Lady Gaga Versus Mideast Peace

Are settlements more offensive than pop stars?

Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?

If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.

What is that wisdom? In a March 26 column in Human Events, Mr. Buchanan put the case with his usual subtlety:

“Each new report of settlement expansion,” he wrote, “each new seizure of Palestinian property, each new West Bank clash between Palestinians and Israeli troops inflames the Arab street, humiliates our Arab allies, exposes America as a weakling that cannot stand up to Israel, and imperils our troops and their mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Lady Gaga at the 2009 MTV music awards. The global jihad disapproves.

Mr. Buchanan was playing off a story in the Israeli press that Vice President Joe Biden had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “what you’re doing here [in the West Bank] undermines the security of our troops.” Also in the mix was a story that Centcom commander David Petraeus had cited Arab-Israeli tensions as the key impediment to wider progress in the region. Both reports were later denied—in Mr. Biden’s case, via Rahm Emanuel; in Gen. Petraeus’s case, personally and forcefully—but the important point is how eagerly they were believed. If you’re of the view that Israel is the root cause of everything that ails the Middle East—think of it as global warming in Hebrew form—then nothing so powerfully makes the case against the Jewish state as a flag-draped American coffin.

Now consider Lady Gaga—or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker or any other American woman who has, at one time or another, personified what the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb once called “the American Temptress.”

Qutb, for those unfamiliar with the name, is widely considered the intellectual godfather of al Qaeda; his 30-volume exegesis “In the Shade of the Quran” is canonical in jihadist circles. But Qutb, who spent time as a student in Colorado in the late 1940s, also decisively shaped jihadist views about the U.S.

In his 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen,” Qutb gave his account of the U.S. “in the scale of human values.” “I fear,” he wrote, “that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of her people.” Qutb was particularly exercised by what he saw as the “primitiveness” of American values, not least in matters of sex.

“The American girl,” he noted, “knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” Nor did he approve of Jazz—”this music the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”—or of American films, or clothes, or haircuts, or food. It was all, in his eyes, equally wretched.

Qutb’s disdain for America’s supposedly libertine culture would not matter much were it not wedded to a kind of theological Leninism that emphasized the necessity of violently overthrowing any political arrangement not based on Shariah law. No less violent was Qutb’s attitude toward Jews: “The war the Jews began to wage against Islam and Muslims in those early days [of Islamic history],” he wrote in the 1950s, “has raged to the present. The form and appearance may have changed, but the nature and the means remain the same.”

Needless to say, that passage was written long before Israel had “occupied” a single inch of Arab territory, unless one takes the view—held to this day by Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and every other jihadist group that owes an intellectual debt to Qutb, including significant elements of the “moderate” Palestinian Fatah—that Tel Aviv itself is occupied territory.

Bear in mind, too, that the America Qutb found so offensive had yet to discover Elvis, Playboy, the pill, women’s lib, acid tabs, gay rights, Studio 54, Jersey Shore and, of course, Lady Gaga. In other words, even in some dystopic hypothetical world in which hyper-conservatives were to seize power in the U.S. and turn the cultural clock back to 1948, America would still remain a swamp of degeneracy in the eyes of Qutb’s latter-day disciples.

This, then, is the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West. It explains why jihadists remain aggrieved even after the U.S. addressed their previous casus belli by removing troops from Saudi Arabia, and why they will continue to remain aggrieved long after we’ve decamped from Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Persian Gulf. As for Israel, its offenses are literally inextricable: as a democracy, as a Jewish homeland, as a country in which liberalism in all its forms, including cultural, prevails.

Which brings me back to the settlements. There may well be good reasons for Israel to dismantle many of them, assuming that such an act is met with reciprocal and credible Palestinian commitments to suppress terrorism and religious incitement, and accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. But to imagine that the settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which lies a universe of hatred. If the administration’s aim is to appease our enemies, it will get more mileage out of banning Lady Gaga than by applying the screws on Israel. It should go without saying that it ought to do neither.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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A wall of suspicion

Despite a rare dressing down from America, Israel’s leader shows no sign of yielding

GLUM Israelis likened the event to thieves entering in the night. When Binyamin Netanyahu and his aides met Barack Obama in the White House on March 23rd, the president forbade any media coverage—not even a quick photograph—in the Oval Office. The encounter with Israel’s prime minister did not seem to lead to the jovial reconciliation that politicians on both sides, after a fortnight of angry mud-slinging between Washington and Jerusalem, had hoped for.

The format was as odd as the extreme confidentiality. After the two leaders had sat alone for an hour-and-a-half, Mr Netanyahu closeted himself to “consult” his advisers, before returning for another half-hour discussion. Did Mr Obama, riding high after his historic victory over health care, choose to confront the silver-tongued Israeli prime minister with an unequivocal challenge to lay out his policy on peace with the Palestinians—and to back down over the controversial issue of building Jewish houses in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their would-be state?

The need for such clarity was illustrated by yet another Israeli building project in East Jerusalem, which was publicised just hours before the White House meeting. In Israel there was speculation that someone had issued news of this untimely project, long in the works, in order, once again, to “trip up Bibi”, as the prime minister is known, when he was about to meet the president of Israel’s most vital ally.

The crisis in American-Israeli relations flared up a fortnight ago when, just as the vice-president, Joe Biden, was visiting Jerusalem, it was announced that 1,600 Jewish homes would be built in East Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu apologised fulsomely for the bad timing but refused to rescind the decision. The suburb in question, Ramat Shlomo, is one of several all-Jewish ones built since 1967 in East Jerusalem, where 250,000 Israeli Jews now live.

The latest scheme is much smaller—just 20 units—but a lot more incendiary. Whereas Ramat Shlomo is built on a rocky outcrop on the northern rim of the Israeli-delineated municipality, the new scheme involves installing a score of Jewish settler families in a converted hotel in the densely populated all-Arab suburb of Sheikh Jarrah, close to the Old City.

Mr Netanyahu contends that his building policy in Jerusalem is no different from that of all his predecessors since 1967, when Israeli forces conquered the entire city. “The Jewish people were building in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago,” he told 7,000-odd delegates to the annual conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby, in Washington on March 22nd. “And the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.” He complains privately that Mr Obama is needlessly picking on him.

But American officials complain privately that Mr Netanyahu is dissembling. They point out that two of his predecessors, Ehud Barak (1999-2001) and Ehud Olmert (2006-09), negotiated with the Palestinians over a peace plan for Jerusalem proposed by President Bill Clinton, who suggested sharing out the city’s sovereignty by districts: Jewish-inhabited ones would go to Israel, Arab-inhabited ones to Palestine. The “holy basin” in the middle, including religious shrines, would fall under an international or divine protectorate.

Mr Obama now insists that Jerusalem, along with the other core issues of the conflict, such as the question of redrawing borders and the return of refugees demanded by the Palestinians, should be tackled in the “proximity talks” he is trying to launch between Israelis and Palestinians. He hopes they may lead to a resumption of long-stalled direct negotiations. Mr Obama also wants a series of “confidence-building steps” to bring the Palestinians back to the table. These include a release of Palestinian prisoners and the dismantling of Israeli military road-blocks that frustrate Palestinians’ lives and commerce on the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu says he cannot meet these demands because his allies on the nationalist and religious end of his ruling coalition would rebel if he did.

But Mr Obama’s team may no longer be willing to accept that as a reason. Some observers in Washington felt in his speech to AIPAC Mr Netanyahu gave unduly short shrift to Mr Obama and ignored the president’s insistence that fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians should go straight to the big issues, such as adjusting borders. “Of course the United States can help the parties solve their problems,” said the prime minister. “But it cannot solve the problems for the parties. Peace cannot be imposed from the outside.”

It was even suggested that Mr Netanyahu’s speech may have been written before Mr Obama’s health-care triumph in the House of Representatives the night before. It was said that people in the White House had been brooding with resentment over Mr Netanyahu’s ill-disguised pleasure when Mr Obama’s political fortunes seemed earlier to be sliding.

Mr Netanyahu has indeed had a tough time keeping his coalition together. Just before he left for Washington, he and his extreme nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, both secular Jews, persuaded a cabinet majority to accept ultra-Orthodox demands for a new hospital emergency-room to be moved, at high cost, because its previously planned site might contain ancient Jewish graves. An ultra-Orthodox party that is an important coalition partner and holds the health ministry threatened to secede unless this was done.

A public outcry then ensued. Already in Washington, Mr Netanyahu had to backtrack by setting up a committee to “reconsider” the cabinet decision. But for the time being, he would rather compromise with his Orthodox partners than consider the prospect, much favoured by Mr Obama’s team, of dumping them (and, by the by, Mr Lieberman’s lot) and co-opting the more pragmatic Kadima party under Tzipi Livni. After winning most seats in a general election a year ago, she refused to join a coalition with Mr Netanyahu partly because he would not negotiate over Jerusalem.

The world gangs up on you

As if Mr Netanyahu had not been discomfited enough by his apparent dressing down from Mr Obama, he faced yet another embarrassment when Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, publicly denounced Israel for forging 12 British citizens’ passports that were used in January in the assassination of a senior Hamas man in a hotel in Dubai. An Israeli diplomat in London, thought to be a member of Mossad, the external intelligence service, was asked to leave the country.

Palestinians have gleefully watched two of Israel’s main allies rebuking it. They have rejoiced, too, as the peacemaking Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN) roundly condemned Israel’s building plans in East Jerusalem. Earlier the EU’s constitutional court had said that Israeli products made in West Bank settlements should not be given EU preferential trade tariffs.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, echoed Mr Obama’s demands for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem, but he is wary of once again being left high and dry if the Americans were to buckle over the issue, as they have done before. Moreover, he is nervous that the violence between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, that has increased in the past few weeks, may spin out of control. Four Palestinians have recently been shot dead in the West Bank. So far Palestinian and Israeli forces have co-operated rather effectively to contain the unrest. Even so, Palestinian leaders are worried that a wider intifada (uprising) may erupt, making it even harder to get talks going again.

Some Palestinians might settle for an Israeli assurance that settlement-building in East Jerusalem would cease while talks are under way, along with an Israeli promise seriously to negotiate borders and security straightaway. But Mr Abbas is unlikely to risk re-embarking on talks without the 22-country Arab League’s endorsement. The league’s impending summit is to take place in Libya, whose leader, Muammar Qaddafi, is keen for Mr Abbas’s Islamist rival, Hamas, to attend—a sure recipe for kiboshing a compromise plan to resume talks.


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The Netanyahu Diaries

What Israel’s prime minister really thinks.

The following note was discovered aboard the plane that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington yesterday. It appears to be the Israeli prime minister’s personal talking points—with deletions in brackets—for his meeting today with President Obama. Handwriting experts are unable to confirm the note’s authenticity.

Good to see you again, Mr. President. [And thanks for not having me skulk out the side door like the last time I was here].

And congratulations on your big health care victory! Well done, Mr. President, on your historic achievement. As you probably know, we Israelis have a similar system, and it has worked out pretty well for decades [though our doctors don't labor under ruinous medmal premiums and the constant threat of tort bar annihilation and also we're a tiny country with a huge tax burden that drives one in nine people, including many doctors, to live abroad.]

Point is, we’re a nice little liberal democracy, with women’s rights and gay rights, and Arab Israelis and black Israelis in parliament, and welfare and universal health care. Even when we go to war we don’t just carpet bomb our enemies, [like your hero Franklin Roosevelt did to the innocent civilians of Dresden and Tokyo]. I don’t get why we rate most-hated-nation status from all those so-called progressives [wearing your face on their tee-shirts].

[Question to self: Why are the same people who erupt at the thought of prayer in school so often more in sympathy with Hamas in Gaza than with us?]

But on to more pressing matters. We’ve had a bad few weeks, your administration and mine. I’m glad we can talk them over face-to-face. As Hillary told me the other day [isn't she a charmer?], it takes a true friend to tell the hard truth. I’m sure you’ll agree that in our friendship that works both ways.

I know that, from your part, you think the hard truth is that we’ve got to get out of the settlements. You don’t have to sell me on that score. I’ve said repeatedly that we don’t want to rule over the Palestinians; I’m all for a two-state solution in theory. It’s the practice of it that’s got me concerned. In fact, it’s what got me elected.

So here’s the first hard truth: Just as you’ve got your Ben Nelsons and Bart Stupaks, I’ve got my Avigdor Lieberman ultra-nationalists and Eli Yishai ultra-Orthodox. Some of them have ideological red lines; some of them just want stuff. That’s how politics works. So what’s my Cornhusker kickback, or my executive order on abortion funding? I’d welcome your ideas; [you're obviously good at this].

This brings me to the second hard truth, Mr. President: Most Israelis don’t trust you, the way they trusted George W. Bush or [even] Bill Clinton. And let me tell you why that’s a problem.

When my predecessor Arik Sharon pulled out of Gaza, he didn’t do so through negotiations with the Palestinians. Those negotiations fail time and again, in part because the Palestinians figure they can hold out for more, in part because they’re cutting their own deals with Hamas.

So what Sharon did was negotiate with you, the United States. And what he got was a promise, in writing, that the U.S. would not insist on a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines in any final settlement agreement.

My problem is that Hillary disavowed that promise last year, and you did so again by treating a neighborhood in Jerusalem as a “settlement.” So when you pledge your commitment to Israel’s everlasting security, how can we take your word for it, or know that your successor won’t also renege? We don’t want to wind up like Belgium before World War I, relying on phony guarantees of neutrality.

Mr. President, you need to start building some serious trust with Israelis if you mean to give me the political tools to negotiate with the Palestinians. Honestly, you didn’t help yourself by ratcheting up the rhetoric against us the way you did. If your purpose was to show the Palestinians that you’re going to play hardball with us, all you did was give them a reason to be even more uncompromising than before. And if your purpose was to try to drive me from office, it didn’t work either: To Israelis, you came across not as anti-Bibi, but as anti-Israel.

But the hardest truth is that Israelis are losing faith that you’ll do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear bid. The sanctions you promise keep getting delayed and watered down. Hillary gave a fine speech at AIPAC yesterday, but we all know that you’re already planning on containing a nuclear Iran. That’s not acceptable to me.

Let’s make a deal, Mr. President: Our settlements for your bombers. We can’t fully destroy Iran’s nuclear sites—but you can. You can’t dismantle our settlements—but we can. We’ll all come out the better for it, including the Palestinians. Think about it, Barack.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Obama’s Turn Against Israel

In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has endorsed “healthy relations” between Iran and Syria, mildly rebuked Syrian President Bashar Assad for accusing the U.S. of “colonialism,” and publicly apologized to Moammar Gadhafi for treating him with less than appropriate deference after the Libyan called for “a jihad” against Switzerland.

When it comes to Israel, however, the Administration has no trouble rising to a high pitch of public indignation. On a visit to Israel last week, Vice President Joe Biden condemned an announcement by a mid-level Israeli official that the government had approved a planning stage—the fourth out of seven required—for the construction of 1,600 housing units in north Jerusalem. Assuming final approval, no ground will be broken on the project for at least three years.

But neither that nor repeated apologies from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—at what White House sources ostentatiously said was the personal direction of President Obama—from calling the announcement “an insult to the United States.” White House political chief David Axelrod got in his licks on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, lambasting Israel for what he described as “an affront.”

Since nobody is defending the Israeli announcement, least of all an obviously embarrassed Israeli government, it’s difficult to see why the Administration has chosen this occasion to spark a full-blown diplomatic crisis with its most reliable Middle Eastern ally. Mr. Biden’s visit was intended to reassure Israelis that the Administration remained fully committed to Israeli security and legitimacy. In a speech at Tel Aviv University two days after the Israeli announcement, Mr. Biden publicly thanked Mr. Netanyahu for “putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of similar incidents.

The subsequent escalation by Mrs. Clinton was clearly intended as a highly public rebuke to the Israelis, but its political and strategic logic is puzzling. The U.S. needs Israel’s acquiescence in the Obama Administration’s increasingly drawn-out efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear bid through diplomacy or sanctions. But Israel’s restraint is measured in direct proportion to its sense that U.S. security guarantees are good. If Israel senses that the Administration is looking for any pretext to blow up relations, it will care much less how the U.S. might react to a military strike on Iran.

As for the West Bank settlements, it is increasingly difficult to argue that their existence is the key obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel withdrew all of its settlements from Gaza in 2005, only to see the Strip transform itself into a Hamas statelet and a base for continuous rocket fire against Israeli civilians.

Israeli anxieties about America’s role as an honest broker in any diplomacy won’t be assuaged by the Administration’s neuralgia over this particular housing project, which falls within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and can only be described as a “settlement” in the maximalist terms defined by the Palestinians. Any realistic peace deal will have to include a readjustment of the 1967 borders and an exchange of territory, a point formally recognized by the Bush Administration prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. If the Obama Administration opts to transform itself, as the Europeans have, into another set of lawyers for the Palestinians, it will find Israeli concessions increasingly hard to come by.

That may be the preferred outcome for Israel’s enemies, both in the Arab world and the West, since it allows them to paint Israel as the intransigent party standing in the way of “peace.” Why an Administration that repeatedly avers its friendship with Israel would want that is another question.

Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Netanyahu, continued

Israel’s prime minister bluffs it out

IT IS truly difficult to see how Binyamin Netanyahu can be surviving his latest debacle. A botched assassination attempt by Mossad agents on a Hamas official, Khaled Meshal, in neighbouring, friendly Jordan on September 25th has given new resonance to the doubts, even within his cabinet, about his fitness to govern. Army generals and senior officials are scrambling to distance themselves from the fiasco. Yet Mr Netanyahu is not only surviving, he can even point to progress this week on the long dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

At 3am on October 8th—the business hour favoured by Yasser Arafat—Israel’s prime minister and the Palestinian leader met at Gaza’s border for their first face-to-face conversation in eight months. Dennis Ross, America’s peace envoy, announced at dawn that negotiations would now resume in several subcommittees, with a ministerial-level round of talks set for the end of the month. Israeli officials indicated that they propose to stop stalling over the long-delayed Palestinian plan to open an international airport in Gaza.

In Washington on the same day, Israel’s garrulous, doveish president, Ezer Weizman, said he had made the point to President Bill Clinton that Mr Netanyahu was the man to deal with if the peace process were to be re-energised. The implication seems to be that if Mr Netanyahu can emerge unscathed from the assassination episode, he must be domestically indestructible. One of the prime minister’s cabinet allies was suggesting this week, and not in jest, that the Likud party might table legislation to enable Mr Netanyahu to stand for a third term, in the year 2004.

