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.

Despite Syria rift, Hezbollah pledges full support to Hamas


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged full support on Friday to the Palestinian group Hamas in its conflict with Israel despite a deep rift between the two militant organizations over the civil war in Syria.

“We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide,” Nasrallah said.

“We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is all our victory, and their defeat is all our defeat,” he said.

Nasrallah delivered his speech in public in Hezbollah's stronghold of south Beirut, a rare event for the militant Shi'ite Lebanese leader who has lived in hiding, fearing for his security, after Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel.

That inconclusive 34-day conflict won Hezbollah sweeping support around the Arab world for standing up to Israel's military superiority. But its more recent military action in neighboring Syria has eroded that regional backing.

Shi'ite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces, helping turn the tide against overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.

But the Hamas leadership, once based in Damascus, refused to support Assad as he confronted with force peaceful protests which broke out in 2011 and descended into an insurgency and civil war. Since then 160,000 people have been killed.

“We call for all differences and sensitivities on other issues to be put to one side,” Nasrallah said in reference to the rift over Syria. “Gaza is above all considerations”

His speeches are usually delivered via video-link from an undisclosed location, but in a sign of confidence the Hezbollah leader spoke on Friday for an hour in front of hundreds of supporters at Hezbollah's Martyr's Compound in the south of the Lebanese capital.

“We say to our brothers in Gaza: We are with you, by your side, trusting in your strength and your victory. We will do all that we believe to be our duty, on all fronts,” he said.

Nasrallah did not specify what support would be given, but he pointedly said that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in the past had supplied “all factions of the Palestinian resistance, financially, materially, politically…with weapons, logistical help and training.”

Arab Spring: Where are the women?


Every time I see something in the Middle East that disgusts me, it’s usually associated with men. It’s not that women can’t be violent and evil, or that men can’t be compassionate and kind. It’s simply that the vast majority of evil in that part of the world — or, for that matter, anywhere in the world — is done by men.

It’s the kind of evil that lobs terror missiles on civilian homes, blows up children in pizza parlors or unleashes a sea of death in Syria. It even kidnaps innocent boys and terrorizes their families. 

These conductors of evil are almost always men, weak men, who can express their worth only through brute strength. They haven’t figured out how to gain power and influence through great ideas, real accomplishments or moral leadership, so they fall back on the primitive values of dominance and physical force. 

Take Hamas, for example.

About eight years ago, they took over the Gaza Strip, a potential paradise with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. With imagination and hard work, they could have turned their “Gaza prison” into a “Gaza Riviera” that would have rivaled Tel Aviv as a global tourist destination.

Instead, the male brutes in charge built a culture of destruction, a culture where killing Jews in the name of Allah is more important than building a future in the name of decency.

Go through the Middle East and you see pretty much the same pattern — male brutes wreaking havoc and destruction in the worship of personal power. Meanwhile, 50 percent of the population is suppressed simply because they are female.

It’s silly to pretend that there are no differences between men and women. In the Jewish mystical tradition, the female energy is one of nurturing and receiving. This energy is precisely what the people of Gaza needed — an energy that would have received the gift of a majestic coastline and nurtured it for the benefit of all.

When a society suppresses its female energy, it goes out of balance. The male energy, which values hunting and conquering, runs rampant. Instead of conquering greatness, it conquers enemies —  and any enemy will do. After Israel left Gaza, Hamas conquered its own Palestinian brothers in Fatah by slaughtering them and throwing them off rooftops. 

The story of the Middle East today is one of male energy gone berserk. As reported in a Freedom House survey, the region is characterized by a “pervasive gender-based gap in rights and freedoms in every facet of society.” Because women are so subjugated, they have no influence in the public arena. 

This absence of influence creates male-dominated, top-down societies that smother the dreams and hopes of men and women alike.     

When the female and male energies are in harmony, they become partners in a culture of creativity, building civil societies that are hardly perfect but that nurture the seeds of possibility.

When the female energy is crushed, the untamed male ego will seek unlimited power and build terror camps instead of beach resorts, tanks instead of schools, high-tech missiles instead of high-tech startups. 

To justify their pathology of violence, these dictators and warlords become experts at demonizing the other — any other — although, especially in the Middle East, the Jew or Zionist is all too often the Other of choice.

Israel, for all of its own macho culture, has succeeded in building a bustling, noisy and resilient civil society, thanks in no small part to its respect for the rights of women. In fact, if every woman in the Middle East had the same rights, freedoms and opportunities that women enjoy in Israel, we might see the beginning of a real Arab Spring.

Of course, that will never happen unless the callous thugs now running the Mideast carnival of violence give women their equal rights. But why should they? That would only mean they would risk losing their own power and have to cure their impulse for destruction.

Tragically, the biggest victims of this destruction are often the women themselves.

Take a look at the new documentary “Honor Diaries,” which chronicles the persecution of women throughout Arab and Islamic societies. It shows how the problem is much worse than simply the absence of civil rights — at its darkest, it sinks into noxious violence like death by stoning, honor killings and genital mutilation. (In Egypt, according to The New York Times, 81 percent of girls 15 to 19 have been subjected to genital mutilation.)

As if subjugating women isn’t bad enough, they also have to deal with brutalization. Activists of all stripes — liberals, conservatives, men, women, religious and secular — ought to stand up against the deliberate abuse of women, at any level, in any place, and fight it with the same passion they fight for human rights anywhere. 

In the meantime, let’s stop the delusions about an Arab Spring. As Brian Michael Jenkins of the Rand Corp. reminds us, “The democracy project engendered by the Arab Spring has run into the sand. Where strongmen do not rule, chaos and civil war reign.”

It’s not an Arab Spring that the Middle East desperately needs — it’s an Arab Women Spring.


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

Iran, Syria central in U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue


U.S. and Israeli officials addressed the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon as well as turmoil in Syria in their periodic strategic dialogue.

“Both sides reiterated their determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” said a U.S. State Department statement released Wednesday after the two teams had met.

William Burns, a U.S. deputy secretary of state, and Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, led the teams.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear its concern in recent weeks that renewed talks between Iran and the major powers could lead to an easing of sanctions on Iran before it effectively ends its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“The two delegations reviewed developments in Syria, including efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapon program, as well as threats to regional stability from terrorist groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas,” the statement said.

The sides meet about twice a year.

Iron Dome anti-missile system placed in Jerusalem area


An Iron Dome anti-missile defense system was positioned in the Jerusalem area, reportedly for the first time.

The deployment came on Sunday, according to international news agencies, which also showed photos of the battery in place.

The Israeli military did not comment on its decision to locate the system near Jerusalem.

“The army will not discuss its air-defense assessments,” an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said in a statement. “Our defenses have spread out over different areas according to situational assessments.”

Two rockets landed in nearby Gush Etzion during the Gaza Operation Pillar of Defense last November.

Islamist movement Hamas moving closer to Iran


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

The Islamist Hamas movement has sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority for resuming peace talks with Israel, saying that President Mahmoud Abbas is giving in to American pressure. The criticism comes as Hamas moves toward a rapprochement with Iran, despite differences over Syria.

“The (Israeli-Palestinian) negotiations will not lead to anything — it’s just wasting time,” Hamas deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad told The Media Line. “Israeli is trying to use the talks as an umbrella to continue its aggressive measures against the Palestinian people, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

Hamad said that in the days prior to the resumption of talks, Israel announced plans to build thousands of homes in areas that Israel captured in 1967.

“It is just a silly game,” Hamad said. “There are talks and negotiations but no outcome and no results. What we see on the ground is just the facts of the occupation: more settlements, more barriers, more checkpoints, more arrests, and more confiscation of land.”

Hamas, which controls the densely populated Gaza Strip, and Fatah, in charge of the West Bank, have been trying to hold “reconciliation talks” for several years to find a way to hold long-overdue Palestinian elections. The two factions signed an agreement in March 2011 that has yet to be completed or implemented to any degree at all. The “reconciliation talks” were supposed to resume the same day that the Israeli — Palestinian negotiations got under way, but were cancelled over the differences of opinion between the two rival camps.

