Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 21, 2012

On Israel, Obama Discovers the Obvious

This week’s flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has rekindled the discussion about Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But amid all the debate over the wisdom of that withdrawal, one point seems to have been lost. The administration of George W. Bush put in writing its full support of Israel’s right to security and defensible borders as the disengagement approached.

Though the Obama administration pointedly rejected the notion that it was bound by that agreement, the Gaza withdrawal was yet another item of proof that Israeli leaders are willing to make sacrifices for peace when there is no “daylight” between the Israeli and American leaders. Yet in July 2009, President Obama held a meeting with American Jewish leaders to explain to them that daylight was needed after all. Here is how the Washington Post reported on that meeting:

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This week’s flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has rekindled the discussion about Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But amid all the debate over the wisdom of that withdrawal, one point seems to have been lost. The administration of George W. Bush put in writing its full support of Israel’s right to security and defensible borders as the disengagement approached.

Though the Obama administration pointedly rejected the notion that it was bound by that agreement, the Gaza withdrawal was yet another item of proof that Israeli leaders are willing to make sacrifices for peace when there is no “daylight” between the Israeli and American leaders. Yet in July 2009, President Obama held a meeting with American Jewish leaders to explain to them that daylight was needed after all. Here is how the Washington Post reported on that meeting:

“If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the president.

Obama politely but firmly disagreed.

“Look at the past eight years,” he said, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Israel. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”

But now we can safely say that in Obama’s battle with history, the president lost in a rout. Today’s New York Times reports that Obama has seen the light on “daylight.” Though the paper doesn’t report this as the flip-flop that it truly is, the Times offers us a story carrying the following headline: “Obama, Showing Support for Israel, Gains New Leverage Over Netanyahu.”

Though Obama will likely never acknowledge it, he seems to now know just how wrong he was in July 2009. He has made many mistakes in the prosecution of his foreign policy in the Middle East, and a great deal of them came from this mistaken idea that he would gain leverage over Israeli decision making by pummeling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly, and picking senseless fights over Jewish housing in Jerusalem. The result was that Obama made an astonishing mess of the situation for someone who has only been in office for four years. But better late than never.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the New York Times we’ve come to know and love if it didn’t present its findings as if, rather than finally concede the obvious, it has made a grand scientific discovery. Here’s the Times (my emphasis):

After more than a year of Mr. Obama needing — and not getting — much support from his Israeli counterpart in his efforts to woo American Jewish voters at home ahead of his re-election, it is now Mr. Netanyahu, Israel experts say, who needs Mr. Obama to help shore up his support at home.

The Israeli leader is facing an election in January, and if there is one thing that Israeli voters do not like, scholars say, it is any kind of daylight between their prime minister and the American president in times of strife.

Experts! Scholars! We later find out that those experts and scholars are Martin Indyk and Robert Malley. I suppose if you’re going to avoid asking “Israeli voters” what “Israeli voters” like and don’t like, the least you can do is ask American Democratic Party advisors.

Of course, the article goes on to wonder how Obama will use this newfound power that comes with not being openly hostile to the Israeli prime minister. Will he try to jump-start the peace process that stalled over his first-term shenanigans? The authors of the article certainly seem to hope so. Nonetheless, I’m sure those “Israeli voters” will appreciate that finally experience has triumphed over hope in the Obama White House.

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The Limits of Empathy

Despite having opposed Israel’s pullout from Gaza from the very beginning, I cheered when I read Jonathan’s post on why he supported it. I, too, think Israel’s overseas supporters–on both sides of the political spectrum–ought to accord more respect to Israelis’ democratic decisions than they sometimes do. But this isn’t only because, as he rightly said, Israelis are the ones who ultimately bear the consequences of those decisions. It’s because in making those decisions, Israelis often have knowledge that even the most supportive and best-informed non-Israelis lack.

By this, I don’t just mean knowledge of the facts, though that’s also an issue. During the “quiet” years following Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas in Gaza, for instance, people overseas were often shocked when I mentioned that rockets still fell regularly on southern Israel; that’s information even regular visitors to Israeli news sites could easily have missed. Yet it obviously affected Israelis’ views on territorial withdrawals.

