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Parshat Va’eira

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler
Published: 15 January 2010

It has been said that nature has a way of echoing human emotions. This concept, which is used as a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy,” finds itself powerfully expressed in our sedra of Va’eira, which describes seven of the 10 “makkot” or plagues that the Almighty rains upon the Egyptians.

Interestingly we find that the number seven in Kabbalistic literature represents “teva,” nature. In a sense we are treated here to a drama in which God turns nature on its head as a sign not only of His wondrous and powerful ways, but in divine protest over the egregious acts of the Egyptian people who were more than complicit with their Pharaoh in oppressing our Israelite ancestors. In many ways, in their slavish service to the gods of their day, they abused and misappropriated the forces of nature. All questions of theodicy aside, which are deserving of a separate study and analysis, one can find in each plague an element of justice done, or “middah k’neged middah.”

Indeed, “mei-oz yatzah matok” — from the bitter can come something sweet — and it is possible to mine from the expanse of destruction, lessons by which to live and improve our human condition. Consider as an example the seventh plague, that of hail. The Torah text writes that “there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been seen in the entire land of Egypt (Exodus 9:24).” The Hebrew words “v’eish mitlakachat b’toch ha-barad” (“fire flaming within the hail”) are described in Rashi’s commentary to represent “a miracle within a miracle” in that there was fire and frozen water mixed together. And to fulfill the will of their Maker, “asu shalom beineihem,” “they made peace with each other.” In order to please their Creator they defied the laws of nature and co-mingled and worked together to create this phenomenon of nature.

Certainly what was true of hail then is true of hail today. It represents an unusual mixture of opposites in nature. This past summer I drove through a hail storm the likes of which I had never seen before and which my son managed to capture on video. Frozen balls of ice rained down on my car with a fiery ferocity. Atmospheric antonyms, then and now, manage to somehow climatically coexist. And while there is for sure despair in the devastation, there might still be a moral lesson to harvest from this act of God, namely the challenge to create in our midst, under better and more optimal circumstances, unlikely alliances; to foster partnerships for the greater good of humankind rather than sow the seeds of discord and acrimony. It is sad that it takes tragedy to oftentimes bring otherwise disparate factions together. It is unfortunate that society, and Jewish life in particular, is too often defined by what I call “the Olive Oil Syndrome.” Just as the oil used to kindle the Eternal Lamp in the Temple of old was beaten from the olives, history has repeatedly demonstrated that we shine best when pressed and under duress.

Perhaps the Almighty, in this seventh plague, seeks to challenge us to similarly achieve the unnatural and unthinkable; to fulfill His will in a coalescence of conscience and concern.

Neither the fire nor the ice lost their natural properties and separate identities in the plague of hail but they managed for that moment and cause to effect a merger of wills. How and when to suspend our hard earned principles and at times parochial interests for the greater good of community and to please the will of our Maker remains a formidable challenge given the particularity of personalities and intensity of individual interests. But the gains to society when opportunities for growth and goodness loom so large on the horizon should beckon us to try harder and more often.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Israel facing tough choices on Gaza as criticism of blockade mounts

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Following the Israeli navy’s takeover of the Gaza bound flotilla, Jerusalem is facing tough questions about its blockade of the Palestinian area. Moti Milrod/Pool/Flash90

JERUSALEM – Despite the international outcry following last week’s lethal confrontation between Israeli commandos and militant pro-Palestinian activists aboard a Turkish vessel carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israel insists its naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory is justified and will continue.

But even Israel’s closest allies backing the blockade as a legitimate means of cutting off weapons supplies to the Hamas regime, with which Israel is in an official state of belligerency, have been critical of the wider siege, which they say is hurting the people of Gaza far more than their fundamentalist rulers.

The new international predicament in which Israel finds itself raises a number of fundamental questions: How necessary is the blockade and how effective has it been? Why was it imposed in the first place? Why was it accompanied by a wider siege blocking civilian goods and movement? And what should Israel do in the face of the storm of international protest?

The blockade-siege in its present form was imposed in June 2007.

Hamas won a majority of parliamentary seats in Palestinian elections in 2006, and it formed a unity government with Abbas’ Fatah Party. The following year, Hamas staged a violent coup and took complete control of Gaza.

Israel and Egypt responded by closing land crossings into Gaza, and Israel reinstituted a naval blockade on the Gaza coast.

