Sunday, June 28, 2009

Possible Progress on Shalit

Both the Israeli government and Hamas deny allegations that prisoner-of-war Gilad Shalit will be moved to Egypt as part of negotiations over his release. The news was originally reported on June 23 by the Palestinian Ma'an news agency quoting Egyptian sources. Haaretz later ran the story, quoting European diplomatic sources. Under the deal, Shalit would be transferred to Egyptian custody while an agreement is solidified regarding the release of Palestinian prisoners. The London-based Asharq al-Awsat paper also ran the story quoting Arab sources. While the original report is no longer on the Asharq al-Awsat website, details of the report were widely published in the Western Media and by Haaretz. The report alleged that in return for Shalit's transferral, Israel would release 400 Palestinian prisoners. Then Shalit's parents would be permitted to see him in Egypt. Then, Israel would release more prisoners. The total number expected to be released by Israel is about 1,100.

This story is likely based in truth. It has been run by three independent sources all quoting different individuals whose nationality is identified in all cases. It is also a highly detailed claim, while most fabricated stories are general. It is in both Israel and Hamas' interest to keep the story under wraps in order to continue negotiations without the added influence of public pressure. It looks good for Israel that progress is being made, but if Hamas feels to threatened, it could easily change its mind. Therefore, comments contrary to the reports that are being made by Israel and Hamas are explainable. While a chance remains that all three sources are unreliable, the evidence seems to point towards this claim having a basis in reality.

1) Barak Ravid, Akiva Eldar, "Israel, Egypt Negotiate Terms of New Gaza Truce,"
Haaretz, June 28, 2009.

2) Akiva Eldar, Barak Ravid, Avi Issacharoff, "Hamas: No Truth in Media Storm Over Shalit Deal,"
Haaretz, June 28, 2009.

3) "Barak: Reports of Imminent Shalit Release Unfounded,"
Ma'an News Agency, June 28, 2009.

4) Akiva Eldar, Avi Issachoroff, "Shalit Transfer to Egypt is Imminent,"
Haaretz, June 26, 2009.

5) "Israel Denies Shalit Will Move to Egypt,"
UPI, June 23, 2009.

6) "Arab Sources Also Say Gilad Shalit Will be Moved to Egypt Soon,"
San Francisco Sentinel, June 27, 2009.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What a week

Iranian society is rebelling against traditional religious authority in a way which is pretty unprecedented. The question is not whether or not this protestation will have any long-term effect. Best-case scenario is that Ahmedinejad ascends to power as a very weak president. This will have implications on his ability to be influenced by both Ayatollah Khameni and the west. Compared to the Ayatollah, Ahmedinejad has been fairly quiet about election results. It is in his interest to make this dispute about the Ayatollah and not about him. This whole conflict could in fact strenghthen Ahmedinejad, if he can shift focus off himself and into the Ayatollah.

On the flip side of this is the chance of some kind of coup or reform. If this were to happen, it would require two currently non-existent things. The first is a strong leader. Moussavi has been taking an increasingly strong position and has risen to the call of his constituents. However, his ability to speak for the movement remains unattained, and so far dissent in Iran is a popular uprising rather than an organized movement. It is still possible Moussavi could gain leadership status, but he still has a ways to go. The second necessary componant is a series of bad decisions by the Ayatollah and ruling class. Already the Ayatollah has reversed his position about the legitimacy of the elections, a mistake which makes him look indecisive and inconsistent. He has also attempted to quash the protests using military force, the absolute worst method to stop a popular movement. The use of force created a martyr out of Neda Agha Soltan. If bad decisions continue from the senior Iranian leadership, it could fuel protests by making the movement about the decades of veto power the Ayatollah and religious clerics have had over the Iranian democratic process. Instead of the current core constituency of Moussavi supporters, bad decisions by the Ayatollah could expand the protesters core constituency to those who do not support the rule of the Ayatollah and the religious para-government. This constituency is considerably larger in Iran.

Moussavi's ability to step into the shoes of a populist leader, and the Ayatollah's choice of method to quell dissent are the two critical variables to watch in the next few weeks. Even if Ahmedinejad is successfully inaugurated, tension within Iran is likely to continue for some time.


1) "Moussavi Addresses Throngs Who March in Silent Protest in Tehran," CNN, June 18, 2009.

2) "Iranian Woman Killed During Protests Loved Music, Not Politics," CBC News, June 23, 2009.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Intervention and Iran

Just when the media was starting to get bored of the US-Israel tension, Iran holds elections. It's extremely difficult to assess the situation in Iran because of the limitations on foreign media outlet coverage. Additionally, information is being posted on social networking sites is often unreliable and is difficult to confirm.