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Despite having opposed Israel’s pullout from Gaza from the very beginning, I cheered when I read Jonathan’s post on why he supported it. I, too, think Israel’s overseas supporters–on both sides of the political spectrum–ought to accord more respect to Israelis’ democratic decisions than they sometimes do. But this isn’t only because, as he rightly said, Israelis are the ones who ultimately bear the consequences of those decisions. It’s because in making those decisions, Israelis often have knowledge that even the most supportive and best-informed non-Israelis lack.

By this, I don’t just mean knowledge of the facts, though that’s also an issue. During the “quiet” years following Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas in Gaza, for instance, people overseas were often shocked when I mentioned that rockets still fell regularly on southern Israel; that’s information even regular visitors to Israeli news sites could easily have missed. Yet it obviously affected Israelis’ views on territorial withdrawals.

Far more important, however, is the knowledge of what it actually means to live with such consequences. Many Westerners, because they have been raised on the value of empathy and genuinely try to practice it, truly believe they have succeeded; as an Israeli, I can’t count how many times I’ve been told, “I understand, I really do.” But the only honest answer is, “No, you don’t.”

If you’ve never lain awake night after night, unable to sleep, because you’re tensely awaiting the siren that tells you a rocket has been launched and you have only seconds to take shelter, you do not understand the physical, mental and emotional devastation of living under constant rocket fire–even if (thanks in part to such precautions) it mercifully causes few casualties. If you’ve never woken up, morning after morning, dreading the moment when you have to turn on the radio and hear how many people have been killed overnight, all while praying nobody you know will be on the list, you don’t how emotionally devastating a suicide bombing campaign can be even to those whose loved ones are mercifully spared. If you’ve never paid a shiva (condolence) call on a family that has been shattered by the loss of their bright, beautiful daughter in a terror attack, or of their soldier son in combat, you don’t know what it’s like to live constantly in the shadow of terror and war.

Reasonable people can obviously draw different conclusions from this knowledge: Author David Grossman still advocates territorial withdrawals even though his soldier son was killed in the war Hezbollah launched from Lebanon six years after Israel withdrew; columnist Rabbi Stewart Weiss opposes territorial withdrawals even though his soldier son was killed serving in the “occupied territories.” But whatever decision an Israeli reaches on these issues, he or she has made it with a bone-deep understanding of the price they will pay if the choice goes sour.

That’s an understanding non-Israelis lack, even when they’re perfectly aware of all the pros and cons on paper. And because of it, they often end up assigning different weight to the variables than Israelis do.

I don’t expect American Jews to agree with every Israeli choice. But I would like them to understand that the choices they disagree with may be driven by knowledge they lack. For without that understanding, bridging the gap between the two communities’ very different experiences will only keep getting harder.

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Turkish Jihadists Call for Attacks on U.S.

How far our once secular, Western-oriented NATO ally Turkey has fallen in the past decade. Whereas once Turkey could be counted on as a democratic bulwark against terrorism, now the country’s leaders orient themselves not only in the Islamist camp, but increasingly in the extremist one as well. It’s hard to understand why congressmen remain in the Congressional Turkey Caucus when they are, in effect, lending their moral support to Turkey’s gradually more erratic and extremist prime minister.

Perhaps these congressmen would like to get a hold of a copy of Islam Dünyası, a Turkish jihadi magazine. Here’s their website. The current issue features Defne Bayrak, wife of the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan, in which she calls for more attacks on America. Certainly, not all Turks are this extreme. Indeed, only a small minority are. The problem, however, is that the current government encourages such extremism. Perhaps it is time for the Obama administration and State Department to stop ignoring the changes underway in Turkey.

How far our once secular, Western-oriented NATO ally Turkey has fallen in the past decade. Whereas once Turkey could be counted on as a democratic bulwark against terrorism, now the country’s leaders orient themselves not only in the Islamist camp, but increasingly in the extremist one as well. It’s hard to understand why congressmen remain in the Congressional Turkey Caucus when they are, in effect, lending their moral support to Turkey’s gradually more erratic and extremist prime minister.