“Reconciliation wasn’t on the horizon anyhow,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian spokesman and current professor at Bir Zeit University told The Media Line. “The effect on both sides will depend on the future of the talks. If they will show progress, this will empower Fatah and weaken Hamas. If they fail, it will help Hamas and weaken Fatah.”

Khatib said that he, like many Palestinians, is not optimistic that the negotiations will produce a breakthrough. The Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on many issues, including final borders, Jewish “settlements” and the so-called “right of return” for Palestinians who left what is now Israel in 1948.  

“I’m not optimistic the talks will lead to anything,” Khatib said. “The Americans want them, and the parties cannot afford to say no to the Americans.  But the Americans can’t afford to make them productive,” he said, hinting the US must pressure Israel to make more concessions.

Hamas has been facing a growing financial crisis since Egypt began dismantling Gaza’s “tunnel economy” by sealing scores of underground tunnels through which nearly everything imaginable from weapons to food staples and even vehicles were brought in from the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Israel, had also been using the tunnels to bring large sums of money into Gaza. It also levied taxes on goods coming through the subterranean routes. Sealing the tunnels is part of the Egyptian military’s campaign against Jihadists and terrorists in the Sinai.  

Ideologically, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and has always been close to that movement in Egypt. Under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Hamas saw its influence in Egypt growing. Last month when Morsi was ousted and the Egyptian army appointed a caretaker government, Hamas lost its ally atop the largest Arab nation, now ruled by those with little love for Hamas.

Tension is also rife in Hamas’ relationship with Iran over the Gaza-based group’s support for Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad, a client of the Islamic Republic. While Shi’ite-majorit Iran, and its primary ally, Lebanon-based Hizbullah, have been supporting Assad in the Syrian civil war, Sunni Hamas has supported the Sunni rebels against the Shi’ite Hizbullah, and the Alawite (a break-off from Shi’ism) Assad.

Despite the tension, Hamas and Iran seem to be moving toward rapprochement. Hamas needs the money Iran can offer, as well as its political support.

“We are not jumping from this country to that country according to our mood,” Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said. “We are a Palestinian national movement and we are not in the pocket of any regime. If Iran is willing to support our people, okay. We are not interested in cutting off the relationship with Iran and we think we can overcome this crisis.”

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.

Hamas ditches Assad, backs Syrian revolt


Leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas turned publicly against their long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, endorsing the revolt aimed at overthrowing his dynastic rule.

The policy shift deprives Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation. It was announced in Hamas speeches at Friday prayers in Cairo and a rally in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas went public after nearly a year of equivocating as Assad’s army, largely led by fellow members of the president’s Alawite sect, has crushed mainly Sunni protesters and rebels.

In a Middle East split along sectarian lines between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, the public abandonment of Assad casts immediate questions over Hamas’s future ties with its principal backer Iran, which has stuck by its ally Assad, as well as with Iran’s fellow Shi’ite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

“I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.

“We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs,” chanted worshippers at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world’s highest seats of learning. “No Hezbollah and no Iran.

“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

Contemporary political rivalries have exacerbated tensions that date back centuries between Sunnis – the vast majority of Arabs – and Shi’ites, who form substantial Arab populations, notably in Lebanon and Iraq, and who dominate in non-Arab Iran.

Hamas and Hezbollah, confronting Israel on its southwestern and northern borders, have long had a strategic alliance against the Jewish state, despite opposing positions on the sectarian divide. Both have fought wars with Israel in the past six years.

But as the Sunni-Shi’ite split in the Middle East deepens, Hamas appears to have cast its lot with the powerful, Egypt-based Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose star has been in the ascendant since the Arab Spring revolts last year.

HAMAS MAKES ITS CHOICE

“This is considered a big step in the direction of cutting ties with Syria,” said Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian political commentator. Damascus might now opt to formally expel Hamas’s exile headquarters from Syria, he told Reuters.

Banned by deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has moved to the centre of public life. It is the ideological parent of Hamas, which was founded 25 years ago among the Palestinians, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims.

Shi’ite Hezbollah still supports the Assad family, from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, which has maintained authoritarian rule over Syria’s Sunni majority for four decades but now may have its back to the wall.

Hamas, however, has been deeply embarrassed among Palestinians by its association with Assad, as the death toll in his crackdown on opponents has risen into the thousands.

In Gaza, senior Hamas member Salah al-Bardaweel addressed thousands of supporters at a rally in Khan Younis refugee camp, sending “a message to the peoples who have not been liberated yet, those free peoples who are still bleeding every day.”

“The hearts of the Palestinian people bleed with every drop of bloodshed in Syria,” Bardaweel said. “No political considerations will make us turn a blind eye to what is happening on the soil of Syria.”

ANTI-ISRAEL AXIS WEAKENED

The divorce between Hamas and Damascus had been coming for months. The Palestinian group had angered Assad last year when it refused a request to hold public rallies in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria in support of his government.

Hamas’s exile political leader Khaled Meshaal and his associates quietly quit their headquarters in Damascus and have stayed away from Syria for months now, although Hamas tried to deny their absence had anything to do with the revolt.

Haniyeh visited Iran earlier this month on a mission to shore up ties with the power that has provided Hamas with money and weapons to fight Israel. It is not clear what the outcome of his visit has been, though the tone of the latest Hamas comments is hardly compatible with continued warm relations with Tehran.

Rallies in favor of Syria’s Sunni majority have been rare in the coastal enclave but on Friday it seemed the Islamist rulers of the territory had decided to break the silence.

“Nations do not get defeated. They do not retreat and they do not get broken. We are on your side and on the side of all free peoples,” said Bardaweel.

“God is Greatest,” the crowd chanted. “Victory to the people of Syria.”

Hamas-Hezbollah relations have been good in the past. But Hamas did not attack Israel when it was fighting Hezbollah in 2006 and Hezbollah did not join in when Israel mounted a major offensive against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009.

Anything that divides Hamas and Hezbollah is likely to be welcomed by Israel, which has been watching warily recent moves by Hamas to reconcile differences with its Palestinian rivals in Fatah, the movement of President Mahmoud Abbas.

There was no immediate Israeli comment on Friday’s speeches.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Cairo; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

IDF official: Nuclear Iran may curb Israeli border wars


A nuclear-armed Iran could deter Israel from going to war against Tehran’s guerrilla allies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, a senior Israeli general said on Tuesday.

The Jewish state sees the makings of a mortal threat in Iran’s uranium enrichment and missile programs, and has lobbied world powers to roll them back through sanctions while hinting it could resort to pre-emptive military strikes.

Major-General Amir Eshel, head of strategic planning for the armed forces, echoed Israeli government leaders who argue that Iran, which denies wrongdoing but rejects international censure over its secretive projects, could create a “global nuclear jungle” and fuel arms races in an already volatile Middle East.

Eshel made clear that Israel – widely reputed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal – worries that Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia as well as Palestinian Hamas Islamists who rule Gaza could one day find reassurance in an Iranian bomb.

“They will be more aggressive. They will dare to do things that right now they would not dare to do,” he said in a briefing to foreign journalists and diplomats.

“So this is going to create a dramatic change in Israel’s strategic posture, because if we are forced to do things in Gaza or Lebanon under an Iranian nuclear umbrella , it might be different.”

Eshel, who spoke at the conservative Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs think-tank, quoted an unnamed Indian officer who, he said, had described the Asian power’s friction with nuclear-armed rival and neighbour Pakistan in terms of self-restraint.

“When the other side has a nuclear capability and are willing to use it, you think twice,” Eshel said. “You are more restrained because you don’t want to get into that ball game.”

Israel waged offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in 2006 and 2008-2009, coming under short-range rocket attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are supported by Iran.

Eshel said there are now some 100,000 rockets and missiles that could be fired at Israel by the guerrillas, Iran and its ally Syria.

Despite seeing its resources strained by a 10-month-old popular uprising, Syria’s government has invested $2 billion in air defences over the last two years, and more on counter-measures against any ground invasion, Eshel said, linking both efforts to Syrian wariness of Israel.

He declined to be drawn on whether Israel might try to attack Iran’s distant, dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities alone – or, conversely, whether it could decide to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as an inevitability to be contained through superior firepower and fortifications.

Those decisions, Eshel said, were up to the government and the armed forces would provide it with a “tool box” of options.

