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Former Sharon adviser Gissin tells what it takes to make Mideast peace — and it will surprise you

Iran’s influence in the Middle East must be curbed before Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, according to Raanan Gissin, former senior adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Whether the Israelis and Palestinians like it or not, he said, the Iranian regime holds the key to Middle East peace.

Gissin spoke twice at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week about the Iranian threat, first to the general public on May 6 and again in a special Hebrew-only session with the local Israeli community on May 8. Gissin, who has a more than 30-year career in Israeli government and strategic affairs, shared his insights with The Jewish Standard at a private Teaneck home late last week.

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Iran is the key to the Middle East, says Raanan Gissin. Jerry Szubin

When Sharon would visit with President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, Gissin related, he would always say that Iraq is the immediate threat in the Middle East, but Iran is the long-term threat.

“Today the Iranian threat is like global warming,” Gissin said. “Everybody talks about it. Everybody is concerned about. It affects everyone, but nobody knows what to do about it. With global warming you still have some time. With the Iranian threat, time is running out.”

The Obama administration has renewed its focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is pushing his own plan to unilaterally declare a state in 2012. Neither of these paths, however, will succeed in bringing about full peace, Gissin said, because terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah take their marching orders from Tehran, which is comfortably brushing off the West’s demands to curb its nuclear program and has an interest in keeping global attention focused on Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

“Without Iran being weakened or contained, there’s no prospect for these developments to take place,” he said. “If Iran wants to change its policy, Hamas and Hezbollah will also have to change. It all comes back to Iran right now.”

The nuclear issue

The Iranian threat is not just its burgeoning nuclear program or the concern that a nuclear Iran might hand off an atomic bomb to one of its terrorist proxies. According to Gissin, the Iranian regime has designs on redrawing the map of the Middle East, and then the West, into a Muslim empire with Tehran at the helm. Israel would be first on its chopping block, but Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan stand to lose a great deal as well.

“Iran is trying to relentlessly push for its ultimate goal and achieve hegemony of its brand of Islam over the rest of the world,” Gissin said.

The Sunni Islamic world is frightened that Shi’ite Islam, led by Iran, is gaining a stronger foothold, according to Gissin. The response, he said, has so far been appeasement. Turkey, for example, has been hedging its bets and moving closer to Iran’s extremist corner.

Israel, however, is “the one joker in the card deck.”

“They’re afraid of [Israel],” Gissin said. “They fear it because Israel has in its hands the capability to really spoil their plan.”

But Gissin doesn’t recommend military action against Iran. That, he said, would lead to a regional war with Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as traditional armies such as Syria’s.

U.S.-led negotiations with Iran are not the answer to the nuclear problem either, according to Gissin. Iran’s negotiations with the West are meant only to buy the regime more time, according to Gissin, and the regime is very patient.

“If they are set out to achieve Islamic domination, then there is no way to negotiate,” he said. “They can negotiate the terms of your surrender. You can’t have any kind of meaningful negotiation.”

What America needs to do, he said, is change the behavior of the regime by threatening what it values most: its power. By instilling a sense of fear within the government hierarchy that it could be overthrown, the government will be forced to focus on its own survival instead of regional domination. For example, if the regime is forced to spend its resources on its own security because of increased threats from Iranian dissidents, then there are fewer resources for its nuclear program or global terrorist organizations.

“The only way you can prevent Iran from taking action is if they’re concentrated on their own lives inside Iran,” he said.

The West, therefore, needs to work from within Iran to cultivate fear in its leaders that their power could be taken away, Gissin said. That means supporting the growing protests in the streets and increasing pressure on the government. At present, the Iranian government doesn’t have a sense that it is being pursued and therefore can comfortably delay negotiations with the West while stoking the fires in regional conflicts.

Gissin projected that the West has a deadline of maybe two years before Iran completes its nuclear work. He proposed that Western powers spend that time in a concerted effort to operate inside Iran to create an atmosphere of fear within the government,

“Iran is creating fear among Arab countries,” he said. “I don’t think there is any Arab leader today who doesn’t think about what will be Iran’s next move. They don’t sleep well at night in their beds. You have to create a situation where [the Iranian leadership] can’t sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Analysts who believe solving the Israel-Palestinian problem is the first step to peace in the Middle East and then taming the Iranian threat are mistaken, he said. It’s the other way around.

