Archive for ‘Palestinians, West Bank & Gaza’

April 21, 2011

What are Israel’s Priorities?

by Gedalyah Reback


Netanyahu Looking Like a Wreck

This has dragged out too long. Just shut down the settlement expansion.

I have to admit, I am a Religious Zionist. Not all RZs support settlements, but most do . . . and but I do. The settlements actualize the imperative to settle the country. If the land is bought from a private owner, there is nothing stopping me from celebrating it.

I am also a realist. They give Israel some more breathing room territorially and reach at the negotiating table . . . that is until now.

Diplomatically, the comfort zone the country has had building them was probably going to decay – eventually. I think that point has come. The extra cards it gave Israel in negotiations do not mean anything if the world does not let you negotiate. This is not judging the settlements as legal or illegal under international law; nor moral or not; nor conducted while respecting private property or not. There is simply too little breathing room these days. Shut down the enterprise. Shut it down.

The prospects of international isolation are very real. While Jews worldwide and Israelis especially think the situation with the Palestinians as much more complicated than issues of independence and self-determination, the rest of the world simply does not agree.

The world simply prioritizes Palestinian independence over Israeli security. There is little Israel or the global Jewish community can do about it. We will, by majority, disagree with the planet on this. Public relations and negotiating tactics are out of step with global opinion. The country simply has been caught off guard by the drive toward Palestinian independence. With that, Israel ought to go with the flow and change its approach to the Palestinians. Allow the West Bank and Gaza Strip their independence, merely with the stipulation that border and refugee issues have not been finalized, and that goes doubly for Jerusalem. Just outright support it – just ask for some time to design a withdrawal plan.

I expect Netanyahu to say something like this soon. But as of now, he does not have the political foresight to out-pace this situation. The UN will recognize Palestine as an independent state. Even if the Syrian protests turn into a civil war and the world allows Israel more leeway in how it positions the IDF (i.e. in the West Bank), the pressure is just going to come back.

Building the settlements was the right idea. It expanded Israel’s physical territory. No one knew how far it would eventually go before it became too much of a problem. Given the situation, I am guessing this would be a time to consolidate what Israel has gained and re-focus on other issues. Israel has no vision for its future.

Everyone has been running too scared to choose the country’s path. What preparations have been made for Palestine actually becoming an independent state? What does that mean for the priorities of the Jewish State in such an event?

As for the country’s identity, what would be Israeli policy toward a Palestinian state; goals of Zionism; security and religious interests under Palestinian rule; and settling the Galilee & Negev?

The lack of priorities has left Israel unprepared for the “diplomatic tsunami” that seems to be headed toward its pristine Mediterranean beaches.

Will Israel try to get a million new Jewish immigrants? Will it expand its economic power? Its cultural influence? Settle disputes between Jewish denominations in Israel and reform civil law? Write a constitution? There are simply no goals. There is no clarity.

AND as for Religious Zionists: the West Bank and Gaza are still holy land – it’s not going anywhere – it will just be under Palestinian government. It cannot constitute a priority compared to Jerusalem on the one hand or domestic stability on the other. But when was the last time you heard a settlement leader talking about the Temple Mount instead of a less significant hilltop somewhere south of Hebron? Religious Zionist leadership is out of step with reality and has no vision for its community and its religious goals. Of all the priorities that are contorted, twisted and far from straight, theirs seem to be the utmost.

April 13, 2011

Jerusalem Needs to Expand

by Gedalyah Reback

This is going to have to be accepted by policymakers worldwide if the city of Jerusalem is to avoid the economic decline of Berlin in the event of a sudden rupture by war or abrasive politicking in the United Nations. Jerusalem has too many interests to be left to a simple municipal government. In many ways its politics make its status as important as New York City. Michael Bloomberg has the de facto status of a governor in the American media (he might be more important than the Governor of New York anyway). So too, the mayor of Jerusalem should be balancing the multitude of interests in such an important city as if it had five bureaus itself – and maybe it should.

The city is crippled by a number of domestic and international factors. The lack of political options has reduced the municipality to politically clumsy home condemnations in areas targeted for development, alienating the local Arab population.