One interesting component of the elections is the US' relative silence on the elections. While France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has termed the elections 'a fraud' and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has 'called for a full and transparent investigation into electoral fraud and discrepancies," President Obama has said only "
I think that the world has deep concerns about the election," but adds, "It's not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations to be seen as meddling."

The relative silence is a move to strengthen the US' position vis-a-vis negotiations with Iran. A perception of US intervention would potentially have a rallying effect in Iran which would slow the downward spiral of disunity which is not necessarily good for Iran but with is most likely good for the US. The US has no interest in stopping the unfolding events because they make Ahmedinejad look weaker and thus easier to manipulate in negotiations.

In the past five months, there have been elections in Israel, Lebanon, and now Iran.* As with the Israeli elections, the Obama administration has been cautiously silent on their favored candidate for Iranian elections. But when Vice President Biden visited Lebanon May 22 2009, Hizbullah claimed his visit was an attempt to skew the vote towards the more moderate March 14th coalition. Upon a successful showing by March 14, several journalists also referred to an "Obama Effect" having played a role in voters' choices.

With only three examples, it is hard to classify Lebanon as a true outlier. It is also unclear to what extent the US intended Biden's speech to be intervention. It's likely that the administration is weighing intervention on a case to case basis with presumption being against it. That being said, it will be interesting in 30 years to read about what role, if any, clandestine US agents have played or are playing in the elections in Iran.

What's happening in Iran is historic and unpredictable. The most accurate answer to "What will happen in Iran?" at this point is probably "I don't know."

* On May 16, Kuwait also held parliamentary elections. The analysis is therefore is not completely comprehensive. Should further research into the Obama administration's response prove fruitful, it will be added to the analysis in the post.


1) "Iran Bars Foreign Media From Reporting on Streets,"
Associated Press, June 16, 2009.

2) "Sarkozy Says Iran Elections a Fraud,"
Press TV, June 17, 2009.

3) Mike Blanchfield, "Canada Joins Chorus of Protest Over Iran Election, Violence,"
The Gazette (Montreal) , June 15, 2009.

4) "U.S. Denies Interference in Iran Elections,"
Xinhua News Agency, June 17, 2009.

5) Brian Montopoli, "Obama Congratulates Israeli Leader Netanyahu,"
CBS News, April 1, 2009.

6) "Biden's Lebanon Trip Sparks Charge of Interference,"
Associated Press, May 22, 2009.

Monday, June 15, 2009

On Self-Loathing: TCN Succumbs to Partisan Hackery for a Night

As Netanyahu's speech continues to have a fairly predictable effect, conservative writers on the conflict have been predictable as well. In response to what is ultimately a fairly small policy change in Washington, these writers have flung allegations of all sorts at the administration and those who support its policies. Liberal writers too have come down harshly on Netanyahu as colonialist and backwards-thinking, but from the right, the administration has been accused of being out of touch with reality, equating Israel with terrorist groups, acceding to Palestinian demands, abandoning a strategic partnership, and being naive in the face of Middle East politics. Its supporters have been accused of flip-flopping, naivete, being anti-Zionist, and being out of touch with traditional ties to Judaism. Writing responses to these articles would only legitimize their audacious arguments and draw the debate into partisan hackery. But one analysis of those who support settlement freezing is consistent among most of the writers and is a dangerously false way to analyze public sentiment.

In an editorial that speaks for itself, Dutch writer Leon De Winter writes:

"American Jews, at cocktail parties in the Village or the Upper West Side, prefer Israel to act proportionately and to behave as decent, civilized, upper-class Jews, not as Middle Eastern warriors. Since the 1982 massacres in Sabra and Shatila, committed by Lebanese Maronites but attributed to Israel and Ariel Sharon, liberal American Jewry went on a long journey and arrived at a historic point: just like Obama, it gave up on Israel."

The accusation of American Jewry abandoning Israel is pervasive in conservative editorials and the criticism is only more pointed when talking about the progressive pro-Israel lobby. A Jerusalem Post editorial from April 12, 2009 by James Kirchick is entitled simply, "Self-Loathing on J Street." The basic argument is that as a result of naivete and assimilation, American Jews have grown distant from Israel and criticize it based on a lack of respect for their heritage. In extreme cases, this is described as self-loathing, a shock value term which equates moderate liberal Jews with radical left-wing extreme ideologues like Noam Chompsky and Norm Finklestein.

