Archive for May, 2009

May 26, 2009

Lebanese Politicians Piggybacking off Israeli Political Tactics

by Gedalyah Reback

The current Lebanese governing coalition, in lew of a potential loss in the coming June 7th election to the “March 8th Coalition” that includes Hizbullah, says it will not join a Hizbullah-led government

Saad Hariri

The potential loss by the left-leaning coalition of Saad Hariri, favored by Western countries, is prompting early politicking by Lebanese leaders who may be assuming the outcome of the election in two weeks. The western-leaning Lebanese governing coalition is taking a queue from Kadima, announcing early that it would rather go into opposition than join a unity government.

Hizbullah though knows just as well that a non-unity government might bring financial and political trouble for Lebanon, just as it has for Hamas’ Palestinian Authority which has disintegrated into two de facto states after Hamas failed to secure Fatah as a coalition partner.

May 19, 2009

Tough Love from Norman Lamm, not Baseless Hate

by Gedalyah Reback

Yeshiva University Chancellor, Rabbi Norman Lamm

(This is a response to this editorial by Rabbi Meir Feldman in the Jerusalem Post)

“With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” so said Rabbi Norman Lamm, the Chancellor of Yeshiva University’s Rabbinical School. But responses to his assessment have been reactionary and lack substance. They lack any understanding of what Rav Lamm said. They presume it is an outgrowth of Orthodox contempt for their liberal neighbors. The writing is on the wall, yet so many figures in these movements refuse to read it.

The comments by Reform Rabbi Meir Feldman in the Jerusalem Post belittled my reading of Rabbi Norman Lamm’s comments. Rabbi Feldman assumed Rabbi Lamm was expressing sinat chinam by predicting the death of the Reform and Conservative Movements. That assumption sees the opposite of reality. His analysis was honest and disparaging. He in no way wished such a death upon the lifelines of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

It was Rabbi Lamm who several years ago tried putting an end to the conversion crisis by negotiating with, and co-initiating with those movements a universal conversion for American Jews. His efforts were not successful, but his effort was born out of the reality that the continuing superfluous nature of conversions for new members of Reform and many Conservative communities was an enveloping social crisis for the Jewish people. He criticized Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the leader of Agudath Israel, for leading the opposition that ended the project.

The failure by Agudah to recognize the severity of the situation has had deep repercussions for conversion the last several years. Today’s decision in the Israeli spureme court to fund Reform conversion projects in Israel has emboldened the denominational lines on conversion and worsened the social crisis that has prevented many marriages from taking place, offering false promises to prospective converts, and inundated Jewish religious courts with difficult cases regarding divorce, conversion and mamzerut.

It is unfortunate that the immediate reaction of Rabbi Feldman is that Rabbi Lamm wishes a cataclysmic collapse upon these movements. He recognizes Reform’s growth is attributable to the recognition of patrilineal descent and inclusion of non-Jewish parents of mixed-lineage children in congregations’ member lists.

The Conservative and Masorti Movements: Global Schism

“Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture,” Rav Lamm said last week. He is alluding to the fact Conservative Judaism has slipped on its original doctrinal commitments that juxtaposed it to Reform’s theological doctrine. The doctrine of reform, negation of law and precedent, arbitrary dismissal of customs and aversion to observance of the major precepts Shabbat and Kashrut have hammered the size of Conservative Judaism as a separate movement.

Calling this “Baseless Hatred” Simply Avoids the Issues

I would go as far as to say Rabbi Feldman’s comments are characteristic of a certain demeanor I experienced prior to my experience as ba’al t’shuva. Progressive Jewish leaders, be they Reform or Renewal or from the left wing of the Conservative Movement, have framed these issues in terms of freedom or religious observance, pluralism and other terminology which offers unconditional acceptance of all Jewish practice. Hence, any open criticism of such a stance becomes, itself, intolerable. The attitude in Rabbi Feldman’s article is reactionary because it assumes that merely offering analysis and even lament to reinforce that analysis is a contravention of tolerance. In that, I think much of the leadership in these movements have sacrificed the “freedom of speech” in order to preserve an unquestionable “freedom of religion.”

