Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ehud Barak

Israel to Elections?

So, against my predictions, the Winograd Commission report came and went, and Ehud Olmert’s government weathered the storm, right? Not so fast. It is true that, to everyone’s astonishment, the report essentially gave Olmert a much-needed bye, and his biggest coalition partner, Ehud Barak of the Labor party, announced he is not resigning for now. But last week Israel was awash in scandal, when a member of the esteemed commission, Yehezkel Dror, implied in an interview that the commission’s findings were skewed towards protecting Olmert’s government for political reasons. As he put it, “If we believe that the prime minister could promote the peace process, this is quite a lofty consideration. If the peace process succeeds, this could save so many lives, and therefore this is a substantial consideration.” If the message were not clear enough, Dror added the following: “What would you prefer? A government under Olmert and Barak, or new elections that would see Bibi [Netanyahu] rise to power?” Subtle.

But the most important news comes from a third party in the coalition, Shas, which holds twelve seats and can bring down the government on its own. Thursday, the head of the party, Eli Yishai, told his supporters that “I don’t know how long this government will last. I estimate that soon we will have elections.” According to radio reports, Yishai also instructed his party’s local branches to begin preparations for elections this coming November — a year and a half earlier than scheduled. Ehud Barak has also hinted that he is leaning towards early elections.

There are good reasons to think that this is not just posturing. True, historically speaking Shas is one of the least likely parties to bring down a government — its main goal in life is to secure maximum government funding for its religious schools, and being in opposition is not very good for that. But today Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, reeking of both corruption and incompetence. In such a case, parties that cling to the government do so at their peril: As soon as one party seriously considers bolting under popular pressure, the other stands to be left clinging to a sinking ship — and voters will punish those who didn’t leave when they had the chance. The result is that contrary to ordinary politics, where parties hold on to power as long as they can, prophecies of a falling government are often self-fulfilling, as each party jockeys for the best advantage in the next election. Stay tuned.

So, against my predictions, the Winograd Commission report came and went, and Ehud Olmert’s government weathered the storm, right? Not so fast. It is true that, to everyone’s astonishment, the report essentially gave Olmert a much-needed bye, and his biggest coalition partner, Ehud Barak of the Labor party, announced he is not resigning for now. But last week Israel was awash in scandal, when a member of the esteemed commission, Yehezkel Dror, implied in an interview that the commission’s findings were skewed towards protecting Olmert’s government for political reasons. As he put it, “If we believe that the prime minister could promote the peace process, this is quite a lofty consideration. If the peace process succeeds, this could save so many lives, and therefore this is a substantial consideration.” If the message were not clear enough, Dror added the following: “What would you prefer? A government under Olmert and Barak, or new elections that would see Bibi [Netanyahu] rise to power?” Subtle.

But the most important news comes from a third party in the coalition, Shas, which holds twelve seats and can bring down the government on its own. Thursday, the head of the party, Eli Yishai, told his supporters that “I don’t know how long this government will last. I estimate that soon we will have elections.” According to radio reports, Yishai also instructed his party’s local branches to begin preparations for elections this coming November — a year and a half earlier than scheduled. Ehud Barak has also hinted that he is leaning towards early elections.

There are good reasons to think that this is not just posturing. True, historically speaking Shas is one of the least likely parties to bring down a government — its main goal in life is to secure maximum government funding for its religious schools, and being in opposition is not very good for that. But today Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, reeking of both corruption and incompetence. In such a case, parties that cling to the government do so at their peril: As soon as one party seriously considers bolting under popular pressure, the other stands to be left clinging to a sinking ship — and voters will punish those who didn’t leave when they had the chance. The result is that contrary to ordinary politics, where parties hold on to power as long as they can, prophecies of a falling government are often self-fulfilling, as each party jockeys for the best advantage in the next election. Stay tuned.

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The Teflon Prime Minister

The planets continue to align, improbably, in Ehud Olmert’s favor. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak apparently has strong Labor support in his decision to stay in Olmert’s coalition. Barak announced his decision Sunday, but yesterday’s Knesset session offers a crystalline portrait of a country’s disgust with its leader.

Olmert addressed the Knesset and attempted to take nominal responsibility for the softball findings of the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War. The Jerusalem Post reports that parents of soldiers killed in that war interrupted the Prime Minister only to blast him and renounce their citizenship.

