Israel cracks down on Islamic State volunteers


Ayoob Kara, a deputy Israeli cabinet minister, used to double as an unofficial intermediary with the few of his fellow Arab citizens who have left to join Islamic State insurgents in Syria or Iraq.

Negotiating discreetly through relatives and go-betweens, he would offer them reduced jail terms if they returned to Israel, cooperated with security services and helped deter other would-be Islamic State recruits by publicly disavowing the group.

A half-dozen volunteers took the deal, Kara says. 

But with the number of Islamic State sympathizers in Israel growing from its initial trickle, and some accused of trying to set up armed cells within the country's 18-percent Muslim minority, the deputy minister no longer sounds so accommodating.

“I used to work hard to dissuade people from joining ISIS, but now I say that there's no point,” he told Reuters in an interview, using an acronym for the insurgents. 

“If, by this point, when the dangers are abundantly clear to everyone, they still want to go, then they are beyond saving and it's a one-way ticket for them. It's literally a dead end.”

Kara, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was expressing a hardening of government policy against Islamic State, which, though preoccupied with battling Syrian and Iraqi regime forces, has recently inveighed against Israel.

“Jews, soon you shall hear from us in Palestine, which will become your grave,” promised a Dec. 26 voice recording on social media attributed to Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

In October, two video clips surfaced in which Islamic State gunmen threatened to strike Israel. They spoke in near-fluent, Arabic-accented Hebrew, suggesting they were among the several dozen Israeli Arabs who the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service estimates have joined the group abroad.

Israel sees a major cross-border attack on it by Islamic State as unlikely. But it is less sanguine about support for the group inside Israel, which is already beset by Palestinian street violence that has surged in the last three months, stoked in part by strife over a contested Jerusalem mosque complex. 

“It (Islamic State influence) is beginning to spread here as well,” Intelligence Ministry director-general Ram Ben-Barak told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday. “The ISIS scenario we worry about is ISIS cells arising in Israel to carry out terrorist attacks.”

Among Israel's Muslim minority, pro-Palestinian sympathies are common but political violence rare.

PARAGLIDER, EX-ARMY DEFECTOR AMONG RECRUITS

Still, a series of spectacular incidents involving Israelis and Islamic State has unsettled the Shin Bet. 

One Arab citizen who had volunteered to serve in Israel's army later defected to the insurgents' ranks in Syria, it emerged this month – a blow for a military that regards itself as a sectarian melting pot in the Jewish-majority country.

Separately, an Israeli Arab used a paraglider to fly into Syria in what the Shin Bet said was a bid to join Islamic State, and three others were arrested on suspicion of trying to set up an armed cell to carry out attacks in Israel on orders from two Israeli Arabs who are already with Islamic State in Iraq.

The paraglider incident prompted Netanyahu to order the revocation of Islamic State volunteers' Israeli citizenship. Such a move, if it passes higher court review, would effectively shut the door on their return, a step that also has been a controversial topic of debate in European nations whose citizens have been fighting for Islamic State.

It marks a policy shift for Israel, which last year repatriated Marhan Khaldi, an Arab citizen wounded while fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and who made his way back to Turkey, where Israeli diplomats replaced the passport he had discarded en route to the war zone.

Israel jailed Khaldi for 42 months, a sentence comparable to previous cases of citizens who joined Islamic State abroad. 

Prosecutors had sought an 8- to 12-year prison term for Khaldi and appealed to the Supreme Court to harshen his punishment, saying in a statement that due the risk posed by Islamic State “the time is ripe to get tough on such offences”. The Supreme Court's ruling on the appeal could take months.

Khaldi's lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said Israeli judges lacked court precedents on which to base sweeping new sentences due to the fact that the country outlawed Islamic State only in September 2014 – a delay he attributed to the Netanyahu government's reluctance to take sides in Syria's civil war. 

Israeli legislation introduced in December 2014 that would raise the maximum jail sentence for joining foreign groups like Islamic State to five years is still under parliamentary review.

“It has taken time for the monstrousness of ISIS to dawn, so while Israel is seeking greater penalties for joining it, this had been taking time too,” said Abu Hussein, who also heads the Israeli Arab civil rights group Adalah. 

Abu Hussein said the Shin Bet appeared to be refocusing its anti-Islamic State efforts on social media activity by Arab citizens that might flag up nascent sympathizers for arrest.

According to Kara, the value to Israeli intelligence of Arab citizens who came back from Islamic State's fiefdoms had waned – meaning any returnees had less to bargain with for clemency.

“There was a time when someone would come back and provide useful information on their camps and recruitment, et cetera,” Kara said. “But that's in the past now. The whole world is fighting Islamic State and everything is pretty much known.”

Israel faces threats ranging from rockets to nuclear, defense minister says


Israel faces a wide variety of threats ranging from Islamic militants wielding missiles and rockets to nuclear attack, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday during a visit to the United States.

Yaalon was speaking with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the National Defense University in Washington. Carter emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Israeli security relationship and the United States' commitment to maintaining close ties.

Carter and Yaalon are due to visit the Naval Air Station in Maryland on Wednesday for a demonstration of the F-35 joint strike fighter. The United States has said it will deliver the F-35 to Israel next year, making it the only country in the Middle East to have the top-flight aircraft.

Yaalon ticked off a number of threats that he said Israel has faced, including from Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad's Syria, and Iran.

“The threat has been changed dramatically from conventional type warfare to what might be called super-conventional…weapons of mass destruction, or sub-conventional like terror, rockets, and missiles,” Yaalon said.

Close U.S.-Israeli ties have come under strain in recent months over a nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and the United States and other world powers, which Israeli officials have denounced as empowering Iran and endangering Israel.

Yaalon said the deal, which was agreed in July and imposes curbs on Iran's nuclear program in return for the removal of some economic sanctions, could delay an Iranian nuclear threat againstIsrael.

“Yes, for the time being, for about a decade or so, it (Iran's nuclear program) might be postponed as a threat against us,” Yaalon said, adding that the Iranian government had not given up its “vision of having a military nuclear capability.”

Iran denies ever pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and said that it wanted nuclear capability only for civilian purposes.

Yaalon also addressed ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians. Violence has flared in Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, in part triggered by Palestinians' anger over what they see as Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Yaalon said claims that Israel had violated agreements related to the holy site were false.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced cautious hope that there may be a way to defuse the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel bought $1 billion in oil from Iraqi Kurds


Israel has purchased $1 billion worth of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan in recent months, the Financial Times reported.

The import of some 19 million barrels of oil took place over the last three months, the Financial Times report said, citing shipping data, trading sources and satellite tanker tracking. The amount represents about one-third of northern Iraqi exports and meets about 77 percent of Israeli oil needs, according to the report, which speculated that some of the oil was resold by Israel.

Kurdish oil is exported through the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Kurdish government has denied selling oil to Israel. But a senior Kurdish government adviser in Erbil told the Financial Times, “We do not care where the oil goes once we have delivered it to the traders.”

The report speculated that the Israeli purchases are a way to support the Kurds’ fight against the Islamic State jihadist group.

Chaos is my Heaven: Q-and-A with Itai Anghel


Rob Eshman: What year did you first meet Commander Media, the leader of the female militia you film in your documentary.

Itai Anglel: 2010.  She was already a commander. So when I saw her now, it was very good, you know. It meant for her, you know, that, “Okay, it’s fine. He can join us. “

Rob: And you just crossed into Syria?

Anghel:  I’ve been to Iraq four times and I’ve been to Syria two times. I have an American passport. I was born in the United States, but I never lived actually in the States because my parents have been studying in Columbia University in New York for six years.

Rob: But it still must give you an extra level of, I don’t know, caution or fear thinking what people would do to you in these places if they found out you were Israeli somehow.

Itai: Yeah. Of course. I deal with it a lot. I actually, you know, do some sort of techniques in order to make my way through all these very tense places. The way I see it is like that, I mean, if I will attract attention, then it is the beginning of the end. The thing is try not to attract attention. I mean, I try not to be interesting. I’m working on not being interesting when I’m working in journalism.

If I try to summarize it in one sentence, you know, whenever you feel anxious, whenever you look scared — and I’m scared, I’m scared to death — but whenever you look scared, then all the attention is on you, all eyes on you because you look like someone who has done something bad. You look like you’re guilty of something.

[MORE: The brave Israeli interviewing ISIS fighters in Syria]

When you hang around in places where there are a lot of conspiracies among other people going on, so when they see someone look at his face, immediately, “Okay, who’s this guy? Why does he look like that?” So although I feel very scared of this outside I got to a point where, you know, when I got from the border of Pakistan to Afghanistan, it was exactly on the day that America began bombarding there and there was a lot of hostility in this specific place that I had to go through. They were chanting, “Death to Israel. Death to America!” and I would put my camera and there were like hundred men. And they burned the flag of Israel and they burned the flag of the United States. 

So you know, the instinct is just to run away, but actually it’s not the place to run away. Running away was something that attracts attention. So I do exactly the other thing. I try to look at them, respond to, you know, even the problematic people around them. For example, one burned the Israel’s flag and they go straight to me. “Hello, who are you?” “I can speak some Arabic, I can speak English, I can speak whatever language you speak.”  

He was smoking a cigarette, so I asked for a cigarette. I do not even smoke, by the way, but you know the circumstance. And I think in every moment — not in every moment — in every second back there I’m engaging myself in what they are thinking about me and how they see me. And when I ask him for a cigarette, I mean, obviously he doesn’t know me, but he has an idea of, “Oh, this guy looks cool. He probably used to come in here, probably know people in here.” And this is how I make my way. And I realized, I mean, the flag of my country is melting in front of me, so what I feel in my stomach is one thing, and the outrage is one thing, but on the outside I stepped on this flag, this part of this flag that is being melted as it had nothing with me.

And I talked to him and I give him the impression like, “Oh, great that you’re here. I’ve been looking for you. What are you doing right now?” and then, you know, it’s sort of a dance  between us begins. This is actually the beginning for everything that I’ve done anywhere. I’ve been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza, whatever. This is the way I’ve been around, absolutely in contrast to what you would accept, contrary to what I would do, you know, normally. Now the situation is not normal, so you have to think out of the box. It’s what I’ve been doing in the past 20 years.

Rob: The fact that you have an American passport in a lot of these places doesn’t really protect you either. It’s not like America is that popular.

Itai: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the American passport enables me to put a step on the map, like when the Americans invaded Iraq, so with the American passport I could go inside. While inside it doesn’t have to do with nationality and it doesn’t have to do with your religion. It has to do with you being a human being. The way you manage to handle yourself socially. Normally, they don’t even ask you where you’re from. Really.  And if they ask, I tell them that I’m an American.  In Fallujah, for example, where they’re fighting against the Americans. I was there by the way, when the Iraqi sniper [Mustapha,made infamous in the American Sniper movie], you know, shot Marines.

Rob: From 'American Sniper.'

Itai: I tell [the Iraqis] that I’m an American. And they say, “Hey, hey, American is not good.” But I tell them in Arabic, “I’m an American, but I’m not a soldier. I’m not from the Army, I’m a journalist.” And when I speak in Arabic, believe me, they’re amazed, because it’s not that they saw during the 10 years that the Americans have been there someone speaking Arabic, without a professional translator.

So immediately the next question is, “How come you know Arabic?” And I told them that I studied, and then, immediately the next question that I know will be asked is, “Why do you study Arabic?” because they never saw an American make an effort to speak Arabic. And I told him, “Because I want to speak with you, I want to talk to you.”

And then something happened, you know. “Okay.” They see me. I’m alone usually. I’m also the cameraman and the soundman … I do everything by myself. So I’m not intimidating. I will never be intimidating.  

Rob: But [ISIS] seems to especially hate journalists, right?

Itai: Yeah. This is in the specific territory of ISIS. I’ve been with the Kurdish guerrilla while I was taping them and knowing, without any doubts, that if I was caught within ISIS territory, I’m dead. So I went with a Kurdish fighter. I was in the front line but still with the Kurds. Had something happened to the Kurds, some sort of attack by ISIS and they would’ve managed to capture me. I mean, I didn’t even try to fool myself. I know what might’ve happened. But I trusted this guy.

Rob: Did the Kurds know that you were Israeli or Jewish?

Itai: I had, in this specific place, two people that they knew who I am. They knew the truth of me being Israeli, and because of my visit in 2010 and some Kurdish friends.