However, to say that those who support Obama's demand for settlement freeze are self-loathing or out of touch ignores a few points of consideration. Firstly, the vast majority of Obama supporters are in favor of a freeze because they perceive it to be in Israel's interest. The issue is not prioritizing US interest at Israel's expense. Rather, it is agreeing with the US strategy to attain peace over the current Israeli government's strategy. In either case, the end goal is support for Israeli interests.

Secondly, to say that all supporters of Obama's policy are naive and assimilated is a totally baseless and unsubstantiated claim. Nowhere have any of the writers offered a shred of evidence to support their claims that liberal Jews somehow "get it less" from a policy perspective. And as Max Blumenthal's video so painfully illustrated, not all supporters of Netanyahu's policies are exactly worldly and informed. This argument is an attempt to shift the debate away from the actual argument, and is a poor defense of Netanyahu's policies.

Finally, both of the above are wedge issues only on the pages of the right-wing writers. The vast majority of supporters of Obama's policy see it as a way to mature the US-Israel relationship, not destroy it. Conservative writers have done far more damage to Jewish and pro-Israel unity by defaulting to knee-jerk accusations than liberals have by questioning Israeli policy. For years, the pro-Israel community has denied accusations that it forces its constituents to be in lockstep. The kind of pressure, based not at all on factual and reasonable discourse, that liberal Americans are under from this segment of the right only serves to legitimize that accusation.

If this segment of the pro-Israel community continues these ineffective tactics of bitter criticism and baseless discourses on American Jewry and its flaws, it is likely to have the effect of presenting both legitimate and illegitimate conservative thought on the US-Israel relationship as petty, out of touch, and irrelevant.


1) Leon De Winter, "Time for a New Ally?" Jerusalem Post, June 16, 2009.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Netanyahu Speaks

This evening at the Begin-Sadat Center in Ramat Gan, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered a highly anticipated speech in response to rising tension between Israel and the US. BBC World News posted a video of the translated speech.

Bibi demanded Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, and demilitarization, as preconditions for a Palestinian state. His willingness to use the phrase "Palestinian state" is rhetorical progress, but otherwise the speech is generally lacking in significant developments.

Netanyahu predicates peace on moves to be made by the Palestinian government. But this has empirically proven to be a losing strategy, and Netanyahu knows it full well. At this point, Netanyahu is trying to deflect the impetus for action off of him in order to relieve pressure from Washington and also maintain his political constituency. The settlement issue remains contentious, but by using the word "state" Netanyahu was able to still gain a positive reaction from the White House, which called the speech an "important step forward."

It is also significant that Netanyahu did
not speak extensively about Iran, mentioning Friday's election only in passing. This lent credibility to his speech as not a general defense of his government but as a policy statement on the Israeli-Palestinian process. It also made him appear less defensive by not shifting the debate to the Iran issue. If nothing else, the speech was a clarification of his existing views and a solid logical defense of his position.

However, Netanyahu's prerequisites put an onus on the Palestinian government which is utopian and unecessary for a final status agreement. There are extensive measures the PA can undertake to recognize Israeli legitimacy short of a straight-out policy statement. These include negotiation with Israel, creation of trade agreements, and partnering on common security objectives. From a security standpoint, these measures would be sufficient to create a secure Israeli state alongside a Palestinian one. They also all entain implicit recognition of Israel.

The demand for demilitarization is a bit more complex. On the one hand, the guarantee of long-term Israeli security from Palestinians is a reasonable and necessary component of a final status agreement. On the other hand, a completely demilitarized Palestinian state will not have sufficient legitimacy and the ability to defend itself from insurgencies which are likely to attempt to degrade the sovereignty of its government. If the PA wants to rid the Palestinian state of a Hamas cell, for example, it should have sufficient capability to do so. The specific line between Palestinian and Israeli security is not clearly drawn, but it is clear that it cannot be drawn where Bibi draws it.

Netanyahu's speech was a solid policy statement and well-delivered. Washinton will need to be careful in walking the balance between encouraging Netanyahu's bid for reconciliation and over-encouraging the kind of rhetorical facade which yields no policy developments behind it. Netanyahu emerged from the speech looking stronger, but not victorious over the US demand for settlement freezing. The impetus for action is now on Obama to move the process forward.


