The clock is ticking, according to the former U.N. ambassador:
Iran is to bring online its first nuclear power reactor, built with Russia's help, on August 21, when a shipment of nuclear fuel will be loaded into the plant's core.
At that point, John Bolton warned Monday, it will be too late for Israel to launch a military strike against the facility because any attack would spread radiation and affect Iranian civilians.
"Once that uranium, once those fuel rods are very close to the reactor, certainly once they're in the reactor, attacking it means a release of radiation, no question about it," Bolton told Fox Business Network.
"So if Israel is going to do anything against Bushehr it has to move in the next eight days."
Before you start stocking up on canned goods, it's worth noting that according to Bolton, right now is always the best time to attack Iran. In July 2009, he said that Israel would likely attack by the end of last year. In June 2008, he said it would have be before the end of the Bush administration. Way back in 2007, he was saying that "time is limited."
Bolton doesn't actually think that Israel will attack Iran this week, and believes that they have "lost this opportunity," but something tells me this isn't the last time that Bolton will give the Israelis an extension on their deadline.
Update: Just a few hours after the Fox interview, Bolton told Israeli Radio that Israel only has three days left to attack Iran. That was a fast five days!
A rocket attack from Gaza on the Israeli city of Ashkelon has damaged buildings and rattled nerves today, but earlier in the week, the skies over the troubled region played host to a much happier sight. About 6,200 Gazan children taking part in a U.N.-sponsored summer program broke their own world record for the number of kites flown simultaneously. Although no adjudicator from the Guinness Book of World Records was present, the record is expected to be accepted.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
The Knesset voted today to revoke the parliamentary privileges of MK Hanin Zoabi, an Arab deputy who participated in the ill-fated flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli siege of Gaza last May. The scene in the Knesset appears to have devolved into something of a circus: A deputy from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party handed MK Zoabi a mock Iranian passport, accusing her of joining the ranks of Israel's enemies.
As luck would have it, I had dinner last night with Israel's Minister of Minorities Avishay Braverman, a member of the Labor Party. Did rescinding MK Zoabi's privileges represent a breach of Israel's much-touted equality between its Jewish citizens and its Arab minority, which represent one-fifth of Israel's population? While he condemned her actions, Braverman also said, "I do not support this sort of populist action" against Zoabi.
This is just the latest dispute between Braverman and
Lieberman, who have come to represent opposite poles in the debate over Israel's
policy toward its Arab minority. And Braverman left little doubt about his
opinion toward his coalition partner: When asked about the possibility of
population swaps between Israel and a nascent Palestinian state in the event of
a peace agreement, an idea for which Lieberman voiced support, Braverman
said, "It will never happen. Never never...What Foreign Minister Lieberman is
doing is making statements to win a few seats."
And then there is Lierberman's call for instituting a loyalty oath that Arab Israelis would have to sign to sign or losing their citizenship, which some have credited with Lieberman's strong showing in Israel's most recent election. This idea, Braverman said, was shot down by the Labor Party ministers and even right-wing ministers, such as Benny Begin. But before it was rejected, Braverman said, "Lieberman got his headlines."
The defeat of these initiatives is certainly encouraging. Less encouraging, however, is the apparently enduring belief, held by a number of successful right-wing politicians, that flogging Israel's Arab minority is a useful way to win votes. Effective political grandstanding on this issue, after all, could easily transform itself into changes in government policy that could erode Israel's commitment to equality, and take Western support along with it.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is hoping to join the ranks of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in his quest to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Taking the unusual step of actively campaigning for the award, Abbas has reportedly sent mediators to persuade the committee to award him the honor and seems to be circumventing the most direct (and much harder) route toward the prize -- creating peace. Most Nobel Peace Prize winners have distinguished themselves by negotiating cease-fires, ending wars or apartheid -- or, in the case of President Obama "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."
Presumably, the best chance for Abbas to win the Nobel Peace Prize is to create
peace with Israel. But there's one question left -- will Bibi Netanyahu want one,
Thaer Ganaim/PPO/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah probably refrained from expressing at least half this sentiment in his meeting today with President Obama: On June 5, he reportedly told French Defense Minister Hervé Morin that "There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel."
The scoop comes from Georges Malbrunot, a French journalist with Le Figaro. Malbrunot, a respected Middle East correspondent who spent four months as a hostage of the Islamic Army in Iraq, goes on to report that two sources, from diplomatic and military circles, have confirmed the story. He suggests that the anger directed as Israel was the result of the IDF raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, which occurred just days before this outburst. (Hat tip goes to the eagle-eyed correspondents at Friday Lunch Club).
Update: Of course, the White House statement following the Obama-Abdullah meeting reaffirmed both leaders' sincerest hope that the current round of proximity talks will lead to "two states living side-by-side in peace and security."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
While stoppages and barricades stymie the "Freedom Flotillas" en route to Gaza, the "Speed Sisters" -- an eight-woman speed-racing troupe breaking onto the driving scene in the West Bank -- are revving up to shatter barriers at high speeds.
