Commentary Magazine


Topic: Istanbul

Awarding Olympics to Istanbul Would Discourage Reform

I have written before about the International Olympic Committee’s fast approaching decision about which city to award the 2020 Summer Olympics. There are three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo. At the core of my initial criticism was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was framing Turkey’s right to host the Olympics in terms of religion: Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country to host the games. That would have set a negative precedent in which religious quotas rather than other host qualities become a predominant factor. Regardless, the point should be moot for other reasons: Dubai is the front runner for 2024 and is also majority Muslim, but unlike Turkey, its ruler has not framed the city’s bid in religion.

I also admittedly have been cynical about Erdoğan’s broader motivation: according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the prime minister has used his position to amass great wealth. The billions in construction contracts that would accompany an Istanbul Olympics could propel Erdoğan—a man who already has more than a dozen corruption cases against him—into the ranks of the world’s richest man.

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I have written before about the International Olympic Committee’s fast approaching decision about which city to award the 2020 Summer Olympics. There are three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo. At the core of my initial criticism was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was framing Turkey’s right to host the Olympics in terms of religion: Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country to host the games. That would have set a negative precedent in which religious quotas rather than other host qualities become a predominant factor. Regardless, the point should be moot for other reasons: Dubai is the front runner for 2024 and is also majority Muslim, but unlike Turkey, its ruler has not framed the city’s bid in religion.

I also admittedly have been cynical about Erdoğan’s broader motivation: according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the prime minister has used his position to amass great wealth. The billions in construction contracts that would accompany an Istanbul Olympics could propel Erdoğan—a man who already has more than a dozen corruption cases against him—into the ranks of the world’s richest man.

When I criticized Istanbul’s case, however, on Erdoğan’s illiberal policies, correspondents pointed out that the International Olympic Committee has never associated the hosting of the Olympics with an endorsement of any particular country’s human rights situation. That’s true historically, as the 1936 Berlin, 1980 Moscow, and 2008 Beijing games demonstrate, and it is also the case with regard to the 2014 Sochi winter games and the Dubai 2024 bid. But in the post-Cold War era, there has also been an undercurrent that the Olympics might improve society or encourage continued liberalization. That certainly was a factor in the Beijing award.

Alas, as the IOC’s September 2013 decision looms about the 2020 Games, they should recognize that, in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, confirming the 2020 Olympics on Istanbul could do serious harm to Turkey. Rather than recognize that the protests are largely a reaction to his own autocratic style, Erdoğan has doubled down on both his own intolerance, endorsement of police brutality, and bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracies. No longer, it seems, is the “Interest Rate Lobby,” as Erdoğan now labels his imagined Jewish conspiracy, just targeting Turkey. Rather, it has Brazil in its sites as well. Nor are the Jews the only conspirators with which Erdoğan now obsesses: On August 5, a judiciary whose independence Erdoğan has eroded will render judgment against dozens of former military officers, journalists, and other officials whom Erdoğan has patched together in a convoluted conspiracy that doesn’t pass the most basic of smell tests. To cap it off, rather than investigate the police abuse which helped sparked Turkey’s recent unrest, Erdoğan has endorsed it.

Turkey is in a fragile state: The Gezi protests have exposed long-simmering fissures which will only worsen if Erdoğan can use the 2020 Olympics as his excuse to bulldoze over political opponents and civil society. Nor are the Kurdish peace talks going well. While Turks celebrated a peace process announced with the long-outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) just two days before the International Olympic Committee’s official visit to Istanbul, both Turks and Kurds are beginning to recognize that the agreement was not just for the PKK to lay down its arms, but that the PKK seeks equally momentous decisions on Turkey’s end, including the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and eventual confederation between Turks and Kurds inside Turkey. If the Turks are not prepared to meet such demands, violence could return to Turkey in the run-up to the Olympics. Istanbul, after all, is now the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world.

Someday Istanbul will host the Olympics, and it will do so with a charm and a friendliness that few other cosmopolitan cities can match. That day cannot come during Erdoğan’s tenure, however, for should the International Olympic Committee choose Istanbul when they meet in Buenos Aires on September 7, they will ensure that the 2020 Olympics will be associated with strife, not celebration.

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A Consequential Event, a Tectonic Shift, a Silent President

Elliott Abrams writes that Hezbollah’s power grab in Lebanon is a “consequential event” — reflecting the continuing reduction of American influence in the Middle East as Iranian influence continues to rise:

The last straw may have been the decision to send an ambassador to Syria by recess appointment despite the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm the Administration’s candidate. That foolish gesture must have indicated to the Syrians and to Hizballah that the Administration had learned nothing from two years of insults and rebuffs by Damascus.

It is not clear that the administration has learned anything either from two years of insults and rebuffs by Iran. Iran deigns to take a meeting in Istanbul: the Minutes of the prior meeting 15 months ago are read and approved; Iran refuses to discuss any New Business unless sanctions are ended; the meeting ends without scheduling another one. A Turkish nuclear expert says the walkout means Iran is going to ride out the sanctions, which no one describes as “crippling.” Bad Rachel has a devastating summary of Obama’s “efforts to force engagement down the throats of our enemies.”

Boker tov, Boulder! has an illustrated round-up, with a comment by Mannie Sherberg that Lebanon may signal a “tectonic shift” in Middle East politics — with “much more quivering and quaking in Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt” than Israel:

Throughout modern history, we in the West have assumed that the Middle East was — and would remain — a Sunni region of the world with a small and insignificant minority of Shi’ites. That changed, of course, in 1979, but even then — with the single exception of Iran — the Middle East remained predominantly Sunni. Suddenly, with Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon, it and Iran — with a compliant Syria in-between — make up a very large chunk of the Middle East. … With Tunisia facing a very uncertain future, and with Egypt on the brink of what could be radical change, the next few years could see unimaginable turmoil in the Muslim world.

Barry Rubin writes that it is a very sad day for the Middle East and Western interests:

What do you think the rest of the region is going to take away from this? America cannot or will not protect you. Islamism and Iran are the wave of the future. Submit or die. And that’s even before Tehran gets nuclear weapons. The way things are going, maybe Iran doesn’t even need them.

And where is the United States? Asleep. … An American government that will put all of its resources into preventing the construction of apartment buildings in east Jerusalem can barely be roused to prevent the construction of an Islamist-dominated state in a country of tremendous strategic significance.

In a one-hour, 7,000-word speech to Congress and the nation last night, President Obama devoted one sentence to Iran, saying that because of a “diplomatic effort,” it now faces “tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions than ever before.” In last year’s speech, he emphatically promised “growing consequences” if Iran continued to ignore its obligations. Last night, he made no such promise.

About Lebanon, he had nothing to say.

Elliott Abrams writes that Hezbollah’s power grab in Lebanon is a “consequential event” — reflecting the continuing reduction of American influence in the Middle East as Iranian influence continues to rise:

The last straw may have been the decision to send an ambassador to Syria by recess appointment despite the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm the Administration’s candidate. That foolish gesture must have indicated to the Syrians and to Hizballah that the Administration had learned nothing from two years of insults and rebuffs by Damascus.

It is not clear that the administration has learned anything either from two years of insults and rebuffs by Iran. Iran deigns to take a meeting in Istanbul: the Minutes of the prior meeting 15 months ago are read and approved; Iran refuses to discuss any New Business unless sanctions are ended; the meeting ends without scheduling another one. A Turkish nuclear expert says the walkout means Iran is going to ride out the sanctions, which no one describes as “crippling.” Bad Rachel has a devastating summary of Obama’s “efforts to force engagement down the throats of our enemies.”

Boker tov, Boulder! has an illustrated round-up, with a comment by Mannie Sherberg that Lebanon may signal a “tectonic shift” in Middle East politics — with “much more quivering and quaking in Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt” than Israel:

Throughout modern history, we in the West have assumed that the Middle East was — and would remain — a Sunni region of the world with a small and insignificant minority of Shi’ites. That changed, of course, in 1979, but even then — with the single exception of Iran — the Middle East remained predominantly Sunni. Suddenly, with Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon, it and Iran — with a compliant Syria in-between — make up a very large chunk of the Middle East. … With Tunisia facing a very uncertain future, and with Egypt on the brink of what could be radical change, the next few years could see unimaginable turmoil in the Muslim world.

Barry Rubin writes that it is a very sad day for the Middle East and Western interests:

What do you think the rest of the region is going to take away from this? America cannot or will not protect you. Islamism and Iran are the wave of the future. Submit or die. And that’s even before Tehran gets nuclear weapons. The way things are going, maybe Iran doesn’t even need them.

And where is the United States? Asleep. … An American government that will put all of its resources into preventing the construction of apartment buildings in east Jerusalem can barely be roused to prevent the construction of an Islamist-dominated state in a country of tremendous strategic significance.

In a one-hour, 7,000-word speech to Congress and the nation last night, President Obama devoted one sentence to Iran, saying that because of a “diplomatic effort,” it now faces “tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions than ever before.” In last year’s speech, he emphatically promised “growing consequences” if Iran continued to ignore its obligations. Last night, he made no such promise.

About Lebanon, he had nothing to say.

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Morning Commentary

On Saturday, P5+1 officials will meet with Iranian leaders to push them to ensure that their nuclear program is peaceful. But it looks like Iran is doing everything in its power not to cooperate: “Iran, however, is coming to Turkey offering no signs that it is willing to respect United Nations Security Council resolutions and suspend its production of nuclear fuel. ‘There is nothing to discuss’ about Iran’s nuclear program, an Iranian official said. ‘In Istanbul, we will speak about something else.’”

The day after President Hu Jintao was honored with a State Dinner by President Obama, the Chinese leader met privately with lawmakers who pressed him on China’s poor record on human rights: “Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emerged Thursday from his huddle with Hu optimistic and hopeful on all fronts, suggesting a major breakthrough had occurred in Hu’s recognition that his nation had a subpar human rights record and that key progress was made in making China engage other nations.”

Richard Falk, the UN’s Palestine investigator, once again came out as a supporter of the 9/11 “Truth movement” on his blog last week (he’s been making “truther” statements since 2004). UN Watch is now calling on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to fire Falk, especially in light of Ki-moon’s condemnation of Ahmadinejad for endorsing similar theories: “The effect of Mr. Falk’s conspiracy-mongering is to deny and excuse the terrorist acts committed by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It insults the memories of those who perished on 9/11, and deeply offends their families and loved ones — as well as all decent men and women worldwide. Mr. Falk’s repulsive comments violate UNHRC Resolution 5/2, which require U.N. experts to uphold the highest standards of integrity, probity, and good faith. Indeed, they shame the United Nations.”

Rep. Steve Cohen should probably avoid making any more public statements for the next few days, because he just keeps digging himself into a bigger hole. Cohen, who compared Republicans to Nazis earlier this week, apologized that his words are being used as a “distraction” by his political opponents, in a statement he released yesterday afternoon: “It is disappointing that my comments have been used to distract from the health care reform debate. It is my hope that we can return our focus to the matter at hand — health care for 32 million Americans.”

On the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural, Mike Pence talked to National Review about how the former president inspired him: “Reagan is the reason I’m a Republican. … I was active in local Democratic politics when I was a teenager in Columbus, Indiana. Then I started to hear the voice of a B-movie actor, turned governor, turned candidate. He gave voice to the ideals and values that I was raised to believe in.”

