Archive for November, 2008

Robert M. Gates: another realist joins Obama’s team

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

The NY Times is reporting that Barack Obama will ask Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to stay on. Who is Robert M. Gates, and how does he fit with Obama’s other advisors, particularly in respect to relations with Israel?

Robert Gates visits Bahrain, Dec. 2007

Robert Gates visits Bahrain, Dec. 2007

Gates is 65, a career CIA man who joined the agency in 1966 and served as its director from 1991 through 1993. In 1979 he was Special Assistant to the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the Carter administration. In 2004 he co-chaired — with Zbigniew Brzezinski — a Council on Foreign Relations task force which issued a report called “Iran: Time for a New Approach“. Much of the material in the report is informed and unexceptionable. But where Israel is concerned there are some jarring moments.


Gates and Brzezinski are quite clear about what Hezbollah is and Iran’s relationship to it:

Among the most troublesome practices of the Islamic Republic is its sustained and prolonged support for militant anti-Israeli groups and terrorists. Among these, Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah remains the most significant. Iranian officials founded the group and continue to provide training, intelligence, arms, and financing twenty years later…

Hezbollah’s track record as one of the world’s foremost terrorist organizations is indisputable: until 9/11, its 1983 attack on barracks housing U.S. Marines held the record for causing the largest loss of U.S. lives as a result of a terrorist attack. As a consequence of this attack and several other suicide bombings carried out by Hezbollah operatives during that period, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage characterized the U.S. stance toward Hezbollah in late 2002 as a “blood debt.” In the 1980s, Hezbollah was responsible for aircraft hijackings as well as kidnappings of U.S. citizens and other Westerners who were then held as hostages. In addition, Hezbollah operatives, along with four Iranian officials, have been indicted by Argentina in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed eighty-five people…

[Iranian] President Khatami has met with [Hezbollah’s] secretary general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, several times in Lebanon and in Tehran, commenting recently that the group has a “a natural right, even a sacred national duty” to defend Palestinians against Israel. [pp. 33-4]

But they continue,

…it is highly improbable that Iran can be persuaded or compelled to completely renounce its proxy. Still, some measure of Iranian flexibility may be possible even with respect to Hezbollah. Since 9/11, Iranian leaders have repeatedly advocated that Hezbollah exhibit restraint in its armed struggle against Israel, and have also hinted that a resolution to the Shebaa Farms territorial dispute could set the stage for Hezbollah to abandon its paramilitary activities. [p. 34]

If Iranian leaders have wanted restraint, they certainly haven’t demonstrated it by arming Hezbollah with the thousands of missiles used in the 2006 war, by training its armed forces, and by building it a state-of-the-art command and control system which Israel reportedly was unable to penetrate. Since 2006, Iranian efforts on Hezbollah’s behalf have redoubled.

The Shebaa Farms issue is simply a pretext for Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel. The area is tiny, totaling about 8 square miles, and has practically no strategic importance. Israel’s position is that it was part of Syria before 1967, and is now part of the occupied Golan Heights. Hezbollah claims that it was Lebanon’s and that therefore Israel is still occupying Lebanon; this then justifies its ‘resistance’.  When Israel left southern Lebanon in 2000, it requested that the UN delineate the border just to forestall this sort of pretext; unfortunately, the status of the Shebaa Farms remained unsettled.

Gates and Brzezinski should know this. Suggesting that handing Hezbollah yet another victory, this one over 8 square miles, would impel it to give up its ‘paramilitary activities’ — in fact a massive war-making machine with (today) more than 40,000 missiles, miles of fortifications, etc. — was beyond absurd, even in 2004.