“We have the ability to hit very, very hard, any adversary,” said Eshel, a former senior air force officer and fighter pilot. But he cautioned against expecting any decisive “knock-out” blow against Israel’s enemies.

Writing by Dan Williams

Hamas reportedly leaving Damascus


Hamas is reportedly thinning its ranks in Damascus as pan-Arab pressure builds on the Syrian regime.

Diplomats said this week that the Palestinian Islamist group, which has long had its headquarters in the Syrian capital, has been quietly relocating staff to Gaza following the Arab League decision to suspend Syria over its bloody crackdown on anti-regime protestors, according to news reports.

A Hamas spokesperson denied the report, according to the Jerusalem Post.

According to the diplomats, Hamas has been leaving quietly to avoid Syrian state scrutiny as well all that of Iran, an ally of Damascus and a financial backer of Palestinian terrorist groups. Another Islamist militia supported by Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has emphasized that its alliance remains sound.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah lauded Syria as a “resistance regime” during a surprise appearance Tuesday before ecstatic crowds of Shi’ite supporters in Beirut. Nasrallah has kept largely out of view since the 2006 war with Israel.

“Every day we are growing in number, our training is getting better, we are becoming more confident and our weapons are increasing,” he said.

Report: Iran cuts Hamas funds over Syria


Iran reportedly has withdrawn some funding from Hamas over the Gaza terrorist group’s refusal to hold rallies supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Reuters cited diplomatic sources claiming that intelligence briefings show that Iran has cut its funding to Hamas over the last two months. Iran’s actions, the sources said, is due to Hamas leaders’ refusal to throw rallies in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria in support of Assad, an ally of Iran.

Last week, Hamas dispersed 150 protestors demonstrating against the Syrian military’s bombings of the Al-Ramel Palestinian refugee camp during its attack on the Syrian port city of Latakia. The attack sent thousands fleeing the western coast, and the camp was deserted, according to reports.

The sources also claimed that funds to Hamas from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood also have dried up, as the Brotherhood has switched its focus to funding uprisings related to the Arab Spring.

Hamas officials go to Syria to confer on Shalit deal


A Hamas delegation from Gaza reportedly is en route to Syria to discuss a possible deal for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The delegation was to leave Gaza on Friday for Sudan, then continue on to Damascus, the Gaza-based Palestine Today reported. The Hamas leadership in Damascus traditionally has taken a harsher line on Israel-related issues than the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

Israel and Hamas have been in touch via a German mediator regarding talks to release Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

In the Mideast, Israel is the opium of the people


“Why aren’t you as an Arab lady writing about Gaza?”

“Where are your columns about Gaza?”

“Say the Israelis are wrong!”

The messages started to arrive soon after Israel’s bombardment of Gaza killed close to 300 Palestinians. Implicit was the pressure to toe the party line: Hamas is good; Israel is bad. Say it, say it! Or else you’re not Arab enough; you’re not Muslim enough; you’re not enough.

But what to say about a conflict that for more than 60 years now has fed Arab and Israeli senses of victimhood and their respective demands to stop everything else we’re doing and pay attention to their fights, because what’s the slaughter of anyone else — be they in Darfur, Congo or anywhere else — compared to their often avoidable bloodletting?

Hasn’t it all been said before? Has nothing been learned?

And then the suicide cyclist in Iraq made me snap, and I had to write — not to take sides but to lament the moral bankruptcy that is born from the amnesia rife in the Middle East.

On Sunday, a man on a bicycle blew himself up in the middle of an anti-Israel demonstration in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The technique legitimized and blessed by clerics throughout the Arab world as a weapon against Israel had gone haywire and was used against Arabs protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

That twisted and morbid full circle completed on the streets of Mosul can be captured only by paraphrasing Karl Marx — Israel is the opium of the people.

What else explains the collective amnesia on display last weekend in the Middle East?

Has Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni forgotten already that just last year she was close to ousting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his handling of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, which was launched under very similar circumstances to those that preceded the bombardment of Gaza? And yet there she was making the rounds of U.S. Sunday news shows to explain why Israel had to act against the Muslim militant Hamas movement in power in Gaza.

Does Israel want to make heroes of Hamas in the way it did Hezbollah? What has been achieved from the blockade of Gaza except for the suffering of civilians, whose leaders care for them as little as Israel does?

Talking about Hezbollah and unwise leaders, has Hassan Nasrallah forgotten that while he rails against Egypt for aiding the blockade of Gaza, he lives in a country — Lebanon — that keeps generations of Palestinian refugees in camps that serve as virtual jails?

And the demonstrators in Jordan and Lebanon? Who reminds them that in 1970, Jordan killed tens of thousands as it tried to control Palestinian groups based there, forcing the Palestine Liberation Army into Lebanon, where in 1982, the Phalangist Christian Lebanese militiamen slaughtered 3,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps?

Not a single Phalangist has been held accountable for that massacre. An Israeli state inquiry in 1983 found Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, indirectly responsible for the killings at the refugee camps during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But don’t hold your breath for an Arab inquiry. It is Israel that gives sense to our victimhood. The horrors we visit upon each other are irrelevant.

It is difficult to criticize Palestinians when so many have died this weekend, but the Hamas rulers of Gaza are just the latest of their leaders to fail them. For those of us who long to separate religion from politics, Hamas has given the truth to the fear that Islamists care more about facing down Israel than taking care of their people. The Palestinians of Gaza are victims equally of Hamas and Israel.

Where was the anger when two Palestinian schoolgirls were killed in Gaza when Hamas rockets meant for Israel misfired, just a day before Israel’s bombardment?

As for the country of my birth, Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, in power for more than 27 years, has presided over a disastrous policy that on the one hand maintains a 1979 peace treaty his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, signed with Israel and on the other unleashes state-owned media fury at Israel that has fanned a near-hysterical hatred for the country among ordinary Egyptians.

Yes, Israel’s occupation of Arab land angers Egyptians, but there is absolutely no space in Egyptian media, culture or intellectual circles for discussing Israel as anything but an enemy. And neither is there an attempt to forge it.

And now Mubarak, old, tired and out of new ideas, is reaping a policy that plays all sides against each other in an attempt to make his regime indispensable.

But my question to Egyptians and others across the region incensed at Israel is where is their anger at the human rights violations, torture and oppression in their respective countries? If such large crowds turned out onto Arab capitals every week, they could’ve toppled their dictators years ago.

It is the ultimate dishonor to the memory of Palestinians killed last weekend to call for more violence. It has failed to deliver for 60 years.

We honor the dead by smashing through the region’s amnesia until we break through to the taboos and continue to smash.

Talking to Hamas? Israel should do it if it will end the violence. Focusing on internal issues in each Arab country and ignoring the opium that is Israel? Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, et al, should do it before their respective states fail for the sake of Palestine.

Palestinians still have no state. What a shame it would be for one Arab state after the other to fail in the name of Palestine.

Mona Eltahawy is a columnist for Egypt’s Al Masry Al Youm and Qatar’s Al Arab. She is based in New York.

Tzipi Livni wins Kadima contest — now the real work begins


JERUSALEM (JTA) – With her decisive win in the Kadima party primary on Wednesday, Tzipi Livni’s next major task will be assembling a coalition government so she can become prime minister.

Then all she’ll have on her plate is figuring out how to arrest the threat to Israel from Iran, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a historic peace deal, neutralize the threat on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah and run the country.

If she ever gets to it.

The immediate challenge faced by Livni, until now the foreign minister, is piecing together a coalition that will hold without pulling her government in too many different directions. If she fails, Israel will be headed for new general elections.

In Wednesday’s vote at 114 polling stations around the country, about 50 percent of Kadima’s 74,000 members voted for party leader – relatively low turnout by Israeli standards. Even so, Livni complained of “congestion” at polling stations and argued for an extension of voting time by an hour. In a compromise, Kadima decided to extend voting by 30 minutes.

Exit polls showed Livni won about 48 percent of the vote, beating out her primary rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by at least 10 points and avoiding a runoff by surpassing the 40 percent threshold. The two other contenders in the primary, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, garnered an estimated 7 percent each.

Livni’s victory is historic in several respects. She won the first-ever primary held by Kadima, the three-year old political party founded by Ariel Sharon. Her election also brings an end to the Olmert era, though Ehud Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a coalition is assembled.

