Maybe Obama knows what he’s doing


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

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

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

“Obama,” I guessed.

“He’s plagues five through 10.”

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

Then she threw her imaginary glass against a rock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not, a plague on all our houses.


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

Cartoon: The journey ahead will be long


Facing Islamist threats, Arab nations tilt toward Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s consider the players.

Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qatar

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

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

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

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

Syria

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

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

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

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

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

Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the new Middle East, an embarrassment of evils


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those turkeys are surely coming home to roost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arab rifts may complicate search for Gaza truce


The push for a Gaza ceasefire risks becoming mired in a regional tussle for influence between conservative Arab states and Islamist-friendly governments, with rival powers competing to take credit for a truce, analysts and some officials say.

The main protagonists are Arab heavyweight Egypt and the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, on opposite sides of a regional standoff over Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and its ideological patron the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both camps suggest the other is motivated as much by a desire to polish diplomatic prestige and crush political adversaries as by the humanitarian goal of protecting Palestinian lives from the Israeli military.

“Gaza has turned very suddenly into the theater in which this new alignment within the Arab world is being expressed,” said UK-based analyst Ghanem Nusseibeh.

“Gaza is the first test for these new alliances, and this has affected the possibility of reaching a ceasefire there.”

He was referring to Qatar, Turkey, Sudan and non-Arab Iran, the main members of a loose grouping of states which believe Islamists represent the future of Middle East politics.

That camp stands in increasingly overt competition with a conservative, pro-Western group led by Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, most of whom are intent on crushing the Brotherhood and see it as a threat.

That cleavage is now apparent in the diplomacy over Gaza.

CEASEFIRE PLAN

Qatar bankrolled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who was overthrown by the military a year ago. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since poured in money to support strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the takeover and has since been elected president after outlawing and suppressing the Brotherhood.

Under his rule, Egypt has tightened its stranglehold on the southern end of the Gaza Strip, closing tunnels to try to block supplies of weapons and prevent militants crossing.

Egyptian officials suspect Qatar encouraged Hamas to reject a ceasefire plan Cairo put forward last week to try to end an Israeli assault that has now killed more than 500 Palestinians as well as 18 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians.

Palestinian officials said the proposal contained little more than Israeli and U.S. terms for a truce. Hamas has its own demands for stopping rocket fire into Israel, including the release of prisoners and the lifting of an economic blockade.

With Egypt's initiative sidelined, all eyes turned to Doha, where visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in the Qatari capital, a senior Qatari source told Reuters.

An official in Cairo said the Gaza battle “is part of a regional conflict between Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

“Hamas … ran to Qatar, which Egypt hates most, to ask it for intervention, and at the end we are sure Hamas will eventually settle with an agreement that is so similar to a proposal that Egypt had offered, but with Doha's signature.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, due in Cairo late on Monday, is likely to have to mediate between Egypt and Qatar in a bid to end the fighting in Gaza.

“The dilemma is now to get Egypt and Qatar to agree. It is obvious that Hamas had delegated Qatar to be its spokesman in the talks,” said an Egyptian diplomat. “Kerry is here to try to mediate between Qatar and Egypt to agree on a deal that Hamas would approve.”

Another foreign ministry source said: “Egypt will be asked by Kerry to add in Hamas' conditions and then Kerry will go to Qatar and ask it to ask Hamas to approve the amended deal.”

For reasons of history and geography, Egypt has always seen itself as the most effective mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in neighboring Gaza.

But critics say Egypt's strongly anti-Islamist government is trying to pressure Hamas into accepting a truce offering few concessions for the group. Its aim, they say, is to weaken the movement and allied Islamist forces in Egypt.

Hamas leaders said they were not consulted on the Egyptian move, and it did not address their demands.

With peace efforts delicately poised, Gaza now appears to be a test of strength in a regional struggle for power.

INTERFERENCE

Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Gaza mediation had seen “a lot of political interference”.

“Qatar was unhappy with the Egyptian ceasefire (plan). They are very uncomfortable that it came from Egypt. The Qataris are trying to undermine Egypt politically, and the victim is the ceasefire that Egypt has proposed.

“The terms of the problem is — who will present the ceasefire? Who will win the first political match between those two new camps within the Arab world?” Abdulla said.

At the root of the rift are opposing attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt in 2011 only to be ousted itself last year.

Its ideology challenges the principle of conservative dynastic rule long dominant in the Gulf: Some of its leading members are based in Qatar and broadcast their views via the country's media, angering other Gulf Arab states

Qatar is accused of using its alliance with Hamas to elbow its way into efforts to mediate between the movement and Israel.

Critics suspect Qatar wants to repair an international image clouded by months of allegations of poor labor rights, alleged corruption over the 2022 World Cup and political tensions with its Gulf Arab neighbors.

But Western governments see Qatar, maverick though it be, as a potentially significant regional mediator because of its links to Islamist movements in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

Qatar denies any ulterior motive and notes that Washington has openly asked it to talk to Hamas. Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said on Sunday Qatar’s role was just to facilitate communication.

“BLOODSHED NEEDS TO STOP”

A source familiar with the matter said Qatar will not press Hamas to change or reduce its demands.

In Saudi Arabia, where suspicion of Hamas is particularly strong, as an ally of the Brotherhood and of Iran, Riyadh's main regional adversaries, newspapers have abandoned a tradition of blaming Israel alone to also attack the Palestinian group.

“The Hamas leadership, from Egyptian blood to Palestinian blood,” was the headline of an opinion article by Fadi Ibrahim al-Dhahabi in the daily al-Jazeera newspaper on Sunday.

He argued that Hamas was stoking the war in Gaza not for the sake of Palestinian liberation, but as part of a wider Muslim Brotherhood campaign against Egypt's government and to win favour with Iran.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, part of a recently formed national unity government intended to overcome rivalry between Hamas and the more secular Fatah nationalist movement, told Reuters he had seen no tug-of-war among Arab states.

“This is not the case. There is no competition between Arab countries, they all want to stop the bloodshed,” he said.

“All Arab countries want to bring an end to this fountain of blood in Gaza, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt are all in agreement. And the leaders of these country's have put their differences aside and all agree that the bloodshed needs to stop”.

The Western Wall in Israel

Muslims, stop blaming Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Obama urges Netanyahu to resume peace talks with Palestinians


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KERRY TO FLY HOME FRIDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARAB SUPPORT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran says Egyptian army interference is ‘unacceptable’


Iran on Monday called the Egyptian army's ousting of president Mohamed Morsi “unacceptable” and said Israel and the West did not want to see a powerful Egypt.

The comments from Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi were more disapproving than his immediate reaction last Thursday, when he merely called for the Egyptian people's “legitimate demands” to be fulfilled.

Iran welcomed the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, calling it an “Islamic awakening” inspired in part by its own 1979 revolution, and after Morsi's election victory last year it sought to repair its strained ties with Egypt.

However, the two countries now have found themselves supporting opposite sides in the civil war in Syria. While Shi'ite Iran is President Bashar al-Assad's closest Arab ally, largely Sunni Muslim Egypt under Morsi has voiced its support for the mostly Sunni rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad.

