Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mecca

RE: J Street Comes Clean

J Street’s position on Jerusalem, detailed below by Jen Rubin, is a perfect example of why the proper way to understand the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization is as an export-import business. Bear with me for a moment.

There was a set of ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict to which many people subscribed in the 80s and 90s. These ideas became the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords became an immense, catastrophic failure. Many people who were Oslo advocates, thus confronted with reality, changed their minds about the conflict (an obvious example is Benny Morris). Some Oslo advocates, however, did not, and adopted various theories to justify their continued membership in the peace-process-can-do-no-harm camp: the Israeli offers were never good enough, Sharon started the intifada, territorial withdrawal must come first, a conspiracy of neocons and AIPAC has always worked against peace, and so on. In 2000 in Lebanon and in 2005 in Gaza, territorial withdrawal was tried, and the results detonated a belief even deeper than Oslo, this one going all the way back to 1967 and perhaps even to 1948: the hope that land could be traded for peace and that the conflict is about borders, not Israel’s very existence.

These accumulated facts changed the attitude of Israelis in a dramatic way. The Oslo consensus disintegrated not only as an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but as a political platform. In the early 90s, Labor and Meretz held a combined 56 Knesset seats. Today they have 16. Yet despite this political collapse in Israel, a few true believers still cling to the Oslo fantasy. How can these ideas survive their failure in the very place they’re supposed to be applied?

J Street, working with various Meretz has-beens in Israel, imports the ideas to America and tries to revive them here, where Jews are far less aware of their abysmal record of failure. J Street pushes them to the Obama administration, which is favorably disposed to them anyway. Here is where the exporting happens: Obama now seeks to impose them on an unreceptive Israel.

This is not just an insular story about Israeli-American-Jewish politics. It’s probably the major reason why there is so much conflict between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. The former is living on J Street, where it is not considered insane to demand that Israel relinquish the Western Wall, the most meaningful place in Judaism, to an “international force” (Israel should agree to this when the Pope and the Saudis surrender the Vatican and Mecca to an international force). The latter came to power as the culminating point of an Israeli consensus that understands the failures of the previous 17 years and rejects the ideas that J Street and the Obama administration are trying to force back to Israel. This is why J Street is, in its essence, a political export-import business.

J Street’s position on Jerusalem, detailed below by Jen Rubin, is a perfect example of why the proper way to understand the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization is as an export-import business. Bear with me for a moment.

There was a set of ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict to which many people subscribed in the 80s and 90s. These ideas became the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords became an immense, catastrophic failure. Many people who were Oslo advocates, thus confronted with reality, changed their minds about the conflict (an obvious example is Benny Morris). Some Oslo advocates, however, did not, and adopted various theories to justify their continued membership in the peace-process-can-do-no-harm camp: the Israeli offers were never good enough, Sharon started the intifada, territorial withdrawal must come first, a conspiracy of neocons and AIPAC has always worked against peace, and so on. In 2000 in Lebanon and in 2005 in Gaza, territorial withdrawal was tried, and the results detonated a belief even deeper than Oslo, this one going all the way back to 1967 and perhaps even to 1948: the hope that land could be traded for peace and that the conflict is about borders, not Israel’s very existence.

These accumulated facts changed the attitude of Israelis in a dramatic way. The Oslo consensus disintegrated not only as an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but as a political platform. In the early 90s, Labor and Meretz held a combined 56 Knesset seats. Today they have 16. Yet despite this political collapse in Israel, a few true believers still cling to the Oslo fantasy. How can these ideas survive their failure in the very place they’re supposed to be applied?

J Street, working with various Meretz has-beens in Israel, imports the ideas to America and tries to revive them here, where Jews are far less aware of their abysmal record of failure. J Street pushes them to the Obama administration, which is favorably disposed to them anyway. Here is where the exporting happens: Obama now seeks to impose them on an unreceptive Israel.

This is not just an insular story about Israeli-American-Jewish politics. It’s probably the major reason why there is so much conflict between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. The former is living on J Street, where it is not considered insane to demand that Israel relinquish the Western Wall, the most meaningful place in Judaism, to an “international force” (Israel should agree to this when the Pope and the Saudis surrender the Vatican and Mecca to an international force). The latter came to power as the culminating point of an Israeli consensus that understands the failures of the previous 17 years and rejects the ideas that J Street and the Obama administration are trying to force back to Israel. This is why J Street is, in its essence, a political export-import business.

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The Centrist Tug

As he marks a year in office, President Obama has to deal with plunging opinion polls, repeated rebuffs abroad from nations as diverse as Israel and Iran, and now the loss of a Senate seat in solidly Democratic Massachusetts — a result only slightly more surprising than if the residents of Mecca had converted to Catholicism. That last setback has put his signature legislative initiative, an overhaul of the health-care system, in the critical-care ward.

I differ from the general disenchantment with Obama only insofar as I was never that enchanted to begin with. Yet I am still glad in retrospect that he won. And not because I doubt that John McCain would have been a better president; I don’t. But if McCain had won, he would have faced a poisonous environment in Washington with embittered Democrats blocking his every initiative and castigating him as a Bush clone.

An overly long period in opposition can drive any political party to extremes. We saw it with Republicans in the 1990s. Many Republicans opposed well-justified interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo simply because they were “Clinton’s wars” and spent much of their time in ever-more-bizarre scandal-mongering regarding the occupant of the Oval Office. Democrats went even more overboard during the Bush years; some went so far as to accuse the president of usurping our liberties and starting wars for profit. Even the more respectable center of the Democratic Party gave vent to views that were often fantastically irresponsible. They seemed to believe that every foreign difficulty encountered by the U.S. was due to Bush’s truculence, and that a president who believed in “outreach” could somehow bring about a miraculous rapprochement with nations from Iran to Russia.

A year into the Obama presidency, those illusions are rapidly evaporating upon contact with reality. Democrats are learning that negotiations alone will not end the threat from rogue regimes and that no sales job can stop al-Qaeda from trying to kill us. President Obama has actually chosen in many areas, ranging from the Patriot Act to U.S. dealings with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, to continue Bush initiatives, sometimes providing more resources and acting more aggressively than Bush had done. (He has, for example, ordered more Predator strikes over Pakistan than Bush did.) In those areas where he has tried to carry out the biggest deviations from Bush policy — e.g., closing Gitmo and dealing with Tehran — he has met nothing but frustration and disappointment. Now we can most likely add health-care reform to the list of leftist failures in Obama’s first term. Wise Democrats realize that a more centrist course is needed to prevent Obama’s first term from becoming his only term.

This is exactly how our democracy is supposed to function. The result will be, I hope, a president and a party that emerge wiser and more responsible in their policy prescriptions than they had been during the years in the wilderness.

As he marks a year in office, President Obama has to deal with plunging opinion polls, repeated rebuffs abroad from nations as diverse as Israel and Iran, and now the loss of a Senate seat in solidly Democratic Massachusetts — a result only slightly more surprising than if the residents of Mecca had converted to Catholicism. That last setback has put his signature legislative initiative, an overhaul of the health-care system, in the critical-care ward.

I differ from the general disenchantment with Obama only insofar as I was never that enchanted to begin with. Yet I am still glad in retrospect that he won. And not because I doubt that John McCain would have been a better president; I don’t. But if McCain had won, he would have faced a poisonous environment in Washington with embittered Democrats blocking his every initiative and castigating him as a Bush clone.

