Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Update: IDF Revisiting standards?

Today's Haaretz article by Amos Harel is a great follow-on to yesterday's post about counter-insurgency policy in the IDF. The story reveals that Israeli Maj. General Amos Yadlin, chief of Military Intelligence, and Tel Aviv University Professor Asa Kasher wrote an IDF code of ethics for asymmetric conflict. Regardless of whether or not the code is adopted, the proposal is an indication of a change in Israeli military strategic thinking.

The idea that different moral standards are required in asymmetric conflicts is an important distinction. It indicates that Maj. General Yadlin understands the increased risk to civilians and intends to integrate this risk as a "ground condition" into Israeli strategic planning. Rather than the status quo in which Israel seems to be consistently be caught off guard by the impact of civilian casualties, the proposal indicates that the IDF may be learning to accept it as a part of asymmetric warfare.

On the other hand, Kasher asserts that Operation Cast Lead was carried out in the spirit of the new proposed code. While heartening that the IDF is committed to high ethical standards, this assertion illustrates the way in which Kasher and Yadlin miss the mark in a more general sense. Limiting civilian casualty in counter-insurgency is not only about morality. The IDF has still not made the link between better human rights treatment and improved strategic efficacy. Efficacy can be achieved not in spite of respecting moral principles, but because of them. Respect for civilians will not only spell a higher standard of morality, but an improved capability for victory in an asymmetric conflict.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The IDF and the Liberal Media

Jpost editor David Horovitz has an op-ed today about Israeli defense policy. The gist of his argument is that Israel needs to better explain its actions to media outlets, and comes with a long explanation of the dangers of house-to-house clearing operations in the Gaza strip.

Horovitz's recommendations are themselves spot-on. He calls for increased transparency in Israeli war zones and limited access for media outlets. He also calls for independent Israeli investigations of war crimes allegations. However, his article reflects a key oversight in Israeli defense thinking. Horovitz's entire article discusses the change from conventional to non-conventional warfare and Israel's struggle to adapt to the new threat. Yet this threat has been present since at least the first intifada in the late 1980s and arguably long before that. Horovitz suggests that one of Israel's biggest problems is that "the challenge of explaining the moral legitimacy of those military answers, for a world inclined to rush to superficial judgment, is not being adequately met." This is accurate but it hints at the idea that this explanation, or hasbara, is the only flaw.

Israel's PR problem is not only poor explanation of tactics, but use of the tactics themselves. An Israeli defense establishment that thinks it can use Youtube videos or better talking points to explain away the use of white phosphorous in civilian areas is seriously mistaken. The issue is not that journalists in Israel simply don't understand that Israel is in an asymmetric conflict. It's that they do understand, but still expect Israel to react humanely. Israel's hasbara also needs to be a two-way street. The idea that journalists just "don't get it" or are just anti-Israel to begin with overlooks a deeper dialogue which for the IDF may be worth having. Understanding journalist's concerns and hearing from them is a key way for the IDF to better get to know its audience.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Katie Cou on Very Thin Ice with Mahmoud*

Katie Couric sat down to interview Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Part one and two of the interview can be found here.

While Couric takes down most of Ahmedinejad's arguments, one thing she doesn't push him on is his comments about violence in Iraq. Ahmedinejad says that the U.S. is to blame for this violence. While the U.S. invasion no doubt created the conditions for wide-scale violence in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran has an extensive hand at sewing violence in Iraq. Besides the EFPs used by insurgent groups labeled "Made in Iran" in Farsi, the Islamic Republican Guard Corps - Quds Force (IRGC-QF) is directly responsible for training Shia militias in Iran on paramilitary tactics and terrorism which have killed hundreds of innocent people. Iran, throughout 2007 and 2008, actively sewed the seeds of violence.

The importance of the interview, of course, is not the President's predictable incitement against Israel, the West, Zionism, the Holocaust, and Capitalism. On a deeper level, it indicates an underlying weakness. Ahmedinejad's major objective this week was to solidify his place as a strong leader of the Iranian regime. Instead, he emerged weaker, relying on smokescreens to (unsuccessfully) dodge questions about his government's brutal response to protesters during the election. Obama's announcement this morning that Iran is secretly enriching uranium at a second location 30 km from the holy city of Qom pulled the rug out under any legs Ahmedinejad had gained in New York. His press conference this afternoon put him on the defensive.

