Wednesday, April 30, 2008

THE HAMAS CEASE-FIRE OFFER

Hamas is reportedly offering to end the bombardment of Israel from Gaza, cease terrorist attacks and halt arms smuggling.

In return, Israel would have to cease all retaliatory military activities inside the Strip and extend the arrangement to Judea and Samaria at a pre-determined future date. Moreover, Israel would have to agree to the opening of the Rafah crossing between the Egyptian Sinai and Gaza and ease the shipment of cargo via Israel.
The Egyptians are now working on getting the smaller extremist groups active in the Strip to abide by any deal Hamas makes.

Hamas made its tahadiyeh offer to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has been trying to broker a deal that would bring a respite to Sderot and other Israeli border communities while improving humanitarian conditions in the Strip, where most people live on UN food aid.

LET'S REMIND ourselves of just what Hamas is, and what it wants. In Arabic, the word hamas means zeal. It is also an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas's founding charter commits it to the destruction of Israel, and to raising "the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine."

How did such an organization come to control Gaza? In the summer of 2005, Israel - not wanting to rule over a million Palestinian Arabs and recognizing that it had no partner for peace - unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and uprooted its settlements from the Strip. The response of the Palestinian polity could not have been more unwise.

In January 2006 the Palestinian people gave Hamas a large majority in its parliament. When the international community insisted that Hamas accept previous (unfulfilled) PLO commitments, including an end to violence, Hamas cut a interim deal with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The two factions would rule jointly in order to keep the international aid spigot flowing.

Nonetheless, on June 25, 2006, Palestinian extremist groups crossed the Gaza-Israel border at Kerem Shalom, via a tunnel, and killed two IDF soldiers while kidnapping Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who remains in Hamas captivity.

Then in June 2007, Islamist forces violently ousted Abbas's Fatah supporters and, in effect, created a rump Palestinian government of their own. That's when Gaza was placed under more stringent Israeli and international sanctions.

In response, the Islamists accelerated their war of attrition against Israel, even as they cynically exploited the suffering of their own population. They trained their guns on "the Zionist entity" while expecting it to provide them with butter.

In January 2008, Hamas orchestrated the destruction of the border fence between Gaza and Sinai. That intensified pressure on Egypt to come up with a solution.

Suleiman is expected to come to Israel soon to sell his deal with Hamas to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

THE PROSPECT of a six-month truce is superficially enticing - even one that is, in the words of Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, purely "tactical." Youngsters in Sderot would have their first Kassam-free summer in seven years; the nation could observe a tranquil 60th Independence Day, and the coming holidays - Jerusalem Day and Shavuot - could be enjoyed in serenity. Regrettably, however, experience shows that Hamas will use this time to rearm and regroup, then come at Israel twice as hard.

Moreover, the price of saying yes would be a massive boost to Hamas's standing and torpedo any prospect of cutting a deal with moderate Palestinians.

Unfortunately, the situation is exacerbated by Abbas. Concluding his final White House meeting with George W. Bush on Saturday, the Palestinian leader told his people that the peace talks with Israel are going nowhere because of "settlement expansion."

Yet negotiating precedent makes plain an Israeli readiness to dismantle the overwhelming majority of settlements, and Olmert has stressed repeatedly his sense of an Israeli imperative for an accommodation. If the talks are indeed as fruitless as Abbas claims, therefore, he must be making unrealistic demands, from a position that combines weakness with ineptitude.

So what should Israel do about Hamas's truce offer? A counter-proposal might be the wisest approach.

First, Hamas should free Gilad Schalit in an exchange palatable to the Israeli body politic; next, it should allow American-trained forces loyal to Abbas to be redeployed throughout Gaza. Only then should Jerusalem accept a truce - with the explicit proviso that any sign of enemy war preparations would instantly void the cease-fire.

The price of rice

It surprises and humbles when a crisis comes, seemingly, out of nowhere, to upset the agenda we thought we had set for ourselves, our businesses or our government.

Such is the case of the global food crisis, which the UN World Food Program has termed a "silent tsunami." Globalization has created a degree of interdependence never previously imagined. Whether we like it or not, the world is ever more integrated politically, culturally and economically.

We are now learning more about rice then, perhaps, we ever cared to. How many of us knew that Thailand was the world's biggest rice exporter and the source of most of Israel's supply? And who would have imagined that 225 million people a year could be fed on the six percent of Asian rice lost each year to rats?

More significantly, experts say that there is no sudden shortage, but rather a steadily mounting demand. Rice consumption has risen 40% in three decades, according to the UN.

Whatever the nature and extent of the crisis, even the most downtrodden of humanity do not face mass starvation. But the 1 billion "very poor," who live on $1 a day, confront worsening malnutrition. For Israelis, and others fortunate enough to live in the developed world, the impact is likely to be more on our pocketbooks than in our stomachs.

It was not always so. The patriarchs Abraham and Isaac left the Land of Israel because of famine and drought. The fulfillment of Joseph's prophecy, of seven years of famine, forced Jacob to send his sons to Egypt in search of provisions. Famine remained a recurring theme throughout the Bible. The Sages considered famine an even greater evil than war.

