Commentary Magazine


Topic: Golan Heights

End of an Era: UN Peacekeepers Stop Pretending to Keep Peace

The United Nations has come up with a strange follow-up to Israel’s credible accusations that UN facilities allowed themselves to be used essentially as human shields for Hamas in Gaza: the UN is now, apparently, using Israeli soldiers as human shields up north. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Israeli authorities had in mind when they protested the UN’s one-sided wartime behavior.

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The United Nations has come up with a strange follow-up to Israel’s credible accusations that UN facilities allowed themselves to be used essentially as human shields for Hamas in Gaza: the UN is now, apparently, using Israeli soldiers as human shields up north. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Israeli authorities had in mind when they protested the UN’s one-sided wartime behavior.

What appears to have happened, and which has been confirmed by UN spokesmen, is that UN peacekeeping forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are in retreat. They have, in fact, left Syria. The phrase “peacekeeping forces” should have made them aware of the fact that they would not be supervising a game of hacky sack. A peacekeeping force, theoretically, would arrive during a period of temporary peace to ensure it becomes a permanent peace. The UN forces see it differently.

An AP story today very gently and generously breaks the news, and in doing so buries the lede a bit:

The United Nations said Monday it has withdrawn its peacekeepers from many positions on the Golan Heights because of escalating fighting in the war between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters.

Which positions on the Golan Heights? Asked and answered:

The situation has deteriorated severely over the last few days and advances by armed groups posed “a direct threat to the safety and security of the U.N. peacekeepers” along the Syrian side of the border and in Camp Faouar where many troops are based, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. He said all troops in those areas have been relocated to the Israeli side of the border.

The Syrian side of the border! That’s seems pretty significant. Indeed, it’s the end of an era, as AP notes:

The 1,200-strong U.N. force has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. For nearly four decades, U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the spillover from the Syrian war has led to the abduction of peacekeepers four times since March 2013, made troop contributors wary, and led several countries to withdraw their soldiers.

But all is not lost. It’s possible, says the UN–though they don’t know for sure–that someone affiliated with the UN is still in Syria, somewhere, keeping some kind of peace:

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told The Associated Press earlier that he doesn’t think every single post has been vacated.

Seems like an important detail. But never mind. The important thing is that the UN peacekeepers are safe, hiding behind Israelis.

I don’t want to make light of the danger of patrolling a war zone; UN troops have been abducted a few times and the conflict is not going anywhere. But at the same time, isn’t this what peacekeeping troops sign up for? And if not, what’s the point?

Additionally, what do they think they’ll accomplish on the Israeli side of the border? They will be utterly irrelevant. They obviously won’t command Israeli forces, and they clearly can’t be sent on any dangerous missions beyond their new base.

That’s not to say they won’t be doing anything constructive. Each time there is war on or near Israel’s border, UN forces put a thumb on the scales against Israel and in favor of the terrorists Israel is fighting. Whether it’s covering up terrorist abductions, revealing sensitive IDF troop movement information, or having their facilities used to hide weapons or facilitate attacks on Israel, the UN can be trusted to act as an adjunct of whoever is trying to destroy the Jewish state.

So having UN troops retreat from a war zone into the comforts of Israeli protection is helpful because it will at least prevent them from playing their usual, anti-Israel role in armed conflict. Looked at from that perspective, then, this retreat may be the best move UN forces have made in years.

More than anything, this is yet another reminder that the international community ought to be far more judicious in pressuring Israel to withdraw from territory and put their security in the hands of others. Peace plans tend to suggest that Israel pull back farther than Israeli military leaders are comfortable with, having their place taken by a coalition of international troops. It is clear–as it has been for a while–that this is rarely a feasible option.

The international community also likes the idea of considering the Golan Heights occupied Syrian territory. They should ask the UN peacekeeping forces if they’d like the land to which they’ve currently retreated to still be on the Syrian side of the border. They should ask that question, by the way, while there still is technically a country called Syria.

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Syrian Refugees in Israel?

The Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff Benny Gantz says Israel is preparing to take in refugees following the downfall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The interesting part is that Israel is expecting refugees from the Alawite minority and to house them on the Golan Heights.

The Assad family and most of the regime are Alawites at war with the Sunni Muslim majority. The Golan Heights was taken from Syria in the 1967 war when Damascus used it as a platform to shoot at and shell Israeli civilians in the Galilee far below.

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The Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff Benny Gantz says Israel is preparing to take in refugees following the downfall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The interesting part is that Israel is expecting refugees from the Alawite minority and to house them on the Golan Heights.

The Assad family and most of the regime are Alawites at war with the Sunni Muslim majority. The Golan Heights was taken from Syria in the 1967 war when Damascus used it as a platform to shoot at and shell Israeli civilians in the Galilee far below.

When Assad demands the Golan Heights back, he does not have it in mind as a refugee camp under the stewardship of his enemies for his overthrown clan.

I don’t know if this talk in Jerusalem is psychological warfare against the regime or a real contingency plan. It may be both. Israel probably will take in Alawite refugees if they flee mass retribution by an enraged Sunni majority. And whether the Israelis intend it or not, this is bound to sap the morale of the regime and its base.

Psychological warfare is difficult in a part of the world where conspiracy theories are rampant. Many Syrians may read this as Israeli support for the Alawites, and by extension the Assad regime that is murdering them, thus bolstering the ridiculous yet not uncommon notion that Israel and Syria have long had a sinister agreement with each other at the expense of the Sunnis. So if this announcement about refugees is strategic, it might help, but it also might backfire. We’ll see.

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Palestine Papers: 99 Percent Hype, 1 Percent News

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

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So How’s the Bribe-a-Thon Going?

The Obama team keeps insisting that the “problem” in the non-direct, non-peace talks (it has been two months since the last talks, and no one but the Obama administration seems all that concerned) is Israel settlements and hence has been pursuing a policy first of threats and now of bribes to induce Israel to stop building homes for Jews. But, alas, reality intrudes, and it is obvious to all but the Obami that the problem is much more fundamental. This report explains:

The Fatah Revolutionary Council concluded its fifth convention in Ramallah over the weekend by declaring its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The council also urged the Palestinian Authority leadership to work toward foiling a new Israeli law requiring a referendum before any withdrawal from Jerusalem and the Golan Heights that has not been passed by two thirds of the Knesset. …

“The council affirms its rejection of the so-called Jewish state or any other formula that could achieve this goal,” said a statement issued by the council.
“The council also renews its refusal for the establishment of any racist state based on religion in accordance with international law and human rights conventions.”

The council made its statement as Israel awaits a document from the US which would set out an incentives package in exchange for a 90-day freeze on new settlement construction based on the terms of the 10- month moratorium on such activity which expired on September 26.

You can understand why the Israelis might regard a 90-day freeze as irrelevant. An Israeli official comments: “I would ask the Palestinians the following question: If the Jewish state is fundamentally illegitimate in your eyes, what sort of peace are you offering us? It is clear that their refusal to recognize the Jewish state’s legitimacy is the true obstacle to peace and reconciliation.” If that is so, why indulge the Obama team in its misguided scheme — and why suggest that U.S. vetoes of anti-Israel UN resolutions are now a matter of negotiation?

It is curious indeed that the Obama team has yet to produce the written confirmation of the proposed settlement-freeze deal. Should be an easy thing to do, no? Perhaps the deal is not the deal. In any event, the problem is not too many settlements; it is, as it has been for 60 years, too little desire for peace by the Palestinians.

The Obama team keeps insisting that the “problem” in the non-direct, non-peace talks (it has been two months since the last talks, and no one but the Obama administration seems all that concerned) is Israel settlements and hence has been pursuing a policy first of threats and now of bribes to induce Israel to stop building homes for Jews. But, alas, reality intrudes, and it is obvious to all but the Obami that the problem is much more fundamental. This report explains:

The Fatah Revolutionary Council concluded its fifth convention in Ramallah over the weekend by declaring its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The council also urged the Palestinian Authority leadership to work toward foiling a new Israeli law requiring a referendum before any withdrawal from Jerusalem and the Golan Heights that has not been passed by two thirds of the Knesset. …

“The council affirms its rejection of the so-called Jewish state or any other formula that could achieve this goal,” said a statement issued by the council.
“The council also renews its refusal for the establishment of any racist state based on religion in accordance with international law and human rights conventions.”

The council made its statement as Israel awaits a document from the US which would set out an incentives package in exchange for a 90-day freeze on new settlement construction based on the terms of the 10- month moratorium on such activity which expired on September 26.

You can understand why the Israelis might regard a 90-day freeze as irrelevant. An Israeli official comments: “I would ask the Palestinians the following question: If the Jewish state is fundamentally illegitimate in your eyes, what sort of peace are you offering us? It is clear that their refusal to recognize the Jewish state’s legitimacy is the true obstacle to peace and reconciliation.” If that is so, why indulge the Obama team in its misguided scheme — and why suggest that U.S. vetoes of anti-Israel UN resolutions are now a matter of negotiation?

It is curious indeed that the Obama team has yet to produce the written confirmation of the proposed settlement-freeze deal. Should be an easy thing to do, no? Perhaps the deal is not the deal. In any event, the problem is not too many settlements; it is, as it has been for 60 years, too little desire for peace by the Palestinians.

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The Public Be Damned

Jonathan noted yesterday that foreign critics are outraged by Israel’s passage of a law this week mandating referenda on certain types of territorial concessions. But their outrage doesn’t hold a candle to that of Israel’s own left.

In today’s editorial, for instance, Haaretz complained bitterly that “the public is being given veto power over crucial decisions on foreign policy and security issues.” By “handcuffing the political leadership’s moves in the peace process,” it charged, Israel is spitting in the world’s face.

Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly complained that “this is not a good law,” because the world will think “Israel is rejecting peace and is handcuffing itself to avoid progress in the diplomatic process.”

These arguments are mind-boggling. First, why should anyone in the democratic world object to giving the public a say in “crucial decisions on foreign policy and security”? Haaretz’s editors would evidently prefer a dictatorship of Plato’s philosopher-king, with themselves on the throne. But democracies are supposed to give the public a say in crucial decisions.

That’s why Britain, for instance, held a referendum on joining the European Economic Community, while France held one on leaving Algeria. In the U.S., this goal is achieved by requiring treaties to be ratified by a two-thirds Senate majority, which is unachievable without significant bipartisan consensus.

But the even more shocking assumption behind these plaints is that, given a choice, the public would reject any deal likely to be signed — yet the government should sign it anyway, and the public be damned.