After the massacre in Sinjar, which was the biggest massacre that ISIS committed against the Iraqi Kurds, I talked to a friend and I felt like I really needed to go again and tell the story again. I tried to verify whether there is a possibility for me to hang around there. And a friend told me, “Yeah, why not?” I mean, it’s okay. I was not sure whether I really needed it, but slowly but surely I knew a conflict was built. It was two people, a man and a woman, and one of them from Syria and one of them from they were very interested in  an Israeli coming there, but they knew who I am, because of my previous work. So they said okay, and they told me that I can absolutely trust them. So I trusted them. It proved to me the right assessment. And then, you know, I got in.

Rob: And these were Kurds? The people you trusted they were Kurds?

Itai: Obviously, yeah. Absolutely. So among them … they told me, “Listen, don’t share too much that you’re an Israeli because we know there are also, within the Kurdish area, a lot of Sunni Muslims that would’ve liked ISIS to capture the place. So if there is a rumor that is spread about an Israeli in here, it would be a problem.” 

But little by little more people realized who I am. It was good, because normally I hide my identity and I occupy myself 24 hours a day, every minute and every second with what they think about me and how do a look. And it’s difficult because I’m a very honest man, but you have to live this part of lying and never tell the whole truth of who you are. I mean, I am an American with an American passport, but it’s not the whole story. You meet people, and you make friends, but you cannot tell them who you are. Even if I absolutely trust them, I cannot.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And  this specific trip was amazing. It was a great relief because they knew who I am. They knew who I am. I didn’t have to engage myself in pretending.

Rob: So, say, like the female commander Media, she knew you were Israeli?

Itai: Yeah. Definitely.  And then we kept another segment of this commander when she’s saying something specific about it because she knew that I’m an Israeli. She said, “The other people who suffer, the only people who suffer, the only community who suffer more than the Kurds, are the Jewish people. So we would’ve expected you, more than any other nation, to sympathize and to be our allies.” And we share the same enemies, by the way. And you, out of this genocide, managed to fight back to win, to have a state, an important state in the world. And this is the model we are looking for because this is our war for independence.” I was amazed.

Rob: Why did you cut that out of the documentary?

Itai: I don’t know. Instead of putting it inside the documentary, we decided, you know, when we go to the studio—because everybody was watching it live—and then you go to the studio and everybody is in love with this commander. “So now this is what this commander has to say about us.” And then we brought it up, so everybody saw it. 

Rob: I see.

Itai: She referred mainly to the fact that Israel provided a lot of weapons to Turkey and a lot of drones to Turkey and these drones are used in order to shoot and kill people like her.

Even when I was there four and a half years ago, 2010, and I hung around where they take refuge  and hide, there were drones, you know, even there. And they were Israeli drones!

Rob: Crazy.

Itai: They were operated by Israelis. Even in the toughest times of the relationship between Turkey and Israel, you still have the kid in Ashdod with joysticks between the Israeli army and the Turkish army.

Rob: So you could’ve been killed by an Israeli drone.

Itai: Yeah, exactly! That went through my head, you know. “If I’m killed now, it would be done by an Israeli weapon driven by Israeli people.”

Rob: It could be your cousin.

Itai: So, yeah, so this is, you know, she was referring to that.

Rob: And do you know if Israel is now helping the Kurds in the ISIS territory at all?

Itai: I don’t know too much about the [government], but after this documentary we made a lot of difference. So I mean, everybody was in love with the Kurds and everybody supported the Kurds…

Kurds have been enemies of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, our same enemies, and they share values like democracy and human rights. And then they see the Commander Media and then they see the respect for Israel — so everybody is absolutely in love with them. And everybody is very much enraged when they realize what we’ve done when they heard the commander. There was a lot of reaction right now.

Rob: How long total were you inside doing this documentary? How long were you inside Iraq and Syria doing the documentary?

Itai: Two weeks.

Rob: Two weeks.

Itai: More or less one week in Iraq, one in Syria.

Rob: Did you go in thinking it was going to be focused so much on this woman, or is that something you discovered when you got there?

Itai: No, I knew about [Media]. I wanted to make all the efforts to meet the woman. Obviously I didn’t know that I would be able to meet her. It was by chance. They told me, “Listen, there is a city of Mahmour that was held by ISIS and is liberated. We’re going in and we’re going to see the commander.” 

And the commander I realized she is a woman, and Media. And I told the interpreter, “Why didn’t you tell me that the commander is a woman?” And they looked at me as if, you know, something is wrong with me, because they don’t differentiate. In Hebrew you say, Mefaked or Mefakedet (Male or Female Commander).

Rob: Right.

Itai: In Kurdish there is one word for male or female. So I was surprised. This is amazing! Nowhere else in the world.  

Rob: You interviewed a man who said the woman are actually better fighters than men.

Itai: You know, in terms of feminism, it’s not that male fighters are their enemy. This is not like it happens with Western feminism. No, no, absolutely it’s like brothers and sisters are fighting together, trusting each other. It’s amazing.  So I knew about all of the women because I saw them fighting two and a half years ago. I was very, very happy to meet the commander.

Rob: America and Israel have women in their armies, but these are really hardcore combat troops. I mean, they’re—

Itai: They are absolutely frontline. In Israel, you know, the idea to say that a women have liberty to make something big of themselves in the army, which is — I hate to say it — it’s bullshit. Everybody knows it’s bullshit …

ISIS is a very serious, complicated mission for the Kurdish guerrilla. It’s not that you’re looking for the most macho male. No. Sometimes it is the women who are doing all the jobs. And Mahmour was liberated only by women. They left more than 300 bodies of ISIS behind, and ISIS ran away, even from the neighboring region. And what is amazing is that women happen to frighten the [ISIS] men because, according to their perception, the theological perception of ISIS, if you get t killed in a combat, what is called “jihad”, you go to heaven.

Rob: Right, right.

Itai: But if a woman kills him, because a woman is not exactly a human being according to their perception of Islam, so you will not go to heaven. And therefore the ISIS panic by the presence of women. So if they engage in a battle they will try to kill the women first, and they’re thinking would be, as an ISIS fighter, “I have to kill the women, because if later on I would be killed by a man it’s okay because I would be in heaven. If a woman would kill me, then this is really the end. So, you know, I will try to make the effort to kill the women.” The women know that the ISIS fighters are getting panicked when they are out, so they signal them that they are there. We call it in Hebrew, if you’re like at an Oriental wedding, we call it hululu.

Rob: The war cry.

Itai: Yeah. So this is what the Kurdish women are doing. I think it’s a very, very crazy situation that these women make this scream you know only from—

Rob: Weddings, right.

Itai: —Parties. It was so crazy. And at night, when we were sitting by the fire one km from the ISIS lines.  And I told them that I was Israeli and that these voices, you know, we call it hululu. We shout it at wedding and parties. They were laughing because they told me, “Listen, it’s not hululu, it’s pilili. That’s the way they call it. And it’s not so fun. It’s like a—

Rob: —War cry.

Itai: Yeah. Exactly.  Even in the funerals — unfortunately you have a lot of funerals of male and female fighters there. It’s very emotional.

Rob: That was part of the documentary.

Itai: Yeah. You hear in the megaphone they make this pilili, because that’s a cry to show ISIS, “You can kill us, but we’re not backing off. We will put up a fight.”  

Rob: The other really powerful part of the documentary is the interrogation of the ISIS fighters. 

Itai: They were prisoners. And to me is very emotional because, you know, I knew, not as a friend, but I saw him as a filmmaker three times, James Foley. James Foley was the first one to be beheaded by them.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And when he entered Syria it was November 2012. He entered from Turkey to Syria, and this is exactly what I’ve done in November 2012, four or five days after he did it. Me and my colleague found out what is the distance between the route he had taken and mine: About a kilometer and half. So back then we realized it was very lucky. 

But when we came in — because I saw him, you know, like three times and it was only, “Hey, take care. How are you? Take care.” We were not trying to mingle or to make friends in those places, because you know, I’m an Israeli and I want the least number of  people to know about it.

Rob: Right.

Itai: My friend told me that he was a great guy and you could trust him.. So I tell him of this specific situation in our country. And then, you know, you hear that he has gone.  When they [the prisoners] came in, you know, immediately I thought about him. What they might have done with him or not. 

And then they’re talking so openly about how they beheaded, and how killed, how they just decided to tell, which was completely crazy, completely crazy, but I have to tell you it was also very, very, very interesting. I mean, besides the initial shock of mine, it was so interesting. 

And I was given 20 minutes to talk to them, because even the process of getting this interview was, it was very abrupt. So we did the interview, and asked all the possible questions. And I can speak Arabic, but my Arabic is okay enough to get by. It’s not perfect, as I cannot understand every word, especially Iraqi Arabic. 

Rob: What drugs did they take?

Itai: Hallucinogens. He was hallucinating. This is what he was saying. And one of them told that he remembers that he killed specifically three under drugs and he cannot tell how many women he raped. The one that was in Iraq told me that he doesn’t remember exactly if it’s 60, 70 or 80 people beheaded and killed.

Rob: But they almost said it with almost no emotion. Like nothing, just like kids talking about a book report or something? Was that shocking?

Itai: No, it was not shocking. You undergo under such a brainstorming. You do what God wants you to do.  And they use a knifewhich is not so sharp, in order to increase the suffering of the one you’re beheading, “This is exactly what prophet Mohamed would’ve done, would’ve like you to do,” which, you know, according to any other Muslim in the world is completely far from it. According to them this is it. So they are good and they are fine.

Rob: They didn’t seem to be that educated. They didn’t seem to be that learned or even that religious.

Itai: Most of the soldiers anyplace are exactly like that, if you think about it. Most, the great mass of soldiers are people like that. But never in the history of the Middle East  was such a conquest of territory in such a short period of time. They inflict terror among the population with a video clip. So all the people who are supposed to go out and fight them, watch it and run  away in order to not to be burned or not to be beheaded. And the Kurds are the only ones to fight, which is amazing,  the female and male fighters.

Rob: When I lived in Israel I knew some Jewish Kurds.

Itai: The Kurds are a nationality, and this is most important to more than 90 percent of the Kurds. But when you talk about religion, most of them by the way by origin are Muslim. But for them religion is not relevant. If they’re in guerilla, [religion] doesn’t even exist. 

So you have the majority are Sunni Muslim, you have some Shia Muslim, you have Yazidi, and you have almost 200,000 Jews now in Israel and maybe in Jerusalem. And by the way, the relationship between Jews and Kurds over the years was amazing. Look at even the US warfare in Iraq. You had like 4,500 Americans killed, not one in Kurdish territory. I mean, it’s something there within this darkness of region you have like a light.

Rob: Are they observant at all?  

Itai: No. I mean, they have mosques, you know, when you go to like big cities like Erbil. You hear them. But, you know, it’s not a factor. In the guerrilla army  it doesn’t exist at all. 

Rob: It’s all about the nationality.

Itai: It does exist, and you have also Christians by the way. And you have a very, very tiny minority who even go to ISIS. So you have some Muslim Kurds who are going to ISIS but then it’s a very tiny minority, but it exists.

Rob: When you told the ISIS prisoner  that you were Jewish or Israeli, it looks like he couldn’t even process it.  

Itai: Yeah.  Unlike what people think in Israel and the government, we are not like the first priority of ISIS.

Rob: Right.

Itai: They told me, “Listen, we never encountered anything like it.” And when I ask them they specifically said, “Yeah, Israel is a Muslim territory, so we have to fight and kill the Israelis.’ But this is something they would say about Sweden and China and whatever.

Rob: Did the two ISIS prisoners, the two of them did they think they were going to be killed or executed?

Itai: I don’t know. Good question. When they were brought to the room they were blindfolded. And I think by then they realized that the Kurds are not killing them, but they didn’t know what they are coming to. And when my translator told them, “Listen, we’re journalists and I’m the translator.” “Okay, okay.”  They realized that the Kurds are not killing them, not executing them.

Rob: So the Kurds really do just keep their prisoners. 

Itai: A translator of mine walked out while the interview took place. Apparently she couldn’t go on sitting there when they were explaining how they take women, kidnap women and provide these women to the commander. And now they’re being raped and now they’re being sold for $20 if a woman is old, or $70 for a [12-year-old] because she’s worth more. She went out of the room and she was very, very emotional and upset. She’s very liberal and very intellectual. She said [just shoot them]. Why provide them with good conditions and later on, you know, there will be a prisoner’s exchange. 

Rob: As an Israeli, it has to be surreal for you walking through Syria. I’m assuming you were alive in ‘73 or…? How old are you?

Itai: I’m 46. 

Rob: But you remember the ’73 war, right?

Itai: Yes, I was 5 years old.

Rob: But, I mean, it must be surreal, right? 

