Monday, November 27, 2006

‘Death will find you’

The Looming Tower
Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
By Lawrence Wright
480 pages
£20/NIS 165

Last month an Islamic seminary in northwest Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, was attacked by Pakistani helicopter gunships. Though 80 “seminarians” were killed, the raid’s primary target, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s No. 2 and one of the most wanted men in the world, managed to elude liquidation – again.

Reports mount that al-Qaida is planning a mega-attack, perhaps against a European target, over the Christmas holidays. British security officials are convinced that al-Qaida is actively trying to acquire a nuclear device.

Five years after the assault against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, al-Qaida’s top leaders remain at large, and the organization seems to be reinvigorating its operations from havens along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Against this threatening background comes Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Not just another 9/11 tome – there are some 5,000 in print – The Looming Tower may well be the most comprehensive, authoritative and balanced work available.

Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, has produced an engrossing story not only about the events leading up to the assaults, but about the men behind them – Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri – and their main pursuer, anti-hero FBI agent John O’Neill, ironically killed in the WTC attacks that fateful day.

The Looming Tower is a serious work of political history, but it reads like a thriller. The title comes from a passage in the Koran: “Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower.”
Wright answers the great “what if” that so consumes political historians: What if bin Laden had been killed early on – would al-Qaida have become the force it is now?

As with the development of the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s, the combustible ingredients were all there; but a catalyst was needed. Bin Laden is to the Islamist movement what Hitler was to the Nazis. Al-Qaida could not have developed in the way it did absent the Saudi-born prince of darkness.

So it is all the more heartbreaking that efforts, so vividly presented by Wright, to kill bin Laden before he became a household name failed so miserably.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had America’s political and intelligence echelons done their jobs, Wright asserts, bin Laden would have been caught or killed before al-Qaida’s greatest success: 9/11.

AFTER THE August 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 213 people were killed it transpired that the CIA knew about the plot a year earlier, but hadn’t taken the information seriously.

Bin Laden survived thanks to a combination of incompetence and fate. In retaliation for the Kenya attack, and a simultaneous one in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Clinton administration ordered a cruise missile assault against al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, as Wright explains, “it takes several hours to prepare a missile for firing, and the flight time from the warships in the Arabian Sea across Pakistan to eastern Afghanistan was more than two hours.”

As luck would have it, both bin Laden and Zawahiri were out of harm’s way by the time the “nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars’ worth of armaments” rained down on their training camps in Afghanistan and, simultaneously, on what turned out to be a genuine pharmaceutical plant, not an al-Qaida biological or chemical weapons facility, in the Sudan.

TIME AND again Wright shows that a combination of bad luck, bad intelligence and a myopic refusal to share pieces of a complex puzzle within the American intelligence establishment – among the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, even with the White House – allowed the 9/11 plot to proceed.

Even after the 9/11 terrorists infiltrated the US, had the various intelligence agencies shared fragmentary data – in particular, had the CIA told the FBI what it needed to know – the dots just might have been connected.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The CIA feared exposing its intelligence to the FBI, knowing that the FBI viewed terrorism as a police problem. The Bureau would have sought indictments against suspected terrorists, which, to stand up in court, could reasonably have been expected to have jeopardized the CIA’s assets and methods.

How painful to read that on July 5, 2001, intelligence “chatter” had reached such proportions that Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council’s counterterrorism coordinator, called a White House meeting of all the relevant intelligence agencies to declare: “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”

But by then the FBI’s O’Neil, who knew the most about bin Laden, was being eased out of the Bureau and was preparing to take a private job as head of security at the WTC.

BEYOND THE nuts and bolts of how the plot went forward, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in a broad understanding of how the Islamist menace to Western civilization developed.

Wright provides the theological and historical setting to explain al-Qaida’s emergence. He ties the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, the sexually frustrated theoretician of the Islamist idea, to the emergence of today’s Muslim fanaticism. It was Qutb – executed by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966 – who theorized against secularism, rationality, pluralism, individualism, mixing of sexes and tolerance, all of which had seeped into Muslim society through its encounter with the West.
Basically, those Arabs who lost faith in their leaders’ ability to harness the energies of their civilization – first through Arab nationalism and then through pan-Arabism, so their shattered world could withstand the “modernity virus” – became Islamists.

The turning point was the 1967 Six Day War, when Arab efforts to destroy even a truncated Jewish state backfired, leading to the loss of the Sinai, Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem.

The Arabs’ shift to pan-Islam was unexpectedly bolstered by the 1979 revolution in Iran, in which Persian nationalism was replaced by Shi’ite fundamentalism. Whether spread by Sunni fundamentalists in Arabia or the Shi’ite mullahs of Iran, the nature of the Muslim struggle against Western influence had now taken on added momentum.

It doesn’t matter that the various Islamist strains despise one another, or try to outdo each other in closed-mindedness. What does matter is the direction in which they are taking Muslim civilization.

ARGUABLY, SAYYID Qutb’s successor was the blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Now sitting in a US jail, Rahman is the key figure connecting the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, to the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York in 1990, to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing carried out by Ramzi Yousef. And it is Rahman who was Zawahiri’s spiritual mentor.

Had US authorities relentlessly pursued the clues left behind by el-Sayyid Nosair, Kahane’s killer, the menace of the burgeoning Islamist threat might have been revealed much sooner.

As biography too, The Looming Tower is simply captivating. Bin Laden is the scion of the Yemen-born Muhammad bin Laden, who came to Saudi Arabia as an impoverished construction worker and found his way into the hearts of the royal family, eventually building a global dynasty.

As Wright tells it, Osama had a religious epiphany during adolescence that would lead him to a life of asceticism. I was fascinated to read that he fasted on Mondays and Thursdays (as do some pious Jews).

Wright also unveils the personality of the equally devout Ayman Zawahiri – a bookworm and himself scion of an Egyptian medical dynasty. Both men abandoned lives of comfort and security to pursue their vendetta against the West. (Wright suggests that Zawahiri may well be the real brains behind al-Qaida.)

The Looming Tower is also a work of political psychology, providing glimpses into the pathological minds of the Islamist leadership. We meet men from middle-class backgrounds, many of whom “return” to religiosity. They share a sense of displacement; some are expatriates, or the offspring of ex-pats. Many have issues about their sexuality.

One example: Muhammad Atta, the Egyptian leader of the 9/11 hijacking team who piloted American Airlines Flight No. 11 into the WTC, gave these instructions about the handling of his martyred remains: “Those who will wash my body should wear gloves so that they do not touch my genitals.”

Yet in telling the stories of the main fanatics, Wright also illuminates the life of their chief nemesis, John O’Neill, the agent-in-charge of the FBI’s national security division. A practicing Roman Catholic, O’Neill was also an adulterer, emotionally dependent, a bigamist and a spendthrift. Most significantly, he was an indefatigable lawman obsessed by his pursuit of bin Laden.

There were a handful of others equally dedicated scattered throughout the security establishment. But they were often forced by institutional rivalry to work at cross-purposes, or ignorant of each others’ efforts.

ABSENT THE Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, there would have been no 9/11. An amalgamation of mujahadeen fighters backed by the US, China, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia had indeed overcome the Soviets. But, as Wright reveals, bin Laden played a thoroughly minor role in that effort.

Yet thanks to a combination of hubris, delusion and religious fanaticism, bin Laden convinced himself that his band of Arabs had been ordained by God to wage jihad, that just as they had overcome the Soviets, so too they would beat America.

In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that the United States was at the root of all that was wrong in Muslim society. Wasn’t it America that was dragging Arabia toward modernity? Wasn’t it America that stood behind Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians? Didn’t it corrupt a pious Saudi regime to the point where Riyadh had actually invited infidel soldiers to defile the holy soil of his homeland?

Washington had corrupted all that was holy.

Today, bin Laden has inspired – it’s not an exaggeration to say – millions of followers with his ideas. His perniciously-enticing Islamist theology has metastasized.

One doesn’t put The Looming Tower down with anything but a sense of foreboding and a despondency over the failure of Europeans and even many Americans to acknowledge that a civilizational war has been declared against modernity and the West.


Lawrence Wright is an author (six books), screenwriter (The Siege) and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He received an MA in applied linguistics from the American University in Cairo.

Q) Are reports that Iran is grooming Saif al-Adel to replace bin Laden and Zawahiri true?

Iran has worked with al-Qaida (AQ) in the past, especially during the time when Osama bin Laden was in the Sudan from 1992-96 – when Iran and Hizbullah trained AQ operatives. Ayman Zawahiri supposedly sold information to Iranian intelligence, and he may have maintained those contacts. Moreover, many al-Qaida operatives took refuge in Iran after the invasion of Afghanistan by US and coalition forces in November-December 2001. One Saudi paper said that as many as 500 AQ members were in Iran, which sounds really inflated to me.

The two most prominent members of al-Qaida known to be in Iran are Saif al-Adl, the organization’s security chief, and Saad bin Laden, one of Osama’s most committed sons. The nature of their sanctuary there is unclear.

So there is a long-standing association between Iran and al-Qaida. But that doesn’t mean that the two entities can function together, because AQ is an entirely Sunni organization, and part of its dogma is that Shi’ites are heretics.

The FBI tells me that Saif al-Adl and Saad bin Laden are under a form of house arrest in Teheran. In one of Zawahiri’s letters to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [leader of al-Qaida in Iraq] before an American bomb found him, Zawahiri chastised him for promulgating a war against the Shi’ites, and reminded him that Iran was holding al-Qaida hostages.

Al-Qaida strategists would like to see Iran pulled into open conflict with the US and the West, and to that extent I think the leaders would be willing to work with Iran. But there’s no possibility that AQ will ever become an organ of a Shi’ite state.

Q) Is Iran providing assistance to al-Qaida units operating in Iraq?

It’s very difficult to know what’s true now in Iraq, but if there was any substance to such reports it would indicate that Iran has decided that chaos serves its immediate goals, though not its long-term ones.

Iran is in a dilemma in that it doesn’t seek a regional war – at least not until it’s secured a nuclear weapon – and that is a lively prospect if Iraq’s civil war begins to spill over the borders; on the other hand, a democratic Iraqi state, even a shaky one, poses a threat to the Iranian example.
The Iranian goal is to keep the Iraqi state weak enough to not ever be a threat again, but not so weak as to utterly fail. That’s a difficult balancing act.

Q) Does the al-Qaida that masterminded the 9/11 attacks still exist?

The old, hierarchical al-Qaida, where a member had to fill out forms in triplicate to buy a new tire, the organization that offered health benefits and paid vacations – that’s gone, but AQ strategists had planned, as early as 1998, for a new model, one composed of smaller groups that may not be networked at all, functioning more like street gangs. We’ve already seen this in Madrid and London.