The linkage theory and the Palestinians

Gates, along with Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, advocates the ‘linkage theory’:

The United States should resume an active involvement in the Middle East [Israeli-Arab] peace process and press leading Arab states to commit themselves to providing genuine, substantive support for both the process and any ultimate agreements. Iranian incitement of virulent anti-Israeli sentiment and activities thrives when there is no progress toward peace. Efforts to curtail the lows of assistance to terrorist groups must be coupled with steps to offer a meaningful alternative to the continuing cycle of violence. A serious effort on the part of Washington aimed at achieving Arab-Israeli peace is central to eventually stemming the tide of extremism in the region. [p.7, my italics]

Imposing a ‘peace’ deal that is strategically disadvantageous to Israel and which does not eliminate the rejectionism that is the root of the hostility of the Palestinians — as well as the Arab nations and Iran — would bring the opposite of peace. Gates and Brzezinski have it backwards: the italicized sentence above should read “There can be no progress toward peace while Iranian (and other) incitement of virulent anti-Israeli sentiment and support of terrorism against Israel continues.”

Gates and Brzezinski also seem to think that Palestinian terrorism is caused by the 1967 occupation and would stop if there were progress toward ending it:

Although it is substantial, Iranian assistance does not constitute the primary factor in the existence or operations of Palestinian terrorism, however. Absent a return to discernible progress toward  peace settlement between Palestinians and Israelis and/or a meaningful commitment by the Palestinians to abandon violence against civilians as their primary means of confronting Israeli occupation, these groups and their abhorrent activities are likely to persist. [p. 36, my italics]

But since it should be obvious that Palestinian ‘resistance’ is aimed at the ‘occupation’ which began in 1947, and not 1967 — terrorist groups like Hamas have been quite up-front about this — ‘progress toward a peace agreement’ does not tend to quiet them. Indeed, these groups violently oppose agreements like the Oslo accords because they oppose any solution which leaves Israel standing within any borders.

Iranian nukes

Gates served on the Iraq Study group, which recommended trading Israeli concessions to Syria for calm in Iraq and ‘engagement’ with Iran. He’s been in the forefront of those urging that the US should not take military action nor permit Israel to do so in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Nevertheless he recently said that

I have not by any means given up on the possibility that the Iranians can be pressured into arrangements that salve their national pride but provide a verifiable way of demonstrating that they don’t have a nuclear-weapons capability and are not building one. — Newsweek

Since it’s obvious that there’s no possibility of getting real economic sanctions against Iran, what’s left to ‘pressure’ them with? Maybe a deal in which Israel gives up her nuclear deterrent in return?

As I’ve previously written, Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team appears to have what I would consider an anti-Israel tilt.  It will be very interesting to see whether Hillary Clinton, who has been very pro-Israel in her senatorial role, will  oppose or go along with this tendency.

Update [26 Nov 1009 PST]: Barack Obama is expected to name retired Marine Corps General James L. Jones as National Security Advisor. Jones has advocated sending NATO troops to the West Bank and has criticized Israel for placing obstacles in the path of the US project of arming and training Palestinian Authority (i.e., Fatah) forces. See Steve Rosen’s blog here.

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US to Israel: don’t fight back

Monday, November 24th, 2008

News item:

“Hizbullah has three times the ability it had before the Second Lebanon War and now has 42,000 missiles in its possession, as opposed to the 14,000 it had before the war,” [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak said in a Knesset speech, warning that Hizbullah’s recent maneuvers south of the Litani River were a liability for Lebanon. “In practice, UN Resolution 1701 isn’t working, and Hizbullah’s integration within the Lebanese republic exposes Lebanon and its infrastructures to a more massive hit in the event of a future standoff.” — Jerusalem Post

It’s doubtful that the US administration will see it this way. Rather, I think that Hezbollah has achieved sufficient ‘integration’ with (read: control of) the Lebanese government and army to do whatever it wants while still maintaining its status as a non-state entity from any point of view other than Israel’s.

As a result, there’s very little chance that Israel will be given a free hand to respond to almost any provocation as it was for a few weeks in 2006.  Even if there is a massive rocket attack on civilian targets in Israel, the US is unlikely to permit a response that targets Lebanese infrastructure or causes any significant civilian casualties. And since Hezbollah has gone to some trouble to build its facilities in civilian areas, this restriction will make an effective counteroffensive even more difficult.