Simultaneously, the news is being reported on Haaretz as Obama, Sarkozy, Brown issue ultimatum over second Iran uranium plant. This is likely to play very well in Israel and the global Jewish community, where citizens have expressed concern with Obama's inaction on Iran. And Obama's leadership at the U.N. security council this week was a strong show of leadership in multilateralism that is likely to pay off in the future.

Final Score: Obama 1 Ahmedinejad 0

*Katie Cou is also on very thin ice with T-Pain. It is not known if T-Pain seeks nuclear capabilities at this time.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Counter-Terrorism versus Counter-Insurgency

Today's Long War Journal has an interesting article about counter-terrorism versus counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. The key decision in Afghanistan is whether to target al-Qaeda or to target the Taliban, which provides funding and a safe haven to al-Qaeda. In Israel, the situation is a bit different but the distinction between the two strategies bears reiterating.

Counter-terrorism is a set of policies and procedures which prevent attacks from sub-state actors on civilians. Counter-terrorism is one of Israel's greatest strengths. Israel's ability to stop a suicide bomber intending to blow up a bus is better than pretty much any other country in the world. Counter-terrorism theory relies on an idea of concentric rings of security. Between surveillance, checkpoints, walls, security guards, psychological screening, and citizen vigilance, Israel's counter-terrorism infrastructure is extremely strong, human rights issues aside.

Counter-insurgency (COIN) on the other hand is a military strategy which coerces a population to support a state actor over a paramilitary sub-state actor which targets either military or civilian targets, or both. COIN and counter-terrorism are similar in that they both are strategies against sub-state actors who endanger governments and civilians. However, they are different in that they attack different types of sub-state actors. Just as it would be foolish to treat E. Coli, a bacteria, with Tamiflu, and antiviral, it is similarly short-sighted to fight an insurgency with counter-terrorism.

However, Israel's tactics and strategic thinking reflect the mentality of counter-terrorism. For example, in Gaza, Israel's policy was essentially to kill or capture as many Hamas militants as possible, with regard for civilian casualties as a moral and PR liability. This would be fine if Hamas were a terrorist group, but its paramilitary tactics and military-like chain of command suggest that it is more of an insurgency. In a counter-insurgency, winning hearts and minds is a key strategic objective, necessary to victory over the insurgent group. But winning hearts and minds is difficult to do in Gaza, and especially when Israel's use of white phosphorous and flanchettes are widely considered to have been used with questionable respect to civilian impact.

Israel's defense of human rights in Gaza is that despite its best efforts, counter-terrorism carries intrinsic risks of civilian casualties. This, Israel's conceptualization of civilian casualties, is the conceptualization of the intrinsic tension between human rights and security which we find in debates about terrorism policy. But ultimately, as sincere as Israel's moral or philosophical concern is about civilian casualties, such conceptions are irrelevant to a successful military policy. Israel's interest in reducing civilian casualties isn't because killing people is mean, it's because killing people harms Israel's ability to successfully conduct counterinsurgency.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


David Newman writes an interesting column in today's Jerusalem Post in which he criticizes the American Jewish left for not supporting Obama's call for negotiations more loudly. The article brings up an interesting dynamic, that between American progressive Jews and Israeli progressive Jews. At present the Israeli left has very little if any political clout in Israel, and the rise of the American progressive left has not been paralleled in Israel. However, it should go without saying that it will take broad agreement between the two groups in order to create lasting and meaningful change inside Israel. As the left regains traction in Israel, it will be interesting to see how the two groups relate to each other. Traditionally the left in Israel has pandered to its base ideological constituency, as is the trend in Israeli parliamentary politics. In contrast, liberal Jewish powerhouses like the RAC and J Street tend to take the more American-style progressive centerist approach. However, accusations of both elitism and being out of touch have been thrown at both communities. This is an interesting story to keep an eye on.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Afghanistan and Gaza

Today, the Washington Post leaked an edited version of the US Strategic Assessment on Afghanistan. Particularly interesting is this excerpt from page 46 [ISAF = International Security Assistance Force (NATO), GIRoa = Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan]:

"Civilian casualties (CIVCAS) and damage to public property (collateral damage), no matter how caused, undermine support for GIRoa, ISAF, and the international community in the eyes of the Afghan population. Although the majority of CIVCAS are caused by insurgents, the Afghan people hold ISAF to a higher standard. Strict comparison of amount of damage caused by either side are unhelpful."