TODAY'S FOOD crisis is precipitated by an assortment of mostly demographic and economic factors. For instance, as the 1.1 billion people of India and the 1.3 billion of China have grown relatively affluent, it's only natural that they have begun eating more grain and meat. This has impacted on the balance of demand for these products. Meanwhile, as the US and EU convert corn into ethanol fuel, demand for cereals has soared. Add to this mix a series of natural disasters - cyclones in Bangladesh, droughts in Australia and floods in North Korea - that have resulted in poor harvests, and one can understand the pressures that have prompted food riots in 33 countries. Many nations have imposed price controls on rice or are subsidizing its purchase. Big rice producers including Vietnam and India have restricted exports.

WHAT DOES all this mean for Israelis? The government and importers insist there is no actual rice or food shortage, though increased demand may be causing prices to fluctuate. Israeli consumers can expect to spend more on food in the coming weeks. We consume relatively little rice per capita, yet price increases of 50-60 percent do rile. A package of rice now costs about NIS 12.5, up from for NIS 7.5. Some chains are limiting purchases.

Our sense of anxiety is worsened by largely unrelated increases in the price of bread, pasta, potatoes, dairy products, coffee, corn, cooking oil and even tehina. Adding to our worries is a report that Argentina, which supplies 50% of Israel's frozen meat, has suspended exports. The price of domestically supplied fresh meat at the neighborhood butcher is unlikely to remain static.

Nothing makes people more jumpy than telling them not to panic - and yet, objectively, there's nothing to panic about. Sure it's regrettable that food prices are rising, but the government should not be stampeded into precipitous actions that might upset market forces in a way that does more harm than good. At the same time, we do want the government to scrutinize developments and, if necessary, sensibly target financial assistance through the National Insurance Institute to those most hard-hit by higher food prices.

Short-term, the government should consider encouraging farmers to grow more wheat. Strategically, it might be prudent for policymakers to reexamine the extent of our economy's move away from agriculture - which now represents just 2.6% of GDP. Of course, thinking seriously along these lines would entail addressing the country's chronic water crisis. And that is one calamity that should take no one by surprise.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Peace and the Golan Heights

Syria and Israel are said to be indirectly negotiating a deal over the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty between the two nations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly acting as the intermediary and will meet with President Bashar Assad in Damascus over the weekend.

For over 40 years Israel has been willing to explore the possibility of a withdrawal to the international border (not the 1949 Armistice Line that was the demilitarized zone) in exchange for true peace. The Golan would have to be completely demilitarized; the Syrians would have to commit not to obstruct the flow of water into Israel; and there would have to be ironclad international guarantees that the treaty would stand the test of time.

It is germane to recall how Israel first came to control the strategic mountains in the first place. In the early 1960s Syria sought to divert the flow of water from Israel. Saboteurs based in Syrian training camps infiltrated via Jordan and Lebanon. In April 1967, the Syrian military that was entrenched atop the Heights, which tower 700 meters above the Galilee, unleashed an unusually fierce shelling of Israeli communities below. Then IDF chief of General Staff Yitzhak Rabin warned the Ba'ath regime that it would face severe consequences if its unprovoked aggression persisted.

In response, a Syrian-Egyptian alliance, under Russian sponsorship, readied for war. Then Syrian defense minister Hafez Assad - Bashar Assad's father - announced that his country was ready to "liberate" and "explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army with its finger on the trigger is united. I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation."

Facing massed armies on its borders and hysterical threats from Arab leaders, Israel struck first on June 5, 1967 and captured the Golan along with Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Sinai. Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, but was repulsed.

SINCE THEN, the Syrians have remained a force for instability in the region. They are a state sponsor of terrorism, house Hamas in Damascus and maintain Hizbullah's lifeline to Teheran. Along the way, Syria has been implicated in the assassination of Lebanese politicians and in funneling jihadi gunmen into Iraq. Syria has virtually melded its foreign and security policies with those of Iran. And now it is revealed that, for the past five years, Syria has been collaborating with North Korea on building a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium.

It is unclear why Syria leaked news of Ankara's efforts to facilitate a deal on the Golan. Does Assad want to distract the world from revelations in Washington about his ties to North Korea? Was the mysterious liquidation of Hizbullah's Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus Assad's way of signaling a readiness to break with Hassan Nasrallah and Iran? Has Syria's Alawite ruling clique rethought its relationship with the Persian Shi'ites given that its own population is 74% Sunni Arab?

WHATEVER HIS motivations, Israel should judge Assad by what he says and what he does. Assad insists that even under a peace treaty normalization is out of the question. This is how he put it at a conference in Damascus last week: "Restoration of land and rights may lead to relations based on routine, but not [necessarily] normalization. What happened in Jordan and Egypt is proof to us that the public does not want normalization, and therefore nobody can impose it on anybody else. I know that the Syrian people reject normalization and therefore I will not impose it on them."

It is in Israel's long-term interest to have a peace treaty with Syria, but not at any price. Israel would have to make irrevocable strategic concessions. So it's hard to imagine many Israelis having the confidence to support a deal that does not signify a true opening of genuine peaceful relations.

If Assad wants a treaty, we urge him to come to Jerusalem or invite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Damascus. After 60 years of unremitting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement Syrians may indeed not be ready for normalization. But if he wants Israelis to risk all by ceding the Golan, Assad is going to have to show that he truly wants a change - and he is going to have to take some chances too.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hamas's Apologist

Jimmy Carter, the 83-year-old former US president, has been on a "study mission" to our region, visiting Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. On Monday, back in Jerusalem, Carter announced what he'd learned: The Arabs want peace; the problem is Israel.

