Monday, January 30, 2006

Angela Merkel in Jerusalem – The EU says it won’t deal with Hamas. Germany must make sure it really doesn’t

You’d have to figure, as I do, that God has an arch sense of humor to appreciate why the first foreign leader scheduled to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah in the wake of Hamas’s electoral victory is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Personally, I’d advise Merkel to eschew Ramallah altogether – too many bad-tempered gunmen running around. But it is reassuring to know that, if she does go, she will limit herself to meeting PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his dwindling Fatah coterie. The chancellor is championing the European Union’s stance, which precludes negotiating with the soon-to-be-installed Islamic Resistance Movement government.

To break the boycott, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana says Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist. French President Jacques Chirac pledges his country won’t talk to Hamas until it issues a public renunciation of violence, recognizes Israel’s right to live in peace, and commits itself to the agreements the PA has already signed. And Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government tells Hamas it has to “decide between a path of democracy or a path of violence.”


SO, ON the face of it, we have a principled Europe saying all the right things. But Germany, Britain and France – the Europe that matters most – will be faced with an enormous temptation to allow realpolitik to guide their relations with Hamas.

Some in Europe will move to sanitize Hamas. A non-violent “political” wing will be discovered. And the Islamists will facilitate matters by keeping Abbas around as president and appointing someone like former PA finance minister Salam Fayyad as a figurehead premier. This would allow Europe to maintain support for the PA while nominally refusing to deal directly with Hamas.
Europeans could tell themselves that Hamas’s capture of 74 seats to Fatah’s 45 was a yes for “Change and Reform,” not suicide bombings. And they’re getting the ammunition to do it.

In Newsweek Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki argues that “Hamas received only 45 percent of the popular vote.” It was a vote, claims Shikaki, against Fatah corruption. And anyway, exit polls showed “three-quarters of all Palestinians, including more than 60 percent of Hamas supporters,” favoring a two-state solution.

So there you have it: Why should a majority of Palestinians be penalized for the actions of a minority?

You can just hear the Europeans – who are the PA’s biggest donors – flagellating themselves: What about the PA’s $69 million budget deficit this month alone; or its anticipated $600m. deficit for 2006? At last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, James Wolfensohn, the Quartet’s special envoy, warned that “The Palestinians are basically bankrupt.”

And PA Minister of Economy Mazen Sinokrot, also at Davos, whinged, “We have to pay salaries. Where will this money come from?” Sinokrot went on to note that the PA’s 135,000 employees, including 58,000 gunmen, were the “breadwinners” for 30 percent of Palestinian families. “If these salaries do not come in, this is a message for violence.” Hint, hint.

Most of the PA’s “revenues” – something in the neighborhood of $1 billion – go to what is euphemistically called salaries. And, anyway, the Europeans may persuade themselves, if we don’t do it, the Hamas-led PA will turn to Iran and Saudi Arabia – and then where would EU taxpayers be?

Richer, I suppose.


ENTER ANGELA Merkel, who arrived yesterday for a 24-hour visit. In a world where nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests, the German-Israel connection is unique.
Germany’s Overseas Development Minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, said Germany would carefully watch Hamas’s behavior: “That is what will decide whether we continue our aid for the people in the Palestinian territories.” But Merkel’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, seemed to want it both ways, telling Der Spiegel that Berlin “accepted” the outcome of the Palestinians’ free elections, but adding that “Hamas must give up violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Terrorism and democracy do not match.”

Then he hedged his bets. “Votes for Hamas were not votes against peace or for a religious or ideological radicalization, but for reforms in Palestine. We must respect this wish.”

The German press is also hedging. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented: “The way the West, Europeans and Americans respond to this development will be an important factor in determining how seriously Muslims take the demands for democratization....”

And Andrea Nüsse, writing in yesterday’s Tagesspiegel, opined that maybe “the pragmatic wing” of Hamas would become ascendant. The Die Linke Party, mostly former East German communists, advocated a softer approach, arguing that weakening the PA would only worsen the situation.

Berlin-based journalist Daniel Dagan reminded me that Merkel arrived here on the heels of last Friday’s official commemoration marking 61 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. There is no way around it: There will always be a special poignancy when a German leader visits Yad Vashem, which Merkel is scheduled to do this morning.

For Dagan, a keen observer of German-Israel relations, Merkel’s visit is a welcome signal after five years in which the previous chancellor demonstratively avoided coming to Jerusalem.
A German friend, Anna Held, who works at Berlin’s Goethe Institute, told me the reaction to the Islamist win among German opinion-makers was one of shock. “Everyone here opposes dealing with Hamas until it acknowledges Israel’s right to exist,” she said. “But opinions vary as to how to achieve that end.”