Lamm Still Demands Working Together

“He supports outreach to Reform and Conservative Jews, ‘but not by watering down what we believe and not by demonizing them either.'”

Lamm wants to support those who identify Jewish and contribute to their education and acculturation. He represents a segment of the Jewish people that see the same practical issues that liberal Jews see in having to acculturate Russian and Ethiopian Jews who have committed themselves to Jewish life. He sees the same practical issues that the whole of Orthodoxy sees in making sure those who deserve conversion receive it, and that conversion itself maintains its integrity and does not dilute what it necessitates of its candidates.

These are issues he has battled before and wishes for the support to make sure he can battle them again, this time with the utmost success. Rav Lamm is not at all expressing sinat chinam, but that ahavat chinam that Rav Kook so espoused, and that Rav Feldman just cannot seem to see.

May 12, 2009

Linking the Iranian and Palestinian Issues could Severely Backfire

by Gedalyah Reback

Linking the Nuclear and Peace Issues

The US has been pushing a policy to link progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with the help Israel needs to combat Iran. But this necessitates that the US, Europe and Arab states are correct to think that successful developments in either the -Palestinian or -Syrian peace negotiations would stifle Iranian power and imperialism.

The Iranians have proven just how divided they are regarding overtures from the United States. The Roxana Saberi case put pressure on President Obama. If the Iranians had continued to hold her for the duration of her sentence (8 years), it would have been unpopular among Americans to continue those overtures. They would have proven futile, and thus the leverage on the Israelis would evaporate. Given that the Obama administration is trying to push a narrative that links the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other issues in the region, the Israelis would be able to argue that they must continue an assertive stance vis-a-vis the Iranians, and hence vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

The Obama Administration is not clear of this possibility yet. Iranian elections next month, which will probably see a run-off between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his liberal opponent Mir Hussein Moussavi go to the incumbent, would raise this question to the foreground. Considering how divided the most powerful figures in Iran’s regime are regarding any dialogue, much less any deals with the United States and Europe, promising the Israelis fruit on the Iranian front in exchange for extreme leniency on the -Palestinian front would all become shallow.

From Obama’s Eyes

The Obama Administration’s priority though is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is the Iranians. But the administration does see the Iranian issue as optimal leverage on the Israelis to push them into a two-state solution. This is helped by seeing the issue in the reverse, as most people see it, that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a subsequent deal are supposed to be the lightning rod that will strike the political agenda of Iran’s current regime. If the Obama Administration’s promised results do not come after some agreement with either the Palestinians or the Syrians, the neglected peace negotiations will be totally undermined.

The best chance the Obama Administration has to push the Iranians and both Israeli peace scenarios, proven by the sense of urgency in the last couple weeks by governments around the world, would be to see Ahmadinejad lose the upcoming election to a more pragmatic figure. If a reformer were to win, such as Moussavi, that would provide Obama every reason in the world to open full dialogue and relations with the Iranians, promise the Israelis relations with the Iranians as part of either these two peace tracks or the regional peace plan, and of course stabilize the Middle East.

US Pressure on Israel in Connection with Progress on the Iran Front

But the administration seems to be banking that some sort of breakthrough before the Iranian elections would guarantee this scenario more than any direct negotiations between the US and Iranians would.

Insightful people have seen the overt pressure by Vice President Biden and Rahm Emanuel urging a two-state solution as a way of forcing the Netanyahu government to opt for the two-state solution as part of its foreign policy once the Prime Minister finishes his “policy review” in the next couple weeks. But that policy review and its conclusions will also precede the Iranian elections on June 12th, and the Lebanese elections on June 7th.

But again, Iran could now be holding the cards into Israel’s next move. If Iran pushes the US away, Israel will lose incentives (as the Obama Administration sees it) to work toward what the US and rest of the world accept as irrevocable policy on the Middle East conflict.