1) "White House Calls Netanyahu Speech 'Important Step Forward' in Peace Process,"
Fox News, June 14, 2009.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Iran Votes

IRNA reports that at 7:30pm EDT Friday, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has captured 66.18% of the votes with 61% of the votes counted. The good news is that this wasn't entirely unexpected. The bad news is that it was expected by cynics who tend to be more hardline in their policy. The following are brief strategy memos for each country.

Iran - Iran's interest is in scaring the West by highlighting that Ahmedinejad has a mandate. Internally, he will have to be careful to maintain this constituency, but if Ahmedinejad's candidacy goes through, it will imply consent of both Iranians and the clerical government structure of his policies. It's unclear (to me) how the Ayatollah and senior clerics will react to the news, but if anything it seems like an Ahmedinejad win would be cause for a hardlining against the West.

US - Now that elections are over and Ahmedinejad has (concievably) won, the US will be able to move forward with a long-term strategy. Obama has already demonstrated that he can think years into the future, and he will need to in the case of Iran. Balancing American, European, Arab, and Israeli interests is a tough act but Obama will need to do so. First priority is calming Israel down and guarranteeing them security. Doing this is publicly would be a good way to relieve tensions without looking like the US is backing down over settlements. Secondly, negotiations must be brouht to center stage. The US should attempt to force Ahmedinejad's hands re: negotiation and make a refusal to meet with American and European leaders look weak.

Israel - Israel will likely be cynically unsuprised with the results of the elections. Their best bet is probably strong rhetoric against Iran while not worsening the US-Israel relationship, especially only two days before Netanyahu's speech Sunday night. Already its not looking like this will improve US-Israel relations significantly. Secondly, playing the brinksmanship game is a good strategy. Israel should attempt to play the "bad cop" to the US' "good cop" vis-a-vis Iran. The best deterrence is when pressure is applied but a realistic alternative to pressure is offered.


"Latest Figures in Iran's Presidential Elections,"
Islamic Republic News Agency, June 12, 2009.

"US: Netanyahu Policy Speech not Adequate,"
Reuters, June 12, 2009.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I don't hate free speech BUT

From Isi Leibler in Jpost:

"Any Jew is entitled to express his beliefs, no matter how nauseating or deviant such views may appear to the majority. That certainly applies to those arguing in favor or in opposition to settlements. Surely the red lines are being crossed when, as distinct from expressing views, American based organizations claiming to "love" Israel aggressively lobby the US government to pressure it to make concessions that could place lives at risk."

To summarize, lobbying is different than expressing a political view in an attempt to influence policy. What?

And I wonder if Leibler would say the same thing about AIPAC which has been aggressively lobbying the US government since the 1950's. Probably not. So really any Jew is entitled to express his beliefs...unless those beliefs clash with Leiblers.

It's a fascinating paradox to me that on the one hand, Israel itself is a model of free speech. Israelis offend each other and make both moderate and radical statements, liberal and conservative, all the time. And it's fine. Yet on the other hand, expressing the same left-wing view from the diaspora is ideological treason.

Snark aside, this not-particularly-enlightening article is an interesting development in intra-Jewish relations. Back in 2006 when I was studying in Israel, I sat in on a Hebrew class on American politics. The professor brought in two benefactors of the university who were from New York to answer the questions (in English) of the Israeli students. I asked the benefactors if they thought the new left-wing Israel lobby would be a significant development. They said no.

The more conservative American pro-Israel groups began by ridiculing more left-wing groups like J Street and Israel Policy Forum. Their tone now is decidedly different, and frustration over the Obama-Netanyahu tension is not helping. It will be interesting to see if the American electorate percieves the more traditional Israel groups as correct in their views or out of touch with the current reality. Or a little of both.


1) Isi Leibler, "Candidly Speaking: Bogus 'Zionist' Israel-Bashers,"
Jerusalem Post, June 9, 2009.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Moderate Civilians and Extremists: Case Study

I've been trying hard not to post about the recent video "Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem on the Eve of Obama's Cairo Speech" by Max Blumenthal. Judging from Mr. Blumenthal's blog, he is hardly a neutral observer on the conflict. Consider the sentence: "The notion that the racist diatribes in my video emerged spontaneously from a beery void is a delusion, but for some, it is a necessary one. It allows them to erect a psychological barrier against acknowledging the painful consequences of prolonged Zionist indoctrination." But the video is likely to have an effect on Jewish-Muslim-Christian relations in the US, and on American-Israeli relations, so please find my 2 cents below.

