Tuesday, July 28, 2009
This could be the most important article I write this year. Israel has entered a new era of thinking and policy in which old categories of left or right, hawk or dove are irrelevant under a national unity government bringing together the two main ruling parties.
How did this new paradigm arise?
Between 1948 and 1992, the Israeli consensus was that the PLO and most Arab states want to destroy Israel. When—or if--the day comes that they’re ready to negotiate seriously we’ll see what happens.
Then came the Oslo agreement and a huge shift. The governing view was that maybe the Palestinians and Arab states learned the cost of their intransigence enough to make peace possible. The left thought a deal could bring real peace; the right thought it was a trick leading to another stage of conflict on terms less favorable to Israel. But both expected a deal to materialize.
The year 2000, the Camp David failure, the Syrian and Palestinian rejection of generous offers, and Second Intifada destroyed illusions in Israel.
Since then, Israel has groped for a new paradigm. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered unilateralism; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni constantly offered more in exchange for nothing. But the more they did so, the more international abuse Israel received.
Now a new approach has finally emerged capable of reversing this situation. It goes like this: Israel wants peace but doesn’t hesitate to express not only what it wants and needs but also what’s required to create a stable and better situation. To ensure that violence and instability really ceases requires:
--Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Without this step, the aftermath of any “peace” agreement would be additional decades of Arab effort to destroy Israel in all but—temporarily—name.
--Absolute clarity that a peace agreement ends the conflict and all claims on Israel. Otherwise, the Palestinian leadership and much of the Arab world would regard any “peace” agreement as a license for a new stage of battle using Palestine as a base for renewed attacks and demands.
--Strong security arrangements and serious international guarantees for them. Have no doubt; these will be tested by cross-border attacks from Palestine.
--An unmilitarized Palestinian state (a better description than “demilitarized”), with the large security forces they already have: enough for internal security and legitimate defense but not aggression.
--Palestinian refugees resettled in Palestine. The demand for a “Right of Return” is just a rationale for wiping Israel off the map through internal subversion and civil war.
If Israel gets what it requires—and what successful peace requires—it will accept a two-state solution, a Palestinian Arab Muslim state (the Palestinian Authority’s own definition) alongside a Jewish state, living in peace.
Part of the new thinking is to understand that precise borders and east Jerusalem’s status, while important, are secondary to these basic issues. If those principles are resolved, all else can follow.
This new posture is not one of desperately asserting Israel’s yearning for peace but rather saying: We’re serious, we’re ready, we’re not suckers but we’re not unreasonable either. We want peace on real terms, not just more unilateral concessions and higher risk without reward. Not experimenting with our survival to please others. Not some illusory celebration of a two-state solution for a week and then watching it produce another century of violence.
Is it really such a brilliant idea to rush into giving a state without serious conditions to a Palestinian regime which has failed to govern competently what it already has, daily broadcasts incitement to murder Israelis, is profoundly corrupt, has already lost half its patrimony to a rival whose goal is a new genocide but whose own most fervent wish is to merge with that rival, and whose program is merely for the world to pressure Israel into handing it everything?
The best outcome would be if this program was met by Palestinian cooperation. If they are suffering so under alleged occupation, if so desperate for their own state, there’s nothing in this offer they can’t accept.
If, however, they prefer rejectionism, exposing their claims as false, that, too, is acceptable. The truth would be known: the Palestinians and much of the Arab world can’t make peace with Israel because they don’t want peace with Israel. And that is because they don’t want Israel to exist. Period.
Around this program, Jews outside Israel should rally, putting aside old conflicts about who’s more passionate about peace, who more concerned about security. The same applies to other countries and those well-intended who want to see a strategic situation more in accord with both their interests and humanitarian considerations.
In this context, there is no more puerile and misleading notion than that Israel’s government has put forth a program encompassing a two-state solution because of U.S. demands or pressures. This is a plan that organically grew out of the country’s situation, experience, and a broad national consensus.
A second notion Israel’s new paradigm rejects is the argument that either Israel is so strong that it can give without receiving or so weak that it must do so. The country simply does not desperately need a deeply flawed "solution" to be grabbed either out of misplaced "generosity" or "fear."
Another mistaken conception is that the status quo is intolerable and that any change would be for the better. More risks, concessions, and the establishment of an unstable and hostile Palestinian state--the most likely outcome at present--would make things worse.
Equally wrong is the notion that time is against Israel, a strong and vibrant society surrounded by weak, disorganized neighbors. Israel’s strategic situation has dramatically improved over the decades. It is a strong, confident society visibly meeting the challenge of the modern economic and technical environment.