In the wake of Israel’s military debacle in Lebanon, the partisan machinations of Ehud Barak and the egomania of Ehud Olmert have conspired to keep the country in the precise defensive condition it can’t afford: stasis. Barak had said he’d pull his support for Olmert and force elections once the Winograd Committee report was delivered. However, facing his party’s dismal public approval ratings and the current hawkish climate, he’s gone against principle and chosen to nurture the incompetent Olmert instead of risking a Likud victory.

Meanwhile, in his speech yesterday, Olmert demonstrated once again that he doesn’t even comprehend what his faults might be. He didn’t so much take responsibility as spread it around. Getting both the tone and content exactly wrong, he reminded all attending that his taking the country to war reflected “the unequivocal opinion of the defense establishment.” That’s not necessarily false, but it’s also not what’s provoking outrage. Benjamin Netanyahu recognizes the war’s “vast national and international support” on his blog today. Yet, Netanyahu adds:

However, even with such advantages, and as pointed out by the Winograd Committee, it is the first war initiated by Israel that it did not win. The IDF fought with bravery and courage. The failure lies with the amateurish government . . . The committee had concluded: We place the responsibility on the shoulders of the three figures at the helm. But while two of those figures – (former) Defense Minister Amir Peretz and (former) Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz – have since resigned from their positions, the prime minister refuses to follow suit.

A nation whose survival depends on the fearless accountability of its leadership is being forced into weakness by the survival instincts of cowardly leaders. Ehud Barak continues to talk a big game about his plans to bring down Olmert at just the right time, but barring the effects of one of Olmert’s other scandals, that toppling has been permanently postponed.

The planets continue to align, improbably, in Ehud Olmert’s favor. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak apparently has strong Labor support in his decision to stay in Olmert’s coalition. Barak announced his decision Sunday, but yesterday’s Knesset session offers a crystalline portrait of a country’s disgust with its leader.

Olmert addressed the Knesset and attempted to take nominal responsibility for the softball findings of the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War. The Jerusalem Post reports that parents of soldiers killed in that war interrupted the Prime Minister only to blast him and renounce their citizenship.

In the wake of Israel’s military debacle in Lebanon, the partisan machinations of Ehud Barak and the egomania of Ehud Olmert have conspired to keep the country in the precise defensive condition it can’t afford: stasis. Barak had said he’d pull his support for Olmert and force elections once the Winograd Committee report was delivered. However, facing his party’s dismal public approval ratings and the current hawkish climate, he’s gone against principle and chosen to nurture the incompetent Olmert instead of risking a Likud victory.

Meanwhile, in his speech yesterday, Olmert demonstrated once again that he doesn’t even comprehend what his faults might be. He didn’t so much take responsibility as spread it around. Getting both the tone and content exactly wrong, he reminded all attending that his taking the country to war reflected “the unequivocal opinion of the defense establishment.” That’s not necessarily false, but it’s also not what’s provoking outrage. Benjamin Netanyahu recognizes the war’s “vast national and international support” on his blog today. Yet, Netanyahu adds:

However, even with such advantages, and as pointed out by the Winograd Committee, it is the first war initiated by Israel that it did not win. The IDF fought with bravery and courage. The failure lies with the amateurish government . . . The committee had concluded: We place the responsibility on the shoulders of the three figures at the helm. But while two of those figures – (former) Defense Minister Amir Peretz and (former) Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz – have since resigned from their positions, the prime minister refuses to follow suit.

A nation whose survival depends on the fearless accountability of its leadership is being forced into weakness by the survival instincts of cowardly leaders. Ehud Barak continues to talk a big game about his plans to bring down Olmert at just the right time, but barring the effects of one of Olmert’s other scandals, that toppling has been permanently postponed.

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Where’s the Middle East?

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

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A Victory for Ahamdinejad?

The more we learn about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the less “confidence” we can have in its sanguine findings about the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Today comes news that Israel, one of America’s closest collaborators in intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, has reached very different conclusions. Haaretz quotes Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and now defense minister (and hardly a hawk), as follows:

“It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program but as far as we know it has probably since revived it.”

His comments go to one of the key weaknesses of the NIE. While it claims with “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear-weapons work in 2003, the report offers only “moderate confidence” that this program has not been resumed.

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The more we learn about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the less “confidence” we can have in its sanguine findings about the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Today comes news that Israel, one of America’s closest collaborators in intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, has reached very different conclusions. Haaretz quotes Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and now defense minister (and hardly a hawk), as follows:

“It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program but as far as we know it has probably since revived it.”