On Saturday, P5+1 officials will meet with Iranian leaders to push them to ensure that their nuclear program is peaceful. But it looks like Iran is doing everything in its power not to cooperate: “Iran, however, is coming to Turkey offering no signs that it is willing to respect United Nations Security Council resolutions and suspend its production of nuclear fuel. ‘There is nothing to discuss’ about Iran’s nuclear program, an Iranian official said. ‘In Istanbul, we will speak about something else.’”

The day after President Hu Jintao was honored with a State Dinner by President Obama, the Chinese leader met privately with lawmakers who pressed him on China’s poor record on human rights: “Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emerged Thursday from his huddle with Hu optimistic and hopeful on all fronts, suggesting a major breakthrough had occurred in Hu’s recognition that his nation had a subpar human rights record and that key progress was made in making China engage other nations.”

Richard Falk, the UN’s Palestine investigator, once again came out as a supporter of the 9/11 “Truth movement” on his blog last week (he’s been making “truther” statements since 2004). UN Watch is now calling on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to fire Falk, especially in light of Ki-moon’s condemnation of Ahmadinejad for endorsing similar theories: “The effect of Mr. Falk’s conspiracy-mongering is to deny and excuse the terrorist acts committed by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It insults the memories of those who perished on 9/11, and deeply offends their families and loved ones — as well as all decent men and women worldwide. Mr. Falk’s repulsive comments violate UNHRC Resolution 5/2, which require U.N. experts to uphold the highest standards of integrity, probity, and good faith. Indeed, they shame the United Nations.”

Rep. Steve Cohen should probably avoid making any more public statements for the next few days, because he just keeps digging himself into a bigger hole. Cohen, who compared Republicans to Nazis earlier this week, apologized that his words are being used as a “distraction” by his political opponents, in a statement he released yesterday afternoon: “It is disappointing that my comments have been used to distract from the health care reform debate. It is my hope that we can return our focus to the matter at hand — health care for 32 million Americans.”

On the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural, Mike Pence talked to National Review about how the former president inspired him: “Reagan is the reason I’m a Republican. … I was active in local Democratic politics when I was a teenager in Columbus, Indiana. Then I started to hear the voice of a B-movie actor, turned governor, turned candidate. He gave voice to the ideals and values that I was raised to believe in.”

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Blood Libel: The Sequel

Claire Berlinski’s must-read article in the September issue of Standpoint describes how the overwhelming majority of Turks have no idea what really happened earlier this year aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel, where an Israeli boarding party enforcing the blockade of Gaza was ambushed in a premeditated attack with knives and iron bars.

She canvassed Istanbul — where she lives — with a Turkish documentary filmmaker and interviewed a number of local people about that now-notorious incident. None knew the Israelis acted in self-defense when they shot their attackers.

“The men and women to whom we spoke,” she wrote, “were astonished when we told them that Israeli officials had invited the ship to disembark at Ashdod and deliver the aid overland. But they were not disbelieving — and importantly, when we told them this, it changed their view. Many spontaneously said that they knew they could not trust what they heard in the news, that the situation confused them and that something about the story just didn’t sound right.”

Unfortunately, few Turks will ever know what really happened that night. The Turkish media reported a grossly distorted version of the events, describing the attackers as “activists” and the Israelis who fought back as murderers. Most Turks can’t read or speak foreign languages and are therefore unable to learn the truth from newspapers abroad.

A new Turkish film may make the big lie all but permanent in the minds of millions of Turkish people. Kurtlar Vadisi Filistin, or Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, is the sequel to the notorious Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, which was released in 2006. The first installment portrays American soldiers massacring civilians at an Iraqi wedding party and harvesting the internal organs of prisoners to sell to Israelis.

The trailer for the second installment begins with an obviously false portrayal of the Mavi Marmara incident, and a later scene shows Israeli soldiers shooting more than a dozen handcuffed prisoners in the back.

The film’s main character is a Turkish special agent who sets out to avenge those killed on the boat by assassinating the Israeli commander in charge at the time, who is cartoonishly outfitted with an eye patch. “Our hero acts for the rights of the oppressed,” says Zübeyr Sasmaz, the director. “We’re talking about things people don’t want to hear,” says Necati Şaşmaz, one of the actors. “Up until now we have seen only Western heroes such as Rambo and James Bond. For the first time in the history of cinema there is an undefeatable protagonist from the Middle East.”

It’s too bad the story is based on a lie.

The first film in this libelous series was the most expensive ever produced in the country, and this one is slated to cost even more. It’s sure to be a big hit. Hopefully, the Turkish documentary filmmaker Clair Berlinski is working with can push back a little, at least.

Claire Berlinski’s must-read article in the September issue of Standpoint describes how the overwhelming majority of Turks have no idea what really happened earlier this year aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel, where an Israeli boarding party enforcing the blockade of Gaza was ambushed in a premeditated attack with knives and iron bars.

She canvassed Istanbul — where she lives — with a Turkish documentary filmmaker and interviewed a number of local people about that now-notorious incident. None knew the Israelis acted in self-defense when they shot their attackers.

“The men and women to whom we spoke,” she wrote, “were astonished when we told them that Israeli officials had invited the ship to disembark at Ashdod and deliver the aid overland. But they were not disbelieving — and importantly, when we told them this, it changed their view. Many spontaneously said that they knew they could not trust what they heard in the news, that the situation confused them and that something about the story just didn’t sound right.”

Unfortunately, few Turks will ever know what really happened that night. The Turkish media reported a grossly distorted version of the events, describing the attackers as “activists” and the Israelis who fought back as murderers. Most Turks can’t read or speak foreign languages and are therefore unable to learn the truth from newspapers abroad.

A new Turkish film may make the big lie all but permanent in the minds of millions of Turkish people. Kurtlar Vadisi Filistin, or Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, is the sequel to the notorious Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, which was released in 2006. The first installment portrays American soldiers massacring civilians at an Iraqi wedding party and harvesting the internal organs of prisoners to sell to Israelis.

The trailer for the second installment begins with an obviously false portrayal of the Mavi Marmara incident, and a later scene shows Israeli soldiers shooting more than a dozen handcuffed prisoners in the back.

The film’s main character is a Turkish special agent who sets out to avenge those killed on the boat by assassinating the Israeli commander in charge at the time, who is cartoonishly outfitted with an eye patch. “Our hero acts for the rights of the oppressed,” says Zübeyr Sasmaz, the director. “We’re talking about things people don’t want to hear,” says Necati Şaşmaz, one of the actors. “Up until now we have seen only Western heroes such as Rambo and James Bond. For the first time in the history of cinema there is an undefeatable protagonist from the Middle East.”

It’s too bad the story is based on a lie.

The first film in this libelous series was the most expensive ever produced in the country, and this one is slated to cost even more. It’s sure to be a big hit. Hopefully, the Turkish documentary filmmaker Clair Berlinski is working with can push back a little, at least.

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Turkish Move More Evidence That Iran Sanctions Are Futile

The Associated Press is reporting that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to “triple” his country’s trade with Iran in the next five years. Erdogan told a Turkish-Iranian business forum in Istanbul today that his nation plans to buy more natural gas from Iran and will help export that commodity to Europe while lowering tariffs and quotas to boost business with Iranian banks. But, lest we think that Erdogan is doing the ayatollahs this service merely for the honor of helping the Islamic Republic, the Iranians are paying a price for the Turks’ help. According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Tehran is “donating” a cool $25 million to the re-election fund of Erdogan’s Justice and Development party.

The latter point is certainly bad news for the Turks who see Erdogan’s Islamic party tightening its grip on the reins of power in Ankara and undermining the country’s secular traditions. But it is even worse news for President Obama and others in the West, who insist that sanctions and hard-nosed diplomacy will convince the Iranians to abandon their drive for nuclear capability. With Turkey preparing to act not only as a friend to the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime but also as its business agent, thus circumventing any sanctions by the United Nations and European Union, any hope that economic pressure will convince the Islamist dictatorship to relent must now be seen as utterly futile. So long as neighboring Turkey is prepared to give it an outlet to the world, it will be impossible to isolate Iran.

This means that if Barack Obama is truly serious about his pledge not to allow Iran to go nuclear, he’s going to have to tell the Iranians that the military option is, at the very least, on the table. If not, then Obama is more or less telegraphing Ahmadinejad that he will stand by and watch as Iranian nukes pose an existential threat to Israel and undermine the stability of the entire Middle East.

While Obama wasted a year foolishly trying to “engage” Iran, the Islamist regime brutally repressed domestic critics and forged a strategic alliance with NATO’s only Islamic member nation. Even though Washington has appeared to wake up to the reality of Iran’s ill intentions in the last year, the result of Obama’s feckless diplomacy — whose only tangible result is weak sanctions by the United Nations at which Iran laughs — is a situation where Iran and its terrorist allies Hamas and Hezbollah are stronger than ever.

It may not be too late for the U.S. to implement a tough policy on Iran that could force it to rethink its arrogant stand, if the administration were prepared to draw the proper conclusions from recent events and act accordingly. But Obama has convinced the Iranians that he is a weak leader whose demands and warnings needn’t be heeded. Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue that they are wrong about that.

The Associated Press is reporting that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to “triple” his country’s trade with Iran in the next five years. Erdogan told a Turkish-Iranian business forum in Istanbul today that his nation plans to buy more natural gas from Iran and will help export that commodity to Europe while lowering tariffs and quotas to boost business with Iranian banks. But, lest we think that Erdogan is doing the ayatollahs this service merely for the honor of helping the Islamic Republic, the Iranians are paying a price for the Turks’ help. According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Tehran is “donating” a cool $25 million to the re-election fund of Erdogan’s Justice and Development party.

The latter point is certainly bad news for the Turks who see Erdogan’s Islamic party tightening its grip on the reins of power in Ankara and undermining the country’s secular traditions. But it is even worse news for President Obama and others in the West, who insist that sanctions and hard-nosed diplomacy will convince the Iranians to abandon their drive for nuclear capability. With Turkey preparing to act not only as a friend to the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime but also as its business agent, thus circumventing any sanctions by the United Nations and European Union, any hope that economic pressure will convince the Islamist dictatorship to relent must now be seen as utterly futile. So long as neighboring Turkey is prepared to give it an outlet to the world, it will be impossible to isolate Iran.

This means that if Barack Obama is truly serious about his pledge not to allow Iran to go nuclear, he’s going to have to tell the Iranians that the military option is, at the very least, on the table. If not, then Obama is more or less telegraphing Ahmadinejad that he will stand by and watch as Iranian nukes pose an existential threat to Israel and undermine the stability of the entire Middle East.

While Obama wasted a year foolishly trying to “engage” Iran, the Islamist regime brutally repressed domestic critics and forged a strategic alliance with NATO’s only Islamic member nation. Even though Washington has appeared to wake up to the reality of Iran’s ill intentions in the last year, the result of Obama’s feckless diplomacy — whose only tangible result is weak sanctions by the United Nations at which Iran laughs — is a situation where Iran and its terrorist allies Hamas and Hezbollah are stronger than ever.

