Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ehud Olmert

Israel at 60

Today is Israel’s independence day, and the country has taken two days off from everything–the war, the corruption, the politics–to celebrate six decades of Jewish sovereignty. The unofficial theme this year, I believe, is “warts and all”: Yes, we haven’t yet found a way either to defeat our enemies or make peace with them. Yes, we elected a President who appears to have been a thoroughbred sleazeball, and our Prime Minister is now in the thick of his fifth criminal investigation. But hey, we’re alive, our economy is very strong, our democracy works, and even if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re still standing, and that’s a lot given what’s happening around us.

The unlikely hero of the hour is Shimon Peres. After a career of political opportunism and ideological naivete culminating in the somewhat delusional and not-entirely-uncatastrophic Oslo Accords, Peres has emerged as the elder statesman, the last remaining leader from the founding generation, a dignified President who has served as a much-needed corrective to Moshe Katzav, who is about to be put on trial for rape. Peres has managed to stay out of controversy and represent the nation, both as a Zionist and as a man who understands the weight of his largely-symbolic post. His speech to the nation on Remembrance Day Tuesday night, honoring the fallen soldiers of Israel’s wars, was not merely uniting, it was deeply moving.

No-one could be further from Peres than Ehud Olmert. For a week his political life has been put entirely on hold, as a sudden and intense new criminal investigation has opened up, so serious that the police have slapped a far-reaching gag order on the whole thing. You won’t find details in the Israeli press, though the New York Post broke it open on Tuesday, with the New York Times following yesterday. If the rumors are true, then there is a good chance he’s finished as Prime Minister. Either a new coalition will emerge with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking Olmert’s place, or we will head to elections. The choice will be mostly in the hands of Labor party leader Ehud Barak. My bet is that he takes his chances on elections. I can hear Netanyahu’s engines revving.

Today is Israel’s independence day, and the country has taken two days off from everything–the war, the corruption, the politics–to celebrate six decades of Jewish sovereignty. The unofficial theme this year, I believe, is “warts and all”: Yes, we haven’t yet found a way either to defeat our enemies or make peace with them. Yes, we elected a President who appears to have been a thoroughbred sleazeball, and our Prime Minister is now in the thick of his fifth criminal investigation. But hey, we’re alive, our economy is very strong, our democracy works, and even if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re still standing, and that’s a lot given what’s happening around us.

The unlikely hero of the hour is Shimon Peres. After a career of political opportunism and ideological naivete culminating in the somewhat delusional and not-entirely-uncatastrophic Oslo Accords, Peres has emerged as the elder statesman, the last remaining leader from the founding generation, a dignified President who has served as a much-needed corrective to Moshe Katzav, who is about to be put on trial for rape. Peres has managed to stay out of controversy and represent the nation, both as a Zionist and as a man who understands the weight of his largely-symbolic post. His speech to the nation on Remembrance Day Tuesday night, honoring the fallen soldiers of Israel’s wars, was not merely uniting, it was deeply moving.

No-one could be further from Peres than Ehud Olmert. For a week his political life has been put entirely on hold, as a sudden and intense new criminal investigation has opened up, so serious that the police have slapped a far-reaching gag order on the whole thing. You won’t find details in the Israeli press, though the New York Post broke it open on Tuesday, with the New York Times following yesterday. If the rumors are true, then there is a good chance he’s finished as Prime Minister. Either a new coalition will emerge with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking Olmert’s place, or we will head to elections. The choice will be mostly in the hands of Labor party leader Ehud Barak. My bet is that he takes his chances on elections. I can hear Netanyahu’s engines revving.

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Olmert’s Mystery Scandal

Because of a massive gag order, the Israeli press is not allowed to tell us any details about Ehud Olmert’s newest criminal investigation. But it looks big. We do know that he was interrogated by the police’s National Fraud Unit on Friday morning, and that he will be further interrogated in the coming weeks. We know that a high-ranking police source told the Jerusalem Post that it is worse than previous investigations, so “severe” that he will likely have to quit. We know that officials in the Labor party, his senior coalition partner, are calling for him to step down. And we know that Olmert has cancelled his whole series of press interviews for this week’s Independence Day, and has spoken out against the “wicked and malicious” rumors that have been spread. (Sorry about sparse links. The best web sources right now are in Hebrew, especially NRG’s website.)

Undoubtedly we’ll find out more in a few days, when the order is lifted. In the meantime, we’ll start thinking about elections. Again.

Because of a massive gag order, the Israeli press is not allowed to tell us any details about Ehud Olmert’s newest criminal investigation. But it looks big. We do know that he was interrogated by the police’s National Fraud Unit on Friday morning, and that he will be further interrogated in the coming weeks. We know that a high-ranking police source told the Jerusalem Post that it is worse than previous investigations, so “severe” that he will likely have to quit. We know that officials in the Labor party, his senior coalition partner, are calling for him to step down. And we know that Olmert has cancelled his whole series of press interviews for this week’s Independence Day, and has spoken out against the “wicked and malicious” rumors that have been spread. (Sorry about sparse links. The best web sources right now are in Hebrew, especially NRG’s website.)

Undoubtedly we’ll find out more in a few days, when the order is lifted. In the meantime, we’ll start thinking about elections. Again.

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Olmert Loses Three

Ehud Olmert’s threadbare coalition just got threadbarer. Three members of the Pensioners’ party–a bizarre political apparition that managed to get 7 seats in parliament based almost entirely on the Israeli voter’s sense of irony– have split off to form the “Justice for Pensioners” party. (Life of Brian fans, take note.) The trio’s principal gripe is that the government has not actually fulfilled its commitments as part of the coalition agreement, and that their former party head Rafi Eitan is having too much fun as a minister to notice. Anyway, since they are out of the coalition, Olmert is down to 64 seats in a Knesset where a ruling majority needs 61.

There will be elections as soon as one of the parties thinks it’ll be better off trying their luck with voters than in their present state. Could be tomorrow, could be in a year. Don’t hold your breath.

Ehud Olmert’s threadbare coalition just got threadbarer. Three members of the Pensioners’ party–a bizarre political apparition that managed to get 7 seats in parliament based almost entirely on the Israeli voter’s sense of irony– have split off to form the “Justice for Pensioners” party. (Life of Brian fans, take note.) The trio’s principal gripe is that the government has not actually fulfilled its commitments as part of the coalition agreement, and that their former party head Rafi Eitan is having too much fun as a minister to notice. Anyway, since they are out of the coalition, Olmert is down to 64 seats in a Knesset where a ruling majority needs 61.

There will be elections as soon as one of the parties thinks it’ll be better off trying their luck with voters than in their present state. Could be tomorrow, could be in a year. Don’t hold your breath.

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The Carter Fallout

In the aftermath of Jimmy Carter’s meetings with high-ranking Hamas officials last week, the Arab press has spoken: the former U.S. president’s mission failed miserably.

The Kuwaiti daily al-Watan observes that Carter’s prodding produced no changes in Hamas’ position on rocket attacks or Gilad Shalit, who has been held as a prisoner for nearly two years. Meanwhile, the Hariri-owned Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal doubted that Carter could translate his pro-Palestinian intentions into meaningful results, recalling that the Camp David Accords hadn’t fulfilled Carter’s ambitions for Palestinian statehood thirty years ago. “He’s fit to run the Red Cross, but not the United States,” al-Mustaqbal concluded, calling Carter “naïve.” Even those supporting Carter’s engagement with Hamas in principle remained unconvinced. For example, though lauding Carter’s “political idealism,” an opinion piece published in the pan-Arab Elaf argued “political idealism alone is insufficient in political work.”

In short, while many believe that Hamas cannot be ignored in any forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the consensus within the Arab press appears to be that Carter is an incapable activist rather than a serious statesman.

Yet, for all his moral stupidity, it is hard to take pleasure in Carter’s failure. After all, Carter’s very public meet-and-greet with Hamas seems like a harbinger of things to come. Indeed, in the two years since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, support for engaging Hamas has become an increasingly mainstream position, endorsed by former policymakers from both Democratic and Republican administrations; The New York Times editorial board; and virtually every policy adviser for the leading Democratic presidential candidate. Moreover, sixty-four percent of Israelis support negotiating with Hamas, while Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai–acting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s approvalasked Carter to deliver his request for a meeting to Damascus-based Hamas leader Khalid Meshal. As the Annapolis “process”–which explicitly excluded radicals–appears increasingly hopeless, calls for dealing with Hamas will likely escalate further.