Israel’s rationale was that after hundreds of Hamas-inspired rocket attacks, it needed to do whatever it could to keep weapons, weapons’ manufacturing parts, and bunker-building materials out of Gaza. The siege, which also limited civilian supplies, was intended to put pressure on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit and possibly even to induce popular rebellion against Hamas.

In September 2007, following dozens more rocket attacks, Israel officially declared Gaza “a hostile territory,” buttressing legal justification for its hostile moves against it.

Moreover, by stifling economic development and living standards in Gaza while promoting them in the west bank, Israel was signaling to the Palestinians that Abbas-style coexistence would get them further than Hamas’ blanket rejectionism.

The Egyptians, concerned that Hamas radicalism could spill over into their territory, argued that opening their border with Gaza would imply recognition of the Hamas government and further undermine the legitimacy of the PA. Formally Egypt insisted on faithfully carrying out the provisions of a November 2005 agreement that provided for supervision of its Rafah crossing point with Gaza by PA and European monitors, a provision rejected by Hamas.

The 2005 “Agreement on Movement and Access” was meant to put the finishing touches on Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza two months earlier. Brokered by the United States, the aim was to ease the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza and thus enhance Palestinian productivity.

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Members of Russian American Jewish Experience and other Jewish organizations gathered outside the Israeli consulate in New York on June 1 in a show of solidarity with Israel. Ross Den

Under its terms, the main land crossing points at Rafah, Kerem Shalom, and Karni would be fully opened. There was no thought at the time of a naval blockade. On the contrary, work on a feasibility study for an independent Palestinian deepwater port in Gaza was under way.

Dov Weissglas, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s right-hand man, says that with Israel out of Gaza, the Palestinians promised an economic miracle, arguing that without the occupation to hold them back, they would show the world what Palestinians could do if given a chance and turn Gaza into a new Singapore.

According to Weissglas, plans for five-star hotels along the coast and an airport at Dahaniya were far advanced, with former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, then the international Quartet’s special representative, playing a leading role. The idea was to underpin peace between Gaza and Israel through economic progress, much as in the west bank today. The Hamas takeover, however, put an end to the Singapore dream.

Stepped-up Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians eventually led to Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli land invasion of Gaza in December 2008. After the war ended a month later, Israel’s main concern was to prevent Hamas from rearming.

Talk at the time had German, French, and British ships patrolling the Gaza coast to prevent arms smuggling. But when the idea fell through, mainly at Egypt’s insistence, Israel was left on its own to monitor maritime traffic for weapons. Last November, Israeli Navy vessels intercepted the Francop, an Antigua and Barbuda-flagged ship that was carrying hundreds of tons of Iran-supplied weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon and possibly also Hamas.

On the cover

More than 700 people turned up to show their support for Israel at the StandWithUs rally held on June 3 in Times Square. Hundreds more stopped to watch footage of the IDF boarding the Mavi Marmara while StandWithUs regional coordinator, Avi Posnick, narrated the events.

According to a group spokesman, “This was the first time the footage was shown out on the street, and the point of us doing this was to get this out to the masses.”

On June 9, the organization co-sponsored a rally at the Israeli Consulate, drawing some 2,000 people.

Hamas has been able to continue smuggling weapons through tunnels along the border between Gaza and Egypt. The Israeli fear, though, is that large ships could bring in much bigger rockets and missiles, possibly even game-changing weapons such as the accurate medium range GPS-directed M-600s Hezbollah has received from Syria. Israel sees Gaza and Lebanon as two Iranian forward positions and part of a much wider regional threat.

Many of Israel’s friends recognize its need to check ships approaching the Gaza area for weapons. But there is far less understanding for the limited inflow and often arbitrary exclusion of civilian goods — for example, keeping out unsupervised cement and steel that could be used for building bunkers or making weapons makes sense. And critics ask why thyme, coriander, chocolate, and macaroni are on the exclusion list.

Some critics say the limited influx of goods is causing a humanitarian crisis. Others argue that even if it isn’t, the restrictions constitute a form of collective punishment, which is illegal, even between warring parties.

Israel maintains that no humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza and that it is doing more than enough to prevent one. According to the Israel Defense Forces, which coordinates aid to Gaza, Israel in the first three months of 2010 sent in more than 3,600 trucks with approximately 100,000 tons of fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, animal feed, hygiene products, clothing, and shoes, as well as 1,000 tons of medical equipment.

Moreover, 10,544 Gaza residents were treated last year in Israeli hospitals. According to Western figures, the average life expectancy in Gaza is 73.68 years, compared to about 40 in some African countries, and there is as little malnutrition as in the West.