Carter met with Hamas leaders in Cairo and Damascus and held a joint session with both factions in Damascus. He came out of those sessions convinced that Hamas wants peace.


The former president sounds like a moral relativist, for whom there are no universal truths by which to judge behavior. This is manifested in the juxtapositions he so effortlessly makes. Speaking Monday, he denounced the Palestinians' "despicable terrorism" against Sderot. Yet when Israel tracks down and arrests the "despicable" terrorists, Carter gets equally passionate about the need to release them - 11,600 (Carter's numbers) now in Israeli prisons, "many of them women and children."

To Carter's muddled thinking, Palestinians and Israelis are equally responsible for the conflict. After all, Palestinians launch Kassams into Israeli kindergartens, and Israelis live over the Green Line.

Since Annapolis, Carter claims, there's been no real progress because of "settlements" and "roadblocks" and because Israel has turned Gaza into one big prison. That Jews also have claims in Judea and Samaria, that checkpoints have proven to keep terrorists from blowing up buses and cafes, that every last Israeli soldier and "settler" has been yanked out of Gaza - none of this turned up in Carter's study mission.

But he did conclude that "despair leads some people on both sides to resort to violence."
Carter professes to understand why Israel is "reluctant" to negotiate with Hamas. The organization refuses to renounce violence, has "yet" to recognize Israel and doesn't accept the 1993 Oslo Accords. But Carter forgives all this. He "understands" that Hamas feels "some violence is necessary" to keep the Palestinian issue alive, and that when the organization is sidelined, the "cycle of violence" is exacerbated.

Carter spent seven hours with Hamas leaders during which they told him they would accept Israel's existence if it withdrew to the 1949 Armistice Lines; if any deal reached between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas was approved in a Palestinian referendum; and if Hamas had the prerogative to disagree with the referendum results.

To sum up Carter's assessment: Hamas wants peace. It is ready now for a cease-fire - even one that doesn't immediately include the West Bank. It also supports the Arab League peace plan that could flood Israel with millions of refugees - a scheme no Israeli government could accept.
That Hamas carried out an attack against the Kerem Shalom border crossing on Saturday, wounding 13 soldiers - while its leaders were telling Carter they supposedly wanted peace - is irrelevant, Carter insists, because the mission had been planned "months in advance."

WE ARE grateful to Carter for raising the issue of Gilad Schalit with his interlocutors. The former president promises that Hamas will now allow the kidnapped soldier to write a second letter to his parents. At the same time, he should know that Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have routine access to the Red Cross and can write to their loved ones even without presidential intervention.

Carter, of all people, ought also to know how far Israel is prepared to go for peace. It ceded every inch of the Sinai to Anwar Sadat. But the Egyptian leader first demonstrated that he genuinely sought an accommodation with Israel.

When King Hussein embraced Yitzhak Rabin, a peace treaty resulted 100 days later.
One could imagine a situation in which Israel would talk with Hamas. After all, when Yasser Arafat claimed to be ready to end the "armed struggle," Israelis desperately tried to reach an accord with him. A Hamas that is prepared for real compromise will always find Israel ready.
Shortly after meeting with Carter, though, a Hamas spokesman declared that the Islamists remained committed to "resistance" and opposed Egyptian cease-fire proposals.

Carter's "study mission" failed to uncover the obvious: Hamas is a toxic opponent of peace. Too bad that in the twilight of his public life, Carter has undermined the relative moderates among the Palestinians and become an apologist for violent religious fanatics.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The price of freedom

Never in the ebb and flow of its long, rich and complicated history has the Jewish people experienced greater national, political and personal freedoms than it enjoys now. There are no ghetto walls. We are Jews by choice and we identify with the Jewish past, share in the Jewish present and look toward a common future.

The more we know about Jewish civilization, the greater our literacy, the less the open door of 21st-century modernity beckons us to abandon the values of our forefathers and foremothers.

With numerous and diverse avenues of Jewish expression to be explored, this may be the most exciting period in modern Jewish history.

Half of all US and UK Jews marry out. That is a fact. But many of these couples and their children can still be part of our community if they, and we, make wise decisions.

Yet, paradoxically, while Jews worldwide have never had more personal liberty, the well-being and security of the Third Jewish Commonwealth has never been under greater threat.

THESE ARE the thoughts that concern us as we approach the evening of April 19 - corresponding to the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan - to celebrate Pessah, "the season of our freedom."

By tradition the festival commemorates God's deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. Thus the Exodus became the founding narrative of Jewish peoplehood and the centerpiece of Israel's sacred history. In ancient times this deliverance was marked by the eating of the Paschal lamb sacrificed in Jerusalem's Holy Temple.

Today, our attachment to this ancient spring festival remains imprinted on our collective psyche. Across the world, Jewish people will participate in ceremonial Seder meals centered around the Haggada's Four Questions. While the more pious among us will scrupulously observe the minutiae of the festival's rules, it behooves all Jews to focus on the meaning - and cost - of freedom, liberty and self-determination.

In the renascent Jewish homeland, which marks its 60th independence day next month, Israelis are grappling with how to cherish tradition while respecting the individual's right to freely disregard (sometimes foolishly) what should be treasured.

