Friday, December 05, 2008

Playing with Fire in Hebron, Feiglin, Obama, Hamas

December 1 through December 5

Playing with fire

There is a lot riding on how yesterday's standoff in Hebron between authorities and post-Zionist settler extremists ultimately plays out. Though no one was gravely wounded, the violent evacuation of Beit Hashalom, and the events leading up to it, again exposed the depth of the chasm that divides our society.

To their credit, the leaders of the Likud, Israel Beiteinu, Kadima and Labor had united in calling on Hebron's Jewish residents not to employ physical or verbal violence. Let history record that no other Knesset party joined in this proclamation.

Like the couple that fights endlessly over whether the husband or wife should take out the rubbish, only to discover in marriage counseling, coming too late, that their whole relationship is crumbling, Israelis have been obsessing over yet another controversial Hebron building - when what is actually at stake is something far greater.

AS THE extremists were ejected from the building, security forces outside not only had to separate Jewish and Palestinian rock-throwers, but also remove from the scene other protesters engaged in non-violent civil disobedience.

We unreservedly condemn settlers behaving badly in recent days, hurling rocks and verbal abuse at security personnel - to whom, in the blink of an eye, they might need to turn to for protection. We condemn extremists for instigating altercations with the local Arab population; for desecrating mosques, dwellings and vehicles (not just in Hebron), and even cemeteries. And we feel nothing but contempt for those who allegedly stabbed an east Jerusalem Arab returning home from work on Wednesday.

Many of those responsible for the Hebron violence, both yesterday and in recent weeks, are out-of-control youths who gravitated to this trouble-spot encouraged by their spiritual authorities and political mentors. They are pumped-up on Vitamin M - messianic madness.

The anti-Zionist Natorei Karta opposes the state because God hasn't yet sent the messiah; post-Zionist settler extremists, dropouts from the national religious camp, have come to oppose the state because they interpret its polices as contrary to the will of God. Hence their actions.

Jewish extremists from nearby Kiryat Arba responded to the evacuation by going on a rampage against Arab individuals and property in the Hebron area. Radical settlers want to prevent Israeli authorities viewing the Hebron events as a precedent. Further retaliation could take the form of relatively harmless civil disobedience, such as blocking traffic - or, far more ominously, attempts by a radical fringe to ignite a holy war throughout the entire West Bank by goading Palestinian Arabs into relaunching their armed intifada.

THERE'S an irreconcilable disconnect between those who would engage in or rationalize settler violence and mainstream Israel; between those who have disengaged from our - admittedly imperfect - Zionist enterprise, its army and polity, and the majority who want the rule of law upheld even when, to borrow from Dickens, "the law is an ass."

Our overriding opposition is to anarchy and mob rule. Citizens are obligated to respect lawful decisions, such as those of the Supreme Court, even when they vehemently disagree with them.

To set the record straight, the court acted when the settlers brought the matter to them, after the police belatedly ordered the evacuation of the disputed house. The justices didn't "order" the settlers evicted since the state had already done so. All the court did was uphold the state's stance.

Meanwhile, this newspaper continues to wonder what is delaying the Jerusalem District Court from ruling on the substance of the dispute: lawful ownership of the house. Needless to say, the outcome of the lower court's decision, when it comes, must be respected.

We have been less than impressed with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's handling of the crisis, specifically his decision to let matters simmer for three weeks after settler leaders announced they had no intention of leaving Beit Hashalom voluntarily.

Let's not, meanwhile, lose sight of two other fundamentals. First, the vast majority of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria are law-abiding patriots. Secondly, in any and all circumstances, Jews must be guaranteed access to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The contemptible behavior of settler radicals does not negate this right. For long before Christianity and Islam came on the scene, Hebron was already a cornerstone of Jewish civilization.


Let Feiglin be Feiglin

Who is Moshe Feiglin and why is Binyamin Netanyahu, poised to be Israel's next prime minister, working so feverishly to torpedo his chances of being elected on the Likud Knesset ticket?

At chairman Netanyahu's initiative, the Likud Central Committee has made it much harder procedurally for Feiglin and his Manhigut Yehudit faction to capture top electoral spots in the party's December 8 primary. Netanyahu has also discouraged party VIPs from attending Feiglin's campaign events.

All parties manipulate the composition and rankings of their Knesset lists. The Likud is simply following in that inglorious tradition.

Feiglin, 46, first gained prominence in 1993 when he led the Zo Artzeinu movement in strident protests against the Oslo Accords. Its adherents blocked intersections and engaged in civil disobedience, which sometimes deteriorated into violent confrontation when the police sought to keep traffic flowing. More recently, he has taken a firm stance against violence.

