Refugees a sign of unraveling world order


As the known and secret parts of the Iran nuke deal spin into place like the uncertain number of Iranian centrifuges, President Barack Obama has succeeded in winning one-third-plus votes in the U.S. Senate to defeat attempts to overturn what he deems his legacy foreign policy achievement. Soon, the shouting will be over. Optimists will hope for the best. Pessimists during this Holy Season will pray to G-d that the worst does not happen.

So now would be an appropriate time to look at the P5+1 Iran deal from “ground zero”: the greater Middle East situation—from Afghanistan to North Africa’s Maghreb and the East African Horn—as well as the spillover of the current refugee crisis besetting Europe.

Who among our friends and foes is stable — and who is unstable?

The perennial linchpin of U.S. Mideast policy — Aircraft Carrier Israel — remains securely afloat despite tensions with Washington, and increasing threats at her borders, from Iranian proxies in Lebanon and adjacent to the Golan in the North and Hamastan and the Sinai in the South. For now, a King Abdullah-led Jordan remains afloat thanks to massive help from the US and quiet security help from Israel. Egypt, despite soured relations with the U.S., has for now thwarted the Muslim Brotherhood. The promise of Tahrir Square is but a distant memory as the largest Arab nation is now led by a president whose goal is economic growth and stable security. Otherwise, the region is a total mess.

There is:

– The virtual collapse of the “post-Petraeus” Surge, precarious Iraqi State, concomitant with the rise of ISIS. Will a unified Iraq survive? Not if the Kurds are given a say. As for Christians, they no longer have a say, as the world stood by as historic Christian communities were ethnically cleansed.

– The unraveling of our alliance with Afghanistan’s Karzai regime.

– The emboldening of Iran-backed terrorists along a “Shiite arc” stretching from Iraq to Yemen.

– The panic of the Gulf States, directly adjacent to Iran with weakening U.S. support, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, the very country the Obama Administration once touted as an anti-terrorist success story.

– The collapse of Libya into chaos following the U.S. “leading from behind” anti-Qaddafi coup. That move was largely engineered by Europeans who, ironically, sought to prevent the refugee exodus that they ultimately made much worse.

– A feckless U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa that has brought no peace to Ethiopia-Eritrea or Somalia, with terrorist atrocities spilling over into Kenya and Nigeria.

And now, Europe finds itself confronting a tsunami of refugees that evokes memories of the millions of displaced persons at the end of World War II.  The crisis in Europe is caused, not only by people seeking a better economic future as on our southern border, but by masses fleeing failed states, internecine violence, civil war and terrorism; people so desperate that parents are literally casting their children onto the waters with the protection of little more than bulrushes.

Refugees from Afghanistan flowing into Pakistan and Iraq, refugees from Syria (some 2 million) flowing into Turkey, Jordan and beyond, refugees from Lebanon fleeing Beirut’s fetid streets, refugees from Libya becoming Mediterranean “boat people,” refugees from Somalia and Eritrea adding to the outflow. You can read their faces and body language: these are people who see no future nor hope of change.

If they survive the stormy crossing, their reception is barbed wire or trains to nowhere in Hungary or Slovakia where neo-fascist politicians promise to give refuge only to “Christians.” Germany is their new promised land, with Chancellor Merkel desperately trying to piece together a continent-wide response.

This is a seminal moment for the European Union. It needs to show real leadership, vision and cohesiveness—but don’t hold your breath.

Not so long ago, any crisis of such proportions would spur a robust American response. But now the world isn’t sure where we stand. Washington failed to knock out ISIS/ISIL when it really was still “a jayvee team,” and failed to enforce our announced anti-Assad “red lines.” The resulting mass murder and mayhem has literally bled over into the Mediterranean refugee maelstrom.

It is into this chaos that the P5+1 — led by the US — has handed a virtual blank check (between $150-600 billion) to the Iranian regime. Tehran has its gameplan of regional hegemony-but what’s ours?

It is hard to imagine that President Obama, in homestretch of his two-term tenure is going to change course in Middle East. From his Cairo Speech to the Iran Nukes deal, he has bet the house that moderate Islamists would emerge from direct engagement. It never happened in Egypt. As for Iran? In 2009, the freedom-starved Iranian people went to the streets of Tehran chanting President Obama’s name. He never answered their plea for help in overturning tyranny,  instead, as with Assad’s Syria, he cut a deal that could keep the Mullahs in power indefinitely.

So it appears that the Europeans will have to solve this latest crisis on their own. But at the least, the American people should demand a robust debate in the media and among presidential candidates of both parties about how the U.S. can again “lead from the front” and prevent the post-WWII global order, including the EU and NATO, from unraveling.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a hisotrian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Golan fighting spells more Syria trouble for Israel


Brush fires from stray mortar bombs were still ablaze on the occupied Golan Heights on Friday as Israeli farmers returned to their fields, a day after battles in Syria's civil war reached a U.N.-manned border crossing.

Once the smoke clears, Israel could find itself facing more trouble from multiple threats on its northern front.

On Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces beat back rebels who seized the Quneitra crossing on the Golan, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. The battles sent U.N. peacekeepers to their bunkers and prompted Austria to announce it was pulling its men out of the mission.

Israel is now concerned the entire United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is on the brink of unravelling – a scenario that could bring further escalation along what has been for decades a quiet frontier with Syria.