Itai: Totally. I was growing up with the idea that all Iraqis want to kill you, that all Syrians want to kill you. And then when I went to these places and see the reality  to be different from what was being said. And I liked it very much, because they realized that the journalist every time I go to a place I learned something new and my knowledge multiplies by ten.

So I become only more curious every time there is place I think I  know something about … I know it when I will be there. I will know for what is going on. And obviously there is a great curiosity.

Rob: And even, you’re giving these people voices. 

Itai: Yeah, definitely.

Rob: Even the ISIS fighters, you’re not so much yelling at them or screaming. You’re just letting them talk.

Itai: Never. I mean, I’m talking a place where to me it was very clear the good guys and the bad guys, but normally it doesn’t exist. I gave a lot of voice to Palestinian because I’ve been a lot to Gaza and the West Bank from people from all over. Even when I began, in Bosnia. Each and every faction has something interesting to tell me. Because I’m coming from a land of disputes, so I know that there is not one complete black and white story.  So I go to all the warring factions. There’s only two times I was not able to do that. I was not able to go into ISIS territory, but I was able to talk to the prisoners. I was listening to them, not proving them wrong, I’m hear to understand what they are doing. 

Rob: Right. Do you have family?

Itai: No, I do not have children yet. I hope, you know, it will come soon. I have a girlfriend. But not married. You know, children hopefully, you know, will come soon. In this way of life it is very difficult–

Rob: I was going to say–

Itai: [But] … I still have something to do with this world regarding this job of mine.

Rob: Are you worried that ISIS knows how to use the internet just like you know how to use the internet. Are you worried they’ll see this and it’ll be harder to be discrete and go to these places without being recognized?

Itai: Well, obviously I’m burning myself little by little. I mean in Israel, where I’m more  famous and everybody knows me, they think I’m committing suicide.  But again it’s like everybody in Israel is thinking everybody in the world is watching Israeli television. No, nobody is watching. Only intelligence services. And I go only to countries where the intelligence in the country itself is completely in chaos. All the places I’ve been to — and I’ve been to dozens of places — are only in the moment where everything is crashed, the system is crashed, and anybody who is supposed to spot me is running away for his life.

Rob: So the safest time for you is when everything is in chaos?

Itai: Chaos is my heaven.

Israeli scribes restore 200-year-old Iraqi scroll


Israeli scribes restored a 200-year old Iraqi Torah scroll that arrived in Israel under mysterious circumstances.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the scroll, written in northern Iraq by two scribes using pomegranate ink, was delivered, water-damaged, to the Israeli embassy in Jordan in 2007, and was transferred to Israel in 2011 when riots were sweeping the Arab world.

Otherwise, its provenance is unclear, although The Associated Press quotes Foreign Ministry officials as saying that it now the property of the Jewish state.

The scroll was restored by a group of scribes in Jerusalem led by Akiva Garber, AP reported, and dedicated at a ceremony Thursday at the Foreign Ministry.

U.S. troops uncovered a trove of Iraqi Jewish relics in the Iraqi secret service headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, much of it waterlogged.

The U.S. National Archive restored much of what has become known as the Iraqi Jewish Archive, and it remains for the time being in the United States, although Iraq claims it as property.

Much of Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community emigrated to Israel after riots before and during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The remainder fled after persecutions led by Saddam Hussein in 1968 and 1969.

 

Why Israel loses no sleep over Islamic State


At first sight, it seems that Israel is just as preoccupied with the rise of Islamic State as anyone else. Israeli media report diligently on the extremist group's assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani and run at least a story every few days on its atrocities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu references Islamic State frequently, as do other Israeli ministers. And the stories of two Palestinian citizens of Israel who died fighting for the group have been recently featured in the press.

Still, Israel remains the least concerned and least directly threatened country in a region increasingly rocked by Islamic State's advance. It certainly does not see the group as an external threat. Shocking though the events in Syria and Iraq are, Israel is far beyond the range of even the most sophisticated of Islamic State's weapons. The group's immediate territorial interests do not extend to anywhere near Israeli borders, and its support in areas adjacent to Israel is still negligible. What's more, unlike many militant groups and states in the region, Islamic State has declared itself emphatically disinterested in intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferring instead to draw its support from Sunni revanchism and introducing a semblance of order into war-torn regions of Iraq.

Islamic State also does not yet pose an internal threat to Israel. Unlike most countries bordering Syria, Israel has not been politically or demographically unsettled by the civil war there. The diversified systems of control employed by Israel – some liberal democracy and some military rule – have cemented differences among the country's constituencies disgruntled with the Israeli government. The divisions have precluded the emergence of a broad uprising similar to those that constituted the Arab Spring. The relatively short, highly militarized border between Israel and Syria has prevented the influx of refugees into Israel, as well as any significant spread of the fighting.

In the absence of incentives to change policy, Israel remains determined to display an official disinterest in Iraq and a staunch neutrality toward Syria. Although the government has often expressed sympathy for victims of the Syrian civil war and offered some of them medical treatment, and has on one or two occasions hit targets in Syria, Israel has been careful to signal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that it considers him a relatively reliable neighbor and would not work actively to replace him.

It's also unlikely that Israeli leaders will come under any internal pressure to change this position. While the images of the war in Syria have prompted some Palestinians to travel abroad and take up arms against the Syrian regime, sometimes fighting alongside jihadist organizations, the numbers have been small – and their wrath, for now, directed at the Syrian regime, not at Israel. Images of Islamic State's atrocities, combined with the group's religious fanaticism, contempt for nation-states and express disinterest in the Palestinian cause have left Palestinians – largely secular, nationalist and deeply committed to building their own nation-state – more alienated than allured.

Even attempts by Israeli centrists and the U.S. to tie progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the fight against Islamic State have left Israel unmoved. Israel, the argument went, should make concessions in its talks with Palestinians to mollify Arab populations as their governments yet again throw in their lot with the Americans – and by extension, with the Israelis. This tactic rests on the idea that the only real threat that Islamic State poses to Israel, however remotely, is if it toppled any of the “moderate” Arab states, especially Jordan, by invading them or capitalizing on their local discontents, or a combination of the two.

But the Israeli government, which has no interest, political or ideological, in facilitating a two-state solution, has so far responded with a shrug. The view in Israel is that the moderate Arab regimes are sufficiently threatened by the spread of Islamic State to prioritize drawing the Americans in, warts and all. If anything triggers revolutions in these countries, it will not be the plight of the Palestinians.

The lack of direct threats notwithstanding, Israel has been able to extract some short-term gains from unfolding catastrophe. With the West again mobilizing against a radical Islamist group, Netanyahu find himself on the familiar turf of the “war on terror.” He is capitalizing on this by trying to equate Palestinian nationalism – especially the religious wing of it – with Islamic State at every conceivable opportunity (even if with little perceptible effect). Second, Israel is again making itself useful to the West as a corner of stability and pro-Western sentiment in an otherwise turbulent Middle East – and is using this to push the Palestinian issue further down the agenda.

These considerations apart, Israel sees Islamic State as something that's happening to other people – and the country will do its best to keep it so.

Israel’s most valuable Muslim ally


Jews worldwide will soon mark the onset of a Jewish New Year with the specter of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East. Amid the preponderance of daily bad news, it is uplifting to celebrate narratives of tolerance and respect. Earlier this month, I was one of 12 rabbis meeting with two distinguished Los Angeles-based diplomats, Consul General of Israel David Siegel and Consul General of Azerbaijan Nasimi Aghayev. We broke bread together and discussed our shared goal of shining a positive light on the unique story of Azerbaijan, a Muslim nation that enjoys positive relations with the United States, Israel and its own Jewish community.

[Related: 

Obama expands air strikes against Islamic State


U.S. warplanes carried out five strikes on Islamic State insurgents menacing Iraq's Haditha Dam on Sunday, witnesses and officials said, widening what President Barack Obama called a campaign to curb and ultimately defeat the jihadist movement.

Obama has branded Islamic State an acute threat to the West as well as the Middle East and said that key NATO allies stood ready to back Washington in action against the well-armed sectarian force, which has seized expanses of northern Iraq and eastern Syria and declared a border-blurring religious caliphate.

The leader of a pro-Iraqi government paramilitary force in western Iraq said the air strikes wiped out an Islamic State patrol trying to attack the dam – Iraq's second biggest hydroelectric facility that also provides millions with water.

“They (the air strikes) were very accurate. There was no collateral damage … If Islamic State had gained control of the dam, many areas of Iraq would have been seriously threatened, even (the capital) Baghdad,” Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha told Reuters.

The aerial assault drove Islamic State fighters away from the dam, according to a police intelligence officer in the vast western province of Anbar, a hotbed of Islamist insurgency.

The U.S. military said in a statement that the strikes destroyed four IS Humvees, four IS armed vehicles, two of which were carrying antiaircraft artillery, an IS fighting position, one IS command post and an IS defensive fighting position. All aircraft left the strike areas safely, the Pentagon said.

The strikes were Washington's first reported offensive into Anbar since it started attacks on Islamic State forces in the north of Iraq in August.

Almost three years after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq and 11 years after their invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the war on Islamic State is drawing Washington back into the middle of Iraq's power struggles and bloody sectarian strife.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the strikes on the Sunni Muslim insurgents had been carried out at the request of the Shi'ite Muslim-led central government in Baghdad.

“If that dam would fall into (Islamic State's) hands or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that would cause would be very significant and it would put a significant, additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq,” Hagel told reporters during a trip to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

OBAMA VOWS TO REPEL, DEFEAT ISLAMIC STATE

Obama said on the weekend he would explain to Americans this week his plan to “start going on some offense” against Islamic State. “We are going to be a part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops, he said in an NBC TV interview.

“We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em.”

The six-month-old battle for control of the Haditha Dam has been a rare case of cooperation between local Sunni tribes and the Shi'ite-led Iraqi military. The Juhayfa tribe in Haditha has a long-standing fight with the Islamic State, which split with its parent organization al Qaeda last year.

Anbar is complicated terrain for the Americans as they seek to root out Islamic State, since Sunnis fighting on behalf of the Baghdad government are the exception to the rule.

The large desert province, bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, has been at war with Baghdad since last December when then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent troops to raze an anti-government demonstrators' camp.

That sparked a tribal revolt against Maliki whom Sunnis accused of isolating them with indiscriminate arrests. Islamic State fighters took advantage of the chaos to muscle in and become the dominant force among Sunnis.

The fighting there, which has displaced 430,000 people since January, strengthened Islamic State ahead of its lightning blitz this summer across the north of Iraq, also threatening the semi-autonomous, Western-backed enclave of Kurdistan.

Thriving on Maliki's sectarian-motivated alienation of Sunnis, Islamic State committed wide-scale atrocities against Shi'ites, Christians and other non-Sunnis this summer as the Iraqi army imploded in the face of the insurgents' advance.

Since June, Islamic State has massacred hundreds of soldiers outside of Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, after capturing it, and killed a similar number of Yazidis and other religious minorities outside of Mosul, the north's biggest city.

Obama ordered air strikes in northern Iraq last month as Kurdish-controlled territory fell to the Islamic State and the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan looked in endangered.

Last weekend, U.S. warplanes carried out raids farther south in the province of Saluhuddin to break an Islamic State siege of the Shi'ite Turkmen town of Amerli.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Tbilisi, Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Cooney

Israel provides intelligence on Islamic State, Western diplomat says


Israel has provided satellite imagery and other intelligence in support of the U.S.-led aerial campaign against Islamic State in Iraq, a Western diplomat said on Monday.

Once “scrubbed” of evidence of its Israeli origin, the information has often been shared by Washington with Arab and Turkish allies, the diplomat said.

Israel's Defence Ministry neither confirmed nor denied involvement in any international efforts against the militant group.

“We don't comment on any assistance by us, or if there is such assistance, in the fight against ISIS,” said Yaacov Havakook, spokesman for ministry, using one of Islamic State's former names.

The spread of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the insurgent group's foreign volunteer contingent and the execution of two U.S. journalists have jolted Western powers into military intervention.

Israel, worried that Islamic State could eventually reach its borders and keen to repair international ties frayed by its policies towards the Palestinians, has offered to help.

SATELLITES AND DATABASES

The Western diplomat said Israeli spy satellites, overflying Iraq at angles and frequencies unavailable from U.S. satellites, had provided images that allowed the Pentagon to “fill out its information and get a better battle damage assessments” after strikes on Islamic State targets.

Israel had also shared information gleaned from international travel databases about Western citizens suspected of joining the insurgents, who could be potential recruits for future attacks in their native countries.