That’s not to say that bin Laden and Zawahiri are irrelevant. Every day they are free is a propaganda victory for AQ. Moreover, they are still able to give direction to the movement and inspire followers.

Q) Some Israeli analysts here are talking about al-Qaida having set up up operations in Gaza. So al-Qaida still lives?

Yes, of course. It still lives as an organization, although the mother ship is much reduced. But as a movement it has certainly grown, especially in Europe.

Q) What can Israel do to undermine the al-Qaida idea?

Israel doesn’t really matter to bin Laden. He’s never attacked it, except peripherally, although he talks about it all the time. If the Israeli-Palestinian problem were resolved tomorrow, he would be heartbroken. No issue has served AQ propagandists better than the chronic stalemate that has fueled the anger of Muslims all over the world.
[That’s why] I have been urging that the US administration renounce the settlements. Half a million [settlers] should not be allowed to stand in the way of a just resolution to the Palestinian cause.
There are many causes of terrorism, but what they have in common is that they usually spring from the hopelessness and sense of futility that is so common in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Al-Qaida really is an engine that runs on despair. And it’s going to be with us as long as there is not sufficient hope to change that balance.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Say ‘yes’ to the ‘hudna’ – And let the haggling begin!

On those mornings when I take a bus from my southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot to the Post offices on the other side of town, I always scan my fellow passengers – checking for suicide bombers. Several years ago, a colleague found himself sharing a ride with a randy “martyr” on his way to collect 70 virgins.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself receptive to an op-ed in Thursday’s International Herald Tribune calling for a hudna. The piece had been written by one Ahmed Yousef, “a senior adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.”

I have to confess, I had never paid much attention to Yousef. He appears to be a Hamas liaison to the foreign press on such issues as the elusive Palestinian unity government, non-recognition of Israel and the exchange of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. The Christian Science Monitor calls him a “moderate.”

Yousef’s op-ed (which also ran in The New York Times) is part of a larger charm offensive. The Foreign Office in London facilitated visas to allow Yousef and another Hamas member, Said Abu Musameh, to hold private meetings and be interviewed by journalists.

Yousef came pushing the hudna, telling the Guardian: “We hope Europeans will become aware of the concept of hudna, and that it can become a substitute for recognition of Israel. Debate about a political nation’s right to exist seems infantile. Israel is a state now, it is part of the UN, it is de facto there, and we deal with it every day.”

In his op-ed, after explaining what a hudna is and why it is acceptable under Islamic jurisprudence, Yousef pledges that “when Hamas gives its word to an international agreement, it does so in the name of God, and will therefore keep it.”

Yousef continues: “This offer of hudna is no ruse – as some assert – to strengthen our military machine, to buy time to organize better or to consolidate our hold on the Palestinian Authority.
“We Palestinians are prepared to enter into a hudna to bring about an immediate end to the occupation and to initiate a period of peaceful coexistence during which both sides would refrain from any form of military aggression or provocation.

“During this period of calm and negotiations we can address the important issues like the right of return and the release of prisoners. The next generation of Palestinians and Israelis will have to decide whether or not to renew the hudna and the search for a negotiated peace.”

I’M NO adviser to the prime minister, but my first inclination – mindful of the politics of the bazaar – is to say: you want a hudna, you got a hudna.

Now, let’s talk details.

Our Foreign Ministry is hung up with getting Hamas to unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce terrorism and embrace commitments the Palestinian Arabs made under the 1993 Oslo Accords. I’m not much bothered about such things. After all, Yasser Arafat demonstrated that one can “renounce” terrorism while engaging in it; “recognize” Israel’s right to exist while trying to bomb us to smithereens, and sit for photo-ops with visiting peace delegations while brainwashing Palestinian children to hate Jews.

Maybe the problem was that we tried to cut a deal with Palestinian factions that couldn’t deliver their people. We ought to abandon such impotent and disingenuous partners and do business with the people that can deliver.

And considering how little our earlier peace efforts have actually accomplished, we might as well start from scratch.

LET’S RESPOND by offering the Palestinian Arabs a Jewish hudna: 10 years of tranquility for the Arabs of Gaza, Judea and Samaria. If they stop all violence from the Jordan to the Mediterranean – no drive-by shootings, no rock-throwing, no firebombs, no bus or cafe bombings (you get the idea) from any Palestinian source – Israel will offer peace and quiet.

If the other side can live without smuggling weapons and without training its young people for the next round of warfare, if it can retool its schools to teach hudna instead of intolerance, we should meet them halfway.

Of course, we can’t withdraw to the suicidal armistice lines of 1949 (which some call the 1967 borders), but we can commit ourselves to genuinely freezing the territorial expansion of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (we can always build higher); we can remove outposts not approved by the government; we can make it as easy to travel from Ramallah to Gaza as it is to journey from Safed to Eilat.

Naturally, we will never agree to the “right of return” of the refugees (and their descendants) who left this land generations ago, but we can – with EU and US help – help those in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the territories demolish their refugee camps and build permanent housing; we can facilitate the building of industries in Palestinian Arab population centers; we can even welcome Palestinian Arabs back into Israel proper for business and pleasure.

And, assuming the Palestinians do deliver, devoting themselves for the next 10 years to rebuilding their morally, politically and economically devastated society, relearning humane values and rediscovering a spiritualism that’s not fixated on blood, I predict they will find most Israelis willing to compromise – even to the point of helping create a Palestinian Arab state.
So, were I advising our premier, I’d urge him to invite Haniyeh to Jerusalem and start the hudna haggling.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Time for the IDF to launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza?

My gut instinct tells me it would be a mistake to launch a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip.

The enemy would like nothing more than to tie down tens of thousands of IDF troops in the alleyways of the refugee camps and in the urban slums of Gaza. They’ve reportedly been training and laying traps for precisely such a step.

An IDF move into Gaza would also halt the internecine warfare among the various Palestinian militias, clans, and terrorist organizations, instantly uniting them against Israel.

No. We need to fight this war by exploiting our strengths not playing into enemy hands which would have us fight in crowded cities and camps.

I think what we’ve been doing until now in response to Palestinian aggression is roughly the right approach. We’ve aimed to kill Kassam launch teams and some of the people who send them. We’ve destroyed ammunition dumps and the factories that make the Kassams.

It’s frustrating that we haven’t been able to stop all rocket and missile launching from Gaza.

But more than 300 enemy combatants (and, regrettably, noncombatants) have been killed since Gilad Shalit was captured. I would not call that sitting on our hands.

We do need to accelerate our efforts along the Philadelphi Corridor – something we’ve begun to do. Still, it will be an immense task to reduce the flow of weapons coming in via the tunnels from Sinai.

That's because the Egyptians are part of the problem by failing to police their side of the Gaza-Sinai border.

We need to be methodical and smart in dealing with Gaza; let’s keep hammering away whenever an opportunity presents itself – by land, sea, and air.

But for now, I say “no” to a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Time to invade Gaza?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ramadan realities

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, ends next Monday at sunset with the festival of Id al-Fitr. Muslims worldwide have been marking the “handing down” of the Koran through obligatory daytime fasting.

These last days of the month are filled with heightened religious significance making it – for Islamists – a fine time for “martyring.”

Last Friday, as Jews were preparing to usher in Shmini Atzeret, some 200,000 Muslim worshippers were attending prayers in the Aksa Mosque compound – which just happens to also be the Temple Mount. Roughly half of the worshippers were West Bank Palestinians – women and men older than 45. Age limits are imposed because of security concerns.

Thousands of other West Bank Arabs were prevented from reaching Jerusalem because the authorities feared they would use the opportunity to do more than pray.

Sure enough, clashes were reported between security forces and stone-throwing Palestinians demanding entrance to Jerusalem, at the Kalandiya checkpoint north of the city, and near Bethlehem in the south. Some Palestinians even tried to scale the security barrier now protecting part of the capital’s perimeter.

MUSLIM RELIGIOUS ardor has gradually supplanted both Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism as the mobilizing force in Palestinian society. This makes any hope of an Arab-Israeli modus vivendi ever more remote.

The Palestinian cause is a central pillar of the Muslim complaint against the West. Why? The Islamist war against Western civilization is a war against modernity – representative government, pluralism, tolerance, gender equality, sexual liberation and rationalism. And for Islamists, Israel – stuck in their midst – is modernity incarnate.

More than anything else, the return of the Jewish people to this land and the establishment of our nation-state in 1948 galvanized Arab intellectuals in their battle with the West, already in progress.

This season’s must-read book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright, includes the reaction of Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a guiding spirit of today’s Islamists, to president Harry S Truman’s support for bringing Holocaust refugees to Palestine: “I hate those Westerners [for wanting to bring European Jews to the Arab Middle East] and despise them! All of them, without any exception: the English, the French, the Dutch and finally the Americans, who have been trusted by many.”

SO WHAT do we do in the face of such relentless religious hatred, which has not abated?
What I like to call the irrational Right would have Israel take an adversarial position: Don’t “appease.” Confront.

That’s the idea encapsulated in National Union-National Religious Party MK Uri Ariel’s call for building a synagogue on the Temple Mount.

A new group with the apparent backing of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz claims to have reestablished the Sanhedrin, originally an august assembly of venerable, God-inspired sages. Their seeming mission is to hasten the rebuilding of the Third Temple.

Call me chicken, but I don’t think six million Jews should go out of their way to further antagonize 300 million Arabs – not to mention the one billion Muslims who stand behind them in order to hasten the rebuilding of the Temple. I’d like to leave that job to God.

THE IRRATIONAL Left is equally misguided in advocating a return – “with adjustments” – to the 1949 armistice lines (which they like to call “the 1967 borders”). They’d rely on Arab and international goodwill to favorably interpret the picayune matter of the “right of return,” which, they say, we should accept “in principle.”

So if, in the face of resurgent Islam and an intransigent Palestinian Arab foe, we ought neither to rebuild the Temple nor withdraw to borders that are less than 15 km. wide in some places – what should we do?

I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s lament about coming to a crossroads where “one path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

We’ve tried negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas when he was in power – to no avail.

We’ve tried unilateralism and disengagement and that seems to have backfired.

We’ve tried improving the economic situation of the Palestinian Arabs on the theory that people with a stake in their future tend not to blow themselves up. Or send others to do it.

But the problem is that Palestinian leaders do not really want their people to stop suffering. The last thing they want is to turn Gaza into Hong Kong or the West Bank into Singapore. And anyway, for the Ismail Haniyehs of Palestine, deprivation isn’t the crux of the problem – it’s a symptom that will go away when modernity is vanquished.