BERLIN DOES not usually like to take the lead in European foreign policy. It prefers to help shape an EU consensus. But there is no escaping the pivotal role Germany must now play. With Israel threatened by the prospect of an implacable, nuclear-armed Teheran on the one hand, and a uncompromising Islamist regime in Ramallah on the other, Israelis turn not to London or Paris but, paradoxically, to Berlin.

Merkel became chancellor last November and, to everyone’s surprise, has become remarkably popular. In her first speech to the Bundestag she proclaimed: “Dialogue with Islam carries great significance – we have to learn to understand each other. We will do this in an open and honest way. We will not brush aside differences, but name them clearly.”

It was Merkel who first accused Iran of having crossed a “red line” in its genocidal talk against Israel.

Today, in London the EU, Russia, the United Nations and the United States are scheduled to meet to coordinate European policy toward Hamas (a separate meeting, also today, grapples with Iran’s nuclear program).

What, realistically, can Israelis expect from Merkel? The answer: to help craft a European policy that exploits what is, among other things, an extraordinary opportunity.

Merkel’s no-nonsense leadership is especially needed to ensure that the EU’s enunciated criteria for dealing with Hamas does not get watered down.

Europe must insists that Hamas explicitly recognize the right of a sovereign Jewish state to exist in peace. If Hamas says that it can’t or won’t, Europe must diplomatically and financially isolate the PA’s Islamist leadership.

The one thing that should not happen is for Europe to allow Hamas to proclaim a truce while facilitating the “bad terrorists” of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad to continue “resistance operations.” We already went down that road with Yasser Arafat.

The new PA must do what the old PA didn’t: live up to its road map commitments.

Perhaps fate intended for the straight-talking Merkel to be on the scene ensuring that neither her EU allies nor Hamas proclaim one policy while adhering to another.

Angela Merkel in Jerusalem

THE EU SAYS IT WON’T DEAL WITH HAMAS.
GERMANY MUST MAKE SURE IT REALLY DOESN’T

You’d have to figure, as I do, that God has an arch sense of humor to appreciate why the first foreign leader scheduled to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah in the wake of Hamas’s electoral victory is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Personally, I’d advise Merkel to eschew Ramallah altogether – too many bad-tempered gunmen running around. But it is reassuring to know that, if she does go, she will limit herself to meeting PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his dwindling Fatah coterie. The chancellor is championing the European Union’s stance, which precludes negotiating with the soon-to-be-installed Islamic Resistance Movement government.

To break the boycott, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana says Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist. French President Jacques Chirac pledges his country won’t talk to Hamas until it issues a public renunciation of violence, recognizes Israel’s right to live in peace, and commits itself to the agreements the PA has already signed. And Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government tells Hamas it has to “decide between a path of democracy or a path of violence.”


SO, ON the face of it, we have a principled Europe saying all the right things. But Germany, Britain and France – the Europe that matters most – will be faced with an enormous temptation to allow realpolitik to guide their relations with Hamas.

Some in Europe will move to sanitize Hamas. A non-violent “political” wing will be discovered. And the Islamists will facilitate matters by keeping Abbas around as president and appointing someone like former PA finance minister Salam Fayyad as a figurehead premier. This would allow Europe to maintain support for the PA while nominally refusing to deal directly with Hamas.
Europeans could tell themselves that Hamas’s capture of 74 seats to Fatah’s 45 was a yes for “Change and Reform,” not suicide bombings. And they’re getting the ammunition to do it.

In Newsweek Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki argues that “Hamas received only 45 percent of the popular vote.” It was a vote, claims Shikaki, against Fatah corruption. And anyway, exit polls showed “three-quarters of all Palestinians, including more than 60 percent of Hamas supporters,” favoring a two-state solution.

So there you have it: Why should a majority of Palestinians be penalized for the actions of a minority?

You can just hear the Europeans – who are the PA’s biggest donors – flagellating themselves: What about the PA’s $69 million budget deficit this month alone; or its anticipated $600m. deficit for 2006? At last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, James Wolfensohn, the Quartet’s special envoy, warned that “The Palestinians are basically bankrupt.”

And PA Minister of Economy Mazen Sinokrot, also at Davos, whinged, “We have to pay salaries. Where will this money come from?” Sinokrot went on to note that the PA’s 135,000 employees, including 58,000 gunmen, were the “breadwinners” for 30 percent of Palestinian families. “If these salaries do not come in, this is a message for violence.” Hint, hint.

Most of the PA’s “revenues” – something in the neighborhood of $1 billion – go to what is euphemistically called salaries. And, anyway, the Europeans may persuade themselves, if we don’t do it, the Hamas-led PA will turn to Iran and Saudi Arabia – and then where would EU taxpayers be?

