Friday, December 12, 2008

Gilad Schalit's 900 days, Richard Falk & Gaza, Likud primary, Eid al-Adha, ElBaradei

Dear Reader,
I'm away next week. So please check back again on December 26 for the next round-up.

Clueless on Gaza

Friends and supporters of Gilad Schalit have erected a protest tent at the corner of Balfour and Aza Streets, near the Prime Minister's Residence, where they are maintaining an around-the-clock vigil. A sign displays the number of days Schalit has been a Hamas captive: 901. He was seized on Sunday, June 25, 2006, which means our serviceman has now been held for 2 years, 5 months and 17 days.

As the 900-day milestone passed, calls intensified to "Free Gilad Schalit." On Friday, demonstrators will be assembling outside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office, demanding he "return Gilad" before he steps down.

Such protests aimed at our government are misdirected. The campaigners should, instead, focus their efforts on putting Hamas under pressure. To its credit, the kibbutz movement has been protesting outside the offices of the Red Cross in Tel Aviv, demanding that it keep insisting on access to Schalit. Others have been campaigning to halt family and Red Cross visits to Hamas inmates in Israeli prisons until Schalit is granted this same humanitarian right.

In addition, many Israelis are questioning the wisdom of their government's having permitted Thursday's transfer to Gaza of NIS 100 million in currency from Palestinian banks in the West Bank.

OUR government, alas, appears to have no coherent policy on Gaza, and this, predictably, has had a spillover effect on its ability to decide what to do about Schalit. Olmert has vowed to continue to work for his release even as his tenure winds down. The triumvirate of Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which makes key security decisions, cannot agree on a larger Gaza strategy. So Israel has been treading water.

When a modest calibration of policy is necessary - for example, closing the crossing points into the Strip while Hamas is lobbing mortars and rockets - Barak takes the lead. We know he vehemently opposes a bruising confrontation with Hamas. We don't really know where Olmert and Livni stand.

Given Israel's election-period leadership vacuum, it has been left to pundits in the Hebrew tabloids to pull at the public's heartstrings by setting the "Free Gilad" agenda. They want Israel to capitulate to Hamas's blackmail and let loose 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the soldier. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar chimed in Thursday to say that a deal could be struck within a day "if an Israeli government brave enough to release life prisoners is formed."

The "life prisoners" Zahar wants most are those who masterminded or facilitated some of the most monstrous atrocities of the 2000-2005 intifada: bus bombings, the Sbarro, Moment Café and Dolphinarium attacks; and the Netanya Pessah Seder massacre.

There were 26,000 attacks during those six years, resulting in over 1,000 killed and 6,000 wounded.

By bringing Schalit home on Hamas's terms, we would surely be opening the door to another ghastly wave of bloodletting.

IT WAS significant to hear Livni say Thursday that "We all want Gilad to come home, but... it isn't always possible to bring everyone home."

That sober message, rather than the populist chatter about "freeing Gilad," needs to be echoed by Barak and by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

We are not passing judgment on how the Schalit family has lobbied for their son's release. In their place, which of us would act differently?

Those with broader responsibilities, however, must not pander to populism.

On that morning, 900 days ago, when the enemy breached our border and kidnapped Schalit, they also killed St.-Sgt Pavel Slutsker and Lt. Hanan Barak. Those who engage in emotional blackmail should reflect on what those soldiers' parents would give to switch places with the Schalits.

This newspaper cannot understand why Israeli intelligence has been unable to locate a captured soldier being held a 90-minute drive from Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. Nor why the IDF has not been ordered to target one Hamas leader after another up and down the military and political chain of command to hammer home this point: Your demands regarding Schalit are way, way too high.

Such an approach, however, would have to be part of a larger strategy and require a cabinet with the fortitude to carry it out.


Human rights & wrongs

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and advocate of "new international law" is a mild-mannered, white-haired, 78-year-old scholar-activist who, seemingly, weighs his words carefully - before lobbing rhetorical bombs.

He has reminisced that his family was so assimilated that it was in "virtual denial of even the ethnic side [of its] Jewishness." Over the years, however, Falk has taken an interest in things Jewish, including the destruction of European Jewry.

His reflections have led him to conclude that Israel is now "slouching" toward another Holocaust. But this time, it is the Jews who may be dreaming of carrying out the genocide. Falk asks: "Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not."

Looking at Israel, he sees a "holocaust-in-the-making" and a state with "genocidal tendencies."

