Thursday, April 29, 2010

Grow Up Isi Liebler

Radical conservative Isi Liebler slanders ex-U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk in a frothing and shameless invective which questions Mr. Indyk's commitment to the state of Israel. Mr. Indyk's editorial from the April 19th edition of the International Herald Tribune is generally an even-handed analysis of the current U.S.-Israel tension, and places fair blame on both sides for the problem. I don't agree with all of Indyk's claims, but the article is only unusual in that it is more even-headed than most discourse on the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the only discourse Isi Liebler seems to think is pro-Israel is ridiculous trash talking so incendiary it makes Rush Limbaugh look like a centrist. Running alongside a piece by Alan Dershowitz so slanderous that to post the link to it would be shameful on my part, Mr. Liebler accuses Indyk of "deliberately distorting reality" and calls his remarks about peace being a U.S. strategic interest "chilling."

That a mainstream American politician and intellectual is called anti-Israel for criticizing the Netanyahu government's role in U.S.-Israel tensions is beyond unacceptable. Liebler's bigoted and polarizing language cannot possibly be intended to bridge the gap which has emerged between the U.S. and Israel. He is using his platform not to advance Israel's security, but to slander her closest ally, alienate her supporters abroad, and nihilistically destroy the pro-Israel movement in a fireball of incendiary rhetoric and baseless accusations. We need to work hard to bridge the gaps which have emerged between us, not flatten the complexities of the Middle East to a simplicity not befitting a three-year old.

Isi, act your age.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Suggestions for J Street

In honor of Yom Ha'Atzmaut, J Street held a happy hour event this evening. While I'm sure the event went very well, one very concerning development drew my attention. The announcement for this evening's event lists Bibitinis, Arab Peace Martinitiatives, and Settlement "Freezes" as drink specials. As in, those are actually listed on the actual flyer.

I must draw the line here. Even progressive pro-Israel organizations must acknowledge Israel's fundamental right to non-corny drink titles. Consider the following pragmatic alternatives to J Street's most unfortunate names (feel free to add on in the comments).


Settle-Mint Mojito
Mango-lan Heights Sour
1967 Lime shooter
Rumallah and Coke
Refu-gin and Tonic
East JerusaLemon Sour
WhisKiryat Arba Ginger
PBibiR (Only a hipster would order it though)

Of course, if you don't drink alcohol you could just have a Spright of return or a milk Sheikh Jarrah. J Street's oversight is nothing short of egregious, and I look forward to working in a productive and forward-looking manner with them on this most important initiative.

*And if you take this post seriously, I have some desert property in the Negev to sell you. Also, congratulations to the government and people of Israel on 62 years of existence. Mazal tov!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Syria Plays with Fire OR Someone Always Does Something Stupid

One very useful axiom of Middle East politics is "Someone always does something stupid." Today's example is the news that Syria transferred scud missiles to Hizbullah sometime in the past two months. These missiles, unlike the smaller Katyusha rockets, are capable of hitting most places in Israel, and would do considerably more damage. Wars in the Middle East tend to start when there is a rapid flux in the balance of power at the time. This event qualifies with room to spare. The situation is extremely perilous between Hizbullah and Israel right now.

But what significantly degrades the risk are statements from Hizbullah that Israel is overreacting, and statements from Syria denying the transfer in the first place. If Hizbullah were interested in posturing, they would invite Israel's reaction. A nervous Israel is a secure Hizbullah. The fact that they seem to be downplaying the incident illustrates that they were caught a bit off guard by the announcement, and are likely not looking for a conflict with Israel.

Syria's decision to transfer the missiles has got to be one of the poorest foreign policy decisions in the Middle East of 2010. The US was set to approve the first US Ambassador to Syria in years, and Syria is at increasing risk of being caught between a military engagement between Israel and Iran. Evidently the deal was supposed to be secret, but even so, it was foolish for Syria to assume that giving Hizbullah scuds would go unnoticed.

In the coming days, Hizbullah has to be very careful to posture itself in a position of strength, but not so much that Israel percieves an innocent threat. With political interests in Beirut, it is not in Hizbullah's interest to start a new war with Israel.

This of course assumes that Israel's response will be tempered as well. So far Ehud Barak has expressed only "concern" and Israel has far more pressing interests than getting into a war in Lebanon, especially considering their 2006 experience. And while the U.S. would likely support Israel in a hypothetical war, Netanyahu can't be sure, and a conflict with Hizbullah is not the place to find out.