Finally, and of the greatest importance, is the fact that Israel’s new policy is truly based on a consensus. It merges both the conservative approach--proper suspicions and demands for security and reciprocity—and the liberal approach--a proper readiness to compromise and desire for true peace--into one package.
Both elements are now blended in the thinking of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. A new national consensus has emerged which will be strong, and durable. If the world pays attention to it, there might actually be some real hope for peace.
But as long as Western governments and media are only interested in two things--what the Palestinians demand and new concessions from Israel--the situation will remain frozen for many years to come.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
July 8, 2009
Benn attributes a lot of this to Obama's failure to sell his program. It is true that he has made no effort to appeal to Israelis on it but I think there's another explanation. The truth is that in the past a lot of Israelis on the left were persuaded that there was a real chance for peace and that by proving its willingness to leave the territories, Israel could persuade the Palestinians to make a deal.
Hardly anyone believes that today in Israel. People are fed up with the Palestinian leadership's bad faith and failure to deliver on commitments. They know that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and has a big support base on the West Bank. They have no illusions about the Palestinian Authority leadership, which makes clear that its entire program is to have others pressure Israel into giving it everything it wants.
So the left's response would go something like this: We would be willing to dismantle all Jewish settlements in favor of a real and lasting peace. But do you really think freezing building on settlements will contribute to this goal? That's nonsense.
There's a secondary factor as well. Many Israelis on the moderate left--which are the overwhelming majority of those in the "left" category--support a two-state solution with some border shifts. In this concept, which is what Labor party leader and then prime minister Ehud Barak took to Camp David in 2000, Israel would retain some small areas with high Jewish (settlement) populations like Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion.
This concept was called the idea of the "settlement blocs." Israel believed that the last two U.S. presidents accepted this idea and thus agreed that Israel could continue building in these specific places. The Obama administration says that never happened.
So many Israelis on the left not only doubt the prospect of peace and blame the Palestinians for the situation and also favor the settlement blocs approach and are also made very nervous about a U.S. government that forgets past pledges to Israel and doubt Obama's willingness to be tough in opposing Iranian nuclear weapons.
That's why there's no pro-Obama bloc in Israel today, not even on the left.
Friday, July 10, 2009
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Israel's stance reflects a series of hopes, interests and concerns. The most important of these are: the desire to contain Iranian influence, and joint opposition to radical Islam. Israeli technological expertise is of particular interest to energy-rich, rapidly developing Central Asian economies, forming the basis for growing economic relations. In turn, Azerbaijan has emerged as a major energy supplier. The country supplies just under 20 percent of Israel's oil.
Israel's desire to build strong connections with non-Arab Muslim countries in the region is of long standing and reflects an obvious strategic interest. Yet in the past, Central Asian states have preferred to keep their friendship with the Jewish state far from the spotlight.
Israel has maintained diplomatic relations with both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan since 1992. With regard to containing Teheran, relations with Shi'ite Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran, are of particular significance. Azerbaijan has close ethnic links with Iran. Far more Azeris live in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is an ethnic Azeri. Yet relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have grown tense over the last decade for a number of reasons. The Islamic republic, for strategic reasons of its own, tacitly supported Armenia in the Azeri-Armenian war over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Teheran dislikes the secular nature of Azerbaijani politics, and has offered support and training to Azeri mullahs and organizations preaching a pro-Iranian Islamist message. Iran and Azerbaijan also have competing interests related to energy issues in the Caspian Sea.
As a result, Baku has drawn close to Jerusalem on the basis of a shared threat. Israeli defense industries have made very significant inroads. Israel played the central role in rebuilding and modernizing the Azeri military after its losses in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan has also become one of the key arenas in the ongoing silent war between Israel and Iran. Both countries are thought to possess major espionage networks on Azeri soil. Israel is reported to maintain listening and surveillance posts on the Azerbaijan-Iran border. The recent foiling of a joint Hizbullah/Iranian plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy by the authorities in Baku shows the depth of activity.
Kazakhstan, which has no border with Iran, has sought to develop strong trade and strategic relations with the Islamic republic. Part of Peres's mission was to seek a firm Kazakh commitment that it would cease the sale of uranium ore to Iran. Astana's stance appears to reflect a desire to play a part in diplomatic mediation in the region and beyond it, on the basis of its image as a moderate Muslim state.
The more diffuse threat of radical Islam offers a further natural basis for friendship. In the Shi'ite but secular-governed Azerbaijan, this threat takes the form of Iran-supported local Shi'ite Islamist parties, and the presence of Hizbullah.