Fortunately for Hamas, Falk believes international law gives it the "right of resistance." So shortly after the Islamists grabbed control of Gaza in June 2007, he pleaded for the world to "start protecting the people of Gaza" from Israel.

Still, when appointed "Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories" by the incongruously-labeled UN Human Rights Council, the professor promised to keep an open mind. Perhaps it is that very open mind which enabled him to wonder whether the US government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

WEDNESDAY morning, as yet another fusillade of Hamas rockets and mortars slammed into the Negev, on the day after Israel allowed yet another humanitarian convoy of trucks carrying food, fuel and medical supplies to enter hostile Gaza, Falk "reported" his assessment of the situation: Israel's policy toward the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza is tantamount to a crime against humanity. And the International Court of Justice at The Hague needs to determine "whether the Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law."

Falk likened Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians to - what else? - apartheid. He charged that the food and fuel Israel funnels into Gaza (during those intervals, we'd add, when Hamas halts its attacks) is hardly enough to prevent mass starvation and disease.

The Human Rights Council, meanwhile, presented Israel with 100 demands on behalf of the Palestinians. But it made not a single demand of the Palestinians - not even that they stop the violence. A new poll finds, not surprisingly, that 64% of Israelis feel the human rights community is biased.

ATTEMPTING to reason with people who think Israel is a genocidal apartheid state is like trying to convince the fellow who shows up at your office wrapped in aluminum foil from head to toe that, er, actually, aliens are not beaming radio waves into his brain.

With that in mind, let us nevertheless, state the obvious.

Israel is trying to protect itself from Gaza. We unilaterally pulled out our citizens and army from the Strip in 2005. Rather than use our departure to begin building a Palestinian state, Hamas vowed to keep "resisting" and never accept a Jewish state in the region. Its loathing actually solidified Hamas's popularity among Gazans.

In just the past three weeks, Hamastan has fired some 170 rockets and mortars at Israeli population centers. Our children and elderly are traumatized. Two weeks ago, one young man's leg had to be amputated because of shrapnel damage.

All day, every day, Hamas forces, trained by Iran, place bombs along our border and tunnel toward our territory in preparation for their next onslaught. They kidnapped and still hold IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.

We do not claim that life in Gaza is easy, but so much of its misfortune is self-inflicted. And at a time when the people of Zimbabwe and Congo are experiencing a true "humanitarian catastrophe," is it not obscene to talk of Gaza in those terms? With nearly a billion people today starving in Asia and Africa, is it not unconscionable to speak of "mass famine" in Gaza?

Prof. Falk: If you want to help the people of Gaza, stop besmirching Israel and start beseeching Hamas to stop shooting and return the Strip to Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.


Whose Likud?

The next government of Israel will be headed by the Likud under Binyamin Netanyahu, the public opinion polls said. But that was before Monday's Likud primary, which shifted the party considerably to the right. Will centrist voters who might have been mulling abandoning Kadima because of its leftward drift under Ehud Olmert now put their faith in Tzipi Livni?

With the campaign for the February 10 Knesset elections in full swing, Kadima was quick to charge that the Likud's primary results will make Netanyahu a prisoner of his party's "extreme Right," unable to pursue a diplomatic process and leaving Israel internationally isolated.

The Likud's membership deliberately chose representatives, many of whom are sincerely and firmly opposed to any territorial compromise - not because of the way things now stand with the Palestinians, but, it seems, always and forever. Such policies, however, cannot be reconciled with the need for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. Israel cannot forever manage the lives of millions of antagonistic Palestinian Arabs. It is thus in our interest to separate ourselves from them.

This newspaper has taken Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian "moderates" to task for failing to meet Israel half-way at the negotiating table. We've argued that they should budge from their unrealistic and maximalist demands, which call on Israel to withdraw to the 1949 Armistice Lines and accept the Palestinian "right of return" to Israel proper.

We can point to any number of further obstacles the Palestinians have created that have made achieving an agreement impossible. For instance, Hamas's stranglehold over Gaza; the lack of transparent and legitimate political institutions in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank; and the PA's failure to earnestly prepare its people for the idea of coexistence. There is, too, its unwavering refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Even if these obstacles were overcome, a deal would not be easy because of a range of life-and-death security concerns. There would be a need for Palestinian demilitarization, and for modalities to keep a nascent Palestinian state from becoming a launching pad for attacks against Israel.

UNTIL now, therefore, the most pressing question has been: Do the Palestinians want a deal? What we do not want is to see a situation develop in which Washington and our allies in Europe begin to wonder: Does Israel, led by the Likud, want a deal?

