Archive for ‘United States’

April 22, 2012

Israeli Gas Drillers Get Nearly $1 Billion in Investments from US

by Gedalyah Reback

It was announced April 22nd that the group of owners developing one Israel’s large offshore gas fields, Tamar, will be getting just over $900 million in loans from a consortium of 11 companies and banks in the near future.  The money is a huge boon for the developing Israeli energy industry.  It also indicates the potential for the export element of the business the industry is aiming for.  The connections are coming from principle Tamar developer Noble Energy, based in Texas, which owns about a third of the field.

In January, the controlling group signed a deal with a smaller Israeli energy provider to supply gas for nearly 20 years, declaring they wished to increase competition in the Israeli market.  That deal is worth $5 billion.

Tamar is a large gas field whose vast area has caused diplomatic and security issues to pop up with Lebanon and Hezbollah. The field is one of several that is also the target of joint development projects with Cyprus. Cyprus’ interests have angered Turkey, creating tension with Ankara as well. Turkey does not recognize the government of (southern) Cyprus, preferring the Turkish Northern Cyprus government as the official representative of the island. Israel has been looking at enlarging its navy in anticipation of security issues to offshore development sites in the future. Lebanon has refused to negotiate with Israel up till this point, instead filing complaints with international bodies and refusing to ratify a joint development agreement with Cyprus.

The symbols of the main companies involved are here: Noble Energy (NBL); Delek Drilling (DEDRL); Isramco Negev (Isral) & Avner Oil (Avnrl).

December 9, 2011

Chanukah: the festival of anti-assimilation?

by Gedalyah Reback

Original Post at New Voices 

It’s been a while since there has been a good bit of controversy about Jewish assimilation, but thankfully American Jews and Israeli politics are out of sync just enough to justify talking about it again. The latest blip, I think, challenges American Jews much more than any other public effort since the spread of the internet. The Israeli government wants its citizens back home, and it will take a few swipes at the drawbacks of American life in order to do it:

Grandmother: “How are you?!”
Granddaughter:”I’m okay!”
Grandmother: “What holiday is it? Do you know?”
Granddaughter: “Christmas!”
Voiceover: “They’ll always be Israelis. Their kids won’t. Help them come back to Israel.”

The video is a product of the Israeli Ministry of Absorption that has devoted more incentives than ever before to Israelis living abroad to return. Israelis and Palestinians are competing in population, and the demographics of the region might have major implications in the future (if Jews were to lose their majority). That issue, however, is not what I find interesting about the video.

The reactions I have seen have been visceral. Israeli (Hebrew) comments on Youtube have been angry. The reactions in English I see on Facebook have been more refined, but equally opposed to the ideas in the video.

Personally, I am confused. The reality is, despite what people might want to believe, is that the video is illustrating something that has happened in the United States. Growing up, way outside of the Orthodox circles and many non-Ortho but Judeo friends I have today, I couldn’t tell you the honest difference between Christmas and Chanukah. I was probably as old as the kid in the video, but until 10 I was pretty content. “All religions are the same” I thought, “they just check different boxes when asked certain questions.” This was all elementary, but bear in mind I didn’t go to Hebrew School (much less Sunday School), and had to ask my parents to get more into the holidays they passively celebrated. Even at 10, I felt like I was laboring or annoying.

I got into the questioning business later and then chose my path to Judaism. The issues I faced were personal, familial and theological. Never mind the fact I had to break into the Jewish community when virtually none lived in my hometown. The video has a point whether or not Israelis or Americans want to acknowledge it. As an ad campaign, it won’t do much convincing. If Israelis found reasons to leave to a foreign country, they’ll be put off being insulted into returning to their home one.

The reactions I have seen to the video seem naïve to me, though. Some of the more liberal friends I have seem to be appalled by it. We have to appreciate there is a contradiction there, since none of these friends would marry a non-Jew or celebrate Christmas. They are just as aware of the problems posed by intermarriage and cultural assimilation, but just can’t accept this advert. Without pretending to be any more an expert on assimilation or PR than they are, I see a lot of subtopics to debate here. Can we honestly think the United States will preserve our religion and will its culture respect the integrity of our beliefs? Do we know for sure that even at our most conservative, we can trust minority Judaism has a fighting chance to influence our community’s kids when competing with a majority’s culture?

Image by Flickr user drurydrama (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I already find any sort of combo of Christmas and Chanukah to be ludicrous. You should wish someone Happy Holidays, but does it ever make sense to go further than that. Many families mix the two holidays. Chanukah’s popular theme is to resist another culture’s imposing on your own, and Christmas marks a fork in the road between Judaism and a system that nullifies the former’s central tenets. The term “Christmukkah” is a perversion. In my opinion, American Jews spend more time trying to put menorahs in the public eye and barely a second on the actual history or meaning of the holiday.

