Monday, May 23, 2011


The Jewish Way in War

How can democracies – Israel in particular – acting under the conventions of international law defeat Islamist terrorists operating by their own benighted rules? How when U.N. members states are prepared to enable the terrorists by perverting the rules of war and of human rights? This perennial dilemma was addressed at a symposium last week at Bar-Ilan University.

The war between democracies and terror organizations is inherently asymmetrical with conventional forces arrayed against terrorists embedded among their own civilian population. The liberal position articulated by the renowned Princeton University political thinker Michael Walzer, is that soldiers may not increase risks to civilians to save themselves. Even warning civilians to vacate an area prior to striking – as the IDF routinely did during the 2008-09 Gaza war – is for Walzer morally insufficient.

Caught between such fanciful liberal ideals and the cynical machinations of intergovernmental bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council that have shamelessly, discriminatorily and obsessively scapegoated Israel for opprobrium, Israeli theoreticians of war are not only insisting that international law not be misrepresented but they are also mining Jewish tradition for a moral reality check.
What does Judaism have to say about the rules of war? My colleague Aryeh Tepper pointed out here that post-Biblical Judaism was mostly silent on the subject until Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-1994) composed a code of Jewish military law for the modern Jewish commonwealth.

Israel's war guidelines have been partly extrapolated from preexisting Jewish civil and criminal codes. The "rodef" concept, for instance, had long made it obligatory to kill someone who is "pursuing" another with murderous intent. What is warfare if not "rodef" writ-large? Similarly, the law of "pikuah nefesh" the saving of a Jewish life (in the first stance) has primacy when confronting just about any moral/legal/religious conundrum. For example, writing at the beginning of the second intifada, Rabbi David Golinkin, the leading halachic authority of Israel's Conservative movement, appears to countenance lethal measures against deadly stone throwers.

Since 1973, all of Israel's wars have involved asymmetrical combat, pitting the IDF against Arab irregulars entrenched among civilians. Jewish tradition does not seem to distinguish greatly between conventional and asymmetrical warfare. The basic rules appear the same. What is important in Judaism is to distinguish between obligatory zero-sum wars forced upon Israel and wars of choice waged for political ends. The former requires full mobilization and all-out war; the latter are subject to various checks and balances.

Would eradicating Hamas and Hezbollah fall under the category of obligatory war? The command to utterly destroy Israel's enemies, some halachic authorities citing Maimonides maintain, applied exclusively to the seven Canaanite nations that inhabited the Land of Israel in Biblical times. However, some right-wing theologians argue that those who are committed to Israel's destruction today are metaphysical remnants of its ancient eternal enemies and that the biblical laws apply.

Addressing the symposium, Prof. Stuart A. Cohen, of the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan recalled the theological and moral storm that broke out in 2010 with the publication of Hebrew monograph The King’s Torah by Rabbi Yitzchak Shapira, dean of the Od Yosef Chai seminary at Yitzhar, a settlement in Samaria. Shapira's starting point was to make a distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish life in time of war. Does Jewish law permit killing the children of a terrorist leader in order to pressure him? What if he uses his family as human shields? The rabbi concluded that they could be considered fair targets. Issues of proportionality and collateral damage simply would not matter in obligatory wars waged by Jews against non-Jews. Rabbis from across the theological and political spectrum challenged Shapira's strict constructionist interpretation of Halachic sources on the grounds that egregious behavior by Israeli soldiers would transgress the commandment not to bring shame unto God (hillul ha-Shem) and could, moreover, endanger Diaspora Jews (pikuah nefesh). Police briefly arrested Shapira; copies of his halachic-academic work were confiscated and are now near impossible to obtain.

Among those in the vanguard of crafting sensible 21st century war guidelines for the Israel Defense Forces is political philosopher Asa Kasher of Tel Aviv University. Kasher, who also addressed the Bar-Ilan conference, argued that the ethical starting point for Israel's behavior needs to be the responsibilities the Jewish state has to its own soldiers and citizens – not what it may or may not do to foreigners. In weighing the life-and-death scales between protecting Israel's citizen-soldiers and those of enemy non-combatants, Kasher argued that there is nothing moral about jeopardizing your own soldiers to protect an enemy population – provided proper precautions have been taken to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties.