Israel also supplies 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity, its fuel needs, hypochlorite for water purification, electricity grid repair parts, and glass to fix windows, as well as cement and iron for building, under strict supervision. According to U.N. figures, updated to Jan. 30 of this year, 78 percent of homes lightly damaged in the 2008-09 Gaza war have been repaired. Other observers go even further, pointing to the well-stocked markets in Gaza, the emergence of gourmet restaurants, and the recent launching of a new Olympic-size swimming pool.

Human rights activists contend that although there is plenty of food, not everyone can afford to buy enough to meet basic needs. They say 70 percent of the factories in Gaza are closed, 40 percent of Gaza workers are unemployed, and 60 percent of households are “food insecure” — that is, they can’t be sure of having enough cash for their minimal food needs.

Whatever the true state of humanitarian affairs in Gaza, there is increasingly little tolerance from friends or foes alike of Israel’s limitations on the inflow of civilian goods.

Following a visit to Gaza in March, Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin declared that all the siege is achieving is to “enrich Hamas and marginalize even further the voices of moderation.” And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the siege in its present form as “unsustainable and unacceptable.”

To some extent, it seems, continued Israeli insistence on the civilian blockade could undermine the far more vital military blockade. And that’s precisely what the militant blockade runners aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara and others that might follow are trying to achieve: to delegitimize Israel’s blockade altogether and enable the free entry of all ships to Gaza, even those carrying military cargoes.

Israelis are divided over how to go about maintaining the blockade. The government argues that the best course of action is to make Israel’s moral and legal case, and expose the delegitimizers. The opposition retorts that Israel can only hope to deflect international criticism by embracing credible peace policies. In other words, that criticism of Israel was so spontaneous and severe after the confrontation on the high seas because the government was widely perceived as not being committed to ending the occupation.

Opposition voices also suggest that the government should rethink the civilian siege, which they say has not achieved its goals: After four years in captivity, Shalit has not been released or even so much as allowed a visit by the Red Cross, and there is little sign of the siege sparking an anti-Hamas uprising. They conclude that the failed policy is costing Israel heavily in diplomatic coin, leaving it more isolated than at any other time in its history.

The government faces some big decisions: First, whether to allow an international presence in an inquiry into the confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara; second, whether to ease the civilian siege to ensure continued international backing for the military blockade; and third, whether to present a new initiative on peacemaking with the Palestinians.

JTA

 
 

The U.S. is committed to Israel’s security, preventing Iranian nukes

 

Komen Race for the Cure to be run in Israel

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From left, Hadassah President Nancy Falchuk, Susan G. Komen lay leader Hadassah Lieberman, and Komen CEO Nancy Brinker speak with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Birkat at a press conference in Washington on April 28. Courtesy of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

The world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is partnering with Jerusalem, Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, health advocates, and scientists for a week of breast cancer-related events.

The Komen organization is launching the Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative, a partnership with nongovernmental organizations in Israel, to enhance advocacy, awareness, screening, and treatment of breast cancer in Israel during the week of Oct. 25 to 29.

A series of events will include a think tank on breast cancer, a mission to Israel, and Komen’s famed Race for the Cure, which will be held just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.

While not an overtly Jewish charity, Komen has deep Jewish roots. Nancy Brinker started the organization in 1982 after her sister, Susan Komen, died of breast cancer. Brinker is Jewish, as was Komen.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has invested more than $27 million in funding for international breast cancer research and more than $17 million in international community education and outreach programs. Komen has partnered or funded programs in more than 50 countries.

While most of the money raised by Komen goes to general breast cancer causes, the organization has given $2 million for research in Israel through the Weizmann Institute of Science, Hebrew University-Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Beit Natan, and Life’s Door. In the United States it has ties to Hadassah, Sharsheret, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This will be the first time, however, that Komen has held the 5K Race for the Cure in Israel.

“This is exciting. For me it is very exciting,” said Hadassah Lieberman, who joined Komen as its global ambassador several years ago when the organization ran its first international race in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The race has since been held in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Egypt.

“We have been thinking about Jerusalem for a while,” said Lieberman, the wife of Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman. “It has been one of the places where these things take a while to coordinate.”

According to Komen officials, breast cancer is the most common form of women’s cancer in Israel, accounting for nearly 30 percent of new cancer cases in the country. About 4,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in Israel each year.

In bringing the race to Israel, Susan G. Komen for the Cure hopes to spark new collaborations with organizations such as the Israel Cancer Association and to raise awareness of breast cancer in Israel.

“Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s very first international research grant went to Israel 16 years ago, and we have enjoyed longstanding friendships and productive collaborations in Israel ever since,” Brinker said in a statement announcing the Israel project. “The new Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative takes our relationships to the next level — in partnership with the city of Jerusalem, Hadassah, government leaders, advocates, and our global partners — as we work to address the critical issues in breast cancer for the women of Israel and the world.”

This might seem a precarious time for an international fund-raising organization to broaden its ties with Israel, with the country feeling the fallout of the flotilla incident in terms of public opinion, but Lieberman says she does not believe it will be an issue for Komen’s fund-raising.

“Everyone, whether it is Jewish organizations or Christian populations, is really excited about this race because we never have had a chance to do it in Jerusalem,” she said. “It’s very been exciting and positive, particularly at times like this, when you have to understand that this illness has no border and boundary and you understand the cure has no border and boundary.”

Lieberman added, “It is very special to be able to go to the Kotel to put a note in the [Western Wall], and for some of these women to go there and have a prayer for themselves or for their sisters’ or aunts’ health, and spread awareness around Israel.”

JTA

 
 

Reaction mixed to announcement on easing of Gaza blockade

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On Monday, the day after Israel announced that it was easing the Gaza blockade, an Israeli truck driver walks by trucks filled with goods bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza is drawing both praise and criticism.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ease land-based civilian imports to the Gaza Strip; the naval blockade will remain in place.

The move garnered praise from the White House, which released a statement Sunday saying it welcomed the new policy toward Gaza.

“Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons,” the statement said. “We strongly re-affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, and our commitment to work with Israel and our international partners to prevent the illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza.”

Turkey, which lost nine citizens when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla determined to break the blockade, continued to slam Israel following the announcement.

“If the Israeli government really wishes to prove that they have given up the act of piracy and terror, they should primarily apologize and claim responsibility in the slaying of nine people on May 31,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for European Union affairs, according to The New York Times.

The blockade of Gaza was put into place by Israel and Egypt in June 2007 after Hamas violently wrested power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It was designed to thwart the import of weapons or weapons-capable material into Gaza and pressure the coastal strip’s rulers into releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in 2006.

An economic blockade had been in place since Shalit’s abduction.

Pressure on Israel to ease the latter blockade, which had been climbing steadily, increased dramatically following last month’s Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening to announce the easing of the blockade, reportedly played a central role in establishing the new protocols for Gaza. The Quartet — a grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — issued a statement after Israel’s announcement calling for its rapid implementation and an easing of the conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Under the new rules, all items except those on a published blacklist will be allowed into Gaza. Until now, only items specifically permitted were allowed into Gaza. The blacklist will be limited to weapons and war materiel, including “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian or military purposes. Construction materials for housing projects and projects under international supervision will be permitted, according to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet.

The plan also calls for increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza and opening up more crossings, as well as streamlining the movement of people to and from the strip for medical treatment.

Despite the easing of the land blockade, Israel will continue to inspect all goods bound for Gaza by sea at the port of Ashdod.

Israel called on the international community “to stop the smuggling of weapons and war materiels into Gaza.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised Israel’s plan but took a wait-and-see attitude.

“The test now is how the new policy will be carried out,” he said.

German officials called for a complete end to the blockade in the wake of Israel’s refusal to allow Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, to enter Gaza during a four-day visit to the region.

For their part, Hamas officials said the easing of the blockade was not good enough to relieve the distress of the Gaza population. They called the changes “cosmetic,” according to Ynet.

In Israel, the announcement received mixed reviews. Some lawmakers, including ones from the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party, criticized the government for buckling under pressure, saying the move would strengthen Hamas. But others, such as Labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, praised it. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi called it insufficient, saying the blockade should be lifted completely.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the French news agency AFP that the blockade should be abolished altogether.

“These steps alone are not sufficient,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “and all efforts must be exerted to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.”

JTA

 
 

Local town affirms support for Israel

The Fair Lawn Borough Council passed a non-binding, non-partisan resolution Tuesday night supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.

Sponsored by Fair Lawn resident Sam Heller, a member of Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation, the resolution had been moved to the top of the council’s agenda at its working session last Tuesday.

According to Heller, the idea came to him when he was driving home from Daughters of Miriam in Clifton, where he is a volunteer. The resolution — which includes a concise history of the State of Israel and describes in detail acts of terrorism by Hamas — states that Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza to prevent Hamas from getting materials to use against Israel and other parties. It further states that only after cargoes are inspected may humanitarian aid supplies pass through to Gaza.