Not everyone in the party would support that. Some prominent Likud members, including two former ministers, Dan Meridor and Binyamin Begin, have openly joined the opposition chorus excoriating Mr Netanyahu’s decision-making as a danger to national security. The foreign minister, David Levy, has made it clear that he knew nothing of the planned attack, and that had he known he would have done his best to stop it. The defence minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, has taken pains to stress how vague his information was—and thus how negligible his share in the blame.

Other central figures, such as the army chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, have let it be known through media leaks that they, too, were not consulted. In effect, they have accused the head of the Mossad, Major-General Danny Yatom, of lying by suggesting that he had shared the plan with them. Mr Netanyahu has been reported to be ready to accept General Yatom’s resignation. But the general was said to be preparing a spirited defence before a three-man “examination board” appointed by the cabinet on October 6th in a bid to head off demands for a full-fledged commission of inquiry.

Recriminations and denials fill the air, compounded by a report, at first denied and later sheepishly confirmed by Israel, that Hamas had transmitted an overture, through King Hussein, two days before the attack on Mr Meshal. The king confirms this, firmly. But that proposal, it now appears, never made it from General Yatom’s desk to Mr Netanyahu’s until the day after the ill-starred operation.

The composition of the examination board has fuelled further controversy. One of the three was a former head of Mossad who took to the air waves at the beginning of the week to defend the operation; he was later obliged to resign, further embarrassing the prime minister. Small wonder that 55% of those questioned in a Yediot Aharonot poll on October 8th said that they did not expect the truth to be revealed.

Mr Netanyahu privately cites polls showing support for his decision, taken after a suicide-bombing in Jerusalem on July 30th, to eliminate central Hamas figures. He believes that this support outweighs his critics’ contention that the risk to the delicate relationship with Jordan should have precluded any thought of carrying out an operation on Jordanian soil. He ignores the fact that he was able to prevent a complete rupture of relations with Jordan only by dispatching a chemical antidote to the poisonous substance that the Mossad assailants had injected into Mr Meshal’s neck. The doughty fighter against terrorism spent the next few hours fervently praying for the man’s recovery.

Far from contrite, Mr Netanyahu berates the left and the media for their lack of patriotism, confident that such sentiments find an approving echo among the people who voted him into power in May 1996. Resign? By no means, Mr Netanyahu retorted to a press conference on October 6th. He would continue his fight against terrorism.

October 9, 1997, The Economist


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Hard Mideast Truths

For over a century now, Zionism and Arab nationalism have failed to find an accommodation in the Holy Land. Both movements attempted to fill the space left by collapsed empire, and it has been left to the quasi-empire, the United States, to try to coax them to peaceful coexistence. The attempt has failed.

President Barack Obama came to office more than a year ago promising new thinking, outreach to the Muslim world, and relentless focus on Israel-Palestine. But nice speeches have given way to sullen stalemate. I am told Obama and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have a zero-chemistry relationship.

Domestic U.S. politics constrain innovative thought — even open debate — on the process without end that is the peace search. As Aaron David Miller, who long labored in the trenches of that process, once observed, the United States ends up as “Israel’s lawyer” rather than an honest broker. The upside for an American congressman in speaking out for Palestine is nonexistent.

I don’t see these constraints shifting much, but the need for Obama to honor his election promise grows. The conflict gnaws at U.S. security, eats away at whatever remote possibility of a two-state solution is left, clouds Israel’s future, scatters Palestinians and devours every attempt to bridge the West and Islam.

Here’s what I believe. Centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust created a moral imperative for a Jewish homeland, Israel, and demand of America that it safeguard that nation in the breach.

But past persecution of the Jews cannot be a license to subjugate another people, the Palestinians. Nor can the solemn U.S. promise to stand by Israel be a blank check to the Jewish state when its policies undermine stated American aims.

One such Israeli policy is the relentless settlement of the West Bank. Two decades ago, James Baker, then secretary of state, declared, “Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity.” Fast-forward 20 years to Barack Obama in Cairo: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” In the interim the number of settlers almost quadrupled from about 78,000 in 1990 to around 300,000 last year.

Since Obama spoke, Netanyahu, while promising an almost-freeze, has been planting saplings in settlements and declaring them part of Israel for “eternity.” In a normal relationship between allies — of the kind I think America and Israel should have — there would be consequences for such defiance. In the special relationship between the United States and Israel there are none.

The U.S. objective is a two-state peace. But day by day, square meter by square meter, the physical space for the second state, Palestine, is disappearing. Can the Gaza sardine can and fractured labyrinth of the West Bank now be seen as anything but a grotesque caricature of a putative state? America has allowed this self-defeating process to advance to near irreversibility.

In fact, it has helped fund it. The settlements are expensive, as is the security fence (hated “separation wall” to the Palestinians) that is itself an annexation mechanism. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, U.S. aid to Israel totaled $28.9 billion over the past decade, a sum that dwarfs aid to any other nation and amounts to four times the total gross domestic product of Haiti.

It makes sense for America to assure Israel’s security. It does not make sense for America to bankroll Israeli policies that undermine U.S. strategic objectives.

This, too, I believe: Through violence, anti-Semitic incitation, and annihilationist threats, Palestinian factions have contributed mightily to the absence of peace and made it harder for America to adopt the balance required. But the impressive recent work of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank shows that Palestinian responsibility is no oxymoron and demands of Israel a response less abject than creeping annexation.

And this: the “existential threat” to Israel is overplayed. It is no feeble David facing an Arab (or Arab-Persian) Goliath. Armed with a formidable nuclear deterrent, Israel is by far the strongest state in the region. Room exists for America to step back and apply pressure without compromising Israeli security.

And this: Obama needs to work harder on overcoming Palestinian division, a prerequisite for peace, rather than playing the no-credible-interlocutor Israeli game. The Hamas charter is vile. But the breakthrough Oslo accords were negotiated in 1993, three years before the Palestine Liberation Organization revoked the annihilationist clauses in its charter. When Arafat and Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, that destroy-Israel charter was intact. Things change through negotiation, not otherwise. If there are Taliban elements worth engaging, are there really no such elements in the broad movements that are Hamas and Hezbollah?

If there are not two states there will be one state between the river and the sea and very soon there will be more Palestinian Arabs in it than Jews. What then will become of the Zionist dream?

It’s time for Obama to ask such tough questions in public and demand of Israel that it work in practice to share the land rather than divide and rule it.

Richard Cohen, New York Times


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Israel’s Settlement Freeze

Prime Minister Netanyahu has broken with his party to restart the peace process.

Distracted by the crucial debate over Afghanistan, many Americans may have missed a pivotal event in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On Nov. 25, Israel’s government announced a 10-month construction freeze in Judea and Samaria—the areas generally known as the West Bank. Though some projects already begun will be completed and essential public buildings like medical clinics and schools will be approved, no new housing permits will be issued.

“We hope that this decision will help launch meaningful peace negotiations,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “and finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.” The Obama administration praised the decision and recognized its significance. Special Envoy George Mitchell hailed the decision as “substantial,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “unprecedented.”

By contrast, Palestinian leaders rejected Israel’s gesture as grossly inefficient. Without an indefinite cessation of all Jewish building in the West Bank and Jerusalem, they say, peace talks cannot resume.

What Mr. Mitchell and Mrs. Clinton understand, but what the Palestinians miss, is that Mr. Netanyahu has shown more flexibility on this issue than any previous head of his Likud Party, which is staunchly pro-settlement. Indeed, he has gone further than any prime minister in limiting a right that many Israelis consider incontestable and a vital component of their national security.

Twice—in 1948 and 1967—the West Bank served as the staging ground for large-scale attacks against Israel. While defending itself, Israel captured the territory and reunited with its ancestral homeland: Haifa is not in the Bible, but Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho decidedly are. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis rushed to resettle their tribal land.

These communities widened Israel’s borders, which at points are a mere eight miles wide. American policy makers recognized Israel’s need for defensible borders and, in November 1967, they supported U.N. Resolution 242, which called for withdrawals from “territories” captured in the war, but not from “all the territories” or even “the territories.”

All successive Israeli governments supported the settlements. Only with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords did then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agree to restrain construction in outlying communities that he considered unnecessary for Israel’s defense. But the settlements continued to expand. Meanwhile the peace process progressed. The Palestinians never made a construction freeze in Jerusalem and the settlements a precondition for talks—until earlier this year.

Mr. Netanyahu initially responded that Jews, like all people, can build legally in Jerusalem, and that it’s unreasonable to disallow settlers from building even an extra room for a newborn. Still, he promised not to establish new settlements, not to appropriate additional land for existing ones, nor even to induce Israelis to move to them. Yet the Palestinians balked. The peace process was moribund, awaiting an intrepid stroke.

Mr. Netanyahu has now taken that initiative. By suspending new Israeli construction in all of the West Bank, the prime minister has done what none of his predecessors, including Rabin, ever suggested.

At home, Mr. Netanyahu’s decision has been fiercely criticized, even by some members of his own party. The Knesset has considered a vote of no-confidence in his leadership. And the most recent poll shows that more Israelis oppose the freeze than support it.

The prime minister has nevertheless persisted—his coalition is among the strongest and most representative in Israel’s history—but the opportunity generated by his action will not endure indefinitely. Together with the Obama administration, which has repeatedly asserted its commitment to restarting talks without preconditions and to achieving a permanent two-state solution, Israelis hope that Palestinians will once again join them in talks.

By taking risks and accomplishing the unprecedented, Mr. Netanyahu has demonstrated his commitment to peace. Now the Palestinians must match that dedication and seize this propitious moment.

Mr. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.


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Israel’s Patience with Tehran Wearing Thin

‘It’s 1938, and Iran Is Germany’

Iran’s leaders continue to reject compromises over their nuclear program and are rebuffing the IAEA. The West is likely to respond with tighter sanctions, but that is unlikely to satisfy Israel, which has attack plans already drawn up. 

One of two US-made F-16I fighter jets makes its way on the tarmac 19 February 2004 after it landed at the southern Israeli Ramon air base. Israel received the first two of more than 100 of the jets, which will soon make up the backbone of the Jewish state’s fleet. Experts say the ultra-sophisticated development of the battle-tested F16 Fighting Falcon, to be named Sufa (storm in Hebrew), sports a much-increased range of 1,500 kilometres (around 930 miles), allowing them to reach anywhere in the Middle East without needing in-flight refuelling.

Six men are sitting around a table, deciding the future of the world. The men, who represent the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Iran, are considering questions such as: Is Tehran really building a nuclear bomb? Do sanctions work, and if they do, how should they be intensified? Will bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities end up being the only real solution, and what would be the consequences? 

The men are not politicians, but scientists and diplomats involved in a role-playing scenario. They are all Israeli citizens. That doesn’t make the experiment, which took place two weeks ago at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, any less spectacular. The participants in this role-playing exercise, all of whom were very familiar with the issues involved, were capable of taking a completely different approach to what-if scenarios than politicians, because they cannot be held responsible for anything — good or bad — that results from their decisions. 

The outcome of the experiment was supposed to be kept secret, but this much was leaked: The participant playing the United States emphasized negotiations and shunned confrontation for a long time, while “Iran” was convinced that it had excellent cards and viewed the risk of truly hard-hitting sanctions as slim. “Israel” initially pushed for international isolation and crippling economic sanctions by the United Nations, but then — as a last resort — threatened to attack. 

Plans at the Ready 

The results probably pleased Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu, because they reflected the way he thinks. Although the premier is not yet prepared to deploy Israeli fighter jets to conduct targeted air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the military has plans at the ready. 

Netanyahu has said often enough that he will never accept an Iranian nuclear bomb. He doesn’t believe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he insists that Iran’s nuclear program is intended solely for civilian purposes. But he does take Ahmadinejad — a notorious Holocaust denier — at his word when he repeatedly threatens to wipe out Israel. Netanyahu draws parallels between Europe’s appeasement of Hitler and the current situation. “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany,” he says. This time, however, says Netanyahu, the Jews will not allow themselves to be the “sacrificial lamb.” 

But even politicians who normally take a less extreme view, like Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy, are now realizing that the situation is coming to a head. A narrow majority of the Israeli population currently favors bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities, while 11 percent would consider leaving Israel if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons. 

Meridor says that his counterparts in the US government are reporting a sharp increase in the level of concern among Iran’s moderate Arab neighbors. “Ninety percent of the conversations between the United States and countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now revolve around Iran, while 10 percent relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says. 

Decisive Stage 

This concern is not limited to the region. In Washington and in the European Union — and, more recently, in Moscow –, the focus has shifted dramatically toward Iran. After years of maneuvering and deception, and after a long period of missed opportunities, including on the part of the West, the conflict is moving toward a decisive stage. 

In a SPIEGEL interview in mid-November, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she had no intention of taking the military option “off the table.” Her German counterpart, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, attended a meeting at the Israeli Foreign Ministry last Tuesday, where he was briefed on the latest Israeli intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program. The next day in Vienna, while standing next to Nobel Peace Prize winner and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, who is leaving office this week after heading the UN nuclear watchdog agency for 12 years, Westerwelle said that the international community’s “patience with Iran” is “not infinite.” 

Tehran played a cat-and-mouse game with the IAEA for a long time. However, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has both privileges — such as technical assistance in the civilian use of nuclear energy — and clearly defined obligations. The regime has repeatedly failed to live up to these obligations, despite many efforts to build bridges, particularly on the part of ElBaradei. This incurred the wrath of the administration of former US President George W. Bush, who even had ElBaradei’s telephone conversations tapped. 

In its most recent internal report, dated Nov. 16, 2009 and marked “for official use only,” the IAEA has adopted an unusually sharp tone. According to the report, the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom in northwestern Iran, which the UN inspectors only discovered in September, was “clearly reportable,” because it had apparently been under construction for much longer than the Iranians had indicated. A possible military nuclear program, which the Iranian leadership has consistently denied, raises “alarming” questions, according to the report, while Tehran continues to refuse to permit unannounced inspections. In summary, the report states: “Iran has not fulfilled its obligations. Its behavior is not conducive to the establishment of trust.” 

Just a Year Away from the Bomb?  

Behind the scenes in Vienna, there are grave concerns over news that Iran could be well on its way to developing a Shahab-3 midrange missile that could be upgraded to carry nuclear weapons and could reach Tel Aviv. Iranian scientists are believed to have successfully simulated the detonation of a nuclear warhead. Detonation is one of the most technologically challenging problems in the construction of this type of nuclear weapon. Experts believe that it could take Iran as little as a year to acquire the expertise and a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium to build a real nuclear warhead. 

Maximum range of Iranian medium-range missiles

Intelligence reports about a restructuring in the Iranian Defense Ministry are no less alarming. According to those reports, a “Department for Expanded High-Technology Applications” (FEDAT) is now under great pressure from the government in Tehran to push ahead with a military nuclear program. According to an organizational chart of FEDAT that SPIEGEL has obtained, the department is divided into sub-departments for uranium mining, enrichment, metallurgy, neutrons, highly explosive material and fuel supply (“Project 111″). FEDAT is headed by the mysterious Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, one of the key officials the IAEA wants to interview, although Mahabadi has so far refused to talk to the agency. 

Repeated Overtures 

US President Barack Obama has made many overtures to Iran. He has admitted to historical mistakes, such as the 1953 CIA-backed coup that toppled liberal Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. In a video message to the Iranian people coinciding with the festival of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of the Iranian new year, Obama spoke of the great civilizing achievements of the Persian nation. He abandoned Washington’s demand that Tehran give up uranium enrichment altogether, which had been a precondition to negotiations under his predecessor, George W. Bush. 

And he proposed, together with other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, a barter deal that would allow all parties to save face: Iran was to ship a large share of its low-enriched uranium abroad for one year, to Russia or Turkey, and in return would receive nuclear fuel elements processed by France. 

The benefit for Tehran was that it would receive, for its research reactor, urgently needed radionuclides that are used in cancer therapy. The benefit for the international community was that it could be sure that the Iranians, during the period covered by the deal, would have no opportunity to pursue their own extensive enrichment activities needed to produce highly enriched uranium, the material used to make bombs. 

The Iranians seemed interested at first, but then they began setting conditions. In the end, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki rejected the offer, stating that Tehran would definitely not send fissile material abroad. 

Clinging to Last Hopes 

In an almost desperate appeal, ElBaradei then addressed the Iranian leadership directly, saying: “You need to engage in creative diplomacy, you need to understand that this is the first time that you will have a genuine commitment from an American president to engage you fully, on the basis of respect, with no conditions.” In his last few days in office, the IAEA chief is clinging to the hope that a final response is still forthcoming. 

But Iran currently favors threatening gestures over compromises of any sort. The Iranians were so enraged over a resolution Germany presented to the IAEA board of governors last Thursday, which was supported by Washington, Moscow and Beijing, that they threatened to limit their cooperation with the UN. The resolution, which was accepted the next day by a large majority, is essentially nothing but a demand for assurances from Tehran not to maintain any further undeclared nuclear facilities. In one of the biggest military maneuvers in recent years, the Iranian leadership spent five days parading all of its available military equipment, almost as if it were preparing for the worst. 

But the display of Iran’s tanks and fighter jets was not only intended to intimidate the “Zionist aggressor” and its allies. The mullahs also used the maneuver to demonstrate their resolve and capacity to take action on the domestic front, where the regime has been at odds with its detractors for the last six months. Since Iran’s presidential election in June, when the uncompromising Ahmadinejad deprived his reform-oriented challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi of victory through apparent election fraud, the opposition has been unrelenting. 

Paying the Price 

The regime takes the nightly protest chants of “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) and “Marg bar Dictator” (“Death to the dictator”) very seriously. In the months of the revolution, in 1978 and 1979, millions of Iranians used the same slogans in protest against then Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his brutal Savak intelligence service. 

Dozens of supporters of the “Green Movement” have already paid for their protests with their lives, and at least 4,000 regime critics have been arrested. Although many were released after a few days, reports of torture and rape only increased the population’s loathing of the regime. The elderly Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who challenged the regime’s legitimacy and issued a fatwa declaring nuclear bombs to be “un-Islamic,” is under de facto house arrest once again. 

‘The Enemy Is Everywhere’ 

The leadership has increased the pressure once again in recent weeks. It strengthened the feared Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran, considered the regime’s most loyal supporters, by adding two units to “combat the psychological operations of the enemy.” Another new unit was established to monitor opposition Internet sites and combat “insults and the spreading of lies.” These units are under the command of the Tehran public prosecutor’s office, notorious for its show trials. The country is in a “soft war,” said Pasdaran General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, “and the enemy is everywhere.” One of the targets of the latest government crackdown was Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose prize was confiscated by authorities. 

Popular rage is not directed only at the “vote thief” in the presidential office. Many believe that Ahmadinejad is merely a puppet of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was previously virtually untouchable. He is the strong man, he appoints the highest-ranking judges, and he is in charge of the intelligence services, the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards and the hated Basij militias. He determines the basic features of government policy and decides on Iran’s course in the nuclear conflict. 