On Monday, Araqchi said: “What is important is giving significance to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people,” according to the Mehr news agency.

“However, military intervention in politics is unacceptable and a cause for concern.”

Araqchi warned against greater divisions in Egyptian society, adding: “Certainly foreign hands are also at work, and … the West and the Zionist regime (Israel) will not want a powerful Egypt.”

Several dozen people were killed on Monday when Islamist demonstrators enraged by the Morsi's overthrow said the army opened fire on them at the Cairo barracks where he was being held. The military said a group of armed assailants had tried to storm the compound and soldiers returned fire.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jon Hemming and Kevin Liffey

Ahmadinejad seeks strategic axis with Egypt


President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the first visit to Cairo by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, called for a strategic alliance with Egypt and said he had offered the cash-strapped Arab state a loan, but drew a cool response.

Ahmadinejad said outside forces were trying to prevent a rapprochement between the Middle East's two most populous nations, at odds since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and Egypt's signing of a peace treaty with Israel in the same year.

“We must all understand that the only option is to set up this alliance because it is in the interests of the Egyptian and Iranian peoples and other nations of the region,” the official MENA news agency quoted him in remarks to Egyptian journalists published on Wednesday.

The two countries have not restored diplomatic ties since Egypt overthrew its long term leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but its first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome on Tuesday to a summit of Islamic nations.

“There are those striving to prevent these two great countries from coming together despite the fact that the region's problems require this meeting, especially the Palestinian question,” Ahmadinejad said.

Egypt's foreign minister played down the significance of the visit, telling Reuters the Iranian leader, one of several heads of state to get the red-carpet treatment, was in Cairo chiefly for the Islamic summit beginning on Wednesday, “so it's just a normal procedure. That's all.”

He had earlier reassured Gulf Arab countries that Egypt would not sacrifice their security.

Egypt's leading Sunni Muslim scholar scolded Ahmadinejad on Tuesday when he visited the historic al-Azhar mosque and university over Tehran's attitude to its Gulf Arab neighbors and attempts to spread Shi'ite influence in Sunni countries.

In his meeting with Egyptian reporters, MENA said Ahmadinejad denied accusations Iran was interfering in Bahrain, where a Shi'ite majority lives under minority Sunni rule.

Three Egyptians and a Syrian were detained on suspicion of trying to attack the Iranian president at another mosque, security sources said. They were held overnight but released on bail of 500 Egyptian pounds ($75) each on Wednesday.

Video footage shot by a Turkish cameraman appeared to show a bearded man trying twice to throw a shoe at Ahmadinejad as he was mobbed by well-wishers on leaving the Hussein mosque.

The president was not hit but was hustled to his car by security men, stopping to wave before he was driven away.

The security sources said the three Egyptians held were all members of the al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, a hardline Islamist group that took up arms against the state in the 1990s but has moved into mainstream politics since Mubarak was toppled.

In the Arab world, throwing a shoe is a serious insult. An Iraqi journalist hurled a shoe at then-U.S. President George W. Bush during a news conference in Baghdad in 2008, forcing Bush to duck to avoid being hit.

Al-Ahram daily quoted Ahmadinejad as saying in an interview that Iran had offered to lend money to Egypt despite being under international economic sanctions over its nuclear program.

“I have said previously that we can offer a big credit line to the Egyptian brothers, and many services,” he said. He did not say if there had been any response.

The president said the Iranian economy had been affected by sanctions but it is a “great economy” that was witnessing “positive matters”, saying exports were increasing gradually.

The United States and its Western allies have sought to choke off Iran's vital oil exports by embargoing imports from the Islamic republic and cutting its access to shipping, insurance and finance.

Egypt disclosed on Tuesday that its foreign reserves had fallen below the $15 billion level that covers three months' imports despite recent deposits by Qatar to support it.

Tourism has been badly hit by unrest since the uprising that toppled authoritarian Mubarak, and investment has stalled due to the ensuing political and economic uncertainty.

Ahmadinejad said there had been scant progress on restoring ties between the two countries.

“No change happened in the last two years, but discussions between us developed and grew, and His Excellency President Mohamed Morsi visited Iran and met us, as he met the Iranian foreign minister. And we previously contacted Egypt to know about what is happening with Syrian affairs,” he said.

One persistent obstacle to ties in Cairo's eyes was the naming of a street in Tehran after an Egyptian Islamist militant who led the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who signed the treaty with Israel.

“On the question of the street name or its removal, these are matters that will be dealt with gradually,” Ahmadinejad said.

Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Chuck Hagel’s other problem


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Kerry and Obama have been longtime proponents of linkage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, linkage is a mirage.

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

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

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

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


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

Paul: cuts to Israel assistance would not be ‘immediate, dramatic’


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he does not favor immediate cuts to defense assistance to Israel and favors intelligence and development cooperation, but he believes that Israel would ultimately benefit from economic independence from the United States.

Paul, in a conference call Wednesday marking his return from a week-long visit to Israel, said his first priority in targeting foreign assistance would be those nations where people “burn the American flag and say death to America.”

Israel, he said, has been a “great friend” to the United States.

“Something I would be in favor of would not be immediate, dramatic or draconian, it would be evolving,” he said of his favoring cuts in assistance to Israel. “I'm for an independent, strong Israel that is not a client state and not a reliant state.”

Asked particularly about missile defense cooperation, he said there was a “great argument” for such programs and he believes that American cities should have missile defense infrastructure.

Of Iron Dome, the Israeli anti-missile system that Israel says repelled 80 percent of rocket attacks during the recent Gaza War, Rand said: “There's a great argument for the Iron Dome,” although he would want to examine “exactly how it is funded.”

Currently, Iron Dome is funded by hundreds of millions of dollars in grants on top of the $3 billion Israel receives annually in defense assistance from the United States. 

Paul said he understands how his calls for reducing aid to Israel make him an outlier among fellow senators, but that he believes his position is more pro-Israel than theirs.

Paul also said it was “presumptuous” of American politicians to dictate to Israel where it should build, and that he leans toward recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, although he understands arguments that such recognition could be “provocative.”

Paul, who met with Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his trip, said he was concerned about defense assistance to Egypt, in part because its president, Mohamed Morsi, has in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, but also because such sales fuel an arms race with Israel.

Paul has gently distanced himself from the positions of his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a perennial presidential candidate who also has favored cutting assistance to Israel, but who has often cast those arguments as criticism of Israeli policies. The younger Paul is seen as likely to bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Rockets hit near Tel Aviv as war looms over Gaza


[UPDATE 11:13 am] Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip targeted Tel Aviv on Thursday in the first attack on Israel's commercial capital in 20 years, raising the stakes in a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians that is moving towards all-out war.

Earlier Hamas rocket killed three Israelis north of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, drawing the first blood from Israel as the Palestinian death toll rose to 16 in a military showdown lurching closer to all-out war and a threatened invasion of the enclave. 