Sayyid Qutb, mentioned earlier – an educator who traveled widely across the United States in the 1950s when few Egyptians had the opportunity to leave their home villages – rejected modernity and all its trappings (well, OK, he held on to his classical music record collection).

Al-Qaida mastermind Ayman Zawahiri grew up in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood and went on to become a physician, continuing a family tradition.

Palestinian firebrand Edward Said attended an exclusive boys’ prep school in Cairo. Gaza-based Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was also a physician.

BOTTOM LINE? About the best we can do is not make things worse via reckless security concessions or needlessly exacerbating our already-fraught relations with the Arabs through acts of hubris.

One thing we can do is bolster that rare commodity, the Arab moderate. It’s in that context that I support Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to allow King Abdullah II of Jordan the privilege of constructing a fifth minaret on the Temple Mount.

And we can hope – and, for those inclined, pray – that the international community will at long last come to the realization that the Palestinian polity is not yet ready for statehood. That what’s needed is a concerted Western effort to politically socialize the next generation in Gaza and the West Bank to the mores and responsibilities that are a prerequisite to statehood. If this sounds condescending, then maybe you don’t appreciate the reality of Palestinian society.

And we can pray – for that far-off day when Islam taps into its rich civilizational traditions in order to move from today’s drift toward the fanatical Salafist stream toward a reformation that would allow it to thrive in a religiously and politically heterogenous world.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Sadat Assassinated - 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago, at 12:40 pm on October 6, 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, age 63, was mortally wounded as he reviewed a military parade commemoratingEgypt's "victory" over Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

His attackers, Muslim fundamentalists, tossed two handgrenades and directed automatic weapons fire into the reviewing stand. Sadat's deputy, Hosni Mubarak, was nearby but escaped unscathed.

I can't recall where I was that Tuesday in October. Maybe in my office in the shadow of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. Perhaps at NYU where I was a graduate student.

What particularly fascinates is to have a peek at what was going on the day before that cataclysmic event, when no one - save the assassins themselves - had any inkling of the looming calamity.

On October 5, 1981, The Jerusalem Post carried a front page analysis by military affairs reporter Hirsh Goodman, exposing divisions within the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO was a player in the ongoing (1975-1990) Lebanese civil war and controlled most of south Lebanon. Goodman was trying to get a handle on whether the PLO would maintain its temporary cease-fire with Israel or perhaps launch attacks at Jewish targets outside the region.There was no Hizbullah.

Hassan Nasrallah was 21 years old and had returned - having been expelled - to South Lebanon from Iraq where he had studied politics and theology in Iraq. By then Nasrallah had probably joined the Amal movement which had arisen to defend Shi'ite interests in the civil war.

Over in Washington, Ronald Reagan's administration (with Casper Weinberger in the Pentagon) was pushing hard to sell hi-tech AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia, ­ a move that the pro-Israel community in the US vigorously opposed. The fear was that the kind of attack Israel had just carried out (on June 7) against the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak might have been greatly complicated had Saudi AWACS surveillance planes been patrolling the skies.

Richard Nixon famously grumbled that members ofCongress were being asked to "choose between Reagan and Begin."

Twenty-five years ago Egypt and Israel were essentially at peace. Sadat's historic November 1977 visit had cemented a new reality. Israel, however, had not yet withdrawn from all of the Sinai Peninsula. The Jewish community of Yamit had not yet been uprooted. Indeed, Knesset members were debating issues of settler compensation and Yamit supporters were actively lobbying politicians - especially those in the National Religious Party - to block the withdrawal.

And though there was peace, some Israelis complained that Egypt was not doing enough to open up its doors to Israeli tourism; it was taking too long to obtain a visa was a common complaint. Egyptians bureaucrats defended their actions, noting that in the 19 months since a consular section had been set up at Cairo's embassy in Tel Aviv some 80,000 visas had been processed.

Meanwhile, Israeli companies were trying to expand business opportunities in Egypt. Solel Boneh, the Histadrut-owned construction conglomerate, had announced plansto open a new office in Cairo.

THE ASSASSINATION took place in the age before websites. CNN began broadcasting only in 1980 and few people in New York had cable. Israel had just one television station.Most people learned about the assassination from radio.

The day after the assassination, October 7, 1981, The Jerusalem Post lead headline simply read: "Sadat Assassinated"; the sub-headline told readers: "Mubarak Pledges Continuity on Peace." Sadat, said Mubarak, had been killed "by criminal and treacherous hands."

That same morning, the staid New York Times published an exceptional three-row headline across the top of the front page (I still have the paper): "Sadat Assassinated at Army Parade as men amid ranks fire into stands; Vice President affirms 'All Treaties'.

No one outside Egypt really knew who was responsible orwhat their motives were. There were various claims of responsibility and much celebration in the various Arab capitals.

In PLO-controlled South Lebanon, gunmen set off rockets and shot weapons in the air to celebrate. Youths in Arab east Jerusalem joyfully rallied. The Soviet Union, ­drawing ever closer to Yasser Arafat, ­said Sadat had got what was coming to him - though not in so many words. Iran (the Shah, an Israeli ally, had been overthrown in 1979 and the country was now in the hands of the mullahs) hailed the killing. Tripoli Radio was practically orgasmic in its broadcast: "He lived like a Jew and died like aJew."

Yitzhak Rabin, a former general and former prime minister (his fateful second term was years away), grumbled that the Reagan Administration had contributed to the assassination by shifting its focus away from Egypt to Saudi Arabia ­-- a dig, no doubt, over the AWACS controversy.

THAT WEDNESDAY night, October 7, marked the start of Yom Kippur; further news and analysis about the assassination, the funeral, and what it all meant forIsrael had to wait. An anxious country was shutting down for the solemn Day of Atonement.I

t would be some days before the world learned for certain that the assassins were Islamists ­- a breakaway faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. In hindsight, we can almost connect the dots between Sadat's assassins and the killers of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990 and even subsequent attacks on the West, including those carried out by al-Qaida. Some of those involved in the Sadat assassination would later be tied to some of these events.

Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration urged Israel to help calm a volatile region by ending settlement activity in Judea and Samaria (something premier Menachem Begin rejected) and to accelerate efforts to offer the Palestinian Arabs autonomy (something Palestinian Arabs rejected).

FROM THE vantage point of 2006, we can be thankful that the "peace" with Egypt has held these 25 years.

Mubarak, though, failed to socialize the people of Egypt to the idea and legitimacy of peace with the sovereign Jewish state of Israel. Perhaps this would be asking too much giving that the "Palestinian problem" was unresolved.

Mubarak's regime, moreover, has been duplicitous and thoroughly unhelpful in expanding the peace.

It was Mubarak who hardened Arafat's heart urging him not to cut a deal with Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and thus contributing to the second intifada.

Egypt is connected to just about every anti-Israel move at the UN and among the so-called non-aligned nations. Egyptian authorities calibrate just how many weapons to allow into the Gaza Strip via tunnels in Sinai so as to keep the area on a low boil. In doing so, they are playing with fire.

The Egyptian military is flush with the newest weapons supplied by a grateful America. Cairo's military machine poses the greatest threat to Israel of any Arab state.

But with all that, I for one worry about what will happen when the 78-year-old Mubarak leaves the scene. Egypt, even more than Saudi Arabia, is the theological home of al-Qaida; it is the birthplace of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who some say is the real brains behind Osama bin-Laden. It is also the birthplace of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik who inspired the murder of Rabbi Kahane and al-Qaida's 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center.

Mubarak's inability – perhaps unwillingness - to permit a reformist opposition has left the field open to Egypt's semi-legal Islamist.

Twenty-five years ago the world discovered that the Islamist genie was out of the bottle. If you reflect on how much damage the Muslim fundamentalist phenonenon (in its various manifestations) has already caused in a relatively short period, God only know what the next 25 years will bring. Clearly, the genie cannot easily be put back into the bottle.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Today is 9/11

Irony of ironies, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in London’s Charing Cross Road, browsing the shelves of a modest Islamic book shop.

There were only a few people in the store. And I noticed that the counter clerk seemed to be smiling enigmatically as he listened to what I assumed was a weird tape-recording of a man who sounded like ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings. Jennings was describing a fantastic occurrence; something about a plane having smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
Curiosity got the better of me and I asked the clerk what he was listening to. “The radio – a plane has gone into the World Trade Center,” he politely replied.

I left the shop and hurried to the tube station feeling discombobulated. Given that I had spent several decades of my work life in the vicinity of the WTC, it would have been easier emotionally, at that moment, to have been back in New York City where I grew up, or at home in Jerusalem.
Watching events unfold in London only added to my sense of surrealism.

FIVE YEARS and a day later, the debate about how 9/11 should be understood rages on. From my Jerusalem perch, here’s how this native New Yorker thinks we should conceptualize 9/11:
President George W. Bush isn’t the problem. Progressive Europe’s punching-bag may have exacerbated matters by mishandling the “war on terror,” but obsessive Bush-bashing is an extravagance conscientious folks really can’t afford.

The real problem is the Islamist threat.

It’s this generation’s misfortune that Islamic civilization has been co-opted by those who would exploit its imperialistic and chauvinistic values rather than its more enlightened and reformist traits.

Muslim civilization today is violently catalyzed by antipathy to Western modernity. It’s taken Bush a while to identify the character of the conflict. He still slips back into blurred talk about the “war on terror.” Yet as we all appreciate, “terror” is a strategy – not the enemy itself.
The enemy is militant, rapacious Islam.

Bush sidetracked the war against militant Islam with the ill-conceived, poorly conducted campaign in Iraq. Because of it the West has almost allowed Afghanistan to slip back into Taliban hands.

Bush’s continuing failure to recognize that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time; that until he made it so, Iraq was not a pillar of the Islamist threat, is lamentable.

So too, are America’s losses, and the administration’s misguided obsession with “democratizing” the Middle East. This is a region where popular support invariably flows to the radicals, not to Western-oriented reformers.

But at the end of the day, Bush mishandled the Islamist threat; he didn’t create it. And it will not go away when America elects its next president, or when British Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves 10 Downing Street.

WE MUST NOT give the enemy the rope with which to hang us. We need to find the right balance between the rights we as citizens of the West enjoy versus giving our government the capacity to win. Only a wise, accountable and enlightened political – and judicial – leadership can navigate such a ground-breaking course.

It is essential, for the morale of Western society as well as for the effectiveness of our struggle, that peacetime notions of civil liberties be adapted to meet the crisis we face.

At airports, for instance, such an approach translates into profiling: We need to admit that an elderly African American grandmother from Harlem is less likely to pose a security threat to international aviation than a 20-something British-born Muslim of Pakistani heritage who’s just come back from a year of religious studies in Peshawar. In failing to connect the simplest of dots we are sacrificing enduring values of liberty and tolerance for fleeting political correctness.