The recommendation in and of itself is unsuprising. The report's authors (including Fred and Kim Kagan, Andrew Exum, and Col. Chris Kolenda) are some of the leading proponents of population-centric counterinsurgency. The recommendation reflects the cutting edge of strategy at the Department of Defense.

But this strategy represents a stark difference with Israeli policy.

"Civilian matter how caused...undermine support." This excerpt sums up the bottom line of US counterinsurgency strategy. The US is not interested in which casualties are whose fault. They understand that ultimately, any civilian casualty is a loss to them because it reduces trust in the forces of moderation including the US and NATO forces, government and armies of Afghanistan, and moderate political voices. Conversely, the Israeli government's policy in Cast Lead was to see civilian casualties as an inevitable means to an end rather than seeing reduction of civilian casualties as an end itself. Doing so would have swung the population more against Hamas, making intelligence gathering and breaking up terrorist networks much easier for Israel. This in turn would have translated into more efficacy using less money and human lives.

Secondly, the Strategic assessment is extremely self-critical. The report states that "Despite the efforts of ISAF and GIRoa, the insurgents currently have the initiative." It would be difficult to imagine a situation in which an Israeli Ministry of Defense report would say "Despite the best efforts of the IDF, Hamas currently has the initiative," even if such statements are true. Tactically, the IDF is a very creative and flexible organization. However, it has demonstrated a lack of strategic flexibility in response to threats from Hizbullah and Hamas. It is critical that the symbiotic relationship between the US and Israel include not only arms deals but also a dialogue on strategic thinking.

As an end note, one of the interesting manifestations of this symbiotic relationship is the report's recommendation that the US make declassifying images of attacks easier in order to publish them in the PR war. This recommendation is empirically supported by Israel's use of a Youtube channel to show attacks during Cast Lead. The channel became the highest viewed on Youtube and was a very successful means of disseminating information. This channel is an example the US can not only study, but follow when implementing the recommendation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reaction to Goldstone

Haaretz has an analysis dump on the Goldstone report up on their website. The points are basically as follows:

FM Lieberman, as reported by Barak Ravid, predictably argues that Israel acted in its own defense, the U.N. charges are ludicrous and not based on facts.

Ari Shavit takes the relativist view: If you criticize Israel for Gaza, you have to criticize Obama for the airstrike in Afghanistan on September 4 which killed 90 people, mostly innocent.

Kayne West argues that Beyonce would have written a better report on Gaza.

Amira Hass, in an unexpectedly level-headed article, makes the point that Israelis don't deny many of the acts committed in Gaza, they just legitimize them.

Gideon Levy argues that Israel is killing the messenger by mudslinging at Richard Goldstone, the report's author, as well as other human rights organizations like HRW, Amnesty, B'tselem, and Breaking the Silence.

Haaretz newspaper argues that an Israeli inquiry committee should be formed, as with the panel formed in the wake of the killings in Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon

Aluf Benn argues that Israel's international legitimacy has been seriously reduced, impairing its ability to go to war in the future.

Israel Harel calls the UN report "venomous" and says "
The enemy pretends to be looking out for our morality. It has no inhibitions. It is set on the goal of undermining our status, as a prelude to undermining the existence of our country. Nothing less."

Amir Oren rehashes Shavit's point about the NATO strike in Afghanistan.

Firstly, the major difference between Operation Cast Lead and the strike in Afghanistan was that there has in fact been inquiry about the strike. That link has a slide show of the aftermath of the attacks from the Washington Post, so the American media can hardly be called "apathetic" about the incident. Conversely, there has been no internal inquiry of Operation Cast Lead, the way the Winograd Report looked into Israeli conduct in Lebanon. The US and NATO see the strike in Kunduz as a major humanitarian and strategic blunder. The Israeli government, at least externally, projects a Cheney-esque lack of regret for what are increasingly percieved as large strategic errors at the operational and humanitarian level.