Richer, I suppose.


ENTER ANGELA Merkel, who arrived yesterday for a 24-hour visit. In a world where nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests, the German-Israel connection is unique.
Germany’s Overseas Development Minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, said Germany would carefully watch Hamas’s behavior: “That is what will decide whether we continue our aid for the people in the Palestinian territories.” But Merkel’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, seemed to want it both ways, telling Der Spiegel that Berlin “accepted” the outcome of the Palestinians’ free elections, but adding that “Hamas must give up violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Terrorism and democracy do not match.”

Then he hedged his bets. “Votes for Hamas were not votes against peace or for a religious or ideological radicalization, but for reforms in Palestine. We must respect this wish.”

The German press is also hedging. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented: “The way the West, Europeans and Americans respond to this development will be an important factor in determining how seriously Muslims take the demands for democratization....”

And Andrea Nüsse, writing in yesterday’s Tagesspiegel, opined that maybe “the pragmatic wing” of Hamas would become ascendant. The Die Linke Party, mostly former East German communists, advocated a softer approach, arguing that weakening the PA would only worsen the situation.

Berlin-based journalist Daniel Dagan reminded me that Merkel arrived here on the heels of last Friday’s official commemoration marking 61 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. There is no way around it: There will always be a special poignancy when a German leader visits Yad Vashem, which Merkel is scheduled to do this morning.

For Dagan, a keen observer of German-Israel relations, Merkel’s visit is a welcome signal after five years in which the previous chancellor demonstratively avoided coming to Jerusalem.
A German friend, Anna Held, who works at Berlin’s Goethe Institute, told me the reaction to the Islamist win among German opinion-makers was one of shock. “Everyone here opposes dealing with Hamas until it acknowledges Israel’s right to exist,” she said. “But opinions vary as to how to achieve that end.”


BERLIN DOES not usually like to take the lead in European foreign policy. It prefers to help shape an EU consensus. But there is no escaping the pivotal role Germany must now play. With Israel threatened by the prospect of an implacable, nuclear-armed Teheran on the one hand, and a uncompromising Islamist regime in Ramallah on the other, Israelis turn not to London or Paris but, paradoxically, to Berlin.

Merkel became chancellor last November and, to everyone’s surprise, has become remarkably popular. In her first speech to the Bundestag she proclaimed: “Dialogue with Islam carries great significance – we have to learn to understand each other. We will do this in an open and honest way. We will not brush aside differences, but name them clearly.”

It was Merkel who first accused Iran of having crossed a “red line” in its genocidal talk against Israel.

Today, in London the EU, Russia, the United Nations and the United States are scheduled to meet to coordinate European policy toward Hamas (a separate meeting, also today, grapples with Iran’s nuclear program).

What, realistically, can Israelis expect from Merkel? The answer: to help craft a European policy that exploits what is, among other things, an extraordinary opportunity.

Merkel’s no-nonsense leadership is especially needed to ensure that the EU’s enunciated criteria for dealing with Hamas does not get watered down.

Europe must insists that Hamas explicitly recognize the right of a sovereign Jewish state to exist in peace. If Hamas says that it can’t or won’t, Europe must diplomatically and financially isolate the PA’s Islamist leadership.

The one thing that should not happen is for Europe to allow Hamas to proclaim a truce while facilitating the “bad terrorists” of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad to continue “resistance operations.” We already went down that road with Yasser Arafat.

The new PA must do what the old PA didn’t: live up to its road map commitments.

Perhaps fate intended for the straight-talking Merkel to be on the scene ensuring that neither her EU allies nor Hamas proclaim one policy while adhering to another.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Wrong Podium

‘A speech,” Ronald Reagan’s wordsmith Peggy Noonan wrote, “is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep!”

If so, don’t Israelis deserve to get their history-making speeches from the Knesset’s podium? Should not parliament be where a prime minister announces major policy shifts and where opposition leaders argue that the premier’s approach is wrongheaded?

These questions come to mind as the Sixth Annual Herzliya Conference gets under way, sponsored by the Institute for Policy Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

The conference has become Israel’s own version of high-powered “retreats” such as the Aspen Institute conclave, where America’s elites gather, and the World Economic Forum assemblage at Davos, which brings together top-ranking international movers and shakers.

And that it is a draw for distinguished domestic and international policy makers, top-tier business leaders, illustrious academics and superb journalists is plainly a good thing. In the course of three days at this seaside resort, bankers, Diaspora leaders, military strategists, Knesset members, settlement activists, former ambassadors, Nobel Prize winners and cabinet members will have shared their thoughts on “The Balance of Israel’s National Security.”

