Thursday, May 29, 2008

Waiting for Livni?

You know Ehud Olmert's political days are numbered when the only people appearing on radio and television to say a good word about him are the lawyers in his employ.

The political wisdom in Israel is that the premier cannot possibly carry on in the wake of the coverage of the Morris Talansky deposition in Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday. Polls show that 70% of Israelis do not believe Olmert's protestations that not one penny he took from Talansky went into his own pocket.

But even those who believe him or don't know what to believe must surely be scratching their heads wondering what sort of man would ask a political acquaintance to rescue him from the indignity of flying business class when seats were to be had in first class, from the ignominy of a luxury hotel room when a suite was to be had. They will wonder about his apparent sence of entitlement. They will reflect about how different his lifestyle is from theirs.

And even they will loose patience with him.

Yet, having survived the Winnograd Commission report which exposed his government's mis-handling of the Second Lebanon War, and having held on as one perturbing legal investigation after another raised questions about personal and professional probity – let's do not discount the possibility that our tenacious prime minister will try to hang on a while longer.

He says he will only resign if indicted. In the interim, he will want to hold on until July when his lawyers will have the opportunity to cross-examine the magnanimous Mr. Talansky.

His attorneys will remind us that Ehud Olmert has not even been indicted, much less been tried and convicted.
All this is true, but none of it really matters.

There is a strong sense – across the political spectrum -- that Israel needs another prime minister. Not in July. Not if this one is indicted. But as soon as is pratical.

That is why, for the good of the country Ehud Olmert must go.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak finally climbed off the fence. At a brief afternoon news conference in the Knesset, Barak called on Olmert to leave. He cited a number of the difficult security challenges facing Israel: the Palestinian front; the issue of IDF captives in enemy hands; the burgeoning threat from Hizbullah-controlled Lebanon and the menace posed by Iran.

Even without his referencing the more “mundane” domestic agenda, Barak is right that Israel simply cannot afford a part-time prime minister who finds himself diverted by the extraneous issue of keeping himself out of prison.

BARAK CALLED on the governing Kadima Party to choose a replacement from within its ranks as soon as possible. This seems me like a reasonable interim approach.

After all, Israelis do not vote for a prime minister but for a party. In the Knesset elections held two years ago, Kadima's the top slots were held by Olmert, Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni and Meir Sheetrit. With Peres now in the President's House, the likely candidate to replace Olmert is the foreign minister.

Polls show that almost a third of Israelis think she would be a suitable prime minister – which ties her with Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Only 15% of citizens think Barak would make the most suitable leader. Shaul Mofez, Kadima's No. 8 comes in with 16% and Sheetrit currently polls hardly any support at all.

Now it is indeed up to Kadima to move promptly in selecting a new leader. My doubts about whether she has the fire in the belly necessary for the job notwithstanding, the party would be reflecting popular sentiment if it selects Tzipi Livni. Of all of the likely contenders for the leadership she has two qualities sorely needed: popularity and a clean police record.

Were lineage a determinative factor, it does not hurt that the her father, Eitan Livni, was a leader of the Jabotinsky movement. Yesterday, at memorial for Irgun commander David Raziel she referened the Olmert scandals by remarking that "The state has a vision and values which obligate its citizens and also its leaders."

At least on paper, Livni is the kind of pragmatic centrist many Israelis would like to see at the helm.

Israelis have become used to leaders who do a lot of swaggering, brim with self-confidence, allude to their military accomplishments and display no small amount of arrogance. Livni would make for a different kind of premier altogether.

She has a Hamlet-like indecisiveness that is troubling.

It is anyway premature to talk about what Livni should do or about how soon she should commit to holding new elections if she takes over. But one thing is clear, the sooner Ehud Olmert leaves the stage and someone of Livni's caliber takes charge the better.

Runaway rabbis

This month brought two more reasons - if any were needed - to bolster the case for disbanding Israel's established "church" and its ultra-Orthodox curia.

The first was the ruling by a panel of High Rabbinical Court judges upholding an earlier decision by the Ashdod rabbinical court that retroactively annulled a 15-year-old conversion to Judaism by Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Conversion Authority.

The ramifications of this hard-hearted decision are immense. Not only has the Jewish legal status of the woman involved (and her four children) been annulled, the genuineness of thousands of other conversions under Druckman's authority has been willfully cast into doubt. The ruling could also raise doubts about conversions conducted abroad by non-haredi Orthodox rabbis.

The reason for these rulings is straightforward: Orthodoxy of all stripes demands that Jews-by-choice accept the "yoke of the Torah" - meaning an Orthodox lifestyle. The woman in question purportedly failed that test and, for the haredi rabbinate there are no mitigating circumstances.

Reason number two was the suspiciously coincidental decision by the Prime Minister's Office to dismiss Druckman from his post because of his age - 75 - and administrative "shortcomings." It may be that the busy rabbi (who until 2003 was also an MK) is not God's gift to office management, but the timing of his dismissal - coming in the wake of a blistering personal and theological attack by the rabbinate's Rabbi Avraham Sherman - reinforces the perception that Ehud Olmert, like his predecessors, is politically incapable of reining in a runaway rabbinate.

DRUCKMAN is a leader of Orthodoxy's national religious camp. But unlike the non-Zionist, haredi-dominated rabbinate, his community feels obligated to bring as many Israelis as possible into the Jewish fold. Its conversion candidates tend to be people who have demonstrated a filial relationship to the Jewish people and do indeed commit themselves to a religious way of life.

The government established the Conversion Authority in 1995 as an Orthodox "work-around" in face of the rabbinate's deliberate sluggishness in processing conversion applications. But no temporary fix is feasible. The rabbinate cannot be circumvented because its ultra-Orthodox rabbis register most marriages, oversee most divorces and can block most conversions at will.

It is hard to think of any redeeming qualities of this anachronistic establishment that would make retaining it worthwhile. Neither Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar nor Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger provides much spiritual succor to the Israelis who pay their salaries. And because one of the paradoxes of Orthodox life is that one can never be "religious enough," these chiefs do not even have the allegiance of the rabbis who nominally report to them. The municipal clerics of Ashdod, Petah Tikva and Rehovot, for instance, do not recognize the legitimacy of non-haredi conversions approved by Amar and Metzger.