Perhaps these congressmen would like to get a hold of a copy of Islam Dünyası, a Turkish jihadi magazine. Here’s their website. The current issue features Defne Bayrak, wife of the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan, in which she calls for more attacks on America. Certainly, not all Turks are this extreme. Indeed, only a small minority are. The problem, however, is that the current government encourages such extremism. Perhaps it is time for the Obama administration and State Department to stop ignoring the changes underway in Turkey.

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Cease-Fire Agreement Reached

Hillary Clinton announced the deal at a Cairo press conference this afternoon. Reports haven’t included all the details of the agreement just yet, but it’s supposed to take effect shortly:

Nov 21 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza had come at a crucial time for countries of the Middle East.

“This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace,” she said at a joint news conference with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr.

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Hillary Clinton announced the deal at a Cairo press conference this afternoon. Reports haven’t included all the details of the agreement just yet, but it’s supposed to take effect shortly:

Nov 21 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza had come at a crucial time for countries of the Middle East.

“This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace,” she said at a joint news conference with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr.

We’ll see what both sides get out of this, if anything but a return to the status quo. Hamas was demanding the lifting of Israel’s blockade. If that’s in the actual agreement — Reuters says it is not — Israel would have traded temporary peace for even bigger problems later on.

There’s also the question of how long this lasts. Israel has successfully destroyed almost all of the missile stockpiles and launching sites it was aware of, so the length of the cease-fire may just depend on how long it takes Hamas to replenish its supplies.

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Ambassador to Azerbaijan Finds Democracy Where None Exists

Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.

Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp.  Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.

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Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.

Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp.  Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.

How unfortunate, then, that Richard Morningstar, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, has according to the Azeri press recently praised the “democracy” which has taken root in Azerbaijan’s autonomous Nakhchivan province. More from the Azeri Report. Morningstar last came to notice last spring when, upon first traveling to Azerbaijan as ambassador, he apparently bowed before the statue of modern Azerbaijan’s less-than-democratic former leader.

It diminishes the achievement of democracies to pretend that democratic systems exist where they clearly don’t, and it undercuts the reputation of the United States among broad swaths of the Azerbaijani electorate when our professional Foreign Service officers offer such empty and demonstrably false platitudes.

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Does the U.S. Owe Cambodia an Apology?

Kudos to President Obama for not using his recent trip to Cambodia as an opportunity to apologize for supposed American sins of the past. His failure to do so must come as a grave disappointment to New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker (an excellent reporter, by the way), who writes an entire article lamenting the lack of an Obama apology.

His piece begins thus: “Four decades after American warplanes carpet-bombed this impoverished country, an American president came to visit for the first time. He came not to defend the past, nor to apologize for it. In fact, he made no public mention of it whatsoever.” He then quotes approvingly from the president of a group known as the Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia who claims that Obama “should offer a public apology to the Cambodian people for the illegal U.S. bombings, which took the lives of half a million Cambodians and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide.” He also quotes Gary Bass, a historian at Princeton who has written an excellent history of humanitarian interventions, who says, “It’s a missed opportunity for Obama.”

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Kudos to President Obama for not using his recent trip to Cambodia as an opportunity to apologize for supposed American sins of the past. His failure to do so must come as a grave disappointment to New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker (an excellent reporter, by the way), who writes an entire article lamenting the lack of an Obama apology.

His piece begins thus: “Four decades after American warplanes carpet-bombed this impoverished country, an American president came to visit for the first time. He came not to defend the past, nor to apologize for it. In fact, he made no public mention of it whatsoever.” He then quotes approvingly from the president of a group known as the Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia who claims that Obama “should offer a public apology to the Cambodian people for the illegal U.S. bombings, which took the lives of half a million Cambodians and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide.” He also quotes Gary Bass, a historian at Princeton who has written an excellent history of humanitarian interventions, who says, “It’s a missed opportunity for Obama.”