An overly long period in opposition can drive any political party to extremes. We saw it with Republicans in the 1990s. Many Republicans opposed well-justified interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo simply because they were “Clinton’s wars” and spent much of their time in ever-more-bizarre scandal-mongering regarding the occupant of the Oval Office. Democrats went even more overboard during the Bush years; some went so far as to accuse the president of usurping our liberties and starting wars for profit. Even the more respectable center of the Democratic Party gave vent to views that were often fantastically irresponsible. They seemed to believe that every foreign difficulty encountered by the U.S. was due to Bush’s truculence, and that a president who believed in “outreach” could somehow bring about a miraculous rapprochement with nations from Iran to Russia.

A year into the Obama presidency, those illusions are rapidly evaporating upon contact with reality. Democrats are learning that negotiations alone will not end the threat from rogue regimes and that no sales job can stop al-Qaeda from trying to kill us. President Obama has actually chosen in many areas, ranging from the Patriot Act to U.S. dealings with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, to continue Bush initiatives, sometimes providing more resources and acting more aggressively than Bush had done. (He has, for example, ordered more Predator strikes over Pakistan than Bush did.) In those areas where he has tried to carry out the biggest deviations from Bush policy — e.g., closing Gitmo and dealing with Tehran — he has met nothing but frustration and disappointment. Now we can most likely add health-care reform to the list of leftist failures in Obama’s first term. Wise Democrats realize that a more centrist course is needed to prevent Obama’s first term from becoming his only term.

This is exactly how our democracy is supposed to function. The result will be, I hope, a president and a party that emerge wiser and more responsible in their policy prescriptions than they had been during the years in the wilderness.

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Take It Back, Boehner

In a press release on May 12, House Republican Leader John Boehner said this:

Israel is a critical American ally and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, not a ‘constant sore’ as Barack Obama claims. Obama’s latest remark, and his commitment to ‘opening a dialogue’ with sponsors of terrorism, echoes past statements by Jimmy Carter who once called Israel an ‘apartheid state.’ It’s another sign that Obama is part of the broken Washington Americans are rejecting.

In fact, Obama claimed no such thing, as a check of his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic demonstrates. Here’s the relevant passage:

JG: What do you make of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Israel resembles an apartheid state?
BO: I strongly reject the characterization. Israel is a vibrant democracy, the only one in the Middle East, and there’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.
JG: If you become President, will you denounce settlements publicly?
BO: What I will say is what I’ve said previously. Settlements at this juncture are not helpful. Look, my interest is in solving this problem not only for Israel but for the United States.
JG: Do you think that Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas?
BO: No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.

In the full interview, Obama went out of his way to praise Israel several different times, in several different ways, and often eloquently. In fact, he answers “no, no, no” when asked if Israel is a “drag on America’s reputation overseas.” What Obama seems to be referring to as a “constant wound” and “constant sore” which “infect[s] all of our foreign policy” is, as best as I can tell, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, perhaps, Israel’s settlement policies more narrowly).

It’s perfectly acceptable if people want to criticize Obama for his comments. One could, for example, dispute Obama’s assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian issue “infect[s] all of our foreign policy.” There is a widespread view among many foreign policy elites that all the problems of the Middle East can be traced to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I believe that proposition is false and belied by history (see the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and Syria’s subjugation of Lebanon for starters).

In addition, jihadists don’t need the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to kill Americans. Osama bin Laden’s fatwas, issued in the late 1990’s, were at least as concerned with our presence in Mecca and Medina and our policies toward Iraq as our policies toward Israel. Jihadists will certainly use our support for Israel as an excuse to attack us, but our mere existence will also do. That said, there are more than enough legitimate grounds on which to criticize Obama. It’s not necessary, and it’s wrong and dishonest, to tether him to claims he simply did not make. John Boehner should correct the record.

In a press release on May 12, House Republican Leader John Boehner said this:

Israel is a critical American ally and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, not a ‘constant sore’ as Barack Obama claims. Obama’s latest remark, and his commitment to ‘opening a dialogue’ with sponsors of terrorism, echoes past statements by Jimmy Carter who once called Israel an ‘apartheid state.’ It’s another sign that Obama is part of the broken Washington Americans are rejecting.

In fact, Obama claimed no such thing, as a check of his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic demonstrates. Here’s the relevant passage:

JG: What do you make of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Israel resembles an apartheid state?
BO: I strongly reject the characterization. Israel is a vibrant democracy, the only one in the Middle East, and there’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.
JG: If you become President, will you denounce settlements publicly?
BO: What I will say is what I’ve said previously. Settlements at this juncture are not helpful. Look, my interest is in solving this problem not only for Israel but for the United States.
JG: Do you think that Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas?
BO: No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.

In the full interview, Obama went out of his way to praise Israel several different times, in several different ways, and often eloquently. In fact, he answers “no, no, no” when asked if Israel is a “drag on America’s reputation overseas.” What Obama seems to be referring to as a “constant wound” and “constant sore” which “infect[s] all of our foreign policy” is, as best as I can tell, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, perhaps, Israel’s settlement policies more narrowly).

It’s perfectly acceptable if people want to criticize Obama for his comments. One could, for example, dispute Obama’s assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian issue “infect[s] all of our foreign policy.” There is a widespread view among many foreign policy elites that all the problems of the Middle East can be traced to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I believe that proposition is false and belied by history (see the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and Syria’s subjugation of Lebanon for starters).

In addition, jihadists don’t need the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to kill Americans. Osama bin Laden’s fatwas, issued in the late 1990’s, were at least as concerned with our presence in Mecca and Medina and our policies toward Iraq as our policies toward Israel. Jihadists will certainly use our support for Israel as an excuse to attack us, but our mere existence will also do. That said, there are more than enough legitimate grounds on which to criticize Obama. It’s not necessary, and it’s wrong and dishonest, to tether him to claims he simply did not make. John Boehner should correct the record.

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Embraced

There’s a very “balanced” piece about the planned Flight 93 memorial in today’s New York Times. But this surreal tale has been kicking around the blogosphere for a few years now.

In the name of Islam, a group of terrorists turned an airplane full of unsuspecting civilians into a missile packed with corpses. In order to honor the men, women, and children whose last experience was a death plunge over Pennsylvania, a memorial is designed. This memorial, named “Crescent of Embrace,” is a massive landscape sculpture of a star and crescent, the symbol of Islam.

The memorial’s designer, Paul Murdoch, said “The framing of that space is like a large-scale embrace, on a scale commensurate of the heroic acts of the people who died there.” There’s more than enough vagueness in that drivel to leave you wondering just whose acts Murdoch deems heroic.

The original design has to be seen to be believed. It’s as unmistakably an Islamic crescent as Mount Rushmore is a row of U.S. presidents. This is from the Times:

The critics complain that the shape of the memorial – designed by Paul Murdoch, an architect based in Los Angeles – is an Islamic crescent, that a wind-chime tower mirrors an Islamic minaret and that the memorial would point east toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Here’s an experiment: Take out the words “The critics complain that” and take out the “that” after “crescent.” Look at the picture of the original design for the memorial side-by-side with a picture of an Islamic crescent. Can there be any doubt that “the critics” are merely observers? And sloppy observers to boot. They missed something: the little satellite cluster of trees standing in place of the crescent’s star.

Is there a term to describe this phenomenon? Irony doesn’t cut it, and self-loathing misses the irony. Forget the nuances. Let’s go with surrender. For that’s what the symbol literally says. The Arabic meaning of Islam is “surrender” (not “peace” or “love” or any other rubber-bracelet sentiment). Constructing the “Crescent of Embrace” on a Pennsylvania field is simply writing “we surrender” in the very language of our enemy.