JUST BECAUSE there’s a war of civilizations doesn’t mean that every regional conflict involving Muslims can be subsumed under it.

We should avoid self-fulfilling prophesies. Any steps that can be taken to lessen the religious aspect of confrontations with Muslim society should be pursued – not to delude ourselves, but as a tactic in conflict management.

Militant Islam is heterogenous. Iranian and Wahhabi Islamists share an antipathy for the West – and for each other.

We’ve already seen the Palestinian Arab conflict turned into a religious struggle with the emergence of Hamas – making it even more intractable. Now we’re witnessing the Kurdish struggle in Turkey (and elsewhere) becoming transformed into a religious endeavor. That’s bad for the Jews (and not so great for the Kurds, either).

As much as we need to recognize the war of civilizations, we must not so relish the paradigm that we become blinded to alternative forms of conflict analysis.

Palestinian religious fundamentalism, for instance, is plainly part of the larger Islamist struggle. But for practical purposes, operating purely within that framework is counter-productive.
Once can imagine Hamas reaching a point where it decides that the Palestinian interest dictates the movement enter into a long-term hudna with Israel. Clergy could easily be found to provide the necessary religious imprimatur.

Operationally, we need to de-link our struggle from the larger civilizational war, and exploit those Palestinian religious (and political) sensibilities that would allow a long-term cease-fire.
Pragmatically, we need to find ways to bridge the religious gap, using the language of religion to find ways of accommodation.

LET’S NOT frighten ourselves to death about the terrorist menace. It’s real and scary enough.
But for the most part, this is a slow-burn conflict. We’re going to need the stamina to confront it over the long haul.

Authorities in the West should not be afraid to expose probable terrorist plots, but they ought to temper such readiness with a recognition that their credibility is at stake. For instance, of the 417 people charged with terrorism in the US since 2001, only 143 have actually been indicted, and only 38 convicted.

If you cry wolf too often, folks might discount the genuine peril they face. On the other hand, if authorities fail to expose plots that are real, though hard to prove in court, they risk allowing the conspiracies to come to fruition.

The political system (and that includes the media) needs to adapt to the nature of this unique war in which subversive groups that support the enemy and engage in espionage or sabotage really are in our midst. And we must find a way to balance threat alertness with paralyzing fear-mongering.

FINALLY, WE need a united front and wise leaders. Militant Islam’s war against Western civilization is not aimed at Neo-cons or the Christian Right alone.
It also targets people who summer at Martha’s Vineyard, live in North London or on the Upper West Side, and subscribe to The New York Review and The Guardian. Its war is aimed at the entire range of Western values: from conservative to liberal, and from religious to secular.
We are all infidels.

Regrettably, the Muslim world is all too united in its battle against Judeo-Christian civilization. Only a brave Muslim minority opposes the Islamists outright. Such solidarity in the Muslim camp demands greater cohesion on the Western side.

As the war evolves, as Bush and Blair fade from the scene, the real essence of the struggle may become apparent for some of those now blinded by myopic hatred of Bush.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Trading IDF soldiers for Arab terrorists

For the good of the many

The headline in Sunday's mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot caught my eye: "800 prisoners to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit."

Shalit was taken captive, and two IDF soldiers were killed, during a daring Hamas attack launched via a tunnel into Israel from Gaza on June 25.

While the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denies it, there are reasons to believe that Jerusalem is planning to trade 800-1,000 Palestinian prisoners (excluding Marwan Barghouti, say some reports, including him, say others) for Shalit. The proposed exchange would take place over a period of three months. It's a deal being brokered by Fatah elements close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt, acting as go-betweens for Hamas.

There are some 9,000 Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons. I'm sure a handful are as pure as the driven snow, but most are heartless killers (or their facilitators). People like Amana Muna, who lured a naive Israeli teenager named Ofir Rahum via the Internet to a rendezvous with death in Ramallah; or Ahlam Tamimi, the guide of the suicide bomber who blew up Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in 2001, murdering 15 Israelis.

Days after Shalit's kidnapping, the prime minister said something that made me proud I voted for his Kadima Party: "Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organizations. We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners. The Palestinian Authority bears full responsibility for the welfare of Gilad Shalit, and for returning him safe and sound to Israel."

With that as a basis, Israel launched Operation Summer Rain, a series of military incursions into Gaza - the first since disengagement. In roughly three months the IDF has justifiably taken a heavy toll on Palestinian infrastructure (a power station, bridges, training camps and government offices - not to mention more than 200 Palestinians killed; mostly gunmen but, regrettably, civilians too).

True, the IDF has failed to track down Shalit - but we've made them pay dearly for the kidnapping and killings. The Hamas government is hurting; so is the Palestinian polity which elected it.

THEN, ON July 12, Hizbullah attacked across the Lebanese border, killing eight IDF soldiers and capturing Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Once again Olmert made me proud when, in a seminal speech before the Knesset on July 17, he declared: "Citizens of Israel, there are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality, and say: No more! And I say to everyone: No more! Israel will not be held hostage - not by terror gangs, or by a terrorist authority, or by any sovereign state."

What ensued was a month of difficult war in which 117 IDF soldiers were killed. Because we took a justifiably tough stance, Hizbullah launched 4,000 rockets against northern Israel. Forty-two civilians were killed and over 4,000 wounded. It will take the North years to recover from the damage to homes, farms and forests.

Hizbullah strongholds in Beirut and south Lebanon were decimated. Enemy reports claim that some 1,000 Lebanese non-combatants died in the war. Hundreds of Hizbullah gunmen were reportedly killed. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah remains in hiding.

BUT NOW it turns out that negotiations are also under way, via a German intermediary, to ransom Regev and Goldwasser in return for 27 Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails, plus the bodies of a number of Hizbullah fighters killed in the war.

The Jerusalem Post reported on Monday that the government is not ruling out freeing Samir Kuntar - responsible for the brutal 1979 murders of three members of the Haran family in Nahariya, as well as policeman Eliahu Shahar - as part of the deal.

Shlomo Goldwasser argues that "anything is justified" to get his son released. That's an understandable position for a father. But it's not the position a prime minister should take.
How does Olmert plan to explain his about-face to the parents of the soldiers killed trying to free Goldwasser and Regev? What will he tell the Terror Victims Association, which has warned against a prisoner swap?

We've been down this road before. In 1985 Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC traded three Israeli soldiers captured in the 1982 Lebanon war for over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists. One of them was Ahmed Yassin. Many analysts believe that the Jibril release helped set the stage for the first intifada in 1988.

In 2004, in one of the murkier exchanges conducted, some 400 Arab terrorists (and the remains of 59 others) were exchanged for "businessman" Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers.

IF OLMERT'S pledge that Israel would not be held hostage doesn't preclude ransoming our soldiers for terrorists - what exactly did it mean?

One could argue that an Israeli military retaliation (against Hamas and Hizbullah) was called for even if we planned to trade prisoners for kidnapped soldiers all along. In that case, however, our actions should have been more carefully calibrated. Instead we acted as if a new-found principle was at stake: that Kadima, unlike Likud and Labor, wouldn't cave in to terrorists. And on the basis of that principle a million Israelis stoically accepted a hellish summer.

One might also argue that both Hizbullah and Hamas have learned that although Israel does eventually cave in when faced with a ransom demand, Jerusalem will exact a heavy price before throwing in the towel. But couldn't such a deterrent message have been sent - especially on the northern front - with greater dexterity?

I have no problem with trading "fresh" Palestinian prisoners - taken since Gilad Shalit's capture, like members of the Hamas-led Palestine National Council; or Lebanese and Hizbullah POWs (and corpses) taken during the war itself. But anything beyond that would be a clear reversal of Olmert's principled, indeed revolutionary, stand.

THIS IS not one of those grey areas. Either we went to war because a principle was at stake, or it wasn't. Either we trade hostages for prisoners, or we don't.

History shows that every time we free killers, at least some of them go back to their line of work. And giving terrorists their liberty lifts the enemy's spirits. Arab society can more easily tolerate "martyrs" than the lengthy incarceration of husbands, sons, brothers and daughters.
Don't we want to undermine enemy morale - not bolster it?

Granted, we've meted out sufficient punishment to make Hizbullah and Hamas think twice before embarking on further cross-border hostage-taking attacks. But at the end of the day, the temptation to try again remains.

There's another principle at stake: Palestinians convicted of killing Israeli civilians are criminals. They should not be exchanged as prisoners of war.

It makes sense that Palestinians and Hizbullah Shi'ites want their kinfolk released. That desire should serve as an incentive for them to negotiate an end to the conflict. But releasing under duress Arab prisoners while the war is in progress only encourages the Palestinian "resistance."
As for the families of the captured IDF soldiers, they should be made to understand that the good of the many must outweigh the need - no matter how heartfelt and understandable - of the few.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Today is 27 Rajab

It’s been a hard, tense summer and many of us share a lingering feeling that our troubles are not over yet. The indecisive war with Hizbullah has revived existential worries that are never far from the surface.

It doesn’t help that the renowned Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis recently raised the possibility that Shi’ite Islamists in Iran will do something nasty on the 27th day of the Muslim month of Rajab – which this year falls on August 22 – because the date is religiously propitious in the struggle against infidels.

While I’m hopeful we’ll all make it to August 23, this sort of gloomy talk makes me think maybe we Jews shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. Maybe – for lots of reasons – Theodor Herzl was wrong in advocating the negation of the Diaspora.

The longer I’m in Israel, the more appreciative I become of the Diaspora. It’s not just the extraordinary outpouring of emotional and financial support we’ve received in the course of the war with Hizbullah; it’s also a recognition that Israeli society needs the cross-pollination offered by a healthy relationship with a pluralistic Jewish world.

And it’s not just the warning from Bernard Lewis that got me thinking along these lines. This week also marks the first Jewish settlement in Manhattan, in 1654, as well as Herzl’s arrival in Basle to prepare for the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.

The Diaspora came to North America when Jacob Barsimson of Holland arrived on the Pear Tree precisely 352 years ago tomorrow, August 22. In September 1654 an additional 23 Jewish settlers arrived in New Netherlands, probably from the West Indies, on a ship called the Saint Catarina.

The “diversification” of Jewish civilization to the New World had begun in earnest, and a golden era of American Jewry was on the horizon. Whatever the many challenges faced by US Jews today, they do not detract from the community’s unique contribution to the larger Jewish narrative.

AS FOR Theodor Herzl, he arrived in Basle on August 25 to prepare for the Congress (which opened on August 29) and brought together some 200 delegates from 20 countries, including the United States. The Congress proclaimed that “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured, home in Palestine.”