And once she puts together a coalition, Livni will become Israel’s second female prime minister, following Golda Meir.

Livni will have 42 days to form a government. She has made it clear that she wants to base her new government on the existing coalition – Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners party — with the possible addition of other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, Meretz from the left and the fervently Orthodox Torah Judaism party.

Livni wants to limit the current transition period, which she sees as a potentially unhealthy period of two-headed government. Olmert will continue as acting prime minister until Livni forms a new government.

Kadima leaders argue that there already is a functioning government and there is no reason it shouldn’t continue its work. They maintain that all the Labor party asked Kadima to do was change its leader, and, now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn’t be a problem.

But Livni’s main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. Labor argues that a prime minister effectively elected by only 18,000-20,000 Israelis has no legitimacy and that the Israeli people as a whole should be allowed to have their say in new elections.

Shas is also threatening new elections unless Livni meets its demands for more generous child allowances and a pledge to keep Jerusalem off the negotiating agenda with the Palestinians.

If Livni fails to form a coalition, there could be an election as early as next spring. If she succeeds, she could govern for a year or two before going into a new election with the incumbency advantage.

During the campaign, Livni gave a slew of interviews in which she spelled out her priorities:

  • Moving ahead on the Palestinian track: Over the past few months, she and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia have been drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both sides say that although they have made progress, closing the wide gaps that still exist will take time.

    Once Livni is installed as prime minister, one key issue will become more difficult to resolve: refugees. Livni has repeatedly said that she will not agree to any resettlement in Israel proper of Palestinian refugees, because allowing just one Palestinian refugee in would chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

    Livni might ease conditions on the ground by dismantling illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, which successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to do. She argues that any government she heads will assert the rule of law.

    As for Gaza, Livni warns that she will consider a large-scale ground offensive if Hamas uses the current truce to smuggle in huge quantities of arms.

  • Ascertaining the seriousness of the Syrian track: Ever since Israel and Syria started conducting new peace feelers through Turkish auspices in January 2007, Livni has not been in the loop. She has argued that by going public with the talks, Israel has given Syria a degree of international legitimacy without getting very much in return.

    Livni will want to see for herself whether Syrian President Bashar Asad is ready for a peace with Israel that entails a significant downgrading of his relations with Iran.

  • Dealing quietly with the Iranian nuclear threat: Livni says as far as Israel is concerned “all options are on the table” and that to say any more would be irresponsible. But she has intimated in the past that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran by establishing a very clear deterrent balance.
  • Introducing a new style of cleaner government: Livni, who won the leadership race at least partly because of her squeaky clean image, will want to signal early on that she intends to introduce a new style of governing. Livni will want to clean up party politics by breaking the power of the Kadima vote contractors who drafted people en masse to vote for a particular candidate. One idea is to set a minimum membership period — say, 18 months — before party members get voting rights.

By electing Livni, Kadima voters seemed to be saying enough of the generals at the top, and enough of wheeler-dealer politics. Livni, dubbed Mrs. Clean, is seen as a straight-thinking, scandal-free civilian clearly out to promote Israel’s best interests.

She has a full agenda, a chance to change the tenor of Israel politics and to make historic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria.

But first she will have to put together a viable coalition.

Lebanon prisoner swap deal — morale issue forces a hard choice


The existential reality of an Israeli context, where governmental decisions often have a life and death valence, has been brought home to millions of people these past fewweeks, as the Israeli Cabinet made the agonizing decision to authorize the release of the murderer Samir Kuntar, four other live Lebanese prisoners and the bodies of dozens of Arab infiltrators and terrorists to Hezbollah in exchange for the bodies of abducted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

The weight of responsibility placed upon the government and Cabinet in this instance — as in so many others — was surely awesome. While many have conceded that the decision of the Israeli government to allow this exchange was immeasurably painful, albeit necessary, others have been extremely critical of the governmental judgment to go ahead with this terribly imbalanced swap.

This decision involved no easy choice. However, as so many of us struggle with our thoughts and feelings as we reflect upon the action that Israel took in this episode, it is instructive to remember that this is not the first time Israel has unfortunately confronted this issue.

In 1985, the Jewish state faced the same heartbreaking and excruciating question. Israel had to decide whether to return 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the release of three Israeli soldiers. While the exchange never took place and the fate of the three Israeli POWs is still unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis — Rabbi Shlomo Goren and Rabbi Haim David Halevi — addressed the issue directly at that time. Their words then have resonance and meaning today, as they provide important perspectives for reflecting upon the policy position the Israeli government adopted on this painful matter involving life and death.

Goren served as chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel and was formerly chief rabbi of the IDF, while Halevi was the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, was straightforward in his response to this question. He stated that Jewish law absolutely forbade the Israeli government from redeeming “our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists” and based his ruling on a talmudic passage in Gittin 45a that stated, “Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value.” Goren emphasized his great distress at the personal plight of these captives — they were surely in “mortal danger.”

However, he still insisted that the state should not redeem them as such redemption in exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population would surely imperil all Israeli citizenry and only fuel Arab attempts to capture more Jews in the future. The price exacted from Israel through the release of these terrorists was simply too steep for the state to afford.

Halevi responded to Goren soon after the article appeared. He was sympathetic to the position his Ashkenazic colleague had advanced in his piece. However, Halevi disagreed about the relevance of applying the Gittin passage to the contemporary situation.

In his view, the conditions that existed in a modern Jewish state were completely different from those that confronted the Jewish community in premodern times. The Jewish people were now sovereign in their land, and the “political-national” aims that motivated the terrorists “to wreak havoc among the Jewish people” would continue, regardless of whether their prisoners were released in exchange for Israeli soldiers. Indeed, these terrorists would persist in their cruel efforts until a solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.

The “impossible choice” before the government was whether to “strengthen the power of the terrorists through the release of their comrades or to strengthen the morale of IDF soldiers should there be future wars.” Faced with these two options, Halevi felt that priority had to be assigned the latter one — the Israeli government should do all in its power to uphold the morale of the IDF soldiers.

If a soldier knew that the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captured soldier, then the soldier might well fight more fearlessly in battle. On the other hand, if the soldier knew that his release from captivity did not possess the highest governmental priority and that the government would not act upon that priority, then the soldier might well retreat at a crucial wartime moment so as to avoid risking capture as a prisoner of war. In a moral universe where alternatives were limited, Halevi felt this choice was the wisest one the government could make.

In responding in this way to the existential reality of life and death choices faced by the State of Israel then, Halevi enunciated a position that provides the rationale for the decision the government of the State of Israel has made on the issue of prisoner exchange.

It is surely a policy fraught with danger. At the same time, it appears to be one that continues to legitimately guide Israel as the Jewish state continues to support its citizen-soldiers as they all too often confront an enemy bent on its destruction.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.<BR>

Israel’s Arab neighbors may hold key to summit’s success


As the Annapolis peace parley rapidly approaches, some of the Arab and Muslim players expected to play a key role in creating conditions for a favorable outcome are proving to be more of an obstacle than an asset.

Egypt, Syria and Turkey have been complicating efforts to hold what the United States envisions to be a tipping point in the long-dormant peace process.

On Tuesday, one of those nations seemed to reverse course: Egypt threw its support behind the peace conference after Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Syria, however, has proven more of a problem. If Annapolis is supposed to trigger a process of reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world, it is imperative that Syria attend. But Syrian leader Bashar Assad said he has no intention of coming to Maryland unless a much clearer offer of a deal with Israel is put on the table.

Complicating matters further are strains between Israel and Turkey, which reportedly is trying to mediate between Jerusalem and Damascus.

The difficulties on the Palestinian track could be helped by a Syrian presence in Annapolis. Although Assad says he has yet to receive a serious offer, he went to Turkey on Tuesday for regional talks that were to include discussion of Israel. Assad told the Tunisian daily al-Shuruq that the Turks have been mediating between Israel and Syria for the past six months.

Just two weeks ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan came to Jerusalem after visiting Damascus. Before that the Turks initiated a failed back channel involving former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel and Syrian-American Abe Suleiman.