Lebanon’s politics are much more complicated, and might not be effected by anything the Israelis do regarding the Palestinians or Syrians. Lebanese have reasons to fear if Israel is at war with Hizbullah and Syria, and also have reasons to fear if the Syrians gain a disproportionate advantage in a peace agreement with the Israelis (that would involve the US trading security on the Iraqi border in exchange for Syrian influence over Lebanon).

If the Iranian Track Fails

The Arab states would more readily work with the Israelis than the Iranians, and so the Netanyahu government would probably keep pushing its positions on the West Bank and Syrians. Hence, it risks a flare up in the West Bank if there is nothing substantial politically between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (Jerusalem and Ramallah).

This would be the backfire. If Obama continues, or strengthens this rhetorical link between two or among three or more issues, a failure on one side of the equation would provide political reason for parties to back out on the other fronts.

Hizbullah will undoubtedly gain some more clout as tensions would probably worsen between Israel and Lebanon (though that was inevitable no matter if Livni had formed the current Israeli government, but under Netanyahu things might be even more tense). It is tough to see what the Syrians would do, but it certainly wouldn’t be changing its policies toward Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas (though it’s debatable to what extent it would under a peace deal anyway).

May 11, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Last Couple Days on the Peace Process

by Gedalyah Reback

These two articles in particular have caught my eye. One warns the Obama Administration of mishaps’ potential in its current policies. The other suggests a radical new policy that immediately recognizes a Palestinian state but preserves much of the status quo:

I do not ascribe to the idea Obama is a threat to Israel. The author has a point in choosing his title. Read his article.
From the Wall Street Journal:
How Obama’s America Might Threaten Israel
Determined fecklessness on Iran could lead to nuclear war.

Two States Now: The Case for Unilateral U.S. Recognition of Palestine

Excerpt: “Israel should not be expected to dismantle its West Bank settlements. Settlers who remain there will simply be Israeli residents — or, if they choose, Jewish citizens — of Palestine, just as there are Palestinian residents and citizens of Israel . . . The two states would be free to negotiate further accords . . . they would be doing so as two sovereign nations with recognized borders.

May 11, 2009

Mr. Obama, I Fear You May Provoke a War

by Gedalyah Reback

Dear President Obama,

I, writing as a concerned and educated citizen of the United States and as a constituent on Israeli Religious Nationalist parties, implore you to ease pressure on Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government and policies that it supports. Your overt pressure is in line with the failed policies of international organizations, whose credibility has long decayed in the eyes and ears of Israelis.

Their overt pressure unjustly and arbitrarily gave legitimacy to charges of Israeli war crimes during the Second Intifada and during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Such accusations, baseless, discouraged Israel’s citizens and government officials from listening to those bodies, and exacerbated the Israeli responses in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Those wars, fought under the legitimate pretenses of self-defense, were slandered as illegally waged or disproportionately brutal, while the commanders and soldiers who fought the war have never recognized such accusations with any credibility; thusly, nor have Israel’s 7 million citizens. The media pressure applied to Israel was itself disproportionate to the amount of blatant crimes of war committed by Hizbullah and Hamas with their indiscriminate attacks on civilian population centers. Remember no investigations are necessary to investigate those crimes, but such behavior is hardly scrutinized as much as Israelis’ legitimate counter-offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Undue pressure on the Israelis to accept a two-state solution, a track whose support had been dwindling among Middle East-focused think tanks and their reputable experts, will continue to push Israelis away from the international community. That community has lent no flexibility or legitimacy to Israelis’ needs, much less various Israeli governments’ legal arguments regarding issues of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

I recently attended AIPAC’s annual policy conference. On the final day of the conference, speakers Senator John Kerry and Vice President Joseph Biden spoke to a crowd of about 5,000 people. The reactions to the two speakers were very different, and you must take note of why.

Senator Kerry, whose support for the two-state solution may not have drawn a resounding applause from the crowd, still demonstrated an appreciable knowledge and reasoning for his personal stances on the conflict. He asked Israel’s government to stop building new settlements, and pointed to a potential new settlement, to be built in the E1 sector northeast of Jerusalem, that he thought would be the most problematic of new settlements or their adjacent expansions.

