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.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The rebbe and the chancellor


The theological distance between 3080 Broadway, the Manhattan headquarters of Conservative Judaism’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and 500 Bedford Avenue, home of the Satmar hassidic dynasty across the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is best measured not in miles but in light-years.

It was always a stretch to find any common denominator between the foremost insular ultra-Orthodox hassidic sect with its vilification of political Zionism, rejection of modernity and theological rigidity, and the stream of Judaism that was first to embrace the Zionist idea, foremost in pursuing a golden mean between religious practice and secular ideals, and which preached that Halacha need not calcify into irrelevance but could evolve to meet contemporary needs.

Both groups, however, are in the throes of leadership changes that reflect polarization and radicalism as the dominant trend in Jewish religious practice. “Mainstream” Judaism, it appears, is becoming passé.

Satmar, self-obsessively, has long thrived on religious and political intemperance. Now it is to be mirrored, or so it seems – at the opposite extreme – by Conservative Judaism, which is on the brink of rejecting Judaism’s admittedly unprofitable middle road for a theological radicalism that would make it nearly indistinguishable from Reform Judaism.

FIRST THE Satmars. Their transition crisis results from the grave illness of Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, 91, who has led the dynasty since 1980. He hovers, unconscious, near death in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital. His dynasty, which originated in the Transylvanian Mountains of Hungary during the late 1700s, looks set to break apart.

The ailing rebbe is the nephew of the fiery, charismatic grand rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. In the late 1940s, following Hitler’s war against the Jews, rebbe Joel brought the sect’s survivors to the New World and settled in Williamsburg.

As a little boy, I met Rebbe Joel when my father – a hassid, but not a Satmar – took me to him for a blessing. We were ushered into the rebbe’s study; he spoke briefly to my father, offered us his blessings, and gave me a ritual wine cup as a keepsake. It is the one I use to this day.

(In the hassidic haredi world the rebbe serves as a spiritual conduit to God. A hassid makes no milestone decisions, in either business or private life, without the rebbe’s blessing. For a hassid the rebbe’s mystical powers trump mere talmudic prowess.)

With no natural successor – rebbe Joel, who died in 1979, and his rebbetzin, Feige, were childless – their nephew, Moshe, was anointed the sect’s leader in 1980. The transition was not a smooth one; the community was bitterly divided between supporters of rebbe Joel’s widow (who had her own candidate) and those of her nephew.

Eventually, Moshe’s leadership was solidified and the sect continued to thrive. It now numbers perhaps 100,000 souls, some 20,000 families.

EVEN BEFORE he took sick seven years ago, two of Moshe’s four sons – Aaron, 57, the eldest, and Zalman Leib, 53, the youngest – had contested for their father’s mantle. Aaron was named (by his father) chief rabbi of Kiryas Joel, north of New York City, while Zalman Leib was brought back from Jerusalem to became the chief rabbi in Williamsburg.

As the April 7 New York Jewish Week phrased it, “the sons have waged an unstinting, contentious battle for control of the Satmar Empire during their father’s long decline.” At stake is a communal estate estimated at $500 million, including 26 properties throughout New York State, plus the political clout and religious direction of the movement.

That struggle has forced the factions to turn to the New York State courts, which appear reluctant to intercede. Rabbinical courts controlled by the respective sons have issued halachic rulings in their own favor. And when push comes to shove – as it did one recent Simhat Torah – the NYPD had to be called to physically separate the warring factions.

Chris McKenna of the Times Herald-Record, which serves the Hudson Valley and Catskills, described the scene outside the hospital where the dying Moshe lies: “As Zalman Teitelbaum, chief rabbi of the main Satmar congregation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was about to be driven away in a black SUV, his older brother, Aaron, leader of the dominant Satmar congregation in Kiryas Joel, arrived in front of him on Fifth Avenue in a black Cadillac and swept into the hospital with his entourage. No words were exchanged.”