Like Jonathan, I think Israelis would in fact support any reasonable agreement. But no reasonable agreement would ever be brought to a referendum, because the law requires a referendum only if an agreement doesn’t pass the Knesset by a two-thirds majority. And any reasonable agreement would easily surpass this threshold.

The history of Israeli diplomatic agreements amply proves this point. The treaties with both Egypt and Jordan did pass the Knesset by a two-thirds majority, and both, despite producing a colder peace than Israelis hoped, have stood the test of time. In contrast, not a single agreement with the Palestinians ever came close to achieving a two-thirds majority — and every single one has proved a bloody failure.

Nor is this mere coincidence. The Jordanian and Egyptian treaties won sweeping majorities because both countries’ leaders had proved their commitment to peace: Anwar Sadat by his dramatic visit to the Knesset, in defiance of the pan-Arab boycott on Israel, and Jordan’s King Hussein by decades of quiet security cooperation. And both treaties succeeded because these leaders truly wanted peace.

The Palestinian agreements won only narrow majorities because many Israelis weren’t convinced that the Palestinians wanted peace. And these agreements failed because this skepticism proved well-founded.

Thus the referendum law won’t prevent any deal actually worth signing. Nor will it prevent another bad deal on the West Bank, since it applies only to territory annexed by Israel. But it will at least prevent a bad deal over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. And therefore, its passage is genuine cause for rejoicing.

Jonathan noted yesterday that foreign critics are outraged by Israel’s passage of a law this week mandating referenda on certain types of territorial concessions. But their outrage doesn’t hold a candle to that of Israel’s own left.

In today’s editorial, for instance, Haaretz complained bitterly that “the public is being given veto power over crucial decisions on foreign policy and security issues.” By “handcuffing the political leadership’s moves in the peace process,” it charged, Israel is spitting in the world’s face.

Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly complained that “this is not a good law,” because the world will think “Israel is rejecting peace and is handcuffing itself to avoid progress in the diplomatic process.”

These arguments are mind-boggling. First, why should anyone in the democratic world object to giving the public a say in “crucial decisions on foreign policy and security”? Haaretz’s editors would evidently prefer a dictatorship of Plato’s philosopher-king, with themselves on the throne. But democracies are supposed to give the public a say in crucial decisions.

That’s why Britain, for instance, held a referendum on joining the European Economic Community, while France held one on leaving Algeria. In the U.S., this goal is achieved by requiring treaties to be ratified by a two-thirds Senate majority, which is unachievable without significant bipartisan consensus.

But the even more shocking assumption behind these plaints is that, given a choice, the public would reject any deal likely to be signed — yet the government should sign it anyway, and the public be damned.

Like Jonathan, I think Israelis would in fact support any reasonable agreement. But no reasonable agreement would ever be brought to a referendum, because the law requires a referendum only if an agreement doesn’t pass the Knesset by a two-thirds majority. And any reasonable agreement would easily surpass this threshold.

The history of Israeli diplomatic agreements amply proves this point. The treaties with both Egypt and Jordan did pass the Knesset by a two-thirds majority, and both, despite producing a colder peace than Israelis hoped, have stood the test of time. In contrast, not a single agreement with the Palestinians ever came close to achieving a two-thirds majority — and every single one has proved a bloody failure.

Nor is this mere coincidence. The Jordanian and Egyptian treaties won sweeping majorities because both countries’ leaders had proved their commitment to peace: Anwar Sadat by his dramatic visit to the Knesset, in defiance of the pan-Arab boycott on Israel, and Jordan’s King Hussein by decades of quiet security cooperation. And both treaties succeeded because these leaders truly wanted peace.

The Palestinian agreements won only narrow majorities because many Israelis weren’t convinced that the Palestinians wanted peace. And these agreements failed because this skepticism proved well-founded.

Thus the referendum law won’t prevent any deal actually worth signing. Nor will it prevent another bad deal on the West Bank, since it applies only to territory annexed by Israel. But it will at least prevent a bad deal over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. And therefore, its passage is genuine cause for rejoicing.

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Israel’s Critics Are Afraid of Democracy

Yesterday’s vote by Israel’s Knesset to require a referendum to ratify any peace deal that involved the surrender of Jerusalem or the Golan Heights is being slammed in the Arab world as well as by other foes of the Jewish state. For Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, such a vote would be an “obstacle” to peace. Similarly, Israel Lobby author Stephen Walt believes it means the end of the two-state solution, since it “gives a veto to the hard-line settler faction.”

Such claims are laughable. In fact, assuming that the Palestinians were themselves interested in actually signing a peace deal (something they have repeatedly declined to do even when offered virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, as they were in 2000 and 2008), the knowledge that any accord would have to be ratified by a referendum in which Israelis could vote it up or down would make it more, not less, likely to be accepted by an Israeli government.

One of the problems that helped undermine Israeli support for the Oslo process was the fact that a narrow parliamentary majority rammed it down the country’s throat. Even worse, the follow-up agreement to the first accord, known as Oslo II, was only secured after two members of the now defunct right-wing Tsomet Party crossed the aisle to Labor in exchange for promises of high office and other perks. This shady process helped fuel public opposition to the deal, though it must be conceded that most of the credit for convincing Israelis that their government was on the wrong path must go to the Palestinians and the campaign of terrorism they waged even though peace was supposed to have broken out. Read More

Yesterday’s vote by Israel’s Knesset to require a referendum to ratify any peace deal that involved the surrender of Jerusalem or the Golan Heights is being slammed in the Arab world as well as by other foes of the Jewish state. For Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, such a vote would be an “obstacle” to peace. Similarly, Israel Lobby author Stephen Walt believes it means the end of the two-state solution, since it “gives a veto to the hard-line settler faction.”

Such claims are laughable. In fact, assuming that the Palestinians were themselves interested in actually signing a peace deal (something they have repeatedly declined to do even when offered virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, as they were in 2000 and 2008), the knowledge that any accord would have to be ratified by a referendum in which Israelis could vote it up or down would make it more, not less, likely to be accepted by an Israeli government.

One of the problems that helped undermine Israeli support for the Oslo process was the fact that a narrow parliamentary majority rammed it down the country’s throat. Even worse, the follow-up agreement to the first accord, known as Oslo II, was only secured after two members of the now defunct right-wing Tsomet Party crossed the aisle to Labor in exchange for promises of high office and other perks. This shady process helped fuel public opposition to the deal, though it must be conceded that most of the credit for convincing Israelis that their government was on the wrong path must go to the Palestinians and the campaign of terrorism they waged even though peace was supposed to have broken out.

Any Israeli government that chose to sign an agreement that called for the re-division of Jerusalem or handing the strategic Golan back to Syria would be strengthened by the knowledge that their decisions would have to be ratified by the people. They would be free to be more, not less, generous with a Palestinian partner who genuinely wanted peace, simply because such a government would be, in a sense, operating with a net. Without a referendum, acceptance of an agreement would be merely a matter of enforcing party discipline in the governing coalition. That would leave any government — especially one led from the right, as is Israel’s current coalition — vulnerable to accusations of betraying their voters. A referendum would give any peace deal the seal of democratic approval that it must have to succeed.

Moreover, far from ensuring that a deal would be defeated, the odds are that any referendum for a peace treaty would be passed, assuming it actually required the Arabs to accept Israel as a Jewish state within secure and accepted borders and without a “right of return” for the descendants of refugees, which would mean the country’s destruction. Israelis desperately want peace and might be inclined to accept anything that seems like a genuine solution even if they were skeptical about the Palestinians. That Walt thinks a referendum would give the settlers a veto shows that he understands Israel as poorly as he does America (whose foreign policy is, he thinks, directed by a pro-Israel cabal composed of a wall-to-wall coalition of liberals, moderates, and conservatives). Since a referendum would be a simple yes or no vote by the entire electorate, why would a group that makes up only a tiny percentage of the voting public have a veto?

But what most of those who have commented about this measure don’t mention is that so long as the political culture of the Palestinians regards the acceptance of a Jewish state as anathema no matter where its borders might be drawn or who controls Jerusalem, then any discussion of a referendum to ratify a peace deal is more science fiction than political science. After 17 years of fruitless concessions made in the name of peace, most Israelis have understandably grown cynical about a process that has proved to be an exchange of land for terror, not peace. If Abbas wants to change their minds, all he has to do is be willing to make peace and demonstrate to Israel’s people that he means it. Israeli democracy would be the best guarantee of a two-state solution, if only he were prepared to act as if he actually wanted one.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Just another charm offensive? “President Barack Obama is preparing new overtures to business that may start with a walk into the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a retreat with corporate chief executive officers, according to people familiar with his plans.” So long as he plans on keeping ObamaCare and the financial regulation bill and raises taxes, it’s hard to consider it more than atmospherics.

Just another way of spinning that the White House is getting rid of him as soon as possible. “David Axelrod’s long-anticipated departure from the White House is happening a little earlier than expected — right after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech in late January or early February — so the  senior adviser can ‘recharge his batteries,’ according to a senior administration official.”

Just another bad poll for the White House to ignore. “Just about as many Americans want Tea Party-backed members of Congress to take the lead in setting policy during the next year as choose President Obama, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds. … The survey also underscores Obama’s weakened standing. His overall job approval rating, at 42%, is 1 percentage point higher than his historic low in midsummer. His 35% approval rating on the economy is the lowest of his presidency.”

Just another prominent conservative woman on the world stage? This one –Michèle Alliot-Marie, the foreign minister of France — plays rugby. ” The 64-year-old Gaullist is more than just another passive fan of the game. The normally austere MAM, as she is known in France, revealed in a rare informal television appearance in the mid-1980s that she had nearly been kicked out of school when she was young for converting the female handball squad into a rugby team. ‘I think that I’d still be able to make a pass,’ she noted.”

Just another move by Israel that’ll drive the left around the bend. How dare the Jewish state institute such democratic rules! “The Knesset passed the National Referendum Law during a late-night session Monday, approving legislation that will fundamentally alter Israeli negotiators’ ability to offer concrete peace deals involving the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem. The law, which was approved by a vote of 65-33, will require either a Knesset super-majority or a national referendum in order to hand over any annexed territories as part of a future peace deal.”

Just another day of nagging kids to eat vegetables. But is this really a job for the First Lady?

Just another human rights abomination in the “Muslim World.” Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother of five, has been jailed for a year and sentenced to death for blasphemy. Although she might get a presidential pardon, that’s not the end of it. “Even if Ms. Bibi is pardoned or the Lahore High Court overturns the sentence, there are concerns about her safety. Many people acquitted on blasphemy charges continue to be hounded and are forced to move, change their identity or hide, the commission says.”

