A top-ranking Russian official recently confirmed his nation's intention to go ahead with the sale of some particularly lethal cruise missiles to Syria. Israel, not-so-surprisingly, is not-so-happy. The supersonic Russian Yakhont missiles have a range of 138 miles, according to the BBC, and could target Israeli warships in the Mediterranean.
Syria and Russia signed the missile agreement in 2007, but Russia is yet to deliver the goods.
The Israelis have been working for some time to dissuade the Russians on fulfilling their contract, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoning his Russian counterpart, Vladir Putin, last month to try and convince him to renege on the agreement.
Of course, the Russians are quite notorious for this kind of behavior; back in 2005 they signed a contract for the supply of the S-300 missile defense system to Iran -- a powerful anti-aircraft system which poses serious threats to modern aircraft, including Israel's own air force. December will mark five years of the Russians dragging their feet on the deal, offering conflicting statements on the status of the system throughout the process.
In the meantime, Russia has been reaping the benefits of the situation, purchasing advanced Israeli drones this spring -- their first military purchase from Israel. More recently, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, where he signed a quite promising military cooperation deal.
Lesson for the day? You could be getting those missiles soon Syria -- but don't get your hopes up, the Russians know how to milk you for the ride.
Ariel Hermoni/ Israeli Defense Ministry via Getty Images
Countries as diverse as the United States and North Korea have all struggled at the nexus of statehood and social media. Until now, none have had to purchase the Twitter handle of their country's name from the owner of a porn site. That dubious honor goes to Israel, which recently purchased the user name @israel from Israel Meléndez, a Spanish man living in Miami, who registered the name back in 2007, early in the microblogging website's history.
According to the New York Times, Meléndez struggled with his account because every tweet posted provoked anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments. "My account was basically unused because I was getting dozens of replies every day from people who thought the account belonged to the state of Israel," Meléndez said.
The Spanish newspaper Público first reported on the transaction, noting that Twitter helped facilitate, even though the company has a policy against username squatting (although CNN did the same last year). Meléndez said that the payoff was a six-figure sum. Israel refuted that number. According to Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the sum was actually $3,000. "I won't go into the details of our negotiations but originally he asked for a five digit sum and all we paid him was $3,000, period," Palmor told The Jerusalem Post.
On August 31, the old official address of the Foreign Ministry (@israelMFA) broadcast the tweet: "The IsraelMFA twitter account name has been changed to @Israel. Look for us here: twitter.com/Israel."
Israel has been trying to increase its social media presence, with recently opened accounts on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube.
This appears to be more a case of mistaken identity and not internet-era extortion, such as the case of whitehouse.com. In 1997, that particular domain name was created as an adult and political entertainment site, whose existence sparked a letter of objection from the real White House.
A very long decade ago, the world's leaders got together at the United Nations here in New York to agree on something pretty remarkable: that they were going to do their best to end poverty by 2015. In just over a week, they'll come back -- now with two-thirds of that time gone by -- to see how well we've done.
Sounds very nice, but the negotiations to settle on an answer to that question have been far less glamorous. A draft of the final outcome document, dated Sept. 8 at 1:00 p.m. EST, gives a hint at where the sticking points were: language about foreign occupation and blame where progress has lagged behind.
In the first case, the reference to foreign occupation is largely an allusion to Israel and Palestine, and the draft document shows that the so-called G77 group of developing countries has suggested a different set of language than the United States on four different occassions. For example, the draft indicates that the United States would like to delete a point that reads:
"We acknowledge that the persistance of foreign occuapation is a major obstacle to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals for people living under such occupation. We underline the need to take concrete and concerted actions in conformity with international law to remove the obstacles to the full realization of the rights of peoples living under foreign occupation, so as to ensure their achievement of the Millennium Development Goals."
The latter point of blame -- is it the donor-countries who have failed to give enough, or the poor countries who haven't done enough with the money? -- seems to have been settled; the draft declares that "committments [to poverty reduction] by developed and developing countries in relation to the MDGs require mutual accountability." (Not much on specifics here, leaving some to wonder whether the pledges that world leaders will no doubt bring with them to the summit in New York later this month will be more than words alone.)
Aside from the sticking points, the document is a pretty comprehensive list of everything left to do before 2015. It's essentially a catalogue of everything that the international community has learned about "development" over the last six decades. The laundry list includes a lot of general philosophies about that assistance to the poor -- that communities have to "own" their own empowerment, that every sector needs to be targeted, that technology needs to be used to boost the speed and efficiency of anti-poverty measures, that good governance matters, that everyone from the private sector to governments to NGOs to the U.N. has to be involved -- and so on. It's common sense stuff. But again, getting 192 countries to agree on it isn't so simple.
And by the way, are we going to succeed in our lofty goal? The short answer is kind of. The world will probably meet some of its headline figures when you average the sum of all countries worldwide. But the detailed picture is less upbeat: the incredible progress of countries such as China and India (as well as Vietnam, Rwanda, and other impressive gains) has brought up the global average, covering weaknesses in the many countries lagging behind. As the document puts it, while there have been some success stories, "We are deeply concerned however, that the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger surpasses one billion and that inequalities between and witihin countries remain a significant challenge."