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Sam Heller

Citing recent events and describing what happened when Israel Defense Forces soldiers tried to board the sixth ship in the flotilla from Turkey, the conclusion of the one-page resolution read, “We therefore resolve to demonstrate our support for Israel during this crisis in its efforts to control its borders and protect its people.”

Councilman Edward J. Trawinski said that passage of the resolution would be “the proverbial no-brainer” and that once it passed, it should be sent to Sens. Lautenberg and Menendez and Rep. Steven Rothman. Trawinski, a Republican, also asked that the resolution be amended to contain a statement that President Obama be called upon “to reverse his anti-Israel stand.”

Heller insisted, however, that his intention was to create a non-partisan resolution. A compromise was proposed in which wording would be included calling upon the president to speak out in support of Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of ongoing terrorism. The proposal was accepted and included in the original resolution.

Heller later told The Jewish Standard that some of his supporters felt that the language he used was not strong enough in condemning the administration for its policies on Israel.

“But that’s not what I wanted,” he said. “I learned from NORPAC that the non-partisan approach works best. That’s why I first approached the Democratic councilman, Steven Weinstein, and asked him to introduce the resolution.” Heller is a registered Republican who left the Democratic Party to vote for Ronald Reagan.

He also approached Jeanne Baratta, a Republican, and Trawinski and told them that he sought a non-partisan statement.

“I’m really surprised it went so fast,” he said, “and I am glad it happened in a non-partisan way. My personal views are stronger than those expressed in the resolution, but that is not what this is about. I also wanted to add something about Gilad Shalit and what was really happening in Turkey, but this couldn’t become a history lesson. I wanted to keep it short and sweet, so people would accept it.”

Asked if he was worried that anti-Israel demonstrators might show up at the council meeting to create an incident, Heller said he was very careful in sending out his information.

“I am an advocate for Israel trying to win the PR war for Israel. I count this as one for the good guys. Yes, it took some political skill, but a win is a win. That is how I see it.”

 
 

Israeli-Palestinian preview

Who’s coming to dinner at the White House?

WASHINGTON – The White House dinner on Sept. 1, prior to the official launch of renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks, will be key to outlining the contours of the negotiations.

“The dinner will help to restore trust,” Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s top Iran policy official, said in a conference call last Friday with Jewish organizational leaders.

Unless, that is, it turns into a food fight.

Until the dinner, the exact issues to be negotiated will remain unknown. What we do know is who will be there and where they’re coming from. Here’s a preview.

Benjamin Netanyahu – Israeli prime minister

The proposed talks will mark the second time that the 60-year-old Netanyahu has engaged in negotiations with a Palestinian partner under U.S. pressure. Last time, in 1997, while facing then-President Bill Clinton and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu ceded a degree of control around Hebron to the Palestinians. He has since suggested that he regrets the concession: He was recorded as telling a grieving settler family in 2001 that his agreement was little more than a ruse to keep a hostile administration at bay. Also, his revered father, Benzion Netanyahu, was known not to be happy with the concession.

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Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyau, right, seen here with U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in Jerusalem on Aug. 11, welcomed Mitchell’s announcement of new direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Moshe Milner/GPO

Having completed a slow climb back to the premiership after his plunge in popularity following his first term, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu reportedly sees himself in a much stronger position vis-à-vis Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama than he was with Arafat and Clinton.

Netanyahu wants to get security issues out of the way before he talks final-status issues like Jerusalem, borders, and refugees. Making sure that he has a plan to protect Israelis will be key in the effort to pitch concessions to an Israeli public still wary of the pounding Israel took after it withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

The immediate question for Netanyahu is whether or not he’ll extend the self-imposed, partial, 10-month settlement construction freeze that is set to expire in late September. If he doesn’t, Abbas has said he’ll quit the talks.

Mahmoud Abbas – Palestinian Authority president

Abbas, 75, is a successor to Arafat who has been far less problematic for his Western allies but far less esteemed by the Palestinian people. His nadir came when Hamas militants drove the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in a bloody coup in 2007. Since then, Abbas has endeavored to reestablish his Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority as the inevitable repository of Palestinian ambitions for statehood.

Negotiations are the only way for Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy trumps violence as a means to statehood. Abbas insists that Israel agree to a permanent settlement freeze, and he wants to make sure the talks get to the final-status issues as soon as possible so he can show his constituents that he is reaping the benefits of cooperation.