We advocated for a Likud that was a "big tent" party of the Right and Center-Right, capable of accommodating such diverse players as Dan Meridor and Moshe Feiglin. To signal voters that it was indeed also a center-right party, Netanyahu recruited, along with Meridor, Uzi Dayan and Assaf Hefetz. But the attempt failed miserably when only Meridor won a realistic shot at making it into the Knesset - No. 17.

We accept that the Likud Knesset list is far from monolithic. Feiglin, No. 20, and several others would oppose territorial concessions under any circumstances.

Feiglin also "endorsed" 19 of 36 winning primary candidates, but most of them have no particular allegiance to him. So-called Likud rebels (those who opposed the Gaza disengagement and remained in the party after Ariel Sharon stormed out to establish Kadima) and figures such as Bennie Begin and Moshe Ya'alon are security hawks. They believe no deal is possible given the current constellation of Palestinian partners.

Then there are relative moderates including Meridor, Silvan Shalom, and Netanyahu himself.

Begin argues that "the most far-reaching concessions declared recently" by Olmert have not been able to deliver a deal with the Palestinians. "The reason is the fundamental position of the Arabs."

He may well be right that the Palestinians will, for the foreseeable future, remain unwilling or unable to reach an accommodation. But relying on their intransigence does not a party platform make.

Last month, Netanyahu declared that he would "advance peace talks with the Palestinians in order to gain a stable, safe and prosperous peace." He said he wanted to "move both the political negotiations" and an economic peace plan "forward."

In the wake of the primary results, Netanyahu urgently needs to tell his Knesset candidates, the voting public and Israel's allies abroad what his party now stands for. Otherwise others, to his detriment, will be only too ready to define it for him.


Islam's war within
In honor of Eid al-Adha, Festival of the Sacrifice, President Shimon Peres is scheduled this morning to visit the mainly Muslim city of Sakhnin in Galilee. Also in honor of the Eid, West Bank Palestinian Arabs with close relatives in Israel will be permitted to enter the Jewish state; and Arab citizens of Israel may travel to the Palestinian Authority.

Moreover, some 230 Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons will gain an early release and be handed over to Mahmoud Abbas when he returns from the haj pilgrimage.

While 4,000 West Bank Palestinians went on the haj, infighting between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas resulted in none making the pilgrimage from Gaza.

For the world's estimated 1.4 billion Muslims, yesterday marked the culmination of the haj and beginning of the four-day Eid festival. The holiday commemorates the biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son. In Muslim tradition, the son who is saved at the last minute is not Isaac, but Ishmael.

This year, some 3 million faithful journeyed to Saudi Arabia, seeking forgiveness and spirituality as they proceeded through various stages of the haj around Mecca. Eventually, they circle the Kaaba, a cube-like structure in the courtyard of the great Haram mosque. It is the holiest shrine of Islam. During prayer, Muslims the world over face the Kaaba, which the Koran teaches was originally linked with Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael.

It is important to distinguish Islam - the religion and civilization - from the threat posed by its extremist adherents, the Islamists, who are at war with the West and our values of liberty, tolerance and individual freedom. Without deluding ourselves about the extent to which the Islamists have penetrated the Muslim world, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge non-Islamist Muslim figures who seek a modus vivendi with the rest of us.

Which is why we were pleased that in his annual Mount Arafat sermon on Sunday, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, declared: "The world must criminalize terrorism... we must be cautious of terrorism and fight hostile criminal gangs that destroy countries and people."

The Saudi grand mufti urged the faithful to show "the bright face of Islam" and spread "forgiveness, peace and love." He also advocated Shari'a law - but what matters most to us is that he urged the faithful to abjure bloodshed.

OFTEN, we in Israel lose sight of that "bright face of Islam." That's understandable, considering that Muslim fanatics control the nearby Gaza Strip, with wide popular support. A hundred mortar shells and rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel in the past week alone.

Hamas has been relentless in trying to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) near the border fence. Indeed, the current round of fighting began on November 4, when the IDF preempted Hamas from abducting Israeli soldiers there.

Hamas says the tenets of Islamic "resistance" prohibit Palestinians from ever living in peace with Israel. Yet when Hamas isn't shooting at us, Israeli authorities, in the context of a limited embargo, allow fuel, food, humanitarian supplies and even Israeli currency to flow into the Strip.