These unfearing females -- comprised of Christians and Muslims from ages 18 to 39 -- competed last Friday in the "Speed Test," a car race in the West Bank city of Ramallah that makes the typical NASCAR loop look like child's play. Thousands of fans attended the event to cheer on the seventy helmet-clad contestants as they navigated through treacherous obstacles, spinning loops, and serpentine pathways. And these eight women, gripping the wheels with fingerless gloves that accentuate their brightly painted fingernails, may have particularly piqued the crowd's interest: they are the first female team to enter the Speed Test. The Speed Sisters follow in the footsteps of the one female contestant -- now the group's coach -- who raced in the first competition five years ago.
While racing, many of the Speed Sisters wear t-shirts emblazoned with the British flag to pay homage to their sponsor, the British consulate in East Jerusalem. It is the consulate's personnel that facilitated the creation of the women's team, and its budget that subsidized about $8000 worth of training, coaches, and car refurbishing -- all part of a campaign to foster development in the West Bank and other communities of Palestinian refugees. But even with a financier, the women's road to the finish line is a bumpy one: they share a donated hatch-back that pales in comparison to the other high-powered BMWs and Mercedes on the track, and they face doubt and skepticism from their male counterparts.
Regardless, this strong female showing in a male-dominated arena is inspiring in such a conservative Muslim society -- especially one in which mounting political strife can often preclude a focus on social equity.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
When hate crimes strike the Dutch capital, the police officers head to the costume store. Amsterdam's law enforcement regularly disguises themselves as members of a persecuted faction, patrols the streets incognito, and then arrests any violent perpetrators they encounter. In response to a spike in muggings, officers posed as pensioners and "grannies"; to combat harassment of the homosexual community, officers of the same sex acted affectionate in public. Now Dutch police will go undercover again -- this time with the earlocks and black top-hats of ultra-orthodox Jews.
Proposed by a Dutch Muslim legislator, the new James Bond-like approach to fighting anti-Semitism comes in the wake of a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks, reportedly instigated most frequently by Moroccan immigrants. The Jewish population in the city, numbering at 40,000, has indeed seen these attacks double from 2008 to 2009 - an increase attributed in large part to the Gaza Strip military offensive in January of 2009. Reported incidents range from punishable internet hate speech in the region to verbal tormenting and severe physical assaults on the streets. This past weekend, a Jewish broadcasting company followed a skullcap-donning rabbi through city streets with a candid camera; the footage revealed many young men shouting ethnic slurs at the rabbi and gesturing with Nazi salutes as he passed by.
A debate persists in the city over whether the police force's proposed clandestine operations are really capable of tackling the underlying prejudice festering in Amsterdam, or whether they merely reify superficial stereotypes and circumvent the rudimentary issues at stake. Many -- the former city mayor among them -- argue that awareness and education is the expedient solution. Either way, with the Jewish community suffering the brunt of mounting violence in Amsterdam, it probably couldn't hurt for an otherwise oblivious citizen to walk a mile in a rabbi's kippah - even if just while on patrol.
Ian Waldie/Getty Images
In lieu of his famous and long-winded diatribes (his longest speech clocked in at 7 hours and 10 minutes), Castro -- or, more likely, a loyal ghostwriter -- now communes with the populace via the blogosphere. Several times a week, a new "Reflection of Fidel" appears on the website of Granma Internacional, Cuba's leading newspaper. His latest contribution stirred up trouble last week when passages of a post were quoted in a speech by Cuban delegates before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. In the article, Castro alleges:
The state of Israel's hatred of the Palestinians is such that they would not hesitate to send one and a half million men, women and children from that country to the gas chambers in which millions of Jews of all ages were exterminated by the Nazis... The Führer's swastika would seem to be Israel's banner today."
Not surprisingly, his added caveat -- that "this opinion is not born of hatred"-- did little to appease outraged Israelis, and today the government formally denounced Cuba's remarks. The comments come on the heels of a similarly incendiary speech by the Syrian envoy before the council last week, raising fresh concerns about anti-Semitism in the global community.
Big news at the U.N. today is the passage of a resolution to impose new Iranian sanctions -- a document that, if nothing else, epitomizes the delicate (read: watered down) diplomatic language that is well on its way to becoming the signature style of the international body.
But lest anyone accuse U.N. delegates of taking cover behind circumlocutions, Rania al-Rifai, the Syrian envoy to the U.N Human Rights Council, proved that there's still room for undiluted and unfriendly language at the United Nations when she said on Tuesday:
"Hatred [in Israel] is widespread, taught to even small children ... Let me quote a song that a group of children on a school bus in Israel sing merrily as they go to school. And I quote, ‘With my teeth I will rip your flesh, with my mouth I will suck your blood.' End of quote."
Inside the room, business proceeded as usual, but controversy instantly erupted from outside the U.N. Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, an NGO that monitors the Council, rebuked Council President Alex Van Meeuwen for allowing Rifai's comments to stand unchallenged and called upon Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to censure Van Meeuwen for his oversight.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Helene Cooper has an interesting take on the Gaza boat affair in this weekend's Times, but I think she goes astray here:
Some foreign policy experts say the new willingness to suggest that the Israeli government’s actions may become an American national security liability marks a backlash against the Bush-era neoconservative agenda, which posited that America and Israel were fighting together to promote democracy in an unstable region.
