since 2002.

Still, they seem to hate us.  

“We have a saying in our country,” said Khalid Khattak, a staff reporter for the News International in Lahore. “India is the bastard child of Israel, and Israel is the bastard child of the United States.”

Why the hate? A few reasons.

The aid we give is, in fact, part of the problem. 

“There is a lot of corruption,” Khattak said. “It is meant to be spent to help people, but, unfortunately, a lot of it goes into the pockets of those who take it from the United States.” 

“The billions of dollars of aid are being wasted,” said Emran Hossain, a staff reporter at Bangladesh’s first online newspaper, bdnews24.com, in Dhaka. “It is being spent on the military and police, or on education that makes people more religious.”

A good part of the blame for the failure of U.S. aid lies with corrupt and inefficient Pakistani bureaucracy charged with spending it — but we are the ones who write the checks. And that just makes many Pakistanis angrier.

Another reason for the anger: drones.

Since 2006, America has launched a carte blanche drone war against targets in parts of Pakistan. While terrorists have been decimated, many innocents have also been killed in collateral damage, and America answers to no one.

“You start the drone strikes now, but the reaction will continue in the years to come,” Khattak said. “There is a saying in the Pashtun language that if a Pashtun takes revenge after 100 years, it’s not too late.”

Vaqaz Banoori, an editor at the Independent Press Network in Islamabad, put it even more bluntly. “If you continue the drone strikes,” Banoori told us, “you are losing the moderates and the liberals. You are giving Pakistanis the message, ‘You are no one.’ ”

The final reason for the antipathy: ignorance. Pakistan has a de facto illiteracy rate of 30 percent, and only 19 percent of its population has access to the Internet. Journalists are freer than in years past to report on corrupt politicians, but intelligence and defense matters remain off limits, as are affronts to the country’s many religious extremist groups. 

“They blame mainly America, and mainly Jews,” Banoori said of his fellow Pakistanis. There are, of course, no Jews in Pakistan. But whether the issue is Kashmir or Palestine, 9/11 or drones, Jews, America and Israel are the go-to scapegoats — just as they are in Syria and Egypt.

I asked Banoori why literate Pakistanis couldn’t just read Wikipedia to get their facts more or less correct. 

“They would say Wikipedia is just run by Jews,” he said.

This would all be deeply depressing were it not for this additional fact: As much as the Pakistanis despise America, they deeply want to come to America.

“There are so many Pakistanis trying to get visas to the United States every day,” Banoori said. “These people want to have a good life, educational opportunities, economic opportunities.”

The negative ideas about America — from our wasted aid, our drone strikes, extremist claptrap — compete with the images everyone sees in popular movies and on TV shows. “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” are their favorites. They don’t get “Seinfeld.”

In fact, Pakistanis will pay $10,000 for a $160 visa, just to come to the Great Satan.

As I spoke to the journalists, I noticed a tall, thin gray-haired man in the front row of the audience, looking positively unhappy; turned out it was Cameron Munter, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. 

What the journalists said was painful to hear, but largely true, Munter confirmed. Since leaving the foreign service, he has gone on record calling for replacing official U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan with people-to-people initiatives, from academic and business exchanges to the kind of initiatives that brought the journalists to us last week.

I think he is onto something. 

It stands to reason that we should be doing less of what’s not working and more of what is. Pakistan is ours to lose, but only if we really want to. And the biggest mistake we can make is to outsource the job of winning Pakistani hearts and minds to the government of the United States of America, which has completely bollixed it up.


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

The Israeli Embassy’s ‘sort of terrifying’ — and pro-partition? — map


Those of us with friends who post too much about the Middle East on Facebook have doubtless seen — or at least scrolled past — a confusing chart created by Egyptian blogger The Big Pharaoh, which attempts to depict the region’s conflicts and alliances.

For example,  Israel supports the Syrian rebels, which receive support from Hamas, which hates Israel, which is allied with the U.S., which is allied with Saudi Arabia, which supports the Syrian rebels but opposes the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which supports the Syrian rebels and Hamas.

Got that? Neither did I.

Now, the Israeli embassy in Washington has answered with its own chart. This one has a much simpler message: Everybody hates Israel.

Conceptually, in terms of Israeli PR, there’s nothing that new about this one. It depicts the conflicts that surround Israel and the many threats facing it. All the usual suspects are there: Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad, terrorists in the Sinai, terrorists on the Golan border, “radical forces” in the West Bank and, of course, Iran.

Pretty straightforward… except for one thing. Brandeis Israel studies Ph.D. student Ari Moshkovski notes on his Facebook that the embassy may have inadvertently endorsed calls for partition on the 1967 border:

A close look, however, reveals that this official Israeli map excludes the West Bank from Israeli territory. In fact, the Israeli embassy seems to demarcate Israel’s borders along the 1967 lines.

The  Israeli government, of course, does not consider the West Bank to be officially part of Israel — though part of the governing coalition wants to annex some or all of it.

Even so, maps and outlines of the country put out by the government sometimes include the West Bank (and sometimes don’t), and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to base current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the 1967 border. Moshkovski notes that in 2011, when President Obama called for a two-state solution based on the 1967 border (with land swaps), the pro-Israel right called foul.

Will they do so now? And does this mean anything for peace talks?

To both questions, the answer is probably no.

In raging Middle East, Israel wins time with Palestinian peace talks


Pressured by Washington, worried about its international standing and perturbed by Middle East turmoil, Israel had many reasons to return to peace talks with the Palestinians this week after a three year hiatus.

On the surface, Israelis saw little reason to jump back into negotiations. The status quo in the West Bank was holding and the question of the so-called peace process had largely fallen off the domestic political agenda.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have realized he could not take the rap for cold shouldering U.S. efforts to revive the talks, and recognized that turbulent regional dynamics made it worthwhile to engage with the Palestinians once more.

“Resuming the diplomatic process at this time is important for the state of Israel both in order to try to end the conflict and given the complex reality in our region, especially the security challenges from Syria and Iran,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday before it sanctioned the resumption of talks.

The last round of U.S.-brokered negotiations collapsed barely after they began in 2010 in a row over continued Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land the Palestinians want for their future state.

Although Netanyahu continues to reject Palestinian demands that he halt the construction, he has agreed to release 104 Arab prisoners as a goodwill gesture, drawing heavy criticism from rightist allies who say it will encourage terrorism.

The fact he made such a politically sensitive concession suggests he was put under enormous pressure by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited the region six times in just five months to try to revive the long-moribund peace process.

“No one wanted to lose the blame game, so that's why we went to Washington,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies.

The same is true for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and that pressure could also produce progress: “Whoever botches the Americans' plans will have a price to pay,” one Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

CHAOS

Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on July 27. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

However, U.S. arm-twisting alone does not fully explain Netanyahu's decision to head back to the negotiating table. Turmoil in the region also played an important role.

In the three years since the last failed effort, the Arab world has been turned upside down by uprisings that have transformed the Middle East.

With the outcome of the rebellion still unclear, notably in neighboring Syria and Egypt, many Israeli politicians have urged Netanyahu to do nothing and wait for the storm to pass, which appeared to be his preferred strategy until now.

But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said the prime minister could not pretend that Israel was not a part of the Middle East and had to try to bring some calm and order to the chaos.

“Middle East instability has a complex, contradictory role. It is more difficult to make territorial concessions, but on the other hand, in a region that is undergoing such significant changes, Israel wants to be a player,” he said.

“To do that it has to negotiate with the Palestinians.”

Since the onset of the Arab world's popular revolts in late 2010, uncertainty has become almost the only thing Israel can rely on, bringing it short-term gains and long-term concerns.

Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt three decades ago and had maintained a stable cold war with Syria for even longer, but the turmoil has hit both those big Arab nations hard.

Although Israeli officials have kept quiet about the latest upheavals in Egypt, there is no doubt they are relieved to see the return to prominence of the army in Cairo and the downfall of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi – which in turn undermines Israel's enemy Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza.

Likewise the civil war in Syria means Israel has been able to sit back and watch the erosion of a once powerful foe.

However, the chaos has also allowed jihadi gunmen to build a presence along two previously dormant fronts and has sowed seeds of potential trouble in Jordan, the only Arab state to have signed a peace accord with Israel besides Egypt.

