The Guns of November [ssba]

The Guns of November

The calendar is currently full of anniversaries and commemoration of major events that happened exactly 100 year ago, during or in the aftermath of World War I, such as the Balfour Declaration on Nov. 2. A particularly horrendous anniversary is already more than three years old; namely, the outbreak of World War I, famously dubbed “The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman, Unfortunately, recent events force inescapable comparisons to August 1914, with Lebanon playing the role of Serbia and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salmon (MBS) of Saudi Arabia as a far too believable Kaiser Wilhelm II, the chief villain back then, though there was (and is) far more than enough blame to go around. Will things now turn out as they did then?

As anyone who’s looked at the news during the last week knows already, MBS last weekend orchestrated (likely demanded) the resignation of Said Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, a Sunni Muslim who has always been close to the Saudis (he’s even a Saudi citizen). Hariri made the announcement from Riyadh, and is still there, leading to strong suspicions he is being detained, though he denied that a week later. Simultaneously, MBS was “appointed” head of a new anti-corruption agency and immediately arrested perhaps 500 leading Saudis on corruption charges, including 11 royal princes, i.e., his cousins. There is no doubt that MBS is using this to change the kingdom from a comfortable oligarchy run for the benefit of the several thousand descendants of its founder, Abdul-Aziz Al- Saud, into an autocratic dictatorship a la Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Orban, Duterte, and presumably the dreams of Donald Trump.

In fact, MBS resembles Trump more than any of the others, being similarly impetuous and inexperienced, though MBS has a better excuse; he is 31 while Trump is forty years his senior. Trump, clearly still glowing from his Saudi welcome in May and its purchase of $110 billion in US arms, has put himself foursquare behind his young friend. Trump also, like Obama before him, has supported Saudi Arabia’s brutal and seemingly pointless air war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has continued since 2015, turning Yemen into probably the worst basket case on earth, with no discernible political advantage.

MBS clearly sees that war, like several others, as really against Shi’a Iran, which has undoubtedly provided some help to the Houthis but no serious expert considers the Houthis an Iranian proxy, though their brand of Islam is a variant of mainstream Shi’ism. Then last week, a Houthi missile apparently landed near Riyadh, allegedly manufactured in Iran, which MBS declared an act of war, backed up by Trump. (By that logic, US gun manufacturers should be held liable for the damage and death their products cause, which extension Trump certainly wouldn’t approve of).

In June of this year, right after Trump’s visit, MBS, in concert with other Gulf states and Egypt, launched a fullscale boycott against Qatar, claiming it supports terrorists. It was immediately clear that their grievance against Qatar, though no democracy itself, rather stemmed from its support of al-Jazeera and its unflattering coverage of other Arab states, as well as Qatar’s independent foreign policy. While Qatar is not a model democracy itself and al-Jazeera has its own biases, it has been invaluable in bringing an infinitely better class of journalism to the Middle East and the rest of the world. Trump immediately tweeted his support for the boycott, though he’s since moderated that, belatedly realizing Qatar is itself a major American ally.

Of course, all this has transpired against the background of the apparent defeat of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) and the victory of Bashar Asad’s forces, now completely beholden to his allies who enabled his victory in Syria’s bloody civil war, namely Hezbollah, Russia and especially Iran (in the latter case “proxy” probably fits.) Hezbollah suffered considerable casualties in Syria, but undoubtedly burnished its reputation, making it that much stronger in its Lebanese home, where it is both an independent (i.e. Iran-influenced) militia and a part of the governing coalition, which presumably leads us back to why the Saudis are disrupting Lebanese politics.

Israel has, of course, been keeping a watchful eye on both Lebanon and Syria, and has even admitted carrying out some bombings in Syria when fighting got too close for comfort, as well as destroying supply caravans headed to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Despite this interdiction, Hezbollah reportedly has now deployed 120,000 missiles aimed at Israel, many apparently with the range to hit Tel Aviv, not to mention Haifa and most of the rest of Israel. Israel of course has its own defensive and offensive capabilities but under these circumstances, if it a war of missiles, it’s hard to believe it would escape unscathed, perhaps more so than in any war since 1948. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, claims that Saudi Arabia is inciting Israel to attack Lebanon, though no evidence has been provided.