The propaganda debacle of 2006 in which Israel received almost all of the blame for the war — although she was attacked first and became the target of literally thousands of missiles –  has almost guaranteed that restraint will be quick and sure if another round appears to be starting.

But it gets worse:

The US has requested that Israel refrain from embarking on any large-scale operations during the last weeks of the George W. Bush administration, Time magazine reported Monday evening. The magazine quotes an unnamed Israeli source at the Defense Ministry as saying, “We have been warned off.”

IDF officials hinted in the past that a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear installations might be timed to take place before the inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama. Obama is slated to take office on January 20…

The call for restraint, according to Time, also included a request to avoid a large incursion into the Gaza Strip – an option that has again been floated recently by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in light of signs that the truce between Israel and Hamas, which has held for five months, is beginning to disintegrate. — Jerusalem Post

Israel is a tiny country and highly vulnerable. Her enemies have numerically superior armed forces and the ability to absorb many more casualties. As a result a fundamental defensive strategy has always been preemption. Even more so than in the past, the current situation — in which Hamas is developing a capability similar to that of Hezbollah, Syria has chemical-biological warheads pointed at Israel and Iran is developing nuclear weapons — does not lend itself to a ‘let them hit first’ approach.

The Obama doctrine appears to be that Israel will not be permitted to preempt. Unfortunately, he will have plenty of leverage to control Israel’s behavior and very little on Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran.

What is missing from this policy — that is, the real policy, not the campaign statements about Israel’s security being paramount — is an understanding of the moral asymmetry of the conflict: the fact that Israel struggles for her life while her enemies fight to destroy her.

But Barack Obama will not hear this from Zbig Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Robert Malley, Samantha Power, James Jones, etc.

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Hints of Obama Mideast policy are less than encouraging

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Brzezinski (left) and ScowcroftVarious sources are reporting that Barack Obama is consulting with Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor under the Ford and Bush I administrations. Scowcroft has always been a big proponent of the ‘linkage theory’, in which it is claimed that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to solving most or all of the problems of the Mideast.

Now Scowcroft, together with Zbigniew Brzezinski,  a former Carter advisor with an unclear Obama connection who is quite hostile to Israel (see “Barack Obama’s Zbig problem” for some Brzezinski quotes) has written a short op-ed in the Washington Post which some consider a “first draft of an Obama plan” for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Here is how Scowcroft and Brzezinski summarize today’s version of the linkage theory:

Resolution of the Palestinian issue would have a positive impact on the region. It would liberate Arab governments to support U.S. leadership in dealing with regional problems, as they did before the Iraq invasion. It would dissipate much of the appeal of Hezbollah and Hamas, dependent as it is on the Palestinians’ plight. It would change the region’s psychological climate, putting Iran back on the defensive and putting a stop to its swagger.

There are two false assumptions that underlie this argument. The first is that there is a way to resolve the ‘Palestinian issue’ by both sides making (or being forced to make) some reasonable compromises. No Palestinian leadership which is prepared to give up the right of return or full sovereignty in East Jerusalem can possibly survive today. And given a choice between those who advocate practical cooperation between a Palestinian state in the territories and Israel and those who promise “armed struggle” which might last hundreds of years to dislodge the Zionists from the Mideast, most Palestinians will choose the latter  option (see “What drives Palestinian politics?“).

The second (as I’ve written so many times) is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is between Israel and the Palestinians — ignoring the role played by Iran in supporting, arming and financing the terrorist proxies that it intends to use to destroy Israel. Hamas and Hezbollah are not “dependent on the Palestinians’ plight”. The ‘plight’ has been created and nurtured by Israel’s enemies as a diplomatic tool and reservoir for cannon fodder. Hamas and Hezbollah, rather, are dependent on Iranian money and weapons.