Haaretz and JPost have both posted articles about the video of American teens in Jerusalem spouting the kind of racist, ignorant, and bigoted speech that would make a KKK member blush (you can find links to the videos in both articles). While Haaretz's Bradley Burston uses the film as one of a number of examples to illustrate a greater point, the JPost article tackles the film head on. They interview Blumenthal himself, and present responses from several leadership organizations in the American Jewish community. Here is a list of their responses:

Birthright Israel - "We don't really know if these are birthright people. In any case, we will check. There have been kids before who said they were on birthright, and they were not."

B'nei Brith - "The comments of the interviewees are reprehensible and are not reflective of the attitude of the vast majority of Israelis...You can get this kind of comment anywhere if you go looking for it. I don't think it contributes anything at all to the debate."

Education Dept, Jewish Agency
- "On the basis of a group of inebriated teenagers, to draw any conclusions about the quality of Jewish and Zionist education is really unacceptable...Whoever prepared this went out of their way to find people who have clearly been drinking...It makes me wonder about the motivations of those who edited this video."

Democrats Abroad in Israel - "This video is of no value whatsoever. If you removed the expletives you'd be left with very little material...[It] should be ignored as a silly piece and as more of a comment on the depth to which the Internet can sink...The journalist really should have gone out to find people who had an opinion and supported their opinion. You can't have an intelligent discussion with someone who is inebriated."

ADL - No Comment.

With the exception of B'nei Brith, the responses all appear more to question the arguments made by the film than the individuals in the film itself. Obviously, this could be the result of editing on the part of the article's author, Tori Cheifetz. But in a deeper level, it indicates a reluctance to tackle the issue of ignorance and intolerance from within the Jewish community head on. The organizations represented above do not alone bear responsibility for this issue. But even B'nei Brith's comments talk about the opinions of Israelis. The teens interviewed were all American, not Israeli.

The point here is that it's easy to tell other moderate groups to condemn their radical elements. Watch very carefully over the next week to see if any right-wing politicians, journalists, or academics on the conflict call the interviewees out for their comments which can only serve to hurt and stir up resentment. Of course there is a difference in that none of these kids later went out and committed acts of violence against Palestinians. But out of a desire to unite at the front, public criticism of the characters in the film by the American Jewish community is likely to be muted. Few groups are likely to contextualize the comments fairly and properly.

Allow me.

Firstly, the views expressed by the interviewees reflect a minority view in the American Jewish community. Few American Jews truly question Obama's US citizenship, his ultimate commitment to Israeli security, or his respect for Jews. However, the strength of a community is reflected in the freedom those members have to discuss and dissent.

The views expressed by these individuals are racist, intolerant, ignorant, and unequivocally unacceptable. They represent a lack of maturity and a shirking of responsibility that are seriously out of line with Jewish values of respect for other people. While other individuals, both Israeli and American, both conservative and liberal, make earnest attempts to improve the lives of all parties involved in the Israeli-Arab conflict, the ridiculous views expressed by these individuals serve only to hamper these well-intentioned efforts to improve and save lives. They deserve public condemnation from all corners of the American Jewish community.


1) Bradley Burston, "Loving Israel by Hating Obama,"
Haaretz, June 9, 2009.

2) Tori Cheifetz, "Americans in J'lem 'Feel the Hate' for Obama,"
Jerusalem Post, June 8, 2009.


Israeli senior leadership would do well to take a look at this working paper from Center for a New American Security:

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lebanese Elections

It appears that in Lebanon, the March 14th Forces have won 71 seats in the Lebanese parliament versus 57 for the Hizbullah-lead opposition. That Hizbullah did not gain enough seats to knock the March 14th coalition out of power is making waves in the Middle East. Hizbullah has stated clearly that it will not disarm. In the words of Hizbullah MP Mazal Mualem, "The majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state."

There is much speculation in the press about the reasons for the unexpected shortfall in votes for Hizbullah (Andrew Exum's blog Abu Muqawama has great links, and he has actually spent time in Lebanon) but the news is extremely significant for the Israeli-Arab conflict. Firstly, it indicates that Hizbullah is not universally seen in Lebanon as the best actor for protecting Lebanon's security interests. It seems that Vice President Biden's remarks in Beirut just prior to the election may have reassured voters that the Lebanese Armed Forces will be funded and supported by the West (though some interpreted Biden's remarks to mean that this support was conditional on Hizbullah losing).

It also indicates that Hizbullah is in a position of isolation. If unexploited by Israel and the West, this is bad. Isolated terrorist groups have a higher proclivity to resort to violence versus groups who participate in government and have some level of accountability. However, negotiating with Hizbullah in its position of weakness could bear fruit for the West, and using the opportunity to thaw the ice-cold Israeli-Lebanon relationship can only help Israeli security and regional stability.