It may not be too late for the U.S. to implement a tough policy on Iran that could force it to rethink its arrogant stand, if the administration were prepared to draw the proper conclusions from recent events and act accordingly. But Obama has convinced the Iranians that he is a weak leader whose demands and warnings needn’t be heeded. Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue that they are wrong about that.

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Riding the Rails

The success of certain sanctions on Iran will always depend on the cooperation of Iran’s neighbors as to their enforcement. Major railway developments in 2010 are aligning to present Turkey and Pakistan, in particular, with decision points in that regard. With cargo and passengers moving in both directions, Iran’s reach in support of terrorists has the prospect of being significantly extended as well.

Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have been working on a continuous railway link since 2007. Variously known as the Istanbul-Islamabad line or the “Zahedan corridor” — for the hub transits in Iran — the link was completed in mid-2009. With the three nations planning to inaugurate regular passenger and freight service on August 1, the obvious questions are whether the security arrangements in Turkey and Pakistan will reflect the intent of the UN sanctions, and whether they will be brokered with transparent honesty.

Turkey has a heavily-trafficked railway link to Europe as well as domestic concerns about the Kurdish insurgency. The Turks are certain to exercise a high level of vigilance over passengers and cargo at their borders. But that doesn’t mean they will enforce UN sanctions in brokering cargo passage to Iran, nor does it mean they will interdict shipments from Iran destined for Syria (and, ultimately, for Hezbollah). Indeed, light cargo can be transported to Syria with particular ease now, rail service having been restarted between Mersin, Turkey, and Aleppo in June 2010. An additional transport hub is scheduled to open in December between Gaziantep, Turkey, and Aleppo — this one linked with a new rail service between Turkey and Iraq that transits through northern Syria.

On the Pakistani side, railway security will operate according to Islamabad’s domestic priorities; the primary effort will be interdicting foreign support to internal insurgencies. If the Pakistani authorities don’t act as reliable enforcement agents, it won’t be difficult (although it will probably be expensive) to move UN-prohibited cargo to Iran through Pakistani ports and the national rail system. Moreover, given the extent of the emerging rail network — by which passengers will be able to move continuously on rail between Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan –terrorist operatives will have the ability to travel more directly and conveniently than by sea, but still avoid the international law-enforcement vulnerability of commercial air travel.

Iran’s options for evading sanctions are many; it has three other long borders besides the one on the Persian Gulf. Russia’s trade access to Iran across the Caspian Sea has long given Moscow a central position in multilateral negotiations with the mullahs. But with the new rail service joining Turkey and Pakistan, Iran will have a modern, convenient transport option that doesn’t involve Russia. On the Pakistani end, the influence of the EU will be less of a factor than it is with Turkey — and the useful “cover” of a thriving regular trade with China will be more important. For both Iran’s nuclear program and Islamist terror logistics, much will shortly depend on how Ankara and Islamabad handle security and law enforcement on the rails.

The success of certain sanctions on Iran will always depend on the cooperation of Iran’s neighbors as to their enforcement. Major railway developments in 2010 are aligning to present Turkey and Pakistan, in particular, with decision points in that regard. With cargo and passengers moving in both directions, Iran’s reach in support of terrorists has the prospect of being significantly extended as well.

Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have been working on a continuous railway link since 2007. Variously known as the Istanbul-Islamabad line or the “Zahedan corridor” — for the hub transits in Iran — the link was completed in mid-2009. With the three nations planning to inaugurate regular passenger and freight service on August 1, the obvious questions are whether the security arrangements in Turkey and Pakistan will reflect the intent of the UN sanctions, and whether they will be brokered with transparent honesty.

Turkey has a heavily-trafficked railway link to Europe as well as domestic concerns about the Kurdish insurgency. The Turks are certain to exercise a high level of vigilance over passengers and cargo at their borders. But that doesn’t mean they will enforce UN sanctions in brokering cargo passage to Iran, nor does it mean they will interdict shipments from Iran destined for Syria (and, ultimately, for Hezbollah). Indeed, light cargo can be transported to Syria with particular ease now, rail service having been restarted between Mersin, Turkey, and Aleppo in June 2010. An additional transport hub is scheduled to open in December between Gaziantep, Turkey, and Aleppo — this one linked with a new rail service between Turkey and Iraq that transits through northern Syria.

On the Pakistani side, railway security will operate according to Islamabad’s domestic priorities; the primary effort will be interdicting foreign support to internal insurgencies. If the Pakistani authorities don’t act as reliable enforcement agents, it won’t be difficult (although it will probably be expensive) to move UN-prohibited cargo to Iran through Pakistani ports and the national rail system. Moreover, given the extent of the emerging rail network — by which passengers will be able to move continuously on rail between Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan –terrorist operatives will have the ability to travel more directly and conveniently than by sea, but still avoid the international law-enforcement vulnerability of commercial air travel.

Iran’s options for evading sanctions are many; it has three other long borders besides the one on the Persian Gulf. Russia’s trade access to Iran across the Caspian Sea has long given Moscow a central position in multilateral negotiations with the mullahs. But with the new rail service joining Turkey and Pakistan, Iran will have a modern, convenient transport option that doesn’t involve Russia. On the Pakistani end, the influence of the EU will be less of a factor than it is with Turkey — and the useful “cover” of a thriving regular trade with China will be more important. For both Iran’s nuclear program and Islamist terror logistics, much will shortly depend on how Ankara and Islamabad handle security and law enforcement on the rails.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Now anti-Israel venom is even featured on sports talk. ESPN’s Kevin Blackistone (with an assist from Israel-hater Desmond Tutu) calls for a sports boycott of Israel: “In the wake of widespread international condemnation of Israel’s botched commando raid last week that killed nine people on a humanitarian aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip — where Palestinians live under what Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop Desmond Tutu … once said is Israel’s apartheid-like thumb — could it not be time for sport to illuminate Israel’s deadly occupation of Palestinians?” (h/t New Ledger)

Now, as Cliff May reminds us, Jew-hatred is quite fashionable elsewhere: “The fever of anti-Israelism seems to be rising too fast to be reduced by the cold compress of truth. Jew-hatred is increasingly acceptable, even fashionable, not just in the Middle East but in Europe and in some of America’s finer salons — and journals and blogs. And now, apparently, interest in a ‘final solution’ — to borrow Hitler’s apt phrase — is emerging as well. Helen Thomas’s sudden retirement is unlikely to significantly slow that trend. The quaint idea that, having learned the lessons of the Holocaust, civilized people would ‘never again’ tolerate genocide has become a cruel joke — one repeated in Cambodia, Kurdistan, Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur, and beyond. Radical anti-Semites of the 20th century had a goal: the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Radical anti-Semites of the 21st century also have a goal: the extermination of the Middle East’s Jewish state.”

Now Obama’s ineffectiveness is so apparent that Joe Biden has become the administration’s principal spokesman.

Now the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers come with a warning label. A small publishing company slaps this on a volume of the documents: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.” Any such parent needs a warning label.

Now Rand Paul is annoying libertarians. But good to know he thinks “there are times when we have to go in and prevent, at times, people that are organizing to attack us.”

Now we have the quintessential un-Obama : “[Chris]Christie has already put the state on a tough new fiscal regimen and set it on course toward being solvent once again. Refusing to raise taxes, he’s challenged the entrenched, vested interests and has dared to take on the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers union. And now he’s out to enact a constitutional amendment creating a 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases. Through it all, he seems remarkably willing to take the flak that’s inevitably come his way. At town meetings across the state he tells crowds: ‘I think I know why you elected me. I know you didn’t elect me for my matinee idol looks or my charm. So, I’m trying to do what you elected me to do.'”

Now all those “Harry Reid bounces back” headlines will have to be rewritten: “Sharron Angle, following her come-from-behind Republican Primary win Tuesday, has bounced to an 11-point lead over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada’s closely-watched U.S. Senate race.”

Now, if we only had a president who believed this: “It’s not just that the Israelis are being held to a different — and immeasurably higher — standard than the rest of humanity. Israel is now being judged in the absence of any objective standard whatsoever. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, it seems that Israel is now ‘guilty until proven guilty.’ Sadly, it is no surprise to see angry mobs on the streets of Tehran or London calling for Jewish blood. It seems that we now must accustom ourselves to similar scenes playing out in Istanbul as well. Yet what is far more troubling is that we are now hearing these critiques being echoed right here in the United States.”

Now anti-Israel venom is even featured on sports talk. ESPN’s Kevin Blackistone (with an assist from Israel-hater Desmond Tutu) calls for a sports boycott of Israel: “In the wake of widespread international condemnation of Israel’s botched commando raid last week that killed nine people on a humanitarian aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip — where Palestinians live under what Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop Desmond Tutu … once said is Israel’s apartheid-like thumb — could it not be time for sport to illuminate Israel’s deadly occupation of Palestinians?” (h/t New Ledger)

Now, as Cliff May reminds us, Jew-hatred is quite fashionable elsewhere: “The fever of anti-Israelism seems to be rising too fast to be reduced by the cold compress of truth. Jew-hatred is increasingly acceptable, even fashionable, not just in the Middle East but in Europe and in some of America’s finer salons — and journals and blogs. And now, apparently, interest in a ‘final solution’ — to borrow Hitler’s apt phrase — is emerging as well. Helen Thomas’s sudden retirement is unlikely to significantly slow that trend. The quaint idea that, having learned the lessons of the Holocaust, civilized people would ‘never again’ tolerate genocide has become a cruel joke — one repeated in Cambodia, Kurdistan, Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur, and beyond. Radical anti-Semites of the 20th century had a goal: the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Radical anti-Semites of the 21st century also have a goal: the extermination of the Middle East’s Jewish state.”

Now Obama’s ineffectiveness is so apparent that Joe Biden has become the administration’s principal spokesman.

Now the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers come with a warning label. A small publishing company slaps this on a volume of the documents: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.” Any such parent needs a warning label.

Now Rand Paul is annoying libertarians. But good to know he thinks “there are times when we have to go in and prevent, at times, people that are organizing to attack us.”

Now we have the quintessential un-Obama : “[Chris]Christie has already put the state on a tough new fiscal regimen and set it on course toward being solvent once again. Refusing to raise taxes, he’s challenged the entrenched, vested interests and has dared to take on the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers union. And now he’s out to enact a constitutional amendment creating a 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases. Through it all, he seems remarkably willing to take the flak that’s inevitably come his way. At town meetings across the state he tells crowds: ‘I think I know why you elected me. I know you didn’t elect me for my matinee idol looks or my charm. So, I’m trying to do what you elected me to do.'”

Now all those “Harry Reid bounces back” headlines will have to be rewritten: “Sharron Angle, following her come-from-behind Republican Primary win Tuesday, has bounced to an 11-point lead over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada’s closely-watched U.S. Senate race.”

Now, if we only had a president who believed this: “It’s not just that the Israelis are being held to a different — and immeasurably higher — standard than the rest of humanity. Israel is now being judged in the absence of any objective standard whatsoever. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, it seems that Israel is now ‘guilty until proven guilty.’ Sadly, it is no surprise to see angry mobs on the streets of Tehran or London calling for Jewish blood. It seems that we now must accustom ourselves to similar scenes playing out in Istanbul as well. Yet what is far more troubling is that we are now hearing these critiques being echoed right here in the United States.”