According to the left-wing non-profit Ir HaAmim (City of the Nations), the master plan announced for Jerusalem in 2009 inadequately answers the concerns of East Jerusalem residents. They periodically point out that no plan has ever really addressed development needs in Arab East Jerusalem. While they might be correct, the political context and diplomatic stopping short by Israel’s Western allies and Arab ambiguity about negotiations has created a protracted Catch 22 in Jerusalem vis-a-vis its Arabs: if Israel builds, it alienates states supporting negotiations with Arab states; if it doesn’t build, it alienates Arabs within East Jerusalem.

The fact the plan severely under-addresses the likely housing needs of East Jerusalem is only part of what is lacking. The plan makes no preparations for alternative realities – i.e., the city splitting between two governments.

The analysis of the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs brings up the issue of land registration in East Jerusalem, though with different motives than Ir HaAmim. While Ir HaAmim complains that subjecting local Arabs to contract law in order to prove ownership of property, the JCPA complains that the lack of that information prevents the Jerusalem municipality from planning to develop areas (and deciding what land to buy from private owners. As their analysis states:

However, the policy of refraining from resolving ownership on most of the land in eastern Jerusalem substantially contributes to the illegal construction there, and severely damages the property rights of the individual, allows for dual registrations and the implementation of contradictory transactions, and does not allow for mortgaging innumerable properties whose exact boundaries are not known.

Basically, East Jerusalemites are screwing themselves.

Neither approach clearly gives us a way forward. There is clear politicization in both analyses. The city is snarled by traffic and perpetually in shortage of housing for the lower and middle classes. Tourism is below possible numbers and the possibility of conflict leaves the city in perpetual stagnation.

Building in Jerusalem is necessary in all neighborhoods for the general health of the city, accommodating immigrants and spurring job growth. It also encourages de-congesting traffic – the indisputable molasses to Jerusalem’s economy.

In my opinion, conceiving a durable development plan that can be adjusted easily as political realities shift, is the only responsible maneuver. Nir Barkat’s plans are simply unoriginal and sub-par. He might be less a fiend than Ehud Olmert (when he was mayor of Jerusalem), but he does not seem to be ready.

April 13, 2011

Jerusalem and (some Minor Reasons Why Palestinian Independence will not End the Conflict)

by Gedalyah Reback


Not Actual Photo

This September, the Palestinian Authority will attempt to gain recognition as an independent state via a vote in the United Nations’ General Assembly. It is taking a a page out of the playbook of the Zionist movement and the leadership of what would become Israel. This time, the Arabs will support a resolution that partitions the land into two states. In a lot of ways, it is a big vindication of the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel. After 63 years, the two state solution wins.

That does not resolve the conflict though. Even if Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu stops fighting this political move by Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister, Israel will not withdraw from all of the West Bank – and especially not Jerusalem.

There are a plethora (awesome academic term) of political questions about the past, present and future of the city. Will it be divided along the 1949 armistice lines? Why did the European Union pass a policy resolution last year demanding East Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state, but its members refuse to recognize even just West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? Would Israel and Palestine share control (and government) over certain areas; that is to say, the Temple Mount?

And the last question is why we are far from seeing Israel and Palestine enter into a peace treaty. The negotiating teams have failed to discuss the issue with seriousness. Either 1) one side refuses to talk about it – as it seems Tzipi Livni refused to do (in a meeting with former Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat; check out the Palestine Papers released a couple months back by Al-Jazeera), or 2) the proposals simply do not reflect the complicated and unique reality that two sets of religious law have to be analyzed in order to find an elaborate way for Jews and Muslims to share the spot.

How to Negotiate over the Temple Mount

Despite what we think we know about Judaism and Islam, neither religion has a simple outlook on the location. But it is safe to say that the spot is much more significant to Jews than it is to Muslims. A former big shot in the Israeli security services recommended some months ago that the Temple Mount be the center of the negotiations unless we want to see this whole thing drag out any longer (or explode into another Israeli-Palestinian war).

What needs to be considered is that for two groups the Temple Mount is vital, crucial and indispensable: 1) those Jews who interpret Jewish law as obliging us to not let non-Jews control the Temple Mount, or requiring us to build the Temple ourselves and 2) those Muslims who maintain the sanctity of the current buildings on the Mount.