The peacekeepers, in place under a 1974 disengagement agreement after Israel and Syria fought a second war on the Golan, had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

But their quiet presence has been highly symbolic – an affirmation of a status quo under which the two countries, which last held peace talks 13 years ago, avoided direct conflict that could lead to all-out war.

“If there are no Austrians there is no UNDOF. They were the core force,” an Israeli diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “It will be very hard to find a replacement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, said on Friday that he was willing to send troops to fill in for the Austrians.

On high alert over escalating fighting between Assad's forces and his enemies in the Syrian-controlled parts of the Golan, Israel has started in recent months to adjust its deployment along the front. Shelling and machinegun fire have occasionally spilled over into Israeli-held territory.

The Israeli military has revived once-abandoned outposts on the Golan and sent up regular forces to take the place of reservists. Israeli leaders have spoken particularly of a future threat posed to peace on the Golan by jihadi fighters now battling against Assad's forces.

Israel has launched air strikes on Syria to prevent weapons transfers to arch-enemy Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militant group fighting on Assad's behalf.

However, it has shown few other signs of preparing to intervene in the civil war and has avoided taking sides.

Unlike his Western allies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stopped short of calling for an end to Assad's rule.

Bad news for Assad is generally seen as good news for Israel, which views him as the centre of a network of enemies linking Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah and Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip.

“From a selfish Israeli point of view, what is happening in Syria is a huge positive development for Israel. This axis of radicalism is now broken,” said Amos Yadlin, head of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

But Israel also knows that its enemy's enemy is not necessarily a friend.

“A complete victory by either side would not be an optimal situation,” said Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies. “The current situation is in a way optimal for Israel … and it will most likely go on for months if not years.”

On the Golan on Friday, Israeli firefighters put out brush fires from Thursday's fighting. As gunfire from Syria echoed at times in the distance, Israeli and Druze farmers tended to their cherry orchards. Israeli settlers peered through binoculars and watched shells on the Syrian side send up clouds of smoke.

Along one road, two Israeli soldiers, one of them armed with an anti-tank missile, crouched on the ground, gazing in the direction of Syria.

 

HEZBOLLAH THREAT

Israel has struck inside Syria at least three times in the past few months, each attack against what it believed to be weapons for Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to open a new front against Israel on the Golan.

One senior Israeli official briefed on intelligence said Nasrallah's words seemed to be backed by action.

“Hezbollah appears to be making inroads on the Syrian-held Golan too. This would seem consistent with what Nasrallah pledged. There aren't Hezbollah 'boots on the ground' there yet but the infrastructure is being built,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added that Hezbollah had much to gain from fighting on behalf of its longstanding patron Assad. Hezbollah, he said, was acting under assurances it would be rewarded by Assad in the form of arms transfers.

Hezbollah may be bolstered by its joint victory alongside Assad's forces against rebels in the battle over recent weeks for the Syrian town of Qusair, watched closely in Israel.

“It is our understanding that Qusair was basically a Hezbollah operation, from the planning to the handling of key weapon systems,” the official said. “Hezbollah crews were even operating Syrian T-55 and T-54 tanks there, as well as all significant artillery systems.”

But Hezbollah's involvement in Syria could also have a silver lining as far as Israel is concerned. Another Israeli official said Israeli intelligence assessed that up to 500 of the group's fighters have been killed in Syria.

That estimate was higher than others and Hezbollah itself has not said how many of its men have died in Syria.

Rabi said Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, was losing more than just men in its battles for Assad.

“Hezbollah is losing its legitimisation and prestige. After the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah was hailed in the Muslim and Arab world for carrying the torch in the fight against Israel. But with its entrance into Syria, it has made itself a target for Sunnis in Lebanon and in the entire world,” Rabi said. 

Additional reporting by Ammar Awad in the Golan Heights, Dan williams and Crispian Balmer; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff

Report: Netanyahu agreed to give entire Golan to Syria


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in principle in 2010 to give back the Golan Heights to Syria, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported.

The daily quotes unnamed American sources as saying that in 2010 “Netanyahu agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan, to the shores of Lake Kinneret, in exchange for a peace agreement with Syria.” The initiative reportedly collapsed amid the outbreak of Syria's civil war.

In response to the report, the Prime Minister’s Office said the talk of withdrawal was “an American initiative, one of many discussed with Israel, which was not adopted at any stage,” the newspaper said.

According to the account in Yediot, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, was supportive of the initiative. The Israelis “expected” a deal would mean the severing of ties between Iran and Syria, though this was not stated as an explicit demand, the report said.

The Americans quoted in the report said the talks about the proposed deal were at an advanced stage and that the American side was “surprised by the willingness shown by Netanyahu, who offered the Syrians more than his predecessors.”

Assad moves forces from Golan to suppress violence


Syria’s defense minster and several other government officials were killed or hurt by a suicide bomber in Damascus, a day after Israel’s army intelligence chief said that President Bashar Assad had moved his troops from the Golan Heights to the capital.

Also killed in Wednesday’s blast was Assad’s brother-in-law, who was Syria’s deputy defense minister. The bomber, who struck during a meeting of government and security heads, reportedly was a bodyguard.

The blast comes after four days of clashes in Damascus between government troops and anti-government activists.

“Israel is closely monitoring all of the developments in Syria,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement released from his office. In the hours following the blast, Barak held consulations with “the relevant security and intelligence officials” regarding the situation in Syria, according to the statement.