Nor does the "bright face of Islam" radiate from Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi of Cairo's Al-Azhar University. He's found it necessary to deny that he purposefully shook hands, on November 12, with our president while both were attending an interfaith conference in New York under Saudi Arabian sponsorship.

"Many people walked up to shake my hand, among them Peres. I didn't know him. It was a random handshake." Those who suggest otherwise, the sheikh insisted, are liars and "the sons of 60 dogs."

Islam is mostly at war within itself. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in Pakistan, where a moderate government is contending with a Taliban supported by Islamist elements within the regime's own intelligence agency. Closer to our neck of the woods, we see a similar scenario playing out between relative Fatah moderates and Hamas fundamentalists.

Only Muslims can chart the direction in which they want to take their society. Some, like the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, seem to appreciate that a theology which celebrates brutality will ultimately consume its own.


ElBaradei's 'grand bargain'
Most people think of the International Atomic Energy Agency as "the world's nuclear inspectorate" - verifying that civilian nuclear activities "are not used for military purposes" and working 24/7 to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. Sometimes, though, to hear its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, talk, you might think the IAEA's paramount mission was to promote pacifism.

The IAEA got Iraq right in 2003. And just last month, ElBaradei admitted Iran had failed to "provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities." That's bureaucratese for: Iran is being deceptive and opaque and we, the IAEA, can't attest that they're not moving full speed ahead on building a bomb.

The Egyptian-born ElBaradei, 66, is a lawyer by training. He's lately been thinking about retiring to the south of France. His comments on Iran are invariably lawyerlike; sufficiently wide-ranging so that no one could plausibly accuse him of looking the other way as the Iranians build a bomb. Indeed, he shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his non-proliferation work.

ElBaradei will say that he cannot exclude the possibility that there are "military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." He's complained - well, "complain" may be too harsh a characterization; he's noted - that Iran has not been transparent to "the extent to which information contained in the relevant documentation is factually correct…."

But ElBaradei thinks the Iranians have been shabbily treated - they have not even been allowed to see the raw intelligence data that opponents of their nuclear program have accumulated. He's done his best to assure them that his "Agency does not in any way seek to intrude into Iran's conventional or missile-related military activities." Heaven forbid.

In 2007, ElBaradei said that the world would soon know if Iran was acting in good faith. Last month he remained "confident" that the IAEA would be able to figure out Iran's intentions.

BUT on Saturday, he told The Los Angeles Times that his confidence is now shaken. "We haven't really moved one inch toward addressing the issues. I think so far the policy has been a failure."

ElBaradei didn't mean to say that the international community should ramp up the sanctions regime. To the contrary, he argues that the comparatively mild embargo now in place is "hardening" Iranian intransigence. ElBaradei's policy prescription is for the US to concentrate on Iran's grievances - some dating back to the 1950s - and not obsess over Teheran's quest for the bomb.

He favors a "grand bargain" between the West and Iran: The mullahs will promise not to carry through the final steps of making a bomb, and Washington will provide its imprimatur to the regional hegemony of the Islamic Republic, granting it "the power, the prestige, the influence" it craves.

Last year, ElBaradei warned against even thinking about the use of force as a last resort. On Sunday he expressed reservations about economic or diplomatic pressure, let alone draconian sanctions.

THE IAEA/Euro-liberal consensus is that Iran should certainly not acquire nuclear weapons. But at the same time, nothing tangible is recommended that would thwart Teheran's extremist Shi'ite ideology, Holocaust-denial or sponsorship of terror.

It comforts Euro-Liberals to make believe that Iran is weighing the civilized world's freeze-for-freeze offer: Iran halts the installation of new centrifuges, while the UN Security Council "eases up" on further sanctions.

But the EU has been negotiating with Iran for years to no avail, and even the Bush administration has held dozens of meetings with Teheran. Still, Euro-Liberals envision the mullahs swooning once they're "engaged" by the Obama administration. They say, moreover, just wait until after the June 2009 Iranian presidential elections, when, maybe, a "moderate" like Ali Larijani or even Muhammad Khatami will take over from the uncouth Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But no one is suggesting that either of them would part with a single centrifuge.

So it's no to sanctions, no to force, and no to opposing dual-use centrifuge technology. What's left? Trusting the mullahs that if the international community goes along with their hegemonic demands and never mentions "regime change," Teheran will stop - just short of constructing a bomb.

Cynics might think that Mr. ElBaradei and the Euro-libs want to paint Jerusalem into a corner.

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