Friday, December 26, 2008

What to do about Gaza, Christmas, Talks with Syria, Epic Scandal

Dear Readers,

Thanks for checking back. Here are my postings for December 22- Dec. 26

Stay warm.

Stop Hamas. Free Gilad Schalit

If the intimations of senior government officials are to be believed, the IDF is poised to embark on an assault against Hamas the like of which has not been seen since the Muslim extremists captured Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah in June 2007.

This week saw a relentless barrage of rockets and mortars slamming into homes and fields in southern Israel. More and more Israeli cities are now in range of enemy gunners. Even backbiting Israeli politicians who would rather concentrate on the February 10 Knesset elections find themselves obliged to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to the citizenry. The security cabinet appears to have determined - belatedly - that Israel can no longer tolerate the continued attacks.

We ask: What took so long?

HAMAS is the lord of Gaza and widely popular to boot. Fully expecting to supplant Abbas's PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," it wishes to be treated accordingly.

So what if it has rejected out of hand the international community's demand that the Palestinian leadership be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations including the road map? The Islamists expect that their violent behavior - and exploitation of Palestinian "suffering" - will in due course compel the Quartet to modify its shaky principles.

Hamas is even ready to throw Egyptian mediators a bone: It will agree to another temporary cease-fire with the hated Zionists in return for an uninterrupted flow of goods and supplies through Israeli and Egyptian crossing points. Of course, its industrial-scale smuggling of weapons via tunnels beneath the Philadelphi Corridor must proceed unmolested. Access to the sea must also be assured.

Most crucially, Hamas reserves the unfettered right to use every centimeter of its territory - especially areas adjacent to Israel's border - to lay the groundwork for the next phase of its unyielding confrontation with "the Zionist enemy."

Hamas is galled when the IDF interdicts tunnels being dug for future operations against Israel, or when our air force kills gunmen just as they are planting improvised explosive devices along the border fence. Over the horizon, Hamas looks to the day when it can compel Israel to allow it to operate with impunity against Fatah in the West Bank.

IN THE face of this Palestinian obduracy and the likelihood it will be met by international appeasement, Jerusalem must decide on a single, unwavering public diplomacy message. In the face of outlandish demands to "lift the siege" and "end collective punishment," Israel's mantra needs to be: "Hamas must be stopped. Gilad Schalit must be freed."

As a matter of grand strategy, Israel must not tolerate a hostile entity anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Hamas cannot be allowed to metastasize into a second Hizbullah.

Israel's immediate objective must be to make it impossible for Hamas to govern in Gaza. Yet the choice is not between a massive land invasion and paralysis. The proper method of fighting Hamas is a methodical elimination of its political and military command and control. Concurrently, IDF artillery need to shoot back at the sources of enemy fire.

Gaza has a border with Egypt and Cairo has lately invited those who want to send supplies to Gaza to use its Rafah crossing. But the crossing points from Israel into Gaza must be kept closed for the duration of the battle.

Though the political campaign here is in full swing, we expect worthy politicians to put country first. Absent a strong home front, Ehud Olmert's lame-duck government and fragmented coalition will be unable to withstand the predictable international pressure to halt operations prematurely.

Once begun, Israel's battle against Hamas must be terminated only when the Islamists lose their governing capacity. This may set the stage for Western-trained Fatah forces to reenter the Strip.

Any resort to force by the IDF raises the possibility of unintended consequences. Israel's home front could be hit hard. Hizbullah could launch diversionary attacks. The Arab street in non-belligerent countries could roil. If enemy non-combatants are killed, nasty media coverage is certain.

We may express regret; but we must not apologize. Whatever happens, we must be resolute: Hamas must be stopped.


Christmas 2008

Today is Christmas throughout most of the Christian world. For the faithful, the holiday marks the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago. Christian tradition teaches that Jesus was divine as well as the messiah, and sent to fulfill biblical prophesies. He was, of course, a Jew - and the Jews' rejection of him, and of the Trinity, led to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution and contempt for Judaism.

Mercifully, there have been tremendous ecumenical advances in relations between Christians and Jews, especially since the Holocaust. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit Israel next year. Pope John Paul II came in 2000. The Holy See and the Jewish state established relations in 1994. And some of Israel's greatest benefactors are affiliated with vibrant evangelical churches. In October, 35,000 Protestant pilgrims participated in the annual Feast of Tabernacles parade in Jerusalem.

Still, some mainline US and UK churches have redefined their Christian faith, making political activism their raison d'être and, foremost, championing the Palestinian Arab cause at the expense of the Zionist enterprise. Some have even joined British campaigners who are exploiting Christmas themes as propaganda tools against Israel.