“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

No. Chanukah is beyond that. Chanukah was first celebrated as a stand-in for Sukkot. The reason it has eight days is honestly debated. It has multiple sources. It’s almost like a comic book reinventing the way its main characters became superheroes. Just as Shamai implies in the Talmud, and as Josephus and Books of Maccabees bring out in the open, Chanukah’s eight days mirror those of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. The Seleucid Greeks, who ruled the country, still held control of the Temple when Sukkot came around. By December/Kislev, the ground had been retaken. Even though there was no requirement, the victorious rebels marked Sukkot in a more wintery way – an eight-day festival that the Bible considers a holiday that will one day be observed by the entire world.

If anything, there is something fitting to that description and pegging it to Chanukah. American Jews might find something resonates in that message – I do. Chanukah seems to be a second chance at a holiday that has significant implications for Judaism. It takes the religion out of its tribal, nationalist motif and forces it to be more universal.

November 9, 2011

Iran’s Nuclear Fallout

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally Posted at New Voices

Though defeating Iran is a given, the costs of a war with Iran would be dramatically high. This much has to be made clear.

Israel will never go it alone. The country does not have the assets currently to make any sort of unilateral assault sustainable against multiple foes at once. It would involve the United States, United Kingdom and probably most of NATO. That being said, it will never come to that level of shooting. The optimal idea would be to see the Arab Spring pay forward the revolutionary zeal and topple the Iranian domino.

That scenario has been in the dream box of international strategy for well over ten years. Sporadic riots at Tehran University in 1999 and 2003 fueled speculation something could happen. In 2009, a month of marches and riots protested an apparently fraudulent re-election for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Six months later, a revolutionary leader’s death kindled the spark again. 2011 has put the country’s leaders on edge. With its former ally Muammar Qaddafi gone and Syria’s brickwork becoming as shotty as the bullet-holed façade of its cities’ buildings, there is plenty to fear from losing another ally and then seeing the people’s reaction.

The speculation making waves here is coming from a sporadic amount of reports there would be some approval for a strike. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is supposedly still vulnerable to a military assault, if only the meddling media did not constantly ruin the element of surprise. Note my sarcasm, but the string of coincidences slipping into Western and Israel news reports the last two weeks seem well-timed and point to something interesting. What that is happens to also be a matter of speculation, but that is why I write these things.

To recap, three reports having to do with the Israeli military have been featured recently. The Israeli Air Force was recently in Italy conducting [incoming self-promotion] “long-range” training, including mid-air refueling of fighter jets. The second piece has to do with a surface-to-surface missile test conducted in full view of the most-populated urban area in Israel. Couple that with the civil defense drill last week in case of an attack. Thirdly, news reports have slipped that there have been recent meetings where Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have been trying to win over enough of the cabinet to approve a military strike against Iran.

All these things have gained denials and fits of frustration from spokespeople and ministers here. But all these events coincide with today’s release of a report on Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency is going to report incriminating evidence there is a military angle to Iran’s research, and that is big. Knowing this report has been in the offing, there has been speculation the Israeli government is making the idea of war with Iran sound more rational and preparing to use a window of opportunity to gain global sympathy and attack. The Israeli military has denied the missile test had anything to do with the report and that it was scheduled months ago.

But so was the report. In other news, the United Kingdom is also talking up the military option. There seems to be some sort of consensus about preparing the military to go to war with Iran. The last time the element of surprise was sacrificed for an operation this big was Iraq. The US started moving troops into Kuwait in 2002 – six months ahead of the invasion.

I cannot say I am convinced though. Governments let things “slip” all the time in order to put something into the media’s purview – a desirable topic, a favorable opinion or a point of distraction. The fact that Israel conducted a missile test of all things in both broad daylight and right over the country’s center instead of its desert indicates they are trying to push the issue publicly. But it is not the Israeli public that needs convincing. All of Israel’s governments have been hawks about Iran – there is hardly a difference between Netanyahu and Olmert. It’s the rest of the world Israel is posturing toward. Iran is going to lose points and Israel’s military is going to gain some benefit of the doubt from this, even from European publics. “They are not warmongering,” so the thinking might go. “That’s the Iranians. I understand wanting to be ready just in case.”

Public relations and public perception are all important. That subject has driven Jews mad since the Obama-Netanyahu implosion started two years ago. If Israel does eventually decide to press the red button, global sympathy is going to play a role even if it will not be the major deciding factor.

One more thing to consider: Israel is trying to get advanced submarines from Germany. The last few weeks have seen that deal threatened by the apparent Israeli policy on settlements and the Palestinians. If it is more than that, it could be Germany suspects Israel IS moving toward a strike. Coordinating jets and offshore submarines might make the whole war thing a lot easier. Okay, my conspiracy theories are exhausted for today.

January 26, 2011

Why Egypt is both the Same as, and Different from, 1979 Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

The Tunisian revolution will set the tone for the coming year. There are a number of tinderboxes in the Middle East that seem to be crackling as 2011 opens. Tunisia seems poised to provide the spark that could make 2011 the biggest year in the Middle East since 1979.

1979 was a phenomenal shift in the strategic outlook of the region. The first reason that comes to mind would be the Iranian Revolution, itself dominating the month of January that year and culminating on February 11th with the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. But also that year Saddam Hussein consolidated his rule in Iraq and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. These events set the stage Iran’s reach into Lebanon, its alliance with Syria, the heating up of the Syrian-Iraqi cold war, and the Arab obsession with destroying the Shiite revolution in Iran. In addition, Saudi Arabia extended its influence in order to combat 1) Iran and 2) the Soviet Union. Militant Sunni doctrine would spread to mobilize Muslims against Shiite and Communist movements.