Judging from the way disaffected parties in Iraq behaved after the 2009 provincial elections, Hizbullah's loss is likely to stir up dissent within the ranks. Moderate and radical factions of Hizbullah are likely to clash as the strategy forward is re-calibrated. Most likely, this strategy will be to demonstrate that the March 14th Force is ineffective at protecting Lebanon from security threats, and to continue its social work among its Shia base in the south of the country.

Israel's hand at this point should be to support efforts by the EU and US to engage with the Lebanese government, and support efforts to swing the Lebanese population in a more pro-West direction. The process may be painful, but it will be worth it to cleave Hizbullah from the Lebanese population's support. It's also less expensive than any military option.


1) Therese Sfeir, "Sleiman Urges all Parties to join reform drive after March 14 Victory," Daily Star, June 9, 2009.

2) Michael Slackman, "Analysts Cite Obama Effect in Lebanese Elections," New York Times, June 8, 2009.

3) Mazal Mualem, "Defeated Hezbollah Accepts Lebanon Election Results," Haaretz, June 8, 2009.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Roundup of Israeli Reaction on Obama's Speech

Reaction to Obama's Cairo speech (some of which preceded the actual speech) was mixed at best in Israel. Gideon Levy (not suprisingly) was pleased, and even Akiva Eldar's full article gives a certain amount of credit to Obama. However, most editorialists focused on the theme of Obama's framing of the Israeli and Palestinian struggles as equivalent. To quote Akiva Eldar (see link below), "The imbalance in the unequal U.S.-Israel-Arab triangle was replaced Thursday by an Isosceles triangle."


"In addressing the Palestinians, Obama urged that they wage their war without violence, and he compared it to the struggle of black slaves in America to be freed from white domination, to the struggle of the blacks in South Africa, and to the struggles of other nations in South Asia and Eastern Europe. This is not an easy comparison for Israeli ears: In Obama's view, the Palestinians are waging a just struggle for national liberation, which reminds him of past efforts to break free of colonialism and Soviet tyranny." - Aluf Benn

"Obama left Egypt with two tablets of the commandments - one for Jews and the other for Muslims. He left no room for doubt: An Israel that continues to discriminate against Palestinians and prevent them from exercising their rights to self-determination and freedom of movement cannot expect affirmative action from the U.S. It is hard to believe that Obama simply forgot to mention the words "Jewish state." The president believes that the nature of the State of Israel is something only the State of Israel can decide. Obama placed violence against Israel on a par with the settlements and the humiliation of Palestinians in the territories." - Akiva Eldar

Nonetheless, no one can ignore the speech given by Barack Obama: The mountain birthed a mountain. Obama remained Obama. Only the Israeli analysts tried to diminish the speech's importance ("not terrible"), to spread fear ("he mentioned the Holocaust and the Nakba in a single breath"), or were insulted on our behalf ("he did not mention our right to the land as promised in the Bible"). All these were redundant and unnecessary. Obama emerged Thursday as a true friend of Israel." - Gideon Levy

Netanyahu now understands what he already knew before the speech: The moment of political reckoning that he so feared is now rapidly approaching. The thunder he hears in the distance is the sound of the Likud legions and the West Bank settler hordes rolling down the mountains. The light on the horizon is not that of a new day, but of a train coming right at him - a night train from Cairo. Netanyahu will have to decide over the coming weeks whom he would rather pick a fight with: the powerful U.S. administration, whose president sees himself in an almost messianic role, or his own coalition and members of his party." - Yossi Verter


The call for Hamas - the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - to act responsibly to 'put an end to violence' and "recognize Israel's right to exist" is extremely far fetched, even for Obama. Hamas belongs in the first part of the speech, which focused on confronting "violent extremism in all of its forms," including al-Qaida and the Taliban." - Gerald M. Steinberg

"Watching from here, his even-handed attribution of blame for the failure of peace efforts to date was jarring indeed. 'For more than 60 years,' the president declared, the Palestinian people 'have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.' To which most Israelis, having now witnessed even Ehud Olmert's ultra-generous two-state terms being derisively brushed aside by Mahmoud Abbas, would retort: 'And whose fault is that?'" - David Horowitz

"Some government officials complained after the address that Obama went overboard trying to appease the Muslim world, painting a picture of a moderate Islam that most Israelis don't know and exaggerating both the impact and influence of Muslims on American society. Forget it; it doesn't matter. This is not a zero-sum game wherein if Obama praises Islamic civilization, he is thereby denigrating the Jewish one. Honoring Muslim influence in America isn't something Jews should feel threatened by." - Herb Keinon [note: If you read no other editorial, read this one. It's very comprehensive and fair-handed.]