This is an institution that cannot be reformed. It must go.

THERE IS nothing intrinsically wrong with rabbis disagreeing among themselves. On the contrary, rabbinic Judaism evolved on the basis of argument and disputation, with the most convincing view usually emerging victorious.

Doctrinal evolution has always been an essential element of Jewish civilization. Today's rabbinate, however, brooks no dissent. With Orthodoxy generally growing ever more "ultra" - not just in Israel, but also in Britain, Europe and the US - the prospect of permanently entrusting key life-cycle events, let alone the very definition of Judaism, to these marginal, yet dominant holy men becomes ever more alarming.

To be fair, the desire of the ultra-Orthodox (along with their national religious competition) to define and direct the course of Judaism isn't exclusively fueled by money and patronage - although it's about that, too. The Orthodox stream, which comprises a minority of Jews worldwide and perhaps 19 percent of Israelis, is convinced that the future of "authentic Judaism" is in its hands. So even if the rabbinate were in the hands of Orthodox modernizers, the institution would still see itself as God's oracle imposing its definition of Divine will upon the rest of us.

Orthodox Judaism has many qualities to recommend it, but the 60-year-old experiment in which the state entrusted its functionaries with control over our personal and spiritual lives has failed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Truce & consequences

In the topsy-turvy world of the Middle East, Israel's apparent failure to reach a six-month truce with Hamas via Egyptian intermediaries may prove a blessing, while the Qatar-brokered deal resolving an 18-month political stalemate in Lebanon may turn out to be a curse.

Early Thursday morning, hours after the Hamas delegation returned from Egypt saying that the latest round of talks had failed, Islamic Jihad received the green light to detonate a truck laden with four tons of explosives at the Erez Crossing. The attackers simultaneously unleashed a mortar barrage and automatic rifle fire to cover an incursion aimed at capturing or killing Israelis.

Fortunately, the attack failed, though the blast from the exploding truck shattered windows a mile away. For the Islamists, this constituted a "successful martyrdom operation," and the 23-year-old bomber is presumed to be in heaven with his 70 virgins. We suggest he has been received elsewhere.

Paradoxically, this latest attack underscores Hamas's desperation for a truce. Though a more rational approach would be to stop attacking Israel, Hamas knows that intransigence has its rewards and it is looking - not at all irrationally - to Europe for deliverance.

Israel has no claims on Gaza and would be delighted if the Palestinians turned their energies to transforming the Strip into a Singapore on the Mediterranean. After all we uprooted our settlements and pulled the IDF out in August 2005.

The Palestinians replied, in January 2006, by giving Hamas control of their parliament. Six months later, terrorists crossed into Israel, killed two IDF soldiers and took Cpl. Gilad Schalit prisoner.

RATIONAL Palestinian leaders would have asked themselves whether the misery they have brought upon their people by this aggression has been worthwhile.

Since capturing Schalit, Gaza has suffered well over 1,000 dead. (Many of these were gunmen; but, regrettably, not a small number were civilians caught in the crossfire.) Most Hamas "parliamentarians" in the West Bank are now imprisoned in Israel. Gaza's economy is in tatters. More than 80% of Palestinians rely on humanitarian assistance, three quarters depending on UN food aid. The number of households earning less than $1.20 per person, per day is now 70%. Taxi drivers are using cooking oil to fuel their engines, ruining their cars and polluting the air; the sewage system is near collapse. Power shortages occur daily.

And still the regime siphons off food and fuel for itself while attacking the crossing points where humanitarian aid is transferred from Israel into Gaza. On Thursday afternoon thousands of Palestinian rioters were dispatched to the Karni crossing to confront IDF forces.

The Islamists' response to Israeli and international sanctions has been to accelerate the violence and demand the release of huge numbers of hardened terrorists.

EU OFFICIALS have been saying that isolating Hamas isn't working. It's an analysis that's symptomatic of a disturbing European mindset: Set a goal, and if your opponent doesn't meet it, move the goal-posts. That's why we see France, which assumes the EU presidency in July, flirting with Hamas. It's like Groucho Marx, who steadfastly declared: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

It's a fact that anything the EU does to prolong Hamas rule, no matter how well-intentioned, will only intensify Palestinian suffering. Israel may well have to do some heavy lifting soon to bring Hamastan down.

And if the world wants to see what happens to a polity when Islamists reign supreme, let it cast an eye at poor Lebanon, where a truce has been "successfully" negotiated - along terms dictated by Hizbullah and its Iranian patrons.

What an extraordinary message of appeasement the Sunni-dominated Arab League has sent to the Shi'ites of Lebanon and their Persian backers. Control over the airport? A private communications network? A submissive cabinet? An independent army? A change in the election law to solidify future Islamist hegemony? Whatever Hizbullah wanted, it got.
Yet who can blame the League for lacking the resolve to stand up to Hizbullah when America and the EU have signed on to this ignominious arrangement?

Psychologists tell us the tendency to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid emotional suffering contributes to a person's neurosis. In international affairs, the tendency to avoid painful confrontation often leads to appeasement. In both instances, the underlying pathology comes back to haunt you.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Peace and Golan

It's official.

Shortly after noon yesterday, the Prime Minister's Office announced that "Syria and Israel have started indirect talks under the auspices of Turkey" in search of a "comprehensive peace" based upon "the Madrid Conference terms."

That reference point is significant because it was at Madrid, in 1991, that Israel accepted the principle of a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Though reports that Turkey has been serving as an intermediary in secret talks between Syria and Israel have been circulating for months, Wednesday's official announcement stuns nevertheless. For it comes as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for political survival in the face of mounting investigations into alleged wrongdoing.

Yet the news that top Olmert aides Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbovitz were in Istanbul as Turkish officials shuttled between them and Syrian negotiators raises hope that Syria may join Egypt and Jordan in making peace.

It also evokes cynicism. A common reaction by politicians and citizens alike - across the political spectrum - has been the Hebrew saying which translates as: "The depth of the retreat parallels the extent of the investigation."

But let's for the moment put aside the question of the premier's possible ulterior motives. And let's, for argument's sake, forget that Olmert's popularity is at a nadir, that his governing coalition is crumbling, and that on Friday the police will again be visiting his home with more questions about money-stuffed envelopes from a man named Morris Talansky.