If democracies are to defeat the forces of violent intolerance they will need to develop strategies to take back international law from those who have perverted it. Kasher believes that Israel has a front line role in helping the enlightened world develop the legal and moral tools to confront the scourge of terrorism. If salvaged, international law has the potential of becoming a binding part of Israel's religio-legal fabric, an idea championed by the late Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli of the national-religious camp. For now, accompanied by the distress they ought to feel at the thought that they may be forced to kill, Israeli soldiers should know that they have the moral authority to defend their country.
May 23, 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

Canadian Relations With Israel

The Canadian Exception

Geography, history, economics and necessity have made the U.S. and Canada allies, though Americans tend to take their good neighbor to the north for granted. Israel, six-thousand miles away, has every reason not to follow the American example.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party, Canada's friendship toward Israel has stood in contradistinction to the treatment Jerusalem has gotten from its fair-weather European allies and a fickle Obama administration. In May 2nd elections, to Israelis' delight, Harper won a resounding electoral and ideological victory giving him a clear majority in parliament.

None of this was preordained. The trajectory of Israel's relations with Canada essentially mirrored those it has had with Western Europe – starting out warm and turning increasingly frosty. In 1947 Canada's Minister for External Affairs Lester Pearson, an internationalist liberal supported the partition of Palestine. The Zionists were grateful; the Arabs utterly rejected the two-state solution, went to war and lost.

During the 1956 Sinai Campaign France and Britain were allied with Israel as Canada sought to placate both London and a fuming Eisenhower administration. Afterwards, Ottawa's adhered to a pro-Israel stance through the 1967 Six Day War wobbling only after the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Pierre Trudeau in power (1968-1979 and again from 1980-1984). The 1973 Arab oil embargo, PLO airliner hijackings and terrorist outrages, such as the massacre of twenty-one Israeli schoolchildren at Ma'alot on May 15, 1974, swayed Europe and Canada against Israel.

In 1975, Trudeau postponed a UN conference slated to take place in Canada with Yasir Arafat's participation only under pressure from the Jewish community. As soon as Canada's Jewish leadership abandoned the issue, Trudeau's inhibitions about having his diplomats sit with the PLO disappeared along with any interest in opposing the Arab economic boycott of Israel.

Talk about moving Canada's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was shelved as a self-deluded Canadian government, press and intellectual elite emphatically embraced an Arab line that negated Jewish rights in Judea and Samaria. Canada, like Europe, said settlements not unremitting Arab rejectionism was the obstacle to peace.

No surprise then that Ottawa showed no understanding of Israel's predicament leading up to and during the 1982 Lebanon War. By the mid-1980s, under Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, Canada had formalized its pro-Arab course. Clark called for a Palestinian "homeland" long before Arafat even feigned recognition of Israel's right to exist and pressed Washington to exploit the political environment during the 1991 Gulf War to force Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. At the start of the first intifada (1987–1993) Clark ignored Palestinian-on-Palestinian bloodletting that would ultimately take over 1,100 Arab lives, overlooked Palestinian brutality against Jews that would claim 421 Israeli victims, and leveled his criticism primarily on Israel. Similarly, Canadian media coverage portrayed Israel as a Goliath striking down purportedly "unarmed" Palestinian protestors. Even the Canadian labor movement turned against Israel.

Only in the wake of the September 11, 2001 Islamist terror attacks and Arafat's unleashing of the second intifada that would take hundreds upon hundreds of Israeli lives did Canada begin, under Paul Martin (2003 – 2006), to slow its anti-Israel drift as exemplified by Ottawa's abstention on a UN vote against Israel's life-saving security barrier.

With Harper's election in 2006 the drift was halted and reversed. The new Canadian government became the first to cut ties with Palestinian Authority after radical Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza. In July 2006, Harper courageously stood with Israel against Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War. In 2009 Ottawa led the way in opposing a repeat performance of the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Durban conference of 2001 as well as other Arab efforts to perversely exploit the UN Human Rights Council as a battering ram against Israel.

What explains this Canadian exceptionalism? Canadian political analysts insist that Harper's attitude toward the Jewish state is a matter of personal conviction and shared, moreover, by other party leaders including Stockwell Day and Jason Kenney. They see Israel for what it is: an unwavering island of democracy and a bastion of Western values in a perilous unstable region. The reconstituted Conservative party Harper now leads came into existence only in 2003 and does not carry the anti-Israel baggage of its predecessor.

Though it continues to import petroleum, Canada is actually the fifth largest energy producer in the world; third in gas; seventh in oil. Such energy independence lessens the penchant toward moral and diplomatic myopia suffered by Europe.

Harper's principled stance is by no means politically risk-free. Of the main national newspapers that delve into global affairs the National Post is editorially sympathetic to Israel though it relies on occasionally tendentious wire services for its Middle East coverage. The Globe & Mail which endorsed Harper is somewhat less supportive and its Israel bureau chief Patrick Martin has been a strident anti-Israel critic. And while Canadians are not particularly interested in foreign affairs, Harper's support for Israel hardly panders to popular opinion. A recent BBC World Service poll found that fifty-two percent of Canadians still view Israel unfavorably. During the Second Lebanon War only 45 percent agreed with Harper's pro-Israel position. In Quebec, historically less friendly to Jews and Israel, there has been even greater dissatisfaction with the government's stand.