People have complained, and the Times reports that the design has been changed. It’s now the “Circle of Embrace.” The crescent’s gap has been (mostly) filled in, giving the Islamic symbolism a “Where’s Waldo?” spin. It’s still in there, you just have to look a little harder. Of course, the design and the designer should have been scrapped altogether. But amid all this embracing, it would be rude to leave him out.

If and when there’s another such attack, one wonders what they might throw up to commemorate victims. Maybe an all-in-one flight school, passport office, and mosque?

There’s a very “balanced” piece about the planned Flight 93 memorial in today’s New York Times. But this surreal tale has been kicking around the blogosphere for a few years now.

In the name of Islam, a group of terrorists turned an airplane full of unsuspecting civilians into a missile packed with corpses. In order to honor the men, women, and children whose last experience was a death plunge over Pennsylvania, a memorial is designed. This memorial, named “Crescent of Embrace,” is a massive landscape sculpture of a star and crescent, the symbol of Islam.

The memorial’s designer, Paul Murdoch, said “The framing of that space is like a large-scale embrace, on a scale commensurate of the heroic acts of the people who died there.” There’s more than enough vagueness in that drivel to leave you wondering just whose acts Murdoch deems heroic.

The original design has to be seen to be believed. It’s as unmistakably an Islamic crescent as Mount Rushmore is a row of U.S. presidents. This is from the Times:

The critics complain that the shape of the memorial – designed by Paul Murdoch, an architect based in Los Angeles – is an Islamic crescent, that a wind-chime tower mirrors an Islamic minaret and that the memorial would point east toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Here’s an experiment: Take out the words “The critics complain that” and take out the “that” after “crescent.” Look at the picture of the original design for the memorial side-by-side with a picture of an Islamic crescent. Can there be any doubt that “the critics” are merely observers? And sloppy observers to boot. They missed something: the little satellite cluster of trees standing in place of the crescent’s star.

Is there a term to describe this phenomenon? Irony doesn’t cut it, and self-loathing misses the irony. Forget the nuances. Let’s go with surrender. For that’s what the symbol literally says. The Arabic meaning of Islam is “surrender” (not “peace” or “love” or any other rubber-bracelet sentiment). Constructing the “Crescent of Embrace” on a Pennsylvania field is simply writing “we surrender” in the very language of our enemy.

People have complained, and the Times reports that the design has been changed. It’s now the “Circle of Embrace.” The crescent’s gap has been (mostly) filled in, giving the Islamic symbolism a “Where’s Waldo?” spin. It’s still in there, you just have to look a little harder. Of course, the design and the designer should have been scrapped altogether. But amid all this embracing, it would be rude to leave him out.

If and when there’s another such attack, one wonders what they might throw up to commemorate victims. Maybe an all-in-one flight school, passport office, and mosque?

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More Malley Misjudgments

One of the great myths of Palestinian politics is that “national unity” is a prerequisite for forging peace with Israel. Indeed, history has shown quite the opposite: that the very pursuit of Palestinian “national unity”—which implicitly requires empowering parties that are sworn to Israel’s destruction—retards the peace process entirely. For example, consider the consequences of including Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections: rather than joining forces with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a unified pursuit of peace, the victorious Hamas leadership opted to escalate its confrontation with Israel—doing so with greater political legitimacy among Palestinians, no less.

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama claims to have learned from this history. Even while declining to denounce former President Jimmy Carter for his upcoming meet-and-greet with Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Damascus, Obama declared, “Until Hamas clearly recognizes Israel, renounces terrorism and abides by, or believes that the Palestinians should abide by previous agreements … I don’t think conversations with them would be fruitful.” Yet there is a new reason to doubt Obama’s sincerity in his stance against engaging Hamas: in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Obama foreign policy adviser Robert Malley argues that Abbas should employ the same “logic behind his acceptance that Hamas participate in the 2006 elections,” such that Hamas is coaxed enter the political system and given “a stake in governance and a foot in the peace process.”

Yes, you’ve read that correctly: Malley—whom I’ve previously criticized for enthusiastically supporting the inclusion of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections—believes that learning from Palestinian political history means repeating it! In this vein, Malley further calls for yet another Hamas-Fatah national unity deal—one that roughly resembles the agreement that the two parties signed last year in Mecca (with Malley’s blessings), which ultimately gave Hamas ample cover for planning its coup in Gaza only four months later. But perhaps Malley’s total failure to learn from history is best illustrated in his typical homily to Yasser Arafat, whom Malley believes should be a model for future Palestinian leaders trying to sell peace with Israel to their people; he writes, “Full of bluster and bravado, Yasser Arafat could make Palestinian setbacks such as the Oslo compromises taste like victory.” Of course, this is a stunning distortion: Arafat never actually promoted Oslo as a Palestinian victory, but promised that it represented a first step towards reclaiming all of historic Palestine.

Ultimately, one is left to wonder: if Obama is so dead-set against engaging Hamas, why is Malley—a constant proponent of engaging Hamas, among other wrongheaded ideas—advising him?

One of the great myths of Palestinian politics is that “national unity” is a prerequisite for forging peace with Israel. Indeed, history has shown quite the opposite: that the very pursuit of Palestinian “national unity”—which implicitly requires empowering parties that are sworn to Israel’s destruction—retards the peace process entirely. For example, consider the consequences of including Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections: rather than joining forces with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a unified pursuit of peace, the victorious Hamas leadership opted to escalate its confrontation with Israel—doing so with greater political legitimacy among Palestinians, no less.

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama claims to have learned from this history. Even while declining to denounce former President Jimmy Carter for his upcoming meet-and-greet with Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Damascus, Obama declared, “Until Hamas clearly recognizes Israel, renounces terrorism and abides by, or believes that the Palestinians should abide by previous agreements … I don’t think conversations with them would be fruitful.” Yet there is a new reason to doubt Obama’s sincerity in his stance against engaging Hamas: in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Obama foreign policy adviser Robert Malley argues that Abbas should employ the same “logic behind his acceptance that Hamas participate in the 2006 elections,” such that Hamas is coaxed enter the political system and given “a stake in governance and a foot in the peace process.”

Yes, you’ve read that correctly: Malley—whom I’ve previously criticized for enthusiastically supporting the inclusion of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections—believes that learning from Palestinian political history means repeating it! In this vein, Malley further calls for yet another Hamas-Fatah national unity deal—one that roughly resembles the agreement that the two parties signed last year in Mecca (with Malley’s blessings), which ultimately gave Hamas ample cover for planning its coup in Gaza only four months later. But perhaps Malley’s total failure to learn from history is best illustrated in his typical homily to Yasser Arafat, whom Malley believes should be a model for future Palestinian leaders trying to sell peace with Israel to their people; he writes, “Full of bluster and bravado, Yasser Arafat could make Palestinian setbacks such as the Oslo compromises taste like victory.” Of course, this is a stunning distortion: Arafat never actually promoted Oslo as a Palestinian victory, but promised that it represented a first step towards reclaiming all of historic Palestine.

Ultimately, one is left to wonder: if Obama is so dead-set against engaging Hamas, why is Malley—a constant proponent of engaging Hamas, among other wrongheaded ideas—advising him?

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A Saudi Woman Speaks

A Saudi woman has written a letter to the Jerusalem Post that just might force us obstinate Westerners to rethink our assumptions about the land of Mecca and Medina. Maybe we’ve been a little keen on the propaganda, and Saudi Arabia isn’t so bad after all! From the letter:

We do have a choice on who to marry. You do realize we live in the 21st century?! Both my sisters and brother knew their spouses before they were married, and I come from a relatively religiously committed family.