Against this backdrop, Yossi Beilin, an Israeli architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, said the time was right to try to end the decades-old Palestinian conflict.

“When around us you see all these crises, we might create with the Palestinians and the Jordanians and hopefully in the future with the Egyptians a group of peaceful countries which understand the importance of peace and cooperation and have an impact on the whole region,” Beilin said.

IRAN

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on July 18. Photo by Hadi Mizban/Reuters

European Union diplomats have echoed this sentiment, and the 28-nation-bloc added to the pressure on Netanyahu to return to talks by announcing this month that it would bar financial aid to Israeli groups operating in the occupied territories – putting Israel on guard that its patience was running out.

“In the past few months the price of continuing the status quo has become much clearer to Netanyahu and in his third term he may be thinking of his legacy,” said the former ambassador and peace negotiator Rabinovich.

When it comes to establishing a legacy, Netanyahu's allies say his primary focus has always been tackling Iran's atomic program. As he himself told his cabinet on Sunday, worries over Iran played directly into his Palestinian decision-making.

The Israeli leader has said for years that Iran is planning to build a nuclear bomb and warned that this represents an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Despite Tehran's denials, Netanyahu believes time is running out to deal with the issue. Israeli leaders have repeatedly said Washington must take the lead in halting Iran – either through military means, economic sanctions or diplomacy.

In this context, analysts said Israel could not risk rousing Washington's ire by spurning Kerry's extraordinary efforts.

“Netanyahu has Iran on his horizon and has made a very calculated move in order to guarantee some American support on more concrete, assertive steps in the Iranian matter,” said Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Peter Graff

Obama urges Netanyahu to resume peace talks with Palestinians


President Barack Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and urged him to resume peace talks with Palestinians, the White House said in a statement.

The telephone call was part of regular consultations between the two leaders, the White House said, but came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region to try to help restart talks that stalled in 2010.

“The President encouraged Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue to work with Secretary Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible,” the White House said, noting the leaders also talked about security issues in Egypt, Iran and Syria.

Palestinian leaders put off a decision on Thursday about restarting peace talks with Israel, with most saying Israel must first meet their terms before negotiations can start, a Palestinian official said.

President Mahmoud Abbas had gathered fellow PLO leaders in Ramallah to discuss his meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this week. Kerry, who had extended his stay in the region in the hope of progress on resuming peace talks that stalled in 2010, will return to the United States on Friday.

No decision emerged from the Palestinians' gathering, one official who attended Thursday's meeting told Reuters, and Abbas formed a committee to present a formal response to Kerry's peace push on Friday.

“Most PLO officials who attended the meeting described Kerry's offer as not sufficient for resuming negotiations with Israel,” said the official, Qais Abdel-Karim.

The main sticking point seemed to be a Palestinian demand that Israel agree to negotiate on condition that the borders of a future Palestinian state would be based on boundaries drawn before a 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rightist coalition government includes parties that back Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, says he wants to start peace talks immediately, but without preconditions.

“There is a general tendency among PLO officials to reject resuming negotiations before Israel recognizes the 1967 borders as a base for the peace process and for it to end settlement activity,” said Abdel-Karim.

Kerry has given no details on where he believes the two sides might give ground, though he said after meeting Abbas in Jordan on Wednesday that differences had narrowed “very significantly”.

KERRY TO FLY HOME FRIDAY

Earlier on Thursday, the State Department had said there were currently no plans to announce a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and a senior U.S. official later said Kerry would fly home on Friday after consulting both sides again.

It was unclear if Kerry would see the parties in person on Friday or consult them by telephone.

“It is appropriate and encouraging that there is such a serious debate about these issues,” the senior U.S. official said in a brief emailed comment as the Palestinian discussions continued. “We understand that there are many strongly held views and appreciate efforts to find a basis to move forward.”

Making his sixth visit to the region since March, Kerry has not spelled out his proposals. But his efforts won the notable endorsement of the Arab League, which said they “provide the ground and a suitable environment to start negotiations”.

Kerry has highlighted a 2002 offer made by the 22-nation League to make peace with Israel in return for a Palestinian state broadly inside borders that existed before the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 1967.

An Israeli official, briefing anonymously, said Israel had agreed to a new wording on future border negotiations. However, a Netanyahu spokesman denied there had been any change in Israel's position.

ARAB SUPPORT

The Arab League confirmed this week that it was willing to consider swapping some land on either side of the 1967 borders, bringing it closer to Israel's position. Israel says the old borders are indefensible and that some West Bank settlement blocs should be incorporated into Israel.

Abbas, whose peace strategy is opposed by the Islamist group Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, has sought Arab League support in the past to engage Israel. It was not clear if Wednesday's endorsement gave him enough political cover to resume talks.

Hamas's leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, called Kerry's efforts “a waste of time”.

Abbas had convened senior members of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and his Fatah party in Ramallah, hub of the West Bank and seat of his U.S.-backed self-rule administration.

Before Thursday's meeting, Palestinian officials seemed pessimistic. They appeared to allude to reports that Kerry's formula lacked any mention of stopping settlement construction but might include a reference to Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state – something they never have accepted.

Negotiations, which have ebbed and flowed for two decades, last broke down in late 2010, after a partial settlement halt meant to foster talks ended and Netanyahu refused to extend it.

Palestinians familiar with Abbas's thinking speculated he might now forgo the call for a settlement moratorium given a recent slowdown in housing starts issued by Israel's government, though it may still be painful to roll back his previous demand.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Amman, Noah Browning in Cairo, Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Dan Williams, Ari Rabinovitch and Arshad Mohammed; editing by David Stamp

Netanyahu says Iran closer to nuclear ‘red line’


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Iran was getting closer to the “red line” he set for its nuclear program and warned the international community not to be distracted by the crises in Syria and Egypt.

Tehran was continuing enrichment activities and building inter-continental ballistic missiles, which could give it a military nuclear capability, he said on CBS' “Face the Nation.”

At the United Nations in September, Netanyahu drew a red line across a cartoon bomb to illustrate the point at which Iran will have amassed enough uranium to fuel one nuclear bomb. He said Iran could reach that threshold by mid-2013.

“They haven't yet reached it but they're getting closer to it and they have to be stopped,” Netanyahu told CBS. He said the West's sanctions against Tehran needed to be intensified and backed up with the threat of a credible military option.

Netanyahu also said Iran was building faster centrifuges that could allow it to speed up its enrichment activities.

Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, has issued veiled warnings for years that it might attack Iran if international sanctions and diplomacy fail to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Israel has long insisted on the need for a convincing military threat and setting clear lines beyond which Iran's nuclear activity should not advance.

“I think it's important to note that we (Israel) can't allow it to happen. Our clocks are ticking at a different pace. We're closer than the United States, we're more vulnerable, and therefore we'll have to address this question of whether to stop Iran before the United States does,” Netanyahu said.

The Israeli prime minister said he was concerned that the military conflict in Syria and the political crisis in Egypt had pushed the Iran nuclear issue lower on the international agenda.

“There are many important issues that we have to deal with and I have a sense that there is no sense of urgency on Iran and yet Iran is the most important and the most urgent matter of all,” he said.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Doina Chiacu

What’s John Kerry doing in Israel?


Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren at the New York Times ask a question that’s been puzzling Israeli journalists and analysts for weeks: With Egyptians rioting and Syria getting only bloodier, why is the U.S. secretary of state focusing on Israel and the Palestinians?

Even if John Kerry succeeds in the apparently herculean task of getting Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in the same room, few people here seem to have much faith that Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy will lead to any kind of meaningful progress — let alone a conflict-ending agreement.

The Times calls the conflict a “sideshow in a Middle East consumed by sectarian strife, economic misery and, in Egypt, a democratically elected leader fighting for legitimacy with many of his people.”

The authors suggest two reasons why Kerry’s spending his energy — and America’s political clout — in Jerusalem and Ramallah. It’s the only place where he may be able to exercise real influence, and the chaos next door could make Netanyahu and Abbas more amenable to resolving the conflict.

[Related: Kerry on the couch]

In the end, though, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become “one headache among many.” More unstable and more lethal conflicts are going on to the north and south.