Still, in Harper's core constituency, which includes Christian supporters of Israel, his willingness to go against the grain is valued. Moreover, increasing numbers of Jews in key Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver electoral "ridings" where they are sufficiently concentrated to hold sway have abandoned Liberal for Conservative candidates. Even the famously pro-Israel Liberal MP Irwin Cutler barely won reelection in a heavily Jewish district against his pro-Israel Conservative opponent. Unlike their co-religionists to the south, Canada's 350,000 Jews (out of a 34 million population) see themselves as part of a multicultural mosaic not a melting pot; they tend to be traditionally oriented with a large proportion having actually visited Israel. And they are far less prone to anchor their "Jewish identity" in criticizing Israeli policies.

Exactly fifty years ago, in May 1961, David Ben-Gurion became the first Prime Minister of Israel to make an official visit to Canada. Which brings us to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned visit to Washington later this month. Would it not be menschlich if he made it a point to stopover in Ottawa to personally express Israel's gratitude to Harper and the Canadian electorate for their refreshingly sincere and unqualified friendship?

-- May 2, 2011


What Would Ben-Gurion Do?

Here is a hypothetical being asked around Israel: How would David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Israel's first prime minister and a founding father, handle himself if it were he and not Benjamin Netanyahu who was scheduled to meet President Barack Obama on Friday (May 20), address AIPAC on Monday (May 23) and speak before a joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday (May 24)? Ben-Gurion's own meeting – precisely fifty years ago this month – with President John F. Kennedy provides some context about the limits of prime ministerial charisma and the constraints on Israel's freedom of action.

Start with U.S. Jewry. Even before he set out for America, Ben-Gurion found himself embroiled in a bitter public dispute with Nahum Goldmann and Irving Miller, top American Jewish leaders, over Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Ben-Gurion began the row by saying that a Jew could only be a Zionist by making aliya – immigrating to Israel. The Jewish leaders insisted that one could be a perfectly good Zionist by aiding Israel from afar and by unifying Jews behind Israel as the civilizational core of world Jewry. Ben-Gurion further antagonized Goldmann and Miller by having issued a joint statement with Jacob Blaustein, head of the American Jewish Committee, which affirmed that Israel would not interfere in the internal affairs of the Diaspora and stipulating that aliya was a matter of personal choice.

Ben-Gurion well knew that the AJC in those days identified itself as non-Zionist and had pointedly stayed out of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in which Goldmann and Miller were leaders. Goldmann, who later became a vehement critic of the very Jewish establishment he helped create, lambasted Ben-Gurion for undermining the unity of American Jewry by fixing Israel-Diaspora relations with what Goldmann termed an "unrepresentative" AJC. One can only imagine Goldmann's and Miller's apoplectic reaction when they learned that while he was in the U.S. Ben-Gurion went so far as to meet with Lessing Rosenwald head of the stridently anti-Zionist American Council on Judaism.

Ben-Gurion departed Israel on May 24, 1961 travelling first to see Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. At last, on May 30 at 4:45PM he was ushered into the presidential suite at Manhattan's Waldorf Hotel for his private meeting with Kennedy. The official explanation for the venue was that JFK would be leaving from New York for a summit in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In fact, the administration did not want to antagonize the Arab states by officially hosting Ben-Gurion at the White House. The premier, accompanied by Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman, was described as tense heading into the meeting which included Myer Feldman, the president's liaison to the Jewish community and Phil Talbot from the State Department.
In a remark that Ben-Gurion later told intimates he found uncouth, JFK began by saying: "You know, I was elected by the Jews of New York" – indeed he had garnered 80 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide in his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 elections – and that he felt obliged to "do something" in return. Taken aback, Ben-Gurion replied, "You must do whatever is good for the free world."
There were three main items on the president's agenda. He knew that Ben-Gurion would be asking to purchase HAWK anti-aircraft missiles. Kennedy's State Department was decidedly opposed; the Pentagon was indifferent. Next, Kennedy wanted to get Ben-Gurion's assurance that Israel would not use its Dimona nuclear reactor – just visited by international inspectors who returned with a favorable report – for military purposes. And finally, Kennedy wanted Ben-Gurion to make a gesture to the Arabs on the refugee issue.