Hmmm. You don’t say. Well, what about that Saudi prohibition on all other religions thing?

It makes sense not to allow another religion to be practiced in such a sacred place. As far as I know there is no mosque in Vatican City. I respect the fact that it is a sacred place for a religion, and I would expect to receive the same respect from others about my country.

You know, I never thought of it that way. Say, you’re pretty smart. Where did you learn to reason like that?

As for our education, it is well on its way to becoming one of the best in the world. We have a wide range of opportunities. The college I attend has marketing, accounting, media, nursing, special education, electrical engineering, architecture, management, finance, and psychology.

I have to admit, that’s an impressive list. Can you attend these classes on your own?

. . .contrary to what people assume, we are allowed to leave the house. Even without our brothers or fathers. It is a cultural choice whether a mother of father permit their daughters out without male supervision. Perhaps one in 15 families take a stringent position.

Not bad odds. So, women live pretty decent lives there, huh?

Our way is our choice. Nothing is forced upon us.

I guess not. Thanks for clarifying things.

One day my country will rise and shine above all, and I am sure when that happens the world will suddenly want to befriend us.

Why wait? I want to befriend you right now. How can I get in touch with you? Wait . . .what’s this?

Editors note: The writer asked that her full name be kept in confidence.

Yep, life for women in Saudia Arabia seems pretty great. What with all the identity-concealing for fear of reprisals and whatnot.

A Saudi woman has written a letter to the Jerusalem Post that just might force us obstinate Westerners to rethink our assumptions about the land of Mecca and Medina. Maybe we’ve been a little keen on the propaganda, and Saudi Arabia isn’t so bad after all! From the letter:

We do have a choice on who to marry. You do realize we live in the 21st century?! Both my sisters and brother knew their spouses before they were married, and I come from a relatively religiously committed family.

Hmmm. You don’t say. Well, what about that Saudi prohibition on all other religions thing?

It makes sense not to allow another religion to be practiced in such a sacred place. As far as I know there is no mosque in Vatican City. I respect the fact that it is a sacred place for a religion, and I would expect to receive the same respect from others about my country.

You know, I never thought of it that way. Say, you’re pretty smart. Where did you learn to reason like that?

As for our education, it is well on its way to becoming one of the best in the world. We have a wide range of opportunities. The college I attend has marketing, accounting, media, nursing, special education, electrical engineering, architecture, management, finance, and psychology.

I have to admit, that’s an impressive list. Can you attend these classes on your own?

. . .contrary to what people assume, we are allowed to leave the house. Even without our brothers or fathers. It is a cultural choice whether a mother of father permit their daughters out without male supervision. Perhaps one in 15 families take a stringent position.

Not bad odds. So, women live pretty decent lives there, huh?

Our way is our choice. Nothing is forced upon us.

I guess not. Thanks for clarifying things.

One day my country will rise and shine above all, and I am sure when that happens the world will suddenly want to befriend us.

Why wait? I want to befriend you right now. How can I get in touch with you? Wait . . .what’s this?

Editors note: The writer asked that her full name be kept in confidence.

Yep, life for women in Saudia Arabia seems pretty great. What with all the identity-concealing for fear of reprisals and whatnot.

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Pilgrims’ Dangerous Progress

Defying an agreement with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Egypt has allowed over 2000 Palestinians returning from Mecca to cross through their border into Gaza. Ynet reports, the group contained dozens of Hamas officials. Common sense dictates that the pilgrims may have picked up funds and arms while in Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians were supposed to have re-entered Gaza through Israel, where they would have endured rigorous border security.

Egypt’s decision has emboldened Hamas, weakened Mahmoud Abbas, undermined Israel’s security, and humiliated the U.S. The atmosphere that allowed for this brazen violation of a multi-state agreement can be directly attributed to the Annapolis peace talks. Whenever the U.S. and Israel ignore the non-negotiable nature of the enemy, and pretend to have “partners in peace,” they broadcast weakness. This weakness is always exploited, and, somehow, the U.S. never learns. Change the names and this sad paragraph from the Washington Times coverage could be cut and pasted into any Middle East story from the past dozen years:

The Bush administration is watching the situation warily, not wanting to offend either Egypt or Israel on the eve of the president’s trip. “We understand there are concerns on all sides, and we will continue to have discussions on this issue,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

While the Bush administration is set on not offending, Hamas has been justifiably calling the incident a victory.

Defying an agreement with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Egypt has allowed over 2000 Palestinians returning from Mecca to cross through their border into Gaza. Ynet reports, the group contained dozens of Hamas officials. Common sense dictates that the pilgrims may have picked up funds and arms while in Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians were supposed to have re-entered Gaza through Israel, where they would have endured rigorous border security.

Egypt’s decision has emboldened Hamas, weakened Mahmoud Abbas, undermined Israel’s security, and humiliated the U.S. The atmosphere that allowed for this brazen violation of a multi-state agreement can be directly attributed to the Annapolis peace talks. Whenever the U.S. and Israel ignore the non-negotiable nature of the enemy, and pretend to have “partners in peace,” they broadcast weakness. This weakness is always exploited, and, somehow, the U.S. never learns. Change the names and this sad paragraph from the Washington Times coverage could be cut and pasted into any Middle East story from the past dozen years:

The Bush administration is watching the situation warily, not wanting to offend either Egypt or Israel on the eve of the president’s trip. “We understand there are concerns on all sides, and we will continue to have discussions on this issue,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

While the Bush administration is set on not offending, Hamas has been justifiably calling the incident a victory.

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The First Assault on Annapolis

Most coverage of the Annapolis Conference conceded that Israeli-Palestinian peace was hardly a likely outcome. Indeed, there were many reasons to be skeptical: the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are too weak; Hamas is too strong; Israeli and Palestinian publics are too pessimistic; and the “Arab street” is too apathetic, if not downright opposed, to accepting peace with the Jewish state. Given these realities, commentators floated a number of theories as to what Annapolis could realistically accomplish. Perhaps the most compelling of these theories argued that Annapolis sought to establish a broad U.S.-Arab-Israeli coalition against Iranian ascendancy. This theory convincingly explained why even Saudi Arabia—whose leaders proudly refused to shake hands with their Israeli counterparts—participated.

Yet, only two weeks after Annapolis, the it’s-all-about-Iran theory can be laid to rest. Rather than using Annapolis and the ensuing diplomatic process to isolate Iran and its regional proxies, Arab participants have reached out to Iranian-backed Hamas, pushing for a truce with Fatah that would readmit Hamas to the Palestinian political process. This weekend, Saudi Arabia took the first step towards reconciling Hamas and Fatah when it welcomed Damascus-based Hamas leader Khalid Meshal for talks, while Iranian television has announced that Hamas officials will visit Egypt later this week—a move aimed at pressuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate.

Make no mistake: if Arab states successfully force Abbas to negotiate with Hamas, peace prospects will be conclusively doomed. Of course, Hamas and Fatah have been down this road before: after months of infighting, Abbas convened with Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh in Mecca in February 2007, forging a national unity government under Saudi patronage. The ensuing period of relative calm allowed Hamas to prepare for its takeover of Gaza, which formally terminated the national unity government after a mere four months and improved Iran’s ability to provide financial and military support to its radical Islamist allies.

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Most coverage of the Annapolis Conference conceded that Israeli-Palestinian peace was hardly a likely outcome. Indeed, there were many reasons to be skeptical: the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are too weak; Hamas is too strong; Israeli and Palestinian publics are too pessimistic; and the “Arab street” is too apathetic, if not downright opposed, to accepting peace with the Jewish state. Given these realities, commentators floated a number of theories as to what Annapolis could realistically accomplish. Perhaps the most compelling of these theories argued that Annapolis sought to establish a broad U.S.-Arab-Israeli coalition against Iranian ascendancy. This theory convincingly explained why even Saudi Arabia—whose leaders proudly refused to shake hands with their Israeli counterparts—participated.