His views are mostly antithetical to those of this newspaper. He opposes any territorial concessions, under any circumstances. He has reportedly said that Arab citizens of Israel hostile to the state should be encouraged to leave. Feiglin denies he wants to see Israel transformed into a theocracy - he explicitly opposes religious coercion, but believes state policies should be informed by the Torah. He's convinced that as Israelis connect with their Jewish identity, their incentive for territorial concessions will fall by the wayside. (An interview with Feiglin appears in this Friday's UpFront magazine).

Nowadays, Feiglin is distinguished from - and criticized by - others on the far Right by his pledge to work within the system. Since 2005 he has sought to exercise this commitment within the Likud.

The party now holds 12 mandates but is projected to win some 34 in the elections, partly thanks to Netanyahu's labors to reposition, regenerate and rebrand it. He's enticed such diverse personalities as Bennie Begin, Moshe Ya'alon, Dan Meridor, Uzi Dayan and Assaf Hefetz to run in the primary. Netanyahu wants to keep his right-wing base while also appealing to centrist Kadima voters.

NOT unreasonably, Netanyahu is worried that allowing Feiglin too high a profile will send the wrong message about Likud philosophy. In our view, however, he could solve this problem by rejecting the advice of his handlers to stay vague and explicitly articulate his vision for the party.

If he forms the next government, Netanyahu will have a genuine mandate to pursue his policies. Equally important, he would bolster the system's legitimacy, which has lately suffered from candidates' running on one platform and implementing another.

Tactically, letting Israelis know where he stands on territorial concessions and negotiations with the Palestinians would settle the Likud's orientation. Feiglin could hardly then claim, as he does now, that he represents "the real Likud."

Many settlers and their supporters are feeling ever more alienated. The extreme fringe - responsible for the current lawlessness in Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank - displays no commitment to, or interest in the rule of law. But the estrangement of the broader far Right stems, at least in part, from a feeling that politicians, jurists, academics and the media unlawfully manipulate the levers of power (including the army) to pursue an agenda antithetical to its values. This wider far Right says that when it seeks redress of its grievances within the system, it is blocked. And when it looks at how Feiglin has been thwarted in the Likud, it must be saying: "I told you so."

The political system is destabilized when a growing minority of citizens feel they have no incentive to vote; or when they cast ballots for parties which play a polarizing role. Yet to encourage people to vote for one of the major parties - this newspaper's position - those parties must embrace a welcoming, big-tent philosophy.

Netanyahu, a student of American politics, knows that both Democrats and Republicans have made room for non-centrist voices. Today's diverse GOP includes those divided over the role of government; today's Democratic Party includes those divided over social and personal values.

To paraphrase Lyndon B. Johnson, Israeli politics is probably better off having Feiglin inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in.


Team Obama

After announcing his national security lineup Monday, President-elect Barack Obama asserted: "I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made."

Obama's vision is to strengthen the US's "capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends" to "show the world once more that America is…committed to the ideals [of] democracy and justice, opportunity and unyielding hope, because American values are America's greatest export to the world."

With that, the president-elect introduced Hillary Clinton as the next secretary of state; said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would stay on in his post; that Eric Holder would take over at the Justice Department; Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security; Susan Rice will become US Representative to the UN, at cabinet rank, and General James Jones will serve in the key coordinating role of national security adviser.

The appointments sent a message that was, by and large, reassuring. Clinton is a trusted "brand" in Israel. Gates and Jones are pragmatists who must know that allowing Iran to go nuclear would be debacle of colossal proportions. Moreover, Jones knows first-hand the distance between Tel Aviv and the West Bank. And Rice understands the importance of Israel as a Jewish state. Her UN role will position her as a central player in stopping Iran.

These announcements follow word that Obama's national security transition team includes veteran Middle East hand Dennis Ross; James Steinberg (who is expected to work for Clinton at State); Daniel Shapiro, Obama's Jewish outreach coordinator, and Jeremy Bash, a former congressional and AIPAC staffer.

The lone discordant note was the appointment of Samantha Power to the relatively low-level job of assisting Clinton in preparing for her Senate confirmation hearings. Power has said that US military assistance to Israel should be redirected to the Palestinians; that Israel is a major human rights abuser, and that an international force should be sent to protect West Bank Palestinians.

Leftist ideologues in Israel are lobbying for the appointment of retired ambassador Daniel Kurtzer to be the administration's Middle East envoy. Were Obama to take their bad counsel, Kurtzer would arrive, not as an honest broker, but as a divisive figure whose views are at variance with those of mainstream Israel.

THE Obama administration can be expected to pursue the same fundamental US Mideast policy that has been in place since 1967: finding the right modality to exchange land for peace. This formula nowadays means creating a Palestinian Arab state alongside the Jewish state - an approach Jerusalem embraces on the basis of "1967-plus" so long as the Palestinians drop their demand for the "right of return."