Israeli warplanes bombed targets in and around Gaza city for a second day, shaking tall buildings. In a sign of possible escalation, the armed forces spokesman said the military had received the green light to call in up to 30,000 reserve troops.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Palestinian militants would pay a price for firing the missiles.

Plumes of smoke and dust furled into a sky laced with the vapor trails of outgoing rockets over the crowded city, where four young children killed on Wednesday were buried.

After enduring months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza,   Israel retaliated with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.

[Related: Rocket strikes southern outskirts of Tel Aviv]

Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by Palestinian allies.

Mosi's prime minister, Hisham Kandil, will visit Gaza on Friday with other Egyptian officials in a show of support for the enclave, an Egyptian cabinet official said. Israel promised that the delegation would come to no harm.

Israel says its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Israel's bombing has not yet reached the saturation level seen before it last invaded Gaza in 2008, but Israeli officials have said a ground assault is still an option.

Israeli police said three Israelis died when a rocket hit a four-story building in the town of Kiryat Malachi, some 25 km (15 miles) north of Gaza, the first Israeli fatalities of the latest conflict to hit the coastal region.

Air raid sirens sent residents running for shelter in Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre which has not been hit by a rocket since the 1991 Gulf War. A security source said it landed in the sea. Tel Aviv residents said an explosion could be heard.

The Tel Aviv metropolitan area holds more than 3 million people, more than 40 percent of Israel's population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas was committing a double war crime, by firing at Israeli civilians and hiding behind Palestinians civilians.

“I hope that Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza got the message,” he said. “If not, Israel is prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel would pay a heavy price “for this open war which they initiated”.

After watching powerlessly from the sidelines of the Arab Spring, Israel has been thrust to the centre of a volatile new world in which Islamist Hamas hopes that Mursi and his newly dominant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be its protectors.

“The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region and would negatively and greatly impact the security of the region,” Mursi said.

The new conflict will be the biggest test yet of Mursi's commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which the West views as the bedrock of Middle East peace.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which brought Mursi to power in an election after the downfall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has called for a “Day of Rage” in Arab capitals on Friday. The Brotherhood is seen as the spiritual mentors of Hamas.

ASSASSINATION

The offensive began on Wednesday when a precision Israeli airstrike killed Hamas military mastermind Ahmed Al-Jaabari. Israel then began shelling the enclave from land, air and sea.

At Jaabari's funeral on Thursday, supporters fired guns in the air celebrating news of the Israeli deaths, to chants for Jaabari of “You have won.”

His corpse was borne through the streets wrapped in a bloodied white sheet. But senior Hamas figures were not in evidence, wary of Israel's warning they are in its crosshairs.

The Israeli army said 250 targets were hit in Gaza, including more than 130 rocket launchers. It said more than 270 rockets had struck Israel since the start of the operation, with its Iron Dome interceptor system shooting down more than 105 rockets headed for residential areas.

Expecting days or more of fighting and almost inevitable civilian casualties, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets in Gaza telling residents to stay away from Hamas and other militants.

The United States condemned Hamas, shunned by the West as an obstacle to peace for its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

“There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel,” said Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late on Wednesday, but took no action.

In France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabious said: “It would be a catastrophe if there is an escalation in the region.Israel has the right to security but it won't achieve it through violence. The Palestinians also have the right to a state.”

“GATES OF HELL”

Israel's sworn enemy Iran, which supports and arms Hamas, condemned the Israeli offensive as “organized terrorism”. Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, which has its own rockets aimed at the Jewish state, denounced strikes on Gaza as “criminal aggression”, but held its fire.

Oil prices rose more than $1 as the crisis grew. Israeli shares and bonds fell, while Israel's currency rose off Wednesday's lows, when the shekel slid more than 1 percent to a two-month low against the dollar.

A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew increasingly intense and frequent. Netanyahu, favored in polls to win a January 22 general election, said on Wednesday the Gaza operation could be stepped up.

His cabinet has granted authorization for the mobilization of military reserves if required to press the offensive, dubbed “Pillar of Defence” in English and “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew after the Israelites' divine sign of deliverance in Exodus.

Hamas has said the killing of its top commander in a precise, death-from-above airstrike, would “open the gates of hell” for Israel. It appealed to Egypt to halt the assault.

Israel has been anxious since Mubarak was toppled last year in the Arab Spring revolts that replaced secularist strongmen with elected Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and brought civil war to Israel's other big neighbor Syria.

Cairo recalled its ambassador from Israel on Wednesday. Israel's ambassador left Cairo on what was called a routine home visit and Israel said its embassy would stay open.

Gaza has an estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters, no match for Israel's F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in reserve.

This story was edited by JewishJournal.com.  

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Erika Solomon in Beirut, John Irish in Paris. Marwa Awad in Cairo.; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff

Ahead of debate, Romney calls Obama weak on foreign policy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'REGIONAL INSTABILITY'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. President: The problem is not Holocaust denial


As the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I should be the last person to criticize the president of the United States for mentioning Holocaust denial in an important speech at the United Nations General Assembly a day before the most infamous Holocaust denier speaks from that same rostrum. Nonetheless, I think the president missed the point entirely when he said: “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images we see of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.”

The president is repeating the same mistake he made during his historic speech in Cairo two years ago, when he appeared to say that the only justification Jews had for their return to Israel was the suffering they endured during the Holocaust, rather than a 3,500-year relationship with the land of Israel. 

Today, the central concern of Jews around the world is not the tragedy that happened 70 years ago, but what is happening now before our very eyes — the indifference of the world toward the continued demonization of Judaism, not only by extremist Muslims but also by the mainstream Palestinian leaders themselves. They serially vilify Judaism by alleging:

• “They claim that 2,000 years ago they had a Temple. I challenge the claim that this is so.” (President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority)

• “The Jews have no religious ties to the Temple Mount or the Western Wall.” (Al-Mutawakel Taha, Palestinian Ministry of Information)

• “The Temple of the Jews never existed.” (Palestinian Authority Chief Judge, Sheikh Tamimi)

• “Jews are Satans and Zionist sons of bitches.” (Senior Palestinian Authority official, Jibril Rajoub)

In other words, according to the Palestinian Authority, the prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel about the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, revered by Jews and Christians alike, are lies and distortions.

Raising that calumny would have been an appropriate comparison with the defamation of Muhammad and Jesus. It would have put the world on notice that President Barack Obama is concerned not only about what happened to the Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust but also about the Jewish people today who are imperiled by escalating anti-Semitism and the threat of annihilation by the Iranian mullahs.

Opinion: Why the United Nations should walk out on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


As the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I should be the last person to criticize the President of the United States for mentioning Holocaust denial in an important speech at the United Nation’s General Assembly a day before the most infamous Holocaust denier speaks from that same rostrum.  Nonetheless, I think the President missed the point entirely when he said, “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander, must also condemn the hate we see in the images we see of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.”

The President is repeating the same mistake he made during his historic speech in Cairo two years ago when he appeared to say that the only justification Jews had for their return to Israel was the suffering they endured during the Holocaust, rather than a 3500 relationship with the land of Israel. 