It is sobering that 58 years after Israeli independence what we thought was “publicly recognized” and “legally secured” apparently isn’t; that assurances offered by the “international community” don’t seem to have much of a shelf-life.

In his address to the Congress, Herzl forecast that once the Jewish state was established world Jewry would be transplanted to Israel, and the Diaspora would wither away: “Those who are able or who wish to be assimilated will remain behind and be absorbed.”

In this way, anti-Semitism (caused, Herzl was certain, by Jewish statelessness) would gradually decrease as Jews either assimilated or immigrated to Palestine.
“Thus it is,” he said, “that we understand and anticipate the solution of the Jewish problem.”

Not quite.

Far from putting an end to Jew-hatred, Israel has tragically – and metaphysically – become a lightening-rod for Jew-haters.

Over the years we’ve had no luck in fighting – or talking – our way out of the existential conundrum we find ourselves in. And all the while, an amalgamation of well-meaning friends, deceitful allies and intransigent enemies urge us to withdraw to vulnerable armistice lines that are even more dangerous today than they were when established in 1949.

ALL THIS makes it hard to be sanguine about Israel’s future. Herzl, for all his genius, misjudged the nature of the Jewish problem as well as the utility of the Diaspora.
It turns out that one of his critics, Asher Zvi Ginsberg – better known as Ahad Ha’am – was in some respects a better prognosticator than Herzl.

Ahad Ha’am, the father of “cultural Zionism,” envisioned the Zionist state as the spiritual home of Jewish civilization. But he accepted that there would always be a Diaspora, which was fine by him so long as it maintained firm Jewish values.

Ahad Ha’am was no wimp. He favored Jewish self-defense and actively opposed efforts to establish the Jewish homeland in any place but Zion. Yet he was by nature a pragmatic pessimist with little faith in the political promises of the international

Moreover, where Herzl was oblivious, Ahad Ha’am anticipated that the aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs would have to be addressed.

In a sense, the man was also an elitist. He didn’t want just anybody making aliya. He wanted immigrants to be adequately prepared intellectually for the sacrifices life in the Jewish state would demand. He himself came here in 1922.

For him, creating a Jewish state was not an end in itself. He expected it would help Judaism in its encounter with modernity. As opposed to the Jewishly illiterate Herzl, Ahad Ha’am was identified with Jewish tradition, though also ambivalent about it.

I’M STILL sentimentally attached to Herzl. But especially after the summer we’ve been through, and the likely troubles ahead, don’t we Jews need to reduce our risk and diversify – demographically, culturally and politically? After all, ideological purity isn’t much use to a country at risk of annihilation.

Looking beyond Rajab 27, the pragmatic pessimism championed by Ahad Ha’am may well serve strategic Jewish interests better than the messianic optimism of Herzl.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

View from the Reichstag

Europe's world is one of live and let live

Berlin is a city embarrassingly easy to fall in love with, notwithstandingeverything we know about its history. London, linguistically and politically familiar to an American-born Israeli visitor, is strangely more off-putting.

But whatever their differences, both cities are equally oblivious to whatappears obvious from Jerusalem: Islamists have embarked on a multi-front war against Western civilization. I don't blame the Europeans for not connecting the dots. The hostilities against our shared civilization have been declared in so veiled and anarchic a manner that Europe has a reasonable basis for being in denial.

Today's free and mostly-thriving Europeans are as laid-back as the Islamists are mobilized. They feel they have paid their dues. Europe was the battlefield for the anti-Nazi struggle, while throughout the Cold War the threat of nuclear hostilities hung eerily over both London and Berlin.

So instead of obsessing over the intentions of Muslim fanatics, today'sBritish and German elites are exercised about global warming, banana fungi, and how to construct non-judgmental societies.

Understandably, it's too painful for them to ponder the possibility that, 60 years after Hitler and not two decades after the Soviets were pushed into the dustbin of history,Western civilization is being threatened again.

YOU WOULDN'T sense that peril lurks from taking a stroll through the streets of Berlin. Walk your feet off, as I did, from the Fernsehturm (the giant radio tower built by the East German communists) to Checkpoint Charlie, and from the Tiergarten (Berlin¹s central park) to Potsdamer Platz, and you can¹t stop marveling at how livable and civilized the place is.

Despite their enviable underground transportation system, thousands of Berliners were taking advantage of the sunny weather to commute by bicycle. At a busy four-way intersection near my hotel automobile drivers yielded politely to each other, and to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Europe's world is one of live, and let live.

Only steps from the Brandenburg Gate stands the new, architecturally contentious Holocaust memorial. Jewish-interest sites, including the Judisches Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, and the partially rebuilt Neue Synagogue are filled with mostly non-Jewish visitors. To say that today's generation of Germans has been politically socialized to remember the Holocaust is an understatement.

But their socialization has, understandably, focused on the lessons that they as Germans can derive. The preeminent Jewish lessons of the Shoah ­-- that the Jewish people must have a secure homeland, and that Jews must never again depend wholly on the goodwill of strangers ­ are not part of Germany's universalistic Holocaust curriculum.

I'D ARRANGED to meet up with a young German at the Reichstag parliament building, a formidable Middle East specialist whom I had met a few months earlier in Jerusalem. He is a senior staffer with the opposition Green Party and has good Hebrew (having studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's overseas school) as well as a solid command of Arabic.

The Reichstag, now crowned by a glass dome, is a perfect venue for viewing Berlin¹s skyline. An unintended consequence, however, is that in broiling weather the dome feels like the interior of a hothouse.

Wilting as I climbed, I heard from my contact that his party was vigorously urging Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to use its influence with Washington to press for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah. This was even before the Kana tragedy claimed 28 civilian lives.

I protested that we'd hardly achieved any of our war aims: think of the message that an unfavorable and premature halt in the fighting would send to the Islamists, and especially to Iran. Showing weakness would also undermine Germany's efforts to keep Teheran from going nuclear.

Sensing no progress, I tried a different tack: A bad outcome could finishEhud Olmert politically, and he certainly would not be replaced by anyone more accommodating regarding the Palestinians.

My arguments were unpersuasive. What could be more right-wing than what Olmert was doing to Lebanon's infrastructure? Violence, said the German Middle East expert, can only make things worse; you can't achieve your goals militarily. Negotiation is the only way forward.

FUNDAMENTALLY, German elites see the Palestinian issue as the crux of the Middle East conundrum and Hizbullah as a sideshow.

They are resolutely convinced that the Palestinian Arabs are not out to destroy Israel and that our two peoples are destined, with time and patience, to live peaceably sideby side. Indeed, West Germany first invoked the idea of self-determination for the Palestinians back in 1974.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the Middle East, Germany walks on egg shells.

"As Germans," Merkel said last week "we should proceed in this region with utmost caution."

Nor does Berlin want to see NATO involved in our region.

And Germany is unlikely to be part of any European force stationed on Israel's border (though the possibility of Bundeswehr troops patrolling Lebanon's boundary with Syria, to combat Hizbullah arms smuggling, is only slightly moreplausible).

The German Jewish leadership is also not keen on Berlin'sparticipation in any multinational force for Lebanon.

FOR THEIR part, the Greens are disappointed that Merkel, a ChristianDemocrat, explicitly blamed Hizbullah for the war but hasn't also unambiguously joined France's Jacques Chirac in demanding an immediat cease-fire.

In more recent days, her spokesman did complain that Israeli bombing raids have been "exaggerated."

Merkel's Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has, however, made the requisite European noises about the need for Israel's response to the Hizbullah threat to be "proportionate."

The war is drawing attention to the inherent foreign policy differences among the coalition partners.

Steinmeier, incidentally, has valuable experience in the region, having worked with Lebanese terrorist factions on past prisoner exchanges. It would not surprise if the Germans were now engaged in helpful behind-the-scenes efforts to bring Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev home from Hizbullah captivity.

Berlin's less than robust support for Israel in the current conflict is disappointing, but not unexpected.

Germany does not want to champion Israel's cause inside the EU.

The German government's overriding national interest is to toe the consensus line of the 25-member union.

Still, 40 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, it's distressing that the best one can say about Berlin's policies is that they handily beat those of Paris.

But as the Germans see it, they are trying to be helpful.

Committed to the principle that nations can negotiate their way out of virtually any tight spot, late last week the Foreign Ministry in Berlin tried to mobilize support within the EU to bribe Syria into breaking with Iran (and its Hizbullah proxy) by offering Damascus duty-free access to the EU market.

[Steinmeier is in Israel today having spent yesterday in Beirut]

BACK IN parched London, it was almost painful to behold Prime Minister TonyBlair¹s isolation.

He was being unremittingly derided not just by the media and the Conservative opposition, but by his own cabinet ministers for refusing to break with Washington over George Bush's refusal to demand an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon.

And yet, together with Germany, Britain had been striving mightily to keep the EU from forcing Israel into an untimely cease-fire.

The formulators of public opinion in Britain so critical of Blair range narrowly from befuddled moral relativists to implacable opponents of the Zionist enterprise.

My European sojourn reminded me that nations pursue policies based on a combination of ethos, domestic and regional influences, power politics, historical perceptions and economic interests.

That being the case, there is no magic bullet, no public relations scheme, and no appeal to sentiment that could transform the policies of London or Berlin into those of Washington.

What ultimately turned the tide in US perceptions ­-- what makes this White House different from Ronald Reagan's during the 1982 Lebanon War ­-- was 9/11.

Despite German authorities' worry that Islamists are now preparing an operation on their soil, and the attacks already carried out in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005, European decision makers prefer not to connect the dots.

I envy them them their serenity.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Upton Sinclair, guileless muckraker

After a day of lessons at a nearby public school, Mr. Israel (I never learned his given name) would come to our yeshiva on New York’s Lower East Side to teach English to a somnolent 10th grade.
He wore an oversize black yarmulke – provided by his employers – over a receding hairline. His bohemian credentials were conveyed by his longish black hair, goatee and ubiquitous turtleneck worn under his shirt.

I recall looking forward to his arrival, four afternoons a week; he was like a herald from another planet. Our enforced insularity otherwise sheltered us from the rebellious early 1970s.
I was reminded of Mr. Israel by the publication this month of Upton Sinclair, Radical Innocent by Anthony Arthur, a retired Los Angeles English professor. The connection: Mr. Israel had assigned Sinclair’s most well-known work, The Jungle, to our class, and its message made a powerful impression on me.

The Jungle is, to paraphrase the afterward by Robert B. Downs in my 60-cent Signet edition, a saga of unrelieved tragedy, pessimism and despair.