His comments go to one of the key weaknesses of the NIE. While it claims with “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear-weapons work in 2003, the report offers only “moderate confidence” that this program has not been resumed.

Some will no doubt dismiss Israeli officials as being alarmist, although they have a larger stake—a life and death stake—than do American intelligence analysts in figuring out the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Harder to dismiss are concerns from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has long been criticized for being relatively soft on Iran and other proliferators. While Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, greeted the release of the NIE with a “sigh of relief,” others who are involved in his agency’s work are apparently taking a more cautious attitude. The New York Times reports:

“To be frank, we are more skeptical,” a senior official close to the agency said. “We don’t buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran.” The official called the American assertion that Iran had “halted” its weapons program in 2003 “somewhat surprising.”

When even some at the IAEA think the U.S. intelligence community is being too generous in its assessment of Iran, that should be cause for serious concern.

And, indeed, whether Iran has restarted its “nuclear weapons program” since 2003 or not, the fact remains that its supposedly “civilian” enrichment work could easily produce a bomb. Indeed, as this New York Times article notes,

After the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain became the first three countries with atom bombs, all the rest hid their military programs to one extent or another behind the mask of peaceful nuclear power. That includes France, China, Israel, India, South Africa, and Pakistan.

A number of experts have even raised the possibility that Iran may have suspended its “nuclear weapons” work in 2003 because it had already come up with a working bomb design, and now only needs to produce enough highly enriched uranium to create a working bomb. The hardest part of making a nuclear weapon is not the design and production of the warhead; it is the production or procurement of the fissile material. It is quite possible that A.Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist, may have provided Iran with a working bomb design. Or perhaps the Iranians have gotten what they need from their friends in North Korea, who were also beneficiaries of the A.Q. Khan network.

Whatever the case, the news, even if accurate, that Iran suspended its “nuclear weapon” work in 2003 is hardly cause for celebration. Unfortunately the NIE’s political impact is out of all proportion to its analytical rigor. It will now be harder than ever to get tough international sanctions on Iran.

As noted by CNN, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is claiming “victory,” declaring that “the report said clearly that the Iranian people were on the right course” and that “Iran has turned to a nuclear country and all world countries have accepted this fact.” Much as I would like to think that Ahmadinejad is wrong, in this case I think he has a point.

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ANNAPOLIS: The monitor & judge

The rumor in Annapolis yesterday was that the recently-retired Marine Gen. James Jones had been tapped as the man to lead the “monitoring and judging” component of the renewed American effort to push the implementation of the Roadmap. Today, it became official.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the job involves monitoring the development of Palestinian security services. One focus would be how those forces interact with neighboring security services, including Israeli authorities.

“There is in her mind a need for someone to take a look internally at not only the efforts of the Palestinians to build up their security forces, but how those efforts relate to the Israeli government and Israeli security efforts and how those efforts also relate through the region,” he said.

As I argued yesterday, the manner in which this job is performed will be vital to how the Palestinian effort at developing competent security services is going to be viewed. And that, in turn, is going to affect how much pressure is put on Israel to reduce its security presence in the West Bank. Check out Wikipedia for a little more info on Jones. Shmuel Rosner and Aluf Benn have more on the Jones appointment in their Annapolis diary:

The issue that threatened to disrupt the talks between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her lead-negotiating counterpart, former PA prime minister Ahmed Qureia, was over who would supervise the two sides and decide whether they are meeting their road map obligations. Experience in the Middle East suggests that the Israelis and the Palestinians are very good at blaming the other side, but they do not really like to keep their obligations. Had this been different the Palestinian terrorist groups and the outposts in the West Bank would have long gone. During the Oslo period there was no responsible adult around to ensure that the obligations were met. The road map sought to correct this and set a mechanism of monitoring under American control.

The Palestinians and the Americans proposed for the current negotiations to set up a tripartite committee that would discuss all issues and decide who was right and who needs to correct things. Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed this proposal, fearing that Israel will find itself in a minority position, and proposed instead that an American arbitrator would be assigned to decide. The final compromise is that a committee will be set up, but the decision maker will be U.S. General Jim Jones, the former NATO commander, who will take up his new duties in the coming days. Like other generals appointed by the White House for this thankless job, Jones will also probably go through a complicated breaking-in period in the Middle East.