Consider the latest quarrel in Jerusalem over the sale of hametz during Pessah. A very few stores sell bread, which the law allows so as long as they don't ostentatiously display it in public. This strikes us as a reasonable compromise. So why interfere with it?

When issues of personal freedom, religion and collective values are at stake, coercion is not only counterproductive, it is often also unnecessary. Seventy percent of Israelis won't go near bread during the festival; 60% would like to see stores closed on Shabbat. That's because the values and mores of Jewish civilization appeal to traditional and secular Jews even when the motivation is not necessarily halachic.

And yet this age of great personal freedom will not have achieved its full potential until non-Orthodox and secular Jews - to paraphrase popular theologian Dennis Prager - start taking Judaism as seriously as do the Orthodox.

MOREOVER, given the threats the Jewish global collective faces, stemming mainly from the menace of Islamist extremism, Jews had better stop dissipating their energies and resources in internal bickering.

Iran is hurrying to build nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. It may take another year or two, but the mullahs don't see the international community standing in their way. This week's meeting of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, in Shanghai on the Iranian issue reiterated that message. (The failed agenda was to coax Iran - which has rejected every economic, diplomatic and security offer thus far, including civilian nuclear cooperation - into reopening negotiations.)

As Iranian leaders employ disinformation, obduracy and guile to keep the world powers spinning their wheels, we hear Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisting that Iran's efforts will, at the end of the day, fail.

The mullahs take their extremist Islam very seriously. It is the bedrock of their perverted vision of world domination. In this "season of our freedom" we need to recommit to our own Jewish and humane values. And if we cherish our freedom, we need to recognize that it comes at a price.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The mullah minuet

It was a small news item, easily unnoticed, part of a protracted series of deceptions: "Monday's scheduled meeting in Vienna between Iranian nuclear negotiator Gholamreza Aghazadeh and the UN's nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei has been postponed."
One step back in the minuet.


Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that it would "propose a package of solutions" aimed at "convergence" with international proposals offering Iran nuclear technology in return for ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. One step forward - ostensibly.

This ongoing dance is accelerated by the scheduled meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, set for April 16 in Shanghai. They will talk about Iran's brazen, artful stonewalling of three fairly innocuous UN Security Council resolutions (the latest on March 3) aimed at cajoling the mullahs to abandon their efforts to build nuclear bombs.

No one in Shanghai will suggest an international ban on weapons sales to Iran. There will be no talk of any air or sea embargo. Still, the great powers will probably express "disquiet" over the installation of hundreds, if not thousands, more centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Verifiable data on the centrifuges - how many and how prolific - is unavailable.

What is known is that Iran is moving rapidly to create as much nuclear bomb-making fuel as possible.

Also overshadowing the Shanghai meeting is last week's Jane's Defense dispatch, which shed light on what Iran wants to do once it has nuclear weapons: place warheads on ballistic missiles. Iran will soon possess solid fuel projectiles capable of reaching Europe. Yet the mullahs keep refining their Shahab missile, and it will eventually traverse 10,000 km., putting the US within range.

If previous international discussion about Iran is any guide, Russia will be thinking about all the nuclear technology it sells the mullahs, the profits reaped and the influence leveraged. Vladimir Putin continues to be Teheran's main enabler.

But China will do its part in Shanghai. One of Iran's two biggest oil customers, it is heavily invested in Iran's petroleum industry. Beijing is also Teheran's second-biggest trading partner. China wants Mideast "stability" and is convinced sanctions are bad for business.

Germany, France and Britain will be mindful of the price of oil ($109 a barrel) and the business they do with Iran. Berlin is Iran's number one import partner; Paris not too far behind. London's record is slightly better: Iran is ranked as the UK's seventh-largest export market in the Middle East and North Africa. But that's still a lot of sterling.

A complete quarantine of the world's number-four oil exporter - the kind of action that would make the mullahs sit up and take notice - is simply not on the Shanghai agenda. And why should it be? There is no constituency for the sacrifices entailed. If anything, many EU citizens believe, incredibly, that Israel is a bigger danger to peace than Iran.

THERE ARE too many sticks and not enough carrots, some of the diplomats in Shanghai will claim. But Iran has time and again rejected generous international offers of nuclear fuel and technology in return for abandoning its bomb. Others will say that Iran feels threatened, and that Washington should negotiate directly with it. Yet Washington and Teheran have been speaking directly in Iraq, to no avail. As the UK's Independent reported only yesterday, back-channel talks between well-connected retired US diplomats and Iranian officials have been dragging on fruitlessly for five years.

The pro-accommodation camp also relies on the December 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which invoked the narrowest definitions to assert, high in its text, that Iran stopped working on a bomb in 2003, and left lower down the fact that enrichment and all other elements necessary for a weapons program proceed apace.

Some friends of Israel are in despair. Columnist Charles Krauthammer urges Washington to place the Jewish state under its nuclear umbrella, while pundit Zev Chafets, writing in The New York Times, gloomily concludes that the Jews are on their own.

Granted, Iran is Israel's foremost strategic dilemma. But those gathering this week in Shanghai should not delude themselves into believing that the rapacious Islamist regime in Teheran does not also threaten everything they hold dear. Iran already has all of Israel well within its missile range, and still it extends its delivery capabilities.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Egyptian tremors

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turns 80 next month. He assumed power 26 years ago, after Islamists assassinated Anwar Sadat for having made peace with Israel.