WHAT INTERESTS Israelis most is whether this momentum toward a deal is in the country's interest. We are troubled by reports of a Syrian announcement that Israel has already agreed to withdraw from the Heights even in the absence of direct negotiations between the sides.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we may be witnessing an extraordinary Bush administration about-face. Until recently, Washington had been signaling Jerusalem not to engage with Damascus because of Syria's treacherous roles in Iraq and Lebanon and its bond with Iran.
Then all of a sudden, according to a report Saturday in the London-based Arabic Al-Hayat daily, the US supposedly asked Turkey to increase its efforts to advance negotiations between Israel and Syria.

YET ALL this is also besides the point. For what matters most now is what Syria is offering to make a withdrawal worth Israel's while. The extent of any withdrawal must parallel the depth of the peace offered. Who wants a cold peace with a Syria which has practically melded its foreign and military policies with Iran?

For Israelis to take its overtures seriously, Damascus would have to disconnect itself totally from the Iranian mullahs. Rather than helping arm Hizbullah, Syria would have to isolate it. And not only would Syria's policy of assassinating freedom-loving Lebanese leaders have to end, Damascus would need to recognize Lebanese sovereignty and open an embassy in Beirut. Israel cannot reasonably make peace with Syria while Lebanon smolders.

A deal with Syria could also potentially bolsterrelative moderates among the Palestinians; but not if Syria continues to host the Hamas leadership in Damascus. From state-sponsor of terror, it would have to transform itself into strategic opponent of terror.

Nor can Israel afford a deal perceived as being with Bashar Assad's Alawite clique alone. For the complete normalization of relations integral to any treaty, we need signs that Syria is developing its civil society and political institutions, and that the Sunni majority is being socialized toward tolerance and peace by the formidable state-controlled media.

A peace treaty with Syria is in Israel's strategic interest - but not at any price. Jerusalem is being called upon to make irrevocable concessions in return for the promise of Syrian goodwill. The finer points of an accord, notably about access to Israel's main natural water resource, the Kinneret, will be critical. The Golan, a vital geostrategic area which offers control of northern Israel, would have to be demilitarized and somehow trustworthy monitors put in place - but why not also envision a normalization that allows Jews to continue living there?

When Bashar took over from his father, Hafez, in 2000, the London-educated, British-accented physician was portrayed as the leader who would transform an autocracy into a forward-looking polity. But the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Assad the son has actually blocked access to the Web. There is only one government controlled Internet provider in Syria. Even Iran has more freedom of access.

Still, if Bashar now seeks that path, and truly seeks to lead his country, and by extension the Arab world, to full normalization with Israel, Israelis would urge him, as a vital step toward persuading us that we have entered an era of reconciliation, to come to the Knesset and tell us about it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Urban Legend - Jews criticizing Israel

'Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions," so the saying goes. And the idea that American Jews could ever speak with one voice on Israel? That could not have originated within the community itself.

The single-voice notion came from a non-Jew. The story that follows is partly apocryphal, but it does inform. Accounts differ, but either secretary of state John Foster Dulles or State Department official Henry Byroade is said to have complained that too many requests from disparate Jewish groups seeking audiences with president Dwight Eisenhower were arriving at the White House.

Byroade (if it was he) suggested to Nahum Goldmann that it might be useful if the various intercessors combined into a single deputation. Goldmann raised the idea with Philip Klutznick. Soon afterwards, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was born.

Some suggest the crafty Dulles (if it was he) may have had an ulterior motive, knowing that the Jews could never develop a consensus position to present to the administration. That would put an end to their pestering.

Sure enough, a broiges broke out. Taking charge of the World Jewish Congress, Goldmann set out to lead a new, thriving Diaspora which would decide for itself what being pro-Israel was all about.

A further rupture is traceable to the premiership of Golda Meir, who was openly condescending toward Diaspora machers coming to her with peace-making advice.

IT IS TRUE that the nature and stridency of Diaspora criticism of Zionist policies evolved. After the Holocaust no mainstream Jewish leader remained anti-Zionist. And after the 1967 Six Day war every one of them had become explicitly pro-Zionist. Yet the impulse to criticize this or that Israeli policy remained a constant. There are few former chairs of the Presidents Conference who have refrained from publicly criticizing Israeli policies.

Then there are the dissident groups. Breira was founded in 1973 to support the unconditional inclusion of an unreformed PLO into the diplomatic process. Breira's legacy, given its brief existence and minuscule membership, was extraordinary in that it "broke" afresh the imaginary barrier against public criticism of Israel. Breira's successor organization was the New Jewish Agenda, which operated during the premiership of Menachem Begin, when Jewish criticism of Israeli policies was vociferous.

The founding of Peace Now, the zealously anti-settlement movement, led its US Jewish supporters to begin their own lobbying, starting in 1978.

Some US Jews, still more to the Left, went further. It was a Jewish academic who drafted the November 1988 declaration of independence for the "State of Palestine" which Yasser Arafat in Tunis dutifully proclaimed.

And rightist Diaspora groups, rabbis notably among them, have since 1993 been prominently critical of Israeli government efforts to reach land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians.

So the notion that US Jews have ever been hesitant to break with Israeli policies is simply uninformed by history.

AND STILL, The Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg, writing on the op-ed pages of The New York Times Sunday ("Israel's 'American Problem'"), thinks he's breaking new ground when he advocates that US Jews vote for a president who will "help" and "prod" Israel "publicly, continuously and vociferously" to facilitate a Palestinian state.

As Goldberg sees it, Israel now, belatedly, wants peace, but is being blocked by a monolithic and supposedly right-wing Presidents Conference and its fellow travelers at AIPAC. He's worried that too many US Jews "conflate" support for the settlement enterprise - what he calls "the colonization" of the West Bank - with being pro-Israel.

He needn't worry. Most US Jews have never visited Israel, let alone a "settlement." Many are clueless about the strategic value of the West Bank and couldn't distinguish between an "ideological" settlement in the heart of Samaria and Har Homa in Jerusalem. All this makes Goldberg's calls for a "radical rethinking of what it means to be pro-Israel" both anachronistic and disingenuous.

Goldberg might glance across the page at veteran New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who's been redefining what it means to be pro-Israel for decades. Friedman, too, argues that a "pro-Israel" president is one who draws "red lines when Israel does reckless things" like building settlements.