“The Israelis are very good with passenger data and with analysing social media in Arabic to get a better idea of who these people are,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Underscoring Israel's backstage role, it is not among countries being visited by U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel this week as he builds the anti-Islamic State coalition.

But the Israeli-supplied intelligence would reach the U.S. partner “with the Hebrew and other markings scrubbed out” to avoid raising hackles among Arabs, Turks and perhaps even the Iranian forces who also view Islamic State as a foe, the diplomat said.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, told a conference hosted by the IDC Herzliya college near Tel Aviv that Israel should “build a coalition of sanity” in which Israeli intelligence “is part of the regional effort” against Islamic State, Lebanon's Hezbollah group and al Qaeda.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Tom Heneghan

Islamic State’s appeal presents Jordan with new test


He had a good job and a loving family, but it wasn't enough for a 25-year old Jordanian who abandoned his life of privilege in Amman to join the Islamic State group that has seized swathes of neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Handsome, courteous and highly regarded in his profession as a radiologist, the man, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, disappeared in early August after the Muslim Eid holiday. He did not tell his family where he was going.

He later called his parents from an undisclosed location to say he had “forsaken his life for the glory of Islam”, said a relative. “His father is heartbroken, and his mother is in hospital from shock,” he said.

He is among the first known cases of Jordanians joining Islamic State since the group declared a “caliphate” in June after dramatic territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.

His story points to the widening support for Islamic State among Jordanian Islamist fundamentalists inspired by its recent advances in countries that border Jordan to the east and north. With that support come new risks for a U.S. ally mostly unscathed by the Middle Eastern turmoil of recent years.

Jordan's powerful intelligence services appear to be deploying their full range of tools to counter the threat. King Abdullah has said the country has never been better prepared to face the radical threat sweeping the region.

Islamic State's gains have sparked a fierce debate among Jordanian Islamists from the ultra-orthodox Salafist movement on whether to back the group, whose brutality has been criticized even within radical Islamist circles.

But buoyed by territorial gains, Islamic State’s sympathizers appear to be winning the argument.

“Many youths have changed their distorted view of the Islamic State after they saw their actions on the ground, their achievements, and how the West has ganged up against it,” a well-known Jordanian militant told Reuters under the assumed name Ghareeb al-Akhwan al-Urduni.

“A DREAM” REALIZED

Since the civil war erupted in neighboring Syria in 2011, hundreds of Jordanians have joined a Sunni Islamist-led insurgency against President Bashar Assad. More than 2,000 men, ranging from underprivileged youths to doctors and – in one case – an air force captain, have abandoned Jordan for jihad in Syria, according to Islamists close to the subject.

At least 250 of them have been killed there.

But the Islamic State's recent accomplishments are helping to galvanize support like never before among radical Islamists who dream of erasing borders across the Muslim world to establish a pan-Islamic nation.

It raises the prospect of yet more Jordanians crossing the border to fight, but also the risk of Islamic State sympathizers striking in Jordan itself – a country that has suffered Islamist militancy before, notably bomb attacks on Amman hotels by al Qaeda-linked militants during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The appearance of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared “caliph”, calling for the support of Muslims in the pulpit of a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul last June acted like a magnet for young Jordanian Islamists.

“Their dream was setting up the caliphate, and now they see it being achieved. This made people consider very seriously joining, especially since the Islamic State had officially invited them,” said Bassam Nasser, a Jordanian Islamist scholar.

The roots of Islamic State can, in one sense, be traced to Jordan. It was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian, who founded the Iraqi arm of al Qaeda that would eventually mutate into Islamic State. Al Qaeda has now disavowed the group.

In the impoverished Jordanian town of Zarqa, Zarqawi's birthplace and a traditional stronghold of Islamist fundamentalists, support for Islamic State was on full display during Eid prayers that marked the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in late July.

Scores of men dressed in the kind of Afghan-style clothing often worn by radical Islamists waved Islamic State's black flag as they gathered in an open field to listen to Jordanian Islamist Sheikh Amer Khalalyeh praise the group.

“Oh Baghdadi, you who has spread terror in the hearts of our enemies, enlist me as a martyr,” chanted the sheikh over a microphone. The footage was captured in a video posted on YouTube.

“SLEEPER CELLS”

In the assessment of one senior regional security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, Jordan could be home to “hundreds if not thousands of potential sympathizers” who could turn into “potential sleeper cells and time bombs”.

The roots of radicalisation in Jordan mirror those commonly cited as its primary cause across the Middle East and include a lack of political liberty and economic opportunity.

King Abdullah, a steadfast U.S. ally who has safeguarded his country's peace treaty with Israel, is seeking to ease concerns in Jordan about the threat posed by Islamic State.

“I am satisfied with the preparations of the armed forces and security agencies. We had planned for surprises several months ago and we were ahead of others. I can assure you -politically, securitywise and militarily our position today is stronger than in the past,” he told politicians.

In an indirect reference to Islamic State, he warned Jordanians not to fall prey to outside parties seeking to exploit their grievances.

In recent weeks, the Jordanian intelligence services have tightened security around sensitive government areas, stepped up surveillance of Islamist fundamentalists and arrested activists seen as a threat, diplomats and officials say.

At least a dozen people have been arrested for expressing support for Islamic State on social media.

It is a new test for the Jordanian security services, which have been a major U.S. partner in fighting radical Islamists.

Jordan's approach to confronting the risk has set it apart from some other Arab states. Its dependence on sophisticated intelligence gathering rather than arbitrary arrests have been credited for sparing Jordan the kind of vendetta-fueled Islamist insurrections seen in states such as Egypt and Syria.

The authorities last month released a prominent Islamist scholar, an influential figure in militant circles, who is one of the leading Islamist opponents of Islamic State.

Sheikh Abu Mohammad al Maqdisi's release has added an influential voice to the debate, but also revealed divisions among Jordan's previously cohesive hardline Islamist community of ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslims.

Maqdisi has mocked Baghdadi's caliphate and expressed outrage at the brutality unleashed by Islamic State.

“It is giving our jihad a bloody texture that we cannot accept. These images of decapitations are painful. This is something we cannot accept, nor Allah (God). Mercy with the infidels dominated during the spread of Islam,” he said this month in an audio message.

That has triggered an avalanche of attacks by Islamic State supporters who have shown none of the deference usually reserved for senior scholars such as Maqdisi. They say he was released not because he had served out his five-year jail term, but with a specific remit to attack Islamic State.

The row has sparked verbal and physical conflict. Two radical Islamists who spoke out against Islamic State's decapitations and indiscriminate killings of Shi'ite Muslims were recently physically beaten by the group's supporters.

Islamic State's black flag was also raised in June by supporters in the historically volatile city of Maan, a tribal stronghold of over 50,000 people about 250 km (156 miles) south of the capital.

Here, crosscurrents of crime, smuggling and tribal disaffection are a combustible mix for the government, which is resented for neglecting the area's development. That has provided fertile ground for Islamist recruitment.

But Mohammad Shalabi, a militant Salafist from Maan who has encouraged Islamists to go to Syria to fight, said Jordan was not a target for Islamic State.

“The Islamic State … have no interest in targeting Jordan. When I have not consolidated my presence firmly enough in Iraq and Syria I cannot move to Jordan,” said Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf. He spent 10 years in prison for militancy including a plot to attack U.S. troops in Jordan.

Shalabi, a respected figure by locals in the city who mediates with tribal chiefs in disputes with the authorities, said his followers had no interest in destabilizing Jordan, unless the government provoked them. “If we felt, God forbid, that injustice is going to befall us or that the circle of injustice is expanding, we will not sit with our hands tied.”

Editing by Tom Perry and Will Waterman

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.

Israel ready to help Jordan fend off Iraq insurgents if asked


Israel is ready to meet any Jordanian request to help fight off Islamist insurgents who have overrun part of neighboring Iraq, an Israeli official said on Friday, although he believed Jordan was capable of defending itself.

Jordan is one of two Arab countries – along with Egypt – to have full peace treaties with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday praised Amman's stability while echoing Western powers in pledging support to safeguard it.

Asked to elaborate on the statement, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said potential Israeli assistance could include sending troops or arms, though he saw that as unlikely.

“We have an interest in ensuring that Jordan does not fall to, or be penetrated by, groups like al Qaeda or Hamas or ISIS,” he told Reuters.

“If, God forbid, there is a need, if such a request comes, if there is an emergency situation, then of course Israel will extend all help required. “Israel will not allow groups like ISIS to take over Jordan.”

ISIS, or ISIL as it also known, are radical Sunni Islamist insurgents who have seized much of northern and western Iraq, which has borders with Syria and Jordan.

Steinitz drew a comparison with Israel's willingness to intervene during 1970 border skirmishes between Syria and Jordan as Amman cracked down on Palestinian guerrillas on its turf.

“Israel said it would take action against the Syrian tank brigades that invaded Jordan, but what happened is exactly what I assess would happen now, too – the Jordanian army managed on its own to to halt the Syrian advance and destroy dozens of Syrian tanks and the Syrian army withdrew.”

Today's Jordanian military similarly did not require help, Steinitz said, “as they are sufficiently professional and determined”.

Following in Egypt's footsteps, the Hashemite kingdom made peace with Israel in 1994. But the countries had maintained discreet security ties since the early 1970s, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a Feb. 19 speech in Jerusalem.

Jordan's embassy in Israel declined comment on possible security coordination with the Netanyahu government.

Kerry and Lieberman meet in Paris on Iraq dilemma


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, discussed the threat posed by an Islamist insurgency in Iraq.

In their meeting Thursday in Paris, Kerry briefed Liberman on his trip to Iraq this week and asked the Israeli foreign minister for his views on the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an unnamed senior State Department official said in a written briefing.

ISIL is the terrorist army that in recent weeks has scored substantial gains in Iraq and remains a key player in Syria.

Kerry “made clear that we felt that resolving the political process, resolving the political situation on the ground is vital, but also reiterated that it’s important that countries in the region stand together against the threat,” the official said. “They also had a discussion about the longer-term threat of a range of groups and how to take that on and how to address that over the long term, both in the Middle East, in North Africa.”

Israeli officials have expressed concerns that Obama administration strategies for stopping ISIL should not empower Iran, which backs the Iraqi government.

Israel tells U.S. Kurdish independence is ‘foregone conclusion’


Israel told the United States on Thursday Kurdish independence in northern Iraq was a “foregone conclusion” and Israeli experts predicted the Jewish state would be quick to recognize a Kurdish state, should it emerge.

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, seeing in the minority ethnic group a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.

The Kurds have seized on recent sectarian chaos in Iraq to expand their autonomous northern territory to include Kirkuk, which sits on vast oil deposits that could make the independent state many dream of economically viable.

Washington wants Iraq's crumbling unity restored. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Iraqi Kurdish leaders and urged them to seek political integration with Baghdad.

Kerry discussed the Iraqi crisis with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Paris on Thursday.

“Iraq is breaking up before our eyes and it would appear that the creation of an independent Kurdish state is a foregone conclusion,” Lieberman's spokesman quoted him as telling Kerry.

A day earlier, Israeli President Shimon Peres had a similar message for U.S. President Barack Obama, who hosted the dovish elder statesman at the White House.

Briefing reporters, Peres said he had told Obama he did not see unifying Iraq as possible without “massive” foreign military intervention and that this underscored Kurdish separation from the Shi'ite Muslim majority and Sunni Arab minority.

“The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic. One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women,” Peres said.

He added that neighbouring Turkey appeared to accept the Kurds' status as it was helping them pump out oil for sale.

A HISTORY OF SILENCE

Israel last Friday took its first delivery of the disputed crude from Iraqi Kurdistan's new pipeline. The United States disapproves of such go-it-alone Kurdish exports. [ID:nL6N0P11TE]

There are some 30 million Kurds on a swathe of land running through eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran. They have hesitated to declare independence in Iraq, mindful of opposition from neighbouring states with Kurdish populations.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said there were currently no formal diplomatic relations with the Kurds. Israeli officials declined to comment, however, on the more clandestine ties.

“Our silence – in public, at least – is best. Any unnecessary utterance on our part can only harm them (Kurds),” senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad said on Tuesday.

Asked on Israel's Army Radio whether Kurdish independence was desirable, Gilad noted the strength of the Israeli-Kurdish partnership in the past and said: “One can look at history and draw conclusions about the future.”

Israeli intelligence veterans say that cooperation took the form of military training for Kurds in northern Iraq, in return for their help in smuggling out Jews as well as in spying on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad and, more recently, on Iran.