The Herzliya Conference is by no means the only prominent gathering of its kind. Various big-league meetings over the year address crucial issues ranging from poverty, social welfare and Negev development to minority rights and easing religious tensions.

It has become a reality of Israeli political life that no less attention is paid to speeches made at such conferences than to those from the Knesset podium. And so, knowing his remarks would carry added weight, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz used his appearance at Herzliya on Saturday night to warn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “I suggest you take a look... and see what happened to others who tried to wipe out the Jewish people... they brought destruction to their own people.”

The Iranian-born Mofaz concluded: “I know the people of Iran and they should know that Ahmadinejad’s policies will bring disaster upon them.”

Yet – wouldn’t such a warning send an even sharper message delivered during a specially-called Knesset session?

Opposition leaders also use the Herzliya setting to make their case to the electorate, and the world. For instance, during his dinner speech last night, Likud Party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu said the security fence should be moved deeper into the West Bank.

Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz is expected to use his speech tonight to clarify his party’s position on Jerusalem.

But it’s Tuesday evening’s anticipated appearance by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – coming on the eve of Palestinian elections – that is expected to garner the most attention.
Olmert, reportedly, will not advocate additional unilateral West Bank withdrawals.

Instead he will demand that the Palestinian Authority comply with its road map obligations requiring it to disband armed militias and dismantle the infrastructure that facilitates terrorism. Such a crackdown, it is understood, would be Kadima’s demand before reopening negotiations with the newly-elected Palestinian leadership.

In an ideal world, a head of government should use parliament – and not an academic conference – to unveil his policies and reveal, for example, Israel’s stance on a post-election role for Hamas and under what circumstances unilateralism would again become a policy option.

It was at the December 2003 Herzliya Conference, though, that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first announced: “If within a few months the Palestinians have not made reciprocal steps, we will take unilateral action.”

And it was at the Caesarea Conference in June 2005 that former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised not to resign because of his opposition to disengagement.

Our problem is not that Israel’s top echelon flocks to Herzliya once a year. What we find disconcerting is the rarity with which the country’s leadership engages and attempts to persuade its citizens regarding the wisdom of its policies.

What’s needed is a change of mind-set. We would like to see Israel’s next prime minister – and opposition leader – making a point of using the Knesset (and regular, formal news conferences) to lay out their policies.

Effective leadership demands more than an annual Big Speech, no matter how effective the setting – or the cadence, rhythm, and imagery.

– Jerusalem Post Editorial, January 23, 2005

Monday, January 16, 2006

Atomic Mullahs

The more you reflect on the coming showdown with Iran, the more you wonder why anyone would want to be the next prime minister of Israel.

My advice to Ehud Olmert, Binyamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz is: Beware of people who speak knowledgeably about Iran, particularly men with epaulets, big-time pundits and eminent academics. What they don’t know about Iran could fill an encyclopedia.

And please don’t tell me what the newspapers are saying based on the prognostications of intelligence experts. If the analysts were so wide off the mark on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” who’s to say they have a better handle on the situation in Iran?

Oil-rich Iran denies having spent the past 18 years in clandestine efforts aimed at building an atomic bomb; it claims to need nuclear know-how in order to generate electricity. But the belligerent character of the Islamist regime makes it impossible to look the other way. Why, for instance, does Teheran need the Shihab-3 ballistic missile, capable of striking Europe?

Charged with violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Teheran originally agreed to suspend nuclear activity during negotiations with Germany, France, and Britain (the EU-3). Now, however, it has announced plans to resume converting raw uranium into gas, a key step ahead of enrichment that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Last week Teheran upped the ante by breaking seals placed by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at its Natanz facility.

So we know Iran is developing the capability to make nuclear weapons. We can only guess to what extent it intends to use such power.

Not only are Iran’s goals murky. No one really understands how critical decisions inside Teheran are made. The best guess is that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not calling the shots, that critical decisions are reached by consensus within the ruling clique headed by “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei.


WE ALSO don’t know who has the power to order a nuclear attack against Israel if Teheran gets The Bomb. We don’t even know the names, much less the relative influences, of the players in Khamenei’s decision-making circle. In other words, we know less about Iranian decision making than the US thought it knew about the Soviet Union’s politburo during the Cold War.

Another thing we don’t know is whether efforts by EU-3 to haul Iran to the UN Security Council will succeed. We do know getting to this point has taken them three long years. China, a permanent Security Council member, has already signaled that it’s not keen on UN involvement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says responsibly: “Most important for us... [are] not our bilateral relations, our investments in the Iranian economy or our economic profit from cooperation with Iran. [Our] highest priority... is the prevention of the violation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.”