Ironically, some Israelis believe the chances of accommodation with Syria are greater in the wake of the reported Israeli air strike last month against an alleged Syrian nuclear facility. Top Israel Defense Forces generals believe there now is a real chance for a dialogue with Syria, and Israel should explore it.

In farewell interviews, the outgoing deputy chief of staff, Maj.-Gen Moshe Kaplinsky, argued that detaching Syria from the Iranian-led “axis of evil” was a vital Israeli and American interest.

At one point, the Turkish mediation effort seemed hampered by strains in ties between the country and Israel. The Turks were angered by Israeli planes flying over their airspace during the reported operation against the Syrian nuclear facility, as well by what they saw as Israeli influence on U.S. Jewish groups lobbying for congressional legislation to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Although the visit to Israel this week of the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, seems to indicate business as usual, there are major concerns in Israel about Turkey’s geopolitical alignment. The fact that Ankara is now ruled by an Islamist government and president, and seems to be gearing up for military action against the Kurds in northern Iraq, raises questions about its position within the moderate pro-Western camp.

Just as the Western camp would like to pluck Syria from the axis of evil, Iran is making renewed efforts to draw Turkey away from its Western orientation.

As important, Israel and the United States had hoped that Egypt, the key moderate Sunni nation in the region, would encourage the Palestinians and other regional protagonists to make peace with Israel the way it did in 1979.

Instead, Israeli officials have been complaining that Egypt has been playing a negative role, turning a blind eye to the unimpeded smuggling of weapons across the Egyptian border to Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis said this was creating a major military threat that could scuttle the November gathering even before it began.

For months, tons of explosives and weapons have been flooding across the porous Egyptian border with Gaza, Israeli officials say. Dozens of Palestinian terrorists also have been slipping back into Gaza through Egypt after training in Iran, Syria or Lebanon.

Before the Hamas takeover in Gaza in June, there was a semblance of border control. Now, Israel says, the Egypt-Gaza border has become a “smugglers’ highway.” So great is the increase in smuggling that Israel says it constitutes a “strategic threat” both militarily and politically.

In mid-October, Israeli officials fired off an urgent message to Washington: “The smuggling of weapons and terrorist experts,” they said, poses “a real threat to the holding of the Annapolis conference.”

The nightmare scenario is this: The smuggling encourages Hamas to launch rocket attacks on Israeli urban centers, drawing Israel into a large-scale military operation in Gaza and pushing Annapolis off the agenda.

This week, however, the Egyptians announced they had uncovered new tunnels to Gaza. Three Palestinians found inside one of them were arrested, and bombs, bullets and drugs found inside another were confiscated.

Israel foresees two major military problems if the smuggling remains unchecked: The introduction of longer-range rockets and the industrial wherewithal for Hamas to produce its own missiles on a grand scale. This would give the terrorists in Gaza the capacity to threaten Israel in the southern and central regions of the country in very much the same way the Lebanese-based Hezbollah does in the North.

Israeli officials also are concerned by Egyptian attempts behind the scenes to effect reconciliation between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate Fatah movement and Hamas.

“Egypt is working against everything we are all trying to achieve,” senior Israeli officials complained recently to the Americans. “We are organizing a summit, trying to strengthen Abbas, and they are strengthening Hamas.”

The Egyptians see things differently. They claim Israel is to blame for the difficulties in the run-up to Annapolis.

“There are people in Israel who are trying to prevent prior agreement on the core issues, without which the conference will fail,” the Egyptian Foreign Minister Gheit charged.

Gheit softened his tone somewhat after meeting Tuesday with Rice, who had come to the region to get the agenda back on track.

Rice has three main goals: To bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to agreement on a statement of principles, to impress Israeli government hard-liners of the need to go forward and to get Israel and Egypt back on the same page.

One thing is clear: In the run-up to Annapolis, the geopolitical stakes are rising.


Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report.

Briefs: Clinton backs Israel attack on Syria, Abbas to Hamas: Never Again


Clinton Backs Israel Attack on Syria

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) backed what she said was an Israeli attack on a Syrian nuclear target. “What we think we know is that with North Korean help, financial and technical and material, the Syrians apparently were putting together, and perhaps over some period of years, a nuclear facility, and the Israelis took it out,” the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination said in a debate Sept. 26. “I strongly support that.”

The Bush administration, Israel and Syria have been reticent to discuss the Sept. 6 incident in detail, and Clinton was challenged during the debate over her certainty that Israel was targeting a nuclear program.

Abbas to Hamas: Never Again

Mahmoud Abbas said he would not reunite in a government with Hamas under any circumstances. The terrorist group ousted forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority president from the Gaza Strip in internecine fighting this summer, and Abbas re-established the P.A. government in the West Bank. The fighting ended a tentative national unity government between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah, but also opened up the Palestinian Authority to assistance from Israel and the West, where Hamas is banned because of its terrorism. In an interview published Sunday in The Washington Post and Newsweek, Abbas said he has no plans to govern with Hamas.

Abbas added that he would not work with Hamas “under any circumstances.” He also said he backed the U.S.-led isolation of Hamas.

“In the beginning, I believed that they were mistaken, but now we are in the same position,” Abbas said. “I am against Hamas.”

Abbas said he and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should have worked out the framework of a final-status agreement in time for the Palestinian-Israeli peace meeting to be convened in November under U.S. auspices. Abbas also faulted the 1947 Palestinian leadership for not accepting the U.N. partition plan and launching a war against Israel.

Israel Completes Release of 86 Prisoners

Twenty-nine prisoners, mostly from the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, were bused to the Gaza Strip on Tuesday after a 24-hour delay. The holdup, media reports revealed, was due to a short-lived protest by armed forces chief Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who had argued that it was inappropriate to return prisoners to Gaza while Hamas continues to hold hostage and is incommunicado on an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit. On Monday, 56 Palestinian prisoners were returned to their homes in the West Bank. Israel had been scheduled to free 57 inmates from that territory but one was held back amid suspicions that he is aligned with Hamas. Jailed for involvement in terrorist attacks that did not cause serious casualties, the 86 men were freed early by the Olmert government in an effort to shore up Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.

Court Rejects Corrie Appeal

A court rejected an appeal from the family of a U.S. activist seeking to sue Caterpillar for its alleged role in her death in the Gaza Strip. The family of Rachel Corrie, killed at 23 in 2003 during Israeli army bulldozer actions in the Gaza Strip, wants to sue the industrial vehicle company because it sells its bulldozers to Israel. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a lower federal court’s ruling throwing out the case. The court ruled that because the sales are approved by the U.S. government, any such suit is tantamount to unconstitutional court involvement in foreign policy making. The family was considering an appeal to a broader panel of the 9th circuit or to the Supreme Court, the Forward newspaper reported.

Paul Not Welcome at RJC Event

The Republican Jewish Coalition did not invite presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to its candidates’ forum.

Sources close to the RJC leadership cited two reasons for not extending an invitation to Paul for the Oct. 16 forum to take place in Washington: There was time only for leading candidates, and Paul’s record of consistently voting against assistance to Israel and his criticisms of the pro-Israel lobby.

Paul’s supporters say he is opposed to foreign assistance in principle and note that he also has blasted the Saudi lobby for what he believes is its undue influence.

The RJC also did not invite Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), but only because of their long-shot status.

Candidates attending include former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; Former Tenessee Sen. Fred Thompson; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas.) Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was invited, but was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.

The National Jewish Democratic Council hosted the full range of its party’s candidates at a spring event, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), like Paul, a tough critic of Israel. The NJDC event, however, lasted two days, while the RJC’s is a single-day event.

Former Top Officials Have Peace Blueprint

Five former senior U.S. government officials released a blueprint for a successful Mideast peace parley.

The group, with close ties to several recent U.S. administrations, produced a six-page, nine-point plan for the Bush administration’s planned Middle East peace conference likely to be held next month in Washington.

The document was drafted by Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the first President Bush; Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under Presidents Carter and Reagan; Edward Walker, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates under President Clinton and in the current administration; Robert Pelletreau, the Clinton-appointed U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain; and Frederic Hof, a director for Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian affairs in the Secretary of Defense’s office. Steven Spiegel, a scholar representing the dovish pro-Israel group Israel Policy Forum, also worked with the group, which met in early September.