Willing to Compromise? 

But to what extent is this leadership now capable of taking action? Will it accommodate the global community in the nuclear conflict, or does the regime see confrontation with the West as its opportunity to survive? 

According to conservative sources in Tehran, President Ahmadinejad was recently quite willing to make a compromise. He apparently hoped that he could spruce up his reputation, heavily tarnished as a result of the election disaster, at least internationally. This, say the Tehran sources, explains why Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili signaled a willingness to make concessions at the historic nuclear summit in Geneva in early October, a meeting at which an Iranian official came face-to-face with a senior representative of the “Great Satan” for the first time since the Iranian revolution. But in Khamenei’s eyes, the deal — uranium outsourcing in return for fuel delivery — was a non-starter. Ironically, opposition politician Mousavi agrees with him. 

A key reason for the Iranian politicians’ self-confidence is that they do not believe that Israel would truly risk an attack on Iran. US experts also warn against the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. David Albright, head of the Washington think tank ISIS, believes that a “surgical strike” against the nuclear facilities would be completely impossible. According to Albright, no one knows how many nuclear sites Iran has, and the centrifuges in existing facilities like Natanz are apparently installed in tunnels so deep underground that even bunker-busting bombs could not destroy everything. 

The Israelis, on the other hand, believe that Iran is merely playing for time. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, has long had its capacities directed at Iran, and not just since Netanyahu came into office. Israeli envoys quietly visit European companies that export products to Tehran. When agitated German executives insist that their products are intended purely for civilian purposes, the Israelis produce photos showing the European components installed in one of Iran’s nuclear plants. 

Chances of Success 

“The West approves UN sanctions by day and trades with Tehran by night, and Ahmadinejad takes advantage of this ambivalence,” Israeli Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told SPIEGEL. Ben-Eliezer, a retired general, believes optimistically that Iran can be stopped, but that this would require a total embargo: “Nothing can be allowed in or out.” 

With the Iranian economy weakened, the regime under internal pressure after the disputed elections and the Russians distancing themselves from Iran, the chances that sanctions will succeed have never been this good, say some diplomats in Tehran. 

“The regime in Iran is not irrational,” says Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor. According to Meridor, only if possessing the bomb jeopardizes the regime’s survival, will Ahmadinejad decide against building the weapon. 

Others, however, believe that the timetable of escalation is already as good as fixed, and that the conflict is coming to a head. They believe that tighter sanctions will start in the spring of 2010, followed by air strikes perhaps in the summer of 2010. 

Meanwhile, a representative of the Iranian government has already issued precautionary threats: “If the enemy want (sic) to test its bad luck and fire a missile into Iran, before the dust settles, Iran’s ballistic missiles will target the heart of Tel Aviv.” 


Full article and photos:,1518,664329,00.html

Diplomacy 101

We were thrilled when President Obama decided to plunge fully into the Middle East peace effort. He appointed a skilled special envoy, George Mitchell, and demanded that Israel freeze settlements, Palestinians crack down on anti-Israel violence and Arab leaders demonstrate their readiness to reach out to Israel.

Nine months later, the president’s promising peace initiative has unraveled.

The Israelis have refused to stop all building. The Palestinians say that they won’t talk to the Israelis until they do, and President Mahmoud Abbas is so despondent he has threatened to quit. Arab states are refusing to do anything.

Mr. Obama’s own credibility is so diminished (his approval rating in Israel is 4 percent) that serious negotiations may be farther off than ever.

Peacemaking takes strategic skill. But we see no sign that President Obama and Mr. Mitchell were thinking more than one move down the board. The president went public with his demand for a full freeze on settlements before securing Israel’s commitment. And he and his aides apparently had no plan for what they would do if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no.

Most important, they allowed the controversy to obscure the real goal: nudging Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks. (We don’t know exactly what happened but we are told that Mr. Obama relied more on the judgment of his political advisers — specifically his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel — than of his Mideast specialists.)

The idea made sense: have each side do something tangible to prove it was serious about peace and then start negotiations. But when Mr. Netanyahu refused the total freeze, President Obama backed down.

Mr. Netanyahu has since offered a compromise 10-month freeze that exempts Jerusalem, schools and synagogues and permits Israel to complete 3,000 housing units already under construction. The irony is that while this offer goes beyond what past Israeli governments accepted, Mr. Obama had called for more. And the Palestinians promptly rejected the compromise.

Washington isn’t the only one to blow it. After pushing President Obama to lead the peace effort, Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, refused to make any concessions until settlements were halted. Mr. Mitchell was asking them to allow Israel to fly commercial planes through Arab airspace or open a trade office. They have also done far too little to strengthen Mr. Abbas, who is a weak leader but is still the best hope for negotiating a peace deal. Ditto for Washington and Israel.

All this raises two questions: What has President Obama learned from the experience so he can improve his diplomatic performance generally? And does he plan to revive the peace talks?

The president has no choice but to keep trying. At some point extremists will try to provoke another war. and the absence of a dialogue will only make things worse. Advancing his own final-status plan for a two-state solution is one high-risk way forward that we think is worth the gamble. Stalemate is unsustainable.

Editorial, New York Times


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Settling for less

Israel’s settlement policy

The latest row over Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory

BINYAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel’s prime minister, came under pressure this week when news leaked of a new plan to build 900 homes in the occupied Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. His aides say that he knew nothing about the scheme before a local planning committee considered it.

True or not, the latest settlement expansion is exasperating for those who have been involved, for several months, in negotiations between the United States and Israel. Mr Netanyahu’s colleagues are bristling that previous efforts to prevent new building will now be forgotten. George Mitchell, America’s special envoy to the region, has been in talks with Mr Netanyahu over settlement building and the need to find ways to assuage Palestinian resentment of it (or even to find ways to freeze or stop it). These, so far, have proved fruitless, although Mr Netanyahu did meet Barack Obama in the White House two weeks ago for what he had hoped would be a tension-easing conversation.

His aides also suggest that Mr Netanyahu could not intervene to shelve the building plan in Gilo. Even if he had been prepared to take the inevitable flak from the political right (which he probably was not), it would have been improper, perhaps even legally untenable, they claim, for a prime minister to barge into a bureaucratic planning process.

The initial stage of the plan was duly approved by the Jerusalem planning committee. As a result, the crisis has flared up anew, replete with a stern public reprimand from Mr Obama, condemnations from governments around the world and renewed warnings from the Palestinians that their president, Mahmoud Abbas, would at last throw in the towel.

Mr Obama did not make do with his spokesman’s expression of “dismay”. He found time during a visit to China to declare on television that the Gilo plan would not make Israel safer, would make it harder to achieve peace and might “embitter the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous.”

In Ramallah, a senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the Gilo plan exacerbated the danger now hovering over the whole concept of a two-state solution to the conflict. Mr Abbas announced last month that he would not seek re-election as president of the Palestinian Authority—the vote is due in January but is likely to be postponed—because of his frustration over the stalled peace process. He refuses to resume negotiations with Israel without a total freeze of settlement building both in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

This was the original position of Mr Obama’s administration, too. Mr Netanyahu consistently rejected any freeze in East Jerusalem, which Israel unilaterally annexed in 1967, but agreed to reduce building elsewhere in the settlements.

Recently, the administration appeared to soften its stance. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, praised Mr Netanyahu for the “unprecedented” restraint he was prepared to exercise. This outraged and appalled the Palestinians and triggered Mr Abbas’s resignation threat.

Gilo, in the south-east, is one of a ring of Jewish suburbs that Israel began building in the 1970s. Its 40,000 inhabitants, many of them first- and second-generation immigrants from the former Soviet Union, have no sense of being “settlers” nor is there any of the gun-toting, frontier-like atmosphere of the farther-flung West Bank settlements in its staid, rather drab suburban streets.

Ministers say the new friction over settlement building is doubly annoying because the new Gilo project will take years to get started and because, in practice, Mr Netanyahu’s government has drastically slowed building in the settlements.

Mr Netanyahu is said to be contemplating announcing a formal ten-month freeze on settlement building—although excluding Jerusalem and “natural growth” in the settlements—as a way of kick-starting the peace talks or at least placating the Americans. Yossi Beilin, a prominent dove and one of the original architects of the Oslo peace plan, disclosed the scheme on Wednesday November 18th and Mr Netanyahu’s people did not deny it. Mr Beilin gave warning, though, that the Palestinians would reject it and that this impasse could quickly result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

Other observers were inclined to agree. A ten-month freeze, with a half-endorsement from Washington, might have been seen as substantial progress, before the latest flare-up. Now, as bad luck would have it, even that faint prospect has dimmed.


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Banished at Turtle Bay

A U.N. critic has her credentials stripped.

As part of our public-service reports on the workings of your favorite world body, allow us to introduce you to Anne Bayefsky. The Toronto native is an expert on human-rights law and an accredited United Nations observer. She is also a friend of Israel, which makes her persona non grata as far as the folks at Turtle Bay are concerned.

Ms. Bayefsky’s sin was a two-minute talk she delivered at the U.N. earlier this month after the General Assembly had issued a resolution endorsing the Goldstone Report, which levels war crimes charges at Israel for defending itself in the face of Hamas’s rockets. “The resolution doesn’t mention the word Hamas,” she said. “This is a resolution that purports to be even-handed; it is anything but.”

Ms. Bayefsky’s comments were the only note of criticism on a day otherwise marked by much U.N. jubilation. Whereupon she was summarily stripped of her U.N. badge and evicted from the premises. “The Palestinian ambassador is very upset by your statement,” Ms. Bayefsky says the U.N. security chief told her. Journalist Matthew Russell Lee tells us that he heard the ambassador asking whether U.N. security had “captured” Ms. Bayefsky.

For the record, the U.N. claims that Ms. Bayefsky violated procedures by bringing a colleague who lacked a proper badge, and that she was not entitled to speak where she did, though representatives of nongovernment organizations have used it in the past. And when we called the Palestinian Mission to get their side of the story, they told us the fracas was the last of their worries. Maybe so.

Yet the U.N. continues to bar Ms. Bayefsky from the premises, despite calls on her behalf by the U.S. mission and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Best-case scenario, one U.N. insider tells us, is that “they’ll put her on probation.” We hear the U.N.’s NGO accreditation committee, chaired by Sudan, will likely make the final decision.

Meanwhile, a committee of the General Assembly recently passed a resolution on the so-called defamation of religion. “Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference, and has the right to freedom of expression, the exercise of which carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations,” it says.

“Without interference” yet “subject to limitations.” Orwell should be living now.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Another Vast Jewish Conspiracy

British media and society are gripped by lies about a “secret” Israel lobby controlling foreign policy.

Here is a small selection of events that have taken place in Britain since the end of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza earlier this year.

The government has imposed a partial arms embargo on Israel and failed to vote against the Goldstone report in the U.N . The charities War on Want and Amnesty International U.K. have both promoted a book by the anti-Israeli firebrand Ben White, tellingly called “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide.” The Trades Union Congress at its annual conference has called for boycotts of Israeli products as well as a total arms embargo.

In the media, the Guardian newspaper has stepped up its already obsessive campaign against the Jewish state to the extent that the paper’s flagship Comment is Free Web site frequently features two anti-Israeli polemics on one and the same day. The BBC continues to use its enormous influence over British public opinion to whitewash anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the Middle East. Its Web site, for example, features a profile of Hamas that makes no mention of the group’s virulent hatred of Jews or its adherence to a “Protocols of Zion”-style belief in world-wide Jewish conspiracies.

Readers may be surprised to learn, therefore, that the British media and political establishment is apparently cowering under the sway of a secretive cabal of Zionist lobbyists who have all but extinguished critical opinions of Israel from the public domain.

Such charges have been aired to mass critical acclaim this week in a landmark  documentary, “Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby,” on Channel 4—the same outlet that offered Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an uninterrupted, seven-minute propaganda slot on Christmas Day last year.

The makers of the documentary—top Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne and TV journalist James Jones—have also written about their program in the Guardian. Both furiously deny that they are peddling conspiracy theories. But the mindset we are dealing with was neatly exposed by the authors’ own explanation on how their suspicions were aroused that something sinister is at work in the corridors of British power.

It all transpired, they told readers ominously, during an address earlier this year by Conservative Party leader David Cameron at a dinner hosted by the Conservative Friends of Israel.

“The dominant event of the previous 12 months had been the Israeli invasion of Gaza,” they wrote. “We were shocked Cameron made no reference in his speech to the massive destruction it caused, or the 1,370 deaths that resulted, or for that matter the invasion itself. Indeed, our likely future prime minister went out of his way to praise Israel because it ‘strives to protect innocent life.’ This remark was not intended satirically.”

Since it is inconceivable, the authors obviously believe, that anyone could honestly credit Israel with anything other than the most damnable motives it must therefore follow that those who do in fact praise the Jewish state must be being paid or bullied into doing so.

If you think this all sounds familiar, you’d be right. Messrs. Oborne and Jones produced an extensive pamphlet accompanying the documentary, which openly claimed inspiration from none other than John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”—another conspiracy theory alleging malign Zionist influence in the United States.

But if Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt at least felt the need to dress up their polemic in pseudo-academic wrapping paper, the sheer amateurishness of the British documentary they inspired is breathtaking. There was the endless superimposition of the Israeli Star of David on to the British flag, which, along with some absurdly melancholic background music, was presumably designed to prepare viewers for an astonishing series of revelations. But of course such revelations actually never materialized.

It turns out from the documentary itself that the allegedly secretive Jewish donors have been quite open in declaring their interests in accordance with the law. One of them, Poju Zabludowicz, the billionaire funder of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) is good friends with Madonna—not exactly the kind of company you’d choose if you were trying to hide behind a veil of obscurity.

Much is also made of the influence of Friends of Israel groupings in the British Parliament. Such allegations are, of course, rendered ridiculous with a moment’s reflection on the countervailing influence of vast amounts of Arab oil money, not to mention the fact that membership in such groups for many parliamentarians is either purely formal or outright meaningless. Michael Ancram, for example, a former Northern Ireland minister and a member of Conservative Friends of Israel for more than 30 years, is famous for calling for talks with Hamas.

Given the paucity of the arguments, it would be tempting to dismiss the whole thing as unimportant. Would that we could. The documentary has already provoked a torrent of abuse against British Jews, not least on Channel 4’s widely read Web site, whose moderators have seen fit to approve dozens of postings about the Zionist lobby’s “seditious behavior,” its “disgusting attack on British democracy,” “the hand of global Zionism at work,” and several along the lines of the following, which said flatly: “We want our country back. The agents of a foreign power embedded at all levels of our government and politics need flushing out.”

If this sort of language takes hold, a bad situation in Britain may be about to get a whole lot worse.

Jewish leadership organizations have long feared accusations of divided loyalty between Britain and Israel and, ironically given the charges now being made against them, are frequently criticized in their own communities for failing to be sufficiently robust in Israel’s defense. The risk is that some may now be panicked into silence.

Non-Jews who call for a more reasoned discussion of Israel—already a small and diminishing group in Britain—will likely face additional slanders against their integrity: Since there is supposedly no reasonable case to be made in favor of the Jewish state, we must have sold out to the “Lobby.”

Such calumnies cannot be allowed to stand. Now more than ever, the forces of reason and decency must continue the fight to be heard.

Mr. Shepherd is director of International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society. His new book, “A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem With Israel,” has just been published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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A Mideast Truce

I’ve grown so pessimistic about Israel-Palestine that I find myself agreeing with Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman: “Anyone who says that within the next few years an agreement can be reached ending the conflict simply doesn’t understand the situation and spreads delusions.”

That’s the lesson of early Obama. The president tried to rekindle peace talks by confronting Israel on settlements, coaxing Palestinians to resume negotiations, and reaching out to the Muslim world. The effort has failed.

It has alienated Israel, where Obama is unpopular, and brought the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, close to resignation. It’s time to think again.

What’s gone wrong? There have been tactical mistakes, including a clumsy U.S. wobble toward accepting Israeli “restraint” on settlements rather than cessation. But the deeper error was strategic: Obama’s assumption that he could resume where Clinton left off in 2000 and pursue the land-for-peace idea at the heart of the two-state solution.

This approach ignored the deep scars inflicted in the past decade: the killing of 992 Israelis and 3,399 Palestinians between the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and 2006; the Israeli Army’s harsh reoccupation of most of the West Bank; Hamas’ violent rise to power in Gaza and the accompanying resurgence of annihilationist ideology; the spectacular spread of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; and the Israeli construction of over 250 miles of a separation barrier that has protected Israel from suicide bombers even as it has shattered Palestinian lives, grabbed land and become, in the words of Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer, “an integral part of the West Bank settlement plan.”

These are not small developments. They have changed the physical appearance of the Middle East. More important, they have transformed the psychologies of the protagonists. Israelis have walled themselves off from Palestinians. They are less interested than ever in a deal with people they hardly see.

As Ron Nachman, the founder of the sprawling Ariel settlement, comments in René Backmann’s superb new book, “A Wall in Palestine,” the wave of Palestinian suicide attacks before work on the barrier began in mid-2002 meant that: “Israelis wanted separation. They did not want to be mixed with the Arabs. They didn’t even want to see them. This may be seen as racist, but that’s how it is.”

And that’s about where we are.

With Palestinians saying, “Not one inch further will we cede.” The myriad humiliations of the looping barrier, which divides Palestinians from one another as well as from Israel, have cemented this “Nyet.”

On the surface, Obama’s decision to tackle settlements first was logical enough. Nothing has riled Palestinians as much as the continued flow of Israeli settlers into East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Both Oslo (1993) and the Road Map (2003) called for settlements to stop, but the number of settlers has risen steadily to over 450,000.

The president was categorical in his Cairo speech: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”

Nor do I. But facts are hard — and Obama has tried to ignore them. The history briefly outlined above makes clear that the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t deviate from the pattern of settlement growth established since 1967.

Indeed, Backmann’s book (from which the Sfard quote is also taken), demonstrates a relentless continuity of Israeli purpose, now cemented by a fence whose aim was in fact double: to stop terrorists but also “to protect the settlements, to give them room to develop.”

That is why, even at 250 miles, the barrier (projected to stretch over 400 miles) is already much longer than the pre-1967 border or Green Line: It burrows into the West Bank to place major settlements on the Israeli side, effectively annexing over 12 percent of the land.

The United States condoned the construction of this settlement-reinforcing barrier. It cannot be unmade — not for the foreseeable future. Peace and walls do not go together. But a truce and walls just may. And that, I must reluctantly conclude, is the best that can be hoped for.

Obama, who has his Nobel already, should ratchet expectations downward. Stop talking about peace. Banish the word. Start talking about détente. That’s what Lieberman wants; that’s what Hamas says it wants; that’s the end point of Netanyahu’s evasions.