Let’s suppose that nevertheless, the US forces Israel and the Palestinian Authority to accept a ‘solution’ along the lines of the one that Scowcroft and Brzezinski are suggesting:

The major elements of an agreement are well known. A key element in any new initiative would be for the U.S. president to declare publicly what, in the view of this country, the basic parameters of a fair and enduring peace ought to be. These should contain four principal elements: 1967 borders, with minor, reciprocal and agreed-upon modifications; compensation in lieu of the right of return for Palestinian refugees; Jerusalem as real home to two capitals; and a nonmilitarized Palestinian state.

How would this put Iran on the defensive? Only the presence of the IDF in the West Bank prevents a Hamas takeover today. A Fatah-dominated state would probably last only a few weeks or months, and would be followed by a situation like that in Gaza today. Israel would then be sandwiched between Iranian-controlled Hezbollah and Syria in the north and Iranian-supported Hamas in the south and east. On the contrary, Iran would ‘swagger’ even more.

But Scowcroft and Brzezinski have a solution to the Hamas problem:

Something more might be needed to deal with Israeli security concerns about turning over territory to a Palestinian government incapable of securing Israel against terrorist activity. That could be dealt with by deploying an international peacekeeping force, such as one from NATO, which could not only replace Israeli security but train Palestinian troops to become effective.

Leaving aside the irony that NATO troops might include those from traditionally anti-Semitic Eastern European countries, can we expect that they would put their lives in danger to protect Israel any more than the UN forces in Lebanon have done? What will happen the first time a Hamas suicide bomber kills 15 or 20 NATO soldiers?

But they have an answer for this too:

To date, the weakness of the negotiating parties has limited their ability to come to an agreement by themselves. The elections in Israel scheduled for February are certainly a complicating factor, as is the deep split among Palestinians between Fatah and Hamas. But if the peace process begins to gain momentum, it is difficult to imagine that Hamas will want to be left out, and that same momentum would provide the Israeli people a unique chance to register their views on the future of their country. [my emphasis]

Here we have the persistent nonsense that Hamas will become ‘more moderate’ if given a chance to participate in a peaceful Palestinian state. But Hamas’ entire reason for being is to replace Israel with an Islamist Arab state, and to do it by force of arms. If it’s not enough to read Hamas’ charter, then consider its actions since it took control of Gaza. Either Scowcroft and Brzezinski are astonishingly naive (I doubt it) or they know what the outcome would be and find it acceptable.

And this fits in with the broad outlines of the approach toward the Middle East which has all along been urged by Scowcroft and Brzezinski (along with others that have been associated with Obama, such as Robert Malley, Samantha Power, Gen. James Jones, etc.). And that is that US policy has been ‘unbalanced’ in the pro-Israel direction (Brzezinski has even blamed the Jewish Israel lobby for this), and that American interests call for a tilt in the other direction.

One thing that all of the Arab states and Iran can agree on is that Israel should go back to pre-1967 lines. This is not because they have a great deal of compassion for the Palestinians — real, practical Palestinian interests would best have been served by making peace with Israel years ago — but because they believe correctly that it would greatly weaken Israel strategically. This will be the case until there is a popular Palestinian leadership that actually is prepared to live alongside Israel in peace — and that does not seem likely in the foreseeable future.

I would like to believe that Obama will not choose people from the Brzezinski-Scowcroft camp as his Mideast policy advisors. He took Dennis Ross with him when he visited the region before the election, and Ross is both fair and experienced in dealing with the Palestinians. But so far what has come out is not encouraging.

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Some clues about dealing with Gaza

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Normally I don’t bother with Larry Derfner because he is almost a caricature of the extreme anti-Israel Israeli. But his latest piece, “Clueless in Gaza” illustrates a few things in addition to the fact that Israel’s commitment to freedom of speech is formidable (and that Derfner’s choice of titles is unoriginal).

Derfner argues that the ‘siege’ of Gaza is ineffective, immoral and provides a propaganda advantage to Hamas. He suggests that

…what we should do about Gaza is finally, genuinely, end the occupation. Let the people there come and go by sea and air like people do in a free country. Let the trucks go through Israel into Gaza with no more than normal inspection.