Some American neoconservatives may have thought this, but few Israelis did. With the notable exception of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, leading Israelis generally scoffed at the notion that the United States would succeed in promoting democracy in the Arab world -- and to some extent, the record vindicates their skepticism.
I'd divide the thinking into two main camps: those who thought Arab states couldn't become real democracies, whether for cultural or socioeconomic reasons, and those who recognized that free and fair elections in the Arab world would likely see Islamist groups with deep antipathy toward Israel come to power. The second group saw its fears realized in 2005 and 2006, when elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas make big gains at the polls. One could also point to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the AK Party in Turkey, and Nuri al-Maliki's coalition in Iraq as examples of Islamist groups of various stripes benefitting from democracy.
Even Sharansky wasn't necessarily a genuine advocate of democracy in the Arab world. Some would say, given his hard-line positions on settlements and peace negotiations, that his real aim was to add a new condition -- democratic governance -- to the long list of things the Palestinians must achieve to be considered a viable partner for peace.
As for the flotilla incident, Turkey's reaction to it will likely only strengthen the conviction in Israel that it's much easier to deal with autocrats like Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak than it is with elected governments. After all, you don't hear either of those two guys threatening to break off relations with Israel, and Mubarak has been awfully silent about his own role in enforcing the Gaza blockade.
Since Monday's clash between Israeli military forces and pro-Palestinian activists, both sides have issued video recordings to support their version of events (and, maybe more importantly, to unload blame onto their adversaries). So far, there's no clear consensus about which clips to trust, but according to a report by Haaretz, there seems to be general agreement about which ones to like: of the four most viewed YouTube clips in recent days, all of which provide on-the-ground footage of the raid, the top three are videos issued by the Israeli Defense Forces. In fourth place with a measly 610,000 hits (in comparison to the 3 million total received by the IDF posts), is a clip from Al Jazeera.
The top spot goes to this snippet, which shows Israelis boarding the Mavi Marmara boat and calls attention (via handy yellow text) to activists wielding metal rods. At one point, according to subtitles, a voice in the background remarks, "Whoa, they just threw a soldier overboard...they tossed him."
By contrast, the Al Jazeera clip emphasizes that the flotilla was raided while in international waters and that shots continued to be fired even after the activists had raised a white flag in surrender.
YouTube surely isn't the best barometer of success when it comes to international crises, but this data is nonetheless worth taking note of -- not least because it seems fairly counter-intuitive. As spectators across the world mobilize to condemn Israeli actions, I'm surprised their views aren't more clearly represented by these numbers.
This account by an Israeli commando is getting wide play online today:
On Thursday, S. sat down with The Jerusalem Post at the Shayetet’s base in northern Israel for an exclusive interview, during which he described the dramatic events aboard the Mavi Marmara on Monday; he is being considered for a medal of valor. “When I hit the deck, I was immediately attacked by people with bats, metal pipes and axes,” S. told the Post.
“These were without a doubt terrorists. I could see the murderous rage in their eyes and that they were coming to kill us.”
Two points here. One, were they really terrorists? I don't sympathize with the agenda or the methods of the Turkish Islamists who fought with the Israeli troops, but their actions don't fit the conventional definition of terrorism -- using violence against civilians to advance political goals. Second, can you really tell if someone is a terrorist by the look in their eyes? You can certainly tell if they are angry, but I'd imagine the best terrorists are pretty good at blending into society.
All things considered, Israeli officials seem relatively happy with the diplomatic support they've been getting from the Obama administration, and have taken to the phones to express their appreciation for U.S. help in batting back a Turkish-led bid to censure Israel via the U.N. Security Council.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, however, has taken a different tack. He apparently called U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- who has little to do with the content or politics of Security Council debates -- this morning to complain about yesterday's emergency session and what he sees as the U.N.'s unfair treatment of Israel. Trouble is, his ministry erroneously calls the presidential statement issued in the wee hours of the morning Tuesday a "resolution" in a readout posted on the ministry's website -- twice:
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman spoke today (Tuesday, 1 June 2010) with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon following the UN Security Council resolution of this morning. FM Liberman stated that the hypocrisy and double standards taking root in the international community regarding Israel are to be regretted. [...]
FM Liberman stated that in light of this, the Security Council resolution is unacceptable and contributes nothing to the promotion of peace and stability in the Middle East.
This isn't the biggest deal in the world, but considering that one of the main thrusts of Israeli and U.S. diplomacy over the past 24 hours was ensuring that there was no resolution, it's an embarrassing mistake. And it shows, I think, the extent to which the Netanyahu administration -- which does employ some very effective people, such as Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren -- has been hobbled by inept diplomats since its first days in office.
In another brilliant move, Lieberman's deputy, Danny Ayalon, was among the first Israeli officials to speak out about the flotilla deaths -- even though was the one who infuriated the Turks last year when he deliberately humiliated Ankara's envoy by sitting him in a smaller chair and dressing him down in Hebrew in front of the Israeli media.
Israel seems to have rallied a bit since yesterday morning, but only, it seems, but shoving the Foreign Ministry aside and letting the professionals do the work.