Just another political miscalculation and panic attack in the White House. “As the Senate’s leading Republican on nuclear security issues, Mr. Kyl has warned the White House for months that it couldn’t get its treaty ratified without addressing his concerns on warhead modernization and missile defenses. For months, the Administration gave him mere lip service. Now that it has discovered it doesn’t have the votes, the Administration is finally getting serious about Mr. Kyl’s concerns even as it is trying to bully him over immediate ratification. Republicans are right to take their time and debate this thoroughly.”

Just another charm offensive? “President Barack Obama is preparing new overtures to business that may start with a walk into the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a retreat with corporate chief executive officers, according to people familiar with his plans.” So long as he plans on keeping ObamaCare and the financial regulation bill and raises taxes, it’s hard to consider it more than atmospherics.

Just another way of spinning that the White House is getting rid of him as soon as possible. “David Axelrod’s long-anticipated departure from the White House is happening a little earlier than expected — right after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech in late January or early February — so the  senior adviser can ‘recharge his batteries,’ according to a senior administration official.”

Just another bad poll for the White House to ignore. “Just about as many Americans want Tea Party-backed members of Congress to take the lead in setting policy during the next year as choose President Obama, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds. … The survey also underscores Obama’s weakened standing. His overall job approval rating, at 42%, is 1 percentage point higher than his historic low in midsummer. His 35% approval rating on the economy is the lowest of his presidency.”

Just another prominent conservative woman on the world stage? This one –Michèle Alliot-Marie, the foreign minister of France — plays rugby. ” The 64-year-old Gaullist is more than just another passive fan of the game. The normally austere MAM, as she is known in France, revealed in a rare informal television appearance in the mid-1980s that she had nearly been kicked out of school when she was young for converting the female handball squad into a rugby team. ‘I think that I’d still be able to make a pass,’ she noted.”

Just another move by Israel that’ll drive the left around the bend. How dare the Jewish state institute such democratic rules! “The Knesset passed the National Referendum Law during a late-night session Monday, approving legislation that will fundamentally alter Israeli negotiators’ ability to offer concrete peace deals involving the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem. The law, which was approved by a vote of 65-33, will require either a Knesset super-majority or a national referendum in order to hand over any annexed territories as part of a future peace deal.”

Just another day of nagging kids to eat vegetables. But is this really a job for the First Lady?

Just another human rights abomination in the “Muslim World.” Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother of five, has been jailed for a year and sentenced to death for blasphemy. Although she might get a presidential pardon, that’s not the end of it. “Even if Ms. Bibi is pardoned or the Lahore High Court overturns the sentence, there are concerns about her safety. Many people acquitted on blasphemy charges continue to be hounded and are forced to move, change their identity or hide, the commission says.”

Just another political miscalculation and panic attack in the White House. “As the Senate’s leading Republican on nuclear security issues, Mr. Kyl has warned the White House for months that it couldn’t get its treaty ratified without addressing his concerns on warhead modernization and missile defenses. For months, the Administration gave him mere lip service. Now that it has discovered it doesn’t have the votes, the Administration is finally getting serious about Mr. Kyl’s concerns even as it is trying to bully him over immediate ratification. Republicans are right to take their time and debate this thoroughly.”

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For Once, Israel’s Knesset Does Its Job

Israel’s Knesset took two important steps yesterday. First, a committee forwarded a bill to the plenum for final reading that, if passed, would for the first time subject territorial concessions to real ratification requirements. Second, the plenum gave preliminary approval to a bill that would, for the first time, impose sanctions on those who promote anti-Israel boycotts.

The boycott bill, which will now proceed to committee, would make Israelis who “instigate,” “encourage,” or “assist” boycotts against Israel or Israeli institutions subject to fines of up to NIS 30,000 even if no damage is proved, and more if damage is proved. Foreigners or foreign entities that do the same could be barred from the country and denied the right to use Israeli banks, land, or stocks. The bill would also allow boycott damages to be deducted from Israel’s remittances to the Palestinian Authority should the latter continue promoting anti-Israel boycotts.

The bill, co-sponsored by 27 MKs from seven parties, is modeled on America’s anti-boycott laws. Ironically, those laws were passed in the 1970s in response to the Arab boycott of Israel. But at that time, Israel saw no need to imitate them: what Israeli then would have promoted a boycott of his own country?

It is a sad comment that today such a law is necessary, as Israelis are at the forefront of the anti-Israel boycott movement. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that mainstream Israel is finally fighting back: if enacted, boycott promoters would finally be forced to weigh the acclaim and lucrative awards their behavior wins from like-minded peers abroad against a real price.

The other bill would require that any withdrawal from territory annexed by Israel be approved by either a referendum or a special two-thirds Knesset majority. Currently, such concessions need approval by a mere 61 members of the 120-member Knesset.

That the bill applies only to annexed territory is a flaw; that means it covers the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem but not the West Bank. Moreover, it has a dangerous loophole: the referendum could be waived if elections are held within six months, as the election would be seen as a referendum. That is problematic, because any new government would assuredly come under enormous international pressure to approve the concession, and there would be no referendum to stop it. Nevertheless, the bill would significantly improve the existing situation.

Unnamed “sources close to” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will work to delay the bill’s final reading for “as long as possible.” But the truth is that successive governments all opposed the bill; none of them liked the idea that they could no longer make any agreement they saw fit, with no need to muster widespread popular support. It has nevertheless steadily advanced over the course of two Knessets, with support from both coalition and opposition MKs.

Thus I predict it will ultimately pass this final hurdle too. And Israel’s democratic system will only benefit from ensuring that future withdrawals enjoy strong popular support instead of passing, as previous ones have, by razor-thin majorities that tear the country apart.

Israel’s Knesset took two important steps yesterday. First, a committee forwarded a bill to the plenum for final reading that, if passed, would for the first time subject territorial concessions to real ratification requirements. Second, the plenum gave preliminary approval to a bill that would, for the first time, impose sanctions on those who promote anti-Israel boycotts.

The boycott bill, which will now proceed to committee, would make Israelis who “instigate,” “encourage,” or “assist” boycotts against Israel or Israeli institutions subject to fines of up to NIS 30,000 even if no damage is proved, and more if damage is proved. Foreigners or foreign entities that do the same could be barred from the country and denied the right to use Israeli banks, land, or stocks. The bill would also allow boycott damages to be deducted from Israel’s remittances to the Palestinian Authority should the latter continue promoting anti-Israel boycotts.

The bill, co-sponsored by 27 MKs from seven parties, is modeled on America’s anti-boycott laws. Ironically, those laws were passed in the 1970s in response to the Arab boycott of Israel. But at that time, Israel saw no need to imitate them: what Israeli then would have promoted a boycott of his own country?

It is a sad comment that today such a law is necessary, as Israelis are at the forefront of the anti-Israel boycott movement. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that mainstream Israel is finally fighting back: if enacted, boycott promoters would finally be forced to weigh the acclaim and lucrative awards their behavior wins from like-minded peers abroad against a real price.

The other bill would require that any withdrawal from territory annexed by Israel be approved by either a referendum or a special two-thirds Knesset majority. Currently, such concessions need approval by a mere 61 members of the 120-member Knesset.

That the bill applies only to annexed territory is a flaw; that means it covers the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem but not the West Bank. Moreover, it has a dangerous loophole: the referendum could be waived if elections are held within six months, as the election would be seen as a referendum. That is problematic, because any new government would assuredly come under enormous international pressure to approve the concession, and there would be no referendum to stop it. Nevertheless, the bill would significantly improve the existing situation.

Unnamed “sources close to” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will work to delay the bill’s final reading for “as long as possible.” But the truth is that successive governments all opposed the bill; none of them liked the idea that they could no longer make any agreement they saw fit, with no need to muster widespread popular support. It has nevertheless steadily advanced over the course of two Knessets, with support from both coalition and opposition MKs.

Thus I predict it will ultimately pass this final hurdle too. And Israel’s democratic system will only benefit from ensuring that future withdrawals enjoy strong popular support instead of passing, as previous ones have, by razor-thin majorities that tear the country apart.

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Syria and Turkey Sink Another Obama Initiative

One of the keys to President Obama’s ill-fated attempt to engage the Islamic world has been the effort to convince Syria to abandon its alliance with Iran and to join the West. But like his vaunted outreach to Iran, this too fell flat — though some in the administration continued to try getting Israel to pay for this initiative with concessions on the Golan Heights and the standoff with Hezbollah, an ally of both Iran and Syria, along the border with Lebanon. But the final nail in the coffin of the Syria gambit appears to have come not from Israeli intransigence but rather from the intervention of a country that once feared the Syrians: Turkey.

Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Stephen Starr reports that Turkey has become “Syria’s new best friend.” Though not so long ago the Turks looked to cultivate an alliance with Israel as a counter-balance to the threat they perceived from the Assad regime, they have now embarked on their own outreach campaign to Damascus. Trade between the two countries has grown from a trickle to a flood. More importantly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to become an apologist and diplomatic partner for Iran and to attempt to become the leader of the Islamic world’s anti-Israel diplomatic front has the potential to change the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. By sponsoring the Gaza flotilla provocation and then engaging in what even Starr concedes was a “disproportionate response” to Israel’s efforts to maintain the blockade on the Hamas regime, Turkey has “improved Syria’s political clout significantly.”

Obama’s attempt to woo the Syrians away from Iran was always doomed. While willing to pocket lucrative bribes from the West in the form of aid and development projects, the Assad family regime has no real interest in the welfare of the Syrian people or in better relations with the West. As any narrowly based dictatorships, the Assads know that a more open and prosperous society and peace with Israel do not serve their purposes of perpetuating their vise-like grip on their country. Iran and Hezbollah were always going to be the natural allies of Damascus. The United States might have been able to tell the Syrians that they could get them the Golan Heights back if they just made peace with Israel and deigned to accept Western largess in return. Contrary to how Starr interprets Syria’s past flirting — sponsored by Turkey — with negotiations with Israel, Bashar al-Assad was not interested in peace even if it brought him the Golan.

But edging away from its military alliance with Israel and bidding to revive the Ottoman Empire’s pose as the leader of the Islamic world, NATO member Turkey is a far better fit for being a partner with Syria than with the United States. Indeed, as Starr writes, with Turkey behind it, Assad can now afford to ignore Obama’s entreaties altogether. The result not only deepens Israel’s isolation but also exposes the utter failure of one of the administration’s foreign policy goals. The president imagined that, by distancing the United States from Israel and trying to “engage” the Arab “street” and Iran’s dictators, he could inaugurate a new era of American influence in the Middle East. But it appears as though all he has done is to set the stage for a dangerous turn for the worse in the region.