Published 101 years ago (originally in installments in The Appeal to Reason magazine), the book is both a novel and a muckraking work of socialist propaganda. It tells the heroic story of Jurgis Rudkus, a new Lithuanian immigrant to Chicago at the turn of the century, whose American dream turned into a nightmare as he labored in the horrific meat-packing industry. Sinclair described the factories as “the greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one place.”

THE NOVEL is the graphic account of how Jurgis and his family are relentlessly victimized by the heartless capitalists who own the slaughterhouses, by the strike-breaking police who are in their pockets, and by the merciless landlords who feed off this environment of exploitation.
The downtrodden workers persevere as long as they don’t admit – most importantly, to themselves – that the capitalists are defeating them. But even the resourceful Jurgis is eventually crushed, his family left to starve, his wife forced into prostitution, his infant son drowned in a stinking pool outside his wretched shack.

“Nowhere does Sinclair spare the squeamish reader in his realistic portrayal of the filth, the stench and cruelty of the stockyards,” summarizes Downs in his afterward.

At the end of the day, writes Sinclair of the workers, “They are beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside… They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child[ren] grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone – it would never be!”

With the realization that under capitalism defeat was inevitable, Jurgis concludes that socialism is the workers’ only salvation.

THIS WAS precisely the kind of straightforward morality tale, having clearly-defined good and bad guys and not a whole lot of nuance, that any adolescent with a budding social conscience could appreciate. Maybe that’s why Mr. Israel assigned the book.

When Sinclair wrote The Jungle socialism was still a unblemished ideology. Lenin, Stalin, the Soviet gulags and the Khmer Rouge killing fields were all in the future.

So I’ll excuse Sinclair’s naivete when, toward the end of the book, he rhapsodizes about a messianic era in which a class-conscious proletariat rises up to create a world in which the means of production are commonly owned and democratic management provides the necessities of life; an era when the labor of humanity belongs to humanity.

Sinclair wasn’t just a dreamer. His expose led the US Congress, in 1906, to pass the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act providing sanitary standards those of us privileged to live in the developed world now take for granted.

But Sinclair didn’t want to reform the system, he wanted it overthrown.

IN A telephone interview, I asked Prof. Arthur how long it took Sinclair, who died in 1968, aged 90, to accept that the answer to “extreme capitalism” was not “extreme socialism.”

Sinclair stuck with his dogma, the author of Upton Sinclair, Radical Innocent told me, through the 1939 Soviet-Nazi Pact, and probably didn’t have serious doubts until the early 1950s.

Perhaps that was to be expected.

The problem with ideological politics – and not just for socialists – is that it places you in a philosophical straitjacket. On the one hand, ideology gives you a coherent set of beliefs which provide meaning and context to events, personalities, and policies. On the other hand, it can rob you of the ability to creatively analyze the changing world, to value gradualism, to see nuance, to embrace solutions at variance with your original tenets.

Sinclair, who has been described as both a humorless crank and an idealist, used the proceeds of The Jungle to establish a socialist commune in New Jersey. He unsuccessfully sought election to the US House of Representatives and the governor’s mansion in California.

Eventually he devoted himself to writing a series of 11 novels featuring the hero Lanny Budd, illegitimate son of an arms dealer (the third volume won Sinclair a Pulitzer Prize).
All told, Sinclair wrote over 80 books and probably went to his grave still believing that if only socialism prevailed, so would the natural goodness of man.

SURPRISINGLY, The Jungle is still selling (it ranks in the top 2,000, give or take, on Amazon’s bestseller list). And I wonder: Is Mr. Israel still out there assigning Sinclair to a new batch of high-school students?

Can the book really speak to Generation Y? Perhaps. It’s not that hard to read between the lines and view the Chicago stockyards of 100 years ago as symbolizing the evils of globalization today.
I just hope students who make that connection realize that, as history shows, the solution to “extreme capitalism” is not necessarily its opposite.

The further along the road you are from high school, the more you realize that political life isn’t a straightforward morality tale with clearly-defined good and bad guys; and that the serious work of politics demands thinking in shades other than black and white.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

C H I N A & I S R A E L


It’s easy to overshoot the Tel Aviv embassy of the People’s Republic of China, located on Rehov Ben-Yehuda not far from the beach and the Mediterranean. You enter an unassuming structure scarcely in keeping with China’s status as an aspiring superpower.
What’s really notable, however, given the long decades of Chinese communist hostility toward the Jewish state, is that China maintains an embassy in Israel at all.
It’s been a bumpy relationship.

WHEN FOREIGN minister Moshe Sharett cabled Jerusalem’s recognition of China back in January 1950 to foreign minister Zhou Enlai, Israel became the first Middle East country to recognize the PRC. Throughout the mid-1950s, a lone Asia-based Israeli diplomat named David Hacohen struggled mightily to foster ties between China and Israel. Hacohen became Israel’s first ambassador to Burma and used his Rangoon base to promote Jerusalem’s interests throughout Asia.

In December 1953 he met with Chinese ambassador Yao Chu Ming, who told him that Peking (as it was then called) was interested in diplomatic relations. The following year, Yao told Hacohen that China wanted to at least establish trade relations (presumably to get around the US embargo of Red China).

But back in Washington, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Abba Eban, under State Department pressure, was pulling in the opposite direction. It was Eban who would prevail.

IN JUNE 1954, the indefatigable Hacohen met with Zhou Enlai in Rangoon and was invited to “visit me when you are in Peking.” A few days later, Zhou told the People’s Congress that negotiations were under way to establish normal relations with Israel.

Around this time, though, Eban sensed he was moving closer to clinching an arms deal with Washington, forcing Hacohen to forgo a follow-up meeting with Zhou.

The momentum toward an Israel-China relationship had been halted dead in its tracks. The consequences would be tragic.

THE first intimation that China had given up on Israel and turned to the Arabs came in April 1955 at an international conference in New Delhi. The Chinese delegation voted for a resolution calling on Israel to accept the return of the Arab refugees who had fled during the 1948 War of Independence.

But the real turning point came later that year, at the Bandung Conference, which Egypt helped organize. It brought together newly independent Asian and African states with the goal of establishing a bloc allied with neither the West nor the Soviets. China was keenly interested in playing a leading role in this so-called Third World movement, and that required courting favor with the Arab states.

It was at Bandung that Zhou first met Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and heard a full exposition of the Arab case against Israel’s establishment as a Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East. Ahmed Shukeiry, who would go on to become the first leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (established by the Arab League in 1964), joined Nasser in his meetings with Zhou.

For the next several decades China’s political system grew ever more radicalized. It was in this fanatical, ersatz revolutionary context that Chinese denunciations of Israel became ever more vitriolic. For instance, in March 1965 Mao told a PLO delegation: “You are one gate of the great continent. We are the other. They created Israel for you, and Formosa for us. Their goal is the same: to exploit us. The West does not like us... The Arab battle against the West is the battle against Israel.”

Thus long before there was an “occupied West Bank” China enthusiastically embraced the PLO cause. Indeed, while few in the West even knew the PLO existed, Shukeiry was having audiences with Zhou and Mao in Beijing and being feted like a head of state.

REVOLUTIONS may consume their own, but they don’t last forever. The end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 saw China inching toward acceptance of “bourgeois” international norms. A subtle shift in China’s understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict had been discernible as early as 1975. Foreign minister Chiao Kuan-hua made a “secret speech” arguing that Israel was a fait accompli and that repatriating the 1948 Arab refugees was unrealistic.

With Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem as a turning point, and Mao dead and buried, Chinese policymakers embarked on a long, slow journey which took them from wholeheartedly embracing the Arabs’ intransigent position of “no peace, no negotiations and no recognition” toward favoring a negotiated settlement between Israel and its neighbors.

Diplomatic relations were finally established between China and Israel in January 1992; China welcomed the 1993 mutual recognition agreement between the Palestinians and Israel – the Oslo Accords – as “an important turning point.”

These days scores of Israeli businesses are active in China and Chinese investment in Israel is aggressively encouraged. Last year bilateral trade surpassed $2.6 billion. Israel’s military industry has reportedly sold billions of dollars in advanced weapons to China since 1984 and would gladly keep the spigot flowing were it not for Washington’s intermittent moves to block our efforts.

THESE THOUGHTS ran through my mind as Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon and I sat down with Ambassador Chen Yonglong at the embassy in Tel Aviv on a sweltering day earlier this week.

A practiced diplomat, Chen has served here, with little media attention, for several years. His previous postings include Amman, Washington and the UN in New York.

The drapes are drawn to keep out the heat. I’ve never been to China, but the decor gives me a sense of what it must be like. A valet serves tea. There are Chinese sweets on the coffee table.
This is the same Ambassador Chen who on May 18 was summoned to Jerusalem by Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Raphael Schutz for an unprecedented reprimand – expressing Israel’s chagrin that a Chinese diplomat based in Ramallah, responsible for liaison with the Palestinian Authority, had held meetings with Mahmoud Zahar, foreign minister of the Hamas-led government.

Message sent – and ignored.

On May 30, Zahar arrived in Beijing to attend a Sino-Arab forum.

SO WHAT gives? Does China want good relations with Israel or with Hamas?

Wrong question.

China, the ambassador will tell you, is friends with Israel and with the Palestinians. At every opportunity China urges the Palestinians to end the violence, recognize Israel, and accept agreements reached between Israel and the PLO.

Besides, China didn’t invite Hamas to go to Beijing, the ambassador explains. China invited the Arab League, and the Palestinians are part of that group. And Mahmoud Abbas himself selected the Palestinian delegation.

The ambassador addresses the threat from Iran with similar dexterity – and evasiveness. China imports 58 percent of its oil from the Middle East – 11% from Iran. China, he tells us, wants Iran to honor the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and has communicated this position to Teheran time and again. At the same time, China strongly favors dialogue and opposes sanctions. Talk is better than sanctions.

IT’S ALL A bit frustrating. The ambassador does not tell us what we want to hear. He won’t say that China recognizes the danger the Islamist threat poses to the region; that Hamas is incorrigible; that Iran is as much China’s problem as anyone else’s.

And why should he? Today’s China genuinely wants to see Mideast “peace and stability” so that Beijing can pursue its primary global interest – not “national liberation” or “revolution,” but economic growth.

In the Chinese hierarchy of foreign policy concerns, neither Hamas nor Iran tops the list. Whether Chinese decision-makers can be persuaded that an Islamic regime in Iran, armed with nuclear weapons, threatens not only Israel and the West, but also China’s long-term strategic interests, remains to be seen.

China’s long-standing and genuine sympathy for the Palestinian cause helps explain Beijing’s willingness to show courtesy even to a Palestinian regime led by an extremist religious movement long engaged in anti-civilian warfare.