Perhaps the bigger question is to what extent, if at all, the panel represented in Haaretz is representative of Israeli public opinion. Operation Cast Lead has been condemned by more than a few columnists. Yet columnists in Israel, as in most other countries, sit firmly in partisan positions. To what extent do today's editorials (and not just those in Haaretz) resonate with the Israeli public?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

The Goldstone Report from the United Nations on Operation Cast Lead is a 575-page documentation of Israeli human rights violations in Gaza. It appears after a skim-through that the report is pretty accurate in its details and sound in its methodology. Save for some passive-aggressively-worded phrases about Israel "refusing to cooperate" with the investigation, the report is a thorough work which can and should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, the Israeli government decided from the beginning that since the report was likely to be biased against Israel it shouldn't even try to defend itself. As a result, no substantial Israeli defense for actions in Operation Cast Lead are given (though the report does quote IDF press releases relating to civilian casualties). The report contains no attempts on Israel's part to contextualize the extremely complicated combat situations the report discusses.

This reticence towards perceived-anti-Israel agencies is nothing new and it damages Israel. Whether the agency is Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, or the U.N., Israel's refusal to engage plays well domestically, but is seen as stubbornness internationally. The strategy is sound for short-term political gain, but is likely to hurt Israel in the future.

Shifting Israel's grand strategy from a short-term to long-term focus would likely be one of the single best policy choices the state could make to acheive its interests.

What do you think? Is Israeli policy already long-term? Is it not short-term enough? Just right?

*Hopefully the new, improved, easier-to-read font will be an incentive to respond.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Boteach: "J Street - A Shameful Address"

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach launches a scathing attack on J Street and the New York Times in today's Jerusalem Post. J Street has come to be the group that conservative columnists at Jerusalem Post love to hate. And today's hypercritical rant is brought to you by the title "J Street - A Shameful Address."

While Boteach's columns are usually pretty reasonable, though often opinionated, today's diatribe goes completely overboard. The article is the epitome of the kind of knee-jerk jump to worst-case scenario analysis that plagues the debate on Israel policy in all its facets.

Consider this excerpt from the article: J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami explains why traditional pro-Israel groups get nervous when groups that dissent arise:

"Ben-Ami added further that [right-wing] groups stifle dissent because they argue that 'we're still on too-shaky ground to permit public disagreement."

Next sentence: Boteach's summary. Quoted directly. Without edits:

"In Ben-Ami's opinion AIPAC is run by paranoid schizophrenics."

Ben Ami's point was that the conservative Pro-Israel movement fears that dissent from within the Jewish/Pro-Israel community could be used by anti-Israel lobbyists to tarnish Israel's image. By saying this statement equates AIPAC lobbyists with schizophrenics, Boteach is not only making a jump which is logically inconceivable, he's missing the bigger point: Ben-Ami's characterization is accurate.

Fear of public disagreement is indeed a concern (and a legitimate one) held by more conservative members of the Pro-Israel community. In fact, today in Boteach's own paper an article appears about IDF Refuseniks on a tour of the U.S. In response to the news, StandWithUs founder Dani Klein states:

"When they see Israelis come out against their own country or their own army, in this instance, it gives those who want to be anti-Israel the fodder to do it."

So besides drawing ridiculous conclusions about Ben-Ami's statement, Boteach leaves out the inconvenient detail that Ben-Ami is proven by Boteach's own newspaper.

In that Rabbi Boteach is ultimately calling for civil and reasonable discourse, his point is well taken. But to posit that J Street is to blame for the lack of civility in Jewish/Pro-Israel politics is one-sided at best and a blatantly false and ridiculous assertion at worst. Can Boteach write off the onslaught of anti-J-Street press from the Jerusalem Post and other conservative newspapers as the fault of progressive leftists? What about the attacks from the right wing on anyone who would support Ahmedinejad's visit to the UN in New York this fall? What about the hounding from right-wing pro-Israel groups of Boston ADL chief Andrew Tarsy, who in August 2007 had the gaul to suggest that the Armenian genocide, in fact, happened?*

If Boteach truly wishes to make the case for civility, the inciting, partial, and one-sided argument he espouses is hardly leading by example. And if he thinks J Street is a shameful address, one would be well-served to lend a critical eye to where Rabbi Boteach comes home to hang his ideological hat.

*The current Israeli stance on the Armenian genocide is neutral, most likely in order to preserve positive relations with Turkey, a key moderate Muslim ally, and supplier of water to Israel and Syria.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Musing For This Day

Eight years have not been enough time for the dust to settle on New York City, Washington, and Shanksville Pennsylvania. The deep wound of September 11 has slowly begun to heal, but the scar which now begins to form will remain a permanent blemish on our history and our country. Those in the future, yet to be born, will recall this cursed day with reverence and respect. Yet we who recall it today do so on far less lofty terms.