Egypt's political system remains weak on legitimacy. The liberal opposition, led by the Democratic Front Party, is in disarray. A leading reformist critic of the regime, Ayman Nour, is imprisoned.

Egyptians mostly ignored the April 8 local elections to fill 52,000 places on municipal and village councils. Seventy percent of the seats were earmarked for Mubarak's National Democratic Party because they were "uncontested." Mubarak's son, Gamal, happens to head the NDP.
Recalling the failed policies of the Shah of Iran, Mubarak has defeated the non-Islamist opposition, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the only credible voice of reform. This is the same toxic movement, founded in 1928, whose world-view spawned al-Qaida and Hamas. It wants Shari'a law imposed in Egypt and relations with Israel broken off. Prudently, the Brotherhood eschews violent revolution, patiently waiting for power to fall into its hands. Despite Mubarak's machinations, Brotherhood-supported "independent" candidates captured 20% of the 454-seat parliament.

Mubarak has stayed in power by making an implicit contract with Egypt's masses: We provide food, you keep your noses out of politics. That deal is now fraying.

Egypt is a vast country of some 76 million people, of whom 53% are under 24. Hope and economic prospects are in short supply; religion, however, is bountiful. Mosques are everywhere (one for every 745 people). Most women in Cairo, once a cosmopolitan city, now cover their hair.
Globalization, worldwide economic factors, even climate change have all conspired to make the temporal lives of average Egyptians more difficult. In recent weeks, labor and food riots have broken out in the Nile Delta industrial city of Mahallah-Al-Kobra. Two protesters were killed, 100 wounded and over 300 arrested. Opponents organized protests, using text messaging and even Web-based social networks to circumvent the state-controlled media. A nationwide one-day strike had been planned, but was ultimately stymied by the authorities.

Fearing the spread of rioting, Mubarak dispatched Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to meet with workers at the state-owned weaving factory in Mahallah, which employs 25,000 people, and where the average monthly salary is $34. And to appease the local opposition, Nazif granted it 15 seats in the municipal government.

Six people have died since March waiting on bread lines, either from exhaustion or because frustration led to fighting. A piece of bread costs 5 piasters - about a US penny. Thirty million Egyptians depend on subsidized bread under a scheme that is riddled with corruption. Forty percent of Egyptians live under the $2-a-day poverty line.

As an emergency measure Mubarak ordered the army to start baking bread.

Amr Elshobaki of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies told The Washington Post last week that "The mood of the people is angry. I think it's near collapse, the state."
To address the larger crisis, the regime has halted the export of rice and cement for the next six months and continues to impose price controls on a wide range of commodities. Food is subsidized at a staggering $13.7 billion annually.

Not everyone is suffering. The disparity between rich and poor is immense. Sales of some luxury cars are up 20 percent. The economy has grown 7%. The Cairo and Alexandria stock exchanges are up 40%. Foreign investment has surged to $11 billion. Egypt's international reserves stand at $30 billion; foreign debt is $7.8 billion. Thousands of new companies are established every year. For its part, Washington contributes $1.3 billion in military aid and a paltry $200 million in economic assistance. More constructively, however, annual trade with the US stands at $8 billion.

How well the regime feeds, clothes and employs its population, how swiftly it creates a civil society and system of representative government should be of foremost concern to Israel.

Mubarak is mistaken in emasculating the moderate opposition, misguided in trying to "out-Islam" the Brotherhood by persecuting homosexuals. He is wide off the mark in allowing Egypt's media to demonize Jews and Israel. It took him too long to realize that letting Hamas bleed Israel was ultimately not in Cairo's interest.

But we who have an interest in a stable and flourishing Egypt understand the enormity of the challenges Mubarak faces. May he continue to enjoy good health, and be blessed with better judgment.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Peace Now at 30

This month marks Peace Now's 30th anniversary. On Tuesday evening supporters will gather in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to mark the milestone.

The movement embodies the almost instinctive yearning for peace shared by virtually all Israelis. That's why Peace Now has charmed both Israeli and Diaspora Jews for three decades with its un-jaded enthusiasm for a Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians respect each others' aspirations, hear each others' narratives and live side by side in peace and security.
The movement emerged in March 1978 during Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, when 348 IDF reservists signed an open letter to prime minister Menachem Begin urging a more conciliatory Israeli negotiating posture, denouncing Begin's commitment to Judea, Samaria and Gaza as integral parts of Israel and opposing the settlement enterprise.

Since Anwar Sadat was, in effect, negotiating not just for the return of Sinai but also on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs, albeit against their will, Peace Now demanded that Begin cut a deal - any deal.

The founders of Peace Now were an eclectic bunch - liberal reservists, academics and Tel Aviv bohemians. Their aim was to present a Zionist alternative to Gush Emunim. They always knew what they were against - settlements and the "occupation" - but never managed to articulate a viable alternative.

Peace Now isn't oblivious to the strategic value of the West Bank. Its leaders know you can walk from Samaria to the Mediterranean, across Israel's narrow waistline and population hub, without stopping for a drink of water. Yet the group has an overarching devotion to the notion that "true security" can only be achieved with the arrival of "peace."