"If President Obama wants to become an historic Mideast peacemaker, he's going to have to slay the dragon of a deeply embedded mythology. The beast he must confront resides not in the head of Israel's democratic majority or its prime minister but in the minds and hearts of too many Arabs and Muslims who believe outlandish, anti-Semitic as well as anti-Israel fantasies. The podium at Cairo University offers President Obama an unprecedented historic opportunity to confront this dragon in its lair. Let's hope he will seize it." - Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman

"I'm sorry, but it's like this: The State of Israel is sovereign but so is the United States of America. Obama isn't holding a gun to our head, he isn't threatening to bomb us or blockade us or anything like that. He's saying that while our government has the right to do what it wants, so does his. If we want to go on building settlements, fine, but then the US is not going to go on supporting us as faithfully as it has. The guy in the White House has other countries to think about beside Israel, above all his own." - Larry Derfner

"If the specifics of who-lives-where have little strategic import, the Obama administration's rapid and harsh turn against Israel has potentially great significance. Not only did the administration end George W. Bush's focus on changes on the Palestinian side, it even disregarded oral understandings Bush had reached with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. ." - Daniel Pipes

Yediot Achronot:

"Words can touch, and on Thursday Barack Obama touched many hearts in the Middle East. However, he will be tested based on his actions, and therefore he has already started to prepare: Next week he will be sending special envoy Mitchell to the Middle East in order to receive Netanyahu's answers. After the elections in Iran, American and Iranian representatives will sit down together and get the dialogue between them underway. " - Orly Azoulay

"For those who thus far did not understand – or did not wish to understand – the winds blowing from Washington, Obama left no room for doubt: The United States supports Israel, yet the era of trickery, promises, and the gradual annexation in Judea and Samaria is over. The time has come for action" - Attila Somfalvi

If you read Hebrew, Amir Buchbot, Yonatan Gefen, Shmuel Rosner, (who also writes in English), and Ben Dror Yemini offer their opinions in the Maariv. Rosner also has an English editorial in The New Republic.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama Speaks at al-Azhar

Before commenting on this morning's speech, I urge readers to watch this lively debate between liberal Haaretz columnist Gershon Baskin and conservative Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick on the IBA network.

Glick starts out strongly with her comments expressing skepticism of Obama's differences in policy but her argument that freezing settlements is unfair application of the law is pretty far out. Having written an 80 page paper on Negev Bedouin rights in Israel, I am skeptical that Bedouin house demolition is at all equivalent to freezing settlements, as Glick seems to suggest. As Baskin points out, the Israeli government rarely pursues full enforcement of the law against settlers, even those guity of violence against innocent Palestinians. While Glick is successful at the beginning of the debate at portraying his views as naive or wishy-washy, her Ann Coulter-esque interjections get obnoxious by the end.

The bigger story making headlines in the Middle East today is President Obama's speech at al-Azhar in Cairo.

Obama spoke about several topics ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq, Israeli security to women's rights. The speech showed an understanding of the Arab mentality, from speaking about Islam instead of just Arabs, to using turns of phrase common in Arabic. The silence of the audience when Obama spoke about Holocaust denial was palpable and awkward, but perhaps necessary. Obama was able to speak realistically and uncompromisingly about the US perspective, even when doing so didn't earn him the applause of the audience. Refining the Arab world's expectations of the president was a key objective to meet in today's speech and Obama was ultimately successful. While his speech may not play well among the far right in the US, reaction in the Arab world is likely to be positive.

Obama also re-iterated his demand that Israel freeze settlements. He demonstrated the ability to exert pressure on the Israeli government without turning the moment into all-out Israel bashing. While he made few concrete demands from the Islamic world, such demands are likely to be more effective in the atmosphere of reconciliation promoted by the speech. Reception in Israel was lukewarm, but the speech was not a more significant blow to the US-Israel relationship than last week's call to end settlement expansion. It did, however, make a lot of Israelis nevous.

