Hezbollah denies involvement in Burgas attack


Hezbollah denied it was involved in a terrorist attack in Bulgaria that killed six, including five Israelis.

Two days after the Bulgarian government implicated two men with links to Hezbollah to the terrorist attack last July, deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem said Thursday that Israel is making “allegations and incitements and accusations against Hezbollah” because it has not succeeded in defeating it militarily, Reuters reported.

“Israel is leading an international campaign to intimidate people and countries against Hezbollah,” Qassem reportedly told religious students in southern Beirut. “We will not submit to these pressures and we will not change our priorities. Our compass will remain directed towards Israel.”

Hezbollah and Israel fought a monthlong war in 2006.

Bulgaria's interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, told reporters on Tuesday that Hezbollah also financed the bomb attack on a tour bus full of Israelis.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said his government would cooperate with Bulgarian investigators, according to Reuters. The people directly behind the attack were part of a Hezbollah cell that included two operatives using passports from Australia and Canada, he said.

Israel has blamed Hezbollah and Iran for the attack, which also killed the Israeli tourists' Bulgarian bus driver. Iran has denied responsibility and accused Israel of staging the attack.

Q & A With Bruce Feiler


“Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion” by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, $26.95).

With daily reports of suicide bombings in Iraq, never-ending violence between Israelis and Palestinians and Iran’s nuclear threat, it can be hard to imagine the Middle East as the birthplace of monotheism and all the ethics and piety that implies. But this heritage is exactly what Bruce Feiler explores in his new book.

In it, Feiler writes of his travels to Israel, Iraq and Iran — accompanied by various archeologists, theologians and historians. He tells the story against the backdrop of regional violence, interspersing observations on the Bible with descriptions of his bulletproof clothing. He shares his fear of being attacked and the very real danger of traveling on Iraqi highways. The book, in places, becomes an extreme travel memoir, depicting in lucid detail both risk and incredible cultural beauty.

Feiler spoke to The Journal by phone while taking a break from moving into his new Brooklyn home, which he shares with his wife and his 6-month-old identical twin girls.

Jewish Journal: Your new work follows on the heels of two that touched on consonant themes: “Walking the Bible, a Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses” (William Morrow, 2001) and “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (William Morrow, 2002). What compelled you to write this new book?

Bruce Feiler: When I did “Walking the Bible,” it was a very personal journey. [I wanted to know] were these stories real? Could I find the places where they took place? But between then and now religion no longer has the luxury of being personal. It has really become much more urgent, and much more a matter of life and death, it seems. Conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, and even in the United States, everything from the battle over the Ten Commandments to Terry Schiavo to gay marriage [all have to do with religion].

I recently read a Time magazine cover story from 1966 titled “Is God Dead?” that said religions was dead as an influence in world affairs, and would never return again. I wanted to figure out why religion was the dominant story in the world now. The idea was to go back to the roots of religion itself, and to ask: Is it tearing us apart or bringing us together?

JJ: How do you view the Bible — as history? As a God-written manuscript?

BF: I view it as a story of how God and humans tried to develop a relationship with one another, and I believe that it had to contain great truth, and I think that it contains great meaning for life. I also believe it contains a wide variety of rhetorical techniques — history, law, poetry, really boring filibusters, a kind of legislative tedium, legend, psalms….

One reason for the Bible’s enduring power is that it is not a complete history. If you were turn it in to a newspaper editor, he would say, ‘please go out and do more reporting.’ What is left out is as important as what is put in. It invites each of us to enter the story…. Every generation can reinterpret it.

The story of Abraham sacrificing his son, for example. If you read that story on Sept. 10, 2001, and on Sept. 12, 2001, you would get a totally different understanding of it.

JJ: How so?

BF: The idea of killing in the name of God is introduced with Abraham, and that is just one story that seems very relevant to the times we live in today.

JJ: Do you think that the current Middle East conflict is a religious one or a political one?

BF: I think that it is primarily a geopolitical conflict, but that all sides use religion when they want to and ignore it when they want to. I don’t believe that you can use the Bible to draw borders and solve political problems. It is not what it was intended for.