To attain peace now - notwithstanding what the Palestinians are saying or doing - has always required the group to almost willfully disregard the unpleasant realities of the Arab-Israel conflict. Its emphasis is exclusively on what Israelis should concede, as if our collective craving for peace alone can supernaturally overcome Palestinian intransigence, incitement, internal upheaval and the culture of violence.

Over the years, many but not all of Peace Now's positions have been mainstreamed. Israel is indeed negotiating with the PLO. Most Israelis are reconciled to a Palestinian state, though only in the context of a deal that guarantees them real security. And most accept - unenthusiastically - that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria would have to be uprooted were the Palestinians prepared for peace. But they are not.

PEACE NOW spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer says vaguely that he supports whatever Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can agree upon. But in practice, Peace Now is demanding something different and specific. While claiming it does not want to push Israel back to the indefensible 1949 Armistice Lines, Peace Now nonetheless opposes any construction over the Green Line. It does not support the retention of major settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel; it considers east Talpiot, Gilo and Pisgat Ze'ev "occupied territory."

Peace Now also stands squarely outside the consensus by favoring "joint sovereignty" over Jerusalem's Old City. And while it opposes the "implementation" of the Palestinian "right of return," it does not necessarily oppose its affirmation.

Moreover, for a group with so much media clout, Peace Now shows an appalling lack of financial transparency and administrative accountability. Israelis are asked to believe that a finely-tuned machine capable of running airborne surveillance over every nook and cranny of the West Bank operates quite informally, by consensus, under the auspices of university students and aging hippies.

Peace Now is actually funded through an educational NGO called Sha'al, which receives "most" of its funds from American Jews, according to Oppenheimer. But he declines to say what his annual budget is, or how much cash comes from foreign governments and foundations who might be interested in co-opting the Peace Now brand.

Peace Now helps remind us that Jewish civilization attaches the highest value to peace. Yet by remaining ideologically stagnant, holding to positions that experience has shown risk rendering Israel indefensible, and keeping its decision-making methods and funding sources mystifying, the organization places itself on the periphery of Israel's body politic.

This is a drill

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the wailing of sirens will be heard throughout Israel - except in the southern communities near Gaza under intermittent Palestinian bombardment.

Israel has begun a week-long civil defense drill. On Sunday the cabinet was briefed by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i, who is commanding the nationwide exercises. Everyone from kindergarten children to senior civil servants will practice the emergency measures to be taken in the event of an actual attack or catastrophic earthquake. These national home front exercises are intended to help authorities evaluate how prepared the country is to face the threat, for instance, of missiles - conventional, biological, chemical or nuclear - smashing into our population centers.

Are rescue services geared up to save casualties from dozens of simultaneously collapsed buildings? Are hospitals capable of treating mega-casualties? Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, along with officials of the Home Front Command, National Emergency Authority and emergency services, will spend the better part of the week simulating potential disaster scenarios.

A drill of this magnitude has never been undertaken. Yet we don't need a drill to realize that the Home Front Command Web site (www.oref.org.il), currently limited to Hebrew and English, should do a better job of communicating with Russian, Arabic and Amharic speakers; and that authorities need to clarify their zigzagging policies regarding gas masks. For our part, we citizens must take these exercises seriously - specifically, locating the closest shelter or secure room when the siren sounds.

While this is only a drill, it comes as tensions are high on the northern front over concern that Hizbullah may attempt a massive terrorist operation, ostensibly in retaliation for the mysterious liquidation in Damascus of its top commander, Imad Mughniyeh. Jerusalem has signaled Bashar Assad's regime that it might hold Syria accountable if Hizbullah strikes. That, in turn, probably led Damascus to leak a story to the London-based Al Quds al-Arabi about Syrian reservists mobilizing "in anticipation" of an Israeli attack. Conflicting reports remain over whether and to what extent the Syrian army is in fact massing troops.

Tensions are further exacerbated by reports of authorities continuing to worry that enemy forces may try to down - or hijack - an Israeli airliner. Extraordinary preventative measures are under way. But has Israel's deterrence so deteriorated that terrorists and/or their state benefactors - Syria and Iran - would even consider such a heinous assault? Are they unmindful of the devastating consequences?

Equally troubling are unconfirmed reports that Russia has now joined Iran in providing personnel for Syrian monitoring stations which also feed data to Hizbullah.

Meanwhile, Israel remains alert (in the north and south) against the threat that its soldiers may be kidnapped, or that Hizbullah may send bomb-laden drones to infiltrate Israeli airspace.
As if the situation were not sufficiently fraught, authorities are surely also trying to make sense of the recording by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released last week. Entitled "Rush to Support Our People in Gaza," Zawahiri urges Islamists to strike at Jewish and American interests everywhere. But Noah Shachtman, national security blogger for Wired.com, has called attention to an intriguing aside in Zawahiri's message, namely, what he says about Iran:
"The dispute between America and Iran is... over areas of influence... the situation will be in the interest of the Mujahideen if the war saps both of them. If, however, one of them emerges victorious, its influence will intensify and fierce battles will begin between it and the Mujahideen..."

Zawahiri thus inadvertently reminds us - at a time when it feels as if we're surrounded on all sides - that Sunni-Shi'ite and Arab-Persian cleavages have not been buried. Islamists may cooperate on the tactical level, but the enemy is neither monolithic nor unified.