Today, the central concern of Jews around the world is not the tragedy that happened 70 years ago, but what is happening now before our very eyes–the indifference of the world towards the continued demonization of Judaism, not only by extremist Muslims but also by the mainstream Palestinian leaders themselves.  They serially vilify Judaism by alleging:

“They claim that 2000 years ago they had a Temple.  I challenge the claim that this is so.”  (President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority) 

“The Jews have no religious ties to the Temple Mountor the Western Wall” (Palestinian Minister of Information, Al Taha) 

“The Temple of the Jews never existed.” (Palestinian Authority Chief Judge, Sheik Tamimi) 

“Jews are Satans and Zionist sons of bitches.” (Senior PA official, Jibril Rajoub)

In other words, according to the Palestinian Authority, the prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel about the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, revered by Jews and Christians alike, are lies and distortions.

Raising that calumny would have been an appropriate comparison with the defamation of Muhammad and Jesus.  It would have put the world on notice that President Obama is concerned not only about what happened to the Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust but about the Jewish people today who are imperiled by escalating anti-Semitism and the threat of annihilation by the Iranian Mullahs.

What the President can do now is to show solidarity with the Jewish people today by instructing our Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, to lead the walkout of civilized nations when Iran’s President, who threatens another Holocaust, takes to the podium tomorrow on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.

Iran’s supreme leader blames ‘evil Zionists’ for anti-Islam film


Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed “evil Zionists” and the U.S. government for the anti-Islam film that has sparked violent protests in Muslim countries.

In a statement issued Thursday, Khamenei said that the film “showed the fury of the evil Zionists at the daily-increasing radiance of Islam and Holy Qur’an in the present world.”

He added that the “prime suspects in this crime are Zionism and the US government” and demanded that American politicians make those behind the film “face a punishment proportionate to this great crime.”

Khamenei’s statement made no mention of the killings in Libya of four U.S. diplomatic personnel, including the American ambassador to the country.

The statement also made no direct mention of false claims by the film’s producer that he was Israeli and that the film was funded by 100 Jews. These claims, initially reported by media outlets that had interviewed the producer via phone, were quickly shown to be false.

An unnamed federal law enforcement official said Thursday that authorities had identified Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic Christian from Southern California who has a criminal record, as the key figure behind the movie.

As of Friday, the English-language website of Iran’s Press TV was continuing to repeat the false reports that Jews were behind the film.

New Egyptian leader seeks ‘balance’ in Middle East


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ban suggested in his announcement that he got the message.

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

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

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

U.N. chief defies U.S., Israel; plans trip to Tehran


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to attend a summit meeting of leaders of non-aligned developing nations in Tehran next week, defying calls from the United States and Israel to boycott the event, U.N. diplomats said on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Iran’s U.N. mission said it appeared that Ban would be attending the summit next week, though he declined to speak on behalf of the secretary-general’s office.

Several other U.N. diplomatic sources said that barring any unexpected scheduling changes, Ban would attend the meeting of some 120 non-aligned nations in Tehran.

“It’s a very important bloc of nations,” a diplomatic source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “Of course the SG (secretary-general) is going. He can’t not go.”

A Security Council diplomat said it was important for the secretary-general to go. He said Ban should not turn his back on the entire non-aligned movement because one member, Iran, happens to have a president who doubts the Holocaust and questions Israel’s right to exist.

Ban’s spokesman declined to comment.

Diplomats said they did not expect Ban to raise Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful and Western powers and their allies fear is aimed at nuclear weapons, and its leaders’ anti-Israeli remarks during his public speech during the non-aligned summit.

Such rebukes would be better left to Ban’s expected private bilateral meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, envoys said.

The Tehran summit, which Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi will also attend, takes place Sunday through Friday. Mursi is the first Egyptian head of state to visit Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

BAN UNDER PRESSURE TO BOYCOTT SUMMIT

Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Ban to cancel his plans to participate in the Tehran non-aligned summit, according to Israeli media reports.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made clear to reporters in Washington last week that the United States would also like the U.N. chief to boycott the event.

“The fact that the meeting is happening in a country that’s in violation of so many of its international obligations and posing a threat to neighbors … sends a very strange signal with regard to support for the international order, rule of law, et cetera,” Nuland said.

“We’ve made that point to participating countries,” she said. “We’ve also made that point to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.”

Nuland added that if Ban does go, “we hope he will make the strongest points of concern.”

Last week Ban sharply criticized Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, describing their latest verbal attacks on Israel as “offensive and inflammatory.”

Ahmadinejad said there was no place for the Jewish state in a future Middle East, echoing previous remarks he has made about Israel. He has also repeatedly called into question the Nazi extermination of Jews during World War Two – the Holocaust.

Khamenei said last week that Israel would one day be returned to the Palestinian nation and would cease to exist.

Separately, Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran’s U.N. mission in New York, defended the Tehran summit in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post. He was responding to an editorial in the newspaper, which said Ban’s presence in Tehran “will dignify a bacchanal of nonsense.”

Miryousefi said the Post’s editorial board “unjustifiably smeared Iran and mocked the upcoming Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran.

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

Editing by Stacey Joyce

Israel ‘can only rely on itself,’ Netanyahu says after Sinai attack


Israel and Egypt have a common interest in keeping the border between them safe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday during a tour of the site of Sunday’s deadly attack in which Sinai-based gunmen killed at least 15 Egyptian police officers and injured at least seven.

Quoting Egyptian media sources, Israel Radio has since reported that the death toll had reached 17.

In the Sunday incident, the jihadist terrorists took control over an Egyptian checkpointand and commandeered two Egyptian armored vehicles with which they charged toward the border crossing with Israel. The vehicles were destroyed and the terrorists killed as they attempted to infiltrate the Israeli border.

The incident began around 8 p.m., when Israeli soldiers heard shooting coming from the Philadelphia Route, a narrow strip of land situated along the border between Gaza and Egypt. Five minutes later, Sinai terrorists took control of the Egyptian checkpoint, shot the soldiers and charged the commandeered vehicles toward the border, firing in all directions.

Around 8:10 p.m., one of the armored vehicles exploded at the border crossing, blowing a hole through the fence that allowed the other vehicle to cross into Israel. However, the second vehicle was quickly targeted from the air by waiting Israel Air Force aircraft, and was destroyed. Several terrorists were identified trying to flee from the burning vehicles, but they, too, were killed.

According to Israeli intelligence officials, the attack was orchestrated by a Salafi organization. Israeli intelligence services also had previous reports of an impending attack from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and were able to thwart the assault.

“We were prepared for it, so there was a hit,” IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said.

“I wish to express sorrow over the killing of the Egyptian soldiers,” Netanyahu said. “I think its clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a peaceful border between them. However, when it comes to the security of Israeli citizens, it seems time and again that Israel must and can only rely on itself.”

Egyptian army helicopters, with the help of army rangers, have since been attempting to apprehend suspects in the attack, an Egyptian security source reported Monday. An Egyptian source, speaking to Ahram Online, said that early on Monday army units surrounded the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Gaza border, to prevent suspects from escaping. A television journalist in the northern Sinai said the area had been sealed off by security forces, who blocked the road from the main town of Arish in the direction of the Gaza border crossing at Rafah. Egyptian state television reported that the Rafah border crossing would be sealed indefinitely.

