Echoes of Lebanon civil war as Syrian turmoil spreads


Tit-for-tat kidnappings by Syrian rebels and Lebanese Shi’ite gunmen have escalated tensions in Lebanon, where the specter of contagion from Syria’s conflict is alarming the fractured and war-scarred Mediterranean nation.

Despite government efforts to insulate it from turmoil in its once dominating neighbor, Lebanon has seen armed clashes in its two largest cities, and last week authorities said they uncovered a Syrian plot to destabilize the country.

The sight of masked gunmen in Beirut on Wednesday claiming the capture of 20 Syrians, and the kidnapping in broad daylight of a Turkish businessman near the airport, was another dramatic sign of Syria’s crisis spilling over into Lebanon.

While they may not herald an imminent slide towards conflict in Lebanon, the incidents highlight the weak and tenuous authority of Lebanon’s state institutions and point to future instability in the country of four million.

“This will have a negative impact on state authority, the military and the business environment in Lebanon” said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group consultancy. “The likelihood of civil war right now remains low, but reaching this stage is a very alarming development”.

To the outside world, kidnapping foreigners was a defining feature of Lebanon’s civil war, and the brazen public appearance by the masked gunmen this week – unchallenged by security forces – echoed the chaos of the 1975-1990 conflict.

“This …brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn,” said Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose policy of ‘dissociation’ from Syria’s conflict next door has come under growing strain.

SECTARIAN TENSIONS

Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, heads a government in which Shi’ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah and its Shi’ite and Christian allies – all supporters of Assad – hold half the cabinet seats.

Hezbollah, the only Lebanese armed faction not to disarm after the civil war, is the most powerful fighting force in the country. Its opponents have repeatedly and unsuccessfully called for it to put its mighty arsenal under state control.

Those long-standing sectarian tensions have been re-ignited by the mainly Sunni Muslim revolt in Syria against Hezbollah’s ally President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Shi’ite Iran, a rival to Sunni Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, sponsors both Hezbollah and Assad.

Most of Hezbollah’s opponents, including Mikati’s fellow Sunnis, are solidly behind the Syrian rebellion. In Sunni Muslim border areas of northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, arms have been smuggled to the rebels since the start of the uprising.

Tensions over Syria led to deadly street clashes three months ago in the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, home also to a staunchly pro-Assad Lebanese Alawite minority.

The kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi’ites in northern Syria in May also triggered street protests in Beirut.

Five days ago Lebanese authorities issued an indictment against a top Syrian security official and a former Lebanese minister whom it accused of forming an ‘armed gang’ that planned to detonate bombs to incite sectarian fighting in Lebanon.

MUCH TO LOSE

Assad’s woes have already emboldened some of his opponents in Lebanon, and Sunni Muslims might seek to press home political advantages against a weakened Hezbollah if he were to fall.

But analysts say that all sides in a potential Lebanese conflict know they have much to lose from all-out confrontation, an awareness which has helped them step back from the brink during several political showdowns in recent years.

Notable among such crises was the assassination in 2005 of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and its aftermath. The still officially unsolved killing of the Sunni billionaire with close ties to Saudi Arabia saw suspicion fall on Hezbollah and Syria.

A major escalation of violence now would be likely to draw in Gulf Arab countries, strong supporters of Lebanon’s Sunnis, against Hezbollah. Israel, which fought an inconclusive war with Hezbollah in 2006, could also get sucked into such a conflict.

Faced with that prospect, Lebanon’s divided political leaders appear keen to avoid escalating friction.

“All the evidence of the last seven or eight years has been that all the parties in Lebanon will do all they can to prevent the country shifting into all-out civil war,” said Beirut-based political commentator Rami Khouri.

Still, this week’s kidnappings by a group apparently beyond the control not only of the state but also the main political leaders on its own side of the divide, serve as a warning that street violence can build a momentum of its own.

“The Lebanese state is not a powerful centralized state,” Khouri said. “You have people outside the control of the state, whether it’s Hezbollah or small groups like these family-based militias that operate in society.

“The worry is that these incidents can escalate and get out of hand. Then you end up with armed conflict in the street.”

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Ross: Turmoil sharpens Israeli needs for security guarantees


The recent Middle East turmoil has sharpened Israeli needs for tangible security guarantees in exchange for concessions to the Palestinians, Dennis Ross said.