Barack Obama – president of the United States

It is tempting to cast the haste with which President Obama, 49, has organized these talks for early September as a sign of his panic at the prospect of November congressional elections that seem likely to result in losses for the Democratic party.

However, such an analysis would ignore the fact that Obama was pressing hard for talks months ago, when his approval ratings were much higher; it would also disregard America’s broader foreign policy strategy in the region. For the United States, having the talks now gives Netanyahu a reason to extend his settlement moratorium and thereby sustain Arab support for U.S. policies elsewhere in the Middle East. This support is seen as key while Obama attempts to juggle other crises in the region, including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and the simmering concern over Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions.

A peace treaty also would signal U.S. strength in the region; a Palestinian state would allow Arab governments some leeway in explaining to their populace why they are aligning with a U.S. effort to isolate the Iranian theocracy.

The U.S. posture has been to insist that these are direct talks, but Obama has not been shy about threatening direct intervention if there are stumbles.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II

The United States sees both these figures as critical to making the talks — and, eventually, Palestinian statehood — work.

Egypt maintains some sway over Hamas, and controls access to a major entry into Gaza. Jordan has been deeply involved in helping to train the P.A. police force, and would be a natural outlet for a resurgent Palestinian economy. Both countries are Israel’s only neighbors officially at peace with the Jewish state.

Mubarak, 82, is known to be ill and eager to transfer power smoothly to his son, Gamal Mubarak; containing the Gaza problem and playing a role in birthing a Palestinian state would provide a much-needed boost to Mubarak rule.

Abdullah, 48, is also eager to contain Islamist extremism and has in recent years positioned his regime as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. The emergence of a Palestinian state in the west bank would also help to quell the notion that Abdullah’s kingdom, where the majority of the population is Palestinian, should be the Palestinian state.

Hillary Clinton – U.S. Secretary of State

Clinton, 62, is set to play the role of the primary broker at the peace talks. Beginning Sept. 2, she will host the first substantive talks Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have had since 2000. That is a sign of Obama’s increasing confidence in his one-time bitter rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton aides have leaked to the press their frustration with the perceived limits on her role, saying she has been kept out of the big games. That is changing, as evidenced not only by her newly central role in these talks, but also in her recent front-line exposure as she urged her former Senate colleagues to support new arms treaties with Russia. Israelis have been hoping for Clinton’s return, despite her role in March in dressing down Netanyahu over Israel’s announcement, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, of a large housing start in eastern Jerusalem. Clinton long has been seen as having strong emotional ties to Israel — ties that Israelis feel Obama lacks.

It probably doesn’t hurt that she spent part of her daughter Chelsea’s wedding this summer carried aloft in a chair during the dancing of the hora.

JTA

 
 

Israel and Jews worldwide should support an independent South Sudan

 

Unrest in Egypt could lead to Israel’s worst nightmare

JERUSALEM – For Israel, the popular uprising against the Mubarak regime raises the specter of its worst strategic nightmare: collapse of the peace treaty with Egypt, the cornerstone of its regional policy for the past three decades.

That is not the inevitable outcome of the unrest; a modified version of the Mubarak government could survive and retain the “cold peace” with Israel. But if, in a worst case scenario, democratic or Islamic forces were to come to power denouncing Israel and repudiating the peace deal, that could herald the resurrection of a major military threat on Israel’s southern border.

The largely American-equipped and American-trained Egyptian army — by far the most powerful military in the Arab world — numbers around 650,000 men, with 60 combat brigades, 3500 tanks, and 600 fighter planes. For Israel, the main strategic significance of the peace with Egypt is that it has been able to take the threat of full-scale war against its strongest foe out of the military equation. But a hostile regime change in Cairo could compel Israel to rethink its military strategy, restructure its combat forces, and, in general, build a bigger army, diverting billions of shekels to that end with major social and economic consequences.

A hostile government in Cairo could also mean that Egypt would be aiding and abetting the radical Hamas regime in neighboring Gaza, rather than, as at present, helping to contain it.

Worse: If there is a domino effect that also leads to an anti-Israel regime change in Jordan, with its relatively large Islamic political presence, Israel could find itself facing an augmented military threat on its eastern border, too. That could leave it even worse off than it was before 1977, facing a combined military challenge from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians — with the added menace of a fundamentalist Iran that seeks to acquire nuclear weapons.