One of the keys to President Obama’s ill-fated attempt to engage the Islamic world has been the effort to convince Syria to abandon its alliance with Iran and to join the West. But like his vaunted outreach to Iran, this too fell flat — though some in the administration continued to try getting Israel to pay for this initiative with concessions on the Golan Heights and the standoff with Hezbollah, an ally of both Iran and Syria, along the border with Lebanon. But the final nail in the coffin of the Syria gambit appears to have come not from Israeli intransigence but rather from the intervention of a country that once feared the Syrians: Turkey.

Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Stephen Starr reports that Turkey has become “Syria’s new best friend.” Though not so long ago the Turks looked to cultivate an alliance with Israel as a counter-balance to the threat they perceived from the Assad regime, they have now embarked on their own outreach campaign to Damascus. Trade between the two countries has grown from a trickle to a flood. More importantly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to become an apologist and diplomatic partner for Iran and to attempt to become the leader of the Islamic world’s anti-Israel diplomatic front has the potential to change the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. By sponsoring the Gaza flotilla provocation and then engaging in what even Starr concedes was a “disproportionate response” to Israel’s efforts to maintain the blockade on the Hamas regime, Turkey has “improved Syria’s political clout significantly.”

Obama’s attempt to woo the Syrians away from Iran was always doomed. While willing to pocket lucrative bribes from the West in the form of aid and development projects, the Assad family regime has no real interest in the welfare of the Syrian people or in better relations with the West. As any narrowly based dictatorships, the Assads know that a more open and prosperous society and peace with Israel do not serve their purposes of perpetuating their vise-like grip on their country. Iran and Hezbollah were always going to be the natural allies of Damascus. The United States might have been able to tell the Syrians that they could get them the Golan Heights back if they just made peace with Israel and deigned to accept Western largess in return. Contrary to how Starr interprets Syria’s past flirting — sponsored by Turkey — with negotiations with Israel, Bashar al-Assad was not interested in peace even if it brought him the Golan.

But edging away from its military alliance with Israel and bidding to revive the Ottoman Empire’s pose as the leader of the Islamic world, NATO member Turkey is a far better fit for being a partner with Syria than with the United States. Indeed, as Starr writes, with Turkey behind it, Assad can now afford to ignore Obama’s entreaties altogether. The result not only deepens Israel’s isolation but also exposes the utter failure of one of the administration’s foreign policy goals. The president imagined that, by distancing the United States from Israel and trying to “engage” the Arab “street” and Iran’s dictators, he could inaugurate a new era of American influence in the Middle East. But it appears as though all he has done is to set the stage for a dangerous turn for the worse in the region.

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How Western Engagement Thwarts Israeli-Syrian Peace

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s candid interview this week with Lebanon’s As-Safir paper ought to be studied by anyone who still believes in either the possibility of Israeli-Syrian peace or the utility of Western engagement with Syria.

According to both the Jerusalem Post and Ynet (the website of Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth), Assad told As-Safir that Israeli President Shimon Peres sent a message via Russia offering him the entire Golan Heights if Syria would sever ties with Iran and with terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. But Assad said he wasn’t interested: He refuses to abandon the option of “resistance.”

Whether or not Peres actually made this offer (which his office vehemently denies) is irrelevant. The point is that Assad claims it was made. Yet his response was not to pursue it via direct or even indirect talks with Israel. It was to assert that Syria will never pressure Hamas and co. to disarm; that Israel doesn’t want peace anyway, so there’s no point in talking; and that it would be a “mistake” to “erase the resistance option,” thereby “becoming hostage to the peace option.”

This response has three noteworthy aspects. First, Israeli advocates of peace with Syria all claim that previous talks collapsed over one single issue: Jerusalem insisted that the border be the recognized international border, while Damascus demanded the pre-1967 border, which includes Israeli territory that Syria illegally occupied in 1948. Therefore, they argue, if Israel would just stop fussing over that sliver of land and cede it all, a deal would swiftly be signed.

Second, these advocates always said peace would bring one major benefit: Syria’s removal from the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas axis.

Yet now, Assad claims that Peres offered precisely what Israeli peace advocates always wanted: the whole Golan. And he contemptuously refused to pay the desired quid pro quo.

Most noteworthy of all, however, was his reason: Abandoning “resistance” would be foolish, because it works. And as evidence, he cited Syria’s renewed ties with the West, especially Washington. In short, he views the Obama administration’s engagement drive as proof that supporting terror pays.

Moreover, when asked to identify Syria’s key regional interests, peace with Israel didn’t make the list — but “dialogue with the U.S.” did. Thus peace with Israel no longer offers any compensation that would justify abandoning “resistance”: The one benefit it was traditionally thought to offer — an opening to Washington — has now been achieved by “resistance” instead.

This also explains why Assad eagerly engaged in indirect talks with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just two years ago, but scorns the idea today. Then, he was being boycotted by the West, and especially by former President George W. Bush, so talks with Israel were needed to end the boycott. Today, he is courted by Europe and Washington alike. So who needs peace with Israel?

The conclusion is clear: As long as Assad can get everything he wants from the West without a peace deal, Israeli-Syrian peace will be unattainable. Only when the West starts punishing “resistance” rather than rewarding it will Assad’s strategic calculation change.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s candid interview this week with Lebanon’s As-Safir paper ought to be studied by anyone who still believes in either the possibility of Israeli-Syrian peace or the utility of Western engagement with Syria.

According to both the Jerusalem Post and Ynet (the website of Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth), Assad told As-Safir that Israeli President Shimon Peres sent a message via Russia offering him the entire Golan Heights if Syria would sever ties with Iran and with terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. But Assad said he wasn’t interested: He refuses to abandon the option of “resistance.”

Whether or not Peres actually made this offer (which his office vehemently denies) is irrelevant. The point is that Assad claims it was made. Yet his response was not to pursue it via direct or even indirect talks with Israel. It was to assert that Syria will never pressure Hamas and co. to disarm; that Israel doesn’t want peace anyway, so there’s no point in talking; and that it would be a “mistake” to “erase the resistance option,” thereby “becoming hostage to the peace option.”

This response has three noteworthy aspects. First, Israeli advocates of peace with Syria all claim that previous talks collapsed over one single issue: Jerusalem insisted that the border be the recognized international border, while Damascus demanded the pre-1967 border, which includes Israeli territory that Syria illegally occupied in 1948. Therefore, they argue, if Israel would just stop fussing over that sliver of land and cede it all, a deal would swiftly be signed.

Second, these advocates always said peace would bring one major benefit: Syria’s removal from the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas axis.

Yet now, Assad claims that Peres offered precisely what Israeli peace advocates always wanted: the whole Golan. And he contemptuously refused to pay the desired quid pro quo.

Most noteworthy of all, however, was his reason: Abandoning “resistance” would be foolish, because it works. And as evidence, he cited Syria’s renewed ties with the West, especially Washington. In short, he views the Obama administration’s engagement drive as proof that supporting terror pays.

Moreover, when asked to identify Syria’s key regional interests, peace with Israel didn’t make the list — but “dialogue with the U.S.” did. Thus peace with Israel no longer offers any compensation that would justify abandoning “resistance”: The one benefit it was traditionally thought to offer — an opening to Washington — has now been achieved by “resistance” instead.

This also explains why Assad eagerly engaged in indirect talks with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just two years ago, but scorns the idea today. Then, he was being boycotted by the West, and especially by former President George W. Bush, so talks with Israel were needed to end the boycott. Today, he is courted by Europe and Washington alike. So who needs peace with Israel?

The conclusion is clear: As long as Assad can get everything he wants from the West without a peace deal, Israeli-Syrian peace will be unattainable. Only when the West starts punishing “resistance” rather than rewarding it will Assad’s strategic calculation change.

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Hedgehogs and Foxes in the Middle East

The fox, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Reagan was a hedgehog because his presidency was animated by a basic belief in the superiority of democracy and free markets to Communism. When it comes to the Middle East, President Obama is what could be called a reverse hedgehog: he is animated by one grand vision, and it is completely wrong.

In this vision, the conflicts, failures, and policy difficulties of the Middle East revolve around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All roads in the Middle East, for Obama, lead back to Israel, and probably to the West Bank and the Golan Heights. As Tony Badran notes, another high-level administration official has confirmed this fixation:

This was the first time that an official openly laid out what the administration’s end game is. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was the official testifying before the [congressional] subcommittee, outlined the administration’s conceptual framework as follows: The US is working to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, which Syria facilitates. But Syria is not Iran, and there’s a basic policy difference between them: Unlike Iran, Syria has an interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, the peace process is, in Feltman’s words, the “big game”. The administration believes that a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem would cure the Syria problem. …

Witness, for example, this statement by Feltman: “Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.” The logic of this statement is but one step removed from justifying the arming of Hezbollah. It’s the logic that holds Syrian policy to be reactive and grievance-based.

When it comes to national leaders, hedgehogs are almost always preferable to foxes. But the worst possible scenario is the reverse hedgehog — the leader who is possessed of a grand fantasy.

The fox, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Reagan was a hedgehog because his presidency was animated by a basic belief in the superiority of democracy and free markets to Communism. When it comes to the Middle East, President Obama is what could be called a reverse hedgehog: he is animated by one grand vision, and it is completely wrong.

In this vision, the conflicts, failures, and policy difficulties of the Middle East revolve around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All roads in the Middle East, for Obama, lead back to Israel, and probably to the West Bank and the Golan Heights. As Tony Badran notes, another high-level administration official has confirmed this fixation:

This was the first time that an official openly laid out what the administration’s end game is. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was the official testifying before the [congressional] subcommittee, outlined the administration’s conceptual framework as follows: The US is working to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, which Syria facilitates. But Syria is not Iran, and there’s a basic policy difference between them: Unlike Iran, Syria has an interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, the peace process is, in Feltman’s words, the “big game”. The administration believes that a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem would cure the Syria problem. …

Witness, for example, this statement by Feltman: “Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.” The logic of this statement is but one step removed from justifying the arming of Hezbollah. It’s the logic that holds Syrian policy to be reactive and grievance-based.

When it comes to national leaders, hedgehogs are almost always preferable to foxes. But the worst possible scenario is the reverse hedgehog — the leader who is possessed of a grand fantasy.

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Targeting Israel, Hitting Palestinians

A ruling by the European Union’s highest court yesterday is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. The court ruled that the EU’s free trade agreement with Israel does not apply to the West Bank, and therefore, goods made by Israeli firms in the West Bank are subject to EU import taxes.

Legally speaking, it’s hard to quarrel with the ruling: even Israeli law doesn’t view the West Bank as Israeli, as it does East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. But for years, European countries ignored this detail and exempted Israeli firms in the territories from import duties. What has changed is not the law but the politics: seeking to persuade Israelis that “the occupation” doesn’t pay, EU countries recently began taxing such imports. A German importer then sued his country’s tax authorities, prompting yesterday’s verdict.

But as the Associated Press noted, the biggest victims may well be not Israelis but Palestinians. Many Israeli firms moved to the West Bank because they could export to the EU duty-free while also benefiting from cheaper Palestinian labor. Thus, if the new import taxes lower these firms’ profits, hundreds of Palestinians could lose their jobs. And because “Palestinians are largely barred from working in Israel and have few job opportunities in the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, jobs in settlement factories are sought after.”

Moreover, European efforts to tax these companies have already persuaded some to move back to Israel, and yesterday’s ruling is likely to accelerate the trend. That would throw thousands of Palestinians out of work — while benefiting the unemployed Israelis such firms would have to hire instead.

Europeans are obviously entitled to put principle above the consequences for Palestinian employment; countries make such decisions all the time. But the fact remains that once again, the biggest victims of efforts to advance the “peace process” will be ordinary Palestinians.

Thousands of Gazans, for instance, used to work for Israeli firms in the Erez industrial zone on the Israel-Gaza border. Today, Erez is a ghost town with no prospect of ever reopening: having withdrawn from Gaza, Israel could no longer protect these firms, and the Palestinians would not.

Moreover, tens of thousands of Palestinians used to work inside Israel; today, almost none do. The second intifada made a massive flow of Palestinians into Israel too risky, and Israelis felt no obligation to employ residents of a state-in-the-making that was waging nonstop physical and diplomatic warfare against them. The Palestinians, after all, cannot simultaneously demand independence from Israel and jobs inside Israel. The result is unemployment that now totals 18 percent in the West Bank and 39 percent in Gaza.

Israel is the region’s strongest economy; it will be years before the Palestinian Authority can match its employment capacity. So unless those who favor Palestinian statehood think that massive unemployment somehow contributes to this goal, they ought to be encouraging Israeli firms to hire Palestinians. Instead, Palestinian terror and international pressure have steadily combined to do the opposite.

If that sounds counterproductive, it is. Unfortunately, the EU clearly doesn’t get it.

A ruling by the European Union’s highest court yesterday is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. The court ruled that the EU’s free trade agreement with Israel does not apply to the West Bank, and therefore, goods made by Israeli firms in the West Bank are subject to EU import taxes.

Legally speaking, it’s hard to quarrel with the ruling: even Israeli law doesn’t view the West Bank as Israeli, as it does East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. But for years, European countries ignored this detail and exempted Israeli firms in the territories from import duties. What has changed is not the law but the politics: seeking to persuade Israelis that “the occupation” doesn’t pay, EU countries recently began taxing such imports. A German importer then sued his country’s tax authorities, prompting yesterday’s verdict.

But as the Associated Press noted, the biggest victims may well be not Israelis but Palestinians. Many Israeli firms moved to the West Bank because they could export to the EU duty-free while also benefiting from cheaper Palestinian labor. Thus, if the new import taxes lower these firms’ profits, hundreds of Palestinians could lose their jobs. And because “Palestinians are largely barred from working in Israel and have few job opportunities in the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, jobs in settlement factories are sought after.”

Moreover, European efforts to tax these companies have already persuaded some to move back to Israel, and yesterday’s ruling is likely to accelerate the trend. That would throw thousands of Palestinians out of work — while benefiting the unemployed Israelis such firms would have to hire instead.

Europeans are obviously entitled to put principle above the consequences for Palestinian employment; countries make such decisions all the time. But the fact remains that once again, the biggest victims of efforts to advance the “peace process” will be ordinary Palestinians.

Thousands of Gazans, for instance, used to work for Israeli firms in the Erez industrial zone on the Israel-Gaza border. Today, Erez is a ghost town with no prospect of ever reopening: having withdrawn from Gaza, Israel could no longer protect these firms, and the Palestinians would not.

Moreover, tens of thousands of Palestinians used to work inside Israel; today, almost none do. The second intifada made a massive flow of Palestinians into Israel too risky, and Israelis felt no obligation to employ residents of a state-in-the-making that was waging nonstop physical and diplomatic warfare against them. The Palestinians, after all, cannot simultaneously demand independence from Israel and jobs inside Israel. The result is unemployment that now totals 18 percent in the West Bank and 39 percent in Gaza.

Israel is the region’s strongest economy; it will be years before the Palestinian Authority can match its employment capacity. So unless those who favor Palestinian statehood think that massive unemployment somehow contributes to this goal, they ought to be encouraging Israeli firms to hire Palestinians. Instead, Palestinian terror and international pressure have steadily combined to do the opposite.

If that sounds counterproductive, it is. Unfortunately, the EU clearly doesn’t get it.

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Honest Broker, Anyone?

Nothing in George Mitchell’s interview with PBS last week received more attention than the envoy’s implied threat to revoke American loan guarantees to Israel. That’s a pity — because far more worrisome is the goal he set for the negotiations, as highlighted by Aluf Benn in today’s Haaretz. “We think the way forward … is full implementation of the Arab peace initiative,” Mitchell declared“That’s the comprehensive peace in the region that is the objective set forth by the president.”

The Arab initiative mandates a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines — every last inch of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. It also demands a solution to the refugee problem “in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194,” which Arabs interpret as allowing the refugees to “return” to Israel.

Later in the interview, Mitchell says this initiative requires “a negotiation and a discussion,” and that you can’t negotiate by telling “one side you have to agree in advance to what the other side wants.” Yet by saying his goal is “full implementation” of this initiative, he’s effectively saying, “You can have your negotiation and discussion, but Washington has no intention of being an honest broker: it fully backs the Arab position on borders, Jerusalem, and even (to some extent) the refugees.”

This is the administration’s clearest statement yet that it’s abandoning the position held by every previous U.S. administration: that Israel needs “defensible borders” — which everyone agrees the 1967 lines are not. Mitchell also thereby abandoned the position, held by every previous administration, that any deal must acknowledge Israel’s historic ties to the Temple Mount via some Israeli role there, even if only symbolic (see Bill Clinton’s idea of “sovereignty under the Mount”). The Arab initiative requires Israel to just get out.

And Mitchell effectively took Syria’s side on that border dispute: no Israeli government ever agreed to withdraw farther than the international border, whereas the Arab initiative mandates the 1967 lines — i.e., including the territory Syria illegally annexed pre-1967.

Even worse, the Arab initiative addresses none of Israel’s concerns, such as recognition as a Jewish state or security arrangements. That means Mitchell just announced support for all Arab demands without obtaining any parallel concession to Israel. Under those circumstances, why would the Arabs bother making any?

And his repeated demand that Israeli-Palestinian talks deal with borders first indicates that this was no slip of the tongue. After all, the only thing Israel has to give is territory; having once ceded that via an agreement on borders, it has nothing left to trade for, say, security arrangements — which, as a veteran Israeli negotiator told Benn, has actually proved one of the hardest issues to resolve in previous rounds of talks. Borders first, an Israeli minister summed up, is “a trap. We only give, we don’t get anything.”

George Bush’s Road Map viewed the Arab initiative as merely one of many “foundations” for talks. Mitchell’s adoption of its “full implementation” as a goal thus represents a deterioration in U.S. positions that ought to worry all Israel supporters.

Nothing in George Mitchell’s interview with PBS last week received more attention than the envoy’s implied threat to revoke American loan guarantees to Israel. That’s a pity — because far more worrisome is the goal he set for the negotiations, as highlighted by Aluf Benn in today’s Haaretz. “We think the way forward … is full implementation of the Arab peace initiative,” Mitchell declared“That’s the comprehensive peace in the region that is the objective set forth by the president.”

The Arab initiative mandates a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines — every last inch of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. It also demands a solution to the refugee problem “in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194,” which Arabs interpret as allowing the refugees to “return” to Israel.

Later in the interview, Mitchell says this initiative requires “a negotiation and a discussion,” and that you can’t negotiate by telling “one side you have to agree in advance to what the other side wants.” Yet by saying his goal is “full implementation” of this initiative, he’s effectively saying, “You can have your negotiation and discussion, but Washington has no intention of being an honest broker: it fully backs the Arab position on borders, Jerusalem, and even (to some extent) the refugees.”

This is the administration’s clearest statement yet that it’s abandoning the position held by every previous U.S. administration: that Israel needs “defensible borders” — which everyone agrees the 1967 lines are not. Mitchell also thereby abandoned the position, held by every previous administration, that any deal must acknowledge Israel’s historic ties to the Temple Mount via some Israeli role there, even if only symbolic (see Bill Clinton’s idea of “sovereignty under the Mount”). The Arab initiative requires Israel to just get out.

And Mitchell effectively took Syria’s side on that border dispute: no Israeli government ever agreed to withdraw farther than the international border, whereas the Arab initiative mandates the 1967 lines — i.e., including the territory Syria illegally annexed pre-1967.

Even worse, the Arab initiative addresses none of Israel’s concerns, such as recognition as a Jewish state or security arrangements. That means Mitchell just announced support for all Arab demands without obtaining any parallel concession to Israel. Under those circumstances, why would the Arabs bother making any?

And his repeated demand that Israeli-Palestinian talks deal with borders first indicates that this was no slip of the tongue. After all, the only thing Israel has to give is territory; having once ceded that via an agreement on borders, it has nothing left to trade for, say, security arrangements — which, as a veteran Israeli negotiator told Benn, has actually proved one of the hardest issues to resolve in previous rounds of talks. Borders first, an Israeli minister summed up, is “a trap. We only give, we don’t get anything.”

George Bush’s Road Map viewed the Arab initiative as merely one of many “foundations” for talks. Mitchell’s adoption of its “full implementation” as a goal thus represents a deterioration in U.S. positions that ought to worry all Israel supporters.

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A Bill to Foster True Peace

Israel took a step this week toward improving its long-term prospects for peace and security, when the Knesset voted by a large majority (68-22) to advance a bill creating a ratification procedure for ceding sovereign Israeli territory.

Incredibly, Israeli law currently requires no ratification process — even a Knesset vote — for most territorial concessions. In practice, governments have always sought Knesset approval, but legally, cabinet approval is enough. And because no law requires otherwise, even the slimmest Knesset majority is deemed sufficient: the Oslo 2 agreement, for instance, passed 61-59.

The current bill would require approval by either a two-thirds Knesset majority (80 MKs) or a simple majority in a national referendum. It has therefore sparked howls of outrage from the Left, which charges that this requirement would preclude any agreement with either the Palestinians or Syria.