Most likely, the general understanding that a war is bad for all sides will prevent this from going further in a military sense. But then again, it's the Middle East. Someone always does something stupid.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Burston's Op-Ed

Bradley Burston of Haaretz has an excellent editorial called "How to Tell When a Mideast Expert is Lying" up on the website this morning. Here's an excerpt:

So, How Do You Know When a 'Mideast Expert' is Lying?

1. The Expert knows with certainty which of the two sides - only one - is responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and which - the same one - for the failure of Mideast peace efforts.

2. The Expert treats the civilian victims of violence on one side as individuals, but assesses collective responsibility for the violence on the whole of the other side.

The Expert speaks as though the entire civilian population of the other - call it the Dark - side, were directly, actively, complicit and thus accomplice to whatever excesses were committed in its name, and therefore deserves whatever sanction, condemnation, or reflexive collective punishment the Dark Side civilian population is about to experience.

3.Field Guide

Dark Side: Commits atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity.
Expert's Side: Exercises its right to self-defense.

Dark Side: Violates peace deals with impunity.
Expert's Side: Cannot move forward in light of Dark Side's bad faith.

4. The Expert hints, implies, or states outright that the actions of the DS are comparable to those of the Nazis.

5. The Expert begins, "The conflict is fundamentally very simple."

I've generally considered it a rule of thumb that when I leave a lecture on Middle East politics, I should be more confused than I was going in. Burston hits the nail on the head with this article. The conflict has existed for so long because it's complicated, and not easily rectified. It doesn't mean there are some very clear moral and legal lines, but the vast majority of issues in the Middle East have at least two sides if not more.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

American Hasbara: WikiLeaks Video

The footage in the video leaked by WikiLeaks of a U.S. helicopter shooting hellfire missiles at Reuters journalists, killing them, is a classic example of the challenges of counterinsurgency. Helicopter pilots perceive that they are being threatened by insurgents carrying an rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. After engaging the insurgents, they target a van being driven by other insurgents who are attempting to remove their injured brethren from the scene.

Except the RPG launcher is actually the camera lens of a Reuters photographer. The van is civilian. It has two children inside, a boy and a girl. Both are wounded.

A similar incident happened in Operation Cast Lead where the IDF targeted what it believed to be a truck carrying rockets, only to learn later that the truck was filled with harmless oxygen tanks.

Blame in this case is very difficult to pinpoint, as it also is in Israel. The pilots did not have the proper training to identify an RPG. They also lacked knowledge of the operations of insurgent groups (whom in Baghdad tend to launch RPGs from outside the city, not inside it). Yet higher command can only give permission to engage targets based on information given over the radio. The pilots asked permission to engage every single time, and they were granted permission. Their description of the situation was a totally reasonable standard for a commander to give permission to engage.

There are some sad truths about this incident. The first is that it is likely not unique. There could be literally hundreds or even thousands of similar cases. Secondly, such incidents are virtually inevitable in a theater of war. Innocent people always always die in war. Let this video be a stark reminder of the true costs of war.

The U.S.' official response will be very interesting to watch, especially in comparison to the Israeli government's response. In this case, there's no explanation of events to be proffered. The United States engaged unarmed civilians and children attempting to give medical assistance to the wounded. Under Article 21 of the Geneva Convention, convoys carrying the wounded are protected at the same level as hospitals, meaning the incident may in fact qualify as a war crime.

Thus far, the White House has called the tape "shocking," which will resonate in the domestic and international audience. Because the incident happened under the last administration, this reponse is sufficient for a first move. The DoD has been completely silent except to confirm the authenticity of the tape. This is a good first move because there's no use delaying the inevitable, and it appears the military is at least taking responsibility for its actions. Past that, however, DoD has been silent, likely for legal reasons. Someone may very well challenge the event in court, though not the Iraqi government, which is caught up in post-election politicking.

But not even the best response from the government will bring back the innocent people who were killed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ashekenazi and IDF policy

News from Israel today that IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi will be leaving at the end of 2011. This would be at the end of his normal 4-year term, but several other members of the IDF command have had their tenure extended, and reports have surfaced of tension between Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Barak.

Ashkenazi was appointed after the Lebanon invasion in 2006 with the mandate of implementing Israel's lessons learned. He was held in high confidence by both the government and the Israeli public. It will be interesting to see if his departure changes the public's confidence in the IDF leadership, and what, if any effect this will have on IDF policy.

UPDATE: People who know more than me point to Ashkenazi-Barak tension as one reason for the decision to announce the end of Ashkenazi's term 10 months before it actuallly occurs.