Eliezer Tsafrir, a former Mossad station chief in Kurdish northern Iraq who is now retired from Israeli government service, said the secrecy around the ties had been maintained at the request of the Kurds.

“We'd love it to be out in the open, to have an embassy there, to have normal relations. But we keep it clandestine because that’s what they want,” he told Reuters.

Ofra Bengio, an Iraq expert at Tel Aviv University and the author of two books on the Kurds, said last week's oil delivery and other commercial ties between Israel and Kurdistan were “obviously” part of wider statecraft.

“I certainly think that the moment (Kurdish President Masoud) Barzani declares independence, these ties would be upgraded into open relations,” she said. “It depends on the Kurds.”

The Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq has denied selling oil to Israel, whether directly or indirectly. The Israeli government declined to comment on Friday's oil delivery.

Obama does nothing while Middle East and Europe in chaos


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel lobbies powers to stay tough on Iran amid Iraq crisis


Israel is lobbying world powers not to ease their pressure on Iran to curb its disputed nuclear programme should Tehran cooperate with the West in beating back Sunni Muslim insurgencies that have spiralled from Syria into Iraq.

A lightning advance has seen Sunni fighters rout the army of Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and seize the main cities across the north since last week, prompting Iran, the Middle East's main Shi'ite power, to state that it is prepared to intervene to defend Shi'ite holy sites in Iraq.

While echoing global jitters at the Iraqi bloodshed, Israelis are alarmed by Washington's willingness to cooperate with its old adversary Iran in securing the Arab state.

A senior U.S. official said on Monday the United States may discuss the security crisis in Iraq with Iran on the sidelines of this week's nuclear talks in Vienna.

“We are working to prevent a situation in which, in light of the increasing danger of Global Jihad elements, Iran and its allies are portrayed as blocking the spread of such elements in the area,” Israeli cabinet minister Uzi Landau told parliament on Wednesday.

Israel fears what it says is a growing “arc” of Iranian influence from Iraq to Syria, where Tehran backs embattled President Bashar al-Assad, on to Lebanon, where it has a powerful proxy in the Hezbollah militia.

“The threat Iran and Hezbollah pose to stability, to Israel's security and to other moderate players in the region must not be forgotten, so it is a two-fold battle,” Landau said.

Israel's Foreign Ministry would “intensify contact with the international and regional powers” on the matter, he added.

“Global Jihad” is an Israeli term for al Qaeda and other radical Sunni groups. They are eclipsed in Israel's threat assessments by the prospect of its arch-foe Iran gaining the means to make nuclear weapons.

Iran, which denies seeking nuclear bombs and points to Israel's assumed atomic arsenal as the real menace, is negotiating with world powers about rolling back its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of their sanctions.

Those talks look unlikely to bring an accord by the July 20 deadline, however, given enduring disputes over the scale of uranium enrichment and other projects Iran would be allowed to retain.

Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli cabinet minister who liaises with the United States and European powers about the nuclear diplomacy, said they had assured him they would hold course in the negotiations regardless of any Iranian cooperation in Iraq.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Israel concerned about any U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq


Israel voiced concern on Monday at the prospect of its closest ally, Washington, cooperating with its what it considers its deadliest foe, Iran, to stave off a sectarian break-up of Iraq.

But, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters, the United States and other major powers have pledged that any such cooperation would not set back their drive to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration said on Sunday it was considering talks with Iran about the Iraqi crisis. Iranian officials have voiced openness to working with the Americans in helping Baghdad repel a Sunni Muslim insurgency.

While deploring the “ungodly horror” of the bloodshed in Iraq, Steinitz said Iran should not be helped to extend its sway in Iran where fellow Shi'ite Muslims form the majority.

That, he said would give Tehran an arc of control running through Syria, where the Iranians back embattled President Bashar Assad, and on to Lebanon, where they have powerful allies in the Hezbollah militia.

“And we would especially not want for a situation to be created where, because both the United States and Iran support the government of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki, it softens the American positions on the issue which is most critical for the peace of the world, which is the Iranian nuclear issue,” Steinitz said in an interview.

Even before the Iraq crisis, Israel was concerned about Iran's nuclear talks with Washington and five other powers, aimed at ensuring Iran is not developing atomic weapons capability.

Israel fears Tehran would be able to shake off international sanctions built up over the last decade.

SEPARATION

Steinitz was cautiously optimistic that the negotiations would be unaffected by any international involvement in Iraq.

“We are troubled, but we have been made to understand by everyone – the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans – that a total separation will be enforced,” he said.

Steinitz said such a separation of policies would be similar to Russia's participation alongside Western powers in the Iranian nuclear talks even as it spars with them over Ukraine.

Neither Washington nor Tehran, old adversaries with often contrary interests in the Middle East, have articulated how they might cooperate in Iraq.

Washington has no appetite to send troops back to the country it occupied for almost a decade, but the Obama administration has suggested it could carry out air strikes against insurgents.

Steinitz, who regularly confers with the United States about the Iranian nuclear negotiations and other regional issues, said he did not know what actions the Americans might take in Iraq.

Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, an elite force separate from the regular army, to train and advise the Iraqi army or allied militia. During its occupation of Iraq, the United States said some attacks on its forces had Iranian help.

Iran says it has never sent forces to Iraq but might now assist the Maliki government with advisers and weaponry.

Another Israeli security official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said deeper Iranian commitment in Iraq could make Tehran more accommodating in the nuclear talks as it might feel over-extended and reluctant to spark further crises.

“They would have to redirect resources, perhaps even pull their forces out of Syria to send to Iraq instead,” the second Israeli official said. “Let them sink into that new quagmire.”

Steinitz rejected this view, however, saying: “I would never look to solve one travesty with another travesty.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Syria’s chemical weapons program was built to counter Israel


Syria, defeated by Israel in three wars and afraid its arch enemy had gained a nuclear arsenal, began in earnest to build a covert chemical weapons program three decades ago, aided by its neighbors, allies and European chemical wholesalers.

Damascus lacked the technology and scientific capacity to set up a program on its own, but with backing from foreign allies it amassed what is believed to be one of the deadliest stockpiles of nerve agent in the world, Western military experts said.

“Syria was quite heavily reliant on outside help at the outset of its chemical weapons program, but the understanding now is that they have a domestic chemical weapons production capability,” said Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, an expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

As Syria's civil war enters its third year with 80,000 dead, chemical weapons are reported to have been used by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and there are also fears they could fall into the hands of militants seeking to destabilize the region.

As a result of the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, Syria sought to counter Israel's military superiority.

Non-conventional weapons have already been used in the region. The late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons such as mustard gas and other nerve agents during the 1980s, including the killing of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, during the war with Iran.

Syria's ally Iran is accused by the West of seeking to develop an atomic bomb, which it denies, while Israel refuses to confirm or deny whether it has nuclear weapons.

“Syria had to have something to stack up against Israel,” Smithson told Reuters.

United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had “reasonable grounds” to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria. They had received allegations that government forces and rebels had used the banned weapons, but most testimony related to their use by the government.

Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely destroying their stockpiles.

Syria does not generally comment on its chemical weapons, but in July last year it acknowledged for the first time that it had them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference the army would not use chemical weapons to crush the rebels but could use them against foreign forces.

LOSING CONTROL

While it is relatively easy to produce small amounts of chemicals, scaling up to megaton quantities of precursors needed for weapons of mass destruction requires long-term, industrial-grade processing facilities with advanced equipment.

The first technology and delivery systems were most probably obtained from the Soviet Union and pre-revolution Egypt, military experts believe, while chemical precursors came from European companies.

To boost its own capabilities, Damascus set up the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), an agency with a civilian figure head that was run by military intelligence.

It is “the best-equipped research center in Syria, possessing better technical capacity and equipment than the four Syrian universities,” the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a leading non-proliferation group, wrote last month.

The SSRC, attacked by rebels earlier this year, oversees chemical weapons facilities in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat, and Firaqlus, according to the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies. It set up facilities for blister agent, sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, the Center said.

The agency is now headed by one of Assad's top advisers, national security chief Ali Mamlouk, said Brigadier General Mustafa al Sheikh, a Syrian army defector.

“The man overseeing the chemical weapons in general is Ali Mamlouk, but effective control of the weapons is becoming fragmented,” Sheikh, who served for almost two decades in chemical weapons units, told Reuters from an undisclosed location in northern Syria. “Assad himself has lost overall command and control.”

Mamlouk, on a list of Syrians targeted by EU sanctions since 2011, was promoted last year to head national security after its chief was killed in a bombing in Damascus. Considered to be a member of Assad's inner circle, Mamlouk is one of two Syrian officers indicted last August in Beirut for allegedly plotting to incite sectarian violence in Lebanon. Efforts to reach Mamlouk for comment were unsuccessful.

Sheikh said the arsenal is now in the hands of chemical weapons-trained loyalists of Assad's Alawite clan, a Shi'ite offshoot sect, and is being used for limited attacks that have killed dozens of rebels.

“Most of the chemical weapons have been transported to Alawite areas in Latakia and near the coast, where the regime has the capability to fire them using fairly accurate medium range surface-to-surface missiles,” Sheikh said.

Some chemical munitions remain in bases around Damascus, and have been deployed with artillery shells. “It is a matter of time before fairly large warheads are used,” he said.

A U.S. official, asked about Sheikh's comments, told Reuters: “This is one concerning scenario we're taking a close look at.”

Reports of use of chemical weapons in the battlefield have become more frequent in recent weeks. A U.N. team of inspectors has been denied access and has been unable to verify the claims.

ILLEGAL SUPPLIERS

The bulk of chemical and biological weapons production technology came from “large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany,” said Globalsecurity, a security information provider.

In the early 1980s, Syria mostly imported French pharmaceuticals, some of them so-called “dual use” chemicals, which could also be used for chemical weapons, it said.

A wide range of industrial chemicals with legal applications, such as in agriculture, are also precursors for chemical weapons. The most important precursors for sarin, the nerve agent believed to have been used in recent fighting in Syria, are methylphosphonyl difluoride and isopropanol.

None of the reports cited named specific companies as suppliers. Syria has said it intended to use the chemicals for agriculture.

Securing raw chemicals on the international market became more difficult in 1985, when suspect sales were restricted by the Australia Group, a 40-nation body that seeks to curb chemical or biological weapons through export controls.

Some experts say Damascus obtained supplies from Russia and Iran instead, but Syria may also have turned to a network of illegal traders using front companies to sell to Iran and Iraq.

Former Russian general Anatoly Kuntsevich was suspected of smuggling precursor chemicals to VX gas to Syria, according to Globalsecurity. He died in 2002.

While questions remain about the origins of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, an evaluation by the U.S. government in March leaves little doubt about the threat it poses.

“Syria's overall chemical weapons program is large, complex, and geographically dispersed, with sites for storage, production, and preparation,” the Director of National Intelligence wrote.

It “has the potential to inflict mass casualties, and we assess that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be prepared to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people.”

Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington; Editing by Giles Elgood

Will Jordan become the next Dubai?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate clears way for vote on Pentagon nominee Chuck Hagel


The Senate cleared the way on Tuesday for the likely confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense.

The Senate voted 71-27 to end debate and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block Hagel's nomination. It was the first time such a procedural tactic had been used to delay consideration of a nominee for secretary of defense.

More than 15 Republicans joined with Democrats to open the way for a vote by the full Senate, now scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EST.

The vote virtually guarantees Hagel's approval: The entire Democratic caucus — 55 out of 100 senators — is committed to his confirmation, and only a simple majority is required to confirm the nomination.

A number of centrist Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, had expressed concerns about past Hagel comments, particularly his claim in 2006 that a “Jewish lobby” “intimidates” Congress, as well as his skepticism of sanctions and military moves that would keep Iran from advancing its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote to end debate that a vote to confirm Hagel could come as soon as Tuesday afternoon.

Some have also raised questions about whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran.

CALL TO PANETTA

Some of Hagel's most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal on the Senate floor for his nomination to be stopped before the vote on Tuesday. They argued that Hagel would be weakened in running the defense department because he will not be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.

James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Leon Panetta, the retiring secretary of defense, and asked him to remain at the Pentagon.

Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to retire to his home in California, declined.

Faulting a range of Hagel's past statements on Iran, Israel and other matters, Inhofe also pledged to work for the quick confirmation of another potential nominee if Hagel were withdrawn.

“We have a lot of them out there who would be confirmed in a matter of minutes,” he added, naming Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary, as more acceptable alternatives.

But Democrats blasted Republicans for the delay, when the country is at war and facing a budget crisis, and pushed for the vote to go ahead.

“Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world. And they send a terrible signal to tens of thousands of Americans serving in Afghanistan. For the sake of national security, it's time to set aside this partisanship,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing By David Storey, David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman

Michael Oren is staying put — which is a good thing


Michael Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States. And he has no plans to stop being Israel’s ambassador to the United States. 

This was news to me, as reports abound on the Internet that, as of March 2013, Ron Dermer, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will replace Oren in Washington, D.C.

“The reports of my demise are grossly overstated,” Oren told me during an interview on the evening of Jan. 15, just before he took the stage at the Saban Theatre for a major address to the Los Angeles community.

“I don’t know where that’s coming from,” he said.

Oren said that, while things can always change, no one has asked him to leave his role — officially or unofficially — and he has no plans to do so.

Which is, as they say, good for the Jews.

What is happening now in Jewish life is as plain to see as the hole in the bagel: American and Israeli Jews are drifting apart, splitting into two tribes and in danger of becoming one people separated by a common religion.

Michael Oren is one of those rare people who mind the gap.

This was in evidence as he spoke at the event, sponsored jointly by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The gig was not exactly a tough assignment — telling an audience of about 1,000 guests hand-selected by the consulate, Jewish organizations, synagogues and schools just how special the U.S.-Israel bond is. It was like convincing Arnold Schwarzenegger that exercise is good for you.

But Oren is practiced at the harder stuff, too — explaining Israelis to American Jews, and American Jewry to Israel — and that job is only getting harder.

Consider this: In the recent American election, close to 80 percent of American Jews supported President Barack Obama, while, in Israel, polls showed a similar percentage supported Obama’s opponent, Gov. Mitt Romney. Israeli Jews overwhelmingly supported the second Iraq War. American Jews overwhelmingly opposed it. 

Think back to the Obama-Bibi rancor of 2010, when Israel declared in the face of U.S. umbrage that it had approved construction of 1,000 housing units in East Jerusalem. American Jewish support for Netanyahu on that issue dipped to 44 percent. Support for Obama was 59 percent.

The aspects of Israel that upset or alienate large sectors of American Jewry, such as the control of Orthodoxy over civil matters, elicit a shrug from most Israelis.

And the things that keep Israelis up at night, like the Arab uprisings, many American Jews approach with a more hopeful attitude.

“They see what’s happening in Egypt and Syria and think Lexington and Concord,” Oren told me — and then later, the audience — “we think, ‘oy vey.’ ”

The surprise turnout for the centrist Yair Lapid in this week’s election is a sign that a bigger chunk of the Israeli electorate than pundits predicted does care, and votes, on issues of religious freedom. But the gap persists, and Oren (like, fortunately, Lapid himself) remains one of the few Jewish leaders who can bridge it.

Oren and I met in the Saban Theatre’s green room before the main event. A security detail arrived first, then aides and consular officials, then Oren’s wife, Sally, and a strikingly handsome, 20-something sabra who turned out to be Oren’s son. Oren is grayer than the last time I interviewed him, in 2010, but still army-uniform lean.

I immediately brought up the various brouhahas — my word — that had arisen between the United States and Israel that week.

Just that morning, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in Bloomberg News, reported that Obama, in his frustration over Netanyahu’s decision to allow settlement in an area of the West Bank known as E1, repeatedly said, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” 

Oren, to his credit, neither shot the messenger nor denied the accuracy of the message. 

“It just doesn’t reflect the reality in Israel,” he said.

He focused instead on the positive — Bibi’s stated willingness to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, provided they come to the table. 

Another brouhaha: the accusation among staunch pro-Israel activists that Sen. Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, is anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic.

“Do you think the phrase ‘Jewish lobby’ is anti-Semitic?” I asked.

“Well,” he said — and this is why he’s Israel’s top diplomat — “it’s inaccurate. Not every one who supports Israel is Jewish.

“I don’t like the phrase ‘Israel lobby’ either,” he added, pointing out that pro-Israel forces in America are Americans acting in what they assert are America’s interest. 

Stepping back, I asked Oren about my deeper concern, whether these incessant brouhahas don’t indicate a deepening rift between American and Israeli Jews.

On the one hand, Oren pointed out that support for Israel among all Americans is at a 20-year high. Even among younger people, he said, despite claims to the contrary. Oren is one of those rare Jewish leaders who isn’t afraid to relay good news to audiences more accustomed to doomsday pronouncements.

But Oren, born and raised in America, is acutely aware that different life experiences make for different outlooks. He moved to Israel as a young man. His wife’s sister was murdered in a bus bomb attack. In the army, he survived an attack that killed many of his buddies. His son was severely wounded in combat as well. Oren, a preeminent historian and author, has a deep intellectual understanding of the forces that guide the Middle East. But nothing beats being there.

“Look, we Israelis know what it means to deal with suicide bombers, terror, regional turmoil. Israeli Jews do the heavy lifting. These are profound differences,” he said.

“There’s a gap in understanding. If American Jews would see it from the inside out, they’d better understand it.”

And, he added, Israelis don’t often see the deep support that American Jews marshal and maintain for Israel.

“There’s an expression in Hebrew,” he said, quoting Ariel Sharon: “Things look different from here than they do from there.”

Oren didn’t say it, but a little humility on both sides might just help.

His aide ended the interview — it was time for the ambassador to take the stage. We shook hands.

“What’s that word brouhaha come from?” he said, ever the curious researcher. “Can someone look that up?  Does that have anything to do with malarkey?” 


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

U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts ‘incremental’ Palestine


A Palestinian state will emerge by 2030, not through negotiations but incrementally, according to a group of intelligence advisers to President Obama.

The office of the director of national intelligence this week published the annual “Global Trends” report compiled by the National Intelligence Council, a group of current and former policy officials who serve as a bridge between the policy and intelligence communities.

Identifying the Middle East as a locus for developing instability, the report anticipated little progress in formal peace negotiations.

“Many of our interlocutors saw a Palestine emerging from Arab-Israeli exhaustion and an unwillingness of Israelis and Palestinians to engage in endless conflict,” the report said. “Issues like ‘right of return,' demilitarization, and Jerusalem will not be fully resolved by 2030, and there will be no complete end of conflict. The way forward toward a Palestinian state will be through a series of unofficial, independent actions known as ‘coordinated unilateralism,’ incrementally leading to statehood.”

The report anticipated increased reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and predicted that “Palestine’s borders will be roughly along the 1967 borders with adjustments or land swaps along the Green Line, but other issues will remain unresolved.”

Israel will remain “the strongest military power” in the region, it said, “but face continuing threats from low intensity warfare in addition to any nuclear one from Iran.”

The report also described Muslim anger at the United States as likely to recede, with support for Israel its only remaining major focus.

“Although al-Qaeda and others have focused on the United States as a clear enemy, the appeal of the United States as the 'great enemy' is declining,” it said. “The impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and decreases in U.S. forces in Afghanistan help to reduce the extent to which terrorists can draw on the United States as a lightning rod for anger. Soon, U.S. support for Israel could be the last remaining major focus of Muslim anger.”

The outlook for Israel was more positive in the report's concluding section, “Alternative Worlds,” in which the authors outline “archetypal” scenarios for the future.

One scenario, imagining the launch of a “Center for Global Integration” in 2030, describes a “recent past” in which “mechanisms for global sharing of  innovation were established by China and the United States” and “global education exchanges flourished like never before.”

This archetype posited that “Turkey, Russia, and Israel, for example, became creative hotbeds for cross-cultural fertilization. Knowledge industries spread into Africa and Latin America.”

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv under rocket fire, Netanyahu warns Gaza


Palestinian militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades on Friday and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day, in a stinging challenge to Israel's Gaza offensive after an Egyptian bid to broker a truce.

The attacks came just hours after Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the Gaza Strip and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.

Although Israel had endured months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza, the violence escaleted on Wednesday when Israel retaliated with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.   Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.

Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, on Friday.

It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which is also Israel's capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day old air war against militants in Hamas-run Gaza.

Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv on Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out on Friday when the commercial centre was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.

The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have so far caused no casualties or damage, but could be political poison for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, favored to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu, signaling a possible ground campaign, said hours earlier.

A Hamas source said the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.

Officials in Gaza said 22 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

The Palestinian dead include eight militants and 14 civilians, among them seven children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold. Israel said more than 35 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory and 86 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel denied Palestinian assertions that its aircraft struck while Kandil was in the enclave.

TEL AVIV ROCKET

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defense preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Mursi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Meanwhile, Israel has begun drafting 16,000 reserve troops, a possible precursor to invasion. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area of Friday.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis also died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

 

JewishJournal.com edited this story.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Ari Rabinovitch, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff

Foreign policy: In favor of Obama


[Related: In favor of Romney]

In debates over which candidate, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, most supports Israel, many have made the case, including in the Journal, that the president’s staunchly pro-Israel policies speak for themselves. This debate must also include a broader point: Israel needs more than America’s military, economic and political support. It needs a United States engaged in global diplomacy, with high standing worldwide, capable of advancing our shared objectives. 

On these counts, President Obama has succeeded: Among other things, American troops are out of Iraq; al-Qaeda is a threat but in tatters, its leader dead; Libya, with U.S. help, rid itself of Muammar Gadhafi; the United States won a seat on the Human Rights Council, where it stands against lopsided anti-Israel resolutions; and the list goes on, whether looking at U.S. policy in Asia, Europe, Latin America, the U.N., Africa or elsewhere. The crushing sanctions now imposed on Iran exist only because of effective Obama administration diplomacy. 

What about Mitt Romney? Like many previous candidates, Gov. Romney has almost no foreign-policy experience. But last week he gave a speech on foreign policy that should give pause to those who worry about Israel’s security and quest for peace. He talked tough and sounded reassuring, but the actual policy prescriptions — like those of George W. Bush before him — would undermine Israel’s long-term strategic needs.

At one level, the speech was riddled with deceit about the Obama record, as Tom Friedman pointed out in The New York Times. Yet the fate of American foreign policy, and its implications for Israel, will rest more on Romney’s worldview than his posturing as a candidate. Two areas in particular should raise deep concern: Romney’s positions on the use of force and unilateralism, the signature postures of the Bush doctrine.

Bush felt strongly supportive toward Israel. But his policies backfired: The go-it-alone war in Iraq opened strategic space for Iran. The inhumane treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib left deeply negative impressions on people already prepared to see the United States as a bully in the region. The failure to engage world opinion left the United States unable to defend Israel in key international forums.

Romney seemed unaware that the broader foreign policy choices would, like Bush’s, undermine America’s ability to advance its own and Israel’s objectives.

 First, the speech suggests a Bush-like attraction to the language of force. Pressing for a change of course in the Middle East, Romney argues that Americans must have “resolve in our might.” To hit the point home, he adds that we cannot “defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut” (which, incidentally, President Obama has not done). Presidents must “use America’s great power to shape history.”

Romney sees “might” as more central than right. But a Middle East policy that rests on the power of arms to effect change is not only bound to fail, it can foster the same problems we seek to avoid. 

Consider Iraq, a “war of choice” (in the words of former Bush administration official Richard Haass) that enhanced the position of Iran in the Middle East, brought al-Qaeda and sectarian conflict to play, and ultimately left thousands of Americans and Iraqis dead and many more thousands injured, and millions displaced from their homes. Romney did not seem to understand the scars that our military engagement in Iraq has left on the broader region, including negative consequences for the security of Israel. 

Would he attack Iran if the nuclear issue is not resolved? Despite his martial rhetoric, the answer isn’t clear. He might. So might a second-term Obama administration. But the speech gave the impression that he would use force precipitously and without doing the hard diplomacy to build international support.

Of course, the United States needs a strong defense strategy. And this is an area where even some of President Obama’s progressive supporters complain, as President Obama has used drones to kill suspected terrorists (even American citizens) in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Yet the Obama administration understands that force alone cannot stand as the central pillar of U.S. policy. 

Second, Romney seemed to prefer unilateralism to multilateralism, much as President Bush did. Romney revels in suggesting that the United States cannot “lead from behind,” something the Obama administration has never embraced. Instead, there is a unilateralist hum throughout Romney’s speech. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions,” he claimed, though unilateral sanctions would be the most likely to destroy the harsh and far more effective multilateral ones the Obama administration has put in place against Iran, even managing to win over countries such as Russia and China. Romney sees Russia and China as adversaries to confront, not convert. 

One may have disagreed with Obama’s willingness to engage adversaries, but he emphasized it when running for president in 2008. He tried it with Iran when he took office, and now, because the administration pursued a multilateral approach and attempted diplomacy with Iran, the United States is in a much better position to use forceful measures against a recalcitrant adversary if need be. Romney gives no indication that he has the kind of strategic foresight Obama had as a candidate and deploys as president.