Yet, only two weeks after Annapolis, the it’s-all-about-Iran theory can be laid to rest. Rather than using Annapolis and the ensuing diplomatic process to isolate Iran and its regional proxies, Arab participants have reached out to Iranian-backed Hamas, pushing for a truce with Fatah that would readmit Hamas to the Palestinian political process. This weekend, Saudi Arabia took the first step towards reconciling Hamas and Fatah when it welcomed Damascus-based Hamas leader Khalid Meshal for talks, while Iranian television has announced that Hamas officials will visit Egypt later this week—a move aimed at pressuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate.

Make no mistake: if Arab states successfully force Abbas to negotiate with Hamas, peace prospects will be conclusively doomed. Of course, Hamas and Fatah have been down this road before: after months of infighting, Abbas convened with Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh in Mecca in February 2007, forging a national unity government under Saudi patronage. The ensuing period of relative calm allowed Hamas to prepare for its takeover of Gaza, which formally terminated the national unity government after a mere four months and improved Iran’s ability to provide financial and military support to its radical Islamist allies.

For now, the good news is that Abbas has blocked the resumption of dialogue with Hamas. Yet time is not on Fatah’s side: it enjoys little public support among Palestinians, while Hamas has overmatched it militarily. Negotiating with Hamas will only exacerbate these problems, allowing Hamas to reap the rewards of relative calm with more Iranian funding and increased political legitimacy.

If the Bush administration is serious about pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace as a strategy against Iran, it will immediately put an end to Egyptian and Saudi attempts to reengage Hamas. It could start by calling Egypt on its hypocritical policy of boosting Hamas even while it imprisons members of its own Muslim Brotherhood. It could also remind the Saudis that legitimizing Iran’s proxies is a dangerous strategy for a country just across the Persian Gulf and bordering Iraq. Whatever it does, the U.S. can hardly afford for the coalition it assembled in Annapolis to fall so quickly.

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Hamas at the Hajj

There is a story that went unnoticed in the furor over the NIE last week, a story that also contains elements of deception and perfidy. This one reveals where two of America’s key Arab allies stand when it comes to the peace process.

The Palestinian Authority had made a special arrangement with Israel to allow 2,000 Palestinians to leave Gaza in order to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. These Gazans were to leave Israel by way of the Kerem Shalom crossing in Gaza and the Allenby Bridge crossing in the West Bank, their PA-organized travel meant to show the residents of Gaza that Mahmoud Abbas can make things happen for them — in contrast to Hamas. But Cairo and Riyadh had made their own special arrangement with Hamas.

The Egyptians allowed 700 Palestinians on Monday and 1,300 on Tuesday to cross the border into Sinai, where buses were waiting to take them to Saudi Arabia.

“The Egyptians stabbed us in the back,” a senior PA official said. It turned out that the move had been coordinated with the Hamas government and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy in Cairo swiftly processed the Gaza pilgrims’ visa applications sent by the Hamas government, while the Saudi embassy in Amman held up all the visa applications sent by the PA, even those of West Bank pilgrims. The PA, which had invested huge efforts in organizing the pilgrims’ trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve President Mahmoud Abbas’ status in the Gaza Strip, was enraged by Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s conduct.

Not a very nice thing to do to the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Not a very nice thing to do to Condi Rice and the peace process, either. So why did these two countries pull such a petty and antagonistic stunt?

The Egyptians have been worried since the summer that Israel and America will succeed in isolating Gaza, and that Israel would thereby be able to accomplish the total severance of contact between the two territories. Since only Israel and Egypt share a border with Gaza, if Israel manages to get itself off the hook for providing fuel, electricity, water, and the like to Gaza, then these will become Egyptian responsibilities — and Gaza will have been turned into largely an Egyptian, instead of Israeli, problem.

Obviously, the Egyptians want none of this, which is why they’ve become so remarkably unable to stop the proliferation of smuggling tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border, a subterranean network that allows Hamas terrorists to train in Iran, import explosives and rockets, and thereby ensure that Gaza will indeed remain Israel’s problem. So the Egyptians showed up in Annapolis, smiled wryly, winked at the Saudi foreign minister, and returned home to continue doing their part to keep Hamas in the picture and to make Abbas look foolish (which is never very hard).

What are the Saudis up to? It seems plain to me that the Saudis have never been on board with the idea of isolating Hamas. Recall that the Saudis hosted the leaders of Hamas and Fatah in Mecca early this year to encourage the formation of a national unity government. This obviously was a colossal failure, as a few months later Hamas showed the Saudis what it thought of reconciliation by instigating its six-day gangster takeover of Gaza. But the Saudis remain undeterred, and this weekend hosted Hamas’s Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshal, once again for national-unity talks. The Saudis continue to encourage the political currency of Hamas because they wish to prevent the group from completely casting its lot in with Iran, and also because they see the Hamas-Fatah fight as a needless distraction from the more important, and beneficial, Palestinian fight against Israel. And now they have been joined by Egypt.

None of this is to suggest that the Abbas government, even with Saudi and Egyptian support, would be able to accomplish much more than the mau-mauing of a few more billions from western governments and the UN. But the hajj scandal does go a long way to illustrate the extent to which America’s Arab allies, which Annapolis was largely convened to cajole into the peace process, care little for America’s strategy, or for the peace process itself. Secretary Rice, of course, has been silent on the matter, lest it be revealed as another embarrassing demonstration of the flawed thinking behind Annapolis, and indeed of the improbability of her larger revitalization of the peace process.

There is a story that went unnoticed in the furor over the NIE last week, a story that also contains elements of deception and perfidy. This one reveals where two of America’s key Arab allies stand when it comes to the peace process.

The Palestinian Authority had made a special arrangement with Israel to allow 2,000 Palestinians to leave Gaza in order to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. These Gazans were to leave Israel by way of the Kerem Shalom crossing in Gaza and the Allenby Bridge crossing in the West Bank, their PA-organized travel meant to show the residents of Gaza that Mahmoud Abbas can make things happen for them — in contrast to Hamas. But Cairo and Riyadh had made their own special arrangement with Hamas.

The Egyptians allowed 700 Palestinians on Monday and 1,300 on Tuesday to cross the border into Sinai, where buses were waiting to take them to Saudi Arabia.

“The Egyptians stabbed us in the back,” a senior PA official said. It turned out that the move had been coordinated with the Hamas government and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy in Cairo swiftly processed the Gaza pilgrims’ visa applications sent by the Hamas government, while the Saudi embassy in Amman held up all the visa applications sent by the PA, even those of West Bank pilgrims. The PA, which had invested huge efforts in organizing the pilgrims’ trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve President Mahmoud Abbas’ status in the Gaza Strip, was enraged by Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s conduct.

Not a very nice thing to do to the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Not a very nice thing to do to Condi Rice and the peace process, either. So why did these two countries pull such a petty and antagonistic stunt?

The Egyptians have been worried since the summer that Israel and America will succeed in isolating Gaza, and that Israel would thereby be able to accomplish the total severance of contact between the two territories. Since only Israel and Egypt share a border with Gaza, if Israel manages to get itself off the hook for providing fuel, electricity, water, and the like to Gaza, then these will become Egyptian responsibilities — and Gaza will have been turned into largely an Egyptian, instead of Israeli, problem.