So let's restate the obvious: No gatekeeper stifles criticism of Israeli policies among US Jews. There are no risks, not on the Left or on the Right, in proffering advice to Israel from the Diaspora.

All one needs is lots of hubris.

Oil and the Saudis

On Friday, President George W. Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia from Israel to meet with King Abdullah and commemorate the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Washington and Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia is probably the only country in the world named after the family that controls it. Abdul Aziz ibn Saud headed the puritanical Wahhabi movement, which founded the country in 1932. Oil was discovered in 1936. Commercial production began two years later.
The Saudis have come a long way from the days, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when they orchestrated the 1973 Arab oil embargo; and 1979, when they opposed Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

Some of the changes are traceable to the regime's battle with homegrown fanatics, for instance, the November 1979 assault by dissident Wahhabis on Mecca's Great Mosque. Riyadh-born Osama bin Laden openly broke with the king in August 1995 - not over "Palestine," as he claimed in a Web posting Friday, but because of the royal family's profligacy, perceived religious hypocrisy and what he saw as the galling presence of "filthy Crusaders" - aka US troops - on Arabian holy land.

Since 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, the Saudis have also faced an ever-growing threat from Iran. From their perch across the Gulf, the Persian Shi'ites view the Sunni Arab custodians of Mecca with theological and political disdain.

The historic March 2007 visit to Riyadh by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad notwithstanding, tensions between the two countries have hardly abated. Last week Prince Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, accused Iran of staging a coup in Lebanon which would affect Teheran's relations with the Arab and Islamic world. And next month, former Iranian president Ali Rafsanjani, an Ahmadinejad critic, is expected to visit the kingdom.

WE DO not know what Bush and Abdullah talked about during their time at the king's horse farm outside Riyadh, but we can guess it was mostly oil and Iran.

The White House announced a series of agreements on energy, civilian nuclear cooperation, nonproliferation and the fight against global terrorism. Not much was said about Bush's plans to push through Congress a $1.4 billion arms sale to the kingdom.

The Saudis, the world's biggest oil exporter, agreed to sell an additional 300,000 barrels per day, raising their daily output to 9.45 million barrels; Bush responded that the Saudi move wouldn't solve the problem of skyrocketing oil prices.

He was right in saying that America's energy problem would be ameliorated only when domestic exploration increased and refining capacity expanded; when alternative energy sources were better developed, when conservation was robustly pursued and safe nuclear energy promoted.
Meanwhile, oil stands at $128 a barrel. US consumers are paying $4 a gallon. Of course, we Israelis pay substantially more - roughly $7 a gallon (or about NIS 6.58 a liter).

While energy costs are not solely to blame, oil prices have been slowing consumption and putting a drag on the world's economy. America is in a recession, unemployment is up. In Israel, the April cost-of-living index jumped 1.5%, the highest in six years. Annual inflation stands at 5%.

GONE ARE the days when the Saudis could singlehandedly bring down oil prices and solve such problems. Nor can we expect them to contain Iran by themselves. Still, they could be far more helpful on Lebanon, Hamas and Arab-Israel relations.

Israel's have applauded Saudi efforts to tear down the edifice of religious justification for Muslim terrorism. And the king is to be applauded for recently launching an interfaith dialogue among monotheistic religions. But what good are such efforts if representatives from Israel are not invited to participate.

With Lebanon's rivals meeting in Qatar, I'd like to see the Saudis leveraging their clout within the Arab League, against Hizbullah. And with Hamas again seeking a rapprochement with Fatah, the Saudis should insist the League embrace the Quartet's conditions for including Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.

Of course, the Saudis still need to overhaul their own fundamentally flawed 2002 peace plan to make it a genuine starting point for improving Arab-Israel relations.

Given the regime's origins, it is ironic that the inheritors of Wahhabism are today uniquely positioned to help bridge the civilizational gap between Islam and the West.

Failing to do so will ultimately cost them, and us all, dear.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Is it about borders?

Border: A part that forms the outer edge of something... The line or frontier area separating political divisions.

The Bush administration would like Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a border so that everything else - Jerusalem, settlements, the "occupation," refugees, whatever - can then fall into place. This presupposes that the Palestinians see their conflict with Israel as primarily a border dispute.

Would it were so.

A 1921 British Mandate map showed Palestine's borders already divided between a Jewish homeland west of the Jordan (today Israel, the West Bank and Gaza), and an area to the east closed to Jewish settlement (today Jordan).

The Arab response to that map was: This isn't about borders.

In 1937 the Peel Commission offered another set of borders. Transjordan would, of course, remain in Arab hands, and virtually all of what was left west of the Jordan would also be Arab. The Jews would be given land from Tel Aviv running northward along the coastal plain and parts of Galilee. The Arabs said: It's not about borders.

A third map, proposed by the UN in 1947 as General Assembly Resolution 181 - the Partition Plan - divided Palestine west of the Jordan River (the eastern bank now being Transjordan): The Jews were to be given an indefensible, checkerboard territory, the biggest chunk of which consisted of the then arid Negev. Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish longing since 70 CE, would be internationalized; a tiny corridor would connect Israel's truncated parts. To get to Galilee, Jews would have to traverse Arab Palestine.

The Jews took the deal. The Arabs said: It's not about borders.

On May 15, 1948 - 60 years ago today - the Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, Syrian and Lebanese armies, along with Palestinian irregulars, sought to throttle the birth of Israel. Their failure to do so created the 1949 Armistice Lines. The West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem were all in Arab hands. There was no "occupation."

The Jews said: Now, can we live in peace? The Arabs said: It's not about borders.

TODAY, 41 years ago, Egyptian troops moved into the Sinai as Gamal Abdel Nasser declared "total war." The Syrians, for their part, promised "annihilation." Even King Hussein figured the time was ripe to strike. But, instead of destroying Israel, the Arabs lost more territory. The heartland of Jewish civilization, Judea and Samaria, was now in Israel's hands, as was Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
Even so, the Jews said: Let's trade land for peace.
In August 1967, Arab leaders assembled in Khartoum gave their reply: No peace. No negotiations. No recognition.