The rumor in Annapolis yesterday was that the recently-retired Marine Gen. James Jones had been tapped as the man to lead the “monitoring and judging” component of the renewed American effort to push the implementation of the Roadmap. Today, it became official.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the job involves monitoring the development of Palestinian security services. One focus would be how those forces interact with neighboring security services, including Israeli authorities.

“There is in her mind a need for someone to take a look internally at not only the efforts of the Palestinians to build up their security forces, but how those efforts relate to the Israeli government and Israeli security efforts and how those efforts also relate through the region,” he said.

As I argued yesterday, the manner in which this job is performed will be vital to how the Palestinian effort at developing competent security services is going to be viewed. And that, in turn, is going to affect how much pressure is put on Israel to reduce its security presence in the West Bank. Check out Wikipedia for a little more info on Jones. Shmuel Rosner and Aluf Benn have more on the Jones appointment in their Annapolis diary:

The issue that threatened to disrupt the talks between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her lead-negotiating counterpart, former PA prime minister Ahmed Qureia, was over who would supervise the two sides and decide whether they are meeting their road map obligations. Experience in the Middle East suggests that the Israelis and the Palestinians are very good at blaming the other side, but they do not really like to keep their obligations. Had this been different the Palestinian terrorist groups and the outposts in the West Bank would have long gone. During the Oslo period there was no responsible adult around to ensure that the obligations were met. The road map sought to correct this and set a mechanism of monitoring under American control.

The Palestinians and the Americans proposed for the current negotiations to set up a tripartite committee that would discuss all issues and decide who was right and who needs to correct things. Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed this proposal, fearing that Israel will find itself in a minority position, and proposed instead that an American arbitrator would be assigned to decide. The final compromise is that a committee will be set up, but the decision maker will be U.S. General Jim Jones, the former NATO commander, who will take up his new duties in the coming days. Like other generals appointed by the White House for this thankless job, Jones will also probably go through a complicated breaking-in period in the Middle East.

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Syria’s Useful Israeli Idiots

The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

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The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

The law is absurd from the West’s point of view, and from the point of view of many Lebanese, too. Lebanon is “the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world,” as Lebanese political consultant and analyst Eli Khoury told me last year. But Lebanon, despite its moderation outside the Hizballah camp, is still under the shadow of the Syrian-Iranian axis, and remains threatened with de facto re-annexation. The reactionary law is still on the books, and even a leader as prominent as Walid Jumblatt dare not break it.

Jumblatt traveled to Washington this past weekend to give a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which you can read here. After Cham Press published its fabricated story, his office phoned the institute to make sure the Israeli Defense Minister would not be attending. He needed to be sure the two could not even run into each other by accident and make Syria’s bogus assertion look true.

Israeli journalists who “reported” this non-story should have noticed that they published a claim that Jumblatt and Barak will meet in the United States after the meeting was supposed to have already happened. Cham Press said the meeting would take place on Sunday, and Israeli media placed the alleged meeting in the future tense the following Monday.

Re-reporting Syrian lies in the Israeli press makes Cham Press look almost legitimate, its lies almost plausible. This should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t. The Damascus regime knows what it is doing and has been using gullible foreign journalists to its advantage for a while now.

“Regime flacks fed New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh outrageous propaganda about how the United States supposedly supported the Fatah al-Islam terrorists in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in Lebanon,” said Tony Badran, a Lebanese research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Then they quoted his New Yorker story to get themselves diplomatically off the hook for their own support of those terrorists in the camp.”

And here we go again. Cham Press now says Israel’s Omedia reported that Jumblatt met with Barak and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington. Cham Press no longer quotes only itself; it quotes Israeli websites as backup. But the only reason Israeli media reported any of this in the first place is the initial false story appearing in Cham Press. Syrian media is still just quoting itself—only now it does so through Israel.

Jumblatt is near or at the top of Syria’s hit list. No Lebanese leader opposes Syrian terrorism and attempts at overlordship in Lebanon as staunchly as he. His pro-Western “March 14” bloc in parliament is already accused of being a “Zionist hand” by Hizballah and the Syrians. He was the second person Syrian ruler Bashar Assad threatened by name shortly before former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others were assassinated by a truck bomb in downtown Beirut. (“I will break Lebanon over your head and Walid Jumblatt’s,” Assad said to Hariri.) As Tony Badran pointed out to me, the Syrian regime has a habit of planting false stories about Lebanese leaders just before dispatching them with car bombs. The idea of Jumblatt meeting with Barak may seem innocent in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but it marks him for death in Lebanon and in Syria.