It’s not what Abbas wants but he’s powerless. Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist, told me, “A nonviolent status quo is far from satisfactory but it’s not bad. Cyprus is not bad.”

I recall my friend Shlomo dreaming of peace. That’s over. The last decade destroyed the last illusions: hence the fence. The courageous have departed the Middle East. A peace of the brave must yield to a truce of the mediocre — at best.

At least until Intifada-traumatized Israeli psychology shifts. I agree with the Israeli author David Grossman when he writes: “We have dozens of atomic bombs, tanks and planes. We confront people possessing none of these arms. And yet, in our minds, we remain victims. This inability to perceive ourselves in relation to others is our principal weakness.”

Roger Cohen, New York Times


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Don’t give up

Israel, Palestine and America

Barack Obama must step back into the fray

RARELY have the prospects for a decent deal between Israelis and Palestinians looked so bleak. Despite his grudging acceptance of the two-state ideal, Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, sounds perfectly content with the status quo: in effect, fortress Israel with the Palestinians impotently walled off. Meanwhile the Palestinians are as bitterly divided as ever. The Islamists of Hamas, still in military control of the Gaza Strip and—at least on paper—scornful of Israel’s right to exist, square off against secular and more amenable Fatah, which runs a fledgling state on the West Bank, albeit one riddled with Israeli roads, barriers and Jewish settlements. In the past week, things have got even worse for the Palestinians since their leader, Mahmoud Abbas, a man of peace and patience, has declared in frustration that he will step down, with no obvious successor in sight. So they look leaderless as well as disunited.

Perhaps worst of all, the Americans, without whom no durable deal can be done, have seemed to vacillate, with neither a vision nor a plan. Suddenly, after the brightest of starts, Barack Obama appears to be making a hash of it. In June, in a speech in Cairo, he thrilled the Arab world, including many Palestinians, by promising that America would be more even-handed. He insisted that the Israelis should stop building or expanding settlements on the West Bank as a condition for bringing Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Yet four months later, after Mr Netanyahu had bluntly refused, Mr Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was congratulating him merely for his promise to “restrain” settlement-building. This prompted a furious Mr Abbas to tender his resignation.

Having decided to pick a fight with Israel over the settlements, Mr Obama should have pressed on, threatening to squeeze the recalcitrant Mr Netanyahu with a range of penalties (for instance, by withholding government loans, lessening aid by the amount that Israel spends on settlements and ceasing automatically to wield a protective veto over UN resolutions hostile to Israel). If Mr Netanyahu’s acceptance of a full settlement-building freeze had led to the break-up of his coalition, it might have been replaced by one more amenable to peacemaking compromises. Or, if Mr Obama had never wished to engage in a long wrangle with Mr Netanyahu, he should not have made such ambitious demands in the first place. As it has turned out, Mr Obama now looks like a man whose bluff has been called. His hand as a mediator has been badly weakened. And the Palestinians’ most flexible leader may, as a result, be forced out of the game.

Salvage from the wreck

The Palestinians need to sort themselves out. No deal will stick without the co-operation of Hamas, so Arab mediators, chiefly Egyptian, must persevere in bringing the two rivals together. Mr Abbas has been well-meaning but is himself a ditherer. It is still unclear whether he really means to go this time or whether his promise to do so is designed to wring concessions out of either America or Israel or both. If there were a plausible successor, Mr Abbas should make way. But the best bet, Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah man who is respected also by Hamas, is in an Israeli prison, convicted of multiple murders during an earlier Palestinian uprising. The Israelis could let him out as part of a prisoner exchange. Were Hamas also to free a captured Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, held in Gaza for three years, the mood would lighten all round.

Though most Arab countries in the region have said they would recognise Israel if it withdrew to its borders of 1967, they too could do more to shore up whoever leads the Palestinians. And they could offer confidence-building gestures to Israel, for instance allowing more trade and overflights.

But it is Mr Obama who must take the lead, however encumbered he may be with other pressing issues. Starting with the “parameters” laid out by President Bill Clinton before he stepped down in 2000, he needs to present his own detailed two-state plan—and soon. In particular, he should tell the Israeli people why Mr Netanyahu’s obduracy on settlements, while reaping short-term popularity, in the long run threatens Israel’s very existence.

The Economist


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Will he jump?

The Palestinians

Whether or not Mahmoud Abbas goes, the Palestinians look both divided and leaderless

AFTER five hapless years as the Palestinians’ president, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) suddenly declared on November 5th that he would not seek re-election in January, when the Palestinian territories are due to hold general and presidential polls. On the face of it, his decision was a blow to the cause of peace. Even before he succeeded Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, Mr Abbas stood out as a man of peace who preferred negotiation to violence, whereas Mr Arafat, at least in most Israeli eyes, had always juggled the two. After Mr Abbas steps down, who will take over? And in which direction might the new man go?

But within hours of Mr Abbas’s declaration confusion had set in. For a start, it soon became unclear whether Mr Abbas really would step down. He has often threatened to resign. Angered by a recent decision of the American administration to rescind its previous vaunted insistence that Israel’s government should completely stop building and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the core of a would-be Palestinian state, Mr Abbas may have been seeking to win concessions as his price for staying in office—and for returning to the negotiating table.

He may, for instance, still seek to persuade Barack Obama to issue a statement that a Palestinian state’s borders must accord with those of 1967, albeit with land-swaps to allow Israel to keep some of its biggest settlement blocks, and that Jerusalem must be shared, with its eastern side becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. A few days after Mr Abbas said he had had enough, Binyamin Netanyahu was meeting Mr Obama in the White House. The pair would certainly have discussed such ways of keeping Mr Abbas on board.

Some of the Palestinian leader’s aides, however, insisted that this time he would go. Others predicted that he would be persuaded to stay. Still others speculated that he could drop his post as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), while continuing to wield power as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation that embraces an array of nationalist groups, and as head of Fatah, the secular-minded party which has been the engine of Palestinian politics for more than half a century and which runs the PA.

In his resignation speech, Mr Abbas castigated Israel’s government for its obduracy over the settlements, the Americans for letting him down, and the Palestinians’ Islamist movement, Hamas, for refusing to accept the terms of a Palestinian unity government proposed by Egypt. It has been trying for more than a year to bring the two bitterly opposed factions together.

Hamas won the last Palestinian general election, in 2006. A year later, it bloodily ousted Fatah from the Gaza Strip, the smaller chunk of a proposed Palestinian state. Many of Hamas’s West Bank members of parliament are in Israeli prisons. Even if an election took place on schedule, Hamas says it would refuse to take part in present circumstances. Fatah, for its part, would be unable to campaign in Gaza.

So the January timetable is likely, anyway, to slip. June has been mentioned as an alternative. In the meantime, Mr Abbas could stay in charge as a caretaker. Few seem certain of the constitutional laws governing Palestinian electoral and other procedures. In Fatah’s view, they are elastic. But Hamas says, with some cogency, that it has been illegal for Mr Abbas to retain his post as the PA’s president since January this year, when his four-year term should have run out. If no new leader of the PA has been elected within 60 days of the old one stepping down, the parliamentary speaker becomes president until an election is held. That would be awkward, for he is a Hamas man, Aziz Dweik.

So where does that leave the 74-year-old Mr Abbas? Though his opponents, both Israeli and Palestinian, should take much of the blame, the fact is that, as a leader, he has failed. He is a ditherer. He wobbled feebly over whether to endorse a recent controversial report by Richard Goldstone on the Gaza war. Perhaps worst of all, he fluffed a chance, near the end of Ehud Olmert’s Israeli prime ministership earlier this year, to grasp Israel’s best offer so far, albeit privately mooted when Mr Olmert was on his way out. Had Mr Abbas said yes, it might have been hard for a future Israeli government to back out.

No one is bidding yet to replace him. Most of his senior people, as well as many Israelis, have asked him to reconsider. The most plausible successor would be Marwan Barghouti, who is respected by Hamas as well as by Fatah’s impatient rank-and-file, so would have a better chance of creating a unity government—and of negotiating effectively with the Israelis. The snag is that he is in an Israeli prison, serving five life sentences for murder during the intifada (uprising) that began in 2000.

Reports have again begun to circulate that Hamas may free an Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas in Gaza for three years. If that happened, Mr Barghouti might be part of prisoner swap that could let out some 300-400 Palestinians. Or Mr Barghouti could be elected in Mr Abbas’s place but remain in prison as a diplomatic pawn, waiting for Israel to extract some public promises from him before his release. In any event, as things stand, the amiable but tired Mr Abbas may be around for quite a while yet.

The Economist


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Call White House, Ask for Barack

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has become a bad play. It is obvious that all the parties are just acting out the same old scenes, with the same old tired clichés — and that no one believes any of it anymore. There is no romance, no sex, no excitement, no urgency — not even a sense of importance anymore. The only thing driving the peace process today is inertia and diplomatic habit. Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has left the realm of diplomacy. It is now more of a calisthenic, like weight-lifting or sit-ups, something diplomats do to stay in shape, but not because they believe anything is going to happen. And yet, as much as we, the audience, know this to be true, we can never quite abandon hope for peace in the Holy Land. It is our habit. Indeed, as I ranted about this to a Jordanian friend the other day, he said it all reminded him of an old story.

“These two guys are watching a cowboy and Indian movie. And in the opening scene, an Indian is hiding behind a rock about to ambush the handsome cowboy,” he explained. “ ‘I bet that Indian is going to kill that cowboy,’ one guy says to the other. ‘Never happen,’ his friend answers. ‘The cowboy is not going to be killed in the opening scene.’ ‘I’ll bet you $10 he gets killed,’ the guy says. ‘I’ll take that bet,’ says his friend.

“Sure enough, a few minutes later, the cowboy is killed and the friend pays the $10. After the movie is over the guy says to his friend, ‘Look, I have to give you back your $10. I’d actually seen this movie before. I knew what was going to happen.’ His friend answers: ‘No, you can keep the $10. I’d seen the movie, too. I just thought it would end differently this time.’ ”

This peace process movie is not going to end differently just because we keep playing the same reel. It is time for a radically new approach. And I mean radical. I mean something no U.S. administration has ever dared to do: Take down our “Peace-Processing-Is-Us” sign and just go home.

Right now we want it more than the parties. They all have other priorities today. And by constantly injecting ourselves we’ve become their Novocain. We relieve all the political pain from the Arab and Israeli decision-makers by creating the impression in the minds of their publics that something serious is happening. “Look, the U.S. secretary of state is here. Look, she’s standing by my side. Look, I’m doing something important! Take our picture. Put it on the news. We’re on the verge of something really big and I am indispensable to it.” This enables the respective leaders to continue with their real priorities — which are all about holding power or pursuing ideological obsessions — while pretending to advance peace, without paying any political price.

Let’s just get out of the picture. Let all these leaders stand in front of their own people and tell them the truth: “My fellow citizens: Nothing is happening; nothing is going to happen. It’s just you and me and the problem we own.”

Indeed, it’s time for us to dust off James Baker’s line: “When you’re serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix.”

The fact is, the only time America has been able to advance peace — post-Yom Kippur War, Camp David, post-Lebanon war, Madrid and Oslo — has been when the parties felt enough pain for different reasons that they invited our diplomacy, and we had statesmen — Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, George Shultz, James Baker and Bill Clinton — savvy enough to seize those moments.

Today, the Arabs, Israel and the Palestinians are clearly not feeling enough pain to do anything hard for peace with each other — a mood best summed up by a phrase making the rounds at the State Department: The Palestinian leadership “wants a deal with Israel without any negotiations” and Israel’s leadership “wants negotiations with the Palestinians without any deal.”

It is obvious that this Israeli government believes it can have peace with the Palestinians and keep the West Bank, this Palestinian Authority still can’t decide whether to reconcile with the Jewish state or criminalize it and this Hamas leadership would rather let Palestinians live forever in the hellish squalor that is Gaza than give up its crazy fantasy of an Islamic Republic in Palestine.

If we are still begging Israel to stop building settlements, which is so manifestly idiotic, and the Palestinians to come to negotiations, which is so manifestly in their interest, and the Saudis to just give Israel a wink, which is so manifestly pathetic, we are in the wrong place. It’s time to call a halt to this dysfunctional “peace process,” which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility.

If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table. Let’s fight about something big.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times


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Is Israel too strong for Barack Obama?

The flagging peace process

As America drops its demand for a total freeze on the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, angry Palestinians say there is no scope for resuming talks

FIVE months after Barack Obama went to Cairo and persuaded most of the Arab world, in a ringing declaration of even-handedness, that he would face down Israel in his quest for a Palestinian state, American policy seems to have run into the sand. The American president’s mediating hand is weaker, his charisma damagingly faded. From the Palestinian and Arab point of view, his administration—after grandly setting out to force the Jewish state to stop the building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land as an early token of good faith, intended to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiation—has meekly capitulated to Israel.

The upshot is that hopes for an early resumption of talks between the main protagonists seem to have been dashed. Indeed, no one seems to know how they can be restarted. The mood among moderates on both sides is as glum as ever.

Mr Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made matters worse by actually praising Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, for promising merely to “restrain” Israel’s building rather than stop it altogether, as he was first asked to do. Previously Mrs Clinton had insisted that stop meant stop. There should be no “organic growth” of existing settlements and no exceptions for projects under way. Nor did she specifically exempt East Jerusalem, which Palestinians view as their future capital but which many Israelis see as theirs alone. And she had earlier castigated Israel for demolishing Palestinian houses in the city’s eastern part. Now, in Israel on October 31st, she changed her tune, seeming to acquiesce in Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to meet those earlier American demands and congratulating the prime minister on his “unprecedented” offer to build at a slower rate than before.

Mr Netanyahu’s case is that being “prepared to adopt a policy of restraint on the existing settlements” is indeed a concession. No new settlements would be started, no extra Palestinian land appropriated for expansion. But some 3,000 housing units already commissioned must, he said, be completed. Building must go on in East Jerusalem, he has repeatedly said, as it cannot be part of a Palestinian state.

Mrs Clinton later awkwardly backpedalled, assuring the Palestinians that she still considered all settlements “illegitimate”, while pleading with them to resume talks. That seems unlikely. A storm of abuse raged in the Palestinian and Arab press. Mr Obama, it was widely deduced, had caved in after his own ratings in Israel had slumped, according to some Israeli polls, to as low as 4%. Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Fatah party who presides over the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, expressed extreme disappointment—and continued to insist that talks could not resume until there was a full building freeze.

Among Palestinians at large, Mr Abbas has been derided for putting his faith in the new American administration. Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, the smaller of the two main parts of a future Palestinian state, mocked him for ever thinking that Mr Obama could change American policy towards the Middle East.

Last month he called a general and presidential election for January 24th. But with opinion polls showing his popularity diving, on November 5th he said he would not stand for re-election. Hamas, in any event, said it would refuse to take part in the polls. Mr Abbas, it seems, has been forced to acknowledge that his authority—and his ability to grapple with the Israelis in negotiations if they had resumed—has been eviscerated.

Besides, even if talks did start again, no agreement would stick without the acquiescence of Hamas, which won the last Palestinian election, in 2006, and is still strong enough to kibosh any deal done without it. Yet discussions between the two rival groups, under the aegis of the Egyptians, have been stuttering along for more than a year without getting anywhere.

Mr Netanyahu, on the other hand, was cock-a-hoop. The right-wing and religious ministers who make up the bulk of his coalition government can scarcely believe his luck. The prime minister is riding high in the Israeli people’s esteem. Building work is proceeding apace in many of the settlements. He looks as if he has emerged unscathed from a brush with a hostile American president.

Mr Obama is being criticised, even by Israelis and Americans on the left, for making demands of Mr Netanyahu that he should have known would never be met. Some say the president should himself fly to Israel to address the Israeli people directly with a game-changing plan of his own. But no one, least of all in Washington, seems to know what that might be.

The Economist


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Israel Stops German Ship Carrying Weapons for Hezbollah

36 Containers from Iran


The Francop as it steams into the Israeli port of Ashdod.

It was only weeks ago that a German ship was found carrying weapons intended for the Islamist militants of Hezbollah. Now, Israeli special forces have discovered another German-owned ship carrying 36 containers full of munitions and have accused Iran of having sent the cache to Hezbollah.

Late on Tuesday night, special forces belonging to the Israeli navy stopped and searched the German freighter Francop. They found enough munitions to wage a small war: more than 3,000 rockets, hand grenades, armor-piercing ammunition and numerous crates of assault rifle rounds. Had the dangerous cargo not been discovered, it would have been enough for the Lebanon-based Islamist militants from Hezbollah to fight Israel for a month or longer, estimates Israeli navy commander Rani Ben-Yehuda.

In total, 36 of the 400 containers on board the Francop were intended for Hezbollah, Ben-Yehuda told journalists on Wednesday. A military spokesman said that a document found on board the ship makes it clear that the weapons originated in Iran.

The Israelis initially contacted the Francop by radio, saying that they wanted to conduct a routine inspection and boarded the ship — which was travelling from an Egyptian port — roughly 180 kilometers (112 miles) south of Cyprus.

The speed with which the troops of Commando Unit 13 found the weapons makes it clear that they knew what they were looking for. The ship was diverted to the Israeli port of Ashdod where the crates full of weapons were unloaded. Images of the hundreds of crates full of weapons confiscated from the Francop were broadcast on Israeli television.

Convoluted Path

The Israeli intelligence service had reportedly been following the weapons cargo for some 10 days following its departure from Iran. The containers were initially loaded onto a smaller, Iranian freighter, which then charted a course for the Egyptian port of Domiat, all the time under Israeli surveillance. There, the containers were transferred to the Francop, which was scheduled to make stops in Cyprus and then the Syrian port of Latakia where it was to be unloaded, according to a source close to the Israeli intelligence service.

According to the Israeli military, the weapons then were to have been smuggled over the border into Lebanon and delivered to Hezbollah. If true, the Francop case sheds light on the convoluted path taken by weapons deliveries from Iran to their Hezbollah allies.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem have denied the Israeli version of events. According to an Iranian television Web site, the two made the announcement at a joint press conference. There were “no weapons of Iranian production” on board the ship, they said.

Still, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the decision to board the ship was taken at top levels of government: Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave the green light on advice from the military. They had been receiving briefings about the progress of the Francop for days.

Well Informed

“The Israeli intelligence service has been watching weapons deliveries to Hezbollah for some time now,” says Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, author of the 2008 book “The Secret War with Iran.” In the past, however, they have refrained from intervening, probably in an effort to protect their sources. Now, however, it appears the Israelis want its opponents to know that it is well informed, Bergman said.