In largely-Sunni Kazakhstan, meanwhile, Saudi-supported Islamic extremists and the pan-Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir party constitute a significant irritant to the authorities, making them more inclined to greater friendliness toward Israel. The response to domestic Islamic extremism has been determined and uncompromising.
Kazakhstan's commitment to purchase satellite and surveillance technology from Israel reflects the growing role of Israeli defense industries in the country - a role which was shaken in April by claims that Israel had sold faulty military hardware to Kazakhstan.
Despite the extensive cooperation and common interest, Jerusalem has been frustrated by the unwillingness of both Kazakhs and Azeris to move toward a more open and overt relationship. There has long been a sense that both countries preferred to benefit from close links with Israel in a variety of areas, while keeping the public profile of the relationship as low as possible. Such a stance reflected the desire of both countries to maintain good relations with the Arab and wider Muslim world.
Israeli officials hoped that Peres's visit would be of importance in laying the basis for changing this stance. The Iranian response to the visit suggests that Teheran shared the sense of this possibility.
The Iranians lobbied hard to have the visit to Azerbaijan called off. Iran's chief of staff visited Baku two weeks ago in an attempt to persuade the Azeris to cancel the trip. He was unsuccessful. In response to the Peres visit, Iran has recalled its ambassador for consultations. In Kazakhstan, the Iranian decision to walk out of an interfaith conference while Peres was speaking represents an additional indication of Iranian displeasure, and hence a further diplomatic point for Israel. The bottom line: Iranian lobbying failed.
Inducing Muslim countries with which Israel has shared interests and firm connections to overcome the desire to "camouflage" or downplay their relations with Israel represents a perennial challenge for Israeli diplomacy. The latest developments in Central Asia suggest that, in this region at least, real progress has begun to be made.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
By Barry Rubin*
June 29, 2009
Consider a blog posting entitled, “CNN journalist asks: `Punished mercilessly'–Is this Islam?’" I don’t write this to attack the author—whose intentions are clearly good ones--but merely to ask how people examine the regional issues. What makes this interesting is that the author is Octavia Nasr, Middle East Affairs editor for CNN, in other words a person who has a great deal to do with what appears on that channel and how it’s presented.
Nasr’s basic argument is that the Iranian regime’s repression of anti-government demonstrators is contrary to Islam. One should begin by noting that in the fictional world wherein we live today, a huge amount of attention is paid to the idea that Islam is treated worse (“Islamophobia”) than other religions or doctrines in terms of its intellectual and analytical examination. In fact, it is treated far better almost all of the time. It should be treated the same.
Nasr begins by quoting an Iranian cleric at a Friday prayer sermon who calls on supporters to “Annihilate the rioters” who “should be punished mercilessly.” The cleric `claims they are acting contrary to the decisions of Iran’s supreme guide who is acting according to God’s design in this world. Nasr wants to argue that this behavior is contrary to Islam.
Ironically, Nasr calls him a “fundamentalist,” a word that simultaneously could get her labeled an Islamophobe under other circumstances and reinforces the cleric’s own argument. After all, if he is getting back to Islam’s “fundamentals” that means he is returning to the proper roots of the religion, right? So the choice of words implies that he is correct. That’s why I never use that word and prefer Islamist, someone who uses their interpretation of Islam as a political doctrine.
“Some would say,” she continues, “those words couldn’t be more un-Islamic.” True. But others would say—including the government of Iran—that they couldn’t be more Islamic. This is what the great battle in the Middle East is about: which interpretation of Islam will prevail.
Arguing among non-Muslims which one is more “correct” is a wasted effort. There is no right answer. How Christians interpret their religion with utter certitude in 2009 is not the same as it was in 1009. Islam is neither a religion of peace nor the opposite. It is a body of holy writings, commentaries, practices, and history—just like other religions—which must be examined dispassionately as to how it functions in the world, among different groups, and in different places.
Nasr writes: “The entire religion is based on surrendering all aspect of oneself to `god.' (sic)....When moderate Muslims hear what this Mullah has called for, they wonder which brand of Islam he is advocating.”
Really? They wonder? The implication here is that Islam has never been used as a tool of repression in history; that it is astonishing someone might insist that he has the proper answer and everyone else must bow to that or suffer.
Christianity is arguably a religion of love—consider the “Sermon on the Mount,” yet how has it been used historically? If someone dares, in many nominally Christian circles, say something positive about Christianity, how many seconds will it be before someone brings up the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition?
Nasr points out that the most basic Muslim creed refers to God as “most merciful, most compassionate.” So where, she asks, is the mercy in this cleric’s statement?