Among the plan’s many recommendations are clear goals for dealing with the role of Hamas in the talks, a plan for future talks, not allowing the meeting’s success to be determined by which Arab nations participate and a call for former British Prime Minister and now Quartet envoy Tony Blair to work full-time to draft a Declaration of Principles for the talks, which would be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.

Briefs: Olmert numbers rise after mystery Syria raid, Bolton backs Iran attack


Poll: Olmert Boosted by Syria Raid

According to Tuesday’s Yediot Achronot survey, 35 percent of Israelis rate Prime Minister Ehud Olmert performance as “good” following the reported Sept. 6 strike against a strategic military target in northern Syria. Sixty-three percent called Olmert’s performance “not good,” while 2 percent had no response. The pollster, Dahaf, noted that a similar survey two weeks ago found 25 percent supporting Olmert and 70 percent opposing the embattled prime minister.

Olmert has been at pains to shore up his popularity since last year’s Lebanon war, whose setbacks many Israelis blamed on government incompetence and media leaks. Jerusalem has declined all comment on the Syria incident, which U.S. officials have speculated targeted a nuclear facility supplied by North Korea. If this indeed was the case, 78 percent of Israelis polled by Dahaf said they supported the operation, 10 percent were opposed and 12 percent had no response. Fifty-one percent of respondents said the incident had not affected the chances of Israel going to war with Syria, despite Damascus’s pledges to retaliate.

Thirty-two percent saw an increased chance of war, 13 percent a decreased chance of war and 4 percent had no reponse. The survey had 441 Jewish Israeli respondents and a 4 percent margin of error.

Bolton: U.S. Backs Israeli Pre-Emption

The United States would stand behind any pre-emptive attack by Israel on neighboring countries believed to have nuclear weapons programs, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said in an interview published Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. Bolton’s remarks following Israel’s alleged air raid Sept. 6 in Syria is consistent with longstanding U.S. suspicions that Damascus had received nuclear material from North Korea. Israel has not formally commented on the incident, which has stirred speculation that a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could be next. Bolton said such actions would find support in Washington.

“The greatest concern is to prevent Iran and other countries in the region from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Bolton said. “We’re talking about a clear message to Iran — Israel has the right to self-defense –and that includes offensive operations against WMD facilities that pose a threat to Israel. The United States would justify such attacks.”

Jordan, U.S. Sign Nuclear Agreement

A memorandum of understanding, signed Sunday in Vienna, commits Jordan and the United States to work together to develop “appropriate power reactors, fuel service arrangements, civilian training, nuclear safety, energy technology and other related areas,” according to a statement posted on the Web site of the U.S. embassy in Amman. The agreement is part of the U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, an effort to promote clean energy while preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons. Jordan, like a number of other Arab nations, has suggested that it would consider a nuclear weapons program should Iran achieve one.

Hamas: Conference Will Fail

Terrorist group Hamas said an upcoming peace conference between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will fail.

“The fall conference will be a failure and needs no one to thwart or abort it,” the terrorist faction said in a statement Monday on the U.S.-sponsored gathering. “It appears that this has driven the two sides to seek weak excuses.”

Hamas appeared to be referring to efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who are due to convene in Washington in November, to lower expectations of a breakthrough. Abbas, who broke with Hamas after its June coup in the Gaza Strip, has tried to prod Olmert into making concrete diplomatic concessions on a future Palestinian state. But Olmert instead seems to be aiming for a less binding statement of principles with Abbas. Unnamed Abbas aides told Israeli media this week that the Palestinian Authority may withdraw from the conference.

Holocaust Denier’s Sentence Upheld

The German Federal High Court confirmed Monday that it has upheld the 68-year-old Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel’s five-year prison sentence. On Sept. 12, the court rejected a 600-page proposed revision in the sentence, according to German news reports. After a yearlong trial Zundel, one of the world’s most active Holocaust deniers, was sentenced Feb. 15 by the Mannheim district court on charges of denying the Holocaust on his Canada and U.S.-based Internet site.

In justifying the sentence, the presiding judge, Ulrich Meinerzhagen, had described Zundel as an “extreme anti-Semite” and “committed National Socialist” who sought to glamorize Hitler and make him seem harmless. Zundel, a German native, was arrested in Canada in February 2003 and deported to Germany two years later. Reportedly he is one of the first right-wing extremists to use the Internet to spread hate material worldwide.

Peres, Madonna Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

Madonna, in Israel for Rosh Hashanah with fellow Kabbalah devotees, traveled secretly to Jerusalem Saturday evening for an audience with Israeli president Shimon Peres.

“I can’t believe I’m celebrating the new year in the Land of Israel together with you,” the pop idol was quoted as telling the elder statesman. “This is a dream come true.”

According to media reports, Madonna and Peres spent an hour and a half discussing current affairs and the need to promote peace.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Bush flirts with peace talks but won’t commit to Palestinians


The rug that Syrian President Bashar pulled out from under his widely reported but vaguely defined peace offensive last week was a Persian weave.

He had been talking for months about unconditionally resuming negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights, and it seemed like Israel, under American pressure, was the disinterested party. Then roles were quickly reversed in a week filled with feints and false starts, but so far there’s been more motion than movement.

President George W. Bush kicked off the week by reaffirming his vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was widely seen as an attempt to divert attention from his debacle in Iraq rather than a commitment to sustained diplomacy.

That view was reinforced by a White House mailing to Jewish leaders recommending an article by historian Michael Oren quoting Israeli officials as satisfied “there were no changes in Bush’s policies.”

White House aides also quickly shot down any notion that the “international meeting” Bush announced would be a peace conference. Just a meeting, they said, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Bush may not even show up. And don’t look for many Arab leaders to be there, either. The price of admission will be recognition of Israel, Bush said. That leaves out all those who should be there, like Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iraq.

That’s right, Iraq. Bush’s icon of Arab democracy where leaders have repeatedly denounced the Zionist enemy and have no more interest in peace than that other benefactor of Bush’s democracy crusade — Hamas.

Assad’s shift hardly seemed coincidental, coming on the eve of a visit by his Iranian benefactor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to a London-based Arabic newspaper, Ahmadinejad signed a strategic agreement with Syria promising increased military, political and economic assistance conditioned on a refusal to make peace with Israel.

To press his point, Ahmadinejad also met in Damascus with leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups, encouraging them to unite in armed struggle against Israel, and he pledged Iran’s support.

Reversing his recent rhetoric, Assad announced he would resume talks with Israel only through a third party and only with advance written Israeli “guarantees” to meet all his demands, including a full return of the Golan Heights.

That came on the heels of a tactical shift by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who after months of dodging Assad’s probes, told Al-Arabiya television last week that he is ready for direct talks without preconditions.

Olmert had been under pressure from Washington to rebuff Assad’s peace feelers on the assumption the Syrian leader was just trying to deflect American pressure to stop aiding the Iraqi insurgents. As a condition for talks, Olmert had demanded Assad withdraw his backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israel Islamic extremist groups prior to any talks.

American sanctions have had little impact on Assad’s behavior, and the Syrian dictator apparently concluded threats of military action were a bluff in light of American problems in Iraq and Israel’s poor performance against Hezbollah in Lebanon last year.

Iran, according to Israeli analysts, has been trying to raise regional tensions by telling Assad that Israel is planning a war against Syria to block Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon and to erase last year’s failures. Ahmadinejad’s real goal may be to discourage American or Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, they say.

The other prominent visitor to the region this week, with a totally opposite agenda, is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the new Middle East envoy for the Quartet (United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia). His assignment is to help the Palestinians rebuild their institutions and economy, but he’d like to expand that and be an active peace negotiator as well.

That’s not what President Bush had in mind when he outsourced Middle East diplomacy to his old friend and loyal Iraq war partner. Blair has been a longtime advocate of accelerating the peace process and has the backing of three quarters of the Quartet.

His greatest obstacle might be Rice, who doesn’t want him treading on her turf. She’s made it clear that he should stick to his official mandate. That’s the way Ehud Olmert wants it, too; he’s no more ready than the Americans for the final status negotiations that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants.

But it’s more than just territorial for Rice; her boss likes to talk about peace but has been unwilling to do the heavy lifting needed to get negotiations off the ground.