Sovereign in their own land, some Jews have, disappointingly, not always shown tolerance toward their Christian brethren. The most disgraceful recent presumed manifestation of such bigotry is the still unsolved April bombing at the home of a Christian pastor in Ariel that left his 16-year-old son seriously wounded. In June, Orthodox fanatics in Or Yehuda burned copies of the New Testament; in a number of towns extremists regularly harass tiny congregations of Jewish converts to Christianity who call themselves Messianic Jews.

LAST NIGHT, Israel Television (along with radio's Arabic service) broadcast the Roman Catholic Mass live from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. By tradition, this is where the Virgin Mary received the news from the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus.

Meanwhile in Bethlehem, which is under the jurisdiction of Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority on the other side of Israel's life-saving security barrier, thousands attended Christmas Mass at the Catholic Church of Saint Catherine, which adjoins the mostly Orthodox Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Jesus' birth.

Christian Arab citizens of Israel have been permitted to cross into Bethlehem for the holiday, and the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria has granted permission to 15,000 Palestinian Christians to visit their families inside the Green Line. Several hundred Christians from Gaza have also received permission to enter Bethlehem.

Hotels there are full. Christians in the West Bank, like other Palestinian Arabs there, are enjoying a mild economic boon following the ruinous second intifada, which tapered off around 2005. With Yasser Arafat now gone and the PA in the hands of relative moderates, Israel has been able to facilitate an improvement in the quality of life for West Bankers. Over 100 security checkpoints have been lifted, making it easier for locals to traverse the territory. Unemployment is down, though still too high; the local economy has grown by 4-5 percent. An unusually good olive harvest has boosted spirits; wages are up, and trade has risen by 35%.

None of this is to suggest that things are as they could be. Until the fragmented Palestinian leadership is both willing and able to conclude a peace deal with Israel, and pending an improvement in the worldwide recession, further development will likely be sluggish.

CHRISTIANITY REMAINS the world's biggest religion, with about 2.1 billion followers. Paradoxically, in the Holy Land, their numbers are meager. There are only about 160,000 Christians in Israel - about 2.1 percent of the population, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Approximately 80 percent are Arabs; most of the rest emigrated here from the former Soviet Union.

There are in addition some 35,000 Christians in the West Bank and 3,000 beleaguered believers under Hamas rule in Gaza, where a number of Christian institutions, among them the YMCA, have been bombed by Islamist fundamentalists. Christian Arabs, about 1.3 percent of the Palestinian population, nevertheless tend to identify culturally with the Palestinian cause.

THE CHRISTIAN world shares many values and concerns with the Jewish people. As we wish Christians everywhere Merry Christmas, we hope for ever stronger ties and increased mutual respect.


The Assad-Olmert 'dialogue'

What to make of this week's exchange of platitudes between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad? Olmert was on his way to Ankara to promote peace with Syria just as Assad was holding a news conference with Croatian president President Stipe Mesic in Damascus.

By prior arrangement - in coordination with Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Assad allowed that it would be "natural" for Syria and Israel to talk directly at some stage. "I compared the peace process to my friend the president of Croatia to the construction of a building - we first build the solid foundations and then we build the building, not vice versa," said Assad.

This was Olmert's cue: "What you don't do today in the Middle East, it's not certain you will be able to do tomorrow."

IT IS hard to credit either Olmert or Assad with pure intentions. Olmert is a lame-duck premier hounded from office by corruption charges, with little credibility and even less political capital to expend. Assad is a second-generation tyrant whose flawless, British-accented English belies his tight alliance with Iran and its proxy, Hizbullah.

We are not suggesting that Olmert should have stayed at home, or that Israeli diplomacy be put on hold until a new government is formed in 2009. Indeed, the Turks may have been trying to be helpful on another front: quietening the border between a bellicose, Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel.

When it comes to bilateral relations between Israel and Syria, however, it is hard to lend credence to Olmert's efforts, especially with Israel in the midst of an election campaign.

WE WOULD have thought better of Olmert had he used his Ankara visit to tell the world what Jerusalem expects in any exchange of land for peace with Syria. Yes, a treaty is in Jerusalem's long-term interest, but not at any price. Olmert might have tactfully reminded his Turkish hosts that Syria lost the Golan Heights when, unprovoked, it attacked Israel in 1967.

He should have stressed that irrevocable strategic concessions by Israel on the Golan could only be justified - for the overwhelming majority of Israelis - in return for a true opening of genuine peaceful relations. Last April, though, Assad said that he would not "impose" normalization with Israel on the Syrian people. If Assad hasn't changed his mind about this, why isn't Olmert taking him to task?

Israelis have more questions about Syrian intentions than answers. For example: When will Assad respond to demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency to come clean about his nuclear weapons program? And when will Syria turn away from Iran and toward the West as part of a peace with Israel?

Why are cultural ties between Syria and Iran now closer than ever? The two states are even collaborating on a propaganda film about the Second Lebanon War.