That is obvious nonsense: more than 80 MKs supported the peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, so the hurdle clearly isn’t insurmountable.

Nevertheless, several withdrawals have failed to muster that level of Knesset support, including the first and second Oslo accords (1993 and 1995) and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza (whether they would have passed a referendum is unknowable). And that is precisely the point: because only agreements with clear benefits and demonstrable chances of success would be able to pass, a stringent ratification procedure could save Israel from disastrous deals.

The Egyptian and Jordanian treaties, which did pass the proposed hurdle, have in fact proved beneficial. Both countries maintain a cold peace and often work against Israel in international forums, but nevertheless, both have given Israelis what they most wanted: no more war, and no more cross-border terror.

The Oslo accords and the disengagement, in contrast, were security disasters. In the first 30 months after Oslo 1, Palestinians killed more Israelis than in the entire preceding decade. In the second intifada, Palestinian terror claimed more Israeli victims than it had in the preceding 53 years. And since the disengagement, southern Israel has endured almost 6,000 rocket and mortar strikes.

Nor are these results coincidental. The Egyptian and Jordanian accords received such widespread support precisely because there was strong evidence that they would succeed: Anwar Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem demonstrated a real desire for peace; Jordan had proved the same via a decades-long cease-fire. In contrast, there was very little evidence of a true Palestinian desire for peace. And while the plea to “give peace a chance” evidently suffices to muster a simple Knesset majority for just about anything, a two-thirds majority is hard to secure without evidence that peace is, in fact, likely to result.

Regrettably, the current bill would have prevented neither Oslo nor the disengagement: it applies only to territory that Israel has formally annexed (the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem), whereas it ought to cover all territorial concessions. But even in its current form, it would help prevent similarly disastrous final-status deals with either the Palestinians or Syria. Its enactment would therefore be an important step toward achieving real peace and security for Israel.

Israel took a step this week toward improving its long-term prospects for peace and security, when the Knesset voted by a large majority (68-22) to advance a bill creating a ratification procedure for ceding sovereign Israeli territory.

Incredibly, Israeli law currently requires no ratification process — even a Knesset vote — for most territorial concessions. In practice, governments have always sought Knesset approval, but legally, cabinet approval is enough. And because no law requires otherwise, even the slimmest Knesset majority is deemed sufficient: the Oslo 2 agreement, for instance, passed 61-59.

The current bill would require approval by either a two-thirds Knesset majority (80 MKs) or a simple majority in a national referendum. It has therefore sparked howls of outrage from the Left, which charges that this requirement would preclude any agreement with either the Palestinians or Syria.

That is obvious nonsense: more than 80 MKs supported the peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, so the hurdle clearly isn’t insurmountable.

Nevertheless, several withdrawals have failed to muster that level of Knesset support, including the first and second Oslo accords (1993 and 1995) and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza (whether they would have passed a referendum is unknowable). And that is precisely the point: because only agreements with clear benefits and demonstrable chances of success would be able to pass, a stringent ratification procedure could save Israel from disastrous deals.

The Egyptian and Jordanian treaties, which did pass the proposed hurdle, have in fact proved beneficial. Both countries maintain a cold peace and often work against Israel in international forums, but nevertheless, both have given Israelis what they most wanted: no more war, and no more cross-border terror.

The Oslo accords and the disengagement, in contrast, were security disasters. In the first 30 months after Oslo 1, Palestinians killed more Israelis than in the entire preceding decade. In the second intifada, Palestinian terror claimed more Israeli victims than it had in the preceding 53 years. And since the disengagement, southern Israel has endured almost 6,000 rocket and mortar strikes.

Nor are these results coincidental. The Egyptian and Jordanian accords received such widespread support precisely because there was strong evidence that they would succeed: Anwar Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem demonstrated a real desire for peace; Jordan had proved the same via a decades-long cease-fire. In contrast, there was very little evidence of a true Palestinian desire for peace. And while the plea to “give peace a chance” evidently suffices to muster a simple Knesset majority for just about anything, a two-thirds majority is hard to secure without evidence that peace is, in fact, likely to result.

Regrettably, the current bill would have prevented neither Oslo nor the disengagement: it applies only to territory that Israel has formally annexed (the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem), whereas it ought to cover all territorial concessions. But even in its current form, it would help prevent similarly disastrous final-status deals with either the Palestinians or Syria. Its enactment would therefore be an important step toward achieving real peace and security for Israel.

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Olmert the Etrog?

John wrote about this already, but I want to put in my two cents. Less than a day has passed since the Israeli Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Ehud Olmert’s bid to stay out of jail, by ruling that Israeli Police may take a deposition from the New York businessman who allegedly bribed him–and now we have the Prime Minister’s Office making a dramatic announcement that peace talks are under way with Syria.

Coincidence, you say? Unlikely. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister was the bizarre tendency for his criminal investigations to disappear from the public eye every time it seemed like he was about to do something that could be seen as leading to peace–especially the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It has become something of an open secret in Israel that both the justice system and journalists bend for its leaders’ peace initiatives, and that a peace-seeking Prime Minister becomes, in the words of one commentator, an “etrog”–a beautiful fruit that must be handled with care and protected at all cost.

But there is reason to think that what worked for Sharon will not work for Olmert. Sharon knew how to cultivate his image, and he was far more respected by both the Israeli elites and the general public than is Olmert, whose popularity has dropped way below even Sharon’s lowest point as Prime Minister. But more importantly, Sharon’s government was, by all appearances at the time, far more likely to pull off the disengagement from Gaza than Olmert is to sign a peace accord with Syria. First, disengagement was a unilateral move, whereas a treaty with Syria will require that the Assad regime abandon the central cause it has rallied around for a generation: War with Israel. Second, the Golan Heights, which would be the necessary price Israel would pay for any peace deal, is seen by a far greater number of Israelis as an inseparable part of the Jewish state than the Gaza strip ever was. And third, Sharon always carried with him the mystique of a man who can be counted on to follow through with his plans, regardless of whether you agreed with him; while Olmert has proven time and again the triviality of his promises.

The biggest reason, however, might come from the sea of police and justice officials who have been working on the most important criminal investigation of their lives. After massive leaks have suggested that an indictment is on its way, and Olmert has pledged to resign if indicted–maybe this ball has too much momentum to be stopped by the unlikely prospect of peace with a member of the Axis of Evil? Maybe the etrog has already fallen?

John wrote about this already, but I want to put in my two cents. Less than a day has passed since the Israeli Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Ehud Olmert’s bid to stay out of jail, by ruling that Israeli Police may take a deposition from the New York businessman who allegedly bribed him–and now we have the Prime Minister’s Office making a dramatic announcement that peace talks are under way with Syria.

Coincidence, you say? Unlikely. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister was the bizarre tendency for his criminal investigations to disappear from the public eye every time it seemed like he was about to do something that could be seen as leading to peace–especially the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It has become something of an open secret in Israel that both the justice system and journalists bend for its leaders’ peace initiatives, and that a peace-seeking Prime Minister becomes, in the words of one commentator, an “etrog”–a beautiful fruit that must be handled with care and protected at all cost.

But there is reason to think that what worked for Sharon will not work for Olmert. Sharon knew how to cultivate his image, and he was far more respected by both the Israeli elites and the general public than is Olmert, whose popularity has dropped way below even Sharon’s lowest point as Prime Minister. But more importantly, Sharon’s government was, by all appearances at the time, far more likely to pull off the disengagement from Gaza than Olmert is to sign a peace accord with Syria. First, disengagement was a unilateral move, whereas a treaty with Syria will require that the Assad regime abandon the central cause it has rallied around for a generation: War with Israel. Second, the Golan Heights, which would be the necessary price Israel would pay for any peace deal, is seen by a far greater number of Israelis as an inseparable part of the Jewish state than the Gaza strip ever was. And third, Sharon always carried with him the mystique of a man who can be counted on to follow through with his plans, regardless of whether you agreed with him; while Olmert has proven time and again the triviality of his promises.

The biggest reason, however, might come from the sea of police and justice officials who have been working on the most important criminal investigation of their lives. After massive leaks have suggested that an indictment is on its way, and Olmert has pledged to resign if indicted–maybe this ball has too much momentum to be stopped by the unlikely prospect of peace with a member of the Axis of Evil? Maybe the etrog has already fallen?

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No, It’s Not April Fools’ Day

The big story out of Israel today is that the government of Ehud Olmert is conducting informal talks with Syria in Turkey aimed at achieving a comprehensive settlement. Syria’s foreign minister claims a deal has already been struck to de-annex the Golan Heights and retrogress the area to Syria. The other big story is that Olmert is desperately trying to push off what appears to be his inevitable ouster from office on corruption charges by seeking a continuance of a deposition in an Israeli courtroom. The notion that the weakest government in Israel’s history, which really is nothing more than a house of cards at this point, will be able to present such a deal to the nation’s people at this moment of all moments is farcical at best and…farcical at worst.

The big story out of Israel today is that the government of Ehud Olmert is conducting informal talks with Syria in Turkey aimed at achieving a comprehensive settlement. Syria’s foreign minister claims a deal has already been struck to de-annex the Golan Heights and retrogress the area to Syria. The other big story is that Olmert is desperately trying to push off what appears to be his inevitable ouster from office on corruption charges by seeking a continuance of a deposition in an Israeli courtroom. The notion that the weakest government in Israel’s history, which really is nothing more than a house of cards at this point, will be able to present such a deal to the nation’s people at this moment of all moments is farcical at best and…farcical at worst.

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Assad’s “Full Reciprocity”

This week’s L’Espresso, one the most influential weekly publications in Italy, features an exclusive interview with Syrian dictator Bashar el Assad. Even as the interviewer makes his best effort to let Assad off the hook on just about every issue, Assad still manages to dismiss the assumption, made by many Westerners, that a wedge can be driven between Iran and Syria. Asked if Syria would renounce its alliance with Iran and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas in exchange for peace with Israel, Assad said that

It would be an absurd demand and there would be no more peace. How would Israel react if we demanded it breaks its relations with the United States? Negotiations must develop with regard to full reciprocity. Syria remains firmly persuaded that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah are terrorist organizations. For the simple reason that they do not kill civilians. They are movements that defend their own land. As for Iran, the answer is even more obvious. It is our old ally, there is no reason to turn our back to them.

Assad could not be clearer. In exchange for the Golan Heights, Israel would obtain a peace treaty that would add little to the present state of relations with Syria, without reducing the weight and clout of Iran and its proxies all around it. Not a deal worth pursuing.