Ten years later, with the election of Menachem Begin, the courageous Anwar Sadat came to the Knesset with a message: "We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security." Egypt and Israel then agreed on a border and signed a peace treaty.
The Arabs ostracized Cairo and Sadat was assassinated. The peace never really blossomed, but the border holds.

THEN IN 1993, Yitzhak Rabin took an astonishing strategic risk, turning over parts of the West Bank to a newly-created Palestinian Authority. Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Jericho, Tulkarm and Kalkilya all came under full Palestinian jurisdiction. Other territory was placed under the PA's civil control, and the PA took charge of Gaza's Arab population centers.
The sight of green PA license plates became commonplace throughout Israel. Checkpoints were minimized. The international community poured money into the Palestinian areas.

At last, the Palestinians had the parameters of a state-in-waiting - a political horizon. The parties still had tough issues to tackle, but the reality on the ground had dramatically improved.

In 2000, Ehud Barak offered at Camp David his vision of a viable Palestinian state. Yasser Arafat's "counter-offer" was the Aksa intifada, an orgy of suicide bombings nationwide and drive-by shootings in the West Bank that would claim over 1,000 Israeli lives. Clearly for Arafat, the issue wasn't borders.

For Israelis to now take the idea of a "shelf-agreement" about borders seriously, the Palestinians would have to declare - once and for all - that their dispute with us really is about borders. And that they accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
If they do that, the rest will fall into place.

Bush & the Palestinians

Yesterday, President Bush gave a gracious interview in the Oval Office to The Jerusalem Post and three other Israeli journalists. Today, the president embarks on a hectic farewell trip to the Middle East that will bring him to Israel tomorrow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of this nation's founding.

On Friday the president will head to Saudi Arabia to mark the 75th anniversary of the establishment of ties between Washington and Riyadh. And on Saturday, he will travel to Sharm e-Sheikh to meet Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, and Jordan's King Abdullah II. He is also scheduled to see the Afghan president, Iraqi leaders and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Finally, Bush will participate in a World Economic Forum gathering before heading home.

Presidents come and go - figuratively as well as literally - but America's stance toward the Arab-Israel conflict remains remarkably consistent. Support for Israel is balanced against Washington's energy and strategic interests in the Arab world, tending to leave neither Israelis nor Arabs completely satisfied.

When Israel not only survived but captured vast amounts of territory in the 1967 Six Day War, America saw an opportunity to pursue a policy of "land for peace." Arguably, few Arab leaders can bring themselves to accept the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the region. Nevertheless, land for peace has remained the unwavering American policy approach. The personalities, daily headlines and controversies change, but not America's fundamental direction. It is in this context that the pattern of Bush's decisions must be understood.

Recall that Yasser Arafat launched the Aksa intifada just months after Bush took office, even though Ehud Barak had offered him both land and statehood. Bush gave up on Arafat, refusing to ever meet with him, but stuck with the land-for-peace idea.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks on the US, Bush sought to garner support among Arab and Muslim pragmatists. Thus on June 24, 2002, he articulated his "vision" of a Palestinian state predicated on Palestinians electing reformist leaders. Bush sidelined Arafat and championed the more pragmatic, if ineffectual, Mahmoud Abbas.

Though the violence continued, in March 2003 Bush unveiled "a performance-based and goal-driven road map," to Palestinian statehood, calling for an immediate, unconditional cessation of Palestinian violence. But it also said, "As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end." As Palestinian attacks went on to kill more than 1,000, Israel had little incentive to freeze Jewish life in Judea and Samaria. Still, repeated and unfulfilled promises to dismantle non-authorized settlement outposts continue to undermine Jerusalem's credibility.

Convinced that Abbas would not take risks for peace, Ariel Sharon proposed unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank. Bush chose to interpret this as being in harmony with the road map. And on April 15, 2004, he wrote Sharon to say that in light of new realities it would be unrealistic for final-status negotiations to result in a withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines.

Israel pulled out from Gaza in August 2005, giving the PA the perfect opportunity to create a nascent state. It was tragically squandered.

Hamas's victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections held in January 2006 exacerbated an already volatile environment, and in June 2007 Abbas was ousted from Gaza. Today he hangs on in the West Bank due in no small measure to the IDF's presence.

No one can blame President Bush for not having ended the Arab-Israel conflict. And yet there are steps he could take to leave our region better off than when he took office.

He could unambiguously tell the relative moderates among the Palestinians that their demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines is unrealistic; that their claims to a "right of return," which would spell the demographic destruction of Israel, should be abandoned; and he could press Abbas to use his Western-trained and -equipped forces to tackle the terrorist infrastructure right under his nose.

Finally, Bush could point out that no progress will be made until Abbas prepares his people for genuine reconciliation with Israel.

Bush in context

Of all the US presidents over the past 60 years, it is hard to think of a better friend to Israel than George W. Bush. No president has been more committed to steering the Middle East toward the values of liberty and tolerance which Americans naturally cherish, and presuppose to be universal.

Bush combines a personal affinity toward Israel with policies that are generally responsive to its concerns. His performance as president is best understood in historical context.
Harry S Truman courageously recognized Israel against State Department advice, but was personally prejudiced against Jews. Dwight Eisenhower rolled back Israel's 1956 Sinai Campaign victory and unintentionally solidified Nasser's hold on Egypt. John F. Kennedy pushed hard to keep Israel from developing an atom bomb.

Only Lyndon Johnson rises above his predecessors for opposing unilateral Israeli withdrawal after the 1967 Six Day War and establishing the "land for peace" principle which specified that the extent of Israeli concessions would have to be directly negotiated.

Richard Nixon was both personally prejudiced against Jews and the force behind the Rogers Plan that called for Israel's unilateral withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines. His Machiavellian secretary of state has been accused of delaying arms shipments during the Yom Kippur War. And it was also under Nixon that secret contacts between the US and an unreformed PLO began.

When Israel balked at making strategic concessions in Sinai, Gerald Ford ordered a "total reassessment" of US policy toward Israel. Jimmy Carter's unsympathetic attitude to Israel is now widely understood, notwithstanding his having facilitated the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
Like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan sold advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia. He also stymied Israeli battlefield achievements in the 1982 Lebanon War. George H.W. Bush sought to make US loan guarantees for the absorption of Soviet Jews contingent on Israeli concessions at the negotiating table.