More worryingly, Syria has reportedly been helping Iran evade international sanctions by allowing its territory to be used for trans-shipping missile components from Venezuela. Damascus has also funneled Iranian weapons to Hizbullah and anti-American fighters into neighboring Iraq. Moreover, a good deal of the cash that keeps Hamas afloat in Gaza - undermining Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas - is channeled via Hamas's Damascus headquarters.

No wonder Syria has been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism for three decades.

Earlier this week, the editor of the London-based Asharq al-Awsat spelled out the obvious: If Syria really wanted to reorient its foreign policy toward the West, it would have to radically alter its relationship with Teheran, Hizbullah and Hamas.

Even Arab observers are interpreting Assad's chatter about direct talks with Israel as intended to mislead President-elect Barak Obama into believing Damascus genuinely seeks peace. If so, Assad is following a well-thumbed Syrian script - feigning moderation while stoking violence, unwilling to pay the price of peace yet anxious not to be ostracized for his intransigence.

Assad's approach is already paying off with some EU countries. Our question is: Why should Ehud Olmert be smoothing his path?

Epic scandal

Not many people have heard of the Yeshaya Horowitz Foundation, which disbursed about $140 million over the past 15 years in Israel. Started by an anonymous donor, it funded basic medical research - advancing theoretical knowledge in science and medicine with no immediate commercial value. Such work, however, often sets the stage for private industry to take over. Horowitz money paid for doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships, and was just now covering the completion of a lab to be jointly operated by Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University.

Several weeks ago, when monies supposed to have been routinely deposited failed to materialize, a persistent Horowitz staffer made a series of inquiries which led, astonishingly, to a pithy telephone exchange with the august Bernard L. Madoff, whose firm had been managing the funds bequeathed to the foundation. Lately, noted the staffer, payments have been late in coming, and the November monies haven't arrived at all.

"You'll get your money," said Madoff, before abruptly hanging up.

Now it appears that the Yeshaya Horowitz Foundation has been wiped out - one of a long list of praiseworthy organizations laid low or mortally wounded by the unspeakable avarice of Madoff and, as of this writing, his unknown co-conspirators.

It is the most awful philanthropic scandal in history.

Throughout the Jewish world, communal leaders are endeavoring to ascertain which of their prosperous members - precisely those who carry the heaviest philanthropic burden - have been swindled by Madoff. Some federations in Boston, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Greater Washington have, we know, been hard-hit. But the number of charities, not-for-profits and educational institutions whose work, if not their very existence, has been jeopardized is too long to itemize here. They include Yeshiva University, fortunately positioned to weather the storm, and Hadassah, which has lost $90 million and been forced to cancel its 2009 convention in New Orleans.

Among those who will pay for Madoff's greed are cancer patients, the aged and Jewish day schoolers. For instance, the Chais Family Foundation's assets of $178 million have been wiped out. Chais had recently allocated $1 million to the ORT educational network. All gone.

The Robert I. Lappin Foundation, a major benefactor of Birthright, has been forced to close. Yad Sarah, too, has taken a hit.

Obviously, it's not only charities which have been affected. So have leading Israeli insurance and financial services companies. Reports say Phoenix had a $15-million exposure to Madoff; Harel $7.5 million, and Clal $3 million.

Outside the Jewish world, the pensions of fire-fighters in Colorado and teachers in South Korea have all been impacted.

ALL THIS bad news comes on top of a worldwide economic meltdown that had anyway been threatening the budgets of schools, universities, hospitals and Jewish communal institutions. These were already very dark days. They've just gotten darker.

The Jewish world finds itself shaken - by the financial losses caused by the international economic downturn, by the blows inflicted by Madoff, and on top of these, by a profound sense of embarrassment at the perpetrator's openly aligning himself with modern Orthodox Jewry. If we tell ourselves that Muslim terrorism is enabled by a larger collective that tolerates extremism, what do we say about a swindler with such close ties to our community?

Was not Jerusalem Post financial columnist Pinchas Landau spot-on when he inquired whether it was Madoff alone who had lost his moral compass? Landau is surely justified in emphasizing the ethical component to Judaism and arguing that too many of us, focused on ritual, have lost sight of its centrality.

We must be grateful that in our age of unbridled materialism and moral relativism there are still members of our community who haven't lost their capacity for shame.

The Jewish people has engaged from time immemorial in a never-ending struggle to be a light unto the nations. Madoff is a dismal reminder that we still have a long way to go. Our capacity for communal soul-searching is a strength. Let's not shirk it.

And let's remind ourselves, too, that US Jews, who comprise 2 percent of the population, donate as if they comprised a quarter of Americans.

The best answer to Madoff is for more and more Jews - not just the rich - to give charity.

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