The strategic importance of the peace with Egypt has come to the fore during a number of crises over the past decade. Without it, the second Palestinian intifada (2000-2005), the Second Lebanon War (2006), and the Gaza war (2008-2009) could easily have triggered wider regional hostilities. But in each case, in the teeth of region-wide popular sentiment against Israel, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak adamantly rejected calls to commit Egyptian soldiers to the fray. On the contrary, Mubarak was critical of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of Hamas in Gaza for provoking senseless killing, and he played a significant role in achieving postwar ceasefire arrangements. “Not everything Mubarak did was right,” President Shimon Peres declared Monday. “But he did one thing for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. He kept the peace in the Middle East.”

Because Mubarak has served as a bulwark against regional chaos and was for decades a central pillar of American strategy against the radical forces led by Iran, Israelis found it baffling that President Obama turned his back on the embattled Egyptian leader so quickly. Pundits argued that Obama’s stance sent a deeply disconcerting message to America’s moderate allies across the region, from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, that they, too, might be as peremptorily abandoned in time of need. That message, the pundits said, might drive those equally autocratic leaders elsewhere for support, even possibly toward America’s regional foe, Iran. Secondly, the pundits insisted that by distancing himself from Mubarak, Obama was encouraging the would-be revolutionary opposition in Egypt in a gamble that could prove counterproductive to American and Western interests. Clearly, the American president was hoping for democracy in Egypt and a concomitant increase in popular support for America across the region.

In his Cairo speech in June 2009, Obama offered the Muslim peoples of the Middle East a new beginning. Now, he seems to be using the Egyptian crisis to underscore that appeal to the Muslim masses. But Israeli pundits warn that this is most unlikely to work. They maintain that instead of democracy in Egypt, there could well be a two-stage revolutionary process — an initial quasi-democracy, overtaken within months by the emergence of an autocratic Islamic republic under the heel of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be similar to what happened when the United States supported pro-democracy forces against the Shah in Iran in the 1970s, only to see the emergence of the fundamentalist ayatollahs. Moreover, in the event of an eventual Muslim Brotherhood victory, the big regional winner would be fundamentalist Iran.

Israeli diplomats across the globe have been instructed to quietly make the case for the importance of stability in Egypt. Careful not to exacerbate an already delicate situation by saying anything that might be construed as support for one side or the other, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has merely reaffirmed Israel’s desire to preserve regional stability. But it is safe to assume that his government would be relieved to see power remaining in the hands of Egypt’s current ruling elite — say, through a peaceful handover to Mubarak’s recently appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman.

The Israeli hope is that Suleiman, the former head of Egypt’s intelligence services and a major player in everything related to Egyptian-Israeli ties, would be able to continue Egypt’s pro-Western alignment and its support for the peace deal with Israel, while allowing a greater degree of democracy in Egypt and pre-empting the rise of an Islamic republic. But it is unclear how much popular support he can muster, given his close ties down the years with Mubarak, who seemingly overnight has become the most hated man in Egypt.

However the events in Egypt play out, they will clearly have an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The very notion of a threat to the peace with Egypt will almost certainly further reduce the Netanyahu government’s readiness to take risks for peace. In a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu re-emphasized the importance he attaches to the security element in any peace package — “in case the peace unravels.” As for the Palestinians, the Egyptian protests could trigger Palestinian demonstrations pressing for statehood — without peace or mutual concessions.

As usual, events seem to be reinforcing both sides of the Israeli political divide in their core beliefs. The right is already saying that Israel should not make peace unless it can be assured of ironclad security arrangements, and the left maintains that if only Israel had already made peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, then popular unrest such as the protests in Egypt would not be potentially so earth-shattering.

Either way, the events in Egypt are not good news for those advocating Israeli-Arab peacemaking. They could push efforts to resolve the conflict back several decades.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Which Mideast autocracy will be next?

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Algerian protesters face off against riot police in the capital city of Algiers on Monday. magharebia/Creative Commons

With popular uprisings having toppled two Arab dictators in the space of just a few weeks and unrest reverberating across the Middle East, are other regimes likely to fall, too?

Nearly everywhere in the region, autocratic leaders seem to be on the defensive. Using carrots or sticks, and sometimes both, they’re struggling to curb growing protest movements.

In Jordan two weeks ago, amid spreading protests, King Abdullah II dismissed his prime minister and cabinet, promising reforms. In the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, police countered protesters’ “Day of Rage” this week with rubber bullets and tear gas, while the king tried to defuse opposition by promising a $2,650 payment of “appreciation” to every Bahraini family. In Kuwait, too, the ruling emir announced cash grants to every citizen.