On Tuesday, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi told a Knesset committee that Assad had removed many of his forces from the Golan Heights to the areas of conflict inside Syria, according to news services briefed by a Knesset spokesman.

“He’s not afraid of Israel at this point, but mainly wants to augment his forces around Damascus,” Kochavi reportedly said.

Anger greets Olmert’s concessions on Golan, West Bank, Iran


JERUSALEM (JTA)—A Rosh Hashanah-eve interview in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should give up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and nearly all of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians has sparked a political storm in Israel.

Prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is set to succeed Olmert as soon as she forms a coalition government, quickly distanced herself from most of Olmert’s key pronouncements, which included an assertion that it would be megalomaniacal for Israel to attack Iran unilaterally.

Politicians on the right lambasted Olmert for his dovish message, and left-wingers slammed him for not going public with his vision before he was a lame duck.

Some Israeli analysts saw evidence in Olmert’s transformation from one-time super-hawk to unmitigated dove of a final collapse of the ideology of Greater Israel, which advocates holding on to as much conquered territory as possible.

Olmert, who is stepping down amid a corruption investigation, in the interview published last week by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot made the following points:

* It is presumptuous to think Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear drive when powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany seem unable to do so.

* Israel has a very short window of time in which it can take “historic steps” in its relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

* For peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and grant compensation on a one-to-one basis for whatever land it keeps. “Without this, there won’t be peace,” he insisted.

* For peace with Syria, Israel will have to return the Golan Heights.

* Israel is very close to agreement both with the Palestinians and Syria, and if Olmert had stayed on he would have had a good chance of closing the deals.

* The main security problem Israel faces today is missiles, and having the border a few hundred yards one way or the other won’t make any difference.

* Years of conservative thinking by the Israeli establishment have undermined peace prospects.

“When I listen to you, I know why we didn’t make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians for 40 years and why we won’t make peace with them for another 40 years,” he recalled saying at a recent forum with the country’s top policymakers.

If the interview was meant to constitute Olmert’s political legacy, his presumptive successor was quick to reject it.

Livni, the foreign minister, said Olmert was wrong to go public with Israel’s final negotiating positions while she is in the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We agreed negotiations should take place in the negotiating room, not on the pages of a newspaper,” she said at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem after Rosh Hashanah.

Olmert also was roundly criticized on the right for saying too much and on the left for doing too little.

Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party took issue with Olmert’s contention that in an age of missiles, Israel could afford to give up hundreds of yards on its borders.

“Ignoring the difference between rockets fired from long distances and an enemy perched on hills above Jerusalem shows just how little he understands basic security issues,” Steinitz said.

Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party castigated Olmert for “revealing his true position on the national interest only when he has nothing to lose.”

Those sentiments were echoed overseas, where Olmert’s conciliatory positions were welcomed but with wonderment at why he hadn’t said as much earlier.

An editorial in The New York Times summed up the sentiment in an editorial Saturday titled “Mr. Olmert’s Belated Truths.”

“It is tragic that he did not do more to act on those beliefs when he had real power,” the editorial said.

Olmert is the fourth Israeli prime minister to start his political life as a hawk in the vein of the Likud or its predecessor, Herut, and then to surprise observers later with the extent of his willingness to make far-reaching concessions.

Herut founder Menachem Begin returned the Sinai to Egypt; Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron, concluded the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians and negotiated with Syria over withdrawing from the Golan; and Ariel Sharon pulled back unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.

Olmert, it seems, has now set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Olmert confidants argue that the frank expression of his views has positive elements for future peacemaking and diplomacy. They say it has created a strong incentive for the various Arab parties to negotiate peace and shown the international community how far Israel would be willing to go—a possible public relations advantage if peace efforts fail.

Moreover, they say, Olmert has put peacemaking and its time constraints squarely on the public agenda.

Critics, however, reject these claims. They point out that Olmert’s stated readiness for full withdrawal on all fronts encourages Arab parties to cling to maximalist positions, not compromise. It also puts the next Israeli prime minister on the spot: If peace moves break down, they say, the next prime minister will be blamed for not going as far as Olmert would have.

Livni bristled at the implication that peace would be achievable under Olmert if he could have stayed on, and if she failed to achieve peace during her tenure as prime minister, she would be to blame.

Most importantly, Livni, Olmert’s likely successor, also came out against the substance of Olmert’s key positions.

In a meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Livni said she opposed the framework of Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians. She said she was against making far-reaching proposals for a quick fix and that negotiations should be allowed all the time they needed to ripen into a well-constructed and lasting deal.

Livni was critical as well of Olmert’s position on Iran. In the Yediot interview, Olmert dismissed as “megalomania” the notion that Israel would or should unilaterally attack Iran. Olmert said the international community, not just Israel, should take the steps necessary to arrest Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Livni said Olmert’s remarks sent the wrong message to Tehran and that Israel should be sending the message to the Iranians that all options are on the table.

Despite her sharp criticism, Foreign Ministry officials said Livni does not think Olmert’s comments will have a serious impact on the peace process.

“Olmert is not relevant anymore,” a senior ministry official told JTA. “What he says doesn’t matter.”

U.S., Iran are obstacles in new Israel-Syria talks


In their sixth major peacemaking effort since the unsuccessful 1991 Madrid peace conference, Israeli and Syrian negotiators face even tougher challenges than their failed predecessors.

All the old questions — borders, security arrangements, the nature of the peace, water, the timetable for implementation — are back on the table.