Well, how indispensable is not clear. The reality is that Jews and Muslims see the whole location as holy, but for very different reasons. FEW PEOPLE REALIZE that Jews and Muslims do not agree on which part of the Temple Mount complex is the central, holiest spot.

While there is no dispute the entire area has deep, legal and/or traditional significance to both religions, the Jewish focus remains on the spot that housed the Holy of Holies, roughly where the Dome of the Rock stands today. The Al-Aqsa mosque on the other hand maintains sanctity as a mosque, something disputed regarding the Dome (some Muslims say the entire Temple Mount plaza is considered a mosque) .

I am not implying coming up with something would be easy – it will be creative – but I am pointing out that what we think is set in stone and impossible to resolve isn’t necessarily so.

The Conflict Once Was National and is Now Religious

One of the mistakes which the above-mentioned security dude alludes to is thinking we can leave religious groups out of the negotiations of the conflict. This is also the view of Rabbi Michael Froman of the West Bank Settlement Tekoa. he is unique not just because he has met Muslim clergymen tied to Hamas and befriended them, but has even pledged he would stay in a Palestinian state if it were created. Aside from these absurdly interesting issues he brings up, his basic premise stands that Religious Zionist Jews and groups like Hamas have to consider their own interests just as important during negotiations.

I cannot pretend that all Religious Zionists or Islamists think this way – many of them see this as an all-or-nothing war or all-or-nothing political game. But I know Religious Zionists who would find what I am saying at least interesting. I doubt there are no Islamists who might think the same way. Having a political, empowering ideology for one’s religion does not preclude being pragmatic or even kind of liberal.

Personally, as an Orthodox Jew, my concerns are about the immediate future of the Temple Mount and Jews’ physical connection to it. The Western Wall is not the object of our affections and duties, but what lies behind it.

March 30, 2011

Palestinian Land Day – A Day for Arabs AND Jews?

by Gedalyah Reback

In Lod yesterday, Israeli Arabs and liberal Israelis demonstrated in commemoration of Land Day – an Israeli Arab and Palestinian day to protest the seizure of private Arab land by the Israeli state. But it has taken on more significance this year. That is not because of the protetss sweeping the Arab world, but regardingthis week’s passing of the citizenship law sponsored by Yisrael Beitenu. What was unique about the demonstration was the presence of effigies – images – of a certain politician. In particular, Avigdor Lieberman, whose face was set alight on the posters carrying his punim.

Two years ago, J Street released an ad immediately after the Israeli elections that condemned Avigdor Lieberman as a staunch nationalist and a racist. His statements have not been so far removed from those of his coalition partners – even members of the opposition! But his actions and the actions of his party have backed up this view. His party has sponsored a bill that has just passed, allowing citizenship to be revoked from anyone found guilty of treason or espionage.

At the same time, Lieberman has personally advocated his own version of a two-state solution that recommends trading Arab towns in Israel for Jewish towns in the West Bank. In the context of other statements he has made, this seems to be born more out of distaste for Arabs than strategic thought. In fact, it contradicts historic, traditional Israeli strategic thinking. Since the West Bank juts into Israel in such a way that Israel’s north and southern regions are only connected by a thin strip of land, there has always been worry invading Arab armies would aim for that thin strip in order to cut israel into two during a war. It was in fact Iraqi strategy during the War of Independence (when Iraqi troops were stationed in Nablus, the northern West Bank.


Arab Areas in Israel by Proportion

Land Day though is significant. It has become an annual day of protest, but it is relatively young. The Israeli state has been expropriating land since the state’s inception, particularly in the north. Land Day though goes back to 1976, when a specific attempt to implement eminent domain led to mass protests.

Up until that point, the Arab minority of Israel remained relatively passive to current events. In fact, Arabs in Nazareth are known to have thrown flowers at Israeli troops heading to the Golan front during the Yom Kippur War.

In my very humble opinion, private property is more of a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than experts let on – or realize. It plays on both sides of the aisle – Jewish and Arab. Despite what you might think about settlers, the reality is settlers often purchase land either from the Israeli government or from private Palestinian owners.