Ben-Gurion first implied that the Eisenhower administration had been inclined to sell Israel the HAWKS. When he saw this tack wasn't working he made a fresh case on the merits: The Soviets were supplying Egypt with advanced MIG-19s warplanes and the purely defensive HAWKS were needed to counter this threat. Not wanting to introduce missiles into the region – or leave Israel in a position that invited attack – JFK pledged to "continue to review the missile situation." Ben-Gurion didn't get a "yes" but he found JFK far more sympathetic than his predecessor. Indeed, in August 1962, following a meeting between 39 year-old Shimon Peres, director-general of the Defense Ministry, and Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, the administration agreed to sell the anti-aircraft system to Israel.

On Dimona, Ben-Gurion had already told Diefenbaker just days earlier that as a matter of survival Israel might be forced to develop a nuclear capability. Kennedy talked in a friendly way about the recently completed international inspection at Dimona and said that there must not be even the appearance that Israel was pursing nuclear weapons. Ben-Gurion replied that for now the facility was indeed engaged in peaceful nuclear pursuits but that were Israel faced with an existential threat it would keep its future options open. Much depended on the Soviet and Egyptian threat. The signals from Gamal Nasser were more than discouraging. Ben-Gurion told JFK: "If they should defeat us they would do to the Jews what Hitler did."

Kennedy next wanted to talk about the Palestinian Arab refugees. The premier said that Nasser did not really care what happened to them. The Israeli position was that the refugees should be resettled and absorbed in Egyptian-occupied Gaza, the Jordanian occupied West Bank and in Lebanon. JFK asked Israel to take back a token number of refugees saying it would help the US in trying to mediate between the parties. Ben-Gurion predicted that the initiative would fail, but Kennedy responded that Washington would rather see the onus of rejectionism rest with the Arabs. So Ben-Gurion agreed that the initiative was "worth trying" and following the meeting told the press that he and JFK were in agreement on a refugee initiative. Either the two men did not understand one other or the U.S. toughened its stance, but when UN Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson later detailed the specifics of the repatriation proposal to Israeli officials it became clear that there was an unbridgeable gulf between what Israel could live with and what Washington wanted.

By 6 P.M. the Ben-Gurion-JFK confab had concluded.

The next day, the New York Times led its coverage with the "problem of the Palestine Arab refugees."

Before leaving for London on his way back to Israel, Ben-Gurion met with the Conference of Presidents and with former president Harry S Truman, to thank him for his previous support He also saw former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Ambassador Stevenson, and Labor leader George Meany.
Anticipating criticism of the meeting, the State Department had sent diplomatic notes in JFK's name to Arab countries pledging that America would be an "honest broker" and continue to press Israel on the refugees. Secretary of State Dean Rusk insisted Washington wanted to remain impartial on the Arab-Israel conflict.

None of this, however, placated the likes of Lebanese-born Ahmad Shukeiri, then serving as a Saudi diplomat to the U.N. and later to become the founding head of the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was established by the Arab League in 1964. The administration's unappreciated efforts at "impartiality" nevertheless brought it in conflict with Congress which sought to cut U.S. aid to Egypt.

In grappling with the "What would Ben-Gurion Do?" question, journalist Amnon Lord, speaking recently on Israel's Knesset Channel, bemoaned the sense prevalent in Israel today that its fate is no longer in its hands; its independence seems to be dissipating. Who would have thought, he asked, that a Netanyahu government would have imposed a de facto freeze on new housing construction in Jerusalem?

Actually, Netanyahu's position is not spectacularly different from Ben-Gurion's. Granted, Obama is more of an Eisenhower than a JFK, but the options available to an Israeli premier haven't changed all that much. Ben-Gurion employed suasion on the HAWKS and succeeded; on existential questions of survival – what the future might hold for Dimona – he exhibited requisite toughness; and on the refugee issue he first tried diplomatic accommodation before digging in his heels. Fifty years on, Israel's standing with U.S. Jewry is no less complicated; its security predicament no less threatened; its international standing no less tenuous.

So Israelis would be well served if Netanyahu managed to emulate "the Old Man" by employing just the right combination of suasion, toughness and diplomacy.


-- May 16, 2011

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


New Egypt

As Israelis watched with unease Egypt's revolution unfolding they were told by European and American liberals to stop sulking; that Hosni Mubarak's February 12th departure had not been provoked by "Palestine" or "Allah;" that the chants in Tahrir Square of “Up with Egypt" more than drowned out those of “down with Israel."