The most uncomfortable man in the Middle East right now is not Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or even his defense minister, Ehud Barak -- who will undoubtedly face damning questions in light of the Miva Marmara affair -- but Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt's president is in a tough spot. The Egyptian government has for years cooperated with Israel in enforcing the blockade in Gaza and containing Hamas. For Mubarak, it's a policy that makes sense -- he wants to preserve good relations with his northern neighbor, and he has no interest in seeing Hamas's brand of Islamist activism gain any further ground in Egypt. It's not very popular on the streets of Cairo, but any time the pressure grows too strong, he can relax the blockade a bit and show his magnanimity. And by never fully cracking down on smuggling, he keeps the restive bedouin population of north Sinai relatively quiescent, while avoiding the difficult and expensive task of actually trying to develop the area.
Sure enough, Mubarak has just ordered the opening of the Rafah border crossing, citing humanitarian needs in Gaza. After a few days -- once he gets back from his trip to the French Riviera -- he'll quietly close it again. But this time, there's a new wrinkle: he's got vocal, credible rivals who might be able to embarrass him and make some political hay out of the issue.
Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League and a relatively popular figure in Egypt, used the incident to call for a lifting of the Gaza "siege" and summoned the Arab League to Cairo for an emergency meeting.
Former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei twice tweeted about the flotilla, saying "The opening of the Rafah crossing is the demand of every Egyptian and Arab. In a democracy, foreign policy represents the will of its people" and that "The Israeli agression on the Freedom Flotilla exposes an inhumane regime, a blot on Arab conscience. Open the crossings immediately." But he's facing hard questions in Egypt about whether he's really committed to politics, and I'm not aware that he's taken to the press this line of attack.
Another problem for Mubarak is what happens if Egyptians, watching Gaza flotilla activists put Israel on the defensive, get ideas in their heads about domestic politics? With important elections coming up, it's political season again in Egypt. So far, the protests have been small and focused on Gaza, but Egyptians could easily make a connection between what's going on there and the government's policies. That's always dangerous territory for Mubarak.
In addition to the upwards of 10 deaths as a result of Monday's botched raid on a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza in defiance of an Israeli blockade, Jerusalem appears to have suffered another casualty: its nascent security alliance with Greece, Turkey's historical rival.
Over the last few years, as Ankara has increasingly distanced itself from Jerusalem and sought to improve relations with its Arab neighbors as well as Iran, Israel has responded with half-hearted attempts to win back its longtime ally. The assessment in Israeli military and intelligence circles seemed to be that there was little Israel could do as Turkey's Islamist government reoriented the country's foreign policy away from the West, but that Turkey's interests would keep it from straying too far.
Then, last year, in a little-noticed development, Israel conducted its first war games with Greece. Until Monday's events, the two countries were in the midst of joint Air Force exercises that were scheduled to go through June 3. The Greek Foreign Ministry announced the postponement those exercises today, issuing a harsh statement condemning Israel's actions on the Miva Marmara.
As this analysis by a Greek security institute suggests, each side has a lot to offer the other. Geographically speaking, Greece is a "natural bridge" to Europe. And as a member of NATO, Greece could be a valuable market for Israeli defense contractors. Greece spends about 2.8 percent of its GDP on its military, well above the EU average (the U.S. spends about 4 percent). And, though the authors don't say so explicitly, Greece could benefit from Israel's help in resolving the Cyprus conflict to Athens's satisfaction -- or at least preventing Turkey from ever joining the European Union unless it makes concessions over the disputed island.
Last December, according to some reports, a top Greek admiral visited Israel and quietly toured Israeli naval facilities. Was he there to explore how the two countries might stengthen their ties, presumably at Turkey's expense? If so, whatever enhanced cooperation is being contemplated seems at risk now.
As for the Turks, they're reaping an enormous public relations bonanza in the Arab world from this incident. Turn on Al Jazeera right now, and you'll see images of angry demonstrators from Tunisia to Yemen holding up images of Tayyip Erdogan. Palestians are waving Turkish flags on the streets of Gaza. A year ago, what percentage of Arabs would have even been able to pick Turkey's prime minister out of a lineup? Now, he's seen as a regional hero for standing up to Israel.
While we don't yet know all the facts, the apparent killing of at least 10 people aboard a ship bound for Gaza with humanitarian aid already has all the hallmarks of a massive public-relations disaster.
It does sound like there might have been some kind of violent response from the activists on the boat, and the Israeli military is claiming its forces encountered “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs."
But the international response has been swift. Turkey has recalled its ambassador and warned of "consequences," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an investigation, European governments have expressed shock, and I imagine thousands of outside observers like me are wondering just what possessed the Israeli government to risk such an outcome when it sent naval commandoes to board the vessel.
As Haaretz's Amos Harel puts it, "The damage that Israel has caused itself internationally can hardly be exaggerated." Harel warns that the rumored presence of an Israeli Arab activist among the victims could lead to riots and perhaps even "a third intifada."
Another liberal Haaretz commentator, Bradley Burston, comments, "We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel's Vietnam."
Israeli officials appear to be circling the wagons; the question now becomes what the White House will say and do. So far the Obama administration has said little, but with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu currently in Canada and scheduled to visit Washington Tuesday, it can't stay silent for long. There is talk in Israel that Netanyahu will cancel his trip, which would probably be the smart thing to do. There will be heavy international pressure on Obama to condemn the incident, and he will probably make some kind of mild statement. But a White House visit would quickly make the United States the focal point of world attention in a way that is, as White House officials like to put it, "not helpful."