When claiming government land, the state uses the same legal precedents as did the Jordanians (when they controlled the west Bank 1948-1967), the British (who controlled it from 1917-1948) and the Ottoman Empire (out of commission by the end of World War I. It usually means that the land has not been cultivated or built on in at least three years, making the land hefker – owner-less.

Palestinians do sell private land. This is why the Palestinian Authority authorizes the death penalty for anyone selling land to Jews (there would be no law if it did not actually happen). Landsellers have been known to be lynched in Palestinian areas, particularly Gaza. Every time settlers are evicted from their homes, the perception they have actually stolen the land is reinforced, when in fact each case is different.

The Israeli government, particularly the Supreme Court, has ordered settlers leave homes they’ve claimed to have purchased, leading to police-implemented evictions for court-cases which are “pending.” Take for example the “House of Peace” in Hebron in 2008.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem today often have their non-permit built homes evicted or bulldozed. But at the same time, Jewish residents who actually do purchase homes usually need extra security to protect them from angry residents. Even though the two groups seem to be in conflict, what they have in common is that they are both trying to preserve private property.

There is a perception that the Jewish and Arab residents of Israel and the West Bank need to be divorced from each other in order to implement the Two-State Solution. But by trying to implement this peace plan, the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority and the international community are encouraging the violation of private property rights of both Jews and Arabs, intensifying the conflict by inflaming the anger of people who truly have been personally wronged.

But that’s just my opinion.

June 8, 2010

The Right to Property in relation to Peace between Jews and Arabs

by Gedalyah Reback

There is a fundamental flaw in the approach of the diplomatic world in inundating a peaceful settlement in the Middle East – at least between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather than looking at property as the unalienable human right to obtain and hold that other Western governments and the main religions of the world have long respected, international mediators have encouraged an agreement that rests on uprooting thousands of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims from their homes in the name of an ethnic realignment along the lines of the partition of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s.

Arguing the West Bank is open to settlement under international law, Israel openly pursued a settlement policy that expanded the breadth of the besieged Jewish state once the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem had been secured from Jordan and Egypt – themselves considered occupying powers by nearly every government in the world.

Excluding the now defunt settlement blocs of the Gaza Strip, 500,000 Israelis have taken up residence in private apartment and housing units throughout the conquered territories. At the same time, Palestinians have affirmed their ownership over their own share of land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But because of the competing political interests of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both population groups have seen their properties usurped or restricted.

Several cases have seen Jewish settlers evicted from, and recently purchased properties destroyed, often on the orders of the Supreme court in an effort to appease tension with the Palestinians in the facinity of the properties – be they in Jerusalem or Hebron. Settlers have made purchases in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars through a series of intermediaries – a system used by Palestinians interested in selling who fear reprecussions by lynchers or the Palestinian Authority.


Jewish women being forcibly evicted by Israeli police from the “House of Peace” in 2008 on the outskirts of Hebron

East Jerusalem Palestinians themselves face a different challenge. Municipal authorities have long prioritized building new neighborhoods that would consolidate the city of Jerusalem, at the expense of permit requests by residents of Muslim neighborhoods. Lengthy waits have encouraged illegal building in these neighborhoods that should have been authorized from the outset. recently, the Mayor Nir Birkat has used the possible demolition of up to 200 illegally built houses for political leverage against American pressure on Jewish housing projects and against Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.


Police arrest protestors in Sheikh Jarrah, Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem

These political considerations have done more to increase tension in the region than pacify it, with two rival population groups venting their legitimate gripes at each other. This is the fundamental flaw in the idea of splitting Israel from the West Bank along ethnic lines, and points even more directly at the risks of the Obama Administration’s stress on Jewish settlements themselves.

Competing NGOs that represent Jewish settlers and East Jerusalem-West Bank Palestinians have found themselves in conflict. The two groups’ advocates have sought to undermine the rival’s access and rights to properties while strengthening their own.


2007 Hebron Eviction

The most competent way forward is to alleviate the anxiety of these rival groups and declare a moratorium on evictions and demolitions in Jewish and Arab areas that are contentious. Each group’s mirroring concerns fuel much of the tension that has come to a boiling point in the last year. The legalization and restoration of illegal or siezed properties would help restore public confidence in the Israeli government and the right to due process at a time where social confidence is low. To be sure, preserving property rights is a fundamental to any economic aspect of peace, between two states or not.