Observers predict the Satmars, with their two religious courts, will fragment into separate factions with Aaron controlling upstate and Zalman downstate; but only after a bitter dispute over a division of the communal assets. Neither will lead the sect toward a more centrist Judaism. Each seems intent on putting his own narrow interests above the good of the kehilla, forget the larger Jewish world.

ACROSS THE East River in upper Manhattan, a new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary was announced last week. There were no traumatic deathbed scenes, no charismatic rabbis vying for supremacy, no NYPD breaking up unruly factions. Everything was done with the decorous understatement one would expect from a moribund movement. The previous chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, simply retired. His successor is Prof. Arnold M. Eisen, 54, chairman of Stanford University’s Religious Studies Department.

The seminary does not formally control the movement; but, as its flagship institution – whither JTS goes, so goes Conservative Judaism.

Eisen, and those who backed his appointment, clearly want to take the Conservatives to the theological Left. Schorsch had opposed the ordination of gay rabbis and the authorizing of Conservative rabbis to perform same-sex marriages. Eisen, in contrast, seems intent on championing the cause of gay and lesbian ordination.

Whether Conservatives will also sanction homosexual marriage may be decided in December by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

It’s worth recalling that Conservative Judaism broke away from the Reform movement – not Orthodoxy – in the late 1880s in order to “conserve” traditional values and as a reaction to Reform radicalism. Some say the catalyst was Reform’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which abandoned Jewish dietary laws and the idea of Jewish peoplehood.

But now the Conservatives – once the largest non-Orthodox stream – are shrinking. Reinvigorating middle-of-the-road traditional Judaism seems beyond its leadership’s abilities. With Orthodoxy moving theologically ever more rightward and Reform moving ever more to the left, Conservatives have failed to make an appealing case for a centrist alternative.

Once the movement joins the more liberal branches in (what amounts to) dispensing with Halacha, the trend toward religious fragmentation will accelerate further.

ALMOST paradoxically, then, the new leaders of both the Satmars and the Conservatives share a commitment to parochial interest over what is best for Jewish civilization as a whole, thus devaluing the idea of striving for a religious consensus.

Each faction professes to know God’s will. Indeed, as this momentum spirals one can foresee a Judaism that is ever more heterogeneous, losing its philosophical, civilizational and theological core.

It is already happening. What do Chabad and other millennial sects have in common with Satmar? What does ultra-liberal Judaism – which increasingly is to Jewish observance what homeopathy is to traditional medicine – have in common with Orthodoxy? Left unchecked, this scenario of religious disintegration will result in a Jewish people with no sense of a common past and no aspiration toward a shared future.

Such worries seem irrelevant to the protagonists on both sides of the East River. But to this Jew, who long ago left the insular haredi world into which he was born for what he hoped was a more centrist Judaism, the trend is tragic.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gaza , Egypt & the EU – Time for some answers

I supported Israel’s disengagement from Gaza for reasons that need not be re-hashed.

The chaos that prevails inside Gaza was predicable. No one realistically expected the Palestinian Arabs to turn Gaza into a peaceful oasis along the Mediterranean – a prototype and a harbinger for a Palestinian state that would be connected to the West Bank.

Now it is official. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal declares from Damascus: “We do not promise our people to turn Gaza into Hong Kong or Taiwan, but we promise them a dignified and proud life behind the resistance in defense of their honor...”

“Resistance” – a sterile euphemism for more slaughter, killing, and suffering.

So Gaza’s lovely Mediterranean coastline and its environs will remain brooding and broiling with Islamic fervor, a wellspring of hatred for modernity, Jews, and Western notions of liberty.

That is the prerogative of the democratically elected representatives of their benighted people.

But what we ought not ignore is the increasing military danger that Gaza has become.

Arms, rockets, and bullets are flowing into Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai unhindered. So too, we are told, are experts in the use of explosives and irregular warfare.

It is just a matter of time until the weapons – and the expertise – become good enough to do serious damage to Israel. For now, the Katyushas are missing their targets, and the kassams fall mostly in open fields.