Of course, none of this changes the dangers associated with engaging Hamas, most especially the fact that doing so would validate Hamas’ stubborn refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism as an effective strategy–anathema to the moderation that U.S. policy aims to promote. Policymakers must therefore focus on how Hamas can be prevented from declaring victory the next time a prominent American political figure dials Damascus. Much is at stake and, even while ventures such as Carter’s are still widely dismissed as tomfoolery, the tables may be turning.

In the aftermath of Jimmy Carter’s meetings with high-ranking Hamas officials last week, the Arab press has spoken: the former U.S. president’s mission failed miserably.

The Kuwaiti daily al-Watan observes that Carter’s prodding produced no changes in Hamas’ position on rocket attacks or Gilad Shalit, who has been held as a prisoner for nearly two years. Meanwhile, the Hariri-owned Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal doubted that Carter could translate his pro-Palestinian intentions into meaningful results, recalling that the Camp David Accords hadn’t fulfilled Carter’s ambitions for Palestinian statehood thirty years ago. “He’s fit to run the Red Cross, but not the United States,” al-Mustaqbal concluded, calling Carter “naïve.” Even those supporting Carter’s engagement with Hamas in principle remained unconvinced. For example, though lauding Carter’s “political idealism,” an opinion piece published in the pan-Arab Elaf argued “political idealism alone is insufficient in political work.”

In short, while many believe that Hamas cannot be ignored in any forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the consensus within the Arab press appears to be that Carter is an incapable activist rather than a serious statesman.

Yet, for all his moral stupidity, it is hard to take pleasure in Carter’s failure. After all, Carter’s very public meet-and-greet with Hamas seems like a harbinger of things to come. Indeed, in the two years since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, support for engaging Hamas has become an increasingly mainstream position, endorsed by former policymakers from both Democratic and Republican administrations; The New York Times editorial board; and virtually every policy adviser for the leading Democratic presidential candidate. Moreover, sixty-four percent of Israelis support negotiating with Hamas, while Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai–acting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s approvalasked Carter to deliver his request for a meeting to Damascus-based Hamas leader Khalid Meshal. As the Annapolis “process”–which explicitly excluded radicals–appears increasingly hopeless, calls for dealing with Hamas will likely escalate further.

Of course, none of this changes the dangers associated with engaging Hamas, most especially the fact that doing so would validate Hamas’ stubborn refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism as an effective strategy–anathema to the moderation that U.S. policy aims to promote. Policymakers must therefore focus on how Hamas can be prevented from declaring victory the next time a prominent American political figure dials Damascus. Much is at stake and, even while ventures such as Carter’s are still widely dismissed as tomfoolery, the tables may be turning.

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The Mirage

What if Condoleezza Rice came to Jerusalem, and nobody cared?

When you have been watching the peace process for enough years, you start to wonder whether anything is ever serious. So here was Rice asking Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for confidence-building measures, accordingly he announced the removal of 50 West Bank roadblocks and several key checkpoints, leaving the Secretary of State “amazed.” Yet on the same day, he also announced the resumption of building in major settlement blocs, in flat contradiction to his previous commitments.

So Condi is trying to make sure President Bush has some points scored in advance of his upcoming visit to Israel, and Olmert is trying to make sure that both Labor and Shas stay in his government. Does anybody care whether these actions actually mean anything? Whether the removal of roadblocks will result in (a) the significant easing of Palestinian life, (b) the significant facilitating of terrorist activity, with its attendant innocents butchered, or (c) both? Has anyone followed up on whether last fall’s Annapolis bonanza amounted to anything, or what the expansion of settlements means for future borders? Why does this all feel so ephemeral?

Put another way: This story seems to have no point, no thesis, other than its own telling. I’m not saying that nothing real can happen in Middle East diplomacy: The Camp David Accords, the Oslo Accords, and the withdrawal from Gaza — all these things were real, for better or worse. But all of them required extremely dedicated movers, people with a vision, and the guts, political savvy, and wherewithal to carry it out.

Our situation is different: Nobody on either side of the fence really thinks Israel and the PA–which anyway represents only West Bank Palestinians now–are likely to reach any kind of meaningful peace agreement in the next year. Nor does anyone think that the present Israeli government is capable of implementing all the oft-avowed “painful concessions” such a deal would entail. Olmert is no Begin or Sharon. He is, instead, the man who brought you Lebanon II, probably the most inconclusive war in Middle East history. Nor is Bush really looking for dramatic achievements which can backfire on the electoral side and land his successor with a still-deeper mess. This is a dance of shadows, a mirage.

What if Condoleezza Rice came to Jerusalem, and nobody cared?

When you have been watching the peace process for enough years, you start to wonder whether anything is ever serious. So here was Rice asking Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for confidence-building measures, accordingly he announced the removal of 50 West Bank roadblocks and several key checkpoints, leaving the Secretary of State “amazed.” Yet on the same day, he also announced the resumption of building in major settlement blocs, in flat contradiction to his previous commitments.

So Condi is trying to make sure President Bush has some points scored in advance of his upcoming visit to Israel, and Olmert is trying to make sure that both Labor and Shas stay in his government. Does anybody care whether these actions actually mean anything? Whether the removal of roadblocks will result in (a) the significant easing of Palestinian life, (b) the significant facilitating of terrorist activity, with its attendant innocents butchered, or (c) both? Has anyone followed up on whether last fall’s Annapolis bonanza amounted to anything, or what the expansion of settlements means for future borders? Why does this all feel so ephemeral?

Put another way: This story seems to have no point, no thesis, other than its own telling. I’m not saying that nothing real can happen in Middle East diplomacy: The Camp David Accords, the Oslo Accords, and the withdrawal from Gaza — all these things were real, for better or worse. But all of them required extremely dedicated movers, people with a vision, and the guts, political savvy, and wherewithal to carry it out.

Our situation is different: Nobody on either side of the fence really thinks Israel and the PA–which anyway represents only West Bank Palestinians now–are likely to reach any kind of meaningful peace agreement in the next year. Nor does anyone think that the present Israeli government is capable of implementing all the oft-avowed “painful concessions” such a deal would entail. Olmert is no Begin or Sharon. He is, instead, the man who brought you Lebanon II, probably the most inconclusive war in Middle East history. Nor is Bush really looking for dramatic achievements which can backfire on the electoral side and land his successor with a still-deeper mess. This is a dance of shadows, a mirage.

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A “Liberal” Israel Lobby?

In this month’s Prospect, Gershom Gorenberg offers a “new” strategy for moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward: the establishment of a “liberal Israel lobby.” This lobby would counter the influence of AIPAC, which, Gorenberg argues, is “more hawkish on Middle East politics than most American Jews.” Moreover, rather than focusing on Israel’s “short-term security needs,” this dovish group would lobby the U.S. to press Israel on ending settlement construction, as “The only workable baseline for a peace agreement is a full Israeli pullout from the West Bank, with some minor exchanges of territory.”

There are two major problems with this argument. The first lies in the assumption that American Jews are overwhelmingly dovish on Israel, and therefore poorly represented by AIPAC. Gorenberg’s empirics actually suggest otherwise. For example, seeking to prove American-Jewish dovishness, Gorenberg cites a recent AJC survey that found a 46-43-plurality support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet support for Palestinian statehood is not a particularly dovish position in the U.S. Indeed, it represents a rare instance of Republican-Democratic consensus-and the close divide among American Jews therefore suggests, if anything, a hawkish streak. In this vein, the same survey showed that 58 percent of American Jews opposed compromising on the status of Jerusalem-a step that Israeli-Palestinian peace likely requires no less than the evacuation of most settlements. Gorenberg therefore completely misses the relevance of American Jews’ 57-percent opposition to military action of Iran: rather than suggesting a dovish outlook on Israel, it most likely reflects weariness with the Iraq war, which American Jews now oppose 67-27.

The second major problem lies in the target of Gorenberg’s advocacy. Make no mistake-I’m sympathetic with Gorenberg’s critique of Israel’s settlement policy, and agree that the Bush administration should exert more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to fulfill his prior commitment to halt construction. But Gorenberg’s suggestion that an American “liberal Israel lobby” is the best means to affect this change strikes me as odd. After all, any lobbying effort against the Israeli settlement policy should appeal, first and foremost, to the Israeli government and Israel’s voting public-not the U.S., which bears no responsibility for the settlements and has long opposed their construction.

Frankly, by pinning responsibility for Israeli policy on the U.S., Gorenberg echoes Arab voices, who similarly insist that the U.S. must press Israel as a means of changing Israeli policy. Yet there is a key difference. Arabs–who can hardly promote change in their own authoritarian countries–virtually require a deus ex machina if they wish to see immediate changes in Israeli policy. But Gorenberg is an Israeli citizen, with all the voting rights and civil liberties that come with it. He therefore possesses direct levers for influencing Israeli policy, and hardly needs American Jews–a group he misunderstands anyway–to adopt his cause.