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Turkish Flags

Turkey’s sharp turn against Israel under Islamist Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been much noted in the last couple of weeks. But a just-released report from Israeli analysts clarifies how close the flotilla confrontation of May 31 came to being a Turkish incitement to armed conflict.

The report was issued by Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, or Malam, a private contractor that works with government intelligence agencies and is sometimes used to make disclosures to the public. Based on the material gathered in the flotilla incident by the IDF and other government agencies, Malam concluded that the Turkish government knew in advance of the Turkish Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) activists’ intention to fight the Israeli navy.

The IHH group of 40 boarded M/V Mavi Marmara in Istanbul without being subjected to the security checks all other participants went through. The group was equipped with communications gear, gas masks, and security vests decorated with Turkish flags. IHH operatives used the ship’s upper deck as a headquarters, prohibiting other passengers from visiting it. Once onboard, the IHH group began pillaging the ship for the makeshift weapons with which its members attacked the Israeli commandos during the May 31 boarding. According to the Malam report:

Bülent Yıldırım, the leader of the IHH … was on the Mavi Marmara and briefed group members about two hours before the Israeli Navy intercepted the ship. Their main objective was to hold back soldiers by any means, and to push them back into the sea.

The Haaretz summary continues:

Files found on laptops owned by the IHH members pointed at strong ties between the movement and Turkey’s prime minister. Some of the activists even said that Erdogan was personally involved in the flotilla’s preparations.

The more we know, the less sudden or unexpected appears Erdogan’s latest threat to bring a Turkish naval escort to Gaza. In retrospect, the situation looks more like one engineered by Erdogan to justify a confrontation with Israel than mere opportunism. Erdogan’s profile as a moderate statesman has been eroding for some time, of course, as exemplified in his performance during the March 2010 Arab League Summit and his growing ties to Iran. But in light of his most recent actions, a little-remarked passage in a Muslim Brotherhood conference in January becomes freshly informative.

The conference in question took place in Beirut and was the seventh of the al-Quds (Jerusalem) conferences sponsored by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to concluding with the usual screed against Israel, the conferees addressed “special thanks” to Tayyip Erdogan and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, whose Perdana Global Peace Organization went on to sponsor three of the nine vessels in the recent Gaza flotilla, including M/V Rachel Corrie. Qaradawi is the founder of the Union of Good, the umbrella Islamist funding organization of which IHH is a member, and which Israel banned in 2002 due to its ties to terrorism.

Now Erdogan’s threat to bring a naval escort to Gaza coincides with the Union of Good’s announcement that it will send a convoy to Gaza through the Rafah crossing, recently opened by Egypt. Erdogan’s posture has gone well beyond rhetorical radicalism. Defense Secretary Gates’s comment yesterday — “Turkey … was pushed … by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the … organic link to the west that Turkey sought” — seems particularly ill-formulated in light of Erdogan’s purposeful and unmistakable posture. Even if Gates’s analysis were more accurate, it’s not relevant. The time for recrimination is past. Reacting to current reality is all that matters.

Turkey’s major opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has voiced strong criticism of Erdogan’s actions; the prime minister’s policies that undermine secularism and suppress political dissent are coming under increasing fire at home. The next national election is not until mid-2011, however. There’s a lot of time left for Erdogan to sponsor flotillas. According to an IHH “journalist” quoted by Haaretz, the recent flotilla is just the first of many.

Turkey’s sharp turn against Israel under Islamist Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been much noted in the last couple of weeks. But a just-released report from Israeli analysts clarifies how close the flotilla confrontation of May 31 came to being a Turkish incitement to armed conflict.

The report was issued by Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, or Malam, a private contractor that works with government intelligence agencies and is sometimes used to make disclosures to the public. Based on the material gathered in the flotilla incident by the IDF and other government agencies, Malam concluded that the Turkish government knew in advance of the Turkish Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) activists’ intention to fight the Israeli navy.

The IHH group of 40 boarded M/V Mavi Marmara in Istanbul without being subjected to the security checks all other participants went through. The group was equipped with communications gear, gas masks, and security vests decorated with Turkish flags. IHH operatives used the ship’s upper deck as a headquarters, prohibiting other passengers from visiting it. Once onboard, the IHH group began pillaging the ship for the makeshift weapons with which its members attacked the Israeli commandos during the May 31 boarding. According to the Malam report:

Bülent Yıldırım, the leader of the IHH … was on the Mavi Marmara and briefed group members about two hours before the Israeli Navy intercepted the ship. Their main objective was to hold back soldiers by any means, and to push them back into the sea.

The Haaretz summary continues:

Files found on laptops owned by the IHH members pointed at strong ties between the movement and Turkey’s prime minister. Some of the activists even said that Erdogan was personally involved in the flotilla’s preparations.

The more we know, the less sudden or unexpected appears Erdogan’s latest threat to bring a Turkish naval escort to Gaza. In retrospect, the situation looks more like one engineered by Erdogan to justify a confrontation with Israel than mere opportunism. Erdogan’s profile as a moderate statesman has been eroding for some time, of course, as exemplified in his performance during the March 2010 Arab League Summit and his growing ties to Iran. But in light of his most recent actions, a little-remarked passage in a Muslim Brotherhood conference in January becomes freshly informative.

The conference in question took place in Beirut and was the seventh of the al-Quds (Jerusalem) conferences sponsored by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to concluding with the usual screed against Israel, the conferees addressed “special thanks” to Tayyip Erdogan and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, whose Perdana Global Peace Organization went on to sponsor three of the nine vessels in the recent Gaza flotilla, including M/V Rachel Corrie. Qaradawi is the founder of the Union of Good, the umbrella Islamist funding organization of which IHH is a member, and which Israel banned in 2002 due to its ties to terrorism.

Now Erdogan’s threat to bring a naval escort to Gaza coincides with the Union of Good’s announcement that it will send a convoy to Gaza through the Rafah crossing, recently opened by Egypt. Erdogan’s posture has gone well beyond rhetorical radicalism. Defense Secretary Gates’s comment yesterday — “Turkey … was pushed … by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the … organic link to the west that Turkey sought” — seems particularly ill-formulated in light of Erdogan’s purposeful and unmistakable posture. Even if Gates’s analysis were more accurate, it’s not relevant. The time for recrimination is past. Reacting to current reality is all that matters.

Turkey’s major opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has voiced strong criticism of Erdogan’s actions; the prime minister’s policies that undermine secularism and suppress political dissent are coming under increasing fire at home. The next national election is not until mid-2011, however. There’s a lot of time left for Erdogan to sponsor flotillas. According to an IHH “journalist” quoted by Haaretz, the recent flotilla is just the first of many.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

But Obama said unemployment would remain under 8 percent if Congress passed the stimulus. “Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the U.S. recovery probably won’t quickly bring down the unemployment rate, which is likely to stay ‘high for a while.’ … The June 4 Labor Department report ‘shows we are still in a jobless recovery,’ Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics in New York, said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio. ‘Ex-census we are only 41,000. That is terrible. … The unemployment rate is going to stay 9.5 to ten percent. We are not going to generate a lot of jobs.'”

But Newsweek told us he was “sort of a God.” Gallup has Obama at 45 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval.

But Obama said it was a good idea to join the UN Human Rights Council. “Meeting today in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council heard the following statement from the Syrian representative, First Secretary Rania Al Rifaiy:  ‘Israel … is a state that is built on hatred. … Let me quote a song that a group of children on a school bus in Israel sing merrily as they go to school and I quote ‘With my teeth I will rip your flesh. With my mouth I will suck your blood.’ The Obama administration chose to join this Council, the UN’s lead human rights body, and its representative was present. But they said nothing after hearing this blood libel.”

But Obama is still torn between Turkey and Israel: “The Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla sounded ‘the death knell of the Zionist regime,’ Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an enthusiastic crowd at Istanbul’s Abou Ayyoub Ansari Mosque on Tuesday. He accused Israel of ‘unmatched crimes in the course of sixty some years of its history, that have been unprecedented in the history of mankind, the last of which has been invading the Gaza Peace Flotilla,’ IRNA reported, added that the crowd responded with ‘Allahu akbar.'” And that’s what Major Hasan shouted before he killed 13 people.

But the real fun would be watching the liberal blogosphere completely melt down. Jay Nordlinger: “If [John] Bolton is president, Elliott Abrams can be secretary of state.”

But 78 percent of them voted for the president who is doing nothing about it: “In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.”

But was she quizzed on the part about Islam being the “religion of peace“? “Israeli left-wing activist Tali Fahima has converted to Islam, according to the website of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Fahima is said to have converted at a mosque in Umm al-Fahm in the presence of sheikhs who tested her knowledge of the principles of Islam. … Fahima was released from prison in 2007 after completing a three-year sentence for passing information to the enemy, having contact with a foreign agent and supporting a terrorist organization. … In May 2004, Fahima entered the Jenin area and met with operatives of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the armed wing of the Fatah movement. She met with Zakaria Zubeidi, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade leader in Jenin. Fahima declared that she would serve as a human shield for Zubeidi, who was wanted by Israeli security forces.”

But Obama said unemployment would remain under 8 percent if Congress passed the stimulus. “Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the U.S. recovery probably won’t quickly bring down the unemployment rate, which is likely to stay ‘high for a while.’ … The June 4 Labor Department report ‘shows we are still in a jobless recovery,’ Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics in New York, said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio. ‘Ex-census we are only 41,000. That is terrible. … The unemployment rate is going to stay 9.5 to ten percent. We are not going to generate a lot of jobs.'”

But Newsweek told us he was “sort of a God.” Gallup has Obama at 45 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval.

But Obama said it was a good idea to join the UN Human Rights Council. “Meeting today in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council heard the following statement from the Syrian representative, First Secretary Rania Al Rifaiy:  ‘Israel … is a state that is built on hatred. … Let me quote a song that a group of children on a school bus in Israel sing merrily as they go to school and I quote ‘With my teeth I will rip your flesh. With my mouth I will suck your blood.’ The Obama administration chose to join this Council, the UN’s lead human rights body, and its representative was present. But they said nothing after hearing this blood libel.”

But Obama is still torn between Turkey and Israel: “The Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla sounded ‘the death knell of the Zionist regime,’ Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an enthusiastic crowd at Istanbul’s Abou Ayyoub Ansari Mosque on Tuesday. He accused Israel of ‘unmatched crimes in the course of sixty some years of its history, that have been unprecedented in the history of mankind, the last of which has been invading the Gaza Peace Flotilla,’ IRNA reported, added that the crowd responded with ‘Allahu akbar.'” And that’s what Major Hasan shouted before he killed 13 people.

But the real fun would be watching the liberal blogosphere completely melt down. Jay Nordlinger: “If [John] Bolton is president, Elliott Abrams can be secretary of state.”

But 78 percent of them voted for the president who is doing nothing about it: “In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.”

But was she quizzed on the part about Islam being the “religion of peace“? “Israeli left-wing activist Tali Fahima has converted to Islam, according to the website of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Fahima is said to have converted at a mosque in Umm al-Fahm in the presence of sheikhs who tested her knowledge of the principles of Islam. … Fahima was released from prison in 2007 after completing a three-year sentence for passing information to the enemy, having contact with a foreign agent and supporting a terrorist organization. … In May 2004, Fahima entered the Jenin area and met with operatives of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the armed wing of the Fatah movement. She met with Zakaria Zubeidi, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade leader in Jenin. Fahima declared that she would serve as a human shield for Zubeidi, who was wanted by Israeli security forces.”

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Iran Threatens War in the Mediterranean

Yesterday, Ali Shirazi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps said its naval forces “are fully prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys to Gaza with all their powers and capabilities.” Never mind the cynical use of the words “freedom” and “peace” from a repressive regime that steals votes and cracks heads. Breaking a blockade by force is a declaration of war and could, in this case, easily and instantly spark a region-wide conflagration.

More likely than not, Iran is just posturing. Ever since Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government has been waging a relentless campaign to win over Arab public opinion with apocalyptic anti-Zionism and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. And last week it was upstaged by Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when howling denunciations of Israel almost everywhere in the world followed the now-infamous battle aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel. Even the president of the United States says Israel’s blockade of Gaza is no longer sustainable, though at least he says it calmly. Not Iran, Syria, Hamas, or Hezbollah, but Turkey has been the toast of the Middle East’s radicals for a week now.

The Turks have been slowly turning away from their alliance with the West since 2003. Erdogan, more recently, has not only been reorienting his country toward the Sunni Muslim world of which it’s a part; he’s also adopting the causes of the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran’s Shia theocracy and the atheist non-Muslim Alawite clan, which rules Syria. He’s been trying for years now to join Tehran and Jerusalem in setting the regional agenda, and he finally and unambiguously succeeded last Monday.

Iran is supposed to lead the “resistance,” however, and I suspect its leaders are trying to seize the region’s attention again. They feel insecure behind all that bombast. As Persians and, especially, Shias, they’re looked upon with suspicion and loathing, despite their hardest of hard lines against Israel. The Turks aren’t Arabs either, and some resentment remains from the imperial Ottoman days; but they’re Sunnis, at least, like most in the Middle East.

So while Erdogan’s Turkey may look in some ways like a de facto Iranian ally from the American and Israeli perspectives, from the point of view of Tehran it’s a convenient, useful, triangulating competitor. Syria’s Bashar Assad is content to be Iran’s junior partner, but Istanbul was once the capital of a powerful Sunni empire that, not long ago, held sway over much of the Mediterranean. As a member of NATO (for now, anyway), it can’t be entirely trusted and won’t likely ever take orders from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Khamenei.

Iran needs its mojo back — now — and huffing and puffing and bluffing about the blockade is one way to get it. Still, it would only surprise me a little if Tehran thinks it has a green light from most of the world to proceed. Israel is more isolated than it has been in decades, and this wouldn’t be the first time one of its enemies miscalculated and did something stupid. Now would be a good time for the Obama administration to say, firmly and in no uncertain terms, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Yesterday, Ali Shirazi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps said its naval forces “are fully prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys to Gaza with all their powers and capabilities.” Never mind the cynical use of the words “freedom” and “peace” from a repressive regime that steals votes and cracks heads. Breaking a blockade by force is a declaration of war and could, in this case, easily and instantly spark a region-wide conflagration.

More likely than not, Iran is just posturing. Ever since Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government has been waging a relentless campaign to win over Arab public opinion with apocalyptic anti-Zionism and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. And last week it was upstaged by Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when howling denunciations of Israel almost everywhere in the world followed the now-infamous battle aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel. Even the president of the United States says Israel’s blockade of Gaza is no longer sustainable, though at least he says it calmly. Not Iran, Syria, Hamas, or Hezbollah, but Turkey has been the toast of the Middle East’s radicals for a week now.

The Turks have been slowly turning away from their alliance with the West since 2003. Erdogan, more recently, has not only been reorienting his country toward the Sunni Muslim world of which it’s a part; he’s also adopting the causes of the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran’s Shia theocracy and the atheist non-Muslim Alawite clan, which rules Syria. He’s been trying for years now to join Tehran and Jerusalem in setting the regional agenda, and he finally and unambiguously succeeded last Monday.

Iran is supposed to lead the “resistance,” however, and I suspect its leaders are trying to seize the region’s attention again. They feel insecure behind all that bombast. As Persians and, especially, Shias, they’re looked upon with suspicion and loathing, despite their hardest of hard lines against Israel. The Turks aren’t Arabs either, and some resentment remains from the imperial Ottoman days; but they’re Sunnis, at least, like most in the Middle East.

So while Erdogan’s Turkey may look in some ways like a de facto Iranian ally from the American and Israeli perspectives, from the point of view of Tehran it’s a convenient, useful, triangulating competitor. Syria’s Bashar Assad is content to be Iran’s junior partner, but Istanbul was once the capital of a powerful Sunni empire that, not long ago, held sway over much of the Mediterranean. As a member of NATO (for now, anyway), it can’t be entirely trusted and won’t likely ever take orders from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Khamenei.

Iran needs its mojo back — now — and huffing and puffing and bluffing about the blockade is one way to get it. Still, it would only surprise me a little if Tehran thinks it has a green light from most of the world to proceed. Israel is more isolated than it has been in decades, and this wouldn’t be the first time one of its enemies miscalculated and did something stupid. Now would be a good time for the Obama administration to say, firmly and in no uncertain terms, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

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Israel Can’t Afford Unforced Errors

Shmuel Rosner at the Jerusalem Post aptly identifies two things on which the “vast majority of Israelis” would probably agree: first, “letting the flotilla into Gaza was not an option,” because ending the naval blockade would allow Hamas to import huge quantities of arms that, as recent history proves, would be used against Israeli civilians. And second, “letting peace activists stab Israeli soldiers with knives and hammer them and axe them was also not an option”: in a life-threatening situation, soldiers are supposed to defend themselves, not let themselves be killed. These two points are the heart of the matter, and CONTENTIONS contributors rightly focused on them yesterday.

Nevertheless, I can’t agree with Jonathan that given the circumstances, “the question of whether Israel’s forces might have been better prepared” is “insignificant.” Israel knows that much of the world will seize on any pretext to condemn it, justified or not; it also knows there will be many times when it cannot avoid providing such pretexts: for instance, it couldn’t let its citizens suffer daily rocket fire from Gaza forever, even knowing that last year’s successful military action against Hamas would spark widespread denunciations. Therefore, it must take extra care to avoid providing unnecessary pretexts for condemnation. And in this case, it failed to take even minimal precautions.

For instance, the radical nature of IHH, the Turkish group that organized the flotilla, was well known. J.E. Dyer detailed it for CONTENTIONS readers yesterday; similar information is available from Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. The center was founded by retired members of Israel’s intelligence community and cooperates closely with this community; anything it knows would also have been known to the Israel Defense Forces — or at least should have been.

But given that the flotilla was organized by a group with links to al-Qaeda and other “jihadist terrorist networks in Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya” — a group that actively provided “logistical support and funding” to such networks and kept weapons, explosives, and instructions for making improvised explosive devices in its Istanbul offices — how could the IDF possibly have “planned on dealing with peace activists, not a battle,” as one senior naval officer said afterward? Al-Qaeda affiliates are not generally known for peaceful demonstrations.

For that matter, neither are some of the left-wing activists Israel attracts — as nobody knows better than the IDF: it confronts them weekly at demonstrations against the security fence in Bili’in. Though Palestinian shills term these protests “nonviolent,” they are anything but: masked men routinely use slingshots to hurl stones at Israeli troops and have wounded many; one Israeli policeman was permanently blinded when a hurled stone took out his eye. The IDF would never send a lone soldier into the mob at Bili’in. So why send soldiers to rappel one by one into the mob aboard the Marmara, making them easy pickings?

This is the kind of unforced error Israel cannot afford to make. It may be unfair that Israel can’t afford mistakes that other countries make with impunity, but it’s reality. And Israel must start learning to deal with it.

Shmuel Rosner at the Jerusalem Post aptly identifies two things on which the “vast majority of Israelis” would probably agree: first, “letting the flotilla into Gaza was not an option,” because ending the naval blockade would allow Hamas to import huge quantities of arms that, as recent history proves, would be used against Israeli civilians. And second, “letting peace activists stab Israeli soldiers with knives and hammer them and axe them was also not an option”: in a life-threatening situation, soldiers are supposed to defend themselves, not let themselves be killed. These two points are the heart of the matter, and CONTENTIONS contributors rightly focused on them yesterday.

Nevertheless, I can’t agree with Jonathan that given the circumstances, “the question of whether Israel’s forces might have been better prepared” is “insignificant.” Israel knows that much of the world will seize on any pretext to condemn it, justified or not; it also knows there will be many times when it cannot avoid providing such pretexts: for instance, it couldn’t let its citizens suffer daily rocket fire from Gaza forever, even knowing that last year’s successful military action against Hamas would spark widespread denunciations. Therefore, it must take extra care to avoid providing unnecessary pretexts for condemnation. And in this case, it failed to take even minimal precautions.

For instance, the radical nature of IHH, the Turkish group that organized the flotilla, was well known. J.E. Dyer detailed it for CONTENTIONS readers yesterday; similar information is available from Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. The center was founded by retired members of Israel’s intelligence community and cooperates closely with this community; anything it knows would also have been known to the Israel Defense Forces — or at least should have been.

But given that the flotilla was organized by a group with links to al-Qaeda and other “jihadist terrorist networks in Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya” — a group that actively provided “logistical support and funding” to such networks and kept weapons, explosives, and instructions for making improvised explosive devices in its Istanbul offices — how could the IDF possibly have “planned on dealing with peace activists, not a battle,” as one senior naval officer said afterward? Al-Qaeda affiliates are not generally known for peaceful demonstrations.

For that matter, neither are some of the left-wing activists Israel attracts — as nobody knows better than the IDF: it confronts them weekly at demonstrations against the security fence in Bili’in. Though Palestinian shills term these protests “nonviolent,” they are anything but: masked men routinely use slingshots to hurl stones at Israeli troops and have wounded many; one Israeli policeman was permanently blinded when a hurled stone took out his eye. The IDF would never send a lone soldier into the mob at Bili’in. So why send soldiers to rappel one by one into the mob aboard the Marmara, making them easy pickings?

This is the kind of unforced error Israel cannot afford to make. It may be unfair that Israel can’t afford mistakes that other countries make with impunity, but it’s reality. And Israel must start learning to deal with it.

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Useful Idiots at Sea

Ed Morrissey at Hot Air has a very good summary of points about the Hamas-backed attempt to break the maritime blockade of Gaza on May 31. The summary includes links on the Turkish “aid” group, Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), and its associations with the Muslim Brotherhood and all the usual suspects of Islamist terror (including the Millennium bombing plot in 1999). There is convincing video footage of the fight mounted by the peace activists – using knives, metal pipe, handguns, stun grenades, and incendiary devices – against the Israeli commandos boarding M/V Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ferry used as the flotilla’s flagship. Probably the best compliment I can give Ed’s post is that it doesn’t adopt the credulous, pro-activist editorial perspective of virtually all the mainstream media outlets.