But his keen understanding was not matched by Vice President Biden, whose abrasive speech reflected the now oft-ignored “demands” of the international community. He *demanded* Israel not only stop construction of new settlements, but dismantle old, established ones that are themselves over 30 years old and have already seen third generations born into them. He showed with his choice of words no empathy for the displaced civilians of the Gaza Strip, 8,000 in all. He demonstrated no concern for the potential 200,000 Jewish refugees who have lived all their lives in large communities that sit on land that had been privately purchased from Palestinian landlords. The Vice President received a cold reception to his comments to dismantle settlements.

Mr. President, would you undermine the legitimate purchase of property by well-meaning devout citizens who themselves have undertaken business ventures with their West Bank Palestinian neighbors in years past? Would you encourage Israelis to continue to rely only on themselves and to conceal themselves from the world because their concerns are constantly overlooked? Mr. Obama, I implore you to remember why the West Bank was occupied. It was not for some fictional imperialist venture, but for the defense of Israel’s 1949 boundaries, boundaries that so many Israelis and American thinkers see as indefensible.

Your predecessor said publicly Jewish population centers in the West Bank should not be dismantled. He understood the potential for social upheaval, perhaps civil war if there was ever demand Israel uproot 500,000 people.

In response to your pressure, in response to European pressure, in response to United Nations Security Council resolutions and the like, Israel’s national government will more effectively pursue Fatah and Hamas militants. It will clear areas adjacent to settlements of potential threats, and there will be a Palestinian response. The integrity of Israel’s landholdings, which have no controversy attached to them, will be protected lest Israelis’ rights to purchase and live in property be totally destroyed.

The extremes of these views will encourage more settlers with deeds in hand and debt from legitimate purchases to take up arms to guard their settlements, to take up arms and contemplate defending towns like Bat Ayin from Palestinian raiders, to take up arms and turn the West Bank into a smoldering wasteland of civil war between Israelis and Palestinians.

Not so much your policies, but the attitude that is coming with them will foster such events to happen. Abrasive presentations from Vice President Biden and Advisor Emanuel to the Jewish community and non-Jewish Israel supporters at AIPAC’s recent conference are provoking great anxiety for me.

I sit among the sizable demographic of Jewish Religious Zionists, and within it actively encourage land purchase as the optimal outlet of expressing our deep commitment to settling the land of Israel. But my demographic is not restricted to the Orthodox, or to a minority. That demographic extends beyond, into the liberal sectors of Judaism – the Conservative and Reform movements. It extends into both liberal and evangelical sectors of Christianity. We as a collective pursue peaceable ties between Israeli Jews and the various sub-sectors of the Arab community in Israel – Bedouin, Druze and Palestinians.

The issues surrounding Jerusalem are for discussion among the city’s Jews and Arabs – the two most rapidly expanding populations in the country. The eastern half of the city has long been attached to Israel as its united capital, and has seen much development. Your policies of peace will go further if you see the pragmatism in getting Jewish and Arab interest groups in Jerusalem to be involved in the city’s planning process. To have an influence by recognizing Israelis’ anxieties as legitimate, to denounce politicized accusations of war crimes, and to publicly support the concerns of Israel’s civilian settlers. Those settlers have gone into the West Bank on the coattails of an argument by Israel in international law that views the territory as unclaimed, and open to sovereignty. Even if you disagree with the details of the argument, it is not one that can be ignored to justify creating a refugee catastrophe 30 times the scale of the Gaza disengagement.

Mr. President, there is great concern in Israel, and I fear the approach of the US government is counter-productive. I fear the attitude in itself is enough to encourage a war between Israelis and Palestinians in the next year or two, just as King Hussein of Jordan has predicted.

May 8, 2009

Lebanese Elections and Israel

by Gedalyah Reback

The results of the Lebanese and Iranian elections will change the state of relations between the two countries, and will be heavily influenced by Barack Obama’s overtures to the Iranians.