The temptation, however, to view the Palestinian issue as the nub of the problem radical Islam has with the civilized world must be resisted. Of course, Israel's existence is one of their grievances, but their chief complaint is that Western values - tolerance and liberty - are encroaching on the Muslim world. This is the message of Islamist terror from 9/11 to Mumbai.

As the Obama team takes over on January 20, neither Palestinians nor Israelis will be in a position to make substantive negotiating progress. Israel will be in post-election diplomatic limbo, while the Palestinian polity will still be physically divided and politically fragmented.

So the best place to hit-the-ground-running is on the Iranian issue. In introducing his team, Obama said, "The spread of nuclear weapons raises the peril that the world's deadliest technologies could fall into dangerous hands." So it follows that in addition to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama's team should devote their principal energies to stopping Iran from building an atom bomb.

If Obama shows himself truly committed to preventing the apocalypse-seeking Teheran regime from going nuclear, if he rejects the notion that the mullahs can be managed via deterrence, he will lead his team in pressing for full bore sanctions, backed by the threat of force as a last resort. This does not preclude talking to Iran. It only means he'd have their full attention.

If Iran gets the bomb, Hamas and Hizbullah will be emboldened and Muslim moderates throughout the world will be marginalized. So, too, will the idea of taking risks for peace.


Teflon terrorists

Were it not for last week's Islamist battering of Mumbai, the big story in Israel would be Friday night's mortar attack from northern Gaza against an IDF base near Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Eight troops were wounded, two seriously. Doctors were forced to amputate the leg of one of the soldiers.

Hamas is planning for the next war. It wants to deter the IDF from interdicting its tunneling into Israel, and from blocking its placement of bombs along the border. When these efforts are stymied, as they were this weekend, Hamas takes to launching rockets and mortars at Israel in "retaliation."

After the mortar hit the base, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i reacted with the usual tiresome bluster we've come to expect. He declared that Israel is getting close to launching a large-scale operation - "something we have not seen in the past."

Everyone knows that Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposes a big push against Hamas. He's lately taken to reminding audiences that he is "minister of defense, not minister of war."

Meanwhile, a ship from Libya, supposedly carrying 3,000 tons of medicine and humanitarian aid - and equally laden with propaganda value - is en route to Gaza. If our authorities act true to form, they will talk tough about enforcing the blockade, and then back down as the vessel approaches the coast. It disheartens us Israelis to have our leaders repeatedly make empty threats. It would be preferable for them to remain shtum.

IT IS time to rethink the sanctions regime altogether. Clearly the enemy has little trouble bringing in almost everything it needs, including fuel, food and weapons, via an elaborate network of underground tunnels from the Egyptian Sinai.

If the sanctions' goal was to turn Gazans against Hamas, it hasn't worked. They are one with Hamas. When Hamas blocks pilgrims from making the haj, the blame is directed against Egypt. When Hamas shells Israel, forcing closure of the crossing points, the blame falls on Israel.

There is, anyway, enough PA, EU, US, UN and NGO money flowing into the Strip - not to mention suitcases full of illicit cash - to make a mockery of the idea of bringing Gaza to its knees.

So long as the Strip is controlled by Hamas, Israel must not be a conduit for supplies - even when the Islamists are taking a respite from shooting at us. We should not, however, have any objection to Egypt opening its border to non-military supplies reaching Gaza.

OUR INCOHERENT policies toward Hamas also encompass the legal system's stance toward the organization in Judea, Samaria and metropolitan Jerusalem. Some 20 Hamas "parliamentarians" taken into custody in June 2006, within days of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit's capture, are now being set free. Many of them were convicted of being members of an illegal organization, though some have yet to complete their trials. For reasons this newspaper finds hard to fathom, most have received light sentences. Some have already been released; others will likely be freed next year.

Perhaps the Knesset needs to craft legislation granting the Defense Minister the authority to extend the incarceration of enemy prisoners where there is a pressing national security reason to do so.

Anyway, in exchange for Schalit, Hamas wants 1,400 terrorists, among them 350 guilty of some of the most heinous crimes in the annals of Arab terrorism. The remaining "parliamentarians" are also on the list Hamas wants freed, though they will likely see daylight long before Schalit does. We would have preferred a rescue operation to bring Schalit home. But if Hamas members are to be traded, let them be only those taken subsequent to his capture.

AS TO aggression emanating from the Strip, rather than issuing empty threats about an all-out invasion, Jerusalem needs to tell Hamas that active belligerence will result in the IDF systematically picking off their political and military hierarchy.

As individuals, Hamas chieftains may be keen to sacrifice themselves for jihad (and an eternity with 72 virgins), but more than anything the movement wants to retain its hold over Gaza. If hunkered down and relentlessly hunted, they may find control slipping from their murderous hands.

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