It already has the makings of a huge international fracas that will make the Goldstone Report look like small potatoes by comparison. But to what end? Israelis on the right end of the political spectrum -- and that is most of them these days -- are convinced there is a "propaganda war" against their country, that most if not all of the criticism is unfair, and that the real issue is the radicalism of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which openly call for Israel's destruction. That's certainly the perspective of hard-line government officials like Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, who has already called the ships an "armada of hate and violence" and accused the activists of links to al Qaeda.
In other words, there's a huge unwillingness on the Israeli right to face reality -- that Israel is fast losing friends and allies in the world, and that this government in Jerusalem has only accelerated the shift. It's not hard to imagine boycott campaigns gaining momentum, damaging the Israeli economy and isolating the country diplomatically, especially in Europe.
The one thing that might extrictate Israel from this mess is a violent response from the Palestinian side -- which never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Stay tuned.
Telling the following joke in public, at a meeting of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy no less, was not National Security Advsor Jim Jones' finest moment in public service:
I'd like to begin with a story that I think is true, a Taliban militant gets lost and is wandering around the desert looking for water. He finally arrives at a store run by a Jew and asks for water. The Jewish vendor tells him he doesn’t have any water but can gladly sell him a tie. The Taliban, the jokes goes on, begins to curse and yell at the Jewish storeowner. The Jew, unmoved, offers the rude militant an idea: Beyond the hill, there is a restaurant; they can sell you water. The Taliban keeps cursing and finally leaves toward the hill. An hour later he’s back at the tie store. He walks in and tells the merchant: “Your brother tells me I need a tie to get into the restaurant.”
The White House clearly felt uncomfortable with the joke, and edited it out of an official transcript of the event.
Does this mean that that Jones is an anti-Semite? No. But it was an unnecessary and frankly stupid move that has the potential to do an awful lot of damage to both his career and his administration's credibility. Assuming Jones gets the chance to speak on behalf of the U.S. government again, he's probably better off leaving this kind of material to Jackie Mason.
The U.S. State Department summoned Syria's top diplomat in Washington, Zouheir Jabbour, to rebuke his government for transferring arms to Hezbollah. This was apparently the fourth time in recent weeks that the United States had raised these concerns with the Syrians -- but one of the first times that it had been done publicly. The State Department statement "condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the SCUD, from Syria to Hezbollah."
A few quick points on this news. When this story broke last week, skeptics -- including the United States's erstwhile ally, the prime minister of Lebanon -- were quick to dismiss it as Israeli propaganda. The public criticism of a Syrian diplomat should put an end to the talk that this is solely an Israeli disinformation campaign. The U.S. intelligence community obviously believes there is something behind this story, though the details remain blurry. The question now is whether this transfer actually took place, whether Syria transferred parts of the SCUDs to Hezbollah, or whether they merely had the intention to transfer the weapons.
Secondly, when the State Department wanted to call a Syrian official to task, they had to settle for Zouheir Jabbour, the deputy chief of mission. Where is Syrian Ambassadar Imad Moustapha? On vacation, apparently -- where he has been since this crisis broke last week. As we're in a particularly fraught point in the U.S-Syrian engagement process, this is a strange point for Syria's top envoy in Washington to be taking a breather.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Israel is justifiably proud of its cutting-edge high-tech sector, so Israelis were a bit surprised this week when the government began confiscating iPads from travelers attempting to bring them into the country. No advance notice of the policy was given. Here's the government's official explanation:
The iPad device sold exclusively today in the United States operates at broadcast power levels [over its Wi-Fi modem] compatible with American standards. As the Israeli regulations in the area of WiFi are similar to European standards, which are different from American standards, which permit broadcasting at lower power, therefore the broadcast levels of the device prevent approving its use in Israel.
It certainly makes sense that Israel wouldn't want to allow devices with U.S. standards to be sold in Israel, but would a few brought in from abroad -- only about 10 have been confiscated -- really do that much damage to the country's wireless network?
In any case, Israeli Apple fetishists are going to have to wait a bit longer. The iPad's international launch has been delayed a month.
Roger Cohen engages in some egregious rhetorical sleight of hand here :
Already, there are shifts in Israeli attitudes as a result of the new American clarity. Last year, Netanyahu described Iran’s leaders as “a messianic apocalyptic cult,” which was silly. Of late we’ve had Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, setting things right: “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, are going to drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not total ‘meshuganas.’ They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process.”
This is persuasive if you ignore a couple stubborn facts. One, Barak's comments predate the recent blowup between the Obama administration and Israel. Two, Barak has long believed that Iran doesn't pose an existential threat to his country. Here's him saying as much back in September, and I'm sure I could find earlier examples. Three, Barak and Netanyahu come from different parts of the Israeli political spectrum; the two men aren't even members of the same political party. They have different points of view. There's precious little evidence Netanyahu himself has shifted his rhetoric.
Lesson: Beware pundits who throw around vague language like "of late." It's a sign they're trying to trick you, or at least being sloppy.