This laudable stance notwithstanding, on the same day Mother Russia announced plans to sell $1 billion worth of short-range missiles to Iran.



A MEETING on what the world powers will do next is set for London this week. Let’s say the crisis comes to the UN Security Council. No one – including the EU-3, or even the US – is talking about imposing genuinely draconian sanctions on Iran, the kind that would keep its oil and gas out of world markets; only, initially, a statement of criticism from the council.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tremble!

It’s easy to understand why the kind of trading ban that would get the attention of the mullahs is a long way off. Heavy-duty sanctions would likely have a devastating impact on the global economy, where a barrel of oil already costs more than $60.

But let’s, for argument’s sake, imagine that painful sanctions are imposed – toward what end? The Iranians, who are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, say they will stop cooperating voluntarily with the International Atomic Energy Agency if pushed into the corner. And if the sanctions’ goal is “regime change,” might not a global embargo actually bolster popular domestic support for the mullahs?



IN THIS array of the unknown, here’s what we do know: The US is tied down in Iraq. Large tracts of Afghanistan remain outside the central government in Kabul’s control. Both Ayman al-Zawahri (who some think is the real brains behind Osama bin Laden) and OBL himself remain at large. America’s military capabilities are stretched beyond capacity. The Bush administration is hardly in a position to rally American public opinion to confront the presumed Iranian threat.

In a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday, Bush – using Iraq-talk – said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose “a grave threat to the security of the world.” He specifically mentioned Iran’s threats against Israel. But a short while later White House press secretary Scott McClellan clarified that “Iraq and Iran are not the same situations.”

Over in London, asked if force against Iran was a possibility, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said: “No one is talking about invading Iran.”

He added: “Iran is not Iraq.”

The Iranians themselves are unhelpfully muddying the waters. Elaine Sciolino aptly summarized the state of play in The New York Times: “But along with the threat [to halt intrusive voluntary inspections] came explanations, offers to continue negotiating, expressions of defiance and even pleas for sympathy.”

Back to what we know: We know the Iranians aim to destroy Israel because they say so at every opportunity. We think we know that in about six months to a year they will have the know-how to make fissile material for a weapon. Once this point of “no return” is reached, the Iranians could have several atomic bombs as early 2009.

There’s no assurance – this we know – that a series of conventional Israel Air Force strikes against Iran’s multitude of nuclear facilities would deliver a knock-out blow to Teheran’s atomic ambitions. If we try and fail (or even if, incredibly, we succeed) a lethal conventional Iranian – or Iranian-proxy – response could nonetheless be forthcoming. Iran has said publicly that if it even suspects an imminent strike from the US or Israel, it will launch a preemptive attack against American forces in Iraq, and against Israel.

Still there’s no doubt that if the US and EU do what needs to be done, they will not face the logistical nightmare a similar campaign by the IAF would encounter.


WE DON’T know, assuming Iran obtains atomic bombs, whether the mullahs can be persuaded that the cost of using them (the destruction of Teheran, say) outweighs the “benefits” (wiping the Zionist entity off the face of the earth). Simply put, we don’t know whether the kind of mutual deterrence that kept the US and USSR from launching ballistic missiles against each another would work in our setting. Would rational self-interest trump Islamist apocalyptic thinking?
Could even rational mullahs, leading a country of 69 million people spread over 1.6 million square kilometers, resist a nuclear swing against their No. 1 enemy, whose tiny population is concentrated along a narrow coastal plan?

We know that during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war both Persians and Arabs showed no compunction about targeting each other’s (Muslim) population centers, and that the number of soldiers and non-combatants killed reached 1.5 million.

So here we are – in the dark, and under threat of extinction. At the end of the day, after the men with epaulets, the big-time pundits and the academics have had their say, Israel’s next prime minister will have a finite interlude and a dearth of unassailable intelligence upon which to base this decision: What to do about Iran.

elliot_jager@yahoo.com

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Haj & the struggle for Islam's soul

It is sometimes difficult, especially in this part of the world,
to distinguish Islam ­ the religion and civilization ­ from the
threat posed by its militant adherents, the Islamists, who are at war with the West and our values of liberty, tolerance and individual freedom.

This confusion is as understandable as it is counterproductive,
and opponents of Muslim extremism have an interest in identifying, cultivating and promoting non-Islamist personalities inside the Muslim
world.

Such a strategy goes beyond ecumenical do-goodism and does not require our deluding ourselves about the extent to which the Islamists have penetrated the Muslim world.

There are 1.3 billion Muslims. Seeking a modus vivendi with them
is just plain common sense.