President Trump, of course, has played a menacing, if somewhat offstage role in this. He has made Iran his chief bête noir in the Middle East, almost comparable to ‘rocket man’’ Kim Jong Un in Northwest Asia. He has declined to recertify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 JCPOA but, characteristically, left it to Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions and thus give Iran free reign to move towards a nuclear bomb, though it appears Congress is likely to decline the invitation.

So now it’s back to the 1914 analogy when, it is usually agreed, none of the European powers (with the possible exception of Germany) wanted war, but they found themselves in a horrendous one, nevertheless. Similarly, none of the current players seek a war, with the possible exception of MBS and perhaps Trump, both of whom are anxious to burnish their toughness credentials – and neither of whom has accomplished much in their respective short tenures. Trump has the advantage that a Middle East war would probably not directly involve the US, but you can bet he’d be lustily cheering from the sidelines and supplying as many armaments as he could.

Will cooler heads prevail? In this case, unbelievably, the cooler heads (everything is relative) belong to Bibi Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, the Iranian leadership, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and, perhaps, other Mideast notables such as Turkey’s President Erdogan. None would normally appear on anyone’s list of cooler heads. But here, compared to MBS and Trump, all the others are experienced and, though by no means necessarily adverse to war, probably have a more realistic idea of what war in this context might mean and almost certainly would prefer to avoid it. This is likely in strong contrast to Trump and MBS, neither of whom have any experience with it and don’t seem too worried about its prospect.

I personally think there won’t be a war at this time, though perhaps that is simply wishful thinking. But it is a striking and discomfiting circumstance to find our safety hostage to the ‘cooler’ heads of some of the most dangerous men in the world.

Considering the Way Forward [ssba]

Considering the Way Forward

Last week, my daughter Aviv walked into a public bathroom and found a Palestinian cleaner at work, humming to herself. Suddenly, a voice from within one of the stalls cries out in rage, “You’re singing, huh? Probably celebrating the terror attack in Istanbul!” The Palestinian woman did not respond, and then, from the stall, “I’ll burn you alive!!!” Aviv protested to the voice in the stall, the
cleaner moved on with her work, still humming. It ended there, but it’s only beginning out here. With nearly half of polled Israelis supporting transfer or expulsion of Arabs, the flames of hatred are spurting ever higher.

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Israel’s Unprecedented Geopolitical Strength [ssba]

Israel’s Unprecedented Geopolitical Strength

It may seem counterintuitive, or even downright strange, but Israel’s geopolitical position is probably stronger now than at any time in the country’s history. This is likely to continue at least in the short-to-medium term, but looming long-term challenges should give some pause to Israel’s current leaders. They should recall that even way back in the 1960s, then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sardonically referred to Israel as “Shimshon der nebekhdiker,” or “poor little Samson.”

It is therefore rich with irony that it is undisputed among Republican presidential candidates that President Barack Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus,” while Hillary Clinton promises “no daylight” between the United States and Israel, instead of advocating policies that would strongly encourage Israel to ameliorate the Palestinians’ untenable situation.  Bernie Sanders, who once spent a year on a kibbutz as a young man, seems to prefer to avoid the issue entirely, which is perhaps a different kind of irony.

It is worth reviewing Israel’s markedly changed security situation since its establishment in 1948. At that time Israel considered itself in genuine existential danger from the Arab world, and with good reason. This danger lessened with its victory in the 1967 Six Day War, and the Jewish state’s safety from an Arab attack was largely sealed with its 1979 treaty with Egypt. However, a sense of insecurity still pervaded Israel once it became clear that peace with Egypt was not going to be followed by normalization with the rest of the region.  Read More »

The Iran-Saudi-US Balancing Act – and Israel: Something Must Give [ssba]

The Iran-Saudi-US Balancing Act – and Israel: Something Must Give

A slightly different version of this article was first published by the IPI Global Observatory

The first milestone in implementing the Iran nuclear deal has come and gone. As the agreement’s proponents expected and opponents denied would happen, Iran has poured cement in its Arak reactor and rendered it unusable. More unexpected was the prisoner exchange that accompanied it, with Iran releasing four Americans and the United States freeing seven Iranians. In addition, Iran captured and then quickly released a group of US Navy personnel whose boats had drifted into Iranian territorial waters—a fact that the US did not contest.