In a sign that the ongoing U.S.-Israel settlement spat has yet to run its course, the Jerusalem Municipal Authority today announced the authorization of twenty new apartments on the site of an East Jerusalem hotel, only hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was slated to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington:
The local planning council initially approved the plan in July, a move which angered Britain and the United States and prompted them to call on Israel to cancel the plans. The council issued its final approval for the project last Thursday, which now enables the settlers to begin their construction at once.
Reports of a thaw seem to have been premature.
As if relations between Israel and the United States weren't icy enough lately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's brother-in-law, Dr. Hagai Ben-Artzi, has now publicly called President Barack Obama an anti-semite on an Army Radio program:
It's not that Obama doesn't like Bibi. He doesn't like the nation of Israel...
When there is an anti-Semitic president in the United States, it is a test for us and we have to say: We will not concede. We are a nation dating back 4,000 years, and you in a year or two will be long forgotten. Who will remember you? But Jerusalem will dwell on forever.
Prime Minister Netanyahu quickly distanced himself
from the comments, saying "he completely disagreed with his brother-in-law." President Obama has repeatedly expressed his support
for Israel (and in a 2008 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg,
offered one of the most sincere, human take on Israel any American
politician ever has), but it seems far-rightists like Ben-Artzi have
I've been trying hard to find smart criticism of the Obama administration's decision to rebuke Israel for embarrassing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an area of East Jerusalem that lies outside the Green Line that demarcates Israel's pre-1967 border. The rebuking began with Biden's statement Tuesday, escalated with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's angry 43-minute phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday, and continued with White House advisor David Axelrod today describing the housing announcement as an "affront" and an "insult."
Earlier in the week, Washingotn Post editorial writer Jackson Diehl complained that Biden had fallen into a "Middle East trap" by condemning the housing announcement. Diehl made some good points, but his argument would be more persuasive if it didn't cite Condoleezza Rice as an example of how to better handle this kind of Israeli ambush.
All I could find today was this utterly unpersuasive blog post by Commentary's Jennifer Rubin, who says that Ramat Shlomo carries "strategic importance" and that the notion Israeli settlements undermine U.S. security is "rubbish." It is very difficult to think of anyone who isn't a hardcore partisan of the Israeli right who would agree with these sentiments.
Meanwhile, the harsh U.S. criticism is having its intended effect, at least for now. Israeli newspapers are jumping all over a chastened Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni is feeling emboldened, and some in the Labor Party are threatening to pull out of Netanyahu's coalition if he doesn't shape up. The Jerusalem council that approved the construction is planning to lay low next week.
I don't believe for a minute that this fight will make U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell's mission any easier; the conditions for peace simply aren't in place. But this showdown with Israel is important for a larger reason: the Obama administration desperately needs to show that it isn't going to be pushed around by anyone. Now that he has embraced a policy of confrontation, the president needs to follow through -- to back down would only signal to powers like China and Russia that Obama really is the pushover they've always assumed him to be.
UPDATE: AIPAC sides with Netanyahu, calling on the administration to "move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel, with whom the United States shares basic, fundamental, and strategic interests." This could get ugly for Obama.
Continuing a recent trend of bizarre Israeli commercials, a supermarket chain has cashed in on the January assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai. Actors in a new television advertisement for Mahsanei Kimat Hinam are shown wearing outfits taken from the infamous CCTV footage of the al-Bustan Rotana hotel, which caught the alleged Mossad assassins on tape.
An actor wearing a tennis outfit, racket over his shoulder, and a woman with a large brimmed-hat are shown sneakily placing items in their shopping cart. The woman, when questioned, says she cannot admit to anything -- a play on Israel's use of non-comment for stories related to Mossad.
In case any did not immediately pick up the reference, part of the commercial is shown through the lens of a CCTV camera. Furthermore, the tagline of the advertisement leaves no doubt: "We offer killer prices."
Advertising executive Sefi Shaked explained the ad:
It's a funny take of this event. We were fascinated by the technique of using surveillance cameras instead of (expensive) high production commercial cameras, and the latest events in Dubai gave us a great opportunity.
Something tells me the European governments angry with Israel over its suspected use of forged E.U. passports during the operation to kill Mabhouh won't be shopping at Mahsanei Kimat Hinam anytime soon.
It looked this morning like U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was going to have a nice, friendly visit to Israel, even though the government there announced on the eve of his trip that it was approving new construction in an existing settlement bloc in the West Bank.
"The bond between our two nations has been and will remain unshakable," Biden wrote this morning in President Shimon Peres's guestbook. "Only together can we achieve lasting peace in the region." He also praised Peres as "articulate."
The State Department's initial statement on the matter was exceedingly cautious, suggesting that the United States was willing to swallow Israel's argument that the new building didn't violate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 10-month moratoriumon on new settlement construction.
But then, the Israeli Interior Ministry added another wrinkle, announcing a plan to build 1,600 new homes in hotly contested East Jerusalem. The official story is that Netanyahu didn't know the announcement was coming, and that Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads the hard-line Shas Party, was freelancing. Apparently the prime minister's office is looking into the matter.
Biden came out with this harsh statement today:
"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel. We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them. This announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict. The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians and for Jews, Muslims and Christians. We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world. Unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues. As George Mitchell said in announcing the proximity talks, "we encourage the parties and all concerned to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks."