Still, journalists refer to the Middle East peace process as pertaining solely to Israelis and Palestinians. Two decades ago, when the region’s most prominent fighting happened between Israelis and Palestinians, that expression made sense. Now though, Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in something of a cold war. The real heat is being felt elsewhere. If Kerry is truly interested in Mideast peace, that’s where he might begin. But after two-and-a-half years of bloody upheaval across the Arab world, peace looks a long way off – even if Kerry succeeds.

The Middle East: Where upheaval reigns


In December 1973, shortly after the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, Israel’s director of central intelligence submitted a report about the performance of the intelligence community before the war. The report acknowledged an “intelligence failure.” The problem wasn’t the collection of intelligence, which the report deemed sufficient, but “errors of evaluation” attributed to “attitudes and preconceptions lying behind the analysis.” Israel failed in forecasting the Yom Kippur War, for reasons that are now — as we approach the war’s 40th anniversary — being debated more than ever before.  

Such debate is useful only if the conclusions drawn from it benefit not only historians, but also contemporary policy makers. They must remember that collection and evaluation are not always compatible; they must avoid preconceptions. 

In December 2011, a year and a half ago, Israel’s then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, estimated that Syria’s Bashar Assad fall would come in a matter of “weeks.” He was not alone in his estimation. A month or so before him, “Western diplomats” told Reuters that Assad’s fall was all but certain. In January 2012, a month after Barak, a spokesman for the White House explained that Assad “has lost control of the country” and it is inevitable that his “brutal regime” would fall from power. Yet Assad has persisted in defeating such expectations and refused to comply. 

By April 2012, observers began to realize that the tune had to change. “It might take more than we thought,” a senior officer said, and the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services, mockingly suggested that the Assad regime would outlive Barak’s party. As things turned out, this was an accurate forecast, one of few such successes.

Seven years ago, I wrote in an article for Slate magazine that “for the United States, Syria is a constant reminder of the limitations of a superpower.” Assad, I wrote in this long-forgotten article on Syria’s strategy for survival, “is a fine acrobat — a joy to watch — as long as he doesn’t fall. And he understands the ways of the tumbler, knows that the only way for him to stay above the rest of the crowd is to keep moving in the same direction. One stop, even a minor hesitation, will be the end of his journey.” In the past he was ridiculed as an imbecile. Shimon Peres derogatively called him “the son of a clever man.” Yet, as with Barak, Assad might still outlast Peres’ term as Israel’s president. A year or so to go.

Another intelligence failure then? The progress of the Arab Spring is tricky to predict. Just weeks before Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt, the head of Israel’s military intelligence told a Knesset committee that the Egyptian regime was stable. The predictions with regard to Syria are somewhat similar, but not all intelligence services repeated the mistake, or they attempted to correct the mistake of not foreseeing Mubarak’s fall with another mistake — hurriedly concluding that Assad stood no chance for survival. Some weren’t as quick as the Americans and the Israelis to bury Assad and the Syrian regime. Some also decided not to be subjugated to the role of bystander in this supposed forthcoming funeral. The Iranians were assisting Assad with weaponry, manpower and political support. Hezbollah fighters came to the rescue. Russia was blocking any attempt to use international forums to punish him and was insisting on keeping commitments related to the arming of the Syrian army. “Russia was simply calculating that Assad would be able to defeat the uprising in Syria and remain in power,” a former head of Mossad suggested. 

That Mossad chief is quoted in a paper by Noah Slepkov, foreign policy analyst and adjunct fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, but his is not the only possible explanation given for Russia’s conduct. Another reason given for Russia’s insistence on allying with the Assad regime is that “Russia wanted to send a strong message to its allies in the region that ‘if you stick with us, we won’t turn our back on you.’ ” That’s the sort of message — a bitter Israeli diplomat told me earlier this week — that the U.S. no longer can send in the wake of its abandonment of the Egyptian Mubarak regime. 

A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi holds a defaced poster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi by the Tamarod (rebel) movement in downtown Cairo on June 6. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS

Last month, the Russians boldly let it be known that their surface-to-air missiles will be sent to Syria as planned. Disregarding Israeli warnings that such missiles would be destroyed, as well as American protestations, the Russian are betting on the Assad regime and its ability to survive, as well as on America’s lack of appetite for confrontation. Dangling the promise of a future peace conference on Syria — not in June, as “there is still a lot of work to do to bring a conference about,” but possibly in July — the Kremlin is running circles around an American administration yearning for a painless and cost-free solution in Syria. Discussions in Washington this week about possibly arming rebel groups might be too little and too late. If earlier the Obama administration could sit on its hands and assume that the rebels could succeed without the need of American intervention, it now has the opposite worry: whether it should buy into what might be a losing stake. 

The never-ending Arab Spring has put the Middle East under a constant cloud of chaos, through which only the far-sighted can see and only the determined can pass. U.S. influence is waning, and with it the trust of other nations in its reliability. And while the Syrian crisis was initially seen as a possible blow to Iranian influence and power, things are murkier today: If Assad survives, it will be a huge victory for the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Shiite axis. The Kremlin doesn’t much like the prospect of Sunni extremists taking advantage of a political vacuum in Syria. So, yes, the Russians seem to bet on the Shiites — Iran, Hezbollah and Assad’s Alawites — while the United States is, reluctantly, left with the Sunnis. That’s another peculiar result of the ongoing regional crisis, as the U.S. went to war in the Middle East, not so very long ago, to avenge and prevent further terror actions of Sunni extremists. 

In recent weeks, a debate has been growing over the extent to which the Syrian war is becoming a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, following his short visit into Syrian territory, said last week that “a sectarian battle line is being drawn through the heart of the region — with Sunni extremists, many allied with al-Qaeda, dominant on one side, and Iranian-backed proxy forces dominant on the other.” McCain also declared “the entire Middle East is now up for grabs.” That is, the Syrian war is no longer about Syria. At stake: fragile Iraq, terrified Jordan, tense Israel, nervous Turkey, miserable Lebanon. 

The Syrian flag is seen as people watch Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking to supporters via live broadcast during a May 25 event in Bekaa Valley, Resistance and Liberation Day,  which marks the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Photo by Sharif Karim/REUTERS

This is not “a war that is being fought by nation states. Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way,” Robert Malley, program director for Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group said last week. 

The crisis is bubbling through the region by way of religious osmosis. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on June 9 warned of “a storm passing through the region.” Al-Maliki’s Shiite government is facing a Sunni opposition, so he knows what he is talking about as he warns of “a brutal sectarian storm.” The split in Islam is old — almost as old as Islam itself. Having originated with a battle for dominance among some of the followers of Muhammad, the result was different and at times contradicting interpretations of Islam’s teachings. At times, these branches have coexisted peacefully; at other times, competition and emotions have run high and war ensued. 

In Syria, Islam’s major strands have taken sides against one another. The Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil states have been sending arms to Sunni rebels. Sunni organizations, some linked to al-Qaeda, have been dispatching fighters to the front. On the other side, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah were bolstering Assad’s forces. 

The rhetoric gives an indication of a wider war among Muslims that was ignited at the high temperatures of the reactor core that is the Syrian conflict. Egyptian cleric Sheik Mohammed el-Zoghbi on June 7 called on “young men in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen” to go to Syria to fight. “We must all go to purge Syria of this infidel regime, with its Shiites who came from Iran, southern Lebanon and Iraq,” el-Zoghbi said. Influential Yusuf al-Qaradawi branded Hezbollah — literally, “the party of God” — as the “party of Satan.” The image of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, not long ago the most popular leader on the Arab street, is waning. But he was right to declare that the war is now entering “a completely new phase.” 

Also waning is any short-term fantasy about a better Middle East. In recent weeks, the war in Syria went viral and spread through the region, while at the same time, the model for a better region — Turkey — is wracked by protests. In fact, any conceivable model leading to stability and calm is fast disappearing from this area of the world. 