And a well-intentioned Bill Clinton helped broker the 1993 Oslo Accord, which inadvertently set the stage for the second intifada.

BUSH ARRIVES here today with a little over seven months left in his presidency. Though his policies in Iraq were paved with good intentions and Israelis are grateful that Saddam Hussein is dead and buried, we are left with the lingering sense, albeit informed by hindsight, that the Iraqi campaign was a strategic blunder of historic proportions. Meanwhile, the al-Qaida leaders who masterminded 9/11 remain free, and parts of Afghanistan are in turmoil. The "real and present danger" facing Western civilization, Iran, is unchecked.

It turns out that Saddam was not the greatest enemy of civilization; he did not have weapons of mass destruction and was not directly tied to 9/11. Yet, so far, America has lost over 4,000 troops; suffered tens of thousands of wounded and spent billions of dollars in treasure in an Iraq which shows little sign of coalescing. Consequently, it is today doubtful whether the American people have the political will (or the US military the wherewithal) to confront the Iranian menace.

STILL, WHILE Bush may have been wrong on Iraq, he is dead right about Iran - though an ungrateful, sometimes spiteful world appears in denial. Iran is blatantly pursuing destabilizing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them beyond the Middle East, even as key international players stoke its economy.

Teheran exploits America's dilemma in Iraq by encouraging chaos in a manner beyond the ability of most Westerners to fathom. On the Palestinian front, the mullahs are championing Hamas with financing, weapons and training. Mahmoud Abbas can strike no workable deal with the Islamists looking over his shoulder. Hizbullah-occupied Lebanon is looking increasingly like an Iranian satellite.

The president told The Jerusalem Post yesterday that before leaving office he wants a structure in place for dealing with Iran. Washington already has a strong security commitment to Jerusalem. Now we would urge the president to work for an upgrade in Israel's relationship with NATO. Europe must understand that Iran is pivotal; that there will be no stability, no progress - not in Iraq, not in Lebanon and not on the Palestinian front - until Teheran's advances are first contained, and eventually rolled back.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Shmuel Katz, Zionist hero, dies at 93

Shmuel Katz, one of the last remaining links to the Zionist Revisionist icon, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and himself a towering figure and a mighty pen of the Zionist Right, died in the early hours of Friday morning, soon after Yom Ha'atzmaut, at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital. He was 93.


Well over a hundred people attended the funeral Sunday afternoon at the Hayarkon Cemetery in Petah Tikva.


Among the mourners were Likud Party chair and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, former defense minister Moshe Arens, former MK Uzi Landau, former Knesset Speaker, MK Ruby Rivlin, Jabotinsky Institute director Yossi Achimeir and MK Gideon Sa`ar.


Katz was born in South Africa in 1914 and first came to Israel in 1936, joining the Irgun.
Jabotinsky sent him to London in 1939 to represent the Revisionist Zionist position. He soon found himself virtually stranded after Jabotinsky died suddenly in upstate New York in 1940. Katz subsequently made a living as a journalist working for a number of London newspapers while also founding a Zionist Revisionist weekly.


In 1946 he managed to return to Palestine and joined the Irgun High Command. He was the movement's de facto foreign minister and its last Jerusalem-area commander prior to statehood.


Katz was elected to the First Knesset on the Herut list. He is believed to have been the last surviving member of that First Knesset. A Knesset honor guard placed a wreathe on his grave.
Highly principled and often uncompromising, he quit politics and established a publishing house.
After the Six Day War he became a leader of the Land of Israel movement.

When the Likud Party won the 1977 elections and broke Labor's stranglehold on Israeli politics, Menachem Begin asked Katz to serve as his adviser on information, tasked with explaining the new government's position to a hostile media and an unfriendly Carter administration.


But Katz soon came to feel that Begin was too accommodating in the face of US pressure and in January 1978 left the premier over his peace negotiations with Egypt.


Katz opposed the notion of land for peace, championing the formula of peace for peace.
A prolific writer, essayist and historian, Katz had a regular column in The Jerusalem Post for many years and continued to publish occasional op-eds until very recently. Among his most important books are Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky; Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine; and The Aaronsohn Saga about the Nili spy ring, whose English edition was published late last year by Gefen.


Though a fierce ideologue, Katz was soft spoken, with a twinkle in his eye and a winning self-deprecating humor. As recently as several weeks ago, he was planning a new series of short op-eds for the Post in opposition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's policies.


Katz is survived by his son Yuval who recited the kaddish memorial prayer and nephew Dr. Leonard Bliden who delivered a moving eulogy.

May his memory be for a blessing.

The Olmert scandal

Hizbullah and its allies have just pulled off what may well turn out to be a coup d'état in Lebanon. Large swathes of Beirut have fallen to the forces of Hassan Nasrallah and his Amal allies. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.
If Hizbullah's triumph is left unchecked by the mostly Sunni Arab world, non-Arab Iran will have moved a step closer toward regional hegemony.

There aren't too many dull news days in the Middle East. On Thursday, Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad let loose another hateful tirade, calling Israel a "stinking corpse" doomed to disappear. Latest intelligence assessments suggest Teheran could have nuclear weapons (and hard-to-overcome cruise missiles to deliver them) even sooner then originally feared.

Meantime, US President George W. Bush is scheduled to be here on Wednesday and Thursday to help Israel celebrate 60 years of independence, and also to push hard for a "shelf-agreement" between Jerusalem and an enfeebled Palestinian Authority. The next day, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is set to arrive to press the Olmert government to accept Hamas's offer for a Gaza cease-fire. Meanwhile, even as he facilitates the dismemberment of Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Assad may be growing impatient over the Golan Heights.

CLEARLY, THIS is not a good time for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to be focused on anything but running the country, addressing a vital range of security, foreign policy and (let's not forget) domestic agenda issues. There is also the matter of his cancer that must be attended to.

But realistically speaking, how can he be paying complete attention to his job and his health while under multiple investigations by police and prosecutors? With a gag order over many key aspects of the latest inquiry now lifted, we know that the prime minister is suspected of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bribes over a period of years from Morris Talansky of New York.

At this point, police say they neither know the source nor the purpose of the money Talansky is said to have handed over.