UPDATE: Yishai is now saying he didn't know about the 1,600 new housing units either, as it was all just "a technical authorization in Jerusalem, which isn't part of the settlement freeze" and therefore didn't require his signoff. This, frankly, doesn't pass the laugh test.
Nor does this:
"If I'd have known, I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two since we had no intention of provoking anyone," Yishai said. "It is definitely unpleasant that this happened during Biden's visit. If the committee members would have known that the approval would have escalated to such a situation, they would have informed me," Yishai emphasized.
Haaretz also quotes "a high-ranking official in Jerusalem" saying that Netanyahu has "no problem" with the new construction but would have preferred not to embarrass Biden. Nice of him.
So what should the United States do? The danger is that whoever was behind this little maneuver will get what they want -- deep-sixing the recently announced proximity talks -- if the Obama administration moves to somehow punish Israel for this ploy. But the United States is not in the business of punishing Israel for major sleights like this (most likely, Biden's statement was the end of it, and maybe some Israeli officials will have more trouble getting their calls returned for a few weeks). That leaves the unpalatable option of letting the Palestinians walk away from the table before they get there, which is the equivalent of throwing the Israeli hard-liners into ye olde briar patch.
Debbi Hill - Pool/ Getty Images
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy this morning, gave a tour d'horizon of Israel's current strategic position in the Middle East -- and also managed in the process to draw on some of the best traditions of Jewish comedy.
It all began when Barak took issue with Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, and specifically Iranian President Ahmadinejad's remark in Damascus that Arab nations will transform the region into an area "without Zionists and without colonialists." Barak riffed that Ahmadinejad was "looking for a 'New Middle East' -- it reminds me of [Israeli President] Shimon Peres," playing on the title of his former Labor Party ally's book.
This wasn't the only point where Barak drew a few laughs on issues that are rarely mined for their comedic potential. When tackling the subject of Iranian nuclear ambitions, Barak poured cold water on the idea that Iran would drop a nuke on Israel shortly after constructing its first weapon. "They're radical, but they're not total meshugenahs," he said of the Iranian leadership, proving that the mixture of yiddish and Persian military expansionism, while explosive, is also sort of amusing.
But Barak did not limit his comedic debut to remarks about Iran -- he also took aim at the domestic political opposition in Israel. When asked about the prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian Authority or Syria, he criticized elements on the Israeli left who were attempting to delay talks because they did not have a role in the current Netanyahu government. He recounted the apocryphal story of an Israeli airman who was cut from the air force; after delivering this bad news, his superiors asked him what service he would like to join, and he stated that he wanted to be a member of the anti-aircraft artillery corps. When asked why, he stated, "'If I can't fly, then nobody can fly." The peace process, Barak was saying, needs supporters -- not more people manning the anti-aircraft guns trying to shoot it down.
These remarks, of course, were all in good fun -- but there's more to it than that. Barak's central message was that Israel will only find peace with its neighbors when it is a strong, self-confident state. It should be capable of possessing a clear-eyed view of the threats it faces, and able to take risks for peace, Barak argued. His point was that, though Israel will no doubt confront a number of difficult challenges in the year ahead, the situation was by no means dire -- it was even possible to make a few jokes about it. By taking this approach, Barak was the latest in a long line of public figures who discovered the serious implications of a little comedic timing. Lenny Bruce would be proud.
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
The latest Twitter fail comes courtesy of the Israeli Mission to Britain. The Thursday tweet included a link to a story about Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer's advancement to the quarterfinals of the Dubai Championship, but also seemed to jokingly reference last month's killing of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, which Mossad is suspected to have committed.
It seems the message was particularly poorly-timed, as London asked the Embassy about the use of faked British passports during the Dubai operation on the very same day. The Guardian first reported the posting, but Ynet News grabbed a screenshot of the Tweet itself. It reads:
You heard it here first: Israeli tennis player carries out hit on #Dubai target http://ow.ly/18A79
The message was removed within minutes of its posting. A response was put out by the Israeli Mission today:
Naturally, messages on the Twitter network are characterized with a great deal of creativity. In this case the creativity was undoubtedly inappropriate. The ambassador told off the employee who wrote the message and it was removed.
One would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that telling off. ("WHO'S THE GUILTY TWEETER?")
For all the grief I gave Andrew Sullivan the other day, I have to admit: He's the unquestioned master of his medium. In the days since Leon Wieseltier's hit piece, Sully has curated a wide-ranging debate about himself and the thorny subject of Israel, and it's made for pretty good reading.
Still, some nuance would be helpful. Here, for instance, is a point I partly agree with:
I believe, after the last year, that it is in the interests of the United States to use serious leverage to get Israel to get serious about ending settlement construction permanently and beginning the dismantling and removal of these impediments to any serious progress in the region.
The settlements are a real problem. But I have grave doubts, especially after what has transpired in 2009, that allowing them to become the focus of negotiations is helpful. Instead of backing Benjamin Netanyahu into a corner and making Israelis fear for the future of their alliance with the United States, the issue got his hackles up and let his allies paint Obama as pro-Arab to an already suspicious Israeli public. And instead of buying goodwill from the Palestinians, it made them grow intransigent in the hopes of pocketing a more substantial settlement freeze. A lot has changed since the 1990s, notably the Israeli public's lurch rightward and the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Our analysis of the situation needs to change, too. (One thing that hasn't changed: AIPAC still gets what it wants in Congress.)