For those who have dedicated their lives to the study and eradication of terrorism, September 11 should be no different than any other day. Reports of the use of human lives for political ends are nothing new to the men and women who have dedicated themselves to this goal. But September 11 is a day in which we set aside study and debate, and remember the all-too-human toll that terrorism and the events of 9/11 take. For the bereaved families and friends, today is not about global jihad or policy, it is about a person. Or persons. Real human beings whose loss extends far beyond the cold limits of policy, deep into the hearts of their loved ones, and indeed of all Americans. While the utter scale of atrocity committed against the People is almost beyond comprehension, the simple grief of a sister or brother, a daughter or son, and mother or father, is all too easy to understand. This is terrorism's cost.

Today, let us once again set aside our differences as Republicans and Democrats, East Coasters or West Coasters, Youths or Seniors. Let us, as we did on this day 8 years ago, join together as Americans, and as sadder yet wiser citizens of the global community, in an effort to rededicate ourselves to the work which remains.

Today, let us once again demonstrate commitment to those around us, looking out for our fellow human being, and treating all with compassion and respect. Let the worth of our common good motivate us to look past the short term gain of our individual interests.

And today, let us draw inspiration from the 2,752 people who met their end in violence by committing ourselves to peace. Let us recognize that their being taken from the Earth far too soon mandates that we live each day to the fullest. And let us firmly resolve to stand in the defense of the inalienable rights of all people, protecting and defending humanity through mutual respect and compassion for our fellow human beings.

Never Forget.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Long Day --> Short Post

The Jerusalem Post's Larry Derfner makes an interesting point in today's Jerusalem Post.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

MASA U'Matan

MASA, a Jewish outreach organization in Israel, took down this video from their website yesterday after complaints from the diaspora Jewish communities. The video is a well-intentioned clip which shows assimilated Jews as pictures on "Missing Persons" posters. The ad asks Israelis to make contact with their Jewish friends outside Israel and encourage them to come to Israel. While few people would take issue with this message, the method of expression has caused a rift between Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities.

Israel perceives itself as a gathering place for world Jewry. It's reason for existence is to strengthen and protect the Jewish people. Many Israelis live in Israel because their families were unwelcome in their original countries. The idea that Israel is the only truly safe place for Jews pervades the Israeli psyche and adds to the siege mentality so often reflected in Israeli foreign policy. Israeli Jewry perceives diaspora Jewry in terms of its own experience: secularized birthright participants from New York, poor Ethiopian immigrants, and very assimilated Russian immigrants. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Israelis would perceive that state of Judaism in the Diaspora as suffering.

But while some Diaspora Jewish communities are in fact suffering, others, such as American Jewry, are vibrant. Jews play an integral part in the American economy, and hold high offices throughout the country as well as here in Washington D.C. The various denominations of Judaism (a spectrum which does not exist in Israel) attract hundreds of thousands of followers, and many more Jews observe Judaism without affiliation to a shul or with affiliation to a chevruta or small minyan. over 100,000 Diaspora Jews have participated on birthright, and many of those have returned to Israel as counselors on other trips.

Thus, the Diaspora community gets upset when an Israeli organization implies that Judaism is dying out in the rest of the world. By portraying Jews as missing persons, the video implies that Diaspora Jews are hapless victims, a condescending attitude to take against an entire global group. In reality, many strong Jewish communities exist outside the diaspora. These communities are actively addressing the issue of conversion and assimilation, and are adapting to the realities of ideological choice in the 21st century. Of course, the other implication of the video is that Diaspora Jewish organizations are ineffective in this regard. But this charge damages the credibility of these Jewish organizations in the Jewish world as well as in their political communities.

Additionally, there is a slow distancing of secular Israelis from Judaism happening within Israel's own borders. While some Jews have left the ritual aspect of Judaism to history, many more are well-served by the myriad of choices American Jews enjoy. In contrast, Israeli Judaism is Orthodox or Chasidic Judaism. While even the most secular Israeli Jews have Shabbat dinners or celebrate holidays, many Israelis are frustrated by being put in the position of being completely Jewish or not considered really Jewish. Therefore, the problem of assimilation and distancing from Judaism happens just as much inside Israel's borders as it does outside.