Obviously, the Egyptians want none of this, which is why they’ve become so remarkably unable to stop the proliferation of smuggling tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border, a subterranean network that allows Hamas terrorists to train in Iran, import explosives and rockets, and thereby ensure that Gaza will indeed remain Israel’s problem. So the Egyptians showed up in Annapolis, smiled wryly, winked at the Saudi foreign minister, and returned home to continue doing their part to keep Hamas in the picture and to make Abbas look foolish (which is never very hard).

What are the Saudis up to? It seems plain to me that the Saudis have never been on board with the idea of isolating Hamas. Recall that the Saudis hosted the leaders of Hamas and Fatah in Mecca early this year to encourage the formation of a national unity government. This obviously was a colossal failure, as a few months later Hamas showed the Saudis what it thought of reconciliation by instigating its six-day gangster takeover of Gaza. But the Saudis remain undeterred, and this weekend hosted Hamas’s Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshal, once again for national-unity talks. The Saudis continue to encourage the political currency of Hamas because they wish to prevent the group from completely casting its lot in with Iran, and also because they see the Hamas-Fatah fight as a needless distraction from the more important, and beneficial, Palestinian fight against Israel. And now they have been joined by Egypt.

None of this is to suggest that the Abbas government, even with Saudi and Egyptian support, would be able to accomplish much more than the mau-mauing of a few more billions from western governments and the UN. But the hajj scandal does go a long way to illustrate the extent to which America’s Arab allies, which Annapolis was largely convened to cajole into the peace process, care little for America’s strategy, or for the peace process itself. Secretary Rice, of course, has been silent on the matter, lest it be revealed as another embarrassing demonstration of the flawed thinking behind Annapolis, and indeed of the improbability of her larger revitalization of the peace process.

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Hello, Arrabal!

I recently sat down for a chat with the Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, who was in town to give an October 31 lecture at St. John’s University and introduce his 1992 film Goodbye, Babylon! at a downtown arts foundation on November 2. A diminutive, bubbly 75-year-old, Arrabal is prone to sudden enthusiasms, whether for mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck and Benoît Mandelbrot; chess-players like Gata Kamsky; or toreadors like Diego Bardon. He is currently reading Saint Isidore of Seville, a 7th century etymologist whose Etymologiae, Arrabal announces with delight, recently has appeared in English from Cambridge University Press.

A confirmed bookworm, Arrabal has lived with his wife and children in Paris since 1955, but is defiantly unfashionable among French intellectuals for his staunch opposition to Communism and support for Israel. In 1999 his play Love Letter had its world premiere at Israel’s Habimah Theatre, performed by the acclaimed actress Orna Porat. Love Letter, so far unperformed in New York (although Liv Ullmann has been rumored to be considering the play for Broadway), is a monologue by a mother who may have denounced her husband to tyrannical authorities. Arrabal’s own father disappeared in 1941, after being jailed by Franco’s regime in Spain. Arrabal himself was imprisoned during a 1967 visit to Spain (he was born in Spanish Morocco in 1932), allegedly for “blasphemy.” After protests by famous writers including Samuel Beckett, François Mauriac, and Eugène Ionesco, Arrabal soon was freed.

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I recently sat down for a chat with the Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, who was in town to give an October 31 lecture at St. John’s University and introduce his 1992 film Goodbye, Babylon! at a downtown arts foundation on November 2. A diminutive, bubbly 75-year-old, Arrabal is prone to sudden enthusiasms, whether for mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck and Benoît Mandelbrot; chess-players like Gata Kamsky; or toreadors like Diego Bardon. He is currently reading Saint Isidore of Seville, a 7th century etymologist whose Etymologiae, Arrabal announces with delight, recently has appeared in English from Cambridge University Press.

A confirmed bookworm, Arrabal has lived with his wife and children in Paris since 1955, but is defiantly unfashionable among French intellectuals for his staunch opposition to Communism and support for Israel. In 1999 his play Love Letter had its world premiere at Israel’s Habimah Theatre, performed by the acclaimed actress Orna Porat. Love Letter, so far unperformed in New York (although Liv Ullmann has been rumored to be considering the play for Broadway), is a monologue by a mother who may have denounced her husband to tyrannical authorities. Arrabal’s own father disappeared in 1941, after being jailed by Franco’s regime in Spain. Arrabal himself was imprisoned during a 1967 visit to Spain (he was born in Spanish Morocco in 1932), allegedly for “blasphemy.” After protests by famous writers including Samuel Beckett, François Mauriac, and Eugène Ionesco, Arrabal soon was freed.

For decades the Spanish playwright has been admirably industrious, creating seven full-length films, five books on his obsessive pastime of chess, and numerous polemics. These include his admonitory Letters to Franco (1972); Castro (1984); and Stalin (2003). This lively anti-Communist invective has not been translated into English, nor have Arrabal’s amusing biographical fantasias of El Greco and Cervantes. Of course, most American publishers are appalling slaves to fashion, and Arrabal may be seen as a 1960’s figure, since he first won fame in that decade, especially by those who have not bothered to read anything he has published since.

Beyond new books, which continue to appear in France, Spain, and elsewhere, Arrabal has shown rare courage in speaking his mind publicly. In 2002 he testified in Paris on behalf of the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who told an interviewer the previous year that Islam is the “most stupid religion. When you read the Koran, it’s appalling, appalling!” France’s Human Rights League, the Mecca-based World Islamic League, and others accused Houellebecq of hate speech, a crime in France that is punishable by a fine and jail time. Houellebecq was acquitted, at least in part due to Arrabal’s remarkable court appearance; the elderly Spaniard replied to a judge who asked his profession: “I am a pedestrian.” Then Arrabal pulled out a miniature bottle of cognac from his pocket and offered it to the same judge, who declined politely. This was one of the most drolly convincing theatrical moments of an author who has published over one hundred plays.

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The Worst since 9/11

Hundreds of Iraqi Yezidis, members of an ancient religious sect heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, were murdered last week in the most deadly terrorist attack in the world since September 11, 2001. Fuel tankers packed with explosives were ignited in a refugee camp near the town of Kahtaniya, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region. Officials say the death toll has surpassed 500. The American military says this is the handiwork of al Qaeda. They’re probably right: this has their fingerprints all over it.

American commander General David Petraeus recently warned that terrorists and insurgents may use the media as a weapon and stage massive, headline-grabbing attacks as a way of showing the surge is a failure. If this massacre was indeed a part of that strategy, it has failed. Journalists aren’t playing along. They dutifully reported the attack and moved on, treating even this massive terror attack as just the latest in the steady drip, drip, drip of atrocities that erupt in Iraq as a matter of course.

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Hundreds of Iraqi Yezidis, members of an ancient religious sect heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, were murdered last week in the most deadly terrorist attack in the world since September 11, 2001. Fuel tankers packed with explosives were ignited in a refugee camp near the town of Kahtaniya, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region. Officials say the death toll has surpassed 500. The American military says this is the handiwork of al Qaeda. They’re probably right: this has their fingerprints all over it.

American commander General David Petraeus recently warned that terrorists and insurgents may use the media as a weapon and stage massive, headline-grabbing attacks as a way of showing the surge is a failure. If this massacre was indeed a part of that strategy, it has failed. Journalists aren’t playing along. They dutifully reported the attack and moved on, treating even this massive terror attack as just the latest in the steady drip, drip, drip of atrocities that erupt in Iraq as a matter of course.