In this month’s Prospect, Gershom Gorenberg offers a “new” strategy for moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward: the establishment of a “liberal Israel lobby.” This lobby would counter the influence of AIPAC, which, Gorenberg argues, is “more hawkish on Middle East politics than most American Jews.” Moreover, rather than focusing on Israel’s “short-term security needs,” this dovish group would lobby the U.S. to press Israel on ending settlement construction, as “The only workable baseline for a peace agreement is a full Israeli pullout from the West Bank, with some minor exchanges of territory.”

There are two major problems with this argument. The first lies in the assumption that American Jews are overwhelmingly dovish on Israel, and therefore poorly represented by AIPAC. Gorenberg’s empirics actually suggest otherwise. For example, seeking to prove American-Jewish dovishness, Gorenberg cites a recent AJC survey that found a 46-43-plurality support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet support for Palestinian statehood is not a particularly dovish position in the U.S. Indeed, it represents a rare instance of Republican-Democratic consensus-and the close divide among American Jews therefore suggests, if anything, a hawkish streak. In this vein, the same survey showed that 58 percent of American Jews opposed compromising on the status of Jerusalem-a step that Israeli-Palestinian peace likely requires no less than the evacuation of most settlements. Gorenberg therefore completely misses the relevance of American Jews’ 57-percent opposition to military action of Iran: rather than suggesting a dovish outlook on Israel, it most likely reflects weariness with the Iraq war, which American Jews now oppose 67-27.

The second major problem lies in the target of Gorenberg’s advocacy. Make no mistake-I’m sympathetic with Gorenberg’s critique of Israel’s settlement policy, and agree that the Bush administration should exert more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to fulfill his prior commitment to halt construction. But Gorenberg’s suggestion that an American “liberal Israel lobby” is the best means to affect this change strikes me as odd. After all, any lobbying effort against the Israeli settlement policy should appeal, first and foremost, to the Israeli government and Israel’s voting public-not the U.S., which bears no responsibility for the settlements and has long opposed their construction.

Frankly, by pinning responsibility for Israeli policy on the U.S., Gorenberg echoes Arab voices, who similarly insist that the U.S. must press Israel as a means of changing Israeli policy. Yet there is a key difference. Arabs–who can hardly promote change in their own authoritarian countries–virtually require a deus ex machina if they wish to see immediate changes in Israeli policy. But Gorenberg is an Israeli citizen, with all the voting rights and civil liberties that come with it. He therefore possesses direct levers for influencing Israeli policy, and hardly needs American Jews–a group he misunderstands anyway–to adopt his cause.

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Talking Around Each Other

If anything positive can be said about Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit to Israel and the West Bank this weekend, it’s that Cheney perfectly matched expectations with outcomes. Indeed, Cheney’s visit was minimally anticipated and catalyzed zero progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Most disturbingly, the Vice-President’s presence exposed a widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian priorities relevant to the Annapolis “process,” as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seemingly addressed two entirely different realities in their meetings with Cheney. On one hand, Olmert spoke of Israel’s priorities primarily in regional terms: during his press conference with Cheney on Saturday, Olmert barely mentioned the Palestinians, neatly tucking a reference to peace negotiations among statements regarding Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Abbas limited his priorities to the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, decrying Israeli settlement expansion as a barrier to peace. Moreover, while both leaders expressed their frustration with the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets emanating from Gaza, their strategies for addressing Hamas appeared irreconcilable: Olmert hinted that he would seek an affirmation of U.S. support for Israeli operations against the rockets, while Abbas denounced Israel’s “military escalation against Gaza.”

If the Bush administration wishes to follow its optimistic Israeli-Palestinian rhetoric with meaningful progress, bridging this gap must be a priority. It should begin by reminding Olmert that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—which aim to strengthen Abbas at the expense of Hamas—provide one critical means for undermining Iranian ascendancy. In this vein, the administration should take a tougher line against Israel’s ongoing settlement activity, which contradicts Olmert’s previous promises to halt construction and is mutually exclusive with the Bush administration’s desire to establish a Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side, the administration must remind Abbas that another “national unity” attempt with Hamas—which will provide Hamas yet another window of “calm” for rearming and further consolidating its power—is mutually exclusive with ending the occupation. In this vein, the administration should closely follow the Yemeni-sponsored Hamas-Fatah negotiations, which could facilitate the end of Abbas’ reign as Washington’s great Palestinian hope.

Of course—as I’ve long argued—success in the Annapolis “process” remains highly improbable, beset by weak leaders, a lack of commitment to resolving the conflict’s substantive issues, and the disinterest of key regional players. Yet the Bush administration has invested heavily in promoting it, including through recent visits by the President and Vice-President, as well as rounds of shuttle diplomacy undertaken by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. With barely nine months remaining in office, the administration will have to address both sides’ strategic concerns more directly—and thereby bridge the widening gap between them—if it hopes to receive any bang for this substantial diplomatic buck. Indeed, when the parties openly talk around each other in the presence of the Vice-President, the entire American peace enterprise—with its repetitive calls on leaders to make “tough decisions”—looks like a complete sham.

If anything positive can be said about Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit to Israel and the West Bank this weekend, it’s that Cheney perfectly matched expectations with outcomes. Indeed, Cheney’s visit was minimally anticipated and catalyzed zero progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Most disturbingly, the Vice-President’s presence exposed a widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian priorities relevant to the Annapolis “process,” as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seemingly addressed two entirely different realities in their meetings with Cheney. On one hand, Olmert spoke of Israel’s priorities primarily in regional terms: during his press conference with Cheney on Saturday, Olmert barely mentioned the Palestinians, neatly tucking a reference to peace negotiations among statements regarding Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Abbas limited his priorities to the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, decrying Israeli settlement expansion as a barrier to peace. Moreover, while both leaders expressed their frustration with the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets emanating from Gaza, their strategies for addressing Hamas appeared irreconcilable: Olmert hinted that he would seek an affirmation of U.S. support for Israeli operations against the rockets, while Abbas denounced Israel’s “military escalation against Gaza.”

If the Bush administration wishes to follow its optimistic Israeli-Palestinian rhetoric with meaningful progress, bridging this gap must be a priority. It should begin by reminding Olmert that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—which aim to strengthen Abbas at the expense of Hamas—provide one critical means for undermining Iranian ascendancy. In this vein, the administration should take a tougher line against Israel’s ongoing settlement activity, which contradicts Olmert’s previous promises to halt construction and is mutually exclusive with the Bush administration’s desire to establish a Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side, the administration must remind Abbas that another “national unity” attempt with Hamas—which will provide Hamas yet another window of “calm” for rearming and further consolidating its power—is mutually exclusive with ending the occupation. In this vein, the administration should closely follow the Yemeni-sponsored Hamas-Fatah negotiations, which could facilitate the end of Abbas’ reign as Washington’s great Palestinian hope.

Of course—as I’ve long argued—success in the Annapolis “process” remains highly improbable, beset by weak leaders, a lack of commitment to resolving the conflict’s substantive issues, and the disinterest of key regional players. Yet the Bush administration has invested heavily in promoting it, including through recent visits by the President and Vice-President, as well as rounds of shuttle diplomacy undertaken by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. With barely nine months remaining in office, the administration will have to address both sides’ strategic concerns more directly—and thereby bridge the widening gap between them—if it hopes to receive any bang for this substantial diplomatic buck. Indeed, when the parties openly talk around each other in the presence of the Vice-President, the entire American peace enterprise—with its repetitive calls on leaders to make “tough decisions”—looks like a complete sham.

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Re: Seven Years Later

Noah Pollak writes that Israel seems finally to be implementing the Bush Doctrine: Jerusalem allegedly has warned Damascus that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. I hope he’s right, but I remain skeptical.

After all, when Ehud Barak (then prime minister, now defense minister) withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, he issued similar warnings that Syria would be held accountable for any further aggression. Well, Hezbollah’s aggression continued and in 2006 Israel fought an inconclusive war against that terrorist group, ignoring the suggestions of some commentators (including yours truly) that it should expand the conflict to Syria.

Is there any reason to think that the current government-led by the same prime minister (Ehud Olmert) who so conspicuously mishandled the Hezbollah war-will be more far-sighted in the future? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A fundamental problem here is that, while Israel believes in retaliation and deterrence, it doesn’t by and large believe in another aspect of the Bush Doctrine-regime change. Most Israelis are deeply cynical (not without reason) about the prospects of positive political change in the Arab world. Their attitude is: Better the devil you know. In Syria, the devil in question is Bashar Assad and, all things considered, Israelis prefer keeping him in power.