2011, though still nascent and yet to provide all the major changes that it would take to rival 1979, has seen the outbreak of protests against four authoritarian regimes, the ascent of Hizbullah to power in Lebanon and a sudden jolt to the ability of the Palestinian Authority to negotiate with Israel. Considering developments over the last two years, and obviously since September 11, 2001, the region will not look as it did this past December when we enter 2012.

Egypt is the major chess piece. Continuing protests, fueled by years of frustration and motivated by Tunisians’ success, signals at least the beginning of a necessary period of reforms to pacify fed up Egyptians, if not an outright and brutal confrontation with the regime.

The protests that brought down the Iranian government 32 years ago began in 1977. The pattern of protest was uniquely Shiite. Every forty days after a suppressed demonstration, mourning caravans would commemorate those killed in the protests according to Shiite tradition, which in turn became political demonstrations in and of themselves. This pattern resulted in steadily growing protests that culminated in the involvement of armed opposition, popular revolt and the exile of the Shah.

Egypt is not restricted to a steady pattern of protests like Iran. That history made the Iranian opposition strategy in 2009-10 easier to predict for Iranian security services, enabling a more congruent system of tactics to be implemented to cut off demonstrations in the winter last year. Egypt does not have a revolutionary history, and its security services are equally as resented as the Iranian SAVAK at the point of the Islamic Revolution.

Most importantly, the distinction in opoosition leadership is pronounced. The most popular and credulous would be Mohamed Elbaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who had announced his candidacy for president in next year’s Egyptian elections. His international standing is a stark contrast to the figure that was Ayatollah Khomeini. Additionally, Elbaradei’s goals are much more generic, while Khomeini carried with him a fully developed doctrine of religious rule, velayat e-faqih, upon his return from exile in February 1979.

Mohamed Elbaradei

For any arguing the Muslim Brotherhood would assuredly take the lead in an Egyptian revolution, perhaps on par with Khomeini’s religious leadership. There is no undercurrent of Islamic fundamentalism ready to take the helm in Egypt. The population is aware of the human rights violations of established dictatorship and the brutality of the Iranian revolutionaries. It would find itself hardpressed to welcome a religious party that might perptrate the same misbehavior as the current Iranian elite. While there may be sharp differences between Sunni and Shiite doctrine, they would make little difference for Egyptians looking for democratic government. It is important to know the Brotherhood is seen as corrupt and inept. Early in the week, its leadership announced its non-participation in the planned demonstrations, citing its being held on a national holiday for the country’s police.

The irony of such a situation is iconic for Egyptian cynics. As elsewhere in the Arab world, supposed democratic opposition is more often a tame form of political theater. But as is often the case near the end of flimsy regimes, the artificiality of their politics and placation to the regime becomes too obvious to take seriously. Egypt, whether it be now or it be in the next couple years, will more than likely be free of Hosni Mubarak by reform, by revolution or by his passing.

Iran’s revolution caught the entire world, particularly the Arab world, off guard. In a way, it showed Iran was at a stage in its political evolution to tolerate such dramatic changes whereas the Arab world was not. But the tremendous international opposition to that revolution made its leadership more consolidated and extreme, particularly in the face of a US and Arab-backed Iraqi effort to dislodge the new regime.

Egypt, if it shifts, would likely not provide the throne to an authoritarian figure, but it could seek to dominate Middle Eastern politics and offer itself as a serious contender for global leadership in an increasingly multipolar world. It would likely not undertake the aggressive tone of Iran’s objective to ‘spread its revolution’. It has an opportunity to challenge Turkey and modern Iran for the helm of the Middle East, with an advantage being an Arab state. Mohamed Elbaradei, the likely victor of these changes, would leverage that international standing and popularity to solidify permanent political reforms and seek a balanced relationship with, not set himself in opposition to, the United States.

The next few days are crucial for American influence in the Middle East, and there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to demonstratively engage the general population of the Arab world as he promised to do in Cairo two years ago. The fallout between the US and Iran does not have to repeat itself with Egypt, especially given the groundwork has already been laid for engagement. It is in the best interests of the US not to support Hosni Mubarak, rather to actually compound the pressure on him. If the US opts for caution, Obama and his engagement doctrine would likely come to mean nothing and his personal credibility would be totally destroyed. If his policy of balance with the Muslim world is to mean anything, the last month’s pattern of Arab protests should demonstrate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot resolve all the region’s problems nor America’s tenuous position among Arabs on the street.

Revolutions can become extreme as happened with Iran, or they can be stable and world-changing, as with the US. Whether Egypt becomes a positive facet in the Middle East or an agitator, and whether Egypt’s minority Christians and multiple political outlooks are tolerated, may depend on its engagement with the outside world and the support other countries offer it. In this last point, it is what the world can do differently this time, not what Egyptians do differently from Iranians, that may distinguish an Egyptian Revolution from the Iranian one.

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 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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