JJ: Do you think that the ancient cities you visited, such as Jericho in Israel, Nasiriyah in Iraq and Pasargardae and Persepolis in Iran, fostered ancient societies that were more religious than the current communities who live in them today?

BF: That is a very hard question to answer. On the one hand, religion infused ancient society. There had not been science and rationality, nor the enlightenment and modern technology, which have changed the way we experienced religion. And literacy was not as widespread.

When religion was being formed in the middle of the first millennium, great religions were being formed all over the world, and it is pretty clear that the great religions were in dialogue with one another and in dialogue with the cultures around them. And the idea that one religion had an exclusive claim to the truth, I don’t think was a very widespread notion. I think that something that Christianity and Islam introduced into the world was that there can be one universal faith and everyone in the world will follow it. That has been a very destructive idea in the world in the past 1,000 years.

JJ: The history that you give of the Jewish people in “Where God Was Born,” which comes from a literalist reading of the Bible, is one of a bellicose, combative nation of militants. Does it worry you that our ancient leaders, like King David, were so bloodthirsty? How do you reconcile these bloodthirsty heroes with their current canonization, which is something that is taught in most Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools?

BF: I kind of understand why day school teachers want to teach David as a hero, because young Jews are looking for heroes who are strong and stick up for themselves. But I would say that one of things I have learned about the Bible is that we don’t have to accept the way we are taught. The stories are not black and white, and that is why they are interesting. One of the reasons that people don’t like the Bible is because they talk about it the same way that they did when they were 5. The fact that David was a failed leader gives me a lot to think about, and that is interesting.

JJ: Tell me about your own Judaism — how have the journeys taken in your last three books transformed your experience of faith?

BF: I have discovered a number of positive reasons to be Jewish, to balance off a lot of the negative reasons I heard when I was young — such as the Holocaust, discrimination, Israel is imperiled. The question [I am interested in] is can the religions get along, and Judaism has a very powerful, positive message to contribute to that conversation. We can teach the Christians and the Muslims that it is OK if everyone doesn’t agree with you, and it is OK not to impose your faith on others.

In the end, we all have to make our own relationship with God, that we can no longer accept what our politicians tell us, or our journalists tell us, or our parents tell us. We don’t have to just accept what our religious leaders tell us either. Each of us has to make our own relationship with God.

Meet Bruce Feiler Oct. 25, 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. For information, call (626) 449-5320 or visit

Israel Watches Iran With Worry


 

For Israel, it’s the classic “I’ve got good news, but you might want to hear the bad news first” scenario.

Just when a confluence of unrelated events revived the prospect of peace talks with the Palestinians, Iran’s potential nuclear threat to the Jewish state suddenly seems greater than ever.

In fact, the Iran dilemma is almost the mirror image of new hope with the Palestinians: The prospect of a nuclear-armed, radical Islamic regime suddenly has moved from the “within years” to the “within months” column, differences between the United States and Europe are dogging resolution — and the United States wants Israel to just sit still.

Reports of Iran’s accelerated development of nuclear material, as well as missiles to deliver it, have profoundly unsettled Israelis.

“We believe we know what the real intentions of the Iranians are,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said last week in Cleveland at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations. “The real intention of the Iranians is to develop a nuclear bomb.”

The level of agreement over keeping at bay a nation that routinely calls for Israel’s elimination and glorifies suicide bombers reached across Israel’s otherwise fractious political culture.

“Israel cannot, cannot live under the shadow of nuclear Iran and the bomb,” Ephraim Sneh, a leader of the opposition Labor party, said on CNN.

“Israel is very vulnerable,” said Sneh, who was in Washington last week. “All our economic and intellectual assets are concentrated in a piece of 20 and 60 miles. That’s all. Two bombs can turn Israel into a scorched Third World country. We cannot live with it.”

Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Yahad party, said the issue hangs over the nation at a time when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, forthcoming Palestinian elections and the Bush administration’s post-election energy present renewed opportunities for peace in the region.

“Iran is a very, very important issue,” Beilin said. “For us it is hovering, it is a problem.”

Israel and the United States were hoping the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would announce tougher measures at its board meeting Thursday, including more rigorous international monitoring and a trigger mechanism that automatically would refer any violation of Iran’s nonproliferation agreement to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

Mindful of this week’s IAEA meeting, the Iranians signed an agreement last week with France, Germany and Britain to temporarily suspend their uranium enrichment efforts.