We also need a better understanding of Islam. For instance, how
many Westerners realize that Sunday was the first day of the haj,
a pilgrimage every able-bodied believer is expected to undertake at least
once in a lifetime? How many know that the other pillars of Islam are the profession of faith in Allah and the centrality of the Prophet Muhammad; praying five times a day, alms for the poor, and fasting during Ramadan.

Islam is a proselytizing religion spread originally by the
sword. But history shows that Muslim civilization has also embraced long periods of tolerance, during which bellicosity was replaced by civility and stability.

It isn't for us to identify what "real" Islam should be. But why
not listen to the several million Muslims from around the world now encircling the Ka'aba in Mecca? They are not obsessing about Jews, Christians or al-Qaida.

As Salah Nasrawi, an AP reporter on the scene found, they are
focused on personal salvation, repentance and prayer.
"Facing the Ka'aba, Zeinab Abdouazizi of Bangladesh raised her
voice... 'Oh Allah, give me health and strength so that I can raise my
children and make them... good Muslims and obedient,' she said."

How many Jews know that Muslims believe the Ka'aba mosque was
built by Abraham (and Ishmael)? When Muslims pray daily they face this shrine, which they hold to be the first place God created on earth and where Allah's holy presence is most felt.

For some pilgrims the sojourn to Mecca can be dangerous. Last
week a hotel collapsed, killing at least 76. In 1990 a terrible stampede
fatally trampled 1,426 worshipers.

What motivates individual believers to make the arduous journey
is their desire to be closer to God ­ -- a faithfulness hardly problematic
for Jews or Christians.

Let's remember that the West's war against terrorism is really
a war against Muslim extremism and not against Islam. With every
violent outrage ­from New York and London to Baghdad and Jerusalem ­ the Islamists are struggling not just to defeat Judeo-Christian civilization but to to determine which of Islam's multitude of beliefs emerges
paramount.

It is for Muslims themselves to determine whether their faith,
in this century, will be shaped by the likes of Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and al-Qaida's fanaticism, or whether moderate views gain a hearing.

For example, Khadidja Khali, president of the French and
European Muslim Women's Association, has denounced Ahmadinejad as a "fraud." And Tarik Oubrou, chairman of France's Imam Association, says that the best tactical answer to fanaticism, rather than making blanket denunciations, is teaching tolerance within the Muslim community.

Such voices may still be faint and their influence limited, but
we ignore their positive potential to our own detriment.

It is easy to be cynical, sure, when the final declaration read
out at last month's Organization of the Islamic Conference in Mecca ­ where Ahmadinejad ranted against the Jews ­ concluded with the thought that Islam needs to "fight" "deviant" ideas and is a religion of "moderation" that "rejects extremism and isolation."

Coming from Muslim leaders such as the Saudi king such a platform seemed embarrassingly disingenuous.

Nevertheless, we are witnessing a struggle for the soul of Islam where the "good guys" are not necessarily friends of the West, but nor are they outright enemies such as Iran.

Which is why I see this haj season as a good time to remind ourselves of the need to welcome voices of reason and encourage Muslim theologians
willing to engage Westerners in a spirit of mutual respect.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Does Kadima Have a Future?

As these words are being written, Ariel Sharon lies in a coma in the intensive care unit of Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. The prognosis isn’t known, yet it’s obvious he won’t be returning to the Prime Minister’s Office. His career is finished. Still, the party he founded at the end of November remains not only politically viable but essential to Israel’s political well-being.

Kadima already has an iconic founder, a working party platform, an organizational director (Avigdor Yitzhaki), a plethora of talented politicians and, most importantly, an overarching mission that goes beyond Sharon the man. That mission is to give Israelis a choice between Amir Peretz and Binyamin Netanyahu.

Peretz and those to his left remain convinced that there is a Palestinian negotiating partner, and continue to embrace the ghost of Oslo. Netanyahu, and those to his right, oppose unilateralism and claim to want “a better deal” from the Palestinians. Some desire no deal at all. They are comfortable with the status quo.

That is why Kadima’s centrist alternative is no less imperative today than it was when Sharon first broke away from the Likud. Kadima’s pragmatism was articulated by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on November 29, when she summarized the new party’s political platform:

“The Jewish people have a national and historic right to the Land of Israel; but to maintain a Jewish majority in a Jewish democratic state we have to concede parts of the Land of Israel....”
Thus while Kadima understands the inevitability of a Palestinian Arab state, it certainly does not relish the prospect. It accepts the internationally-brokered road map diplomatic plan – with the explicit proviso that the Palestinians first fulfill their obligations: dismantling the terrorist groups and ending violence and incitement. Kadima calls for maintaining the major settlement blocs, and supports an undivided Jerusalem (a fairly meaningless mantra, I admit).

I’m not suggesting that Kadima’s platform could not be improved. For instance, a truly centrist party would favor a civil marriage option as well as support for non-Orthodox conversions.