Israeli officials were quick to inform the Germans of the action aboard the Francop as well as the dangerous stash of weaponry found. Preliminary investigations made it clear that the German participants in the case only played a very small role. The Francop belongs to a German shipping company Gerd Bartels, based near Hamburg. But it is actually leased to a charter company, United Feeder Services, which is based on the Marshall Islands and which operates out of Cyprus. Because no Germans were among the crew, the Israeli government agreed with Berlin merely to remain in contact over the matter.

Even without direct German involvement, there was still a lot of unease among officials in Germany’s Foreign Ministry when the initial reports about the seized vessel began arriving. Mere weeks ago, the crew of an American naval vessel boarded the German-owned freighter Hansa India on the Red Sea, setting off a flurry of diplomatic activity. The Israelis had provided the US Navy with solid evidence that the ship, owned by the Hamburg-based shipping company Leonhardt & Blumberg, was carrying weapons bound for Hezbollah. In the end, the inspectors found what they were looking for: eight containers packed with 7.62 millimeter assault rifle ammunition buried among much more innocent cargo.

Guilt by Association

When US forces temporarily took control of the ship, which had a German captain, the German Foreign Ministry jumped into action and hammered out an agreement. The offending cargo was unloaded in Malta and handed over to authorities there. In response to a request by the Israelis, Germany’s government immediately promised to hand over all the findings of its investigation to the UN Security Council committee in charge of overseeing sanctions against Iran.

The whole affair was rather embarrassing for Germany. When it comes to sanctions against Iran, which aim to keep weapons and materials needed to make a nuclear bomb out of the country, Berlin likes to present itself as hard-nosed and all-business on the international stage. The news that German ships are involved in smuggling weapons disrupts this image, even if the shipping companies are not directly involved in the weapons trade.

Israeli officials didn’t finish interrogating the crew of the Francop until Wednesday evening — they say that they don’t believe the crew was consciously taking part in weapon-smuggling efforts and chances are that not even the Egyptians knew what was being transferred between ships in their harbor. According to the ship’s owner, the vessel has already left Ashdod.


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The Mideast impasse

Is the Obama administration focused on the right ‘opportunity’ with Israelis and Palestinians?

PALESTINIAN President Mahmoud Abbas has participated in peace negotiations with five Israeli governments that refused to halt Jewish settlement construction. Yet Mr. Abbas has rejected an appeal from the Obama administration to start talks with the center-right coalition of Binyamin Netanyahu, putting one of the administration’s primary foreign policy goals on indefinite hold. The reason: “America cannot get Israel to implement a settlement freeze,” a statement said.

Has Mr. Abbas suddenly realized that settlements are the key obstacle to a Palestinian state? Hardly: In private, senior Palestinian officials readily concede that the issue is secondary. Instead, the Palestinian pose is a product of the Obama administration’s missteps — and also of the fact that the opportunity Mr. Obama said he perceived to broker a two-state settlement is not so visible to leaders in the region.

The administration set the stage last spring for this diplomatic impasse by demanding “a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth — any kind of settlement activity,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it. No Israeli government has agreed to such terms, and the administration’s public insistence on them only served to boost Mr. Netanyahu’s approval rating with Israelis, while Mr. Obama’s plummeted to the single digits. The administration now wants to set the issue aside and move on with the talks; officials say a settlement freeze was never a precondition. But Ms. Clinton is having trouble clambering out of the hole she helped to dig: Last weekend she praised as “unprecedented” an Israeli proposal for limiting settlement growth; this week, after Arab protests, she backpedaled.

Mr. Abbas has a similar predicament. Having adopted the original U.S. demand as his own, he cannot easily drop it. Arab leaders could provide Mr. Abbas political cover, but neither they nor he seems to share Mr. Obama’s notion that the time is ripe for a deal. Apart from the settlement issue, the Israelis and Palestinians are far apart in their proposals for what negotiations would cover and how quickly they would progress. Israelis note that Mr. Abbas already rejected a far-reaching peace offer by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Palestinians rightly suspect that Mr. Netanyahu would be less compromising than Mr. Olmert.

The Obama administration’s working assumption has been that energetic diplomacy by the United States could induce both sides to move quickly toward peace. In fact, progress in the Middle East has always begun with initiatives by Israelis or Arabs themselves. At the moment, the most promising idea comes from Mr. Abbas’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who has vowed to build the institutions of a Palestinian state within the next two years, with or without peace talks. Negotiations between the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders could provide indirect support for that initiative, even if there is little progress. But the administration would do well to refocus its efforts on supporting Mr. Fayyad.

Editorial, Washington Post


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How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor

The Story of ‘Operation Orchard’

In September 2007, Israeli fighter jets destroyed a mysterious complex in the Syrian desert. The incident could have led to war, but it was hushed up by all sides. Was it a nuclear plant and who gave the orders for the strike?


A satellite image of the suspected reactor before the Sept. 6, 2007 air strike: Israeli intelligence obtained information about the secret project after stealing data from a laptop belonging to a senior Syrian official.

The mighty Euphrates river is the subject of the prophecies in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, where it is written that the river will be the scene of the battle of Armageddon: “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East.”Today, time seems to stand still along the river. The turquoise waters of the Euphrates flow slowly through the northern Syrian provincial city Deir el-Zor, whose name translates as “monastery in the forest.” Farmers till the fields, and vendors sell camel’s hair blankets, cardamom and coriander in the city’s bazaars. Occasionally archaeologists visit the region to excavate the remains of ancient cities in the surrounding area, a place where many peoples have left their mark — the Parthians and the Sassanids, the Romans and the Jews, the Ottomans and the French, who were assigned the mandate for Syria by the League of Nations and who only withdrew their troops in 1946. Deir el-Zor is the last outpost before the vast, empty desert, a lifeless place of jagged mountains and inaccessible valleys that begins not far from the town center.

But on a night two years ago, something dramatic happened in this sleepy place. It’s an event that local residents discuss in whispers in teahouses along the river, when the water pipes glow and they are confident that no officials are listening — the subject is taboo in the state-controlled media, and they know that drawing too much attention to themselves in this authoritarian state could be hazardous to their health.

Some in Deir el-Zor talk of a bright flash which lit up the night in the distant desert. Others report seeing a gigantic column of smoke over the Euphrates, like a threatening finger. Some talk of omens, while others relate conspiracy theories. The pious older guests at Jisr al-Kabir, a popular restaurant near the city’s landmark suspension bridge, believe it was a sign from heaven.

All the rumors have long since muddied the waters as to what people may or may not have seen. But even the supposedly advanced Western world, with its state-of-the-art surveillance technology and interconnectedness through the mass media, has little more solid information than the people in this Syrian desert town. What happened in the night of Sept. 6, 2007 in the desert, 130 kilometers (81 miles) from the Iraqi border, 30 kilometers from Deir el-Zor, is one of the great mysteries of our times.

‘This Incident Never Occurred’

At 2:55 p.m. on that day, the Damascus-based Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that Israeli fighter jets coming from the Mediterranean had violated Syrian airspace at “about one o’clock” in the morning. “Air defense units confronted them and forced them to leave after they dropped some ammunition in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage,” a Syrian military spokesman said, according to the news agency. There was no explanation whatsoever for why such a dramatic event was concealed for half a day.

At 6:46 p.m., Israeli government radio quoted a military spokesman as saying: “This incident never occurred.” At 8:46 p.m., a spokesperson for the US State Department said during a daily press briefing that he had only heard “second-hand reports” which “contradict” each other.

To this day, Syria and Israel, two countries that have technically been at war since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, have largely adhered to a bizarre policy of downplaying what was clearly an act of war. Gradually it became clear that the fighter pilots did not drop some random ammunition over empty no-man’s land on that night in 2007, but had in fact deliberately targeted and destroyed a secret Syrian complex.

Was it a nuclear plant, in which scientists were on the verge of completing the bomb? Were North Korean, perhaps even Iranian experts, also working in this secret Syrian facility? When and how did the Israelis learn about the project, and why did they take such a great risk to conduct their clandestine operation? Was the destruction of the Al Kibar complex meant as a final warning to the Iranians, a trial run of sorts intended to show them what the Israelis plan to do if Tehran continues with its suspected nuclear weapons program?

In recent months, SPIEGEL has spoken with key politicians and experts about the mysterious incident in the Syrian desert, including Syrian President Bashar Assad, leading Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei and influential American nuclear expert David Albright. SPIEGEL has also talked with individuals involved in the operation, who have only now agreed to reveal, under conditions of anonymity, what they know.

These efforts have led to an account that, while not solving the mystery in its entirety, at least delivers many pieces of the puzzle. It also offers an assessment of an operation that changed the Middle East and generated shock waves that are still being felt today.

Syria’s Unpredictable President

Tel Aviv, late 2001. An inconspicuous block of houses located among eucalyptus trees is home to the headquarters of the legendary Israeli foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad. A memorial to agents who died in commando operations behind enemy lines stands in the small garden. There are already more than 400 names engraved on the gray marble, with room for many more. In the main building, intelligence analysts are trying to assemble a picture of the new Syrian president.

In July 2000, Bashar Assad succeeded his deceased father, former President Hafez Assad. The Israelis believed that the younger Assad, a politically inexperienced ophthalmologist who had lived in London for many years and who was only 34 when he took office, would be a weak leader. Unlike his father, an unscrupulous political realist nicknamed “The Lion” who had almost struck a deal with the Israelis over the Golan Heights in the last few months of his life, Bashar Assad was considered relatively unpredictable.

According to Israeli agents in Damascus, the younger Assad was trying to consolidate his power by espousing radical and controversial positions. He supplied massive amounts of weapons to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, for their “struggle for independence” from the “Zionist regime.” He received high-ranking delegations from North Korea. The Mossad was convinced that the subject of these secret talks was a further upgrading of Syria’s military capabilities. Pyongyang had already helped Damascus in the past in the development of medium-range ballistic missiles and chemical weapons like sarin and mustard gas. But when Israeli military intelligence informed their Mossad counterparts that a Syrian nuclear program was apparently under discussion, the intelligence professionals were dismissive.

Nuclear weapons for Damascus, a nuclear plant literally on Israel’s doorstep? For the experts, it seemed much too implausible.

Besides, the senior Assad had rebuffed Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani “father of the atom bomb,” when Khan tried to sell him centrifuges for uranium enrichment on the black market in the early 1990s. The Israelis also knew all too well how complex the road to the bomb is, after having spent a lengthy period of time in the 1960s to covertly procure uranium and then develop nuclear weapons at their secret laboratories in the town of Dimona in the Negev desert. They took extreme measures to prevent then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from following their example: On a June night in 1981, Israeli F-16s, in violation of international law, entered Iraqi airspace and destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

Key Phase

The Israelis took a pinprick approach to dealing with the “little” Assad. In 2003, the air force conducted multiple air strikes against positions on the Syrian border, and in October Israeli fighter jets flew a low-altitude mission over Assad’s residence in Damascus. It was an arrogant show of power that even had many at the Mossad shaking their heads, wondering how Assad would respond to such humiliating treatment.

At that time, the nuclear plant on Euphrates had likely entered its first key phase. In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military’s “8200” unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was “flagged,” as they say in intelligence jargon.

In late 2006, Israeli military intelligence decided to ask the British for their opinion. But almost at the same time as the delegation from Tel Aviv was arriving in London, a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out. Israeli agents took the opportunity to install a so-called “Trojan horse” program, which can be used to secretly steal data, onto the Syrian’s laptop.

The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development. At the beginning — probably in 2002, although the material was undated — the construction site looked like a treehouse on stilts, complete with suspicious-looking pipes leading to a pumping station at the Euphrates. Later photos show concrete piers and roofs, which apparently had only one function: to modify the building so that it would look unsuspicious from above. In the end, the whole thing looked as if a shoebox had been placed over something in an attempt to conceal it. But photos from the interior revealed that what was going on at the site was in fact probably work on fissile material.

One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

By now, both Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad were on high alert. After being briefed, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked: “Will the reactor be up and running soon, and is there is a need to take action?” Hard to say, the experts said. The prime minister asked for more detailed information, preferably from first hand.

The CIA Catches a Big Fish

Istanbul , a CIA safe house for high-profile defectors, February 2007. An Iranian general had decided to switch sides. He was a big fish, of the sort rarely caught in the nets of the CIA and the Mossad.

Ali-Reza Asgari, 63, a handsome man with a moustache, was the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s and became Iran’s deputy defense minister in the mid-1990s. Though well-liked under the relatively liberal then-President Mohammad Khatami, Asgari fell out of favor after the election victory of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Because he had branded several men close to Ahmadinejad as corrupt, there was suddenly more at stake for Asgari than his career: His life was in danger.

Sources in the intelligence community claim that Asgari’s defection to the West was meticulously planned over a period of months. However Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a former Iranian media attaché in Beirut who fled to Berlin in 2003 and who had known Asgari personally for many years, told SPIEGEL that the general contacted him twice to ask for help in his escape — first from Iran in the second half of 2006 and later from Damascus. In Ebrahimi’s version of events, Asgari succeeded in crossing the border into Turkey at night with the help of a smuggler. Ebrahimi says he only notified the CIA and turned his friend over to the Americans after Asgari had reached Istanbul.

But from that point on, the versions of the story coincide again. The Americans and Israelis soon discovered that the Tehran insider was an intelligence goldmine. For the Israelis, the most alarming part of Asgari’s story was what he had to say about Iran’s nuclear program. According to Asgari, Tehran was building a second, secret plant in addition to the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which was already known to the West. Besides, he said, Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans. But Asgari claimed he did not know any further details about the plan.

After a few days, the general’s handlers flew him from Istanbul, considered relatively unsafe, to the highly secure Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt. “I brought my computer along. My entire life is in there,” Asgari told his friend Ebrahimi, who identified him for the Americans. Asgari contacted Ebrahimi another two times, once from Washington and then from “somewhere in Texas.” The defector wanted his friend to let his wife know that he was safe and in good hands. The Iranian authorities had announced that Asgari had been “kidnapped by the Mossad and probably killed.” But then nothing further was heard from Asgari. The American authorities had apparently created a new identity for their high-level Iranian source. Ali-Reza Asgari had ceased to exist.

The Need for US Support

Olmert was kept apprised of the latest developments. In March 2007, three senior experts from the political, military and intelligence communities were summoned to his residence on Gaza Street in Jerusalem, where Olmert swore them to absolute secrecy. The trio was to advise him on matters relating to the Syrian nuclear program. Olmert wanted results, knowing that he would have to gain the support of the Americans before launching an attack. At the very least, he needed the Americans’ tacit consent if he planned to send aircraft into regions that were only a few dozen kilometers from military bases in Turkey, a NATO member.In August, Major General Yaakov Amidror, the trio’s spokesman, delivered a devastating report to the prime minister. While the Mossad had tended to be reserved in its assessment of Al Kibar, the three men were now more than convinced that the site posed an existential threat to Israel and that there was evidence of intense cooperation between Syria and North Korea. There also appeared to be proof of connections to Iran. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who experts believed was the head of Iran’s secret “Project 111″ for outfitting Iranian missiles with nuclear warheads, had visited Damascus in 2005. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Syria in 2006, where he is believed to have promised the Syrians more than $1 billion (€675 million) in assistance and urged them to accelerate their efforts.

According to this version of the story, Al Kibar was to be a backup plant for the heavy-water reactor under construction near the Iranian city of Arak, designed to provide plutonium to build a bomb if Iran did not succeed in constructing a weapon using enriched uranium. “Assad apparently thought that, with his weapon, he could have a nuclear option for an Armageddon,” says Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, the former director of Israeli military intelligence.

Suspicious Ships

Olmert approved a highly risky undertaking: a fact-finding mission by Israeli agents on foreign soil. On an overcast night in August 2007, says intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant. The group had to abort its daring mission prematurely when it was discovered by a patrol. The Israelis still lacked the definitive proof they needed. However those in Tel Aviv who favored quick action argued that the results of the samples “provided evidence of the existence of a nuclear program.”

One of them was the head of the trio of experts, Yaakov Amidror. Amidror, a deeply religious man strongly influenced by his fear of a new Holocaust, also found evidence suggesting that construction on the Syrian plant was to be accelerated. He told Olmert about a ship called the Gregorio, which was coming from North Korea and which was seized in Cyprus in September 2006. It was found to have suspicious-looking pipes bound for Syria on board. And in early September 2007, the freighter Al-Ahmad, also coming from Pyongyang, arrived at the Syrian port of Tartous — with a cargo of uranium materials, according to the Mossad’s information.

At the time, no one was claiming that Al Kibar represented an immediate threat to Israel’s security. Nevertheless, Olmert wanted to attack, despite the tense conditions in the region, the Iraq crisis and the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Olmert notified then-US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and gave his own military staff the authority to bomb the Syrian plant. The countdown for Operation Orchard had begun.

‘Target Destroyed’

Ramat David Air Base, Sept. 5, 2007. Israel’s Ramat David air base is located south of the port city of Haifa. It is also near Megiddo, which according to the Bible will be the site of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil.

The order that the pilots in the squadron received shortly before 11 p.m. on Sept. 5, 2007 seemed purely routine: They were to be prepared for an emergency exercise. All 10 available aircraft, known affectionately by their pilots as “Raam” (“Thunder”), took off into the night sky and headed westward, out into the Mediterranean. It was a maneuver designed to deflect attention from the extraordinary mobilization that had been taking place behind the scenes.

Three of the 10 F-15’s were ordered to return home, while the remaining seven continued flying east-northeast, at low altitude, toward the nearby Syrian border, where they used their precision-guided weapons to eliminate a radar station. Within an additional 18 flight minutes, they had reached the area around Deir el-Zor. By then, the Israeli pilots had the coordinates of the Al Kibar complex programmed into their on-board computers. The attack was filmed from the air, and as is always the case with these strikes, the bombs were far more destructive than necessary. For the Israelis, it made little difference whether a few guards were killed or a larger number of people.

Immediately following the brief report from the military (“target destroyed”), Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, explained the situation, and asked him to inform President Assad in Damascus that Israel would not tolerate another nuclear plant — but that no further hostile action was planned. Israel, Olmert said, did not want to play up the incident and was still interested in making peace with Damascus. He added that if Assad chose not to draw attention to the Israeli strike, he would do the same.

In this way, a deafening silence about the mysterious event in the desert began. Nevertheless, the story did not end there, because there were many who chose to shed light on the incident — and others who were intent on exacting revenge.

Washington , DC , late October 2007. The independent Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) is located less than a mile from the White House. It is more important than some US federal departments.

The office of its founder and president, David Albright, who holds a degree in physics and was a member of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) group of experts in Iraq, is in suite 500 of the brick building that houses the ISIS. As relaxed as he seems to his staff, in his pleated khaki trousers and rolled up shirtsleeves, they know that it is no accident that Albright has managed to turn the ISIS into one of the leading think tanks in Washington. Albright’s words carry significant weight in the world of nuclear scientists.