Simple and it should quickly come to mind for anyone but the simple-minded. God also has commandments and in Islam it is clearly stated that believers should forbid what the deity doesn’t want and promote what the deity does want. And that’s precisely what this cleric says—and believes—he’s doing.
Nasr then goes on to support the opposition movement, extolling their courage and condemning the attempts to block reporting of what’s happening in Iran. This is all fine, leaving aside the question of whether an editor at a news channel should personally and openly take sides.
Frankly, I find this disturbing even if I think the cause is a good one. Journalists are supposed to be as neutral as possible. If they are reporting on something evil, they don’t have to take a personal stance on it. Just report the facts and assuming you’re right the reader or viewer will draw the appropriate conclusion. Alas, this kind of thinking about journalism is as dead as the dodo or the steam locomotive.
The problem, of course, is that once journalists decide to support one cause you might agree is a good one, they then go off backing a dozen others which don’t fit into that category. It sounds good that the poor, the “victimized,” and the “underdog” should be supported. But before you can say “suicide bomber” or “populist dictatorship,” that definition has come to encompass some dreadful things.
Yet what’s really bizarre about Nasr’s approach is that she speaks as if this cleric's statement is something new, that suddenly a single call for using violence in the name of Islam is some shocking innovation.
But the Islamist regime in Iran has been in power for 30 years, doing precisely what it is doing today. Islamism—which rather explicitly bases itself on a vision of Islam—has been in business for even longer. The Iranian regime has executed hundreds of people over the years, tortured many more by defining their activities as being against proper Islam.
Meanwhile, thousands of terrorist attacks have been staged, tens of thousands of innocent civilians murdered in the name of Islam. The Saudi religious police go about their business; the Taliban terrorized Afghanistan. Writers are intimidated or killed, women who step out of line are murdered, and genocide against the Jews is advocated.
And if we go back to past centuries we can find no shortage of occasions when Islam has been the basis of repression, aggressive warfare, and other such things.
So why suddenly is a cleric calling for putting down an opposition to a stolen election the beginning of a discovery on these matters?
And how can a non-Muslim confidentally state that the actions of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, including top clerics who have spent their life studying Islam are just flatly wrong because people who aren't Muslims think so?
Of course, she could say that there are two camps in Islam and she prefers the moderate one wins. She can cite many Muslims who do have a different interpretation of their religion (and are sometimes repressed or even murdered for having expressed it). But to say that a high proportion of actually living, breathing Muslims who believe in Islamism or the most common interpretations of Sharia law and jihad have just arrived from another planet with no connection to anything in their own religion isn't going to work.
Equally of course, it is better that such a discovery about what's going on in the world is being made. But let’s face it. The reason for the shock now is that the people being so repressed:
--Look like us in terms of their clothing and mannerisms because they are urban, middle class, and visibly Westernized in mannerisms and clothing.
--Are on television and computer.
--Are engaging in activities (peaceful mass demonstrations) on behalf of a cause (fair elections) which we can imagine ourselves doing and supporting.
The author, who is from a strongly Christian background in Lebanon, must be most familiar with the operations of Hizballah and the civil war there. Is Nasr, the Middle East editor at CNN, telling us that she's shocked to see radical Islamists preaching an intolerant version of Islam and implementing it? And is she equally telling us that very few Muslims believe this kind of thing?
Consider one detail of her own background. Nasr has a special interest in theatre, including having acted herself on the stage. If she were a Muslim woman, acting in a play might have been sufficient to inspire her family to murder her (in an urban middle class Beirut Sunni family, less likely of course but the point still applies) or certainly she would have been intimidated enough not to try. Could she possibly be unaware of this fact?
What we should be talking about is not the purity of Islam but the battle within Islam and the aggressive efforts of radical Islamists against others. Islam is being used—you can say abused if you want--in Iran and by other groups whose activities affect millions of people, from stoning in Afghanistan or Somalia, to decapitations in Thailand, to suicide bombings even in Spain, Britain, and on the New York skyline.
The article is entitled, "'Punished mercilessly'–Is this Islam?" In your or my preferred interpretation, perhaps not. But of course this is nothing new and also something extraordinarily important. One might better use the title: “`Punished mercilessly’—This is Islamism” or an interpretation of Islam which we don't like but one that is quite well-grounded on accepted and traditional Muslim history and sources.
If Nasr were a mere academic, it would not be so surprising she would say such things. But it is frightening to see a top journalist show such a naïve view of the world and its modern history, as well as apparent incomprehension of the workings of ideology, power, and politics.