The reactions to these developments from opposing sides were predictable. Supporters of the deal—most world leaders and domestic supporters of US President Barack Obama—saw it as proof of the efficacy of diplomacy in general and the president’s policies in particular. Opponents of the deal—most Israelis and members of the US Republican party—saw it as a humiliating capitulation. All Republican candidates vying for nomination for this year’s presidential poll declared that things would be very different if they were in power. Read More »

Progressive Zionists Speak Out Against PM’s Statement on the Nazi’s Final Solution, Call Claims about Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1940s “False” [ssba]

Progressive Zionists Speak Out Against PM’s Statement on the Nazi’s Final Solution, Call Claims about Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1940s “False”

Partners for Progressive Israel is appalled and horrified by remarks made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Zionist Congress prior to his trip to Berlin. The revisionist and false claim that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, inspired the mass-murder of Jews as part of the Nazis’  Final Solution is insulting to both those who suffered in the Shoah and to Palestinians. The Palestinians were not responsible for the Mufti’s political affiliations then, and should not be characterized as eternal enemies now. Husseini did not inspire Hitler, as by the time the two met in 1941, the Final Solution was already well underway.

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Egypt’s democratic revolution – Israel’s strategic concerns [ssba]

Throughout the 2 ½ weeks of Egypt’s continuing democracy revolution, which has reached a crescendo with Hosni Mubarak’s resignation just hours ago, Israel’s senior political and military echelons have maintained a cautious approach, and a relatively low profile.

On the one hand, Binyamin Netanyahu and others have professed nominal support for the cause of democracy in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.  Such language is requisite for an Israel that touts democratic values as one of the underpinnings of American-Israeli friendship.  It is also in keeping with Netanyahu’s support for the neoconservative argument promulgated by his ally, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky – that Israel will never enjoy true peace with the Arab world until the latter develops true freedom and democracy.

But alongside, and more prominent than, the obligatory pro-democracy formulations, Israeli officialdom has repeatedly stressed its concern that post-Mubarak Egypt could be dominated by a hostile Islamic regime (a la Iran) and/or turn away from its strategic cooperation with Israel – the worst-case scenario being an abrogation of the two countries’ 1979 peace treaty.

That treaty, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, still stands as the most successful example of the ‘land for peace’ diplomacy that slowly developed in the wake of the June 1967 Israeli-Arab war.  The treaty is also, arguably, the greatest diplomatic achievement in Israeli history, removing, as it did, the leading member of the Arab world, and Israel’s most powerful enemy, from what Israel calls its “circle of hostility”.

The negotiations that led to the treaty began in May 1977, but the accord was actually 12 years (or more) in the making.  As a result of its military victory in 1967, it will be recalled, Israel took control of large swaths of territory, including Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a land mass three times the size of all of pre-war Israel.

Although initially willing to trade all of Sinai for peace, Israeli policymakers soon became enamored with the great land buffer that now shielded Israel from its decades-old foe, and they developed the new strategic goal of permanently retaining the eastern section of Sinai under a peace agreement.  This was the background to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s famous dictum, “Better Sharm-el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm-el-Sheikh”: The new border that Israel envisioned would include this seaside resort town (whose control would guarantee vital Israeli access to the Red Sea), along with additional portions of the peninsula.

No longer willing to withdraw to the 1967 borders, Israeli policymakers, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, snubbed a 1971 effort by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to reach the kind of full-withdrawal agreement that would be signed by decade’s end.  Israel’s rejectionism, most historians agree, is what prompted Sadat to launch the war of October 1973, which he regarded as an extension of diplomacy and a way of dislodging the deleterious status quo that had taken root.

Sadly, Sadat proved to be correct in his analysis: The shock to Israel’s body politic produced by the Yom Kippur War, and the smashing of Israel’s self-image of invincibility, began to produce the diplomatic movement that his earlier backchannel messages had not.  Through the offices of the Kissinger-led State Department, Israel under PM Rabin began, in 1974 and 1975, to effect a series of interim withdrawals from Sinai, in return for Egypt’s agreement to end the state of belligerency – a deal that was buttressed by Israel’s receipt of significant American political, military and economic assurances.

The peace treaty of 1979 was thus the final stage in a process of evolutionary peacemaking.  In the accord, Israel, now led by Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin, committed to withdrawing “all its armed forces and civilians from the Sinai” back to “the recognized international boundary between Egypt and the former mandated territory of Palestine”.  In return, Egypt moved from non-belligerency to full recognition of Israel’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence”.  Further it agreed to the termination of any economic boycotts, the establishment of diplomatic, economic and cultural relations, and a policy of open borders.