The ISIS spent four weeks analyzing the initial reports about the mysterious air strike in Syria, combing over satellite images covering an area of 25,000 square kilometers (9,650 square miles) before they discovered the destroyed complex of buildings in the desert.

In April 2008, Albright received an unexpected invitation from the CIA to attend a meeting. There, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden showed him images that the Israelis had obtained from the Syrian computer in London (much to the outrage of officials in Tel Aviv, incidentally, as it provided insights into Mossad sources). The photos enabled Albright, who was familiar with the dimensions and characteristics of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor, to compare the various stages at Al Kibar. “There are no longer any serious doubts that we were dealing with a nuclear reactor in Syria,” the scientist concluded.

Albright believes that the CIA’s strange behavior had to be understood in the context of the Iraq disaster. At the time, the administration of then-President George W. Bush, citing CIA information, constantly repeated the false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. This time around, American intelligence wanted to prove that the threat was real.

But where did the Syrians get the uranium they needed for their heavy-water reactor, and in which secret plants was it enriched? In addition to the North Koreans, were the Iranians also involved? And what did the latest images of this “Manhattan project” in the Syrian desert actually depict — the conversion of an existing plant or a completely new facility?

The Sisyphus of Non-Proliferation 

Vienna, the UN complex on Wagramer Straße, headquarters of the IAEA’s nuclear detectives. An impressive collection of national flags hangs in the lobby, like sails waiting for a tailwind. Of the 192 UN member states, 150 are also members of the IAEA, and almost all UN members have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The problem children of the nuclear world, Israel, Pakistan and India, have not signed the treaty. All three of them possess — or in the case of Israel, are believed to possess — nuclear weapons.

Signatory states like Syria and Iran are entitled to support in pursuing the peaceful use of nuclear energy. They are also required to either phase out nuclear weapons and prevent their proliferation (in the case of the nuclear “haves”) or refrain from developing them in the first place (in the case of the “have-nots”).

The IAEA, whose job is to verify compliance with the provisions of the NPT, has 2,200 employees and an annual budget of roughly $300 million. That may sound impressive, but it is really just peanuts if the claim repeatedly made by politicians around the world is true, namely that the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of blackmailing dictators or terrorists poses the greatest danger to humanity.

During an interview with SPIEGEL in his Vienna office in May 2009, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, 67, sighed as he took stock of his life. At times, the IAEA boss says, he has felt like Sisyphus, the tragic figure in Greek mythology who is constantly pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to lose hold of it shortly before the summit. ElBaradei, the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, has repeatedly pointed out that his organization is subject to the whims of the member states. The nuclear detectives can admittedly be deployed to use their highly sensitive testing equipment to obtain a “nuclear fingerprint” in any particular place, but they also need access to reactors. Libya has caused problems in the past, while today’s recalcitrants are North Korea and Iran — in other words, the usual suspects. And now Syria. The news about the desert nuclear plant came as a great shock to the IAEA.

“What the Israelis did was a violation of international law. If the Israelis and the Americans had information about an illegal nuclear facility, they should have notified us immediately,” says ElBaradei, who only learned of the dramatic incident from media reports. “When everything was over, we were supposed to head out and search for evidence in the rubble — a virtually impossible task.”

Alarming Findings

But he had underestimated his inspectors. In June 2008, a team of IAEA experts visited the destroyed Al Kibar plant. The Syrians had given in to pressure from the weapons inspectors, but they had also done everything possible to dispose of the evidence first. They removed all the debris from the bombed facility and paved over the entire site with concrete. They told the inspectors that it had been a conventional weapons factory, and not a nuclear reactor, which they would have been required to report to the IAEA. They also insisted that foreigners had not been involved.

The IAEA experts painstakingly collected soil samples, and used special wipes to remove minute traces of material from furnishings or pipes still on the site. The samples were sent to the IAEA special laboratories in Seibersdorf, a town near Vienna, where they were subjected to ultrasensitive isotope analyses capable of determining whether samples had come into contact with suspicious uranium. And indeed, the analysis produced some very alarming findings.

In its report, the IAEA describes “a significant number of anthropogenic natural uranium particles (i.e. produced as a result of chemical processing)” which were “of a type not included in Syria’s declared inventory of nuclear material.” The Syrian authorities claimed that the uranium was introduced by the Israeli bombing, something that the IAEA said was of “low probability.”

In its latest report, released in June 2009, the IAEA demanded, in no uncertain terms, that Damascus grant it permission for another series of inspections, this time with access to “three other locations” that may have been related to Al Kibar. “The characteristics of the complex, including the cooling water capacities, bear a strong similarity to those of a nuclear reactor, something which urgently requires clarification,” says one IAEA expert. In the cautious language of UN officials, this is practically a guilty verdict.

In the Crosshairs

“Syria is not giving us the transparency we require,” ElBaradei says angrily. A picture hanging in his office seems to reflect his mood. It is a print of “The Scream,” by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, which depicts a deeply distraught person. ElBaradei does not believe that he is too lenient with those suspected of illegally pursuing nuclear weapons programs, as the Bush administration repeatedly claimed, particularly in relation to Iran. The IAEA, he says, will probably receive permission for a new inspection trip to Syria soon. Or at least he hopes it will.

If and when that happens, a different host will greet the UN team. The affable Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, an Assad confidant in charge of all manner of “sensitive security issues,” was formerly in charge of presiding over the inspections. However he was assassinated in 2008. He landed in the crosshairs of his pursuers, just like Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah.

For the Israelis, Mughniyah was the epitome of terror, the most notorious terrorist mastermind in the Middle East. He was responsible for the bloody attack on American military headquarters in Beirut in the 1980s and on Jewish institutions in Argentina in the 1990s, attacks in which hundreds of innocent people died. He is regarded by some as the inventor of the suicide attack and was deeply rooted in Iranian power structures.

The Mossad had information that Mughniyah was planning to avenge the air strike on Al Kibar with an attack on an Israeli embassy — either in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, Cairo or the Jordanian capital Amman.

Assassinated in an SUV

Damascus, the building complex of the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria in the city’s Kafar Soussa diplomatic quarter, February 2008. Visitors are not welcome. “Please contact post office box 6091,” says the guard at the entrance. There is also an email address ( But inquiries sent to both addresses remain unanswered. No wonder, say experts, who speculate that the threads of a secret nuclear weapons program come together in the inconspicuous AECS complex.

It was precisely on the street where the AECS complex is located that Imad Mughniyah, a.k.a. “The Fox,” parked his Mitsubishi Pajero on Feb. 12, 2008 while he attended a reception at the nearby Iranian embassy. It was a rare appearance by a man who normally avoided being seen in public. But on that evening Mughniyah knew that he would be among friends, including Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and Syrian General Mohammed Suleiman, whom he had met many times in Tehran and at Hezbollah centers in Lebanon.

Shortly after 10:30 p.m., Mughniyah drank his last glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Then he kissed the host, the newly installed Iranian diplomat Ahmed Mousavi, on both cheeks, as local custom dictates, and left the party. Mughniyah was “probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we’ve ever run across,” said former CIA agent Robert Baer, who had been tracking him for a long time. The terrorist knew that he was at the very top of the Mossad’s hit list, and he also knew that the FBI was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. But he felt relatively safe in Syria, as he did in Beirut and Tehran, which he visited on a regular basis.

The explosion completely destroyed the SUV and ripped apart Mughniyah’s body. He was killed instantly. But the explosive charge was apparently calculated so carefully that nearby buildings were barely harmed. The terrorist leader remained the only victim on that night in Damascus.

Whoever committed the act, “the world is a better place without this man,” the American government announced the next day through State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. Hezbollah, which had no doubts as to who was responsible for the killing, called Mughniyah a “martyr” and vowed to retaliate against the “Zionists.”

The Israel government neither confirmed nor denied any involvement in the assassination. But agents at the Mossad could hardly contain their delight. According to information leaked to intelligence expert Uzi Mahnaimi, Israeli agents had removed the driver’s seat headrest and filled it with a compound that would detonate on contact. Intelligence expert Ronen Bergman can even describe the reaction of Israelis who were involved. “It was a shame about that nice new Pajero,” one of them reportedly said.

Tartous, a medieval stronghold of the Knights Templar on the Syrian Mediterranean coast, five months later. It was at this port city, 160 kilometers northwest of Damascus, that the mysterious freighter Hamed had once berthed with its supposed cargo of cement from North Korea. Here, on a beach 13 kilometers north of the medieval city walls, General Suleiman had a weekend house, not far from the Rimal al-Zahabiya luxury beach resort. In the summer, Suleiman traveled to his weekend house almost every Friday to review files, relax and swim. On this first August weekend in 2008, President Assad’s eminence grise must have taken along a particularly large number of documents. A few days later, he had planned to accompany Assad on a secret visit to Tehran.

As always, Suleiman drove from Damascus to Tartous in an armored vehicle. Additional bodyguards were waiting for him at his chalet. They never let him out of their sight, even escorting him into the water when he went swimming. After Mughniyah’s murder on a busy Damascus street, security was at the highest possible level. The general, who interacted with the global community as the regime’s senior representative on nuclear issues, was considered particularly at risk.

The sea was calm that morning. Yachts were cruising off the coast, and there was nothing to raise suspicions in Tartous, a popular sailing destination for Syria’s moneyed aristocracy where boats can be chartered for visits to nearby Arwad Island and its fish restaurants. An unusually sleek yacht came within 50 meters of the coast, but it was not close enough to raise any red flags with the bodyguards when their boss decided to jump into the sea.

No one even heard the gunshots, which were probably fired from precision rifles equipped with silencers. But they clearly came from offshore, striking Sulaiman in the head, chest and neck. The general died before his bodyguards could do anything for him. The yacht carrying the snipers turned away and disappeared into international waters.

Hushed Up

The Syrian authorities kept the news of the murder from the public for days. After that, it issued terse statements about the “vicious crime.” According to the official account, the general was “found shot dead near Tartous.” There was no mention of a yacht or of the angle from which the shots were fired.

Speculation was rife in Damascus. Diplomats assumed that Suleiman had become too powerful for his fellow cabinet members, and that his killing was evidence of an internal Syrian power struggle. According to Western critics of the president, Suleiman had become a burden for Assad after the debacle involving the bombed nuclear plant and the Mughniyah murder, and he was eliminated on orders from Assad. For experts, however, the most likely scenario is that the Israelis were behind the highly professional assassination.

Suleiman, who was nicknamed “the imported general” because of his European appearance, was buried in a private ceremony in his native village of Draykish two days after his murder. President Assad sent his younger brother Maher to attend the secret funeral, while he himself embarked on his scheduled trip to Tehran. It was important for him to put on a show of self-control, no matter how distressed he may have felt.

Can bomb attacks and hit squads against real or presumed terrorists bring about progress in the Middle East? Is it true that Arabs and Israelis only understand the language of violence, as many in Tel Aviv are now saying? Did the operation against the Al Kibar complex, which violated international law, bring the Syrian president to his senses, or did it merely encourage him to harden his position?

And what does all this mean for a possible Iranian nuclear bomb?

The Consequences of Operation Orchard

“The facility that was bombed was not a nuclear plant, but rather a conventional military installation,” Syrian President Bashar Assad insisted during a SPIEGEL interview at his palace near Damascus in mid-January 2009. “We could have struck back. But should we really allow ourselves to be provoked into a war? Then we would have walked into an Israeli trap.” What about the traces of uranium? “Perhaps the Israelis dropped it from the air to make us the target of precisely these suspicions.”

Damascus, he said, is not interested in becoming a nuclear power, nor does it believe that Tehran is developing the bomb. “Syria is fundamentally opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We want a nuclear-free Middle East, Israel included.”

Assad, outraged over Israeli belligerence in the Gaza Strip, has suspended secret peace talks with the enemy, which had been brokered by Turkey. But it is also abundantly clear that Assad is eager to remove himself from the list of global political pariahs and enter into dialogue with the United States and Europe.

In the autumn of 2009, relations between Damascus and the West seem to be on the mend, probably as the result of American concessions rather than Israeli bombs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy received Assad at the Elysée Palace and told him that the normalization of relations would depend on the Syrians meeting a provocatively worded condition: “End nuclear weapons cooperation with Iran.” In the first week of October, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad traveled to Washington to meet with his counterparts there. And Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, with Washington’s explicit blessing, went to Damascus in an attempt to make a shift to the moderate camp more palatable for Assad.

President Barack Obama will probably send a US military attaché to Damascus soon, followed by an ambassador. Syria could be removed from the US’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a list which also includes Iran, Cuba and Sudan. The prospect of billions in aid, as well as transfers of high technology, is being held out to Assad. The Syrian president knows that this is probably his only hope to revive his ailing economy in the long term.

Relations between Damascus and Tehran have worsened considerably in recent weeks. Western intelligence agencies report that the Iranian leadership is demanding that Syria return — in full and without compensation — substantial shipments of uranium, which it no longer needs now that its nuclear program has been destroyed.

The latest news from Damascus, the ancient city where Saulus turned into Paulus according to the old scripts: According to information SPIEGEL has obtained from sources in Damascus, Assad has been considering taking a sensational political step. He is believed to have suggested to contacts in Pyongyang that he is considering the disclosure of his “national” nuclear program, but without divulging any details of cooperation with his North Korean and Iranian partners. Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi reaped considerable benefits from the international community after a similar “confession” about his country’s nuclear program.

The reaction from North Korea was swift and extremely harsh: Pyongyang sent a senior government representative to Damascus to inform Syrian authorities that the North Koreans would terminate all cooperation on chemical weapons if Assad proceeded with his plan. And this regardless whether he mentioned Pyongyang in this context or not.

Tehran’s reaction is believed to have been even more severe. Saeed Jalili, the country’s leading nuclear negotiator and a close associate of Iran’s supreme religious leader, apparently brought along an urgent message from the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which Khamenei called Assad’s plan “unacceptable” and threatened that it would spell the end of the two countries’ strategic alliance and a sharp decline in relations.

According to intelligence sources, Assad has backed down — for the time being. However he is also looking for ways to do business with his enemies, even Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Assad is loath to give up his contacts to Hezbollah and Tehran completely, and he will demand a very high price for the possible recognition of Israel and for playing the role of mediator with Tehran, namely the return of the entire Golan Heights.Time on Its Side

Did Operation Orchard make an impression on the Iranians, and did they understand it the way it was probably intended by the Israelis: as a final warning to Tehran?

The Iranians have — literally — entrenched themselves, and not only since the Israeli attack on Syria. Many of the centrifuges they use for uranium enrichment are now operating in underground tunnels. Not even the bunker-busting super-bombs the Pentagon has requested be made available soon, citing “urgent operational requirements,” are capable of fully destroying facilities like the one in Natanz.

The Americans — or the Israelis — would have to conduct air strikes for several weeks and destroy more than a dozen known nuclear facilities to set back the Iranian nuclear program by more than a few weeks. It would be a far more complex undertaking than the Israelis’ past attacks on the Osirak reactor in Iraq and Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear plant. And even after such a comprehensive operation, which would expose them to counterattacks, they could not be entirely sure of having wiped out all key elements of the Iranian nuclear program. Just in September, Tehran surprised the world with the confession that it had built a previously unreported uranium enrichment plant near Qom.

Operation Orchard achieved only one thing: If the Iranians had planned to build a “spare” nuclear plant in Syria, that is, a backup plutonium factory, their plans were thwarted. But Tehran has time on its side. The Iranians are already believed to have reached breakout capacity — in other words, the ability to begin building a nuclear weapon if they so desire. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.

And Syria? There is nothing to suggest that Damascus will or is even able to play with fire once again. A conventional factory has in fact been built over the ruins of the Al Kibar plant. There is no access to the plant — for “security reasons,” as residents of Deir el-Zor say tersely — at the roadblock near the great river and the desert village of Tibnah.

The turquoise-colored river flows slowly, the river that Moses, according to the Bible, promised to the Israelites as part of their holy land. To this day, many radical Israelis take the relevant passage in the Bible as seriously as an entry in the land register: “Every place that your foot shall tread upon shall be yours. From the desert, and from Libanus, from the great river Euphrates unto the western sea.”

Referring to the same river, the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have said: “The Euphrates reveals the treasures within itself. Whoever sees it should not take anything from it.”


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The Return of Israel’s Existential Dread

In tabloid cartoons and dinner conversations, Israelis brace themselves for war with Iran.

The postcard from the Home Front Command that recently arrived in my mailbox looks like an ad from the Ministry of Tourism. A map of Israel is divided by color into six regions, each symbolized by an upbeat drawing: a smiling camel in the Negev desert, a skier in the Golan Heights. In fact, each region signifies the amount of time residents will have to seek shelter from an impending missile attack. If you live along the Gaza border, you have 15 seconds after the siren sounds. Jerusalemites get a full three minutes. But as the regions move farther north, the time drops again, until finally, along the Lebanese and Syrian borders, the color red designates “immediate entry into a shelter.” In other words, if you’re not already inside a shelter don’t bother looking for one.

The invisible but all-pervasive presence on that cheerful map of existential dread is Iran. If Israel were to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, Tehran’s two terrorist allies on our borders—Hezbollah and Hamas—would almost certainly renew attacks against the Israeli home front. And Tel Aviv would be hit by Iranian long-range missiles.

kiteOn the other hand, if Israel refrains from attacking Iran and international efforts to stop its nuclearization fail, the results along our border would likely be even more catastrophic. Hezbollah and Hamas would be emboldened politically and psychologically. The threat of a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv would become a permanent part of Israeli reality. This would do incalculable damage to Israel’s sense of security.

Given these dreadful options, one might assume that the Israeli public would respond with relief to reports that Iran is now considering the International Atomic Energy Agency’s proposal to transfer 70% of its known, low-enriched uranium to Russia for treatment that would seriously reduce its potential for military application. In fact, Israelis from the right and the left have reacted with heightened anxiety. “Kosher Uranium,” read the mocking headline of Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot. Media commentators noted that easing world pressure on Iran will simply enable it to cheat more easily. If Iranian leaders are prepared to sign an agreement, Israelis argue, that’s because they know something the rest of us don’t.

In the last few years, Israelis have been asking themselves two questions with increasing urgency: Should we attack Iran if all other options fail? And can we inflict sufficient damage to justify the consequences?

As sanctions efforts faltered, most Israelis came to answer the first question affirmatively. A key moment in coalescing that resolve occurred in December 2006, when the Iranian regime sponsored an “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust,” a two day meeting of Holocaust deniers. For Israelis, that event ended the debate over whether a nuclear Iran could be deterred by the threat of counter-force. A regime that assembles the world’s crackpots to deny the most documented atrocity in history—at the very moment it is trying to fend off sanctions and convince the international community of its sanity—may well be immune to rational self-interest.