And two major obstacles have been added: the United States and Iran.

The United States, which would have to underwrite any agreement for Israel-Syria peace to be viable, for the first time is absent from the negotiating mix. Also, Syria’s ties with Iran, which would have to be downgraded significantly for Israel to sign an agreement, are much deeper than when the last Israel-Syria peace effort collapsed in March 2000.

Meanwhile, Israeli domestic opposition to a deal that entails withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights remains as strong as ever.

So why should the parties succeed this time when past negotiations with ostensibly better opening conditions failed?

Obviously, given the obstacles, success is not guaranteed. But if there is a chance, it is because both sides now know exactly what the other’s needs are and can rely on the work done in previous rounds on the core issues.

Furthermore, because the geopolitical stakes are now much higher, each side has more to gain from a peace deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insists he gave the Syrians nothing to get them to agree to reopen the dialogue. That was one of Israel’s great achievements in the current process, he told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee Monday.

But both the Turkish mediators and the Syrians suggest the prime minister reaffirmed the so-called Rabin “pocket,” or “deposit.” That was a promise that if Israel’s needs on security and the nature of peaceful ties are met, the Jewish state will withdraw to the pre-Six-Day War borders of June 4, 1967 — in other words, hand back the entire Golan Heights.

The border issue in fact was the main focus of the recent indirect Turkish-mediated talks between Israeli and Syrian representatives in Ankara. The Syrians described those exchanges as very encouraging and said they laid the basis for substantial progress.

But even if Olmert has reaffirmed the Rabin “pocket,” that does not mean the border issue has been settled — far from it.

One problem is it’s not clear where the 1967 border was, because no such line was ever demarcated. After the 1949 armistice that ended the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, which itself was based on an earlier 1923 border between Syria and Palestine, the Syrians persistently encroached on no-man’s land, moving the border by their physical presence closer to Lake Kinneret.

In the last round of negotiations, in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and Geneva in January 2000 and March of that year, the Israelis suggested drawing a line to reflect where the Syrian armed forces were situated on June 4, 1967. The Syrians claimed that at some points they were just 33 feet from the water; Israel insisted on a line at least 1,300 feet from the lake.

The Israelis wanted to make clear that they had full sovereignty over the Kinneret, Israel’s main source of water. Ultimately the talks collapsed over these differences, as Syria’s then-president, Hafez Assad, insisted in Geneva that the Kinneret was at least half-Syrian.

The late Assad raised this claim out of the blue to scuttle a process in which he was no longer interested. It is unlikely that his son Bashar, the current Syrian leader, will repeat that tactic.

More likely, the parties will set up a joint border demarcation team, as they had planned to do at Shepherdstown. Indeed, the parties in West Virginia seemed very close to a deal on all the core issues.

On security, the outstanding difference was over an Israeli presence in a monitoring station on Mount Hermon. On normalization, the Israelis wanted ambassadors exchanged in the middle of the process, whereas the Syrians wanted it only at the end. On timetables, the Israelis wanted three years for implementation; the Syrians no more than 18 months.

It all seemed doable until Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister at the time, got cold feet. After a poll showing strong public opposition to returning the Golan, Barak slowed things down to give the impression that he was not giving away major assets easily. The Syrians felt he was backtracking and the talks collapsed.

Although Olmert and Bashar Assad seem ready to pick up the pieces, they find themselves facing very different regional realities.

Whereas Barak merely wanted Syrian help in establishing parallel peace talks with Lebanon, Olmert is insisting that Syria sever its ties with Iran. The Syrians reject this condition, even if the United States steps in to make good on any material and diplomatic losses Damascus might incur.

“Our ties with Iran are strategic and historic and can’t be sold in a bazaar,” Syria Information Minister Mohsen Bilal declared Sunday.

Israeli experts are divided over whether Syria is ready for a major reorientation — dropping ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — and in the context of a peace deal with Israel, coming over to the moderate pro-Western camp.

“Syria is ready to pay a huge price for its radical ideology and will never detach itself from Iran — certainly not now that the radicals seem to be getting stronger,” said Dan Shueftan, the head of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center.

Shueftan says the Syrians simply are using Israel to ease international pressure on Damascus.

But Syria expert Moshe Maoz of Hebrew University argues that Assad sees two clear policy options, American and Iranian. He says Assad can be won over if the Americans offer a package that’s attractive enough.

The Americans, however, are not enthusiastic.

President Bush does not trust Assad nor, according to Israeli officials, does he believe there is much chance of the Syrian leader breaking with Iran.

Israeli talks with Syrians make sense


Dore Gold, a former official in several Likud governments, is appalled at reports that the Israeli government has entered into serious negotiations with Syria.

“In a period in which Iran is on the march and extending its influence from Lebanon to Iraq, for Israel to consider giving up the Golan Heights would be a strategic blunder of the highest order,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Gold has it backward. I say “not surprisingly,” because Gold was one of the more vocal proponents of the idea that a U.S. invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein would make Israel safer. Instead, the invasion gravely damaged Israel’s security by essentially handing Iraq to Iran on a silver platter.

There is then real irony in Gold expressing concern about Iranian influence in Iraq, when it comes from the camp that is responsible for it. But that does not mean that Gold is wrong about the dangerous situation that is evolving to Israel’s north. It is just that his conclusion is wrong.