Romney’s unilateralist bent is out of sync with a world where diplomacy and coalition-building are more critical than ever. The speech showed him committed to the rhetoric and centrality of military force in the aftermath of a disastrous American war in the region. Neither of these stances would advance American objectives in the region: the security of Israel at peace with the Palestinians, a nuclear-free Iran, a transition to rights-respecting democratic governance throughout the Arab world, a stable region of developing free-market economies. To the contrary, unilateralism and force undermine the United States’ ability to persuade others to follow our lead.  

Romney showed that he would be much more like George W. Bush than Barack Obama in his conduct of foreign affairs. And for those worried about the long-term security of Israel, that has to be a concern.


David Kaye is a law professor at UC Irvine School of Law and a former lawyer with the U.S. Department of State.

Christians picking on Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film


Fury about a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad tore across the Middle East after weekly prayers on Friday with protesters attacking U.S. embassies and burning American flags as the Pentagon rushed to bolster security at its missions.

The obscure California-made film triggered an attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya's city of Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Tuesday, the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

In Tunis, at least three people were killed and more than two dozen wounded, state television said after police gunfire near the U.S. embassy in the city that was the cradle of last year's Arab Spring uprisings for democracy. At least one person died in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, a doctor said, after some of thousands of protesters had leaped into the U.S. embassy.

As U.S. military drones faced Islamist anti-aircraft fire over Benghazi, about 50 marines landed in Yemen a day after the U.S. embassy there was stormed. For a second day in the capital Sanaa, police battled hundreds of young men around the mission.

In Khartoum, wider anger at Western attitudes to Islam also saw the German embassy overrun, with police doing little to stop demonstrators who raised a black Islamist flag. Violence at the U.S. embassy followed protests against both Washington and the Sudanese government, which is broadly at odds with the West.

The wave of indignation and rage over the film, which portrays Mohammad as a womanizer and a fool, coincided with Pope Benedict's arrival in Lebanon for a three-day visit.

The protests present U.S. President Barack Obama with a new foreign policy crisis less than two months before seeking re-election and tests Washington's relations with democratic governments it helped to power across the Arab world.

He was at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington to greet a flight bringing home remains of the four dead from Benghazi.

It also emerged that Libya had closed its airspace over the second city's airport for a time because of heavy anti-aircraft fire by Islamists aiming at U.S. reconnaissance drones flying over the city; Obama vowed to bring the ambassador's killers to justice.

The closure of the airport prompted speculation that the United States was deploying special forces in preparation for an attack against the militants who were involved in the attack.

A Libyan official said the spy planes flew over the embassy compound and the city, taking photos and inspecting locations of radical militant groups who are believed to have planned and staged the attack on the U.S. consulate.

There were protests in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

MARINES TO YEMEN

The Pentagon said it had sent a “fast” platoon of Marines to Yemen to bolster U.S. embassy security after clashes in Sanaa.

U.S. embassies were the main target of anger and protest but most embassy staff were not at work because Friday is the Muslim weekend across the Arab World.

The frenzy erupted after traditional Muslim Friday prayers. Fury over the film has been stoked by Internet video footage, social networks, preachers and word-of-mouth.

Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Two Islamist preachers in Egypt told worshippers that those who made the movie deserved to die under Islamic law but they urged protesters not to take their anger out on diplomats.

In the restive Sinai peninsula, militants opened fire on an international observer base near El Gorah, close to the borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip, and burned tires blocking a road to the camp, a witness and a security source reported. The source said two members of the force were wounded.

The Sudanese who broke into the German embassy in Khartoum and hoisted an Islamic flag, while one person was killed in protests in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Police in the Sudanese capital had fired tear gas to try to disperse 5,000 protesters who had ringed the German embassy and nearby British mission. A Reuters witness said police stood by as a crowd forced its way into Germany's mission.

Demonstrators hoisted a black Islamic flag saying in white letters “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet”. They smashed windows, cameras and furniture in the building and then started a fire.

Staff at Germany's embassy were safe “for the moment”, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. He also told Khartoum's envoy to Berlin that Sudan must protect diplomatic missions on its soil.

Sudan's Foreign Ministry had criticized Germany for allowing a protest last month by right-wing activists carrying caricatures of the Prophet and for Chancellor Angela Merkel giving an award in 2010 to a Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet in 2005 triggering protests across the Islamic world.


Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Ulf Laessing and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Gareth Jones in Berlin, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Benghazi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Libya, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Iraq, Siva Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur, Anis Ahmed in Bangladesh, Regan Doherty in Doha, Roberto Landucci in Italy and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Millership and Alastair Macdonald

New Year’s predictions


This is my last column of 2011, so I will make a few predictions for 2012, some which I hope come true and some which I hope don’t.

U.S. Election: President Barack Obama will be re-elected. Each of his potential rivals is, in my opinion, fatally flawed. The most likely GOP nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, is a handsome version of that little plutocrat dude in a Monopoly game.

In a time of high unemployment, Americans will not elect a president who made much of his fortune closing down factories in the heartland. Happily, I do not believe Romney’s religion will be an issue, one way or the other. By the way, Romney’s choice for vice president will be Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Israel: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will remain in power, spending 2012 girding himself for a newly energized Obama to put pressure on him in a second term. Unfortunately, I don’t expect the pressure to come.

Having won re-election with the overwhelming support (75-80 percent) of American Jews, Obama will continue to accept the AIPAC-generated “conventional wisdom” that his Jewish support was a result of his “pro-Israel” policies and not because he was the liberal candidate. Because many of the big Democratic funders themselves adhere to the view that Jews primarily care about Israel, Obama is unlikely to challenge it. The only variable that might change Obama’s policy would be a major act of stupidity by Netanyahu such as bombing Iran or, once again, trying to physically crush Gaza, as in 2008-9.

Public Opinion: The past year has seen Israel (more specifically, Netanyahu and the occupation) take a major hit with American public opinion. Prominent Jewish journalists like Tom Friedman, Joe Klein, and Peter Beinart (whose upcoming book will cause the “pro-Israel” establishment to quake in its boots) are all vocally condemning Netanyahu’s policies, freeing many less-prominent voices to speak their minds.

In the days prior to the internet, the Israel lobby had the ability to shut down criticism of Israeli policies through calls to editors, bosses, advertisers, etc. Those days are almost over.

On the web, it is the Israeli government and not its critics who are on the defensive. This is partly related to the fact that the web is dominated by young people who, for the most part, have an even-handed view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is particularly true of young Jews. The other reason that the web is the ultimate in free journalism is that it is infinitely harder to get bloggers fired and, even if they are, they will just keep blogging on another site. For the lobby, the internet is a curse.

Iran: There will be no attack on Iran by either Israel or the United States over the next 12 months. With both the military and intelligence establishments in both countries opposed to bombing Iran, an act viewed as both futile (in terms of ending Iran’s nuclear program) and incredibly destabilizing to the entire world, a war just won’t happen. Sanctions will continue producing significant suffering among the Iranian people while racketeers in the Iranian government and military apparatus make a killing.

The neocons, however, will intensify their clamoring for war, hoping the Iraq model can be repeated. In fact, virtually the entire crowd that helped lie us into Iraq is back in place, working tirelessly to convince the United States to bomb Iran.

AIPAC: The AIPAC conference (see video) in March will be proclaimed the “most successful” in the organization’s history. Most of Congress will show up along with President Obama. The theme of the conference, as with every AIPAC conference for over a decade, will be about confronting Iran. A subsidiary theme will be that President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are now just as evil as Hamas and that, accordingly, there is “no partner” with whom Israel can negotiate the “two-state solution” it theoretically (but not really) supports.

The conference will accomplish its main goal of conveying to Congress that supporting AIPAC on all matters related to the Middle East is the only way to stay out of political trouble. Following the conference, Congress will overwhelmingly pass one to three pieces of legislation (bashing Palestinians and calling for ever more action against Iran) drafted by AIPAC and circulated at the conference.

Arab Spring: In 2012, the Syrian government will collapse, a good thing, but the transition to something resembling democracy will be as bumpy as it is in Egypt. Also, as is the case with Egypt, any move by the new Syrian government to include “Islamists” will be condemned as frightfully threatening to the U.S. and Israel. Few will mention that the Christian right here (which essentially owns the GOP) and the Shas Party in Israel (a powerful component of Netanyahu’s coalition) both seek, often successfully, to impose their bigoted and antediluvian religious dogma on their respective countries.

Israelis and Palestinians: Both peoples will be saddled with governments (in the case of the Palestinians, quasi-governments) that are almost exclusively concerned with preserving power. Both Israeli and Palestinian authorities will instigate and exploit hatred of the enemy in order to stay in power, and each will refuse to utter “magic word” formulations that would enable genuine negotiations to begin.

The Israeli center and left will confront a government that has as its chief goals settlement expansion and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Palestinians will suffer from continued ineptitude and corruption in Ramallah and from the refusal by the authorities in Gaza to call Netanyahu’s bluff by accepting Israel’s right to exist within the ‘67 lines, to form a unity government for the purpose of negotiating with Israel, and to totally and unequivocally reject violence against Israel in favor of energetic and nonviolent resistance.

Anti-Semitism: There will be no more or less anti-Semitism during the coming year, especially in the United States, where hardly any Jews experience it in a lifetime (I never have). But the phrase will be very big because, in the last few months, neoconservatives and other agitators for war with Iran and against any “concession” to Palestinians have begun condemning virtually all opponents of their policies as anti-Semites.

This, in itself, is not completely new. For decades non-Jewish critics of Israeli policies have been called anti-Semites in an effort, often successful, to shut them down. In 2011, however, the right stopped limiting use of the term “anti-Semite” to non-Jews and now freely uses it against Jews who despise the occupation, settlement activity, and right-wing Israeli policies.

They (we) used to be called “self-hating Jews” but since that didn’t shut us up, the hope is that this will. Of course, it won’t. Jews are used to being called bad names by bad people.

In conclusion, despite everything, I look forward to a better 2012. In December 2010, I didn’t expect President Obama to end the Iraq war in 2011 or eliminate the monster who killed 3000 Americans. But these things happened. So, there is hope.

Whenever I doubt that the good guys are starting to win, I’ll just re-read this column by Tom Friedman, or this piece by Joe Klein. A few years ago, neither would have been possible. Progressives are making a difference. As the great Tony Kushner wrote, “The world only spins forward.”

Happy Holidays to all.

Analysis: Obama sounding similar to Bush on foreign policy


Not only is Barack Obama inheriting President Bush’s Middle East, it looks like he’s adopting his strategies.

Perhaps the most striking presence on the Chicago stage Monday, where President-elect Obama presented his national security team, were the policies of the outgoing president.

Speaking generally, Obama hewed to the “change” bromides of a campaign that said it wanted to bury Bush’s legacies.

“In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges,” Obama said. “We will strengthen our capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends.

“We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships,” he continued. “We will show the world once more that America is relentless in the defense of our people, steady in advancing our interests and committed to the ideals that shine as a beacon to the world.”

Yet when he briefly detoured into specifics, introducing Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), his pick for secretary of state, Obama’s themes sounded familiar.

“There is much to do — from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran and North Korea, to seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, to strengthening international institutions,” Obama said.

The first three components of that four-pronged strategy are carryovers from the Bush administration’s final years: Defuse Iran and North Korea and nudge forward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Obama’s priority list comes despite a growing chorus of voices that insists that the Israel-Palestinian track is intractable for now, needing management, not solutions. Those voices — including Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East adviser who is now helping to shape Obama’s Middle East policy — say peace with Syria is the better bet for now.

But the Israelis and the Palestinians at the table believe that Obama has their back and predict a deal within months.

“We’re very close, and it’s time to make decisions,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week after meeting with Bush.

Olmert made it clear that it was his impression that Obama would carry over the Bush administration’s emphasis on arriving at an agreement within the next few months.

“It’s like a relay race,” the outgoing Israeli leader said. “The baton will be passed in an orderly, correct way.”

Olmert believes a deal could be in place before he leaves office in March. He is stepping down to face corruption charges.

That prediction was echoed by a top Palestinian negotiator, Maen Rashid Areikat, who told the Washington Times that the negotiators had arrived at a formula to circumvent perhaps the most intransigent obstruction to statehood — control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas terrorists. Areikat told the paper that a state would first be declared in the West Bank.

Those are pipe dreams, said Sam Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now a senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum and has monitored the Israel-Syria talks.