Opinion here has been divided about the ability of an Israeli strike to significantly delay Iran’s nuclear program. But Israelis have dealt with their doubts by resurrecting a phrase from the country’s early years: Ein breira, there’s no choice. Besides, as one leading Israeli security official who has been involved in the Iranian issue for many years put it to me, “Technical problems have technical solutions.” Israelis tend to trust their strategic planners to find those solutions.

In the past few months, Israelis have begun asking themselves a new question: Has the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran effectively ended the possibility of a military strike?

Few Israelis took seriously the recent call by former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to shoot down Israeli planes if they take off for Iran. But American attempts to reassure the Israeli public of its commitment to Israel’s security have largely backfired. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent threat to “obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack against Israel only reinforced Israeli fears that the U.S. would prefer to contain a nuclear Iran rather than pre-empt it militarily.

On the face of it, this is not May 1967. There is not the same sense of impending catastrophe that held the Israeli public in the weeks before the Six Day War. Israelis are preoccupied with the fate of Gilad Shalit (the kidnapped Israeli soldier held by Hamas), with the country’s faltering relations with Turkey, with the U.N.’s denial of Israel’s right to defend itself, and with an unprecedented rise in violent crime.

But the Iranian threat has seeped into daily life as a constant, if barely conscious anxiety. It emerges at unexpected moments, as black humor or an incongruous aside in casual conversation. “I think we’re going to attack soon,” a friend said to me over Sabbath dinner, as we talked about our children going off to the army and to India.

Now, with the possibility of a deal with Iran, Israelis realize that a military confrontation will almost certainly be deferred. Still, the threat remains.

A recent cartoon in the newspaper Ma’ariv showed a drawing of a sukkah, the booth covered with palm branches that Jews build for the autumn festival of Tabernacles. A voice from inside the booth asked, “Will these palm branches protect us from Iranian missiles?”

Israelis still believe in their ability to protect themselves—and many believe too in the divine protection that is said to hover over the fragile booths. Both are expressions of faith from a people that fear they may once again face the unthinkable alone.

Mr. Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and a contributing editor to the New Republic.


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Britain Resolves, U.S. Wavers

In Afghanistan there’s the United States, Britain and then the rest. Britain has lost 85 soldiers this year, more than all other European NATO allies combined. For both countries the annual death toll has been rising steadily since 2006, and with it the drumbeat of public opposition to the war. In all, more than 1,100 U.S. and British troops have died.

Special relationships are forged in blood; the U.S.-British bond is no exception. So, as President Obama hesitates, his decision on American troop levels ever “weeks away” as the weeks pass, the British view of the war offers as good an indication as any of what Obama will do. An hour-long conversation with David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, suggests reinforcements are on the way.

When I asked if the mission needed substantially more troops, Miliband said, “What I think that you can see from the prime minister’s strategy is that we believe in serious counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is a counterterrorist strategy.”

He continued: “The Taliban has shown what it means to provide safe space for Al Qaeda.” Describing the fights against the Taliban and Al Qaeda as “distinctive but related missions,” Miliband said “the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the incubator of choice for international terrorism,” adding that, “Ceding ground happened in the ’90s and then we all know what happened.”

That’s a clear rebuttal of the ever-larger school, most often identified with Vice President Joe Biden, advancing the view that Al Qaeda is the real threat, the Taliban much less of one; and so the United States should not commit more military resources to a nation-building struggle in Afghanistan that’s an expensive diversion from core U.S. strategic interests.

Wrong. Counterinsurgency in the “Af-Pak” theater is indeed a counterterrorist strategy. I see no workable distinction.

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown has noted, three-quarters of all terrorist plots uncovered in Britain in recent years had links to Islamic extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The defense of the West begins in the Hindu Kush and Helmand. Would-be bombers must be kept off-balance. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking.

But of course the campaign has to be smart. Miliband identified several things that have to change, among them governance, outreach and military strategy.

Whatever Afghan government emerges has to be “credible,” where Hamid Karzai’s administration has not been, and provide a new “offer to the Afghan people of security and economic development.”

Miliband also called for “serious outreach to the insurgency to divide it,” estimating that “70 to 80 percent of the foot soldiers are recruitable.” The choice they are being given now is “fight or flight” where it should be “fight, flight or flip” because “an enduring settlement must be a political settlement in which conservative Pashtun nationalism has a place.”

That’s critical. The Taliban are a Pashtun movement. Pashtunistan straddles the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. Afghanistan has always been ungovernable without a Pashtun buy-in. Pakistan’s strategic interest in that buy-in is non-negotiable. These are basic — but long ignored — building blocks of successful strategy.

Finally, Miliband argued for a different focus to military operations. “Occupying land for the sake of occupying land is not what counts,” he said. “It’s population. You need to make sure the major cities are secured and Kandahar is vital.”

These were the convictions behind Brown’s decision earlier this month to send 500 more British troops to Afghanistan, bringing the contingent to 9,500 — a decision the prime minister expected to be “consistent with what the Americans will decide.”

The reinforcement was about one quarter of what British generals had requested. In the U.S. case, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has asked for about 40,000 more troops. Doing the math on a “consistent” basis suggests a substantial American reinforcement short of McChrystal’s request will eventually be announced by the White House.

I asked Miliband if Obama’s protracted ponder worried the Brits. Miliband pondered in turn before saying, “No, I think it’s a measure of the seriousness with which he takes the decision.”

O.K., but I still worry. If counterinsurgency is counterterrorism, if this theater is the “incubator of choice,” if McChrystal is the most lucid product of America’s crash post-9/11 course in counterinsurgency, then Obama should step up.

Beyond Kabul I got these two nuggets from Miliband. Asked how worried he was about an Israeli military strike on Iran, he said: “I don’t provide a running commentary on other countries’ concerns or policies, but we are one hundred percent committed to a diplomatic resolution.”

Asked about a Mideast peace, he said, “It’s very stalled and that’s very dangerous.” He said Israeli settlements must stop, calling them “illegal” and “an obstacle to peace.” He said: “I profoundly believe that Israel’s security depends on a two-state solution and I think that a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders plus or minus agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and a fair settlement of the refugee issue is the right basis for Israel’s future as well as the Palestinians’ future.”

I have not heard President Obama be quite as candid. It would help.

Roger Cohen, New York Times


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An Ordinary Israel

Is Israel just a nation among nations?

On one level, it is indeed an ordinary place. People curse the traffic, follow their stocks, Blackberry, go to the beach and pay their mortgages. Stroll around in the prosperous North Tel Aviv suburbs and you find yourself California dreaming.

On another, it’s not. More than 60 years after the creation of the modern state, Israel has no established borders, no constitution, no peace. Born from exceptional horror, the Holocaust, it has found normality elusive.

The anxiety of the diaspora Jews has ceded not to tranquility but to another anxiety. The escape from walls has birthed new walls. The annihilation psychosis has not disappeared but taken new form.

For all Israel’s successes — it is the most open, creative and dynamic society in the region — this is a gnawing failure. Can anything be done about it?

Perhaps a good place to start that inquiry is by noting that Israel does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism.

I understand this: Israel is a small country whose neighbors are enemies or cold bystanders. But I worry when Israel makes a fetish of its exceptional status. It needs to deal with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.

The Holocaust represented a quintessence of evil. But it happened 65 years ago. Its perpetrators are dead or dying. A Holocaust prism may be distorting. History illuminates — and blinds.

These reflections stirred on reviewing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. last month. The first 30 paragraphs were devoted to an inflammatory conflation of Nazi Germany (the word “Nazi” appears five times), modern Iran, Al Qaeda (a Sunni ideology foreign to Shiite Iran) and global terrorism, with lonely and exceptional Israel standing up against them all.

Here’s Netanyahu’s summary of the struggle of our age: “It pits civilization against barbarism, the 21st century against the 9th century, those who sanctify life against those who glorify death.”

That’s facile, resonant — and unhelpful. Sure, it’s an outlook that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s unacceptable Holocaust denial and threats comfort. (Several Iranian leaders have also spoken of accepting any deal on Israel that the Palestinians agree to.)

There’s another way of looking at the ongoing struggle in the Middle East — less dramatic and more accurate.

That is to see it as a fight for a different balance of power — and possibly greater stability — between a nuclear-armed Israel (an estimated 80 to 200 never-acknowledged weapons), a proud but uneasy Iran and an increasingly sophisticated and aware (if repressed) Arab world.

Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it. But the death-cult terrorists-versus-reasonable-Israelis paradigm falls short. There are various civilizations in the Middle East, whose attitudes toward religion and modernism vary, but who all quest for some accommodation between them.

One casualty of this view, of course, is Israeli exceptionalism. The Jewish state becomes more like any other nation fighting for influence and treasure. I think President Obama, himself talking down American exceptionalism, is trying to nudge Israel toward a more prosaic, realistic self-image.

Hence the U.S. abstention last month at a U.N. nuclear assembly vote calling on all states in the Middle East to “accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons” (N.P.T.) and create a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East — an idea Obama administration officials have supported in line with a nuclear disarmament agenda.

A shift is perceptible in the decades-old tacit American endorsement of Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal. This is logical. To deal effectively with the nuclear program of Iran, an N.P.T. member, while ignoring the nuclear status of non-N.P.T. Israel is to invite accusations of double standards. President Obama doesn’t like them.

I’d say there’s a tenable case for Israel ending its nuclear exceptionalism, coming clean on its arsenal and joining the N.P.T. as part of any U.S.-endorsed regional security arrangement that stops Iran short of weaponization.

It’s also worth noting the sensible tone of Defense Secretary Robert Gates — in flagrant contrast to Netanyahu. “The only way you end up not having a nuclear capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened,” Gates says.

In other words, as I’ve long argued, Iran makes rational decisions. Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly, understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship, and see how it can gain from U.S.-led diplomacy.

Cut the posturing and deal with reality. This can be painful — as with Justice Richard Goldstone’s recent U.N. report finding that both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants committed possible crimes against humanity during Israel’s military operations in Gaza.

But it’s also instructive. Goldstone is a measured man — I’ve known him a long time. The Israeli response to his findings strikes me as an example of the blinding effect of exceptionalism unbound. Ordinary nations have failings.

The Middle East has changed. So must Israel. “Never again” is a necessary but altogether inadequate way of dealing with the modern world.

Roger Cohen, New York Times


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Israel’s Secret War on Hezbollah

Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon will think twice before launching another round of missile attacks.

On Monday, a secret Hezbollah munitions bunker in South Lebanon blew up under mysterious circumstances, injuring a senior official in the organization. This is the second such incident in recent months. The first occurred on July 14, when an explosion destroyed a major Hezbollah munitions dump in the South Lebanese village of Hirbet Salim. Hezbollah immediately pointed fingers at the Mossad. Whether or not Israel was to blame, the explosion caused Hezbollah considerable discomfort by proving that it was in flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which forbids stockpiling weapons south of the Litani River.

The U.N. issued a strongly worded rebuke and sent representatives to investigate. But their efforts were thwarted by Hezbollah fighters, who, with the assistance of Lebanese troops, prevented the foreigners from examining the site. This caused further embarrassment to Lebanon, as it exposed the army’s lack of neutrality and the active aid that it extends to Hezbollah.

The episode also led to heightened tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border. The specter of renewed fighting between Israel and Hezbollah looms as large today as it has at any time since the end of the Lebanon war in August 2006. Yet senior military officers in Israel’s Northern Command are confident that the embarrassing outcome of the last round will not be repeated.

“By all means, let the Hezbollah try,” one officer told me two weeks ago when I asked if he was concerned about the possibility of warfare. “The welcome party that we are preparing for them is one that they will remember for a very long time.” That sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues.

The recent explosions have highlighted the weakened geopolitical status of Hezbollah, a diminishment which no one could have foreseen at the end of the last war. In 2006, on both sides of the border—and elsewhere in the Middle East—Hezbollah was seen as having triumphed. Not only was it able to withstand the vastly superior invading Israeli force, but it also inflicted heavy military casualties and brought civilian life in northern Israel to a standstill with its rockets. At the end of the war, a commission of inquiry was set up in Israel to investigate the military and political failure. A number of senior army officers resigned, and Israel’s deterrence power was seen as having sustained a severe blow.

If the 2006 war underlined the military might of Hezbollah—a repeat, in a sense, of Hezbollah’s success in driving out the Israeli occupying forces from South Lebanon in May 2000—it also forced Israel to include Hezbollah in any assessment of possible responses to an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear installations.

As part of its combat doctrine, which eschews reliance on reinforcements and resupply, Hezbollah has stockpiled its weapons throughout Lebanon, but particularly near the Israeli border. According to current Israeli intelligence estimates, Hezbollah has an arsenal of 40,000 rockets, including Iranian-made Zelzal, Fajr-3, Fajr-5, and 122 mm rockets (some of which have cluster warheads) and Syrian-made 302 mm rockets. Some of its rockets can reach greater Tel Aviv. Hezbollah also has a number of highly advanced weapons systems, including antiaircraft missiles, that constitute a threat to Israeli combat aircraft.

But all is not rosy for Hezbollah. After the war, considerable dissatisfaction with the organization was voiced inside Lebanon. Many blamed its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for Israel’s retaliatory bombardments that caused widespread damage. Nasrallah stated that had he known Israel would respond as forcefully as it did, he would have thought twice before ordering the abduction of the two Israeli soldiers—the act that sparked the conflict.

Harsh criticism of Hezbollah also came from an unexpected source: Tehran. The Iranian strategy calls for Hezbollah to play two roles. One is to instigate minor border provocations. The other is to launch, on Tehran’s command, a full-scale retaliatory attack should Israel target Iran’s nuclear facilities. The 2006 war met neither criterion, and, as the Iranians complained, merely served to reveal the extent of Hezbollah’s military capabilities.

Then, in February 2008, Imad Mughniyeh, the organization’s military commander and Nasrallah’s close associate, was killed in a car bomb in Damascus. The assassination of the man who topped the FBI’s most-wanted list prior to Osama bin Laden was a severe blow to morale, as well as to Hezbollah’s strategic capabilities. Nasrallah was convinced that the Mossad was responsible, and vowed to take revenge “outside of the Israel-Lebanon arena.”

The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, which is also responsible for protecting the country’s legations abroad, has been on high alert ever since. But as of today, Hezbollah has not exacted its revenge. This fact was a topic of discussions at a high-level secret forum of Israel’s intelligence services that took place from late July to early September.

Israeli officials raised four possible reasons for Hezbollah’s failure to act, all of which reflect its current weakness.

First, no replacement has been found for Mughniyeh, whose strategic brilliance, originality and powers of execution are sorely missed by Hezbollah.

Second, Israel’s intelligence coverage of Iran and Hezbollah is far superior today to what it was in the past. Planned attacks, including one targeting the Israeli Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, have all been foiled. The Israeli security services have warned Israeli businessmen abroad of possible abduction attempts by Hezbollah. They also shared information with Egyptian authorities that led to the arrest of members of a Hezbollah network who intended to kill Israeli tourists in Sinai. The arrest of these operatives resulted in sharp public exchanges between Egypt, Hezbollah and its Iranian masters, when Nasrallah admitted that these, in fact, were his men.

Third, Nasrallah cannot afford to be viewed domestically as the cause of yet another retaliation against Lebanon. Any act of revenge that he contemplates needs to be carefully calibrated. On the one hand, it needs to hurt the enemy and be spectacular enough to stoke Hezbollah pride. On the other hand, it cannot be so murderous as to cause Israel to respond with force. To complicate matters further, Israel has made it clear that because Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government, despite the fact that the party that it backed lost in the recent election, any Hezbollah action against Israel would be viewed as an action taken by the Lebanese government. Thus Israel would regard Lebanese infrastructure as a legitimate target for a military response.

Finally, there are the Iranians. Their primary focus is on proceeding with their nuclear program without unnecessary distractions. Tehran’s main concern is that a terror attack that can be linked to Iran would result in the arrest of its agents overseas, who are currently procuring equipment for its uranium-enrichment centrifuges.

Tehran has avoided direct involvement in foreign terrorism ever since 1996, when a group of Iranians were convicted in Germany of murdering political opponents of the Iranian regime. And unlike in the past (as, for instance, in the case of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in retaliation for the assassination of Nasrallah’s predecessor), it is now reluctant to place intelligence resources at Hezbollah’s disposal. This is a serious blow to Hezbollah, which is not yet able to function as a full-fledged independent operational organization internationally.

Hezbollah is also clearly aware of the severe blow in terms of power and prestige that the Iranian mullahs suffered as a result of the massive protests following June’s presidential election. Automatic support from Tehran is no longer a certainty. For now, at least, the Iranian hardliners have troubles of their own.

In short, despite the fact that Hezbollah today is substantially stronger in purely military terms than it was three years ago, its political stature and its autonomy have been significantly reduced. It is clear that Nasrallah is cautious and he will weigh his options very carefully before embarking on any course of action that might lead to all-out war with Israel. There are some experts in Israel who believe that even Hezbollah’s retaliatory role in the Iranian game plan is currently in question.

Whether or not this is the case, all of this is being considered in Jerusalem as part of Israel’s calculations about whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Mr. Bergman, a correspondent for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, is the author of the “The Secret War With Iran” (Free Press, 2008).


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Israel Tries Less-Disruptive Tactics in West Bank

Israel’s military, taking a page from the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency playbook, has changed tactics in the West Bank by emphasizing improvements in Palestinian living conditions, rather than focusing solely on killing and capturing militants.

The shift, however, is threatened by personnel changes: Three generals who were instrumental in planning it are on the way out.


Israeli soldiers take part in urban-warfare training in southern Israel. In the West Bank, Israeli commanders are shifting to a focus on surgical strikes.

Under their guidance, the Israeli Defense Force, which has occupied and administered the West Bank since its capture in 1967, has pulled back its soldiers from the enclave’s cities, turned over security responsibilities to Palestinians, and lifted many of the checkpoints and roadblocks that had shackled the economy.

Israeli forces are refraining from airstrikes or shelling, tactics they once used frequently to attack suspected militants. Instead of daytime raids with large battalions, commanders have turned to more surgical strikes by commandoes, which are less disruptive to the civilian population.

“Part of our philosophy is to fight the terrorists with M-16 [rifles], not F-16 [jets],” said Brig. Gen. Noam Tivon, one of the leaders of the shift.

Gen. Tivon ended his tour as commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank this week. Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, head of Israel’s Central Command, is changing jobs in the coming weeks, and the Department of Defense’s Civil Administration commander Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai is due to finish up within the next year.

Some officers have voiced concern about the continuity of the trio’s policies. One incoming general has little experience in the West Bank and came up through the ranks as a tank commander; some military analysts say that background means he could be the wrong person to oversee a strategy that calls for using less force and keeping a lower profile.