Iran announced on Monday that the suspension, in effect until Iran works out a long-term agreement with the international community, is now underway.

Instead of assuaging concerns, however, the agreement underscored skepticism about Iran’s intentions. Within days of signing the agreement, a reliable opposition group said Iran was using advanced technology to enrich uranium at military sites and keeping the activity secret, presumably to exempt it from the suspension.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran also said that the country had purchased enriched uranium in 2001 and designs for nuclear warheads in the mid-1990s.

Iran dismissed the claims out of hand, but on Friday European diplomats — some apparently from the same nations that had negotiated the suspension agreement — were telling reporters that Iran was accelerating enrichment ahead of the suspension.

The diplomats were furious with the obvious effort to get Iran as close as possible to weaponization before the freeze kicks in.

President Bush said he found the allegations credible. Attending a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Chile, Bush said he considered the reports a “very serious matter.”

Another area of concern for the Americans is the development of missiles needed to deliver the warheads.

“I have seen some information that would suggest they had been actively working on delivery systems,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week.

Iran dismisses the reports as unfounded and compares them to the erroneous intelligence on weapons development that helped draw the United States into war with Iraq.

“The burden of proof is on the shoulder of the person who makes the claims,” Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Monday in an interview on CNN.

The problem with that explanation is that Iran often is the source of the claims. In August, Iran released photos of a new version of its Shihab missile that had a baby-bottle design, as opposed to the usual cone shape.

The design apparently was drawn from Soviet era ICBM nuclear missiles, said Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, since a nuclear device fits better in a baby-bottle shape.

Why would the Iranians allow the release of those pictures?

“They want people to know,” Clawson said.

With Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein out of the way, flexing muscles sends a message that Iran is now a dominant power in the Middle East. That would allow Iran to continue its disruptive involvement in Lebanon, where Israel says Iran has armed Hezbollah terrorists with 13,000 missiles. Hezbollah and Iran also have emerged among the main financiers of Palestinian terrorist attacks in the West Bank.

The revelations late last week only increased skepticism among some on the 35-member IAEA board, and the United States has expressed its determination to impose stiffer standards, especially since Iran reneged on previous deals.

Europeans also are unnerved that the newer Shihab missiles apparently could put major European cities within range.

On the other hand, China and Russia — which as declared nuclear nations have considerable influence at the IAEA — are averse to sanctions. Russia has a financial stake in Iran’s main nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Furthermore, Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director-general, on Monday called Iran’s enrichment suspension a “step in the right direction,” despite skepticism by Israel and others that any real suspension was underway.

Should Iran clear the IAEA hurdle, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) plan to reintroduce their bipartisan “Iran Freedom Support Act” when Congress reconvenes in January. It would allow the president to sanction countries that do business with the Islamic regime and strengthen support for opposition groups.

That likely would have the strong support of the pro-Israel community in Washington, which believes the suspension agreement with Europe is inadequate.

“Iran is intensely working to marry its nuclear and missile programs so that it can deliver a nuclear weapon at the earliest possible date,” said Andrew Schwartz, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Nothing in the agreement stops Iran from completing nuclear warhead designs or improving its missiles to enable them to deliver nuclear weapons.”

After this meeting, Bush likely would raise the threat of sanctions when the IAEA board meets again, in about four months.

Israel, meanwhile, is sitting on its hands, not wanting to upend delicate U.S. efforts to build international support. U.S. officials have made clear they do not want Israel to repeat its successful 1981 strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.

“I don’t see how it would do anything but provoke … a conflict between Israel and Iran, and we want to avoid that at all costs, and I think the Israelis recognize that,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “It’s one thing to attack a reactor in Iraq 20-some years ago. It’s something entirely different to take on that challenge now.”

Israelis say they are happy to comply, for now. On the record, they say the window for Iran’s nuclearization is two years; off the record, they say the world is looking at 12 months.

“The complacency of the international community drives Israel, pushes Israel to the corner,” Sneh, a retired general, told CNN. “We don’t prepare a pre-emptive strike, but, gradually, along the axis of time, we are pushed to the corner.”