Ultimately, the MASA ad makes an unfair and short-sighted judgment against global Jewry which while understandable from an Israeli standpoint, is not well appreciated by the Diaspora community. This is not the first time such issues have emerged. Israel's tenuous relationship with the Diaspora can be traced back to before its founding, and revolves around a key paradox: Israelis tend to see Israel as the true center of global Jewry, yet Israel could not survive without a strong Diaspora. In a siege mentality it is hard to concede that the extremely symbiotic relationship between global and Israeli Jewry exists. Yet this relationship is vital to both sides, and must be approached with the understanding that Judaism in the Diaspora is far from a monolith, and far from failing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

HRW and Israeli PR

Iain Levine writes in today's Jerusalem Post about the reluctance of the current Israeli government to engage with Human Rights Watch over its reports on Operation Cast Lead this past winter.

In a PR sense, Israel made huge strides this winter by establishing an English-speaking press unit, publishing videos of their operations on Youtube, and texting Palestinians. However, Israel's media strategy internationally was somewhat out of touch with the attitudes of people outside of Israel. Claiming the human rights violations are sometimes justified did little to help Israel's case, even in instances where it was arguable true. Israel acted shocked that the media would be critical of some of the less savory tactics used by the IDF in Gaza.

For better or worse, close scrutiny of Israel by the press is a ground condition. It should set the stage for Israel's PR, not surprise it anew each time Israel enters a new conflict. The argument that sometimes killing civilians is justified have merit, but it has little resonance in countries who do not deal with violence on the same level as Israel. Continual self-reflection and a struggle to do better are qualities that Israel embodies internally. It would be beneficial to highlight these qualities internationally.

Human Rights Watch would also likely present a more even-handed version of the facts if it had more of them to deal with. Refusing to engage with HRW means that Israel has no chance of getting its side of the story across. Engaging is highly unlikely to guarantee a "pro-Israel" slant, but it will shed light on the complexity of the debate in a way that makes readers of HRW reports much more aware of the complexities of the Security-Rights relationship. Overall, this will benefit Israel's ability to make its side of the story resonate with a global audience.

This is similar to the way the US military embeds reporters in its units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allowing journalists to see the complexities of battle gives them a different perspective on the complexities of war. The Pentagon holds press tele-conferences with senior officials in Baghdad almost bi-weekly. Multi-National Force Iraq publishes a Facebook page. While the American public has clearly not swung in favor of the war in light of these measures, engagement with the public has increased the transparency of the military and given those interested a high level of access into the complexities of the War in Iraq.

Likewise, engagement is an important step that Israel could take to improve relations with journalists and organizations. In fact, one of the journalist community's biggest complaints in Operation Cast Lead was that they had no access to Gaza to document what was happening there. As a result, Israel ended up looking far more nefarious than it actually was. And Israel looks nefarious by refusing to comment on HRW's reports, which are the summaries of personal interviews conducted with civilians. Even contextualizing the events presented in the reports without justifying them would significantly improve Israel's ability to convey the complexities of warfare to a wide audience.

Of course, it is usually easier to defend an innocent client. If Israel finds that for some events it cannot provide sufficient justification, perhaps this should be an sign internally that a policy change is in order. Regardless, the PR battle is one that Israel is losing badly, and will continue to lose in the absence of engagement.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Looking to the Arab Press for Advice

Of all the places you'd expect to find a solid analysis of the settlement issue, Saudi-censored would clearly not be your first stop. Besides having its content regulated by the Saudi government, some of its columnists are, to paraphrase Rep. Barney Frank, living on different planets. But today's editorial is definitely worthy of consideration.

The basic argument the editorial makes is that by not holding Israel to a settlement freeze, Obama has let the peace process slide. This has eroded Arab confidence in the peace process and is a challenge to U.S. credibility in the conflict. While the call for a threat of sanctions is a bit too far (that would be the equivalent of a nuclear option), the points on which this call is justified are themselves worthy of consideration. The Jerusalem Post's editorial pages are filled with columnists decrying Obama's "obsession" with settlements (including Sara Honig's pearl of wisdom from today's Post). However, the reality is that Obama has kind of dropped the ball on pressuring Israel. George Mitchell, his envoy to the region, has certainly been active. But he lacks the bully pulpit, which is the key. This has allowed Netanyahu to wait out the clock on the American political arena, and buy enough time so that he can continue plans for settlement building. The settlement issue has made Netanyahu stronger, solidifying a constituency, and placing him as the voice of Israel against the American president inherently mistrusted by most Israelis. Today's news that Netanyahu would approve construction of new homes in the West Bank should come as no surprise. It will only unify Israeli public opinion around Netanyahu more for the White House to push against this. An example: White House Press Secretary Robert Gates' comment that the U.S. "regrets" Netanyahu's decision was described in the Jerusalem post as "U.S. Slams Netanyahu Construction Plan."