As for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other terrorist groups – we are beating the living hell out of them. Maybe they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. Maybe if we keep in mind the stark imbalance of power in our favor, we can go back to the cease-fire and avoid the “big operation” everyone’s predicting….

I repeat: The war Israel is fighting with Gaza is the most one-sided war on earth. If the point is to end it, or at least begin to end it, the ball is not in Hamas’s court – it’s in ours.

Let’s begin at the end. Is it a one-sided war? Derfner writes as though the conflict between Israel and Hamas is actually between Israel and Hamas. He ignores the very significant fact that Hamas — and Hezbollah, and Syria — are just the point of the spear which is wielded by Iran. The Palestinians are happy to play this role because they think that they can turn the clock back to 1947.

By presenting one aspect of the larger conflict out of context, Derfner — and most of the anti-Israel Left — can say that a powerful Israel is oppressing a powerless Arab population. But considering the forces arrayed against Israel, it is not one-sided at all.

Is the blockade immoral? Derfner claims along with Hamas that civilians are suffering greatly. But everything imaginable, including zoo animals and designer jeans, has been smuggled through the Sinai Subway.  Derfner criticizes Israel for crying ‘Pallywood’, but do not pictures show candlelit Hamas meetings with bright daylight showing around drawn curtains? Other photos show fully-stocked Gaza markets. It is true that Hamas’ top priority for allocating resources is its army, but this is hardly Israel’s fault.

Is the blockade ineffective? On this point I have to agree with Derfner. They are getting weapons and supplies through the massive subway to Egypt (towns in the northern Sinai are having trouble getting fuel because it is all being smuggled into Gaza).   ‘Humanitarian’ shipments of cement have been diverted by Hamas into building an “underground city” of bunkers and missile launchers. Army radio reported that aerial photography shows almost no evidence of above-ground construction taking place since cement imports resumed in July. The blockade is neither bringing down Hamas nor keeping them from arming, training and building fortifications.

But the answer is not to go back to the cease-fire, which is simply a way for Hamas to prepare for war without Israeli interference.

The one fundamental, irreducible, undeniable fact is that Hamas, with Iranian backing, is getting militarily stronger every day and fully intends to be part of a major assault against Israel — probably in concert with Hezbollah and Syria — when it is ready.

Unlike Israel’s Arab neighbors and Iran, there is no possibility of making peace with Hamas. Hamas’ very reason for being is to pursue the replacement of Israel with an Islamist Arab state by armed conflict. They do not deny this and the only option they offer for ‘peace’ is a temporary truce.

The question is not “will there be a war with Hamas?” but rather “will the war be at a time and in a manner of Israel’s choosing or that of Hamas?”

Israeli policy so far has been to put off the confrontation as long as possible. This is understandable, since it is expected to be be bloody and expensive for both sides. But it is an irrational policy because the balance of power is moving against Israel in many ways: Hamas is building up its offensive and defensive capabilities, Hamas and its supporters are making their case effectively in the media (which will translate into more foreign pressure on Israel), and the US is about to install an administration which will be even more likely than the present one to intervene to prevent Israel from obtaining a conclusive victory over Hamas.

Here are some possible solutions to the problem of Gaza:

  1. Derfner’s solution: Surrender, present Hamas with another victory. First they drove Israel out of Gaza by force of arms, and now they’ve “broken the siege”. The result will be the worldwide legitimization of Hamas, which will likely push Fatah aside as the representative of all Palestinians. Their military buildup will continue even more rapidly. At some point there will be a coordinated attack on Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah and possibly Syria, supported and commanded by Iran.
  2. Cut off Medusa’s heads: Kill as many of Hamas’ leaders as possible with targeted strikes. Keep doing this as they appoint new ones.
  3. Apply a real blockade: Invade the Philadelphi corridor (the area along the Gaza/Egypt border), destroy the tunnels, end all commerce and transit with Gaza, cut electricity and water. Starve them out (possibly with some targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders). Tell Ban Ki-Moon and the EU to go to hell — Israel is at war and Hamastan is the enemy. How is this different from the strategic bombing done by the Allies in WWII?
  4. Confront Hamas: Invade Gaza, crush Hamas completely. Kill as many fighters and leaders as possible. Tell Condoleezza Rice or President Obama’s Secretary of State to go to hell. Disadvantages of this are that there would be many casualties on both sides, a way would have to be found to keep Hezbollah (etc.) from joining in, and the US might not agree to go to hell. Possibly the moment for this has passed.
  5. Do nothing but hope for the best: Hamas will get stronger. The international community will continue to apply pressure to weaken the blockade until Hamas will declare victory. Little by little it will become legitimate in the eyes of the world. At some point there will be a coordinated attack on Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah and possibly Syria, supported and commanded by Iran.

There is no doubt in my mind that Israel, under Olmert — who is Prime Minister until February at least — has chosen strategy 5. It is guaranteed to fail as badly as 1; indeed, there is very little difference between them in practice.

What needs to happen is some variation or combination  of 2-4, and it needs to happen before January 20 when the new US president takes office. Does anyone believe that it will?

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The raison d’être of the state of Israel

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

The menorah, symbol of the state of IsraelForeign Minister Tzipi Livni got this right:

International acceptance of Israel’s right to exist is not enough, the world must accept Israel as a Jewish state, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday to the thousands of Jewish American leaders who had come to Jerusalem for the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

“The world is willing to defend the right of the state of Israel to exist, this is the part of the requirement that the [Mideast] Quartet demands [of] Hamas. But I would like to add two more words to this demand of the quartet: They need to accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” she said.  — Jerusalem Post

Unfortunately, she said it to the wrong audience. She should say it to the UN and to every foreign leader that she deals with, and in particular to Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayad of the Palestinian authority, to Saudi Arabia, and to the leadership of the Israeli Arabs all of whom have categorically refused to accept this.

First of all, let’s get straight what a Jewish state is and is not. It is not a theocracy like Iran; its leaders are democratically elected from all segments of the population. It is not a state governed by halacha [Jewish law] analogous to Islamic states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia in which the legal system is based upon shaaria. Although family law in Israel is in the domain of religious authorities (but not only  Jewish ones — Muslims, Christians and others also follow their traditions and authorities in this area), this is in no way essential to the Jewishness of the state.

The definition of the Jewish state is that it is the political realization of the Jewish people in the historical land of Israel –  am yisrael b’eretz israel. Anti-Semites, extreme leftists and other enemies of the Jewish state understand this and try to attack the concept of the Jewish people or the provenance of the Jews in the land of Israel. But the more scientific evidence — evidence from modern genetics and archaeology — is uncovered, the more unfounded these claims are seen to be.

It is instructive that so many find the idea of a Jewish state — even a democratic one in which non-Jews can vote — so unacceptable, so 19th century or worse, and at the same time do not complain about the myriad absolute monarchies and dictatorships, the nationalistic states of Europe, the Islamic republics and kingdoms, and the states (like the UK) with established religions.

Palestinians do not accept that Israel is a Jewish state because they believe that Jewish control of the land is illegitimate. They don’t accept the Zionist claim to purchased land, the Balfour declaration of 1917, the UN partition decision of 1947 or the outcome of the War of Independence that followed. They do not accept any responsibility for the consequences of their actions and those of their allies that caused their nakba. They are historically, legally and morally wrong about this but I and no one else will convince them of it, since — even among the secular Palestinians, in a sense — this has become a religious issue. This fact has had and will continue to have tragic consequences.

Nevertheless it is the responsibility of Israel’s leadership to insist upon the concept of the Jewish state in every venue. Nothing is more important for, as Livni said, this is “the raison d’être of the state of Israel.”

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