“There is much more of an opportunity to make a breakthrough with Syria than there is a Palestinian front,” he said. “With the vision of Palestine in two pieces and the problems between Hamas and Fatah,” the relatively moderate party controlling the West Bank, “it makes it difficult to move to a final agreement.”

Another of Obama’s picks, Gen. James Jones for national security adviser, also implies an interest in carrying over Bush administration efforts to build a Palestinian security infrastructure. Jones, a former NATO commander, most recently monitored Palestinian and Israeli compliance with peace deals, with special attention paid to the creation of a Palestinian police force.

Jones was tough with both sides during his tenure, but his appointment has raised eyebrows in Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refuses to authorize the release of a report in which he reportedly slams Israel for hampering Palestinian Authority security training.

During his NATO stint, Jones was known as friendly to Israel’s regional interests. The Israeli concerns about his appointment are the result of Israel having been “treated gently” during the Bush administration, Lewis said, and eventually will pass.

“Anytime you ask the Israelis to do something they don’t want to do, they’re resentful; it’s nothing other than normal business,” Lewis said. “After eight years of the Israelis being treated very gently, the contrast was probably annoying to them. He’s a balanced guy, and that’s what you need.”

Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said the Jones appointment was reassuring because it signaled another consistency with the presidency: Its second-term deference to experienced military opinion.

“Picking a Marine for almost anything is a good pick,” said Bryen, whose organization cultivates close relations with all branches of the U.S. military. “He has the background to talk about military priorities in Afghanistan, in Iraq.”

That’s true as well of Obama’s pick for defense secretary: the incumbent, Robert Gates. Obama ran a campaign that derided Bush’s choices in Iraq, but in recent months, the Bush administration has edged closer to Obama’s vision of a phased, careful — and not unconditional — withdrawal.

On Iran, there appears to be consistency, too. During the campaign, great focus was placed on Obama’s calls for stepped-up diplomatic outreach, but since defeating Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he has stressed the need for Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. On Monday, the president-elect hammered home the message again.

It’s a two-pronged approach that jibes with the Gates and Clinton choices. Clinton, Obama’s chief rival during the primaries, hewed to more hawkish Iran rhetoric, although it helped energize her left-wing critics during the Democratic primaries. At the same time, with Gates in the Pentagon, the Bush administration has edged away from cutting off the Islamic republic and has all but killed the idea of striking Iran or allowing Israel to strike.

Ross, meanwhile, joined top former Bush administration officials in signing off in September on an especially tough blueprint on how to deal with Iran published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.

The proposal, “Meeting the Challenge,” was barely noticed in the media. It calls for stiffer sanctions, an end to uranium enrichment and outlines a military option that would have “more decisive results than the Iranian leadership realizes,” although such an option would be a last resort.

Ross’ presence on Obama’s transitional Middle East policy team, as well as on the front page of a report that includes first-term Bush hawks, such as Michael Rubin, Michael Makovsky and Steve Rademaker, has sent shudders through those in Washington who had hoped an Obama administration would stress outreach to Iran at a time when its hard-liners are showing signs of being in retreat.

Bryen said it was clear that Obama would eventually seek to expand the Bush administration’s recent, limited diplomatic entreaties to Iran; it was not clear how.

“The incoming administration clearly believes there are approaches to Iran that haven’t been tried,” she said.

The one flag that may trouble some Jewish groups was the fourth leg of Obama’s foreign policy strategy: the planned elevation of U.S. involvement with the United Nations. Groups such as B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee have maintained their commitment to the body, while growing increasingly skeptical of its potential for ever treating Israel fairly. Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have just about written off the United Nations as a useful forum.

Obama nominated Susan Rice, one of his top campaign advisers, to be U.N. ambassador and has said she will serve at Cabinet level.

“She shares my belief that the U.N. is an indispensable and imperfect forum,” he said.

Warrior mom


Like any parent, Esther Kandel is crazy about her kids. For years, she has led the typical Jewish parenting life: PTA meetings, carpooling, after-school activities, nightly homework and dinner with the kids, preparing for Shabbat and holidays, and so on.

But behind this normal life, she has led another, more mysterious life that few people know about — one that includes, among other things, going undercover as a spy to expose radical Islamic elements.

Back in 2002, when the Second Intifada was raging, she would regularly put on a hijab and attend Islamic conferences all over Southern California. She was there to document the hateful venom that often permeated these events, reporting her findings to private investigators of radical Islam in America.

Her obsession with fighting the evil of terrorism, she says, started on a Tuesday morning at the Cleveland airport. The date was Sept. 11, 2001. As she headed for her gate, she remembers seeing a security guard running at full speed toward her and screaming: “Everybody evacuate, the airplane’s coming this way!”

It was a false alarm for Cleveland, of course, but not for New York or Washington, and the events of that day left a mark on Kandel that still fires her warrior instincts.

One of her first battles was in the winter of 2002, when she saw a report on honestreporting.com about a fake Palestinian funeral filmed by the IDF, which showed a “dead” Palestinian body that kept falling off the stretcher and getting back on — an obvious hoax.

Outraged, she got a copy of the videotape and spent hours on the phone with news producers trying to convince them to air it. Eventually, she got it on MSNBC, where Alan Keyes used the footage to illustrate, in his words, “the issue of Palestinian credibility in the wake of increasing indications that the claims of hundreds of dead and Nazi-style atrocities were greatly exaggerated, abused for propaganda purposes to achieve a political result.”

Kandel was just getting warmed up.

Since then, in between PTA meetings and carpooling, she has continued her Batman-like escapades into the murky world of radical Islam and made a nuisance of herself any time she saw fit, even with members of her own tribe.

At a November 2007 conference in New York titled: “Hijacking Human Rights: The Demonization of Israel at the United Nations,” sponsored by the Hudson Institute and two Jewish organizations, she stood up and publicly took to task Ambassador Daniel Carmon, Israel’s deputy permanent envoy to the United Nations, who had lauded the work of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in sustaining Palestinian refugees.

Kandel, who had lobbied Capitol Hill to cut off U.S. funding for UNRWA, which she accused of massive corruption and publishing anti-Semitic textbooks, was subsequently quoted in the Jewish Week: “It doesn’t help when we are trying to educate members of Congress about the fraud and evil-doing in UNRWA to have a representative of Israel say that UNRWA is a good thing. I feel undercut and undermined by the government of Israel on this issue.”

No cause, however, has grabbed Kandel’s passion like that of 55-year-old Mithal al Alusi, who has been called the “bravest man in Iraq.”

Alusi is the secular and liberal Sunni politician who has incurred the wrath of Iraqi leaders for doing things like visiting Israel, protesting too loudly about human rights abuses and warning against the corrupting influence of Iran. After he first visited Israel in 2004 — and made a star turn at a counterterrorism conference — he was stripped of his bodyguards and his position in the transition government.

Kandel quickly heard about his situation and got in touch with Alusi, who sent her an e-mail saying he feared he would be thrown in jail or killed by terrorists. She tried to help, but all the doors were closed. Shortly thereafter, Alusi’s two boys were brutally murdered. Undeterred, he told the Los Angeles Times: “They were stupid to think that by killing my sons they would make me soft.”

Fired up by the boys’ murders, Kandel spent several months flying back and forth to Israel and Washington, lobbying members of Congress to move Alusi to the safer Green Zone in Baghdad. She and Alusi, who flew to Washington, met with a motley crew of sympathizers — including people like David Frum, Christopher Hitchens, New York Sun journalist Eli Lake and Iraqi blogger Nibras Kazimi — and eventually hit pay dirt when the late Congressman Tom Lantos, himself a fervent Zionist and Holocaust survivor, took up the cause.

In May 2005, Alusi and his wife were moved into the safety of the Green Zone, along with his 70 bodyguards.

But now he is in danger again, because earlier this year he had the chutzpah to attend another conference in Israel. He was immediately stripped of his parliamentary immunity and, Kandel says, is at risk of being tried for treason.

When I spoke to Alusi a few weeks ago by phone from Baghdad, he seemed to feel he had more important things on his plate than his own survival. He desperately wants the world to know the extent to which Iran has infiltrated the Iraqi government.

“Almost everyone’s corrupt,” he told me. “Half of the Parliament is working for the Iranians or the terrorists, and the other half is distracted by money.”

So while Alusi fights to get his important message out, Kandel and her allies are fighting to get him justice and protection so he can continue his fight.

It’s not clear where this Pico-Robertson mother gets her unrelenting passion to defend a Mesopotamian man most of us have never heard of, or, for that matter, where she gets the energy to make 100 calls in one afternoon in support of one cause or another.

This, however, is clear: With two daughters in college and a son already in high school, this carpool mom will soon have a lot more time to play warrior mom — a pleasant thought for victims everywhere.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Attention, politicians: Pandering won’t fly


Over the last few weeks of the presidential campaign, the media reported on embarrassing attempts at pandering directed to the Jewish community. While these kinds of efforts are nothing new, and many of the panderers will renege on their pledges once in office — politicians have been promising to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem for a generation — they tell us something important about ourselves.

Why do politicians think that these predictable panders will win our votes? Have they been given bad political advice, or have we, unwittingly, sent the wrong message?

This election cycle the panders were especially blatant, if only because they were so heavy-handed. Usually, there is some restraint in the effort to woo Jewish voters; certain things are just not done, even though they might strike a resonant chord with some Jewish constituencies.

This year, however, many politicians — especially in the Republican camp — threw caution to the wind and said whatever they thought would be effective to garner Jewish voters in the swing states. Notably, the false suggestions that Barack Obama is a Muslim, pals around with terrorists, is hostile to Israel and even that his election might lead to a second Holocaust.

Throughout the campaign a coarse effort was made to push Jews’ nervous buttons on Israel, anti-Semitism, terror and the Holocaust in shameful attempts to exploit fear and, too often, ignorance.

What these efforts should provoke is serious introspection by us. We should ask ourselves why we come to be perceived as susceptible to such inaccurate, superficial and incendiary blandishments by those who run for office. Why is it assumed that the Jewish community will find such wild, unsubstantiated allegations to be worthy of consideration and further dissemination? What have we done to allow the purveyors of the falsehoods and mischaracterizations to think they will find a sympathetic audience?

I have been involved in the organized Jewish community for more than 30 years, both as a professional with the Anti-Defamation League and as a lay leader with several diverse Jewish organizations.

I have hosted and witnessed a boatload of politicians and community leaders who have sought to connect with their Jewish audiences by touching upon issues they thought would resonate. Invariably, the topics of choice were Israel, anti-Semitism and, to a lesser degree, hate crimes and terrorism.

Almost always, the presentations adhered to a predictable arc: accolades for the person who reaffirmed the views that were overwhelmingly held by the audience. Rarely were the elected called upon to propose more than applause-earning platitudes. We settled for facile analyses and the painless intoning of set pieces about a predictable list of priorities, which was all we seemed to demand.

This ritual dance has sent politicians the wrong message. We are widely perceived as virtually single-issue in outlook, lacking nuance on complex matters and easily pleased. “Throw them a few bones, and they’ll be happy,” seems to be the operative assessment among the politicians who do the Jewish circuit.

Exacerbating the problem is the effort — most pronounced in recent years — to enforce a conservative orthodoxy when it comes to the Middle East. The most rigid elements of the Jewish community now tend to define the parameters of legitimate debate. To argue against their positions is to risk being termed naïve, ignorant or even disloyal. For most elected officials, taking the status quo line is much easier than arguing for risk-taking and innovation, even though those same positions may be considered tame in the Israeli Knesset.

Incidentally, having an agenda set by the most fearful in a minority community is strikingly similar to what prevails among other ethnic/racial groups. The most fearful often set the terms of debate in the African American and Latino communities, too. To buck the conventional wisdom is itself an act of courage.

The risk in what we have wrought — settling for pabulum and superficiality instead of honest and serious analysis, while also avoiding spirited internal discussion of those issues — is that the community is perceived as easy and vulnerable to thoughtless appeals to our basest fears.

We must demand more of others and of ourselves.

We shouldn’t settle for platitudinous sermons when we invite political leaders to speak — it does neither them nor us any good. We should tolerate, indeed encourage, vigorous and spirited discussions of tough issues relating to our community here and in Israel; it will do us and our children good.

The results of the 2008 presidential election indicate that the base appeals to our “tribal” instincts didn’t work very well. We can take some comfort in that. But we must, by our actions, demonstrate that intelligent, substantive discussions of issues of concern will be welcome in the future. It’s time to tell the politicians: superficial appeals to simplistic and false notions of our priorities just won’t fly. The world is too complex for that, and we know it.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan.