If politics makes strange bedfellows, wars make even stranger ones. That has always been true for all nations and is no less the case for the state of Israel in our own day. Beset by a world of Arab and Islamic foes, it has taken its allies wherever it can find them. A generation ago that meant a cozy if embarrassing relationship with apartheid-era South Africa. Those critics of the Jewish state who wish to make much of this should remember Nelson Mandela was happy to embrace the support of the Soviet Union and totalitarian Cuba. Today, with an Islamist regime in Iran threatening not just the security of Israel but the existence of the nation via a nuclear weapons program the world has been powerless to stop, Israel has reportedly found another set of unsavory allies: the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (also known by their Farsi acronym MEK), a dissident group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.
According to a report from NBC News, U.S. officials believe Israel has employed members of the People’s Mujahedin in harassing the Iranian government and its minions. While the group denies it is involved with Israel, it is difficult to doubt the truth of the allegation that the Iranian dissidents have been receiving Israeli training and have been used to carry out attacks on Tehran’s nuclear program, in particular the assassination of Iranian scientists. While Jerusalem’s critics will call this hypocritical and illegal, their qualms won’t impress many Israelis.
Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said today the “decision has to be made” for the U.S. to arm the opposition in Syria, but cautioned that the weapons should be ones that wouldn’t be used against Israel if they fall into the wrong hands.
“That’s not us fighting. (The Syrian opposition is) fighting, they’re dying, and they should be given as much a chance as possible to do it,” Khalilzad told me, after a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he harshly criticized the Obama administration for what he called a failed strategy to “appease and engage adversaries” in the Middle East.
On Tuesday, Peter Beinart chastised American Jews for not listening more closely to Israeli soldiers. “There’s nothing American Jews love more than Israeli soldiers, except perhaps, Israeli spies,” he wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast titled “U.S. Jews Should Heed Top Israeli Soldiers Who Oppose Bombing Iran.” “So perhaps American Jews should start noticing that an astonishing number of Israel’s top soldiers and spies are warning against bombing Iran.”
A few years ago, I witnessed a debate inside the Israeli Knesset between two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, research and assessment, General Yaakov Amidror and General Danny Rothschild. The veterans disagreed on everything — technology, threats, solutions, defensible borders, control of territory and disengagement. During my service in the military, I saw the same phenomenon among officers at every rank. In robust democracies “listening” to soldiers—or civilians—is almost never a shortcut to obvious or unanimous answers.
A story in today’s International Herald Tribune (read here on the New York Times website) provides an interesting insight into exactly what happens when a secular state is taken over by Islamists. The piece concerned the Hagia Sophia of Iznik, an ancient church that brought 40,000 tourists to the town south of Istanbul much to the delight of the locals. Iznik was once known as Nicaea, and it was there the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church met at the Hagia Sophia in the year 325. But the Islamist government of Turkey has put a damper on the prosperity of those who profited from the museum by formally converting the building into a mosque.
Of course, after the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine Empire, all churches in the region were turned into mosques, with the most conspicuous example being the majestic Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (now Istanbul). But unlike that more famous site, which was registered as a museum when Turkey became a secular republic, the one in Iznik was never formally named as such, though it served in that function and had not been used as a mosque in well over a century. The ruling AKP party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken the initiative to reinstitute Muslim-only worship at the place, much to the dismay of the Muslim residents of the town who point out there was no shortage of mosques there. But to the AKP, the ancient surge to plant the flag of Islam over the ruins of other cultures is more important than tourism.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Iran’s warnings about closing the Strait of Hormuz as “idle threats,” during a small round table discussion with reporters today.
“This idle threat that they’re going to interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz is not enforceable. We have a carrier there, that will not happen,” McConnell told me. “So this is the time to squeeze the Iranians in every direction possible.”
There are two common reporting challenges that inevitably become more pronounced when a topic of great interest and importance becomes part of the day-to-day news: the tendency of stories to offer no new information whatsoever, and the habit of reporters to allow themselves to be spun into writing self-contradicting pieces.
Today’s New York Times dispatch on Iran is an example of both. The takeaway from the story is that American and Israeli officials talk to each other about the Iranian nuclear program, and that they sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but don’t expect that to result in an Israeli airstrike on Iran anytime this afternoon, certainly not before dinner. The reporters write that a phone call last month between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu left American officials “persuaded that Mr. Netanyahu was willing to give economic sanctions and other steps time to work.” This is a sentence that could have been written anytime over the last fifteen years, and in fact is only relevant now (a full month after this phone call) because it still hasn’t changed.
I wanted to add a personal word to Jonathan’s post regarding the Presbyterian Church USA’s anti-Israel bias.
Years ago my wife, children, and I attended a PCUSA church, where we enjoyed a very good relationship with the senior pastor, who baptized two of our children. Our church was fairly orthodox theologically and certainly more conservative theologically than the official positions of the PCUSA. But in a relatively short period of time, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, my wife and I heard a guest speaker from the pulpit and a guest Sunday school teacher make wholly inappropriate statements against Israel. I raised the matter with the minister, who put me in touch with an associate pastor who oversaw such matters. And in the course of my discussions with her, I eventually learned our church was serving as host to a group with deep and troubling biases against Israel.
It is one thing, and a commendable thing, to show concern for the plight of Palestinian Christians. But it is quite another to use that issue as a pre-text to excoriate Israel. And so I raised my objections, including in e-mails which went into excruciating detail to refute the claims that were being made against the Jewish state and to underscore how unwise and offensive it was to allow our church to become a tool in the propaganda war against Israel. I also made personal appeals to leaders in our church to pull back from its stance. It never really did, and eventually, we left the church. We had established close friendships over the years, but I didn’t feel like we could be a part of a church that was not simply political (which as a general matter I find quite troublesome), but which in this case was promoting pernicious falsehoods.
Gen. Jack Keane, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq, is always a font of good sense when it comes to America’s wars. Thus, it is worth listening—and acting on his advice—when he suggests that our drone strikes in Pakistan be expanded beyond al-Qaeda targets to focus on the Taliban and related insurgent groups. The Washington Times quotes him as follows: “If we don’t start targeting the Taliban leadership now … the risk is much too high in terms of our ability to sustain the successes that we’ve had. We cannot let that Afghan Taliban leadership that lives in Pakistan continue to preside over this war and recruit and provide resources.”
He is absolutely right, and it is imperative to follow his advice even at the risk of further blowback from Pakistan, because there is no other way to achieve any degree of success in Afghanistan while pulling back as quickly as the Obama administration wants to do—namely a switch from combat to advising in 2013 and a complete pull-out in 2014. Even with stepped up drone strikes, the Obama timeline is probably a prescription for disaster and defeat. But if we at least do more to target the insurgent leadership which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, our forces can somewhat increase their odds of success notwithstanding the rapid collapse of political will in the White House to prosecute this war to a successful conclusion.
In the aftermath of Rick Santorum’s sweep of the three states that held elections on Tuesday, many observers are counseling Mitt Romney to do something to energize a conservative base that is having trouble mustering any enthusiasm for the Republican frontrunner. Pundits have pondered his dilemma and prescribed a full program of activities and speeches designed to fire up the GOP grass roots and to finally convince them the former Massachusetts governor cares deeply about their issues and can be trusted to govern as a conservative.
But the problem with this analysis is those demanding Romney to inspire conservative passion are asking him to do the impossible. While such a feat would certainly be desirable — for both him and his party — Romney can still win the Republican nomination without morphing into Ronald Reagan, let alone Mike Huckabee. But if he is to win — and that’s a proposition that looks a bit less inevitable than it did on Monday — it will only be on his own terms. If Republicans are to embrace Romney, it must be the real Mitt Romney–flaws and all–not an artifice designed to please the audience at the CPAC conference. Those who wish for Romney to discover some new approach to Republicans are dreaming. After a campaign that has been going full bore for the last nine months — not to mention his first presidential run four years ago — and 16 debates, we have already seen all that Mitt Romney has to offer Republicans.
In his interview with Scott Hennen, Newt Gingrich was asked what he thought about the “good Newt” versus “bad Newt” narrative. Gingrich responded this way: “I think it’s a foolish narrative. I mean, when you are drowning in being outspent 5 to 1 with negative ads, there’s a tendency to want to respond to them. Now I don’t know if that is bad Newt. Does that mean that there is a bad Mitt and a good Mitt? I mean, give me a break.”
But Gingrich went beyond that to say, “But I can tell you is that, if you look at my whole career, and Scott you’ve known me for many years, you look at the 24 books we’ve written, you look at the 7 movies we’ve made, you know, I like ideas, I like being a candidate of ideas and that’s far and away what I prefer to do and I think if people go to Newt.org and look at all the positive things we have there — just our 54-page paper on how to rebalance the judiciary and force the judges back within the Constitution. Just that one paper would frankly justify the campaign because it is the boldest statement of the founding fathers, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers I think that any modern political figure has written in my lifetime.”
The Obama administration’s decision to require Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and abortifacients — in violation of their conscience and creed — is among the most offensive and troubling of the Obama era. And that is not an easy designation to achieve.
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said, “The federal government should do what it’s traditionally done since July 4, 1776, namely back out of intruding into the internal life of a church.” Bishops are writing letters to their congregants saying, “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.” Presidents of Catholic universities insist they will reject “this religious intolerance and will not bow down before government regulations that are manifestly unjust.” The National Association of Evangelicals put out a statement saying, “Freedom of conscience is a sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state. No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.”
When I did a post-doc in Israel back in academic year 2001-2002, the Palestinian terror and bombing campaign was at its height. Hordes of Western journalists circulated through Israel on their way to the West Bank and Gaza. Having coffee with a producer at the time, I was surprised to learn it was common practice among major American networks and their European counterparts to pay PLO and Hamas “fixers” for access. The implication was that if the payment was not made, not only would meetings not be granted, but the crews’ safety might be endangered. News agencies never acknowledged they had paid terrorists and fixers in the subsequent news reports.
Journalists have long expressed self-righteous indignation if confronted with the fact that many Arab states and terrorist groups consider them useful idiots, easy to dupe, and tools for propaganda projection. Leaked Syrian e-mails should put a rest to such protests, however.
The disconnect between the views of the leadership of mainline Protestant churches on the Middle East and those of the rank-and-file members of their congregations has been growing in recent decades. Activists and leading clergy of liberal Protestant denominations have embraced the Palestinian cause while most of those who attend their churches are, like most Americans, warm supporters of Israel. But in the case of at least one of these churches — the Presbyterian Church USA — the gap between those who speak in the name of these institutions and those whom they claim to represent has grown to the point where communal relations are at the brink of a breakdown. Institutions connected with the Presbyterians have become a font of anti-Israel invective that has crossed the line into outright anti-Semitism.
In the course of promoting their anti-Israel policies, church leaders have engaged in rhetoric that seeks not only to delegitimize the state of Israel but also the Jewish community. The actions and statements of the church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN-PCUSA) have been so egregious that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella network of Jewish community relations groups, has been forced to go public with their complaints in hopes that ordinary Presbyterians will do something about the epidemic of hate speech springing from church activists.