Police will be interviewing the prime minister again this week in an investigation that is now expected to take, not days or weeks, but months to complete. The premier will no doubt worry whether his long-standing associate and former law partner, Uri Messer, is testifying against him. Olmert will be focused on whether what Talansky is telling the police is really as incriminating as media leaks suggest. He will certainly be anxious about how much longer his former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, can remain loyal in the face of repeated police interrogations.

Olmert insists he did nothing wrong and that when all the facts are known he will be vindicated. Late Thursday night he declared: "I am looking into the eyes of each and every one of you... I have never taken a bribe, I have never taken an agora into my own pocket. [But] if the attorney-general decides to indict me, I shall resign."

He insists that any money Talansky gave him went into his political campaigns or to other bona fide purposes. Plainly, in the back of everyone's mind is the dismal track record that police and prosecutors have established in the handling of previous investigations involving former president Moshe Katsav and ex-premiers Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.

GIVEN THE composition of his governing coalition and absent an indictment, Olmert may be able to hang on as prime minister even as the investigation continues. And it must be stressed that he is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise.

Nonetheless, the prime minister must be afforded the expedited opportunity to refute the latest charges, must utilize that opportunity, and must urge Uri Messer, Shula Zaken and anyone else involved to testify forthrightly as well. Saying that he will resign if indicted is simply not good enough because the insistent agenda of this country cannot be put on hold while Olmert and his key advisers are distracted.

Israel's governance is simply too challenging a burden for a leader preoccupied with facing down investigators in a complex financial scandal. If the prime minister cannot put this latest scandal to rest without delay, he must hand over the reins of power. The welfare of the country demands it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The next 60 years

Israel is in a somber mood as we mark Remembrance Day for the nation's 22,437 fallen fighters. Also in our thoughts are the 1,634 men, women and children murdered by terrorists - most of them, paradoxically, since the 1993 Oslo Accord.

Last night we stood in homage, and we stand again this morning, as the wail of the siren sent out its piercing cry. For 24 hours Israel will be riveted by the narratives broadcast on television and radio about the lives cut short by war. Then, as darkness falls Wednesday night, Yom Ha'atzma'ut celebrations will commence.

The sudden emotional switch doesn't come easy, yet it reinforces the truth that freedom comes at a price.

This Independence Day finds some of us in a funk. The prime minister is under intense police scrutiny. Faith in the basic decency of the men and women who lead the nation has waned. The political system has been irresponsibly undermined by elected officials, judges, holy men and the media. Some in the national-religious community still feel alienated by the trauma of disengagement.

AND YET a degree of perspective is in order. From 70 CE, when most Jews were exiled, until 1948, when Jewish sovereignty was regained, this land remained at the epicenter of Jewish aspirations. Absent the collective dream of a return to Zion, the Jewish people would have long ago disappeared from history. And, by the grace of God, we have returned!

The process of state-building remains incomplete - but look how far we've come. The Jewish population in 1948 was 650,000; today it's 6 million. In its first 44 months, while practically bankrupt, Israel absorbed 700,000 Jews. In just 30 years, a million Jews from the former Soviet Union were absorbed. And in the past six years Nefesh B'Nefesh has brought 15,000 olim from affluent countries to Israel.

In 1948 there were two universities, today there are eight. Hebrew is now spoken by millions. In transportation, education, tourism, industry and public health, Israel's progress has been phenomenal. Per capita, our GDP places us in the top tier of nations.

Israel is now the world capital of Torah-learning, at the same time as it leads in hi-tech. We're even producing internationally award-winning cinema.

None of this is to minimize the challenges ahead. With the self-sacrificing founders gone, the way we choose tomorrow's leaders needs reforming. We're divided over how to define our Jewishness. Our non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts generate more dissonance than spirituality. They must be replaced by a system that joyfully promotes Judaism. The disparity between rich and poor must be narrowed. Israel's Arab citizens must share fully in the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship, national service included.

And plainly, the quality of our lives will not improve until we learn to treat each other with greater civility.

SIXTY YEARS on, Israel is a regional power, yet still not at peace with all its Arab neighbors. The fight against terrorism demands unrelenting vigilance. Sderot and other southern communities are under intermittent bombardment from the Gaza Strip.

Hizbullah beats the drums of war, while Bashar Assad's intentions remain enigmatic. The greatest strategic threat comes from the fanatical Iranian regime, which threatens to wipe Israel off the map even as it dementedly denies the Holocaust.

The Palestinians mark our achievement of sovereignty as their Nakba, or catastrophe. Mahmoud Abbas has yet to prepare his people for reconciliation.

Sixty years after the Palestinian Arabs first rejected a two-state solution, they appear little closer to accepting a compromise that most Israelis could live with. As Israeli officials speak of "considerable progress" in the post-Annapolis negotiations involving, perhaps, the uprooting of 60,000 Jews from Judea and Samaria and exit from parts of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians adhere to their demand for an Israeli pullback to the narrow boundaries of the 1949 Armistice Lines. They have not abandoned their demand for a "right of return," which would spell the demise of the Jewish state.

That the Jewish people have sovereignty and the chance to enjoy a civilizational renascence in this land after a millennium in exile is - quite literally - a miracle. May God shine His countenance upon us and navigate us safely through the next 60 years, and beyond.

Olmert Investigation -- Find a better way

On Friday two high-ranking police officers interrogated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at his official Jerusalem residence. We would like to tell you more, but there is a court injunction barring publication of further details.

This newspaper has in the past called on Olmert to resign over his handling of the Second Lebanon War, and we have not stinted on our criticism of the premier over a range of issues. Today, however, we focus our concern on the way the police, Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz, State Attorney Moshe Lador and the legal establishment are conducting themselves.

The State of Israel is about to mark its 60th Independence Day (according to the Hebrew calendar), starting on Thursday and continuing through the May 15 weekend, when world leaders will be arriving to help us mark this extraordinary accomplishment. The decision to authorize the police to pursue a completely new investigation just now embarrasses not just the premier, but the entire nation. Could this probe really not have waited a few more weeks? Police have long been interrogating Olmert's former executive assistant, Shula Zaken, and were reportedly worried that the two might coordinate their testimony. Still, there's got to be a better way.