Between the economy, the health care debate, a supreme court appointment, and two wars, Obama has let the Israeli-Arab conflict take a low precedence. But if he wishes to be effective, the president must take a more proactive role. In Afghanistan, General McChrystal is calling for a fully resourced effort to fight the Taliban. In this respect, warfighting and peacemaking are the same. Obama must give the Israeli-Arab conflict the necessary resources and effort if he truly desires a successful resolution to the conflict there.

With an Israeli public and government who already percieve the U.S.-Israel relationship as very damaged, that card has been almost exhausted. Israelis have learned to live with a U.S. that many of them percieve as "anti-Israel." Time is running out for Obama to take a proactive stand and make the kind of changes on the ground which he has committed himself to making.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why Do I Even Bother?

Because nothing says "preventing isolation" like alienation from the US, a spat with Sweden, and a boycott by Norway.

Al-Siyasa has the Scoop?

The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Siyasa ("Politics") has published a story claiming Hizbullah is in possession of chemical and biological weapons. This Haaretz report is a pretty accurate translation of the major points of the original article in Arabic.

The article doesn't mention exactly what kinds of weapons Hizbullah has, nor how much of them it has, but it is specific about where the weapons came from (Iran) and where they are now ("Baalbek as well as north and south of the Litani River as of December 2008").

If Hizbullah did have chemical and biological weapons, it would significantly raise tensions between Israel and Hizbullah. But it's not clear that the story is true in the absence of more information.

While physically, Iran would theoretically be able to send chemical or biological weapons to Hizbullah, whether or not it did is a remaining question. The article is based on "European intelligence reports" and is in line with what we would expect Iran's strategy to be to deter Israel from attacking its nuclear program. That being said, the information comes from only one source which is not necessarily a disinterested player, and is not identified in the newspaper article. Al-Siyasa also appears to have a reputation of making bold claims about Hizbullah, including a June 2007 article blaming president Assad himself for a Katyusha attack on Israel.

Additionally, if Hizbullah did have chemical or biological weapons, it's reasonable to assume Israel would have known. Israel runs flights over southern Lebanon pretty frequently, and has something of a human intelligence network in southern Lebanon. If this news were a surprise, the reaction by now from the Israeli government would have been significantly stronger. But if Hizbullah did have chemical and biological weapons and Israel knew, it raises a number of questions:

1) Why would Israel keep it a secret? In 2006 it made no small show of illustrating the links between Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran. It would have altered the PR battle in a way even Israel could have understood was in its advantage. One possible answer is that Israel was aware and was feigning not knowing to improve its intelligence capabilities and to preserve the element of surprise. This is similar to what it did with Syria in 2006 when Israel destroyed an incomplete nuclear facility in that country. There was no previous announcement, which helped Israel's operational security.

2) Why would Hizbullah keep it a secret? One possible answer was that Iran wanted to put the weapons in place, and hold off on announcing them until it was necessary to deter Israel. Also, Syria kept its own nuclear reactor project a secret. So it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility, and comes with a certain level of precedent.

3) Would Lebanese elections last June have affected an announcement of weapons? Very likely, but it's not clear in which direction. On the one hand, not announcing possession of weapons from Iran would make Hizbullah look more moderate and electible. On the other hand, Hizbullah runs on a campaign of effectiveness, so having WMD would have bolstered that appearance. Nasrallah certainly made a point of bashing Israel as a part of Hizbullah's campaign strategy. But would he have gone to the point of announcing WMD?