BUT I’M not deluding myself. Kadima could easily fizzle out, just like Yigal Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change, Yitzhak Mordechai’s Center Party, and now Tommy Lapid’s Shinui.
For that not to happen, Ehud Olmert, Meir Sheetrit, Tzipi Livni and Avi Dichter, in consultation with other Kadima politicians, will have to make some tough decisions, quickly. Kadima needs not only to replace Sharon but also to display the esprit de corps and unity so abysmally lacking in Likud and Labor.

My own preference is for the 60-year-old Olmert. And I say this despite the fact that as mayor of Jerusalem he neither had my garbage collected as often as I would have liked nor used municipal taxes efficiently.

Olmert is the most seasoned and polished politician in Kadima’s ranks, having been mayor of Israel’s largest city (1993-2003), a Knesset member, a minister and, previously, a successful attorney. He has excellent English, already knows the key players in Washington, London, Brussels and Berlin, and has the added advantage of being Acting Prime Minister.

He was out front on the need for unilateral disengagement even before the idea captured the support of most Israelis. He was the first to join Kadmia after Sharon established it. And he’s cunning enough to follow in Sharon’s tactical footsteps. He has an excellent political and familial pedigree in the Jabotinsky movement. He was a member of Betar.

All this tells me he’s capable of striking the right balance between ideological principle and realpolitik.

Is Olmert a squeaky-clean politician? Let’s not kid ourselves. But, like many Israelis, I’d rather have a shrewd, slightly shady character at the helm of the state than a knave or charlatan.

PLATFORM OR no platform, the ethos of Kadima is clear to savvy Israelis. I refer you to the interview published on October 11, 2004 between Sharon’s consigliere Dov Weissglass and Haaretz’s Avi Shavit.

Here is the lawyer encapsulating the thinking of his foremost client: “Because of his trenchant realism, Arik never believed in permanent settlements: He didn’t believe in the one-fell-swoop approach. Sharon doesn’t think that after a conflict of 104 years it’s possible to come up with a piece of paper that will end the matter.

“...Very quickly we discovered that we were up against a [Palestinian] stone wall, that when you get to the decision-making center, nothing happens.”

So what unilateralism does, Weissglass explained, is to “make it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians.”
And so it has been.

The months ahead will not be easy ones. There is the need to deal with the Iranian threat – while emphasizing that this is a problem for the West and not just for Israel. Construction of the security barrier must be accelerated. Ground must be broken on the E1 project to connect Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumin – an area where Sharon has dragged his heels.
The next premier must devote himself to defining and solidifying the Israeli consensus, not just on security issues but on a range of domestic priorities to make this society a more equitable and cohesive one.

Kadima can yet make history by reflecting a 21st-century political realignment of the Israeli body politic – one that gives expression to the country’s pragmatic mainstream. But it can only do so if its luminaries are able to summon up the altruism to postpone gratification and put the nation first.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

PLAIN TALK: Jack Abramoff & Ariel Sharon

Last night while I was still at work, Channel 10’s Baruch Kra (who once worked for Haaretz) broke a story he’s been following for year’s that’s again captured the headlines here.

Kra reported that police have evidence that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a $3 million bribe from Austrian businessman James Schlaff. It’s all tied to the Cyril Kern affair, violations of campaign finance limits, and Jericho Casinos... but don’t ask me precisely how it all ties together.

Everyone else in the media is now playing catch-up with Channel 10’s scoop.

As for the cops – they’re keeping shtum.

My hunch is that all things being equal (Sharon goes into the hospital tomorrow), this latest revelation will blow over and have minimal impact on Sharon’s anticipated margin of victory.

Yossi Verter in Haaretz gave spinmesiter Arthur Finkelstein the final word: “The public prefers a corrupt man to an idiot.”

Or several different idiots.

So my attention is drawn to real news and it comes from overseas.

I’m thinking about the tragedy of the miners in West Virginia and the pain of their families; about how their loves ones had been celebrating the “miracle” of their rescue only to have their gratitude turned into anguish when it emerged only one of the 12 trapped men had survived.

That’s real news – not the manufactured nonsense that fills so many of our newspapers and media outlets.

Elsewhere, I’m drawn to the reports of an extraordinary Chillul Hashem, what we Jews call – a desecration of God’s name – committed by an Orthodox Jew named Jay Ambramof.

He’s the Washington lobbyist who pleaded guilty to three felony counts in connection with Washington influence peddling.

Yet I wonder if it is news that people who think of themselves as pious observant Jews would nevertheless conspire to commit fraud, evade taxes use power unrestrained by ethical concerns.