Fadi Kerkoz mourns next to a body of his brother Shadi Kerkoz, who was killed in a battle against Syrian forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, in the Syrian town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, on June 2. AP Photo/Qusair Lens

Borders are no longer a guarantor of national coherence, as religious emotions play a growing role in the way battle lines are drawn. Political arrangements collapse: The autocratic yet stable model of Egypt lost to the street, and the Democratic-Islamist model of Egypt doesn’t quite work. In early June, an Egyptian court sent dozens of NGO workers to prison for working in an organization not registered with the government. Two years after Mubarak’s fall, the Pew Research Center found that “Egyptian public mood is increasingly negative.” The public wants democracy but thinks that law and order is getting worse, along with a loss of personal freedoms and a declining standard of living. “While they endorse democratic principles, most Egyptians say they are dissatisfied with the way their new democracy is currently working. 

The once exemplary model of Turkey — hailed by some as the “road map” for other Muslim countries striving to have a democracy — is also in trouble, as recent events in Istanbul’s Taksim Square demonstrate. Early on June 11, as protesters in Turkey were pondering the meaning of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supposed agreement to meet with their leaders, police forces stormed Taksim Square, using tear gas and prompting many of the protesters to flee the area. And while the ultimate result of the recent Turkish strife is far from clear, one thing clearly happened in Turkey: the façade of a liberal democracy was torn away, leaving the reality of a problematic regime exposed in the town’s square. All this suggests long-term instability. A nightmare for any intelligence agency attempting to make predictions and a mixed bag for Israel. Surviving in an unstable and violent region is hardly a blessing for Israel and ensures that the coming years will be filled with twists and turns. It also ensures a growing demand for investment in military and defense measures and in keeping up with all the other costs associated with the maintenance of what was once tagged by Barak as a “villa in the jungle.” And of course, also looming is the very serious problem of Iran’s nuclear program, threatening to void all other predictions. On the other hand, that Israel’s enemies have to busy themselves with fighting one another probably makes it less likely that they will have the energy or the resources to launch a war — that is, the good old conventional type of battle — against Israel. They can harass Israel, they can attack it with missiles or terror, but they are hardly likely to find time to plot a strategy that will defeat it on the battlefield. 

A sprinkle of sugar in a boiling, bitter dish.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

The Six-Day War, still


The Six-Day War began at 7:10 a.m. on June 5, 1967. By 10 a.m., it was clear Israel had already won.

In the tense months before the war started, no one predicted such an astonishing victory.  Israel was a small nation surrounded by enemies who had twice the soldiers, twice the tanks, four times the fighter jets.

And yet, hours after taking to the skies in a daring surprise attack, Israeli warplanes obliterated the air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria on the ground.

National Security Adviser Walt Rostow sent a report to his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, hours after that now historic feat.

“Herewith the account, with a map, of the first day’s turkey shoot,” Rostow wrote.

The victory was lightning fast, but not sudden. Israel’s leaders had planned for the eventuality of a preemptive strike. Fighter jets flew practice runs over models of Egyptian airfields constructed in the Negev Desert, over and over again, for five years.

After the attack, the war progressed in bitter battles on different fronts: the Sinai, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights. In each case, Israel prevailed, and the world was a far different place by the end of a week of fighting. 

And so it remains. 

The idea of a preemptive war no doubt inspired the architects of the Iraq War — many of whom came of age as the world looked in awe at Israel’s victory. They got the preemption right — but not the planning or the purpose. So our children have come of age with wars that drag on without end, to indeterminate effect.

The war helped birth Islamic extremism, as Arabs turned for salvation from failed national leaders. It also cracked the façade of Arab despots — in that way, the Arab Spring is yet another battle of the 1967 war.

The war forged the strategic bond between the United States and Israel — the defining diplomatic alliance for America in this century. From 1949 to 1967, U.S. aid to Israel averaged about $63 million per year. Since 1967, it averages about $2.5 billion.

The Six-Day War also put the Palestinian cause on the center of the world stage. As Arabs saw their conventional armies go down in defeat, the Palestinians “innovated” modern terrorism.

And the war birthed a messianic, triumphalist faction of Zionism whose most concrete manifestation — the settlement movement — still preoccupies American policy makers 46 years to the day since the war.

Israeli tanks advancing on the Golan Heights on June 10, 1967. Photo by Assaf Kutin/© The State of Israel Government Press Office

This week, after visits in Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “time is not on Israel’s side” for reaching a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians over the territories Israel conquered in June 1967.

Kerry was, in essence, reiterating a set of principles President Johnson outlined on June 19, 1967, after the war dust had settled: the right of every state in the region to exist, freedom of navigation, arms control, territorial integrity and the need for a solution to the refugee problem.

Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a diminutive, quiet shtetl Jew, had by the war’s end forged an unlikely partnership with Johnson, the tall, gregarious Texan. He called Johnson’s formulation “masterful.” 

Indeed, in the intervening decades, there have been no further lessons to be learned that weren’t apparent to Johnson and Eshkol the moment the war ended.

I thought of that late last month when Dan Meridor stopped by our offices. Meridor, a scion of the right-wing Likud Party, maintained for years that Israel has the right to build settlements wherever it wants in the territories captured during the war.

Meridor, who served as minister of intelligence and atomic energy and deputy prime minister in the last government, spoke about how his thinking has evolved.

“In the long run, what we have now is very dangerous,” Meridor told me.  “Because one day the Palestinians on the West Bank will say, ‘We don’t want a state, we want a vote. After 45 years, we cannot live like that in Hebron: 1,000 Jews vote and 100,000 Arabs don’t vote. We want one man, one vote.’ Even without Gaza, that adds 2 million more Arabs, and you can’t have them without equal rights.” 

The relative lack of terror attacks compared to the years of Intifada, the chaos of the Arab Spring beyond Israel’s borders, the rise of Hamas and the weakness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have convinced most Israelis, said Meridor,  that negotiations now are unwise or unnecessary — despite Kerry’s entreaties.

Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin talking to soldiers in the field during the Six-Day War. GPO, 30/05/1967

Perhaps, Meridor said. But in the meantime, Israel must take steps to increase, rather than decrease, the chances for a negotiated settlement.

His message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

 “You say ‘Palestinian state,’ but you are building all over the place, so they don’t believe you,” Meridor said. “They think you are a liar.  You need to have coherence between your stated peace policy and your settlement policy.

“I speak all over the world, and there is only one topic I can’t explain, even to 90 percent of the congressmen in America, and that’s settlements,” Meridor continued. “Even if there’s no agreement, don’t create a situation where you cannot cut one.”

At the end of our conversation Meridor told me he was a tank commander in June 1967. “Did you ever think,” I asked him, “the Six-Day War would last this long?”

 

(Ed. Note: This Internet version was altered to correct the impression in my paraphrase of Meridor's statement that there are no ongoing  incidents of terror attacks against Israelis.]


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

Will Jordan become the next Dubai?


There's more to the Red Sea city of Aqaba than pristine waters and breathtaking coral reefs. The liberalized duty-free area is seeking to become the gateway of commerce in the region, Jordanian officials say.

The Aqaba Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), which runs the port city independent of the government, has signed several agreements worth a total of some $500 million to expand the port's handling capacity.

To be completed in 2015, the port project is expected to pave the way for turning Aqaba into a solid transit hub serving the local market, Iraq, Syria and other Levant ports, ASEZA officials told The Media Line.

Aqaba is surrounded by several ports in the Red Sea area including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, but officials are confident that the Jordanian port has the edge due to its direct borders with two major markets, Iraq and Syria.

The adjacent Israeli port city of Eilat is hardly considered a competitor for Aqaba, according to Jordanian businessmen.

“Eilat serves the local Israeli market. Iraqi or Syrian businessmen refuse to deal with Israel because of its occupation of Arab lands, therefore Aqaba is the natural choice,” said Mohammed Abu Jaber, who runs an Aqaba import-export business.

The port project will see the construction of 28 new terminals for fuel, phosphates, grains and other goods.

Ghassan A. Ghanem, CEO of the Aqaba Development Corporation (ADC), said the new port is strategic in ensuring the kingdom's food and energy supplies and will also serve regional markets.

“Jordan's stability boosted the confidence of investors in Aqaba, which aims to become a hub of imports and exports in the region,” Ghanem told The Media Line.

“We are talking about a new group of terminals that will be expanded or constructed including terminals for natural gas at a cost of $50 million and another for fuel gas at a cost of $20 million,” he added.