This week’s L’Espresso, one the most influential weekly publications in Italy, features an exclusive interview with Syrian dictator Bashar el Assad. Even as the interviewer makes his best effort to let Assad off the hook on just about every issue, Assad still manages to dismiss the assumption, made by many Westerners, that a wedge can be driven between Iran and Syria. Asked if Syria would renounce its alliance with Iran and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas in exchange for peace with Israel, Assad said that

It would be an absurd demand and there would be no more peace. How would Israel react if we demanded it breaks its relations with the United States? Negotiations must develop with regard to full reciprocity. Syria remains firmly persuaded that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah are terrorist organizations. For the simple reason that they do not kill civilians. They are movements that defend their own land. As for Iran, the answer is even more obvious. It is our old ally, there is no reason to turn our back to them.

Assad could not be clearer. In exchange for the Golan Heights, Israel would obtain a peace treaty that would add little to the present state of relations with Syria, without reducing the weight and clout of Iran and its proxies all around it. Not a deal worth pursuing.

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Syriana

When anything of international importance happens in or around Syria, there predictably follows a salivating at the prospect of “flipping” the Assad regime — of a peace deal with Israel, a renaissance in relations with the U.S., and a Syria that abandons, finally, its role as the Grand Central Station of terrorism in the Levant. After Jimmy Carter’s visits to Damascus and with Hamas, and then the embarrassing disclosure last week of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear program, peace-processors everywhere again caught a case of Damascus fever, the only prescription for which is more diplomacy.

As Jimmy Carter wrote in the NYT, “Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has expressed eagerness to begin negotiations with Israel to end the impasse on the Golan Heights.” And the nuclear program? Daniel Levy thinks it was just a bargaining chip to be used in future peace talks — because that’s how badly Syria wants to get into the good graces of Israel and the U.S.

The timing of the White House’s release of intelligence about Israel’s airstrike — it happened on the same day that Syria disclosed it had been secretly negotiating with Israel by way of Turkey — fueled the idea that perhaps there was some kind of grand breakthrough in the making. And remember the Mugniyah assassination a couple of months ago? Maybe Assad pulled it off as a demonstration to the world that he is running the show in Damascus and can deal with Hezbollah and the Iranians if he wishes.

So why would Assad be talking to Israel about peace if he wasn’t serious about peace? There are an abundance of good reasons: to deflect international outrage over the disclosure of his nuclear program; to make his Iranian patron ever-so-slightly nervous and thus extract more favorable terms from Tehran; to undermine international unity on the Hariri tribunal (Daniel Levy, for example, has already called for “flexibility” on the tribunal in exchange for Syrian good behavior in other areas); to placate those in Washington who wish to return to the comparatively warmer relations of the 1990’s; to make credulous liberals swoon and fill their blogs and op-ed pages with hopeful predictions of a breakthrough (see links above). And, the overarching reason — because Assad finds himself under acute pressure. As David Schenker recently said on NPR, “These diplomatic signals of Syrian willingness for peace, they’re almost routine now — you can almost plot it on a graph. At moments of maximum pressure, the Syrians are always mentioning the idea of peace with Israel.”

If you take a moment and think about this situation from the perspective of Syria, you’ll quickly understand why no breakthrough is in the offing.

If you are Bashar Assad, you’re in the enviable position of being the only Arab ally of Iran, which you believe will soon be the greatest regional power, and a nuclear one. You were recently forced out of Lebanon, but your ally Hezbollah is still there, growing in power, ensuring your political influence today and your return in the future. You provide aid and safe haven to Hamas, which gives you a strong hand not only in thwarting America and Israel in the peace process, but in manipulating Palestinian violence. Your minority Allawite rule is bolstered by the state of emergency that has been in effect since Israel took the Golan Heights in 1967. The only real problems you have to weather are isolation from the U.S. and Israel and some impotent resentment from the Arab states — and once Iran goes nuclear, that Arab resentment will magically turn into obsequiousness.

If you’re Bashar Assad, why would you give up your alliance to the ascendant power in the Middle East and the connections to the terror groups that ensure your ability to dominate your neighbors? For nice words from the Americans? Barack Obama might be president soon, so you’ll probably get those anyway.

When anything of international importance happens in or around Syria, there predictably follows a salivating at the prospect of “flipping” the Assad regime — of a peace deal with Israel, a renaissance in relations with the U.S., and a Syria that abandons, finally, its role as the Grand Central Station of terrorism in the Levant. After Jimmy Carter’s visits to Damascus and with Hamas, and then the embarrassing disclosure last week of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear program, peace-processors everywhere again caught a case of Damascus fever, the only prescription for which is more diplomacy.

As Jimmy Carter wrote in the NYT, “Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has expressed eagerness to begin negotiations with Israel to end the impasse on the Golan Heights.” And the nuclear program? Daniel Levy thinks it was just a bargaining chip to be used in future peace talks — because that’s how badly Syria wants to get into the good graces of Israel and the U.S.

The timing of the White House’s release of intelligence about Israel’s airstrike — it happened on the same day that Syria disclosed it had been secretly negotiating with Israel by way of Turkey — fueled the idea that perhaps there was some kind of grand breakthrough in the making. And remember the Mugniyah assassination a couple of months ago? Maybe Assad pulled it off as a demonstration to the world that he is running the show in Damascus and can deal with Hezbollah and the Iranians if he wishes.

So why would Assad be talking to Israel about peace if he wasn’t serious about peace? There are an abundance of good reasons: to deflect international outrage over the disclosure of his nuclear program; to make his Iranian patron ever-so-slightly nervous and thus extract more favorable terms from Tehran; to undermine international unity on the Hariri tribunal (Daniel Levy, for example, has already called for “flexibility” on the tribunal in exchange for Syrian good behavior in other areas); to placate those in Washington who wish to return to the comparatively warmer relations of the 1990’s; to make credulous liberals swoon and fill their blogs and op-ed pages with hopeful predictions of a breakthrough (see links above). And, the overarching reason — because Assad finds himself under acute pressure. As David Schenker recently said on NPR, “These diplomatic signals of Syrian willingness for peace, they’re almost routine now — you can almost plot it on a graph. At moments of maximum pressure, the Syrians are always mentioning the idea of peace with Israel.”

If you take a moment and think about this situation from the perspective of Syria, you’ll quickly understand why no breakthrough is in the offing.

If you are Bashar Assad, you’re in the enviable position of being the only Arab ally of Iran, which you believe will soon be the greatest regional power, and a nuclear one. You were recently forced out of Lebanon, but your ally Hezbollah is still there, growing in power, ensuring your political influence today and your return in the future. You provide aid and safe haven to Hamas, which gives you a strong hand not only in thwarting America and Israel in the peace process, but in manipulating Palestinian violence. Your minority Allawite rule is bolstered by the state of emergency that has been in effect since Israel took the Golan Heights in 1967. The only real problems you have to weather are isolation from the U.S. and Israel and some impotent resentment from the Arab states — and once Iran goes nuclear, that Arab resentment will magically turn into obsequiousness.

If you’re Bashar Assad, why would you give up your alliance to the ascendant power in the Middle East and the connections to the terror groups that ensure your ability to dominate your neighbors? For nice words from the Americans? Barack Obama might be president soon, so you’ll probably get those anyway.

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“Occupation”?

In Ramallah yesterday President Bush declared there “should be an end to the [Israeli] occupation that began in 1967.”

Invoking the word “occupation,” which Israeli leaders have also used, strikes me as an odd and unhelpful thing. The West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, were lost in an Arab war of aggression against Israel–and yet the aggressor states took on the mantle of the aggrieved. This historical fact cannot be stressed often enough: Israel did not set out to conquer anything; it seized the land in a war of self-defense. And Israel ceded—at Camp David in 1979—more land in pursuit of peace than virtually any victor in history. Israel gave up more than 90 percent of the land, including oil-rich land, it won in a war in which it was not the aggressor state. Post-World War II Germany lost land compared to pre-World War II Germany—but Germans do not refer to that lost land as “occupied territory.” It lost the land in a war—and when you lose a war, you often lose land, and the claims on that land.

It’s worth adding that if Arab nations have such a deep, abiding interest in a Palestinian homeland, why didn’t they give them one when they could. During their 19-year rule (1948-1967) neither Jordan nor Egypt made any effort to establish a Palestinian state in either the West Bank or Gaza. No demands for a West Bank and Gaza independent state were heard until Israel took control of these areas in a defensive war for its survival.

This does not necessarily mean that Israel should not cede land in the West Bank; it might be in Israel’s interest to do such a thing, given the demographic and security realities it faces. But to keep referring to the West Bank as “occupied territory” perpetrates a myth—holds Israel to a double standard that is often used and always wrong.

In Ramallah yesterday President Bush declared there “should be an end to the [Israeli] occupation that began in 1967.”

Invoking the word “occupation,” which Israeli leaders have also used, strikes me as an odd and unhelpful thing. The West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, were lost in an Arab war of aggression against Israel–and yet the aggressor states took on the mantle of the aggrieved. This historical fact cannot be stressed often enough: Israel did not set out to conquer anything; it seized the land in a war of self-defense. And Israel ceded—at Camp David in 1979—more land in pursuit of peace than virtually any victor in history. Israel gave up more than 90 percent of the land, including oil-rich land, it won in a war in which it was not the aggressor state. Post-World War II Germany lost land compared to pre-World War II Germany—but Germans do not refer to that lost land as “occupied territory.” It lost the land in a war—and when you lose a war, you often lose land, and the claims on that land.

It’s worth adding that if Arab nations have such a deep, abiding interest in a Palestinian homeland, why didn’t they give them one when they could. During their 19-year rule (1948-1967) neither Jordan nor Egypt made any effort to establish a Palestinian state in either the West Bank or Gaza. No demands for a West Bank and Gaza independent state were heard until Israel took control of these areas in a defensive war for its survival.

This does not necessarily mean that Israel should not cede land in the West Bank; it might be in Israel’s interest to do such a thing, given the demographic and security realities it faces. But to keep referring to the West Bank as “occupied territory” perpetrates a myth—holds Israel to a double standard that is often used and always wrong.

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Schoenfeld vs. Sharansky

Natan Sharansky was in town yesterday and dropped by the offices of COMMENTARY– where I challenged him to a game of chess, thereby fulfilling a decades’ long dream. The trouble was, we did not have a chess set handy, which led him to remark that this meant that COMMENTARY was not a Jewish magazine. One of my colleagues ran out to the wonderful stationery store, Sam Flax, which agreed on the spot to sponsor the match and provided us with an odd but perfectly usable set.