June 5, 2010

The Gaza Blockade and International Law

by Gedalyah Reback

The Gaza Blockade and International Law
Israel’s position is reasonable and backed by precedent.

by Eric Posner as published in the Wall Street Journal

Israel’s raid on a fleet of activists bound for the Gaza Strip has led to wild accusations of illegality. But the international law applicable to the blockade eludes the grasp of those in search of easy answers.

The most serious charge is that by seizing control of the flotilla, Israel violated the freedom of ships to travel on the high seas. The basic law here is that states have jurisdiction over a 12-mile territorial sea and can take enforcement actions in an additional 12-mile contiguous zone, according to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (which Israel has not ratified, but which is generally regarded as reflecting customary international law). Outside that area, foreign ships can sail unmolested.

But there are exceptions. Longstanding customary international law permits states to enforce publicly announced blockades on the high seas. The Gaza blockade was known to all, and certainly to those who launched the ships for the very purpose of breaking it. The real question is whether the Israeli blockade is lawful. Blockades certainly are during times of war or armed conflict. The U.S.-led coalition imposed a blockade on Iraq during the first Gulf War.

The catch here is the meaning of “armed conflict.” Traditionally, armed conflict can take place only between sovereign states. If Gaza were clearly a sovereign state, then Israel would be at war with Gaza and the blockade would be lawful. If, however, Gaza were just a part of Israel, Israel would have the right to control its borders— but not by intercepting foreign ships outside its 12-mile territorial sea or contiguous zone.

Gaza is not a sovereign state (although it has its own government, controlled by Hamas) and is not a part of Israel or of any other state. Its status is ambiguous, and so too is the nature of the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas. Thus there is no clear answer to the question whether the blockade is lawful.

However, the traditional idea of armed conflict involving only sovereign states has long given way to a looser definition that includes some conflicts between states and nonstate actors. The international rules governing blockades attempt to balance belligerents’ interest in security and other countries’ economic interests in shipping. During war, security interests prevail.

War-like conditions certainly exist between Israel and Hamas. And because Israel intercepts only self-identified blockade runners, its actions have little impact on neutral shipping. This balance is reflected in the traditional privilege of states to capture foreign pirates on the high seas.

So Israel’s legal position is reasonable, and it has precedent. During the U.S. Civil War, the Union claimed to blockade the Confederacy while at the same time maintaining that the Confederacy was not a sovereign state but an agent of insurrection.

When the Union navy seized ships trying to run the blockade, their owners argued that a country cannot interfere with shipping on the high seas except during war, and one cannot be at war except with another sovereign state. The U.S. Supreme Court approved the captures in an ambiguous opinion that held that an armed conflict existed, even though one side was not a sovereign state. The opinion suggests a certain latitude for countries to use blockades against internal as well as external enemies.

Human Rights Watch argues that a blockade to strike at a terrorist organization constitutes a collective penalty against a civilian population, in violation of Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention. This argument won’t stand up. Blockades and other forms of economic sanction are permitted in international law, which necessarily means that civilians will suffer through no fault of their own.

Most attention has focused on the question whether Israeli commandos used excessive force while taking control of one of the flotilla ships, which resulted in nine deaths. Human Rights Watch says that Israel’s actions violated the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. However, that document is not international law; its principles are akin to a set of “best practices” for advising countries with poorly trained police forces. It is also vague and it would not apply to a military operation.

Military operations must respect the principle of proportionality, which is a fuzzy, “know-it-when-you-see-it” test. But one thing is clear. Ships that run blockades may be attacked and sunk under international law. If Israel had exercised that right, far more than nine people would have been killed.

Mr. Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is the author of “The Perils of Global Legalism” (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

June 5, 2010

For Many, it’s about Much More than Just a Blockade

by Gedalyah Reback

The best step to ending the blockade is the invasion and overthrow of Hamas once and for all. That is not a guaranteed result of any invasion, and any invasion as necessary as it is would never get the support it deserves. Israel has not been given a choice vis a vis its war with Hamas. There is no buffer zone the country can make to protect Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod from rocket attacks from the strip – all those cities are within range from any position in the Strip.