The attack was the deadliest such event that Egypt’s tense Sinai border region has seen in decades. Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Egyptian authorities to “wake up” and take decisive action to prevent terror activity in the lawless Sinai Peninsula. Addressing a parliamentary committee, Barak also praised the work of Israeli forces in thwarting the attack, saying, “vigilant IDF troops foiled an attack that could have produced many casualties.”

Israel has repeatedly complained about poor security in Sinai following the overthrow of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, last year. For the past year there has been growing lawlessness in the vast desert expanse, as Bedouin bandits, jihadists and Palestinian terrorists from the adjoining Gaza Strip fill the vacuum, tearing at already frayed relations between Egypt and Israel.

Former Deputy IDF Chief of General Staff and former GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel told Army Radio that, “Egypt either does not want or does not have the power to stop Islamist terror in Sinai.”

Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counterterrorism Bureau, also told Army Radio on Monday that the attack constituted a definite escalation by terrorist organizations. “There is no doubt that the perpetrators who carried out this attack took a huge risk in involving Egyptian security personnel,” he said.

Egyptian security had reportedly ignored Israeli warnings of an impending attack. Last week, an Egyptian security source accused Israeli travel agencies of being behind Israeli authorities’ warnings to Israeli tourists in Sinai, urging them to leave.

“It has become common in Israel for travel agencies to spread these rumors to keep Israeli tourists inside Israel instead of going to Sinai, which causes losses for these agencies,” the source told the German news agency DPA.

The terrorists were armed with explosives belts, guns, bombs and other weapons, and were apparently planning a large demonstration of power, the initial investigation into the incident suggested.

“Considering the explosives that the terrorists brought in the small vehicle that exploded at the start, and the explosives belts fitted on six or eight terrorists inside that armored vehicle, there is no doubt that their entry into an Israeli town or a military base by surprise could have incurred extensive damage,” Barak said.

“This was an extremely successful joint operation of the IAF and Armored Corps. The speed of the cooperation between the various forces enabled us to thwart a terror attack within 15 minutes, according to the assessments. I would like to express my appreciation for the troops’ vigilance, specifically that of the intelligence personnel, and the determination of the soldiers operating in the field,” said IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Meanwhile, an initial investigation into the incident revealed that the second vehicle had penetrated a full 2 kilometers into Israeli territory before it was destroyed, and that military troops had pursued the vehicle at high speed, complete with gunfire, on a civilian road alongside civilian vehicles.

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi addressed his nation on television shortly after the attack, following an emergency meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, and declared that the perpetrators of the attack would “pay a high price.”

“What happened [Sunday] is a criminal attack by our enemies upon our sons from the armed forces at a border point, the sons of whom were martyred at that place, while they were taking part in a fast-breaking Ramadan meal. These martyrs’ blood will not be shed in vain,” he said. “My deepest condolences go out to the families of these martyrs, and our condolences to the Egyptian people.”

The attack was an early diplomatic test for Morsi, an Islamist who assumed office at the end of June after staunch U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year in a popular uprising. The attack may also complicate Egypt’s relations with Hamas, the Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip and is close to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, if it emerges that Palestinian gunmen were involved.

In a statement posted on the website of Gaza’s Hamas leaders, Hamas also condemned “the ugly crime committed today against the Egyptian soldiers, and sent its condolences to the families of the victims, to Egypt’s president and to his government.”

Obama says he has failed to advance Mideast peace ‘the way I wanted’


President Barack Obama said in an interview that he has failed to advance the Middle East peace process “the way I wanted.”

“I have not been able to move the peace process forward in the Middle East the way I wanted,” he told WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, on July 15 in response to a question on whether there was “anything you believe you failed at, not because Congress wouldn’t play ball, but that rests squarely on your shoulders.”

Obama said, “It’s something we focused on very early. But the truth of the matter is that the parties, they’ve got to want it as well.”

His comments came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Israel for high-level meetings on Iran, Syria and Egypt, as well as the peace process. U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon also visited Israel over the weekend for consultations.

Egypt’s new president to visit Iran


New Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi will visit Iran next month.

Morsi will be attending the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of states that do not consider themselves allied or opposed to any major international powers, according to the Times of Israel.

Morsi became chairman of the movement automatically upon becoming Egyptian president, but will hand the chairmanship to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the meeting.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he hopes the visit will strengthen relations between Iran and Egypt, according to the Times of Israel. Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party.

Egypt stirs Islamist joy, Gulf, Israeli doubts


Egypt’s new president may lack real foreign policy clout for now, but the mere fact that a Muslim Brotherhood man is at the helm of the biggest Arab nation will embolden fellow Islamists seeking revolutionary change around the Middle East.

Mohamed Morsi’s tenure as head of state is likely to unsettle Israel, please the Jewish state’s arch-foe Iran, and dismay secularist critics of the Brotherhood at home and abroad who argue that political Islam is no antidote to unemployment, a flatlining economy and social misery, analysts say.

It will also stir misgivings among some Gulf Arab states still struggling to respond effectively to the ousting of their long-term ally, deposed president Hosni Mubarak.

Analysts say any variations in aid flows from the Gulf may be an indicator of the health of their relationship with Cairo.

“Morsi’s victory will not benefit us directly. But it is a symbol of a victorious revolution,” Abu Yazen, an activist from the Syrian city of Hama, the repeated scene of bloodshed during Syria’s 15-month-old uprising, told Reuters.

“Morsi and his victory illustrates that revolutionaries will not rest until they reap the rewards of their work,” he added.

Mustapha el-Sayed, political science professor at Cairo University, said Morsi’s victory in presidential elections confirmed a trend started in Tunisia “that the political force most likely to come to power in most Arab states after the fall of their regimes is the Islamists.”

The Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and most established contemporary Islamist movement, has wide influence in the Arab world even if, like in Egypt, its followers have often been repressed in Muslim-majority countries.

After wins by Islamists at legislative polls in Tunisia and Morocco, Morsi’s election is prompting the world to think again about how it deals with advocates of Islamic rule.

But the Egyptian military is expected to keep a tight rein on foreign policy and will protect a peace treaty with Israel that brings in $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid a year.

As a result, the ability of the Morsi government to provide immediate material support to kindred political forces in other Arab countries may be limited.

COLDER PEACE WITH ISRAEL

And in any case, his urgent tasks will be at home, namely to bring Egyptians the stability and prosperity they are desperate for after stagnation and corruption under Mubarak, followed by 16 months of crisis.

But his focus on domestic affairs will not stop critics of the Brotherhood from looking on with trepidation.

Israeli officials have said they respect the election result and expect Cairo to continue to preserve the treaty. But Former Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in an interview with Israel Radio that while the peace treaty would continue, it would be “much colder” in future.