During long years as a Soviet refusenik, and then a decade in the Gulag on the trumped-up crime of treason, Sharansky had a lot of time to ponder the fine points of the royal game. As the New York Times reported, “he had little time for chess during his dissident years in the Soviet Union, but he recovered his skills in prison, where he said he spent the long days in solitary confinement playing three simultaneous games in his mind.” Sharansky told the newspaper, “I played thousands of games, and I won them all.”

In Russia, he had earned the title of candidate master, which is equivalent to the rank of American master. The latter is the title I earned in 1989, the last year in which I played a game of competitive chess. Sharansky has played twice against the former world champion Garry Kasparov, emerging with one draw and one victory, an excellent score for an amateur even considering that both games took place at exhibitions in which Kasparov was playing multiple players simultaneously.

Lately, however, Sharansky has devoted most of his time to preventing the state of Israel from (to use chess lingo) sacrificing its pieces without adequate compensation. And so his chess, though strong, may not be as strong as it once was. When we sat down to play, I had little idea what I would be up against.

In our first game, playing black, Sharansky responded to 1.e4 with the ultra-aggressive Schliemann Defense in the Ruy Lopez. Unfortunately, I fell into a trap and the game was over in a mere seven moves, a humiliation for Connecting the Dots akin to the Arab defeat in the Six-Day war, and one that cried out for another round.

In our second game, I had the black pieces. I steered into one of my favorite lines of the rock-solid Caro-Kann. Before too long, I was able to exchange off some of Sharansky’s most actively placed pieces and then I managed to win one of his central pawns, obtaining a very strong position. On his 24th move, Sharansky made a blunder and gave up a second pawn. The game was now all but won.

But my opponent proved to be nothing if not resourceful, and unfortunately, through inaccurate play, I helped him along. As I pushed my pawns forward he managed to maneuver his rooks onto the seventh rank, whereupon I agreed (prematurely, it turns out) to a draw. At a score of 1/2 to 1 1/2, I ended up with the same result against Sharansky that Garry Kasparov had obtained against him, a score that left me immensely satisfied that I had been able to lay a finger on this remarkable Russian, Israeli, Jewish hero.

GAME 1

Schoenfeld vs. Sharansky

Ruy Lopez

1.e4 e5

2.Nf3 Nc6

3.Bb5 f5

4.Bxc6 dxc6

5.Nxe5 fxe4

6.Nc3 Nf6

7.0–0??

chess-pic-1b.jpg

POSITION AFTER 7.0-0??

White walks right into a trap and the game is over. I should have resigned immediately after Sharanksy’s next move, but was too stunned by the sudden turn of events.

7… Qd4

8.Re1 Qxe5

9.Nxe4 Nxe4

10.d3 Bf5

11.dxe4 Bg6

and realizing, belatedly, that I was lost, I resigned.

0–1

 

GAME 2

Sharansky vs. Schoenfeld

Caro-Kann

1.e4 c6

2.d4 d5

3.Nc3 dxe4

4.Nxe4 Nd7

5.Nf3 Ngf6

6.Ng3 e6

7.Bd3 Bd6

8.0–0 Qc7

9.c4 0–0

10.c5 Be7

11.Re1 b6

12.b4 a5

13.cxb6 Qxb6

14.bxa5 Rxa5

15.Bd2 Ra8

16.Qc2 Ba6

17.Bxa6 Qxa6

18.Ne5 c5

19.Nxd7 Nxd7

20.d5?

Akin to pulling out of Gaza. This gives up a pawn without compensation.

20… Bf6

21.Bc3

If 21.dxe6 Bxa1 22.exd7 Qxa2 23.Qxa2 Rxa2 24.Bg5 f6 25.Bf4 Be5 26.Bxe5 fxe5 27.Rxe5 Ra1+ 28.Nf1 Rd1 and white is up the exchange for a pawn in a winning endgame.

21… Qc4

22.Rec1 Qxc3

23.Qxc3 Bxc3

24.Rxc3 exd5

Black’s imposing central pawns give him a powerful advantage.

25.Nf5 Rfe8

26.a4??

Sharansky is momentarily distracted and drops a pawn after I explain to him that at Annapolis Olmert has just yielded the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem in exchange for the right to shake hands with the Saudi deputy foreign minister.

26… Rxa4

27.Rd1 d4

28.Rf3 Ne5

29.Rg3 g6

30.Nd6 Re6

31.Ne4 Rc6

32.f4 Nc4

33.Ng5 f5?

Unnecessary. Better to proceed simply with the attack via 33. Ne3.

34.Nf3 Ne3

35.Rc1 d3

36.Nd2 Ra2

37.Rxe3 Rxd2

38.Re7 Rc2?

Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, I make the worst move on the board, giving white a draw. Far better is 38…Rb6 39.Ra1 Rb8 40.h3 Re2, and black runs out of threats.

39.Ra1 Rc8

40.Raa7 Re2

41.Rg7+ Kf8

42.Raf7+ Ke8

43.Rd7??

chess-pic-2b.jpg

POSITION AFTER 43. Rd7??

A disastrous comedy of errors. Sharansky would have had a simple draw by repetition after 43.Rb7. But my own play is even worse since I now offer a draw in a won position. 43…d2! wins.

1/2-1/2

Natan Sharansky was in town yesterday and dropped by the offices of COMMENTARY– where I challenged him to a game of chess, thereby fulfilling a decades’ long dream. The trouble was, we did not have a chess set handy, which led him to remark that this meant that COMMENTARY was not a Jewish magazine. One of my colleagues ran out to the wonderful stationery store, Sam Flax, which agreed on the spot to sponsor the match and provided us with an odd but perfectly usable set.

During long years as a Soviet refusenik, and then a decade in the Gulag on the trumped-up crime of treason, Sharansky had a lot of time to ponder the fine points of the royal game. As the New York Times reported, “he had little time for chess during his dissident years in the Soviet Union, but he recovered his skills in prison, where he said he spent the long days in solitary confinement playing three simultaneous games in his mind.” Sharansky told the newspaper, “I played thousands of games, and I won them all.”

In Russia, he had earned the title of candidate master, which is equivalent to the rank of American master. The latter is the title I earned in 1989, the last year in which I played a game of competitive chess. Sharansky has played twice against the former world champion Garry Kasparov, emerging with one draw and one victory, an excellent score for an amateur even considering that both games took place at exhibitions in which Kasparov was playing multiple players simultaneously.

Lately, however, Sharansky has devoted most of his time to preventing the state of Israel from (to use chess lingo) sacrificing its pieces without adequate compensation. And so his chess, though strong, may not be as strong as it once was. When we sat down to play, I had little idea what I would be up against.

In our first game, playing black, Sharansky responded to 1.e4 with the ultra-aggressive Schliemann Defense in the Ruy Lopez. Unfortunately, I fell into a trap and the game was over in a mere seven moves, a humiliation for Connecting the Dots akin to the Arab defeat in the Six-Day war, and one that cried out for another round.

In our second game, I had the black pieces. I steered into one of my favorite lines of the rock-solid Caro-Kann. Before too long, I was able to exchange off some of Sharansky’s most actively placed pieces and then I managed to win one of his central pawns, obtaining a very strong position. On his 24th move, Sharansky made a blunder and gave up a second pawn. The game was now all but won.

But my opponent proved to be nothing if not resourceful, and unfortunately, through inaccurate play, I helped him along. As I pushed my pawns forward he managed to maneuver his rooks onto the seventh rank, whereupon I agreed (prematurely, it turns out) to a draw. At a score of 1/2 to 1 1/2, I ended up with the same result against Sharansky that Garry Kasparov had obtained against him, a score that left me immensely satisfied that I had been able to lay a finger on this remarkable Russian, Israeli, Jewish hero.

GAME 1

Schoenfeld vs. Sharansky

Ruy Lopez

1.e4 e5

2.Nf3 Nc6

3.Bb5 f5

4.Bxc6 dxc6

5.Nxe5 fxe4

6.Nc3 Nf6

7.0–0??

chess-pic-1b.jpg

POSITION AFTER 7.0-0??

White walks right into a trap and the game is over. I should have resigned immediately after Sharanksy’s next move, but was too stunned by the sudden turn of events.

7… Qd4

8.Re1 Qxe5

9.Nxe4 Nxe4

10.d3 Bf5

11.dxe4 Bg6

and realizing, belatedly, that I was lost, I resigned.

0–1

 

GAME 2

Sharansky vs. Schoenfeld

Caro-Kann

1.e4 c6

2.d4 d5

3.Nc3 dxe4

4.Nxe4 Nd7

5.Nf3 Ngf6

6.Ng3 e6

7.Bd3 Bd6

8.0–0 Qc7

9.c4 0–0

10.c5 Be7

11.Re1 b6

12.b4 a5

13.cxb6 Qxb6

14.bxa5 Rxa5

15.Bd2 Ra8

16.Qc2 Ba6

17.Bxa6 Qxa6

18.Ne5 c5

19.Nxd7 Nxd7

20.d5?

Akin to pulling out of Gaza. This gives up a pawn without compensation.

20… Bf6

21.Bc3

If 21.dxe6 Bxa1 22.exd7 Qxa2 23.Qxa2 Rxa2 24.Bg5 f6 25.Bf4 Be5 26.Bxe5 fxe5 27.Rxe5 Ra1+ 28.Nf1 Rd1 and white is up the exchange for a pawn in a winning endgame.

21… Qc4

22.Rec1 Qxc3

23.Qxc3 Bxc3

24.Rxc3 exd5

Black’s imposing central pawns give him a powerful advantage.

25.Nf5 Rfe8

26.a4??

Sharansky is momentarily distracted and drops a pawn after I explain to him that at Annapolis Olmert has just yielded the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem in exchange for the right to shake hands with the Saudi deputy foreign minister.

26… Rxa4

27.Rd1 d4

28.Rf3 Ne5

29.Rg3 g6

30.Nd6 Re6

31.Ne4 Rc6

32.f4 Nc4

33.Ng5 f5?

Unnecessary. Better to proceed simply with the attack via 33. Ne3.

34.Nf3 Ne3

35.Rc1 d3

36.Nd2 Ra2

37.Rxe3 Rxd2

38.Re7 Rc2?

Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, I make the worst move on the board, giving white a draw. Far better is 38…Rb6 39.Ra1 Rb8 40.h3 Re2, and black runs out of threats.

39.Ra1 Rc8

40.Raa7 Re2

41.Rg7+ Kf8

42.Raf7+ Ke8

43.Rd7??

chess-pic-2b.jpg

POSITION AFTER 43. Rd7??

A disastrous comedy of errors. Sharansky would have had a simple draw by repetition after 43.Rb7. But my own play is even worse since I now offer a draw in a won position. 43…d2! wins.

1/2-1/2

Read Less




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