Occupying the strip would be the next best option, but would put the country in a further diplomatic bind. International peacekeepers have failed to prevent the rearmament of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and remain as useful as they were in the prelude to the Six Day War in 1967, when the President of Egypt Gamal Nasser demanded the UN force there abandon their positions so Egypt could establish a springboard position for invasion of Israel from within the Sinai.

What form of self-defense is legitimate here? Israel is being pushed against a wall when even its limited use of military power is considered illegitimate. The diplomatic pressure on the Israelis to end wars as soon as they begin – such as accusations of disproportionate use of force before evidence of such even presents itself – compels a mentality that Israel would have to use even heavier firepower in greater quantities in order to deter future attacks on Israelis – symmetric or asymmetric. In other words, rather than a careful campaign that can focus on tactical targets, Israel is given a time limit that encourages sloppiness and increases the likelihood of mistakes.

Israel has long faced irrational international pressure over its combat efforts – the Soviet Union cut off relations with Israel after the Six Day War, and the UN censured Israel’s use of force on that occasion (in the face of public threats by Arab leaders to annihilate the country) as well as following the Entebbe Raid in 1976.

The accusation that Israel’s siege mentality is unjustified, as has been repeated ad nauseum over the past week, is itself baseless. Israel has responded with heavy military operations in response to great threats to its citizens, and has consistently pocketed several victories – Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, I would argue the deterrence factor following the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and the near-total lack of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip following Operation Cast Lead.

Yet, with every military operation, come some amount of diplomatic fallout be it based on propaganda or political considerations. The IDF was exonerated after an investigation of a massacre in Jenin – the casualty numbers cited by accusers were inflated 10 times the correct count and all casualties were combatants. Israel was accused of targeting civilians in 2006, when in fact Hezbollah has never been forthcoming about how many “combatants” died during the war. And of course, last year Turkey decided to consider its political opening in the Middle East by publicly using every opportunity possible to attack Israeli policies in order to earn favorable public opinion (never mind Turkey’s own stated policies of military occupation of the Kurds).

European pressure to immediately accuse Israel of war crimes before such evidence of them having occurred is available – notably the idea of disproportionate force – has diluted European credibility in Israel to absurd lows. The term was even used incorrectly on several occasions, as if using air power against inaccurate rockets was illegal. Any enemy target is legitimate in war. But European politicians’ description deliberately misleads, as if it required a state to act in self-defense in a tit-for-tat and any expanded campaign against hostile targets that went beyond, say, merely eliminating rocket launchers.

This combination of factors has forced Israel into a siege mentality. Perhaps my own perspective of the situation is worth a psychological analysis, but these are undeniable facts relating to Israel’s defense policies over the last 10 years – since the rebuff at Camp David.

This has become an issue about more than just the international community’s demands to compel Israeli withdrawals from hostile territory. More and more, the right wing in Israel is seeing its narrative reaffirmed as to the unfair treatment Israel’s defense policies have gotten. It is encouraging further self-reliance. feeding into the present cycle of military action and diplomatic fallout.

What this is leading to is not a breaking point for the Palestinians – as claimed by Mahmoud Abbas, or a breaking point for Turkey – which took its own initiative to downgrade ties with Israel and upgrade with Iran on its own. Israel feels that it has to further increase its military prowess. This is the mentality in the country, not necessarily the strategy that military brass will outline if any fundamental changes are to some to national defense strategy.

Israel will be wise to fix its reputation by changing many domestic policies and its attitude within the West Bank and vis a vis Gaza, as well as its diplomatic situation. But expect Israel to start preparing to move harder and faster than it ever has before. More and more, Israel will be forced to act in the dark, which means a jolt to Israel’s intelligence strategy and secret operations. Most of all, it will prepare itself to go beyond limited military confrontations in order to fully eliminate threats that put Israel in these diplomatic binds in the first place.