Actually, Obama was right not to apologize because it’s not clear what America has to apologize for in this instance. It is grossly misleading to suggest that the U.S. “carpet-bombed” Cambodia, which evokes images of B-52s pummeling Phnom Penh. What actually happened was that during Operation Menu in 1969-1970, the U.S. bombed North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong base camps in eastern Cambodia with the tacit acquiescence of Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Sihanouk, who was deeply unhappy with the uninvited presence of tens of thousands of Communist Vietnamese troops in his country. Along with the bombing there were several “secret” incursions by South Vietnamese and U.S. troops in 1970 to try to clear out Communist base camps.

The notion that the American bombing somehow made the takeover of the genocidal Khmer Rouge inevitable–in some account by supposedly driving them insane–is farfetched. The Khmer Rouge had been fighting to take over the country since the early 1950s with the active support of the Communist regimes in Hanoi, Beijing and Moscow. The massive incursion of Vietnamese troops into Cambodia in the 1960s, which they used as a staging area for attacks into South Vietnam, further destabilized the country. But what really made the Communist triumph inevitable was the fact that the U.S. Congress cut off aid to the anticommunist regime led by Lon Nol (who overthrew Sihanouk in 1970) as part of the general backlash against the Vietnam War.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge was not a reaction to the American bombing, and the bombing did not remotely inflict anywhere close to 500,000 fatalities. (Most casualty estimates are a fraction of that, and many of the dead were Vietnamese troops, not Cambodian civilians.) It is hard to see why the U.S. did anything wrong: If a country allows its soil to be used for military forays into a neighboring country, that neighboring country and its allies have every right to strike back.

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Why Turkey’s Influence Is Fading Fast

Though most of the news out of Turkey in recent years has been dispiriting, the once-secular nation finally seems to be paying a price for its Islamist turn. As the New York Times reports today, Turkey is learning an age-old lesson about power politics in the Middle East: in alienating Israel in a bid to win the trust of the region’s Arab population, it has marginalized itself:

After prayers last Friday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped outside a mosque on the banks of the Bosphorous here and dismissed a suggestion that Turkey should talk directly with its onetime ally, Israel, to attempt to resolve the crisis unfolding in Gaza.

“We do not have any connections in terms of dialogue with Israel,” he said.

But by Tuesday, Turkey seemed to indicate that while its strident anti-Israel posture has been popular among Arabs, it has been at its own expense, undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict. As he headed to Gaza with an Arab League delegation on Tuesday, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, suggested to reporters that back-channel discussions had been opened with Israeli authorities.

The article contrasts Turkey’s standing in the current conflict with that of Egypt. Since both Egypt’s government and the Hamas rulers of Gaza spring from the Muslim Brotherhood, and since Egypt and Gaza share a border (though not in the ignorant minds of the “flotilla” activists), Egypt has a natural advantage over Turkey as a power broker in this case. Egypt also has history on its side, and in the Middle East, history counts for a lot. So this puts Turkey at a disadvantage to begin with, which it only compounded by making a series of unforced errors.

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Though most of the news out of Turkey in recent years has been dispiriting, the once-secular nation finally seems to be paying a price for its Islamist turn. As the New York Times reports today, Turkey is learning an age-old lesson about power politics in the Middle East: in alienating Israel in a bid to win the trust of the region’s Arab population, it has marginalized itself:

After prayers last Friday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped outside a mosque on the banks of the Bosphorous here and dismissed a suggestion that Turkey should talk directly with its onetime ally, Israel, to attempt to resolve the crisis unfolding in Gaza.

“We do not have any connections in terms of dialogue with Israel,” he said.

But by Tuesday, Turkey seemed to indicate that while its strident anti-Israel posture has been popular among Arabs, it has been at its own expense, undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict. As he headed to Gaza with an Arab League delegation on Tuesday, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, suggested to reporters that back-channel discussions had been opened with Israeli authorities.