Jordan hopes the new gas terminal will solve its chronic fuel crisis that has been exacerbated by the turmoil in Egypt, the main provider of the kingdom's natural gas.

The government reported a $1.5 billion loss due to the frequent disruption of Egyptian gas supplies since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's regime was overthrown.

Qatar will be the main provider of gas in Aqaba as the Gulf state targets new markets including Syria and Turkey, Jordanian businessmen said.

Another key project is an agreement to build an $18 billion pipeline to export Iraqi oil from Basra through Aqaba.

Iraqi Business Council (IBC) President Majid Saadi said that pipeline represents a significant improvement in trade ties between Jordan and Iraq. The pipeline will enable Iraq to export 2.25 million barrels of oil daily, generating some $2-3 billion for Jordan annually. 

“Jordan has proven time and again it is a reliable partner for Iraq, in times of peace and turmoil,” he told The Media Line.

The volume of traffic in the port is up, with some 817,000 containers handled in 2012, serving Jordanian and Iraqi consumers. Over the past four years, the volume of traffic has nearly doubled, according to official figures.

“The pipeline with Iraq is recognition of the strategic value of Jordan's stability, Additionally the newly expanded port will also lead to a leap in trade volume between Jordan and Iraq and the rest of the region,”
Saadi concluded.

Aqaba was transformed into a special tax free economic zone by Jordan's King Abdullah in 2000, in a bid to turn the city into a commercial hub. It was granted administrative independence and all economic incentives, including passage of the tax-free zone law.

While the commercial projects continue undisrupted, other ventures aim to bring in more dollars by turning the city into a major tourist attraction.

A $10 billion megaproject, Marsa Zayed, is dubbed the biggest real estate and tourism project in Jordanian history and promises to turn the city into a veritable wonderland.

Funded by the United Arab Emirates government, it includes high-rise residential towers, retail, recreational, entertainment, business and financial districts and several branded hotels.

With billions of dollars invested, Jordanian officials are confident Aqaba is destined to become the new Dubai of the Middle East.

Chuck Hagel’s other problem


As any news junkie will tell you, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, didn’t do very well at his Senate confirmation hearings last week. Our own political editor, Shmuel Rosner, not known for hyperbole, called his performance “terrible.”

Much of the criticism of Hagel has focused on past statements that put into question his commitment to Israel and to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. Critics judged harshly his performance at the hearing, in part because he had trouble walking back some of those statements.

But as Jeffrey Goldberg noted this week in Bloomberg News, there’s one aspect of Hagel’s views that went unchallenged, and it may be the most important of all.

This is the area of “linkage” — the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inextricably linked to the rest of the problems in the Middle East.

Why is this important? Because it determines where the United States puts its priorities in the Middle East.

If you believe, for example, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help you solve other problems in the region, well, guess what. You might just invest another million air miles or so trying to set up yet another “peace conference,” hoping that this time it will work.

Those air miles won’t go to solving other problems, which, in business, we call an opportunity cost.

As Goldberg writes, Hagel historically has had a clear view on linkage — he believes in it. 

Goldberg quotes Hagel in 2006: “The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict. The failure to address this root cause will allow Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorists to continue to sustain popular Muslim and Arab support — a dynamic that continues to undermine America’s standing in the region and the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others, whose support is critical for any Middle East resolution.”

How does Hagel feel today, six years and a few revolutions later? We don’t know.

That’s too bad. Had the panel probed Hagel on this subject, it might have opened up a debate regarding the views of two even more important players: incoming Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama.

Both Kerry and Obama have been longtime proponents of linkage.

Even in the midst of a Mideast revolution that has little to do with Israel or the Palestinians, Kerry said at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conference in 2011 that “continued progress toward achieving a lasting peace is the only way to guarantee Israel’s security and the stability of the region as a whole.”

This is linkage on steroids: To claim that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is the “only way” to guarantee the stability of a Middle East teaming with upheaval. 

When Goldberg asked Obama about this subject during the 2008 election campaign, Obama responded that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this “constant sore” that “infect[s] all of our foreign policy.”

Judging by Kerry’s recent announcement that he plans to reignite the dormant peace process, we can only surmise that the theory of linkage is alive and well in the United States’ Mideast policy.

Why am I not jumping for joy? It’s not simply because the chances of making a peace deal at the moment are about as good as Zionist Organization of America head Mort Klein joining Peace Now.

It’s because even if the chances were halfway decent that an Israeli-Palestinian deal could be hatched, it would hardly help with the other — arguably more serious — conflicts in the Middle East.

As Goldberg writes: “The Syrian civil war? Unrelated to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The slow disintegration of Yemen? Unrelated. Chaos and violence in Libya? Unrelated. Chaos and fundamentalism in Egypt? The creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank would not have stopped the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, nor would it have stopped the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

“Terrorism in Algeria? Unrelated. The Iranian nuclear program? How would the creation of a Palestinian state have persuaded the Iranian regime to cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons? Someone please explain. Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq? The unrest in Bahrain? Pakistani havens for al-Qaeda affiliates? All unrelated.”

In other words, linkage is a mirage.

Worse, it’s a tornado that sucks the U.S. into a bad investment of its precious foreign policy time.

I want to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians as much as anyone. But if I had to put my eggs in one basket right now, I’d put them in stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Disarming Iran would weaken the terror entities it sponsors, prevent a nuclear arms race in the region and remove a dark cloud over a Middle East that is already in the throes of instability.

It would also strengthen Israel’s ability to take risks for peace. 

Come to think of it, maybe there is linkage after all. It’s just not the linkage that Hagel, Kerry and Obama have in mind.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Israel to build security fence on Syrian border


Israel will erect a security fence along its border with Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“We know that on other side of our border with Syria today, the Syrian army has moved away, and in its place, Global Jihad forces have moved in,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the regular Cabinet meeting. 

The fence, which will be nearly identical to the one erected on the border with Egypt, will defend the border with Syria “against both infiltration and terrorism,” Netanyahu said.

In defending the necessity of the fence's construction, Netanyahu added, “I also submit to the Cabinet the fact that the Syrian regime is very unstable, that the question of chemical weapons here worries us, and that we are coordinating our intelligence and readiness with the U.S. and others so that we might be prepared for any scenario and possibility that could arise.”

Israel has stayed out of the deadly civil war going on in Syria, but several Syrian mortar shells have crossed into Israeli territory in recent months. Israel responded with warning shots fired into Syria.

How to turn crisis into diplomatic promise in Gaza


The crisis over Gaza was triggered by a Hamas escalation of missile attacks against Israel, which resulted in Israeli retaliation, the killing of Ahmed Jabari — the Hamas military chief, and the destruction from the air of major Hamas missile emplacements. The question now is how this escalation will end.

Since the Hamas attacks have not stopped, including the first missile over Tel Aviv since Saddam Hussein attacked Israel at the outset of the 1991 Gulf War, Israel is preparing for a ground attack. This leaves 2-3 days for a ceasefire to be reinstated. The U.S. will not deal directly with Hamas due to its having been designated a terrorist organization, so the only country that is capable of arranging a ceasefire is Egypt. President Morsi may well be reluctant to do so given his new Islamist government and the opposition to aiding Israel in any way by much of the Egyptian population. The challenge for the US is therefore to convince the Egyptian President to paint mediation as a way of saving Hamas and Gaza, and to move forward to achieve a ceasefire if Hamas will go along before Israel proceeds further.

If the Israelis do attack, they will have three options: reoccupy Gaza and remove Hamas, presumably returning the area to Palestinian Authority control; attempt to weaken Hamas by a massive assault as was pursued in Operation Cast Lead (Dec. 2008 to Jan. 2009), without completely taking over Gaza; or a peripheral strategy of a limited nature which would attack Hamas installations outside populated areas. Unless Hamas is removed, the other two approaches of attack will likely look toward repeated similar confrontations between Israel and Hamas in the years ahead. The key question will then be the degree of destruction and the political fallout, depending on the military tactics Israel uses each time, and the effectiveness of Hamas missiles.