Maybe, as some have suggested, it would be better to forget about a lasting peace for now and go for a cease-fire in the hopes that moderates on both sides would gain strength over time. Another approach might be to focus on improving the lives of Palestinians and avoid the kind of high-stakes diplomacy that has tripped up all efforts to date. Maybe.
Here's the thing about Israeli-Palestinian peace, though: Nothing works. We can try to draw lessons from past agreements, like the 1978 Egypt-Israel accords at Camp David, the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace deal, or the various interim agreements between Israel and the Palestinians that ultimately led nowhere in the 1990s. But none of them prove anything about a final-status deal over the West Bank and Gaza. For Israelis and Palestinians, things that sound stupid to most of us -- like fighting over flower pots and patches of infertile desert -- are a matter of life and death. All this makes the ins and outs of this conflict endlessly debateable, but also maddeningly difficult to solve.
Here's the quick and dirty summary: Wieseltier uses a W.H. Auden quote as a framing device for long, tedious, and link-free article that paints Sullivan as an anti-Semite. Sullivan fires back with a rebuttal of Wieseltier's interpretation of the quote and shows the original email exchange that prompted Andrew to use it. He follows up a while later with a 2008 quote from Wieseltier explicitly saying Sullivan is NOT an anti-Semite. More is soon to follow. [UPDATE: Here's Sullivan with more. Much, much more.]
So far, I'm not impressed by any of it. Wieseltier does catch Sullivan writing some weird and sloppy things about Jews, and Andrew should be much more careful in criticizing Israel. But Wieseltier is equally sloppy and careless with his language, sweepingly accusing Sullivan of "venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews." The whole thing is pretty tiresome, and the fracas as it plays out will do little to enhance the discussion about Israel and the Palestinian question (and just wait until Marty Peretz throws his hat in the ring), or either man's image, for that matter.
Having read both TNR and Sullivan's blog for years now, I feel well-qualified to make a few unsolicited observations. First, Sullivan is no anti-Semite. He doesn't really have a set ideology, though he claims to be a conservative. His worldview seems to be determined not by deep, core beliefs, but by an innate sense of what his audience wants to read at any given moment. He's wildly successful as a blogger in part because he shifts with the political winds -- witness his conversion from a fanatical enthusiast for George W. Bush's war on terror to a strident critic of "enhanced interrogations," or his sudden passion for Iranian dissidents. It's probably not an accident, either, that he spent much of 2008 pumping up the ludicrous, but Web-driven Ron Paul candidacy while writing obsessively about the Google-riffic Sarah Palin.
Sullivan's criticism of Israel ought to worry defenders of the Jewish state, then, because he is a bellwether for a broader shift in American media and society that has happened over the last few years. Israel is using up a lot of the goodwill it had built up in the 1990s, when eminent statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres made good-faith efforts toward peace with the Palestinians. Since then, the country has been governed by a series of unimaginative right-wing leaders who have pandered constantly to their settler base and chosen to solve political problems through the use of force. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party may have their fingers on the pulse of their public right now, but their agenda is not one that appeals to most Americans, who strongly support Israel's right to exist but have little interest in underwriting the permanent occupation of the West Bank.
Tired old arguments like "but the Palestinians are worse!" may win debate points, but they aren't a good way to rebuild the widespread support for Israel that existed in Bill Clinton's time. Only wise and far-sighted Israeli leadership can do that, and self-styled friends of the Jewish state might want to think about ways they can help nudge the Israeli political class in a more productive direction, rather than publishing 4,000-word essays about ... bloggers.
UPDATE: Jeff Goldberg chimes in with a few additional thoughts:
What Israel needs is a leader who will step forward and say, "Here is the way things should look," and then present an outline for the creation of a viable Palestine. The settlers will go nuts, but that's what they do. Hamas will go nuts, because that's what it does. But Hounshell is right: What is needed is a Rabin.
The territorial issues surrounding the village of Ghajar are probably understood well by only a few hundred Americans -- and, truth be told, the village's history is not known all that much better in Lebanon. Nevertheless, there have been three stories on Ghajar in major U.S. publications in the past week: The Wall Street Journal released their article last Friday, the New York Times published their piece today -- and, of course, Foreign Policy produced the best article on Ghajar, which we put out last night.
This is curious because Israel administers the village as a military zone -- foreign correspondents need the IDF's permission to enter the village, and are escorted by the Israelis as they do their reporting. It is one of those issues where Israel is able to shape pretty easily what media accounts, if any, come out of the area.
So, why would the Israelis open the floodgates to Ghajar reporting at this time? As you'd know by reading our article, Israel is currently in negotiations with the United Nations and Lebanon over returning the northern part of the village to Lebanese sovereignty, while the area would be administered by soldiers from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Those talks have currently hit a few snags: Israel is leery of the precedent set by a deal which would place Israeli citizens under international control. By letting reporters interview the village residents, who oppose the deal because they want to be reintegrated with Syria, not Lebanon, the Israelis could be attempting to gin up public pressure which will give them a reason to drag their feet further on negotiations.
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
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