Initially he didn’t want to be seen following the failed footsteps of his predecessors –Poppy and Bill Clinton — but Iraq overtook that. Bush paid lip service to Middle East peace because the Arabs, his allies and the Baker-Hamilton Commission said showing movement on that front was essential to convincing others to help rescue him from his Iraq morass.

Bush will hear that again this week when Jordanian King Abdullah II comes to the White House to tell him he’s not moving aggressively enough on the Palestinian front. The president will assure his royal visitor of his sincere desire for peace, but the reality is Bush’s desire to be the father of Palestinian statehood hasn’t gone beyond the flirtation stage. Wishes don’t beget results.

From Damascus to Jerusalem to Ramallah to Washington, these days of summer sizzle are looking like a time of peace fizzle.

Douglas M. Bloomfield, a former staff member of AIPAC, writes about the Mideast and politics of Jewish life in America.

Briefs: Now Olmert wants to talk; Hamas loots Arafat’s abode; Syria invites Israelis in Golan to sta


Olmert ready for ‘final status’ talks

Ehud Olmert said Tuesday he was ready to take steps toward final-status negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We have to have the groundwork that will enable us to start, soon I hope, negotiations for a Palestinian state,” the Israeli prime minister said at a White House session with President Bush.

Olmert said he looks forward to meeting soon with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He offered to do so in Palestinian territory in Jericho, the first time an Israeli prime minister would make such a trip. The Bush administration wants to accelerate final-status talks now that Abbas has separated himself from Hamas in the wake of Hamas’ routing of forces loyal to Abbas from the Gaza Strip.

“We want to have a vision for the Palestinians to see that there’s a better tomorrow for them,” Bush said at the meeting in the Oval Office.

Hamas raids Arafat’s home

Fatah leaders accused Hamas members of looting the Gaza City home of Yasser Arafat. Among the items taken in last Friday’s raid was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the late Palestinian leader in 1994, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Ahmed Abdel, a Fatah spokesman, said that after Hamas supporters blew up the entrance to Arafat’s house, which has been vacant since 2001, they stormed in to steal many documents and personal belongings, such as his military outfits and pictures with his daughter.

“Most of the looters were just ordinary citizens,” eyewitnesses told the Post. “They stole almost everything, including furniture, tiles, water pipes, closets and beds.”

Rahman said the raid occurred despite Hamas’ promises to prevent such an operation.

“The Palestinian people will never forgive the Hamas gangs for looting the home of the Palestinian people’s great leader Yasser Arafat,” he said. “This crime will remain a stain of disgrace on the forehead of Hamas and its despicable gangs.”

Syria would let Israelis stay in Golan

Syria reportedly offered to let Israelis living on the Golan Heights remain, should it recover the territory.

“In Syria there are many minorities — Christians, Armenians, Kurds,” Syria’s ambassador to Britain, Sami Khiyami, was quoted by Ma’ariv on Tuesday as telling a conference in London: “There would be no problem with Israelis being there too.”

The remarks appeared to signal an enhancement of recent Syrian peace overtures toward Israel. Syria conditions talks on a complete return of the Golan, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed. Damascus did not immediately confirm Khiyami’s comments. Israel has said it is interested in new negotiations, but without preconditions. Some 20,000 Israelis live on the Golan.

Y.U. wants to be on Brit boycott list, too

Yeshiva University has requested that it be included on the list of Israeli universities that British academics are proposing to boycott. In a statement released by the university Monday, university President Richard Joel blasted the proposed boycott, calling it a “hypocritical act” and a “threat to open societies.”

“This boycott is a threat not only to Israeli academics but also to open societies everywhere,” Joel said.

The Y.U. statement comes amid a growing backlash against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions proposed late last month by the University and College Union, Britain’s largest university teachers association.

Through advertising campaigns and articles in leading journals, Jewish leaders have fired back at an initiative that even many British academics are said to oppose. The presidents of Britain’s leading research universities also issued a statement opposing the move, and members of the British government have also come out against it.

Rome protesters picket Nazi’s workplace

One hundred protestors flanked a Rome attorney’s office where a convicted Nazi was beginning his first day of work. A judge has allowed Erich Priebke, 93, who was convicted in 1997 of participating in a 1944 massacre outside Rome that killed 335 civilians, to leave his home, where he is under house arrest, to work as a translator and clerical assistant in his attorney’s office.

Monday’s protesters, some of whom shouted “murderer,” expressed outrage that a Nazi war criminal had been granted such freedom, including the ability to freely leave his office for lunch, Reuters reported. “People say, ‘It’s enough now,'” a protester said. “Enough of what? Nothing should be enough; there can never be enough grief.”

Sir Yitzchak Newton’s Jewish interests on display in Israel

Sir Isaac Newton’s lesser-known interest in Jewish mysticism is on display at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which on Sunday unveiled manuscripts by the 18th-century physicist. In the documents, Newton discusses prophecy, the ancient Jewish temple and Hebrew prayer.

“These manuscripts back up speculations that Sir Isaac Newton was a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion secret society (1691-1727), a post also said to have been held by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Victor Hugo, and which inspired Dan Brown’s bestseller ‘The Da Vinci Code,'” the university said in a statement.

The manuscripts, which have never been shown to the public, were obtained privately and donated to Israel in 1951 by orientalist Abraham Shalom Ezekiel Yahuda. They were entrusted to the Hebrew University, which kept them under wraps until recently. Of special interest in this exhibition are Newton’s comments on a text by Maimonides and the Hebrew prayer Shema, as well as his prediction that the world would end in 2060.

Wiesel seeks recognition for Shoah activists

Elie Wiesel urged the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to acknowledge the rescue efforts of the Bergson Group.

In an address Sunday to the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in New York, Wiesel said he was “disappointed” that the museum’s exhibits did not mention the Bergson Group, a cadre of American activists that lobbied the U.S. government and is credited with saving 200,000 Jews during the Holocaust. The group is mentioned only briefly in a film strip and in an article on the museum’s Web site.

Wiesel’s call was seconded by Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum and formerly the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, according to a press release.

“I have come here today, as a veteran of the Jewish establishment, to say unequivocally: the Jewish leaders in the 1940s were wrong,” Reich said. “They should not have spent their time and energy attacking Bergson when they should have been focusing completely on how to bring about the rescue of Europe’s Jews.”

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Fatah-Hamas conflict forces Palestinians to choose


In calling for elections, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sharpened the choice facing the Palestinian people: Back his Fatah party and have peace with Israel and the promise of economic prosperity, or support the rejectionism of Hamas, whose nine months in office have brought only war, chaos and impoverishment.

Abbas’ call Saturday for early elections in the Palestinian Authority triggered fierce street fighting between Fatah and Hamas, which won the last election in January. Despite a hastily arranged cease-fire Monday, the two factions remain on the brink of civil war.

The United States, Israel and other Western countries are hoping for a Fatah election victory that could pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The United States is actively helping Fatah, but Israel — fearing that support for Fatah will backfire and undermine the moderates — is staying out.

The turmoil in the Palestinian camp comes as Syria launched a new initiative for peace with Israel. Peace with Syria would be a major strategic gain for Israel, breaking up the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, and it would put additional pressure on the Palestinians to cut a deal with Israel.

But Israel is not biting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not trust Syria’s intentions and does not want to cross President Bush, who opposes dealings with Damascus.

The internal Palestinian struggle and the Syrian overtures are both part of a greater regional struggle for hegemony, pitting Iran and radicals such as Syria and Hamas against Western-leaning moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Abbas’ Fatah. How the Palestinian struggle plays out, and whether Syria comes over to the moderate side, will have major implications for Iran’s position in the region.

In his speech Saturday calling for elections, Abbas launched a scathing attack on Hamas’ policy of violence and non-recognition of Israel.

“The settler land” — parts of Gaza that Israel evacuated last year — “should have flourished with economic, tourist and agricultural projects, but some people insist on firing rockets,” he scoffed.

“They kidnapped the Israeli soldier,” a reference to Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Gaza gunmen last June. “And since then they paid with 500 martyrs, 4,000 wounded and thousands of homes destroyed.”

The subtext was clear: Violence is getting the Palestinians nowhere, while peace moves could bring economic reward.

