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.

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