No. The real news today is not Sharon and not Ambramof.

It’s the pain of the families who lost their loved ones in the mines of West Virginia. That’s what is real and enduring.

God give them strength to handle their pain and loss.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

PLAIN TALK: Organized Crime in Israel

Even though I’m a news junkie, I find it hard to watch or read about organized crime in Israel.

It just disgusts me.

Back in New York, all the Jews I knew – and the Italians for that matter – either had, or aspired to, bourgeois middle class values.

Living in Israel, I’ve had to adjust (with difficulty) to the fact that some Jews are violent thugs with no redeeming values.

I was thinking about my aversion to news about organized on the way to work this morning.

What drew my attention was the Monday afternoon melee in the lobby of a Herzliya luxury hotel during a gathering of some of the Jewish State’s top hoodlums. You know, people who oversee the sale of illegal drugs, enslave women into prostitution and shake-down mom and pop businesses.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that organized crime has penetrated the police and government of the country.

It’s something I don’t want to dwell on too much.

Because if I did, I’d add that to the list of why life in Israel sometimes disappoints – why it sometimes shatters illusions about “us” all being in this together.

Monday, January 02, 2006

PLAIN TALK: Palestinian elections postponed?

So, are they on, or are they off?

It’s looking like the Palestinian parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 25, will be postponed.

Palestinian Arab politicians must be breathing a sigh of relief.

Most Israelis aren’t much bothered.

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has been looking for a pretext to delay – what everyone expects to be – Fatah’s day of reckoning.

Abbas now says that Israel’s refusal to commit to allowing Arab residents of Jerusalem to vote by mail from Jerusalem-area post-offices is leading him to delay the elections.

Israel has been sending conflicting signals. Still, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hasn’t explicitly announced that Israel would NOT facilitate the vote-by-mail system that has been previously used.

And I wonder if this Israeli ambiguity isn’t intended “help” Abbas.

The theory is what’s good for Hamas is bad – not just for Fatah – but for Israel and the West.

The inept Abbas been under pressure to postpone the elections – from various Palestinian quarters.

His own Fatah group is bitterly divided. Even the old guard (which came here from Tunis after the Oslo Accords in 1993) itself is fragmented with old Abu Ala off sulking.

And the young guard, led by Marwan Barghouti, Mohammed Dahlan and Jabril Rajub want to shove their way to the head of the syndicate's table.

For reasons I don’t really understand, Israel seems to be facilitating Barghouti’s involvement in the campaign. He’s sitting in an Israeli prison, convicted of multiple counts of murder, yet somehow manages to exert immense day-to-day influence.

With the Territories in turmoil and not much to show for the millions of EU and US dollars that have flowed into PA coffers, the ruling Fatah “party” feels it is in no position to face the “clean government” types from the Islamist movement Hamas.

Now it looks like Abbas has reached some kind of deal with Hamas which had been claiming all along that it opposed postponing the elections.

Maybe Hamas recognizes that the almost complete breakdown of law and order throughout the PA areas could delegitimize their predicted electoral gains.

What's the point of winning – especially if you can anyway win fair and square – in the midst of a riot?

Personally, I don’t care when the Palestinians hold their elections.

Their vote won’t contribute to a tolerant polity or moderate, representative government.

At the same time, I’m not convinced that a Hamas win would be such a bad thing.

Given that the war is destined to continue, because regardless of who wins, there really is no Palestinian partner, I'd rather do business with Hamas thugs who can at least deliver on a promise than ineffectual old terrorist in suits, or their corrupt, duplicitous younger guard.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

PLAIN TALK: TRUSTEESHIP FOR ‘PALESTINE’

Today’s “news” that anarchy reigns inside the PA areas, combined with a previously embargoed report (see Chronology at LEFT) that a crude Kassam rocket was launched into Israel from northern Samaria, only reinforces the reality that the Palestinian polity is not ready for statehood.

Mahmoud Abbas has ignored repeated calls from Israel to honor his road map commitments and dismantle the infrastructure of terror.

Now it becomes clear that his refusal to do so hasn't just been bad for Israel, but also for the Palestinian Arabs themselves.

Kidnappings, armed gangs, illegal roadblocks, rampant violence, and attacks against PA institutions, are now part of the daily scene.

All this just weeks before scheduled Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Isn’t now the time for the EU and the US to take up an idea first broached by Martin Indyk -- that what is needed is a “trusteeship for Palestine.”

Palestinian society plainly needs a stage between today’s state-of-nature chaos and (presumably) desired statehood.

Such a stage would allow for a level of political socialization necessary before independence could be viable.

But are the EU and the US ready to acknowledge this need?

How would it be implemented?

What would the security implications for Israel be?

Let the discussion begin....

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