“There’s not a shadow of a doubt we have awoken to a new world, a different world, a world that is more religious, Islamist and anti-Israel. … the man is known for his extremist views against the peace treaty with Israel,” Ben-Eliezer said.

The Sunni Brotherhood, whose Palestinian offshoot Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is strongly critical of Israel, which has watched the rise of Islamists in Egypt with growing concern.

Hamas hopes a Morsi presidency would loosen the economic shackles of a boycott of Gaza that Israel says is meant to stop the flow of arms to Gaza.

“The question is how Western states react, if they isolate Hamas further and keep trying to squeeze them out of power, then of course Hamas will turn to the Brotherhood for support, it is only logical,” said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha.

“They’re a pragmatic party that takes help from anybody they can get.”

Britain’s Quilliam think tank said a topic to watch closely was increased rocket attacks from Sinai which “could destabilize the relationship between Egypt and Israel, particularly if Israel seek unilateral action inside Egyptian territory.”

MORSI WIN LIKELY TO INFLUENCE LIBYA

In Libya it is still unclear how well the Muslim Brotherhood-linked party, the Justice and Construction Party, will do in Libya’s first free elections slated for July 7 because the organization does not enjoy the same institutional popularity that it does in Tunisia or Egypt.

But experts and Libyan liberals alike believe that the Brotherhood win in Egypt will boost the confidence of their Libyan counterparts.

“The Brotherhood in Libya will see it not just as a victory for Egypt but a victory for the Brotherhood (generally),” said political scientist Omar Ashour.

He said if the Libyan Brotherhood were successful in Libya, an oil producer with big financial reserves, their Egyptian counterparts would look to them for contracts and opportunities to help the Egyptian economy through its struggles.

In Libya, secularists watch Morsi with some concern.

Watching a re-run of the Egyptian president’s speech on a news channel this morning in his office, Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s wartime rebel prime minister who resigned last October told Reuters that Mosri’s win in Egypt would “definitely” boost the Libyan branch of the Brotherhood.

“It makes our task here as democratic forces calling for a civil state and calling for equal rights for all Libyans, and calling for a real democratic process much harder,” he said.

Gulf Arab states have reacted warily to Morsi’s win.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution Doha branch said Morsi’s win represented the first time an Islamist party had risen to the presidency in the Arab world.

“There is a symbolic power that is surely concerning to Gulf leaders especially those in Saudi and the Emirates because they are increasingly concerned about their own Islamist opposition.”

GULF ARABS SEEN PREFERRING ‘WEAK” EGYPT

Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at Quilliam, said Gulf states wanted the “weak Egypt” they were used to under Mubarak and did not want to regain the diplomatic weight it had in the 1950s and 1960s during the heyday of Arab nationalism.

“The Brotherhood is the group with the soft power and the influence to be able to revive Egypt and make it, once again, the most influential country in the Middle East,” he said.

“Watch the economic cooperation with the Gulf. Will they fulfill the projects they have promised? I suspect not.”

Hamid of Brooking said Gulf states would use economic clout to pressure the Brotherhood. “Egypt is going to need assistance – loans, foreign direct investment—and the Gulf leaders, if they’re smart, will use that to their own benefit,” he said.

Emboldened by the growing clout of Islamists elsewhere, members of Islah, or Reform, in the United Arab Emirates have stepped up demands for greater power to go to a semi-elected advisory council.

“It’s great, let the Islamists win, let them be demystified and show that they don’t have a special warrant to create jobs, or resolve the Palestinian issue—they are just regular guys,” said Mishaal al-Gergawi, an Emirati political analyst.

“Jobs, the economy, society, identity—all these issues that people are worried about in the Gulf, Islamists don’t have an advantage in addressing these,” he said.

Additional reporting by Hadeel Al Shalchi in Tripoli, Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Jeffrey Heller and Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem, Nidal al Mugrabi in Gaza, Regan Doherty in Doha, Joseph Logan, Raissa Kasolowsky and Marcus George in Dubai, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo

Editing by Samia Nakhoul

Netanyahu urges action on Iran after meeting Putin


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday it was time to ramp up sanctions against Iran to try to curb its nuclear program after discussing the matter with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In his first public comments on the inconclusive round of talks in Moscow last week between world powers and Iran, Netanyahu repeated Israel’s three core demands.

“I believe two things must be done now: strengthening the sanctions and also boosting the demands,” Netanyahu said, without mentioning the possibility of Israeli military action should diplomacy fail.

The international community must call for the cessation of all uranium enrichment in Iran, the removal of all enriched uranium from the country and the dismantling of the Furdow underground nuclear facility, he added.

At the Moscow talks, Russia, the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany set no date for further political negotiations.

Last month, and again in the Russian capital, world powers asked Iran to close the Furdow facility where uranium is being enriched to 20-percent fissile purity, and to ship any stocks out of the country, demands that come close to those of Israel.

Israel wants all Iranian uranium enrichment to stop, but is uneasy about the West’s current focus on halting only higher-percentage enrichment close to a level needed to produce material for nuclear bombs.

OIL EMBARGO

European governments on Monday formally approved an embargo on Iranian oil to start on July 1. Debt-ridden Greece had pushed for a delay because it relies heavily on Iranian crude to meet its energy needs, but EU governments said the embargo would go ahead as planned.

“We had an opportunity to discuss the negotiations under way between the international community and Iran,” Netanyahu said of his meeting with Putin.

“We agree that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran represents a grave danger, first of all to Israel, but also to the region and to the entire world,” he said.

Putin, in his own comments to reporters at Netanyahu’s residence, said they discussed Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in Syria “in great detail”. He did not elaborate.

Russia takes a softer tack than the Western nations and opposes any further sanctions against Iran. Putin has said Russia has no proof that Tehran, which denies it is seeking atomic weapons, intends to become a nuclear-armed power.

His trip to Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan is seen as an effort to increase Russia’s clout in the region at a time when the West and some Arab nations have criticized Moscow for opposing their efforts to force out Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The visit, officially billed as an opportunity to dedicate a memorial in central Israel to the Red Army’s battles against Nazi Germany in World War Two, began a day after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner of Egypt’s presidential election.

The outcome of the poll in Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has raised concerns in Israel.

On Syria, Russia has brushed aside U.S. and Arab calls to stop sending weapons to the government there, saying it supplies only defensive arms. It has also used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to protect Syria.

Assad has helped Russia keep a foothold in the Middle East by buying billions of dollars worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance facility for the Russian navy, its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Egypt’s Morsi keen to renew long-severed Iran ties


Egypt’s Islamist President-elect Mohamed Morsi voiced interest in restoring long-severed ties with Tehran to create a strategic “balance” in the region, in an interview published on Monday with Iran’s Fars news agency.

Morsi’s comments are likely to unsettle Western powers as they try to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear program, which they suspect it is using to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies this.

Since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising last year, both countries have signaled their interest in renewing ties which were severed more than 30 years ago.

“We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region,” Morsi was quoted as saying in a transcript of the interview.

Fars said it had spoken to Morsi a few hours before Sunday’s announcement that declared him the winner of Egypt’s presidential election.