Yet the terrorist attack that killed far fewer people at a tourist resort in Bali dominated headlines all over the world for weeks in October 2002. More recently, the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, which killed only one tenth as many, also created far more powerful shock waves. The world, it seems, is all but immune to al Qaeda’s shock and awe in Iraq. It has been a long time since mass murder in Mesopotamia has been news. Few still cry for Iraq. Hardly anyone has heard of Yezidis, the victims.

I know the Yezidis, however, and I can’t say I’m immune. I visited their capital, their “Mecca,” in Lalish, near Mosul, in 2005 and again in 2006. They are among the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met. I went to see them because the president of Dohuk University told me to go. “I am a Muslim,” he said, “but I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.” Some conservative Muslims libel the Yezidis as disciples of Satan, but they have a respected place in Kurdish culture. Kurdistan’s flag is unique among those of Muslims in that it includes a religious symbol, the Yezidi symbol—the sun, instead of a crescent.

The Yezidis have never declared war on anyone. They are the closest thing Iraq has to Quakers. Perhaps al Qaeda massacred the Yezidi refugees because they were a soft target, and because terrorists need body counts to be credible. Perhaps the Yezidis were killed because they are “infidels.” But does it even matter? Al Qaeda has no alleged grievances against the Yezidis, who have no political power and no militia, and who do not participate in sectarian Muslim rivalry. Even Saddam Hussein left them alone.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who himself is an ethnic Kurd, said the attack on the Yezidis’ refugee camp was genocidal. This is an overstatement. I can’t blame him, though, for reaching a bit. We need a new word for the instantaneous massacre of 500 innocents. The conventional and overused label of “terrorism” somehow doesn’t quite say it.

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Waiting for the Palestinians

Is Hamas showing some statesmanship? According to recent reports, its security forces have arrested a member of the terrorist organization thought to be holding captive the BBC reporter Alan Johnston. If Hamas manages to impose order on the lawlessness that has engulfed Gaza for years, the international community will have little option but to acknowledge its rule. Acknowledging this fact would not necessarily be synonymous with recognizing Hamas (or opening diplomatic relations with it). But it bears noting that while Hamas is trying to restore order in Gaza—its own brand of brutal Islamist order, of course—the Palestinian government the West has chosen to recognize and support looks more and more inept. Fatah is dependent for its survival on Israel’s continued presence (to say nothing of future Israeli military mop-up operations in Gaza to vanquish the party’s bitter rivals).

The international community, naturally, could not have done otherwise than throw its weight behind Fatah: given what it stands for, it had to support Abbas and reject Hamas. It has no alternative now but to focus on the West Bank and help Abbas extricate himself and his followers from the current morass. Still, it is remarkable that only six weeks ago Abbas (with the support of the international community) was decrying Israel’s round-up of Hamas leaders in the West Bank. Now, nobody seems to mind those arrests. Were it not for Hamas’s significant weakening in the West Bank—to say nothing of Israel’s continued military presence there—it might have overrun Ramallah too. One should be under no illusion about the ability of Fatah to assert its authority.

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Is Hamas showing some statesmanship? According to recent reports, its security forces have arrested a member of the terrorist organization thought to be holding captive the BBC reporter Alan Johnston. If Hamas manages to impose order on the lawlessness that has engulfed Gaza for years, the international community will have little option but to acknowledge its rule. Acknowledging this fact would not necessarily be synonymous with recognizing Hamas (or opening diplomatic relations with it). But it bears noting that while Hamas is trying to restore order in Gaza—its own brand of brutal Islamist order, of course—the Palestinian government the West has chosen to recognize and support looks more and more inept. Fatah is dependent for its survival on Israel’s continued presence (to say nothing of future Israeli military mop-up operations in Gaza to vanquish the party’s bitter rivals).

The international community, naturally, could not have done otherwise than throw its weight behind Fatah: given what it stands for, it had to support Abbas and reject Hamas. It has no alternative now but to focus on the West Bank and help Abbas extricate himself and his followers from the current morass. Still, it is remarkable that only six weeks ago Abbas (with the support of the international community) was decrying Israel’s round-up of Hamas leaders in the West Bank. Now, nobody seems to mind those arrests. Were it not for Hamas’s significant weakening in the West Bank—to say nothing of Israel’s continued military presence there—it might have overrun Ramallah too. One should be under no illusion about the ability of Fatah to assert its authority.

Four years too late, Abbas has begun to implement the clauses of the road map that the Palestinian Authority had so far ignored, attempting to impose one law, one army, and one authority over its own territory. (Abbas’s shorthand for this objective—“one gun”— says a great deal about political means and ends among the Palestinians.) It is tragic that Abbas has begun this work only now. But the point, surely, is this: as soon as Hamas emerged victorious in its Gaza takeover, it proceeded to establish its authority, whereas the PA under Fatah studiously avoided doing so, even when it still had the capacity to govern the territories, quell the intifada, and disarm Hamas. This situation raises an impossible dilemma for the international community: the Palestinian government it would like to see in charge is ineffectual; and the Palestinian government with a real chance to impose law and order on the territories is completely unpalatable.

What will come of this increasingly disastrous situation? Abbas and his new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, will move to re-establish their credentials and authority with calls for a return to the Mecca accords and attempts at reconciliation. Given the language they have been using against one another, and the spilled blood of recent weeks, it is hard to believe that Fatah and Hamas could restore any sort of relations. Fatah will end up looking still more ineffectual. Hamas, ever dependent on Iranian help and therefore at the mercy of Tehran’s whims, can survive only if it continues to do Iran’s bidding (i.e., to prosecute its campaign against Israel) in exchange for lavish financial and military support.

And what should the international community do? Having supported a corrupt and ineffectual government for many years, it should now hold Hamas to the clear performance benchmarks the road map sets for the Palestinian Authority. (Direct military aid to Fatah would not be wise: weapons recently delivered to Abbas’s government somehow ended up in Hamas’s hands.) However unlikely it is that Hamas will meet these benchmarks, waiting and hoping are, sad to say, the only real options left.

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Who Are the True Jihadists?

The exact meaning of jihad is not a new question. It came up, unsurprisingly, at the Conference on Democracy and Security organized by Natan Sharansky, Václav Havel, and José Maria Aznar in Prague last week (about which Joshua Muravchik has been blogging).

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, was in the middle of a rousing speech about the mystique of democracy. He warned of the danger to democracies posed by jihadists, who abuse its freedoms to subvert democratic institutions. Up rose Sami Angawi, director general of the Amar Center in Saudi Arabia, to protest: “I am a jihadist!” Angawi explained how, as a Muslim, he saw his struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights in Saudi Arabia as a jihad.

I listened to Angawi develop his point: that jihad is too important a concept for it to be the exclusive property of Islamists, and that it needs to be recaptured and decontaminated by moderate and secular Muslims. I felt real sympathy for Angawi—and not only because he stopped me from walking in front of a Prague streetcar. But there is, depite the best efforts of reformers like Angawi, little likelihood that jihad will lose its ominous connotations for non-Muslims any time soon.

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The exact meaning of jihad is not a new question. It came up, unsurprisingly, at the Conference on Democracy and Security organized by Natan Sharansky, Václav Havel, and José Maria Aznar in Prague last week (about which Joshua Muravchik has been blogging).

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, was in the middle of a rousing speech about the mystique of democracy. He warned of the danger to democracies posed by jihadists, who abuse its freedoms to subvert democratic institutions. Up rose Sami Angawi, director general of the Amar Center in Saudi Arabia, to protest: “I am a jihadist!” Angawi explained how, as a Muslim, he saw his struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights in Saudi Arabia as a jihad.