But Abbas did not set any date for elections. Analysts say he hopes to use the threat of elections to pressure Hamas into forming a national unity government with Fatah. That might enable the Palestinian Authority to accept the international community’s benchmarks for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of past agreements and renunciation of violence — paving the way for peace talks and the lifting of the international economic boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Some Hamas leaders are in favor of this. Others still hope to circumvent the boycott by bringing in Iranian money.

P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was intercepted recently trying to smuggle $30 million from Iran into Gaza in a suitcase. Indeed, Hamas strategy is built on financial and political ties with Tehran.

“Iran gives us strategic depth,” Haniyeh declared during a recent visit to Tehran.

The thinking behind this is the basis for Hamas rejectionism. Hamas leaders believe that if they can hold out until Iran gains regional dominance, they’ll be able to defeat Israel. Therefore, they argue, any attempts to make peace with the Jewish state are short-sighted.

The fighting on the streets was the worst between Fatah and Hamas in years, with children caught in the crossfire. Leaders on both sides also came under fire: There was a shooting attack on Haniyeh’s convoy as he returned to Gaza from Iran. Hamas blamed Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan and threatened to assassinate him.

Later, mortars were fired at Abbas’ presidential compound in Gaza.

Pundits say the slide into civil war can only be averted if there is an agreement on holding elections or if a unity government is formed. Hamas has been adamantly against elections, describing Abbas’ call for an early ballot as an “attempted coup” against a legitimately elected government.

Despite efforts to reach a compromise, analysts argue that an eventual showdown is inevitable, since the two groups’ basic positions on Israel and the nature of a future Palestinian state are irreconcilable.
As both sides prepare for armed conflict, the West is openly backing Fatah. The United States has pledged funds, and an American general, Keith Dayton, is training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Ramallah on Monday to back Abbas’ conception of peacemaking as something that brings significant economic benefits. By outlining a vision of economic prosperity, Blair hoped to convince the Palestinian people that Abbas’ approach has a good chance of success.

Abbas also has the backing of moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which is providing funds, and Egypt, which reportedly is supplying weapons.

Syria, however, continues to host Hamas leaders in Damascus, and that is one of the reasons Israel is wary of its new peace offer.

The Syrian peace rhetoric was unprecedented. In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, President Assad invited Olmert to meet him and test his intentions, while Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the Washington Post that a commitment to return the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks.

Israeli leaders are divided on how to respond. Olmert, and most of the government, argue that Syria must first show whether it’s on the side of Iran or the West. It can do that by expelling Hamas and other terrorist leaders from Damascus and stopping its meddling in Iraq and Lebanon.

Others, in Labor, the left and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, say Israel should use the chance to engage Damascus and try to swing it to the moderate camp. In a briefing of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan came down firmly on Olmert’s side, arguing that Syria isn’t really interested in peace but simply wanted to use talks with Israel as a means of easing Western pressure.

Some pundits argue, however, that Olmert is making a huge strategic blunder. The most scathing was Ma’ariv political analyst Ben Caspit.

“I wonder what Ehud Olmert will say to the members of the next commission of inquiry — the one that is set up in two or three years time after war with Syria or after it becomes clear just how big a chance was missed to split the axis of evil and isolate Iran,” Caspit wrote.

One More Casualty in Crisis — Unilateralism


More than two weeks into the war in Lebanon, there is a growing consensus that one of the chief casualties will be Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Pundits on the right and left argue that the war in Lebanon and fighting with the Palestinians in Gaza prove that unilateralism doesn’t work. They note that both previous unilateral pullbacks, from Lebanon in May 2000 and Gaza in August 2005, were followed by rocket attacks on Israeli civilians from the evacuated areas.

The same is bound to happen if Israel withdraws unilaterally from the West Bank without cast-iron security arrangements, pundits say.

But Olmert remains unmoved. Close aides say he is determined to pull out of the West Bank and set Israel’s permanent borders by the end of his current term in 2010. One of the main reasons is demographic — to ensure a democratic Israeli state with a clear Jewish majority.

The question is how to do it.

After the Lebanon and Gaza experiences — sustained rocket attacks on Israel in the wake of unilateral pullouts — will Olmert still want to adopt last summer’s Gaza model of withdrawal without agreement, or will he seek a different formula, such as bilateral arrangements with moderate Palestinian leaders or the introduction of international forces to keep the peace after Israel pulls back?
One of the most influential backers of the unilateral idea was journalist Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz, whose 2005 book, “Dividing the Land,” attempted to explain the rationale of the idea. But now Shavit has become one of unilateralism’s most outspoken critics.

Shavit’s change of heart reflects widespread disillusionment in Israel with the unilateral approach. In mid-July, a day after the outbreak of hostilities in the North, Shavit published an article “The End of the Third Way,” urging the government to come up with a new strategy.

In the article, Shavit argues that Israel has gone through three predominant policy phases since the 1967 Six-Day War, each undermined by an eruption of Arab violence. Initially, Shavit says, Israelis believed the Palestinian conflict could be maintained by occupation, then through a peace deal, and after that through unilateral separation.

But the occupation thesis was discredited by the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the peace process it generated exploded with the second intifada in 2000 and unilateralism has crashed against the violence in Gaza and Lebanon, which Shavit calls the “third intifada.”

He concludes that “Israel is now desperately in need of a new diplomatic idea, a new strategic idea, a fourth way.”

A number of ideas are coming to the fore:

  • An international force to keep the peace and oversee the transition to Palestinian statehood after Israeli withdrawal.

    The endgame in Lebanon envisages a multinational force to keep the peace and help the Lebanese government deploy forces in the South and disarm Hezbollah. If that happens and proves successful, analysts say the model could be extended to the West Bank and Gaza.

    There it could take the form of an international mandate responsible for the transition to Palestinian statehood. Its main tasks would be to police the cease-fire, help create a single Palestinian armed force and build democratic institutions.

    The main advantage is that it could provide the stability Israel and the Palestinians have been unable to achieve. The main disadvantage is that an international force could become a target of Palestinian terrorism.
    The idea of an international transitional mandate has been proposed before by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.

  • The establishment of a Palestinian mini-state with temporary borders through direct negotiations under American aegis between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

    The Americans would need to give both sides strong guarantees: To Israel that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved in the emerging Palestinian state, and to the Palestinians that the final border will closely approximate the pre-1967 boundary.

    The main advantage of this approach is that it would be easier to achieve than a full peace deal. The main disadvantages are that the Palestinians have opposed the idea because they fear temporary borders would become permanent; the Israelis suspect that Abbas, even if he signed an agreement, would not be able to deliver.

    The Israeli Foreign Ministry has set up a team to refine this approach.

  • Going back to the “Clinton parameters” of December 2000 for a final peace deal. Left-wingers argue that if the sides are able to begin negotiations on a mini-state they might as well aim for a full peace deal and a full-fledged Palestinian state. Terrorist organizations would be dismantled, the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and border arrangements would be made to prevent weapons smuggling.

    The trouble is that this is precisely the formula that failed so dramatically at Camp David six years ago, and the situation has deteriorated markedly since then.

  • Modified unilateralism. Israel’s West Bank settlements would be dismantled but the army would remain to prevent Kassam rocket fire and other terror attacks.

    The main advantage is that Palestinian terrorists wouldn’t be able to arm and act as freely as they would if the army pulls out. The main disadvantage is that Israeli occupation would continue, creating points of friction with Palestinians and costing Israel international goodwill.

    Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, is the main proponent of this approach.

  • A Palestinian arrangement in the context of a major regional shake-up. This would entail stability in Lebanon under an international umbrella, good neighborly relations between Israel and Lebanon, and possibly even detachment of Syria from the Iranian axis.

    This would depend on the degree to which Israel crushes Hezbollah’s military power in the current conflict. Hezbollah’s defeat would reverberate in the territories and could lead to a strategic reassessment by Hamas leaders, especially if the Syria-Iran axis also collapses.

    The main advantage is that conditions could be created for a final, comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The disadvantage is that so far, at least, there is little sign that this scenario is realistic.

It’s clear that Olmert will have to adapt to the new post-war reality — but it’s still too early to gauge which fourth way,” if any, he’ll adopt.