“If the United States will take action to contain Iran, then there will be peace,” he said.

Only after the Iranian issue is resolved — or the regime is at least preoccupied with its own survival — can the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians move forward, Gissin said.

Israelis and Palestinians this month revived stalled peace negotiations with proximity talks featuring shuttle diplomacy from U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said in The Jerusalem Post last week that peace talks are doomed to fail because no Palestinian leader can accept less than what the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was offered in 2000, and no Jewish Israeli leader can offer more. Gissin agreed, and shared Shalom’s pessimism about the success of the talks, but said that the appearance of movement is still better than allowing the entire process to fall apart.

Gissin was witness to Israel’s last major concession for peace: the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank, orchestrated by the Sharon government. The plan, which resulted in the removal of thousands of Jewish settlers and eventually paved the way for Hamas’ takeover of the strip, achieved partial success, Gissin said. Israel gained certain security guarantees from the United States as a result of the move, as well as relative freedom from international pressure to carry out its wars against Iranian proxies Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008-09.

“It didn’t succeed in being a corridor to peace,” he said. “The reason is not because of good will in Israel or [from] the Palestinians. It has to do with Hamas and Iran. These two definitely don’t want to see a peace process under way.”

Turning his attention to regional peace in the Middle East, Gissin said that the Arabs are not ready for peace with Israel, nor has Israel succeeded in arguing its case to them.

Israelis do not want peace as much as they want peace of mind, Gissin said. Peace of mind, he continued, means acknowledging that Israel has problems, but continuing to run the country, send kids to school, and have a thriving economy.

“It’s carving some security out of chaos,” he said. “That’s what most Israelis want. If you have strong leadership, you can do it.”

Israel-Arab relations

The Arab world is not ready for peace with Israel, according to Gissin, and part of that is Israel’s fault. The country has failed to explain its position to its neighbors, he explained. The Jewish state has focused too much on its security needs and not its right to be there in the first place. Aside from Egypt, he said, Israel is the only country in the region with historical boundaries.

“It’s the power of our rights and not our right to use power,” he said. “Everybody knows that we’re powerful. In order to have normal relations between Israel and the Arab world, they must realize we also have the right to self-determination.”

The media battle is Israel’s new war, Gissin said, and to win it, Israel needs to turn to its strongest advocates, especially non-government organizations. The college campus, he said, is one area where Israel is losing the battle. Israel advocates are intimidated, he said, because the level of animosity toward the Jewish state is so high, and Israel should be sending its best representatives to the campuses.

Gissin recalled that Abba Eban once said there are three elements to being a good spokesperson for Israel: speaking with conviction about your rights, speaking with compassion toward your enemies, and speaking with passion to your people.

“We excelled at fighting terrorism,” Gissin said. “We excelled at fighting suicide bombers. There’s no reason we can’t excel at changing the war on the media battlefield and win,” he said.

 
 

It’s how you say it that matters

 

Why Israel allowed the settlement freeze to expire

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Bulldozers get to work in the Israeli west bank settlement of Revava on Sept. 27, the day after Israel’s 10-month settlement construction freeze expired. Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – In the four weeks since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed, settlement construction has been identified widely as the most immediate obstacle to the survival of negotiations.

In media accounts about the diplomatic standoff over the issue, Israel’s decision not to extend its self-imposed 10-month freeze on settlement building has been portrayed as a slap in the face to the Obama administration, deepening Israel’s occupation of the west bank and creating more stumbling blocks to a final peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

News Analysis

This week, world leaders reportedly telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him to extend the freeze. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to settlement building following a meeting in Paris with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Quartet peacemaking envoy Tony Blair met with Netanyahu twice over four days. All to no avail.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, say they will wait a week before carrying out the threat of withdrawing from the peace talks.

“Of course we don’t want to end negotiations; we want to continue,” Abbas told Europe 1 radio, according to Israel’s daily Haaretz. “But if colonization continues, we will be forced to end them.”