But in addition to counting casualties on both sides, and assessing the relative effectiveness of each in achieving its aims, this time the Middle East is much more complicated in the wake of the Arab Spring. A new Egyptian Islamist government may well distance itself from Israel in dramatic ways. Jordan in is the midst of political crisis. Israel has much to lose from deteriorating relations with both Arab states with which it has peace treaties. And while Hezbollah has acquired thousands of weapons since it last confronted Israel in 2006, it is very unlikely that it would risk its hard-won gains in Lebanon by an attack on Israel, especially given the civil war in Syria and the need for those missiles as a possible retaliation should Israel attack Iran. But it could attack, and Israel can't ignore Hezbollah either. There are increasing dangers as the hostilities continue.

The Israelis also must face the past repeated sequence of its wars since 1982, when the first Lebanon-Israel war was waged. In each of these cases, Israel gained early, achieving many if its initial objectives, but then the problem of how to complete the remaining objectives and end the war satisfactorily emerged, and in the process Israel progressively began to suffer in world opinion and at home as it inflicted and suffered increasing casualties. The early military gains were slowly challenged by political and diplomatic difficulties that robbed Israel of its clear victories. The longer the Gaza war ensues the more challenges Israel will face.

But in this case Hamas and the other Islamist and radical organizations in Gaza also face severe challenges. The Netanyahu government, with elections in late January, may have an incentive to end the suffering of the Israeli people once and for all, even if the cost is high. If this is the case, Hamas could either suffer major losses or even be removed from power in Gaza. And Hamas has been doing well politically recently against its Palestinian foe, Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas. The latter's imminent bid to the United Nations for an observer state non-member status will almost certainly be successful, and will diminish Hamas' standing. Indeed, Hamas may well have increased its attacks on Israel to diminish Fatah at a critical moment.

Meanwhile, the crisis creates a new dilemma for the U.S., Israel, and some Europeans: They oppose the Palestinian Authority application because it will unilaterally change the dynamic of the peace process to the extent it still has potential, and the bid will likely permit the Palestinians to confront Israelis in various UN bodies such as the International Criminal Court. But Hamas would lose as a consequence of the PA application.

All of these mind-boggling complexities may offer the U.S. a possible opportunity for a diplomatic coup. Continue to back Israel solidly, coax Egypt's president to push for a ceasefire, and make a side deal with Abu Mazen to increase economic assistance to his Palestinian Authority in exchange for delaying his UN bid. After all, the UN application will be less necessary if Hamas suffers a major defeat at the hands of Israel. And the bid may be less appropriate at a time of turmoil initiated by the Israeli-Hamas confrontation. In this way a seeming political hurricane could be transformed into a new playing field offering President Obama a chance to move forward toward increasing stability in a region now seemingly escalating toward major disaster. Such an approach is certainly worth a try.


Steven L Spiegel is director of the Center for Middle East Development and professor of Political Science at UCLA.  He is also a National Scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.

Christians picking on Israel


With Christians being persecuted and threatened across much of the Middle East, guess which country the leaders of several major U.S. Christian denominations have decided to pick on?

That’s right, the country where Christians are safest: Israel.

In case you missed it, in a letter dated Oct. 5, leaders of 15 Christian denominations — including Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists — asked members of Congress to reconsider U.S. aid to Israel in light of “widespread Israeli human rights violations.”

The signatories say “unconditional U.S. military assistance” to Israel is a factor in “deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” that threaten the “realization of a just peace.”

The letter makes no mention of reconsidering U.S. aid to countries such as Egypt, where many Christians fear for their lives and where Coptic Christian families have fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula after receiving death threats.

As Elliott Abrams writes in National Review Online, the letter is utterly silent on the “deteriorating and truly dangerous conditions for Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.”

Meanwhile, in contrast to the dramatic dwindling of the Christian population in the Arab world, in Israel the number of Christians has grown from 34,000 in 1948 to 155,000 today.

The initiative reeks of hypocrisy: Although they purport to care for Palestinian rights, the Christian leaders ignore the misery of Palestinian refugees being oppressed in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. 

Although they attack the “restrictions on movement” in the West Bank, they fail to mention, as Abrams notes, “the many ways in which the Netanyahu government in recent years has loosened those restrictions … [or] the recent steps by the government of Israel to assist the Palestinian Authority as it faces a financial crisis.”

And, of course, the signatories ignore all context. They say nothing of Israel’s many attempts over the years to make peace with the Palestinians and end the occupation, or of the teaching of Jew-hatred and incitement in Palestinian society, or of Israel’s evacuation of Gaza seven years ago that was rewarded with thousands of terror rockets still raining down today on Israeli civilians.

Even if you count yourself as an unabashed critic of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians, it’s hard not to see this single-minded invective against the Jewish state as unfair and hypocritical.

Ironically (or stupidly), the letter was sent a few weeks before a scheduled interfaith conference that included many of the signatories, prompting the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to pull out. 

“It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination,” ADL director Abraham Foxman said in a press release, “these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state. … It is striking that their letter fails to also call for an investigation of Palestinian use of U.S. foreign aid, thus once again placing the blame entirely on Israel.”

Many other Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), have expressed outrage.

“When religious liberty and safety of Christians across the Middle East are threatened by the repercussions of the Arab Spring,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, “these Christian leaders have chosen to initiate a polemic against Israel, a country that protects religious freedom and expression for Christians, Muslims and others.”

Why would Christian leaders initiate such an obviously biased attack against Israel, a country that already has more than its fair share of internal criticism and dissent?

Who knows, maybe they’re trying to boost declining attendance at their churches. It’s always a safe bet to follow the global herd and pick on Israel, one of the world’s favorite punching bags.

But it’s possible there’s something deeper going on — like an irrational obsession with the Jews.

Maybe it all goes back to that fateful moment at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, when Jews received God’s Torah and became His first witnesses. Ever since, it seems as if the “chosen people” have attracted an inordinate amount of attention — mostly for the worse — as they have stubbornly refused to abandon their faith. The rebirth of Israel after centuries of exile seems only to have amplified this attention.

This phenomenon of irrational obsession is complex and can be studied at length, but it’s worth noting here that in the case of Israel and Christian America, the obsession has two sides.

Just as you have Christian denominations that are obsessed with rebuking the Jewish state, there are plenty of other Christian groups — such as Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel — that are emotionally bonded with Israel and are obsessed with defending the Jewish state.

I won’t lie to you: I have a decided preference for the latter groups.

As far as those 15 church leaders who’d rather pick on Israel than on the intolerant regimes that are oppressing their Christian brethren, all I can say is: Are you sure this is what Jesus would do?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Ahead of debate, Romney calls Obama weak on foreign policy


Republican challenger Mitt Romney launched a fresh attempt on Monday to paint President Barack Obama as weak on foreign policy, saying he has let U.S. leadership atrophy, while the two candidates prepared for Wednesday's critical first debate.

Romney's aides said the weak U.S. economy remains his chief priority heading into the Nov. 6 election, but the Democratic president's handling of national security is also fair game.

This line of attack could be tricky for Romney, who drew heavy criticism for a hasty initial reaction to upheaval in Egypt and Libya last month in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack along with three other Americans.

Romney is under enormous pressure for a good performance at Wednesday night's debate in Denver. His campaign has looked shaky since a leaked video emerged two weeks ago in which Romney says 47 percent of Americans are “victims” who depend on government, do not pay federal income taxes and are unlikely to support him.

Seeking to take some of the shine off Obama's national security credentials, which include the 2011 killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Romney team is aiming to portray Obama as overseeing a period of American decline in the world.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion article, Romney accused Obama of being too timid in responding to the Syrian civil war, the election of an Islamist president in Egypt, the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya, and the threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon it could use against U.S. ally Israel.

“These developments are not, as President Obama says, mere 'bumps in the road.' They are major issues that put our security at risk,” Romney wrote.

“Yet amid this upheaval, our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. … And that's dangerous. If the Middle East descends into chaos, if Iran moves toward nuclear breakout, or if Israel's security is compromised, America could be pulled into the maelstrom,” Romney wrote.

Taking aim at Obama on national security may be an uphill battle for Romney. Reuters/Ipsos poll findings show Americans believe Obama has a better plan to deal with the threat of terrorism by 43 percent to about 30 percent for Romney.