I’m not sure this attitude makes much sense, since Assad is already an avowed enemy of Israel who is actively helping anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. To the extent that his aggression is restrained-he is not, for example, firing missiles from Syria into Israeli cities-it is not because he is a nice guy but because he is deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. Presumably that same threat would function against any future Syrian regime, even if it is led by Islamists.

But Israelis, at least those who run the government, are comfortable dealing with traditional Arab strongmen and can point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza as evidence of the dangers of democracy. In point of fact, Hamas’s rise is actually the price that Israel pays for supporting an autocrat–Yasser Arafat–for so long on the theory that he would do Israel’s dirty work by suppressing Palestinian militants. Instead, Arafat nurtured a climate in which shahids (martyrs) were glorified, the Jewish state was reviled, and moderate political figures were intimidated into silence, jailed, exiled, or killed. The corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration eventually turned most Palestinians to an even more radical alternative.

But just about the only prominent Israeli who believes in supporting Arab democrats is Natan Sharansky, and he is not in government any more. That’s why it is so ironic that American “neoconservatives”–who champion the promotion of democracy–are derided in some quarters as practically Mossad agents. In fact, the Mossad, and other organs of Israeli government, while happy to rub out terrorist kingpins, are not interested in toppling state sponsors of terror.

Noah Pollak writes that Israel seems finally to be implementing the Bush Doctrine: Jerusalem allegedly has warned Damascus that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. I hope he’s right, but I remain skeptical.

After all, when Ehud Barak (then prime minister, now defense minister) withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, he issued similar warnings that Syria would be held accountable for any further aggression. Well, Hezbollah’s aggression continued and in 2006 Israel fought an inconclusive war against that terrorist group, ignoring the suggestions of some commentators (including yours truly) that it should expand the conflict to Syria.

Is there any reason to think that the current government-led by the same prime minister (Ehud Olmert) who so conspicuously mishandled the Hezbollah war-will be more far-sighted in the future? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A fundamental problem here is that, while Israel believes in retaliation and deterrence, it doesn’t by and large believe in another aspect of the Bush Doctrine-regime change. Most Israelis are deeply cynical (not without reason) about the prospects of positive political change in the Arab world. Their attitude is: Better the devil you know. In Syria, the devil in question is Bashar Assad and, all things considered, Israelis prefer keeping him in power.

I’m not sure this attitude makes much sense, since Assad is already an avowed enemy of Israel who is actively helping anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. To the extent that his aggression is restrained-he is not, for example, firing missiles from Syria into Israeli cities-it is not because he is a nice guy but because he is deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. Presumably that same threat would function against any future Syrian regime, even if it is led by Islamists.

But Israelis, at least those who run the government, are comfortable dealing with traditional Arab strongmen and can point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza as evidence of the dangers of democracy. In point of fact, Hamas’s rise is actually the price that Israel pays for supporting an autocrat–Yasser Arafat–for so long on the theory that he would do Israel’s dirty work by suppressing Palestinian militants. Instead, Arafat nurtured a climate in which shahids (martyrs) were glorified, the Jewish state was reviled, and moderate political figures were intimidated into silence, jailed, exiled, or killed. The corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration eventually turned most Palestinians to an even more radical alternative.

But just about the only prominent Israeli who believes in supporting Arab democrats is Natan Sharansky, and he is not in government any more. That’s why it is so ironic that American “neoconservatives”–who champion the promotion of democracy–are derided in some quarters as practically Mossad agents. In fact, the Mossad, and other organs of Israeli government, while happy to rub out terrorist kingpins, are not interested in toppling state sponsors of terror.

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The Disgrace of Honor Killings

Israeli news agencies have been awash with new reports of Arab women being assaulted or murdered by members of their own family. “Family honor,” they call it.

Among many Palestinians and in much of the Arab world, when a woman enters a relationship with someone whom her family does not approve of, she takes her life into her hands. Recently we learned of a 19-year-old from the Israeli-Arab town of Naura, who sustained two gunshot wounds to her head and played dead until paramedics arrived, as she listened to her brother getting congratulated by his family. Then there was Nadi Abu-Amr, who was kidnapped and murdered by her three brothers and her uncle in November 2007. Her crime? She refused to marry the man she was engaged to. According to one of the suspects, she was “slaughtered” because she “deserved to die.”

And today’s Haaretz reports that Sara Abu-Ghanem, age 40, from the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramla, miraculously sustained only light injuries to her head and neck when an unidentified assailant opened fire on her. Abu-Ghanem, whose crime was falling in love with a Jewish man, is part of an extended family in which 9 women have been murdered in recent years. A week ago, Kamil Abu-Ghanem was sentenced to 16 years in prison for murdering his sister Hamda. But this happened only after 20 of the family’s women defied the men’s orders and testified to police about the killings.

There is no clearer indicator of a “clash of civilizations” than the prevalence of honor killings in the Arab world. With all due respect to pluralism, universalism, and respect for the Other, here is a piece of intolerance that can unite all of us, left and right, liberal and conservative. The idea that one’s relationships are one’s own business is a cornerstone of liberal thinking. That a disapproved-of relationship justifies murder — that one should take pride in killing one’s own sister because of it — well, that’s just way, way outside the pale of anything we Westerners can handle. Honor killings are so shocking to even the most tolerant among us, that one wonders why the West has failed to express its moral outrage.

One problem with honor killings is that they are not easily confined into a single religious sub-sect, and to raise the issue may be to defame a whole culture or civilization, and Westerners haven’t been into that lately. Whatever George Bush was able to achieve by not blaming terrorism on Islam broadly defined, he can never do with honor killings in the Arab world. This is exactly the kind of phenomenon that Western diplomacy cannot handle, for it suggests so great a cultural gap—a moral gap—as to bring an end to the compromise and the compulsive smoothing-over that seems to be a prerequisite for a long career at State.

A close aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once caused a stir when he suggested that the Palestinians will get their state only when they “become Finns.” Liberals do not like statements like that, because it reeks of prejudice, generalization, even racism. But what is one to do with a culture that celebrates the butchering of its family members? That treats women as literal slaves?

And more uncomfortably still: Is the West really doing a good deed by empowering such a culture with statehood?

Israeli news agencies have been awash with new reports of Arab women being assaulted or murdered by members of their own family. “Family honor,” they call it.

Among many Palestinians and in much of the Arab world, when a woman enters a relationship with someone whom her family does not approve of, she takes her life into her hands. Recently we learned of a 19-year-old from the Israeli-Arab town of Naura, who sustained two gunshot wounds to her head and played dead until paramedics arrived, as she listened to her brother getting congratulated by his family. Then there was Nadi Abu-Amr, who was kidnapped and murdered by her three brothers and her uncle in November 2007. Her crime? She refused to marry the man she was engaged to. According to one of the suspects, she was “slaughtered” because she “deserved to die.”

And today’s Haaretz reports that Sara Abu-Ghanem, age 40, from the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramla, miraculously sustained only light injuries to her head and neck when an unidentified assailant opened fire on her. Abu-Ghanem, whose crime was falling in love with a Jewish man, is part of an extended family in which 9 women have been murdered in recent years. A week ago, Kamil Abu-Ghanem was sentenced to 16 years in prison for murdering his sister Hamda. But this happened only after 20 of the family’s women defied the men’s orders and testified to police about the killings.

There is no clearer indicator of a “clash of civilizations” than the prevalence of honor killings in the Arab world. With all due respect to pluralism, universalism, and respect for the Other, here is a piece of intolerance that can unite all of us, left and right, liberal and conservative. The idea that one’s relationships are one’s own business is a cornerstone of liberal thinking. That a disapproved-of relationship justifies murder — that one should take pride in killing one’s own sister because of it — well, that’s just way, way outside the pale of anything we Westerners can handle. Honor killings are so shocking to even the most tolerant among us, that one wonders why the West has failed to express its moral outrage.

One problem with honor killings is that they are not easily confined into a single religious sub-sect, and to raise the issue may be to defame a whole culture or civilization, and Westerners haven’t been into that lately. Whatever George Bush was able to achieve by not blaming terrorism on Islam broadly defined, he can never do with honor killings in the Arab world. This is exactly the kind of phenomenon that Western diplomacy cannot handle, for it suggests so great a cultural gap—a moral gap—as to bring an end to the compromise and the compulsive smoothing-over that seems to be a prerequisite for a long career at State.

A close aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once caused a stir when he suggested that the Palestinians will get their state only when they “become Finns.” Liberals do not like statements like that, because it reeks of prejudice, generalization, even racism. But what is one to do with a culture that celebrates the butchering of its family members? That treats women as literal slaves?