Asked to comment on reports that, if elected, his first state visit would be to Riyadh, Morsi said: “I didn’t say such a thing and until now my first international visits following my victory in the elections have not been determined.”

Rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran has been intensified by the “Arab Spring” revolts, which have altered political certainties in the Middle East and left the powerful Gulf neighbors vying for influence.

In a message to Morsi on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated him for winning the vote.

“I emphasize expanding bilateral ties and strengthening the friendship between the two nations,” Ahmadinejad wrote, according to state television.

Iran has hailed Morsi’s victory over former general Ahmed Shafik in Egypt’s first free presidential election as a “splendid vision of democracy” that marked the country’s “Islamic Awakening” – a phrase Iranian politicians use to describe the events of the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath.

Western diplomats say in reality Egypt has little real appetite to change relations with Iran significantly, given the substantial issues the new president already has to face in cementing relations with regional and global powers.

“Iran is hoping for Egypt to become a deterrent against an Israeli attack as well as a regional player that Iran can use as a potential counter-balance against Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said a diplomat based in Tehran.

“Egypt, at least under present circumstances, would side with either of these against Iran.”

CAMP DAVID REVIEW

In contrast to comments Morsi made in a televised address after his victory was announced on Sunday, Fars news quoted him as saying Egypt’s Camp David peace accord with Israel “will be reviewed”, without elaborating.

The peace treaty remains a lynchpin of U.S. Middle East policy and, despite its unpopularity with many Egyptians, was staunchly upheld by Mubarak, who suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which Morsi belongs.

The Sunni Brotherhood, whose Palestinian offshoot Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is vehemently critical of Israel, which has watched the rise of Islamists and political upheaval in neighboring Egypt with growing concern.

Egypt’s formal recognition of Israel and Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution led in 1980 to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries, among the biggest and most influential in the Middle East. They currently have reciprocal interest sections, but not at ambassadorial level.

Egypt’s foreign minister said last year that Cairo was ready to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, which has hailed most Arab Spring uprisings as anti-Western rebellions inspired by its own Islamic Revolution.

But Iran has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s closest Arab ally, who is grappling with a revolt against his rule, and at home has continued to reject demands for reform, which spilled onto the street following the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Editing by Andrew Roche and Robin Pomeroy

Egypt’s president-elect never made overtures to Iran, aide says


An Iranian news agency said Egypt’s Islamist President-elect Mohamed Morsi had voiced interest in restoring long-severed ties with Tehran to create a strategic “balance” in the region, but a Morsi aide denied the interview ever took place.

Iran’s Fars agency said it spoke to Morsi a few hours before Sunday’s election results were announced and quoted him saying the two countries should get closer – comments that go counter to Western efforts to isolate Tehran over its nuclear program.

“We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region,” the semi-official news agency quoted Morsi as saying in a transcript of the interview.

Yasser Ali, a Morsi aide, told Reuters: “There was never a meeting with the Iranian news agency Fars and what was taken as statements has no basis in truth”.

On its web page, Fars published a transcript and an audio of the conversation. Reuters was unable to verify the recording but the man purported to be Morsi did not sound exactly like him.

Fars said it had asked Morsi whether, if elected, his first state visit would be to Riyadh, to which he replied: “I didn’t say such a thing and until now my first international visits following my victory in the elections have not been determined”.

Rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran has been intensified by last year’s “Arab Spring” revolts, which have altered political certainties in the Middle East and left the powerful Gulf neighbors vying for influence.

Since Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled in one of those uprisings, both Cairo and Tehran have signaled interest in renewing ties severed more than 30 years ago.

Morsi, however, striving to reassure Egypt’s western allies wary at the prospect of Islamist rule, is unlikely to stage major foreign policy reversals so early in his rule.

“STRENGTHENING FRIENDSHIP”

In a message to Morsi on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated him for winning the vote.

“I emphasize expanding bilateral ties and strengthening the friendship between the two nations,” Ahmadinejad wrote, according to state television.

Iran has hailed Morsi’s victory over former general Ahmed Shafik in Egypt’s first free presidential election as a “splendid vision of democracy” that marked the country’s “Islamic Awakening” – a phrase Iranian politicians use to describe the events of the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath.

When asked about the possibility of Cairo and Tehran restoring relations, White House spokesman Jay Carney stressed Egypt’s vital role in the region.

“It is perfectly appropriate for a nation like Egypt to have relations with its neighbors, but again we look to Egypt to continue its significant role as a pillar of regional peace and stability,” Carney said aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama flew to New Hampshire.

Western diplomats say in reality Egypt has little real appetite to change relations with Iran significantly, given the substantial issues the new president already has to face in cementing relations with regional and global powers.

“Iran is hoping for Egypt to become a deterrent against an Israeli attack as well as a regional player that Iran can use as a potential counter-balance against Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said a diplomat based in Tehran.

“Egypt, at least under present circumstances, would side with either of these against Iran.”

CAMP DAVID REVIEW

In what looked like a reversal of comments Morsi made in a televised address after his victory was announced on Sunday, Fars news quoted him as saying Egypt’s Camp David peace accord with Israel “will be reviewed”, without elaborating.

The peace treaty remains a lynchpin of U.S. Middle East policy and, despite its unpopularity with many Egyptians, was staunchly upheld by Mubarak, who suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which Morsi belongs.

The Sunni Brotherhood, whose Palestinian offshoot Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is vehemently critical of Israel, which has watched the rise of Islamists and political upheaval in neighboring Egypt with growing concern.

Egypt’s formal recognition of Israel and Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution led in 1980 to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries, among the biggest and most influential in the Middle East. They currently have reciprocal interest sections, but not at ambassadorial level.

Egypt’s foreign minister said last year that Cairo was ready to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, which has hailed most Arab Spring uprisings as anti-Western rebellions inspired by its own Islamic Revolution.

But Iran has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s closest Arab ally, who is grappling with a revolt against his rule, and at home has continued to reject demands for reform, which spilled onto the street following the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Additional reporting by Isabel Coles and by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Heroes of the Arab spring


A journalist with family in Syria told me there’s a joke going around that country these days.

“Why don’t women in Damascus have to wear a veil?”

“Because there’s no men there.”

In cities and towns throughout Syria, ordinary, unarmed citizens are protesting the decades-long Assad family dictatorship. They are being set upon and slaughtered by the thug puppets of President Bashar Assad.

His troops have captured, tortured, castrated and killed teenage boys as a way to terrorize their parents into submission. These so-called men will do anything — anything — to stay in power, protecting their warped sense of manhood by stealing it from boys.

Meanwhile, in the more mercantile-minded city of Aleppo and the capital Damascus, the men and boys have not taken to the street. For this, Syrians are mocking the manhood of their fellow citizens.

I get the reason for the sting, but I, for one, wouldn’t sit in judgment on anyone in Aleppo or Damascus. Syrian expert Fawaz Gerges said in an interview on National Public Radio that because those cities are critical to the Assad regime, any protest there will be met with overwhelming firepower and cruelty. If I lived there, I also might think twice about sticking my neck out.