There is good reason not to. For one thing, the fingerprints of Hamas are all over this blockade-running attempt. IHH, a key organizer of the flotilla, has longstanding ties to Hamas that include establishing an IHH office in Gaza and setting up celebrated meetings between its leader, Bulent Yildirim, and Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh. Moreover, British participation in the flotilla was organized by British Hamas leader Mohammed Sawalha, among other Hamas links to the European flotilla participants (laid out here).

Flotilla spokesmen told Islamic media repeatedly in the weeks before the attempt that their purpose was to break the blockade. Israel, of course, regularly allows aid convoys into Gaza; the Israelis offered to accept the humanitarian cargo in Ashdod and have it convoyed into Gaza over land. But IHH leaders stated that they hoped to widen the rift between Israel and Turkey by inciting Israel to take military action against the flotilla.

The Israelis advised Turkish and European envoys beforehand of their intention to use naval forces to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza. The outrage now being shown by European politicians certainly isn’t based on surprise at the course of events; the Israelis did exactly what they said they would do. In fact, some reports suggest that European governments joined Israel last week in pressuring Greek Cyprus to prevent the departure of flotilla participants who were using Cyprus as a staging area. In the days since Mavi Marmara’s departure from Istanbul on May 22, Europeans have been watching the flotilla’s dilatory progress much more closely than Americans have. The truth about the dramatic climax off Gaza on Monday is that the whole event has unfolded in slow motion – and with the full cognizance of all the relevant governments.

From a military operational perspective, it seems to have been a tactical error that the Israeli commandos didn’t go in with sufficient force. I doubt they’ll make that mistake again. If they had conducted the boarding on the premise that it would be “non-compliant” (the U.S. military term), they would have been prepared to stabilize the situation at the outset with the threat of deadly force. In conditions like the ones the commandos faced today, that usually means actual force is less likely to be necessary.

But in the end, what matters to Israeli national security is that the flotilla participants were armed and determined to break the blockade. As long as Hamas rules Gaza, the territory’s sea access is a major vulnerability for Israel and has to be controlled. Repeated attempts have been made in the last few years to deliver weapons from Iran to Hamas by sea (see here, here, here, here, and here); Israel can’t permit the coastline of Gaza to become the path of least resistance for weapons deliveries.

It will be up to the U.S. and Europe whether the waters off the Gaza coast, short miles from the Suez Canal, become a source of maritime instability due to incitement by Hamas. The EU leadership, tacitly accepting the Hamas narrative cloaked in Europe’s trademark parlor activism, is behaving with a fecklessness for which it deserves strong rebuke. It is not to the advantage of any respectable nation to carry Hamas’s water. Only Hamas and its fellow jihadists stand to benefit from Israel losing control of its maritime borders. The sooner Europe’s leaders confront that fact and take a responsible view of their own interests, the better.

Ed Morrissey at Hot Air has a very good summary of points about the Hamas-backed attempt to break the maritime blockade of Gaza on May 31. The summary includes links on the Turkish “aid” group, Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), and its associations with the Muslim Brotherhood and all the usual suspects of Islamist terror (including the Millennium bombing plot in 1999). There is convincing video footage of the fight mounted by the peace activists – using knives, metal pipe, handguns, stun grenades, and incendiary devices – against the Israeli commandos boarding M/V Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ferry used as the flotilla’s flagship. Probably the best compliment I can give Ed’s post is that it doesn’t adopt the credulous, pro-activist editorial perspective of virtually all the mainstream media outlets.

There is good reason not to. For one thing, the fingerprints of Hamas are all over this blockade-running attempt. IHH, a key organizer of the flotilla, has longstanding ties to Hamas that include establishing an IHH office in Gaza and setting up celebrated meetings between its leader, Bulent Yildirim, and Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh. Moreover, British participation in the flotilla was organized by British Hamas leader Mohammed Sawalha, among other Hamas links to the European flotilla participants (laid out here).

Flotilla spokesmen told Islamic media repeatedly in the weeks before the attempt that their purpose was to break the blockade. Israel, of course, regularly allows aid convoys into Gaza; the Israelis offered to accept the humanitarian cargo in Ashdod and have it convoyed into Gaza over land. But IHH leaders stated that they hoped to widen the rift between Israel and Turkey by inciting Israel to take military action against the flotilla.

The Israelis advised Turkish and European envoys beforehand of their intention to use naval forces to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza. The outrage now being shown by European politicians certainly isn’t based on surprise at the course of events; the Israelis did exactly what they said they would do. In fact, some reports suggest that European governments joined Israel last week in pressuring Greek Cyprus to prevent the departure of flotilla participants who were using Cyprus as a staging area. In the days since Mavi Marmara’s departure from Istanbul on May 22, Europeans have been watching the flotilla’s dilatory progress much more closely than Americans have. The truth about the dramatic climax off Gaza on Monday is that the whole event has unfolded in slow motion – and with the full cognizance of all the relevant governments.

From a military operational perspective, it seems to have been a tactical error that the Israeli commandos didn’t go in with sufficient force. I doubt they’ll make that mistake again. If they had conducted the boarding on the premise that it would be “non-compliant” (the U.S. military term), they would have been prepared to stabilize the situation at the outset with the threat of deadly force. In conditions like the ones the commandos faced today, that usually means actual force is less likely to be necessary.

But in the end, what matters to Israeli national security is that the flotilla participants were armed and determined to break the blockade. As long as Hamas rules Gaza, the territory’s sea access is a major vulnerability for Israel and has to be controlled. Repeated attempts have been made in the last few years to deliver weapons from Iran to Hamas by sea (see here, here, here, here, and here); Israel can’t permit the coastline of Gaza to become the path of least resistance for weapons deliveries.

It will be up to the U.S. and Europe whether the waters off the Gaza coast, short miles from the Suez Canal, become a source of maritime instability due to incitement by Hamas. The EU leadership, tacitly accepting the Hamas narrative cloaked in Europe’s trademark parlor activism, is behaving with a fecklessness for which it deserves strong rebuke. It is not to the advantage of any respectable nation to carry Hamas’s water. Only Hamas and its fellow jihadists stand to benefit from Israel losing control of its maritime borders. The sooner Europe’s leaders confront that fact and take a responsible view of their own interests, the better.

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The Limits of Anti-Israel Activists’ Compassion

For those who wish to end the continued existence of a sovereign Jewish state on the shores of the Mediterranean, there is only one cause worth caring about: breaking the limited blockade that both Israel and Egypt have placed on Hamas-ruled Gaza. No one in Gaza is starving. All are fed by a United Nations Agency — UNRWA — specifically set up to ensure the continued existence of a Palestinian refugee problem. Gaza is poor, but the region, which Israel evacuated in 2005, is now an independent entity ruled by the Hamas terrorist group. For years, it served as a launching pad for missile attacks on Israeli civilians in southern Israel. But after Israel’s counteroffensive in December 2008, the Islamists who run Gaza have mostly held their fire. This is done partly out of fear of more Israeli counterterror operations and partly because the blockade imposed on the area — a blockade that allows in food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies but not construction materials that could aid Hamas’s homegrown weapons industry — has made it difficult for them to replenish their arsenal.

Thus, efforts to break this blockade and the international isolation imposed on this Hamasistan, created to force Gaza’s rulers to renounce their allegiance to a program pledged to the violent destruction of Israel, have little to do with sympathy for Gazans and everything to do with fueling anti-Israel propaganda. Though European sympathy for the “plight” of besieged Gaza is commonplace, support for breaking the blockade means freedom for Hamas, not the people who must live under the rule of Islamist tyrants.

But that hasn’t stopped anti-Israel activists from attempting to stage propaganda incidents highlighting their opposition to the blockade against Hamas. The latest is a so-called Freedom Flotilla of eight ships that left Istanbul, Turkey, this week. Al Jazeera, whose peppered a “news” report about the launch editorialized about how the “issue of Gaza moves Turks more than any other single issue,” noted that the convoy “is from the UK, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and Turkey, and is comprised of 800 people from 50 nationalities.” Though the rhetoric from the organizers centered on the supposed lack of food and medicine in Gaza, the report also noted that the ships are carrying 500 tons of construction equipment. Omitted from the Al Jazeera article was the fact that high-ranking members of the Hamas leadership also attended the festive launch of the ships. It is no surprise that Israel has said its Navy will prevent the ships from landing at Gaza and delivering their cargo. If they persist in trying to land, they will be diverted to Israel, where the passengers will be sent home, and any actual humanitarian supplies (as opposed to construction material) will be sent on to Gaza.

But though they claim they are trying to help people in need, there are limits to even the boundless compassion for humanity exhibited by those taking part in the Freedom Flotilla.

A lawyer representing the family of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, approached the organizers of the Free Gaza flotilla. The Shalit family asked the pro-Palestinian group to bring letters and food packages to the kidnapped soldier, who has been denied Red Cross visits by his Hamas captors. In exchange, the family, which has the sympathy of all Israel and the ear of the Israeli government, offered to lobby to give the flotilla docking rights in Gaza. The response from these humanitarians: no!

Had they agreed to pass on the letters and packages from Shalit’s family, the pro-Palestinian group could have bolstered their shaky credibility as humanitarians. But by refusing, they have revealed themselves as nothing more than people bent on aiding and abetting an international terrorist group.

For those who wish to end the continued existence of a sovereign Jewish state on the shores of the Mediterranean, there is only one cause worth caring about: breaking the limited blockade that both Israel and Egypt have placed on Hamas-ruled Gaza. No one in Gaza is starving. All are fed by a United Nations Agency — UNRWA — specifically set up to ensure the continued existence of a Palestinian refugee problem. Gaza is poor, but the region, which Israel evacuated in 2005, is now an independent entity ruled by the Hamas terrorist group. For years, it served as a launching pad for missile attacks on Israeli civilians in southern Israel. But after Israel’s counteroffensive in December 2008, the Islamists who run Gaza have mostly held their fire. This is done partly out of fear of more Israeli counterterror operations and partly because the blockade imposed on the area — a blockade that allows in food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies but not construction materials that could aid Hamas’s homegrown weapons industry — has made it difficult for them to replenish their arsenal.

Thus, efforts to break this blockade and the international isolation imposed on this Hamasistan, created to force Gaza’s rulers to renounce their allegiance to a program pledged to the violent destruction of Israel, have little to do with sympathy for Gazans and everything to do with fueling anti-Israel propaganda. Though European sympathy for the “plight” of besieged Gaza is commonplace, support for breaking the blockade means freedom for Hamas, not the people who must live under the rule of Islamist tyrants.

But that hasn’t stopped anti-Israel activists from attempting to stage propaganda incidents highlighting their opposition to the blockade against Hamas. The latest is a so-called Freedom Flotilla of eight ships that left Istanbul, Turkey, this week. Al Jazeera, whose peppered a “news” report about the launch editorialized about how the “issue of Gaza moves Turks more than any other single issue,” noted that the convoy “is from the UK, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and Turkey, and is comprised of 800 people from 50 nationalities.” Though the rhetoric from the organizers centered on the supposed lack of food and medicine in Gaza, the report also noted that the ships are carrying 500 tons of construction equipment. Omitted from the Al Jazeera article was the fact that high-ranking members of the Hamas leadership also attended the festive launch of the ships. It is no surprise that Israel has said its Navy will prevent the ships from landing at Gaza and delivering their cargo. If they persist in trying to land, they will be diverted to Israel, where the passengers will be sent home, and any actual humanitarian supplies (as opposed to construction material) will be sent on to Gaza.