And if there wasn't a better way, and the timing was unavoidable, isn't it curious that a gag order is preventing this newspaper from fully reporting on the nature of the investigation and keeping Olmert from presenting his side of the story; and yet someone - presumably with police or prosecutor connections - is shamelessly and illegally leaking details to Channel 2 television news and the Yediot Aharonot tabloid?

Buffeted by a drawn-out - and to this day unresolved - investigation of a sitting president (now out of office), many Israelis are starting to lose faith in the effectiveness of the attorney-general and the police to efficiently address wrongdoing among politicians.

Granted, not all cases have ended in failure. MK Shlomo Benizri, for instance, was recently convicted of accepting bribes. But what of Tzahi Hanegbi, whose fraud trial has has been dragging on for months? And what about Ya'acov Edri? The police recommended his indictment for breach of trust in a blaze of publicity, but the case was ultimately, quietly, closed. Then there is Ruhama Avraham-Balila, the minister in charge of the 60th anniversary celebrations, who was questioned by police for taking a trip against the advice of the Knesset Ethics Committee. That case, too, is unresolved. So too are the charges against Yitzhak Ziv, under investigation for alleged sexual harassment.

And it seems like a decade since the police began investigating MK Avigdor Lieberman on charges such as conducting a private business while in the cabinet. There have been endless leaks, but no indictments, let alone a conviction.

WRONGDOING by top officials must be investigated and, as appropriate, prosecuted with all deliberate speed. When police, prosecutors and judges allow cases to meander along for months and years while the prospective defendants are tried in the media, the real loser is the political system's legitimacy. The result: a jaded and alienated public.

More than a year ago, Mazuz approved a criminal investigation into allegations that Olmert received special favors while purchasing his Cremieux Street home in Jerusalem - case pending. Mazuz is investigating Olmert for giving out patronage jobs while he was Industry, Trade and Labor minister - case pending. Mazuz is also probing whether Olmert, again as trade minister, did special favors for a company represented by his former law partner - case pending. And he is looking into whether, as finance minister, Olmert tried to do special favors for Bank Leumi - case pending.

Now, police are looking into an apparently completely new case, and somebody is leaking partial details. That the attorney-general says he is not asking the premier to step down and is promising an "expedited" investigation is small consolation.

Police questioned former prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu during their tenures - all cases have been closed.

Patently, no one should be above the law. But neither should anyone, not even an unpopular prime minister, be trampled by it.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

An eye on the North

Something odd may be going on in southern Lebanon, and the Israeli security apparatus needs to be watching.

As London's Observer newspaper reported on April 27, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Hizbullah military recruits from the area are actively drilling for war. There is an "unprecedented build-up of men, equipment and bunker-building." Most men of fighting age are training in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Syria or Iran.

With generous Iranian funding, Hizbullah's secretive military wing is intensifying its transformation from a guerrilla and terrorist outfit into a full-fledged army with a well-trained militia.

Of course, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 mandates no military activity anywhere in southern Lebanon save for the 10,000 soldiers of the Lebanese Army deployed there, supported by 13,000 UNIFIL troops and 1,500 personnel of the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force stationed along the coast. These forces are tasked with implementing that cease-fire resolution, which "authorizes UNIFIL to take all necessary action... to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind." It also forbids any country to bring weapons into Lebanon.

In practice, Hizbullah shamelessly violates the cease-fire. And when UNIFIL forces do stumble upon a Hizbullah violation, they tend to file vague and partial reports given only fleeting attention back at UN headquarters.

Last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did say he was "deeply worried" about arms trafficking across the Lebanese-Syrian border. His concerns, well-founded, are unlikely to prompt steps by the Security Council.

The reluctance of UNIFIL forces to "take all necessary action" in confronting Hizbullah is understandable. Twelve "blue helmets" have been killed during the past year. And UNIFIL troops are anyway authorized to open fire only in self-defense. They can't even enter local villages without a Lebanese army escort.

WHAT IS happening in the south must be seen in the context of the overall fragmentation of Lebanon's body politic. "Byzantine" doesn't begin to describe the complexity of Beirut's unraveling political system.

Christian Arabs lost their demographic and political control of Lebanon years ago. The presidency, by custom held by a Maronite Christian, has been vacant since November 2007. The previously disenfranchised Shi'ite Arab majority has overwhelmed the Sunni Arabs, even as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni, hangs onto power.

Hizbullah has become the major player inside Lebanon. Its roots date back to the 1970s, when a dynamic Iranian-born (Arab) imam, Musa al-Sadr, began mobilizing Lebanon's Shi'ites for social, political and economic equality. The 1979 revolution in (Persian) Iran greatly empowered Lebanon's Shi'ite Arabs.

Initially, the Shi'ites did not oppose the IDF's operations against Palestinian terrorists in south Lebanon, and the PLO was indeed defeated there. But whether because of Israeli blunders or Iranian successes, Hizbullah has long since morphed into a menacing foe of the Jewish state.

THIS BRINGS us back to Hizbullah's military build-up. One would have thought that Hassan Nasrallah would be deterred from launching another unprovoked attack given the millions of dollars in damage Lebanon suffered when Israel struck back after its soldiers were kidnapped in what became the Second Lebanon War. But Iran has deep pockets, and building a global caliphate doesn't come cheap.

Moreover, notwithstanding Israeli assertions that hundreds of Hizbullah fighters were killed in that war, a US military study reportedly places the death toll at "only" 184. That's a "martyr" toll the Hizbullah-supporting Shi'ites appear well able to absorb. Anyway, Nasrallah answers to a higher authority. If Iran is becoming jittery over the possibility that Syria might truly move out of its orbit, there's nothing like a war with Israel to reshuffle the deck.

Hizbullah watcher Guy Bechor, writing at www.gplanet.co.il, does not foresee a Hizbullah assault in the near term. But he doesn't discount the prospect of a large-scale surprise attack down the line. He warns that hundreds of guerrillas could burst through the entire length of the border, seize territory and take hundreds of hostages. Nasrallah could then claim to be the first Arab leader to have successfully invaded "Palestine" since 1948, thus solidifying Hizbullah's hold on the Arab imagination.

With so much attention focused on the Hamas threat and Independence Day security concerns, and given the degree to which Israel was taken by surprise in summer 2006, all we're urging is: Keep an eye on southern Lebanon.

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