Israel needs to pursue an agreement precisely because the situation is so bad and will, if left alone, get worse. And not just a little worse.

This month’s agreement between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah clearly puts the Shiite organization on top. Hezbollah rules. The only reason it has not taken formal control of Lebanon is that it chooses not to.

But Hezbollah doesn’t have to formally take control to pose a terrible threat to Israel. It can, and will, move against Israel when it decides to, and no one in Lebanon has the power to stop it.

That could mean resumption of the 2006 war but this time with thousands of long-range missiles that can reach all the way to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Unlike the Iranian nuclear threat — which remains theoretical at this point — conventional missile attacks on Israeli cities could happen tomorrow. Deterring them is Israel’s highest strategic priority, especially as summer approaches, which is often war season in the Middle East.

And that is why talking to the Syrians makes sense. The Lebanese government cannot stop Hezbollah from launching those missiles. Only their patrons in Damascus and Tehran can do that.

There are those — and they have been quite vocal lately — who say that engaging in negotiations is a gift to the other side and that negotiating is a form of surrender. What hogwash!

In 1971, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt told the Israelis that if Israel would pull back two miles from the Suez Canal, Egypt would open negotiations on a full peace treaty. President Richard Nixon told Prime Minister Golda Meir to explore the offer and that if she didn’t, Egypt would probably go to war. Meir said “no,” Israel was strong and didn’t fear Egypt. So Sadat prepared for war.

Two years later, Egypt attacked. Israel lost 3,000 soldiers and almost the state itself. Only then did it agree to negotiations that ultimately led to the Camp David agreement, which has saved countless Israeli and Egyptian lives over three decades. It also led Israel to a situation where it relinquished not a few miles of Sinai but every last inch.

In other words, it is not diplomacy that rewards aggressors and would-be aggressors. It is the absence of diplomacy or inept diplomacy.

Not everybody understands that. Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the Washington Post that one must never negotiate with rogue states or organizations without preconditions.

You know, like the preconditions Congress likes to apply to negotiations with the Palestinians. These have included banning anti-Israel remarks in mosques, rewriting their already rewritten textbooks, converting to Judaism, but only by a certified Orthodox rabbi. OK, that last one was a joke. Krauthammer favors setting preconditions that will deter negotiations in contrast to achieving goals in the context of negotiations.

In the same column, Krauthammer says that it was OK to deal with Stalin, the worst butcher in world history, because he was our “ally.” Some ally! And that is just the point. FDR dealt with the Soviet thug because it was necessary to our security. That should be the only criterion.

Frankly, I have never been comfortable with the idea that the United States negotiated with, and has now opened relations with, the Qadaffi regime in Libya. It is not only one of the most repressive governments on earth; it also shot down a Pan Am plane 20 years ago killing 200 American kids on their way home from semester abroad programs in Europe.

But the Bush administration negotiated a deal with Libya anyway. Similarly, despite the rhetoric, Israel is indirectly negotiating with Hamas and has been for months.

The United States negotiated with Libya not as a gift to a murderous junta but because the Bush administration believed that getting Libya to end its nuclear weapons program was a vital American interest. The same with Israel and Hamas. Israel is negotiating with Hamas because there are things Hamas can provide that Israel wants — like an end to the shelling of Sderot and freedom for Gilad Shalit.

Ehud Olmert understands that. He is negotiating with the Syrians to achieve a verifiable agreement that will compel Syria to get out of Lebanon, end its support for Hezbollah and its role as Iranian proxy on Israel’s border. The strategic value of the Golan would be replaced by early-warning systems, demilitarized zones and international monitors.

Will he succeed in reaching an agreement? I am not optimistic. The Syrians seem to want the Golan but not at the price of full recognition of Israel. There is little indication that they have any intention of repeating the kind of gesture Sadat made when he came to Jerusalem, although President Bashar Assad has said that he accepts the concept of full normalization, as expressed in the Arab initiative of 2002.

But a dramatic gesture of some kind is essential to convince Israelis that Syria is serious. The Israeli public is not eager to leave the Golan. Israelis might be ready to relinquish the Heights in exchange for full peace and normalization, but it certainly won’t in exchange for a peace treaty that is little more than a formal end of belligerency.

Golan Under Development


What is the safest place in Israel?

The answer, according to Ronnie Lotan, is the Golan, which hasn’t had a single terrorist incident since the Heights, captured in 1967, were formally annexed to Israel 20 years ago.

Lotan, an avuncular looking man of 55, was in town to help organize Monday’s tribute dinner to Jerry Weintraub, the first major fundraiser for the year-old Golan Fund. Lotan, the fund’s president, says that his relatively modest goal for the next three years is to raise $3 million, with three projects topping the list.

Natura Village, a residential and social home for some100 adults with mental and behavioral problems, due to open in July.

Ohalo College in Qatzrin, capital of the Golan Heights,and the only college in Israel’s far North. Scholarships will help trainteachers in physical education and fitness.

Fellowships and scholarships for the Golan ResearchInstitute, which promotes knowledge and economic development of the region.

Cost of these and all other development projects are split — with the Israeli government paying two-thirds, and the Golan Fund providing the remainder.

A native of Tel Aviv, Lotan moved to the Golan in 1968 and now lives in Kibbutz Mevo Hama, one of 32 communities on the Golan. The region now has a population of 18,000, of whom some 7,000 live in Qatzrin. About 45 percent of Qatzrin’s residents are Russian emigrants. The Golan, which has no Arab residents, is an integral part of Israel, in contrast to the Jewish towns and settlements in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Fortunately, the region has been able to avoid the sharp ideological and religious confrontations plaguing much of the rest of Israel.