But though they claim they are trying to help people in need, there are limits to even the boundless compassion for humanity exhibited by those taking part in the Freedom Flotilla.

A lawyer representing the family of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, approached the organizers of the Free Gaza flotilla. The Shalit family asked the pro-Palestinian group to bring letters and food packages to the kidnapped soldier, who has been denied Red Cross visits by his Hamas captors. In exchange, the family, which has the sympathy of all Israel and the ear of the Israeli government, offered to lobby to give the flotilla docking rights in Gaza. The response from these humanitarians: no!

Had they agreed to pass on the letters and packages from Shalit’s family, the pro-Palestinian group could have bolstered their shaky credibility as humanitarians. But by refusing, they have revealed themselves as nothing more than people bent on aiding and abetting an international terrorist group.

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Saving Iraqi Kurdistan

Erbil, Iraq. In the lobby of a certain hotel in the Kurdish city of Erbil, you find the familiar row of wall clocks indicating current time in various metropolitan hubs. Only something breaks your heart a little about the local twist put on this fixture of jet-set urbanity. Between clocks whose faces have been factory-stamped Istanbul or New York or Madrid, you see one displaying local time, and it looks like the others except for a single, small anomaly. The Erbil hasn’t been emblazoned onto the clock face by a manufacturer’s machine. It’s been printed out, in ordinary bold font, onto computer paper; cut down to a word-sized rectangle; and glued over the name of some other magnificent city.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

Erbil, Iraq. In the lobby of a certain hotel in the Kurdish city of Erbil, you find the familiar row of wall clocks indicating current time in various metropolitan hubs. Only something breaks your heart a little about the local twist put on this fixture of jet-set urbanity. Between clocks whose faces have been factory-stamped Istanbul or New York or Madrid, you see one displaying local time, and it looks like the others except for a single, small anomaly. The Erbil hasn’t been emblazoned onto the clock face by a manufacturer’s machine. It’s been printed out, in ordinary bold font, onto computer paper; cut down to a word-sized rectangle; and glued over the name of some other magnificent city.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Bring Back Sarah

The legacy of France’s Nazi occupation is manifold and enduring. In culture, nowhere is it more central and blatant than in the very name of a major public performance space in the heart of Paris, the Théâtre de la Ville, facing the famed Châtelet theatre. Operating on an annual budget of 13 million euros, of which around 11 million come from the municipal government, the Théâtre de la Ville attracts 220,000 audience members to evenings of music, dance, and theatre. Originally called “Théâtre Lyrique” and later “Théâtre des Nations,” the theatre was then renamed “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt,” after the fiery, majestic actress who starred there, beginning in 1899. Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was partly Jewish, was admired for her artistic daring, despite being castigated in French anti-Semitic books like Les Femmes d’Israël (1898) for being “neither more nor less than a Jewess and nothing but a Jewess.” When the Germans arrived in 1940, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt” was renamed the “Théâtre des Nations” and later, “Théâtre de la Ville.”

From 1945 to this day, no French politician has dared to advocate returning the theater’s name to its former dedicatee, “la divine Sarah.” The reasons for this are complex and peculiarly French, as may be gathered from the well-documented study from Yale University Press, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, which accompanied a multifaceted 2006 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum. These are only two instances of the ever-burgeoning interest in Sarah’s captivating mystique and legend—everywhere except in her native Paris.

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The legacy of France’s Nazi occupation is manifold and enduring. In culture, nowhere is it more central and blatant than in the very name of a major public performance space in the heart of Paris, the Théâtre de la Ville, facing the famed Châtelet theatre. Operating on an annual budget of 13 million euros, of which around 11 million come from the municipal government, the Théâtre de la Ville attracts 220,000 audience members to evenings of music, dance, and theatre. Originally called “Théâtre Lyrique” and later “Théâtre des Nations,” the theatre was then renamed “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt,” after the fiery, majestic actress who starred there, beginning in 1899. Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was partly Jewish, was admired for her artistic daring, despite being castigated in French anti-Semitic books like Les Femmes d’Israël (1898) for being “neither more nor less than a Jewess and nothing but a Jewess.” When the Germans arrived in 1940, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt” was renamed the “Théâtre des Nations” and later, “Théâtre de la Ville.”

From 1945 to this day, no French politician has dared to advocate returning the theater’s name to its former dedicatee, “la divine Sarah.” The reasons for this are complex and peculiarly French, as may be gathered from the well-documented study from Yale University Press, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, which accompanied a multifaceted 2006 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum. These are only two instances of the ever-burgeoning interest in Sarah’s captivating mystique and legend—everywhere except in her native Paris.

Born Marie Henriette Bernardt to a Jewish courtesan, Sarah was an international phenomenon during her lifetime, touring America nine times in roles from Racine’s Phèdre to Hamlet (in French). Her dauntless tours, which extended to Cairo, Tahiti, and Istanbul, were not halted after doctors amputated her leg at age 70. Sarah fearlessly performed patriotic plays at the front for World War I soldiers. Her funeral in 1923 featured a vast outpouring of public emotion, especially when her coffin passed before the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.” A few short years later, she was a non-person in France, much the way Mendelssohn was treated in Germany by the Nazis, with the exception that after World War II, the Germans re-embraced Mendelssohn, whereas Sarah is still left out in the cold.

Postwar Paris, eager to forget its recent history, was looking forward artistically, not to the surviving legacy of Bernhardt, which amounted to some stagy silent films and a few trembly-voiced recordings from her old age. It is to be hoped that this ignorant attitude will soon change. Two months ago, a future new director was named for the Théâtre de la Ville. Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, a young Parisian director, will take over the reins in June 2008. A lively character and amateur race-car driver who is Portuguese on his mother’s side, Demarcy-Mota should shake things up at the Théâtre de la Ville. His first act should be to return the theater to its former name, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.”

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Denial Spreads

Throughout the Muslim world, history is being retold. The most notorious example, of course, is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust is a “myth,” which has given new credibility to a conspiracy theory that has long circulated among Muslim publics. However, thanks to the constant attention the Western press has afforded Ahmadinejad’s lies, this is old news. Yet the Western media has failed to cover another distortion of history that is suddenly gaining traction even within the most liberal, Western-friendly of Muslim states: that Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem have no basis in reality, having been fabricated as part of a broader Zionist conspiracy.

This lie found a new venue yesterday in Istanbul, where the three-day Al-Quds International Forum opened. Within the Arab press, this was a top news item, with conference participants’ denials of Jerusalem’s Jewish historical ties a prominent theme. Al-Jazeera’s headline declared “International Al-Quds Forum Opens With a Call to Resist Judaization,” while the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) similarly announced that “The Al-Quds Forum Calls for the Necessity of Liberating Jerusalem and Opposes Plans to Judaize It.” In fairness to the Western press, it’s a story that would have been easy to miss: the English-language headlines regarding the Al-Quds Forum were more benign, while Al-Jazeera English typically declined to mention it.

Whether or not it ever appears in the New York Times, make no mistake: this conference is deeply significant. The charge that Israel is “Judaizing” Jerusalem through archaeology or maintenance of religious sites is deeply rooted in Palestinian political discourse. Yasir Arafat and Hanan Ashrawi invoked the terminology of “Judaization” in 1996, after Israel opened Hasmonean Tunnel in the Old City, which revealed the foundations of the Second Temple. This past February, Palestinians used “Judaization” charges to protest Israel’s repair of an access ramp to the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Dome of the Rock; one Fatah spokesperson accused Israel of trying to replace the mosque with a “Jewish Temple.” At the time, these charges resonated sufficiently among Muslim publics that Israel installed webcams to prove that they were not damaging Muslim holy sites. The furor seemed to have cooled thereafter.

But conspiracy theories don’t die easily in the Middle East. The charge of Jerusalem’s “Judaization” has thus officially moved beyond the Palestinian territories. The Al-Quds Forum in Istanbul—and the overwhelmingly positive press it is receiving throughout the Muslim world—shows that denial of Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem has attained disturbing legitimacy.

Throughout the Muslim world, history is being retold. The most notorious example, of course, is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust is a “myth,” which has given new credibility to a conspiracy theory that has long circulated among Muslim publics. However, thanks to the constant attention the Western press has afforded Ahmadinejad’s lies, this is old news. Yet the Western media has failed to cover another distortion of history that is suddenly gaining traction even within the most liberal, Western-friendly of Muslim states: that Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem have no basis in reality, having been fabricated as part of a broader Zionist conspiracy.

This lie found a new venue yesterday in Istanbul, where the three-day Al-Quds International Forum opened. Within the Arab press, this was a top news item, with conference participants’ denials of Jerusalem’s Jewish historical ties a prominent theme. Al-Jazeera’s headline declared “International Al-Quds Forum Opens With a Call to Resist Judaization,” while the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) similarly announced that “The Al-Quds Forum Calls for the Necessity of Liberating Jerusalem and Opposes Plans to Judaize It.” In fairness to the Western press, it’s a story that would have been easy to miss: the English-language headlines regarding the Al-Quds Forum were more benign, while Al-Jazeera English typically declined to mention it.

Whether or not it ever appears in the New York Times, make no mistake: this conference is deeply significant. The charge that Israel is “Judaizing” Jerusalem through archaeology or maintenance of religious sites is deeply rooted in Palestinian political discourse. Yasir Arafat and Hanan Ashrawi invoked the terminology of “Judaization” in 1996, after Israel opened Hasmonean Tunnel in the Old City, which revealed the foundations of the Second Temple. This past February, Palestinians used “Judaization” charges to protest Israel’s repair of an access ramp to the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Dome of the Rock; one Fatah spokesperson accused Israel of trying to replace the mosque with a “Jewish Temple.” At the time, these charges resonated sufficiently among Muslim publics that Israel installed webcams to prove that they were not damaging Muslim holy sites. The furor seemed to have cooled thereafter.

But conspiracy theories don’t die easily in the Middle East. The charge of Jerusalem’s “Judaization” has thus officially moved beyond the Palestinian territories. The Al-Quds Forum in Istanbul—and the overwhelmingly positive press it is receiving throughout the Muslim world—shows that denial of Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem has attained disturbing legitimacy.

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Sally Quinn: Gee, There’s This Thing Called Religion!

Newsweek and the Washington Post are celebrating the first anniversary of their joint website, “On Faith,” which is billed as “A Conversation on Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn.” And therein hangs a tale.

Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek and perhaps the only serious student of religion among the top editors in the mainstream media. Quinn is another story. She became famous first for a disastrous stint as the co-host of a morning news show in the 1970s and then as the star snark writer of profiles during the heyday of the Washington Post’s Style section in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After that she wrote several trashy bestsellers about D.C. life.

I tell you all this because Sally Quinn has written a post on the website on the occasion of its first anniversary that is one of the most dumbfounding documents I have ever read. It is like Augustine’s Confessions, if Augustine’s Confessions had been written by a combination of Helen Gurley Brown and Britney Spears.