Ross, President Obama’s top Middle East adviser, told the Anti-Defamation League’s annual leadership conference in Washington on Monday that security guarantees sought by Israel toward a peace deal with the Palestinians were critical, “particularly during a time of change.”

The Palestinians, in turn, “need to see that they can have an independent state that is viable and contiguous” as well as “signs the occupation is receding.”

Ross outlined the Obama administration’s approach to the “Arab Spring,” the push for democracy roiling the Middle East: Assist those governments ready to transition to democracy and oppose those that increase oppression in the face of protest, sometimes with military force, as with Libya.

Ross said that the unrest sweeping the region could result in democratic regimes structurally more likely to ensure peace with Israel—but could also prove a bonanza for Islamists hoping to exploit the turmoil.

He implied that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would help facilitate the former scenario. Democrats in the region “need to see that negotiations cannot only take place, they can produce,” he said, and then he cited Israeli-Palestinian talks as an example.

Ross reiterated the Obama administration position opposing Palestinian attempts to obtain recognition of statehood before striking a deal with Israel.

“We have consistently made it clear that the way to produce a Palestinian state is through negotiations, not through unilateral declarations, not through going to the U.N.,” he said.

Ross said the U.S.-Israel defense relationship was “better than ever,” with greater depth and substance than under previous administrations.

He quoted from remarks two weeks ago by Robert Gates during the U.S. defense secretary’s visit to Israel.

“I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship,” Gates had said. “The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion—cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge.”

Separately, Defense News reported Monday that Israel and the United States are planning a “massive exercise” that would allow both countries to function as a wartime joint task force.

Iran pulling strings to create Mideast turmoil


What do all the current threats facing the Middle East — the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah’s bid for power in Lebanon, political turmoil in Iraq and imminent nu- clear weapons in the hands of a radical dictatorship — all have in common? Answer: Iran.

While these issues all have their local roots, they are also linked by Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony. Iran’s strategy has basically been in place since the 1979 Islamist revolution, but it has only recently begun to pay off. The often-stated goal of the revolution was to turn Iran into a utopian Islamist society and then to spread this revolution throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world in general.

While all Iranian leaders voice basic support for this program, the country has often been cautious in pursuing it, especially given the long war with Iraq in the 1980s and the possibility of Western opposition. But now a number of events have given the regime renewed confidence, and the extreme line taken by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also produced more daring and, thus, both reckless and violent behavior.

Iran tries to extend its influence in three ways: through propaganda and incitement, by promoting client groups and projecting the state’s own power. Today, Iran sponsors radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and among the Palestinians, as well as in other countries. Its two most important clients are Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian group Hamas.

While this is not to suggest that these organizations are totally controlled by Tehran and have their every move dictated by it, Iran largely finances these groups, provides weapons and training, encourages them to launch attacks and shapes their ideology. Without Iran’s backing, they would lack most of their power.

The evidence indicates that Iran has been urging them to be more aggressive and to launch terrorist attacks and more general offensives.

Take Lebanon, for example. Hezbollah, the large Shi’a Muslim group, closely follows Iran’s line. The organization’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, is also the official representative in Lebanon of Iran’s “spiritual guide” or supreme leader — that country’s most powerful official.

In 2006, it launched attacks on Israel that led to a major war, steps it would never dared have taken unless Hezbollah’s leadership knew that Iran wanted such actions. Indeed, in an April interview on Al-Kawthar TV, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem told his interviewer that “Hezbollah, when it comes to matters of jurisprudence pertaining to its general direction, as well as to its jihad direction, bases itself on the decisions of the ‘spiritual guide’ [Iran’s supreme leader]…. With regard to all the other details — whenever we need jurisprudent clarifications regarding what is permitted and what is forbidden on the jihad front, we ask, receive general answers and implement them.”

Since the end of the summer 2006 war, Hezbollah’s emphasis has been to seek control over Lebanon, though it has simultaneously rebuilt its military power. On a number of occasions, Iran has been caught smuggling arms to Hezbollah, through both Syria and Turkey. Iranian Revolutionary Guards act as military advisers to Hezbollah.

Opponents of an Iranian-Syrian takeover in Lebanon, both politicians and journalists, have been systematically murdered in terrorist attacks. Clearly, as many Lebanese have noted, Iran is seeking to turn Lebanon into a satellite state.

The same tactics are employed with the Palestinians. Hamas and the even more extremist Palestinian Islamic Jihad follow Iran’s line. Tehran has publicly urged these organizations to carry out terrorist attacks and, in addition to training and arms, provides them with examples of openly anti-Semitic rhetoric duplicated in their propaganda.