About one-third of the residents are observant Jews (though there are no enclaves of fervently Orthodox) and two-thirds are secular. There is one unified school system and kibbutzim and moshavim operate under a joint governing council. Lotan cites as the Golan’s biggest concern a slow drain of young people to the cities, where job opportunities are more varied and plentiful. One of his main goals is to create more good jobs in the region to staunch the drain and attract newcomers.

The father of seven children, Lotan declares proudly that five have remained on the Golan — the other two couldn’t find the right jobs.

For more information on the Golan Fund, check its Website at www.golanfund.org

Community Groups Weigh in on Golan


Bennett Zimmerman, a buttoned-down investment fund manager by day, stood up at the end of an evening’s conversation and removed his shirt to reveal a T-shirt with bold Hebrew letters spelling out Ha’am im HaGolan — The People are with the Golan.

Although negotiations between Israel and Syria on the future of the Golan are on hold, concerned Jews, like Zimmerman, think it’s not too early to weigh in on what promises to be an agonizing debate within American Jewry, no less than among Israelis.

At this point, major local Jewish organizations have not yet spoken out, waiting for resumption of the Israeli-Syrian talks, under American auspices, and the terms of a final settlement between the two governments.

But Zimmerman feels he has to act now to try and forestall what he perceives as a suicidal surrender of vital Israeli territory and interests.

On the other side, delegations of Reform rabbis and lay leaders met recently with Israeli diplomatic officials here and across the country. They expressed full support for the course being charted by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his government, which looks toward Israeli withdrawal from the Golan as the price for a lasting peace with Syria, the Jewish state’s most intractable neighbor.

Zimmerman is the ad-hoc chairman of the newly formed Friends of the Golan and he and four other members sat down with a reporter recently to lay out their case.

“I agree with what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stated that whoever gives up the Golan gives up the security of Israel,” said Zimmerman. “Syria has shown that it really doesn’t want peace, but it looks like Barak’s policy is on autopilot and he is buckling under pressure from President Clinton.”

Barak’s Battles


Ehud Barak is going to have a hard time persuading the Israeli voters to endorse any deal with Syria that entails a withdrawal from most or all of the Golan Heights. The public is drifting away from the prime minister. So far.

On Monday night, more than 100,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square for a rally sponsored by the Golan settlers under such slogans as “The people are with the Golan,” “The Golan is my home,” and — echoing American anti-draft chants during the Vietnam war — “Bill, no! We won’t go!” The platform party included two ministers in Barak’s coalition, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky of the Russian immigrant Yisrael B’aliya, though the canny promoters kept all political leaders away from the microphone.

No one knows how many protesters there were. But there is no doubt that it was one of the biggest demonstrations ever massed by the Israeli right. And they were not all the usual, knitted-kippah suspects.

Michal Kafra hailed it in the tabloid Ma’ariv as “a wonderfully democratic” demonstration. “It broke several rigid codes of Israeli demonstration culture,” she wrote. “Religious and secular in the same square, clapping hands for Yitzhak Rabin, who had opposed withdrawal in the past, and ‘Hatikva’ played in waltz tempo, with subtitles appearing in Russian, and without even one sign with the word ‘Traitor.'”

Among the forest of Hebrew and English placards were dozens in Russian proclaiming: “We will say no to Assad.” Officials of the two new immigrant parties claimed that their people filled 560 of the 900 buses hired to bring supporters to Tel-Aviv. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, said the Russian voters, who brought Barak to power, would determine the result of the promised referendum.

It is no idle threat. The 600,000 Russian immigrant voters are the most volatile of Israel’s ethnic, religious and ideological constituencies. They swung back and forth in the last three elections, putting Rabin in power in 1992, Binyamin Netanyahu is 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999.

According to Tel-Aviv University’s Peace Index, which has polled the nation month by month since the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians, more than 70 percent of the Russians oppose a Golan pullout, even for peace. Among those who voted for immigrant parties, the tally is closer to 78 percent.

“Russians,” the former Prisoner of Zion, Edouard Kuznetzov, explained in the Jerusalem Report magazine, “come from a heritage of a large empire and find the idea of giving land to anyone, let alone a sworn enemy, incomprehensible. Also, that Syria was a staunch ally of the Soviet state doesn’t help.”

Tamar Hermann, who directs the Tel-Aviv Peace Index, added that the Russians in general tended to be more hawkish towards the Arabs. They were more hostile to the very ideal of cultural integration into the “backward” Middle East. And they found Israel, even with the Golan, uncomfortably small.

“The resumption of the negotiations with Syria,” Nahum Barnea commented in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot the morning after the demonstration, “did not generate the same sweeping happiness that Sadat’s initiative did in 1977, nor the sense of historic justice that the Oslo accords engendered in many Israelis.”

A survey by veteran pollster Mina Tzemach in Yediot last Friday found 53 percent of Israelis against full withdrawal for a full peace, even if it also included withdrawal from South Lebanon. Only 41 percent were in favor, down from 45 percent in mid-December. Even for a partial withdrawal, support was down to 49 percent in favor, a drop of 10 percent in less than a month.