And more uncomfortably still: Is the West really doing a good deed by empowering such a culture with statehood?

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Obama Imitates Olmert

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has one of the lowest approval ratings in his country’s history thanks to his disastrous prosecution of the July 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, and contrary to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s delusional and arrogant boasts, Hezbollah didn’t win. I toured South Lebanon and the suburbs south of Beirut – Hezbollah’s two major strongholds – after the war. The magnitude of the destruction was stunning. It looked like World War II blew through the place. (Click here and here to see photos.) Nasrallah survived and replenished his arsensal stocks, but, as Israeli military historian Michael Oren put it, “If he has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

Israel didn’t win, either. None of Israel’s objectives in Lebanon were accomplished.

The best that can be said of that war is that it was a strategic draw with losses on both sides. Hezbollah absorbed the brunt of the damage.

It should be obvious why Israel didn’t prevail to observers of modern asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency. Olmert’s plan, such as it was, was doomed to fail from Day One. It may not have been obvious then, but it certainly should be by now.

American General David Petraeus proved counterinsurgency in Arabic countries can work. His surge of troops in Iraq is about a change of tactics more than an increase in numbers, and his tactics so far have surpassed all expectations. The “light footprint” model used during former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but American soldiers and Marines had no chance of defeating insurgents from behind barbed wire garrisons. Only now that the troops have left the relative safety and comfort of their bases and intimately integrated themselves into the Iraqi population are they able to isolate and track down the killers. They do so with help from the locals. They acquired that help because they slowly forged trusting relationships and alliances, and because they protect the civilians from violence.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has one of the lowest approval ratings in his country’s history thanks to his disastrous prosecution of the July 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, and contrary to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s delusional and arrogant boasts, Hezbollah didn’t win. I toured South Lebanon and the suburbs south of Beirut – Hezbollah’s two major strongholds – after the war. The magnitude of the destruction was stunning. It looked like World War II blew through the place. (Click here and here to see photos.) Nasrallah survived and replenished his arsensal stocks, but, as Israeli military historian Michael Oren put it, “If he has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

Israel didn’t win, either. None of Israel’s objectives in Lebanon were accomplished.

The best that can be said of that war is that it was a strategic draw with losses on both sides. Hezbollah absorbed the brunt of the damage.

It should be obvious why Israel didn’t prevail to observers of modern asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency. Olmert’s plan, such as it was, was doomed to fail from Day One. It may not have been obvious then, but it certainly should be by now.

American General David Petraeus proved counterinsurgency in Arabic countries can work. His surge of troops in Iraq is about a change of tactics more than an increase in numbers, and his tactics so far have surpassed all expectations. The “light footprint” model used during former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but American soldiers and Marines had no chance of defeating insurgents from behind barbed wire garrisons. Only now that the troops have left the relative safety and comfort of their bases and intimately integrated themselves into the Iraqi population are they able to isolate and track down the killers. They do so with help from the locals. They acquired that help because they slowly forged trusting relationships and alliances, and because they protect the civilians from violence.

The Israel Defense Forces did nothing of the sort in Lebanon. Most Lebanese Shias are so hostile to Israel that such a strategy might not work even if David Petraeus himself were in charge of it. Even then it would take years to produce the desired results, just as it has taken several years in Iraq. Israelis have no wish to spend years fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon. International pressure would force them out if they did.

A Petraeus-like strategy wasn’t an option for Olmert. That, however, doesn’t mean we can’t compare the effectiveness of the Olmert and Petraeus strategies.

The Israel Defense Forces fought a month-long asymmetrical war in Lebanon mostly with air strikes. Israel didn’t aim at civilians, but it goes without saying that Israel likewise didn’t protect civilians from violence as the Americans protect Iraqis from violence. That can’t be done from the air. Israel did nothing at all to inspire the people of South Lebanon to come around to their side. Israelis, from the point of view of South Lebanese, are faceless enemies that devastated their towns from the heavens.

Many Hezbollah fighters were killed in the targeted strikes. Bunkers and weapons caches were destroyed. Safe houses proved to be anything but. Civilians as well as combatants were heavily punished.

At the end of the day, though, none of it mattered. Hezbollah remains standing. Their weapons stocks have been replenished by Iran through Syria. Civilian supporters of Nasrallah’s militia are more ferociously anti-Israel than ever. United Nations troops who deployed to the area will inadvertently function as “human shields” for Hezbollah if war breaks out again.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Al Qaeda has been vanquished almost everywhere. Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia declared a unilateral ceasefire. Many previously anti-American enemies have flipped to our side. Overall violence has been reduced by almost 90 percent. 75 percent of Baghdad is now secure.

Responsible political leaders and military commanders would be well-advised to analyze both approaches to assymetrical warfare and counterinsurgency, and to hew as closely as possible to the Petraeus model. Olmert’s is broken.

Senator Barack Obama, though, prefers the Olmert model whether he thinks of it that way or not. (Actually, I’m sure he doesn’t think of it as Olmert’s model, though basically that’s what it is.)

“Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq,” says a statement on the senator’s Web site. “He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months. Obama will make it clear that we will not build any permanent bases in Iraq. He will keep some troops in Iraq to protect our embassy and diplomats; if al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda.” [Emphasis added.]

Targeted strikes do kill some terrorists (and often, tragically, civilians, as well). But they have little or no effect overall in counterinsurgent urban warfare. Perhaps the senator or his advisors should read the new counterinsurgency manual – the one that has proven effective – and compare its strategy to targeted strikes which have proven to fail.

Here is just one critical excerpt:

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN [Counter-insurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained… . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

This strategy was not available to Olmert and the Israel Defense Forces. It will be available to Obama and the United States military should he choose to excercise it.

Obama is competing in a Democratic primary race. Perhaps if he is elected commander in chief and no longer needs to appease the left-wing of his party he will reverse himself and keep Petraeus right where he is. Reality has a way of imposing itself on presidents.

He would be wise to carefully consider what works and what doesn’t, not only for the sakes of the United States and Iraq, but also for purely calculating and self-interested reasons. Obama is a likeable guy. He could, in theory, be a popular president. Olmert, though, was also popular once. He probably never will be again.

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Olmert’s Misguided Optimism

Credit Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with one thing: he’s probably the only world leader more publicly optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects than George W. Bush. Yesterday, Olmert announced that Israel would begin negotiating final borders with the Palestinians, the ongoing crisis in Gaza notwithstanding. “On this issue there is a set of previous understandings and international backing,” Olmert said, raising expectations in the Israeli press for an “easy” solution.

Of course, Olmert is delusional—Israeli-Palestinian consensus on border issues is light years away. Just ask the Arabic press, which completely ignored Olmert’s negotiations announcement. Instead, the Palestine News Agency, al-Jazeera, and al-Quds placed Israel’s decision to construct new housing units in East Jerusalem among its top headlines, while al-Hayat al-Jadida bemoaned “the Judaization of Jerusalem.” Meanwhile, al-Ayyam’s coverage of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s visit to Washington emphasized his call for an end to Israeli settlement activity—an appropriate focus, given Fayyad’s newly avowed pessimism towards the peace process.

The source of this widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ outlooks appears to be Olmert’s fixation on Bush’s April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which Olmert cited in his call for border negotiations. In this letter, Bush acknowledged that, “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” At the time, Israelis interpreted this as recognizing settlement blocs along the Green Line as a diplomatic reward for the forthcoming Gaza disengagement, thus removing the mutual exclusivity of land-for-peace with settlement expansion.

In fact, the letter recognized no such thing. Rather, it simply allowed for the possibility that future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would opt for “mutually agreed changes” to the Green Line in establishing final borders, and promised to endorse these changes if they were formulated by the two sides. Moreover, the letter made repeated reference to the Road Map, the first phase of which explicitly calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity.

Of course, settlement activity is not the primary reason for the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Indeed, considering the full-scale guerilla war that will likely hit Gaza in the near future, the settlements are small beans. Still, the Prime Minister’s inability to recognize the distance that exists between him and his Palestinian counterparts on borders—which is roughly the distance between the Green Line and the eastern edge of Har Homa—is confounding. If Olmert hopes to bridge that distance, he would be well advised to match his stated goals with policy, finally acknowledging the extent to which continued settlement building is inconsistent with peace efforts.

Credit Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with one thing: he’s probably the only world leader more publicly optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects than George W. Bush. Yesterday, Olmert announced that Israel would begin negotiating final borders with the Palestinians, the ongoing crisis in Gaza notwithstanding. “On this issue there is a set of previous understandings and international backing,” Olmert said, raising expectations in the Israeli press for an “easy” solution.