Romney continues to trail Obama in opinion polls five weeks before the election. Obama maintained a lead of 5 percentage points – 46 percent to 41 percent – in a Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll released on Monday. Last Thursday, the same poll showed Obama with an advantage of 7 points.

A CNN poll on Monday gave Obama a narrow lead of 50 percent to 47 percent, and the two men were essentially tied on the issue of who would handle the economy better.

“I think even our opponents will agree right now that this is a closing race,” Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden said.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Monday showed Obama leading by 11 percentage points among likely voters in nine battleground states where the election likely will be decided, even as the race is essentially tied nationally.

'REGIONAL INSTABILITY'

In his Wall Street Journal piece, Romney told Obama to take a harder line with Iran and to back Israel.

“When we say an Iranian nuclear weapons capability – and the regional instability that comes with it – is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us,” Romney wrote.

The White House argues that Western sanctions are having a crippling effect on Iran's economy as reflected by its currency losing a quarter of its value against the dollar in only a week.

As part of the Republican attempt to chip away at Obama's foreign policy record, the pro-Romney group American Crossroads released a video that questioned his reaction to the attack last month on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.

“What did President Obama do on the same day as a terrorist attack on American citizens? He campaigned in Las Vegas. … President Obama needs to learn: Being president isn't just about being on TV and protecting your job. It's about leadership. It's time for a president who gets it,” the video said.

Romney added that Obama “has allowed our leadership to atrophy,” has no strategy to encourage a positive outcome from the Arab Spring revolutions, and has alienated Israel.

“By failing to maintain the elements of our influence and by stepping away from our allies, President Obama has heightened the prospect of conflict and instability,” he wrote.

Aides said Romney plans to deliver a foreign policy address in the days following the first debate, probably next week.

Wednesday's debate marks the first time the two candidates will stand on the same stage together in the campaign. Both sides have been working to lower expectations, each calling the other a better debater.

Romney engaged in a session of debate preparation at a Burlington, Massachusetts hotel before flying to Denver for an evening rally. Obama was in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson working on his own preparations for the debate.

“Governor Romney, he's a good debater,” Obama told a rally in Las Vegas on Sunday night. “I'm just okay.”

Given Obama's tendency to meander, aides said they have been trying to get the president to give snappier answers to questions and limit the professorial nature of his responses.

Romney's aides have been working to make sure he does not come off as scolding and to encourage him not to quibble about the rules as he did in some debates during the Republican presidential primary battle.

New Egyptian leader seeks ‘balance’ in Middle East


Egypt’s new Islamist president said on Monday he would pursue a “balanced” foreign policy, reassuring Israel its peace treaty was safe, hinting at a new approach to Iran and calling on Bashar Assad’s allies to help lever the Syrian leader out.

Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in June and consolidated his power this month by dismissing top military leaders, is seeking to introduce himself to a wider world ahead of a trip to Iran – the first by an Egyptian leader in three decades – and China.

“Egypt is now a civilian state … a national, democratic, constitutional, modern state,” he told Reuters in his first interview with an international news organization since taking office as the candidate of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

“International relations between all states are open and the basis for all relations is balance. We are not against anyone but we are for achieving our interests,” said the U.S.-educated engineer, appearing confident and assertive in the marble-lined presidential palace.

The first leader Egyptians have elected in a 5,000-year history dating back to the pharaohs, he spoke in a room for visiting dignitaries surrounded by monarchy-era furniture, oil paintings and a grand tapestry on the wall.

Morsi, 61, came to power after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, who served for decades as a loyal U.S. ally and the guarantor of Egypt’s status as the first Arab country to make peace with Israel.

His emphasis on balance suggests he is seeking a less explicitly pro-American role in the region, but he has also been at pains to reassure traditional allies.

Morsi’s Brotherhood describes Israel as a racist and expansionist state, but he resigned from it on taking power and has avoided inflammatory language. He repeated his position that Egypt will continue to abide by international treaties, including its 1979 peace deal.

Without mentioning Israel by name, he indicated Egypt’s neighbor had nothing to fear from a new military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula, which he ordered after gunmen attacked an Egyptian border post, killed 16 guards and tried to burst across the frontier into Israel.

“Egypt is practicing its very normal role on its soil and does not threaten anyone and there should not be any kind of international or regional concerns at all from the presence of Egyptian security forces,” he said, referring to the extra police, army and other forces moved to the area.

The military campaign was in “full respect to international treaties”, he said. The Egypt-Israel peace deal includes limits on Egyptian military deployment in Sinai.

Officials in Israel, already concerned that Egypt’s Islamists will support the Brotherhood-offshoot Hamas in Gaza, have voiced worries about Egypt’s build-up of heavy armor in Sinai to quash militants.

Morsi would not say if he would meet Israeli officials. Mubarak regularly received top officials although only went to Israel once for a funeral.

U.S., Israel, Jewish groups apprehensive about Iran-hosted non-aligned summit


As Iran gets set to host the Non-Aligned Movement triennial summit, Israel, the United States and a number of Jewish groups are worried that what happens in Tehran won’t stay there.

The decision Wednesday by Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General, to attend the 16th triennial event from Aug. 29-31, has set off alarm bells in Washington and Jerusalem.

The U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, reiterated after Ban’s announcement “concerns that Iran is going to manipulate this opportunity and the attendees, to try to deflect attention from its own failings.”

U.S. Jewish groups that deal with the United Nations echoed that apprehension.

“For Iran the goal is quite clear,” David Harris, the director of the American Jewish Committee, who had released a web video urging Ban not to attend, told JTA. “Tell the United States and its friends not only are we not isolated, we are fully engaged. We are going to purport to speak on behalf of the non-aligned movement of 118 nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Aug. 12 urged Ban not to attend – and, in a rare diplomatic breach, made the plea public.

“Even if it is not your intention, your visit will grant legitimacy to a regime that is the greatest threat to world peace and security,” Netanyahu told Ban in the phone call, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

Israel and the West are locked in a diplomatic struggle with Iran to force the Islamic Republic to make more transparent a nuclear program it insists is peaceful but that Western intelligence agencies say is intended to produce a bomb.

The non-aligned summit sharpens tensions between Israel and western nations over whether diplomacy and sanctions have been played out; Netanyahu believes they have, and is pressing the Obama administration to make more specific the military consequences should Iran not comply. Obama administration officials are in turn pressing Israel to stand down from rhetoric that suggests an Israeli strike is imminent.

The non-aligned summit, planned long before the recent intensification of efforts to confront Iran, throws such tensions into the spotlight.

Which may seem odd, given the relative relevance – or lack of it —of the movement.

The movement, a 1960s relic that once brought together nations seeking to resist cooption by either the United States or the Soviet Union, has struggled for definition since the end of the Cold War. With the summit, Iran assumes the rotating three-year presidency of it.

A measure of the movement’s declining significance – and of Iran’s isolation – is that just 30 leaders of about 120 member nations plan on attending the 16th triennial summit.

Still, expect the Iranian government to exploit the event for its symbolic value, said Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think tank that often consults with the U.S. government.

“It’s a lot of posturing and photo-ops,” Nader said. “But the fact that Iran is hosting the summit and the fact that the U.N. Secretary General is going and especially that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is showing up are good public relations moves.”

The presence of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader recently elected president of Egypt, will likely be exploited by Iran as a signal that it is extending its influence in a region roiled by regime change, Nader said – although that would overstate the case.

“Iran has in recent months tried to boost relationships with Egypt, but Egyptians have been relatively standoffish. They haven’t embraced Iran, and that’s more important than whether a meeting will be held,” he said.

Already, Iranian officials were hyping the summit as a nexus for resistance to Western “hegemony.”

“In light of its focus on multilateral cooperation, disarmament, sustainable world peace, rights of nations and horizontal relations defying hegemonic structures, the Non-Aligned Movement is a major cross-regional group in the United Nations, and U.N. leaders have always participated in its summits,” Alireza Miryousefi, the Iranian envoy to the United Nations, wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the Washington Post.

“By bringing dozens of world leaders together, the summit promises to make significant contributions to the movement’s lofty objectives.”

It is precisely the exploitation of such symbolism that concerns Jewish groups, said Michael Salberg, the director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

“Symbols matter, and when the symbol is represented by the secretary general of the United Nations it’s a neon light—and that makes it all the more troubling at a difficult time,” Salberg said.