Apart from the Russians, Peace Index found Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox voters overwhelmingly opposed to any compromise with Syria. Among voters of the Sephardi Shas party, which Barak is wooing with the taxpayers’ money, 50 percent are against a Golan withdrawal. Only 20 percent are in favor, with another 20 percent saying they don’t know.

Hermann suggested that even if the Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, endorsed a deal with Syria, he would not deliver a majority among the party rank and file. About 50 percent of Shas voters, she said, were “traditional” rather than ultra-Orthodox. “Their hawkish, gut feelings won’t be transformed, even if the rabbi backs Barak.”

Although Netanyahu, when he was prime minister, is reported to have offered Hafez Assad a substantial Golan pullback, 70 percent of those who voted for him last year told the Peace Index they now opposed such a deal. Even among Barak’s One Israel voters, 35 percent were against full withdrawal.

The prime minister is in a double bind. He can’t go out and campaign for a “yes” vote until he knows the terms he will be offering. Will it be a full withdrawal? To which line? What will the security arrangements be? Will Israel still be free to draw on Golan water resources? Nor can he afford to reveal his bargaining hand to the Syrians while they’re still negotiating.

But the referendum battle is far from over. Barak is already dangling the prospect of bringing the boys home from Lebanon. The army is planning to cut the draft for young men by six months (from 3 years to 2 1/2 years).

Hermann doubted whether the public would take the bait. “They are not easily bought with sweets,” she argued. “They may become suspicious of his intentions, if he overdoes it.” Barak, she said, couldn’t control what happened in Lebanon.

The Tel-Aviv University political scientist expected him to concentrate instead on the security arrangements. “Israelis,” she added, “are not interested in eating hummus in Damascus. Security is the only thing people care about these days.”

A credible security deal, Hermann concluded, would have a major impact. “If Barak convinces the public that he made a good deal on security,” she predicted, “he will win a big majority.”


The Settlers of Golan


Emotions ranging from hope to uncertainty to anger fill the 16,000 Golan Heights residents as their fate is again the topic of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Negotiations resumed Wednesday in Washington, and residents here know that the price for peace with Syria is likely to be the return of all or most of the Golan, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

“We are praying for peace — a peace with the Golan,” says Sammy Bar-Lev, head of the regional council of Katzrin, the Golan’s largest town, with 6,500 residents.

Bar-Lev, a 30-year resident of the Golan, talks of years of uncertainty as successive governments debated the territory’s fate. He is sure that the Israeli public will reject any agreement with Hafez Assad, Syria’s president, that involves the return of the Golan.

In part, the moderation reflects the differences between Golan settlers and their counterparts in the West Bank, which include those who are vehemently opposed to any Israeli withdrawal from those areas.

For West Bank settlers, life has been a constant struggle against the indigenous Palestinian population who accuse Israel of stealing their land, yet the Golan’s land was virtually uninhabited when Israel entered, aside from a few Druze villages.

In addition, while most West Bank settlers are driven by a religious-nationalist ideology, many Golan settlers are left-leaning. They moved to the Golan either to bolster Israel’s security or to improve their quality of life in 32 small towns peppered throughout the eerie but breathtaking landscape of brown, scorched earth and volcanic rock formations.

“This is like a small city, but we still have the mountain air,” says Leah Ravid, 37. In this year’s elections, Ravid voted for Barak, as did more than 57 percent of Golan electorate. She also voted for the Third Way Party, which campaigned on a single issue — keeping the Golan — and failed to win enough votes to return to the Knesset.

In 1978, Ravid became one of the founding members of Katzrin, and her first marriage was also the first Jewish marriage in the Golan Heights. She later lived in the United States between 1982 and 1994, returning to Katzrin with her second husband, Avishai, to open a small gift shop at the local shopping center.

“I am worried because I do not want to live in Tel Aviv and I do not want to move back to New York,” Leah Ravid says. If the government decides to evacuate the Golan, Ravid may petition or protest, but in the end, will leave peacefully.

Her husband, Avishai, is even more willing to leave for peace with Syria. He also challenges the traditional Israeli security doctrine that deems the Golan — overlooking the kibbutzim along the Sea of Galilee to the west and the Syrian lowlands to the east — to be essential for Israel’s security.

“Israel is no longer a country of heroes and Syria does not need to send soldiers to make war — they can send missiles — so a mile here or there does not matter,” he says. “The secret for security is peace.”

He is also convinced that many Golan residents quietly agree with this position. “Under the table, all everyone is waiting for is compensation,” he says.

Compensation will not help the Golan Heights Winery, the most well-known industry on the Golan. Established in 1983 on the outskirts of Katzrin, the winery now produces 3.6 million bottles a year, and generated revenues of $15 million in 1998, including $3 million in exports. Its labels have won dozens of medals at international wine competitions. The secret to success, says Adam Montefiore, the company’s international marketing manager, is Golan grapes.

“The high altitude and the soil makes this a unique vineyard area,” says Montefiore. “To leave the Golan would be a disaster for the Israeli wine industry.”

Although the winery steers clear of political campaigning, it does have a message for the policymakers.

“It is up to the politicians to be creative enough to come up with a solution that will allow us to continue,” he says. “You do not need a flag to grow grapes.”

Back in Katzrin, workers at the Golan Residents Committee have just finished toasting the New Year over a couple of bottles of local white wine. In recent years, the organization has led a sporadically vociferous campaign against returning the Golan, and they are gearing up for another battle.