WHATEVER THE disappointments from the Israeli perspective, China’s current attitude to the Arab-Israel conflict is like the proverbial journey of 1,000 miles, from the days when Beijing openly fueled Palestinian violence and denied Israel’s right to exist.

Plainly, the more exposed Chinese officials are to the Israeli narrative, the better our chances of fulfilling David Hacohen’s long-ago dream of harmonious relations between our two civilizations.

A certain amount of wisdom is needed as Israel (population seven million) contemplates strengthening ties with China (population 1.3 billion). To that end, we need to spend less time calling Chinese diplomats on the carpet and expend more effort in explaining our position.

We need to promote more cultural exchange, and welcome more Chinese workers (there are only 3,000 here now, mostly in construction). Jerusalem needs to facilitate a protocol, now pending, that could bring thousands of Chinese tourists here – something the ambassador has been pushing for.

As Mao said: “All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.”

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Confessions of a Kadima voter

I voted for Kadima because I supported Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. There’s no need to rehash the persuasive diplomatic, strategic and domestic reasons why the pullout was a good idea.

But my support for the disengagement idea does not mean I favor rushing into a further West Bank pullout. Not now. Not yet.

On the contrary, Israel is “parked” in a good place while events in the Palestinian areas play themselves out, the security barrier is completed and policy makers assess what our Gaza departure has done for the country’s international standing and for domestic cohesion.
In other words, disengagement was a costly experiment whose results have not yet been fully analyzed.

I didn’t vote for the right-wing parties because they opposed any withdrawal from any territory under (virtually) any circumstances. And I didn’t vote for the left-wing parties because they were itching for unconditional negotiations with the Palestinians and favored uprooting (virtually) every West Bank settlement.

I prefer realistic policies to anachronistic ideologies; meaning that, like other Kadima voters, I accept that Israel can’t rule over millions of hostile Arabs in perpetuity, ignore international opprobrium over the so-called occupation, or allow cleavages over the settlement enterprise to rend Israel’s body politic asunder.

THE ONLY THING that’s new since I cast my ballot for Kadima less than two months ago is my discomfiture at Ehud Olmert’s speed. He told a group of visiting US mayors last week that he’s ready to “wait a month, two months, three months, half a year” before moving forward.

But with Disengagement I behind us, a Hamas-led PA in power and an international community that seems primed to take the heat off the Islamists by funneling moneys to cover the salaries – not just of PA doctors, nurses and teachers, but also gunmen – the operative question is: How can Israel move forward without making matters worse? Certainly not by lurching ahead, when the situation demands cautious deliberation.

Disengagement is supposed to be a strategy, not a theology. I would expect leftists to adhere to the Geneva Initiative and rightists to uphold the Greater Israel teachings of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, regardless of real-world events.

But I opted for the pragmatic party precisely because I wanted leaders who would calibrate policy to reality. So I’m glad that a committee headed by incoming Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovich is right now analyzing the challenges that implementing convergence would pose.

At the end of the day, future withdrawals should be carried out only if they result in lasting diplomatic gains such as de-facto US and EU recognition of the new boundaries; if they enhance the personal security of Israelis; and if they set the stage for making our society more cohesive.

OLMERT IS scheduled to meet with President George W. Bush on May 23 to launch his diplomatic push for convergence. The prime minister’s working assumption is that Washington sees Disengagement II as the only game in town.

But writing in the April 7 Jerusalem Post, former US special envoy Dennis Ross predicted that while the administration is “likely to be open and encouraging about” an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank, “no one should assume that such talks” would “be quick or easy.”
Sure enough, the White House has already signaled that it’s not keen on picking up the multi-billion-dollar tab a West Bank pullout would incur.

And an Olmert-Bush meeting resulting in a vague, non-binding memorandum that speaks in broad terms immediately open to contrasting interpretations should be a red light to any further unilateral moves by Israel.

Olmert also needs to listen very carefully to what the EU is saying: Europe has made it plain it wants to see Jerusalem negotiate with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Behind the scenes – and with Israeli acquiescence – Palestinian factions, led by inmates incarcerated in Israel’s Hadarim Prison, are pushing a formula that would give Abbas sufficient clout to make negotiations a credible exercise.

While most Israelis see talks with Abbas as a futile charade, the process must nevertheless play itself out. But even if the international community gets over its delusions about the value of “talking to Abu Mazen,” there would still be no point in a West Bank pullout if it didn’t result in an imprimatur of international legitimacy for our new – albeit impermanent – boundaries.

CONVERGENCE ALSO has sobering security ramifications. The IDF needs time to work out how to prevent enemy rockets from landing in Tel Aviv, just 18 km. from the West Bank. Strategic depth, as residents of Sderot and Ashkelon can testify, still matters. That Gaza’s Kassam and Katyusha problem has yet to be solved must surely have implications for moving ahead in Judea and Samaria.

Also we need to allow the IDF time to figure out how it can operate in Judea and Samaria (and the Jordan Valley) long after a second disengagement. What are the military implications of losing settlements situated at strategic junctures and on mountaintops? What happens to the listening posts in Samaria?

With the situation on our eastern front in flux (think Iran and Iraq) and with an obdurate Islamist leadership directing Palestinian affairs, Israeli security control of the West Bank remains indispensable. A haphazard pullout that left issues such as these up in the air would have no popular support in Israel.

FINALLY, CONVERGENCE has profound implications for Israel’s internal cohesion. Olmert has spoken of the need to act on the basis of a broad national consensus. That promise must be fulfilled. We simply cannot afford to have a further pullout handled as atrociously, by all sides, as disengagement was.

Some settlements have allowed themselves to evolve into psychological ghettos, effectively cut off from the mores of mainstream Israel. Meanwhile, many Israelis have developed a dismissive and dangerously prejudiced attitude toward the settler enterprise – as if all settlers spent their lives harassing Palestinian children on the way to school.

The work of reversing the stereotyping and scapegoating prevalent on both sides of the Green Line needs to begin, at the very least, in advance of any further pullout.

And how can we talk about moving ahead with convergence until we start seeing the kind of construction able to accommodate – whether in existing settlement blocs, desirable urban neighborhoods, or in the Negev and Galilee – the 70,000-plus citizens who would be displaced by a withdrawal?

AGAINST THIS background, with so many of the diplomatic, security and domestic issues surrounding another pullout still up in the air, it is perplexing that the prime minister appears so frantically committed to moving full speed ahead.

Israelis like me support the general direction in which Kadima wants to take the country. But the prime minister would be imprudent, not to say irresponsible, to imagine he has a blank check.
With only 29 seats in the Knesset (not the pollsters’ anticipated 40) and a coalition already showing signs of fragmenting, the last thing Olmert should want to do is lose faith with pragmatic voters who gave him their support on March 28.

My advice: When Mr. Olmert goes to Washington, he should do a lot more listening than talking.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Kevin Phillips - Q&A

Kevin Phillips may not be the angriest man in America, but he's among the gloomiest. He's pessimistic about the radicalization of American Christianity, the unhealthy relationship between foreign policy and oil interests, and about how deeply in debt America has fallen.

Phillips worked on Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, and is credited with helping the Republican Party permanently capture the middle-class populist vote from the Democratic Party. With an uncanny ability toidentify Middle America's attitude toward those who largely run the country, he's long been a bellwether political prognosticator.

The erosion of America's middle-class is, for Phillips, linked to the country's impending decline. He worries about class polarization, elite irresponsibility toward working people, and ­ in his 13th and latest book ­about the dangerous manipulation by the Bush administration of religion for profane ends.

I would not, really, try too much. In ways I'd be a progressive; in otherways a conservative ­ never as a liberal.

What's changed is that 1/3 of the population now believes in a coming Rapture. Religion wasn't central when I wrote The Emerging RepublicanMajority.

I had no problem with challenging the secular extremes of the 1960sand 1970s. Back then traditionalists were rightly feeling aggrieved. Lately, however, radical secularism hasn't won many battles. The excesses are mostly among the religious.

For instance, the idea of teaching creationism in the schools ­- that's not conservative; that's radical. So too is the infatuation with the Book ofRevelations.

Yes. The US Army has basically become an oil protection service. If you want to know the real cost of a gallon of gasoline, you'd have to factor-in the budget of the Defense Department.

You don't want to acknowledge petro-imperialism which Europeans have been pointing to all along. James Baker and Bush senior did openly talk about it. But also for a considerable percentage of Americans everything that is unfolding is Biblical.

Forty-five percent believe in Armageddon. So it's just easier to mobilize support using religion.

He may well subscribe to this theological framework too. But it's Cheney who's the driving gun of American oil policy.

We've become a financial services economy. By 2000, 21 per cent of the economy was devoted to finance compared to 14 percent for manufacturing. The big reason was the huge growth of debt. The total credit market debt is $40 trillion -­ 3 times the GDP.

Everything runs on debt and credit. But if you're in the debt and credit business --­ which Wall Street is ­-- this makes you happy.

Yes, absolutely. There is a level of self-interest that views itself as entitled. You saw the same thing in the Roman and Spanish empires. Also among the Dutch and British when their elite dominated the world.

They too thrived on the financialization of the economy. But such reliance eventually becomes conducive to class tensions.

There's been a deification of capital in the market place; taxes are seen as the major determinants of behavior.

And intellectual frameworks now exclude other economic factors. Meanwhile, elements on the Christian Right have become cheerleaders of this kind of capitalism. Some fundamentalists say that people should be preoccupied with salvation-- not the economy, and others teach that God wants you to be prosperous.

Unfortunately, the US is too far down path of over financialization.

History shows that only societal upheaval is going to change things. Empires become chastised by losing their position. You saw this with the British after WWI as their power dissipated. It was a wrenching experience.

The historical parallel should be what happened when the 18th century Dutch and 20th century British empires declined.

Jews were identified with capital, but were not singled out. That's not tosay that some American elements wouldn't scapegoat Jews. But if you read the histories by Jonathan Israel (The Dutch Republic: ItsRise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806) and Simon Schama, (A History ofBritain: The Fate of Empire 1776-2000) there's little evidence of economic scapegoating in Holland, and the same is true of Britain.

Israel is what you get with the bible. And one of the characteristics of radical Protestantism is that there's an intense biblical focus as well as the idea of biblical inerrancy. Contemporary events are seen as the fulfillment of the bible.

So just as Israelis have to be concerned about the Jewish fringe that wants to rebuild the Temple, they have to be similarly concerned about Christians aligned with those Jews searching for the pure of Red heifer.

It's the same fundamentalist mindset. It's also interesting to ponder how they're using each other. Who's gaming whom?

What I am suggesting is that the most pro-Israel forces and Christian true-believers are locked together. So what you have is a common outlook, on the West Bank, for instance.