The concern, said the AJC’s Harris, is that the gathering grants legitimacy to the Iranian leadership’s unvarnished and incessant anti-Semitism, as well as its oppression of its own people, its backing for terrorism and its role in the Syrian regime’s violent repression.

“The fact that an Iranian regime can support Syria’s barbarism before the world’s eyes, call for the annihilation of a U.N. member state and incite religious hatred and still be seen by some nations as a partner,” Harris said, “Does that validate Non Aligned Movement policies?”.

Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said that absent a boycott of the summit, reminding Iran of its obligations was the least it expected from those attending.

“We hope that those who have chosen to attend, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, will make very strong points to those Iranians that they meet about their international obligations, “ she said. “For them to begin to come clean on their nuclear program and to solve this particular issue diplomatically, and about all the other expectations that we all have of them.”

Ban suggested in his announcement that he got the message.

“With respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people,” it said. “These include Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”

Salberg said such caveats paled next to the symbolism of Annan’s participation.

“It says, you can act with impunity, you can say what you want and I’m still going to come, the embodiment of the international community,” he said.

The Arab Spring springs surprises


When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of popular uprisings in a region far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots.

Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as “the Arab world” had in fact seen important, albeit failed, uprisings: the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolt against Hafez Al-Assad’s regime in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by the Saddam Hussein regime.

This time, however, it was different. The Tunisians succeeded with breathtaking speed in overthrowing Zine El-Abidine’s dictatorial and corrupt regime. But what turned those events into something really unique in the modern Arab world was the domino effect which followed. Shortly after the Tunisians won their battle with their government, there ensued a confrontation between the Egyptians and their own government. Before long, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down. The ripple effect of those cataclysmic developments was subsequently felt in other Arab countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, later, Syria.

Despite the apparent similarities noted in the Arab rebellions taking place in the Middle East, there were nevertheless some notable differences in the way the uprisings happened in the aforementioned Arab countries: the relatively benign dictatorships-Tunisia and Egypt- collapsed much more easily than did the far more ruthless tyrannies in Libya and Syria. One reason may be that Zine El-Abidine’s regime in Tunisia was caught napping by the sudden nature of the revolt in that country. And while Hosni Mubarak’s regime had some forewarning of the possibility of similar developments taking place in Egypt, this was not early enough for members of the Egyptian political elite to successfully contain and defuse the situation.

By contrast, the Qaddafi regime had ample time to prepare for such an eventuality, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad had even more time than Qaddafi’s to brace itself for a similar insurgency occurring in Syria. Coupled with the horrifically brutal nature of both of these regimes, the spread of the “Arab Spring”, as it came to be known, lost momentum. Despite some initial successes achieved by anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, the tide was turned fairly quickly as Qaddafi’s forces rallied to roll back the rebels’ advance speedily and efficiently. Before long, Qaddafi’s fighters had overcome the rebels in Zawiya, laid siege to Misrata, and beaten the eastern region’s rebels from near Sirte, his own birthplace, all the way back to my own city, Benghazi. Terrified and thrown into panic by the merciless, ruthless nature of Qaddafi’s threats and his declared intention of vindictively seeking out his enemies “street-by-street, alley-by-alley, house-by-house”,  France, along with the United Kingdom and, after some hesitancy, the United States successfully obtained the Arab League’s consent to a possible aerial intervention in Libya in order to protect civilians from what looked like a potentially hair-raising massacre not very different from what had happened in Srebrenica in the ex-Yugoslavia back in the 1995. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States also succeeded in persuading reluctant members of the United Nation’s Security Council, most notably Russia and China, of the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The French, the British, and the Americans also took advantage of the wording of UN Resolution 1973, especially one of the points authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, to justify the active, pre-emptive aerial attacks against the Qaddafi regime. The famous French air attack on Qaddafi’s lethal forces on the outskirts of Benghazi in March 2011 achieved the goal of preventing a large scale massacre of civilians in that city. Consequently, Qaddafi’s forces quickly retreated all the way back to Sirte. Buoyed up by such speedy withdrawal, the eastern rebels advanced just as speedily all the way to an area not very far from Sirte, while exuding their newly-found confidence that the Qaddafi regime would crumble in few weeks or less.  That, of course, did not materialize, and the Libyan conflict entered thereafter a phase of prolonged stalemate which lasted for many months before the Qaddafi regime collapsed in the city of Tripoli and Qaddafi himself was captured and killed near his hometown of Sirte in October 2011.

Once the Syrian people saw what was happening in other Arab countries, and how France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were striving for intervention in the Libyan conflict, they plucked up enough courage to launch mass protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. This began when protesters called for the “Friday of Dignity” and Syrians initiated their first serious challenge against their own government. Unlike the Libyans before them, the Syrian protesters did not want outside intervention and were intent on fighting the Assad regime alone. When it gradually dawned on the Syrian rebels that overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was not as feasible as they had imagined, they little by little started to have second thoughts concerning the idea of requesting external armed involvement.

Nonetheless, this time the situation in Syria was significantly different from the Libyan situation: First, both Russia and China objected to outside intervention à la Libyan case. Second, important regional players such as Iran, along with organizations like Hizbollah in Lebanon, backed up the Syrian regime and reportedly propped it up with arms, financial, personnel, and diplomatic support. Third, despite the longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the Israelis, and quite a few of their American supporters, balked at the idea of Syria being run by an actively anti-Israeli, perhaps theocratic, government should the Assad regime disintegrate. After all, both Bashar Al-Assad and his father before him often barked at Israel, but they never did much biting. The anxiety concerning a possible Islamist takeover in Syria was compounded by the early results of regime change in the Arab Spring: Major Islamist successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and significant Islamist influence in Libya’s post-Qaddafi politics, scared outside powers which feared that, yet again, the “Arab Spring” in Syria could very well lead to an “Islamist winter”.

The differences between Libya’s situation and that of Syria did not emerge only in terms of geopolitical dynamics, but also extended to include internal differences: To an extent far greater than the national makeup of Libya, Syria’s is a mosaic of various religions, sects, and ethnic groups: Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and so forth. These groups had been held together by Hafez Al-Assad and later his son Bashar. If the son’s regime were to collapse, it is not inconceivable that this might bring about the fragmentation of the country, resulting in extensive massacres. The relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria are already very tense, as are many of those between Syria’s other ethnic and sectarian groups. But the Syrian regime’s most-intensely feared scenario is the fate of the Alawite minority, to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs. The end of their tight grip on power could very easily become a prelude to their mass murder at the hands of other groups, especially the Sunnis who have long resented being governed and oppressed by the Alawites. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bashar Al-Assad regime is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to power: what is at stake is not merely the regime’s survival, but above all that of the whole Alawite sect.

Having previously worked for several years as a university professor of political science, I am fully aware that forecasting in the area of international politics is a very difficult undertaking; there are far too many unknown quantities and variables involved for this to be easily doable. All the same, it does look at the moment as if the Syrian situation will continue to be a war of attrition, with neither side being able to gain the upper hand in a decisive and conclusive manner. One is then left wondering whether this might lead to yet another “Lebanon”.


Husam Dughman’s family was both educated and liberal.  They heroically stood up to the Qaddafi regime and endured the dire consequences. This gave him a first-hand experience of what dictatorship, bigotry, and intolerance are about, and what kind of price has to be paid in order to stand up to them.  Coupled with his experience of religious intolerance, Mr. Dughman resolved to fight against zealotry, hate, and extremism, come hell or high water. Thus, the idea for Tête-à-tête with Muhammad began to germinate in his mind.

Husam Dughman was born in Libya and educated in Libya and the U.K. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he won several awards for academic excellence and graduated with a First Class with Honours. In 1993, Mr. Dughman returned to Libya and was successful in securing a position as a university professor of Political Science. Due to political reasons, he left his university position in 1997 and subsequently worked in legal translation. He immigrated to Canada in 2002, where he has been helping new immigrants with their settlement.

Dughman’s new book, Tête-à-tête with Muhammad, is available for purchase at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, as well as other online booksellers.  To learn more visit: http://www.husamdughman.com