Syria is at war with both Israel and Lebanon. Journalists who wish to write about a conspiracy between Israel and Lebanon to destroy the regime in Syria need a better source for that story than the manipulative and murderous Syrian state.

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Barak’s Back

After six years out of public life, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister from 1999-2001, re-emerged as Minister of Defense a little over three months ago—and rarely has someone effected such a dramatic improvement, in such a short period of time, of Israel’s standing in the region. When Barak was elected Labor Party leader in June and obtained the defense portfolio, Israel was in the midst of several crises. Some of these had been exacerbated by Israeli mishandling, but all of them demanded far more in the way of self-assured and competent leadership than what the Olmert administration (and especially Barak’s feckless predecessor at Defense, Amir Peretz) were able to offer: the 2006 Lebanon War had gone badly and emboldened Syria and Iran; the Winograd Commission report had exposed a great deal of genuinely astonishing incompetence in the Israeli political and military echelon; Hamas had just taken Gaza; tensions along the border with Syria were escalating; and perhaps worst of all, there existed inside of Israel a debilitating lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the impending challenges.

The mood in Israel today is hardly one of wild optimism, especially regarding Iran, but Barak’s leadership has already demonstrated both to the Israeli public and to antagonistic regimes that the IDF intends to correct its blunders. According to many reports, Barak’s first priority upon returning to the government was planning Israel’s recent strike on Syria, a sophisticated and daring mission that appears to have been a perfect success on many levels—not least of which is a demonstration to Syria and Iran that the Israeli air force can easily defeat their new Russian air defense systems, and is not afraid of trying. Barak has warned Hamas that it faces a large-scale ground operation in Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, and has declared the implementation of comprehensive missile defense to be a central precondition of any IDF withdrawal from the West Bank. Read More

After six years out of public life, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister from 1999-2001, re-emerged as Minister of Defense a little over three months ago—and rarely has someone effected such a dramatic improvement, in such a short period of time, of Israel’s standing in the region. When Barak was elected Labor Party leader in June and obtained the defense portfolio, Israel was in the midst of several crises. Some of these had been exacerbated by Israeli mishandling, but all of them demanded far more in the way of self-assured and competent leadership than what the Olmert administration (and especially Barak’s feckless predecessor at Defense, Amir Peretz) were able to offer: the 2006 Lebanon War had gone badly and emboldened Syria and Iran; the Winograd Commission report had exposed a great deal of genuinely astonishing incompetence in the Israeli political and military echelon; Hamas had just taken Gaza; tensions along the border with Syria were escalating; and perhaps worst of all, there existed inside of Israel a debilitating lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the impending challenges.

The mood in Israel today is hardly one of wild optimism, especially regarding Iran, but Barak’s leadership has already demonstrated both to the Israeli public and to antagonistic regimes that the IDF intends to correct its blunders. According to many reports, Barak’s first priority upon returning to the government was planning Israel’s recent strike on Syria, a sophisticated and daring mission that appears to have been a perfect success on many levels—not least of which is a demonstration to Syria and Iran that the Israeli air force can easily defeat their new Russian air defense systems, and is not afraid of trying. Barak has warned Hamas that it faces a large-scale ground operation in Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, and has declared the implementation of comprehensive missile defense to be a central precondition of any IDF withdrawal from the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the IDF has stepped up the intensity of its training, especially in reserve units and among ground forces, and has begun pouring resources into developing a multi-tiered missile defense system that will be capable of defeating every type of enemy rocket. The IDF is also developing sophisticated countermeasures for installation on its Merkava tanks to defend against the kind of advanced anti-tank missiles that proved so deadly in southern Lebanon last summer. And Barak has pursued all of these operations and goals with an uncharacteristic sense of quiet determination, bluntly warning the Israeli public in one of his few public appearances against being “deceived by the illusion of a bogus calm.”

Barak has even attempted to rescue Gilad Shalit from captivity in Gaza, with a recent mission in which the Hamas chief who was in charge of the Gaza territory from which terrorists tunneled into Israel to abduct Shalit was himself abducted by IDF special operators, apparently dressed as members of Hamas’s Executive Force. The reemergence of Ehud Barak is emblematic of one of Israel’s greatest strengths: its ability to evaluate failure, assign blame, and quickly take corrective action. During the past three months, Israel has significantly renewed the deterrence and credibility of its armed forces. And Israel’s enemies surely have noticed.