In Israel, the only response is the rumbling of earth-moving equipment headed for construction sites in the west bank.

That’s because what is perceived around the world as Israeli stubbornness is seen much differently in Israel. The differences in outlook cut to the heart not only of how Israelis view these negotiations but how they view the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

In Jerusalem, it is the Palestinians who are seen as stubborn for sticking to their insistence that settlement building be halted before coming to the negotiating table. Never before had such a precondition been imposed on negotiations; in the past, Israelis and Palestinians talked while both continued to build in their respective west bank communities.

Having offered the freeze unilaterally 10 months ago to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and satisfy U.S. demands for an Israeli goodwill gesture, the Israeli government sees itself as the accommodating party whose gesture was never reciprocated. Rather, it took the Palestinian nine months to agree to resume negotiations, leaving virtually no time for substantive progress before the freeze expired.

Then there are the political considerations: Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition partners made clear that extending the freeze was a nonstarter. Perhaps most important, however, the freeze was seen by many Israelis as unfair.

The vast majority of the 300,000 or so Jews who live in the west bank are families living in bedroom communities within easy commuting distance of Jerusalem or metropolitan Tel Aviv. While some Israelis moved to the settlements for ideological reasons, for many the motivating factor was economic: Housing was much cheaper in the west bank than in Israel proper.

What’s more, for decades the government offered Israelis economic incentives to settle across the Green Line — the 1949 armistice line that marked the Jordan-Israel border until the 1967 Six Day War.

During the freeze, these Israelis saw themselves as unfairly penalized: Why were they barred from expanding their homes when their Palestinians neighbors were not?

“Stop making us look like monsters,” Yigal Dilmoni, director of the information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, told JTA in a recent interview.

The problem, of course, stems from the ambiguous nature of Israel’s presence in the west bank.

Most nations view the area as illegally occupied by Israel. The Israeli government views it as disputed territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. While Israel annexed some territories captured in that war (eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria) and withdrew from others either unilaterally or within a peace deal (the Sinai Peninsula in a deal with Egypt, the Gaza Strip unilaterally), Israel left the west bank in legal limbo.

The Palestinians claim the land as the site of their future state.

In Israel, many on the right believe that Israel should not cede an inch, and many on the left say settlements are a crime and the west bank should be entirely Palestinian. But the majority Israeli view is that most of the west bank will end up as Palestine, while parts of it — large Jewish settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line — will be annexed to Israel.

In almost all the scenarios, Israel plans to keep the major settlement blocs. Among them are Gush Etzion, a largely religious cluster of towns with some 55,000 people less than 10 miles from Jerusalem; Maale Adumim, a mixed religious-secular city of some 35,000 about five miles east of Jerusalem; and Modiin Illit, a haredi city of some 45,000 located less than two miles inside the west bank, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

More difficult is Ariel, a city of 18,000 located approximately 13 miles inside the west bank. Israel also aims to keep the smaller settlements near the west bank-Israel boundary. This plan encompasses the vast majority of the settler population.

Israeli officials say they have received assurances from U.S. officials that this would be the case — most notably in the April 2004 letter by then-President George W. Bush to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Operating under this assumption, the Israeli government viewed a complete, open-ended settlement freeze as unreasonable: If the major settlement blocs will be Israeli, why stop building within them?

After 10 months of an experimental freeze to see what it would elicit from the Palestinians, their return to the negotiating table was not enough. It was time for the experiment to end.

JTA

 
 

Shlomo Molla, Ethiopian member of Knesset, brings message of diversity to North Jersey

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Knesset member Shlomo Molla meets with members of Solomon Schechter Day School’s student government. Josh Lipkowsky

Few members of Israel’s Knesset can say their journeys to Israel included walking hundreds of miles and escaping from a Sudanese prison.

Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian member of Israel’s Knesset who came to the Jewish state as a teenager, told his story to members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter and students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford last Friday.

During his talk at Emanu-El, which attracted more than 40 people, he spoke about the challenges of his Kadima Party’s remaining outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Iranian threat, and Israel’s need to be a Jewish state but not necessarily one based on Jewish law.