The change in tactics in the West Bank came after these top Israeli generals took to heart lessons learned by American commanders in Iraq, officials from both sides said.

The strategy, coupled with recent success by U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces, is being credited with curbing West Bank violence and boosting the local economy. Israeli military operations last year, before the new strategy, led to 78 civilian casualties; 12 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year.

Previously, soldiers would shut down whole neighborhoods for days at a time while conducting less-discriminating sweeps when looking for suspected militants.

“Now they only arrest Palestinians during the night,” said Sattar Kassem, a Palestinian political-science professor in Nablus who is a longtime resident of the West Bank. “The occupation continues and this is what matters most, but there is less friction for now.”

After the Islamist group Hamas violently overran the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israeli generals decided they needed a strategic rethink if they wanted to keep Hamas at bay in the West Bank, which is governed by the more moderate Fatah party.

The re-evaluation coincided with the arrival to Israel of a handful of U.S. generals with the task of bolstering peace efforts.

“The Americans brought to this region a lot of new ideas,” Gen. Tivon said.

At the time, America’s top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, was having success with a classic counterinsurgency strategy called the “ink blot.” The strategy calls for focusing resources on a single neighborhood or village. As conditions improve, the efforts are slowly expanded, like an ink blot seeping across a sheet of paper.

“The U.S. military had just had its own bruising internal debate about how to fight an insurgency,” said a former adviser to retired U.S. Marine Gen. James Jones, who at the time had the task of strengthening security for Israelis and Palestinians. “It was clear to us that Israel needed to have a similar debate of its own if there was any hope for making progress here,” the adviser said.

Gen. Jones, now President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, declined to comment for this article.

“The thing that Jones did was change the Israeli thinking from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency,” said a U.S. official in Tel Aviv.

U.S. advisers preached that capturing and killing the bad guys — counterterrorism’s methods — hadn’t been enough in Iraq and probably wouldn’t be enough in the West Bank, either, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. To instill lasting peace, they promoted economic engagement and reliance on local security forces.

At the time, militants and criminals controlled the West Bank’s lawless cities. Some Israeli officials feared Hamas, fresh from seizing Gaza, was gaining strength and preparing a similar offensive in the West Bank.

The Israeli army had Palestinian cities and villages locked down with a rigorous checkpoint regime, part of a response to suicide-bomb attacks that followed the outbreak of the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2000. Frequent “cordon and sweep” operations shut down Palestinian cities for days at a time.

The northern West Bank city of Jenin became a test case. In 2002, at the height of the second Intifada, Jenin was a militant hub where suicide bombers plotted and launched attacks against Israel. It was the first town Israeli targeted in its military offensive to reoccupy West Bank towns.

But in 2008, Israel agreed to pull back its soldiers, turn over security responsibilities to Palestinians, and lift many of the checkpoints and roadblocks that surrounded the city.

“Jones brought the idea for the Jenin project, which came directly from Petraeus in Iraq,” Gen. Tivon said.

Israeli generals had to overcome the skepticism of the country’s political leadership and other officers who were reluctant to trust the Palestinians with handling security.

“For years officers had been told not to trust the Palestinians, and then suddenly we’re being ordered to pull back and call them before we want to conduct a raid,” said another Israeli army officer serving in the West Bank.

Today, Jenin’s streets are quiet, militants have turned in their guns, and crime is down. Uniformed police hand out traffic fines. In June, a $5 million home store opened its doors, offering Palestinians imported espresso machines and plasma-screen TV sets.

“I think we can say today that the Jenin project is a success,” Gen. Tivon said.

Charles Levinson, Wall Street Journal


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Stranded between America and the street

The Palestinians and the Goldstone report

Mahmoud Abbas gets into a terrible muddle over the UN investigation into Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip

IT WAS all going so well for the veteran leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas (pictured above). The president and his Fatah party were enjoying a surge in popular support due to the improved security situation and better economic growth on the West Bank; his leadership appeared even stronger after the successful convening of the first party congress for 20 years in Bethlehem in August. Until, that is, the Palestinian mission to the United Nations dropped its endorsement of the Goldstone report on Israel’s assault against Gaza at the UN Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, on October 1st. Since then, Mr Abbas has faced an unprecedented barrage of criticism, often from his closest allies. Indeed, his vacillations over how to respond to the report could have done his standing grave damage.

Originally, the Palestinians had planned to present a draft resolution in Geneva demanding that the report be submitted for discussion at the Security Council, which has the power to ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute people for war crimes. Instead, however, the Palestinians agreed to postpone a vote of support for the report until March 2010. People close to Mr Abbas say that the Palestinians backed off from endorsing the report under pressure from America, which has adopted Israel’s stance that any diplomatic initiative based on the controversial report will deal a death-blow to the peace process. Russia and China are also said to have been reluctant to see more debate of the report.

The Goldstone report was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and compiled by Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge. It examined a number of alleged war crimes committed by Israeli forces during the three weeks of military operations in Gaza launched in December 2008, and by Palestinian groups that killed and injured Israeli civilians when they fired rockets into southern Israel. The report, released on September 15th, concluded that both sides were responsible for violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Notably, it charged Israel with using a policy of disproportionate force aimed at the entire population of Gaza, not just the fighters of the Islamist militia, Hamas. Israel has rejected the report. It refused to co-operate with the fact-finding mission because it thinks the UN Human Rights Council is biased against it. Hamas tentatively endorsed the report, and said it would look into the charges.

The PA’s decision to delay endorsement of the report was quickly and vehemently denounced by all the Palestinian political factions. It also drew unusually harsh criticism from within Fatah; some leaders called for Mr Abbas’s resignation, accusing him of ignoring the wishes of the families of Gaza’s dead. Taken aback by the public outcry, Mr Abbas was forced to back-pedal. He ordered an internal investigation into why the PA delayed the vote, although the decision is widely believed to have been his own. And on October 7th he suddenly backed a request by Libya for the Security Council to debate the Goldstone report, although it will be impossible to get any kind of resolution passed because of America’s veto.

There was little else Mr Abbas could do on a day when the anger reached new levels on the Palestinian street. In Gaza hundreds of posters of Mr Abbas with a black X across his face appeared in public places, and relatives of the victims of the winter’s military operation were throwing shoes at his picture, a reference to the shoe hurled in contempt at the then American president, George Bush, in Iraq.

However, it is doubtful whether the sudden change of policy will be enough to salvage the PA’s tarnished image. The unpopular move in Geneva also came just over a week after Mr Abbas met Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in New York—something Mr Abbas had vowed not to do until Israel had agreed to a settlement freeze. Both controversies have revived popular Palestinian perceptions of Fatah as the “wheeler-dealers” of the PA, corrupt and spineless collaborators with the Israeli occupier.

And, as usual, the hardliners and militants prosper when the moderates appear weak and disconnected from the grassroots. While Mr Abbas’s people were busy trying to spin their way out of the Goldstone imbroglio, Hamas gleefully celebrated the release of the 20 women prisoners it had secured in exchange for a videotape of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Hamas over three years ago.

To compound Mr Abbas’s problems, tensions rose this week in one of the most volatile spots in the world, the Haram al-Sharif Mosque, called the Temple Mount by Israelis, in occupied East Jerusalem, holy to both Jews and Muslims. Palestinian rioters clashed with Israeli forces for several days. Mr Abbas, usually a voice of restraint in Palestinian politics, this time joined the attacks on Israel, accusing it of harming worshippers. After the Goldstone controversy he cannot afford to be perceived as weak and submissive.

The Economist


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How Israel Was Disarmed

News analysis from the near-future.

Jan. 20, 2010

When American diplomats sat down for the first in a series of face-to-face talks with their Iranian counterparts last October in Geneva, few would have predicted that what began as a negotiation over Tehran’s nuclear programs would wind up in a stunning demand by the Security Council that Israel give up its atomic weapons.

Yet that’s just what the U.N. body did this morning, in a resolution that was as striking for the way member states voted as it was for its substance. All 10 nonpermanent members voted for the resolution, along with permanent members Russia, China and the United Kingdom. France and the United States abstained. By U.N. rules, that means the resolution passes.

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.

The U.S. abstention is sending shock waves through the international community, which has long been accustomed to the U.S. acting as Israel’s de facto protector on the Council. It also appears to reverse a decades-old understanding between Washington and Tel Aviv that the U.S. would acquiesce in Israel’s nuclear arsenal as long as that arsenal remained undeclared. The Jewish state is believed to possess as many as 200 weapons.

Tehran reacted positively to the U.S. abstention. “For a long time we have said about Mr. Obama that we see change but no improvement,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. “Now we can say there has been an improvement.”

The resolution calls for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. It also demands that Israel sign the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and submit its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Two similar, albeit nonbinding, resolutions were approved last September by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

At the time, the U.S. opposed a resolution focused on Israel but abstained from a more general motion calling for regional disarmament. “We are very pleased with the agreed approach reflected here today,” said then-U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Glyn Davies.

Since then, however, relations between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, never warm to begin with, have cooled dramatically. The administration accused Tel Aviv of using “disproportionate force” following a Nov. 13 Israeli aerial attack on an apparent munitions depot in Gaza City, in which more than a dozen young children were killed.

Mr. Netanyahu also provoked the administration’s ire after he was inadvertently caught on an open microphone calling Mr. Obama “worse than Chamberlain.” The comment followed the president’s historic Dec. 21 summit meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Geneva, the first time leaders of the two countries have met since the Carter administration.

But the factors that chiefly seemed to drive the administration’s decision to abstain from this morning’s vote were more strategic than personal. Western negotiators have been pressing Iran to make good on its previous agreement in principle to ship its nuclear fuel to third countries so it could be rendered usable in Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities. The Iranians, in turn, have been adamant that they would not do so unless progress were made on international disarmament.

“The Iranians have a point,” said one senior administration official. “The U.S. can’t forever be the enforcer of a double standard where Israel gets a nuclear free ride but Iran has to abide by every letter in the NPT. President Obama has put the issue of nuclear disarmament at the center of his foreign policy agenda. His credibility is at stake and so is U.S. credibility in the Muslim world. How can we tell Tehran that they’re better off without nukes if we won’t make the same point to our Israeli friends?”

Also factoring into the administration’s thinking are reports that the Israelis are in the final stages of planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who met with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak in Paris last week, has been outspoken in his opposition to such a strike. The Jerusalem Post has reported that Mr. Gates warned Mr. Barak that the U.S. would “actively stand in the way” of any Israeli strike.

“The Israelis need to look at this U.N. vote as a shot across their bow,” said a senior Pentagon official. “If they want to start a shooting war with Iran, we won’t have their backs on the Security Council.”

An Israeli diplomat observed bitterly that Jan. 20 was the 68th anniversary of the Wannsee conference, which historians believe is where Nazi Germany planned the extermination of European Jewry. An administration spokesman said the timing of the vote was “purely coincidental.”

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal

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Tape shows Shalit ‘safe and well’

Gilad Shalit in the video released by Hamas
The captured soldier appeared healthy and read from a newspaper

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu says soldier Gilad Shalit is “safe and well” after seeing the first footage of him since he was captured three years ago.

In the film, sent by Hamas in exchange for the release of 20 Palestinian women prisoners, Sgt Shalit appeared “healthy and coherent,” Israeli media said.

The video will be released to the media, although timings are not clear.

Nineteen of the Palestinian prisoners were freed earlier, amid emotional scenes in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sgt Shalit appeared clean-shaven, with trimmed hair and spoke coherently in the video, which is more than two minutes long, the Israeli media reported.

He was holding a newspaper dated 14 September, the reports said.

Eighteen of the prisoners were handed over in the West Bank on Friday and another was released in Gaza.

The prisoners were not freed until officials had seen the video.

A 20th prisoner will be released on Sunday.

In a statement issued after both the prime minister and the Shalit family had viewed the footage, Mr Netanyahu said: “Even though the road to his release is long and difficult, the knowledge that he is safe and well should encourage us all.”

‘Low-profile’ prisoners

Nearly three years of Egyptian-brokered talks have failed to produce a deal for his release.

German mediators joined the talks, between Hamas and Israel, in July.

An audiotape and three letters have been released since his capture in 2006, the most recent dated in 2008, but no images of Sgt Shalit have been seen until now.

The female Palestinian prisoners are described as low-profile detainees, most of whom were coming to the end of their sentences.

Most were jailed for carrying knives or guns and for attempted murder.

The further prisoner is to be released, replacing a woman who was on the original list for the prisoner exchange but was freed independently by the prison service this week.

‘Incomplete joy’

There were emotional scenes as those freed in the West Bank were greeted by relatives before an audience with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mohammed al-Zaq, husband of Palestinian prisoner Fatima Yunes al-Zaq (R), embraces his child who was born in an Israeli jail, after his wife was freed in the Gaza Strip, 2 October 2009
One woman whose son was born in jail was freed in Gaza as part of the deal

“My feeling right now is one of enormous joy,” said Jihad Abu Turki, as she arrived in the city of Ramallah.

“But the joy remains incomplete without my sisters who are still in prison.”

It is thought that the videotape handed over on Friday was sent to Egypt with a Hamas delegation.

Hamas has never allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to verify Mr Shalit’s wellbeing.

The militant group, which controls Gaza, is demanding the release of at least 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the soldier’s safe return home.

Israeli President Shimon Peres has warned that securing his freedom will be a long and difficult task.


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Leaving Israel With No Choice?

On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-15s and F-16s took off for the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, after the pilots were emotionally briefed that “the alternative is our destruction.” In fact, Prime Minister Menachem Begin had no idea whether the raid would stop the Iraqi nuclear program or merely slow it. But slowing it was reason enough.

Since the George W. Bush administration, the American military has estimated that an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would only delay the development of its program. “The reality is,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently, “there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so.”

But for several months, high-ranking Israeli officials have been telling American visitors that buying time may be worth it. The Osirak raid, after all, turned out to be an unexpectedly decisive blow. And who knows what political changes might take place in Iran during a few years of nuclear breathing space? Not many Israelis would need to be convinced by this argument — a recommendation would go from the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to the security cabinet and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Perhaps a dozen people could shake the world.

Clues to Israeli desperation are now so obvious that many have missed them. Netanyahu’s recent speech at the United Nations was generally reported as part of a rhetorical tit for tat with Israel’s bombastic enemies. But perhaps Netanyahu’s impassioned warning against the world’s first Holocaust-denying nuclear state should be taken at face value. Former U.S. undersecretary of defense Dov S. Zakheim thinks Netanyahu might have been “setting the stage to say to the world after a strike, ‘I told you so.’ “

An Israeli strike on Iran is an outcome that no American administration would desire. Though an attack might be privately cheered by some Arab rulers, the public consequences would be broad and unpredictable. If Israeli planes were to fly over Iraq, the reaction against America in that country could get ugly. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would probably be forced to step away from talks with Israel. Iran could escalate the crisis, with missile launches against Israel and attacks from terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah. In a global anti-Israel backlash, it is possible that the diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran would be eased instead of increased, making the reconstitution of its nuclear program more likely.

On Iran, the Obama administration, while differing in some diplomatic methods, has adopted the same basic approach as the Bush administration — offering Tehran a reasonable way out of confrontation, building support among allies for crippling economic sanctions when the Iranians refuse, somehow persuading Russia and China to play along, and preserving a military option as the last of the last resorts. Many question the administration’s skill and will, but there are few alternatives to the general strategy. A virtual blockade of the Iranian economy — aggressively cutting off shipping, banking and refined petroleum — would not be a half-measure. It would be an act close to war.

But one large threat to this strategy comes from the Obama administration itself, which may be unintentionally encouraging an Israeli military strike on Iran. Obama has injected considerable suspicion into the American-Israeli relationship, picking public fights on issues such as settlements and adopting a tone of neutrality in other controversies. If Israel thinks America is an increasingly unreliable partner, Israel will be more likely to depend on itself alone — and let the bombers fly. “When someone is trigger-happy,” says Zakheim, “the last thing you want to do is make them paranoid.”

In the end, it is American leaders who can talk Israeli leaders off the ledge of military confrontation. This is possible only if Israelis trust American goodwill, competence and strength of purpose. The immediate precedent does not encourage confidence. Israelis look at the North Korean crisis and see an example of meticulous, multilateral cooperation resulting in spectacular counterproliferation failure. Why, they wonder, is Iran going to be different? Weak American credibility on North Korea has strengthened the argument for direct Israeli action against Iran.

Here is a paradox for President Obama to ponder while traversing the Iranian minefield: If the Israelis were confident that America would act decisively against the Iranian nuclear threat in the greatest extremity, they would be far less likely to act themselves. Lacking that confidence, they may conclude, once again, that delaying the threat is good enough.

Michael Gerson, Washington Post


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Israel to free 20 for Shalit film

Gilad Shalit in Israeli army uniform before his capture
Shalit has not been seen since his capture in 2006 in a cross-border raid

Israel has said it will release 20 Palestinian women from detention in return for proof that captured soldier Gilad Shalit is still alive.

A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it was waiting to receive video taken recently by his militant captors in Gaza.

Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians, including dozens of women.

Gilad Shalit has not been seen since his capture by Hamas militants in a raid on an Israeli border base in 2006.

The Israeli statement said the deal had been proposed by international mediators as a “confidence-building measure”.

Sources close to the negotiations said the exchange was scheduled to take place on Friday, after a list of the women had been circulated to allow any legal objections to be lodged.

Mediation ‘success’

The Hamas group is demanding the release hundreds of prisoners, many serving lengthy sentences for carrying out militant attacks, in exchange for the soldier.

A spokesman for the Hamas armed wing told a news conference in Gaza that 19 of the women to be released were from the West Bank and the 20th, from Gaza, would be released along with a child she had had in prison.

“This is a success for the Egyptian and German mediators,” said the spokesman, known as Abu Ubeida.

He said four of the women were members of Hamas, while five were from the rival Fatah movement, three were members of Islamic Jihad and the others were from other Palestinian groups.

Mr Shalit’s captors have released three letters from him and an audio message in the last three years, but he has been denied access to international humanitarian officials despite repeated requests.

The last letter was dated 2008 and the audio tape was released in June 2007.

A senior Israeli source told the BBC: “The negotiations are expected to be long and difficult. We will continue to take firm steps to bring Gilad home safe and sound as soon as possible.”

Mr Netanyahu was quoted by his office as saying: “It is important that the entire world know that Gilad Shalit is alive and well and that Hamas is responsible for his health and state.”

The BBC’s Katya Adler in Jerusalem says this is the latest in a series of on-again, off-again negotiations.

The case of Gilad Shalit, 23, constantly makes headline news in Israel where the public is hungry for any information about him.


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