In the absence of any definitive answers to these questions, its hard to say that the story definitely is true. That being said, there's nothing to suggest the story is NOT true. In a manner of speaking, knowing that this animal has four legs and hooves, is it a cow? Not necessarily, but nothing suggests it is not. Knowing Iran would be likely to send chemical and biological weapons to Hizbullah if it could, and knowing Hizbullah and Israel might have a reason to keep it a secret, is the story true? Same answer.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Secret Israeli Pirates

An article posted on Monday by TIME magazine alleges that the Russian ship which disappeared in the Atlantic last month was secretly carrying arms. Furthermore, it argues that the ship was not hijacked by Russian and former-soviet hijackers, but was in fact intercepted by Israel. The following meager justifications are given for this challenge to the official version of facts:

1) Israel has been wary of Russian arms sales to states like Iran, with little progress on the diplomatic front.
2) Shimon Peres paid a surprise visit to Russia on August 18, 2009, a day after the ship was rescued.

Neither of the two justifications are particularly compelling. While it's true that Israel hasn't successfully guaranteed Russia will refuse to sell arms, such as the S-300 anti-aircraft system, to Iran, it's dubious Israel would go so far as to intercept a Russian ship. Firstly, Israel is getting support from Europe and the U.S. in its push to halt Russian arms sales to Iran. Secondly, considering Israel's slightly compromised position vis-a-vis its relationship with the U.S., alienating Russia is probably not the best move at this point. The article also fails to mention that at the August 19th meeting, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev promised to reconsider Russia's plans to provide arms to Iran. This is not really the reaction you'd expect from a country who'd just had a ship intercepted by one of their allies in the Middle East. An ally the size of New Jersey.

Also, while the Estonian admiral quoted by TIME might be an expert in piracy, he is certainly not an expert in Israeli foreign policy. And blaming "Israel" in general is a vague blanket accusation that lacks any specifics or details. Were the men involved Mossad agents? Were they working on behalf of Mossad? Is an Estonian army chief objective about an issue involving Russia? In the absence of any evidence whatsoever, its impossible to say that the case made in the TIME article is in any way conclusive or valid.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Blaming the America Lobby

Those in the more conservative, traditional wings of the pro-Israel community are being joined by a progressive pro-Israel movement. Forged in an era where Israel's prolonged existence was far more uncertain than it is now, the traditional school of thought prioritizes strength through unity. Considering Israel's position after only 61 years, they clearly had something right. But in this age where Israel's threats are more complex and challenging than ever, the multitude of ideas which comes from a diverse American pro-Israel community can only be an asset to a state facing threats both internal and external.

Among the more radical of these traditionalists are those who argue that American progressive Jewry has simply become assimilated. These traditionalists, a number of whom are Israeli and without significant background in the American Jewish culture, assume that American Jews who support a settlement freeze simply care more about being politically correct (i.e. the American interest) than supporting Israel.

Firstly, this is blatantly false. The only reason a settlement freeze benefits the US is because it benefits Israel. Because freezing settlements improves Israel's security and negotiating posture, it indirectly benefits America's ability secure military and economic stability to the volatile region. Progressives do not see this as a case of supporting the U.S. over Israel, they see it as a case where both states' interests align.

Secondly, it is irresponsible for traditional pro-Israelis to frame the issue as being pro-US versus pro-Israel. While traditional pro-Israelis warn progressives that their comments may be used as fuel by anti-Israel groups, some of the same traditionalists seem to have no problem painting anyone who disagrees with them as unloyal. These accusations are to Israel and Judaism's detriment. But the armchair generals of the talkbacks section see progressives as too taken in by the clawless tiger of political correctness to realize that they must stand up for Israel no matter what.

This strategy hurts all Jews, and it hurts Israel.

For centuries, Jews have been accused of holding duel loyalties. For this, we were stripped of citizenship, denied basic rights, relegated to second-class status. Our growth as a community in America arose from our ability to be both Americans and ardent supporters of Israel.

Among those who fail to understand the complexity of the American Jewish relationship with Israel are Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their "Israel Lobby" article. The heart of the misunderstanding was less what the article said and more what it didn't say. The implication, as read from the prism of the Jewish experience in the 20th century, was that members of the Israel Lobby cared more about Israel than about America's interests. Why else, the authors argue, would they have supported initiatives like the war in Iraq so strongly? Needless to say, the article was widely panned by experts in the field.

However, the "Israel Lobby" shows that the canard of Jewish dual loyalty haunts us in 2009. It is a real phenomenon. But traditionalists have created a reciprocal spectre: The "America Lobby," a group of progressive Jews who secretly like the U.S. more than Israel and want it to fail. Like its predecessor, this pseudo-phenomenon is poorly substantiated and overlooks the simplest reading of the facts.

That this canard is propagated by Jews against other Jews is truly a shame.