In fact, if I lived anywhere in the Arab world over the past year, I’m not sure I’d have had the guts to be one of the ones on the front lines of any of these protests.

As Mubarak fell in Egypt, as Saleh did in Yemen, as Gadhafi appears, as I write, to be finally losing his grip in Libya, these people who have stood up to them have willingly exposed themselves to enormous risks, and all have paid a tremendous price — of their own lives or those of those close to them. The history of the Arab spring is a lesson in sheer human bravery.

And make no mistake: These mostly Muslim resisters haven’t just been fighting for themselves and their own freedom; they have been fighting for us.

Yes, us.

We may not want to admit it, and many of them might recoil in disgust at the thought, but when the history books are written, the Arab spring may be seen as a far more effective force for the spread of democracy and Western values in the Middle East than all the American and European soldiers, monies and neo-cons combined.

Think about it. Our great botched Iraq War, which was sold to deluded people like me as a front line for democracy in the heart of the Middle East, turned out to have the unintended consequence of strengthening one of the least democratic and most threatening states in the region, Iran.

The collapse of Saddam Hussein created a vacuum in Iraq that has been filled not by Israel-loving feminists reading “Common Sense” by the banks of the Tigris, but by the ayatollahs. The democratic domino effect that the neo-cons predicted became what Ehud Barak once described to me as a “Shiite Banana,” arcing across the region.

The occupation of Iraq was a boon to Iran, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said this week, reported in Haaretz. “Iran became more influential than it had ever dreamed.”

The spate of suicide bombings all this week in Iraq, with scores left dead and injured, has American officials wondering aloud whether the country won’t descend into chaos as President Barack Obama delivers on his promise to draw down American troops. If that happens, two things will follow: There will be a deafening global “I told you so” from every vindicated war critic, and Iran, which has spent our Iraq War devising ways to pursue nuclear weapons, will have a whole new country in which to hide them.

Against this utterly depressing, somewhat humiliating and altogether predictable scenario stands one unbowed fighting force: the Arabs. 

If these men, women and children take down Assad in Syria like others have taken down the despots in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and, hopefully, Libya, the Shiite Banana will hit the fan. 

“At stake is not just whether millions of Syrians will finally find freedom and liberty after four decades of dictatorial rule by the Assad family,” the Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff said last June in testimony before Congress. “At stake is the opportunity to strike a painful, perhaps decisive blow to the axis of anti-peace, anti-Western, anti-American regimes that is headquartered in Teheran, runs through Damascus, then on to Beirut and Gaza, and has aspirations to extend its reach to Baghdad, the Gulf and beyond.”

If what Satloff says is true, then we owe a huge debt to the Muslims currently risking their lives fighting for their freedom, whose success could well just stop Tehran in its hegemonic tracks. Keep in mind they are doing this without drones or Kevlar. They are, often literally, taking bullets for us. 

No one can predict how the Arab spring will play out across the region, whether some countries will regress into new forms of despotism, while others become neo-caliphates of the Muslim Brotherhood or, hopefully, continue the struggle for years toward democracy. But there is no denying that the intention compelling these flesh-and-blood people to face down lead and steel is to restore their dignity and their freedom.  

“In the place where there are no men,” Hillel said in the Mishnah, “strive to be a man.”

These Arabs — men, women and children — are showing us what the great rabbi meant.

Egypt’s foreign minister talks tough on Israel


Egypt’s new foreign minister said the days of Israel getting cheap gas and strategic benefits are over.

In an interview Sunday on Egyptian television, Nabil al-Arabi said Egypt will demand that Israel pay the difference between the reduced prices it received and market value on the natural gas it purchased under deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. 

It was the first time an Egyptian official has spoken of a retroactive payment. The new oil minister has called for the price to be renegotiated on future purchases, according to Ynet.

Reports have circulated that the Egyptian government exports natural gas to Israel at prices lower than the cost of production.

Arabi also threatened to review and amend security arrangements agreed to in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, but he stressed that the two countries would have to agree on any changes.

”We will stick to all of the treaties we signed, and we will demand that they keep their side of the deal,” he said, before adding that “We will not be a ‘strategic treasure’ for Israel as they used to say during the time of Mubarak. We will only abide by the treaties.”

Arabi also said that although the Sinai Peninsula is required to be demilitarized according to the treaty, Egypt keeps a military presence there.

The foreign minister stressed that the Egyptian government continues to play an important role in the Middle East peace process and said that “the Palestinians want peace, but Israel has not yet met their demands.”

”There must be some decisiveness in the issues Israel has not abided by, such as the clause that states that Israel must maintain peace with countries that want peace, which has not happened with Palestine, which has agreed to peace with Israel,” he said. ”The conflict between Palestine and Israel should be ended and not managed … for the benefit of Israel, Palestine and the entire world.”

Egyptian media reported over the weekend that Arabi also said that he would work to renew diplomatic ties with Iran since he did not consider it an enemy state.

Barak: “A strong, responsible Israel can become a stabilizer in such a turbulent region”


Israel may ask the U.S. for $20 billion more in security aid, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told The Wall Street Journal.

The aid is needed to help manage threats arising from the recent uprisings in the region, the Journal reported.

Barak called the region’s popular uprisings “a movement in the right direction,” but said that Israel was concerned that Iran and Syria would come late to the regional unrest.

He added that he feared public pressure could push new leaders in Egypt away from the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Still, Barak said he believes that Egypt will respect the pact with Israel “for the time being.”

“The issue of qualitative military aid for Israel becomes more essential for us, and I believe also more essential for you,” Barak told The Wall Street Journal, meaning the United States. “It might be wise to invest another $20 billion to upgrade the security of Israel for the next generation or so.”

Barak added that “A strong, responsible Israel can become a stabilizer in such a turbulent region.”

The United States allocates about $3 billion a year in military assistance to Israel.

Iranian warships enter Suez Canal


Two Iranian warships reportedly entered the Suez Canal, the first to pass through since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The ships entered the canal for the 10- to 12-hour crossing on Tuesday morning after receiving permission from Egypt’s Defense Ministry, the Egyptian state-run Middle East News Agency reported.

The Iranian naval ships, a frigate and a supply ship, are headed to Syria for what has been described as training.

Israel takes a “grave view” of Iran’s plan to send two navy warships through the Suez Canal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

“I think that today, we can see what an unstable region we live in, a region in which Iran tries to exploit the situation that has been created in order to expand its influence by passing warships through the Suez Canal,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet in public remarks on Sunday. “Israel views this Iranian move with utmost gravity and this step, like other steps and developments, underscores what I have reiterated in recent years—Israel’s security needs will grow and the defense budget must grow accordingly.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had announced Feb. 16 that the ships were en route to Syria via the Suez Canal. His statement called the move a recurring Iranian “provocation” and suggested that Israel would not ignore Iran’s actions.

“The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations,” he said.

According to international rules governing navigation through the Suez Canal, no vessel can be denied passage unless it is at war with Egypt. Prior approval must come from the Ministry of Defense, and ships must give at least 24 hours notice before crossing.

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