January 30, 2010

Between Gulf War IV and Revolutions

by Gedalyah Reback

In 1980, Saddam Hussein started the first Gulf War by invading Iran, starting an eight-year melee that left 2 million dead between the two countries. In 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, underestimating the resolve of dozens of countries that launched Operation Desert Storm to expel the Iraqis. In 2003, the Bush Administration toppled the Hussein regime, igniting a massive civil war between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites, exposing Iraq to Iranian sabotage, and bringing Turkey to the brink of war with Iraqi Kurdistan.

In 2010, the real possibility that Iran could be attacked in a pre-emptive strike by Israel, or Iraq and other Arab states may defend themselves from an Iranian offensive, arguably has the Middle East on the brink of the fourth major war in the Persian Gulf in 30 years.

But after years of nuclear anxiety and headlines ad nauseum about negotiations, has the novelty of such a threat worn off? Much of the talk of war seems passé. But I am going to make the effort to say that the threat of a massive regional war is very real, and will reel in the major UN Security Council powers, plus Germany.

Israel has attacked hostile states’ nuclear programs before – Iraq’s and Syria’s. Any attack by Israel would have to have some level of approval from both the United States and neighboring Arab countries. The entire region would have to be in sync and ready for the attack. That is approval that Saudi Arabia, as reported by a local report by the Heritage Foundation, is willing to give to Israel when the time is right.

The US would not be able to avoid the retaliation, and would be dragged into a war with Iran. An Iranian response would involve proxies not just in Lebanon and Israel, but in Iraq and throughout the Persian Gulf. Britain, Germany and France would operationally support Israel and the United States, if not actually deploy troops into the Middle Eastern theater.

With the window closing on the opportunity for a concerted hit, it is vital that Iranian access to nuclear weapons be categorically denied immediately. But that does not imply the only option, or the best option, would be to attack Iran. On the contrary, the best case scenario there would be a delay in nuclear development. The elimination of the regime is the only guarantee that the Tehran we know and despise would acquire nuclear capabilities. If a different government ran the country, especially a democracy, the West and Israel would accept an Iranian nuclear program as non-hostile and uninterested in creating a nuclear warhead.

AS BEST IT CAN, the world needs to support the opposition movement in Iran. Estimations that a revolution usually belittle the historical memory of young Iranians, whose parents are reminding them day in and day out that a revolution is possible. They know how to do it. This is the grand fear in Tehran, a primary reason the regime there has lashed out publicly against “soft” and “velvet” revolutions, patronizing them in an effort to stigmatize any such campaign. Both Iran and China have accused the US of waging “cyber warfare,” signaling that not only is it a significant tactic – it’s something they fear.

Any revolution on the ground there will be their own. Nothing the US, Europe, Israel or anyone else could do would launch a massive revolt. But these countries can provide the tools – or at least keep them online.

In June, bloggers and hackers the world over attacked government firewalls in order to keep cell phones, the internet and Twitter afloat. Reports varied on how effective the effort was, but the fact it made any impact was significant.

Certain features, like Facebook, have been inoperable in Iran since the elections. The organizational power the website offers represents enough of a threat it is worth Tehran’s time to shut it down. Keeping these lines of communication open, not just during massive demonstrations but in the days before they are organized, is essential to protesters.

IN THE MEANTIME, this is not an option the world can count on. There are subtleties to American and European diplomacy that would help pressure Iran, plus make Syria and Hezbollah think twice about being lockstep in line with Tehran’s policies.

A prevalent idea in recent years has been an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement that would sever the Iranian-Syrian military alliance. All this assumes Syria would actually break its military alliance with Iran and the region’s prominent terrorist organizations. Syria will not do such a thing, even if Israel were willing to trade the Golan Heights for a peace deal. This entire line of thinking assumes Syria is the weak link in the chain and can be diplomatically parleyed off, when in fact it is Iran facing domestic instability.

Damascus has used the diplomatic breathing room by the Obama Administration’s warmer policies to increase pressure on Lebanon. Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been reduced to humiliating gestures like meeting with his father’s murderer and acquiescing to Hezbollah’s arsenal in coalition talks. Hariri’s March 14th alliance has relinquished these things despite having a larger margin of the vote in 2009 than 2005, when Syria was weak and isolated by the Bush Administration.