Of course, Olmert is delusional—Israeli-Palestinian consensus on border issues is light years away. Just ask the Arabic press, which completely ignored Olmert’s negotiations announcement. Instead, the Palestine News Agency, al-Jazeera, and al-Quds placed Israel’s decision to construct new housing units in East Jerusalem among its top headlines, while al-Hayat al-Jadida bemoaned “the Judaization of Jerusalem.” Meanwhile, al-Ayyam’s coverage of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s visit to Washington emphasized his call for an end to Israeli settlement activity—an appropriate focus, given Fayyad’s newly avowed pessimism towards the peace process.

The source of this widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ outlooks appears to be Olmert’s fixation on Bush’s April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which Olmert cited in his call for border negotiations. In this letter, Bush acknowledged that, “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” At the time, Israelis interpreted this as recognizing settlement blocs along the Green Line as a diplomatic reward for the forthcoming Gaza disengagement, thus removing the mutual exclusivity of land-for-peace with settlement expansion.

In fact, the letter recognized no such thing. Rather, it simply allowed for the possibility that future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would opt for “mutually agreed changes” to the Green Line in establishing final borders, and promised to endorse these changes if they were formulated by the two sides. Moreover, the letter made repeated reference to the Road Map, the first phase of which explicitly calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity.

Of course, settlement activity is not the primary reason for the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Indeed, considering the full-scale guerilla war that will likely hit Gaza in the near future, the settlements are small beans. Still, the Prime Minister’s inability to recognize the distance that exists between him and his Palestinian counterparts on borders—which is roughly the distance between the Green Line and the eastern edge of Har Homa—is confounding. If Olmert hopes to bridge that distance, he would be well advised to match his stated goals with policy, finally acknowledging the extent to which continued settlement building is inconsistent with peace efforts.

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Israel Gets It Right

When Israel sealed Gaza in response to continued Qassam rocket assaults last month, I argued that Ehud Olmert’s government had run out of ideas. After all, the move represented a sharp break from Israel’s historic policy of narrowly focusing its counterterrorism operations on the terrorists, subjecting Gaza’s entire population to shortages while raising international ire. Indeed, it was hardly surprising when Israel reversed its policy within twenty-four hours, with supplies-filled trucks entering Gaza as international pressure mounted.

But today, Israel announced a new and improved strategy for countering the rockets—one that will directly pressure Hamas in two key ways. First, by declaring a campaign of targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders, Israel demonstrated its willingness to take politically severe—yet militarily surgical—measures to stop the attacks. Second, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak announcing preparations for a major ground offensive in Gaza if the rockets continue, Israel threatened a devastating escalation should Hamas fail to act. The ball is now in Hamas’ court: it can draw back its rocket launchers to end the standoff, or continue its aggression and suffer the mounting consequences.

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic regarding this approach. For starters, Hamas’ leadership appears to be taking the threat of assassination quite seriously, with Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud al-Zahar, and Said Siam going into hiding. This significantly hampers Hamas’ decision-making, forcing its leaders to focus on personal safety rather than building a response strategy. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s skittishness regarding a ground offensive in Gaza might give Hamas realistic hope that it can avoid an escalation by scaling back its rocket attacks.

Still, for this strategy to hold, Hamas’ Gaza leadership must see itself with few strategic alternatives to ending its attacks. Egypt will be essential to creating this environment, and Israel should accept the U.S. proposal for Egypt to add an additional 750 soldiers to its border force. Since the border was first breached two weeks ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has threatened to “break the legs” of future infiltrators. Israel could benefit by testing Egyptian sincerity, agreeing to the force escalation while holding Egypt accountable for future failures.

Moreover, for this strategy to succeed, Israel must remain focused on its short-term goal: ending the rocket attacks, which claimed the leg of an 8-year-old boy yesterday. In this vein, Tzachi Hanegbi’s call to topple Hamas sets the bar for success impossibly high, and threatens to undermine any strategic objectives that Israel may achieve through this new course. As Israel should have learned in Lebanon, matching strategy to reasonable expectations is critical to asserting a political victory in the aftermath of military operations. Indeed, if Israel hopes to rally Palestinians against Hamas, a political victory presents greater long-term implications than any realistic military achievement.

When Israel sealed Gaza in response to continued Qassam rocket assaults last month, I argued that Ehud Olmert’s government had run out of ideas. After all, the move represented a sharp break from Israel’s historic policy of narrowly focusing its counterterrorism operations on the terrorists, subjecting Gaza’s entire population to shortages while raising international ire. Indeed, it was hardly surprising when Israel reversed its policy within twenty-four hours, with supplies-filled trucks entering Gaza as international pressure mounted.

But today, Israel announced a new and improved strategy for countering the rockets—one that will directly pressure Hamas in two key ways. First, by declaring a campaign of targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders, Israel demonstrated its willingness to take politically severe—yet militarily surgical—measures to stop the attacks. Second, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak announcing preparations for a major ground offensive in Gaza if the rockets continue, Israel threatened a devastating escalation should Hamas fail to act. The ball is now in Hamas’ court: it can draw back its rocket launchers to end the standoff, or continue its aggression and suffer the mounting consequences.

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic regarding this approach. For starters, Hamas’ leadership appears to be taking the threat of assassination quite seriously, with Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud al-Zahar, and Said Siam going into hiding. This significantly hampers Hamas’ decision-making, forcing its leaders to focus on personal safety rather than building a response strategy. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s skittishness regarding a ground offensive in Gaza might give Hamas realistic hope that it can avoid an escalation by scaling back its rocket attacks.

Still, for this strategy to hold, Hamas’ Gaza leadership must see itself with few strategic alternatives to ending its attacks. Egypt will be essential to creating this environment, and Israel should accept the U.S. proposal for Egypt to add an additional 750 soldiers to its border force. Since the border was first breached two weeks ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has threatened to “break the legs” of future infiltrators. Israel could benefit by testing Egyptian sincerity, agreeing to the force escalation while holding Egypt accountable for future failures.

Moreover, for this strategy to succeed, Israel must remain focused on its short-term goal: ending the rocket attacks, which claimed the leg of an 8-year-old boy yesterday. In this vein, Tzachi Hanegbi’s call to topple Hamas sets the bar for success impossibly high, and threatens to undermine any strategic objectives that Israel may achieve through this new course. As Israel should have learned in Lebanon, matching strategy to reasonable expectations is critical to asserting a political victory in the aftermath of military operations. Indeed, if Israel hopes to rally Palestinians against Hamas, a political victory presents greater long-term implications than any realistic military achievement.

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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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Olmert, the Inartful Dodger, Dodges Again

At first glance, it appears, judging from early news stories on the report of the official Israeli commission on the conduct of the 2006 Lebanon war, that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has once again dodged a bullet. The Winograd Report was evidently written with great care precisely so that it could not be used as a political weapon against any individual figure in Israel. The report contains no recommendations, and “refrain[s] from imposing personal responsibility,” in the words of its executive summary:

It should be stressed that the fact we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists. We also wish to repeat our statement from the Interim Report: We will not impose different standards of responsibility to the political and the military echelons, or to persons of different ranks within them.

Translation: Hey, we’re not bringing down anybody’s government.

No wonder, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, “Olmert’s spokesman, Jacob Galanti, was quoted by Israel TV as saying the Prime Minister’s Office was ‘breathing a sigh of relief.’”

At first glance, it appears, judging from early news stories on the report of the official Israeli commission on the conduct of the 2006 Lebanon war, that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has once again dodged a bullet. The Winograd Report was evidently written with great care precisely so that it could not be used as a political weapon against any individual figure in Israel. The report contains no recommendations, and “refrain[s] from imposing personal responsibility,” in the words of its executive summary:

It should be stressed that the fact we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists. We also wish to repeat our statement from the Interim Report: We will not impose different standards of responsibility to the political and the military echelons, or to persons of different ranks within them.

Translation: Hey, we’re not bringing down anybody’s government.

No wonder, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, “Olmert’s spokesman, Jacob Galanti, was quoted by Israel TV as saying the Prime Minister’s Office was ‘breathing a sigh of relief.’”

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Olmert on the Edge

While America’s attention is on the primaries, Israelis appear to be on the edge of their next political abyss. Two days from now, the much-feared Winograd Commission will be unleashing its final report on the 2006 Lebanon war, and no one is looking more uncomfortable than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Over the last few weeks there has been a great deal of speculation as to both the contents of the report and its political ramifications, and Olmert has been deep in spin-control. On last Monday night, he announced that he would not step down regardless of the report’s findings — a pretty scary statement, considering that the report could tar him for deep ineptitude. Today he sweatingly announced that his government has “many more years to govern.”