I listened to Angawi develop his point: that jihad is too important a concept for it to be the exclusive property of Islamists, and that it needs to be recaptured and decontaminated by moderate and secular Muslims. I felt real sympathy for Angawi—and not only because he stopped me from walking in front of a Prague streetcar. But there is, depite the best efforts of reformers like Angawi, little likelihood that jihad will lose its ominous connotations for non-Muslims any time soon.

The concept is freighted with memories that go back 1,400 years, to the earliest days of Islam. Whether moderate Muslims like it or not, jihad has a history that extends from Muhammad’s farewell address in 632 (“I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah’”) to Osama bin Laden’s deliberate echo of his words in November 2001. The proclamations of jihad against the West that we have witnessed since the Islamic revolution in Iran are not very different from those of Muslim conquerors throughout history (several of whom came close to fulfilling those proclamations).

Nor, it should be noted, does the fact that some of the Islamic warriors of the past were admired for their chivalry (rather than abhorred for their cruelty, as the Islamists of today are) mean that their concept of jihad was any less warlike and apocalyptic. In 1189, Saladin, the great antagonist of Richard Coeur de Lion, threatened to pursue his jihad across the sea to Europe “until there remains no-one on the face of the earth who does not acknowledge Allah.”

Ignác Goldziher, the Hungarian Jew who pioneered modern Islamic scholarship, began in the late 19th century the long effort by Western orientalists to reinterpret the meaning of jihad—an effort ongoing more or less ever since. But the paucity and insularity of Islamic hermeneutics means that no new interpretation of jihad is likely to gain acceptance in the dominant theological schools of Cairo and Mecca. The Wahhabi interpretation of jihad, which deliberately overlooks the prophetic injunction to practice “greater jihad” (peaceful struggle) as well as “lesser jihad” (war against the infidel), is hugely dominant among them, and will remain so. For these scholars, marooned in the 7th century, war against the infidel is not only legitimate, but laudable and even obligatory—however unholy such war may be in the eyes of more moderate Muslims.

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Tame “Gators”

In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

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In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

All that ended after Abu Ghraib. “Physical abuse was outlawed, as were sensory deprivation and the withholding or altering of food as punishment,” Bowden writes. “The backlash from Abu Ghraib had produced so many restrictions that gators [the nickname for interrogators] were no longer permitted to work even a standard good cop/bad cop routine. The interrogation room cameras were faithfully monitored, and gators who crossed the line would be interrupted in mid-session.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Kyndra Rotunda, a former officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps who served at Guantanamo, offers further details on what sort of practices are no longer allowed. Interrogators cannot withhold detainees’ access to Qur’ans or any food or water. (All detainees receive their filling halal meals and their Qur’ans, no matter what they do.) They cannot stop piping in the call to prayer or refuse to tell detainees the direction of Mecca. They are even having a hard time using teams of shrinks (known as Behavior Science Consultation Teams) to monitor suspects for signs of duplicity.

In other words, in the rush to crack down on abuse, practices that would seem to stop well short of any reasonable definition of torture (the good cop/bad cop routine, for Pete’s sake!) have been jettisoned. Interrogators are left with a battery of approved techniques from the new army field manual on interrogation. As described by Bowden these include “’ego up,’ which involved flattery; ‘ego down,’ which meant denigrating a detainee; and various simple con games—tricking a detainee into believing you already knew something you did not, feeding him misinformation about friends or family members, and so forth.”

Bowden’s article describes how, in the hands of first-class interrogators, such “con games” could be used to elicit information from a couple of al-Qaeda operatives—information that led Task Force 145 to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location. But one wonders how much information coalition forces in Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t getting because interrogators aren’t as skilled, or detainees as gullible, as those in “The Ploy.”

Even in the case chronicled by Bowden, one threat was used effectively to elicit information. He writes: “The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk.”

By now, any sentient detainee will know that Abu Ghraib has been shuttered (its replacement is Camp Bucca in southern Iraq) and that there is not much that their American captors can do to them. If they didn’t know that already (and all the smart ones do), they surely will after al Qaeda translates Bowden’s article and places it online as part of their training for handling captivity.

 

 

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The New Peacemaker?

All at once everyone is talking about Saudi Arabia as the new Israeli-Palestinian peacemaker. What the United States could not do, what Europe could not do, what the Quartet could not do, the Saudis, we are being told, having just brokered an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, are the ones to do.

To take one of the many commentators in whose thinking this idea has crystallized, here is David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writing in an op-ed in the February 13 International Herald Tribune:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading for the Middle East next week to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new effort to pursue peace through informal negotiations. . . . If there is one hope for the Rice idea, it is in Saudi Arabia. . . . The fact that the Palestinian talks between Abbas and Hamas during the last few days took place in Saudi Arabia demonstrates that Riyadh now recognizes that it cannot continue to stand aside, that diplomacy must be energized [in order to meet] Arab concern over the ascendance of Iran and other Islamist radicals in the region.

But with all due respect to the Saudis, all that the (in all likelihood very temporary) “success” of the Fatah-Hamas talks in Mecca demonstrates is how limited the Saudis’ ability to affect Palestinian attitudes toward Israel is. If after first banging Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh’s heads together and then parading them in décollete around the Kaaba, all they could get out of the two was Abbas’s accession to Haniyeh’s agreement to “honor” past PLO-Israel agreements while continuing to declare that Hamas would never recognize Israel (some way of “honoring” the Oslo Declaration of Principles!)—well, David Makovsky and all the others may as well forget it.

What Yasser Arafat was not willing to put his name to at Camp David and Taba in 2000 without Hamas—i.e., the most concessionary of all possible Israeli positions—Mahmoud Abbas will not by any stretch of the imagination put his name to now that the Saudis have yoked him to Hamas. And should he ever seek to unyoke himself, he will be a wagon without a horse. Whistling in the dark is never very effective, but this whistle doesn’t even carry the tune of peace.

All at once everyone is talking about Saudi Arabia as the new Israeli-Palestinian peacemaker. What the United States could not do, what Europe could not do, what the Quartet could not do, the Saudis, we are being told, having just brokered an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, are the ones to do.

To take one of the many commentators in whose thinking this idea has crystallized, here is David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writing in an op-ed in the February 13 International Herald Tribune:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading for the Middle East next week to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new effort to pursue peace through informal negotiations. . . . If there is one hope for the Rice idea, it is in Saudi Arabia. . . . The fact that the Palestinian talks between Abbas and Hamas during the last few days took place in Saudi Arabia demonstrates that Riyadh now recognizes that it cannot continue to stand aside, that diplomacy must be energized [in order to meet] Arab concern over the ascendance of Iran and other Islamist radicals in the region.

But with all due respect to the Saudis, all that the (in all likelihood very temporary) “success” of the Fatah-Hamas talks in Mecca demonstrates is how limited the Saudis’ ability to affect Palestinian attitudes toward Israel is. If after first banging Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh’s heads together and then parading them in décollete around the Kaaba, all they could get out of the two was Abbas’s accession to Haniyeh’s agreement to “honor” past PLO-Israel agreements while continuing to declare that Hamas would never recognize Israel (some way of “honoring” the Oslo Declaration of Principles!)—well, David Makovsky and all the others may as well forget it.

What Yasser Arafat was not willing to put his name to at Camp David and Taba in 2000 without Hamas—i.e., the most concessionary of all possible Israeli positions—Mahmoud Abbas will not by any stretch of the imagination put his name to now that the Saudis have yoked him to Hamas. And should he ever seek to unyoke himself, he will be a wagon without a horse. Whistling in the dark is never very effective, but this whistle doesn’t even carry the tune of peace.

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