As Israelis prepare for a disaster we pray will never come, today's sirens cannot help but underscore the threats that surround the Jewish state. Let them, equally, ring out our readiness to defeat any foe.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Axis of the unloved

A BBC poll released this week found that Iran has edged out Israel as the most unpopular country in the world, 54 percent to 52%, with Pakistan coming in a close third.
Welcome to the Axis of the Unloved.

To the question "Which countries have a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world?" 52% of respondents identified Israel as having a harmful role, while only 19% thought of the Jewish state in positive terms.

Egyptians and Lebanese have become even more entrenched in their animosity toward Israel. That's not surprising given the unrelenting anti-Zionist "reporting" broadcast 24/7 by Arab satellite stations as well as local Egyptian and Hizbullah media outlets.

Ninety-four percent of Egyptians think of Israel in negative terms (up from 85%), while 87% of Lebanese rate Israel negatively (up from 78%). At the same time, 62% of Egyptians think positively of Iran.

Majorities in Spain (64%) and Japan (55%) disapprove of Israel, the BBC found.
In Africa, 45% of Kenyans view Israel's influence as positive, up from 38%, while Ghanaians are divided: 30% positive versus 32% negative.

It's disconcerting that negative views have apparently increased among Americans (39%, up from 33%); though 43% of Americans have a positive attitude compared to 39% who think of Israel in disapproving terms. This seems to mesh with a poll released by The Israel Project, also this week, in Jerusalem which found that 40% of Americans see Israeli policies as extreme. The Israel Project also found that only 7% of Americans put the Arab-Israel conflict at the top of their agenda. Still, Americans support the creation of a Palestinian state, though most don't see it as ending the conflict. Curiously, Iran's negative rating in the US dropped to 55%, from 63% last year.

On the bright side, majorities with negative views of Israel have fallen in France (52%, down from 66%), Germany (64%, down from 77%), Brazil (57%, down from 72%) and Chile (43%, down from 57%).

WHAT ARE we to make of all this? Public opinion is both influenced by, and commands the attention of politicians and the media. Valid public opinion surveys (not to be confused with statistically suspect Internet click polling) do give us insights into what "the people" are thinking.

But let's remember that most folks don't follow current events closely - or intelligently - enough to develop informed opinions. Not a few are influenced by hateful imams, demagogic ministers and malevolent, manipulative televised images. So even when opinion surveys accurately reflect the views of the masses, policymakers need to take into account the profound ignorance and intolerance which sometimes color public opinion.

Take the case of the March 6 terrorist attack on Mercaz Harav. The fact that 84 percent of Palestinians supported it does not make the slaughter of young yeshiva students acceptable. Abroad, surveys have shown that a majority of African-Americans believe the HIV virus is man-made, a US government conspiracy to decimate the black population. And a significant segment of US blacks hold that Washington is responsible for spreading narcotics in the inner cities. Many Muslim Americans actually believe Arabs were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
The point is that while what people think cannot be discounted, it is sometimes immensely misguided and must not automatically be allowed to serve as any kind of guide for Israeli actions. At the same time, effective public diplomacy, bringing basic facts to people's attention, really can change people's views.

Influencing opinion rather than being victims of it should be the focus of Israel's public diplomacy efforts. We need to connect with Generations Y and Z - born since 1980 - who get much of their news unfettered and unvetted from FaceBook, MySpace and other social networking sites. And we must address the crying need for an Israel-based 24/7 satellite news channel.

Public opinion is malleable. But we cannot expect people to embrace Israel's cause if we fail to present it to them in a coherent and accessible way.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A constructive role for the Arab League

Wrapping up its meeting in Damascus on Sunday, the Arab League threatened to "reevaluate" its 2002 peace offer to Israel. The plan is contingent, Secretary-General Amr Moussa warned, on "Israel executing its commitments."

Actually, it is Arab League policy which needs reevaluation. Six years after it was tendered by the Saudi Crown prince, now king, Abdullah, Arab leaders still do not comprehend why Israelis haven't enthusiastically embraced their initiative.

First, some context: The Arab League was founded in 1945, in Cairo. Its primary mission was to obstruct the emergence of a Jewish state anywhere in British-controlled Palestine. In 1946, the Arab League supported the intransigence of Haj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, over more moderate Palestinian Arab voices. It then rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have created two states - one Arab and one Jewish - living side-by-side in peace.

After the 1948 war, rather than reconcile with Israel, the League spearheaded the creation of UNRWA, effectively perpetuating the statelessness of Palestinian refugees. In 1957 it sealed their fate by rejecting appeals that they be resettled in Arab states, just as Jewish refugees from the Arab countries had been resettled in Israel.

It was with the League's imprimatur that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser created the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1963 - four years before the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli control. Then, in March 1979, the League suspended Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel. Cairo was not readmitted until 1989.

AND THEN, in March 2002, after nearly six decades of unremitting hostility, the League apparently changed direction and adopted the Saudi peace initiative.

But even this giant leap falls short. It demands Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines; acceptance of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital; and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

On borders, at least on the Palestinian front, it is common knowledge that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei are, right now, poring over maps, trying to come up with an agreement in principle which would presumably take effect only after the Palestinians stop violence, terrorism and incitement against Israel and both peoples approve of the deal.