Regardless, it was a welcome change for an American president to be welcomed in the heart of the Arab world, and his choice to speak at a university, to young students, was a dead-on strategy for a region where most of the population is young, and a country where the youth are pushing for a more transparent Egyptian system. The connection between Obama's call for democratic reform and the policies of the Mubarak regime were not hard to make for the audience. Hopefully, Obama's success today will be followed by further reconciliation, and ultimately action towards development and peace in the Middle East.


1) "Israeli Settlers Attack Palestinians in West Bank,"
Times of India, June 1, 2009.

2) Barak Ravid, "Israel Praises Obama Speech, But Says it's Security Paramount,"
Haaretz, June 3, 2009.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Not to Beat a Dead Horse...

..But essentially that appears to be the policy out of Jerusalem. Likud MP Yossi Peled has accused the Obama administration of interference in Israeli politics. The basis of his criticism, according to the conservative-leaning Jerusalem Post, is as follows:

Yediot Aharonot quoted Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel telling an unnamed Jewish leader: 'In the next four years there is going to be a permanent status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn't matter to us at all who is prime minister [of Israel].' Likud Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled said Tuesday that the statement was inappropriate and was just one of many examples of American interference in Israeli politics since Netanyahu's election."

Firstly, a case can be made that perhaps a country which signed a 30 billion dollar military aid deal with Israel in 2007, making Israel the top recipient of aid from the country, ought to at least have a voice in the Israeli public debate. It would be preferable here not to drag this downward into the Israel Lobby debate, and yes much of that money must be spent on American systems. But for a Likud minister to chastise a statement by an Israeli-American official on Israeli affairs is somewhat hypocritical considering the amount of Israeli military affairs funded by the US in the first place, all of it supported by Likud.

I'll forgo the mudslinging talking points beyond that, I promise.

The real story here is not the comments made by a minor member of Likud, but rather the Obama administration's wisdom in to continue pushing Israel on settlement expansion. The elegance of the strategy is that expansion becomes only as big a deal as Likud makes it. While Obama's Middle East focus has been mostly on his upcoming speech in Cairo, Likud has been smoking at the ears for over a week now. However, the more statements it makes, the weaker it looks.

What is important to consider, then, is the play Netanyahu is making. Is he playing party politics? If a party wanted to appear strong, accusing the US of trying to topple it seems like a strange policy line. But there are a few cases in which it would make sense. Consider the following hypotheses:

H01) If the decline were inevitable. Blaming the US for the fall would shift blame off Likud. However, it doesn't appear that Netanyahu is in imminent danger of a vote of no confidence, so this is probably not the case in the short-term, though certainly in the long term it may very well be.

H02) If Netanyahu were trying to intimidate Obama out of questioning government policy. This is clearly an objective of the right-wing government taking on a left-wing US administration. But it doesn't make sense to hardline against a president with wide popularity in both the US (and among Jews as well) and Europe. Netanyahu would do much better to demonstrate to the US that it is in the American interest not to alienate Likud.

H03) Decision making in Israel is happening through a prism, or at least a different prism than the one policy makers in Washington are using. The Israeli public is very much suspicious of Obama and his policies. Therefore, it would make sense for an Israeli politician to hardline against Obama for domestic political gain.

Consider the correct answer a combination of B and C. Netanyahu is trying to hardline against the Obama administration in order to strengthen his domestic constituency. But someone with Netanyahu's savvy of American politics must also realize that Obama also has no interest in alienating the Israeli government. Even if Obama is willing to pay this political capital, he will be paying in the currency of conservative Jewish votes. AIPAC's description of the May 18th Obama/Netanyahu meeting in Washington is dead silent on the issue of settlement freezing. While AIPAC would say this is because highlighting the dispute is unhelpful to promoting the cause of a strong US-Israel alliance, opinion within AIPAC is likely mixed at the office vis-a-vis Obama's Israel policy in general.

Ultimately, Netanyahu might understand that while he cannot win on this issue, he can make the experience extremely unpleasant for Washington, making Obama reluctant to press more serious issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, refugees, or the status of Jerusalem. And in the meantime he can continue to strengthen settlements on the ground in order to shift reality as much in his favor as possible before any final status agreement.


1) Gil Hoffman, "Likud: Obama is Meddling in Israeli Politics,"
Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2009.

2) Steven Erlanger, "Israel to Get $30 Billion in Military Aid from US,"
New York Times, August 16, 2007.

3) "U.S., Israel Reaffirm Alliance, Focus on Common Goals,"
American Israel Public Affairs Committee, May 2009.

4) Eric Fingerhut, "Groups Silent in Face of Obama Calls for Settlement Freeze,"
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, June 2, 2009.