This June was a turning point in Palestinian history. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, expelled its nationalist Fatah rivals, executed many people because of their political views or activities and made clear its intention of transforming the Gaza Strip into an Islamist state, basically following Iran’s example.

Many Palestinians and other Arabs publicly state their fear and resentment at the idea that Hamas represented an Iranian effort to seize control of their land and cause. On June 20, Yasser Abed Rabbo, senior member of Fatah’s PLO executive committee, said in a press statement that “Iran helped Hamas to lead a military coup against the legitimate Palestinian leadership and to control the Gaza Strip.”

“Iran supports those hostile powers in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in order to serve its regional interests on the expense of the peoples and nations of the region,” Abed Rabbo said.

Similarly, in a recent speech, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit asserted that Iranian aid to Hamas activities in Gaza posed a threat to Egyptian national security.

Two of the Arab world’s top journalists have also spoken out on this issue. Tariq al-Humayd, editor of the popular Arabic daily, Asharq Alawsat, wrote, “The source of the funds is obviously Iran. Today, no one has control over Hamas … except Iran, its economic patron, and Syria,” Iran’s ally and the place where Hamas has its headquarters.

Ahmad Al-Jarallah, editor of Kuwait’s Al-Siyassa, noted: “By means of Hamas’ takeover in Gaza, the Iran-Syria axis has managed … to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace” and become the main arbiter of regional politics.

Make no mistake — this is only the beginning. On the horizon looms Iran’s nuclear arsenal. If Tehran gets this ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it will rally far larger numbers of radical and terrorist forces in attacking the West and more moderate Arabs, as well as Israel.

Hiding behind its nuclear umbrella, Iran and its allies will also be able to openly engage in attacks on Western interests without fear of Western retribution. Finally, if Iran gets the upper hand, it will block any chance for peace and push the region into decades of more bloodshed.

This is why the details of events in Iraq, Lebanon and among the Palestinians do not detract from, but indeed reinforce, the need to contain Iran and especially to ensure that it does not obtain nuclear weapons.

Ehud Danoch is consul general of Israel to the Southwestern United States and served previously as chief of staff to Israel’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.

Dear Rabbi Wolpe


Dear Rabbi Wolpe,

I admit it.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I’m genuinely embarrassed at the moment.

Judging by the recent goings-on in the Jewish book publishing world, where certain Orthodox authors have been taken to task for their controversial writings and books have either been banned, forcibly censored or book tours were canceled, it would seem that we don’t have our act completely together.

And while there may be some in the Orthodox community who resent you for expressing your views, I thank you for pointing these things out, because it allows for more dialogue, and the lack of dialogue that has existed to date is something both of us lament.

You raised some valid and important issues in your recent article in The Jewish Journal ("Spiritual Agoraphobia," Nov. 15) about the insularity of the Orthodox community. And, you presented your arguments eloquently and respectfully. Again, I am grateful, because you could have been much more brutal.

You presented some philosophical difficulties with Orthodox Judaism’s shunning of the outside world. But I think you’ve missed the boat here. The Vilna Gaon, who embraced secular knowledge yet objected to Maimonides, did not object to secular pursuits as a supplement to and augmentation of one’s understanding of Torah; he objected to using secular wisdom as a means of supplanting and undermining Jewish theology. So a rejection of Reform theology is not de facto a rejection of all secular wisdom.

But there is a bigger picture: the reality about at least one of the current situations you addressed — Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Reinman’s recent cancellation of his book tour with Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch — is only tangentially related to Orthodoxy’s views on the secular world. Without even realizing it, you hit a nerve within the Orthodox community, which really has nothing to do with philosophy at all.

It’s got to do with leadership.

The cancellation of the book tour was due to a letter issued by the Moetzes Gedolai HaTorah (Chief Rabbinical Council) of Agudath Israel criticizing the legitimacy that would be lent to Reform Judaism through the tour. Maybe you assumed that this was the first time that these rabbis had heard of the book and its objective of bringing together Orthodox and Reform rabbis to discuss their personal beliefs. But think about it: Does anyone really think that a rabbi studying in the haredi yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J. would dare agree to co-author such a controversial work without the consent and even encouragement of his rabbis?