In Iran this week, government forces used violence to block demonstrators from massing in main squares, despite Tehran’s rhetorical support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Yemen and Algeria, protesters and police battled in the streets. In the west bank, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would hold long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections by September, and this week the PA prime minister dismissed his cabinet.

Long a mostly impotent force in Arab politics, the Arab street suddenly has discovered its power, and it’s ushering in change from Tunis to Amman — not to mention fraying nerves in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Activists in other countries are trying to use the example of Egypt and Tunisia to mobilize large numbers of people to the streets,” said David Siddhartha Patel, a political scientist at Cornell University.

Despite the spreading protests, experts cautioned against predicting the collapse of additional regimes. While the Arab street has drawn lessons from Egypt and Tunisia, so have their autocratic rulers.

“Will people demonstrate and protest? Yes,” said Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s program of Global Research in International Affairs. “Will people overthrow governments? I think the answer is no.”

In Israel, the sudden change in Egypt has ignited a sharp debate along partisan lines about lessons to be learned and the efficacy of peacemaking with the Arab world.

“The right wing says you cannot really negotiate agreements with Arabs because the agreements will not be kept because their states are not stable,” said retired Israeli Brig.-Gen Shlomo Brom, an expert on Arab politics at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The left will say, the lesson is that because of the instability of the Middle East, we should be interested in minimizing friction between us and the Arab world by having ongoing negotiations for peace.”

The calculus for every country is different, and the elements that made for the success of Egypt’s uprising were a uniquely combustible combination that may not transfer elsewhere.

High unemployment, a yawning rich-poor gap, widespread government corruption, and deteriorating quality-of-life metrics made Hosni Mubarak almost universally despised in his country, uniting Islamists and secularists in opposition. Egypt faced a looming succession crisis that undermined the legitimacy of the 82-year-old president, who wanted to hand over power to his son, Gamal.

Once the protests began in earnest, Egypt’s government, which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, was subject to American pressure on how to confront the demonstrators. Perhaps most significant, the Egyptian army opted to side with the protesters over the regime, declining to use violence against the people and essentially turning what had begun as a popular uprising into a military coup.

That stands in stark contrast to Iran, which put down mass protests a year and a half ago following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The key state security forces did the government’s bidding at the time, and with gusto: They beat and shot demonstrators, jailed dissenters, and executed organizers.

This time, the regime is making sure that mass protests never materialize by choking off main arteries leading to central squares, deploying hundreds of riot officers, and banning marches in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Already pariahs in the West, Tehran’s rulers have little to hold them back from unleashing the full might of their security apparatus to stay in power.

Syria and Iran have another card to play when it comes to staunching opposition.

“Their anti-U.S. and anti-Israel posture lends them the claim that whoever rises against them are agents of the U.S. and Israel,” Dorraj said. “This was not available to Mubarak.”

Jordan, the only Arab country besides Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel, is seen to be in a more vulnerable position. Its ruler hails from a minority group in a country whose population is mostly Palestinian. In recent weeks, even the native Jordanian tribes in the minority that compose the king’s traditional power base went public with charges of corruption against Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania. Also, the painful domestic effects of the global economic crisis have increased popular discontent in Jordan.

As protests — a recurring presence in the kingdom — gained steam following the unrest in Egypt, Abdullah moved quickly to announce political reforms, firing his government and installing a new, conservative cabinet designed to placate Jordan’s powerful tribes. The moves, and the king’s relative popularity compared with Mubarak in Egypt, weigh in Abdullah’s favor.

“Here we see a difference between Jordan on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other: Jordan made some concessions, where the governments of Iran and Syria will not give an inch,” Rubin observed.

“In Jordan, it’s different from Egypt and Tunisia — everybody likes the king,” Faisal Al-Rfouh, a former Jordanian culture minister and now a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, told JTA in an interview from Amman.

Perhaps the Middle Eastern country most vulnerable to revolution is Yemen, which like Mubarak’s Egypt is plagued by high poverty, unemployment, discontent with the regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Long ravaged by internal conflicts, Yemen is seen as a key front in the war against al-Qaeda and terrorism. If Saleh goes, it’s not clear that Yemen’s government will remain allied with the West against Islamic extremism.

“There is one lesson we can learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian cases,” Brom said. “That is that nobody is immune and there are strong limitations to our ability to make forecasts.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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