The article contrasts Turkey’s standing in the current conflict with that of Egypt. Since both Egypt’s government and the Hamas rulers of Gaza spring from the Muslim Brotherhood, and since Egypt and Gaza share a border (though not in the ignorant minds of the “flotilla” activists), Egypt has a natural advantage over Turkey as a power broker in this case. Egypt also has history on its side, and in the Middle East, history counts for a lot. So this puts Turkey at a disadvantage to begin with, which it only compounded by making a series of unforced errors.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan keeps trying to close this credibility gap by aiming such venom at the Jewish state that even the Times calls him “anti-Israel.” Part of the problem for Erdogan is that he seems to believe the tales he tells himself. The Times notes that “Turkey’s stature in the Middle East has soared in recent years as it became a vocal defender of Palestinian rights and an outspoken critic of Israel.”

Erdogan is most certainly not a defender of Palestinian rights; he is a defender of Hamas, terrorist entity that executes Palestinians in the streets and pursues a brutish totalitarianism that continues to strangle the life–literally and figuratively–out of the Palestinians it governs.

Erdogan’s marginalization is a positive development, but it also highlights the need to marginalize and disempower the extremists like Hamas with whom Erdogan chooses to ally his country. The “forces of moderation” may be a relative term in the Middle East, but it doesn’t include Hamas, nor, any longer, Turkey.

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Gaza Celebrates Bus Bombing in Tel Aviv

The terrorist bombing of a Tel Aviv bus wounded 23 this morning. The last time there was an attack like this in Tel Aviv was 2006, and it raises the obvious questions about the danger of this conflict taking repeated aim at the bustling population center. This wasn’t a suicide bombing, and the two suspects are reportedly on the run.

Also, in case there was any doubt this would hinder a potential cease-fire deal, the Jerusalem Post reports that Hamas has already started celebrating in Gaza:

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The terrorist bombing of a Tel Aviv bus wounded 23 this morning. The last time there was an attack like this in Tel Aviv was 2006, and it raises the obvious questions about the danger of this conflict taking repeated aim at the bustling population center. This wasn’t a suicide bombing, and the two suspects are reportedly on the run.

Also, in case there was any doubt this would hinder a potential cease-fire deal, the Jerusalem Post reports that Hamas has already started celebrating in Gaza:

Hamas praised the terrorist bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv Wednesday afternoon, but stopped short of claiming responsibility.

“Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres…in Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. “Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression.”

On Twitter, Hamas’s armed wing posted: “We told you #IDF that our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are, ‘You opened the Gates of Hell on Yourselves.'”

Sweet cakes were handed out in celebration in Gaza’s main hospital, which has been inundated with wounded from IAF strikes as part of Operation Pillar of Defense. Celebratory gunfire reportedly rang out as news of the attack spread throughout the Strip.

The White House and Hillary Clinton, who had just arrived in Cairo to help broker a cease-fire, released the following statements:

The White House denounced the attack, saying “these attacks against innocent Israeli civilians are outrageous.”

“The United States will stand with our Israeli allies, and provide whatever assistance is necessary to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. 

“The United States strongly condemns this terrorist attack and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the people of Israel.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday.

“As I arrive in Cairo, I am closely monitoring reports from Tel Aviv, and we will stay in close contact with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s team. The United States stands ready to provide any assistance that Israel requires,” she added.

Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has claimed responsibility for the attack, but JPost says police haven’t confirmed.

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Hamas’s Triple War Crimes

Standing beside the UN secretary general yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted again that every rocket from Gaza is a double war crime, since each reflects: (1) an intentional indiscriminate attack on civilians, while (2) hiding behind a civilian population for protection.

It is actually a triple war crime, because the use of civilians as shields is intended not simply for protection of the terrorists, but to ensure that Palestinian civilians are killed — to produce the response from the UN, the New York Times, and others in the “international community” necessary to win the media war that is conducted alongside the military one. In a phone call late last night in Israel, a noted Israeli commentator described the situation that Israel faces as Kafkaesque: 

“The most bizarre part is that Israel is in the position of protecting the Gaza public from its own leadership that is trying to get them killed in order to win points with the New York Times.” 

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Standing beside the UN secretary general yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted again that every rocket from Gaza is a double war crime, since each reflects: (1) an intentional indiscriminate attack on civilians, while (2) hiding behind a civilian population for protection.