When the enemy get luckier (and better), they will hit a strategic installation (the power plant in Ashkelon, for instance), or – God forbid – a kindergarten.

Then there will be a price to pay. For them and for us.

No one doubts that the IDF will be forced to launch a land invasion of the Strip – an Operation Defense Shield for Gaza.

All this begs the question: Why is Jerusalem not pressing the Egyptians to do more to control the border? And if the Egyptians are doing the best they can (as some Israeli analysts insists) and that is not good enough, why don’t we find a mechanism that would enable them to do better?

And what of the EU observers?

Are they sitting around making spaghetti or are they endeavoring to screen who comes and who goes?

And if they are not doing an adequate job – and (again) the reports are contradictory – why don’t we hear official Israel complaining?

Moreover, where is Washington which pressed Israel into signing the ill-conceived arrangements along in Rafah?

Do we really have the luxury of sitting back and saying that we can’t expect more from the Egyptians? Or that we don’t want to alienate the EU at a time when we need their support for efforts to isolate the Hamas government? Or that Condoleezza Rice has enough tzuris and we don’t want to add to them?

If so, our cost-benefit analysis is incredibly myopic.

It may make sense in the short-term not to rock the boat, to make believe Gaza is someone else’s problem, but in the long term (say a year from now) we may be setting ourselves up for a military incursion that -- by the time it comes -- will be frightfully expensive for us and well as for the enemy.

The Egyptians need to understand that Gaza can’t reasonably serve as a safe outlet for the Islamist menace that threatens Hosi Mubarak.

The EU should realize that how their observers conduct themselves on this crucial front – in the context of the dangers they face – is as a test case for future EU involvement on the ground in the region.

And Washington should make its own inquiries with Cairo and Brussels about just what is happening at the Rafah crossing.

But the ultimate responsibility rests with Ehud Olmert and Israel's security establishment.

Among its first priorities, the new government must clarify the situation along the Gaza-Sinai border and determine what – if anything – needs to be done.

We need to identify what went right – and what is going wrong – in trying to draw the proper lessons from disengagement.

In a sense, disengagement was an experiment.

To be useful experiments require careful observation.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Israeli Elections - The Wrap

This is it.

Well, you never know. Labor and one of the Arab parties are contesting a number of election districts, so the absolutely, positively final results may not be confirmed for a while.

But here's how my March 26 predictions contrast against the actual totals

KADIMA 27 (29) [690,095 votes]
LABOR 23 (20) [473,746]
LIKUD 15 (12) 282,070]
NU/NRP 14 (9) [223,083]
YISRAEL BEITEINU 11 (11) [281,850]
SHAS 13 (12) [299,130]
ARAB PARTIES 8 (9) [94,460 * there is a recount *
UTJ 5 (6) [146,958]
MERETZ 4 (5) [118,356]
PENSIONERS 0 (7) [185,790]

THE RESULTS, regrettably, provided neither a referendum on disengagement nor a mandate for further unilateralism.

At the same time, the only party unconditionally opposed to any withdrawals, whatsoever – NU/NRP – received only 9 mandates.

All the other right-wing, or quasi right-wing parties, are far more malleable.

Bottom line: Israel remains a fragmented society whose electoral system encourages hyperpluralism. Everyone gets something, and everyone is left unsatisfied.

The saddest part of the election results is the protest vote that propelled a bunch of grumpy, self-interested (and not financially uncomfortable) old codgers into the Knesset under the rubric of the Pensioners Party.

It’s also interesting to note which parties didn’t make it:

Baruch Marzel’s ultra right-wing party received about 25,000 votes. Michael Kleiner’s ultra right-wing party received less than 3,000 votes.

The virulently “anti-religious” (really self-hating) secular parties whose campaign ads were particularly tasteless polled less than 15,000 combined.

And 40,000 Israelis place smoking dope at the top of their agenda.

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