It is a combination of inability and unwillingness that make Syria just as weak under threat or American economic and diplomatic sanctions. Iran does not need Syria to send weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, as it has proven with shipments that were caught in the Red Sea in 2002 and Sudan during Operation Cast Lead. Shipments like the one captured in Cyprus in 2009 did not need to pass through a Syrian port to reach Lebanon.

POLICY needs to be made more consistent to fully pressure the Syrians and Iranians, otherwise the countries will continue using diplomatic patience as a window for nuclear development and weapons smuggling. No amount of US and French support for Lebanon will mean anything as long as either Syria or Iran exploits weakness in Western foreign policy. The only guarantee that this alliance will crack is via a combination of domestic and foreign pressure.

June 4, 2009

The Obama Speech in General

by Gedalyah Reback

I think Barack Obama is clearly prioritizing mending ties with Muslims, but at the same time undermined himself by spending 9 minutes talking about the Israelis, 3 minutes talking about the Iranians, and absolutely no time talking about Lebanon.

Settlements are a talking point, because they simply are not the most important issue Israelis and Palestinians concern themselves with. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have never realistically considered impeding or uprooting major settlements, especially the ones that continue to grow as suburbs of cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The President has picked an issue he thinks Israel can give some leeway on, compared to security and Jerusalem, that the US can used to win points in Muslim public opinion.

The Obama Administration was designed to build up US ties with Muslim countries in order to make the pursuit of American goals much easier by ending Muslim opposition to US policies. It will be slow in coming and I doubt that after four years Muslims will overwhelmingly support American policies, but it seems to be that they will support them 5 to 6 times more than they did under George W Bush.

But if he was thinking Muslims would understand US policies better by emphasizing the points that he did in this speech, he is absolutely wrong. US goals of undermining nuclear proliferation by Iran and North Korea will not get any more tension than they already have, since he spent only three minutes on the issue, and scarcely mentioned Iranians.

But Muslims around the world, even Sunni Arabs, do not conceive of an Iran that would ever use nuclear weapons, especially against Sunni Arab countries. The Obama Administration banked raising poll numbers on being stern on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I doubt that Muslims will ever take this as the major initiative the US needs to undertake to earn back any respect.

Even the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, as he described with as much detail as he could in Cairo, nor an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, will placate public opinion in Muslim countries.

Iraq and Afghanistan are recent issues that result from past issues that are yet unresolved. Issues with Israel are not directly related to the United States, and the idea that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will solve the problems for Israelis in their foreign relations and domestic relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs is also naive – but this is again an Israeli concern that the United States cannot effectively relate to as the world’s most influential empire and not as a small embattled state like Israel.

For the US, issues of ties to governments like Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, and eventually to Iran will be the issue. It’s those ties to despotic regimes, just like Barack Obama emphasized in regards to the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq, are what irritate Muslims. There is consequently a double-edged sword in fostering ties with certain countries if those countries never make progress toward change.

He took a few important shots at Muslim countries and European countries on major issues. Firstly, he highlighted Bosnia and Darfur. For Darfur, Egypt has been criticized for its ties to the Sudanese regime and especially defending President Omar al-Bashir. The entire Arab League has vowed to defend him from the warrant issued for his arrest by the International Court of Justice, an amazing policy considering they implemented it while trying to criticize Israel for its Gaza operation, which killed 300 TIMES LESS the amount of people than Bashir’s operations in Darfur the last six years, and in fact better targeted enemy fighters than the Sudanese military ever has.

Toward Europe, he attacked the idea of banning Muslim hijab in public places, especially schools, and said he would take to task anyone who tried to take away the right of Muslim women to wear it. He also said it was wrong to think that women that do cover their hair, or wear any other conservative clothing, are in any sense lacking in equality compared to their male counterparts – the emphasis should be on their opportunity in their countries and not whether common culture demands a more conservative style. (This I thought was an interesting point, because as a sound bite it doesn’t just apply to Muslims.)

Overall, there is a lot more to be said in the implications of his differing policies toward Iran and North Korea, and for that matter toward Israel and South Korea as American allies. There is obviously so much more, and many more issues with settlements that the Obama Administration is instigating more than it realizes, especially on natural growth.

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