It is actually a triple war crime, because the use of civilians as shields is intended not simply for protection of the terrorists, but to ensure that Palestinian civilians are killed — to produce the response from the UN, the New York Times, and others in the “international community” necessary to win the media war that is conducted alongside the military one. In a phone call late last night in Israel, a noted Israeli commentator described the situation that Israel faces as Kafkaesque: 

“The most bizarre part is that Israel is in the position of protecting the Gaza public from its own leadership that is trying to get them killed in order to win points with the New York Times.” 

In another call yesterday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said that Israel has so far used more than 10,000 phone calls, text messages, pamphlets, and other public announcements to warn Palestinian civilians of areas to avoid, and inform them of areas where they can safely take shelter. Pamphlets have been dropped from the sky providing directions — complete with roads to use. 

As Netanyahu told the UN head yesterday: “I’m not sure that there is another military on earth that goes to such great lengths to keep innocents out of harm’s way.” It is an extraordinary accomplishment, given the fact that Israel is facing an enemy that uses triple war crimes as the heart of its military/media strategy.

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Gaza Withdrawal’s Lesson? Preserve Israel’s Right to Self-Determination

Like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and our own Max Boot, I, too, have been thinking a lot lately about the seven-year-old debate about whether Israel was wise to withdraw from Gaza. Both Bret and Max are of course right when they say that, looking back on it now, it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder. Despite the assurances of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many of the country’s military leaders, Israel’s security was compromised by the decision. It led directly to the creation of a Hamas terror state whose existence may not ever be undone. Just as troubling, Israel did not receive one bit of credit from the international community, let alone its foes, for removing every soldier and settler from the area. Bret summed it up nicely when he wrote:

Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.

But unlike Bret and Max, I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal. While I supported the move, it was not because I didn’t have doubts about whether the army was right about it being easier to fight Hamas outside Gaza rather than inside it. Nor was I under any illusions about Israel reaping any public relations benefits from the scheme. To the contrary, I was quite sure that, as was the case with previous territorial surrenders, it would merely increase the appetite of Israel’s enemies for more. So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon? It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel’s people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country’s political scene.

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Like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and our own Max Boot, I, too, have been thinking a lot lately about the seven-year-old debate about whether Israel was wise to withdraw from Gaza. Both Bret and Max are of course right when they say that, looking back on it now, it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder. Despite the assurances of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many of the country’s military leaders, Israel’s security was compromised by the decision. It led directly to the creation of a Hamas terror state whose existence may not ever be undone. Just as troubling, Israel did not receive one bit of credit from the international community, let alone its foes, for removing every soldier and settler from the area. Bret summed it up nicely when he wrote:

Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.

But unlike Bret and Max, I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal. While I supported the move, it was not because I didn’t have doubts about whether the army was right about it being easier to fight Hamas outside Gaza rather than inside it. Nor was I under any illusions about Israel reaping any public relations benefits from the scheme. To the contrary, I was quite sure that, as was the case with previous territorial surrenders, it would merely increase the appetite of Israel’s enemies for more. So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon? It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel’s people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country’s political scene.

Opponents of the withdrawal have, understandably, never stopped reminding those of us who backed Ariel Sharon’s decision that it turned out to be every bit the fiasco they thought it would be and more. The talking points Israel gained by pulling out of Gaza provide more proof that the Palestinians haven’t any interest in peace, but it’s doubtful this changed the mind of a single critic of the country. But those Diaspora kibitzers who are now saying, “I told you so,” are still missing the key point about that debate.

It may be that Israel’s prime minister was dead wrong (counter-factual arguments that history would have been different had Sharon not been felled by a stroke months after the withdrawal are unpersuasive) and the majority of Israelis who backed him were equally mistaken. But, right or wrong, it was their decision to make and the Israelis are the ones who have had to live with the consequences.

Looking ahead to the next round of peace processing and pressure on Israel after the current fighting in Gaza is concluded, what friends of Israel have to keep in mind is not so much the rehashing of Sharon’s blunder but preserving the right of the Jewish state to go on deciding its own destiny.