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A Hostile Entity Indeed

Today, Israel’s security cabinet endorsed the recommendations of its Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, and designated Gaza “a hostile entity.” Israel will now cut the fuel and power—though not water—supplies to the Strip.

Hamas has angrily labeled the decision “a declaration of war.” This may be so. But given that Hamas’s charter denies Israel’s right to exist; that Hamas rejected the Oslo accords; that it has been trying to bomb Israel out of existence through suicide attacks since 1994; that it has refused to renounce violence even after countless overtures by the international community and the Palestinian Authority; that it insists “armed resistance” is a legitimate means to fight the “Israeli occupation” of, well, Israel; and that, since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, a barrage of Kassam rockets have been falling daily from Gaza on Israel’s southern areas—given all these factors, should Hamas really be surprised or outraged that Israel finally has taken notice of Hamas’s declaration of war and responded in kind?

Today, Israel’s security cabinet endorsed the recommendations of its Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, and designated Gaza “a hostile entity.” Israel will now cut the fuel and power—though not water—supplies to the Strip.

Hamas has angrily labeled the decision “a declaration of war.” This may be so. But given that Hamas’s charter denies Israel’s right to exist; that Hamas rejected the Oslo accords; that it has been trying to bomb Israel out of existence through suicide attacks since 1994; that it has refused to renounce violence even after countless overtures by the international community and the Palestinian Authority; that it insists “armed resistance” is a legitimate means to fight the “Israeli occupation” of, well, Israel; and that, since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, a barrage of Kassam rockets have been falling daily from Gaza on Israel’s southern areas—given all these factors, should Hamas really be surprised or outraged that Israel finally has taken notice of Hamas’s declaration of war and responded in kind?

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The Arabs’ Turn

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just spent three days visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. She spoke seven times, including interviews, press roundtables, and press conferences with assorted leaders. But reporters did not find much to say about Rice’s tour, beyond noting her announcement that henceforth Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings twice a month. (Perhaps she reasoned that the two leaders would end the conflict just to get out of having such frequent meetings.)

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just spent three days visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. She spoke seven times, including interviews, press roundtables, and press conferences with assorted leaders. But reporters did not find much to say about Rice’s tour, beyond noting her announcement that henceforth Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings twice a month. (Perhaps she reasoned that the two leaders would end the conflict just to get out of having such frequent meetings.)

What wasn’t given due notice was Rice’s unveiling of a new philosophical component of the peace process, even though it cropped up across her whole trip, from her press roundtable in Washington on Friday to her closing statement in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. Here it is, from that summary statement:

Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel. These paths do not substitute for one another; they reinforce one another.

The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel—to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less secure, by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state; to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East; and to demonstrate that the peace they seek is greater than just the absence of war. Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League’s words into the basis of active diplomacy, and it can hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community.

If pursued seriously, this new approach could be revolutionary. Rice is challenging a premise that has stood since the last Arab peace treaty with Israel over a decade ago: the idea that the Arab states can sit back and complain to the U.S. about Israel while taking no responsibility for moderating the Palestinians through their own example.

After Ehud Barak put a state on the table at Camp David, and Ariel Sharon disengaged from settlements in order to create one in 2005, there was not much more that Israel could do to demonstrate the obvious: it actively wants a Palestinian state. The Palestinians reacted to all this not by meeting Israel halfway, but by running in the other direction—becoming more violent and radicalized. And while all this was going on, the Sunni Arab world has been much more concerned about Iranian power in the region than about the Arab-Israel conflict, which has become a tool in Iran’s hands.

Rice is right: the Arab states need to help the Palestinians out of their radical spiral, and this means thawing Arab relations with Israel. But opening trade offices and holding low-level meetings will not be enough. Ultimately, the boulder that must be rolled aside to unblock the road to a Palestinian state is the Palestinian claim to a right of return, which infringes gravely on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

The Palestinians are too weak and radicalized to make this move, so the Arab states have to start by saying there will be no “right of return” to Israel, only to Palestine. But why should the Arabs say this when even the U.S. hesitates to talk about it? Now that Israel has taken massive risks for peace and paid dearly, it is time for the U.S. and the Arab states to take much smaller risks with much greater chances of bearing fruit.

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