So what really happened here? It would appear that somebody in the leadership goofed. Originally, a leading rabbi or rabbis within the haredi world thought that dialogue with Reform Jews was a good thing, that it would lead to closer ties to our fellow Jew, regardless of his or her theologies.

And, perhaps the thinking went, maybe we could even expose some Reform Jews to the beauty of Orthodox Judaism, so that either they could embrace some aspect of it or at least learn to be more tolerant of it. But then, either the same or different rabbis got cold feet and pulled the plug. We’ve got your classic flip-flop here, and the Orthodox community was left with egg on its face.

No, the Orthodox community is not monolithic. And even within the same community, there is not always consensus. So the recent vacillation is representative merely of a lack of decisive leadership for now. But it’s normal within any community for there to be times of stronger, coalition-based leadership and times of weaker, fractured leadership. This is part of the evolution of any society.

OK, so that’s the bad news. But here’s the good news. We’ve come a long way, baby. Before Hirsch and Reinman’s book, if someone would have suggested that a rabbi studying in Lakewood would even agree to dialogue with a Reform rabbi, much less write a book with him, he would have been laughed out of the room. The Orthodox world is starting to wake up to the fact that there is a larger Jewish world out there.

You need us, but we also need you. If we’re going to weather our future in Israel and in the Diaspora, we’ve got to do this together.

We’ve also started to realize that just because we say hello to a non-Orthodox Jew, it doesn’t mean we’re going to tear down our mechitzahs. Over the years, we’ve become more confident in who we are and our lasting power amidst a world of clashing and alluring cultures and beliefs that are pulling so many of us away from Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism has endured the test of time. If we can "make it" in Hollywood and still keep the faith, then we can also make it amidst our Reform brethren and not be frightened that we’ll be automatically won over to the "dark side."

So, while you were looking at the glass as half-empty, I think there’s a half-full perspective here. We’ve started to realize that dialogue is good, dialogue is healthy. Yes, this recent debacle over Reinman’s book indicates that we’re still ambivalent about the whole thing. But it’s far better than the emphatic refusals of the past.

I sincerely hope that recent events will not mean a setback for those of us on both sides who have already begun the healthy dialogue. Perhaps these recent events can even be a springboard within our local community to rekindle the flame of dialogue and cooperation between the different denominations and congregations.

Wouldn’t that be a great victory for all Jews?

Sincerely,

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Rosh Kehila
Kehillat Yavneh
Hancock Park

A Solid Gold Artist


Not long ago, Jeffrey Gold disappeared from Los Angeles’ art scene.”I just buried myself in my work,” said the 45-year-old artist. “I didn’t let people see the work. I was kind of struggling.”

The impressive results of his 2000-2002 artistic hibernation will show at Forum Gallery beginning Oct. 18.

Gold is preoccupied with the human figure. Yet unlike many artists, his work eschews irony. Gold paints what he sees and relishes.

“I paint from my own personal experiences,” said Gold, whose works also feature friends, lovers and family, even if those moments are personal and painful.

Gold experienced emotional turmoil as a child when his parents divorced. The son of an observant Russian-Polish mother and a secular English-Romanian father, Gold and his two sisters grew up in the Miracle Mile district.

“We were very kosher.” Gold said. “Following the divorce, my dad gave us bacon. When we first tasted bacon, we wanted to kill my mother!”

After Beverly Hills High School, Gold attended Art Center College of Design, where he clashed with the commercial art curriculum.

“I wound up teaching myself how to paint,” said Gold, who vowed to return one day to the college and share his experience. That circle closes in November, when he will teach advanced painting at his alma mater.

Gold wasn’t always a figurative painter. He began as a photo-realist, depicting toys, Archie Comics and Red Hots. His joy came in capturing the plasticity and color of kitschy objects.

“It was almost a challenge,” he said, “to see if I could put them down on canvas as they were.”

The novelty wore off after a 1989 exhibit by Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum that changed Gold’s artistic life. From Nerdrum’s figurative paintings, Gold derived “such an emotional impact that kind of jolted me into realizing that I was happier painting figures than painting toys.”

At the end of the day, what you see is what you get in Gold’s work — albeit filtered through the artist’s emotional state.

“I paint from my life,” Gold said. “If I paint a lot of tulips, it’s because I love tulips.”

“Jeffrey Gold: Recent Paintings” runs from Oct. 18-Nov. 16 at the Forum Gallery, 8069 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Opening reception is Oct. 18, 6-10 p.m. For information, call (323) 655-1550.