The conceit of most of the country’s left-wing critics is that Israel must be saved from itself. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Israelis have drawn the proper conclusions from the last 20 years of peace processing (including the Gaza withdrawal) and decided that there will be no more repetitions of the mistakes committed at Oslo or Gaza. This sensible decision frustrates Israel’s critics so much that even those who consider themselves friends of the country believe their judgment should supersede that of the Jewish state’s electorate.

But just as was the case of those Americans who opposed the Gaza withdrawal or the Oslo Accords, such a stand is simply inadmissible. Decisions about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the territories must be made by those elected by the Israeli people, not by American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion.

No matter how strong the faith of Zion’s critics that the country is heading down the road to destruction, nothing should shake us in our conviction that no foreign power or foreign community has the right to dictate to Israel’s people. That is a principle that applies whether it is a matter of Israelis mistakenly making concessions that have come back to haunt them or, as is the case now, wisely refusing to take steps that would endanger their security.

Seven years after the Gaza withdrawal, it is useful to examine the mistakes that were made by Sharon. But the abiding lesson of that episode for us today is that, right or wrong, Israel must be allowed to make its own decisions.

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The Gaza Disengagement in Hindsight

Bret Stephens had a thought-provoking column Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal in which he recanted his previous support for the Gaza pullout. It made me wonder whether I too was wrong to support Sharon’s disengagement in 2005.

Like Bret, I went back to look at what I wrote at the time. In August 2005 I published an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Hamastan? Gaza Pullout Worth the Risk.” As the title implies, I freely acknowledged that Gaza would likely become a breeding ground of terrorism, possibly even of international terrorism. But I nevertheless argued that “on balance” the pullout was worth the risk because it would allow Israel “to regain the initiative — moral and political,” and that “if the Palestinians fire rockets from Gaza, Israel will be free to mount a military response — more free, in fact, when the threat comes from a sovereign Palestinian state than when it emanates from Israeli-occupied territory.”

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Bret Stephens had a thought-provoking column Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal in which he recanted his previous support for the Gaza pullout. It made me wonder whether I too was wrong to support Sharon’s disengagement in 2005.

Like Bret, I went back to look at what I wrote at the time. In August 2005 I published an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Hamastan? Gaza Pullout Worth the Risk.” As the title implies, I freely acknowledged that Gaza would likely become a breeding ground of terrorism, possibly even of international terrorism. But I nevertheless argued that “on balance” the pullout was worth the risk because it would allow Israel “to regain the initiative — moral and political,” and that “if the Palestinians fire rockets from Gaza, Israel will be free to mount a military response — more free, in fact, when the threat comes from a sovereign Palestinian state than when it emanates from Israeli-occupied territory.”

Obviously I overestimated the extent to which Israel would get credit for its risky pullout. I overestimated, too, the willingness of the international community to support the Jewish state’s attempts to defend itself from terror. Much of the world continues to view Gaza as quasi-occupied territory because of Israel’s attempts to stop the importation of heavy weapons, and it continues to criticize Israel for supposedly “disproportionate” responses to terror. Such, at least, were the cries heard during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009; and they will likely grow louder the longer the current operation continues.

I still think Israel was right to withdraw settlers whose presence in Gaza contributed nothing to Israeli security and who cost a great deal to defend. But in hindsight it’s obvious Israel has paid a heavy price for withdrawing its security forces; if the IDF were present on the ground in Gaza, Hamas would not be able to fire as many rockets as it currently does.

Does this mean that Israel should reoccupy Gaza? Yes–if it wants to end the Hamas rocket threat for good. But I very much doubt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do so because such a move would not be supported by most Israelis. Israeli public opinion backed the partial reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002–Operation Defensive Shield–because hundreds of Israelis were being killed in suicide bomber attacks. Today’s rocket attacks, while just as terrifying, are thankfully taking a much lower casualty toll, thus sapping Israelis’ willingness to undertake an operation that would undoubtedly lead to the loss of some soldiers and that would expose their nation to even more international opprobrium. Harsh as it may sound, the situation in Gaza likely will have to get worse than it is today for any Israeli political leader to order security forces back for more than a temporary incursion.

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