The more Olmert talks, the more his face is obscured by the shadows of vultures circling over his head. For months, about a dozen members of his ruling Kadima party have threatened to bolt if the report turns out bad and Olmert does not resign. Last week, Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu faction pulled out of the coalition, leaving the government with just 67 seats (they need 61 to govern). Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who eagerly seeks Olmert’s post, has been undermining Olmert ever since the war. The Shas party is thinking about pulling its 12 seats out of the coalition over negotiations with the Palestinians. Olmert ‘s popularity has bottomed out, with his party getting only 10 seats in a recent poll (as compared to their current 29). Oh, and let’s not forget that Olmert is currently under multiple criminal investigations. But the biggest vulture of them all is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor party holds 19 seats in the coalition, and who may lose a great deal of public support if he cannot take a principled stand against Olmert.

The Winograd report has the potential to tip any of these over the edge. The report will probably lay heavy blame on then-IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who failed to prepare the military for war and failed to run the war while it was happening; and on the mustachioed then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose breathtaking ignorance of military affairs raises serious questions about the merits of parliamentary democracy. But the real questions will rise about Olmert, who laid out major objectives for the war, none of which were achieved; and who ran the war as if he were still trading favors at Jerusalem City Hall.

Today, Olmert got a slight boost from the leak of a secret U.S. State Department letter from the war, in which John Bolton, then UN Ambassador, blames Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for capitulating to the French in the last hours of the war. This bolsters Olmert’s claim that he had to launch Israel’s last-minute offensive, in which 33 IDF soldiers were killed, because things had gone bad at the negotiation table. According to Bolton, however, the offensive had no impact whatever on the final agreement. So it is hard to believe this is the kind of spin Olmert really wants: Not incompetent, just impotent?

Every day Olmert’s government looks increasingly like the Ottoman Empire in 1914.

While America’s attention is on the primaries, Israelis appear to be on the edge of their next political abyss. Two days from now, the much-feared Winograd Commission will be unleashing its final report on the 2006 Lebanon war, and no one is looking more uncomfortable than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Over the last few weeks there has been a great deal of speculation as to both the contents of the report and its political ramifications, and Olmert has been deep in spin-control. On last Monday night, he announced that he would not step down regardless of the report’s findings — a pretty scary statement, considering that the report could tar him for deep ineptitude. Today he sweatingly announced that his government has “many more years to govern.”

The more Olmert talks, the more his face is obscured by the shadows of vultures circling over his head. For months, about a dozen members of his ruling Kadima party have threatened to bolt if the report turns out bad and Olmert does not resign. Last week, Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu faction pulled out of the coalition, leaving the government with just 67 seats (they need 61 to govern). Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who eagerly seeks Olmert’s post, has been undermining Olmert ever since the war. The Shas party is thinking about pulling its 12 seats out of the coalition over negotiations with the Palestinians. Olmert ‘s popularity has bottomed out, with his party getting only 10 seats in a recent poll (as compared to their current 29). Oh, and let’s not forget that Olmert is currently under multiple criminal investigations. But the biggest vulture of them all is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor party holds 19 seats in the coalition, and who may lose a great deal of public support if he cannot take a principled stand against Olmert.

The Winograd report has the potential to tip any of these over the edge. The report will probably lay heavy blame on then-IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who failed to prepare the military for war and failed to run the war while it was happening; and on the mustachioed then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose breathtaking ignorance of military affairs raises serious questions about the merits of parliamentary democracy. But the real questions will rise about Olmert, who laid out major objectives for the war, none of which were achieved; and who ran the war as if he were still trading favors at Jerusalem City Hall.

Today, Olmert got a slight boost from the leak of a secret U.S. State Department letter from the war, in which John Bolton, then UN Ambassador, blames Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for capitulating to the French in the last hours of the war. This bolsters Olmert’s claim that he had to launch Israel’s last-minute offensive, in which 33 IDF soldiers were killed, because things had gone bad at the negotiation table. According to Bolton, however, the offensive had no impact whatever on the final agreement. So it is hard to believe this is the kind of spin Olmert really wants: Not incompetent, just impotent?

Every day Olmert’s government looks increasingly like the Ottoman Empire in 1914.

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Out of Ideas in Gaza

Israel’s new strategy for dealing with the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza has many troubling implications. For Palestinians, the fuel cuts mean the severe rationing of electricity, little or no heat during the cold of winter, and very limited mobility. Most alarmingly, the power shortage has threatened hospitals, with half the surgeries that were scheduled for Monday delayed at Gaza’s main hospital. Unfortunately, Palestinian civilians are unlikely to enjoy relief any time soon: Hamas’ leadership remains more committed to exploiting the crisis for propaganda purposes than simply ending the rocket attacks, and its first act in the wake of Israel’s fuel cut was to turn off the lights and hit the airwaves. We can thus expect to see more gas lines and bread lines in the days to come.

But Israelis should also be concerned. The decision to firmly seal Gaza, shut off its fuel supply, and limit the import of food suggests that Israel’s leadership has completely run out of ideas for how it should address Hamas’ continued aggression. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has thrown Israel’s counterterrorism playbook out the window, subjecting 1.5 million Gazans to an existence that is merely better than a “humanitarian crisis”—in Olmert’s own words—rather than narrowly focusing his strategy against the terrorists. Olmert’s lack of creativity has extended to his defense of this approach, which has implied vindictiveness. As he told Kadima officials on Monday, “As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza’s residents can walk.”

The sealing of Gaza has serious strategic consequences for Israeli policy. When acting against aggression, Israel typically faces a limited timeframe in which it can accomplish its goals before international pressure forces it to cease operations. It is for this reason that its greatest military successes—including the 1967 war and 2002 Operation Defensive Shield—have come with remarkable swiftness. Alternatively, its greatest failures—the 1973 war and 2006 Lebanon War—have come when conflict was halted before Israel could realize concrete strategic accomplishments. Particularly when fighting guerrilla warfare—which rarely lends itself to swift victories—Israeli leaders must therefore aim to establish conditions under which the IDF is afforded a maximal timeframe in which it can operate. This increases the likelihood of success.

Yet Olmert’s strategy in Gaza does the opposite. From the moment the fuel was cut, the clock has been ticking rapidly, with the international community deeply concerned that a serious humanitarian crisis looms. Yesterday, Israel retreated under pressure from its ill-conceived policy, delivering a new supply of diesel and cooking-gas a mere 24 hours after Olmert vowed to not do so. Meanwhile, rockets have continued to hit Israel at a steady pace.
If the cuts to Gaza’s energy supply do not stem the flow of rockets in the next few days, Olmert will probably be forced to retreat further. Thereafter, it may be a while before Israel is granted a free hand to deal with terrorism emanating from Gaza. In the worst-case scenario, a spiraling humanitarian situation might increase the pressure on Israel to reach a truce with Hamas. In short, insofar as the current strategy takes too great a toll on Palestinian civilians, it is unsustainable and self-defeating.

Israel’s new strategy for dealing with the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza has many troubling implications. For Palestinians, the fuel cuts mean the severe rationing of electricity, little or no heat during the cold of winter, and very limited mobility. Most alarmingly, the power shortage has threatened hospitals, with half the surgeries that were scheduled for Monday delayed at Gaza’s main hospital. Unfortunately, Palestinian civilians are unlikely to enjoy relief any time soon: Hamas’ leadership remains more committed to exploiting the crisis for propaganda purposes than simply ending the rocket attacks, and its first act in the wake of Israel’s fuel cut was to turn off the lights and hit the airwaves. We can thus expect to see more gas lines and bread lines in the days to come.

But Israelis should also be concerned. The decision to firmly seal Gaza, shut off its fuel supply, and limit the import of food suggests that Israel’s leadership has completely run out of ideas for how it should address Hamas’ continued aggression. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has thrown Israel’s counterterrorism playbook out the window, subjecting 1.5 million Gazans to an existence that is merely better than a “humanitarian crisis”—in Olmert’s own words—rather than narrowly focusing his strategy against the terrorists. Olmert’s lack of creativity has extended to his defense of this approach, which has implied vindictiveness. As he told Kadima officials on Monday, “As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza’s residents can walk.”

The sealing of Gaza has serious strategic consequences for Israeli policy. When acting against aggression, Israel typically faces a limited timeframe in which it can accomplish its goals before international pressure forces it to cease operations. It is for this reason that its greatest military successes—including the 1967 war and 2002 Operation Defensive Shield—have come with remarkable swiftness. Alternatively, its greatest failures—the 1973 war and 2006 Lebanon War—have come when conflict was halted before Israel could realize concrete strategic accomplishments. Particularly when fighting guerrilla warfare—which rarely lends itself to swift victories—Israeli leaders must therefore aim to establish conditions under which the IDF is afforded a maximal timeframe in which it can operate. This increases the likelihood of success.