Of particular strategic importance to Israel, Egypt recognized Israel’s right to “unimpeded and non-suspendable freedom of navigation and overflight” in the Gulf of Aqaba and Strait of Tiran, leading to the Red Sea: This was a major step forward, since Egypt’s closure of the Strait to Israeli shipping had been one of the causes ratcheting up pre-war tension in both the 1950s and 1960s.  Similarly, Egypt also recognized, “the right of free passage through the Suez Canal …through the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean Sea”.

Last, but not least, the two sides agreed in their treaty to a series of “limited force zones” on both sides of the border.  This reduced the mutual military threat by restricting both the quantity and quality of the armed forces that each side could maintain close to the border region.

(This last provision satisfied Israel’s insistence not to duplicate its previous withdrawal from Sinai in late 1956 and early 1957.  In October-November 1956, Israel had captured Sinai for the first time, as part of a coordinated Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt – but was soon forced by a fuming American administration (and a Soviet Union threatening military intervention) to withdraw unconditionally.)

The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty has shown incredible stability for the past 32 years, even during periods of conflict and strife, such as Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, or the 2008-09 Gaza war.  So it is perfectly understandable that Israel’s government would try to ensure that future Egyptian governments will continue to honor it.

Ironically, the same Likud party that now hails the peace with Egypt was once much less sanguine about it.  As Begin prepared to submit the treaty to Israel’s Knesset in 1979, he faced a party mutiny, and required the support of the opposition Labor party to ensure its ratification.  Likud had never advocated more than a token pullback from Sinai, nor had Labor itself ever come out in support of full withdrawal for full peace: At the time, we need to remember, major sections of both parties still subscribed to the traditional Israeli narrative that depicted Egypt as ideologically committed to the Jewish state’s destruction.

Despite the fact that historians have since shown the reality to be much more complicated than that; and in spite of 32 years of stable (if tepid) peace with Egypt, the narrative still lives on in the hearts of a great many Israelis.  This explains (but does not completely justify) Israeli emphasis of strategic concerns over the cause of human rights.

As the Egyptian revolution moves forward, it is to be hoped that Israel’s support for its neighbor’s democracy will become more full-throated, and that Egypt’s emerging leaders will express a commitment to the strategy of peace initiated by Sadat four decades ago.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ron Skolnik
Executive Director
Meretz USA

February 11, 2011

What You Need To Know On Egyptian Protests [ssba]

Some of you may have some questions about what is going on in Egypt these days. Or perhaps you have friends who do. Either way, you can find a short primer at my blog The Third Way providing some of the basic information you need to make sense of current events.

Egypt: A Possible Game Changer [ssba]

Forget everything you know. Forget everything about the dynamic of the peace process, about the Israeli-Arab conflict, indeed, about Israeli politics themselves. The events in Egypt, as they unfold, can mean very radical changes to the region in every single imaginable aspect. One way or another, Israel has become accustomed to the “cold peace” we have enjoyed with Egypt since Anwar El-Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David accord in 1978.

Hosni Mubarak has been a chilly, yet reliable presence in the region for 30 years. Even during the tense times of the Lebanon conflicts and the Intifadas, Egypt has maintained diplomatic relations with Israel, even in the face of popular criticism and condemnation. In short, Mubarak’s icy but steady approach is something Israel has take for granted for several decades.

Now everything is in flux, but one thing is for sure: nothing will be the same.
If a radical leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Muhammad Badi’e, ends up maneuvering himself into power, Israel will have to, for the first time in over 30 years, face the prospect of a very powerful enemy on its southwestern border.

No more Taba vacations, no more discreet cooperation controlling border crossings with Gaza, and perhaps, there will even be open support for the Hamas regime.  An outright hostile powerful neighbor that will make Hezbollah look like a walk in the park. Think a 1979 Iran scenario, but right on the border.

On the other hand, if a moderate, such as the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and 2005 Nobel Peace Price winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, finds himself in the Egyptian presidency, it could give Egypt a stature and reputation that may increase its influence as a peace broker in the region. Perhaps not good for Netanyahu, but overall a much better prospect for Israel.

The point, however, with revolutions is precisely how unpredictable they are. From Iran to Tianamen Square, to the Romanian revolution of 1989, uncertainty and confusion are the name of the game, and outcomes are hard to predict. The only thing for sure is, even if Mubarak manages to hold on to power, everything is about to change, so better hold onto your seats because this is going to be a bumpy ride.