In other words, we haven't eradicated poverty among the poorest; we've just made the middle a little bit better. Five years to fix it starts now.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams takes to the pages of the Guardian today to claim some credit for his Northern Irish nationalist party in inducing the Basque separatist group ETA to declare a unilaterial ceasefire over the weekend. While Adams is optimistic, it's not clear how significant the ceasefire really is -- the Spanish government has dismissed it as the desperate action of a group that has become too weak and disorganized to plan attacks. But Adams' argument that the recent progress toward a Basque settlement has been "modelled on our experience" in the resolution of the Northern Irish conflict is interesting given that other round of peace talks going on this month.
U.S. envoy George Mitchell has said that his experience as a mediator during the Northern Irish talks makes him optimistic about the prospects for success in the Middle East:
I chaired three separate sets of discussions in Northern Ireland, spanning a period overall of five years. The main negotiation lasted for 22 months. During that time, the effort was repeatedly branded a failure. I was asked at least dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times when I was leaving because the effort had failed.
And of course, if the objective is to achieve a peace agreement, until you do achieve one, you have failed to do so. In a sense, in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success.
In his column last week, James Traub listed several reasons why the analogy between the two conflicts doesn't quite hold up, yet the resolution of the formerly intractable Northern Irish Troubles remains a tantalizing example of success for would-be peacemakers in the Middle East. The Irish themselves have often helped propogate the comparison.
But even if the IRA isn't Hamas and the Israelis aren't much like the British, are there lessons that can be learned from how the conflict resolved? Mitchell himself put it pretty well back in 2008:
Where men and women have few opportunities and little hope, they are more likely to turn to violence. The conflict in Northern Ireland was not exclusively or even primarily economic. It involved religion, national identity, territory, and more. But underlying it, and exacerbating it, as in most conflicts, were economic problems.[...]
Much progress has been made. In the 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement was struck, Northern Ireland's economy has shown signs of a turnaround. The region is the fastest growing destination for foreign direct investment in the United Kingdom. Unemployment is low, and there is a move toward economic diversification. There is also a genuine mood of optimism about the future. Many hope that Northern Ireland will be the next phase of the "Celtic Tiger," the apt characterization of the decades-long economic surge in the Republic of Ireland.
It's probably not a coincidence that the most meaningful progress toward peace in Northern Ireland came during a period of high economic growth for the Republic and Britain as well as rapid European integration that made national boundaries less relevant.
The not very shocking or encouraging lesson of the Northern Irish peace process may be that underlying economic and political conditions matter more than what's said at the negotiating table. In this light, conditions may well be in place for a peaceful resolution of the Basque insurgency, which is a shadow of its former self in any case. Moreover, nearby Catalonia has proven far more successful at acheiving political and cultural autonomy by working within the system, providing a useful lesson to Basque nationalists.
Despite some hopeful signs on the West Bank, similarly favorable conditions are still probably a long way off in the Middle East. Despite the hopeful rhetoric, Mitchell probably knows this.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
I may be skeptical about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began in Washington last week, but at least I'm not in the Israeli government. Avigdor Lieberman, however, is, and it looks like the foreign minister -- who lives in a West Bank settlement -- is out to sabotage the negotiations. Speaking at a gathering of his far-right Yisraeli Beiteinu party Sunday, Lieberman reportedly said that a complete, final peace deal would not be possible -- "not next year and not for the next generation."
He also said that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas "will not sign an agreement with Israel," but that he wouldn't take up arms, either. "The only practical solution," Lieberman said, "is a long-term interim agreement, on which we can debate. Our proposal is: No to unilateral concessions, no to continuing the settlement freeze, yes to serious negotiations and mutual gestures of good faith."
Haaretz also channels Israeli cabinet ministers' complaints that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, isn't sharing details of his discussions with Abbas (many of them would love to be able to leak controversial bits to the press and blow up the talks) or his plan to deal with the impending expiration of his 10-month settlement freeze (a majority wants to start building again). Meanwhile, senior Abbas aides are already feuding in the press and spreading strategic leaks of their own.
It will take an unimaginable change of heart, not to mention skillful coalition management, by Netanyahu, to make these negotiations succeed -- and that's assuming he really wants to do it and isn't just trying to relieve American pressure. (Israeli commentator Aluf Benn predicts that Bibi's about to pull a "Nixon to China" moment, but I'm not persuaded by clichés.)
Already, it looks to me like both sides expect the talks to fail and are maneuvering to hang that failure on the other guy. Abbas has said repeatedly and unequivocally that he'll walk out if building resumes, while the Israeli government remains committed -- at least publicly -- to letting the freeze expire. According to the Jerusalem Post, 57 projects are ready to drop on Sept. 27, the day after the moratorium ends (indeed, some projects have already begun).
Carlos Stenger calls forth a parade of horribles to expect if and when the talks fall apart: an uptick in terrorist attacks, the possible dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, a return to full Israeli control of the West Bank, growing diplomatic isolation for Israel. So what's Plan B?
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
This Friday is al-Quds day, a holiday created by the Iranian regime to oppose Zionism and Israel's control over Jerusalem. This year, it happens to fall near the beginning of the peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington.
Unsurprisingly, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has tweeted a holiday message, and it's as cheery as you might imagine:
Israel Is A Hideous Entity In the Middle East Which Will Undoubtedly Be Annihilated
No word yet on what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is planning to say, but his boss has upped the ante on the regional contest of who can use the most inflammatory rhetoric on al-Quds day.
As a sidenote, I'm pretty certain that Khamenei's use of Twitpic is one of the most absurd things I've ever seen on the Internet.
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.
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