“He’s very quick to have those conversations with people as a black Jew because he knows what it’s like to be told you don’t count,” said Emanu-El’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who met Molla at AIPAC’s Policy Conference earlier this year and arranged the visits.

At Schechter, Molla recounted his harrowing journey to Israel. Molla grew up in the Ethiopian village of Gandar, whose Jewish community traced itself back 2,500 years to the expulsion from Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple. The 16-year-old Molla had heard about the Jewish state, and he and a group of friends began a 780-kilometer journey on foot across Ethiopia to reach “the land of milk and honey and gold.”

It was a dangerous journey, Molla said, but they were motivated. Their planned route was from Ethiopia to Sudan to Egypt and finally to Israel. When they reached Sudan, however, they were accused of being spies for Ethiopia and Israel and were thrown in prison, where Molla saw one of his friends murdered. They were soon taken to a Sudanese refugee camp, where an Ethiopian reached out to Molla and his friends. He directed them to a clandestine location, where they were met by Israeli commandos who brought them to Israel in 1984.

His first shock, Molla said, was seeing all the white people. He wondered if they were really Jews, he said. He now praises the Jewish state for its diversity.

“Israel is not like America,” Molla told an assembly of SSDS’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes. “Israel is the Jewish homeland, a country for each minority of Jews.”

Eventually, Molla went to work in the same absorption centers that helped him adapt to his new life in Israel, and he became a champion of Ethiopian rights. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forming his new Kadima Party, he encouraged Molla to join its parliamentary list, and Molla has been a member of the Knesset since 2008.

Molla left nine brothers and two sisters in Ethiopia. He had no contact with his family there until they came to Israel seven years later as part of Operation Solomon in 1991, when Israel covertly airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 36 hours.

The story of the Ethiopian immigration is largely unknown to American Jewish children, Molla told The Jewish Standard. He spent last week visiting schools and synagogues in New Jersey and New York, as well as meeting with political leaders in Washington to discuss the peace process and U.S.-Israel relations.

“We need the United States to stand behind Israel,” he said, noting that the Israeli public is mostly unaware of the support President Obama has provided Israel militarily and financially.

When Obama spoke in Cairo, Germany, and Turkey during the early days of his administration, he missed an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people, Molla said.

“Obama must come talk to the Israelis eye to eye,” he said.

Molla is the second Knesset member to visit Solomon Schechter in as many months. Last month, Dalia Itzik, Israel’s first female Knesset speaker and also a member of Kadima, addressed the students.

“It’s an inspiration,” said Schechter’s head of school, Ruth Gafni, who praised the politicians as role models for the children.

While Itzik brought a message of accomplishment for Schechter’s female students, Molla reinforced ideas of diversity and inclusiveness, said Gafni, who added how important it is for the children to see that there are black Jews.

“Our goal at the school is to provide the children an opportunity for learning from the experts in any field and to inspire them with role models in any field, and have them be eyewitnesses to history,” she said. “It’s a powerful foundation they’ll carry with them for a lifetime.”

 
 

Six years on, lessons of Gaza withdrawal resonate for west bank

SHILOH, west bank – Yisrael Medad remembers when just eight families lived in the red-roofed homes in this Jewish settlement deep in the hills of the west bank.

Now some 2,500 Israelis live here, and Shiloh has playgrounds, schools, and a yeshiva. The red-roofed homes sprawl over several hills, and new homes continue to be built. At the bottom of the hill is the archeological excavation of the biblical Shiloh, where the tabernacle is believed to have been built.

Shiloh is often cited as one of the settlements likely to be uprooted under any final peace deal with the Palestinians. It is relatively isolated, about 28 miles north of Jerusalem, and halfway between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

But with little movement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Shiloh is not likely to disappear anytime soon. And even in the long term, any discussion of dismantling Jewish settlements in the west bank is haunted by Israel’s experience six years ago this summer, when the removal of some 9,000 settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip was followed by a Hamas takeover of Gaza and rocket attacks against Israel.