To virtually all Westerners’ dismay, the opposition in Iran has not agreed on a single candidate to oppose Ahmadinejad, while there is squarely support coming from the country’s far right wing for his incumbency.

As of right now, it seems Hizbullah (The March 8th Movement) will make small gains and Ahmadinejad will somehow maintain the presidency. There is no major victory expected for either, but Hizbullah’s hand will be slightly stronger and Ahmadinejad’s slightly weaker.


Hizbullah has demonstrated itself to be an efficient organization to its constituents and is undisputed leader of their political alliance. The gains they made from the 2006 war politically had been on a steep decline, especially after their 18-month general strike and near provocation of a second Lebanese civil war. But those events were balanced by Israel’s second major war in Gaza in less than three years. Though Ehud Olmert’s assertive policy is now a thing of the past, there is a general perception that anything Netanyahu would authorize would be much mroe dangerous.

If Hizbullah were to hold enough sway, it could set defense policy in a new government. This would be possible with or without the Defense Ministry in their hands. Much of the Lebanese Army does not wish to police Hizbullah activity in the south of the country, and integrating the agendas of the two fighting forces is an attractive idea to many Lebanese. For Hizbullah and its allies, it would elevate the Hizbullah paramilitary officially. For supporters of the current ruling coalition, it could moderate Hizbullah’s military policies.

In any case, Hizbullah would have elevated itself as a movement and would likely survive any peace agreement between the Israelis and the Syrians. Hizbullah would likely not provoke a war over the Shebaa Farms. There are plenty of domestic and foreign policy issues Hizbullah needs to consider a national party that go beyond hostile intentions toward Israel. If Assad inks something with Israel, Hizbullah would not collapse as a movement because its original reason of being has been overshadowed by new peace-related developments.

Similar Strategies by Israeli and Lebanese Governments?

Iran will not lose its connections to Syria, and will likely gain stronger relations with Lebanon. Lebanon will again have some sort of balanced government arrangement between the March 14th and March 8th Movements. They might also follow a policy similar to that of Avigdor Lieberman in Israel, which would be to diversify the influence of major powers in the small country.

Lieberman has made it a point to improve Israel’s relationship with Russia and China, an interest of Lieberman’s Russian Israeli constituency. This comes in addition to definite upgrades between Israel and India. If the Indian Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, win this month’s elections, it will elevate those ties further. All this could allow Israel to alleviate some of the pressure coming from the Obama Administration, gain more support from a conservative Indian government, and put a roadblock in front of more Russian weapons deals with Israel’s enemies.

For Lebanon, they will continue sitting between the United States and Iran. But they will also draw on support from Turkey, which recently inked a weapons deal with the Lebanese. Turkey is strengthening its diplomatic power with Syria, and could be the patron Lebanon needs to protect it from Syrian interference and any future confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah (though that might be more unlikely if Hizbullah continues to be slower to the trigger as a full-fledged member of the Lebanese government answerable to tens of thousands of constituents). This is not to mention the role of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon’s best chance at independence is to pacify the Syrians and improve its relationship with all the major powers. The March 14th coalition will need Hizbullah to focus more on national Lebanese concerns than on Syrian or Iranian patronage for that to happen though. The politics are still tense, as the last two years have shown.

An Israeli-Lebanese Agreement?

It’s virtually impossible, since there is no clear leadership in the country and will not be for a long time. Israel will probably withdraw fro the village of Ghajar soon, but no one ever expected any random deal to include that town sine it is unrelated to the Shebaa Farms region. The Shebaa Farms also remain Golani in the eyes of the world, making it dangerous precedent if Israel ever agreed to give it to Lebanon. It would legitimate a sort of post-mortem land transfer, which the Syrians did when they agreed to recognize the area as Lebanese, thereby giving Hizbullah a reason to justify a military resistance against Israel even after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000.

None of this takes into account the fact Lebanon might not be able to enforce any agreements and may fall into civil war before one were ever signed. Plus the harsh political position PM Fouad Siniora has taken for himself declaring Lebanon would be the ‘last Arab country’ to make peace with Israel.

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