Arguably, the biggest obstacle for Israelis in the Saudi plan is that it addresses the plight of Palestinian refugees by invoking General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948. Carried out in practice, it would inundate Israel - Jewish population 5.3 million - with 4.5 million stateless Palestinians. Few Israelis view this as anything but a recipe for the demographic destruction of the world's only Jewish state. And yet the idea that an organization unambiguously created to quash the birth of a Jewish state, and long dedicated to that goal, would ever offer even the theoretical opportunity of "normal relations" - albeit on terms no Israeli government could possibly accept - should not be summarily dismissed. And it hasn't been.

In March 2002, then foreign minister Shimon Peres declared Israel was prepared to discuss the plan; not as a diktat, but as a starting point. So it is really up to the Arab League to modify a fundamentally flawed offer by opening up negotiations with Israel. Let Secretary-General Moussa himself come to Jerusalem - where he would be cordially welcomed - to pursue such discussions.

Instead of reaching out, an Arab League in disarray has continued its hard-line, anti-Israel rhetoric. That's easier than bridging internal gaps between Hamas and Fatah, and over Iraq, Lebanon, and Alawite-led Syria's ever-closer melding with the Persian ayatollahs. Moussa had to make the most of a summit boycotted by the kings of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Salah. Hence his denunciation of invented Israeli "war crimes" in Gaza, and perhaps also PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's incongruent plea for League intervention to save "besieged" Palestinians. Comic relief was provided by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who helpfully pointed out that Arab leaders hate and conspire against each other.

With Damascus now assuming the Arab League presidency, it's hard to see the organization playing a constructive role in ushering in an era of peace and reconciliation. Still, a good place to begin would be for Arab leaders to address Israel's concerns about their March 2002 proposal.

Judaism's golden mean

An ultra-Orthodox couple from Beit Shemesh are under arrest for allegedly assaulting at least some of their 12 children. Sadly, that's not earth-shattering news in a country where child abuse seems to be on the rise. That some of the couple's children may have engaged in incest only adds to the grotesque revelations.

Yet what makes this story truly bizarre is that the 54-year-old wife and mother involved also heads a sect of several dozen women who maintain a Taliban-like dress code requiring them to cover their faces and wear multiple layers of clothing.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, in another ultra-Orthodox household, several people are under police investigation for abusing two toddlers. The youngest remains hospitalized and in a coma. The mother allegedly "corrected" the children's behavior by whipping them. Police insinuate she may be part of a sect which adheres to violent child-rearing practices.

Then there was the shocking bombing in Ariel on Purim, which critically wounded 15-year-old Ami Ortiz, the son of Messianic Christian pastor David Ortiz. A court order prevents detailing the direction of the investigation. What does seem apparent is that the perpetrators were Jewish extremists.

Messianics insist that one can remain a loyal Jew while professing faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah. In fact, this theology is abhorrent to Jews and Judaism. Christians who identify themselves as Jewish have long complained of violent harassment, most recently in Beersheba and Arad. Not a few messianic Jews live among us as "reverse Marranos," frightened to share their true identity for fear of persecution. Plainly, for those who proselytize - a practice insulting in Jewish eyes - such concerns are not misplaced.

Finally, there is the decree of the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, coming in the wake of the March 7 massacre at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, which claimed the lives of eight students, that it is "forbidden" to rent homes to Arabs or employ Arabs anywhere in Israel. Other religious Zionist rabbis have also supported a ban on Arab labor.

THERE MAY not be a pattern here, but all these are manifestations of religious extremism seemingly tolerated by the community in which they took place.

Take the deviant deportment of the "Taliban mother." Anyone who moves around, as this family reportedly did, among the country's various ultra-Orthodox communities, will almost immediately come into contact with their synagogues, rabbis, communal leaders and teachers. In these communities a fair amount of privacy is willingly sacrificed for a life within the all-embracing collective. Peer pressure is the norm.

That being so, why was there no intervention? After all, had the "Taliban family" made it their practice to drive on Shabbat, their car would quite likely have been stoned by those irate at this desecration of the holy day.

There was at least one attempt by a neighbor to sound the alarm via Internet postings, but did more of the family's genuinely pious neighbors, who may have suspected something was not right, report their qualms? And if not, what happened to the principle that all Jews are responsible for one another?

Or take the attack on the Ortiz family. We've heard Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman condemn the bombing. Likewise, Penina Taylor, of Jews for Judaism, says unequivocally that her anti-missionary group denounces the "atrocity" and prays for "the complete healing of this boy and the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator[s] of this heinous crime." Amen to that.

But we'd like to hear leading rabbis in the haredi and national religious community explicitly denounce all anti-missionary violence - not just the Ortiz attack, but also the ongoing harassment in Arad and Beersheba.

Let them say what we all know: that in a sovereign Jewish state such violence is immoral, illegal and contemptible. Further, and more broadly, let our spiritual leaders declare that fanaticism - whether that embodied in the Taliban of Beit Shemesh, or in blanket prohibitions on all Arab labor - goes beyond the bounds of Judaism.

It was not only Aristotle who preached the desirability of the golden mean. Authentic Judaism, too, has always sought a balance between "too much and too little." Clearly, the lesson needs to be taught anew; and it is up to those we turn to for spiritual succor to teach it.

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