“The expulsion from Gaza should serve as a warning for any withdrawal from Judea and Samaria,” said Hamutal Cohen of the Committee for the Residents of Gush Katif, which was the largest bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza. “The government totally failed with 9,000 settlers. How can they manage with tens of thousands?”

Only 20 percent of the 1,700 families forced to leave Gaza have moved into permanent homes, according to the committee. Many, especially farmers, have not been able to find work.

“You can’t fix the trauma and crisis these people are still suffering six years later,” Danny Danon, a Knesset member from the Likud Party, told JTA. “Marriages have broken up and a lot of kids dropped out of school. People still live like refugees.”

There is great debate in Israel over whether the withdrawal from Gaza, which then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out in August 2005, was a strategic failure or success.

On the one hand, Israel no longer had to deal with the daily security threats and headache of protecting 9,000 Jews in Gaza. And on the diplomatic front, Israel’s withdrawal ended Israel’s formal occupation of the coastal strip, which it had captured from Egypt in 1967 but never incorporated into Israel proper.

On the other hand, a year after the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas seized control of Gaza and rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel increased dramatically. At the end of 2008, Israel launched a three-week war to stem the rocket fire, drawing international condemnation for its military actions. Over the last few years, Palestinian advocates also have argued that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has loosened recently, constituted a de facto continuation of the occupation.

Danon says the Gaza withdrawal was clearly a mistake and a west bank pullback would be an even bigger mistake. Citing the rocket threat, he noted that an Israeli withdrawal even from part of the west bank would leave central Israel — including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion Airport — well within Palestinian rocket range.

“People in Israel were willing to pay a heavy price in exchange for a real peace, but now they feel betrayed,” Danon said. “They feel like it was all for nothing.”

Then there’s the military challenge inherent in any west bank withdrawal. During the pullout from Gaza, many in Israel speculated that pro-settler soldiers and officers would disobey orders to evacuate the Gaza settlers. That did not happen and most soldiers did their jobs. The few who in good conscience felt they could not perform this duty were quietly excused.

But a withdrawal from the west bank could be different. For one thing, the number of settlers whose communities would not be annexed to Israel could exceed 80,000 (an estimated 320,000 Jews are living in west bank settlements, not including eastern Jerusalem, which Israel annexed).

Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and a fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, says support for Jewish settlers in the west bank has gone mainstream in a way that support for settlements in Gaza never did.

“Two generations have grown up in Israel who see the settlements not only as part of Israel but as the heart of Israel,” Halevi told JTA. “Any withdrawal from the west bank would involve mass refusal of soldiers to follow orders, and I am deeply worried about the ability of the army to continue to be an effective fighting force.”

Halevi estimates that Jewish settlers and their supporters make up 40 percent of some combat units; an Israeli army spokesman said the IDF does not release figures “on such a sensitive subject.” Orthodox men, who constitute a wellspring of support for the settlements, continue to volunteer for combat units in large numbers.

These Orthodox youth also are fiercely loyal to their rabbis. When Israeli police recently detained Rabbi Dov Lior of the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba to question him on charges of incitement and racism, hundreds of Orthodox youth in Jerusalem blocked streets and clashed with police. If Lior issued a ruling that it is forbidden to force Jews to leave Jewish settlements in the west bank, many Orthodox Jewish soldiers might find themselves torn.

Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information says such fears are overstated and that most religious soldiers would follow the orders of the army, not their rabbis.

“Israel is a state where the rule of law works,” Baskin told JTA. “If there’s a democratic decision which is seen as legitimate, supported by Knesset, and perhaps backed by a referendum, the public will not be behind any settlers who will take the law into their own hands and use violence.”

“It will be much more traumatic than the Gaza withdrawal. But if people are convinced that peace is going to be real and settlement withdrawal would be gradual and incremental over time,” they would support it, he said.

It’s not clear whether Jews who live in settlements like Shiloh would have the option of staying on under Palestinian sovereignty or whether they would want to remain. Some Palestinian officials, including Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have welcomed the idea, but PA President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed reservations.

“If a Palestinian state is created and my security could be ensured, I would definitely choose to stay,” said Medad of Shiloh, who has lived in the settlement since 1981.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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