Yet Olmert’s strategy in Gaza does the opposite. From the moment the fuel was cut, the clock has been ticking rapidly, with the international community deeply concerned that a serious humanitarian crisis looms. Yesterday, Israel retreated under pressure from its ill-conceived policy, delivering a new supply of diesel and cooking-gas a mere 24 hours after Olmert vowed to not do so. Meanwhile, rockets have continued to hit Israel at a steady pace.
If the cuts to Gaza’s energy supply do not stem the flow of rockets in the next few days, Olmert will probably be forced to retreat further. Thereafter, it may be a while before Israel is granted a free hand to deal with terrorism emanating from Gaza. In the worst-case scenario, a spiraling humanitarian situation might increase the pressure on Israel to reach a truce with Hamas. In short, insofar as the current strategy takes too great a toll on Palestinian civilians, it is unsustainable and self-defeating.

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Choreographing the Synchronicity of Mutually-Reinforcing Couplings

That, my friends, is what Robert Malley and Hussein Agha would like us to understand is the key to peace in the Middle East. In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, they start with a somewhat reasonable premise:

Nervous about being left out, all three parties are laboring mightily to avert an understanding between the other two. . . . The end result is collective checkmate, a political standstill that hurts all and serves none.

But then the analysis gets buried in so much vague diplomatic twaddle that all of the realities of the conflict become helpfully obscured — which seems to be the point. “Fatah and Hamas will need to reach a new political arrangement, this time not one vigorously opposed by Israel.” Oh, that will be nice. So it was Israel that caused all of that unpleasantness in Gaza over the summer? “Hamas and Israel will need to achieve a cease-fire and prisoner exchange, albeit mediated by Abbas.” Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

“And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will need to negotiate a political deal with Abbas, who will have to receive a mandate to do so from Hamas.” Did you catch that? Hamas will grant its rival, Mahmoud Abbas, who Hamas views as a Zionist puppet, a “mandate” to negotiate a peace deal with the country whose annihilation is the premise of Hamas’ existence. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that Hamas would ever even think of doing this — but why should that stop Malley and Agha from predicting it on the Washington Post op-ed page?

They conclude this acid trip by saying:

The current mind-set, in which each side considers dealmaking by the other two to be a mortal threat, could be replaced by one in which all three couplings are viewed as mutually reinforcing. For that, the parties’ allies ought to cast aside their dysfunctional, destructive, ideologically driven policies. Instead, they should encourage a choreography that minimizes violence and promotes a serious diplomatic process.

Translation into plain English: Gosh, peacemaking would be so simple if everyone would just make peace already! And I want a pony for my birthday. I’m going to go huff some lighter fluid and see if I can get a piece in the Post, too.

Meanwhile, take note of who Robert Malley is: the leader of a group of revisionists who are attempting to shift blame for the failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations onto Israel and America. His co-author was an adviser to Yasser Arafat. Most disturbingly, Malley is also a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama. See here, here, and here for more.

That, my friends, is what Robert Malley and Hussein Agha would like us to understand is the key to peace in the Middle East. In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, they start with a somewhat reasonable premise:

Nervous about being left out, all three parties are laboring mightily to avert an understanding between the other two. . . . The end result is collective checkmate, a political standstill that hurts all and serves none.

But then the analysis gets buried in so much vague diplomatic twaddle that all of the realities of the conflict become helpfully obscured — which seems to be the point. “Fatah and Hamas will need to reach a new political arrangement, this time not one vigorously opposed by Israel.” Oh, that will be nice. So it was Israel that caused all of that unpleasantness in Gaza over the summer? “Hamas and Israel will need to achieve a cease-fire and prisoner exchange, albeit mediated by Abbas.” Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

“And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will need to negotiate a political deal with Abbas, who will have to receive a mandate to do so from Hamas.” Did you catch that? Hamas will grant its rival, Mahmoud Abbas, who Hamas views as a Zionist puppet, a “mandate” to negotiate a peace deal with the country whose annihilation is the premise of Hamas’ existence. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that Hamas would ever even think of doing this — but why should that stop Malley and Agha from predicting it on the Washington Post op-ed page?

They conclude this acid trip by saying:

The current mind-set, in which each side considers dealmaking by the other two to be a mortal threat, could be replaced by one in which all three couplings are viewed as mutually reinforcing. For that, the parties’ allies ought to cast aside their dysfunctional, destructive, ideologically driven policies. Instead, they should encourage a choreography that minimizes violence and promotes a serious diplomatic process.

Translation into plain English: Gosh, peacemaking would be so simple if everyone would just make peace already! And I want a pony for my birthday. I’m going to go huff some lighter fluid and see if I can get a piece in the Post, too.

Meanwhile, take note of who Robert Malley is: the leader of a group of revisionists who are attempting to shift blame for the failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations onto Israel and America. His co-author was an adviser to Yasser Arafat. Most disturbingly, Malley is also a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama. See here, here, and here for more.

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Top Five Handshakes of 2007

The most choreographed aspect of any meeting between two heads-of-state is the handshake. Of course, some handshakes are better choreographed than others, but the essential elements are usually the same: warm smiles, tight clenches, and an eye towards the camera—no matter what the two leaders think of each other.

Given the prevalence of the handshake in international relations, most handshakes are entirely unspectacular. Yet, among the thousands of picture-perfect handshakes that leaders deliver to the media each year, some inevitably stand out as especially encouraging, disappointing, or ironic. With this in mind, I present the top five handshakes of 2007:

5. Saudi King Abdullah greets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Annapolis.

5. Russian President Vladimir Putin and George H.W. Bush’s dog. Granted, this isn’t a handshake, per se. Yet the intense look on Putin’s face indicates that serious business is being accomplished. With a respected former president looking on, Putin’s meeting with the well-connected mutt has the appearance of a major diplomatic success.

4. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. This handshake proves that memories are impressively short in international affairs. In 1989, Libya was implicated in the UTA 772 bombing, in which 170 people were murdered while flying to Paris; a French court found Qaddafi’s own brother-in-law, among five others, culpable. But this month, Qaddafi—having since accepted responsibility for the attack, compensated the families, and destroyed his WMD—was welcomed in Paris. It rarely gets more awkward than this, and not just because of Qaddafi’s beatnik-styled facial hair.

Read More

The most choreographed aspect of any meeting between two heads-of-state is the handshake. Of course, some handshakes are better choreographed than others, but the essential elements are usually the same: warm smiles, tight clenches, and an eye towards the camera—no matter what the two leaders think of each other.

Given the prevalence of the handshake in international relations, most handshakes are entirely unspectacular. Yet, among the thousands of picture-perfect handshakes that leaders deliver to the media each year, some inevitably stand out as especially encouraging, disappointing, or ironic. With this in mind, I present the top five handshakes of 2007:

5. Saudi King Abdullah greets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Annapolis.

5. Russian President Vladimir Putin and George H.W. Bush’s dog. Granted, this isn’t a handshake, per se. Yet the intense look on Putin’s face indicates that serious business is being accomplished. With a respected former president looking on, Putin’s meeting with the well-connected mutt has the appearance of a major diplomatic success.

4. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. This handshake proves that memories are impressively short in international affairs. In 1989, Libya was implicated in the UTA 772 bombing, in which 170 people were murdered while flying to Paris; a French court found Qaddafi’s own brother-in-law, among five others, culpable. But this month, Qaddafi—having since accepted responsibility for the attack, compensated the families, and destroyed his WMD—was welcomed in Paris. It rarely gets more awkward than this, and not just because of Qaddafi’s beatnik-styled facial hair.

3. U.S. President George W. Bush poses with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. As I noted last month, the Annapolis Conference ended with a shutout: three Olmert-Abbas-with-Bush-in-between handshakes, and zero peace-promoting accomplishments.

2. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greets his favorite basketball player Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. I know: Syria sent its deputy foreign minister to Annapolis, so it’s entering the U.S. orbit and moving away from Iran. Apparently the Syrian president and his Iranian counterpart haven’t gotten the memo.

1. Abbas shakes hands with Hamas leaders Khalid Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh. Like so many Hamas-Fatah truces before it, this one started with Hamas’s reeling from Israeli strikes and political isolation and ended with Hamas stronger than it had ever been previously. Hamas now controls Gaza, and has set its sights on the West Bank. Yet, for a few moments in February, this latest Hamas-Fatah truce held so much promise—as a symbol of their unity, Abbas, Meshal, and Haniyeh had even coordinated their outfits. It doesn’t get more choreographed than that.

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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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