Now, just short of three months into the new regime a sober assessment of Egyptian attitudes would suggest that it may be time to start worrying. The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation engineered by Egypt, regardless of its doubtful longevity, was enabled by changes in Cairo's approach toward the Islamist fanatics. Where the old regime assigned intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman to deal with them as a security problem, his replacement Murad Muwafi, backed by Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi, has been dealing with Hamas as a diplomatic partner. Mubarak distrusted Hamas -- the Gaza arm of Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood -- and nominally aligned Cairo with Fatah. Now, Hamas is getting the kind of treatment terrorists crave – respect. Its "military commander" Ahmed Ja'abari is now no less welcome in Cairo than the movement's co-founder and theoretician Mahmoud al-Zahar or its Damascus-based politburo chief Khaled Mashaal. Hamas, now poised to join a restructured Palestine Liberation Organization, will reportedly open a mission in Cairo.

Egypt's concurrent decision to throw open its Rafah border with the Gaza Strip will make it far easier for Hamas to send its gunmen to Iran for specialized training and to bring in ever more lethal weaponry for use against Israel. Egypt's military chief General Sami Anan preempted Jerusalem's protests by letting it be known that the decision was purely Egypt's internal affair.

Meanwhile, Egyptians have held protests on a bridge overlooking the Israeli Embassy in Cairo demanding their government sever ties with Israel, and stop exporting natural gas to the Jewish state. The export of Egyptian gas to Israel has been portrayed as yet another manifestation of the old regime's corruption with claims that Mubarak's illicit wealth was generated by his conspiring with Israel to provide gas at below market rates at the expense of the Egyptian masses. Oddly, the pipeline carrying gas to Israel (and Jordan) has been twice sabotaged since the revolution and is now inoperative. This does not trouble Finance Minister Samir Radwan who remarked that the peace agreement does not obligate Egypt to sell gas to Israel.

Scapegoating Israel has never been bad politics in Egypt so it is predictable that the new regime is riding the ubiquitous crest of antipathy toward the Jewish state. A Pew opinion survey found that 54 percent of Egyptians want the peace treaty with Israel scrapped (another 10% "don't know."). And no one hates Israel more than the Muslim Brotherhood which is viewed favorably by a whopping 75% of Egyptians. In an apparent arrangement with the ruling junta, it has pledged to compete for half the seats in forthcoming parliamentary elections. With Egyptian political conditions so unsettled and expectations bound to outstrip any incoming regime's capacity to deliver, the Brothers have prudently concluded that they are not yet ready to rule.

Perhaps they are worried that they cannot provide jobs at a time of regional upheaval when remittances and tourism are down. What would they do, for instance, about populist pressure for a minimum wage? The Brotherhood is, astonishingly, the most left-leaning of eight Salafist groups active in Egypt and may simply prefer to follow the Bolshevik approach of not seizing power until conditions are ripe. They can afford to bide their time. Already 62% of Egyptians say they want to live under a political system in which adherence to the Koran is "strict;" another 27% favor a milder form of theocratic rule. Of course, even the sliver of the population that had identified itself with Mubarak's liberal opposition is no less hostile toward Israel.

At home, like in the old Soviet Union, Egyptians have complete liberty to lament the corruption of the old regime. But open criticism of the new supreme military council is cause for immediate arrest. Some 5,000 citizens face trial in military courts for unlawful behavior during the revolution.

Abroad, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces headed by Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi has been keeping a close eye on the unfolding Syrian situation which could influence Cairo's posture toward Jerusalem. Tantawi sought to limit criticism of the Assad regime's crackdown on protesters at the UN Human Rights Council. Concurrently, Tantawi's government-by-the-army has bolstered its legitimacy by turning the temperature of Mubarak's already "cold peace" down a few degrees.

Still, he can be expected to keep the relationship on minimal life-support if for no other reason than to avoid the ire of the U.S. government which sends $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt and is now making billions more "potentially available."

Moreover, given all that is on his plate, he would not want to spook the IDF into accelerating existing plans to augment its capabilities on the Egyptian front.
Israeli emissaries have been discreetly meeting with the new regime in Cairo, but Jerusalem's opposition to the Hamas-Fatah deal was rejected. Were Tantawi at all interested in allaying Israeli concerns about Egyptian intentions he could earn major points by leveraging Egypt's new relationship with Hamas to facilitate the release of captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. In the interim, he could instruct foreign minister el-Arabi, who plans a visit to Ramallah, to meet Israeli officials while he's in the area.

Positive gestures would be welcome, but Israeli officials are plainly troubled by what appears to be a strategic shift in Cairo's orientation, one that in the most optimistic analysis replicates Turkey turn against Israel. Egypt's ultimate trajectory is impossible to forecast. The evidence so far suggests that no matter what government formally replaces Mubarak's the broad outlines of the new regime's approach toward Israel are already ominously discernable.

-- May 2, 2011

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