My assumption is that AIPAC is one of the most aggressive lobbies around. But the real enabling power base comes from the huge population of end-of-time Christians.

Not by any yardstick could you call me religious. I am a nominal Protestant. I go to church, maybe, a couple of times a year.

The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the21st Century
By Kevin Phillips
462 pages. Viking. $26.95

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A ‘chosen diplomat’ in the promised land

On the face of it, Germany, France and Britain dominate Mideast policymaking for the EU. It is these – the E3 – who are negotiating with Iran in an effort to head off Teheran’s dash for nuclear weapons. They’ve also led the way in setting criteria for Hamas to meet before Europe resumes aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Which is why it is easy to misjudge the influence Spain wields in the EU’s corridors of power. On Saturday, for instance, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos made it a point to meet in Amman with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to talk about ways to funnel aid to the Palestinians which would bypass the Hamas-led government.

For years now, Spaniards have played key EU policy roles relating to the Arab-Israel conflict. Javier Solana is the European Union’s foreign policy chief; Moratinos, the foreign minister, was the EU’s special Mideast envoy; and Josep Borrell is president of the Euro-Mediterranean Assembly as well as president of the European Parliament.
(The new UN special representative to the Middle East, Alvaro de Soto, is Peruvian.)

I WAS IN Spain some weeks ago. Strolling through Madrid, you get the sense of a first-class European capital: grand boulevards, expansive parks, fantastic museums, quaint, old-world squares, and big-city urban gentrification.

Spain, which sits on the crossroads of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, between Europe and Africa, was one of the places in Europe where Islamic civilization clashed with Christianity (in 711 AD), and then melded with it. It is a country where the Jews thrived – under both Muslim and Christian rule – but were also cruelly persecuted by both civilizations.

But whereas Germany, France and Britain all have modern relationships with Jews and Israel that are fraught with emotional baggage, Spain’s truly ghastly past as far as the Jews are concerned – the Inquisition and Expulsion – is the stuff of history.
In Spain you can visit flourishing cathedrals that were once great mosques. But as you wander through Barcelona, Seville, Cordoba and Madrid, not only have most signs of the Jewish past been obliterated, there is little indication of any modern Jewish presence. Among Spain’s 44 million population, there are said to be perhaps 40,000 Jews.

During Francisco Franco’s long reign (1939-1975), Spain was diplomatically isolated and heavily reliant on the Arabs for both oil and UN votes. When the old dictator died, Madrid’s isolation from liberal Europe ended, and in 1978 the country became a constitutional monarchy. And just this past January, Spain and Israel marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Spain is a country in transition. Though overwhelmingly Catholic, most Spaniards are drifting toward a secular lifestyle. Politically, Spain’s integrity as a unified nation-state is challenged by demands from its 17 regions for ever greater degrees of autonomy. The recent decision of the Basque separatist group ETA to end its long terrorist campaign is a bright spot. But whether Spanish decision-makers can placate the region with offers of autonomy that avoid outright self-determination is an open question.

The country is led by Socialist Workers Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who defeated Jose Maria Aznar’s conservative Popular Party in March 2004 shortly after Islamist terrorists bombed a Madrid commuter train, slaughtering 191 people.

MADRID’S ambassador in Tel Aviv is the urbane Eudaldo Mirapeix. He began his Foreign Service career as a North America expert. But after successive postings – in Egypt, Jordan, and now Israel – Mirapeix is one of the most experienced European diplomats in the country.

Q) Based on your experiences in the region, what’s the one thing Israelis need to understand about the Arab world?

That relations between Arabs and Israelis are distorted by reciprocal, derogatory clichés which make it hard for people to identify common interests.

Q) For instance?
For instance, Arabs are today fully reconciled with the idea of the existence of Israel living in peace on its soil on the Middle East. The radical, sometimes violent, contrary trend persists here and there – like Hamas, but it is a minority belief. Arab governments and average people think differently.

Q) Plenty of Israelis expect the EU will find some formula to allow it to continue to funnel financial support to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Are they being unnecessarily cynical?

Do you think that the EU was cynical when, as a member of the Quartet, it stated three conditions – recognition of Israel, assumption of past bilateral agreements, abandonment of violence – that the Hamas-led government had to fulfill in order to, among other things, receive financial support?

Look, Hamas is described as a terrorist group by the EU. And on April 10, EU foreign ministers endorsed a temporary halt to direct aid to the Hamas-led PA. The EU does not have any intention whatsoever of circumventing these conditions.

Having said that, we cannot let the Palestinian people starve, and we must help them with their basic needs. Ways to maintain humanitarian aid will take into account the need to avoid allowing it to fall into the wrong hands.

Q) Your government has recently given the PA $3.6 million. More has just now been promised. Do you track to see how that money is actually used?

Of course we do. Spain’s foreign assistance to the Palestinians, especially under the present circumstances, is channeled through programs and organizations that have a track record.

But let’s not be misled by the continuation of some EU assistance to the Palestinians. For all practical purposes, international assistance to the Palestinian people can be arranged under three general headings: budget support, humanitarian and development aid. Donors have on the whole agreed that humanitarian assistance is not an issue in the ongoing discussion.

Not only that. It might even be increased to alleviate the added hardships that those Palestinians most in need will have to endure as a result of the reduction in other forms of assistance.

Q) So what does Europe now expect from the Hamas-led PA?

Hamas cannot change its past, but it can change its future. Europe, alongside other major international partners – the US, Russia and the United Nations – is now expecting that Hamas will, in the near future, fulfill the three key principles we have set out for political dialogue and financial assistance.

Hamas-affiliated leaders can be heard protesting their democratic legitimacy. They say that they won an unequivocal victory in the January 25 legislative elections and that we consequently should conduct business as usual with them.

Let’s have no doubt about it: Violence and terror are not only repulsive, they are incompatible with any genuine democratic engagement. That’s why we have urged Hamas to renounce violence, to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and to disarm.

Q) Why is Europe pushing Israel to “help Abu Mazen” (Mahmoud Abbas)? Given that the PA Chairman cannot use the tens of thousands of militiamen under his command to take security control over the areas under PA jurisdiction, what continuing value does Europe see in helping him?

I would say the same value many Israelis see: Mahmoud Abbas was democratically elected on January 9, 2005. He is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas won over 62% of the votes cast. That’s not a tiny fraction of the Palestinian people, is it? He has a strong mandate by any standard.

Why, then, should we boycott him? It would be foolish to give up, for such dubious reasons, such an important asset as President Abbas.

Abu Mazen is one of the leading Palestinian figures devoted to the search for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He has consistently advocated negotiations with Israel since the mid 1970s. He is moderate, smart, experienced. He is a potential partner for whatever negotiations might appear appropriate to conduct with the Palestinians.

In his own victory speech just after the elections in Israel, Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert referred to his willingness to engage Abu Mazen. If we want this engagement to be successful, Abu Mazen should be empowered.

Q) But if it turns out there is no Palestinian partner, Ehud Olmert has advocated an alternative approach. Can you imagine a situation in which the EU would diplomatically embrace Olmert’s unilateralism or his convergence plan? Would the EU be willing to negotiate with Israel over acceptable new borders between Israel and the Palestinian entity?

Borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state will have to be discussed and agreed upon between Israelis and Palestinians. It is an inescapable fact: The EU cannot be a negotiating partner for Israel. The EU, the Quartet, the international community can offer their good offices to mediate between the negotiating parties, which are those recognized in the Oslo agreements and the road map.

Olmert and Abbas have both made commitments as to their readiness to resume negotiations. The priority of the EU is to facilitate the endeavors of the two leaders to reach a negotiated settlement.

We believe the objectives that both the parties and the international community want to achieve – that is, two states living side-by-side in peace and security – can better be served through a bilaterally negotiated process coupled with the external assistance the parties themselves see fit to request, and which the international community can provide.

Q) What part does Spain play in Middle East issues within the EU?

I would say it is a committed member state – no more or less than others – to finding a peaceful agreement between Israel and her neighbors; if, as I think, by “Middle East” you mean the Middle East peace process.

Proof of our commitment includes the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the launching of the Euromed Barcelona Process in 1995, and the fact that the first European Union Special Envoy for the Middle East was a Spanish diplomat, now our foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Q) Still, many Israelis feel Spain tilts toward the Arab point of view. Are we being overly sensitive?

The answer to your question is not an easy one, and I will try to be as candid as I can. I assure you that Spain is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. Spain is 100% pro-peace. How do you best serve peace? Well, we believe you do it by abiding with the principles and norms of international justice and international law.

I can, however, understand that one or other position can at a certain point in time be perceived – I repeat, perceived – as being either pro-Israeli or pro-Arab. But that would be a misperception because international legality should be the main yardstick to measure the correctness of the positions taken at any given moment.

If by “Spain” you mean Spanish public opinion, I would risk presenting some sweeping generalizations which may encapsulate the general mood: full support of the Spanish government’s policy toward a negotiated solution; sympathy to the Palestinian suffering; outright rejection of terrorist methods to foster the Palestinian cause; admiration for the Israeli building-nation feat and, by the same token, unreserved condemnation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threatening comments; and pride in the role played by Judaism in Spain’s history.
In fact, nothing would move a Spaniard more than being addressed in sweet-sounding Ladino.

In sum, the pro-Arab suspicion associated with our foreign policy is wrong and might be due to the fact that only in 1986 did we establish relations with Israel.
Today no objective observer can say that Spain’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict is biased.

Q) What do Israelis need to appreciate about Spain in order to understand your country’s role in the Mediterranean and the Arab-Israel conflict?

Perhaps the persistency with which we try to support the parties in their efforts to find a solution to the conflict through such initiatives as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the so-called Barcelona Process), or the Alliance of Civilizations. This is not done only out of altruism.

Spain, due to its geographical position and historical experiences, cannot look confidently into its own future unless the Mediterranean basin becomes an area of peace and prosperity, as called for in the Barcelona Charter.
We also need to confront stereotypes on both sides. The current Spanish government is engaged in that task. For instance, January 27 has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Holocaust education will have the effect of increasing understanding of Israeli politics and culture.

Last year’s OSCE Cordoba conference on anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance proved significantly useful in raising public awareness.
The Casa Sefarad Program for intercultural dialogue between Spain and the Jewish community is now in full swing. Studies of Judaism, Jewish history and the joint legacy of our two peoples will receive strong support from the initiative.

Q) Are you managing to enjoy your posting here?

Very much so, both from a professional and personal point of view. This is a challenging post for any diplomat; you keep learning things and understanding new angles each day.

But doubtless I would put people, the people of Israel, in the very first place of interest. Meeting people here makes me feel like the chosen diplomat in the promised diplomatic post.

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