You really have to read the whole thing to get the full flavor, but I will here provide you with some choice excerpts:

When we started this I knew practically nothing about religion or the internet. I was not a believer (Jon Meacham is an Episcopalian, a practicing Christian) so I felt secure that I had his experience and knowledge to give us the grounding we needed. Even so it was such an unlikely subject for me to get involved with that even my husband was in shock. My friends still report people sidling up to them at cocktail parties and saying, “What’s with Sally and this religion thing?”

When you really think about it though, it’s not all that surprising. I’m a journalist. I always want to know everything about everything. Curiosity is a driving force with me. In fact I remember when I was eleven, meeting this really cute guy whose mother brought him over to our house one day. I began asking him questions about himself and he finally turned to me and said, “Gee, you’re nosy. ”I was devastated. I had been genuinely interested and wanted to know more about him….

Ultimately each of us is searching for some kind of meaning. Whether we are Christians or Jews or Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists or Wiccans or Atheists or whatever, we are all looking for a way to understand why we are here and to find our own happiness and contentment.

When I announced to Jon several years ago that I was an atheist he challenged me. He said I should not define myself negatively, for one thing, and that if I was really serious about not believing in God that I should at least have some knowledge about what it was I didn’t believe in. At that point I was completely illiterate on the subject, having been disdainful and contemptuous of religion all of my life. But I took what he said to heart and began to read some of the books he suggested. Once again my curiosity got the best of me.

All I can say is that I was shocked and embarrassed at how little I knew, and ultimately ashamed of myself for proclaiming myself an atheist when I really didn’t know what I was talking about.

I also began to realize that so many people in this world who call themselves religious were just like me. They not only knew nothing or little about their own faith but were just as close minded and hostile to other religions as I was to all religion.

The more I read the more I wanted to read and the more obsessed I became with the subject.

Finally in March I took a trip around the world to study the Great Faiths. It was a private tour and we started in Rome. From there we went to Jerusalem in Israel and Bethlehem in Palestine, Kyoto, Japan; Chengdu, China; Lhasa, Tibet; Varanasi, New Delhi and Amritsar in India; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Cairo, Egypt; Armenia; and Istanbul, Turkey. When I told my friend, “On Faith” panelist and religion scholar Elaine Pagels, about the trip she asked how long I had spent. “Three weeks ‘”I replied. “But,” she said in astonishment, “you can’t do that trip in less than three years!.” She was right, actually….

What for me, was the most enlightening thing about my trip was how similar the basic tenets of all religions are. There are some scholars who might argue that point but I felt that ultimately, if you take away all of the evil that has been done in the name of religion (and that’s what I had concentrated on most of my life) you will find that exhortation by Confucius, “What you do not wish for youself, do not do to others,” is really the basis of most world religions. It is the practices and interpretations of that where the faiths diverge.

The trip bolstered my belief in what Jon and I were doing. I felt even more strongly that it was vitally important for people of all faiths and no faiths to understand each other and that we must do everything we could do to foster that understanding….

This country was founded on the concept of separation of church and state. There is a huge difference between understanding and respecting the faiths of others and trying to impose your faith on others. The more we understand about other faiths, I believe, the less likely we will be to try to coerce others into believing as we do.

That is our goal.

Remember: This is the woman who is the co-editor of a religion website co-managed by one of the nation’s two most important newspapers and one of the nation’s two most important magazines. Neither organization, it’s safe to say, would allow a person as gleefully ignorant and simultaneously archly portentous as Quinn to co-host a site about, oh, sports with the level of knowledge and interest she possessed before taking on “On Faith.” And who, after a year’s thin study, feels herself competent to speak with surpassingly confident banality about the differences and commonalities of the world’s major religions.

Newsweek and the Washington Post are celebrating the first anniversary of their joint website, “On Faith,” which is billed as “A Conversation on Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn.” And therein hangs a tale.

Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek and perhaps the only serious student of religion among the top editors in the mainstream media. Quinn is another story. She became famous first for a disastrous stint as the co-host of a morning news show in the 1970s and then as the star snark writer of profiles during the heyday of the Washington Post’s Style section in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After that she wrote several trashy bestsellers about D.C. life.

I tell you all this because Sally Quinn has written a post on the website on the occasion of its first anniversary that is one of the most dumbfounding documents I have ever read. It is like Augustine’s Confessions, if Augustine’s Confessions had been written by a combination of Helen Gurley Brown and Britney Spears.

You really have to read the whole thing to get the full flavor, but I will here provide you with some choice excerpts:

When we started this I knew practically nothing about religion or the internet. I was not a believer (Jon Meacham is an Episcopalian, a practicing Christian) so I felt secure that I had his experience and knowledge to give us the grounding we needed. Even so it was such an unlikely subject for me to get involved with that even my husband was in shock. My friends still report people sidling up to them at cocktail parties and saying, “What’s with Sally and this religion thing?”

When you really think about it though, it’s not all that surprising. I’m a journalist. I always want to know everything about everything. Curiosity is a driving force with me. In fact I remember when I was eleven, meeting this really cute guy whose mother brought him over to our house one day. I began asking him questions about himself and he finally turned to me and said, “Gee, you’re nosy. ”I was devastated. I had been genuinely interested and wanted to know more about him….

Ultimately each of us is searching for some kind of meaning. Whether we are Christians or Jews or Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists or Wiccans or Atheists or whatever, we are all looking for a way to understand why we are here and to find our own happiness and contentment.

When I announced to Jon several years ago that I was an atheist he challenged me. He said I should not define myself negatively, for one thing, and that if I was really serious about not believing in God that I should at least have some knowledge about what it was I didn’t believe in. At that point I was completely illiterate on the subject, having been disdainful and contemptuous of religion all of my life. But I took what he said to heart and began to read some of the books he suggested. Once again my curiosity got the best of me.

All I can say is that I was shocked and embarrassed at how little I knew, and ultimately ashamed of myself for proclaiming myself an atheist when I really didn’t know what I was talking about.

I also began to realize that so many people in this world who call themselves religious were just like me. They not only knew nothing or little about their own faith but were just as close minded and hostile to other religions as I was to all religion.

The more I read the more I wanted to read and the more obsessed I became with the subject.

Finally in March I took a trip around the world to study the Great Faiths. It was a private tour and we started in Rome. From there we went to Jerusalem in Israel and Bethlehem in Palestine, Kyoto, Japan; Chengdu, China; Lhasa, Tibet; Varanasi, New Delhi and Amritsar in India; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Cairo, Egypt; Armenia; and Istanbul, Turkey. When I told my friend, “On Faith” panelist and religion scholar Elaine Pagels, about the trip she asked how long I had spent. “Three weeks ‘”I replied. “But,” she said in astonishment, “you can’t do that trip in less than three years!.” She was right, actually….

What for me, was the most enlightening thing about my trip was how similar the basic tenets of all religions are. There are some scholars who might argue that point but I felt that ultimately, if you take away all of the evil that has been done in the name of religion (and that’s what I had concentrated on most of my life) you will find that exhortation by Confucius, “What you do not wish for youself, do not do to others,” is really the basis of most world religions. It is the practices and interpretations of that where the faiths diverge.

The trip bolstered my belief in what Jon and I were doing. I felt even more strongly that it was vitally important for people of all faiths and no faiths to understand each other and that we must do everything we could do to foster that understanding….

This country was founded on the concept of separation of church and state. There is a huge difference between understanding and respecting the faiths of others and trying to impose your faith on others. The more we understand about other faiths, I believe, the less likely we will be to try to coerce others into believing as we do.

That is our goal.

Remember: This is the woman who is the co-editor of a religion website co-managed by one of the nation’s two most important newspapers and one of the nation’s two most important magazines. Neither organization, it’s safe to say, would allow a person as gleefully ignorant and simultaneously archly portentous as Quinn to co-host a site about, oh, sports with the level of knowledge and interest she possessed before taking on “On Faith.” And who, after a year’s thin study, feels herself competent to speak with surpassingly confident banality about the differences and commonalities of the world’s major religions.

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Is It Any Wonder?

The new Seven Wonders of the World, which were announced last week with great fanfare in Lisbon, are a droll affair. Two are from pre-Columbian America (the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru and the temples of Chichén Itzá, Mexico), two from Asia (the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China), and one from the Middle East (the rock tombs of Petra, Jordan). The modern world comes up rather short (the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), as does European civilization in general (represented only by the Coliseum in Rome). Is this list something to take seriously? Does its comprehensive global sweep give it an authority that the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—mostly huddled around the Mediterranean—lacked?

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The new Seven Wonders of the World, which were announced last week with great fanfare in Lisbon, are a droll affair. Two are from pre-Columbian America (the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru and the temples of Chichén Itzá, Mexico), two from Asia (the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China), and one from the Middle East (the rock tombs of Petra, Jordan). The modern world comes up rather short (the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), as does European civilization in general (represented only by the Coliseum in Rome). Is this list something to take seriously? Does its comprehensive global sweep give it an authority that the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—mostly huddled around the Mediterranean—lacked?

The new list was created by the New7Wonders Foundation, whose own website proclaims—and without apparent irony—that it “was created in 2001 by Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber.” Weber has certainly been enterprising. Rather than forming a panel of experts, he allowed the public to vote for its favorite monuments. It is no surprise, then, that countries with large populations (China, Brazil, and India) dominate the list, and that monuments without constituencies (one thinks of the Stone Heads of Easter Island) do not figure. How Weber tabulated the votes, or what measures he took to prevent multiple voting, is unclear. The Vatican has speculated, according to the (London) Times, about the systematic exclusion of Christian monuments. As the Times reported,

Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, who heads the Vatican’s pontifical commission for culture and archeology, said that the exclusion of Christian works of art such as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was “surprising, inexplicable, even suspicious.”

One can no more quarrel with such a list than with television ratings. Still, as a thought exercise, one might speculate as to how a contemporary list of wonders might be drawn up—one not dependent on the erratic wisdom of the internet electorate. For one thing, one might turn for guidance to the original Seven Wonders. Several were noteworthy for their bold engineering, such as the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes, which showed their cultures building to the limits of their structural acumen. A contemporary list might recognize structures of similar engineering audacity. Three obvious candidates would be the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France. One might also note that landscape art was represented by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Would it be too chauvinistic to suggest Yosemite National Park as a wonder, one shaped and organized by human intervention?

Whether or not the Vatican is correct about bias, the list certainly ignores one of the wonders of western civilization, the poetic shaping of interior space. Weber’s list of wonders consists of photogenic exteriors—which look good on computer screens, unlike architectural interiors, which need to be experienced. The organized spatial poetry achieved in such buildings as Hagia Sophia, Istanbul; St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome; and Cologne Cathedral is indeed a wonder, and one or more of these monuments certainly belong on such a list. After all, one of the principal reasons for having such a list is educational.

In the end, the new Seven Wonders of the World have less to do with Herodotus than with David Wallechinsky, whose bestselling Book of Lists (1977) ranked the “worst places to hitchhike” or “people suspected of being Jack the Ripper.” Weber’s new list is at best a bit of harmless conversation fodder—although nowhere near as diverting as Wallechinsky’s “famous people who died during sex.”

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