“We have to work on Israeli public opinion to show that returning the Golan would be a total disaster,” says Avi Zeira, outgoing chairman of the group, presenting the traditional Israeli position against trading the Golan for peace with Syria.

It would, he says, endanger Israel’s security to relinquish its strategic foothold overlooking the Syrian frontier while at the same time, Syria remains a sponsor of terrorist groups and does not really seek normalization with Israel.

Zeira also cites monthly polls by Peace Watch, conducted at the Tel Aviv University, which consistently show that less than 30 percent of Israelis currently back a withdrawal for peace.

Instead, the cash-strapped group is focusing on lobbying policymakers. It is also reviving a fund-raising drive this month in the Diaspora from offices in New York and Los Angeles. Between 1992 and 1996, the committee raised about $1 million a year in the United States, which made up the lion’s share of its budget.

Yigal Kipnis has no budget to get his message out. From his leafy home in Ma’aleh Gamla, a moshav on the western slopes of the Golan overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Kipnis, a farmer by day, has been coordinating a small peace movement of Golan settlers to counter the Residents Board since late 1995.

“Peace with Syria is a vital interest of the State of Israel,” Kipnis says. “I would be very happy if we could make peace without leaving the Golan, but we will accept with understanding an agreement that includes returning the Heights.”

His group does not actively demonstrate, but Kipnis —who first came to the Golan in 1978 — says that in small meetings he finds more and more residents signing on to his message.

Israel, he says, conquered the Golan for two reasons: to provide a security buffer to the northern settlements from Syrian aggression and to ensure Israel’s water interests. The Golan’s streams are the source of about 30 percent of Israel’s water.

If Israel can achieve these same two goals with a peace treaty, argues Kipnis, then why should the settlements remain?

“This is a Garden of Eden that we have never had, but a treaty with Syria will not be decided by our personal interests,” he says. “The only reason the settlements are here is because Israel believed that peace with Syria was an impossibility. All of Israel’s leaders realize this is no longer true.”

Meanwhile, like other Golan residents, Kipnis is continuing with his daily routine despite the uncertainty. As if hoping against all odds for a future unlikely to arrive, Kipnis has just planted 52 acres of mango trees that will yield fruit in only four years.

The Golan Debate Reaches New Heights


Rosh Hashanah may be a time of year when Jews around the world pray for peace, but for the 16,000 Jewish residents of the Golan Heights, those prayers were somewhat more difficult to recite this year.

They know that the price for peace with Syria is likely to be the return of all or most of the Golan, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Although Prime Minister Ehud Barak has so far placed priority on peacemaking with the Palestinians, few people here are ignoring his pledges to swiftly strike a deal with Syria as well.

“We are praying for peace — a peace with the Golan,” says Sammy Bar-Lev, head of the regional council of Katzrin, the Golan’s largest town, with 6,500 residents. “It must be a peace we can live with, not a Yamit-style peace.” He was recalling the 1982 return of that Sinai settlement to Egypt, in which some Israeli settlers were forcefully evicted and the town was razed to the ground.

Later that year, Israel passed a bill that applied Israeli law and jurisdiction to the Golan. The international community never recognized the move, and the de facto annexation has provided the Golan’s Jewish residents with little reassurance about their future.

Bar-Lev, a 30-year resident of the Golan, talks of years of uncertainty as successive governments debated the territory’s fate. He is sure that the Israeli public will reject any agreement with Hafez Assad, Syria’s president, that involves the return of the Golan.

Nevertheless, Bar-Lev wants Barak to make his strategy clear. “Life is continuing here as usual,” he says. “Of course, people are a bit more worried, and even angry at the government for not making clear what are the red lines. But at least nothing is happening yet.”

For Katzrin residents, the temporary delay in reviving the peace talks is little consolation. Many are confused by the government’s policies and despondent about the prospect of losing their homes.

However, none of those interviewed talked of any plans to violently oppose an Israeli withdrawal.

In part, the moderation reflects the differences between Golan settlers and their counterparts in the West Bank, which include those who are vehemently opposed to any Israeli withdrawal from those areas.

For West Bank settlers, life has been a constant struggle against the indigenous Palestinian population, who accuse Israel of stealing their land. Yet the Golan’s land was virtually uninhabited when Israel entered, aside from a few Druze villages.

In addition, while most West Bank settlers are driven by a religious-nationalist ideology, many Golan settlers are left-leaning. They moved to the Golan either to bolster Israel’s security or to improve their quality of life in 32 small towns peppered throughout the eerie but breathtaking landscape of brown, scorched earth and volcanic rock formations.

“This is like a small city, but we still have the mountain air,” says Leah Ravid, 37. In this year’s elections, Ravid voted for Barak, as did more than 57 percent of Golan electorate. She also voted for the Third Way Party, which campaigned on a single issue — keeping the Golan — and failed to win enough votes to return to the Knesset.

Ravid’s husband, Avishai, is even more willing to leave for peace with Syria. He also challenges the traditional Israeli security doctrine that deems the Golan — overlooking the kibbutzim along the Sea of Galilee to the west and the Syrian lowlands to the east — to be essential for Israel’s security.

“Israel is no longer a country of heroes, and Syria does not need to send soldiers to make war — they can send missiles — so a mile here or there does not matter,” he says. “The secret for security is peace.”

He is also convinced that many Golan residents quietly agree with this position. “Under the table, all everyone is waiting for is compensation,” he says.